Leaning on his cane, his broad back turned toward us, Mr. Russell considers me over his left shoulder. I don’t know how to interpret that steady look. Oh, certainly he was upset by what I said. I know that much. He’d stopped in mid-stride, stopped dead. And now he turns. And what he says completely baffles me.
“Valdosta, Georgia. 1934.”
It did then. It still does. Well, I know what it must mean. His southern city of origin, his birth year. What else? But what did he mean by it? Trying to replay what happened, to see it in my imagination, hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I could go back physically and ask Mr. Russell what he meant, the city and the date; but that would be disappointing for both of us, me more than him. I just don’t get it. I can’t. Of course, anything that happens in Pleasant Park would be hard for me to get, since it isn’t part of the real world, the one I’m living in, acting in. Thus I excuse myself.
Consider what this place is called, this last stop for seniors. Though it derives from Pleasant Street, the unpleasantly urban thoroughfare it fronts on in Oakland, California, the name turns out to be remarkably appropriate. For it’s quite remarkable when anything of Oakland’s noise and stress and life filters through the wire fence surrounding Pleasant Park. In comparison to what’s cooking out there in the great, gray city—hollering drunks and druggies, smelly taco joints, siren-screeching cop cars– it’s a regular little Eden. No gas-driven vehicles allowed, which surely helps. And no one can live there who isn’t at least sixty; that must make a major difference. Finally, there’s a fair amount of open space in Pleasant Park and some trees and bushes, along with a twenty-hours a week female gardener, the only other white person in the place besides us, when we come there.
These lucky seniors live in a scattering of “garden units”: little boxes one up, one down, constructed neatly of redwood. All units have porches, and in good weather the inhabitants sit out on them for hours. They call out to one another, porch to porch, like birds in a big tree. The mobile ones toddle around the place in little groups, assemble in the recreation hall for merry games of bingo. Everything’s, you know, pleasant. I’m glad they enjoy the place, but I would never want to live here, even though well past sixty myself. Bingo? No thank you. Unlike them, I do things. I volunteer.
For instance, with Jen, my wife, I volunteer for Meals on Wheels, which brings us to Pleasant Park two mornings a week. Each senior client gets a cold lunch and a dinner we’ve kept warm in a padded bag. The latter meal is to be thrust into oven or micro and kept warm until evening. Or maybe some like the lunch hot and the dinner cold, just for a change. What do I know? What do I know about them?
Not much. They talk to us when we appear at their doors, but it’s always about the present state of their health, not their lives pre-Pleasant Park, which might be more interesting. As things are, while Jen may actually care about their physical malfunctions, I pretend interest. But I’ve never had to with Mr. Russell, who never talks about his health. For that I respect him. He must feel as I do. When you get old, you start falling apart, like a cranky old car. That’s not exactly news, so why drone on about your own particular disabilities? Because you have nothing else to talk about? Anyway, the rest of them at Pleasant Park give us health updates nearly every time we see them. Not him. In fact, Mr. Russell gives the impression of having no disabilities. He’s a big old man, and rather than toddle, he takes long strides. Now I know what an effort they must cost him.
So, no health updates from Mr. Russell. What does he talk about? Well, until last week he never said anything except good morning and thank you. But he interested me.
One big difference between Mr. Russell and the rest (I’m thinking this now) is that he isn’t cute, the last defense of old age. It obliges people to do things for you and act like they enjoy it. The others here, little old men and little old ladies—wow, are they cute. Not Mr. Russell, and I wouldn’t want to be the one who treated him as if he were; he would not care for that at all. It annoys the shit out of me that our kids have trained their kids, our grandkids, to think of grandma Jen and grandpa Joe as cute. I can’t do or say anything about it, for fear of angering Jen.
Okay. Now I understand more about why Mr. Russell interested me. Impressed me. But I still don’t understand why he said what he said. So try it again, good old present tense.
He’s eying me in oddly speculative fashion, and my eyes are fixed on him. Leaning heavily on that cane, he’s managed to twist his body around it and seems none too stable. Involuntarily, I take a step in his direction and might have taken another and another, to catch him if he starts to fall, but Jennifer grabs me and whispers “Joe, no.” Since I’d already upset him I’d be the last person he’d ever want help from. That’s what she thinks, but, reading his face, I’m not sure I agree. Or is that what I’m feeling now, in recollection? At the time, anyway, I chose to do nothing but stand and be silent, firmly gripping a bag half full of rejected tuna salad sandwiches. Nobody likes them.
Now Mr. Russell straightens himself without visible effort. Is he smiling or is that just a grimace? Could he joking around with me, pretending to be weak and old? Doubt it. He was always polite, but I never suspected him of playfulness.
