The old lady had died some time that spring. No one knew exactly when, because she’d been shut up in a nursing home forever, and then one day the son came around with a mover and that was that. The whole place was cleaned out. Minor repairs were done to the outside. As to the inside, it was hard to say for sure. People up and down the street who’d been there long enough to remember the old lady remembered a cramped, ugly kitchen, with Formica counter tops and a vinyl dinette set. While she was gone no one had lived there. The son came by every now and then and made sure things were okay, and people wondered why he didn’t just take charge and sell the place. It wasn’t as if she’d ever come back, the old lady. Once you went into a nursing home that’s where you stayed. Until the funeral parlor, and that little plot of ground you hoped someone had been good enough to buy for you in advance.
Then the Dugans moved in. Although the street wasn’t particularly close-knit – no block parties or pleasant pot-lucks – the neighbors welcomed them. Their efforts were ignored. The Dugans had moved seven times in the last ten years, and the idea of putting down roots was just plain silly. Soon, the neighbors made comments. Not only were the Dugans unfriendly, they were noisy and didn’t collect the shit their dog left wherever it wanted, usually in someone else’s yard.
Mrs. Dugan left every morning at exactly seven-thirty. She got into her car, a rusty green Subaru, wearing a suit. Her hair was up in a bun. She even carried a briefcase. No one knew what she did. One man said she worked in a bank. The woman across from him said she sold insurance.
Mr. Dugan didn’t work because he’d hurt his back years before on a construction site. The disks he’d ruptured eventually went back in place, but not before causing permanent scarring and calcium deposits which caused pain that ranged from annoying to agonizing. He was never without pain, in fact, and had a standing prescription for Vicadin which mixed badly with alcohol. That’s why he was reduced to drinking only beer, instead of his beloved whiskey. You had to give your body the space it needed, he told his kids. No two ways about that.
Five children made up the family. The eldest was Angelica, a fat, teenage girl with a nose ring and short, spiky green hair. She ruled her siblings with a steady stream of insults. Her favorites were “dumbass,” “dumbshit,” and “horsedick.”
The next in line was Timothy. The cast in his left eyes was a painless affliction. He wasn’t aware of it until people stared hard, then looked away in embarrassment. A baby-sitter once told him it was a gift from God, proof that Timothy was special. The baby-sitter was an old woman whose saggy chin sported a forest of short, white hairs.
Twin girls, Marta and Maggie, came just after Timothy. Mr. Dugan had objected to the German name, Marta. He thought the German people were fat, pretentious slobs. Far too young to ever have been directly involved in the Second World War, his sentiment stemmed from a boss he once had, Otto Klempt, who told Mr. Dugan he was the laziest worker he’d ever had in his storeroom. Oddly enough, Marta was rather like Mr. Klempt in temperament, harsh and scornful. Maggie was quiet on the surface, yet full of deep longings and desires she was afraid to share. One day, she was sure, she’d be on the stage, and very, very rich. Her husband would do everything for her – in her later years she’d see that she developed this idea from watching her mother bully her father – and she’d take every gesture with the same mysterious smile she gave her other fans.
The youngest was Foster. The name was based on a statement Mrs. Dugan made, that if she had any more children they’d end up in foster care. Foster had been born with a twisted leg that gave him a definite hitch in his stride, but otherwise did little to slow him down. He was a pleasant child, despite the generally sullen atmosphere of his household.
All in all, the five children didn’t particularly care for one another, and they didn’t dislike each other, either. One thing they knew was that they stood as pack against the rest of the world, a term that had special significance after one of their neighbors came home to find them all roller skating in his driveway, where they’d apparently knocked over his trash cans in the process, and called them a pack of wild dogs.
He was punished for that. Paper bags full of dog shit, carefully collected over the week from their mutt, Thaddeus, were set afire seconds before a frantic knock on the door, made by Maggie, their fastest. Answering the call, the neighbor found the growing blaze and reacted as anyone would, by stamping it out. HAHAHAHAHA, the children thought to themselves, individually, in the privacy of their own thoughts, for that caper, like all their others, was born in committee, yet appreciated alone.
Angelica felt the lack of community most. We don’t have enough family time, is what she concluded. She’d seen families spend time together. Across the street, the Morrises were always having cook-outs, and batting balls, and playing badminton. The children – two, maybe three – laughed a lot. The mother never yelled, and the father had a strong, steady gait. She knew her own family could never be like that, yet she wished they could.
