Henry: Stuck In a Chair

by Jeanette Castillo

 

            The old man was stuck in a chair.  The chair had a big tray, like a child's high chair and four little tiny wheels.  He was tied to the chair with a red plaid cotton restraint. 

            He was still a good looking old man, with a craggy face, and a bristly brush of white hair sticking up on his head.  His hands were large and well made, the hands of a man who had done an honest day's work, but inactivity had caused the skin to go soft and mushy.  His name was Henry, and he had been a farmer all his life, but even these basic facts he sometimes forgot.  But damn, the body still works good, he would think to himself and chuckle out loud.

            The chuckling wasn't the main reason he was in the nursing home, although it drove his wife crazy.  He was always chuckling to himself but he could never say why.  Sometimes she would just get in his face and ask, what's so funny.  He could never say.  He could never say where he was.  He didn't know who she was, and when she got in his face he swatted at her like a fly.

            That was the other problem.  Henry was too big, too strong, too confused for his tiny wife.  It had always been a tender joke between them.  He called her "little dumpling"   He towered over her, and when he came in from the field, he liked to pick her up and carry her around the room.  He would hold her up in the air so she could get the Christmas decorations out of the top of the closet.  He could have reached them himself, but he always held her up in the air, the way a father holds his child up to look in a shop window.  He used to carry her to bed, both of them laughing like schoolchildren.  Now she was afraid of him.

            When she realized he didn't know her anymore, didn't recognize her, she decided to put him in the nursing home.  Forty years together and he didn't know her.  When he spoke to her, he might as well be talking to the postman.  He seldom remembered any of their three children.  He didn't remember where the bathroom was, and more than once she found puddles in the dark corners of closets and behind doors.  She found a pair of damp socks in the freezer.   She found him discussing grain prices with the farm dog.

            He wanted to drive the day they took him to the nursing home, and it took both of their burly sons to keep him in the back seat.  He kept asking where they were going, and once he even noticed in the rearview mirror that she had tears in her eyes, and said "Don't cry.  Don't cry Stephanie".  Stephanie was their daughter, killed in a car accident ten years ago.  This made her cry even harder.  Are we going to Fred's, he asked, and she finally lost control.  She was shaking as she pulled the car onto the shoulder, and turned her tear-stained face to look at him over the back of the seat.  "Why is it," she practically screamed, "that you only remember the names of dead people?"  Then she saw the stricken faces of her sons, and she straightened her shoulders and steered the car back on the road.  Henry was silent the rest of the way, except for asking, like a child, if she would stop at the Dairy Dream, and buy him a chocolate ice cream cone.  She did, and they all had one with him, sitting on a park bench by the two-lane state highway.  Every once in a while Henry waved at a car going by.

            Once he was gone she felt better.  She felt like a prisoner set free.  She cleaned up the house, taking all the Henry-proof locks off the cabinets.  While she was trying to revitalize her neglected flower garden, she would often start up, thinking Henry must be into something: where's Henry? Then she would remember.  Other times she forgot him altogether, and remembering didn't always bring on a pang of guilt.

            At first she went dutifully to the nursing home every day, until she realized it didn't matter.  She would try to make Henry sit on the vinyl-covered couch in the lobby, but he would get up and wander after the nurses' aides, finger poised in the air with some urgent message he could never convey.  He never even knew she was there.  She stopped coming so often after she heard him call out a gravely proposition to one of the teenage volunteers.  What he said was not something the Henry she knew would ever say.  She felt a churning inside, but that was when she broke free for real.

            Henry was stuck in a chair.  He didn't know why, but he thought he might have something to do.  There was something he was supposed to do.  Were his shoes tied?  He peered over the tray table at his feet.  There were his feet.  He held them up in the air so he could see his battered shoes sticking up.  Where I'd get these new shoes? he thought. These must be for church.  Is it Sunday?  He went to look at his watch, which he hadn't worn for three years.  That's it, he thought, I've got to pick up my watch.

            He began shuffling his feet, moving the chair along inch by inch, being careful not to bark the back of his ankles on the foot rest.  He moved pretty well across the linoleum, but when he got to the carpet the going was slower.  He didn't know it, but it was inevitable that he hit an exit sooner or later, as they were located at the end of each of the four wings of the nursing home. He banged his chair up against the glass door, and a man who was standing outside opened it and let him out.

             A smooth sidewalk led to the parking lot, which led to the unevenly paved county road.  This road was hard to navigate in the chair, and Henry had to stop and rest his tired calves.  His stomach muscles were sore from the constant scooting motion.  A Chevy Nova full of teenagers went careening by, and five heads turned to stare at him.  He was almost to the two-lane highway that led into town.  Somehow he knew exactly where he was going.

            It was only luck that got him across the highway in one piece. He held his arm out to indicate a left turn and made sure he got into the right lane.  A few cars passed him, stunned faces appearing moon-like behind closed windows.  He waved at some of them.  He felt better than he had in years.  His pants were wet, but there was a breeze in his face, and even the exhaust of the cars passing smelled good to him.  He knew exactly where he was going.  His body was strong.  His watch was being fixed.  He thought of his round little wife, waiting at home, and his heart filled with love.  He chuckled to himself and kept scooting.

            Back on Henry's farm, his wife was standing at the sink when her oldest son came in from the field.   For a moment, when she turned around and saw him standing there so tall, in his father's old coveralls, she thought it was Henry, come home for supper.