by Richard Peterson
Artwork, “Squirrel” by Alexa Gaffaney
Early in my sobriety, my sponsor suggested I make amends to those I’d hurt in my drinking years. At the top of my list: Dad. I’d visited him once in the three years he lived in a nursing home before his death, never speaking of the raging resentment I had for him, when at a baseball game he staggered out on the diamond, tobacco juice dripping from his chin, his hat sweat-stained, the smell of puke and piss strong.
The base umpire hollered, “Get out of here old man.” Before he was dragged away, Dad tapped said as I stood on second base, “You hit that one the way I expect.” While I see this as an act of love today, it was a source of great shame, embarrassment and humiliation then.
My teammates asked, “That your Dad?” For years, I was identified by the phrase, “His Old Man’s a drunk.”
But, my side of the street wasn’t pristine either. On my Marine Corps enlistment form I’d written unknown for my father’s name. I never acknowledged Dad’s birthday, bought him Christmas presents or sent him a card. And like him, I became a drunk. If my sobriety was to be permanent, my sponsor insisted I had to forgive Dad of his wrongs and atone for my own. Since a face-to-face talk was off the grid, it was recommended I volunteer at a nursing home to make what my friend called, Universal Amends.
This seemed like a silly idea, but if it would get my sponsor off my back, I’d try it. Besides, it would look good on my resume, as I was actively seeking a job more suited to a man of my talents, rather than sell newspaper ads which at that time bought my beans and bacon. Marching under these two flags, I popped into a senior citizen facility near my apartment to find out volunteer requirements.
* * *
The Senior Nurse said she’d answer any questions, but first you need to be fingerprinted and have blood drawn. She had me sign a form swearing I wasn’t a fugitive from the law, and agreeing to not sell or use drugs or alcohol while on facility grounds. Nursie, even reserved a seat for me at the next day’s mandatory “Introduction to Volunteering” lecture.
“You can ask questions there all day,” she said. Two weeks later, my ID card arrived in the mail. I was official.
My first day at the facility, I emptied ash trays, clipped old men’s toe nails, rolled their wheelchairs into the dining hall, and read the L.A. Times sports section out loud. Were they glad to hear the Big Red Machine from Cincinnati, led by Pete Rose and Johnny Bench, beat the kapok out of the Dodgers, or were they so lonely any diversion was welcomed? It was a mystery how such mundane activities as I performed would rectify my feelings toward Dad. But, I followed directions, showed up on time, watched Dr. Welby and Adam-12 with residents in the Rec Room, and escorted them to the neighborhood store for their weekly supply of Andy Capp’s Hot Fries, Jelly Bellies, and ‘Nilla Wafers. To learn their names, I helped housekeeping deliver clean laundry.
Over the months, I swept leaves from the sunroom after strong winds, called Bingo every other Tuesday and became quite adept at losing ping pong games, or sinking the eight ball at the wrong time when playing pool. I shaved men whose hands were too shaky to hold a razor, made sure the old gentleman with family visitors hit every belt loop and gave away hundreds of cigarettes, though I didn’t smoke myself.
A hallmark of my sobriety today became clear. Most of these old guys just wanted someone to listen while they talked. Often, they’d speak of their mother or a family member, but a recurring theme emerged. Facing eminent death, seldom did they speak of their life’s accomplishments. Instead, they obsessed on things they failed to do. Their achievements were secondary to the regrets of actions they wish they’d taken.
* * *
Thursday before Christmas, 1974, I pull into Sunnyside’s front parking lot. A fire alarm wails. No lights show. Inside, the reception desk is vacant, the Rec Room TV disturbingly quiet. Christmas tree lights are dark. For the first time since Thanksgiving, the endless Yuletide carols playing on the house hi fi, are mute. A nurse, who’s name I can’t recall, herds residents with walkers down the hall, through ankle-deep water.
With no one to stop or direct me, I sign in, pin my ID badge to my shirt pocket and head down the hallway to the men’s quarters, hoping to learn why the place seems deserted. Steve, a staff member, stands in the hall, a ridiculous yellow helmet, meant to offer protection when confronting violent residents, wobbling on his head. His bright orange vest much too small.
Steve yells, “Get back, or get killed.”
He’s in front of Clete Wagner’s room, I think. That’s who I came to see. A loud crash shakes the wall.
Steve shouts, “Okay, Wagner. Have your fun now, but I’m coming for you.”
Clete’s answer is muffled. “You and who’s army?”
