Friday, September 01, 2006

Final Resting Places

If Fonzie hadn’t done his business on me, I’d still be living at the Kraus, conversing with grateful widows each afternoon and whittling away the nights with brewskis and weed. Anne and I would have continued our infrequent but pleasurable trysts, and I would have continued to amuse the residents and made myself useful. Days would pass with blissful regularity until I collected my inheritance and moved to Milwaukee.

But that stupid cocker spaniel couldn’t control his hormones, and my reputation was sullied. What kind of young man tries that with a dog? the residents whispered. A dog! I was a pervert, a sex fiend. Of course they would say that. The residents loved to talk. Gossip was their sustenance.

I can’t be accused of asking for it. On a sullen summer day as I walked the halls in boxers, Fonzie ran out of Wayne Chao’s room and attached himself to my bare left leg, shaking like a paint mixer. “What are you doing?” yelled Mr. Chao, who had shuffled outside. Fonzie had done this to a couple of nurses, though Mr. Chao had denied it.

“Nothing, Mr. Chao. Your dog just came on me.”

“You’ll regret that,” Wayne Chao snarled, as if the mutt was his Harvard-educated daughter and I’d planned the whole thing. Fonzie oozed down my shin and I hopped on one leg to a bathroom. Mr. Chao told anyone who’d listen that I’d spoilt his beloved, and he filed a complaint to Shelia, who ran the place.

Shelia is smart, probably too much for her own good. Her creative managerial efforts resulted in a Medicare investigation and two citations from state health inspectors. As the Kraus’s population dwindled, Shelia tried a new approach, reminding prospective customers and their families that the Kraus wasn’t “a nursing home. It’s an assisted-living community.”

Shelia renamed the place Phoenix Haven, but everyone still called it the Kraus, as in The Oberon R. Kraus Memorial Nursing Home. The late Mayor Kraus had governed Spottsville in the 1940s and was known for his generosity, kindness, and his secret wife and second set of children in Green Bay. The residents remembered Mayor Kraus and the songs and movies of their youth, though they forgot their room numbers and the names of the caretakers who bathed them. At the Tuesday Night Talent Show, right before Adolph Beerman was supposed to sing “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” Hiram Schmidt stood up, spread his gooseflesh arms like a possessed Lutheran minister, and cried, “Shelia, baby, I can’t cut the mustard, but I can still lick the jar.”

Shelia said nothing, but Adolph yelled back, “You lowdown son-of-a-bitch, I’m the star here.”

“I just want what’s coming to me,” Hiram whimpered. Like Mayor Kraus, the man had spent most of his 88 years trying to spread his genes across Wisconsin. He was slave to his habits.

I, too, was slave to my habits and sins: lust, sloth, and dealing weed, none of which were amenable to living in a nursing home. I had entered the Kraus after Mom threatened to leave the place. “I have to live with you in the house, that’s what the lawyer says,” she said.

“Screw that, we’re selling the house and I’m moving in with you,” I replied. Shelia procured a room in a deserted hallway laced with cobwebs and rivulets of mold.

There had been no opposition to my admission into the Kraus — I paid extra, they needed the money, and the codgers enjoyed my company. But everyone gossiped about my credentials. I carried ample weight among the emaciated; my shaggy brunette mane flopped beside gray hair and cue-ball pates; I towered above bodies humpbacked over walkers and flat on gurneys. Some said that I squandered my inheritance in my travels, which could not be true, but Mom heard the rumors and was not pleased.

So Doug became Oberon R. Kraus’s obedient son. I volunteered at events, helped serve dinner, and occasionally slept with Anne, a svelte nurse with eyes shaped like tadpoles who was married to her high-school sweetheart, the manager of Spottsville Tire Warehouse. I disinfected Mr. Hiberthal’s room and helped the paramedics lift his body off the floor. I stood sentry over bridge games, which were full of sharp bidding and wit, and I intercepted Mrs. Gammons every afternoon at 1:45 as she went to Shelia’s office to complain about the noisy neighbors. Once, I separated two ancient but determined men when they came to blows over a woman dead 28 years, then held them at bay until they forgot why they had fought. I talked to residents when they were lonely and bitter, and heard how much they hated the Kraus and the children who had put them there.

