C.A.R.E (Part I)
Wendy wrote this story a couple years ago, but didn't send it out to anyone because she didn't like the ending. I convinced her to publish the first half of the story, right here on Fiction Daze, and get the ending ready for next week. I really like this story, with its light tone and quirky characters. And it's funny. Here's part I. You'll have to wait till next Friday to read part II.
C.A.R.E. (Part I)
By Wendy Fritzke
A Dog by any Other Name
“Bandit,” the old man shouted as he answered the door.
“Um… OK. Hi Mr. Jack. Ready to go?” Hubert — or Hugh, as he liked to be called — was confused, but knew from experience that it was best to not press Mr. Jack into explanations too quickly. Besides, not quite understanding what was going on around him was a typical, though nonetheless uncomfortable, position Hugh had found himself in for years. Pretty much since puberty.
“No, come on in boy. I gotta get my stick.” Mr. Jack always called Hubert “boy,” though he was well into his 30’s and would have better been described as pushing 40, a fact that neither occurred to nor troubled Mr. Jack.
“Bandit,” Mr. Jack repeated as he moved aside and motioned for Hugh to come in. “That was the name of that dog. Not Astro.” He said this with mild accusation, as though he were chastising Hugh.
“Oh, right. Yeah, I thought it was something like that. So you remembered.”
Mr. Jack was a retired Air Force pilot who now spent most of his days watching classic cartoons and 70’s game shows. For the last few weeks, he and Hugh had engaged in an on-going debate about the name of the dog from Johnny Quest, which had been, after Speed Racer, Hugh’s favorite boyhood cartoon. Mr. Jack had insisted the dog’s name was Astro, but Hugh was sure that wasn’t it, though the actual name seemed always to slip his mind. Raja or something like that, he thought. But then again, maybe that was the name of the Indian boy on the show.
“You bet I remembered. The old ticker might be going, but this here’s still in tip-top shape,” Mr. Jack pronounced, tapping himself on the side of the head. He gathered up his cane and patted his jacket pockets, satisfying himself that pipe, keys, and handkerchief were all in place for their outing.
“Well, boy, you ready? We better get going. Don’t want to keep the doctor waiting.”
Hugh moved out onto the stoop again and stood politely aside while Mr. Jack locked the door, thinking it a little sad that the old man was always so conscientious about being punctual, since the doctor almost always kept him waiting a good half hour.
Mr. Jack was one of Hugh’s “regulars,” the men and women he picked up almost daily as part of the C.A.R.E. program — Car Assistance for the Retired Elderly. He’d been driving his mother’s Dodge van for almost a year now, gathering up old people from around the valley and driving them to doctor’s appointments, the pharmacy, the church, the beauty parlor.
After his father’s untimely death, suffered, ironically enough, on his way to his yearly physical, his mother had signed up as a volunteer driver for C.A.R.E, “to keep that from happening to another family.” But when she fell last summer, tearing several ligaments in her knee and breaking her wrist, Hugh had reluctantly taken over the route. Now, though his mother had long since started driving again, Hugh continued making the C.A.R.E. rounds. It had become part of his life.
If pressed, he might admit to liking it, though the experience had initially filled him with dread. Old people. Strange people. Driving around who knew where. It was all, well, rather, uncomfortable and unknown. He much preferred the solid comfort of his routine life. The bedroom he’d had since he was five, decorated much as it was when he left high school, twenty years before. His job at the independent video store on the corner, where he could spend most of his time watching Hong Kong kung-fu films, his fantasies of drop-kicking an opponent interrupted only rarely by other cult film freaks who came in looking for obscure Japanese animation clips or early Bruce Li copies.
A Bird in the Hand
“Hubert, telephone,” his mother yelled from downstairs. “I think it’s Mrs. Chen from C.A.R.E.”
Hubert took off his headset, which continued blasting “Tush” into the bedspread, and picked up the receiver from the bedside phone. “I got it,” he yelled, his fingers pressed over the mouthpiece.
“Hello? This is Hugh.” He heard a clunk as the kitchen receiver was replaced.
“Hello? Hu-boy? This Miz Chen. You come quick. Belly sick. Must go doctor right way!”