And then the message, place and year. His place, his year.
“Valdosta, Georgia, 1934.”
Somehow this called for a reply—I think I sensed it then–but being flummoxed, buffaloed, flustered, I could think of nothing. He shook his head, turned his body, and resumed movement, going slow. Jen seized my arm. I realized that I was squeezing the tuna sandwiches, smushing them. The seniors, gazing at us from their porches, began a slow withdrawal. I heard them twittering and felt I’d let them down and, worse, much worse, failed Mr. Russell. Yesterday Jen went back to Pleasant Park by herself. He didn’t ask where I was, she said. She was about to say something else, but then she turned away from me.
Jennifer says next week when we’re due at Pleasant Park she’s not going alone. So if we see him, maybe he’ll say it again and I’d better have something to say back. It’s taken on the form of a challenge, like a chess move, requiring a countermove so that the game can go on.
Valdosta, Georgia, 1934. Place and year of birth. How was I supposed to interpret that? That he was an old man who grew up in hard times in a bad place for black people, so that it was cruel of me to say that about his legs, the disability that he’d always concealed from me? I doubt it. He isn’t a man who courts pity.
Valdosta, Georgia, 1934? Does that sound like a request for any sort of apology? It doesn’t strike me that way, not at all. And what I said—being startled, perhaps I said it too loud—wasn’t so terrible, anyway. Now, having just written it down, I don’t think it looks terrible. It just looks stupid.
“His legs, they’re like sticks.” That’s what I said. That’s all.
Or maybe my exclamation, which is all it was, should be written, “His legs, they’re . . . they’re . . . like sticks!!” In the drama of the moment. But, in fact, I’m not convinced that I actually shouted or even raised my voice at all, even though I was startled. How did he hear it, then? The wind. Did it bring what he said back to me? Yes, blame it on the wind, the rude Oakland wind that violated the boundary between Pleasant Park and outside.
That’s the core of my explanation, not an apology, if he wants one. I would begin by pointing out that on several previous missions to Pleasant Park I’d seen Mr. Russell ambling around the grounds but had never noticed the slightest hitch in his gait. He strode, that man, and he carried his cane and flourished it more than he leaned on it. I wondered why he even bothered with that piece of wood. How could I not be surprised when the wind blew in?
See Mr. Russell striding, no doubt in a rush to outrun the Pleasant Park squirrels to the food Jen and I left by his door. Standing with Jen, packing up before returning to Meals HQ with the rejected sandwiches, I idly watch him, his broad back swaying as he goes. And then, without a whisper of warning, a freakish gust roars into Pleasant Park from unpleasant Pleasant Avenue. Hurtling into Jen and me, it nearly whisks the tuna bag from my grasp. And then the rude, revealing wind slams into Mr. Russell, causing his pants to billow out in front of him. As a result, the thin blue fabric outlines the size and shape of the old man’s legs. They’re sticks, thin sticks. His cane is thicker. With this disability, it’s a wonder that he can even take more than a few cautious steps, let alone stride,
Startled, I said what I said. That’s my explanation if one is required. But it won’t be. What happened. Just say what happened, one last time.
First he quickens his pace, then abruptly stops and almost collapses on his cane, if that isn’t an act. And he says it.
Valdosta, Georgia. 1934.
And he waited there until it was clear that I had nothing to say in return. Now . . . now, you know what I’m thinking about? My legs, my own legs and the stairs I struggle to climb, even in my own house. The legs go first, don’t they? Everyone knows that. Had Mr. Russell noticed my slow progress mounting the stairs to one of the upper garden units? All he had to do was look. It’s obvious. It’s obvious what I am.
Yes, you could just as well say it of me. “His legs, like sticks.” Two old men, thirties born, in Pleasant Park. What can they make of their lives?
His was an opening move. And to what, what game? I’ll find out, we both will. Listen to me, Mr. Russell.
Mt. Kisko, New York. 1936. Your move, now.
About the Author: Jake Fuchs was born in New York City but grew up in Beverly Hills in a family headed by his father, the novelist and screenwriter, Daniel Fuchs. He now lives in Berkeley with Freya, his wife of fifty years. They have three children and a delightful little grandson. From 1971 to 2005 Jake taught English at CSU East Bay, specializing in 18th-century British literature. He began writing fiction in the late ’90s and has been fascinated and tortured by the craft ever since. His short fiction has appeared in journals, and he has three published novels. Death of a Dad and Death of a Prof are both satyric mysteries. The third book is the more or less autobiographical fiction, Conrad in Beverly Hills. A fourth novel, the academic satire Posterior Trumpets is presently in the final throes of revision.
Artwork: Marie Dunne