Only two weeks of summer vacation sat between me and middle school when I leaped from my bike, set it against the post, and breezed through the doors of Autumn Springs Assisted Care Center.
I found Miss Cheryl at the front desk, lovely as ever in pink, her sandy blonde hair wrapped in a braid that fell over her left shoulder. She was chatting with another nurse about the latest drama with her no-good boyfriend. I wiped my hair into place and pretended not to listen as I signed the guest register. Miss Cheryl shot me a wink that gave my heart the hiccups. Any man doing her wrong needed to get his brain checked for defects, because Miss Cheryl had a smile sweet as honeysuckle and eyes bluer than robins’ eggs.
Not only was she pretty but she was great with Papa, who in only a few months had managed to make a name for himself in a place where I’d seen a lady walking around with her stockings pulled clean over her sneakers.
The other nurse smiled at me as she hustled off, giving Miss Cheryl and me some much needed alone time. Miss Cheryl wasted no time coming around the desk and taking my hands. “Oh, Caleb. Thank goodness you’re here. Mr. Wallace is having a day.”
Even though we were holding hands, the moment was lost. “A day” for my grandpa meant he was being a crusty old grump, and since I knew him better than anyone there, or anywhere, it was my job to get him straight.
I didn’t have long. Mom wanted me home by dinner, and I’d already spent most of the afternoon at the animal shelter cleaning out kennels and making sure the old scruffy dogs got some chin scratches because usually the pups got all the attention. But now there was real work to do because Papa needed a whole lot more than a scratch on the chin to get him straight.
Miss Cheryl squeezed my hand once more before she let it go. I tried not to think about how Papa was having more and more “days” these days. I had to show her I was the kind of guy who could step up to the plate. With a nod, I set off for room 414, home to Autumn Spring’s resident curmudgeon—as I’d heard the nurses call him before.
I marched down the hall, past all the fancy paintings as I thought back to when Papa moved into this place. It had been so sudden. I mean, one minute Papa had his house and his truck, the next he was here, stuffed into a little room that could hardly hold his big voice.
I’m not ashamed to admit I cried for two days straight. Papa hadn’t looked sick to me. He wasn’t hunched over like most of the residents here—he didn’t need a wheelchair, and he could still play guitar and sing. But Miss Cheryl said it wasn’t so simple. She said his brain was sick, not so much his body.
Still, none of it had made sense. The biggest difference I’d found was sometimes his eyes went wobbly and confused, like he’d just landed on planet Earth and was taking it all in. He had a new love of candy, and he liked to ramble on about his childhood, telling the same tired stories until my ears felt like they might melt and slide right off my head. Then his mood could change in a flash, and sometimes he could be meaner than a snake in a hornet’s nest.
Most of the doors to the rooms were open, and I waved to old smiley Mr. Gillespie in 402. Seemed to me Mr. Gillespie was in Autumn Springs just for the company. He was eighty or a hundred—hard to tell—but as sharp as they came. And if you asked any of the nursing staff, they’d tell you Mr. Gillespie had some slick hands to go with his sharp mind.
The door to room 414 was shut. I remembered Papa seeing 414 and making a fuss about how great it was, something to do with Robert Johnson. I took stock in about half of it because Papa had always been known to tell a tale or two. Sometimes you had to sift through the muck to get to the gold. I tried the handle—locked, of course. I gave the door a few bangs, being how Papa’s hearing was shot from playing music all his life.
Another couple of bangs got him up and barking. “Who is it?”
I heard a grunt. Something crashed to the floor. If I had to guess, he’d knocked into the table in his kitchenette—the one he was always cursing, calling it cheap like everything else in the room. The door opened and my papa stood before me like he’d just marched through a tangle of briars.
“Hey, Papa. They said you’re making a fuss about something.”
“I’m not.” He tossed a glare down the hall. “They are.”
“Can’t I come in?”
He opened the door and I brushed past him. Just as I thought, the little table was cockeyed against the wall, two overturned chairs on the floor. I picked one up. “Okay, so what’s the problem?”
“Movie night,” he grumbled. “I ain’t watching Casablanca.”
Movie night. Just like last week. I took a seat on the couch and did my best to remain calm. Let the old man know he’d scratched a wound and the claws would come out. I picked up the dinner menu for the upcoming week.
“They won’t go for your documentary?”
“Nope. I’ve put in for it seven times. Keep saying, ‘We’ll take it into consideration.’ I know when I’m being taken for a ride.”
“Could be the language.”
Papa loved watching this old blues documentary. I’d watched it with him more times than I could count. It was great, and even better was how he’d sing and dance along with it. Problem was, there was some drinking and cursing to go with the music, so there was no way the holy rollers at Autumn Springs would go for it. But that was Papa for you—once he got something stuck in his mind, sick or not, he wasn’t about to let it go.
“Language my foot,” he said with a stomp. “We’re all adults here.”
I looked up from the menu; decided to let it pass. Too easy. “Let’s get to the cafeteria. Something smells delicious.”
He crossed his arms and said he wasn’t going. I looked at him real hard, into those cloudy eyes of his, still trying to figure him out, thinking how he had to remember this exact—and I mean right down to the foot stomp—conversation last week. He set his angry gaze on his feet, then straight ahead at nothing, and then took a big loud breath through his nose and settled in, his way of saying he could do this all night.
How could he not remember last week but every tiny detail about some storm fifty years ago? He caught me staring at him and growled. “What?”
I looked away, pretending I didn’t care. Trying to be more like Mom. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t pretend not to care when I cared more than anything my only grandpa was brain sick, whatever that was.
I turned to the windows. Pulled the shades apart. The fourth wing had a good view of the gazebo, the plastic pond stocked with koi. The other three faced the parking lots or traffic. Papa blinked at the sun, shielding his face with his hands like the world’s most dramatic vampire.
“Come on, Papa,” I said. “You love the sun.”
He shifted in his recliner. Out the window, one of the staff members was pushing along an old lady in a wheelchair, over the walkway with the little bridge. The poor lady didn’t seem to notice she was outside. She didn’t notice much of anything, really.
Papa cleared his throat, his voice low but stirring with mischief. “Hey, did I tell you what happened over at Joe’s place the other night?”
I froze, blinked my eyes, and swallowed down the lump in my throat. I started to turn around to Papa but never made it. Instead I looked back to the window to blink a few times. Joe—Papa’s childhood friend. They used to run around causing trouble when he was a kid, younger than me. Papa and Joe bet Marvin Peel he couldn’t pee across the electric fence.
When I’d caught my breath, I took a seat. I forced my attention to Papa, to the dull gleam in his eyes, ignoring the wet burn in my nose. I shook my head, knowing I had to be home soon, but soon would have to wait.
“Joe’s place, huh? Nope. What happened?”
You might say there were better ways to spend my twelfth birthday. But hearing his story again, about how poor Marvin Peel got lit up like the county fair, wasn’t so bad. Papa laughed his way through the end with a few new details, a few new words and chuckles. And by the time he was done, I had him carrying on and he’d forgotten all about being upset about movie night.
With my job done, I wandered out past the nurses’ station where a new nurse had taken Miss Cheryl’s post. I found my bike and started home, where Mom was waiting, ready to fuss because I was late.
All because I went to see Papa.
Runaway Blues – Available Now!