“Mrs. Chen? Sorry. What? You’re sick?”
“No. Bunnie belly sick. Must go doctor right way. Hu-boy come now. Please!” And with a final distressed “Quickly! Come now!” Mrs. Chen hung up. Hugh looked around his bedroom, somewhat disoriented, then pulled on a misshapen green sweater and went downstairs to the kitchen.
“Uh. Mom, I guess I’m going to take the van out a little early. Mrs. Chen is sick or something and needs to go to the doctor.”
“Oh, dear. I hope it’s nothing serious,” his mother replied as she put her cheek out for a kiss without pausing her page-flipping of the latest Better Homes and Gardens. “Tell her hello for me.”
Before his father’s death, there had been some pretense, a kind of family game they played, that Hugh was going to move out, was on the verge of packing up his Foreigner and Kansas and ZZ Top albums, his football pennants and Dungeon and Dragons figurines, the green belt and tiny trophy he’d won in a karate class when he was ten, the tattered paperback set of The Lord of the Rings he’d read until the pages were soft with fingering — in other words, the memorabilia and artifacts of a life well-lived — and get an apartment of his own. As soon as he had saved enough money. As soon as he could find a good, clean place his mother thought fit to live in. As soon as rents fell to a level that his father felt wasn’t highway robbery.
Since his father’s death, this pretense had been wholly discarded and Hugh and his mother lived a pleasant routine. The comfortable day in, day out, buttered toast and cereal, sandwiches and soup, casserole and salad kind of routine built up between son and mother over years of practice, when there is enough genuine affection and temperamental compatibility to allow for worries and gentle nagging and household chores and a level of boredom to cover a person like an old wool coat, heavy but not suffocating, comfortable in it’s weight and familiarity.
Hugh parked the van in front of Mrs. Chen’s assisted living apartment complex and went into the lobby. It was filled with mailboxes, a fake green plant or two, and some overstuffed furniture in striped gold and beige. Hugh wondered why Mrs. Chen hadn’t called her oldest daughter, Marlene, whom he knew lived nearby. He’d actually met her once or twice when Mrs. Chen had forgotten to call and cancel her regular pick-up. Hugh always dreaded such awkward social encounters, and had thus developed a habit of approaching Mrs. Chen’s door with trepidation. Luckily, Mrs. Chen was often down in the lobby waiting when the van pulled up, and he had only to hop out and help her with the doors and the two steps up into the van. But today she wasn’t waiting, and he had to go up to her apartment. As he got closer to Mrs. Chen’s door, Hugh felt his heart starting to beat a bit faster and his palms getting just a little moist. He told himself this was irrational and there was no way anyone else would be in the apartment. It helped a little. He rang the bell.
Mrs. Chen’s tiny apartment was filled with the cages of a dozen or so birds, all busily chirping and cooing and making a generalized bird racket. The cages circled the walls of her living/dining room and marched down the hallway toward the back. Mrs. Chen had named each of the birds after one of her grandchildren, and had placed a picture of each child above the appropriate cage: Jin-a, Mi Jean, Charlie, Iris, Toe-me, Alice, Li Ann, Danny, Timmy, Dong-wu (affectionately known as “Bongo”), Bunnie, and a pair of peach lovebirds for the new twins, Johnny and Janice.
Mrs. Chen nearly flew at him as she opened the door. “Oh, Hu-boy. Thank goodness you here. Quickly, must go. Bunnie belly sick.”
She was already wearing her black wool coat with the black fake fur collar and the smart, matching fur-trimmed hat she always wore when going out. She clutched her purse in one hand and thrust a tiny bird cage at Hugh with the other. The cage was covered with a small blanket she’d pinned around the sides of the cage. Looking down into the top of the cage, Hugh could see one of Mrs. Chen’s little white canaries, lying on it’s side on the bottom of the cage. It looked quite dead.
“Mrs. Chen? I don’t think…I mean…Are you sure the doctor’s going to be able to help Bunnie?”
“Yes, yes. Doctor say come right way. Must go, Hu-boy. No more diddle-dally.”
