The voice I awaken to is deep but it is not that of a man; it is too soft. She is black I predict, with thick shinny hair that circles her round face; her hands are strong, as though they have not seen an easy day their whole life. I sense that she is a hard woman but not brash or harsh like the one Peggy had when she broke her hip. She's talking loud and slow to me, like someone giving directions to a foreigner. The pillow my head rests on is not mine; it smells like detergent and is much more firm then the one at home. I have not opened my eyes yet but I know this is not my bed and this room is not our bedroom. Peggy's breathing breaks the silence of each morning; she has always despised the beginning of a day electing instead to prolong it long after the sun has set. Our house is still except for the sound of a fifty four year marriage drawing to a close and the clicking of our beagle's toe nails taping the linoleum floor. There are too many sounds in this place and the voices I hear are not Peggy's or Sarah's or Billy's or their little brother Vance.
"Mornin Mista Friedrich."
The woman with the low voice is leaned over me; her hand is heavy as she gently shakes my shoulder.
"You gonna join us today, you know I don't stand for no slackers"
The lights seem to penetrate my eyelids before I even open them. "That's better. Now let's see if we can't get the rest of you to wake up"
My mind starts to race as I wait for my pupils to shrink. I stiffen as the black woman pulls the covers from me; the room is warm but I feel exposed and try to pull them back but she is much stronger.
"Its' ok Mista Friedrich, I'm not gonna let anything happen to you; see, nobody's in the room but me and you."
I think back to the last 24 hours, its' as if I had too much to drink and was found on the side of the road. What ever happened I know my wife would be here if she knew I was not at home.
"Where's Peggy" It's as if I haven't heard my voice in days. How long have I been out?
I look up to see a black woman with straight hair; it is gold almost, like the color of the Belair station wagon we once owned. Her skin, the darkest brown and the whites of her eyes look as if they had just been recharged.
"Miss Friedrich will be along; we just need to get you out of this night gown and into a nice pair of slacks and a dress shirt."
They have placed me in room drenched in two tone orange paint; the pictures that hang on the vivid walls look like pages torn from a Southern Living magazine, there is a curtain between the bed I am in and the one which now lies empty. This is obviously a hospital; I scan my body to see if I have been injured.
"I need you to be still William."
"How long do I have to be here? Where is Peggy?"
The woman assures me the desk down the hall has someone who can answer my questions just as soon as I am dressed.
Billy pulls up the drive with his mother in the passenger seat. I had not been out of my slippers since she went in the hospital and counted on Sarah for meals other than my peanut butter toast and black coffee each morning. I watch as Billy helps his mother out of the car making sure she has a firm grasp of the metal walker before getting the small suit case from the back seat.
"Still in your PJ's I see dad. Sara hasn't been by to clean?"
He is cross with me but I concentrate on my wife and how frail she is. She had been gone for a month; Sarah said she needed to spend some time in Evergreen nursing home after the surgery.
"Dad, pay attention, grab Mom's bag and put it in your room."
Peggy's eyes give me a tired hello. The luster her face once shown is vacant now; replaced by the wear of seventy five years. I want to stand by the bed she lie in but for the first time since I first asked her out I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say. Instead I let my son put her in our bed and make the phone calls and do the things a son dose for his aging parents.
"Dad, I need to explain some things and I need you to listen real close"
The black woman tells me her name is Nurse Karen. The name sounds familiar I tell her but then I know many so many people I can't keep tract. She marches me in front of a large mirror; to show off the shirt and pants she has picked out I'm guessing.
"I am looking at one handsome man Mr. William Friedrich"
She spins me around; as if I have eyes in the back of my head.
"So, what do ya think birthday boy?"
I figure a smile will give her the gratitude she seeks and flash the widest I can muster.
"My you are handsome; tall, hair all combed, not bad for someone turning seventy eight. Your children are coming today, they gonna be proud as peacocks when they see you all spiffed up"
I pull into the garage to see Billy's 62 Impala in the first bay and Mr. Donaldson's Rambler by the pumps.
"Why is Mr. Donaldson's car outside?" Billy's surprised face appears from the back room.
"Dad, I got that cam, remember?" Tommy was supposed to help but his mom won't let him outta the house for some reason."
I look under the hood to see the heads off and wrenches lying everywhere.
"Tommy was going to help you tear into this motor; he can't even open an adjustable. I need the Rambler done by today Billy and you ain't near finished." I reach for my coveralls "Here, give me the wrench and get some of these back in my box or you'll end up with one in the oil pan."
"Thanks Dad. Ah, you know Mom don't want me soupin up my car; says I'll end up killing myself one of these days." His way of saying please don't tell her.
"You hurt your mother by getting killed, I'll kill you myself; ya hear me?"
