They came while he was away in the hospital tossing in a cramped room, sweating for each breath. Pneumonia, the doctor told him and he blanched at how deep into old age he’d come. All that was left to do was break a hip, feel his mind smooth into dementia, then he’d be gone. Carol brought him home on her lunch break; his arms were bruised from needles, his nose raw from tubes, his back ached from lying in bed. They were already there, watching some history program on his TV, looking up innocently as the door opened and Carol maneuvered him in.
“Hey, there he is. How you feeling Joe?” This from Derrick, who had Carol’s wide set eyes and curly black hair. He’d started calling him Joe when he graduated from high school. Too old for “grandpa” anymore, Carol said.
“I’m a hell of a lot older than him and I’m not too old for it,” he’d said, but Carol just smiled and patted his hand like he was a cranky infant.
Derrick’s greasy -haired girlfriend waved from the couch but he didn’t have the energy to look at her. Jessica, or some such thing. Carol led him to the bedroom, got him settled in his recliner, fetched him a glass of water and a blanket.
“Derrick and Jess will be here. They’ve got my old room, across the hall. Jess used to work in a nursing home, dad, so she knows what she’s doing. You’ll be fine. Remember I’ll be gone for the next two weeks in Arizona, okay?” He waved her away. He’d seen her more this week than he had in the last year. She leaned over and hugged him.
“It worked out so good, didn’t it? You needing someone to stay here and Derrick and Jess needing somewhere to stay? Definitely a God-thing.” She smiled broadly, pleased with herself. Pleased she didn’t have to take time out of her life to nurse him, he knew. He lifted the side of his mouth and she accepted it as a smile.
“Bye dad! Love you!”
It was his femur, not his hip. He’d been looking for the bottle of Glenlivet he’d stashed in the garage. Predictable. High shelf, uneven floor. He’d lain on the concrete for twenty minutes until Derrick heard him over the TV. Now they had him trussed up in his own bedroom, immobile. Jess came in every couple hours to help him shift positions, go to the bathroom. She was stocky and square, with glasses that were always sliding down her nose and blotchy skin. She smelled of sweat, but so did he. Far as he knew, her entire vocabulary consisted of, “That better?” and “All done now, Joe?” with an occasional, “Mmmmm, dinner!” When she left, she always shut the door, even though he asked her to leave it open. The air was stale, and he was sick of looking at his own four walls. In the house he heard doors opening, things shifting, bumps against the wall. Derrick said they were just doing housework, keeping things up for him. Derrick had grown fat in the months since he’d come.
Carol called every Saturday from Arizona. She’d met some guy on a hike at the Grand Canyon, quit her job over the phone and moved into his house. It would last a few months, then she’d be asking him for money again. “Just until I find a job, dad.” He’d be lucky to have any money left. Derrick was always bringing him receipts for groceries, or gas, asking for a few bucks for this or that on top of what he was paying them to be there.
When he finally made it out of the bedroom a few weeks later, he thought he’d walked into a stranger’s house. It was dark, all the blinds down. His couch was gone, the set of armchairs by the window where he liked to read. They’d been replaced by a brown sectional that took up most of the room. His TV was gone too, and the narrow, painted cabinet it was stored in. In its place was a bigger TV, something black and flat, perched on a plastic stand, vomiting wires and gadgets into the room. Derrick was sitting on the couch, playing one of his video games.
“Hey Joe! What do you think? We’ve been fixing things up for you!”
Jess came from the kitchen carrying a Diet Coke and wearing a grin. She went and stood by Derrick, set one of her hands on his shoulder. He felt disoriented. Was he supposed to thank them?
“Where’s my furniture?” he asked. “Where’s the couch?” Jess’ grin dimmed a little.
“We stored it for you, Joe. Mom’s got that unit over off Columbia? We thought…you know…maybe this place could be a little cheerier. Maybe it would help you get well.” Ever since he was a kid, Derrick had the trick of looking innocent. Now he raised his eyebrows, gave a hopeful smile.
“I suppose I paid for all this nonsense?”
“Joe, we asked you, remember?” Derrick said at last. “After you broke your leg. Remember? We thought we should make it easier for you to get around in here.” Jess nodded her head earnestly, and her glasses slipped down her nose. They’d done this before, asking his permission for things when he was on pain medications or half asleep.
