“Days Seven” is the title of a collection of six vignettes, stories and a memoir that I penned during the period from about 2008 through 2010. Below are two of my favorites. The entire book may be downloaded at the end of each, free of charge.
I tell you, it was a really nice Tuesday afternoon and I was just sitting there minding my own business. I hardly ever get to go to the park anymore. It just wears me out to walk the six blocks—and I end up with blisters on my stumps. I suppose I could go in the wheelchair, but I hate that thing—the way it makes you feel.
And besides, I need to get the practice of walking in these things. Carrie, my rehab girl, tells me so—I go down to the VA hospital every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. We work on the upper legs. They have a weight room so I can still pump iron. Startin’ to get the hang of all this.
Anyway, when I finally get to the park, all I really want is to chill by the river for awhile. And to let Bruno run. So I sit down on this wooden bench and take his leash off since I don’t see anyone around. He’s such a little shit—I can’t believe anyone would write a leash law to protect people from a Chihuahua. Bruno doesn’t belong to me, though. He belongs to the wife of a friend in my old unit who got sent to Germany. Couldn’t take the dog—at least for now. So now I’m a dog-sitter.
Anyway, this is how it happened: Bruno is checking out some recent deposits from others of his kind when this moppet-headed kid comes up and plops down beside me. He looks like he might be eight years old and has a kite. And he is, like, filthy. I mean his face is dirty. His hands are dirty. His T-shirt and jeans are dirty. And the soles are peeling off his tennis shoes. I eye him through my Ray-Bans and he looks up at me.
“Hi”, he says.
And then he just sits there and stares at my prosthetics. “What happened to your legs?”
“They got blown off,” I tell him, as I look across the river.
“Wow! I bet that hurt!”
I don’t mind kids, but I was kinda hoping he would go fly his kite. I kept my eyes on Bruno. “It hurts now,” I said.
“Do you wear shorts so people can see them?”
“No, not really—I wear shorts ‘cause it’s hot out.”
“But they look really cool. Can you walk?”
“How do you think I got here?”
“Oh yeah—can you run?”
“A little bit,” I said. “What about you—can you run with that kite?”
“Sure. But there’s no wind up here and I don’t have anyone to hold the string.”
“Well, how about if I hold the string and you take the kite down by the river where the wind can catch it—and then when it goes up you can come back and get the string?”
“Wow, great!” he said, and the little guy jumped up from the park bench and handed me his ball of twine.
I stood up and moved over to a more open area in the park, away from the trees, and fed the line out as my new buddy ran down the incline to the river’s edge. The breeze was pretty stiff down there, and once the kite got above the tree line, everything should go okay, I figured.
So then the little guy waves to me and I wave back and he lets the kite and the tail go. The kite immediately pops up in the wind and a second later it’s high over the oaks and Spanish moss. So I let some more string out and in a few seconds he’s back.
“Here ya’ go,” I say, and hand him the ball of string.
“Thanks!” he says, and then I head back to my bench. Except now it’s occupied by this chick. She looks about twenty-five, maybe twenty-seven, not much younger than me. And, man, she is hot! I mean, she’s got long blonde hair and an excellent rack and she’s just watching me as I head toward her. And then I sit down beside her.
“Cute kid,” I say, not looking her in the eye.
“Thanks. That’s Andy,” she says, as she watched the kid running around trying to keep the kite up.
“So, you know him?”
“He’s my son,” she says. Both of us are studying him now—not looking at each other, you know?
“I didn’t see you before—I thought he was alone.”
“No…I was over by the azaleas.” She said. I saw her eyeball my legs.
“Got ‘em blown off,” I says, “in Iraq.”
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to stare.”
“It’s ok, everybody’s curious.”
“How did it happen?”
“IED…you know, roadside bomb.”
“Are you still in the military?”
“Nah, the Army gave me the heave-ho after my last enlistment was up. Okay with me, though. I’d had enough. They gave me a pension. What the hell, I figured.”
“So, what do you do now?”
