An Afternoon Visit
Nels paused briefly, huffing a breath into the biting wind and massaging his cramped leg. Snow collected on his sparse gray hair, tickling as it melted down his cheeks and dripped off his nose. Chilled wet fingers searched the neck of his wholly inadequate coat and dampened his shoulders. Not the light, fluffy, picturesque snow in which kids played. No, this was mixed with small, icy pellets propelled by a driving wind. Wind that shoved him off balance as he started off again.
Crystals stung his face and unprotected hands that, stiff with arthritic pain, were fastened to two plastic grocery bags. He reconsidered his decision to venture out into this kind of weather, but it was way too late for second-guessing. Ankles aching and feet burning from the wet cold that seeped through tattered leather boots, he determinedly plodded ahead on weary legs and aching knees.
It was customary for Nels to remain indoors for weeks at a time through the heart of winter, other than infrequent trips to the store for necessities, that is. Today was an exception, when his cravings overrode common sense and he succumbed to his indulgences: three new puzzle books and box of crackers for the chili now cooking on the stove.
Oh, yeah, a package of store-baked cinnamon rolls.
Groceries had been his excuse but not his motive for venturing into the near-blizzard conditions. Something in the back of his mind had nagged at him all morning. Something significant, something hovering just out of reach no matter how hard he grasped for it. So, rather than continuing to sit at home worrying over the something he couldn’t recall, Nels decided to take a walk and hope the exercise would loosen his mind.
Plodding through drifts, laboriously now, he nestled his chin inside the wet collar of a tattered 35-year-old coat, a Christmas present from Katy that he continued making excuses for not disposing. Sure, he had newer and warmer coats hanging in the closet, but preferred memories to warmth. Getting rid of it, even worn out as it was, seemed disrespectful.
And as he had forsaken warmth for memories, so had it been with the chili awaiting him at home. On days like today, the can of beans and meat evoked childhood memories. Memories of being greeted by a pressure cooker with petcock dancing and rattling on a geyser of steam, hissing a spray of spicy aromas throughout the house and coating the windows with moisture. Memories of mom ladling the chili, served with a side of homemade butter-soaked cinnamon rolls.
Well, it had never really been that way, Nels silently acknowledged, but that’s the way he wanted to remember it. That’s the memory he wanted to recreate with store-baked cinnamon rolls and canned chili.
Katy would have been irked had she been here. Hell, she wouldn’t have let him out of the apartment to begin with. Not only because it was foolish to venture out into the storm, but spending money on cinnamon rolls and puzzle books was completely unnecessary, considering their subsistence on a wholly inadequate income.
Crackers - now that could be considered a necessity.
However, Katy wasn’t here and would never know since he paid in cash and threw away the receipt. Nor would she know that he had given what little change he had to a beggar woman loitering around the grocery store entrance. Nels reasoned that only authentic beggars panhandled in this kind of weather, while scammers migrated to warmer climates.
No, Katy would know nothing of this day. Hell, Nels smiled wryly, given a week and he wouldn’t remember today, either.
But with a new grandbaby about to make his appearance into the world, Nels had taken out a credit card he couldn’t be repay and bought Katy a round-trip ticket to Texas. At this stage in life, being practical was no longer practical. Considering all the money he had thrown away on life insurance, he might as well get a return on his investment. Let the life insurance pay off his debts when the day came.
Pausing to catch his breath in the shadowed lee of the apartment complex, cold quickly tightened its grip. Even though the sun could the neither be seen nor felt, the shade nonetheless made it colder. Looking up to the seventh floor where his corner apartment set dark, Nels dreaded a long climb that would be tougher than the four blocks of snow drifts through which he had just trail-blazed. His knees throbbed at the thought and he cursed the building managers for not fixing the elevator. For nearly two weeks, the “out of service” sign set taped to the doors with no estimated time of repair. Then he cursed them for the piss-poor insulation and he cursed them for the damned baseboard heaters that were as ineffective as they were hard to regulate. He cursed the snow and the cold and the age and the loneliness. And he cursed himself for allowing Katy to leave.
