Restless

Where else but in the banality of laundry does the mind rise above and consider those things that burrow deep in our souls and twitch like an uncanny beetle trying to claw its way to the surface. We recently took a cruise across the European edge of the Mediterranean spending seven days meandering from Greece to Spain. Vacation or not, some household chores won’t go away, and in need of a refresh of clothes, we found a tiny laundry room nestled in a bland room in the middle of one of the high decks aboard our ship. The interior beige room held two washers and two dryers wedged against a wall and two lonely seats stashed at the end. When we entered, two elderly passengers occupied the seats.

They were friendly, those two, with Southern drawls that matched the long summer days ahead of us. They began talking to us immediately as if they had been waiting for us to meet them. We quickly learned that they were from Fort Worth, Texas and that they were cruise ship aficionados. The gentleman, stately with his deep voice and steely blue eyes, quickly ran down his ranking of cruise operators. Holland America and Celebrity were the best. This cruise line, Princess, was decent but the food was bland. He liked spicy food, being from Texas and all. He took picante sauce with most of his food, or at least that’s the way he made it sound.

Later, as we switched our wash loads to the dryers, the conversation continued. We learned that he would be 90 years old in a few weeks. For an elderly man, he looked sturdy, determined, but a sadness filled his eyes. We commented that he didn’t look 90, but as I looked closer, I could see the wear and tear of age, the relentless debasing of his image of himself that had overcome him. He told us this was his last cruise. “There comes a time when a man has to admit his age,” he said. His solemn baritone lingered in the room until only the sound of the humming dryers remained.

During our conversation, we learned he had grandkids and that his wife wasn’t his long-time love, but his relatively new wife of three years. I don’t know if he had divorced late in life or if the mother of his children had passed before him, but in 90 years so many things can happen, so much can change. He had traveled widely for he mentioned several places that I hadn’t thought of as destinations as much as locations on this wonderful planet of ours. He spoke in a wistful tone, one that a parent often uses when reminiscing about their children when they were young. He seemed resigned to the end of a journey or at least content with a very different one.

I studied his face as he spoke, the lines deep and ragged. His eyes sat above dark circles, his lips strained across his yellowed teeth. He sat slightly hunched over with skinny, wrinkled arms protruding from an over-sized shirt, or maybe he had shrunk inside that shirt as if he were already leaving a shell of himself behind. We bid the couple farewell as we left our clothes to dry, but our conversation lingered in my mind.

I wondered what would become of him; although, I already knew. I wondered what I will think when I reach that point in my life. Will I be able to handle it with aplomb like this gentleman, or will I refuse to accept it, fight it, and spit in its face. Middle age has given me no answers only discontent, restlessness. We all have that clock ticking behind us, but we only become aware of it when youth fades away, when the faculties that we always took for granted in our youth slip away one by one and leave us encumbered with a sense of surprise, unbelieving.

Over 40 years separate me from this gentleman, but I feel a sense of urgency, a need to take as much in as I can before I too must admit my age.

Episode 2: Donna Quixote

A creaking sound woke her, one like that of someone stepping on a squeaky floor board. Her eyes opened wide absorbing only the soft glow from the faint night light that she kept plugged into the wall opposite her bed. She kept still except to pivot her head toward her bedroom door. The slight glint of the meager night light shining onto the door knob winked at her. Her heart, the drum beat of her fears, pounded in her chest. She slowly placed her right hand on her heart as if to soothe it. Her ears remained on alert, but no other dissonant sounds greeted her.

She panned around her room. All of the shadows looked familiar. The chest of drawers stood as dark as tar in her sparsely-furnished room. In the opposite corner of her room, the cushions on her comfy chair, the one where she’d nap on occasion reflected an unseemly yellow in the exasperated night light. The block numbers on the tiny clock on her night stand glowed a blood red. She sat up and reached for her glasses on the night stand. Once she put them on, she could read the blurry red digits on the clock – 4:45.

Her heart beat had settled down, but she felt light-headed from sitting up. She was tempted to lie back down, but she knew she had to check her blood pressure. She couldn’t miss any signs that may put her in peril. She kicked her feet into her worn house shoes and padded across the room to the door. She slowly opened it as if she expected someone to be on the other side, but she was greeted with nothing but more darkness and more familiar shadows. She shuffled down the short hallway to her kitchen.

