In Sickness and in Health

Floyd’s memory was like a hornet caught in a Mason jar.  He stood in the hallway after lunch, still in his pajamas, staring at the residue of his former self: black and white photos of a man first by a fighter plane, then tuxedoed and hugging his bride, and there in waist-high grass, his hand cupping the flank of a splayed-out zebra in the truck bed.  Floyd stared at the photographs, the reflection of a haggard old man in a double exposure on the glass, until the shapes blurred.  Knowing his mind was failing was strange, as if he was both scientist and specimen.  He now functioned on intuition alone, and on days like this, when he could see just how much he didn’t know, he worried how long it would serve him.  He stood in the hallway spinning his silver bracelet, engraved with Alzheimer’s, on his wrist.

Evelyn set Ben’s obituary on the side table and then laid Floyd’s suit on the bed.  Her brother-in-law, like Elvis, had died on the pot.  She wished there had been some other story – a slip in the tub, a heart attack while shaving, anything that would have given a bit more dignity to his last moments.  She couldn’t help but imagine Ben’s purple, veined face quaking and covered in sweat, his catcher’s-mitt hands gripping the bowl for leverage, stars swirling in front of his eyes as he pushed and grunted and groaned to his demise.

As she passed the lint roller over the suit, something crinkled.  She pulled five funeral programs from the inside pocket: her best friend from college, Floyd’s co-founding partner, the man next door, their grandson’s girlfriend, the dentist.  Here she was getting ready for the sixth just this year, and it was only June.  At least Floyd was insulated from all that death.

Inside the chapel, the hairs pricked up on Floyd’s neck.  His body knew he’d been here and recently, too.  All the splotched, wrinkled faces asking him questions made him want to run out the door, but Evelyn’s grip on his arm kept him in check.  She led the way to the open casket.  The room smelled of lilies, incense, and musty perfume.  In the casket was a man with a giant, porous nose and a chin that caved into the folds of his neck.  Floyd examined the man’s hands, mottled with age spots and hair-sprouting moles.  The nails looked thin and flaky like the skin of a crescent roll.  Evelyn cried silently.  Floyd watched her rummage in her purse and pull out a tiny bottle.  She flipped the spout and squirted the dead man, the casket, and the bouquet on top with liquid.

“What are you doing?” Floyd asked.

“Shh,” Evelyn said.  “You don’t have to shout.”  Arcs of fluid splashed the man.  “I’m blessing him with holy water.”

The water weaved random streaks through the man’s makeup.  Floyd wanted to wipe the man’s face clean, but he didn’t want to disturb him.  The dead man on display, the flowers, the water – all of it – seemed odd to Floyd, a breach of privacy, as if he’d walked in on something he shouldn’t have.  But what did he know?

Evelyn and Floyd shuffled to a pew, Floyd plopped down on the aisle seat and Evelyn crawled over him.  She was livid.  Who was he to question her?  That holy water came all the way from Medjugorje.  Ben deserved some of it; that was certain.  If she had enough water, she’d dunk Floyd in it every night.  The bottle was only a third full now, and she rationed what was left.  With Floyd as he was, there would be no more pilgrimages, no more Virgin Mary sightings, no more miracles. 

Evelyn raised her hand in response to the funeral director.  “What’s he saying?” Floyd shouted.  “Why are we raising hands?”

“Quiet.”  The instant it came out, Evelyn regretted it.  The man next to her wasn’t her Floyd anymore; he wasn’t the man who could make her snort with laughter in a five star restaurant from a dirty joke nor the man who kissed each one of her chest freckles before moving on to the ones on her back nor the man who read her poetry each night before bed.  Instead the person next to her had the mind of an eight-year-old and the body of a seventy-nine-year-old.  To him, Evelyn believed, the fifty-six years of their marriage meant nothing.  She sighed.  “They don’t have a tabernacle, and he wants to know who’s having holy communion so they can prepare.”

“Holy water, holy communion.  What’s so holy?  A man’s dead!”

