In my misguided youth as a Memphis police detective, I wrecked a fair number of motor pool cars. I damaged more than my share of property. I violated a lot of people’s constitutional rights, often with a rolled-up phone book. So getting taken to the woodshed by somebody in an official capacity was not a new experience for me.
Used to be, I could just sit quietly and think about football while my superiors yelled and vented their anger. Then, I’d make some token gesture of contrition and head back out to resume whatever I had been doing before. Nobody ever stayed mad at me for long; I’d always bring a nasty criminal to a messy end and my various excesses would be forgiven.
But I wasn’t sure how I could placate Vivienne Wyatt, the director of resident relations for the Valhalla Estates Assisted Lifestyle Community for Older Adults. She looked really pissed.
I draped an arm over the back of the chair I was sitting in and threw a sort of raffish half grin her way. “What can I say? I’m a maverick. I play by my own rules.”
By my standards, that was pretty close to an apology.
Unimpressed, Viv scowled at me. This one, apparently, was immune to my charms. “Mr. Connor says you went after him with an axe.”
“I didn’t go after him.”
“But you had an axe, Mr. Schatz.”
“Call me Buck, sugar.”
“He thought you were going to kill him, Buck. And please call me Ms. Wyatt.”
I snorted. “When I decide to kill Connor, Ms. Wyatt, I promise I’ll be unambiguous about it. I just needed the axe to bust up that damn rocking chair of his.”
“That chair was very dear to Mr. Connor. It was one of the few remnants he was able to hang on to from his life before he joined our community. Think about how difficult the transition was for you, and try to understand why your actions are so hurtful.”
I hunched my shoulders and didn’t say anything. I’d come here in a wheelchair, recovering from bullet wounds and crushed bones. I’d needed help moving around, help getting out of bed in the morning, help getting in at night. Help in the bathroom.
I was despondent over the loss of my independence, and over the loss of the home I’d lived in for half a century. Most days, I woke up wishing more than a little bit that I’d let the man who hurt me so bad finish the job.
I knew that, if I’d taken the easy way out, I wouldn’t have had a chance to kill Randall Jennings, and I’d really enjoyed splattering that bastard’s brains all over the walls of my hospital room. But getting better was hard work; it took nine long weeks of physical therapy before I was strong enough to piss standing up. Even then, I still needed to hold on to the assistance rails that were bolted to the walls next to the toilet, which had made it difficult to aim my stream. And the first time I got down on the floor to wipe up the splatter, I couldn’t stand back up, and I had to use the remote control button to call for the staff to come help me.
I was better than I had been, but I was still weak. I couldn’t really even swing the axe properly. My shoulder wouldn’t rotate. My body wouldn’t twist right. My legs were weak. I’d managed to hack off one of the rockers and an armrest and gouge at the seat a little bit, but when I was done, I was glazed in sweat and breathing ragged, and the goddamn thing still looked like a chair.
Six months ago, I could have smashed it to kindling.
I considered the fact that Vivienne Wyatt knew all of this, and I undraped my arm from the chair and stuck my hands in the pockets of my windbreaker.
Regardless of the various indignities I’d endured, I couldn’t find common cause with Dwayne Connor. I hated everything about my one-legged redneck neighbor. The man’s skin had the same texture as a pair of boxer shorts left to dry and crust up in the sun after spending a hard three-day ride wedged in a cowboy’s ass crack. And his personality matched his looks.
“Why did you feel the need to destroy Mr. Connor’s rocking chair with an axe, Buck?”
“My friend Crazy Mack came to visit. Mack is—” I paused. “Mack is like you.”
Ms. Wyatt arched one eyebrow. “You mean he’s black?”
“Yes. And Connor has some problems with that.”
Connor had called Mack several different names; shouted the kinds of words that make my grandson flinch, even when there’s no colored people around to overhear. But when I explained this to Ms. Wyatt, all she said was: “You can’t go smashing people’s chairs up with axes. Why do you even have an axe?”
“For situations like this one,” I said. “When stuff needs smashing. Aren’t you people supposed to get more upset when folks like Connor say stuff like that?”
“We people aren’t supposed to do anything,” she said. “If I started worrying about what every ignorant old white man in this place was thinking or saying, I wouldn’t hardly have time in the day to do anything else. You alone would probably take up my whole morning, Buck.”
I didn’t particularly like that implication. “Well, I’m upset about it. He was rude to my guest. There’s no excuse for that.”
She picked up a folder off her desk. “Look,” she said. “I’m really not supposed to talk too much about specifics of our residents’ circumstances, but I want to give you an idea of what the last few months have been like for Mr. Connor. He came here because he can’t be on his own anymore. His son went looking for him when he didn’t answer the phone; found the old man lying on the floor of his house. He’d been there for days, in a pool of his own mess. The smell was terrible. When Mr. Connor got into the emergency room at Baptist Hospital, a doctor discovered that a large clot had cut off all the blood flow to his femoral artery. His leg was dead and the flesh was rotting off the bones. They had no choice but to amputate.”
“The mean old bastard had it coming,” I said. “You can’t talk like he did to my friend. Crazy Mack is kind of emotionally delicate, on account of his schizophrenia.”
Viv leaned forward, toward me. “Buck?”
“Yes, Ms. Wyatt?”