His leg was aching. He limped back into his room and slammed the door.
The leg was healing. He could hobble around indoors, sit on the front porch on a sunny day, which was a relief because Derrick insisted the house be shut up and quiet while he was recovering. He was craving sunlight. He still hadn’t made it down into the yard. The uneven ground was too treacherous yet, the doctor said. Every week Derrick came out and made a show of bending over one of the front flower beds, pulling up a few green things, moving dirt around as if he knew what he was doing, but things were starting to look bad. He couldn’t imagine what the back yard looked like. The rose garden should have been pruned by now, the grapes. Janet’s tulips must have come and gone already. The doctor said he shouldn’t fret about stuff he couldn’t control, that his blood pressure was high enough already. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. The doctor ought to live with his family for awhile. Shit-eating grins while they slowly took over his house, like they were doing him a favor. All his old things were gone, stored, they said, always managing to look hurt that he didn’t like their changes. Jess had started a card-making business to “help bring in some money” and now the dining room looked like a paper factory had exploded in it. She was too tired after all her card-making to cook anymore, so it was up to Derrick now. Every night it was some frozen dinner in a plastic tray or a greasy bag from McDonald’s. No wonder his pants were getting tight. Last week, they’d celebrated with Chinese take-out after Jess had sold a card to her hairdresser. A card. He wondered if the Glenlivet was still in the garage or if Derrick had found it yet. On her weekly calls, Carol told him he should be grateful, what if he had been alone? He settled back and happily imagined that for awhile.
The doorbell rang. He was in the kitchen, trying to find something to eat that didn’t come out of a package, but no luck. He could get around a little better now. Derrick and Jess had gone to the movies. They claimed they needed a break. Watching TV and sleeping in was hard work, he guessed. Oh, and there was the card-making, of course. He laughed to himself, hobbled his way to the front door, opened it. A middle-aged man stood on the porch, black hair trimmed neatly around the ears and neck, a flannel shirt.
“Dan Park,” he said, holding out a hand. “Sorry to bother you, but we bought the house behind you last year? We haven’t met yet.”
He balanced in the door, shook the offered hand. “Joe Webster. You bought Tom’s old house? Where’d he go?”
“Alaska, I think. To live with his son or something. I think he was going to fish.”
He nodded. “That’s a good house. I helped Tom put in a furnace a few years back.” He shifted his weight, steadied himself against the doorframe. “I’ve been laid up this last year. Pneumonia. Then I broke my damn leg looking for a bottle of whiskey.”
“That’s terrible. Did you find the whiskey?” Dan laughed. He decided right there he liked this new neighbor.
“Didn’t even get a swig of it. I’m hoping it’ll still be there when I get back on my feet.” He eased himself out the front door, offered Dan a seat on a dusty porch chair.
“I came over because we were wanting to replace that old fence between us,” Dan said. “I wanted to make sure that was okay with you before we started.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket, showed him the new design. It was a cedar fence, six feet, with copper caps on the posts.
“It’ll be an improvement over that chain link. Must be twenty years since I put that in,” he said.
“There’s the maple that will have to be limbed up on your side, since the new fence will be taller. I could do that for you.” Dan folded the paper and slipped it back into his jacket pocket.
It was nice to sit out in the sunshine and talk to someone capable for awhile. It almost made him forget the ache in his leg.
“Let’s go back there and take a look,” he said suddenly, feeling daring. “I might have to use you for support though.”
“Glad to.” Dan stood and offered his arm and they made their slow way around the side of the house. It hadn’t rained for a couple of weeks, the ground was beginning to firm up.
“Haven’t been out here since last year,” he said and stopped.
He saw the old television set first, flung on its side in the grass. Dan had started talking about his new lawnmower, how he could come over and mow the lawn for him, now that he knew he was laid up. He didn’t respond. The couch was up against the fence, sagging and torn. Books were strewn across the yard, spines broken, pages sodden. The armchairs were leaning against the old TV cupboard in the center of the rose garden. Roses were snapped off, one was uprooted. Bags of garbage piled up against the house. The entire back yard was strewn with his belongings.
“Mr. Webster? Are you okay?”
