BIDING TIME

Last night, Duncan Ainsworth did the same thing he’s done every night since moving into Brookside Manor. Stared at the black holes in the ceiling tile and waited. The nurses say he can have “a little something to bring on sleep,” but Duncan behaves so they don’t slip it to him. He knows what meds he takes. They’re for his problem and that’s all. He doesn’t need anything numbing him. His body’s finally going but his brain’s as good as ever. Not brilliant. He doesn’t claim that. Still, he had another article published in The Messenger a few months back: “Changes to the Mowbray Waterfront in the ’50s.” And, the editor wants more. If Duncan wasn’t so damned tired, he could honor that request; however, it takes all his energy to keep out of a wheelchair and off of a walker. There’s nothing left for an article. Plus, someone would have to take him out to do research. Much as he loves her, Duncan can’t tolerate his daughter Edie’s hovering.

Yesterday Duncan turned ninety-eight. He walked around the activity room and conversed with his guests, all of whom were most impressed with the bouquet of late-blooming roses Edie brought from the garden at his old house.

Gladys Funkhauser, a long-time resident of The Manor, went on about them for a good five minutes. “There’s yellow and pink and even red!” she said, clapping hands under her lipstick-besmeared chin. Gladys reached out to hang onto Duncan’s arm just as he did a quick sidestep.

After the hoopla, Edie boxed up the leftover salmon-shaped cake. Duncan used to fish—just for fun. Half the belly and tail remained. It had been an orange monstrosity that reminded him of those awful marshmallow peanut things. Actually, it was a tinted vanilla cover-up for his favorite fudge. He marched up to Edie as she struggled with the carton and said, “I have something to tell you, Edith.”

“Are you OK, Daddy? The party wasn’t too much?” She stews about Duncan’s health nonstop. Their conversations center around the food forced upon him and the regularity of his eliminations. Popping two fingers covered with lumps of frosting in her mouth, his daughter stared at him with round blue eyes set in cheeks as plump as when she was in diapers.

“I’m fine—just fine. I merely want to say thank you. And, good-by.”

“Good-by?”

“Tonight’s the night. Call tomorrow. I’ll be gone.”

“Oh, Daddy, that’s nonsense. You’re going to make it to at least a hundred.”

“No, Edie. Prepare yourself. My time has come. You’re always hearing about it—people lasting for the visit of a long-lost child, or another Christmas, or one more birthday—then pffffft, they’re gone. This is it. My one more birthday. Now, it’s over.”

Edie made sure she got every last piece of that cake packed in the carton. Didn’t even leave one bite for the nurses. Then she bellowed to all those still gathered, “Duncan Ainsworth is going to make it to at least a hundred!”

She did leave the roses. Petals had already fallen on the table—they don’t seem to last long by September. In a softer voice, hugging her father, Edie said, “Talk to you tomorrow,” before frumping out to her car with the cake.

Duncan thought, No way. This is definitely the end of the line.

Last night, he folded hands over his chest, closed his eyes, and stayed quiet. Under the room rumbles and his own steady breathing, he thought he heard a cricket chirping—probably somebody’s monitor. “I’m ready,” he whispered. “Come and get me.”*

This morning, there was Duncan Ainsworth, jarred awake and prodded to go on their damned field trip. “It’s our special birthday present to you,” said Mandy, the one in charge of keeping inmates busy at The Manor. She was taking some of them to the zoo. Made a big deal about it. Due to the new mini-bus, this was the first excursion ever, and weren’t they oh so lucky to be chosen to attend. Duncan glanced around the lobby at three in wheelchairs, two leaning against walkers, and only Mrs. Wilder and himself able to sit in regular armchairs. With her hands shoved under the cushion for leverage, Mrs. Wilder acted like she might bolt at any moment.

The attendants had hustled participants through breakfast in order to provide plenty of time for boarding. Consequently, Duncan’s stomach was doing one of its clenching routines and he munched on TUMS trying to settle it. At least I’m sitting in a regular chair and walking unassisted, not dependent on some fool metal contraption to get me from point A to point B, he thought. Embarking was set for 9:00 a.m. “It’s nigh on time to depart,” he informed Mrs. Wilder, who didn’t respond, her head cocked to one side as she watched the chattering volunteers come in.

Mandy told Mrs. Wilder and Duncan, “You’re going to have to ride when we get to the zoo. Your volunteer will push you.”

“I’m perfectly able to get around on my own two feet,” Duncan said.

Mrs. Wilder raised herself, grunting. Mandy nudged her back in the armchair, and turned to Duncan. “Mr. Ainsworth, I know that. But it’s the rule. If you were to fall, I’d be out on my ear. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would you?”

Duncan allowed as how he wouldn’t choose to be the cause of her termination, but said, “Only this once. I won’t ride in one of those buggies on a regular basis. Put that in my file. Duncan Ainsworth is one hundred percent mobile.”