"I won't Dad"
With Billy running the pumps we have his car idling by dinner time." I must admit kid; she does sound nice. Now you get to tell your mom you're helping me with Mr. Donaldson' car and we'll be late for supper; go on now."
I can hear the black woman's voice in the hall just outside the room they have me in; she's laughing with two or three other voices I don't recognize. I check to be sure I have something on my feet then make my way into the hall.
"Hay Dad" I scan the tall balding gentleman as he cups my arms. "Happy birthday old man"
"Hi birthday boy; wow don't you look dashing" The attractive woman hugs me for some time it seems.
"You remember your kids Mr. Friedrich: Billy and Sarah. The black woman grabs me by the shoulders with her strong hands." You have a nice visit with your children."
"Vance is in Europe on business but he sends his love; you remember Vance dad?" A nod satisfies their question.
We walk in what looks like a small cafeteria and all sit at a round table. The two watch me for a moment as if they were trying to put the face with a name. I ask them if they've had a nice time here because it's such a large hospital. They assure me they are enjoying themselves; it's a beautiful hospital the woman says. The man is tall like me and balding, the woman is attractive but wrinkles are starting to invade her eyes. My children were much younger I remember but then I was out for quite a while.
They ask me a lot about the hospital; how I'm being treated, what I had for supper last night. I tell them I'll probably be discharged today as soon as Peggy discovers I am missing.
We have some vanilla cake with vanilla butter frosting, my favorite I'm told; it's served with checkered ice cream. There are five lit candles which I blow out easily, much to the delight of my guests.
"Open your present Dad; we found it in an old trunk in the basement of yours and moms house."
I pull at the colorful paper until the gift is staring back at me.
"It's an old photo of you and mom. We think it was taken when you just got out of the service. We had it framed so you can hang it on the wall in your room. Mom is beautiful, she looks so happy; no wonder you fell in love with her."
We land hard on the dirt runway. I could never figure out why the army wanted me to work on their air planes knowing how much I hated flying; but then, it was the army. I'm the first in the door way and can see Peggy leaning against dad's car as I come down the stairs; her eyes are glistening in the bright sun. It seems like it takes ten minutes to walk the hundred and fifty feet to where she waits.
"Hey you" she stands with her arms open. "Too bad it takes a war to get you into a uniform." She tugs at the collar of my brown coat. "Mind if I take you home with me or are you here for someone else?"
My arms are around her before my suitcase hits the ground.
"I missed you bad Peggy".
We both have so much to talk about but save it for later. I let her drive, she tells me we're not going home and takes us to a place we use to go to when we were dating; December Pond. The picnic table is still in the same spot under the big pine tree thirty feet from the water and across the lake the rope still hangs from the oak where the guys use to show off for the girls.
"Wanna go skinny dipping" Peggy pretends to start pulling her coat off.
"Believe me; I'd think about it if it weren't November"
When the car pulls in behind us I have the urge to pound whosever face was driving into the hood of dad's car; my first day as a civilian after two years and all I wanted right now was the two of us; alone.
"Excuse me, I don't mean to bother you"
"Well ya kinda are"
"Just getting out?"
"Yea, bout forty minutes ago; why?"
"I'm sorry, really. I'm doing a story on our boys coming home and I saw you two. I need to get a few shots for the story; you two fit the bill perfectly. Just get in a pose, I'll let you pick it, then I'm outta your hair. You guys really are perfect, if you wouldn't mind; please!"
"We get a copy of the picture?"
"Are you kidding me, of course?"
"And then you're outta here?"
"Good as gone"
I look at Peggy and shrug having no clue what to do next. She wraps her arms around my chest and looks up at me with those beautiful hazel eyes glowing like candles; I stiffen up and salute as we both lean back into the car making Peggy laugh out loud; flash, he snaps the shot at that moment. He says that was just the kind of picture the story needed; he thanks us ten more times before getting in his car and driving away. We sit at the picnic table under the big pine and talk until the November air forces us back to the car where we spend another hour. December Pond becomes our get-a-way until Sarah's born.
Billy is hugging me; I sense by his face that he is unhappy about something.
"Dad, I'm sorry I was so rough on you when you started getting sick; I didn't know what it was at first. It just seemed to happen so gradual, I thought you were getting lazy, tired, I don't know. It's just, you were always the one helping us, you know, with everything. It was hard to see you, I don't know, becoming so helpless; that's a tough thing for a son to see"
He seems to be searching for more words then puts his head down and puts his hand on mine. I smile at both of them then we sit in silence. The woman tells me Vance will be home in a week and he has a birthday present from Greece he is excited about giving me. I get hugs from them both one more time then watch as the two walk down the hall, the balding one looking back at me before they disappear behind double doors.