“How long has it been like this?” he asked hoarsely. But he already knew. Since the couch came, since the TV and its plastic altar. Carol probably didn’t even have a storage unit.
“No wonder you want a new fence,” he said. Dan’s cheeks darkened a little and he coughed into his hand.
“Take me back inside,” he said, shaking.
The police officer was kind on the phone, but there was nothing she could do since he’d invited them in, since they’d been there so long. She took down his complaint and he hung up. Derrick and Jess came back, chattering about the movie they’d seen. He faked a headache and went to his room. While the TV droned on in the living room, he made a few more phone calls.
He waited. From his bedroom he could hear the sounds of construction going on behind him, Dan beginning the new fence. He kept quiet about it, waited until they were distracted to peer through the blinds in the dining room, watch the slow progress. They went out more now that he was improving. Afternoons at the movies, dinners out, the occasional trip to the mall. He encouraged it, became loose with his gratitude. For Derrick’s birthday, he gave them a weekend away.
“A well-deserved break,” he said and they beamed. They drove off on a Friday morning. Derrick honked the horn twice as they left. He waved goodbye from the living room window.
The locksmith arrived an hour later. That afternoon three young men drove up in a beat-up van, pulling a utility trailer. He showed them the house and the back yard, told them what to do. He stood inside and watched them, the young men going back and forth, their quick muscles, the easy grace of their effort. When they were finished he gave them each an extra 20 dollars and told them to have a drink on him.
He walked carefully to the backyard, saw the checkerboard of flattened yellow grass, the neglected roses, and he felt a little hollow, but also relieved. Dan’s new fence was partway constructed now. He could see into his backyard, the neat flowerbeds, the patio furniture with its green umbrella. He went back inside the still house and lay on his bed, satisfied.
Sunday morning he woke early. It was a beautiful day, blue sky and picture book clouds. Outside he could already hear people coming and going, a low hum of voices. He made a cup of instant coffee and limped to the window.
The TV was gone, as well as the brown couch. People were milling around, looking through the box of movies and video games. He recognized one of his neighbors hauling away a fake potted plant. She caught his eye and he raised his coffee cup in greeting. He watched a car drive up, an elderly woman examine the “FREE! Yes, all of it!” sign by the mailbox. By noon everything was gone but the bin of paper goods and a couple boxes of clothes. He’d kept those back, along with a box of personal items. No one had ever said he was an unreasonable man.
He called Carol, told her he’d changed the locks, listened to her startled panic until she was done. Derrick and Jess returned just before dark, knocked on the door and rang the bell until his head hurt. He’d left a note with their things on the porch. Dan thought he’d be better off not talking to them today. Give them time to cool down, he said. That was fine with him. When they’d finally slunk off for the night he called Dan, invited him over.
The emptiness of the house cheered him. Beside his bedroom, the only furniture left was the dining room table, which they hadn’t bothered to replace. When Dan arrived he offered him a seat, took out two glasses.
“Found that bottle of Glenlivet,” he said. He’d left the lights off and pulled the blinds open. When Dan held up his glass to drink, the light from the streetlamp filtered softly through it, turned the liquid inside from amber to gold. He was exhausted, and his leg was aching, but he hadn’t felt this good in a very long time.
There’s a nice little house down the road, yellow with white trim, a neatly fenced yard that used to contain an old black lab. Something happened one night. When we drove by in the morning, the contents of the house had appeared on the lawn. Bookcases, chairs, boxes, Rubbermaid containers, a lamp, a dresser. We drove past for a week wondering what the people inside were dealing with: a plumbing leak? A hole in the roof? Another week went by and it began to rain. The contents of the yard took on a sodden and abandoned look. Someone put out a couple of limp tarps, but it was all haphazard: the plastic tubs under the tarp, the rocking chair left unprotected.
That was three years ago. One summer, someone carved a circle in the center of the detritus and set up some plastic Adirondack chairs, a little retreat, as it were, in the center of the chaos. I’ve never seen an actual person in the chairs. I’ve never seen an actual person outside at all. But if you drive by in the evening, you can see inside the house. There’s a big tv, the occasional silhouette of a head on a couch, the lights glimmering friendly, as if the rotting world on the lawn doesn’t exist at all.
That was the inspiration for this story, a possible answer to the question: why?!