The following short story originally appeared in one of the earliest issues of Ancient Paths Literary Magazine, #3, which was published in the Fall of 1999.
by Thomas Stephen Burris, Sr.
The screen-door slammed and the fox squirrel sitting in the fork of the mulberry tree peered bright-eyed toward the porch, ready for the handout that often accompanied that sound. To be sure, the old man was not intentionally feeding this furry marauder of the bird feeder.
The truth was there had been an ongoing battle for the past couple of years between the tall, stoop-shouldered man and the frisky, impertinent, arboreal quadruped. Grudgingly the man had finally admitted he was bested and, now when he filled the feeder for the small chirping denizens of his garden, he threw a handful of corn into an old pan near the base of the tree as well. That decision had led to an expectation and a daily ritual.
Now the squirrel waited impatiently, tail flitting. He watched as the old man descended the stairs of the porch slowly, dragging one foot. The squirrel was impatient and chattered, scolding the man for being late. Late was not the appropriate word, for the old man had been gone for the better part of two weeks!
The little furry beggar could not appreciate the idea of a stroke, or a "CVA," as the internal medicine specialist termed it. He could not fathom a hospital or therapy or any of the myriad of invasions made upon the old man’s body in hopes of limiting the damage done by a tiny clot of cells floating through the tiny vessels of his brain.
Now as the old man pulled himself slowly toward the plot of flowers and herbs he had tended for many years, the squirrel began his descent of the trunk of the tree where he so imperiously observed his cafeteria. This time the old man had no bag of seed or corn. In fact, his left hand which was turned inward toward his body was empty.
The man stooped over and straightened a stake beside one of his plants, using his one good hand. The effort almost cost him a tumble, and he grabbed hold of a fence post at the last moment.
He stood for a few moments, breathing deeply and sighed. He looked toward the tree and saw his hirsute nemesis eyeing him suspiciously. He shook his head and started back toward the house, leaving the squirrel puzzled and hungry.
When he made his way back in the kitchen, he sat down heavily on a straight-backed chair, not daring to take his customary seat in his rocker lest he be unable to rise unaided. The phone rang and he reached for the receiver with his good hand.
"Dad? It’s John. We’ll be over in a little while. We’ve been taking care of some details here in town. We should be there in about half an hour. I just wanted to let you know."
The old man shrugged and grunted, "Okay! I’m not goin’ nowhere. . . at least not today." His son replied, "Okay. We have some things to talk about when we come, and then Kate and Michelle will fix lunch for us. See you in a little while. And Dad, we love you."
He replaced the receiver in its cradle and looked out the open door. He leaned forward unsteadily, holding the edge of the table with his good right hand. "Details" his son had said. He knew what "details" they were taking care of. Hadn’t he been in the room when the physician had said he shouldn’t be alone after this stroke? He heard him speak of the "fine establishment" across from the hospital for those having such needs. "Cheery rooms and good help," he had said. "Clean and no odors," he had added.
These were the "details" they had been taking care of. He had determined to come to his own home, his own kitchen, his garden. But he knew now he couldn’t keep it up. He was tired, and it was only eleven in the morning. It had been a chore to shave, wash and dress. His breakfast consisted of instant coffee and store-bought frozen biscuits. He couldn’t operate that darned can-opener he had used for twenty years.
He sighed once more, struggled to his feet, and went out on the porch. The screen door slammed once more. He saw the flick of a furry red tail, and smiled. With his good hand he picked up the ten-pound bag of corn and at the edge of the stair; he tossed it carefully down to the walk. It remained upright. He held onto the rail and eased himself down the steps. At the bottom he picked up the sack and limped to the garden. At the foot of the tree he drew the sack up in his arm and managed to spill a trickle of corn into the old pan. It fell into the basin with the sound sleet made on the kitchen window in winter.
As he stood there the squirrel descended and stretched his greedy little front paws toward the pan. Soon he was bent over it, tail curled over his head, intent on his noontime repast. He ignored the man who stood only a foot away. When the man turned and walked toward the house, the squirrel barely noticed.
As the old man approached the house, his daughter-in-law’s station wagon pulled into the gravel drive. He stood waiting for them to stop the car and get out. He supposed that by this afternoon he’d be in "Restful Acres" or whatever the name of that "pre-burial vault" was. Well, if they thought he was going to go along happily, they were wrong. He didn’t mind town, but this was where he belonged. Tears filled his eyes and a rage began to make his cheeks quiver as he thought of the sterile, tiled room that would be his with the cajoling, mock smiles and feigned happiness of the attendants as they would help him undress.
His daughter-in-law had always been his best support in keeping the place here after Millie had died three years ago. She had talked repeatedly with John of the importance of letting his father stay put as long as he was able.
He couldn’t let her see his anger. He swallowed and sniffed, and put on a smile that was genuine as he saw his granddaughter toddle into the yard. Michelle was a happy child and delighted in her "Granpa." She came tottering toward him holding out her arms. He bent to scoop her up and almost fell once more, but John was there and helped Michelle into his waiting arms. They went up on the porch and sat in the swing and wicker chairs placed there by Millie years before.
Kate began, "Dad, John and I have listened carefully to what the doctor said the other day, and we went over to see the nursing home. They have a room with a nice view and its available now." She looked at the old man and saw the tear that began in the corner of his right eye and coursed its way to his lip. She reached over and took his right hand and squeezed it. "But we couldn’t sign the papers. We turned around and walked out and went to the park and talked. John is consulting more and more by computer now, and we have just found out that we are going to have a sister or brother for Michelle."
The old man was peering at her intently and she continued: "So here’s our idea. You have three bedrooms not being used, and Dr. Coleman feels that with continued therapy and time, you’ll be able to get around better, and maybe have some limited use of your left hand even. So, if you’ll have us, maybe we could move in here with you."
His son John leaned forward and added, "Dad, it may be just for a while, but think about it. Kate would be here during the day to help with meals, and what time I have to be in town would be minimal, so I could do some of the upkeep like the grass and watering your garden. So what do you think, Dad?"
The old man looked from one of them to the other and nodded. His chin was quivering when he answered, "I think I’d like that very much." He looked at his granddaughter sitting on his knee and said, "There’s an old reprobate squirrel I want you to meet."
He took her hand and together they went down the stairs, and into the garden. A flash of tawny red came down a limb and descended the trunk of the Mulberry tree. Was it time to eat again?