About Family – Darrell Petska

“Quick! Ed’s in bad shape!”

That was Louella’s “hello” the evening of the day we’d started raising a wall for the new Hy-Vee. It hadn’t gone well. Three beers in, I wavered at my doorway, trying to focus. Next I knew, she was dragging me by the arm toward Ed Ostrick’s apartment and bedside to deceive the poor man as he breathed his last. What the hell were we doing? You had to know Louella to understand.

The day I moved into my apartment, she appeared at my door with a dozen chocolate chip cookies and that kind, wrinkled face you can’t just turn away. We spoke briefly in my doorway. A former nurse, she’d lived there 12 years. From my grimy clothes, she surmised that I worked in construction, then invited me to the Commons room on Saturday morning for cookies and coffee—before bustling off in pink tennies and gray sweats down the hall to her apartment.

Louella’s cookies had tasted good, and since I’d stocked mostly beer and chips, I went to the Commons Saturday morning to claim some cookies. She was there, visiting with a young mom whose two noisy kids sat playing some game in a corner. Noticing me, Louella cut short her conversation and approached as I eyed the cookie selection.

“Sit,” she insisted. “Try each. Fresh from my oven!”

Chocolate chip, peanut butter, oatmeal raisin—I had no trouble complying. My hunger could hardly refuse.

While I munched, she detailed the occupants of our unit’s six apartments: besides hers, mine, and the busy mom’s—“single, sad story,” Louella whispered—the others housed a college student whose cat Louella cared for time to time, a blind librarian who liked to be read to, and some old man, Ed Ostrick, who needed nursing care but remained in the apartment he’d shared for years with his now-deceased wife. Ed’s son, Erik, some Portland hotshot, was taking forever to line up a care home for his father. Louella seemed to know the details of everyone’s life. Perhaps she expected me to dish mine.

I didn’t give her much, didn’t like talking about myself. Grew up in Houston. Traveled the construction circuit. No ties. Thanks for the cookies. Later that morning I saw her unlocking the door to Ed Ostrick’s apartment and stepping right in, balancing a plate of cookies.

Every Saturday morning the young mom with her two kids would be at the Commons. Noisy kids, but the mom had a sweet smile. Sometimes the blind librarian appeared on an arm of the college student. Random people from other units stopped by. Louella knew them all. Ed Ostrick never came.

I mentioned Ed one evening when she stopped by with cupcakes—she dropped in at least once a week with baked treats, apparently to fatten me up. “Look at you!” she once said. “A construction worker needs meat on his bones!” But that evening, she lingered to tell me about Ed.

His wife, Bernice, had been gone a couple of years. Aside from Ed’s multitude of health problems—heart, kidneys, back—he’d become increasingly confused. Louella had become his de facto caregiver. He believed she was his wife.

“His wife? Can’t he tell the difference?”

“He’s happiest thinking I’m Bernice, so I go along with it. And his eyes are bad.”

“But you don’t live there!”

“I was always around. Bernice and I were good friends. Lately, of course, I’ve been there quite a lot, though when I’m not, he believes I’m just off in another room. I keep to a schedule he somehow accepts.”

Peering over her pearl horn-rims, she had a way of getting a person to talk. That same evening, she wheedled out my story as I finished off my third cupcake.

“Your sweet tooth must have kept your mother busy…” she smiled.

Shortly I found myself explaining how an aunt raised me, how my mother lived in Guam. We never spoke. My father had died before I could remember him.

Louella took me under her wing, just like the others. I didn’t mind: the city left me feeling lonely and unmoored. She introduced me around. Had me take her place a couple times to read to the librarian. Enlisted me to walk some guy’s dog for a week. Practically beamed the morning she asked me to help the young mom start her car. Shirl, her name, invited me in for hot cocoa. But Louella kept Ed Ostrick to herself.

Then came that evening—I’d been drinking beer, watching TV—when I heard frantic pounding on my door. Louella.

“Quick! Ed’s in bad shape!” She grabbed my arm and tugged.

I held back. “Have you called an ambulance?” I started slapping pockets for my phone.

“Yes. I think he’s dying! He’s asking for his son!”

I just stared at her. “He’s in Portland!”

She yanked me down the hallway toward Ed’s apartment. “You’ve got to be Erik,” she said. “He insists you’re here!”

Then there we stood alongside his bed. I’d never seen him before. He looked shriveled. His breathing was labored, his face pale.

“Here he is, here’s Erik, your son!” She spoke loudly next to his ear. “We’re all here, Ed.”

Ed’s clouded eyes widened. “Oh, Sonny—” He spoke weakly, trying to locate my hand.

I took his. “I’m here. We’re all here. It’s OK.”

He pulled on my hand to bring me closer. I put my arms about his shoulders, leaned uneasily toward him, then finally gave in to the moment. As I embraced him, I felt tears running down my cheeks. I don’t know why. Too many beers? Or seeing someone near death like that, looking so small and forlorn? Maybe I cried because I’d never mourned anyone before. Next to me, his “Bernice” wept too.

We hovered around him, which seemed to console him. The ambulance siren drew near and halted outside. I stepped into the hallway to hale the paramedics. When I returned to his side, I saw his face had relaxed. Then I realized that Ed was no longer there. The paramedics could do nothing. The look they gave each other, and the gentle head shake meant for Louella and me, said it all.

Louella called his son and set in motion Ed’s quick transition to ash: Erik flew in the day after Ed died and flew out the next day, even before Ed had been eased into the flames.

Erik expressed no interest in his father’s possessions and asked Louella to have the building managers dispose of everything as they saw fit. Louella agreed, though I knew she’d sort through Ed’s possessions beforehand.

A box of old children’s books she had me carry to the Commons. A bag of tired toys, no doubt saved in case Erik ever had time for a family, I delivered to Shirl and her kids—a task devised by Louella the matchmaker, of course, but I didn’t mind. Some paperback novels I presented to the college student. And she’d found something for me.

She waited till the following Saturday, a particularly bright spring morning with sun flooding the windows. I’d bought donuts to change up the usual cookie fare. Shirl and I sat together, watching the kids play. Blind librarian and college student sat in the sun, visiting casually. Louella flitted from person to person, being solicitous as always.

At last she settled on the sofa beside me and drew from her pocket something wrapped in tissue paper. “I had to get this cleaned and polished. You should have it.”

Within the paper gleamed a copper-plated pocket watch. The inscription I noticed first, and the watch’s steady ticking only after. The ornate letters read “With Love”.

She stopped me from saying what I began to say. “He didn’t want any of it. You were the one there with Ed. It was your loving kindness, not his.”

Louella hadn’t really given me much choice the night Ed died. I just happened to be handy. But I accepted it, recalling Ed addressing me as “Sonny” and the tears pent up for much of my life.

There I sat, one arm around Louella, the other around Shirl. Her kids played close by. Cordial faces I hadn’t known only a few months before now filled the Commons with warm conversation. I realized what I had discovered—the regrets of my childhood fading fast as a new family took shape before me.

Darrell Petska’s fiction has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Flash Frontier, Bird’s Thumb, Right Hand Pointing, Boston Literary Magazine and elsewhere (see conservancies.wordpress.com). With 30 years on the academic staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 40 years as a father (seven years a grandfather), and longer as a husband, Darrell lives outside Madison, Wisconsin.

Image via Pixabay

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