She almost snapped again, but she heard someone behind whisper crazy old people.  She wanted to whack the ignoramus with her purse.  Wasn’t it obvious Floyd had dementia?  Did no one have respect for their elders anymore?  She missed the old Floyd now more than ever.  He would’ve had some quippy comeback that would’ve shut that kid up for a week.  She had always been thankful for Floyd’s health; he was still broad-shouldered, strong, and agile, especially for his age.  His physical presence was one of the things she’d always liked best about him – she always felt safe and protected.  Even in Africa with only the searchlight, Floyd’s shotgun, and the Jeep, as they crashed through the steppe in the night, the trumpeting of the elephants and the roars of the big cats getting louder and louder, she felt nothing could harm them.  But now Evelyn knew: the biggest threats were the ones you couldn’t see, the ones without teeth, the ones that lurked in the folds of your brain until the day they came to wash away your memories, your very self, like a hundred-year flood.

Floyd didn’t like this sit-stand-kneel business.  He felt foolish, on the outside of a secret handshake.  Floyd was now the only one standing as the priest, his eyes closed, held a wafer over his head.  Floyd stared hard at the disk, mesmerized by it, and forgot his embarrassment. It looked precious, almost brushed with gold dust the way it shimmered in the light.  He imagined it was infused with magic that could cure him.  He walked to the altar, climbed the two steps and waited at the end of the table.  The priest mouthed the words to some prayer.  Floyd didn’t want to frighten the man, so he whispered, “I’d like to have that disk, please.”  The priest started and nearly dropped the disk but he caught it just in time.

“Could someone help this man back to his seat?” the priest asked.

Evelyn prayed hard, pleading for guidance, patience, and strength.  She silently chanted Hail Mary’s over and over.  She felt her mind stop racing for the first time in months.  She felt the surrounding world drop away as she focused on the words of the prayer.  But then she felt herself too alone.  She reached to her side where Floyd should have been, but she felt only the pew’s wood.  She let her eyes readjust to the bright chapel.  She felt like she was caught in a pocket of silence though the rest of the chapel buzzed.  It wasn’t until she saw the priest stiff-arming Floyd that she hopped to her feet.  She bolted up the altar.  “Floyd, honey,” she said, grabbing his elbow and then steering him down the stairs.  “Let’s sit back down.”

“I want that disk, I need it.”

“We’ll each get one in a minute.  When it’s our turn.  Right now, it’s the priest’s turn.”

“But I need it now.”  They were back at their pew and seated again.  Evelyn wrapped an arm around him and rubbed his shoulder as he buried his face in her armpit and cried.  What was he doing up there, for Christ’s sake?  Why didn’t the goddamned priest help him instead of fend him off?  Or these other bastards who stared at her like she was the one to blame?  She’d never felt this alone.

Back home, Evelyn sat down on the couch and sunk into the cushions.  She wished she could disappear inside their fluffy whiteness.  She would take a short nap and then everything would be better.  Sleep was her only escape, and she welcomed it like a new lover; let it take her however, whenever it wanted.  Sometimes, in the mornings, as the first gray bars of light broke through the blinds, after a deep, blue-black sleep, she could look upon Floyd and see not the stubbled, frightened face of someone who didn’t recognize her but the man she had married almost sixty years ago, a man with a strong, square jaw and eyes that could see into their future.

Evelyn used to chart his lapses in her day planner until six months ago when Floyd’s mishaps crowded out the Art Museum and Junior League meetings, the luncheons with their kids and grandkids, her yoga and pottery classes.  Just last week she switched to documenting his moments of lucidity, moments that once kept her going but now festered with their unfulfilled promises.  She was tired; so, so tired.  Tired of worrying that he’d get hit by a semi or mistake Ajax for powdered sugar.  Tired of arguing with him, defending herself against his allegations of theft and mistreatment.  Last week he’d grabbed and shaken her, accusing her of killing Morty, their border collie, hit by a car twenty years ago.  He’d left five blue-black ovals on each of her biceps.  She was tired of telling him that his mother was dead.  At least once a week, he asked to visit her.  The first time she told him, she cried with him, the two of them collapsed into each other, their bodies racked and sobbing, soaking the other’s shirt with tears.  Now Evelyn almost relished the way his face constricted as she told him for the umpteenth time that his mother was pushing up daisies.  His meltdown would only last until he forgot why he was crying and ask for an ice cream with sprinkles, the rainbow kind, but not too many.  She wanted to be done, free of it all, mind, body and soul free.  Even if she put Floyd in a home, she would still worry about clean sheets, properly flossed teeth, trimmed toe nails, processed foods. 

