It’s noon at the assisted living. My father-in-law is splayed on the couch. It’s been months since Gerry remembered how to turn on the television. Instead he sits there staring into space. My husband Michael takes a long hard look. Then in a fake peppy voice, he throws out an invitation.
Heh, Pops! It’s lunchtime! Let’s go out to lunch!
Gerry glances up. His face is blank, the words still computing. So Michael speaks louder as if his father were deaf. I’m hungry! You hungry? Is anybody hungry?
But hearing isn’t the issue. Gerry looks down at his legs as if they were strangers. He has forgotten how to get up from the couch, a simple series of movements we take for granted. I read the panic in his eyes as they dart from his feet to the floor and the floor to his feet. So gently, I bring his long legs to the edge of the sofa. Then I wrap my arm around his shoulders. There you go Dad, I say. Now we’re getting up.
Our outing continues along these lines. Gerry silently asks for help while his son sits there just as helplessly. My father-in-law gazes at the menu before him like it looks vaguely familiar. What do you want to eat, Dad? asks Michael. Once again, Gerry has that deer-in-the-headlights look. What do you want to eat? Michael says again.
I turn to Gerry and hold his hand to make sure he looks at me. Then I run through the list of his favorite foods. Cue him. Grilled cheese today, Dad? How about a tuna sandwich or pastrami?
When the French toast comes, he starts eating with his fingers. Michael by this time is crunched up in a ball in the corner of our booth counting the minutes until our visit ends. He is averting his eyes. I take my utensils and cut Gerry’s food into bite-sized pieces. He quickly grabs his fork and hungrily gobbles down his meal, compliant as a child.
Finally, it’s time to drop Gerry off. Then Michael looks at me and says, I don’t know how you do it. The way you figure him out.
Every week we have the identical talk, and every week my reply is the same. It’s just ESP, I say. I just guess what he wants and sometimes I’m lucky.
Then as sure as the sun sets, the moment we get home Michael heads to bed. His limbs are limp, his shoulders slumped. He takes a long nap, exhausted. And when he finally emerges, the silence will be thick enough to taste. No words will be spoken until the next Saturday, when armed with our jackets and our sweaters, we head to the assisted living once more.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Arts and Letters, Catapult, and The American Literary Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.