FICTION

GABRIEL MORLEY

These Are Those People

She found him sitting on the toilet sound asleep with his shoes on. He was wearing one of her nightgowns, but he had put both arms up through the neck hole so that it looked like a halter-top across his withering chest. It was her good nightgown; the one she never wore; the one he bought for her the first night they made love; the one that still smelled as sweet as the gardenias he had wrapped it up with in brown wax paper 53 years earlier. He had torn the hem of the neckline. She reached and felt of the tear and in the dull, orange glow of the nightlight noticed how much his bony shoulders looked like doorknobs. She fit one snugly into her palm and nudged him.

"Erskine," she said.

His drawers were hung over the edge of the sink. They were still damp from where he had tried to wash them out himself. Her toothbrush was snapped in half on the counter and his britches still had mint green toothpaste on the crotch where he had tried to scrub them.

Bless his heart. He's out of his mind.

"Erskine. Wake up, honey. You're asleep on the commode."

She forgot he had gotten up during the night. Normally, she would get up with him and coax him back to bed. But she had been too tired. She squeezed his knobby shoulder again. The old man snorted and kicked out one leg. She roused him.

"Are you stiffed up?"

He opened his eyes, the blue nearly washed out by his dementia. "What you say?" His voice like static on the radio.

She couldn't look at him. Was it his eyes? The gown? The fouled underwear? She picked up the broken pieces of her toothbrush. "I said are you stiffed up. You've been asleep on the toilet."

He looked down at himself and rubbed the scruff on his wrinkled neck. "Why I'm dressed up?"

"Well I don't know. I reckon you messed your britches in the night."

He played with the hem of the yellowing nightgown. His fingernails were rotten and black. "Then why I'm on the toilet, woman?"

"I don't know."

"Well damn, woman. I told you I can't sit on no toilet. I'll get the clap."

He made to get up and his spindly chicken legs gave out. She grabbed for him but he crumpled to the floor banging his head against the paneled wall. She got tangled up in his mess and fell too, hitting her mouth on a towel rack on the way down. She started crying. He shifted around so she lay partially in his lap. Blood filled her mouth. He wrapped her up in his arms and began to rock her sitting there on the floor.

"Don't you cry, old lady. I take care of you."

His father writes him letters that he won't read. Pop sends them to the newspaper office and they sit on Dave's desk for days before he finally pushes them into his gray, steel garbage can without ever opening them. He tries to be discreet about it. Perhaps no one notices. Perhaps everyone does. They arrive with the rest of the mail at the newspaper office. Baton Rouge return address. His father's shaky, old man handwriting all over the envelope like a child's print. The receptionist puts the letters on his desk just like she does the rest of the mail. Dave stares at them, picks them up now and then and looks at them more closely, but he doesn't read them.

Sometimes Pop drives up the two hours from Baton Rouge. He comes into the newspaper office and stands at the front counter in Navy blue shorts with a matching Navy blue Polo shirt tucked in, leaning forward slightly, calling out to Dave across the life of the newsroom. Beckoning him. Spittle on his lips. Withering arms banging softly against the counter for attention. But Dave ignores him, staring at his computer as if he does not hear the old man, as if he has never heard him. Sometimes, when Pop leaves he'll slip a Sports Illustrated magazine through the window of Dave's Grand Am in the parking lot.

He comes in with an ace bandage wrapped around his head and stands at the counter looking past the receptionist at his son.

"Your ma's hurt her mouth, boy. I put her in the hospital." His voice loud and prickly in the silenced newsroom. "You better look at me. Look here now. You're testing me. Don't test me, boy. They got more room in that hospital."

The publisher comes out of his office and looks around at the shouting. The receptionist is leaned back in her chair looking from man to man to man. She's not seen this before.

Pop rests his elbows on the counter. "I know you can hear me. Can I tell you that?" He slams his keys on the Formica countertop. The receptionist jumps. The publisher begins crossing the room, but Pop waves him off. "I'm done," he says.

He shuffles out the glass door. Dave never even looked up.

He went to see her in the hospital. The lights were dimmed in the room and the television was on but the sound was muted. Her face was swollen and she had a black eye. She smiled at him with her broken tooth, laughing nervously and touching her hair. Pop was asleep on a little fold out cot beside her bed. His body was so tiny and curled and frail he looked like a little kid, not a 74 year old man who offered to fight the referees in the parking lot after a bad call during an LSU basketball game. His bones protruded under his white cotton T-shirt like constellations. His shoes were under the bed, the heels perfectly aligned with each other and touching the foot-post of the cot.

"Hello, David." She had a slight lisp now.

"Hey, Mom." He looked for a place to stand in the cramped room. "Did he do this?"

"Of course not. Your father would never hurt me. I fell in the bathroom."

"What happened to his head?"

"He bumped it. He fell too. I was trying to help him back to bed."

"Did he put that bandage on himself?"

"You know he did."

"Are you all right?"

She watched the television in a corner of the room. "You know, I've never been alone. I went straight from my daddy's house to your father's."

"What are you talking about?"

