“I realized then that Rick was being a good son, not a bad father.” A short story where interlaced family matters and the complications of growing old come to a head…
by: Suzanne Zipperer
I wouldn’t have expected my father-in-law Jimmy’s dying to have been an emotional thing for me. He had been in a nursing home for three years, mindless from Alzheimer’s. But his physical death brought back memories of losing him the first time — when he lost his mind. I remembered how embarrassed he was over getting lost in the woods and the times he’d call me by his wife’s name. I relived my fear the day he tried to kill me, and the sadness when we realized he would never be the same.
Jimmy’s death made me think about where I live and who lives here with me, and how people get on or don’t. I thought about the people who looked after him, and those who may look after me. I remembered how Jimmy went for breakfast at the Still a Grill every morning to gossip with the other retired guys. If he didn’t show up, they’d phone the house to make sure nothing was wrong. Some of them were guys like Bud Seifert, who Jimmy knew since they were kids when they lived on adjacent farms. One by one they’d pass on, but one by one new retirees would join them. Guys from Mirro Aluminum or Lakeland Manufacturing, and a couple of farmers. Jimmy hadn’t been the oldest, nor the youngest. Some were long widowed, like Jimmy. Some had wives who would phone the restaurant looking for them if they stayed too long.
Deciding what Jimmy should wear into the hereafter wasn’t easy. He’d never owned a suit. The aide at the nursing home told us that sometimes people buy a cheap one at Penney’s, but both my husband Rick, who is Jimmy’s son, and I thought that was a dumb idea. If Jimmy didn’t care to wear a suit all the while he lived, why should we put him in one when he’s dead?
“No one would know him.” Rick opened the closet door of Jimmy’s room when we went to pick up his things. “Let’s put him in this trucker’s shirt.” He pulled out a hanger wrapped with a brand-new pin-striped shirt.”That’s what he wore most of his life. Funny that he’d have this one hanging here.” Anderson Trucking was embroidered on the back and “Jimmy” sewn above the pocket. There was a cap there as well, so we had the undertaker put that in his hands instead of a rosary.
It was good we did that because two weeks later when the will was read, we found that Jimmy had written some rough instructions and folded them in with the other papers. “Don’t spend a lot of money burying me,” it read. “And don’t put me in no suit. I drove a truck and the good Lord will know me if you put on my trucking shirt. I did a lot of good deeds while wearing that shirt, so it’ll remind him of that, too.” Jimmy never told anybody the note was there. We laughed. Rick said Jimmy must have been there when we were deciding what to do.
Before Jimmy was put in the home, he and Rick used to see each other two or three times a week. Jimmy would be down at Four Corners right about the time Rick got off work. Rick would stop in and chew the fat over a couple of beers. I’d get pissed off about it every so often because it meant I was left home with the kids, who were still small. Rick would walk in the door, and I’d go ballistic. Once I even screamed that he had a drinking problem and needed to get help. It was never Rick’s way to fight back. He’d just grab the kids and settle them down in their bedroom with a book or a game until I had supper ready and my temper under control. One day Rick had enough of me.
“What?” He stood in the kitchen door, pulling off his jacket. “You think I like sitting down there with those old coots?” he yelled. “Who do you think is there after work? Nobody I care to talk to. Jerry Metcalf drunk on his ass. Big Don bitching about any and everything. Chester Retslaff who hates my guts ever since I dumped his fat-ass daughter. Hell, Vicki, I gotta put up with losers like that all day. I can do without ‘em after work.”
I stared intently at him. It was true that he never came home looking like he just licked the chocolate frosting off the spoon. In fact, he looked more tired on the days he stopped than on days he came right home. I hadn’t ever thought about it. “Then why not come home?” I asked.
“Because I feel sorry for my dad. That’s all he’s ever got to talk to is them same guys. Nothing new. Nothing changes. Same old same old. I figure the least I can do is fill him in on the news at the plant a little bit and tell him how the kids are doing.”
I realized then that Rick was being a good son, not a bad father.
At that time Jimmy was living in a beat-up old trailer on a gravel road back by Koch’s mink farm. When the wind blew from the south the smell of mink stunk up the place. Jimmy was so used to it that he never noticed the smell followed him around. Every couple of weeks, I’d go by to set some odor-eaters up and grab everything out of the closet to bring home to wash. Jimmy wasn’t like a lot of old people; he’d let me come in to do that for him. I’d pick up the place a bit, too, although Jimmy was pretty neat. I don’t think he ever cooked a meal, so the most dishes I would find in the sink were the microwave boxes I’d give him with our leftovers.
