William Cass | Unsaid, undone

Growing up, Pete was a Navy brat, and he basically followed in his father’s career military footsteps afterward. His father had been a pediatrician, while Pete had become an internist. When his parents passed away, Pete inherited their house in Coronado, and he finished the last twenty-five years of that career across the bridge at Balboa Naval Hospital in San Diego after serving on several deployments early on. Now, he’d been retired for almost two decades, his wife had been dead nearly that long, and he’d been told he had only months to live himself.

His cardiologist, a longtime colleague at the hospital, confirmed the late stage status of his congenital heart disease and renal failure on a bright, fall morning full of white light. But, Pete already knew it was coming; he’d given similar prognoses to many patients of his own over the years. That was why he’d called his daughter, Nell, and she’d flown out from Topeka to be with him. She understood what was coming, too; they’d talked about it a number of times as his condition worsened.

Nell drove them home after the appointment, and they remained silent in the car until they got on the bridge. At that point, Pete said quietly, “I’d rather not go the hospice route. Unless it’s absolutely necessary to manage things.”

“Whatever you want, Dad,” Nell said. “I can stay and be with you as long as needed.”

Pete nodded and pushed his rimless glasses up on his nose. He shifted his long, thin body in the passenger seat and looked over at his daughter. As always, he was struck at how much she resembled his wife; Nell was almost the same age Gwen had been at the time of her death. They were both were big-boned, hopeful, still and calm, and wore their salt-and-pepper hair like a cap.

“Thank you,” he said.

She smiled, took a hand from the steering wheel and patted his, then replaced it. As they crested the bridge, they both looked out over the green island with its canopy of trees, the old, wooden, red-roofed hotel at one end, the city’s skyline across the bay from the other, and the wide, shimmering ocean spread like an endless fan out to the cluster of islands along the horizon.

“Is there anything special you want to do before…”  Nell’s voice trailed off. “Well, you know, buddy-jump from an airplane, sail out to those islands, anything?”

Pete sat considering as they descended the final stretch to the island. Finally, he said, “Actually, there is one thing. And it’s something I’ve never spoken of, but have carried around inside of me for many, many years.”

His daughter frowned and looked over at him quickly. “What, Dad?  What is it?”

“Let’s make lunch when we get home,” Pete said. “Then I’ll tell you about it.”

They had vegetable soup, crackers, and milk and sat at the small iron table on the back patio in the shade of the roll-out awning. As always, Pete tucked his napkin inside his shirt collar, peppered his soup liberally, broke crackers into it, and ate slowly and deliberately. The little fountain that his father and he had built together when he was young trickled nearby, and a few hummingbirds flitted at the feeder that hung from a rafter where the pavers met the lawn.

Nell waited until they’d finished to say, “So, what is it?”

Pete took a last sip of milk, wiped his lips with the napkin, set it in his lap, and looked out over the yard. Nell wasn’t sure if the ache in her father’s eyes was from his illness or something else. Finally, he said, “This happened a long time ago when I was just a boy, nine or ten years old.”

He stopped. Nell watched him clear his throat and smooth the thin wisps of hair on top of his head. “All right,” she said. “Go on.”

Pete nodded, hesitated, then began. “Well, a friend and I were playing catch in an empty lot just up the street.” He gestured with his hand. “I threw the ball too high, it flew over a hedge and broke a window at the back of a house. The old man who lived there stormed outside and shook his fist at us before we could move. Captain Henshaw. He’d been my father’s commanding officer before he retired.

‘Which one of you did this?’ he shouted. ‘Tell me!’

My friend looked sheepishly at me, and I shrugged my shoulders.

He barked, ‘You’re Dr. Kelly’s son, aren’t you?  Wait until I tell him about this.’

‘Please don’t,’ I muttered. ‘I’ll do anything.’

‘Can you pay for this window?  You have twenty dollars for that?’

I didn’t. That was a lot of money in those days, especially for a little boy. I didn’t have five dollars to my name, but I nodded and said, ‘I can. I will.’

The old man regarded me, scowling, I remember, and it was silent for a long moment until he said, ‘Under my front door mat by five o’clock, or else I tell your father.’”

Pete grew silent then, staring off across the lawn. At a back corner of it, birds twittered in a pepper tree.

“My,” Nell said. “What happened next?”

Pete shook his head some more before resuming. “My parents had a man named Luis who came once a week to do yard work: mow, trim, weed, prune, things like that. He was a kind, gentle guy who always had a smile and brought Mexican candy in his pants pocket to give me. He worked all day long and then knocked at the door off the kitchen when he finished and let himself inside the back hall to get paid his twenty dollars. My mother would meet him there. You’ll remember how organized she was. She kept an envelope in the drawer of a little table there that always held enough twenty-dollar bills for several months of Luis’ pay. I often watched her take a bill out of the envelope, give it to Luis, and then he’d make a little bow, and say thank you. Next, she’d replace the envelope, close the drawer, shake Luis’ hand, and he’d smile and leave.”