But my good deeds carried no truck with Shelia. Her office reeked of used furniture and plastic ferns. Shelia was playing with her wedding ring as if she still hadn’t grown accustomed to it.

“You’re sick, hitting an old man’s dog,” she said. A few residents were huddling outside, ears pressed to the window. Shelia waved them away.

“That retarded mutt came on my leg. Jesus H. Christ, I didn’t even hit the dog.”

“Doug, Doug. Cut the drama. Mr. Chao is old and sick. I mean, in the old days…” Shelia looked upward, eyes glazing over into a reverie of overflow bingo nights and waiting lists, of rejecting Chinese widows with unneutered dogs and piloting full bus shuttles to the Station Mall. Shelia often lost herself in the past when considering the present, a habit she picked up from the residents.

“Perhaps you should consider moving back to your house,” she said after a long pause. “I’ve talked about it with the directors.”

“I’ll be good,” I said. Shelia’s mouth bunched up like a bottle cap. We both knew how badly the Kraus needed the money.

The thing is, I liked Wayne Chao. I enjoyed hearing how his parents ended up in Spottsville instead of New York, about his wearing a “No, I Am Not” button during World War Two, how he took over the family grocery store (now closed) though he wanted to attend college. His daughter Sarah was a doctor in Boston, his son had gone to West Point. My father had taught the Chao kids in high school. He called them “smart as hell slant eyes.” (Dad apparently did not talk to strangers about me and Betsy.)

Sarah Chao and I were about the same age. She was a beauty who nobody dated in high school, fearful of the social repercussions. Sarah visited the Kraus every few months, trying to get her father to move to Boston. “She tells me that you were no dum-dum,” Wayne said, following one of Sarah’s visits. “Doesn’t know why you’re living in this place.”

“Maybe it was all that pot I smoked in college,” I said, watching Fonzie as he threw himself against his cage.

I left Shelia’s office and drove to a hill overlooking the old family farm. Holsteins grazed upon verdant undulations, milk-and-coal splotches covering their hides, warmed by sunlight as sweet and thick as cream. Far in the distance, a fungi-encrusted barn veered towards collapse; vermin had invaded and secured the grain silo.

Unlike Wayne Chao’s parents, who left Guangdong Province, my father never moved. He graduated with an associate’s degree from the community college, and remained on the farm until he got a job at Spottsville High teaching current events and coaching J.V. football. After Grandpa died, Dad and Aunt Marian sold the farm during the oil crisis for a sheik’s ransom. Often, I wondered what it would have been like to work the farm. I would rise at dawn, milk those cows in the distance, earn my keep with honest toil, and come home to a grateful wife who had cooked dinner, my kids running up to hug me. I might have been happy, content.

Doubt it, though.


Morris Stankiewicz, who I had known from high school metal shop, came to my room one night with “Nasty Nurses #27,” beer, and some pot I’d sold him.

“Man, I want to see some boning,” Morris said, sipping on a Schlitz, tapping his foot to a soundtrack that echoed wah-wah-wah-de-wah in the night. Morris worked at the brake factory, but they’d been cutting shifts and was scheduled to move the rest of its production to Vietnam within a year.

In high school Morris got stoned a lot and played air guitar, and he kept on strumming through adulthood. He’d play Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” on his stereo and yell, “Move over, Rover, and let MORRIS take over!” and think this was the coolest thing in the world.

Morris’s family had owned 600 acres until their loans were called in. He was one of the few people I had known from high school who hadn’t moved to Milwaukee or Minneapolis, or who wasn’t a crystal meth freak.

