A Short Story
by Cole Parker
A man takes a walk in the park, one he’s taken many time before,
and his life changes forever . . .
The old man was taking his daily walk. One he’d taken, what? How many times? He decided to figure it out in his head while he ambled along. His head still worked pretty well. It was the rest of him that seemed to be wearing out, those parts that hadn’t already worn.
He’d always taken this path. It was peaceful, pleasant, and peaceful and pleasant were just about what he needed now. He’d done this once a day for the past 30 years. It was but a short walk through a city park, down a shady path with acres of lawns and trees, a restful sort of place. He’d come out of the park and the café would be just there, rather like it was waiting for him. He’d sit down, order a coffee, chat with the waitress, and eventually walk back home again. Thirty years! Hard to imagine.
There was a park bench near the path, and he looked at it every time he passed, more often now in the past few years than earlier. He had never sat on it. One of these days, he thought. One of these days soon. I’m going to need to rest going one way or the other on this walk of mine. But not yet. Not quite yet.
The bench wasn’t used much. He tried to remember if he’d ever seen anyone sitting on it. Now it was covered with leaves. It looked sort of tired, this old bench. Like it had seen better days. But it was still here, just like he was. Maybe it was waiting for him. One day soon . . .
So, 30 years, every day. How much walking was that, anyway? Let’s see. Well, why not say 50 weeks out of every year? That was probably closer to the truth, and it made the math easier. It also allowed 14 days out of 365 for staying in the house. Like if it were raining, or too windy, or there were drifts of snow lying across the path.
Should he figure out what percentage 14 out of 365 amounted to, figure that out in his head? No, he shouldn’t. No reason to discourage himself if he found it too hard.
But, continuing what he could do easily enough, he got back into musing about the walking he did, and the length of his travels over the years. It didn’t snow much where he lived, but there were the occasional rains or winds and all sorts of other reasons not to go out. So, 50 weeks was probably about right. 50 weeks times 7 days would be 350 trips every year. 350 trips to the café, then 350 trips back home. That came out to 700 individual journeys, but 350 round trips.
He guessed each round trip was less than a mile. Three-quarters of a mile, probably. Okay, so how would that work out?
350 times 30 years would be 10,500. Over ten-thousand trips. Lots and lots of trips. What was three-quarters of 10,500? Multiplying that by 3 would be easy enough: 31,500. Dividing that by 4 would be pretty simple as well: 7,875; he could do that in his head with only a bit more effort than the multiplying took. No sweat. So he’d walked 7,875 miles, give or take a few! That more, a lot more, than walking across the United States and back again!
And he’d only been walking to the corner café and back!
Well, he’d lived a long time. Someone had said a journey starts with a first step. He’d certainly taken that first step often enough, and he’d done it over and over again.
He was astounded by how far he’d walked, but pleased he could still do the figures in his head. Something to be proud of. At 90 years of age, it could be hard to find many such things.
He saw the bench coming up as he was walking back home. Odd, he thought. He’d just been sitting, enjoying his coffee, kidding with his favorite waitress, Margy, who insisted on calling him Mr. Patterson even though he kept asking her to call him Frank; it had become a game for them. But with the time he’d spent sitting in the café, he shouldn’t really be tired walking home. But, for the first time really, that bench was looking awfully inviting.
He stopped and cleared some leaves away and sat down. Where was the shame? No shame in that! None at all. No rush to get home, either, and it was a nice day. Why not stop and rest? Watch the world go by. He’d been doing that in recent years anyway, just watching.
His head started to fall forward, and he jerked it upright. He wasn’t that tired. He could still hold his head up. But it was something of an effort. He had to admit, he didn’t feel so hot right then. Not that that was unusual. At his age, there was always something. His last time in his doctor’s office, complaining of back pain, he’d been told the area around his kidneys was tender. He’d told the doc he had a hard time passing water—that’s what they’d called it back in his day—and wondered if things were backing up on him. His doc did one of those unmentionable tests with a glove and some lubricant and told him his prostate felt even larger than it had before, and maybe they’d have to do something to protect his kidneys. Catheterize him if he didn’t want a prostatectomy.