Hubert drove Mrs. Chen and the canary to the veterinarian, where, thanks to Mrs. Chen’s hysterical, nearly incoherent insistence, they were given special emergency preference over the basset hound and the fluffy white Persian. Nonetheless, the vet took one look into the blanketed cage and declared the bird DOA. Nothing he could do. He was so sorry.
Mrs. Chen wailed. She screeched and pulled at the thin gray hair on either side of her face until her smart fur-trimmed hat was wildly askew. She was completely inconsolable for the entire twenty-three minutes it took for Hugh to drive to the pet store and purchase her another white canary. Once this new, healthier bird was perched in the cage — the blanket and dead Bunnie having been discarded at the vet’s — she cheered up considerably.
“This Bunnie Too. She very good. Everything Okey-dokey now. Now real Bunnie be safe. Not die now. Hello, Bunnie Too, pretty birdie.” Mrs. Chen chuckled and cooed at the bird, extremely pleased, then looked up at Hugh. “Bunnie bird die, things very bad. But now have good, strong bird, not get sick. My little Bunnie OK. This Bunnie Too. She healthy. Live very long time.”
Hugh was completely confused, but happy that Mrs. Chen had stopped crying and pulling at her hair. “Um, yes, this bird looks very healthy,” he finally responded, trying to keep up his end of the conversation.
“No, Hu-boy not understand,” Mrs. Chen said crossly. “Bunnie girl sick. Bird die bad omen.” She said this last word slowly, drawing out the long “o” and looking at Hugh with deliberate patience, as if she were trying to teach a simple logic problem to a slow child.
“So, your granddaughter was sick too?” Hugh asked, more confused than ever.
“Yes, yes, belly sick. Long time. Grammie sacred for her little Bunnie. Things belly bad when Bunnie bird die. But not scared now. Now everything nice.” She murmured to the bird in her lap, trying to stick her tiny fingers through the even tinier bars of the cage.
“So, now Bunnie’s doing better?” Hugh asked doubtfully.
“Now she be great,” Mrs. Chen said emphatically. “Now have healthy Bunnie bird.”
Hugh was still not sure he understood the relationship between the various Bunnies, human and avian. But he didn’t think further questioning would help enlighten him. Interrupting Mrs. Chen’s cooing, he asked “Mrs. Chen, I’m sorry, but I’m running a bit late. Do you mind if we stop and get Miss Gracie and Mr. Turner before I take you home? They are due for a pick up in fifteen minutes.”
“OK, No problem, Hu-boy. Show friends Bunnie Too. They be belly happy.” Mrs. Chen fell back into her motherly reverie with the bird.
Grace and Vinegar
Miss Gracie was a lively old lady who wore only purple and grew daffodils and tulips in pots on her front stair. She seemed to have a personal relationship with various television personalities, most notably Regis and Kathie Lee, but now that Kathie Lee was gone, she was struggling to bond with “that new Kelly girl.” As Hugh helped her up into the van, she was talking of their upcoming trip to the Bahamas, apparently a theme show taking place next week.
“I just hope Regis remembers to wear enough sunscreen. He’s not a dark man, you know, and he’ll burn to a crisp in that hot sun. And that Kelly girl. You should have seen what she had on today. My, was it scanty. But cute too, I suppose. That girl’s got a real cute figure for wearing that short stuff girls like these days.”
Miss Gracie herself was decked out in her best purple polyester/rayon blend dress with ruffles down the front and an enormous white straw hat with fake gardenias.
“Well, now, Mrs. Chen. I wasn’t expecting you. How are you, dear? Now what’s that you have there? A little canary? How sweet. You two coming to cards with us tonight?”
Mrs. Chen related the afternoon’s drama to Miss Gracie’s appreciative “ohhs” and “my-my’s” as Hugh drove to Mr. Turner’s.
“Where’s old Mr. Vinegar, old Turned Sour, Hubert?” Miss Gracie called out from the back.
Miss Gracie liked to joke that Mr. Turner had “turned” to vinegar, cackling heartily at her own joke. The lavender-tinted hair and purple clothes combined with the open-mouth laugh to produce an effect akin to craziness. Hugh was not sure this was a completely inaccurate description of Miss Gracie. But he smiled and made a little chuckle sound through his nose, so he wouldn’t seem rude. Besides, even Hugh could see there was some legitimate basis for Miss Gracie’s comparison. Mr. Turner was not the friendliest passenger. To be honest, he scared Hugh a bit.
