Home Dance With Me In The Kitchen

Dance With Me In The Kitchen

by Ben
Book Cover: Dance With Me In The Kitchen

Joe Saldana, a talented and dedicated physical therapist, feels like he is spinning out of control. Between his insane work schedule treating quirky elderly patients and he train wreck that is his his dysfunctional Italian-American family, Joe begins to question the life path he has chosen. When he meets ninety-four year old Chance Lytle, a former stunt pilot with a newly fractured hip, a tenuous therapist-patient relationship grows into an odd friendship.  Chance and Joe find strength in each other, Chance adjusting to life without his recently deceased wife, and Joe, who is trying to navigate the rough waters of family addiction and commitment issues.

Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

Someone was in the house. Chance Lytle did not hear the intruder as much as he felt his presence. The 96 year-old moved slowly from his bed and silently opened the bedside table drawer. He drew out his old military issue 1911 Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol and stood stiffly. The joints in his arthritic knees popped so loudly that he thought the intruder must have heard them from the other room.

His ears tended to play tricks on him these days. With an 85% hearing loss in both ears and nearly blind from glaucoma and macular degeneration, Chance Lytle knew he had a slim to zero chance of surprising the burglar, let alone defending himself. But, Goddammit, he thought, no one comes into my house uninvited.

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The house was dark, which further limited his failing sight. Chance navigated his way out of the bedroom by Braille: he groped along the wall to the door by locating furniture in the darkness and feeling for familiar objects, their positions long imprinted in his memory. The pistol, once a comfortable extension of his right hand, now felt heavy and cumbersome.

            Chance got to the end of the hall that opened into the cluttered living room. He thought he heard something. All of his remaining senses became alert as he focused on the source of the sound. The intruder was in the living room. He caught the hint of a light panning the far wall. A moment later, he saw the light flicker and move again. Lytle knew instinctively not to shoot at the source of the light. The owner of the flashlight was somewhere between three and six feet behind the light. If he had to shoot, that would be his target area.

“Don’t move, Asshole,” Chance said into the darkness.

The burglar did something that Chance did not expect.

He laughed.

Suddenly, Chance was blinded by the glare from the flashlight.

Panicked, he fired.

The roar of the .45 surprised him. He was unprepared for the recoil and fell backward. He caromed off the ornate hutch where plates and glassware from his wedding shattered down around him. Falling hard on his right hip, he felt a stabbing pain that knocked the breath out of him. His head hit hard against the solid wooden hutch. Chance felt something warm trickling down his face.

He realized he had let go of the pistol. Groping around in the blackness in panic, he could not locate the reassuring feel of the metal semi-auto. Lytle attempted to get up, but was enveloped by a sudden, blinding pain in his hip. His head fell back and he was plunged into an even deeper blackness.

When he came to, the house was bathed in an eerie predawn light. At first, completely disoriented, he wondered why he was lying on the floor. He lay there breathing, straining his ears for sounds of movement. When he attempted to move, his ruined hip reminded him emphatically of how he had come to this state.

On some level, Chance knew that he had broken his hip. Somehow, he had cut a gash in his head. He gingerly brought his hand up to his forehead and felt the stickiness there. As long as he lay still, he didn’t feel half bad. But that was not a good long-range plan. His bladder was screaming at him right now.

Chance decided to try and crawl to the sofa where he knew a phone lay on the end table. When he turned on his stomach, he sucked in his breath as his shattered hip erupted in a stabbing pain. Lytle groaned and waited until the waves of pain subsided. Even using his left leg to propel his body along the floor nearly caused him to black out again. A wave of nausea washed over him. He was going to have drag himself over to the sofa by his arms alone.

Chance stopped several times to rest and to calm the feeling that he wanted to puke. By the time he reached the sofa, the pain was nearly unendurable. He breathed through clenched teeth. He knew the next maneuver would probably make him pass out for sure.

“Fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into this time, Sylvie,” Chance rasped. He took several breaths and gauged the final distance he would have to go to get up on the sofa.

“Come on, Lytle. Move your saggy old ass.”

Rolling on to his left hip he scooted along the floor until he was able to grab the arm of the couch. As he levered himself up, Chance Lytle cried out. His bladder gave way, a warm sensation bathing his legs. He cursed himself for his weakness. With the final vestiges of his faltering strength, he pulled himself onto the sofa.

When the waves of agony subsided to a grinding pain, Chance reached for the phone. Lifting the receiver, he realized he wasn’t going to be able to read the large numbered face without his bifocal magnifiers.

He tried to remember the order of the numbers as they would appear on the face of the phone. He punched in what he hoped would be the numbers 9-1-1. A voice came on the phone, sounding tinny and distant. Chance could not make out the words the person on the other end was saying.

He dropped the receiver.

