Fiction Friday: Chapter 15
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Leda is proud of her fifteen-year-old grandson Michael. He is the only one who is not squeamish and who does not flinch when helping his grandfather. The others visit with Walt, of course, but when it is time to help wipe drool or give medication, the boys find excuses to leave the room. Michael shows a tender side Leda never knew he had. He is Diane’s fifth child and fifth boy. He has been rowdy and active like the others, always interested in basketball and the latest stars. Leda tries to think of their names. Scotty Pippin? Michael Johnson, er no, Jordan. She gives up. Maybe it is Magic something. Who knows?
She does find herself knowing more about her grandchildren, and she likes what she sees in Michael. Now Leda knows that Michael has a sensitive side, one that will serve him well in future husband and father responsibilities. He is not one to shirk duty. This usually comes in the form of Walt needing help using the toilet. There was a time after tragedy struck that he used a diaper. But now, it’s the toilet. Walt shuffles there slowly, always gripping tightly the arm of the person taking him. He must be undressed, lowered carefully to the porcelain seat, wiped well to avoid infection, and redressed. Leda does this often, and now finds relief in knowing that Michael will perform this chore as well.
The other boys refuse. They cannot handle the bodily functions of another. They cannot yet give up their comfort for sacrifice on another’s behalf. Leda knows it is because these boys are young and because helping a grown man go to the bathroom is an unpleasant task. But part of her quails at this; she feels in the back of her mind that it is because they do not love their grandfather. Love conquers all, right? Leda thinks that maybe they do not love Walt because of past grievances. Walt has always been rough around the edges and this especially showed in his teasing, when he was well enough to do so.
Her granddaughters would often end up crying after a few minutes with Grandpa. His favorite game was to sit in his square, leather recliner innocently. Then, when a child would pass, he’d quickly lift his legs and ensnare the grandchild between them. After a few giggles and struggles, Walt would not let go. He held on until the child cried wildly, thrashing and hitting the once seemingly lovable old man who occasionally offered See’s Candies or ice cream. The way in which Walt teased, mercilessly, caused most of the commotion. Leda’s granddaughters learned long ago not to trust their grandfather. He tickled the same way, and often found ways to “steal their noses.” These games earned him a reputation among the next generation, and sometimes engendered bitter or fearful feelings.
Could this be why nobody would help Walt with the most disgusting tasks? Because they had ceased to care for him long before through those torturous games? Because they had not forgiven his stubborn will to pull off a joke, even if the only person laughing was himself? Leda could not say for certain, but this nags at her. She feels it has some significance for this moment of her life, but she cannot say why.
“At least Michael, that dear, sweet boy, loves his grandfather enough to care for him,” she thinks.
She continues to putter around her home, picking up magazines, folding laundry, putting away dishes. As she does this, she suddenly feels as if something is not right. The television is still blaring in the family room, where Walt spends his days and nights now. He is not strong enough to climb the stairs each night for bed, and the ritual of sharing a bed with him is something she misses. She brushes the feeling of terror aside. Of course things are right. Walt is probably asleep.
But, she cannot stop herself from rushing into the family room to check on him. She knows it is silly as she shuffles her aging legs as fast as they can go. She tries to calm the bird-like flutter in her chest. She knows there is no need for panic until something is actually wrong, yet she can feel that something is wrong.
She enters the room to see Walt peacefully sleeping in his hospital cot, specially delivered from the medical supply store. She approaches him, thinking she will just push his hair off of his wrinkled forehead. As she touches him, she sees that his face is contorted, more than it was before, and that his lips are a strange blue color. She realizes that he has had another stroke, and without pausing, she reaches for the phone for help.
The paramedics take what seems to be an eternity to arrive, but they are loading his withering body into the ambulance as Diane pulls up. She is as panicked as her mother, thinking that her father has just died, that there will be arrangements to be made and people to call. However, none of this is true. Walt is unconscious after having had another severe stroke. His vital signs are not strong, but he is still alive, still fighting to exist. Leda rides with Diane to the hospital, a now familiar place. She tries to remember Walt as he was when their life together began.
