November 30, 2014
The old man died last night.
His night nurse awoke because she heard him calling. He was sitting in his wing chair in the finished basement, watching TV, as he did around the clock. He asked for a drink of water. She went into the kitchen and filled his glass and returned to him and he was dead, eyes fixed on the television screen.
A fire truck and crew responded to the 911 call; the truck was barely able to navigate the long, narrow, winding driveway. The paramedics knew he was dead, but they went through the motions of resuscitation. The family arrived in pickup trucks and went into the house. All this happened right under my bedroom window, and somehow I slept through it.
I had seen the old man at midnight, when—we didn’t know it, but who ever knows it?—the sands of his hourglass were rapidly draining. He always kept the curtains open and the blinking glow of the television lit his slumped body.
His wife died the second week after I moved into the rental house, eighteen months ago. She had been the rancid glue of the family. In the 70’s she ran a beauty parlor out of their home. Local women would drive up to the house, never knowing what to expect, for the family was chaotic—crazy, the neighbors said.
As small children, the siblings, a brother and sister, swore like sailors and ran amuck. The old man used to hang himself upside down from a block and tackle in the storage building, to relieve the agony of his bad back. He would pull a rope and raise his upturned body until it cleared the floor, and he would dangle and watch the beauty parlor ladies park their cars.
As teenagers, the siblings were so wild, the old man and his wife put each kid in separate houses on the compound. The kids did drugs and threw parties. And the old man, in response to complaints from surrounding residents, would threaten the complainants with bodily harm. He had feuds going with three sets of neighbors. Perhaps it was knowledge of his arsenal of rifles and guns that kept them from calling the county sheriff.
As adults, the brother and sister hated each other, often fighting in front of my house. They weighed a collective five hundred pounds, and my house would reverberate with each stamp of their four feet. When their mother died, they waited until the old man was asleep and sneaked into the house and removed items for their own gain. Each request I made, for repairs or maintenance, was greeted with derision. I was “soft,” not “country.”
Their dad was feisty until the end. He suffered a series of strokes, but his mind was sharp. He fired all his nurses over and over. In early fall, he walked outside, climbed aboard a go cart and drove around the property, until the cart, unable to climb a hill, overturned and sent the old man sprawling. Had the neighbor’s dog not heard the commotion, he would have been dead right then, food for the coyotes.
He used to sit outside on warm afternoons, bare-chested and in shorts and cowboy boots, a .22 rifle in his lap. He said he was hunting groundhogs. He would climb into the cab of his white pickup and just grip the steering wheel and stare forward, perhaps reliving his able-bodied life.
He was civil to me, a terror to his family. He knew I was a writer, and he gave this designation some heft. I would sit with him, no small talk, and we would watch deer graze in the meadow, and I would give him updates on the wildlife.
I saw him on Thanksgiving Day. He was standing on his sidewalk, leaning on a walker, watching the bare trees against the sky, the white wisps of hair on his mostly bald head standing straight up. Did he know that the wind was blowing for him?
Yesterday, the fire truck couldn’t turn around. It had to be backed all the way up to the main street, the driveway curling like a snake. The old man’s body was removed. The family drove off their separate ways.
In the afternoon, a grown grandson returned to the property and drove his truck into some underbrush and fired a handgun five times. Was it rage? Despair? I heard the shots and ran outside. The kid glared at me and I was suddenly afraid.
Are you a Christian? The old man asked me this once. I told him, no. Hell, Jesus Christ was spiritual, not a Christian, he said. Christians don’t own spirituality, nor does any other religion. His family wouldn’t have known what to make of this. To them he was an impediment. They had to dumb him up, or they couldn’t have justified their uncouthness.
And now their impediment is gone, and now their years of happiness and content may begin. Love and joy will break out, and peace will be upon this compound.
The old man died last night.