It felt as though she had been gone for years not days. The bed was cold at night, and the apartment lonely during the day with an emptiness that television and radio merely punctuated. He had stacks of books to pass the time, hundreds of them. During the summer he made weekly visits to the thrift store and returned with sacks of novels costing a dime or quarter each. Then, during the long winter months when it was too cold or dangerous to go out, he and Katy hibernated, reading.
Nels massaged his gloveless hands, careful not to drop the sack of puzzle books and crackers. And cinnamon rolls, can’t forget that.
Gnarled hands that once been strong and wrinkle-free, tirelessly carrying everything from lumber and toolboxes to fly rods and shotguns, now cold, stiff and weak. In his youth, he could run up a ladder with two bundles of asphalt shingles balanced on his shoulder. Now he doubted that he could even climb a ladder. Fingers that had been nimble enough to pluck songs from the guitar for hours at a time were now inflexible twigs with bulging joints made red and painful from a couple of light grocery bags.
He had once a good paying job and naively believed it would last until retirement. Laid off six years shy of that retirement, Nels contracted a staph infection that depleted their savings and investments. He and Katy eventually sold their house to escape the mortgage, relinquishing forty-six years of memories to strangers. Thereupon forced into an unassuming, run-down apartment complex.
Nels had spent his retirement working for the Department of Agriculture as a bean inspector, but last summer had been his last summer and he knew it. Wearing hip waders and logging more 20 miles a day, teams walked row after row of bean fields searching for blight. Damnable disease that, if found on even a few plants, usually meant the entire field had to be plowed under. Walking was no longer joyful, whether it was summer bean fields or winter sidewalks.
Sure, the kids offered to let Katy and him move in with them, but having grown up in a multi-generational family, Nels vowed never to put their kids in a similar situation and politely, but firmly, rejected offers. And that’s where Katy was. Mothering a daughter-in-law in the Texas sun and the Texas warmth. It had been his Christmas present to her, giving her a break from a life as dreary as the winter she was escaping.
With his mind on past regrets, Nels was surprised to see the oiled bronze numerals 703 before his eyes. Balancing on trembling legs, hands shaking from cold that wouldn’t release, it took two attempts to unlock the door. Aromatic chili, the best comfort food on a day like today, greeted him.
An old, dark, dated apartment, it was nonetheless affordable. Affordable, that is, when he skimped on necessities like the two prescriptions he hadn’t refilled in over a month. Stained yellow carpeting, faded purple drapes, cracked linoleum, and three ceiling lights that served as cemeteries for flies, moths and mosquitoes. But it was home and it was the best he could do.
Winter’s puss oozed from his clothes, leaving one watery trail to a kitchen counter of chipped veneer where he deposited the groceries, and another to the bedroom where he donned a fresh set of clothes after toweling himself dry. As much as he wanted a hot shower, he would wait until bedtime, that way it would keep him warm long enough to fall asleep.
Returning to the kitchen, Nels noticed the cat bowl was still filled with kibble but the water bowl was dry and lined with white deposit. Mistoffelees still hadn’t eaten, but thankfully she preferred dry food to the canned stuff that stunk up the place. He and Katy had renamed her a few years ago because, like the "Cats" character, Mistoffelees was a magician with a terrific disappearing act.
The chili had cooked dry and the sauce crusted over meat and beans. Not nearly as good a cook as Katy, he could nonetheless survive on his own. Scraping the lumpy brown paste into a bowl and wishing for sour cream to soften it, Nels dropped a stack of crackers on top. His hands hurt too much to crumble them.
Carrying the bowl in shaky hands, Nels took his lunch to the pair of recliners that set before an electric faux fireplace. Heavy Afghans that Katy crocheted years ago lay draped over the backs of the chairs, to be used when the chill became too much. Dropping heavily into one of the two recliners and nearly tipping his bowl onto the floor - he would have if it hadn’t been cooked to a concentrate - Nels recovered, cursed his infirmity, and set it on the end table next to a “Gunsmith” Western.
For long moments, he sat gazing at the swirling snow with a sense of accomplishment. Yeah, walking to the store was stupid and it didn’t do anything to loosen his seized mind, but he had cinnamon rolls, puzzle books, and that sense of accomplishment.
Spooning one bite after another, pausing between thoughts, Nels prepared himself another solitary afternoon. Maybe tonight he’d call Katy if she wasn’t too busy with the babies.