I talked to Rick about replacing the orange shag carpet in Jimmy’s living room, but he was afraid that if we pulled it up, we might find the floor rusted through or some other thing that couldn’t be fixed. There was already a hole behind the couch that the guys patched up last winter when Jimmy finally figured out where the draft was coming from when he sat in the Lazy Boy watching TV. The shape of the place never bothered Jimmy much. Like Rick said, most of the time he wasn’t there anyway.
“You don’t have to change the sheets,” Jimmy said one day. He’d been outside poking around in his little vegetable patch and followed me in. “I changed ‘em just yesterday.” I went in the bathroom and grabbed the towels and washcloth from the rack. The hand towel was filthy, but the bath towel was still folded. I wondered if he’d used it since I last cleaned it. Like most country people his age, Jimmy figured a bath once a week was enough when he was working, so now that he wasn’t, he shouldn’t need one at all. I wanted to tell him he was getting a bit ripe once in awhile, but didn’t know how to say it.
“OK.” I whipped the towels into the clothes basket. “Give me the dirty ones then.”
“I took care of them.” Jimmy had a washing machine in the trailer that he used once in awhile. The dryer was broken, though. “Hung ‘em on the line outside.”
I didn’t think anything of that until a few weeks later when I pulled the sheets off and saw the mattress was stained. Poor Jimmy, I thought. I ran to Walmart and bought a packet of adult diaper and left them in the bathroom. I couldn’t embarrass Jimmy by bringing it up, but I noticed he was using them the next time I came by, so I kept him in stock. That way he didn’t have to take the chance of running into somebody he knew at the checkout.
I never told Rick about it until a year later when Jimmy’s mind started going. He called me by his wife’s name one day when I was sweeping the kitchen floor. “Rita, pick up some food for the kids for the week. You can get them frozen dinners if you don’t feel like cooking.” I stopped what I was doing and looked up to see him holding out a ten dollar bill. I looked at his face. His eyes were there; they weren’t blank like you see sometimes in old people.
“Hell,” I grinned at him. “You’re dreaming. Ten bucks ain’t gonna get groceries for a day much less a week.” I grabbed the dustpan from the closet.
Jimmy shook his head. I could see that he caught himself. “Guess I am. Don’t know what I’m thinking.” He pulled out another twenty. I took the money.
“I’ll pick you up some Hungry Man lasagna,” I said, pretending I didn’t hear right in the first place. Jimmy turned away, leaned over to pick up the dog’s dish and walked over to the sink, glancing back over his shoulder to see if I was watching. I was.
I understand that when you start going senile you know it’s happening. It’s not like going mad where you might think you’re Jesus or the President and that everybody else is nuts. It’s worse because you know you’re losing it. You know that you can’t think like you used to and that you just asked a question and got an answer but can’t remember what it was. You know that what you just said didn’t make sense. I used to think I’d want my mind to go first so I wouldn’t suffer from watching my body decay. Now I think a fast moving semi-truck would be a blessing.
I hadn’t noticed Jimmy getting older until that day. Then I saw that he didn’t pick up his feet as high as he should when he walked. His arms hung down, pulling his shoulders forward, caving in his chest. I remembered dancing eye to eye with Jimmy at our wedding. Now I was nearly looking down at the bald spot on the top of his head.
A few weeks later, in mid-December, Roger Koch called Rick to let him know he found Jimmy wandering around in the woods behind the mink pens in the middle of the night. The dogs were barking so loud and constant that Roger thought maybe those animal rights people were sneaking around again letting the mink out of cages like they did a couple years back. He got out the shotgun and switched on the new yard lights he’d installed. The lights on the snow lit the yard, but Roger didn’t see anybody.
Roger has a couple of watchdogs that could rip the tires off your pickup. He took the Doberman he calls Blood Thirsty and headed for the cages, hollering out but getting no answer. Then he heard movement in the woods. It sounded too big to be a coon and too clumsy for a deer. Flicking the flashlight into the brush, he could see something dark. What was he looking at? Something big. He called out again, “Who’s there?” He thought he heard whispering, which made him sure they were intruders. Just as Roger was leaning down to unleash the dog, Jimmy tripped on a brush pile.
“God-damned, Jesus Christ.” Jimmy never used the f-word, but sure liked to take the Lord’s name in vain. Lucky for Jimmy that Roger recognized his voice. It was only about ten degrees above zero. Jimmy could have easily froze.
“What the hell you doing here, Jimmy?” Roger asked as he helped him stand up in the snow. “I nearly set the dogs on you!”
Jimmy just stared at him. “I don’t know,” he said. “Couldn’t sleep, I guess.”