She stared at the flickering images on the screen. "I haven't been to the hospital since you were circumcised. I was against it, but your father insisted. He's not cut, you know. But he meant for you to be. He'd have done it himself if I hadn't agreed."

"Oh God." He looked again for somewhere to stand as if he might get out of the conversation by moving to a different spot in the room. "What have they got you on? You're out of your head."

"I'll be all alone, I guess. I've already got a pistol."

"What in the world?"

"Oh, don't be so pouty, David. I have to have something to protect your father and me from villains."

"Villains? You're out of your mind."

"Oh, poot." She waved her hand as if the conversation could be fanned away. "I leave it in the car anyway."

"The car? What good is it in the car?" He was kind of rocking from one foot to the other. "I can't believe Pop let you get a gun."

"Oh, David." She turned to look at him. Her wet cheeks glistening in the light through the blinds. "I've never even pumped my own gas."

He finally sat on the end of the bed, but she wouldn't talk to him anymore. Perhaps she couldn't talk to him anymore.

She only had to sign her name three times to admit him. Pop sat beside her and held her hand. He only let go so she could sign her name on the paperwork. He had listened to the whole spiel, flipped through all the brochures and toured the complex, but still didn't have any idea what was going on. They made him get in a wheelchair. She kissed him with her busted lip and hugged his neck. He had put vanilla extract on his neck as cologne. She nuzzled him and he sat there stiffly with his arms at his sides like a dummy. He was wearing his wedding suit and still had that ace bandage on his head. The britches were cinched up with a belt and hung delicately on his pointy hipbones. Before they left the house, she had told him to put on something nice.

She coaxed him to take her hand and he grabbed it and squeezed it. She was startled and jerked her hand back. The administrator stood up and signaled the aid to wheel the man out of the office. Pop held out his hand for her again, but she wouldn't take it. She heard him call out for her from down the hall, his voice like electricity crackling against the sterile beige walls. He bellowed her name, Virgie.

She stood outside in the parking lot, the sun beating down on her neck, her shoes too tight on her feet. She put on pantyhose to put her husband in the nursing home. Traffic whizzed by on the highway. Dave sat in the Cadillac with the air conditioner on listening to a sports radio talk show and reading Sports Illustrated. He was wearing sunglasses and drinking a diet Sprite from a can in a purple and gold LSU coozie. He glanced at his mother but she just couldn't get in the car. Pop had passed her a note.

She unfolded it carefully, delicately as if she might not want to read it but merely look at it. The paper was yellowed and brittle. She studied the note for a moment and then folded it again and slid into the backseat of the car. It was his wedding vows.

Two days later she made Dave go get him in the Cadillac.

"You know he'll only ride in the good car," she said.

Dave had to pack all Pop's stuff and load it in the car. He just threw everything into the trunk and the backseat. Pop supervised the whole project. He kept shaking his head on the way home and muttering about the crappy packing job Dave had done.

When they pulled into the garage Dave went inside the house. Pop never did go inside. Dave finally went back to the garage. The old man had pulled everything out of the car and repacked it all in the trunk.

"Now it all fits," he said.

Dave threw up his hands. "What are you doing?"

Pop looked at him with those vacant eyes.

Dave went back inside and sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands.

In a minute, the old man came busting angrily through the door and breathing heavily through his clenched teeth. "Who the hell you are?"

"You know who I am."

"By God, mister, you better get the hell out of this house. What you done with my wife? Where my wife at? Virgie?"

"Pop, you're sick."

The old man pulled the gun out of the waistband of his pants and shot Dave twice in the chest knocking him off the chair.

He called out for her again. "Virgie?" He fired off two more shots into the ceiling, yipping like a cowboy. "I take care of you, woman."

He awoke, sat straight up on the bed and flung his legs over the edge before he noticed his bandaged foot. All the lights were turned on in the room. His reflection wavered on the tile floor. He looked around squinting his eyes. "By God. Where I am?"

"Erskine. Hush, now. You're in the hospital." She was sitting in a chair across the room with her handbag in her lap. She still had on her housecoat.

"Am I hurt?"

"I don't know. I doubt it. You shot yourself in the foot."

"I was having the best dream. Whipping up on Ole Miss. I was running the football through Vaught Hemingway Stadium and had a clear path down the sideline." He looked at her. "Who you is anyway?"

She hesitated slightly but Pop jumped in again laughing. "Aw, hell. I know who you is, old lady." He held his arms out and curled them upward to flex his biceps like a bodybuilder. "I know you like that? Come on over here."

She sat silently beside him on the bed looking at her shoes. Little droplets of blood had dried and darkened on the suede leather toe.

"You got your shoes on the wrong feet," he said.

She kicked her legs out to look at her feet. She wiggled the shoes off and swung her legs back and forth like an anxious child.

Pop put his arm around her shoulder. "Hey. You go get David a Sports Illustrated when you leave here."

She started crying. He pulled her closer to him.

"There, there," he said. She turned her head away from him. They sat silently for a while until Pop spoke again. "What the hell happened to me?"

"What do you mean?"

"How I get here?"

"You fell."

He stared at her for a moment.

"Well, am I all right?"

–e-