Focusing on the wind-whipped snow, Nels became aware of Celina only by her reflection. Seated on the love couch, she sat watching him from behind with those compassionate yet penetrating eyes. A stunning young woman whom he couldn’t adequately describe other than her long, blackest-of-black hair that seemed to be in constant motion, riffling from imperceptible breezes. No longer startled by her unannounced visits, he welcomed the peace that she brought.
Celina’s visits had increased in occurrence but not duration, and she always wore that unfashionable white kimono entirely inadequate for winter. Her tanned complexion gave him the impression that she was a California or Arizona transplant, and he didn’t want to insult her style by telling her that those clothes didn’t cut it up north. She sat in a comfortable sprawl watching him. Sometimes he found her sitting in the recliner next to him, sometimes she just stood.
Perhaps she had been loading laundry when he arrived. Had she watched him towel off his butt-naked, wrinkled, bony body?
Okay, so there was a time when he was damn good looking and would have been proud to show himself off to any woman. Hell, he had worked most summers without a shirt, taking pride in the attention that it garnered from passing women. Now, he lived within a shriveled embarrassment best hid by bulky clothes.
“Hello,” Nels pleasantly spoke to the reflection in the window. “Would you like some chili?”
“No thank you,” Celina said and smiled. “But it smells delicious.”
“You’re just being kind. I didn’t think you people were supposed to lie.”
“As I said, it does smell delicious. How it tastes, well...” she shrugged and smiled.
“Mistoffelees hasn’t eaten today, have you seen her?”
“She is no longer here.”
“Hm.” Nels took another bite and wished for a bottle of Dos Equis, but it wasn’t worth another trip to the store. Besides, he no longer had money for a bottle, much less a six-pack. “I didn’t see her go out. Maybe I’ll crack the door open for when she decides to come back in. She likes to wander up and down the hallway, you know.”
“You sound weary.”
Spoon trembling in his hand, he mouthed another bite. “You didn’t catch me on a good day. Do they train you to be this formal? No, forget it. I’ve asked before so don’t bother answering.”
He waited for a response that didn’t come. “I shouldn’t have gone to the store but there’s something I need to remember. I thought the walk would help.” He looked at her a moment before adding, “I miss Katy.”
“You will see her in twelve days.”
“Is that what her itinerary says? I can’t find it. Must have lost it somewhere.”
“She is not coming here, you are going to her.”
“Hm. So, who’s going to look after Mistoffelees? I don’t want the hassle of taking her on a plane even if I could afford it. I’m sure as hell not shipping her in cargo. Do you know how many animals those airlines lose or kill?”
Celina waited for him to continue.
“But I guess if it gets me out of this damned weather, I can’t complain too much. I used to work in these conditions all the time and without complaining one iota. It was just what you did, no questions asked. Now people work from home and bitch about flex time. Put them back in my day and see how they do.”
Celina remained quietly listening.
“Weather never used to bother me. Got frostbit too many times and in too many places to count, but I guess my tolerance went with my body.”
Celina smiled. He liked her company, just wished she was more conversational.
“Sometimes I hear Katy in the other room, but of course she isn’t here so it must be Mistoffelees even if I can’t find her,” Nels said.
“There comes a time when you see more with your mind than with your eyes.”
“Obviously, since my eyes are shot to hell. Reading as much as I do probably makes them worse.”
Celina shrugged as if eyesight was inconsequential.
“Are you here to clean or visit?” Nels said.
“Then stay longer this time.”
“I cannot. But then you know that.”
“Not good enough.” Rotating his chair to face her, Nels struggled to hold the bowl in shaking hands.
“I know being alone is hard,” she said as if reading his mind.
“Shit. Loneliness ain’t the half of it. When you get to be my age, you see that time’s running out. You don’t have much to look forward to, so you spend all your time looking back. You take account of your life, and what do I have to account for? Look around. Some old worn-out furniture, a few pots and pans, chipped dishes, old clothes. Just look around, will you? This is all I have to show for my life.”
“The past has nothing to offer you. Life is not about what you have, it’s about what you do. Even more than what you do, it’s about who you have become.”
“And what’s that? A crippled old man who takes government handouts and gives nothing in return. Hell, Celina, I wanted to make a difference with my life.”