“I have an apartment down the street. Taking some computer courses. And rehab. So, anyway, I’m Paul,” I said, and offered my hand.
She shook my hand and smiled. “Hi, I’m Amanda—and thanks for helping Andy with his kite.”
“Oh, no problem, he’s a cute kid. So, where’s ‘dad’?” I asked. I could see she wasn’t wearing a ring.
She quickly averted her eyes, the breeze fluttering through her hair, “Oh, he’s gone.”
“Yeah, like forever.”
So I figured she didn’t want to talk about it, Ya’ know? …Had to be some prick, anyway, to walk away from a gorgeous chick like her and a cute kid like Andy.
So then, she suddenly stands up and says, “Look, I didn’t mean to take your spot. I’ll go over to that other bench—it’s closer to Andy.” But she was like staring at my legs. Grossed her out, I figured. Nobody wants to get too close to a freak. Screw her, I figured. “Yeah, sure, go ahead.”
So she gets up and goes over to the other bench, but she keeps looking back at me. Some people can’t get enough of the crip’s missing legs. Asshole, I’m thinkin’—why don’t you take a friggin’ picture?!
Next thing I know, the damned kid is back. This time he’s holding Bruno. “Your dog got in trouble,” he says, as he hands the dog to me.
“Trouble? What kind of trouble?”
“He got his collar caught in the bushes.”
“So, where’s your kite?”
He turned, shaded his eyes from the sun and pointed to the top of a big ol’ oak tree, “up there.”
“Well, shit, I mean crap, “I says, not wanting to cuss in front of the little dude. “So where’s your dad?”
“Shit! I mean—really? What happened to him?”
“IDE killed him.”
“IDE? You mean ‘IED”?”
“I guess. It was a bomb, anyway.”
Andy was shuffling his feet now and looking at the ground. “Yeah.”
And then he looked up at me with these big brown eyes, ya’ know, and says, “My mom is really mad.”
“Mad? Why is she mad?”
“Because daddy died. She said it wasn’t fair.”
“Yeah,” I says, “that’s kinda how I feel about my legs. But I ain’t mad about it.”
“Maybe you can make my mom not be so mad,” he said.
“How can I do that?”
“Will you come and talk to her?”
“Oh, sure,” I said, “like she wants to talk to a crip like me.”
“What’s a ‘crip’”
“A cripple. It’s somebody who has something missing, I guess. So they’re not like other people. People don’t want anything to do with them anymore, ya’ know?”
“My mom thinks she’s a crip too, then.”
Well, that didn’t make any sense, “She sure as hel…heck doesn’t look to me like she has anything missing.”
“I think I’m a crip.”
Now that one threw me for a loop. “What are you talking about? I don’t see anything missing from you either.”
“But I don’t have a daddy. And Mom says nobody wants anything to do with her now—because of me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I heard her. She was talking to her friends.”
“What did she say?”
“She said nobody wanted a girl with a little kid in tow—what’s ‘tow’ mean?”
So now I was starting to get pissed off. “Nothin’, doesn’t matter. So maybe your mom needs to stop feelin’ sorry for herself.”
“I don’t know. Will that make her stop being mad?”
Well, I thought about that for minute. “Yeah, it probably would.”
“Will you come and talk to her then?”
Okay, so I figured, what the hell. Somebody needs to show her how to deal. I can do that. And, besides, helluva a good excuse to go talk to her again. “Okay, sure.” So I put Bruno on the ground, stood up and started to head over to the other bench. Bruno ran ahead and Andy reached up and took my hand.
Hank and Little Henry
God, she was beautiful. Her long dark hair floated in the air around her head as she slowly descended toward Hank, horizontally, from above—face to face with him as he lay flat on his back. Close enough for him to catch her scent—but just out of arm’s reach.
He was gazing into the sublime abyss of her sea-blue eyes—and he could see her bare breasts in his peripheral vision. He had no need to look. He had seen them many times before. They were youthful, firm, soft. And warm. Always so warm.