Mrs. Wilder didn’t say one thing. She could carry half her weight if they had to evacuate The Manor. Yet, without someone to direct her, she’d never find the door.

Duncan’s assigned volunteer, Bonnie by name, commenced talking. She said, “I’ve never been to Brookside Manor. Lived around the block for years. Decided I should come and try to help out. Have you been here long?” She waited for his answer, alert as a pup.

“Too long,” he told her. Three months ago they hospitalized him—bloody stool. Lost a lot of weight. His son, Baxter, the busy banker, insisted on more supervision. To Duncan, that sounded like a toddler. He’d stayed in his house, all alone, tending the roses, for twenty-six years. “Yesterday was my ninety-eighth birthday,” he told Bonnie. “And this is where it’ll all end.”

“Oh my. You were born in 1900. The whole twentieth century to tell about.”

Duncan thought, Couldn’t she come up with something better? Didn’t she know that everyone who discovered his birth year immediately made that kind of comment? But he forgave her. She was such a pretty little thing. Silky blonde hair and brown eyes. He liked that combination. It brought to mind a Cocker Spaniel he had once. His volunteer had a dimple in one cheek, too. When she wasn’t making the effort, it disappeared. The more he watched those brown eyes, the more they reminded him of Gildie, only in the last year, when the Vet found her tumor. His dog had looked at Duncan with sadness in her face, trying to wag, hurting so much and barely able to move. At last, he had to put her down.

This Bonnie was trying so hard. Why was a lovely young woman like her in The Manor’s waiting room anyway?

The two sat and chitter-chatted for a good long while. It was past 9:00 before they even started to load. Duncan wondered how the organizers planned to get the whole shebang to the zoo, wheel around there, pack them all up, and arrive back at The Manor for noon dinner. He concluded it was their problem and he was just going along for the ride.

Bonnie said, “That’s a most becoming jacket, Mr. Ainsworth. It looks so nice with your white hair. Brown tweed’ll never go out of style.” The jacket, a leftover from his classroom days, had served him well. Thankfully, Baxter delivered a whole armload of clean clothes on Duncan’s birthday. His son stayed ten minutes before rushing off to the next appointment. Didn’t even get a piece of cake. Nonetheless, Duncan was glad he had fresh apparel because he couldn’t stand it when old people forgot to take care of themselves.

“It should last as long as I do,” he said, and put on his matching peaked cap.

The two watched while attendants struggled with those permanently in wheelchairs, rolling them on the platform elevator, strapping their wheels, and jerking them along before coming to rest at seat level. He wondered what would happen if a chair broke loose and zoomed right back through those automatic double glass doors into the lobby. It could be someone’s biggest thrill in years. Of course, most of them probably wouldn’t be roused enough to experience the ride.

Mrs. Trimble’s head flopped to one side, eyes closed. Her little feet, in pink slippers with posies embroidered on the fronts, hung—toes crossed. She never even startled when they bumped her onto the lift, bounced her up, and stuck her in the back corner of the bus facing Mr. Limkin, the only other man on their trip. He had waxy white skin and a perpetually smiling mouth. Duncan wondered what in God’s name Mr. Limkin had to smile about. He didn’t dare consider why the man was so pallid.

Mrs. Trimble lolled the whole trip. Duncan decided she didn’t have a notion of ever leaving her room.

Mr. Limkin stared straight ahead, his clenched grin never wavering. After the field trip was over, one of the nurses asked if he had a good time. Duncan saw him blink twice and wondered if that meant “yes” or “no.”

He climbed up into the new bus on his own steam. No one hauled his arms from the front, or pushed his back from the rear, or reached down and guided his feet onto the ledge of each step to make sure Duncan made it inside. When he got to his seat, first one in the front, nobody came along and grabbed him, saying “One—two—three,” and hoisted him into place because he’d slid, cock-eyed, against the corner.

Duncan sat straight up next to the window with Bonnie beside him on the aisle.

As soon as they were belted and ready to take off, she leaned over and said, “Mr. Ainsworth, you certainly get around well.”

“I know,” he said, “and I intend to keep it that way.”

In spite of the brand new upholstery, Duncan could detect that odor. “I apologize for the smell in here,” he whispered, his mouth close to Bonnie’s flower-scented hair. “They’ve lost control.”

She smiled and her dimple flickered. “No big deal, Mr. Ainsworth. I don’t mind a bit.”

By the time they arrived at the zoo, it was after 10:00. Attendants hauled out chairs and issued one to Duncan. Once they finished the disembarking procedure and hit the trail, he and Bonnie brought up the rear. They were right behind Mrs. Trimble, whose cheek bounced on her scrunched-up shoulder as they crossed every hump in the path. Her volunteer, a woman with a broad backside Duncan and Bonnie could barely see around, kept trying to get Mrs. Trimble’s attention with remarks about the marigolds blooming away and the baby zebra hiding behind a bush. These efforts were in vain.