Walter Simmons drives a light blue Mustang convertible, a car Soledad wishes she could sit in, if only for a moment. The car is perfectly maintained and a thing of beauty, but Leda does not know much about cars. She knows that the boys who drive them are sometimes cocky, including Walt, but something about him catches her fancy more than the others. Walt reminds her of James Dean, but each time she comes home with Sylvia Simmons to do homework or to just hang out, her brother Walt is away or on his way out somewhere.
Leda eventually gives up on Walt and dates Ernest Simmons instead. He is almost as handsome and takes good care of her. They attend shows and dances, double-dating with Sylvia and whomever she fancies at the moment. But time with Ernest is running out. He has joined the service and will be leaving for North Carolina. They attend a dance together, another double-date with Sylvia, but Ernest has no car, so he ropes Walt into driving them. Leda enjoys the ride, with the soft leather enveloping her small body and tunes blasting from the chrome-bordered radio. She sits in back with Ernest, but notices that Walt looks at her in the rear-view mirror. She has never driven, but wonders why the mirror is cocked at the strange angle. As they drive home, Walt tells Ernest, “If she wasn’t your girlfriend, I would have liked to dance with her.” He then looks at her again in the mirror, and this time Leda finds herself blushing. As she exits the car, she looks up and finds Walt still staring. He winks at her and a strange feeling flips from her head to her toes. She has never felt like that for Ernest, and suddenly guilt washes over her.
Ernest leaves to be stationed in North Carolina. Leda finds herself lonely, but strangely she does not miss him. She realizes that she never really loved Ernest, but that his friendship is still valuable to her. She writes to Ernest frequently, hoping to lift his spirits. Apparently, military life is not as easy as Ernest thought it would be.
Sylvia invites Leda to the drive-in. So, Leda shows up at Sylvia’s, and there finds Donny and Barbara. They chat for a while, then get ready to go. Walt appears and Leda finds herself surprised and flustered. Sylvia had not said anything about Walt going. Sylvia notices her friend’s discomfort and explains that Walt is driving. They all walk out to the car. Donny and Barbara hop into the back. Leda starts to follow, but Sylvia tells her not to sit there. “You sit up front,” Sylvia says.
“Yeah, you can sit up front with me,” Walt echoes, his voice full of gaiety and mischief. Leda tentatively sits in the front. She remembers Sylvia, so she scoots over a little so they can both sit there. Instead, Sylvia shuts the door, then smiles a waves at Leda. It is then Leda realizes she has been duped. Walt knew she would not go out with him because of Ernest, although Leda knows Ernest is not the one for her, so Walt enrolled Sylvia to trick Leda. By the end of the night, Leda feels glad at being tricked. She feels that same shivery feeling all over her body whenever Walt smiles at her or grasps her hand, overly sweaty from all of the nerves and excitement. She agrees to see him again for a date with just the two of them, and that’s where their romance begins.
The two become an item quickly. Boys at school no longer ask Leda on dates because they know she is taken by the older, faster-rolling Walt Simmons. The two lovers attend the show and go out for hamburgers. They also go to the circus in Sacramento and even attend a real, live rodeo, something Leda has never seen before. After months of such fun, Walt asks her to get married. Leda thinks him to be joking because of his playful personality. When she realizes that he is serious, she writes to Ernest, but purposefully forgets to mention that his brother Walt is the man to whom she is engaged. Ernest threatens to beat up her fiancé. His words: “I’m rough. I’m tough. I’m airborne.” This line gave Walt the giggles for weeks, and he still mentions it to poke fun at Leda years later.
“All those years gone by,” Leda thinks. She wrings her hands as Diane arrives at the hospital. She wonders if Walt is still stable, if she will be able to take him home again. She hopes so. She remembers that Ernest never came home. He shot himself after a while, unable to handle the stress of military life, the loss of his girlfriend, the seeming betrayal of his brother. Leda hiccups a sob. She finds she is crying for Ernest as well as Walt. It seems that all of the emotion of her life is now tunneling its way out of the depths of her body and drowning her in the sorrow of it all. She doesn’t see a way to come up for air.