Hank could feel himself becoming aroused. That was what she wanted, of course. Ella rarely initiated sex. But when she did, Hank was at her mercy. As he had been since the first days of their marriage.
And then she began to fade into her own blinding white aura. Brighter and brighter. Hank tried to reach for her—to hang on—but her form was growing dimmer by the second.
And then he was back.
Back in bed. And still alive. The morning sun violating his space as it elbowed its way in through the bedroom window like a boorish, uninvited house guest. He had forgotten to close the blinds.
Yes. Still here. Shit. He opened his eyes and watched the slow rotation of the ceiling fan where Ella had been just moments ago. His lips felt dry and he had to pee. Jesus Christ, he always had to pee.
Hank pulled his aching body up to sit on the bedside. Bare feet on the carpet now. He had been up three times in the night. He reached for his cane and with no small effort brought his 87-year-old, lanky, still-tall frame erect. Or as erect as he could get it.
Every night, for what seemed like years now, he would stand and peer out the bedroom window before retiring. It was on the east side of the house and looked out onto a quiet street. He would see young couples and children walking along the sidewalk in the street lights, heading home from some church event, or school event, or whatever. Every night he hoped it would be his last view of that street. And then he would close the blinds and pull himself under the comforter and say goodbye. He always fell instantly asleep.
But last night he had forgotten to close the blinds. And now the Goddam sun was blinding him. He reached out with his free hand and jerked the cord—and he was back, safely in his cave.
Hank knew he was lucky. He could still bathe himself, although it seemed to take an eternity. Standing in the small shower without his cane was always treacherous. He needed one of those handrails installed but would never ask for it. He dried himself with a fresh white towel laid out the night before by his daughter. She was his lifeline. He didn’t know how he could make it without her.
Elizabeth came over every day after work before going home to feed Richard, her no-account second husband. She laid out his clean clothes and prepared a meal for him. Sometimes she would stay and chat while he ate. She would tell him of the most recent exploits of twenty-three-year-old Robin, his only granddaughter, who lived nearby with her husband. And who was about to have a baby.
Or, more often, she would vent about Richard. The old man seemed to absorb her frustrations like a sponge, and then she felt better. But he would hardly hear a word she said. Other times he had dinner with Brian Williams on NBC.
Breakfast was a piece of toast, a large glass of orange juice and his meds. He wondered how many calories he got from his pills. Seems like he ate about a pound of them a day. Gag. More juice. Then he padded back into the bathroom and sprinkled some bicarb into a glass. Swirled a little water and swallowed it. Juice gave him indigestion. He could feel the acid fizzing in his esophagus. Jesus! Burp.
Dressed in baggy jeans and a pullover, Hank went out to the sidewalk with his cane to get the paper. As he was about to reach down to pick up the daily, a young boy, late on his way to school, sped past on his bicycle, perilously close. Hank almost lost his balance. Son of bitch! The boy never looked back. Hank glared. It wasn’t even eight o’clock and already he was angry.
Once he was done with his paper, he turned on the TV. He hated television. Politicians on the news. Where had all the statesmen gone? Where were the patriots? All they wanted was power. And his money—so they could give it to others who would keep them in power. Round and round.
He liked to read—novels and non-fiction. But one can read only so much. And his eyes tired so quickly any more. And sometimes his back ached horribly from sitting in one position for any length of time.
A year ago he began building birdhouses to keep busy. He was deft with hand tools, having been taught how to use them by his father. And he had been a diesel truck mechanic in the Navy. He was good with his hands and instinctively understood mechanical things. Unlike Richard. Richard wouldn’t know which end of a hammer to hit a nail with.
Hank flicked off the TV and headed for the garage. As he stepped through the door he found he had forgotten, again, to close the damned garage door the previous evening. And the morning sunlight had found a new way to foist itself upon him, pouring in over the dusty, old car he was no longer allowed to drive. Seemed he couldn’t escape it.
With short, sliding steps he made his way over to his workbench where he had a new project almost finished. It was a simple piece. Only about ten inches square with a peaked roof. He had crafted a circular entrance with a small dowel in front and a metal fitting on the bottom to attach to a pole. The paint had dried and it looked pretty good.