Everyone clustered together at the exhibits while the pushers jockeyed chairs in position for advantageous views. Duncan thought, At wheelchair level it’s like being a little kid. Those fool fences hit you right across the eyes.

Mr. Limkin was as happy gazing at the penguins as he’d been staring at the door handle in the mini-bus on the trip over.

Mrs. Wilder mumbled and had to be restrained each time they stopped. Duncan thought he detected a flash of recognition when they came to the gorilla playground.

After almost an hour, the group had visited three exhibits. Duncan said to Bonnie, “The roses are still out. I saw them from the entrance. Do you suppose we could go look at the garden?”

“I saw them, too.”

“We used to grow roses, you know. Had fifty bushes and quite a few climbers at our old house. I’d rather be with the flowers than these poor caged creatures.”

“I’ll ask permission,” she said, and engaged Duncan’s brake.

Bonnie received the OK, as long as they were back to the mini-bus by 11:30. Thus, the pair made their escape. Of course, it was late in the season and the blooms were waning, if not downright bedraggled. Even so, sunshine warmed their shoulders as Duncan and Bonnie took in the colors.

There was a bed of rich, dark-red Mr. Lincolns. “I’ll bet his sitting room wallpaper was of that tone,” Duncan said. “The Sterling Silvers make a nice contrast to some of the deeper shades, don’t you think?”

“I do.”

“I’m glad there’s a good showing of Peace.” Duncan noted how the pink-edged yellow blossoms were intact. “That was my late wife Merrill’s favorite. It was the first bush we ever planted together.”

Bonnie patted his arm. After a minute, she said, “I’m not much of a gardener with only one rosebush in my yard. It’s kind of orange-colored and scraggly-looking.”

“Could be a Tropicana. It probably needs pruning. Around March first you do that.”

Duncan proceeded to tell Bonnie about his years teaching history at the community college.

Which led her to ask, “Have you traveled much, Mr. Ainsworth?”

“When I retired, Merrill and I did a lot of touring—Europe, Asia, even Russia. After she died in ’72, I did go once with a group from Mowbray’s Botanical Society—found that a night boatride on the Seine, passing the Eiffel Tower glimmering from base to top, was too much without her hand in mine.” He paused, studying the Peace roses. “About the time my journeys ended, though, the curator position at our museum opened and no one was better qualified than me.”

Bonnie talked about volunteering in the elementary school, helping slow readers one-on-one. “After Markie’s death, I couldn’t go back.”

“Markie?”

“My seven-year-old son. He had problems turning letters around. I tutored in his class.” She stopped as if wondering what else should be said. Then, “At the lake…Markie swam out too far.”

Bonnie was sitting on the grass next to Duncan’s chair. This time he put his hand on her shoulder and gave a little pat. “We lost a child, too. John was barely five.”

Bonnie didn’t ask how John died and Duncan didn’t want to talk about the boy’s illness. He was feeling better than he had in months. Why spoil it? He’d rather quietly wait, enjoying the garden and the last of the roses.

While riding back to Brookside Manor, Duncan told Bonnie about an article he wanted to write: “The First Fishing Fleet Out of Mowbray.”

She figured they could get special permission to go back to his museum and to the library. “As long as we bring a wheelchair.”

A look of disgust settled on Duncan’s face.

“Following the rules is very important to Mandy,” Bonnie said.

“That’s for sure.”

With the big outing, Duncan should be sleepy tonight, but he’s not. After a short while, staring at the black holes in the ceiling, he starts thinking about the fishing fleet. As long as I’m awake, I might as well concentrate on something productive. Bonnie’ll come for me next Monday, to start my research. After I do my work, I’m going to take her to the bakery for some double fudge cake—none of that orange frosting stuff. She seems like a reasonable young woman. Maybe I can convince her to leave their wheelchair in the car.

Still waiting for sleep to find him, Duncan turns to memories of camping trips when he was a boy. The gang would hike five miles out of town to the old Guffey place—the “haunted” house. He was always jittery, but what would the fellas have said if he’d stayed home? Duncan was sure they never knew about his nerves. Every time he stumbled over a branch or startled from an owl’s hoot, he managed to cover up his feelings.

Once to their destination, the boys plopped bedrolls around the fire—not too close to the house—roasted wienies, told scary stories, and fell asleep by dwindling embers.

Everyone except Duncan.

He’d lie there, staring at the stars and listening to the snores around him, wondering if he was ever going to slip off like his pals. The house loomed behind him, and he was sure there’d been a face in a window or a movement on the dilapidated front porch. He’d plead with the dark sky and stars, If there’s a God up there, let me go to sleep. I’m down here…alone. There’s no one to talk to.

Eventually, long after all the rest, Duncan drifted away, too.

Published by SLAB

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