But Evelyn had to admit, there were times she enjoyed nursing him, how it enabled her to stay close to his body, get a sort of satisfaction from it she could no longer get from him.  After swabbing out his ears, she would imagine tracing her tongue along the ridges and curves of his cartilage as smooth and shiny as the inside of a conch shell.  During Floyd’s baths, she would plunge her hand below the water and stroke his cock with soap until he got hard.  At those moments, she wanted nothing more than to climb in, ease herself down, and rock back and forth on him as she used to do in their first apartment, when cataracts and skin tags and memory loss did not exist.  But she could never bring herself to do anything, and so she focused on the way the soap bubbles clustered on his skin.

Even in the somewhat tranquil moments with Floyd, Evelyn struggled.  At breakfast this morning, like every other morning, they finished their toast and eggs, and fifteen minutes later, Floyd asked what was for breakfast.  She had tried leaving out the dirty plates, placing his hand over the still-warm toaster, taking photos with the digital camera that showed the date and time, but nothing convinced him.  She finally had to padlock the refrigerator and cupboards last month after she found him gorging on chocolate syrup and sticks of butter.

Floyd peered over the couch at the snoring woman.  Her mouth was drawn tight into a frown and her lipstick had bled into the creases surrounding her lips.  She clutched a tasseled pillow over her heart.  Even asleep she looked exhausted.  He could get something to eat on his own.

Floyd went to the kitchen.  The cupboards he could open contained only bowls, utensils, and towels; everything else was locked.  He spun the pad on the fridge a few times, but it refused to open.  He knew there was plenty to eat behind all these doors.  He smelled the saltiness of bacon and potato chips and the ripeness of almost black bananas and the sweetness of cream cheese frosting.  It all taunted him.  His stomach growled.  He wanted to smash the doors open and stuff his mouth with food.  He tried balling his hand into a fist, but his knuckles crackled and he couldn’t squeeze very hard.  He sprinkled some salt and pepper on his palm and licked the grains from the creases.  He was about to go into the living and wake the woman on the couch when he saw the black purse clumped on the counter, its open zipper exposing wallet like a fat brown tongue.  Floyd snatched the purse and left the house, the front door open behind him.

He had to squint and shield his eyes with a hand.  The sun shot laser beams onto the cars and houses.  He heard children squealing in backyards and blackbirds cawing on the telephone wires.  He walked with one foot on the sidewalk and the other in the gutter.  He didn’t like to be so close to the fences and the snarling dogs they held at bay.  Floyd made a left turn at the end of the block.  This street was busier than the last.  He saw a bus coming and waved his arms overhead.  The purse swung back and forth on his shoulder as he waved.  The bus screeched to a stop at the corner, and Floyd hustled over.  The doors jerked open, and he climbed up.  “I’m hungry,” he said.

“It’s a dollar ten to ride, buddy,” the driver said, staring out the windshield.

“I want a sandwich,” Floyd said.

“You gonna pay or what?  We’re on a schedule here.”

“Can you get me some food?”

The driver finally turned to Floyd.  “Give me that purse, man.”  Floyd passed it over the bar.  The driver dug around for change in the bottom and then plinked the coins down the console.  “Well, get in.  Take a seat.”  The driver handed the purse back to Floyd.  “The grocery store’s in a few stops.  You can eat there.”

Floyd cradled the purse to his chest.  The bus was empty except for two teenaged boys in baggy clothes at the back and a mother and her two young daughters near Floyd.  The girls’ black hair was done in identical pigtails and they both had pink, fuzzy rings of cotton candy stuck around their mouths.  Each had a different painting on her brown cheek that spread up her forehead and down her chin, one a glittery butterfly and the other a unicorn with a rainbow-colored mane.  He smiled at the girls as the bus rocked along, but he felt like a child himself, insignificant, dependent, naïve.  He could tell that other people like the bus driver saw him at worst as an idiot and the little girls probably saw him at best as a dumb, old man.  The girls kept stealing looks at the purse before facing each other and giggling with a kind of carbonated delight.  Floyd was embarrassed, uncomfortable, trapped, as though he was being smothered by a wool blanket.  He wanted to tell the girls how much he liked their face paints, but he’d been having trouble remembering certain words, the syllables frozen in his mouth refusing to come out.  It wasn’t worth the risk.

