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John J. Desjarlais
Assisted Living


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Bienville


Arthur Powers
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Assisted Living

John J. Desjarlais

Shoulda wore gloves. Oziel rubbed his leathery hands, blew on them. Icicles sparkled in a glass fringe along the gutters. He flexed his blue fingers and slid the garage door aside. Needs oilin’.

He scratched a cardboard match to start the kerosene stove. The last match. That’s all he needed. When the burner hissed into life, he warmed his palms. He had good gloves when he worked at the mill.

Oziel wound his way through bins, barrels of 2x4’s, leftover paneling,discontinued aluminum windows,boxes of tile,discarded doors. Leaning on the icebox, he flipped through yellowed issues of Popular Mechanics stacked on the floor. It all had to go. There’s no room for it at Assisted Living, the admission director said. His daughter Lorraine insisted. She knew about such things. A house hunter wants to imagine her own stuff there. Clear everything out; buyers love space. The lathe, too? The mitre saw?

Everything.

He promised Lorraine the old henhouse attic would be cleared by her next visit. Time to get to it.

He pulled a chain; a bare bulb blinked on. He patted his pocket for the penlight. He didn’t remember installing electricity upstairs. His wife Jean put things up there. She couldn’t bear to throw nothing out, neither. Lorraine said most of it went in the yard sale. Five dollars for all the Reader’s Digest Condensed Books. Unbelievable. He climbed the ladder and pushed up the trapdoor. A shower of droppings and dust made him cough. He shoved the door aside. Lint-filled light from a forgotten skyvent filled the attic. Oziel stood on the planks, fanning dust from his face. The attic ran the length of the building, nearly 140 feet. He expected to see old coops and fencing. Nothin’. He faced the attic’s far end, echoing like a new house before the furniture arrives. At the east wall was the aluminum-leg dining table with the Formica top they got for a wedding present. It was fashionable after the war. He scuffed to it, his heart lifted like seeing an old friend at church. He wiped away cobwebs. How many dinners they’d shared there, how many school projects before Lorraine left, like that plaster map of Africa on scrap plywood.

The table wasn’t empty. No, a pile of linens sat beside a rod with stained curtains and a pilled blanket—things that didn’t sell at the yard sale? A yellow towel poked from beneath the pile. Oziel tugged it out. A glove. It pulled free with another clipped to it. “Simon Paper,” said the logo on each wristband. They been up here all along? He shook off the dust and pulled them on. My God, they still fit. A little stiff. He clapped his hands. Nice and warm. Just what he needed. Now he could start loading things for the junkyard in the truck.

* * *

Lorraine drove up the next day to help with the house sale. She knew about such things, like her mother. Oziel could build a bathroom next to the kitchen, extending the water pipes so his new wife needn’t visit the outhouse with a fur coat and flashlight in the snow. But he never wrote a check and didn’t know how. Jean did all that. Lorraine was good with numbers and official papers like her mother. She worked for an insurance company doing something Oziel couldn’t understand. He met her at the door.

“Hey, kiddo. Good drive?”

“Sure, now that everything’s plowed.”

“Much snow in Providence?”

“Just rain.”

“It’s the ocean, you know.”

“Yeah.”

She sounded irritated. He regretted saying the obvious. It happened after a long separation. Nothing else in common but the weather.

“Some coffee?” he asked. “Still got the percolator.”

“Coffee’s fine. Black.”

He offered to take her London Fog coat, but she shrugged it off and slid it onto a wire hanger herself, and then hung it on the shower curtain rod. She kicked off her boots on the lime-colored linoleum, leaning on the vanity Oziel found in a junkyard.

“Any calls?” Lorraine asked, brushing past him to sit at the kitchen table.

“Nope.”

The surveyor should call later,” she replied, fingering the vinyl tablecloth. “And the septic tank guy will need to schedule a perc test. He probably can’t do it ‘til spring, though.”

“Can’t the new people do that?” Oziel asked, opening the coffeepot.

“No way. The state won’t let you sell the house if the septic isn’t up to code. That’s why we had to install the wired smoke detectors, too, remember?”

Oziel set down two mugs. “Coulda done that myself.”

“How’s the cleaning going?” Lorraine eyed the colored glassware in the breakfront that Oziel made from discarded pallets.

“Oh, good,” he said. “The henhouse is half done. Nothin’ in the attic now, just leftovers from the yard sale.”

“Anyone helping you?”