A buxom candy striper was about to fulfill Morris’s wishes when my door crept open. Droopy blue eyes glowed in the shadows. As I approached, the eyes receded—a woman jogged away, hands flapping at her wrists, unhinged in their daintiness. “Ohhh, ohhh!” she said, as if I were pursuing her.

“Who was that?” Morris asked.

“Some old lady wandering the halls,” I said, though I knew better.

“How do you get any, with all these old farts around?” Morris’s stare never left the screen.

Ida Kavenaugh entered the rec room the next day as I was stacking up exercise mats. She interested me because she had lived in New York. (Dad never took us on vacations, except for skiing in the Upper Peninsula and waterskiing in Wisconsin Dells.)

Ida had suffered several facelifts before her third husband died, a business fraud who left her without progeny but with a mountain of debt. She had subsequently decamped to the nursing home, in which her 81-year-old mother resided, though Ida was just 62 and full of bile.

Ida’s taut face and sordid past were the talk of the Kraus. Supposedly, she separated old men from their wallets with the promise of sex. There might have been some foundation to the rumors. Anne told me that Mrs. Kavenaugh was on blood pressure medication that made her hyperactive, nosy, and horny. Which I had already gathered: on several occasions, Ida Kavenaugh had approached me to talk, winking and grinning.

Shiny pink polish lacquered Ida’s speared fingernails, one of which she waved in my face. “Look, mister, I’m on to you. I may be older, but my eyes and ears work just peachy.”

“Yes, Mrs. Kavenaugh.”

“You have all those funny friends in there, watching those filthy movies and smoking that marijuana.” Her voice , low-pitched and with a lazy articulation that extended words in an un-Wisconsin-like fashion, sounded like it had been piped in from a phone sex line.

“I love movies, by the way,” she said. “Have you ever seen ‘Harold and Maude’?”

“Yes, Mrs. Kavenaugh. Ruth Gordon. Bud Cort.”

“Well, it’s a wonderful movie, you can learn a lot from it. And I’ll be watching you, buster.” It looked like fishhooks were pulling her lips backward. That was her way of smiling.

Mother and I ate dinner that evening in the cafeteria, at a Formica table with patterns of twinkling stars and bunny-tailed comets. Mrs. Karl banged a fist on her table, and protested loudly that the food was too dry, a complaint she lodged often to the chorus of boos. I held up a spoon of liquid peas to Mom’s mouth, but she turned away.

“Douglas, we should move back to the house,” she said, as always.

“We sold it, remember? This is our home.”

“If Anita Hansen wasn’t stealing my money…” Anita Hansen, the assistant to the executor of my father’s estate, was an able custodian of our money and did not trust me, since she suspected (correctly) that I dealt weed to her teenage son.

“Douglas, I remember something,” Mom said, a sudden crispness in her consonants. “We were living on Washington Street, near those ball fields.”

“Yes, our old house.”

“You used to talk about being a lawyer. You wanted to move, like Betsy. Why didn’t you?”

After receiving a B.A. from a little-known satellite of our esteemed state university, I moved to Milwaukee (over Father’s objections) with a couple of buddies. I had a few girlfriends and a stretch of screw-around jobs in the restaurant trade.

“Mom, you’re full of shit.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“But it’s true, I was in Milwaukee, remember?”

Next to us, a woman lunged forward in her walker and rammed into a tray rack, sending plates of meals flying. Fonzie charged into the cafeteria – I shuddered — and attacked the food on the floor, slurping down chunks of Salisbury steak and puddles of starchy brown gravy. Wayne Chao came over to retrieve Fonzie, but he stopped at our table, leaning on a mahogany cane with one hand, brandishing an arthritic fist with the other.

“Watch out — the Chinaman knows karate!” Adolph Beerman yelled.

“You should move away,” Wayne said. “You’re a bad person.”

“Uh, I don’t think so, Mr. Chao,” I said, trying to sound smug. But Wayne Chao’s feebleness saddened me. I felt like a banker repossessing a farm.