“Aw, shit,” was all he could murmur.

 

CHAPTER TWO

Joe Saldana was upside down in a river kayak in a swimming pool. His nose was filled with water and his lungs were on fire. To make matters worse, he was not sure how to get himself right side up. For the last forty-minutes he had been attempting, rather unsuccessfully, to complete an Eskimo roll, a finesse maneuver utilizing the paddle and a quick rocking motion of the hips, a necessary technique for righting a kayak in a fast moving river.

The arrangement was that Joe could practice his rolling technique here at the Desert Vista Adult Care Home, if the ten elderly residents could be wheeled out onto the patio to watch. All seven women and three men sat in their wheelchairs under the shaded patio. Equipped with cold drinks, sunglasses and hats, the residents watched as Joe struggled with the kayak.

Okay. Think.  Lean forward, face on the deck. Flip hips and extend . . .

Tendrils of panic gripped at him and elevated his state of impending oxygen starvation.

The eight-foot river kayak rolled clumsily to the surface, long enough for Joe to gulp for breath before rolling over the other way. The small craft rocked several times before Joe’s head appeared like a prehistoric turtle surfacing to grab another mouthful of air. Joe was pulled under.

Flip hips,dammit, FLIP HIPS!

A moment later, the kayak burst from the water, Joe coughing and sputtering, looking like he had just come through the spin cycle in a giant Maytag.  He draped his upper torso across the foredeck, his breath coming in gasps.

“Jesus, Joe. I didn’t know you were planning on water-boarding yourself,” said Steve Kleinman, owner of the Desert Vista Adult Care Home. In his mid-fifties with wavy gray-blonde hair and the stocky physique of a former wrestler, he sat nearby on the edge of the pool, legs dangling in the clear blue water, a cold beer in hand.

“I’ll . . . take . . . that . . . one,” said Joe, eyes closed, body still plastered to the hull of the kayak. “I’m toast.”

“Look up on the patio,” said Steve, his tanned face pulled back in a great grin.

Joe opened his eyes to see a line-up of eight elderly wheelchair-bound ladies and two men facing him, holding up placards. The placards read scores – 2.8, 3.6, 4.0, 2.3, 4.1, 3.3 . . .

Steve burst out laughing.

“Very funny.” Joe said, a scowl crossing his reddened face.

Up on the shaded patio, two deaf elderly ladies on the end of the line were engaged in a conversation. One of the ladies leaned toward her friend and spoke loudly, in what was meant to be a stage whisper. Her reedy voice carried across the patio to the pool loud and clear.

“I think he should stick to swimming pools,” said the white-haired 93 year-old. “He takes that thing out into the ocean, his ass is gonna drown!”

Steve was on the deck holding his stomach, apoplectic with laughter.

“That’s the best I got? A 4.1?” said Joe, exasperated. “Last time I provide the entertainment for your adult care home.”

“They’ll be talking about this for months. Well, maybe through dinner,” said Steve, still trying to catch his breath.

Joe paddled the kayak to the side of the pool. Crawling out of the cockpit like a hermit crab losing its shell, Joe shakily got to his feet. Steve helped him haul the kayak onto the deck.

“Wanna stay for lunch with the residents?” said Steve. “Mary Ann is making lasagna with garlic bread and salad.”

If Joe was ever to be placed in an adult care home, he wanted to be in a place like Steve and Mary Ann’s. Every time he walked in, he started salivating over the wonderful aromas coming out of the kitchen.

“Thanks, I wish I could. I gotta get back to work,” said Joe, shaking the water out of his ears. His legs unsteady and his equilibrium still affected, he weaved his way to a nearby chair and toweled off.

“Mary Ann said that Dr. Mason’s order came through for Mrs. Burris,” Steve said, standing up, then moving under the patio cover. He pushed one of the residents’ wheelchairs toward the back door. “You want to take in the order or have her fax it over to your agency?”

“Fax it over,” said Joe, grabbing his backpack from the chair and slinging it over his shoulder. With his other hand, he hefted the kayak. “I’m not going back to the agency until tomorrow.”

As he walked toward the back gate, he heard sparse applause coming from some of the residents still sitting on the patio. Joe turned around and performed a half-bow, almost losing his balance and toppling over into a large prickly pear cactus.

 

The first thing you notice when you walk through the doors of a nursing home is the smell. A mild antiseptic smell is usually an indicator that the administrators and staff are running a clean building. A really strong antiseptic or perfumed aroma means that someone wants a noxious odor covered up. Much more malodorous infractions may lie underneath. Thankfully, the Mesquite Grove Care Center that Joe Saldana entered fell into the first category.

