Image: “Cake Both Ways,” by Caitlyn Rooke, oil on wood panel, 36×36 in., 2019
By Chuck Radke
Eventually, Alfred said, they all stopped coming, even the son, who was nearing seventy himself and had the dull wife with asthma.
At the other end of the building, in the library, preparations were underway. The ladies from the Purple Hat Guild always did such a nice job. There were flags–always flags–and a framed picture of the dead man, smart-looking in a white cap and service uniform, a signalman, Alfred said. His name was Martin Graves, and for close to eleven years, he shared a semi-private room with Alfred, window-side, which Alfred would now inherit. And from this day forward it would be Alfred, not Marty, staring out to the bower of trees, to the stone table in the courtyard, to the widow Alice Barton (they were all widows here) smoking one of her allotted three cigarettes for the day, knees pulled up to her chest, so very thin, her body folded like a shirt box.
“Mr. Lamborn,” I said. “Time to go.”
Alfred harrumphed. “Graves,” he said, as his jaw worked at something in his mouth, a bit of fruit salad maybe, or a pinch of dinner roll. “Graves in the grave,” Alfred said, amused by his wit. It was a wet afternoon, but the clouds were breaking, and a feeble bit of sunlight glimmered on a slick rooftop. Scattered raindrops slipped down the glass. Alfred leaned forward in his chair; he pressed his nose to the window so his breath made a fog.
“You’ll move my things?” he asked, and I told him I would, soon, after the luncheon maybe, but I had to clear Marty’s things first. I had to collect his belongings for the family.
“There’s that son and his wife,” Alfred said. “She’s a plain woman, you know.”
“I know,” I said. I took the handles of Alfred’s chair and backed him away from the window. We swiveled. I began to wheel him from the room as we passed his bed.
“Wait,” he said. I stopped. His eyes settled on his nightstand: a touch lamp, an emesis basin, a tube of Super Poligrip. Alfred then looked over his shoulder at me, his eyes hopeful.
“What the hell,” I said. “You just lost your roommate.” I was feeling magnanimous, but also thirsty.
“That’s the stuff,” Alfred said. He grinned, broad and toothy.
I rolled Alfred into a corner and drew the curtain, even though we had the room to ourselves. (You can’t be too careful.) I cleared his food tray, poured tepid coffee from a mug into the basin, and did the same with a small bowl of chicken noodle. I wiped the mug and bowl dry with a tissue, then set them on the cart before me. Alfred was rocking in his chair now, eager.
“What’ll you have, Mr. Lamborn?” I asked. I offered an accent, something broguish, a departure from my usual Bronx-Italian. I threw a white hand-towel over my shoulder and there, for an instant, we were in a neighborhood pub, a mahogany bar gleaming under fluorescent light, an array of chrome-spouted bottles on the wall. Alfred, a skilled, career drinker, made a pretense of examining the inventory. The charade meant everything to him; this was where he found his meaning. While he considered, I spooned ice flakes from a water pitcher into the plastic coffee mug.
A moment more of thought, then he said, “the usual, Mick.” Today, I was Mick, but I had also been Smitty, Reverend, Chief. Alfred said, “She’s gotten me this far.” The usual was a good mate, steadfast and loyal.
It was at this point that Alfred closed his eyes. From his nightstand, tucked way in the back, I withdrew a long, stiff sock concealing a bottle of contraband Scotch we’d been nursing for months. He bowed his head; his pale hands trembled palms-down in his lap. Lately, during our daycaps, Alfred surrendered to teary upheavals. Why should today be any different? Alfred sobbed; penitent tears fell from his eyes and settled on the backs of his hands.
“You’ll miss him,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, without hesitation. “I suppose.” It was a lonely moment–by now, most were–but the veil parted when he opened his eyes to the small delight of Scotch in his coffee mug, a little something to hasten his slowing circulation, to shoo away the shadow over his heart.
Alfred leaned forward and cupped his mug in both hands. He ran his tongue over his cracked lips and toasted himself: “Be near me when my light is low,” he said. He held that mug like a golden chalice, held it to the heavens, an offering of his own blood. A gold, broken Seiko slipped down his gaunt forearm. He drank, shook his head, and squinted into the drawn curtain.
“To Marty,” I said.
I took a drink from the soup bowl: keen bite with a hint of chicken broth. What is it about a drink that elicits reflection? My own life was one of small, personal triumphs and ordinary troubles. I was alone, sure, but I had been cheated of nothing, unless you count wealth in its many forms. Their absence kept me from unbearable grief, but also unspeakable joy. I was willing to pay for one with the other, content to slouch toward inevitable darkness, comfortable with the dissolution of days. I suppose that makes me complacent and uninteresting; I prefer to see myself as intact.
Slowly, I cleaned up, re-capping the bottle, slipping it into its stocking, tucking it away.
“Time to go,” I said.
Alfred nodded. He drained his mug and licked the rim dry. “What good does it do to hunger?” he said.
“No earthly good, Alfred.”
I wedged in behind him now, giving a little push through the curtain and into the hall, our thirsts quenched, our spirits suddenly brighter. Red call lights over doors told of folks in need, but Alfred and I walked past them to the library, nodding to hunched and sunken souls in cotton sweatsuits and sneakers fastened with Velcro.
Just before the lobby, we turned. There was a table festooned with bunting like you’d see in a town square, and on that table were casserole dishes, foil peeled back on baked ham, rosemary chicken, green beans with bacon. The lids were up on white bakery boxes full of cranberry muffins, lemon tarts, a frosted, two-layer cake. Bowls of Jell-O salad, baskets of dinner rolls. There were wildflowers in glass vases, lemon wedges afloat in pitchers of ice water, coffee in copper carafes. The Guild ladies had outdone themselves, as usual. At the center of the table was the framed photo of Martin Graves surrounded by starlight mints.
I unwrapped one for Alfred and placed it on his tongue, a whiff of alcohol on his breath.
“It’s quite the spread,” Alfred said.
“A bounty,” I said. “Enough for an army.”
The Guild ladies shuffled about in purple hats with matching masks, whispering to one another as befitting a somber occasion. “The Lord calleth home him who is ready,” one said. Another: “The ham looks so tender.” And another: “You have to pull up your mask to drink the coffee.” And there we were, just the two of us, amongst them. There was me and there was Alfred, and his eyes gleamed at the sight of so much food. “Great glory!” he shouted, and he raised his arms looking for all the world like a man in rapture.
“Great glory, indeed!” a Guild lady said. Another: “Amen!” And another: “Hallelujah!” They moved about the library like a wind-brushed field of violets, while outside, on the other side of the vertical blinds, an older couple crossed the parking lot and approached the lobby doors. It was Marty’s son and his asthmatic wife. They paused before the window and stared inside at the largess, at Marty’s photograph situated in such a way that it stared back at them. Marty’s son put his arm on his wife’s shoulder, their facemasks, like tiny feedbags, hanging below their chins.
They remained there as I rolled Alfred to the head of the table, near the window, and spooned onto his faux-crystal plate a heap of green bean salad, of ambrosia with mandarins and marshmallows. Baked ham and rosemary chicken I cut into small pieces for him, and the Guild ladies stood along the walls and chirped like crickets as the sun broke out in full and poured through the blinds, forming golden bars over the floor, over the table, over Alfred and his spindly forearms, over his golden wristwatch that no longer kept time.