Pete had been gazing again out over the backyard, but turned and looked at Nell. He pursed his lips, then said, “So, that’s where I got the money for Captain Henshaw. I snuck it from that envelope. I don’t know…maybe I planned to earn it back somehow and replace it. I hope I did, but I’m not sure. I was so young and just scared of what would happen if my dad found out.”

“That’s understandable.”  Nell leaned forward. “Any kid might have done the same.”

Pete’s eyes met hers, then lowered. “It gets worse,” he said slowly. “Luis was working in the yard that afternoon when I got home from the field. I took the money from the envelope right away and brought it over to Captain Henshaw’s before Luis had finished. Then I stayed in my bedroom upstairs with the door closed feeling ashamed until dinner. As we were eating, my mother told my father that she’d found money missing from the envelope she used to pay Luis and was certain he’d taken it. She said that when she’d confronted him about it in the back hall, he’d denied it, but it had to be him, so she’d fired him on the spot. I remember my father’s eyebrows knitting together and him replying that it didn’t sound like Luis, but he guessed you could never really know what someone was capable of doing. He said when word got out about it in that small town, he doubted Luis would ever find work there again.”

Nell had put her fingertips over her mouth. She shook her head herself, then said, “So what did you do, Dad?”

She watched her father seem to seek out something in the distance. He swallowed and said, “Nothing.”  It came out in hardly more than a whisper. “I did nothing. I excused myself from the table as soon as I could, went back up to my room, buried my face in my pillow, and cried. But, I said nothing, did nothing.”

Pete was silent again then, staring off above the pepper tree with his narrow shoulders slumped. A dog barked nearby.  A moment later, sprinklers hissed on in the yard next door.

They spit dimly until Pete said, “And I’ve done nothing since for all these years. And it’s haunted me all that time. So, I’d like to do something about it now. While I still can. I’d like to make amends somehow.”  He looked at his daughter. “That’s what I’d like to do.”

Nell nodded slowly. “Do you remember his last name?”

“No. I don’t think I ever heard it. All I know is that he lived in National City.”

Nell continued nodding, her forehead furrowed, then said, “Well, I suppose we could put an advertisement in the newspaper there. Summarize what you’ve said, print his first name, and see if anyone knows anything about him.”

“He had a birthmark on the back of his left hand,” Pete said, raising his own. “I remember that it was in the shape of a half-moon. You could include that.”

“All right.”

“I suppose he’d be almost a hundred years old now, so he’s almost certainly dead. But, perhaps we could locate someone in his family.”

Nell reached over and squeezed her father’s knee. “All right,” she said again. “It’s worth a try, isn’t it? I can go call the newspaper now, if you like.”

When her father looked at her next, something had softened in his face. “I’d appreciate it,” he said.

Nell gave his knee another squeeze, then left him alone on the patio and went inside to the den where the phone was kept.

***

After the ad was placed, they heard nothing for several days. Pete tended his roses, napped, and he and Nell did things together that they’d done when she was young: worked on a jigsaw puzzle, played cards, read side-by-side, took walks, watched television, made simple meals.

The next Monday, just as they’d finished breakfast, the phone rang, and Nell went into the den to answer it. Pete cleared the table and washed the dishes while she was gone. It was raining lightly outside, and he was aware of the patter of it on the patio awning. He was drying a plate when Nell returned to the kitchen. She stopped in the middle of the room with a small smile on her face. Pete stopped drying.

“Well,” she said. “That was Luis’ son. He recognized his father from our advertisement and said he was sure when he read about the birthmark.”

Pete lowered the plate and dishtowel slowly onto the counter. He leaned back against it, blinking.

“And guess what, Dad,” Nell continued. “Luis is still alive. He’s in a nursing home in National City. He’s had several strokes, so he can no longer talk, but his son offered to meet us there and bring us to his room. So, we’re going to do that at ten o’clock.”

Pete shook his head, but a hint of smile had also creased his lips. “I can hardly believe it,” he whispered.

“It’s true. So, go get yourself dressed and ready. We leave in a half-hour.”

***

They drove in silence with the windshield wipers thumping softly against the rain. The nursing home was a worn one-story stucco building on a busy street in a rundown part of the city. Nell held an umbrella over them while they shuffled across the parking lot to the entrance. When they arrived there, an elderly man about Pete’s age held the door open for them. Once they were inside, he asked, “Nell?”

“That’s right. Miguel?”

He smiled, held out his hand, and she shook it. Then he turned and said, “So, you must be Pete. And you’ve come to see my father.”

When Miguel extended his hand, Pete took it in both of his. “Thank you for arranging this, for meeting us here,” he said. “I’m very grateful.”

“You’re welcome. Why don’t you leave your umbrella and we’ll go to my father’s room?  It’s just down that hall there. I’ve already signed us in as visitors.”