Walking though the front doors, Joe greeted Nancy, the plus-sized receptionist, and made his way down the hall to the Physical Therapy department. He entered the department and strode to the desk against the far wall. The room was sparsely furnished. One non-adjustable treatment table stood off in one corner. A curtain ringed around a rectangular bar suspended from the ceiling provided the only means of privacy from the rest of the gym.

A stack of charts was spread across the desktop. Paper work was the bane of Joe’s existence. It seemed that every spare moment he had between patients was spent on documentation. Other agencies and facilities had gone to laptops for the purpose of streamlining the paperwork, but since Joe was a contract therapist, there were no such benefits.

He picked up several charts, glanced at the names, then tossed them back on the desk and stared at the disarray.

“So now you’re doing your paperwork by thought transference?” said a voice behind him.

Joe turned to see Charlotte Wingate standing there, her arms folded across her chest. She smiled at Joe, her white teeth and white nurse’s uniform contrasting with the deep ebony of her skin. Joe had never been able to guess Charlotte’s age; she possessed a timeless elegance that belied all chronological guestimation.

“I swear to God, Charlotte. I had all this paperwork done. And now here it is again. Déjà vu.”

“Funny thing about that paperwork,” said Charlotte. “Better keep up with it. You don’t want Louise in your back pocket.”

Louise Goldman was the administrator of Senior Vistas, known for her sudden outbursts at employees and public dressing downs in meetings for issues, real or conjured. Many of her peers thought her to be innovative and visionary. Most of her employees thought her to be a nutcase, or, at the very least, a major pain in the ass.

“Anybody ever been fired over paperwork around here?” asked Joe. He picked up the list of patients scheduled for that afternoon and looked them over.

“Yep,” said Charlotte. “And for much lesser infractions.” Her voice softened. “Mr. Vincente was asking for you earlier.”

“How’s he doing today?”

“Rough morning. We had to ramp up his morphine.”

Joe’s eyes met Charlotte’s and he knew that the elderly Charles Vincente was slipping away.

Joe sighed. “I’ll head down to his room after I get the afternoon patients finished.”

Charlotte looked at Joe, concern set in her face. “Be careful, Joe. Louise has been asking about your spending time in Mr. Vincente’s room.”

“She’s got nothing to say. I’m not on the clock. I either see him before or after my shift,” Joe said.

“What are you reading to him now?”

A Brief History ofTime, by Stephen Hawking,” replied Joe.

“Goin’ with the light reading fare, I see?”

Joe smiled even though his face conveyed a sense of sadness. “Sometimes, if I even let my mind drift a little, I’ll read the same damn paragraph aloud twice. Charlie has to tell me to move on.”

“I swear, when I’m on my dying bed,” said Charlotte, “I want smut! Totally x-rated. You know, heavy breathing, bodice-ripping excitement.”

Bodice-ripping?Stephen Hawking doesn’t do that for you, Char?” Joe said with a wry grin.

“Oh, please. I’ll read that stuff when I want to sleep.” Charlotte rubbed her chin. “Hmm . . . Maybe Jack Kevorkian can reinvent himself. Read books from famous scientists to dying old people. That just may push them across the River Styx.”

Charlotte headed for the door, remembered something and turned around. “Oh, just wanted to give you a quick heads up. Your new patient, Mr. Schultz; be on your toes with him. He had the stroke. Ex-prison guard from Joliet. He decked the head nurse at the hospital. Broke her jaw in two places.”

“Great. Now I need a helmet to do my job.”

“Just don’t drop your left,” said Charlotte. As she walked away, she said over her shoulder, “See you later, Sugar Ray.”

The afternoon turned out to be more chaotic than Joe had expected. By now, he should have known that nothing in rehab goes as planned. Something will always get in the way and muck up a well-timed schedule. Patients experiencing unscheduled bathroom breaks, medical tests, or psychotic episodes could turn a four-hour schedule into one of the lesser circles of Hell.

Mesquite Grove Care Center was a modest facility with 60 beds. It was rated for Medicare, but also had patients from HMOs and the indigent health care system. The population was mixed, with everyone from residents who functioned at high cognitive levels, but were confined here due to severe physical limitations, to those who suffered various levels of dementia but did not qualify for a lockdown memory unit. This made for an interesting and unpredictable population mix and caseload.

Joe didn’t finish his patient treatments until well after five o’clock. He knew that Mr. Vincente would be getting his dinner soon. Tossing the rest of his charts on the desk, he headed down to Room 105.

Before he even entered the room, he could hear the sound of the oxygen concentrator keeping Charles Vincente’s tissues perfused. Joe stood at the doorway long enough to see if the old gentleman was sleeping.  Intravenous lines were attached to his arm and chest. The air mattress wheezed and groaned as it rose and fell, providing the necessary support to prevent stasis ulcers.

