Henry Skaggs was angrier than ever before in his eighty-six years. He planted himself in front of Jonathan, his perpetually good-humored roommate. A ferocious scowl twisted his lined face.***
“Listen to me, Mr. Sunshine,” he snarled. “The only thing wrong with you is a broken hip, but my whole life is wrecked. I finally retired so I could enjoy myself a little and, wouldn’t you know it, I ended up in the hospital with a heart attack. Then my wife died and left me all alone. I had to move into a cramped apartment because my house was too big for me to take care of. And now my son, who doesn’t even come to see me, has dumped me in the County Home, even though I still have an apartment. ‘Just ‘til I’m stronger,’ he says. Ha! On top of everything else, you keep telling me to look on the bright side. Dag nab it, just shut up for a change!” He spun around, grabbed the foot of Jonathan’s bed to keep from falling, and shuffled toward the door.
“I can imagine how you must feel, Henry, but try to calm down. At the rate you’re going, you’ll have a stroke.”
“Fine!” Henry shot back, glaring at Jonathan over his shoulder. “Then I won’t have to put up with you any more.”
Henry nearly tripped over a wheelchair that had appeared in the doorway. The occupant was a handsome woman who appeared to be in her seventies. She smiled pleasantly.
“I’m sorry if I’m in your way. I just can’t seem to get this chair to go where I want it to. I’m Martha Brewster from the room across the hall. This is just my second day here.” She paused, looking expectantly at Henry.
Struggling to stand with his shoulders straight, Henry focused his rage on the hapless woman. “Get away from me!” he roared. “I don’t care who you are!”
Martha Brewster’s presence in the doorway blocked his path into the hall, so Henry retreated to his bed and turned his face to the wall.
Martha spoke directly to Jonathan, as though they were alone in the room. “One of the nurses told me about your angry roommate yesterday,” she said. “He reminds me of some of the children I used to teach. I’m sure he has reason enough to be angry, but he’s behaving like a spoiled brat.”
Jonathan shrugged. “I guess so. He’s been a bear ever since he got here. Half of the time he won’t eat and he keeps calling Oak Hills the ‘County Home.’ I’ve tried to help, but I’m about of patience..”
Henry sighed. The anger was wearing him out but he couldn’t let the mask slip. If he did, someone might see the tears that had been so close to the surface ever since Lillian died. And the fear of what would happen to him. Still on top of the covers, fully dressed, he drifted into a troubled sleep.
When he opened his eyes again, the room was dark and still, the silence broken only by Jonathan’s rhythmic snores. He remembered a jumbled dream. He’d come home from the hardware store and couldn’t find his wife. But it wasn’t their house. It was the apartment where he’d lived since Lillian’s death. His son James was there, telling him he couldn’t live alone anymore. Martha Brewster wheeled her chair around the fringes of the dream. He wished morning would come.
Henry roused again at the clatter of breakfast trays being delivered and blinked his eyes at the glare of the morning sun that that slanted through the open blinds. He sat on the edge of his bed, still troubled by the dream, and told Jonathan about it, as though putting it into words would make it go away.
“That Brewster woman was even in it. She wasn’t satisfied with just ruining my day. She had to poke her nose into my dream, too.”
Jonathan grinned. “I think she’s a bit like you, Henry. You both have a lot of fire left.”
“You mark my words,” Henry told him. “I heard what she said about me and I’ll get even with her for calling me a spoiled brat if it’s the last thing I ever do.”
He pushed the dream to the back of his mind and set himself to hatching a plan for getting back at Martha Brewster. Maybe some of his body parts didn’t work too well anymore but there was nothing wrong with his brain.
That afternoon, Henry sat with his eyes focused on the door of Martha’s room, waiting. When her wheelchair finally appeared in the hall, he moved as quickly as he could and deliberately positioned himself in front of her.
“Pardon me for even mentioning it, Mrs. Brewster, but you’re blocking the hall again. I suppose you can’t help it, seeing as how you know so little about controlling your chair. Like I’ve always said, women are terrible drivers. I guess that applies to any moving vehicle.” He beamed in triumph at his own wit.
Martha glared at him. “I most certainly am not blocking the hall. There’s plenty of room for you to pass. But then I realize you need to stay close to the wall so you can hold onto the bar. You don’t seem very steady on your feet.”