“Did you bring a schizophrenic black man up to your floor to antagonize your racist neighbor?”
“Of course not,” I said, grasping the arms of my walker to help me rise out of my chair a little bit, so my eyes were level with hers. “Mack came by to show me some photos of his grandchildren. He has been my friend for more than fifty years.”
A trace of a smile from her. “Where did you get yourself a schizophrenic black friend, Buck? I think I need to hear this one.”
“Back in the prehistoric days, when I was a young patrol officer, I responded to a noise complaint, and I found Mack up on the roof of a low-rise apartment house wearing nothing but tinfoil, waving a big knife and screaming. Circumstances like that can easily escalate into a tragedy, but I kept a cool head and I was able to defuse the situation.”
“How’d you do that?”
“I shot him in the neck.”
Both her eyebrows went up. “You shot the black man?”
“The doctor who treated the gunshot wound also put him on chlorpromazine,” I said. “That helped him a lot with his episodes.”
The corners of her mouth turned downward. “And he’s your friend now?”
“Of course he is. He says I’m the man who gave him his medicine, which I think is pretty close to true. He’s very polite, my friend Mack; sends me a card every year at Christmastime. You know, I’ve shot thirty-one men and he’s the only one who ever had the common courtesy to thank me for it, even though all of them sorely needed shooting.”
There was a long pause while Vivienne Wyatt thought a bunch of things and then decided not to say any of them. Instead, she asked: “You shot thirty-one people?”
“Eighteen of them died, so I suppose they get a pass. But the rest were just rude.”
Viv kind of shook her head. “What’s going to happen when I send you back upstairs to your unit, Buck?”
I shrugged. “It’s almost time for Fox and Friends, so I’ll probably watch that.”
I could tell she was beginning to lose patience with me. “What’s going to happen between you and Mr. Connor?”
“I think you should send him home to Mississippi, where he can resume the slow process of decomposition.”
“I’m not going to be doing that. And I hope I won’t need to call the police up here over your feud.”
“I hope you do,” I said. “Rose just loves having visitors.”
Viv rubbed her temples with her index fingers. “You’re on thin ice, Buck Schatz,” she said. “I’m keeping my eye on you.”
I gave her a little salute as I hauled myself slowly to my feet and unfolded the walker. “Thanks for letting me know, Ms. Wyatt.”
I hobbled out of her office, leaning on my walker and favoring my left leg. I crossed the lobby, where a few of the residents were draped across the cushy sofas and easy chairs. One or two were staring at nothing, and the rest were asleep. I checked my watch; it was seven thirty in the morning, which meant it was just about breakfast time. I guessed that’s what these folks were waiting for. That, or death.
The walker I used was lightweight, made from hollow tubes of anodized aluminum. My doctor had recommended a newer model of “mobility aid” with four wheels instead of legs, but that thing felt unsafe to me. It had a little bicycle handbrake, which was supposed to assure it wouldn’t roll out from under me, but the fact that it needed a brake at all suggested that the risk of it getting away was something I should be concerned about.
I opted instead for a regular one with wheels on the front two legs and rubber feet on the back. I could push it in front of me instead of lifting it up and setting it down with every step, and it felt stable. I was pretty sure it couldn’t move on its own, though I sometimes watched it through squinted eyes when it thought I wasn’t paying attention, just to make sure it wasn’t going to try anything sneaky.
I made my way to the cafeteria-style dining room. Rose was a late sleeper, and wouldn’t be up until at least eight thirty, so I usually ate breakfast alone. That morning, they were serving eggs and whole wheat toast and underripe cantaloupe, still greenish around the rinds.
Whoever said that life in assisted-living facilities lacked variety clearly never had breakfast at Valhalla. A single plate of scrambled eggs could have burnt bits, cold places, and runny parts.
I’d situated myself at the farthest table from the other residents, so they’d leave me alone. But somebody came and sat down with me anyway.
He wasn’t as old as I was, but a man can be a lot younger than me and still be old. He had a thin pencil-line of a mustache and short, neatly combed white hair. He hadn’t brought any breakfast to the table.
“Hello, Baruch,” he said.
I paused; drummed my fingers on the plastic tabletop. I’d been ambushed, and flight was not an option. Physically, I couldn’t bolt for cover. I’d folded up the walker before I sat down, and even if I hadn’t, it wasn’t a mode of transport conducive to quick getaways.
I hadn’t been paying attention to him as he approached; I’d been too busy poking at my eggs. Now that he was sitting, I couldn’t see how his jacket was hanging, so I couldn’t figure whether he had a piece under it.
He had me at a considerable disadvantage. I decided to be friendly.
“Hello, Elijah,” I said. “It’s been a while.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d recognize me.”
“I know who you are.”
“Are you surprised to see me?”
I was, a little bit. But I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “Nothing surprises me anymore,” I said.
“The last time we spoke, you promised me something. Do you remember what it was?”
I stabbed my fork into the plate and shoveled a glob of egg into my mouth. “I said I’d kill you if I ever saw you again.”
“Precisely. I have visited you as a courtesy. If you intend to make good on your threat, you’d best do so immediately.”
“Because, whether you kill me or not,” he said. “I shall be dead in forty-eight hours.”
Apparently, nobody I have ever met can die without bothering me about it.
Copyright © 2014 by Daniel Friedman