Even near death, Charlie Vincente was a striking looking man. Sixty pounds ago, he could have passed for a linebacker. He possessed a shock of gray hair. Now, end-stage Parkinson’s and kidney failure had all but robbed him of his physical powers. The man had been a brilliant architect, husband, father, and grandfather. He had served his country as a Marine in Korea.

Joe had met him six months ago when he came to the facility after sustaining a bad fall that left him with a broken hip and torn rotator cuff.  Joe became his therapist and following two months of physical therapy, Charlie was able to walk with a cane and went home for three months. A month ago his Parkinson’s, coupled with congestive heart failure, brought him back to the care center. Joe didn’t want to admit it, but he knew the dignified man who had become his friend was not going to go back home.

Vincente’s eyes were closed but he smiled slightly. “I’m not sleeping and I’m through with dinner. Come on in.”

Joe stepped up to the bed. He noticed the barely eaten meal on the tray in front of Mr. Vincente.

“You didn’t eat much,” Joe said.

Mr. Vincente shrugged. “No matter how much I try to convince my taste buds that it’s a gourmet Italian meal, it still tastes like cardboard. You eat it.”

Joe looked at the meal and winced. “I’m on a diet too.”

“Exactly.”

“Sorry I’m late in getting here,” said Joe. “Got slammed today.”

“I’m not going anywhere soon. Did you get the Eskimo roll down?” Asked Mr. Vincente, his eyes sharpening.

Joe looked sheepish. “Pool, ten. Joe, zero.”

“That bad?”

Joe went on to explain about the panel of octogenarian judges, the two old ladies’ comments and how his friend Steve had orchestrated the whole joke. Charlie’s chest heaved as he tried to contain his laughter. He broke into a fit of coughing which required several minutes to subside.

“I would have paid good money to have seen that,” said Vincente, finally settling back onto the bed and breathing more regularly.

“Stay tuned,” said Joe. “I’m sure that’s not the last of the embarrassment I’m going to put myself through. Unless I drown myself first . . .” He gazed at Mr Vincente. You up for a little reading tonight?”

“Sure. A little. Are you?”

Joe reached for the book on the nightstand and started thumbing through the pages. “Now, where were we?

“Page 84.”

Joe stared at Vincente. “You’re amazing.”

“The rest of me has gone to shit, but my gray matter is still somewhat functional.”

Joe turned to page 84 of the A Brief History of Timeand began reading: “The term black hole is of very recent origin . . .”

 

When Joe finally looked up, Charles Vincente was breathing deeply, his chest rising and falling in a regular rhythm. Joe placed the book back on the bedside table and pulled the covers over Mr. Vincente’s chest. He quietly slipped out the door.

It was already dark when Joe arrived home to his bungalow located on a dirt road in the Tucson Mountains. A full moon was peeking over the Catalinas to the east, casting the tall saguaros on Joe’s property in a pumice-colored glow. The air hummed with insects. The smell of creosote bush filled his nostrils.

Exiting the Toyota truck, he retrieved the river kayak from the bed and hefted it by the cockpit over his other shoulder. He leaned the kayak against the side of his house and went back to the truck, slinging his backpack over his shoulder and grabbing the bag of groceries from the seat. At the door, he fumbled for his keys. A low, throaty wuff, more like a cough than a bark emanated from behind the door.

Joe opened the door, flipped the light switch and was nearly bowled over by a very large dog. The lab-chow mix went straight for the grocery bag, its large nose sniffing the contents excitedly.

“Hey, Zeus, you miss me?

The enormous canine bounded joyfully around Joe and the bag.

“You can’t fool me. You’re not glad to see me. You’re glad to see the chicken I brought.” Joe walked over to the counter and set the food down. The big dog danced wildly around him.

Joe poured a generous cup of Science Diet into a large ceramic dog bowl. At the counter he sliced meat from the chicken and diced it up. For the coup de grace, he added a little broth from the bottom of the plastic tray. Upon seeing this, Zeus threw his head back and barked loudly.

Setting the bowl on the floor, Joe said, “Another fine dining experience at Saldana’s Bistro.”

Zeus dove in. The muffled sounds of gulping emanating from within the bowl were that of an ecstatic canine that has reached culinary nirvana. Joe went back to the refrigerator, pulled out fixings for a salad, then sliced some chicken for himself. Before he took the food to the table, Joe hit the button on his message machine.

The first message was from a recruiter:

            Hello Mr. Saldano -

            “Saldana,” corrected Joe

            This is Kristy from Worldwide Recruiters. I’m following up with you regarding your interest in working in Ghana as a traveling PT. We’re looking for dedicated professionals who would be willing to supervise a clinic in rural central Ghana. Please contact us at your earliest convenience at 1-800 . . .

