They came while he was away in the hospital tossing in acramped room, sweating for each breath. Pneumonia,the doctor told him and he blanched at how deep into old age he’d come. All that was left to do was break a hip, feelhis mind smooth into dementia, then he’d be gone. Carol brought him home on her lunch break;his arms were bruised from needles, his nose raw from tubes, his back achedfrom lying in bed. They were alreadythere, watching some history program on his TV, looking up innocently as thedoor opened and Carol maneuvered him in.
“Hey, there he is. How you feeling Joe?” This fromDerrick, who had Carol’s wide set eyes and curly black hair. He’d started calling him Joe when hegraduated from high school. Too old for“grandpa” anymore, Carol said.
“I’m a hell of a lot older than him and I’m not too old forit,” he’d said, but Carol just smiled and patted his hand like he was a crankyinfant.
Derrick’s greasy -haired girlfriend waved from the couch buthe didn’t have the energy to look at her. Jessica, or some such thing. Carol led him to the bedroom, got him settled in his recliner, fetchedhim a glass of water and a blanket.
“Derrick and Jess will be here. They’ve got my old room, across thehall. Jess used to work in a nursing home, dad, soshe knows what she’s doing. You’ll befine. Remember I’ll be gone for the nexttwo weeks in Arizona, okay?” He wavedher away. He’d seen her more this weekthan he had in the last year. She leanedover and hugged him.
“It worked out so good, didn’t it? You needing someone to stay here and Derrickand Jess needing somewhere to stay? Definitely a God-thing.” Shesmiled broadly, pleased with herself. Pleased she didn’t have to take time out of her life to nurse him, heknew. He lifted the side of his mouthand she accepted it as a smile.
“Bye dad! Loveyou!”
It was his femur, not his hip. He’d been looking for the bottle of Glenlivethe’d stashed in the garage. Predictable. High shelf, unevenfloor. He’d lain on the concrete fortwenty minutes until Derrick heard him over the TV. Now they had him trussed up in his ownbedroom, immobile. Jess came in everycouple hours to help him shift positions, go to the bathroom. She was stocky and square, with glasses thatwere always sliding down her nose and blotchy skin. She smelled of sweat, but so did he. Far as he knew, her entire vocabularyconsisted of, “That better?” and “All done now, Joe?” with an occasional, “Mmmmm, dinner!” When sheleft, she always shut the door, even though he asked her to leave it open. The air was stale, and he was sick of lookingat his own four walls. In the house heheard doors opening, things shifting, bumps against the wall. Derrick said they were just doing housework,keeping things up for him. Derrick hadgrown fat in the months since he’d come.
Carol called every Saturday from Arizona. She’d met some guy on a hike at the GrandCanyon, quit her job over the phone and moved into his house. It would last a few months, then she’d beasking him for money again. “Just untilI find a job, dad.” He’d be lucky tohave any money left. Derrick was alwaysbringing him receipts for groceries, or gas, asking for a few bucks for this orthat on top of what he was paying them to be there.
When he finally made it out of the bedroom a few weekslater, he thought he’d walked into a stranger’s house. It was dark, all the blinds down. His couchwas gone, the set of armchairs by the window where he liked to read. They’d been replaced by a brown sectionalthat took up most of the room. His TVwas gone too, and the narrow, painted cabinet it was stored in. In its place was a bigger TV, something blackand flat, perched on a plastic stand, vomiting wires and gadgets into theroom. Derrick was sitting on the couch,playing one of his video games.
“Hey Joe! What do youthink? We’ve been fixing things up foryou!”
Jess came from the kitchen carrying a Diet Coke and wearinga grin. She went and stood by Derrick,set one of her hands on his shoulder. Hefelt disoriented. Was he supposed tothank them?
“Where’s my furniture?” he asked. “Where’s the couch?” Jess’ grin dimmed a little.
“We stored it for you, Joe. Mom’s got that unit over off Columbia? We thought…you know…maybe this place could be a little cheerier. Maybe it would help you get well.” Ever since he was a kid, Derrick had thetrick of looking innocent. Now he raisedhis eyebrows, gave a hopeful smile.
“I suppose I paid for all this nonsense?”
“Joe, we asked you, remember?” Derrick said at last. “After you broke your leg. Remember? We thought we should make it easier for you to get around in here.” Jess nodded her head earnestly, and her glasses slipped down her nose. They’d done this before, asking his permission for things when he was on pain medications or half asleep.
