Fiction Friday: Chapter 5
Walt is still lying in the futuristic-looking bed, tubes growing from his face and wrist. His eyes remain closed, no gentle flicker to indicate the peaceful sleep of dreamers. Leda stares at him with hard resolve, hoping the sense of being watched will rouse him. Ten minutes pass, then twenty. Leda’s eyes begin to water and strain, and Walt shows no sign of recognition.
She resorts to playing with his hand, tracing the veins lightly, pressing the fingernails. She caresses the hair of his forearm, long and tinged with blonde. Walt’s hair has grown darker over time, the dark blonde that is the fate of most who do not resort to a bottle, but a few golden strands remain, a reminder of his youth. Leda gently tugs at the hair, deciding that her gentle touches aren’t enough. She looks at his face, expecting his blue eyes and easy smile to greet her.
She remembers her husband as a perpetual joker. He loved to pull pranks, a gleam of mischief sparkling in his eyes. On one memorable occasion, when their two oldest daughters were small, Walt had insisted that they wear boxing gloves and “duke” it out. Janet and Diane had been fighting, as children do, their faces tear-stained and blotchy when Walt and Leda had come to investigate. Leda had wanted to run to the girls, hold them close, and solve the problem with kisses and hugs. However, the fight had exploded anew, each daughter wanting to be right and heard now that they’d obtained an audience.
Walt ran from the room, eager as a child, making Leda exasperated, thinking that she’d now have to fix the problem on her own. As she tried to make out what had happened over the shouting and crying, Walt returned, two shiny red pairs of boxing gloves he’d obviously purchased then stashed away for this moment. Leda remembers he has always been that way, seeing an opportunity for a joke, then preparing and waiting patiently for the right moment. This moment had been right for his boxing gloves. The girls seemed shocked at first, looking to their mother for approval. Leda shook her head, trying to look blank, not wanting the girls (or Walt) to see the amusement in her eyes.
Janet moved toward her father first, holding up her tiny hands for a chance to box. Walt put hers on, his smile large and bright, his eyes twinkling as he explained the rules. Diane had her turn, while Janet waiting eagerly for a chance to slug her sister. Diane stuck her tongue out, trying to prove that she wasn’t scared.
Walt finally finished tying the strings, then made the girls move into the family room, where there would be plenty of room for dancing around each other and swinging. The girls hopped like professionals, knowing the drill from their father’s avid addiction to boxing on television. The hits were light and soft, as the girls could barely swing with the weight of the gloves. Soon, it became a fun event, Walt giving tips and playing referee. Janet and Diane forgot their previous argument and laughed with each other, something that amazed Leda. She thought the “fight” would end in more tears, an early bedtime, and stress the next morning. Instead they are a family gathered in a tiny circle, watching their daughters learn about one of the roughest sports (in Leda’s opinion) and Walt crouched down like a coach, giving encouragement and laughter.
Leda feels warmth in that hospital room, thinking of this memory, one of the precious now that Walt cannot remember it with her. Her mouth slightly twitches upward, the curve of her lips so imperceptible a passerby would not recognize it as a smile.
The glaze of remembering lifts from her eyes and she sees Walt now, a shriveled shell of that man, laying lifeless in the bed. She grasps at something else to hold the feelings she almost felt, to forget for just another moment that Walt isn’t himself anymore.
Then it comes to her. New Year’s Eve 1993. Walt had insisted on having all fifteen of their grandchildren over to watch movies, eat candy and junk food, and scream in the New Year. Walt wanted to celebrate and knew that his grandchildren would make the best partygoers. All of their couple friends had since stopped giving dinner parties around this time of year, saying family came first and that they were all becoming too old to stay up so late. Who wanted to see Dick Clark and that stupid ball drop in Times Square one more time? It was always the same, they said. No point in celebrating something that just keeps on happening. Walt disagreed, deciding instead to party with the kids, knowing Leda had also become a party-pooper, claiming that she had become too old and tired to stay up late.