The second message was from Joe’s crazy friend, Duncan Finnegan.

            Hey, Dickhead. It’s time for a road trip. Roots are starting to grow outta my ass.   I’m thinking Mexico, your boat and an excessive amount of Dos Equis. We can be         “the most interesting men in the world.”  I might be able to drum up a couple of     damsels in distress. Come on – you can’t be the mope-master forever. Call me,           before your wanker shrivels into a shadow of its former self. Later, Dude.

Joe shook his head. “Crazy bastard.”

The final voice on the recorder was the raspy, deep voice of Joe’s mom. There was a keen edge to her voice.

Hi Joey, it’s Mom. Just wanted to check in with you. I haven’t talked with you         since last Sunday. I hope everything is okay with your job. Jobs. Well . . . give   me a call when you can. We have the red stuff this Sunday if you want to come on    up. I made meatballs. Anyway . . .talk to you soon. Love you . . .  

            Joe stared at the recorder for a moment. He could tell by the tone in his mother’s voice something was wrong. He was lost in thought, wondering about the latest in a long line of his mother’s roller coaster emotional changes when Zeus broke his reverie by wiping his mouth on Joe’s trousers.

“Hey! I’m not your damn napkin, you chowderhead.”

Zeus head-butted Joe’s leg then trotted over and stood by his empty dog bowl.

“You’re a walking turd factory. No more food.”

Zeus started at Joe and a low growl emanated from his throat. He bared his teeth, not in malice or territoriality, but more of a canine smile. Joe lost all resolve. He picked a chunk of chicken from the salad and tossed it to Zeus, who efficiently snapped it out of the air like a leaping alligator.

Right now, Joe couldn’t bring himself to call his mother. He had several suspicions as to what was causing his mom’s angst, but knew that dealing with any one of those issues would require more energy than he had to give tonight. His parents had had a long-standing love-hate relationship that spanned thirty years of marriage, divorce, then reconciliation to an unusual, if not offbeat, living arrangement. Margaret Saldana also was dealing with health issues – or better put, not dealing with her health issues, which left her in a state of near constant depression.

Two years ago, Margaret had been diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a broad-base category for respiratory problems that ranged from chronic bronchitis to emphysema. She had been a two-pack per day smoker for 45 years and had advanced to the latter. Confined to continuous oxygen 24 hours a day, her forays were limited to jaunts from the living room and kitchen to the bedroom. In spite of the dangers of pressurized oxygen in the house, Joe’s mom still managed to smoke down seven to ten cigarettes a day.

Joe’s father, Lou, was no help in this matter. He had the same monkey on his back. Even after a supposedly life-altering experience following a quadruple bypass four years ago, Lou lasted a year before he got back on the nicotine express. Every time Joe went for a visit to his parent’s house, he left several hours later with his eyes watering, a nasty headache and his clothes reeking. He couldn’t tell if the curtains and walls in his parent’s house had a yellowish tint or if he was looking through smoke-damaged eyeballs.

Joe had tried smoking cigarettes once – in junior high school. It was the usual story. Friends stole cigarettes from their parents and ended up in the vacant field that was once a horseracing track. When it came to Joe’s turn, he inhaled – and promptly puked his guts out. That memory lasted all through high school and through college. Marijuana experimentation came and went, but Joe soon discovered his drug of choice: pure, unlaced adrenaline, the kind that can only be brought forth with an addiction to high-risk sports.

 

Joe carried his empty plates to the sink. He went to the worn couch in his small living room, picked up the book he was reading, opened it and, just as quickly, set it back down on the coffee table. He thought about flipping through the channels just to get in a different mindset, but decided he didn’t want the noise. Maybe Duncan was right. Maybe a road trip was in order. After all, it had been more than a year since Joe had taken any appreciable time off.

The path of least resistance was to call no one tonight. Or ring up Duncan. At least he was good for a laugh. Finally, the Italian / Catholic guilt genes showed their dominance. Joe got up, grabbed the phone and called his mother.

Joe’s dad picked up. Through the phone receiver, he could hear the sound of car crashes on the television. Lou Saldana’s third addiction after cigarettes and vodka was action movies.

“Hello,” said Lou Saldana, his voice rising over the din from the television.

“Hey Dad, it’s Joe. How you doin’?”

“Okay. The usual aches and pains. Want to talk to your mom?”

“Movie good?”

“Seen it before. Twice.”

Another voice intervened. It was his mother. “Hi Joey. Hang up, Lou. Hang up.”

There was a banging sound as the phone met the receiver. The television noise became muted.

“Hey, Mom. Got your message. You okay?”

“Fine. It’s about your brother.” A pause, then Margaret almost spit out the words. “He’s using again.”

Joe paused, trying to keep his anger and disappointment in check. “How do you know?”