Rick was worried, but didn’t know how far things had deteriorated. Maybe Jimmy wasn’t going senile. Maybe he was drinking too much. Rick still saw Jimmy once or twice a week down at the bar. He noticed that his dad repeated himself quite a bit and would ask the same questions every day, but Rick thought it was because there wasn’t much new in either of their lives. We decided to stop in and talk to Louie, who knows Jimmy well from his many years tending bar. It was Saturday, just around two, so not many people were there.
Rick started out just asking Louie if he’d noticed Jimmy slipping up.
“Now and then,” Louie said, not looking up from the glasses he was washing.
“He repeats himself a lot. Don’t he?” Rick said.
“Hey, everybody tells the same stories over and over. Some stories I hear so many times, I think they happened to me. Fact is, Jimmy tells the same story over and over and each time it’s a little different. Makes it more interesting. I like that.”
Rick told him what happened with Roger Koch. Louie didn’t say anything.
“That was last Tuesday, about eleven at night. I don’t know if you saw him.” Rick gulped down his beer. “Sometimes I figure he’s been here a couple hours before I get in after work. Maybe that’s why he don’t remember things I told him the day before.” Rick was looking for Louie to let on when Jimmy got there and how much he had to drink and if he was drunk on Tuesday. But Louie’s been tending bar long enough to know that it’s bad business to talk about anybody’s drinking habits to anybody, family or no family. “Sometimes he don’t know what day it is,” Rick added.
Louie wiped the bar.
I thought I’d try. “We don’t know if Jimmy’s all right to be left on his own. Or if he should see a doctor.”
“Can I get you another?” Louie asked, pointing to Rick’s empty glass. It was clear he wasn’t going to talk.
When Rick asked his dad about his moonlight wanderings, Jimmy got mad and said he was just out for a walk and people should mind their own business. “Next time I won’t take a ride home if that’s how they’re going to be,” Jimmy grumbled.
At home Jimmy seemed to be on top of things. The house was still clean. The food I brought over was eaten. The dogs were fed.
Then one day in early April I pulled the car into the gravel drive and Jimmy greeted me with a blast from his 12 gauge. I nearly shit myself. I was just opening the car door and had one leg on the ground. Jimmy was on the wooden deck by the front door of the trailer. I was about to yell a hello when he lifted the barrel and got me in his sights. It didn’t register with me at all that he might pull the trigger until I heard the discharge. The slug whizzed past my head and skimmed a tiny bit of paint off the top of the car about two feet away. I jumped back in and ducked my head under the dash, trying to scrunch my big self across the seats. There’s not much room to hide in a Ford Escort.
I lay there listening to the dogs barking around the car, afraid to put my head up in case a bullet came flying through the windshield. I couldn’t see anything. I reached up and uncranked the window above my head.
“Jimmy.” I twisted around so I was lying on my back. My big thighs pushed against the steering wheel. My jean jacket lifted up at the waist letting the cold air in on my back. “Jimmy? Do you hear me?” God, I thought, please don’t let him come sneaking up on me with that gun. A flash of my lower half being blown away ran through my mind. “Jimmy!” I called again. I rolled the window back up thinking that at least he couldn’t get the gun barrel inside, although I knew the glass wouldn’t have been much of a barrier anyway. I didn’t hear a thing. Not the door slamming or footsteps on the gravel. Not even the wind rattling the tin trailer roof like it usually did. Just the damn dogs trotting up and down the side of the car. That was strange in itself. Jimmy usually kept the beagle penned. The mutt, Biff, he let run, but always called off whenever anybody came in the yard.
Then I had an idea. I reached up and pulled the cosmetic mirror from the visor. Tilting and turning it, I got the trailer in view. Damn. Jimmy wasn’t there. Now I was really scared. He must be walking around with a loaded gun and I’m trapped. I thought of my choices. If I got out and ran, he might get scared and shoot. If I stayed inside, I wasn’t even a moving target .
I looked at the clock on the dash. 2:32. Ashley and Eric would be getting off the bus in an hour. And their mother would be dead. Who would find me? My heart pounded in my neck and my breath caught short thinking of it. Rick didn’t know I was stopping in. When I didn’t show up, he’d call the vet’s office first to be sure I left work. Then he’d phone Jimmy. Jimmy would realize what he did — or maybe he wouldn’t. But he’d look out the window and see the car. Maybe he’d walk out to it, leaving Rick waiting on the phone. Would he remember what he did when he finds blood splattered windows and my head split in half? What would he tell Rick? Would he lie?Would he dump my body in the woods and run the car into the lake trying to hide it? Jimmy would get caught in any case and die in prison. Murdered the mother of his grandchildren. My mind raced from one bloody scene to the next.
