Sometimes I had trouble figuring out if he was whatever story he was telling at the time; his hair was the same color as an old turnip, dirty, yellowed and growing into a beard that hung like thick cobwebs over his big, gray Frankenstein face and chest; his nose, bent like an old carrot that had been in a snowman for too long; his eyes flared like hot coals. He told stories that kept me up nights while the birch tree outside his window moaned in the wind and shook its branches.
“Mind your Mama,” he said to me, over the coffee table that served as our nightly campfire. It was a funny thing for him to say because he never minded Mama. Then he’d threaten me with a horrifying scarific story, like how the Old Scottish Rogue would capture bad boys and girls and take them home to cook into Haggis. And what is Haggis? I’d have to ask him.
“Stuffed sheep guts,”
I shivered in delight, knowing no one would eat such things.
In the center of the coffee table, a stack of half smoked cigarettes smoldered, the red shining in his eyes like one of the monsters he dreamed up to haunt my sleep. But I listened. I listened to him hardest of anybody, even harder than I listened to my Mama. And late at night, long after the stories were over and everyone was sleeping, I’d wake up screaming, still hearing his cracked, creepy voice, though I’d hold my face buried in Mama’s frilly nightgown.
"There there,” she said. She was a different person when she wasn’t wearing the white uniform. “That horrid old man. The old fake ought to be in an institution, not a decent nursing home. He gives everybody nightmares. I have half a mind to tell Dr. Carlisle to have him put away.”
“Oh, no Mama! I love Mr. Hightower. He’s like having my very own grandfather.” I sobbed, embarrassed to be so sissy. I was crying, wiping my face on the curling ends of Mama’s blond hair, which for once wasn’t in a tight ball on the back of her head.
Anytime anybody was gonna die, the old gypsy in room 13 knew ahead of time. She called it wyrd or fate. She said being dead didn’t matter to some of them. Some of them old people were dead inside already, and all they did is sigh, and talk about the good old days. But when the old gypsy read her cards for Mr. Hightower, her cheeks got all red, and she told me just watch Aggie and wait and see. She told me not to worry about Mr. Hightower or Aggie dying anytime soon. She said maybe it’s on account of that birch tree outside his window, cause them beorc Birch trees are a sign of health and fertility and healing and all that stuff. Beorc is rune talk for Birch trees.
Mr. Hightower and Aggie seemed closer to my age than Mama or even my friends. I took it as my job to keep them happy, just like it was Ma’s job to keep them healthy and watch their diets. Mama and me, we shared a room just like the patients, only we stayed so long that the nursing home committee let Mama put in striped wallpaper and a real kitchen in the closet and my ex-granddaddy called on the weekends to say a nursing home is no place to raise a child.
Every morning when Jessie would bring Hightower his breakfast, I would sneak behind her and take the secret note he would give me. See, we had it all planned. Every morning Hightower would kick up a fuss about his breakfast. When Jessie shook her nappy head and ran for Mama, he’d wait till she was gone and say real soft, “Take that to Aggie, and don’t get caught, boy.”
“He at it again.” Jessie said. Jessie was one of the nicer day nurses. If she knew what was happening, she never let on. I think she was sweet on Mr. Hightower too, everybody liked him bunches but Mama and Dr. Carlisle. Dr. Carlisle never liked anybody, and mr. Hightower liked to give Mama a hard time. Anyway, Jessie took a long time getting Mama, so I had plenty of morning time alone with Mr. Hightower.
“What’s for breakfast?” Mr. Hightower asked Mama, when she got there. “You gonna give me real food yet?” He smacked his lips. “Bacon and eggs? Hashed browns?”
“Oatmeal for you,” she said, “Remember your blood pressure.”
“Oatmeal’s for horses, Joshua.”
“It’s doctor’s orders,” she said firmly, which meant she was ticked. She hated being called by her married name, ‘cause she was mad at my Daddy for up and dying, and ‘cause she said it made her sound like she was a man. “You will call me Miss Sarah like everyone else. And you will eat your proper diet.”
She pushed her little white cap on top of her head and tapped the little black tag on her pocket that said dietician. About this time, I made sure the note was hidden in my trouser pocket so Mama didn't catch me.