Mr. Turner was stiffly making his way down the sidewalk to the van when Hugh pulled up to the curb. “You’re late,” he complained, as Hugh came around to open the door for him. Hugh apologized nervously, explaining that he had an emergency with Mrs. Chen. “Hmph!” Mr. Turner responded by rearranging his dentures on his gums, poking them out of his mouth a bit and sucking them back in with a quick movement. He maneuvered the two steps up into the van awkwardly, pushing Hugh’s hand away, then lowered himself slowly onto the seat next to Miss Gracie.
Miss Gracie always joked and teased with Mr. Turner every week when they rode together to the Senior Center for cards. She lit on him as soon as he was settled next to her in the van.
“Why, Mr. Turner,” she said, “what do you think of my hat? My grand-niece brought it to me last Easter. Isn’t it just divine?” She swished her head from side to side, so he could get a more complete view of the gardenias.
“Ugh,” Mr. Turner grunted, moving his head as far away from the encroaching brim of the hat as possible, then sneezing several times into an enormous blue plaid handkerchief.
“Well, Mr. Turner, do you think I’ll be the big winner again tonight?” she cackled, slapping a spotty hand down on his bony knee.
Mr. Turner winced, half from the arthritis in his knee, half from the memory of his recent run of bad luck on Wednesday nights and Miss Gracie’s immodest success. He had few pleasures left in life and this woman seemed set on ruining one of the rare chances he had to get out and enjoy himself. He hoped they were early enough that he could secure a table far from this purple chatterbox.
Hugh helped Miss Gracie out at the Center, explaining that he would return at 7:00 for their pick up.
“Wish me luck!” Miss Gracie chimed as she floated away toward the building. Mr. Turner hobbled after her as quickly as he could.
After Hugh made sure Mrs. Chen and the new canary were safely deposited in her apartment, he cast around for something to occupy himself for the next two hours. Maybe get a chicken dinner — dark meat, extra biscuit — at KFC. His mother had her weekly bridge game tonight and would not be expecting him for dinner. Maybe go by Borders and browse through the new fantasy paperbacks. Maybe stop by Video Vault and see what was happening. He swung through the KFC drive-through, then headed to the video store.
Hugh pushed open the door of the Video Vault and looked around. The store looked empty. Ralph, the evening guy and part-owner, must be in back. Hugh went behind the counter and looked through the videos tossed on the shelf next to the VCR. He popped 5 Fingers of Death into the player, then sat back on the stool to watch Lo Lieh kick some butt while he ate his dinner.
“Oh, hey, dude,” Ralph said as he appeared from the back, around one of the horror racks. The sweet smoky smell of ganja hung on him like a permanent perfume. “What’s up?”
“Nothing. Just hanging out. Gotta do my C.A.R.E. run again in awhile.”
“Oh, right. The old people thing. You still doing that, huh?” Ralph gathered up a bunch of videos to be reshelved and headed over to the New Releases wall. “I don’t know how you deal with all those old folks all the time, man. I woulda been outta there in about five minutes. Old folks are so freakin’ heavy, you know?”
“Yeah, I guess,” Hugh shrugged uncomfortably and turned up the volume on the TV.
When Hugh made the pick up at the Senior Center at 7:00, he found Mr. Turner in as close to a good mood as Hugh had ever seen. At his house, Mr. Turner pressed a quarter into Hugh’s hand as he allowed himself to be helped from the van.
“There you go, Hubert. That’s for you. Thanks for the ride.”
Hugh tried to give the coin back, explaining that he couldn’t take any money, it was against policy. Mr. Turner chose to ignore him as he gruffly shuffled up the sidewalk, his cane tap, tapping. Hugh stared at the coin, then sighed as he got back in the van and dumped the quarter in the ashtray.
“He was quite a big winner tonight,” Miss Gracie explained. “Went out at least four times, if you can believe that. I usually do better myself than I did tonight. I must have been distracted. I’m a bit worried about that trip Regis and Kelly have planned for next week. It gets awfully hot in the Bahamas, you know.”
(to be continued . . .)