“Just me.”

“Watch your blood pressure.”

“I’m all right.”

“Taking your pills?”

“Sure. I take it slow. Keeps me busy, now that I can’t build nothin’.” He wiggled his knotty fingers. It reminded him: “I found my old workgloves from the mill, just when I needed gloves.”

“How nice. God, look at the time,” Lorraine said, raising her Lady Rolex.“I made appointments with the realtor and the bank, too. We’ll have to go soon.”

“Fine.” Oziel decided not to show her the gloves.

“Plenty of time to change.”

“Change?”

“Well, you can’t go like that.”

Oziel brushed some dust and cobweb strands from his slacks. “They’re clean.”

“You have a blazer? A tie?”

“Got a tie for church. You think I need a jacket?”

Lorraine pouted. “I guess not.”

“If you think I do—”

“No, it’s fine—”

“Sure?”

Her cell phone trilled. She looked displeased. Was it because the phone rang, or because he had no jacket? She slipped into the parlor.

Oziel slugged his coffee and rinsed his cup. He didn’t want to embarrass Lorraine. He needed a jacket. When was the last time he wore one? The funeral? Where was it? Jean put dress clothes in hanging plastic wardrobes in the cellar. With Lorraine busy on the phone, he’d look. He bent his ear to the parlor going by.

“No, dammit, check the Marley account…“

It sounded like she might be a while.

Downstairs, he found no wardrobes hanging where they once did. Lorraine probably moved them to the garage. So he walked across the driveway to check. He covered his ears; the wind was picking up.

Once inside, he opened the closet by the workbench. By golly, he still had his dress greens from the army, in clear plastic. They wouldn’t do, patches and all. And they wouldn’t fit, not after so long. He’d been a trimmer man in the war and when he met Jean at the commissary. They went on a picnic, and the air was sweet with lilac.

A breeze rustled the plastic wrapping. For a moment, it smelled like lilac. Then he smelled that sick-sweet, chickeny smell from the second floor. Why, he’d never closed the attic hatch properly yesterday. Too excited about the gloves. He ascended the ladder, poked his head up, and reached for the thrown-aside door. A glint of light caught his eye. Gold. From that table at the end of the room.

It flashed again. Probably that brass curtainrod. But it flickered, like something loose and swinging. He climbed up, crossed the room, and took a closer look. It was a gold button on a sleeve, twitching in a draft. He lifted the linens and curtain.

“Good God,” he said.

It was the jacket he wore to the funeral, folded in quarters.

* * *

“That was Gary,” Lorraine said, walking back to the kitchen.

“It still fits,” Oziel said, arms out. He patted his stomach. “How’s it look?”

“I said just a tie would do—”

“It’s the jacket I wore to your mother’s funeral. He gives abundantly more than we ask or think,” he quoted.

“Fine,” Lorraine said abruptly. “I’ve got some papers in the car for you to sign before we go. Is there more coffee?”

“Sure.”

She left. Oziel peered out the window to watch her fetch a briefcase. Maybe he shouldn’t have recited a Bible verse. It always turned her off. Maybe the jacket from the funeral brought back the unpleasant breach. Maybe it commented on her shacking up with Gary. He poured coffee. He didn’t want to lose her again. She’d already run away once, to escape her mother’s criticism. They didn’t hear from her for years. The strain probably killed Jean. Now she was back. Physically, at least. Lending a hand. He should be grateful, like the father in the prodigal-son story.

Lorraine stomped snow from her feet in the bathroom, then entered the kitchen where she set down the briefcase, shivering.

“What is it I need to see?” Oziel asked.

“Just some forms,” Lorraine said. “Gary drew up some things so we can legally use the money from the house sale to pay Assisted Living.”

Oziel knew it wouldn’t be cheap, and Medicare didn’t pay for such things. Everything had to go. The coffee burned in his stomach. Still, it wasn’t the money or selling the house. It wasn’t as though the prodigal was asking for the inheritance before the father was dead. It was his old heart pulled in two directions. He needed Lorraine’s and Gary’s help to sell the house and move to Assisted Living. God knows he needed some looking after. Yet he was sickened by their live-in arrangement. The jacket felt tighter. Lorraine explained the forms, underscoring lines with her gold pen, but he didn’t understand a word. He signed by the “X” when she tapped it. The sleeve smelled musty.