This is a surprise. In my interactions with Clete, he’d been pleasant, almost meek. “Steve,” I ask, “what the hell’s going on? Where’s everybody?”
“Wagner started a fire,” Steve says, his lips a red slash in his white face. “Set off the fire alarm and sprinklers. Residents were evacuated to the rear parking lot. When I get the okay, I’ll drag Wagner out. He’s busted windows and smashed furniture all morning.”
“What upset him?”
“Beats me. Maybe his coffee was too hot.”
“He’s a good man. He snapped for a reason. Let me talk to him.”
“No can do. You’re volunteer, not staff.”
“Yeah, but he knows me. Besides, I have a package for him.”
“I can’t let you. . .”
“Don’t worry. When the Big Cheese arrives, I’ll say I disobeyed your orders.”
I hear the tinkle of glass when I press my ear to Clete’s door. “Clete? It’s Peterson. I have your Sir Walter Raleigh. Let me in.”
“Door ain’t locked.”
“Okay if I come in?”
His room is dark, the blinds drawn. A quick glance shows a made bed, clothes hung in the open space that serves as his closet, shoes lined up like soldiers on the floor. Broken glass is swept in a pile near the door. A wooden chair, minus a leg, leans against the wall. The smell of Pine Sol is strong. Everything else seems in order.
“What’s the problem?”
“Got pissed off. I’m okay now.” He hangs a broom on a hook against the far wall.
“You said something about tobacco?” (In those days, you smoked when and where you wanted.)
I pull three orange and black Sir Walter Raleigh Smoking tobacco cans from my sack. In violation of my volunteer agreement, I’d ordered them from the factory as a favor to Clete, since local stores don’t stock this brand. Clete opens a tin, lights his pipe and plops on the couch. The fire alarm is not as loud here.
After a minute or two, I ask, “What set you off?”
“Last night as I’m hittin’ the sack, Admin came in. Said my daughter died. Kept it a secret for a week. Said I couldn’t handle bad news. Won’t tell me why she died, or where. That chapped my ass.”
“I understand. But why start a fire?”
“I didn’t.” He pauses. “That noise the fire alarm?”
“Yeah. And sprinklers shooting water. Staff will move you out soon, probably.”
Clete smokes. “I busted my mirror. Slammed it against my dresser two, three times ‘fore it shattered. Splintered my chair agin the wall. Broke the Pine Sol by accident. It spilled everywhere.”
He laughs. “Silly me. Wanted to send the bastards a message they can’t push me around. Didn’t prove a damn thing, right?”
He jerks his head toward the door. “They check out the other rooms?”
“I don’t know. Just got here. Should they?”
“Fletcher brags he was a fireman. Fire bug’s more like it.”
Clete blows smoke toward the ceiling. “Admin made me miss my daughter’s funeral. Tried to sleep on it, but the more I wooled it, the madder I got. Sorry I did what I did, but . . .”
The fire alarm bell stops ringing. Clete knocks ash from his pipe. “Missed my mom’s burial ‘cause of the War. And my brother’s.”
Steve, in the hall, yells. “You okay in there?”
“Yeah,” I answer.
“Why? The excitement’s over. Clete didn’t start a fire or set off the sprinklers. He was mad that Admin didn’t level with him, is all. He’s okay now.”
“Admin’s job is tough, with ol’ folks always demanding something.” Steve slaps the wall. “Firemen shut off the alarm and sprinklers. Be days before things dry out. Wagner’s in a shit load of trouble.”
“For breaking a mirror? Throwing a chair? His own property.”
“Tell that to the authorities.”
Sitting calmly on his gray couch in khakis and white tee shirt, Clete looks almost serene. Short-cropped white hair. Muddy brown eyes. Complexion that could use some sun. The Army uniform he wore thirty years ago, would swallow him today. He spends most of his time in his room, coming out for meals and to get his newspapers. I teased him into shooting pool with me last week. We sat in the courtyard afterward.
“Know what’s bad about gettin’ old? Names. You forget ‘em. But, you remember everything you should’ve done, and didn’t. When I was in my thirties, my neighbors were killed in a car wreck. Their boy, 12 or13, wasn’t with ‘em. He had no place to go, so I took him in. He was no trouble. Worked for a farmer close by. Delivered fire wood for me Sundays to pay his room and board. Good hand. Quit school after the eighth grade.”