No, he didn’t want any operations. Nor did he want anyone sticking anything up his peetube. The backside was bad enough!
The pain pills had helped. Helped with the pain, though not with the water passing. Still, he wondered if that’s why he wasn’t feeling all that hot. Suddenly the thought of finishing the walk home seemed like it would be a bigger deal than it ever had before.
While he was considering this, he noticed he was no longer alone. When had that happened? He hadn’t been aware of anyone sitting down next to him. He hadn’t heard anyone approaching. Yet there was someone there. He turned his head slightly to get a better look and realized his chin had drooped to his chest again.
He could see even with his chin on his chest that his companion was a young man, or perhaps even an older boy. Probably around 20, give or take. Hard to tell young people’s ages these days. This one, he was very good looking. Straw colored hair neatly shorn and combed, unlike how so many boys wore theirs these days; he doubted many of them even owned a comb. Bermuda shorts, some sort of strange looking shoes they all wore, socks that didn’t extend up past the sides of the shoes, giving the appearance he was sockless. Royal blue polo shirt. Pretty sharp, all in all.
The boy was looking at him. “You okay, sir?” he asked. He had a soft voice. His tone as well as his words showed concern.
“Just a little tired,” Mr. Patterson said and felt his eyes closing. He was going to say more, but realized he didn’t have the energy. Maybe if he just took a moment or two to rest, he could tell the boy he was fine.
Just a moment. Then he’d tell him.
Dr. Conover checked the chart. “Seems like a coma. His charts are all within limits, however, and his CT scan is normal, but he doesn’t want to wake up. BP is high, 172/96, but there’s no sign of a stroke. He’s catheterized and stable. What’s your treatment recommendation?”
No one volunteered anything at first. Then a young woman, one of the students accompanying Dr. Conover on his attending rounds, spoke. “Could be end stage of life? But with nothing apparent from the tests, maybe just request monitoring and nursing care? See if he wakes up on his own?”
Dr. Conover looked at the others and saw no one meeting his eyes. They were all new, and not very assertive. Probably didn’t want to make a mistake in front of the others. He nodded and became professional.
“That’s about right. We’ll keep him awhile, no more than a few days at most, if there’s no change. We’re a hospital, not a hospice. What I do in a case like this is pass the records to Head of Nursing and they assign a nurse to look after him. Right now—well, for some time now—there’s a critical shortage of nurses, so he’ll probably get a newcomer, perhaps even a nurse’s aide. All they can do is check vitals, keep up his charts, empty his bag, monitor his IV, give him a daily sponge bath. If there are no changes, within a day or so he’ll need a feeding tube, but we’re hoping he’ll wake up before that’s needed.”
Mrs. Adhour, Head of Nursing, was in a bind as usual. Too many patients, too few trained nurses to assign to them. All she could do was what she always did. She sent a message to HR asking if any new hires were available and then juggling current patients to nurses with the training and experience appropriate for their individual needs.
She eventually came to Mr. Patterson. His care requirements were very basic. She was scanning his chart and the doctor’s requests when she got a call from HR.
“We have someone applying for a nurse’s aide position. He’s a young man with papers that show he’s 21. I think. They’re in some language neither I nor anyone else here can read, but if the date of birth is what I think it is, he’s just 21. Also, he can’t speak much English. He presents well, though, decently dressed, pleasant enough. His references are all in whatever language it is and I can’t really check them out without a lot of time and bother. But I got your note and he’s a warm body and I thought I’d at least see if you’re interested before turning him away.”
“Send him up here. If he has any experience at all, I can put him to work.”
And so the young man was escorted to her office. When Mrs. Adhour interviewed him, she found it very difficult to be at all thorough. Mostly it tended to go as it did when she asked him a simple enough question: did he speak English?
“A few,” he said with a broad smile. He had a mellow accent and yes, a very charming smile. She felt comfortable in his presence, a rarity for her. He’d followed his obscure answer with, “Understand good, talk not so.”