She wheeled off down the hall and Henry stood looking after with his mouth hanging open. The best he could claim from round one was a draw, but he’d just begun to fight.
Henry started looking for excuses to come face-to-face with Martha. He spent hours just thinking up things to argue about with the sharp-witted woman and she always had a ready comeback. He’d torment her for no reason at all and she was a worthy adversary. If one of them said black was black, the other said it was white, just for the sake of argument. Their running feud was the talk of Oak Hills and Jonathan marveled at Henry’s renewed interest in life.
In the third week of their war, Martha came into Henry’s room with a worried look on her face.
“I’m sorry about what’s happening, Henry. I just anted you to know it wasn’t my idea.” With that she was gone.
“What in thunder is she talking about?” Henry asked Jonathan.
“Beats me. Here comes Mrs. Parks. Maybe she knows.”
Janet Parks, the administrator of Oak Hills Nursing Home, was the bearer of bad news.
“Mrs. Brewster’s daughter called yesterday and she was quite upset. Their family doctor says Martha’s blood pressure is too high lately and her daughter thinks you’re responsible, Henry. The two of you do exchange some sharp words. I’m afraid you’ll have to stay away from Martha, at least for the time being.”
“Dag nab it!” Henry yelped, “I don’t talk one bit worse to her than she does to me! She’s always picking at me. I just try to defend myself.”
When the administrator left, Jonathan tried to console Henry. “I’m really sorry, old boy,” he said softly. “I suspect your feud with Mrs. Brewster is all in fun and I’m sure she realizes it.”
“Well, that shows how much you know about it,” Henry snapped.
Deprived of the pastime that had brought a little zest back to his life, Henry retreated into his private world of sorrow and anger. He refused to eat, clamped his jaws shut when the nurses brought his medicine, and spoke to no one. His son was called but didn’t come. He told Janet Parks that his law practice kept him too busy to make the trip from Chicago to Pleasanton.
Martha told her daughter she missed her confrontations with Henry. “I really like him. I don’t know why my blood pressure went up, but I’m sure it had nothing to do with him. I enjoyed our little rivalry and that’s all it was, even if some people thought otherwise. I think there’s a very nice man hidden under all that anger and I wish I could find some way to make him realize that there are people who still care about him.”
It was Jonathan who came up with a project he thought might pull Henry out of his shell and back into the land of the living. The local newspaper was running a series of articles about the history of the town. Henry had spent his whole life in Pleasanton and would be a good subject for an interview. All they had to do was get in touch with the paper.
Feeling a bit guilty about causing the separation between Henry and her mother, Martha’s daughter made the call. The editor of the Pleasanton Times said he’d be happy to send a reporter to do an interview.
When Henry found out about it, he became angrier than ever. As far as he was concerned, the whole thing was nothing but a nosy old woman’s attempt to violate his privacy.
“She’s just being a damned busybody,” he told Jonathan. “There’s nothing she’d like better than to dig into my private affairs.”
“Whatever her reason, I’m sure you do know a lot about this town. Probably as much as anyone else the people from the paper could talk to.” Jonathan wisely neglected to mention that the original idea for the interview had been his.
Henry remembered a thick scrapbook that was hidden away in the back of his closet, one of the few things he’d brought with him from the apartment. It was filled with newspaper clippings and even dance programs from before he and Lillian were married. The pages of the scrapbook chronicled more than forty years of his life. He knew it was something Martha would love to get her hands on.
When Jonathan went to look in on the pinochle game in the recreation room, Henry pulled the scrapbook from the back of the closet shelf. He’d destroy everything in it. There’d be nothing left for the prying eyes of Martha Brewster to see.
He pulled out one page and than another, crumpling them in his gnarled fist. He started to wad up a yellowed half-page from the local paper but then stopped. The clipping was about something he hadn’t thought of in years.
A faded picture showed the front of his store and he could read the sign over the door. “SKAGGS’S HARDWARE AND APPLIANCES.” Henry stood on the sidewalk in his best dark blue suit, smiling at the camera. The caption under the picture read, “Local Merchant Honored.” The Chamber of Commerce had named him “Businessman Of The Year,” and the article told all about the store. Lillian had been standing next to the photographer when the picture was taken. He remembered how pretty she’d looked in her summer dress and big straw hat.
