Friday, April 1, 2011

The Smell Old Records Have

That Smell Old Records Have

Had his hands not been searing with arthritis, Mr. Perry would have likely punched the orderly right in his jaws. He most certainly could walk himself down the hall to the shower room, and by all means, he could bathe himself without supervision. Robert Orville Perry was a grown man; was a grown man many moons before the one that shone the night that young punk was conceived.

Presently, though, he felt as if he were the only one who remembered it. Well, he’d just have to remind them. A man who had been bathed with blood in Korea could assuredly bathe his own ass with Dial.

He just needed that walker; that walker with the wheels. He saw it inconveniently setting on the far side of the room. A long extension to his oxygen cord would be nice too, so that he wouldn’t have to take that burdensome tank with him. But Robert figured he could make do.

As he was, though, Robert could not bear to grip the lever of the recliner; much less pull it to let his feet down. He needed something for pain. He’d ask the nurse with the medication cart the next time she strolled by. He was at least allowed to decide for himself if he was hurting. He’d take an ibuprofen, and then he’d take a shower, yes sir.

An hour and a quarter later, he did get an ibuprofen. But by then, the pain had tripled. “Well, Mr. Perry, that’s what the doctor has ordered for pain.” That’s what the nurse said, shaking her young hips as she pushed the medication cart back out of the room. His pain was not hers. Her hip bones were not soft; had never taken hard impact, or suffered a resulting fracture. Her hands gripped the cart’s handle with ease.

Another hour later he did take a shower. He was indignantly brought down the hall in a wheelchair, and was then made to sit in a special geriatric bath chair. The shower lasted only ten minutes, and was administered by that same punk orderly. His name was Andrew, and he refused to wash “old man parts.” Robert could not squeeze the rag. He resolved to let his old man parts remain dirty. Perhaps next week’s shower would go differently.

“At Mountain Grove, your family is our family, too!” So spoke the recording whenever anyone called. Robert had found it to be such a lie.

Mountain Grove classified itself a rest home, though to most of the residents there was very little rest, and it was certainly not home. The residence, a dreary-looking one-story structure of dark brick, was sometimes called Mountain Grove Rest Area, due to its location on the hill (another deception) overlooking the roadside rest area on the Virginia-Tennessee border.

Residents living on the building’s front side had a window view of travelers from all over stopping to relieve themselves, walk their dogs, or browse the racks of free brochures. Robert was glad to be on the back side. He did not wish to see people coming and going so freely; not while he felt so imprisoned.

Mr. Perry had come to live at Mountain Grove two weeks earlier, which made it, give or take, a month since he’d last been home. That made it around three weeks since he had felt much else besides animosity for David, his only son.

Keeping track of time was something Robert had lately found himself with plenty of time to do.

A fresh pair of sweats on, he lay on his bed, as comfortable as he remembered his Army cot of fifty years earlier being, and waited for “lunch.” Robert had thought hospital food was bad, but oh boy, the stuff they served here took the cake.

Pushed against the wall opposite Robert’s bed was an old hospital bed, of which no explanation had ever been offered. The thing looked antique; the head raised and lowered by way of a hand crank at the foot. The head was presently at a forty-five degree angle. The egg-crate mattress was void of linens.

When he’d first arrived, Robert thought that dinosaur of a bed might have been for him. He was pleased to learn it wasn’t. He had eaten his fill of hospital beds, not to mention hospital food.

His bed in the big hospital in Bristol had been nice, though. There were no hand cranks to be seen on it. If that bed in the corner were a Model T, why, that bed in Bristol was a Cadillac.

But alas, a hospital bed is still a hospital bed. A body grows weary in one, no matter how fancy the gadgetry. Robert knew this well. And it was all over potatoes.

One evening at home, Robert developed the worst hankering for fried potatoes. His dear Daisy, God bless her; she could make the best fried potatoes. For the last two years, though, Robert had had to contend with his own, which somehow always turned out mushy, and never golden-brown.

Robert was on his way down to the half-dirt cellar when one of the slat-board steps, after supporting his weight for thirty-five years, snapped apart right beneath his feet. Robert pitched forward onto the concrete portion of the cellar floor.