She asked him if he’d had any experience nursing. He’d smiled while his eyes lit up. “Yes. War. M, m, m, medic!” He pronounced it ‘meditch’.
That made her smile. A medic certainly had had training. Probably training that was way advanced over what he’d be called on to do here.
“When could you start if we hired you? We need help immediately.”
“Right then. About.”
“You can start right now?”
“Oui. Si. Okay.”
His name was a group of consonants that she wasn’t sure how to pronounce. When she asked him to pronounce it, it sounded to her like Slaudthaurintious. She repeated what she could, butchering it, shortening it into Slod after realizing she couldn’t remember what came after that part, and he nodded vigorously, appearing happy with the new nickname.
So, unhappy that his lack of English prevented her from finding out more about the man but overlooking that due to her acute manpower shortage, Mrs. Adhour got Slod some scrubs, then took him to Mr. Patterson’s room. It was a small ward with six beds with drapes that could be closed around each for privacy. At the moment, all were open. All the beds were occupied as well.
Mr. Patterson was the only patient requiring just basic nursing needs, the only patient that Mrs. Adhour felt was appropriate to assign to this new hire. Slod seemed alert and nodded when she went over all he was supposed to do. She asked if he’d done IV insertions before and was assured he had, if a nod was really assurance. To find out, she withdrew the saline drip Mr. Patterson had going and asked Slod to replace it.
She was quite impressed with how well he did. He seemed very familiar with handling the equipment, easily found a vein in the back of Mr. Patterson’s hand, sterilized the area, found where the packaged IV needles were kept, opened a new one, attached it to the drip line, slipped it into the vein, checked there was no leakage, taped it down and looked up at her, all in less time than Mrs. Adhour thought possible. “Final,” he said, looking up at her, still smiling.
She paused, wrinkling her brow, then asked, “You mean ‘finished’?”
“Ah,” he replied, the smile broadening.
She showed him where things were and told him how to get hold of her and to check with her if he had any questions. Then she left him with the patient, the only one she’d assign to him till she’d had more time with his undecipherable records.
The next day when the attending, Dr. Conover, made his rounds, he looked at Mr. Patterson closely, closely because he saw unexpected changes. The man still hadn’t awakened, but his skin was looking healthier. His urine was a light yellow instead of the more russet color often associated with kidney problems. He seemed to lie differently in the bed, too, though it was difficult to say just how that was so.
His breathing was deeper; his sleep simply appeared to be more restful.
There was nothing in the charts to show that anything was happening, yet the doctor thought there was. He thought about a feeding tube and was picking up the chart hanging at the end of Mr. Patterson’s bed to write the order when a young nurse’s aide/trainee made an appearance, leaning over to look at Mr. Patterson, his patient, then lightly touching a finger to his forehead.
Mr. Patterson opened his eyes.
The doctor stopped writing and looked up.
The nurse was already bringing a glass of water with a straw in it to Mr. Patterson. The old man greedily took a sip, then another.
“Mr. Patterson?” the doctor said, surprised and delighted.
“Where am I?”
“Brothers’ Charity Hospital.” You’ve been here a couple of days now. Asleep.”
“Guess I was sleepy,” was the reply, coupled with a slight smile. “Guess I’ll go home now, then.”
“Oh, no, that’s not advisable at all. You’re going to be weak for a time. You’ve had nothing to eat since your admission here, and lying still as you‘ve been doing is enervating. We have a Foley catheter in you that you will want out before you begin building your strength marching down our hallways, and we’ll have to see if your kidneys will function properly when that’s been taken care of. It’s way too early to be discussing discharge. It’s great that you can now talk, however. Real progress. This is your nurse—” he pointed to Slod “—and I’ll be dropping by again. You must be hungry. Do you think you could eat something?”
The doctor laughed. “We’ll try something light, and if you can handle that, something more substantial thereafter.”
He nodded to himself, made some notes on the chart, and left.
When they were alone, Slod stepped forward, closed the curtains around the bed, pulled a chair up and began speaking. Anyone hearing him would have been entirely confused; the language he spoke wasn’t one they’d have heard before, nothing like any language anyone had heard before. What was odd was Mr. Patterson seemed to have no problem at all understanding him.