Mrs. Dugan came home from work tired. She was often crabby, too. She worked in the sales department for a small company that sold manufactured homes. Her job was to walk clients through their purchase options. The people she dealt with had all fallen on hard times, or were old and looking to down-size. None had the flush of optimism. Mrs. Dugan thought she herself had once been full of hope and ambition which, over time, had been whittled away. She decided to give herself a kick in the pants, and when the chance came to represent the company at a regional conference, she put in her bid, and even took her boss out for lunch.
She was chosen. She walked on air. Mr. Dugan didn’t like the idea of her spending three days down in Wilkes-Barre. He was glum, and snuck sips of whiskey from a flask he kept on a shelf in his closet.
“Three days, Potter. One, two, three,” said Mrs. Dugan. She couldn’t wait. She loved her family, and she hated them, too, and lately the balance had been tipping towards hate.
“And just what is it you plan to do at this conference?” Mr. Dugan looked like he was about to put his head through a brick wall, something Mrs. Dugan used to admire about him and now found exhausting.
“Attend presentations. Walk around the convention floor. See what other vendors are doing to improve sales.”
“Only a boring person would say that.”
The stone face melted. His mouth turned down.
“I’m sorry, Potter. I didn’t mean that. You’re not boring.”
“Yes I am, or you wouldn’t have said it.”
He took himself off to the small back room he called his den and lay down on the couch. He watched the dust dance in the light. Maybe three days wouldn’t be so bad. Three days wasn’t all that long. He could get a lot of good drinking done in three days. The thought cheered him.
Over dinner, Mrs. Dugan laid out the program.
“Angelica, you’re in charge. But you don’t do all the work – share it equally. Start getting ready for school. There’s only another week left. When you’re not doing that, I want you each to clean your rooms. When you’re done with that, take turns weeding the garden.” The neighbors complained most about the garden. “And make sure Thaddeus gets his walks regular. I don’t want to come home to a house full of dog poop.”
Around the table the faces were still. The children had never been away from their mother before. Plans of mischief were being born, right there, as forks were lifted to mouths, and pieces of inedible pot roast were slipped unseen to Thaddeus below the table. Angelica knew where her mother kept some extra money. That would come in handy when she took off for the mall. The twins planned to stay up all night watching TV. Timothy and Foster would live on ice cream and candy. They’d been handed a vacation, and they intended to make the most of it.
Mrs. Dugan packed her bag in a state of excitement and fear. She didn’t have very nice clothes, although they were respectable. Which of her four blouses would go best with the brown suit? Where she’d never given much thought before to her appearance at work, she was now overcome with self-criticism and doubt. She had to look the part. She was an executive on the move. Secretly she yearned for a promotion, more money, and to get the family out of rental homes and into a place of their own. That thought made her sit down suddenly on her bed. The promotion might come, as might the money and home ownership, but the people who lived there would be the same – lazy, unkempt, and bad-tempered.
“Change your mind?” Mr. Dugan asked when he found her there some time later, still sitting. Some strands of her naturally blonde hair had escaped her bun and floated around her small, pretty face.
“No. Just taking a break.” And with that she was up, finished packing, put her bag by the front door so she wouldn’t forget it in the morning, then shouted for her children to get ready for bed.
The sunlight that first day – Tuesday – said it would be hot. The house was not air conditioned. If they were lucky, the children could get their father to drive them out to the lake and swim. They liked going to the lake. One look at him passed out in the den put an end to that particular plan. Angelica said they should give Thaddeus a bath. The others agreed. A small, dirty plastic wading pool was put to use. Thaddeus didn’t think any of it was a good idea, and bolted from the tub the moment soap was applied and his fur scrubbed. He escaped the yard in no time, an easy feat since there was no fence, and bounded across the street where Mrs. Hooper was trimming her rose bush. Thaddeus stopped right in front of her and shook, sending water and suds everywhere. Mrs. Hooper shrieked, and called the dog an ugly name, called the children watching from their porch an even uglier name, and then threatened to call the police when Angelica turned around, bent over, and dropped her pants. No one came to fetch Thaddeus. Everyone knew from experience that he’d return eventually, which he did, the moment a can of dog food was opened in the kitchen.
After Thaddeus enjoyed his lunch, and dropped soapy water on the floor, boredom returned. Foster applied a Band-Aid to each of his eyes – top to bottom – and groped his way through the living room where Timothy was on the floor coloring.
“What the fuck’s wrong with you?” Angelica asked. She was sitting in their mother’s stained easy chair, flipping through an old magazine.
“Want to know what it’s like being blind.” Foster tripped over someone’s jacket, collected himself, and continued, arms outstretched.
Maggie passed him in her ballet shoes. She was practicing standing on her toes. It hurt a lot. She thought of hovering over a dusty wood-planked stage to the silent, tense awe of the audience.