Something small and hard hit the back of his head and rolled down his shirt collar.  The piece of gravel was opaque and dirty white.  Another hit him and then another.  “Hey, faggot!” the boys from the back called.  Floyd turned around, and this time gravel rained down on him.  “You carrying your dick around in that purse?”  They snickered and called him fudge-packer and pussy.  Floyd stiffened.  He could smell the cotton candy around the girls’ mouths and the coconut of their sunscreen; he could hear the skin of the mother’s legs peel off the vinyl seat; he saw the sun glint off the gold of the boys’ necklaces and their front teeth.  He took slow, deep breaths, and gripped the seat in front of him.  He was about to push himself up, but stopped when the mother spoke.

“Watch your language,” the mother shouted.  “There’re children here.”

“Shut your mouth before we shut it for you, bitch.”  The woman pulled on the cord above the window.  As soon as the bus stopped, she grabbed a girl in each hand and fled up the aisle.  She said something to the driver and pointed at the boys before getting off.

“Shenanigans get you kicked off the bus.  Got it?” the driver said into the rearview mirror. 

“You won’t hear shit from us.”

“Scout’s honor, man.”

“Not a fucking peep.”

“One more outburst and you’re out.  I mean it.”  The driver stayed pulled over for another minute.  He stared into the mirror as if waiting for another retort.  When the boys kept quiet, he put the bus into gear and pulled back into traffic.

Floyd still felt on edge despite the boys’ compliance with the driver; he kept his eyes out the window and watched the yellow lines on the road zip by, hoping they would get bored or forget him.  The ride was silent but for the bus’s screeching brakes. 

“Okay, old man” the driver said, “This is the grocery store.  You can eat ‘til your heart’s content.”  Floyd got up and looked back at the boys.  They slumped down on the bench with their knees spread wide and their arms crossed over their chests.  Floyd knew he would never have been harassed like that before, would never have tolerated it.  His ears felt hot and his hands were shaking.  He felt ashamed and worthless as he walked into the grocery store, faggot ringing in his ears.  He wanted to topple the mounds of oranges, feel the guts of the tomatoes splat in his fists, crunch pistachios under his shoes.  Even the cases packed with glistening donuts weren’t enough to cheer him up.

Evelyn woke up to a dark house, the only noise the chirping of crickets outside. She called out to Floyd again and again, only to be met with silence.  She didn’t start to truly panic until she saw the front door wide open, the miller moths circling the porch light.  And then she noticed the missing purse.  Thank God the keys were still on the hook by the door.  She picked up the phone, about to call the police, but then thought better of it.  How could she explain that she let her Alzheimer’s-suffering husband wander off because she wanted to take a nap?  They would pigeonhole her with the negligent parents that let their toddlers roast in the car while they shopped for deals in the dollar store.  She could find Floyd, bring him back safe and sound on her own.

Floyd opened the grocery freezer doors just to see the windows fog up.  He doubted the reliability of the pictures on the white and red food boxes.  He made his way up and down the aisles, clutching the purse with both hands at his chest.  He smelled something hot, something savory that seemed to nudge a part of his brain.  Fried chicken – that was it!  So close now.  He could only hear the squeak of his shoes on the linoleum tile and the growl of his stomach.  He was so focused on the chicken that he nearly ran into someone.  It was one of the boys from the bus, blocking his way to the deli counter.  Floyd tried to go back down the aisle.

“Where you going, old lady?  Forget your diapers?”  It was the other boy now, behind him to the right, less than five feet away.  “Let’s see what you’ve got in that purse.”  Floyd stepped back a few paces.  The boy in front of him was now a yard away.  He took another step back but knocked a misplaced bottle of detergent off the shelf.  It plopped on the ground with a thwunk next to his right foot.  Viscous blue liquid seeped from its bottom in a slow, widening swatch.  Rows of bread were to his left.

“Stop,” Floyd said, his voice an echo of itself.  “Don’t come any closer.”

“Or what?  You gonna run? Beat us with that purse?  Blind us with that bracelet?”  The boys snickered on either side of him.  Floyd glanced down at the silver bracelet on his wrist.  His muscles tightened, his mouth was dry, and he couldn’t swallow.  The boys stepped closer. 

