Retirement Home

by Greg Ames Read author interview December 15, 2005
story art

I carry a slop bucket of grub out to my parents. I unlock the clanking door to their chain-link cage and set the bucket down in the dirt. Dressed in hip boots and a black winter coat with a fur-lined hood, I lean against the doorjamb and smoke a menthol cigarette. Overhead the sky has turned dark, overcast. It looks like rain again. Before I serve the meal, I spray down the previous day’s mess with a garden hose.

“Good morning,” my mother says.

With a sharpened stick I stir the corn chowder. It was hot a minute ago, bubbling and steaming, but now it’s lukewarm. I hoist the ten-gallon bucket and pour the chowder into their red plastic bowls, sploshing it over the sides so that it mixes a little with their water bowl.

“Your mother is speaking to you,” my father says.

Crouched in the corner of the cage, my elderly parents hug each other for warmth. It must have been chilly last night. Indeed, there was frost on my bedroom windows when I woke up this morning. But I was comfortable enough, though, because I had my electric blanket cranked to 6. Toasty.

“I didn’t sleep very well last night,” Mom says to me. “Your father and his snoring.”

“I don’t snore!” he says, grinning at her. “Do I?” This is their old joke. He kisses her cheek. “I don’t know how you put up with me, dear.”

“Well, it’s not easy.” She smiles and pats his hand. “But I’ll make do.”

“See you tomorrow,” I say and shut the door. I turn the key in the lock.

They wave to me. “Good seeing you, son.”

“Thanks for visiting,” Mom calls out. “The chowder looks wonderful.”

“See you tomorrow,” Dad says brightly.

“Thanks again,” Mom says.

After a moment Dad helps Mom to her feet. Struggling to stand, she leans on him. He limps. Slowly and carefully they stagger across the rutted earthen floor. Jagged shards of green glass are still embedded in the dirt. There was a time, maybe three months ago, when I still allowed them a case of bottled beer and a pail of grain alcohol, but things got a little wild and violent, and I had to cut them off. It was for their own good. During the first days of this prohibition they rebelled and pouted, but I think they have come to recognize the sagacity of my decision.

Before leaving for work each morning, I like to sit in the gazebo and drink hot chocolate from a purple ceramic mug. I smoke three or four cigarettes and peruse the sports page of the morning paper. From here I can monitor my parents’ activities, make sure they’re not bleeding or vomiting too much.

Holding her elbow solicitously, Dad shepherds Mom to the food bowl. Her eyesight has grown weak. Too proud to admit her failing, she pretends to have perfect vision, even as she trips and tumbles into the chain-link walls of the cage.

Mom lowers her face to the bowl, and sniffs. “He’s become such a good cook,” she says.

“Thanks! It’s dump-and-stir mostly,” I shout, my hands cupped around my mouth. “I keep a few basic recipes in the house, you know. I’m good with a crock pot. And I dabble from time to time. Chowder. Beef stew. Cupcakes. Nothing fancy.”

They can’t hear me from this distance.

“He’s a fine boy,” Dad says, nodding. “You should be proud of him.”

“Oh, I am,” Mom says. “You bet.”

“You did a terrific job raising him,” he tells her. “Best damn mother in America thirty years in a row.”

“Oh, stop.” Mom blushes and looks away. “I couldn’t have done it without you.”

Fat drops of rain are now slanting through the chain-link roof of their cage. I zip up my coat. There is a bottle of chewable Vitamin C tablets somewhere in the house, I think. I’ll eat one or two of those before leaving for work this morning.

“Mom, have you seen the Vitamin C?” I call out from the gazebo. “Is it still in the medicine cabinet?”

Oblivious, she lowers her head to the corn chowder and takes a tentative lick. “Could use the tiniest dash of salt, I think,” she says.

“Should I try to get his attention?” my father asks her.

“Oh, no. He’s very busy,” Mom says, wiping rainwater from her mildewed eyes. “No, we mustn’t bother him. The food is fine. It’s wonderful.”

A gray strand of hair has fallen loose from her barrette. My father reaches out and brushes it back. “There’s nothing I like more than eating a fine meal with you, darling,” he says.

“Come down here, right beside me.” She pats the muddy floor beside her. Her nylons are gritty, torn. “We’ll share this bowl and save the other for a midnight snack.”

“Good thinking,” he says.

My father says grace. Then they lower their heads and begin to eat.

About the Author:

Greg Ames lives and works in Brooklyn. His stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and websites, including Open City, McSweeney’s, The Sun, Fiction International, failbetter.com, Literal Latté, and Other Voices. He received a special mention in the 2003 Pushcart Prize anthology and The Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2004. For more information, please visit www.gregames.com.