Two days passed. The doctor stopped in during rounds twice a day. Again, his patient appeared improved each time, but he only noted that subconsciously. Now that he could speak to Mr. Patterson, it was what the old man and the machines told him that Dr. Conover paid most attention to.
The doctor wasn’t surprised when he noted Mr. Patterson’s urine collection bag was empty, but he was certainly unhappy about it. He’d been paying attention to the color in it. The volume was being recorded; that was as it should be. The nurse seemed very good about that. But the doctor hadn’t wanted the container emptied till he’d visually checked it.
Mr. Patterson was now ready to begin walking, which meant the catheter could come out; it probably should already have been removed, but time was always an issue in this hospital. But now Doctor Conover would make the time.
“This may sting a bit, but it’s all part of getting you up and around and well enough to go home,” he told Mr. Patterson, then pulled closed the curtains around his bed. When he then pulled back the light blanket covering Mr. Patterson, he found a surprise.
“Where’s your catheter?” he asked.
Mr. Patterson, looking amused at the doctor’s expression, said, “I don’t know what he did with it. You’ll have to ask him.”
“He removed it?”
“Late yesterday. Didn’t sting at all. He seems to have gentle hands. You should see how well he does my sponge baths.”
The doctor brought the blanket back up, opened the curtains, and looked angrily at Slod.
Slod smiled. The doctor’s anger seemed to ebb, though he wasn’t sure why. But, well, actually, the catheter removal was now all done and over with, so why get in an uproar over it?
He nodded at Slod and continued his rounds, forgetting all about the empty urine collection bag and the reprimand he’d been planning to issue.
The doctor realized he should be releasing Mr. Patterson. The man was walking now, spending much of the day in a chair next to his bed, and looking much healthier than before. Each day that passed, his appearance improved. The doctor shook his head, not understanding. The thing was, Mr. Patterson’s BP was now 128/70 and continuing to improve each day. His skin around his neck and on his hands didn’t look as loose as it had. And, remarkably, unexplainably, the doctor thought there was some darkening at the roots of the man’s thick head of silver hair.
That was the reason he wasn’t ready to discharge Mr. Patterson. Something strange was going on here. Something he, as a doctor, had never witnessed before. Discharging this patient would mean not seeing what was progressing, not being involved.
That all came to a head that afternoon.
Slod always closed the curtains when he was giving Mr. Patterson his sponge bath. He’d close the curtains, remove the backless gown the man was wearing, then bring a bowl of warm water and a couple washcloths to the bed. Mr. Patterson could have told the man that he was perfectly able to take a shower, that indeed he felt better, stronger, healthier than he had in years. But he didn’t. It would have meant no more sponge baths; those baths were the highlight of his day.
Slod dipped the cloth in the water, wrung it out, then softly and gently dabbed and smoothed and petted and rubbed Mr. Patterson’s skin. All over. He started with his patient lying on his front and did his whole body, top of his head to the tips of his toes. Then he dried him with hot air from a hair dryer. It had to be, didn’t it, even if Mr. Patterson could never hear the sound of one?
Then Mr. Patterson would roll over and the caressing would begin again. This time, Slod would skip the genitals, waiting to do them till the end, bypassing them to do the rest of Mr. Patterson. Then he would again warm his washcloths in the water, wring them out, and begin the part of the job Mr. Patterson loved.
Slod was gentle and attentive, getting everything clean and fresh. Throughout his ministrations, he’d hold what Mr. Patterson had referred to as his ‘peetube’ with the warm cloth wrapped around it, keeping it out of the way of the other cloth that was rubbing and perhaps sensuously teasing sensitive areas.
All the time, as Slod moved his washing hand around, there were gentle movements of his other hand, perhaps the result of all the motion going on elsewhere.
Mr. Patterson hadn’t felt this alive in the past five years. He’d thought parts of him were now permanently dormant, and deeply regretted that effect of aging. Now, he seemed to have recovered his lost potency. What a marvelous change!