He wasn’t sure to whom he would give his new creation. Everybody in the family had at least three. They always accepted them happily. Stuck them up all over the place—front yards, back yards, at work. Later he learned that he had been giving the same models to the same people. Oh well. Maybe they could re-gift. He was a bird-house building machine with no outlets.
Hank made his way back into the house. He fell heavily into his favorite chair and leaned back, winded. His eyes passed over a framed, faded, black-and-white photo on the wall: Ella and him when they were first married. He was in his Navy dress blues—her in a pretty white house dress, standing in the back yard of their first home. He was taller then, nearly six foot three, with thick dark hair bursting from beneath his white sailor’s cap, which he wore on the back of his head. She had been gone nearly 20 years now. Hank had never remarried. Plenty of opportunities. He was just too damned particular. Hank stared at the photo for a bit and then felt a tear well up and track down his cheek. Jesus Christ, I cry like a little girl at the drop of a hat, he thought.
Hank hated being old. He hated being treated like an old man and having to behave like an old man. No matter that he was. He was slow to accept his final role in life as that of an old person. He had been active all his life. He and Ella skied every year at Snowshoe Mountain. He had owned a Harley-Davidson motorcycle—a big Electra Glide. Trips to Daytona Beach with Ella on the back. Basketball with his grandsons at his daughter’s house. Richard didn’t play basketball.
Then, slowly but surely, he couldn’t do it any more. He worked out three days a week until he was sixty-eight. Then he had to quit. The run was killing him. And ruining his hip. Couldn’t even drink beer any more without being up all night with indigestion.
And he felt a deep sense of remorse for the burden his infirmity had brought on his family. He had lived too long. He had nothing left to give. He just wanted to die.
Hank had started to nod off in his chair when he heard a commotion at the door.
“Hey! Anybody home!? It’s me, Robin!”
Hank’s heart fluttered as he snatched his cane to stand up. He no sooner got to his feet when Robin rushed into the room, unceremoniously plopping a large, brown paper bag full of what appeared to be groceries on the huge oaken coffee table, and threw her arms around him.
“What are you doin’ Grandpa?” Her face was flushed from activity and beaming with a smile. He could smell the sweet scent of youthful transudation about her as she hugged him. Her belly protruded so far out she had to bend forward to give her grandfather a kiss.
“Robin, what in the world are you doing here, sweetheart? Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”
“Yeah, sorta. But I decided to take a couple of days off.”
“So, what’s in the bag?” said Hank, as he peered over the edge of the brown paper.
“Dinner! Look,” she said, pulling out plastic containers, “this for tonight. It’s meatloaf. Made it myself this morning. And this one is mashed potatoes and here’s the gravy. You can open a can of peas to mix in the potatoes and gravy. Everything can be nuked right in the container.”
She now had all the containers lined up on the heavy coffee table and then sat down on the edge of the low table. She averted her eyes momentarily and Hank saw her face blanch.
“Are you all right?”
“Just a little light-headed—guess I need to slow down,” she said, but Hank could see a bead of perspiration forming on her upper lip.
“Here,” he said, “get off that coffee table and lie down for a minute.”
As Robin moved to the sofa, Hank went into the kitchen to dampen a wash cloth, the crook of his cane across his forearm. When he returned a moment later she had her eyes closed. He eased himself onto the low table next to her and placed the rolled up cloth on her forehead. She didn’t speak at first and, for a flicker of a moment, he thought he could see some “Ella” in that beautiful face. “Here, just rest for a minute. Maybe I should call Elizabeth…”
“No, no, I’m okay. I just forget that I’m pregnant sometimes—need to slow down, right, Grandpa?”
“I suppose so,” he said, smiling.
She seemed to be better. But before Hank could rise, his granddaughter took his hand. “Grandpa, don’t forget—you have to come the hospital when I have my baby, okay? You promised.”