Nell folded up the umbrella, set it against the planter next to the door, and they followed Miguel down a narrow hallway crowded with staff in scrubs, patients with walkers and in wheelchairs, and filled with the faint odor of urine and disinfectant. They stopped at the doorway of a room midway down the hall.

Miguel said, “I haven’t told him that you’re coming or anything about you, so I’ll just introduce you, and then you’re on your own. You know that he can no longer speak, but his mind is still pretty sharp. Remarkably so, really.”

Nell and Pete both nodded and then followed Miguel into a small, brightly lit room with two hospital beds. The one closest to the door was stripped and empty. The curtain between them was pulled back, and Luis lay sleeping under a sheet in the bed on the other side, inclined so that he was almost sitting. Even after so many years, Pete recognized him immediately, a shriveled, frail version of the man he knew as a child. His mouth was open, and he snored quietly with his hands folded on his chest; the one on top had the birthmark. There was a television mounted high on the wall opposite the foot of the bed that was on, but muted. Miguel switched it off as he crossed to the far side of his father’s bed. Nell stayed back under the television, and Pete moved to the near side of the bed. Miguel shook Luis’ arm. The old man opened his eyes wide and looked up at his son.

“Hi, Dad,” Miguel said. “There’s someone here to see you.”  He gestured across the bed. “He’s someone you knew many years ago.”

Luis turned his head slowly and regarded Pete with confusion. His mouth was still agape, his eyes frowning with concentration. The left side of his face drooped, and a little bubble of drool had formed at that corner of his lips.

Pete reached over and put his hand on the old man’s shoulder. “I’m Dr. Kelly’s son. You worked on our yard for us a long time ago in Coronado. Near the golf course. Almost seventy years ago. You gave me candy.”

Recognition slowly crept into the old man’s eyes. He gave a short nod.

“Well,” Pete said. He paused and took a breath. “I’ve come to tell you something. I’ve come to apologize for something I did back then. I stole money from the envelope my mother used to pay you, and I let you take the blame and be fired for it. I’m so sorry for that. I’ve been sorry for it all my life.”

Luis stared up at him, his mouth still open. Then he nodded again, put his hand on Pete’s, and began to cry softly. Pete began weeping, too, but more loudly; his shoulders shook with it. The two old men looked at each other, crying, while the rain fell steadily outside the window behind Miguel and a cart rattled by in the hallway. Nell bit her lip watching them. Miguel shook his head. It was warm enough that a ring of condensation rimmed the window.

Several minutes passed before Pete regained himself enough to take his hand away and use it to wipe his eyes and nose. He swallowed hard, then reached in his jacket pocket and took out an unsealed envelope, fat and full of twenty-dollar bills. He closed Luis’ hands around it.

“I can never repay you for what I did,” Pete said. “But this is a gesture in that regard.”

Miguel said, “That’s not necessary.”

“No.”  Pete shook his head. “It is. It really is.”

Luis’ crying had decreased but hadn’t stopped completely. He looked from the envelope to Pete and mumbled something out of the good side of his mouth.

“He’s trying to thank you,” Miguel said.

Luis nodded. Pete looked down at him and nodded with him. They did that until Nell finally said, “Dad, we should go and let Luis rest.”

Pete nodded once more. “You’re right.”  He looked from his daughter to the old man in bed and said, “Be well, Luis.”

Nell took him gently by the elbow, and he stepped away from the bedside. “We can find our way out,” she said. “Thank you both.”

She led her father out of the room and down the hall to the entrance. She held the umbrella over them against the rain across the parking lot and helped him into the passenger seat of the car. Before closing his door, she saw that his glasses were sprinkled with droplets, so she took them off and dried them with a tissue from her pocket. Before replacing them on his face, what she saw in his eyes was not just relief, but something akin to childlike wonder.

They drove without speaking until Nell started up the freeway onramp towards the bridge. Then Pete said, “He was nice, too…Miguel. Like his dad.”

Nell glanced his way. She realized suddenly that she’d never heard him utter an unkind word about anyone, and she wondered how much of that was because of the boy he’d become when he stole that money and remained silent about it. “Yes,” she said. “He was.”

They merged onto the freeway and continued in silence for several more moments, the windshield wipers making their soft, regular arcs, until Pete said quietly, “This has been a special day. How’d I get so lucky?”

Nell’s smile was brief. She glanced again at her father and thought of all the lives he’d helped and healed, and the one, his own, that he could no longer do anything to prolong or save. But, this old, heavy burden had been lifted; he’d done that. She turned the car onto the long incline that led to the bridge. The rain had lessened. They could go home now and pass the days he had left as fully and peacefully and well as possible.

William Cass has had more than 100 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Ruminate. He recently was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. His story, Those Words, was previously published in The MOON. He can be reached at:william.cass@sbcglobal.net

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