* * *

By the time they pulled in with groceries, rain spotted the windshield. The radio said another nor’easter was blowing in: rain, turning to snow, six inches, with gusty winds.

“Maybe you should stay the night,” Oziel suggested. “Just to be sure.”

“It’ll just be rain down south. It always is,” Lorraine said.

She checked both the kitchen phone and her phone for messages while Oziel put away canned goods.

“The septic guy didn’t call,” Lorraine said, disappointed. “He probably won’t come now until the snow ends. End of the week maybe. I’ll call him and let you know.”

“I don’t see why this can’t wait ‘til the snow is gone for good. They can’t dig up the old system and do the leach field thing until the ground ain’t frozen no more.”

“The tape measures and metal detectors will work fine. He has to check the water table, too. Then they can tell what kind of tank is needed and give an estimate. We can’t sell the house until we know. Then we’ll set up an escrow.”

“Whatever you say.” Oziel stacked the canned beets, remembering the days he dug them out from the rocky soil with his hands. Sleet rapped at the window.

“I’d better go,” Lorraine said. “I’ll call this septic guy from Providence.”

“Want some supper?”

“I don’t think I have time.”

“Take a sandwich?”

“Gary will have something waiting.”

Oziel’s stomach twisted. It’s a good thing Jean died before she knew about Gary.

He followed his daughter to the bathroom door leading outside. She pulled on her trenchcoat. “If the power goes out, stay put.”

“There’s the kerosene heater in the workshop.”

She nodded but pinched her lip. She once said it was another thing he’d have to get rid of before the house sold. Something about it being against code.

“You be careful driving, hear?”

“I’m more concerned about you crossing the driveway to the workshop,” she replied.

“I’ll take an umbrella,” he joked.

“It’s the ice I’m thinking of.”

“Umbrella won’t help that. Rubbers, maybe. ‘Cept I don’t have none.”

A gust rattled the door. “Gotta go,” Lorraine said. “I’ll call.”

Oziel turned his cheek for a farewell peck but Lorraine ran out to the car in that tiptoe way girls do in the rain. The Volvo engine purred into life. The wipers waved good-bye mechanically. So did Lorraine.

Oziel tugged the storm door shut, fighting the wind. Through the streaked glass he watched crystal beads of sleet dance on the driveway. He shut the inner door. It sighed. What did the weatherman say? Six inches? Maybe he’d sleep in the garage, plow himself out first thing in the morning. No need to cross the snowy driveway with a sheet of ice under it neither, rubbers or not.

He shuffled past the shower and stepped up into the kitchen. The shingles shuddered; the eaves creaked. He heard a drip-drip in the bathroom. Some water musta sprayed in while I wrestled with the door. Drip-drip. Either that or ice backed up under the soffit, a bad thing to happen with the place for sale. Can’t sell a house with a leak, no sir.

No ceiling stain. No puddle on the linoleum. Drip-drip. He pulled back the shower curtain. Why, in her hurry, Lorraine forgot her umbrella, hanging from the soap caddy. Drip-drip. And leaning against the tub’s side: wet boots? Lorraine forgot them, too?

No, two rubbers.

Lorraine wore boots.

And she didn’t bring in no umbrella. Did she?

First the gloves. Then the jacket. Now these. He had made some joke about them. Lorraine must have left them here.

The Father knows what you need before you ask. He shrugged off a prickly chill on his neck. What I really need, Lord, is to have my daughter back.

* * *

He had to see for sure. Not that he doubted. But like old Gideon, Oziel needed a little more fleece. He’d try the garage again.

Oziel snapped on the rubbers. He buttoned his coat. Naw. This was foolish. He unbuttoned the coat. Just coincidences. He started to peel off the rubbers. He stared at them. Who left them in the tub? The septic man? When did he come out last? But still—before the snow gets bad—he slipped into the coat. He put on the gloves and turned them this way and that. Unbelievable.

What should he ask for? Something ordinary. Something he really needed. Like the other things. A new coffeepot? He and Jean got the stainless steel percolator for their 35th and he hadn’t touched instant since. But it still worked. He didn’t need another. A microwave? At Assisted Living, everyone had one. Living alone, it made sense. All those single-serving frozen dinners they sold now. Baked potato in seven minutes and a pot pie in three, Artie said at coffee fellowship. Finally, though, he said: Surprise me.

He fit the Red Sox cap to his head to keep the snow out of his eyes. He considered using the umbrella but the wind was too brisk. He left the umbrella where it hung. He felt for his garage key, flipped on the outside light, and stepped out.