“Why don’t you stay a while and comb my beard, Joshua?” he asked her. I could see him smiling that sideways toothless smile (he never put in his teeth until after breakfast) and he’d make a raucous click with his tongue.
“Cheeky,” Mama said, quietly. “Dr. Carlisle needs to reduce your hormone shots.” She’d walk sedately down the hall, but her face was be as red as the carrot-cherry Jello compote she fixed for Wednesday’s lunch. “No account old folks not knowing how to act. You’d think after so much time on this earth they’d have a clue.” Mama talked a blue streak to nobody as she walked down the corridor.
“What’s cheeky mean, Mama?” I asked, running to catch up to her. “What’s hormones? Why won’t you comb his beard?”
“Hush your mouth and get out front before you miss the school bus.”
No matter how late I was, I always stopped at Aggie Dillard’s room which was, to my luck, right by the front door. Aggie Dillard was a white-haired ex-school teacher who didn’t have any warts. She didn’t get out of her room much. Her room was always so full of flowers that it smelled like a garden and made Mama sneeze when she walked past. People were always coming by or sending her flowers, books, perfume, junk like that. Aggie was always giving away her loot, flowers and stuff to people like Hattie Crenshaw whose only son, Steven, lived in Middleton Connecticut and never came to see her except for the day he dropped her off with seven wig cases and a cardboard valise. For instance, there was that time Aggie got a card and tore off the part that said to my favorite teacher and she had one of the nurses write a mushy note like I love you Mom, signed Steven. Old pink-headed Hattie, who’s deaf as an ear of corn, got out from in front of her tv and into her walker and carried her own self all the way to Aggie’s room. “Lookit what my boy got me!” she hollered. She was just tickled to death. She kicked up so much fuss showing that card off to Aggie and everybody who could sit upright that those goofball O’Henrys who live next door to the nursing home called 911 and said one of them old folks was getting killed. Them police were near as mad as the O’Henry’s kid is ugly. Before they left, Hattie showed them police her card too, but did Aggie ever say a word? Not even a squeak. She’s acts ‘manitarian, Mama says, like most folks talk about being but never are. Aggie even gave some bon bons (she calls ‘em good goods) to Mr. Russell, who’s grouchy as a six toes in a bumpy sock. He’s senile but remembered, leastways until last week, that he still loved chocolate.
So before I went off to school, Aggie asked me, “What do you have for me today, Lester?” Her eyes turn down at the corner when she smiles. Instead of the hospital gown lots of the crowd here wears, she had on that wacky robe of hers with a big neck she calls a cow (which is a funny name but I don’t know if she’s kidding me or not. Who ever heard of a cow neck robe?)
I handed her the note, wrinkled from being in my pocket. She unfolded it carefully and her face turned pink with pleasure.
“Get on to school dear.”
By summer vacation, I was carrying fat, page crammed envelopes instead of crumpled notes. I remember especially the morning everything changed. I remember pushing Mr. Hightower’s chair into the day room where he used to tell me stories, only that time he didn’t tell stories. Lots of old folks hung around wanting to hear too (’specially Mrs. Carruthers, who Mr. Hightower says thinks she’s a hot mama and she’s buried five husbands so she should know but he says he won’t have jack to do with her morbid self, as he has no intention of being number six) but he winked at me and waited until they wandered off to the checkerboard or the Nintendo.
“I didn’t want those busybodies to hear our plan, Les, my boy,” he said, looking at me with those fiery eyes of his. “Instead of pushing me back to my room tonight, you push me over to Aggie's.”
I stood there with my mouth open.
“For real? Mama won’t like it.”
“You just let me handle your Mama,” he said, “You push this old chair over to Aggie’s room and then get yourself to bed. But first, you run down the hall and see if the coast is clear. Go on boy, you can stop looking like you just swallowed a carp and go do what I said.”
So I checked, and had a minute to talk to Jesse who was fixing to go home for the night and soak her feet. Soon as she left, I ran, fast as I could over the black and white tile floor, back to the day room.
“Ok.”I said, “All clear. Most of the night nurses are right behind you watching the Granny awards anyhow.”
I started pushing, and that old chair didn’t know we were keeping secrets ‘cause it made as much noise as it ever had. I knew we were gonna be caught. I guess it was a miracle we made it with no one seeing.