He pauses. “When he was 18 or so, he asked me to back him in an egg ranch. ‘Restaurants, colleges, hospitals,’ he said. ‘They all use eggs. I could sell ‘em ours.’
Clete shifts in his seat. “My momma raised chickens. I hated ‘em. They start out as balls of fluff. That falls off, leavin’ them nekkid. When their feathers grow in, they’re liable to drown in a rain shower, or stare at the sun ‘til they croak. Told the boy no. A week or two later, he left. Never came back. Next thing I hear, he’s runnin’ with a bad bunch. Robbed a grocery store. Stole a car. Went to prison.”
Clete looks off to nowhere. “What if I’d done as he asked? Would he have turned out different? I had the money. He had the gumption. I said no, because I hate chickens. Forced my standards on someone else. Not right. If I’d said yes, mebbe he’d be a good citizen today. Who knows?”
A few minutes later, I understood Clete’s dilemma, when I did something I wished I hadn’t. I convinced Clete to leave the room with me. When Steve saw us, he yelled, “That’s him. The old guy!” The cops threw Clete to the ground like a football practice dummy.
“Got us an arsonist,” a cop bragged as they dragged him down the hall.
I don’t believe Clete ever returned to Sunnyside. He suffered a heart attack at the police station. They took him to Huntington Hospital. I visited him in the Intensive Care Unit there. I’m not sure he knew me. He died before he finished his Sir Walter Raleigh. If I’d kept him in the room with me that morning, would Admin have listened? Would they have learned then, what they found out later, that he didn’t set any fires, just threw a hissy fit? Guess I’ll never know.
* * *
Then there was Alvin Smart. After a game of pool so sloppy Minnesota Fats would have cried, Al and I eat fig newtons in his room. A WW II vet, in his mid-fifties, his short-cropped red hair fighting a losing battle against encroaching gray, he’s stooped and gaunt from the cancer that will take his life in a few months.
“I grew up in small-town Nebraska,” he says. “Population maybe 5,000. Two schools. Elementary and secondary. Everyone knew everyone. I worked afternoons and weekends at Main Street Paint and Wallpaper, next door to Grisham’s Bakery. Shelia Brandenburg, the cutest girl in school – hell, in the county – worked at the bakery.” He pauses, as if he were back on Main Street.
“Part of her job was to carry 50-pound sacks of flour and other supplies up steep steps from the basement. I knew this, so I’d take a break from my job and haul ‘em up for her. She called me her ‘Tarzan man.’ Friday evenings after work, we’d eat day-old pastries under the big elm tree behind the store, talkin’ about school and kiddin’ around. We never went on a date because pretty as she was, I was afraid she’d laugh if I asked her out.”
He swallows fig newton. “Each year, the school held a Senior Class dance where the students decorated the gym with crepe paper and colored lights. I held Shelia’s ladder while she strung lights in her Daddy’s overalls. She moved around so much, the side waist button came undone, and I could see her bare skin right up to her white brassiere. She caught me looking. I turned red as a robin’s breast and stumbled outside. When I came back in maybe twenty minutes later, she and another guy, their heads together like they had secrets, were cuttin’ paper.
Shelia looked at me and winked. I should have grabbed her right then and kissed her. Instead, I was so mad at myself, I went back outside. Didn’t go to the dance. No more pastries under the elm. The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor that December. I enlisted in the Navy after graduation.”
Alvin’s eyes mist over. He’s somewhere other than Sunnyside Nursing home. “My life would’ve been different if I’d grabbed her that day. I know she loved me. You know why? I came home for Dad’s funeral after being gone seventeen years. Saw Shelia at the service. She’d married. Had a fifteen-year-old boy.” He wipes away tears.
In a hoarse voice, he says, “Named him Alvin, same as me.” He cries softly. “I was an idiot.”
* * *
My last week at Sunnyside, Ken Gregory, motions me into his room. Ken’s tall and wide, parts his black hair in the middle, has bushy eyebrows and a toothy smile. He calls everyone Doctor or Captain.
“Hear you write some, Captain.”
“What’s your charge to write a letter?”
“I can’t accept gratuities, Mr. Gregory.”
“Did I say tip? No. I said charge. I need a pro to write a letter before my ticker stops. I want to tell my daughter what kind of man I am, and how she can get my money.”
“Can’t Admin, do it?”
“They’d mess it up from here to Chattanooga. I want it done right.”
“Okay. I’ll give it a shot. No charge.”
“The worker’s worthy of his hire, Captain.”