His leg was aching. He limped back into his room and slammed the door.
The leg was healing. He could hobble around indoors, sit on the front porch on a sunny day,which was a relief because Derrick insisted the house be shut up and quiet whilehe was recovering. He was craving sunlight. He still hadn’t made it down into theyard. The uneven ground was tootreacherous yet, the doctor said. Everyweek Derrick came out and made a show of bending over one of the front flowerbeds, pulling up a few green things, moving dirt around as if he knew what hewas doing, but things were starting to look bad. He couldn’t imagine what the back yard lookedlike. The rose garden should have beenpruned by now, the grapes. Janet’stulips must have come and gone already. The doctor said he shouldn’t fret about stuff he couldn’t control, thathis blood pressure was high enough already. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. The doctor ought to live with his family forawhile. Shit-eating grins while theyslowly took over his house, like they were doing him a favor. All his old things were gone, stored, they said, always managing tolook hurt that he didn’t like their changes. Jess had started a card-making business to “help bring in some money”and now the dining room looked like a paper factory had exploded in it. She was too tired after all her card-makingto cook anymore, so it was up to Derrick now. Every night it was some frozen dinner in a plastic tray or a greasy bagfrom McDonald’s. No wonder his pantswere getting tight. Last week, they’dcelebrated with Chinese take-out after Jess had sold a card to herhairdresser. A card. He wondered if the Glenlivet was still in thegarage or if Derrick had found it yet. On her weekly calls, Carol told him he should be grateful, what if hehad been alone? He settled back andhappily imagined that for awhile.
The doorbell rang. Hewas in the kitchen, trying to find something to eat that didn’t come out of apackage, but no luck. He could getaround a little better now. Derrick andJess had gone to the movies. They claimed they needed a break. Watching TV and sleeping in was hard work, heguessed. Oh, and there was thecard-making, of course. He laughed tohimself, hobbled his way to the front door, opened it. A middle-aged man stood on the porch, blackhair trimmed neatly around the ears and neck, a flannel shirt.
“Dan Park,” he said, holding out a hand. “Sorry to bother you, but we bought the housebehind you last year? We haven’t metyet.”
He balanced in the door, shook the offered hand. “JoeWebster. You bought Tom’s oldhouse? Where’d he go?”
“Alaska, I think. Tolive with his son or something. I thinkhe was going to fish.”
He nodded. “That’s agood house. I helped Tom put in a furnacea few years back.” He shifted hisweight, steadied himself against the doorframe. “I’ve been laid up this lastyear. Pneumonia. Then I broke my damn leg looking for a bottleof whiskey.”
“That’s terrible. Didyou find the whiskey?” Dan laughed. He decided right there he liked this newneighbor.
“Didn’t even get a swig of it. I’mhoping it’ll still be there when I get back on my feet.” He eased himself out the front door, offered Dana seat on a dusty porch chair.
“I came over because we were wanting to replace that oldfence between us,” Dan said. “I wantedto make sure that was okay with you before we started.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket,showed him the new design. It was a cedar fence, six feet, with coppercaps on the posts.
“It’ll be an improvement over that chain link. Must be twenty years since I put that in,” hesaid.
“There’s the maple that will have to be limbed up on yourside, since the new fence will be taller. I could do that for you.” Danfolded the paper and slipped it back into his jacket pocket.
It was nice to sit out in the sunshine and talk to someonecapable for awhile. It almost made himforget the ache in his leg.
“Let’s go back there and take a look,” he said suddenly,feeling daring. “I might have to use youfor support though.”
“Glad to.” Dan stood and offered his arm and they made theirslow way around the side of the house. It hadn’t rained for a couple of weeks, the ground was beginning to firmup.
“Haven’t been out here since last year,” he said andstopped.
He saw the old television set first, flung on its side inthe grass. Dan had started talking abouthis new lawnmower, how he could come over and mow the lawn for him, now that heknew he was laid up. He didn’trespond. The couch was up against thefence, sagging and torn. Books werestrewn across the yard, spines broken, pages sodden. The armchairs were leaning against the old TVcupboard in the center of the rose garden. Roses were snapped off, one wasuprooted. Bags of garbage piled upagainst the house. The entire back yard was strewn with his belongings.
“Mr. Webster? Are you okay?”