“I mean it,” Floyd said.  He was afraid though not of the boys.   

“Let’s see if this guy’s got the balls he thinks he does,” the boy in front of Floyd said.

“Fucking idiot,” said the one behind him.  Floyd took another step back.  The metal shelf stabbed him between his ribs.  The sharp edge seemed to prick his every cell awake.  The florescent lights buzzed above him.  His nasal passages flared open and he could smell days-old sweat and grease on the boys, the sour-candy scent of their breath.  They inched closer.  Floyd felt as though they were a single, triangulated body.  The buzzing of the lights grew louder.  His vision was nearly white-washed – he could only make out the edges objects – until he felt a hand grab his bicep. 

Evelyn rolled down the windows despite the crisp air that lashed her skin.  Every fifty feet she called Floyd’s name.  She stopped every person walking a dog to ask if she’d seen an older man with facial scruff possibly carrying a purse.  Their Nope, sorrys were given with a mixture of pity, irritation, and skepticism.  Evelyn imagined she looked crazed.  She probably still had tassel imprints from the pillow on her cheeks.  She’d never been this frightened before.  She kept imagining Floyd scared and lost, envisioned him hit by a car, then mugged and beaten by gang members, left for dead.   Then she imagined him wiping maggots off someone’s abandoned leftovers in the gutter or getting arrested for accidental shoplifting with the authorities turning him over to the loony bin.  Evelyn was crying so much, she could barely see the road.  She pulled into a parking lot to calm down.  She was weak, and she knew she would get weaker.  Floyd had always been the foundation of their relationship.  She only knew who she was in regards to him.  Now that he was disappearing, where did that leave her?  Without him, she was nothing but an old lady with a squirt bottle of holy water.

Red and blue lights flashed outside the grocery store.  Evelyn knew, in her gut and her bones, that those lights were about Floyd, and the cells of her body coiled like springs.  She bolted out of the car and shoved her way through the crowd of people surrounding the shopping carts.  She first saw a teenaged boy on a gurney with an ice pack on his mouth, then another boy getting handcuffed with the smudged beginnings of a black eye, and finally she saw Floyd, sitting on a motorized cart with a foil-like blanket wrapped around him, rocking back and forth, clutching her purse as if it were a life saver.  Evelyn dodged the gurney heading for the ambulance, but a short, fat officer stopped her with his chubby hand.  “That’s my husband,” Evelyn shouted, pointing to Floyd.  “My husband goddamn it!  He’s got Alzheimer’s!  Check the band on his wrist if you don’t believe me.”

“Wait here, ma’am.”  The cop took his time reading the silver bracelet.  Evelyn remembered the day she’d gotten it engraved, the day the doctor diagnosed Floyd with Alzheimer’s.  She remembered thinking they could beat this thing, that they would be the miracle case, all those years of morning crosswords and Sudoku would pay off, she’d add some ginseng and gingko biloba to his daily vitamin regimen and they’d increase their exercise, trim up their diet, pray the rosary every day, and all would be well.

Floyd felt like waves were coursing through his skin; the only way he could keep from throwing up was rocking back and forth with them, the blanket crinkling with every move.  He felt more aware, not some doddering old fool but a man with his wits about him.  He remembered the whole day, from the hallway to the chapel to the bus.  And finally the fight, when he’d given in to every impulse.  He licked his split bottom lip and tasted pennies.  He stared at the scuffed white sneakers on the gurney in front of him.  The kid kept pleading, from underneath his ice pack, that it’d all been a joke. 

“It’s all fun and games until you get your ass beat,” a reedy, teenage grocery bagger said to Floyd’s left.  His face was pimpled and pock marked.

“Go fuck yourself.” It was the boy in hand cuffs.

Floyd scanned the faces of the crowd corralled next to the floral case and saw Evelyn trying to push and wave her way to the front.  Poor, Evelyn, he thought, you shouldn’t be burdened with this.  He stepped off the cart, his legs wobbly, his joints cracking, intending to go to her.  But as soon as he stood up, his mind went blank.  He felt like he’d gone into a room and forgotten what he needed.  His eyes cast about for an answer but found no clues.