If you don’t have a stupid fear, my father would say, you’re not human. Mine is fear of Home Depot. It’s because of the toilets, which sit atop a 25-foot high display angled toward the ground. One day, the steel pins anchoring the toilets will fail, fusillades of ceramic will crash down, and I will be crushed like a Gestapo boot on a stick of butter. Morris can spend hours strolling through Home Depot, inspecting hand sanders like they were objects d’art. He doesn’t worry about the toilets. (Perhaps I worry because someone like Morris affixed them.)

This phobia will be played out in old age: all objects above eye level are potentially fatal. Trees, clouds, overhead light fixtures. My as-yet-to-be-conceived children holding their hands above me in frustration as I slump in a wheelchair. You don’t change, you become more of what you already are. I saw this at the Kraus. Every resident suffered the fears and angst of earlier days, magnified to the degree that made DNA look like a spiral staircase you could climb to the attic.

As a result, the residents gleaned much comfort from the surroundings, as it embodied their better days. The Kraus is probably like most nursing homes built in the 1950s. Driveways lined with loblolly pine, a flat roof of cream gravel. Cinderblock walls painted a soft-serve vanilla and terrazzo tiles glued to the floor.

It was not as nice as our old house, not even as nice as the crummy Milwaukee apartments I inhabited at the tender age of 24, right before Dad died. I didn’t move into the Kraus of my own choice. Dad left me $229,457, but only if I moved to Spottsville and cared for Mom. (There was no such condition for Betsy, who only got half that amount, because she already lived in Cleveland with my sanctimonious brother-in-law and bratty nephews.) The will requires that I live with my mother, and Anita Hansen made some unpleasant remarks when I first moved Mom into the Kraus and put the house up for sale.

I hadn’t planned to stay long after Dad died, just long enough to help Mom settle in. Screw the money. Mom would leave me something. I wasn’t going to live in Spottsville again. Screw the moneyI meant it, I really did, with all the ignorant bravado of youth.

But after a couple of months, I had settled into a leisurely routine of partying late and sleeping in, which proved more agreeable than waiting tables, temping at law firms or postponing grad school. I drank in Spottsville’s stunted ambition; I was infused with the corn-cob aesthetic of cod fish boils and Packers season tickets. There were $2.75 pitchers at O’Houlihan’s and just enough willing ladies to satisfy my carnal desires. (After a few girls demanded a relationship, I only slept with married women.) I sold weed and worked part-time at the local Deere dealership, living with Mom at home, awaiting my inheritance.

And then I was three times 12 years old, living in the Kraus. I didn’t screw the money, the money screwed me.

“You’re a monster,” my brother-in-law said when I announced my plans to move into the nursing home with Mom.

But he’d grown up Shaker Heights, and did not appreciate the creaky stupefaction promised with each dawn, the calmness one associates with youth that I felt infused in me, for the first time, in my 30s.

Dad ensured our family did not enjoy such pleasant dullness. My father wasn’t a raging alcoholic, simply a manipulative one. “Betsy — I can’t believe she’s my daughter,” he drunkenly told me, after she had left for college. “My own daughter, a slut. You know what that was like, trying to teach, hearing that all around me?” Dad said I should stay in Spottsville, that he was proud of me.

A few weeks later, he called Betsy to complain that I was using drugs and stealing, Mom was threatening suicide, and he needed her at home. She didn’t take the bait.

For his current events classes, Dad ordered travel brochures and posters. He’d cut out pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Fuji and the Doge’s Palace, and paste them to swaths of lime-green cardboard. “Those poor kids aren’t going to ever see the world,” he’d say.

After my father retired, he took up bourbon and television full time. He was an avid viewer of “The People’s Court,” as it irritated the crap out of him. The world was full of real injustice: why do these busybodies sue each other over vandalized porch doors and dog bites? “Jesus H. Christ,” he’d say, throwing his hands high in the air. “Everybody suffers in the end.”