“Terri caught him.”

“Were the kids in the house?”

“Thank God, no. They were over at their aunt’s for the weekend.”

Joe breathed out deeply. “What was it this time?”

Margaret’s voice caught. “Crack. He was smoking crack cocaine.”

“Is he crazy?” Joe exploded into the phone and immediately regretted his loss of control. “Sorry, Mom.”

Margaret Saldana coughed several times, a deep, liquid cough that made Joe wince. It took several moments before she was able to speak again.

“What do you think we should do?” Margaret asked thickly.

Zeus sensed something was amiss and bounded onto the couch, throwing his bulk across Joe’s lap, and panting in Joe’s face.

“That dog on the couch with you again?” queried Margaret.

“No, Mom. Hell, I don’t know what we should do. We already tried the family intervention. He didn’t take the intervention - or us - seriously. We all went out on a limb kicking in for his rehab. Right now, I know you both are stretched to the breaking point. Sonni needs the money for school and, frankly, I’m not crazy about throwing money after foolishness.”

A moment of uncomfortable silence ensued.

Joe sighed heavily. “Can it wait until this weekend? I’d have a hell of a time finding coverage for my patients on such short notice.”

“This weekend’s okay. Right now, no one knows where he is.”

“What? What do you mean no one knows where he is?

“Terri threw him out,” Maggie said.

“Christ.” Joe knew that neither his mom nor his father had the physical health and emotional stamina to go looking for his brother Tommy. Joe could only imagine where his younger brother might be. Phoenix was a very large city.

“I’ll be up early Saturday,” Joe finally said. “And I’ll call Sonni to let her know I’m coming.”

“I’ll make the red stuff for dinner on Sunday,” Margaret said. “Can you pick up the bread?”

“You sure you’re up to cooking, Ma?”

“Oh, stop. It’s Rotelli, meatballs, brazziole and salad. No big deal.”

“I’ll bring the bread.”

Joe’s fondest memories came from his mother’s kitchen. As a child, he remembered the smell of fresh basil and oregano, the tomato sauce simmering on the stove, splotches of red scattered around the pot where the sauce had percolated over. He and his brother, Tom, and sister, Sonia, would taste the sauce with an old wooden spoon that had been around for as long as Joe could remember, while Margaret admonished them to not ruin their appetites. Joe and his brother somehow always managed to sneak a meatball or two before dinner. No matter how crafty they thought they were, Mother Saldana knew.

The kitchen table was where Margaret Saldana held court. It was where homework was done. It was the place where mom asked them - more like interrogated them - where they had been the night before and who were they running with. She would chain smoke, the cigarette held in two fingers like some bored movie star. In the other hand, she pointed a wooden stirring spoon at the three children for emphasis. Although the wooden spoon was never wielded as a weapon, it was the looming threat of a smack on the back that kept the younger Saldana clan in line. The gesture never changed, even after Tom and Joe grew and stood head and shoulders above their mother.

“You could always stay here,” Margaret said, bringing Joe back from his reverie.

“Sonni and Mike have a room with a bed. You have a couch.” Joe didn’t state the obvious, that he couldn’t sleep in his parent’s house due to the constant pall of stale cigarette smoke hanging in the air of the small townhouse in Scottsdale. “Besides, Zeus would be all over your furniture.”

“You and that dog go everywhere together. How do you expect to find a decent woman when that slobber machine goes everywhere with you? Last time he was here, he wiped his mouth on the sofa after he drank from the toilet bowl. I damn near drowned in his drool. I can only imagine what your furniture looks like . . .”

Joe held the phone receiver to Zeus’ ear. The large canine cocked his head with interest at the voice emanating from the phone. The dog’s tail thumped in recognition.

“Zeus sends his best, Mom.”

“Tell him to get off the sofa.”

“I love you, Ma.”

“I love you too, Joey.”

“See you Saturday.”

Joe hung up the wireless phone and flopped back on the couch. “Crap.” He stared at the ceiling, wondering if he should call Sonni tonight or wait until tomorrow. He tried to think of her schedule, one he had maintained as a student years before, going to school and trying to make ends meet at the same time. More than likely, she would be working at the La Cucaracha Mexican restaurant waiting tables. The work sucked, but the pay was good, and she didn’t have to take the job home with her. Just the smell of stale beer and enchilada sauce.

Driving to Phoenix this time of year did not rate at the top of Joe’s list. Temperatures in the late spring and early summer could tickle 110 degrees. He remembered driving past the billboard on I-17 in downtown Phoenix at 2:00 AM and the marquee registered 105 degrees. As Sonny so aptly put it, after a time, it was just “a hundred and fuck.” If he didn’t have family residing there, he’d never use I-10 again, except to get to points much further north.

