Cantankerous Old Man by Chad Lester

Dad erupted into a coughing fit. He covered his mouth as my car bumped along the gone-to-hell asphalt road. The ride got a little smoother once we reached the town I grew up in. During its heyday I could envision its charming buildings as the backdrop for a Rockwell painting. These days it’s just another dying American town. Except for a few cars parked in front of the dive bar, the main street was devoid of life. Tall grass and dandelions filled the spaces between the empty downtown lots. The buildings that still stood were either dilapidated or had antique shops inside. I gazed upon the empty sidewalks and wondered how the hell they kept the doors open.

“Center Street would have been faster,” said my old man.

“Figured I’d take the scenic route,” I said.

“Nothing scenic here.”

We passed a row of vacant storefronts in sturdy, old brick buildings built to last the ages. The paint of an old-school J. C. PENNEY sign clung to a crumbling brick facade, and I made out the outline of some long-since-removed letters that spelled “WOOLWORTH” on the dilapidated building next to it. I smelled cooking oil and knew we were close to the only burger joint left in town. The last time we ate here didn’t seem so long ago—the place had changed. Given how few customers there were, I figured they would have been happier to see us.

I held my old man’s arm as he hobbled inside. I guess I’d never noticed it before, but his left arm had a permanent tremor. It once was the thick muscled arm that hammered nails and heaved lumber twelve hours a day, five days a week, for decades. Now it was skinny and frail. We sat down at our usual booth. The table had crumbs all over it, and the cherry-red vinyl seats were peeling. I felt the worn-out seat springs press against my ass after I sat. The unsmiling waitress threw down some greasy menus.

“What’ll it be?” I asked.

“It all looks like shit,” said my old man.

“This is what’s available around here.”

“I’d rather eat a plate full of assholes than this slop.”

My dad had a way with words. There’s only a single frayed wire that runs from his brain to his mouth. Much of my life has been spent keeping him on his best behavior.

“Jesus, would you keep it down. Do you want to go out of town someplace?”

“No. Just give me a number one.”

About an hour later we got our burgers with a side of lukewarm fries.

“You don’t have to stay there,” I said.

“Where else am I supposed to stay?” said my old man.

I didn’t say anything. I just chewed my burger and acted as if it was a rhetorical question. The burger tasted awful. The lettuce was wilted. The tomatoes soggy. I’m not even sure if it’s fair to call what was inside meat. I finished my burger and pulled out a few dollars from my wallet.

“Don’t leave that bitch a tip,” said my old man.

“I’ll give her a few bucks.”

“Christ, you’re soft.”

We got back inside the car. As I drove, I bumped over some abandoned trolley tracks that peeked out from beneath the crumbling asphalt. Flamboyant Victorians with wraparound porches and manicured lawns stood proud despite the decayed downtown.

“Did you pack Mom’s picture?” I asked.

“Yeah, I got it.”

“I miss her.”

My father didn’t say anything for the longest time. He just looked out the car window at the old houses that passed by. He responded in his usual monosyllabic way.

“Yup.”

We reached our destination just a few blocks from the burger joint—PINE ACRES REST HOME. I unfolded my old man’s wheelchair and wheeled it out next to the passenger seat.

“I don’t need that thing.”

Stubborn as always, my father refused to sit in the wheelchair and hobbled toward the entrance.

“Welcome, Mr. Davis, first time checking in?” asked the receptionist.

“Are you going to be the one who wipes my ass?” asked my old man.

I stood in front of him before he could make any more crude jokes. I smiled nervously and handed the speechless receptionist a stack of papers.

“Yes, first time. Here’s the paperwork.”

My old man ignored the wheelchair the nursing assistants put out for him and slowly made his way to his new room. I unpacked his luggage. I asked him where he wanted his things. He ignored me. He sat on his new bed and stared blankly out the window. I sat in the chair next to him.

“It looks cozy enough,” I said.

My dad grunted in affirmation. I rubbed my hands together—my gaze fixed on the blue-and-white vinyl floor. My father just sat there looking out the window.

“If you don’t like it, maybe I can find someplace else.”

“Someplace else?”

“Yeah, someplace else.”

“Where can I possibly stay?”

I scratched the back of my neck.

“I don’t know . . .”

My old man crossed his arms. “I don’t know either.”

I put Mom’s picture on his new bed stand. I caught him gazing at it out of the corner of his eye. His face grew flush. Tears worked their way down the hard lines of his face. My old man wiped his weathered cheeks with the back of his sleeve. He pretended as if he had allergies and gave a fake cough. The last time I saw tears out of his eyes was when Mom died. I was nine years old and had snuck over to his cracked-open bedroom door. I had caught him whimpering while he packed all of Mom’s clothes into boxes. After that, his fuse grew short.