He wore his resentment in earth tones against his splotchy skin, his face aged like tobacco, voice croaking of Johnny Walker Red. “I got to admit, you were smart, getting out of here and going to Milwaukee,” he said a few months before his liver gave out. “I’d wish I’d been that smart. I guess you’re different.” He knew better.

Ida Kavenaugh entered my room without knocking and turned on the light. “Hello, sailor,” she said, looking at her feet, encased in furry pink slippers. “I couldn’t sleep. Are you up, Doug? You haven’t been smoking any marijuana, are you?”

“Uh, no, Mrs. Kavenaugh.” I had been partying with Morris earlier, and it felt like cotton was being pulled between my ears.

“Call me Ida,” she said. “That really isn’t right, smoking that stuff. It’s naughty.”

Ida took small steps towards me, her pale knees peeking through the slit of a silk bathrobe. She pulled a metal chair beneath her, next to the bed. Her unlined face was bright with rouge and lipstick and baby blue eye shadow; chopsticks pinned up her gray-blonde locks, which were dusted with glitter. She looked like an aging hooker about to give a dying man his last wish. “Tell me, baby, are you naughty?”

“What time is it, Mrs. Kavenaugh?”

“Oh, dear, I shouldn’t have come in so late,” she said.

“I’m really tired. Is there something you want to talk about?”

“Tell me, why do you live here? You’re young and handsome. What does your girlfriend think?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Can I come in bed with you? I’m cold.”

“Mrs. Kavenaugh—”

“Oh, Doug, I just have to say it. You’re a beautiful man! I haven’t been with a man in months, sweetie, and I just thought…”

She ran her hand along my leg. “You’re lonely, too.”

“I am?”

“You are, I can tell. Oh, Doug, I might be older than you, but I still have needs. I used to have a beautiful body, before my reduction — 36-24-36. Let me tell you, everybody wanted a piece of me, fella.”

“I’ll bet,” I said. “It’s late, Mrs. Kavenaugh.”

“I’m not Mrs. Kavenaugh anymore,” she said, her hand climbing up my thigh.

“We should stop. I’m not ready for this. We barely know each other.”

She cast what was supposed to be a seductive glance. Her face was pulled tight like a trampoline skin, showing wide-eyed dismay rather than animal lust. “I don’t want to stop, and you don’t want me to stop, do you?”

Honestly, I wanted her to stop. I’d seen Anne a few days earlier. There were enough of needy young women in Spottsville. There was nothing erotic in Mrs. Kavenaugh’s sagging flesh and pathetic attempts to stay young. I didn’t want Ida Kavenaugh in my bed, in my room.

But I didn’t order her out, either. Ida’s seductive pose was agony made flesh — she had followed the rules of the game, she’d escaped Spottsville with her looks and guile and nights like these with wealthy men. And now Ida was back in Spottsville, a refugee from the big city and her dreams. She’d failed. I’d seen that look in my father when he spoke of Grandpa. I’d seen that look in me.

I closed my eyes. “Don’t stop,” I said.


Shelia and Pete Hammonds were standing in my room, Shelia looking worried, Pete looking angry. Pete hated me for having taken Karen Schultz to senior prom, when everybody knew he was in love with her.

“This is ridiculous,” Shelia said. “Ida Kavenaugh is a crazy old bat and her meds make her wacky. She can’t even remember what she did last night, never mind a month ago. She was never even in here.”

“Actually, she did stop by,” I said, feeling as if I harbored no guilt.

“Well, that changes things,” Pete said, pulling out his handcuffs. “You’ll have to come with me.”

“Oh, come on, Pete,” I said.

“We can do it my way or the hard way. And it’s Officer Hammonds to you, asshole.”

“You’re still pissed I took Karen to prom.”

“Never crossed my mind,” he said, putting my wrists in a vise.

“Damnit, at least use the back door!” Shelia said.