Hank had tried to get out of that. There would be plenty of people around. They wouldn’t need him. But Robin would have none of it. “Oh yes, I’ll be there—if somebody remembers to come and get me.”
“Don’t worry, Mom will.”
Hank had never been a patient in a hospital. But he had spent many an hour in waiting rooms and at the bedsides of others. And he despised them. The smells. The indifferent staff. The six-month-old celebrity magazines. But, most significantly, the sense of powerlessness. Endless waiting for other people to do something. For something to happen.
“Is Kevin back?” asked Hank, referring to her husband, as he took the wash cloth, refolded it, and put it back on her forehead.
“He’s coming in this evening from Chicago.”
“Aren’t they having some serious snow up there?”
“Yeah. But he should make it okay. I’m not worried.” She smiled and pushed herself up on the edge of the sofa, catching the wash cloth in one hand.
“I feel better now, Grandpa. And I need to get home. Got stuff to do,” she said, as she relocated her center of gravity and rose to her feet.
“Okay, well let me walk out with you.”
“Oh no, no, I’m fine,” she said. “Here, I’ll help you get those containers in the kitchen.”
The two of them carried Hank’s dinner out to kitchen counter. Robin turned and wrapped her arms around her grandfather and put her head against his chest. “I love you Grandpa.” She stood on tiptoes, kissed him on the cheek and in a moment was gone.
Hank took a second look at the containers and then stacked them in the refrigerator. Robin was gone five minutes and he missed her already. It was going to be another long day.
It was two p.m. Reading the last of his newspaper, Hank was startled by the ringing of his cell phone. He saw Elizabeth’s number and popped open the cover. “Hi hon.”
“Dad! Guess what—Robin’s water broke and I’m taking her to the hospital!”
“Is everything ok?”
“Yes. She’s fine, and Richard is on his way to pick you up.” Pause. “Are you there, Dad? Can you hear me?”
“Uh, yes, that’s fine, I’ll be ready when he gets here.”
“Okay, we’ll see you in a bit then.”
Hank closed the cover on his phone, stood and put it in the front pocket of his jeans. Minutes later he heard Richard beep his horn, and he made his way out to the drive.
As Hank approached, Richard reached across the seat of the Ford F-150 and pushed the passenger door open for his father-in-law. “Hello, Hank. Can you get in there okay?”
Hank put his cane on the cab floor, grabbed hold of the side panel and grunted and clawed his way into the high seat. Elizabeth would have come around and helped him, he thought.
“Hello, Richard,” he said, without making eye contact. He pulled the door shut and began searching for his seat belt. “What about Kevin?”
“Looks like he’s not going to make it.”
“Robin’s going to be unhappy about that,” he said. “She wanted him to help in the delivery room.”
“Yeah, I know. Not sure what the girls will have to say about that,” said Richard as he pulled into traffic.
Hank contemplated this change of events for a moment before speaking. “Maybe you can go in there?”
“Well, I guess I could if she wanted me to. We’ll see, I guess.” They drove on in silence.
Richard and Elizabeth had been married only three years earlier. And Richard knew he had a hard act to follow—Elizabeth and her first husband, Steven, Robin’s father, had split about eighteen months before he met Elizabeth. Steven remarried shortly after the divorce and then tragically died of a heart attack before the first anniversary of his new marriage.
It always seemed to Richard that, somehow, Hank had blamed him for all these events, even though he had never even met Steven. The old man had bonded with Steven and didn’t seem to take well to his replacement. Elizabeth told him it would take time. Well, the old fart didn’t have much time left, he thought.
“Here, Hank, I’ll drop you off at the entrance and go look for a parking space.”
Hank slid out of the seat and down to the pavement, grabbed his cane and soft-shoed his way into the reception area. He approached the information desk and asked the attending candy striper for directions.
By the time he had found the elevator and reached the fourth floor, he was searching for a seat to catch his breath. But before he could sit down, Elizabeth popped out of a room and came down the corridor to retrieve him.