For some reason he wasn’t about to question, the genital washing would continue until Mr. Patterson was very happy. It brought a deep sigh of contentment and joy from him, and a quiet giggle from Slod.
Today was the sixth time this had happened. And for the first time, just before the point where Mr. Patterson would utter his sigh, the curtains were suddenly opened. Mrs. Adhour had come to question Slod. HR had finally admitted they couldn’t verify any of his documents. No one seemed to know how to translate any of the writing on them; she’d even failed with people in the language department at the local university. And that was too bad, because no matter how comfortable she’d become with Slod, how much she liked him, the hospital couldn’t employ anyone without appropriate background credentials. Too much liability.
So Mrs. Adhour had ignored the need for privacy shown by the closed curtains due to her need to get Slod out of the hospital ASAP. She opened the curtains, took a step forward, and watched the explosive end result of Mr. Patterson’s sponge bath.
Both Mr. Patterson and Slod were discharged within the hour.
Slod accompanied Mr. Patterson on his return home. The house had been unoccupied for a week. It had the air of a long-deserted home, and Slod and Mr. Patterson opened the windows first thing to let in the fresh air and blow out the old. While the house was airing out, Slod asked Mr. Patterson if that somewhat ugly name could be changed, saying that he much preferred a simpler, older one that better suited him: Saul. That became his name forever after. Mr. Patterson never called him Slod again and, somehow, he never remembered that the man had once answered to it.
Mr. Patterson was feeling great. When Saul suggested they clean the house, top to bottom, Mr. Patterson said he’d join in. He’d basically been living in only two rooms, the kitchen and his bedroom. Now, the living room, guest room and den were brought back from limbo and both bathrooms given a good scrubbing. Mr. Patterson was pleasantly surprised to find the work not a bit tiring, but he was getting used to surprises by now.
After that, they decided they both needed a shower, and took it together so Saul could be sure Mr. Patterson wouldn't fall. At least that sounded like a good enough reason, and it was a very enjoyable shower.
A week later, Mr. Patterson, when shaving, really noticed for the first time how he looked, really looked. He’d avoided looking at himself in the mirror for several years; he hadn’t liked the image he saw. Now, he looked. And what he saw was a much younger man than what he expected. No longer was his hair silver. It once again was the sandy brown it had been in his youth; it was also thicker, less sparse, more luxuriant down below and in his pits. No longer did his skin hang loosely on his face and body. It again was the skin of his youth, not the pasty, wrinkled, overstretched and no-longer-elastic skin of his great years. Gone was the slight paunch from his abdomen where weakening muscles had allowed organs to slump. Indeed, to be honest, he looked like he was a man in his late twenties.
For the first time, why he felt so fine wasn’t such a puzzle. He felt like he had way back then. Just as much as he now looked like that, too.
He spoke to Saul about it, but by then Saul had already been preparing him, so this wasn’t the shock it could have been. They spoke at length, and it took some out-of-the-box thinking for Mr. Patterson to accept everything he heard, but he eventually did. When Mr. Patterson had spent some time pondering it all, he told Saul he was going to take him to meet someone. They walked out of the house and took the walk Mr. Patterson had taken thousands of times before. There was a bounce in his step now, something he could hardly remember having had before but which came naturally enough to him.
When they entered the café, Margy came to the table and stared at him while handing them menus. She looked, looked away, then back again. “You remind me of someone. Can’t really say who, but you do.”
Mr. Patterson sighed. “Probably my grandfather. He used to come here every day. Are you Margy? He said you were his favorite waitress and really his only friend, the only one he ever talked to. I’m sorry to tell you, but he’s passed. I’m his only grandchild. This is my partner, Saul. We live together in his house now. We’ll probably be in here a lot. Maybe . . . maybe even every day. It’s only about a three-quarter mile walk.”
As always, my sincere thanks to my editors. You do a marvelous and mostly unsung job.
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This story is Copyright © 2017-2023 by Cole Parker. The original image is Under the Terms of the Creative Commons License CC0 by pixabay.com #1906654. They cannot be reproduced without express written consent. Codey's World web site has written permission to publish this story. No other rights are granted.
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