“How long has it been like this?” he asked hoarsely. But he already knew. Since the couch came, since the TV and itsplastic altar. Carol probably didn’teven have a storage unit.
“No wonder you want a new fence,” he said. Dan’s cheeks darkened a little and he coughedinto his hand.
“Take me back inside,” he said, shaking.
The police officer was kind on the phone, but there wasnothing she could do since he’d invited them in, since they’d been there solong. She took down his complaint and hehung up. Derrick and Jess came back,chattering about the movie they’d seen. He faked a headache and went to his room. While the TV droned on in the living room, hemade a few more phone calls.
He waited. From hisbedroom he could hear the sounds of construction going on behind him, Danbeginning the new fence. He kept quietabout it, waited until they were distracted to peer through the blinds in thedining room, watch the slow progress. They went out more now that he was improving. Afternoons at the movies, dinners out, theoccasional trip to the mall. Heencouraged it, became loose with his gratitude. For Derrick’s birthday, he gave them a weekend away.
“A well-deserved break,” he said and they beamed. They drove off on a Friday morning. Derrick honked the horn twice as theyleft. He waved goodbye from the livingroom window.
The locksmith arrived an hour later. That afternoon threeyoung men drove up in a beat-up van, pulling a utility trailer. He showed them the house and the back yard,told them what to do. He stood insideand watched them, the young men going back and forth, their quick muscles, theeasy grace of their effort. When theywere finished he gave them each an extra 20 dollars and told them to have adrink on him.
He walked carefully to the backyard, saw the checkerboard offlattened yellow grass, the neglected roses, and he felt a little hollow, butalso relieved. Dan’s new fence was partwayconstructed now. He could see into hisbackyard, the neat flowerbeds, the patio furniture with its greenumbrella. He went back inside the stillhouse and lay on his bed, satisfied.
Sunday morning he woke early. It was a beautiful day, blue sky and picturebook clouds. Outside he could already hearpeople coming and going, a low hum of voices. He made a cup of instant coffee and limped to the window.
The TV was gone, as well as the brown couch. People were milling around, looking through thebox of movies and video games. Herecognized one of his neighbors hauling away a fake potted plant. She caught his eye and he raised his coffeecup in greeting. He watched a car driveup, an elderly woman examine the “FREE! Yes, all of it!” sign by the mailbox. By noon everything was gone but the bin of paper goods and a coupleboxes of clothes. He’d kept those back,along with a box of personal items. No one had ever said he was an unreasonableman.
He called Carol, told her he’d changed the locks, listenedto her startled panic until she was done. Derrick and Jess returned just before dark, knocked on the door and rangthe bell until his head hurt. He’d lefta note with their things on the porch. Dan thought he’d be better off not talking to them today. Give them time to cool down, he said. Thatwas fine with him. When they’d finallyslunk off for the night he called Dan, invited him over.
The emptiness of the house cheered him. Beside his bedroom, the only furniture leftwas the dining room table, which they hadn’t bothered to replace. When Dan arrived he offered him a seat, tookout two glasses.
“Found that bottle of Glenlivet,” he said. He’d left the lights off and pulled the blinds open. When Dan held up his glass to drink, the light from the streetlamp filtered softly through it, turned the liquid inside from amber to gold. He was exhausted, and his leg was aching, but he hadn’t felt this good in a very long time.
There’s a nice littlehouse down the road, yellow with white trim, a neatly fenced yard that used to containan old black lab. Something happened onenight. When we drove by in the morning,the contents of the house had appeared on the lawn. Bookcases, chairs, boxes, Rubbermaidcontainers, a lamp, a dresser. We drovepast for a week wondering what the people inside were dealing with: a plumbing leak? A hole in the roof? Another week went by and it began torain. The contents of the yard took on asodden and abandoned look. Someone put outa couple of limp tarps, but it was all haphazard: the plastic tubs under thetarp, the rocking chair left unprotected.
That was three years ago. One summer, someone carved a circle in the center of the detritus and set up some plastic Adirondack chairs, a little retreat, as it were, in the center of the chaos. I’ve never seen an actual person in the chairs. I’ve never seen an actual person outside at all. But if you drive by in the evening, you can see inside the house. There’s a big tv, the occasional silhouette of a head on a couch, the lights glimmering friendly, as if the rotting world on the lawn doesn’t exist at all.
That was the inspiration for this story, a possible answer to the question: why?!