The “sneet” had turned to a slanting snow that stung his cheek. An old Yankee, he knew it would accumulate quickly. He’d just be a minute.

The ice cracked away from the lock like hard cellophane. He heaved aside the door.

Once inside, he hauled the door shut. It jammed in the icy runners, but he managed to close it almost the whole way.

Don’t you be in there all day putzing, Jean said. You said you’d clean the cellar.

Do you really need these things? Lorraine asked.

Oziel elbowed past the bins to the ladder. At the top, he clicked on the penlight.

The table at the far end, like an altar at the head of the church aisle, lay in shadow. He approached it, rubber soles squeaking. The wind rushed as it might have done in another, more ancient upper room. There were the linens. Hanging behind them to the floor, swinging in the draft, was a black power cord. His heart skittered. He lifted the light to reveal an old iron. Almost, he said. Something that heats up, only slow. Funny. Lorraine musta used it to smooth the linens for the yard sale.

Foolish old man. All coincidences. Things you had laying around all the time and just never noticed. He returned to the trapdoor, where he knelt and felt with his foot for the top rung.

It cracked.

His foot plunged.

His body followed.

He crumpled in a heap, his leg pretzeled underneath. He shook off a daze; his cap rolled away. When he reached for it, his leg shrieked. He winced. Something not right there, he thought, not right at all. When he lifted himself up on an elbow, his leg turned to flame. He sucked in his breath. The wind whistled in the unclosed door, and a spray of snow wet his cheek.

Lorraine’s not coming back, he thought. And the septic man, even if he came, wouldn’t come until the roads were plowed and a phone call confirmed the time.

He lifted again; pain shot up his leg—just like the time he got a jolt from the workbench’s fluorescent starter. He held his breath until the sting subsided. He lay quietly to let the shock pass. He began to shiver.

He heard a chirping. Bird in the attic? No, phone in the kitchen. Of course, there was no way to reach it. It stopped after four trills. “Can’t come to the phone right now,” he heard the phone say. “Leave a name and numbah.”

Maybe it was the surveyor, or the septic man, or Lorraine saying she got back okay. Yes, it had to be her; it’d been about an hour, the timing was right. It wasn’t likely she’d call again and wonder if something was wrong. If she did, she couldn’t drive back, not in this weather. Who would she call locally? The realtor? The septic man? Assisted Living? “Could you please run out to Mill Road and check on my father? He’s not answering the phone, no matter when I call. Yes, I know how bad the roads are.”

“Hello, Miss Randall? It’s Pete, the septic guy? Look, I found your dad in the garage this mawnin’. Looks like he took a bad fall. Nope, didn’t make it. Exposuh.”

Not him, no sir. Oziel pressed himself up. The wind howled with him. Hardly an inch. He rested. Even if he could move a few inches at a time, how could he cross the driveway? If he stayed, could he close the heavy door? A little drift was forming there. Could he possibly stay the whole night, and light the heater? No, he used the last match. Should have asked for matches, not a microwave. That’s what I really needed.

No, he corrected himself, shouldn’t have asked for nothin’. It’s all a gift. He hadn’t asked for the gloves, or the jacket, or the rubbers; they just showed up when he needed them. Sometimes we notice, sometimes not. It was as though a light came on. It brightened. A blast of frigid air swept his hair back and he squeezed his eyes shut against the light that suddenly filled the room. The garage door rumbled, and a voice called to him:

“Dad? My God, what happened?”

“Lorraine?” Oziel heard the Volvo purring. The halogen headlamps blazed gloriously. Oziel blinked in disbelief. “I thought you were home; the phone rang—”

“That was me, calling from my cell,” she said, genuflecting beside him. “The weather’s worse down south. They closed the interstate in Worcester. I called to say I needed to come back.”

Oziel gripped her warm hand. “Yes, you did.”

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John Desjarlais teaches journalism and English at Kishwaukee College in northern Illinois. A member of the Catholic Writers Guild, The Academy of American Poets, and Mystery Writers of America, he is listed in Who’s Who in Entertainment and Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. His work has appeared in such national periodicals as The Critic, U Magazine, Apocalypse, The Karitos Review and The Rockford Review. His medieval thriller Relics was re-released by Thomas Nelson in May, and his latest mystery novel, Bleeder, was released in August by Sophia Institute Press. www.johndesjarlais.com.