As the two entered the hospital room, Robin was gasping for air, a patina of perspiration on her forehead. “Oh, Grandpa, c’mere!” she said. Hank leaned over the bed and his granddaughter gave him a strong hug. He was breathing heavily himself but would have died before making her let go.
“Here, Robin, let your grandfather sit down for a minute,” said Elizabeth, who mercifully extracted him from Robin’s grasp and led him to a chair in the corner of the room.
Hank caught his breath. “Is Kevin going to make it in time?”
“No, I’m afraid not,” replied his daughter. “But Richard is going to go in with me.”
“Yes, I spoke with him on his cell a few minutes ago. He’s on his way up.”
Hank was unsure how he felt about that. He sure as hell didn’t want to go into the delivery room, but he couldn’t help feeling a little miffed. “Can’t you do it on your own?”
“I suppose, but he’s going to be there more for me than for Robin.”
Richard stuck his head through the partially open the door. “Everybody doing okay in here?” he asked as he entered. He strode over to Robin, “How are ya’ honey?”
Before she could respond, she once again began gasping for air. “Oh God, this has got to be it!” she said.
A nurse entered the room, “Hello, dear, we’re here to take you down to the delivery room. Are you ready to go?”
“Absolutely! Let’s go!”
Another nurse arrived and the two of them transferred Robin to a gurney. Hank, Elizabeth and Richard watched as they trundled down the hallway with Hank’s granddaughter and, soon to be born, great-grandson.
Ten minutes later, the trio was standing outside the delivery room waiting for someone to shepherd Elizabeth and Richard inside. Richard reached over, took Hank’s elbow, and looked to Elizabeth. “Liz, can you excuse us for a minute? I need to talk with Hank.”
“Um, sure, but don’t go far. They’ll be out to get us in a minute.”
Richard escorted Hank to a small, empty waiting room a couple of doors down, put his hands in his pockets and turned to speak to his father-in-law. “Hank, you need to be in there.”
Hank was confused, “In where?”
“In the delivery room.”
Hank raised his eyebrows. “They don’t need me in there. And you’ll be there with Elizabeth.”
“Hank, I thought you should know that Robin really wanted you to go in. But they won’t allow more than two people—and Elizabeth was afraid you would get too tired.”
“But, what would I do?”
“Just be there. Elizabeth needs your support, and Robin wants you to be one of the first to see the brand new ‘Henry’.”
“Sure. Didn’t you know? Robin and Kevin are naming their first son after you.”
Hank was stunned. The women had been jawing about names for six months. He didn’t know. “But, what about you? Don’t you want to see the delivery?”
“Hank, I hope you know that I would do anything for Robin. But she’s your granddaughter—your blood. You’re the one she needs by her side right now, not me. What d’ya say?”
Hank was shaken—and moved by Richard’s thoughtfulness. And he suddenly realized how hurt he was when he thought he had been overlooked. “Yes. I would like that. But what about the girls? Do they know?”
“They will in a few minutes—deal?” he said and offered his hand to Hank.
Hank could feel his eyes welling but forced back the tears. “Thank you, Richard”, he said as he took his hand.
It was finally over. Two-and-a-half brutal hours. Robin was exhausted. Hank was bone-weary and felt a hundred years old. He’d had to sit down fairly early in the game but managed to be on his feet when he needed to be. And then there was a cry. Oohs and ahs. And after a bit, a nurse took the tiny, brand new, and swaddled “Henry” from his mother’s bosom and placed him in Hank’s arms.
Hank couldn’t remember the last time he had held a newborn baby—probably Robin. He seemed so warm. He had the musky scent of birth and deep, sea-blue eyes. And in those eyes Hank could see himself, and he could see Ella. And he didn’t want to give him back.
Hank couldn’t remember being so tired. His back was killing him and it was hours past his normal bedtime. He looked out his bedroom window. There were no strollers now—probably too late, with most everyone home already. He put his hand on the cord for the blinds. And then he thought twice. Better leave them open. He didn’t want to oversleep. They were bringing little Hank home tomorrow.