“Watch out, dumbass!” Angelica said when Maggie lurched across Timothy. “Jesus, what’s wrong with everyone today?”
Pizza was ordered for dinner. After all dimes, nickels, and stray pennies were gathered from every pocket, drawer, stray sock. Mr. Dugan grieved. “Where the hell’s my wallet?” When he couldn’t find it he sat at the kitchen table and stared into space. The children recognized this mood. Their mother was both the cause and cure. She’d called to say she’d gotten there safely. Timothy had answered the phone. There was noise in the background, a man’s voice, the sound of tinny music. Mr. Dugan took the receiver and told everyone to leave him alone so he could have a civilized conversation, for once, which he did for about forty-five seconds before Mrs. Dugan hung up.
At noon the following day, Angelica went to dress and had no clean underwear. Foster lacked a clean shirt, and Mr. Dugan’s sock drawer was empty. Monday was laundry day, and Monday was the day Mrs. Dugan had packed her bag. She hadn’t done the laundry. Her oversight was painful to Mr. Dugan, because it strengthened his suspicion that his wife was essentially dissatisfied with her life. He called the children into the kitchen and told them to start washing clothes. Maggie took charge and trotted down the basement stairs. She returned to report that there was no more laundry detergent. A debate ensued. Could dish soap be used? What about shampoo? Angelica told everyone to shut up, ordered her father to find his damn wallet, give her some money, and wait until she returned from the store.
“Let me go, let me!” Foster was hopping up and down. The store was a ten-minute walk, yet Angelica doubted Foster’s ability to successfully choose and pay for a bottle of detergent on his own. Foster was only eight. She told Timothy and the twins to go with him. Safety in numbers, she figured. With four of them, not much could go wrong.
She jotted down some other necessary items on a list. Milk, bread, eggs, frozen fish sticks, ice cream, chewing gum, and mayonnaise.
“I want a candy bar,” said Marta.
“Me, too,” said Timothy.
“You get this stuff, first. If there’s money left over, fine.”
The children left. Angelica put the dirty dishes in the sink. The sink was full, so placing them was tricky. She passed by her father’s den.
“Angie! Hey, Angie! There’s a guy on TV eating goldfish! What do you think about that?” he called out.
“That’s pretty neat, Dad.”
In her room – which was hers alone after a bitter fight with Mrs. Dugan about who would sleep where – she applied black nail polish with great care. She loved painting her nails. She loved painting other people’s nails. She once painted all the nails of her siblings – including the boys’ – a fiery red. The effect was stunning. Mrs. Dugan called her an idiot, and demanded that it be removed at once. Mrs. Dugan had lost her sense of humor, Angelica realized. There was a time when her mother laughed, danced about in her bedroom slippers, and bestowed gentle affection on her family.
Next, she checked her cell phone. It was a cheap phone, gotten at great personal cost of begging and wheedling. Mrs. Dugan had been unmoved by Angelica’s repeated statement that all the kids at school had cell phones. Finally a low-end, poorly made cell phone with chronically bad reception found its way into Angelica’s loving hands. She liked to send text messages on it. There was one boy she sent messages to. The boy, Dwayne, had been in her math class the year before and she thought he was fabulous. She hungered for Dwayne the way she hungered for mint chocolate-chip ice cream. The messages she sent were bland, non-committal things like, TV. sucks today. What’s up? His replies were equally bland: Nothing, and baseball practice, and cleaning out garage. Yet into each she read a special meaning, a deeper truth that when added up in time would prove that he felt for her what she felt for him. There was no message from Dwayne. He hadn’t texted her for two whole days, and her nerves were about to snap.
She texted her sometime best friend, Luann. no mssg. from D. means what? Luann texted back, phone’s probably off. or battery ran down. Luann’s brutal logic was painful, not comforting at all. If Dwayne cared so little about staying in touch that he turned off his phone, or let the battery die, then what Angelica feared – that this relationship was completely one-sided – was true.
She shoved the phone in her pocket and went downstairs. The house was quiet. Her father had switched to a game show, and the sound of clapping and cheers was like a party from another planet. Planet Party, she thought, and wanted to write that down. Every now and then she made notes of random thoughts thinking that they, like the messages from Dwayne, would one day contain a brilliant and tragic truth about the human condition that only she was sensitive enough to see and appreciate.
The children hadn’t returned from the store. The clock said they’d been gone almost an hour. She was furious at the idea that she might have to go looking for them.
“Boneheads,” she said, and ate a slice of cold pizza left over from the night before.