But Officer Hammonds wanted revenge for a dance half our lives ago, and I made my perp walk before a horde of onlookers. In the lobby, Ida was waiting, black liner hollowing out her eyes. “That’s him! That’s the pervert! He tried to force himself on me! He tried to rape a dog!”

Ida’s timing was not accidental: it was the Kraus’s monthly open house, walls festooned with maize and red bunting, children and grandchildren wheeling around their elders, all staring at the hippie-haired, goateed man wearing a Wisconsin Badgers T-shirt and collapsed smile.

After I was released the next day, Pete Hammonds came to the Kraus and apologized, saying Ida Kavenaugh’s allegations had no basis in fact, and that there was no reason to worry about the safety of the residents. But it was too late. Nobody could leave their parents in a nursing home that had admitted a sex fiend and animal rapist, even though most knew I was innocent, even though I had been evicted. The Kraus closed eight months later.

Mother has an apartment with a nurse, and I live in the same complex, which keeps Anita Hansen happy. My life is still simple and carefree. Pete Hammonds felt so bad about what happened that we sometimes hang out, smoking the weed that I sold to teenagers and he subsequently seized on my information.

The weird thing is that I miss the Kraus. I dream of the putrid food, the pruned faces and wrecked bodies, the endless complaining and the memory loss, the constant smell of ammonia and probable death.

After I slept with Ida Kavenaugh, I thought what my Dad would have done. He would have pushed Ida aside, opened another bottle, and flicked on the television. That was the difference – I had been planting the seed of life, Dad would have drowned it in liquor.

I was haunted with the lost promise of what might of been. Because sleeping with Ida Kavenaugh meant more than a respite from Spottsville’s quotidian routine. With Ida, I would have developed some fortitude, my desire to leave would be rekindled, and we would have escaped. Like we were living a Bruce Springsteen song. She was dying to leave for more urbane surroundings; I had to leave Spottsville or resign myself to gratifying, abject rot. We would leave behind Home Depot and Morris Stankiewicz’s porn and the Kraus’s Tuesday night Bean Taco Fiesta. Ida was my kindred soul, stuck in a cesspool of busted hopes and dying souls. That’s what I thought, at least after she readjusted my groin. You and me, Ida, we were born to run.

I plied her with promises of marijuana, escape, and money, my father’s inheritance to come. This impressed her none. Ida had heard similar entreaties when she was 19 and skipped college to marry; she had heard the same when she was 20 and working as a waitress and a rich stranger offered her shelter in the Big Apple, whereupon she abandoned her husband of a year; she had heard this when she was 46 and given a final shot with a man who became her third husband, who said he owned several car dealerships and a fiberglass fabricating plant in upstate New York. I’ll take care of you babe, just let me take care of you.

Ida wanted to have sex when she was the pursuer, and took my subsequent desire as stalking. “You stay away from me, mister,” she said one night while I stood inside her doorway. “I’ve heard all that ‘Let’s run away, I’m rich’ malarkey before. We had our fun, but that was that. I’m not leaving this place and neither are you.” I learned later from Anne that Ida went off her blood pressure medication immediately after our rendezvous. She called the Spottsville police soon thereafter.

I spend many hours thinking about my isolation, the lack of career opportunities in Spottsville, the friends still in Milwaukee, now with families — the compost my dreams became. It’s then that I mourn what happened with Ida. But not because she held the promise of a fuller life elsewhere, not because she was my last best chance to leave. Even if we had stayed in the nursing home forever, I wanted to be Ida Kavenaugh’s young stud. I know, I know: this would have been equivalent to my Dad’s boozy retreat into oblivion, but it would have been for the greater good.

As Ida’s lover, I would have educated myself; I would have read the Kama Sutra and gotten into shape and learned how to please her; I would been made whole, given purpose, caressing her taut face and reduced breasts, tending to her needs while we made sweet love each night in a darkened wing of the Oberon R. Kraus Memorial Nursing Home. No one would have ever known, and it would have brought a little happiness to a bitter world before we reached our final resting places.