“Happiness is seeing Phoenix in your rear view mirror,” Joe said to Zeus, who, in his dog-brain, recognized the word “Phoenix” as “road trip.” The dog’s large tail helicoptered in a great arc. Zeus rose, shook violently and bounded off the couch. He disappeared around the corner. Joe heard the sound of claws on tile and a chair in the kitchen squeaking as the big dog clambered up to reach the leash on the counter. Zeus reappeared holding the leash in his mouth and tossing his head excitedly. He put his face inches from Joe’s and barked loudly.

“It wouldn’t matter to you that I’m really tired tonight, would it?” Joe said.

The large canine barked again.

“I didn’t think so.” Joe pushed Zeus away. He stood stiffly, grabbing the small of his back. Zeus raced to the front door.

“No chasing rabbits tonight, you chowderhead.”

Joe retrieved the leash from the dog’s mouth and attached it to his collar. Opening the door, he braced himself, but to no avail. Zeus yanked Joe out into the darkness.

 

CHAPTER THREE

When Chance Lytle awoke, the second thing he noticed was the dull ache at his right hip that radiated into his groin. The first was his daughter Grace Everett, who sat in a chair next to his bed. She smiled at him, but lines of concern on her brow told Chance that he would soon be the recipient of another in a long line of lectures about moving to a retirement center.

“How are you feeling, Dad? I got here as soon as I could,” Grace said.

“I’m fine,” said Chance irritably. “You didn’t need to make the drive from Silver City.”

Grace and her husband Donald had retired well from the phone company and moved to the artisan community in western New Mexico. Grace operated a small art gallery and painted in her spare time. Around 70, she was slightly overweight, with long gray hair tied in a ponytail and the same steel blue eyes that she had inherited from her father.

“Don and I are worried about you, Dad. Of course I’d make the drive.”

Chance attempted to sit up in bed and felt the ache in his hip ratchet up a few notches.

“Here,” said Grace. She handed him the remote that controlled the bed’s head and foot height as well as the television controls. Not that the latter would do Chance much good. He had lost interest in most TV when his eyesight had begun to fail. The motor under the hospital bed hummed as the head of the bed raised up. Chance winced again, closed his eyes and appeared to be asleep. Grace watched the slow rise and fall of her father’s chest. After a moment, he twitched, then opened his eyes.

“You still here?” he said, feigning grumpiness.

“Yep. Still here.”

Grace reached out and placed her hand on top of Chance’s. It was a rough calloused hand with keratin spots gained from a long hard life spent under the brutal Arizona sun.

“Can I bring you anything, Dad?”

“You could bring me a pie. That would be alright by me.”

“A pie. I’ll check with the doctor to make sure it’s okay.”

“French Apple.” Chance put his hand up to his mouth. “They took my damned teeth. Where are my teeth?”

“In the drawer on your left, Dad.”

“I’ll take lemon meringue if they don’t have French apple,” said Chance, closing his eyes again.

Grace squeezed her father’s hand. “Dad, we need to have a talk soon. I think it’s time we thought about -.”

“ – Or maybe Boston cream. Yeah, Boston cream, with lots of yellow custard would be good.”

“Dad, we need to start thinking about another living arrangement for you.”

“I’m not moving, goddammit!” Chance Lytle’s fading blue eyes blazed anew. “I am not going to have this conversation with you again. I’m going back home as soon as they let me out of here.”

“It’s not safe out there. Your nearest neighbor is two miles away. What if that kid comes back again?”

“I hope the little shit does come back again. I’ll blow his balls off.”

Tears welled in Grace’s eyes. She stood stiffly and walked to the bedroom window, stared out at Tumamoc Hill, just south of Saint Mary’s Hospital. The black volcanic mountain shimmered in the late afternoon heat. The thick stands of creosote bush and saguaro cactus all looked withered and thirsty. And monsoons were still a good month off.

“You don’t even know how much I worry about you, all alone on that property,” Grace said still facing the window. “While you were recovering, I went out there to the house. What have you been eating? There’s nothing in the cupboards. You can’t keep on living like that!”

Chance stared at the ceiling. His jaw clenched and relaxed. “I get enough to eat. I’m not going to some damn nursing home.”

There was a knock at the door. A slight, dark–skinned man with jet-black hair dressed in a white lab coat and wearing a stethoscope around his neck peeked in.

“Mr. Lytle, I’m Dr. Singh. I’m the physiatrist following your case.” He looked at Grace, who had turned from the window. “And you must be his daughter?”

Grace advanced toward the diminutive physician. “Hello, Doctor. Grace Everett. Yes, I’m Chance’s daughter from Silver City.”

“Very nice to meet you.” Turning back to the recumbent Lytle in the bed, Dr. Singh asked in that melodious voice common to people from India, “How are you feeling, Mr. Lytle?”