The smell of food fills the long hallway reminding me of how long it's been since Peggy last made me dinner. The black woman sets the plastic dish in front of me while humming a song in her low voice.
"How was your visit Mr. Friedrich, I see you got a nice present."
I stare down at the photo of the young couple then grab the fork off my tray and stab what looks like meat loaf, filling my mouth with the dry matter.
"I know your mind ain't got much room no more, but you can't tell me there ain't no room for the past Mr. Friedrich. I just am not gonna believe that."
The halls are quiet as I lie in the hospital bed. The black woman is very nice to me and I tell her so; I ask if she knows when Peggy's coming to get me.
"Your Peggy's gone Mr. Friedrich"
"She's not too far away I think"
"No; she sure isn't William. Good night now."
"Dad's getting worse" Sarah looks at her brother as they enter the elevator.
"You might as well have apologized to this you know." She holds up her oversized pocket book.
"I did it more for myself, not that I feel any better."
"Don't beat yourself up; everybody deals with this in different ways. You're not the only son to be a dick."
"Just trying to help" The elevator bell tolls three floors to ward C. Endless rows of tile shimmer under the weight of florescent lighting as the two walk the familiar route to their mothers room. Billy counts down the numbers until they reach 304.
"Here she is" He pokes his head in as if he might catch her in a bad moment. A nurse is finishing up taking their mother's blood pressure "I'll be out in a sec" she clicks the bottle hanging by the bed with her pointer finger then writes some figures on her clip board before excusing herself with a nod and a smile.
"Hey Mom" Sarah brushes her hand over her mother's forehead.
"God; she looks like she lost more weight"
"Hi Mom, its Billy" He stares at her pale emotionless face hoping by some miracle she will open her eyes and greet him.
"I see their serving your favorite "he cups the bottle with the clear fluid dripping into his mother's arm "Vegetable lasagna and salad"
"Nice Billy" Sarah rolls her eyes in mock disgust.
"What; Mom would have laughed"
"Ya know you're right? She would have"
The kids are out of control with excitement. "You guys calm down or we'll turn around and go back home."
Bill drives with one eye in the rear view mirror monitoring the commotion in the back seat.
"Mom, Rusty's drooling on me"
"You're the one that wanted to take the dog Sarah. Billy, help your sister put Rusty in the back of the wagon" Vance points at the big yellow arches ahead "McDonalds!" Billy and Sarah give their dog a heave and whip around to catch the spectacle ahead. "Yeah, McDonalds!" Their excitement gets Rusty barking as they start yelling out their orders.
"I want a chocolate shake"
"Can I get a strawberry one?"
"I want my own french fries; Billy hogged them all last time"
"I want a cheeseburger"
"I'll let you deal with them, I'm gonna get in line" Bill puts his fingers in his ears as he makes his way to the outside window.
"You're gonna get what dad buys you and be thankful, you hear? Some kids never ever get to have McDonalds; so be happy with what you're getting." They've heard the guilt speech before but it was all I had at the moment.
Bill turns from the window flashing ten fingers at me; I shake my head and yell out the window "Eight; and no cheeseburgers"
"Mom; no fair. I said I want a cheeseburger"
The smell of fries enters the car just before Bill.
"OK kids" three faces line the front seat as Bill reaches into the two bags, faking for a moment he can't get the burgers out of the white bags.
"Dad!" three small voices shriek in unison.
"C'mon Bill, the kids are starting to drool like the dog!"
He hands the wrapped treasures and small sodas to each then pulls out separate fries.
"Bill; they don't each need a fry. You're gonna spoil them"
He grabs a french fry from his bag sticking it in my mouth then yanks it out with his teeth.
"Why not; I spoil you don't I?"
"It's amazing we have parents; one in a coma and the other doesn't remember his own children, living, if you want to call it that, in the same building three floors apart and they have no idea"
Sarah gets up from her chair crossing her arms. "Yea; Shakespeare at his best."
Billy stretches off the forty five minutes of siting. "I wonder if they still think about each other, if they have this other world nobody knows about"
Sarah looks down at her mother and touches her face. "It's what makes this whole thing tolerable for me. Yes; and I can't think otherwise"
"I could never figure out why Mom insisted on putting Dad in this home. The place is forty miles from Evergreen and that was a nice place I thought; and a ton closer"
"She never said" Sarah puts her coat over her arm. "I know she'd have haunted us for eternity if we didn't get her in here with Dad"
They kiss their mother and promise a visit next week.
Outside the fresh air is contrasted by the controlled environment of the nursing home.
"This place is nice you have to admit."
"The Manor's At December Pond; sounds like a fancy condominium complex; the only thing missing is a golf course" Billy imitates his golf swing.
"C'mon Tiger; you can walk me to my car"
"Dad was a pretty good golfer"
"Mom and Dad were pretty good parents"