I moved the mirror trying to find Jimmy. To the right of the car were the chicken-wire dog coops with the gates open. Beyond them, the edge of the woods had thick undergrowth, which even without leaves made it hard to pass inside. He wouldn’t be there. I turned, switched hands, and held the mirror up to the back. The mailbox, the road — no Jimmy. I twisted again until I could see to the left. A row of poplars separated Jimmy’s lot from the field. I moved the mirror slowly back and forth across it, thinking maybe he went into the corn stubble where he’d often shoot rabbits. Damn, where was he?
I knew I couldn’t risk running. I had to drive away. The driveway dead-ended. No choice but to reverse. What if Jimmy was behind me and I couldn’t see him? I might run him over.
The dashboard clock read 2:36. Only four minutes had passed. It was quiet. I could hear a dog lapping water from a nearby puddle. I strained my ears. Was I hearing something else? Footsteps? A soft whistle? Then bang. It was the shotgun. I jumped and shoved my head deeper under the dash. Glass shattered somewhere. It wasn’t the car.
That did it. I reached up to start the engine. In one motion, I grabbed the wheel, pulled myself up, slammed the car into gear, and hit the gas. The right-side mirror smashed against the mailbox but I didn’t take my foot off the accelerator until I was out far enough to make a Y-turn into the road. If Jimmy had been standing there, I would have killed him instead of him killing me. Lucky he wasn’t. As I shifted into forward, I saw him by the clothesline on the side of the house. He was pulling the blanket off with one hand, holding the shotgun in the other, looking like it was just another day. The tires threw gravel up as I sped away.
I called Rick from Roger Koch’s. He told me he’d be right there, and that I should call the sheriff just in case we needed help. Then I called a neighbor and asked her to get the kids from our house. Usually, they’d be all right for an hour or so, but having come so close to never seeing them again, I was worried. Roger gave me a shot of whiskey. I was shaking like a wet dog.
It was a long half-hour before Rick pulled into the yard. As I was giving him the details, the sheriff showed up. Rick tried to convince me to go home, but I couldn’t. I needed to see Jimmy. It was like falling off a horse. If I didn’t see him now, I’d be afraid of him later. I kept picturing him raising that rifle at me.
When we got back to Jimmy’s place, we found him out fixing the mailbox I plowed over. The bedroom window of the trailer was shattered, but we didn’t see the rifle anywhere.
“Hey, Jimmy.” The sheriff pulled up on the side of the road opposite Jimmy and greeted him through the open car window. Rick swung our car around and backed into the drive. Jimmy looked a bit puzzled, but at least he recognized us. “Back into your mailbox?” the sheriff asked.
“Like shit it was me.” Jimmy growled back. “Must have been those kids I heard about on the radio. Said they were knocking down mailboxes for fun.”
The sheriff got out and walked over to Jimmy. Rick and I ran around the yard looking for the gun just in case Jimmy decided he needed it. It was stuck in the crotch of a one of the poplars.
“How the hell that get there?” Jimmy asked when Rick pulled it out.
“How the hell it get there?” Rick screamed at him. “You put it there. For Christ’s sake, you know you shot at Vicki’s car an hour ago? And how’d that window get busted?” He pointed at the trailer. The sheriff motioned Rick to keep cool. Rick don’t yell at him, I thought. I knew Rick would feel terrible about it later. He was upset, but he rarely lost his temper with his dad and this wasn’t the time for it. “You don’t know what the hell you’re doing anymore.” Rick lowered his voice. He opened the chamber of the gun, took out a shell and put it in his pocket.
Jimmy looked at Rick, then at the sheriff, then at me. He closed his eyes tight as though hit with a sudden headache. His mouth quivered, then turned downward and opened like a painful gash across his weathered face. A howl rose from his gut. And then he went silent. Forever.
Suzanne Zipperer grew up on a farm in northeastern Wisconsin with a dream of seeing a baobab tree as pictured in her third-grade Geography book. Her curiosity about other places and cultures took her from riding a bike past the migrant workers’ camp to ten years overseas living in Europe and Zimbabwe. On her return to Wisconsin, Suzanne did community work in Milwaukee where she continued to learn about the “others.” Her writing is as varied as her life, and she continues to be curious. Suzanne has published short stories in Moto Magazine, and Made of Rust and Glass, and poetry in The Crone’s Nest, and American Journal of Nursing. She was a semifinalist in Wisconsin People and Ideas Short Fiction Contest. She was a regular contributor to The Riverwest Currents, edited New Faces, Immigration to Wisconsin 1970s to 1990s, and wrote and published The Key New Readers Newspaper for ten years.