“Mr. Hightower,” Aggie said. She didn’t sound at all surprised to see us coming in her door. I guess I never thought what was in those letters I’d been carrying around.
“Aggie,” Mr. Hightower said. I remember feeling kind of sick, like when I was watching a good old vampire movie, when instead of biting his victim on the neck the way he’s supposed to, the vampire just kisses her.
“Push me closer to the bed, Les,” Mr. Hightower said. he got off the wheelchair all by himself, even if he was bent almost in half like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He wouldn’t let me help him but unfolded slowly on top of the covers.
“Go on there now,” he said to me, shooing me off.
“What about in the morning?” I asked.
“Never mind the morning.” Mr. Hightower cackled, “Morning will take care of itself.”
“You’re not dying.” the big, booming voice said, “He’s not dying. You’re not dying are you?” I recognized the sound of the priest, with his booming voice. I guess he was used to talking in church without a microphone since even Hattie heard him, (I ran past her room and her head all in curlers was sticking out.) He was better than an alarm clock.
I followed the noise to Aggie’s room to see what was up.
Mr. Hightower was laid out on his bed, but when I sneaked in, he winked at me.
It seems like when Dr. Carlisle made his morning rounds, he found Mr. Hightower still in Aggie’s room, laid out on the bed and hanging on his chest for dear life, all the while gasping for a priest. Dr. Carlisle didn’t even check him over but panicked, since he’s pretty much new here and not used to these old people dying off or almost dying off over and over, the way they do, before they finally hang it up. Anyway, he had the nurse call the priest right away.
“You look chipper enough. Who’s the idiot got me out of bed to drive across town at five a.m. for nothing?”
Nobody answered him.
“If nobody’s dying, I’m going back to bed.” The priest put on his coat.
“This is indecent!” My mother’s voice. “Disgraceful.”
“We are not children.” That was Hightower.
“Everything was quite proper,” Aggie said, “Mr. Hightower is utterly a gentleman. I am appalled at what you are suggesting!” Her face was as pink as that chalky stuff Mama gives me when my tummy hurts.
The priest --why did he have his shirt on backwards? -- said, “I’m here to administer last rites. This man isn't dying...as long as I’m here, is there anyone else. . .?”
Dr. Carlisle pointed at Hightower. “Him.”
“I’m not dying.” Hightower said.
“You’re gonna be.” Dr. Carlisle said. I thought he was fixing to hit him.
“They’re not dying because the gypsy in room thirteen says its not time.”
“Excuse me?” Dr. Carlisle said.
“Cause Aggie’s so old her lifeline got mixed up with all her other wrinkles and goes clean off her hand and down her arm and across her back and up her other arm. And Mr. Hightower’s lifeline makes a circle clean around his hand.” Mr. Carlisle said he didn’t believe in that hogwash, and why wasn’t I in school? but I caught him later looking at Aggie, and turning Mr. Hightower’s hand over and over and scratching his head.
“We’re running a decent place here.” Mama said.
Mr. Hightower and Aggie looked at each other and then at the priest. Mr. Hightower cleared his throat. “I have a solution,” he said. He didn’t have his teeth in, and he made that clicking noise in his mouth that all the time made Mama say he was cheeky.
Mama didn’t say he was cheeky this time. Her eyes got real big and she said, “You can’t be thinking of --,” and then she saw me. In her you-mind-me-or-else-voice she said, “You get back to bed young man!” And so I missed the biggest event that ever happened at the Happy Vale Home for Seniors.
Things were a little different after that. Aggie grew a new name that morning and I had to call her Mrs. Hightower. She moved into Mr. Hightower’s room, which was a little bit bigger and had room enough for two of those fancy electric beds, twin dressers, and Aggie’s stuff that came in the white delivery van and the flowers that made Mama sneeze. I didn’t have any reason to carry notes anymore, but that was ok. Mr. Hightower still told hair-raising, spine-freezing, spooky campfire tales but in his room, not in the day room; and when Aggie insisted, he had a mushy story he told about himself and Aggie, I mean Mrs. Hightower. That story had a sappy ending that made her giggle and turn pink like one of those silly girls at school. I can’t figure how she likes that story better than the others though. Mr. Hightower says I’ll understand when I grow up.