“Do you think this is the sum total of your life? A run-down man in a run-down apartment?”
Nels couldn’t hold the intensity of her deep, piercing eyes and looked away.
She continued. “Your life has been a fine example. How you conducted yourself, how you inspired others through nothing more than a good outlook and good heart. You weren’t torn down by the challenges of life, you stood up to them with grace and dignity. Those are the things that have made the difference. If anything has made your life worthwhile it is that, not possessions.”
“Wonderful philosophy,” Nels said sarcastically and scraped congealed chili from the bowl. “My epitaph can read, ‘he was a fine example’. Apparently, what’s important to you and what’s important to me are two different things.”
“I had dreams and goals for my life. Dreams and goals that never panned out. If I failed myself, how is it that I didn’t fail everyone else?”
“What would your life been like had you achieved those dreams and met those goals? You have had every opportunity to give up what you had, in order to search for you didn’t have. Would you have given up Katy? Given up a fine family of children and grandchildren? Thrown away your legacy for superfluous desires?”
“You know the answer better than I do. Hell, I can’t even remember most of my life. I don’t know where all those years went, they just came and went so fast. All I know is that I’m tired and aching and I’m worn out.”
“Think seriously on what I have said. You do not view your own life as others see it.”
“So who’s version of my life is the right one?”
“See it from my perspective.”
Nels sighed, scraped his bowl clean. Was she right? He had always trusted her opinion.
“Ten more days, huh?” He said and searched for reassurance. “Will you come to dinner then? Katy is still a helluva cook and it won’t be burnt chili from a can.”
Celina smiled. “Ten days it is. Do you feel better now?”
“You always make me feel better. I don’t know why you bother. It’s like a spiritual massage,” he smiled for the first time that day. “Yeah, that’s what you are, a spiritual massage."
The doorbell chimed, breaking the mood with an electronic singsong.
“Wait here,” Nels told Celina and stiffly rose to his feet. “I won’t be long.”
He opened the door to a young, well-dressed man who stood patiently waiting.
“What can I do for you?” Nels said. “No offense but if you’re a missionary, I’m not in the mood.”
“It’s me, Jared.”
“Well, Jared, whatever you’re selling, I’m not buying.”
“Tony, your youngest son? I’m his oldest boy?” He prompted.
“What the hell you talking about? None of my grandkids have even started school. In fact, Katy’s helping deliver another one now.”
“That was twenty-two years ago.”
Nels briefly saw the man’s resemblance to a buried memory, then the memory was gone.
“Remember? We’re moving you to a new apartment,” the man said, his eyes soft with compassionate pain. “I’ll help you get your things ready. Dad’s been reminding you for almost a month that you’ll be moving to a new place, a place where you won’t have to be alone all the time. No more stairs or broken elevators, no more cold-as-hell apartment that you can’t afford to heat. Do you remember now?”
Nels stared at the man. He remembered agreeing to something, something he didn’t want to do, but had no other option.
“Dad’s signing the papers as we speak.”
Nels shook his head slowly. “I don’t know why I would agree to moving without talking to Katy first, and I know we haven’t discussed it. I’d never do something like this without first talking it over with her.”
The young man sighed heavily with resignation.
Nels continued, as new revelation came to him, “are we moving to Texas, to be with the grand-babies? Celina told me I’m going to see Katy next week so she must have already moved, but I thought she was just visiting.”
“She visits me several times a week, but never helps with anything around the apartment. She’s in the living room now.”
Puzzled, the man stepped past Nels and into the compact living room.
“There’s no one here.”
“Must have left. She does that a lot.”
“Well, there’s nobody here now. Have you started packing?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Never mind,” Jared said patiently. “I’ll just get your clothes and bedding for now. Dad and I’ll come back tomorrow and finish packing.”
“Make sure you don’t forget my books. And cinnamon rolls. Do you remember your great-grandmother’s cinnamon rolls?”
“No, grandpa. I was five when she passed away.”
“Shame. And don’t forget Katy’s things, either. You know she’ll be wanting her stuff.”
“Sure, grandpa. Anything you say. You just let us take care of everything.”
“It’s a helluva day to be moving.”
“Yes, grandpa. It is at that.”