He scoots his chair toward me. “Here’s the deal. I was raised in Skagit Valley, Washington. My daddy ran a seed and grain store there, and farmed 200 acres. Mom was a school teacher. We weren’t rich, but comfortable. Working dirt or selling plants and seeds didn’t appeal to me for my life’s work.”
Ken goes to his closet for what looks like a bottle of A&W Root beer. “Sorry for the container, Captain, but it fools meddlers.” He holds the bottle to the light. “George Dickel. Sour mash. Have a taste?”
“No, thanks.” That road has too many bends and potholes for me to travel it again.
Ken pours a slug and sets the bottle on the coffee table. “When I was young, I didn’t know happiness was an inside job, that no place, no person, can make you happy, but I sure had a good time looking. Travelled everywhere. The Orient. South America. France. I’d come home for three months or so, then take off again three, four weeks later. My travel bug probably killed Dad early. After he died, Mom followed six weeks later. I sold the business and farm at a good price. Bought a small house in town, off the square. A young woman set her cap for me. We got married and had a child.”
Mr. Gregory grins and takes another swig from the root beer bottle. “A girl. She was the star in my universe. Pretty as a sunrise. Smart. Blonde hair. Big brown eyes. Her momma was a nice woman, but I had room only for Sharon. We went everywhere together. Fishing for salmon and tuna. Taught her to sail. Rode the Zephyr to St. Louis. Visited New York City. Paris, one summer. We had our fun. Her mother and I divorced.”
Ken shakes his head. “There are lots of Japanese in Skagit Valley. Good people. Hard workers. Farmers mostly. While still in high school, Sharon fell for a Japanese boy. They got married. She was just eighteen, him barely nineteen. What did they know about marriage? Or life for that matter? Broke my heart. Not that he was Japanese, but because it messed up my plans. Without her, traveling would be no fun.”
He pushes the A&W bottle toward me. “You sure?”
I laugh. If only he knew. “I’m sure.”
Ken samples his whiskey. “I left the day after the wedding. Haven’t been back since. Went to Thailand. England. Russia. Hell, Jackson, Mississippi even. Worse place in the world.” He shakes his head to clear that memory.
“Started an import-export business in Los Angeles. Did right well. I haven’t seen Sharon for what, twenty-one years? My heart might stop any day, Captain. Month ago, I had a private eye locate her. Married to the same man. Lives near San Francisco. I’ve got two grandbabies.”
He runs his hand through his hair. “Keep your letter to three-four paragraphs. Say that I traveled. Made some money. But mainly, that I was wrong and sorry for any hurt. Include this.” He hands me a sheet of paper with bank account numbers. “She’ll get three million bucks when I’m gone. How soon can you have it ready, Captain?”
I brought him a rough draft the next afternoon; a final version the day after. He signs it with a smile, in big letters, and hands me a five. “Send it Special Delivery, Captain.”
I don’t know if he got an answer or not. I’d received a job offer at an ad agency in San Diego, but had to be there in three days. I was packing when I heard the letter carrier. I ran out with a change of address form, though it was rare when I got mail. There was an envelope in my box, addressed in large handwriting.
Ten one hundred dollar bills fell out when I opened it – a note read, “The worker is worthy of his hire. Thanks.”
* * *
Almost everyone I know today started out in one career, but ended up doing something entirely different. The tree trimmer became a pastry chef. The accountant runs a garage. The Berkley School of Music grad owns a gym. Psychologists call this ‘the emergent’ process – we take steps that often lead down unknown paths, yet we emerge where we really should be.
I volunteered at Sunnyside to feel better about my treatment of Dad. When I emptied ash trays and bought Louis L’amour westerns for the reading room, or shined the shoes of an old gentlemen meeting his great grandkids for the first time, I put aside my hurts and foibles, opening the way for forgiveness. I forgave Dad long ago; he did the best he could. Forgiving myself has been a harder, but what we seek, seeks us, it seems. We set mind-stretching goals, yet the new car appears in the garage somehow; the pretty girl or handsome you were afraid to date, becomes your spouse, the job you knew would never be yours, now pays for the dream house you thought you’d never have. There’s a phrase for this. We say, “One thing led to another.”
I learned from the old gentlemen at Sunnyside that often it’s what we don’t do, the risks we don’t take, the desires we try to ignore, that haunt us. Today, I pursue my dreams with vigor, unless doing so would harm others, or my desire is illegal or immoral. I plan to die with no regrets.