A different picture of Lillian pushed its way into Henry’s mind. He saw an emaciated figure with black-circled, sunken eyes in a narrow hospital bed. Cancer had eaten away at the wasted body and the love that had always shone from her clear blue eyes had been replaced by a look of pleading . . . pleading for him to make the suffering stop.
Anger boiled up in him again, the same anger that had consumed him ever since the day he’d buried her. Anger at Lillian for dying and leaving him all alone. Anger at himself for failing her.
Sorrow overcame his anger and he wept . . . for himself as much as for his beloved Lillian. The tears blurred his vision until he could no longer see the clipping he still held in his hand.
A soft voice called to him from the doorway. “Henry? Are you all right?” Martha Brewster turned her wheelchair into his room, stopping just inside the door.
Now, when Henry needed the shield of his anger, it was gone and he couldn’t bring it back. All he felt was a vast emptiness deep inside him. He sat staring straight ahead.
Martha’s chair was beside him now and she reached out to lay her hand on Henry’s arm.
“Henry, what’s wrong? Is there some way I can help?”
He turned to face her, the tears still burning his eyes. There was a lump in his throat as big as an egg and he couldn’t speak. He handed her the clipping.
“Why, Henry, this is a marvelous picture of you. ‘Businessman of the Year.’ Now that’s something to be proud of.”
Martha’s hand was still on his arm and he found its presence comforting. They sat in silence until Henry found his voice.
“Lillian, my wife, was there when that picture was taken. I was just remembering how beautiful she was. And how sick she was before she died. She had cancer.”
“When she died, you were very angry with her for leaving you, weren’t you? And you’re still angry.” It was a statement, not a question.
“How did you know that?” Henry asked, surprised that Martha had so easily defined his feelings.
“I lost my father when I was ten years old,” she told him, “and that’s how I felt. Angry because he abandoned me.”
“That’s it. Abandoned. That’s exactly how I felt. I didn’t want Lillian to suffer any more, but I didn’t want to be alone, either. It’s a very frightening thing, being alone after so many years. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me.”
“The anger will pass, Henry. As for being frightened about the future, I guess most of us are.”
“Are you frightened?” he asked. “You don’t act like it.”
“Yes, in a way I am. None of us are getting any younger, Henry. I have no one but my children and I can’t impose on them. When it comes right down to it, all either of us has to fall back on is our own strength. That and the help and caring of our friends.”
“Is it enough, Martha? I’m not sure I can handle being alone.” He couldn’t quite believe he was telling her all this but it didn’t seem to matter any more.
Martha gently slapped his hand. “Why, Henry Skaggs, you’re not alone. You have Jonathan and me, and all the people here at Oak Hills who care about you. And before long, you’ll be a celebrity again. I mean, if you give the interview.”
“Hmm. I guess I should do it. I wouldn’t want to embarrass you by not going through with it. Besides, if the paper is going to run a series on the history of Pleasanton, they’ll need to have their facts straight. I know as much about this town as anyone.”
“I’m sure you do, Henry.”
He picked up the scrapbook again. “Why don’t we get together after dinner and go through some of this stuff? Oh, I forgot . . . I’m supposed to stay away from you.”
Martha laughed. “Not any more. The doctor decided my blood pressure went up because I was eating too much salt. It had nothing to do with our little, uh, chats.”
“That’s good. Maybe you can help me decide what things I should be sure to mention to the reporter.”
“I’d like that, Henry. Even if there are things in your scrapbook that wouldn’t interest a reporter, I’d love to look at it. That is, if you don’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind. Life goes on, I guess, so I might as well go with it. Say, maybe we should ask Jonathan to look at it, too. He’s pretty smart, for being such a youngster. He might have some ideas you and I wouldn’t think of.”
Martha left with a jaunty wave and Henry realized he hadn’t thanked her for being so understanding. Somehow, he didn’t think she expected any thanks. He turned to look out the window and was surprised to see that it was getting dark. Odd. He’d have sworn the sun was shining.
© By Ruth (email@example.com (Ruth Belcher)