Twenty minutes later, Angelica saw the four children walking slowly up the street. Foster was in the lead. Behind him, Timothy carried a single bag of groceries. The twins followed, with an old man in between them. Each girl held one of the old man’s hands. The old man was shuffling along, bobbing his head. His white hair was bright in the sun. He wore a plaid bathrobe over blue pajamas, and bedroom slippers.
“Jesus Christ,” she said. She checked on her father. He was asleep on the couch. The television showed a muscular young woman in work-out garb jogging through a park. The woman was smiling. Angelica felt what she always did when she saw a body like that – deep, agonizing envy. She was thirty pounds overweight, and the last time she’d been to the doctor she’d been warned of the dangers of developing diabetes, which more and more young fat people were.
The children came through the back door with the old man in tow.
“Who the fuck is this?” Angelica asked.
“We found him,” Timothy explained.
“Found him? Where?”
“At the store,” said Marta.
“Outside the store. On a bench, in the shade,” said Maggie.
“Can we keep him? I think we should keep him,” said Foster.
They put the old man in a chair at the kitchen table. His blue eyes were watery and empty.
“Caroline,” he said, when he saw Angelica.
The old man smelled of camphor.
“Why the hell did you bring him here?” Angelica asked.
“We told you. He was on a bench. No one came out to get him, so we figured he was lost.”
“Sir, what’s your name?” Angelica asked and peered hard at the old man.
“Caroline,” he said.
“Great. Did you check his wallet?”
“Doesn’t have one,” said Timothy. Timothy was the most resourceful of them all.
“He gave me a lollipop. There are more, if you want one,” said Foster.
Sure enough, the old man had three lollipops in the pocket of his bathrobe.
Maggie put the groceries away. Angelica saw that they’d forgotten the laundry detergent and the mayonnaise. And the eggs. She sat down. The day had become difficult.
“Well, he obviously wandered away from somewhere, so someone must be looking for him,” said Angelica.
“They won’t find him. We’ll hide him, and then say he’s our grandfather, or something,” said Foster.
“Are you out of your fucking mind? Where’s he going to sleep?” Angelica asked.
“With us. He can have the top bunk, and we’ll share the bottom one,” said Maggie.
“He might fall out of the top bunk. Better put him down below,” said Marta.
“Caroline,” said the old man.
“Sir, who is Caroline?” Angelica asked.
The old man smiled. His teeth were perfectly white and strong.
“Is Caroline your wife? Is Caroline looking for you? Can we call Caroline?” Angelica asked.
The old man looked at her vacantly. She might as well have been speaking Greek. She had to do something, but she had no idea what. The old man whimpered. He sounded like a puppy looking for its mother’s milk. Angelica ordered the twins to open and heat a can of soup. They argued about whether split pea or tomato was best. They settled on tomato. Foster tied a dish towel around the old man’s neck. They put the bowl of soup in front of him. The old man looked at it, and whimpered.
“Help him, then. Jesus,” said Angelica.
Timothy lifted a spoonful of soup. The old man opened his mouth like a toddler would. He took the soup, swallowed, and opened his mouth again. He consumed the entire bowl.
“Maybe he ran away because he was hungry,” Foster said.
“He didn’t run away, stupid. He wandered off. Someone didn’t lock the door,” said Angelica. Then she realized that a search might be underway, and bulletins issued about the old man being missing. She went into her father’s den and turned to the news. A tanker truck had exploded on an overpass in Indiana. A hurricane was speeding towards the coast of North Carolina. The President gave a speech about the economy to a crowd of angry, sullen-looking people. Closer to home the local teacher’s union had rejected the latest contract proposal. No one was looking for the old man.
Mr. Dugan opened his eyes. “What’s up? I thought I heard voices,” he said.
“Nothing. Go back to sleep.”
“I’m ready for some lunch.”
“I’ll bring it to you in here.”
“That’s okay. I need a little stretch.”
Angelica explained about the old man. Mr. Dugan sat up and stared at the worn rug at his feet. He nodded. He cleared his throat.
“You did the right thing,” he said.
They both went into the kitchen. The old man’s head had drooped down towards his chest. He snored loudly. Mr. Dugan said that if there were any soup left, he’d appreciate a nice bowl with a slice of buttered bread. Thaddeus stood by the old man’s side, sniffing his leg. The other children were all seated at the table, each in his usual chair. The chair they’d put the old man in was Mrs. Dugan’s. Angelica prepared her father’s lunch. Her cell phone buzzed in her pocket. Luann had asked, anything? Angelica quickly wrote back, no!
“I think we should vote,” said Foster.
“On what?” asked Maggie.
