Some days Alex freezes going through doorways. To get him going again, Jackson does a ritual dance and says an incantation: “Feet. Feet. Come along feet. Do your thing, feet! Come on feet.”
Jackson has broad shoulders and massive forearms. Every morning he gets six-foot Alex easily to his feet. That is some trick because Alex towers over Jackson and has Parkinson’s and dementia. Two hours and a lot of sweat later, Alex is showered, dressed, fed and sitting in the sunroom of his home with salve on his eyelashes, his face a picture of intensity and sleepiness.
No matter how confused he is, Alex always knows me when I come. At least, so far. He sits there in the sunshine and talks to me about the President. He always cared about prestige. Now he talks in titles: the President, the Bishop, the Queen, the Governor, the Attorney General.
“The President of the United States…” Every word clear. Alex pauses and looks down at his glass of tomato juice. “…Moonbeams! Applesauce!”
“The President?” I say, expecting no reply. Knowing that if I receive one, the parts won’t connect. When Alex doesn’t continue, I say, “The President is in a lot of trouble right now.”
Alex nods. “Play-offs soon. Play-offs.”
I smile, amazed at how his response relates to the ridiculous politics of the day. An unintended bit of sense. I’ll never think of play-offs in the same way again.
“You…” Alex says. “You are my greatest… My greatest…”
I wait for the blank to be filled and when it is not, I say, “I am your greatest,” as if it’s a complete statement. I sometimes turn into a parrot when I talk to Alex.
Alex says, “Peaches!”
Jackson comes onto the sun porch. “You tell her about the piano?”
“Plums!” Alex says as if that were an answer as well as one of life’s deepest secrets.
“You still play the piano, Alex?”
“I studied music,” Jackson says. “So I play for him. And he plays for me.”
“Wanna play for her?” Jackson asks.
Alex nods. “We’re workin’ starlight.”
“Great!” says Jackson just as if Alex actually said yes. Jackson’s hands close around Alex’s pasty liver-splotched ones. “Okay, Mr. Alexander. Put your feet together. There you go!”
Alex rises to his six foot height, not a quarter inch shorter than he was in his prime. But his cheeks have collapsed. His hair is a lot thinner. His thighs are mere sticks within his trouser legs. His pants, three inches too big in the waist, hang loose from his suspenders.
Lurching like a freight train getting underway, Alex and Jackson begin their slow walk to the music room. Alex shuffles along.
“Pick up your feet, Mr. Alexander.”
Sometimes I think back to the good days when Alex was still here. Even then he would change the subject in the middle of a sentence or slur his words. Especially when he disliked the topic. Be vague could have been his personal motto. Maybe his dementia started years ago. Or maybe what you do is what you become.
They arrive on the wrong side of the piano bench. “You first,” says Jackson and helps Alex sit down.
“Before,” says Alex, waving his hand in the air. “I…before!”
Jackson says, “Play for us.”
Alex looks at the keys so vacantly, I think he’s falling asleep, but then he puts his hands on the keyboard. An old song spills forth. “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.” He plays the whole thing. Starts over. Stops after the first measures. Looks at me.
“Before!” he says, waving again.
“Okay,” I say and smile. I don’t know what he’s trying to tell me. Sadness sweeps his eyes, and I know Alex knows I don’t understand. He plays some ragtime. Scott Joplin. The corners of his mouth turn in a half smile. Spittle runs onto his chin. Jackson wipes it off. Alex bangs out chopsticks. We all laugh.
“Good!” says Jackson. “Good, Mr. Alexander. See what I mean?”
“I can’t believe it,” I say. “Playing the piano is so complicated.”
Jackson grins. “Yeah. But he does it!”
“He’s tired,” I say.
The phone rings. Jackson goes to answer it. Alex points to the sofa. I get him turned on the bench. He takes my hands. Leans forward.
Alex stands. Wobbles. Shuffles to the sofa. Turning him around to sit takes a lot of effort and coaxing, but he is gentle and does what I say, even though he is stiffening up again.
The sofa is deep and soft. We hold hands and listen to the tick of the grandfather clock, the sound of Jackson’s muffled voice in the other room. From far off comes the slow determined swish and thud of yesterday’s snow sliding off the roof.
After a long while, Jackson returns. “Would you like some tea?”
“Yes, thank you,” I say.
Jackson disappears into the kitchen.
Alex comes alive, his hand in mine suddenly strong and animated. Shaking, Alex leans toward me and kisses my cheek. Leans partway back. Freezes. Unable to move. Unable to release my hand. Stuck.
I am just about to call Jackson, when he appears with tea and pound cake. Seeing our hands entwined, Jackson says, “Unhun! Unhun!” He long ago figured us out. He works at our hands. Finally, Alex’s hand relaxes enough to separate it from mine. Jackson pulls Alex half up. Resettles him.
I pour the tea and feed Alex a piece of pound cake. Alex looks at the piano. “You!” he says to Jackson. Jackson sits down at the ivories. “I’ve Got Rhythm” pours from his fingers.
Alex is all animation. His boney legs shift and bounce to the beat. He moves his shoulders. Taps his left foot.
When Jackson finishes, Alex says, “The Queen on Tuesday…applesauce!”
Jackson says, “The Queen is coming here on Tuesday?” Alex grins at him. “Well, I’d better polish up the silver, Mr. Alexander.”
“Moonbeams,” Alex says. “Apricots.” His head slumps forward.
Alex is all tired out and needs a nap. It’s time for me to go. On the way to the car, Alex, who has been walking along well, stops so abruptly Jackson nearly trips.
“Here,” Alex holds out to me his cupped hands, palms upward. “I want you to have these tiny red birds.” One perfect sentence.
“Now stop that, Mr. Alexander. The lady will think you’ve gone crackers.”
I say, “I’ll just put them on the car seat. They’ll enjoy a little ride.”
“They will!” Alex says. One more perfect sentence.
“I’ve been talking to him about that,” Jackson says.
It seems that every day Alex sees more and more stuff that isn’t there. Jackson has tired of going along with it all.
My problem with the invisibles is that the first time Alex showed me those tiny birds, I saw them, too.
Alex slides the birds into my hands. I see a flash of red, a flutter of wings. I put the birds on the passenger seat. They settle down.
When I am in the car, Alex points at the window. I lower the glass.
“Before…You are my greatest…” He motions toward the sunroom where we sat.
I don’t understand, but smile and say, “Yes, before! You are my greatest…”
We look into each other’s eyes. His are blue with little gray flecks. He knows I haven’t understood. Sadness lives in his eyes, the sag of his shoulders. He stands there in the sunlight while I back the car out of the drive.
I step on the gas, my mind playing with Alex’s words. “Before…You are my greatest…Love is a many-splendored thing…Before…”
I see Alex in the rearview mirror, tall and frail. Where did that broad back go? Those strong arms?
And then everything clicks. I stop the car and walk back.
“‛Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.’ What a great old song!”
Alex grins. “Before!”
“What we were before. I am your greatest love!” I say, having filled in the blank. “You are my greatest love, too.”
His hands are heavy on my shoulders. He begins to shake. I lean into his vibrating kiss, born of Parkinson’s and excitement. One kiss. One stiff embrace.
Jackson says, “Okay, Mr. Alexander, let’s let the lady go.”
I kiss Alex’s sunken cheek. Step away. Go to the car. Look back.
Alex stands with one arm up, stuck there after waving goodbye. He is half-turned toward the house. Jackson says, “Feet. Feet. Do your thing! Come on feet.”