So, the grandchildren came, dressed in pajamas and piling their sleeping bags in the family room around the big screen TV. Walt told the children to pick out some movies from the cabinet, then he broke out the ice cream, enlisting Leda to help him scoop and serve. The children ate seconds and thirds, especially the skinnier granddaughters at Walt’s behest. He also passed around a box of See’s Candies, a favorite of his and a special treat. Then, Leda found herself making popcorn, bags upon bags, to keep the boys’ munchies satisfied. On and on the party went. Movie after movie played. When one granddaughter fell asleep, Walt enlisted all fourteen other kids to jump on and tickle her until she had screamed and laughed so much that she promised she was wide awake, whether she liked it or not. The television had put her to sleep, she claimed. Walt told her that if this party wasn’t exciting enough for her, she should go upstairs with Grandma and be an old fogey. Unfortunately, Leda heard this as she had come down to see what all of the ruckus had been, so this started all of the children laughing and Walt began tickling Leda, trying to force that sour look of catching her husband bad mouthing her from her face. The grandchildren still remember this as one of the most fun parties they’d ever attended.
Right before midnight struck, Walt armed the kids with pots and pans, flashlights, bells, and whistles. He then crowned himself with a fireman’s hat equipped with flashing lights and an obnoxious alarm. When the clock struck twelve, the group rushed out into the night air, hollering that the new year had come and probably annoying all of the neighbors in the cul-de-sac. Walt didn’t care what his “snooty” neighbors thought, he ran right outside with his grandchildren, the fireman’s hat whooping and shrieking and the lights blinding the children that looked. After a good twenty minutes of noise-making, the group went back inside, only to find the sleepy granddaughter sleeping again. This time, Walt didn’t wake her up, but put on another movie, allowing all of the children to finally settle down for the night. He slept there with them, in his plush leather Laz-E-Boy, a plaid wool blanket tucked around his feet.
Leda allows herself to completely smile at this event, playing itself again in her mind. The smell of popcorn seems to fill her nostrils and she feels a fondness for Walt that she hasn’t in a while. She blinks at her husband, then starts to tell him of that time, when they threw a New Year’s party for the kids. She gets halfway into it, then notices that he isn’t listening. That he’s still not there, his eyes closed and shut for good it seems.
She expects Walt to remember with her, to be the man that he has always been. She pinches the skin on the back of his hand, at first hesitantly, hoping it will wake him. When he doesn’t even flinch, she pinches harder, the skin staying in a small tent for a while before returning to his hand. Soon, she’s pulling his arm hair, pinching his fingers, grabbing his biceps, begging him to wake up, to be himself. She whispers in his ear at first, stroking his face and head. Then she’s screaming, throwing her body over his and yelling for him to listen to her, to just open his eyes. She tries to pry his eyes open with her fingers, but can’t because the nurses are there, pulling her off of him and trying to calm her. Leda continues to shake her husbands shoulders and scream. The nurses pull her away gently, but firmly, not wanting her to pull out any tubes but knowing that they must be kind, that Leda is suffering as much as Walt is. In a way, she is their patient; she is the one who can speak to them, whom they wait on more than him.
Leda is crying now, explaining that she wasn’t trying to hurt him, that she loves him, that he’s her husband. She just wants him to wake up, she says, her shoulders heaving. The nurses lead her to a chair, where she sinks and bows her head, the tears once again staining her cheeks. There is no mascara or blush to worry about now. She hadn’t bothered putting any on for days now. She feels that she is slowly giving up. Soon, she’ll be wearing jeans to the hospital, or even sweat pants (the thought makes her shiver with disgust). She relaxes her neck with each sob, her head hanging further into her chest. Somebody is rubbing her back, which oddly helps Leda to breathe instead of hyperventilate, as she is prone to do. She can hear somebody else on the telephone, asking whoever it is on the other line (Diane, probably) to come down as soon as possible. Leda just sobs, allowing the nurses to baby her for the moment. After she begins to breath regularly, a sign that her hysteria is over, another set of hands gives her toilet-scented water in a ribbed plastic cup and a small blue pill. She takes it, despite her aversion to the smell, and closes her eyes, noticing Diane’s presence just before sinking into a groggy sleep.