“On whether or not we’re going to keep him.”
“We can’t keep him. He’s not ours,” said Mr. Dugan. “I’ll call the police after lunch. They’ll handle it.”
“No! Daddy don’t do that. Please!”
“Now, listen. This is a person, not a pet. Even if he were a pet, we’d have to find out if he belonged to someone else. In the case of a person, you can be well-assured that he does, in fact, belong to someone else.”
Mr. Dugan was proud of his speech. He was very sorry his wife wasn’t there to hear it. The old man went on snoring. The twins got up from the table.
“Oh, well,” said Marta. “Too bad.” They went into their room. The boys stayed behind. Mr. Dugan called the police. His voice was bright and polished. He seemed happy. Angelica wasn’t happy. She was gripped by a growing sense of alarm.
“Someone will be along in a while,” said Mr. Dugan.
“Do they know who he is?” asked Angelica.
“No. They said it happens all the time. The nursing home might not even know he’s gone, yet.”
The old man lifted his head and stared around him. He blinked. Mr. Dugan helped him from his chair, and guided him into the living room.
“Come on, Pops. You’ll be more comfortable in here. There you go. Want your feet up? No? Okay. Just sit there, and stay out of trouble.”
Angelica sat down next to him. The old man fussed. He plucked at the belt of his bathrobe and moaned.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Angelica. She’s was afraid he was sick, or about to die. That wouldn’t be good, if he just up and died on them. Mr. Dugan left and returned quickly with glass of amber liquid.
“Maybe he needs a little nip,” said Mr. Dugan.
“What if he’s on medication?” asked Angelica.
“Won’t hurt him.” Mr. Dugan brought the glass to the old man’s lips. The old man tasted the liquid. His eyes squinted and a gurgle rose from his throat. Mr. Dugan gave a thumb’s up. The old man nodded. He gave the old man another swallow. Timothy and Foster wandered into the living room. They were bored, now. The old man didn’t interest them anymore. Timothy picked up his coloring from yesterday, and Foster considered putting another set of Band-Aids on his eyes, then decided to wrap Thaddeus’s toes together with masking tape. He’d done that before, and Thaddeus didn’t seem to mind at all.
The old man held Angelica’s hand. His skin was very smooth, as if it hadn’t touched anything rough in years and years. How long had he been like that? What, if anything, did he remember of his past?
“Well, I’m going back to my den for a little while, so you just sit here with him,” said Mr. Dugan
“What if he needs to go to the bathroom?” asked Angelica.
“You better hope he doesn’t.”
The old man had settled down. He fell asleep once more. Angelica’s phone buzzed. It was Luann.
going to the mall. want to come?
The old man’s grip was surprisingly tight, so Angelica had to type with only one hand.
oh. text me later.
Timothy got tired of coloring, and went up to his room. Foster doodled on the back of an unopened bill. Thaddeus padded by, slightly impaired by the tape. Gradually Angie relaxed. She wondered what Dwayne was doing. She could text him and say, guess whose hand I’m holding right now? Then she wouldn’t explain, and look sly when she saw him at school. That might shake him up. Dwayne needed shaking up. Dwayne was too laid back. She wondered what the old man was like when he was younger. Maybe he was as dull as toast until Caroline came along. Then Caroline turned his head. Caroline made him change his mind about everything. He went on breathing in a deep, steady rhythm. He might live quite a few more years, Angelica thought. If he was well cared for, that is. Looking after an old man like that wouldn’t be so hard, except for the bathroom issue. It occurred to her that wiping someone’s ass might not be the easiest thing in the world.
The old man stirred, opened his eyes, and focused them hard on Angelica. He smiled. He leaned towards her, and planted a dry kiss on her lips. In a thin, wobbly voice he said, “Our love could light the world.”
Eventually the police arrived and escorted the old man out. Angelica held his hand until the very last minute. He was a resident of the Clearview nursing home, only a half-mile away. An employee of the nursing home had come in a separate car and told Angelica about the service she’d performed that day, and how heart-warming it was to see a young person be so caring and responsible. Mr. Dugan emerged from his den and stood with Angelica and the other children on the front porch and waved good-bye. Angelica went to sit on her bed and think. Her mother would be home the day after tomorrow, and school would start the week after that. Time seemed like a slow, lazy river they were all floating along. Only the river in the old man’s heart had flowed backwards, returning him to Caroline, whoever she was. To love someone so much that you’d never forget her, even when you’d forgotten everything else. That was something. That was worth having. As she checked her phone again to see if Dwayne had texted her, already knowing that he hadn’t, she decided that one day, no matter what, she would.