“How are the grandkids?” asked my old man.

“Good. They wanted to come by, but school, you know,” I said.

“I know.”

“You know what, how about we play some cards—like old times?”

My dad shook his head.

“Remember that time you, me, and the grandkids caught that big muskie? The one at Spirit Lake. It was a Sunday. The sky was overcast in the morning and the sun peaked through come lunchtime. We were all crammed on my tiny boat. Remember what a monster that fish was? Its tail thrashing like a beast. And those teeth. And remember how it bit your hand?”

I looked at my hand. “I remember. It was a monster, wasn’t it?”

A slight smile cracked the stony facade of my old man’s face as he gazed outside. He gave a chuckle and then the smile left his face as quickly as it came. My father cleared his throat.

“I miss that boat.”

How could I forget that beat-up old boat? When I was a kid, my dad and my two brothers would go out every summer—usually to a different lake. When I had kids of my own, Dad didn’t get to use it much. It sat in the backyard for the longest time, and weeds had grown around it. After he shattered his pelvis during a slip on his porch, he gave that old boat away.

My dad pulled something out of his shirt pocket. He told me to hold out my hand. I did. Then he dropped a necklace into my palm. I recognized it. It was my mother’s pyramid-shaped pendant that she always wore around her neck.

“It’s yours now,” said my old man.

I was about to say something, but then my phone lit up. A message from my wife.

“It’s the missus. You need anything else?” I asked.

My father’s eyes met with mine, and his mouth parted slightly. For a moment it seemed as if he was about to say something, but then he closed his mouth and resumed looking out the window.

“You’ve got more important things to worry about.”

“Are you sure?”

My father didn’t respond, so I spoke louder.

“Dad?”

“I’ll be fine. Go on.”

My old man patted my shoulder, and then he stood up and began arranging his things, pretending like he was busy. After a long and awkward silence, I left the room.

• • •

The months ticked by. I kept telling myself that I was going to visit Dad on the weekend, but my wife and two kids and work kept me busy. My two brothers had flown into town. One came in from Savannah and the other from Tacoma to visit Dad. Recently, they had been texting me almost every other day to make sure I visited Dad. I wanted to. I really did, but life gets in the way sometimes. Both of them were upset and confused as to why our dad gave me mom’s old pendant instead of them. I told them I didn’t know. But maybe I did deep down. Out of the three of us, I was the most stubborn, so maybe Dad saw a bit of himself in me. I told myself not to worry, at least now he had people to take care of him around the clock.

• • •

I was at work and the noise outside was making it impossible to concentrate. I watched as a yellow excavator chiseled away at the facade of the old building across the street. A tall art deco structure with Gothic spires that climbed toward the heavens. Wrapped with figures meticulously carved into the limestone. I can only imagine how much painstaking labor it took to carve them. The stoic figures crumbled into fragments and dust while passersby looked on with indifference. I was about to return my gaze to my computer screen when my phone vibrated. I answered and recognized the voice. It was my dad’s primary nurse. Dad had gotten sick and wasn’t eating much.

There was a rustling noise as the phone was handed to my father.

“Hello?”

“Dad, the nurse says you’re sick.”

“Just a little under the weather.”

“Do you want me to swing by?”

The line was dead for a few moments. I was about to repeat myself, but then my dad responded.

“You know me. I’m a tough old son of a bitch. Just tell the grandkids . . .”

Again, the line was silent for several moments until I heard my father’s gravelly voice once more.

“Well, just tell them I’m thinking about them.”

I lay in bed that night unable to sleep. I woke up and wandered my house. I found myself staring into a bedroom. Only it wasn’t a bedroom. It was full of junk we hadn’t touched in ages. A waste of space.

It was morning, and I hadn’t slept all night. I put the entire family in the car. Instead of taking the freeway, I took the old highway. The cops didn’t patrol it very often and there was less chance of getting pulled over. My phone vibrated in my pocket as I drove. I refused to answer it. Instead, I pressed the pedal down harder. Tar-stained telephone poles, their wires long gone, zipped by in a blur. My wife told me to slow down.

My phone vibrated a second time—each staccato of my phone a cry for me to pick it up and answer. My heart pounded and my hand trembled as I reached for the phone. I pulled my hand away and put it back on the wheel. My car screeched to a halt in the PINE ACRES REST HOME parking lot. I noticed that the rental car my brothers were using was already there. The windows were all frosted over. They must have been there all night.

I unclenched my hands from the sweaty steering wheel. I prayed that God would wait. I needed to tell Dad something, something I had kept pushing aside.

I ran inside.



Chad Lester has a degree in Writing Studies from the University of Washington. His short story ‘The Lounge’ was a finalist in the 88th Annual Writers Digest Competition. He’s currently working on a novel which he hopes to traditionally publish.