Chance eyed the Indian doctor suspiciously. “Never better. You the head honcho of this outfit?”

Dr. Singh smiled slightly. “No. But I am the head of the care team in charge of your rehabilitation.”

“I can rehabilitate myself. Get me my clothes and I’ll show you how fast I can rehabilitate.”

Dr. Singh perused Chance’s chart. “Sir, you have just undergone a surgery, an open reduction, internal fixation of your right femur. We weren’t able to save all of the ball joint in your hip, so we gave you a partial artificial joint. It looked pretty arthritic from the MRI. There will be a lengthy recovery period, so for the next week or two you will be performing limited weight bearing activities under the supervision of the physical therapy department at Health South.”

Lytle scowled. “Two weeks? No wonder our medical system is bankrupt.”

“Dad,” said Grace, “Let Dr. Singh finish.”

Dr. Singh’s attention turned back to the chart. “I see that you live alone. Are there other family members who can assume care for you when you go home?”

“I’m the only child,” said Grace. “I can help out here for a few weeks, but my husband and I have a business to run. It would be better if Dad came and stayed with us for a while. At least one of us can be at home with him during his recovery.”

“That sounds reasonable,” said Dr. Singh. He looked expectantly at Chance.

“”It is not reasonable,” Chance said. “You and Don have your own lives. I have mine. I’m going home – to my home. That’s the last word.”

“God, you’re impossible! I give up.” Grace glared at her father. Her tone made him wince slightly. “You can’t take care of yourself now. Who’s going to cook for you? Bathe you? Clean up after you? You can’t even wipe your own ass!”

Grace regretted the words as soon as they left her lips. Chance stared at his daughter with rheumy eyes, then looked down at his hands.

Dr. Singh attempted to bridge the father-daughter chasm that had opened up in the small hospital room. “How about this for now? Two weeks at the rehab center to get you weight bearing and ambulatory. If everything goes according to plan, we’ll re-evaluate your return to home.”

“Two weeks,” said Chance, his eyes still cast downward.

“There is a caveat. If you can go home, I’m ordering home health nursing, physical and occupational therapy for you, as well as a home health aide to help you with showers. I know a good home health PT who will get you back on your feet.”

“I hope you’re not planning on sending me a female shower person,” Chance said making direct eye contact with the Indian physician. “I can’t abide a strange woman bathing me.”

“I’ll see what we can do,” said Dr. Singh.

Chance’s morphine was beginning to wear off. He became more and more restless.

“I’ll have the nurse come back down and administer another pain pill. I think it’s about time for the afternoon dose anyway.”

After they shook hands, Dr. Singh left Chance’s side and walked out into the corridor with Grace. She was still feeling remorse from berating her father in front of the doctor.

“Dr. Singh, I’m sorry you had to see that,” Grace said wiping her eyes with a tissue. “He can be . . . difficult.”

“It is hard for people who have been in control of their lives for so long, to suddenly find themselves dependent on others. I can tell your father is a proud and fiercely independent man.”

“Stubborn like a mule is more like it,” said Grace. “Doctor, I don’t know if you know of my Dad’s circumstances, but I’m afraid for his safety. His house has been broken into several times recently. This last time, he broke his hip when he tried to shoot the burglar. Thank God he missed and the burglar took off. But they’ve made him a target because of his age and his bad eyesight and hearing.”

The Indian doctor sighed. “Unfortunately, it is only a matter of time before he falls again. Due to his visual debilities and his age, he is a candidate for another fall. He is anemic as well. Improper diet and decreased fluid intake are contributory factors to his weakened state. In short, your father will be requiring more care and supervision in the coming months.”

Grace was exasperated. “You saw him in there, Dr. Singh. My mother was the only one who could reason with him, and she’s been dead for five years. He’ll fight me all the way on placement into an assisted living facility.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, how are his personal finances?”

Grace looked slightly put off then realized where Dr. Singh was going with this. “He has a lot of real estate. Compound interest is a wonderful thing if you live to 96.”

“You may want to give some thought to in-home care. That might be the path of least resistance,” the doctor said. “At least for a while. However, twenty-four hour a day care can be very expensive.”

“Oh, and he won’t part with a penny of it for his care,” Grace said bitterly. “Trust me on that.”

The kindly doctor touched Grace on the shoulder. “For now, let’s get him through the rehabilitation process, get his fluids normalized and then a round of home health. I think bringing in a social worker to discuss options down the road would be a good idea.”

Grace nodded. “Thank you, Doctor.”

The Indian doctor turned and walked down the hallway. Grace watched the slight man go until he turned the corner at the nursing station. Sighing deeply, she a squared her shoulders and opened up the door to her father’s room.

COLLAPSE