She kept the light above her stove on all of the time. It comforted her to descend into her kitchen at night to see the soft dome of light coming from her stove. She didn’t need any other light to see what she wanted. The blood pressure cup sat on her kitchen counter near the edge of the light. She picked it up and wrapped it around her left arm. Going through the usual motions revealed that her blood pressure had not changed since her last reading. She viewed the display skeptically and considered taking it again until she realized that the package that her neighbor had left at her door still sat outside. She hadn’t opened her door to retrieve it yesterday because she didn’t want her neighbor to see her.

It had almost become a game for her, one in which she tried to avoid seeing her neighbors. She didn’t really know any of them because the neighborhood had changed so much. Many of the people she had known had either died or moved away. Even some of the houses that she had known so well had been torn down and replaced by unfamiliar structures often much larger than the small homes that had been the setting for much of her life. It felt as if the neighborhood had changed around her without her consent, so she avoided these new people that she didn’t know by only venturing out during the day on weekdays when most of them weren’t home and couldn’t spy her.

She walked to the front door and opened it peering out onto the dark street. The county had never installed street lights in her neighborhood, so she could only see the ambient light from the houses across the street including the Anderson’s house. They had installed a series of small lamps leading from their driveway to their front door. Theirs was one of the houses that had replaced a much smaller home that had been there since she was a little girl. She remembered the old couple that had lived there once. The wife had died first, and then, the husband had died a few years later. The old house sat vacant for a few more years before it had been unceremoniously razed to make room for the Anderson’s big, new house. She missed the old couple.

The package, a small box wrapped in plain brown paper with a single, white label attached, sat at her feet on the worn welcome mat she had at her front door. She quickly grabbed the box and shut the door behind her. The label showed her name and address, but the return address had no name, just a street she didn’t recognize. The weight of the package suggested something substantial within it. She shook it slightly, but the sound did not betray what might be inside. She hadn’t been expecting anything, and she wondered why her neighbor had had her package in the first place. Was it delivered to her by mistake? Or did one of her children take it and she had returned it?

Donna placed the package on her kitchen counter next to the blood pressure cup and walked into her living room just beyond the reach of the stove light and sat in her recliner. She felt a chill in the stale air, so she pulled the blanket from her chair and covered her arms as she lay back and closed her eyes. Her ears remained on alert, but no sounds greeted her other than that from the cranky refrigerator. She drifted off to sleep.

A knock at the door startled her awake. She sat up quickly, the blanket fell into her lap as she rubbed her eyes. Light pushed against her tightly closed blinds, but the sun had yet to descend into her backyard, so it was still before Noon. Another knock. She stood up to a chorus of her years with pain blaring in her hips and her shoulders causing her to stoop and shuffle to the door slowly. By the time she made it to the window to peer onto her porch, the man at her door had already turned and walked back to the street. She only caught a glance of the back of his light blue shirt as he disappeared from view. She angled the blinds to look down onto her porch, and there sat another package. She sighed and closed the blinds tightly.

The pain in her shoulder radiated through her back. She couldn’t lift up her arms up because it hurt too much, so she dropped them to her side and shuffled back to her kitchen as if her head were an unbearable weight. Leaning on the counter, she began her morning ritual of taking her medicine. She had three pill boxes stacked upon one another, each with 14 compartments for AM and PM and the day of the week. She took the first pill box and flipped open the lid labeled “W-AM”. She popped the pills in her mouth one at a time and swallowed with a sip of water. After she had downed the contents from the third pill box, she took her blood pressure again. The static reading concerned her. She wondered if the electronic panel had broken and was giving false readings.

She took one step back and her leg gave way. She grabbed the counter to steady herself, but she could not grip anything before she fell to the floor. She came down hard on her shoulder and the pain reverberated through her like a shock wave. She felt dizzy and maybe she blacked out for a moment. As she lay there, she looked up at the single dome light in her kitchen, stained from years of use such that the outline of the bulbs could be seen through the opaque plastic of the dome. She wondered when she had last changed the bulbs and if the light would burn out before she was able to get up.

She rolled her head to the side and stared at her phone on the wall. The long cord curled and twisted up the wall to the yellow plastic case. The end of the cord dangled just above the floor in her line of sight. She summoned the energy to crawl toward the wall, and after much effort, she reached the end of the cord. She tugged on it. At first, it just rattled in place, but after she gave it another, more forceful tug, she pulled the receiver on top of her. The receiver struck her stomach as it fell to the floor. She pulled it to her face and punched 9-1-1 on the key pad and waited for the voice to respond on the other end of the line. The female voice sounded familiar, or maybe she just imagined it so. When she hung up, she hoped that the EMTs that were dispatched were different from the two men who had come last time. She didn’t like the way they talked to her. They didn’t understand. Few people did.