David had pointed out several times that those old steps needed replacing, though he had never offered to help with the repairs. However, Robert knew David wouldn’t let that inconvenient detail interfere with him having an “I told you so!” moment.

He had been in such severe pain. He tried to stand, but found it unbearable. There was no chance. The cellar was plain country: plenty of potatoes and canned goods, but no phone.
There was, however, a tough old Frigidaire in the corner, within crawling distance. Inside it, thank the Good Lord, Robert had put an extra case of Sprite, and there were also a few packs of deli meats.

He could make it a few days at least. Thankfully, it turned out he needed only one.
Robert fell Friday evening. Sometime late Saturday evening he heard the front door open. He’d locked it, and it came open with too much ease to be a forced entrance.

Unable to reach him by phone, David had decided to let his trip home be a surprise.
He appeared to Robert as an angel at the top of the stairway. In his hand was a card with a big, golden “70!” on the front. Robert had completely forgotten his own birthday.
David rushed down to his father, smoothly jumping the broken step. The senior Mr. Perry was lying amid empty soda cans and a near-empty package of sliced turkey. An old Folgers can full of urine sat nearby. Luckily, he hadn’t had to figure out how to do the other business.

By then, the pain was immeasurable, leaving Robert able only to gasp and cry. Once he was in that Cadillac bed in Bristol Regional, IV pain medicine was administered around the clock, leaving the first two or three days of hospitalization very bleary in Robert’s mind.
David stayed for two days. He talked with the surgeon, and helped explain to his father the procedure that needed to be done. He signed consent forms, as he had Power of Attorney, kissed Robert on the forehead, and booked it back to Nashville. The following night, he was supposed to work the soundboard for a concert by an up-and-coming country singer named Keith Cochran.

And that had been Robert’s last in-person dealing with old Davie, his only boy.
All for potatoes!

“Are you ready for some lunch, Mr. Perry?”

Robert offered the young black girl serving trays a nice, though forced, smile and a quick “Yes m’am.” She placed the tray on the over-bed table and uncovered it. There was fried okra, creamed corn, a burnt roll, and a slice of ham thin as a hair. To drink, he was given a glass of sweet tea the size of a child’s sippy cup.

“How is it?”

He thought hard of Daisy’s buttery, golden-brown potatoes.

“It’ll be fine.”

After lunch, three afternoons a week, a physical therapist came to work with Robert. The therapy had begun in Bristol, the day after surgery. The exercises had been extremely painful at first; almost as painful as actually fracturing the hip had been. But he had progressed well, and could now manage walking with little assistance aside from his walker. Sheryl – that was the therapist’s name – said she was so proud of him. He was “a remarkable case,” she said.
He wished David could see how much better he was doing. If he did, maybe he would sign for him to be released to his real home. Robert doubted this even as he thought it.
You’d have a fight on your hands there, Bob. Well then, so be it. David had no right to go and start renting his house to his cousin Ryan in the first place.
Ryan was the kind who liked other boys, something the family rarely acknowledged, but most knew just the same. Robert was appalled by it, but had been peaceful with Ryan, so long as he only saw him at Christmas. Otherwise, he could stay in Las Vegas, where that behavior was probably welcomed and in good company.
But no, now the little queer – and in all likelihood his current “partner” – were living in his home! And David – bless his heart, what devil had gotten inside his head? He’d taken his own father out of the family home and put him in this prison. And David knew his disapproval of Ryan. He knew it! Why had he forsaken him so?
Robert felt his face flushing. His respirations increased.
“Sheryl…I think we need to go back.”
They turned in the hallway and headed back toward Robert’s room. Sheryl kept her left arm outstretched directly behind him – “I’m your guardrail,” she’d told him – and in her right she held, wound up, that aggravating oxygen cord.
His anxiety eased when he saw his doorway. He needed to get his mind off David, and he already knew the best way how.
Robert had only a small number of possessions with him at Mountain Grove. The rest of his belongings had either been shipped to David’s nice, big house in Nashville, or were still at his home. Robert envisioned Ryan having a big yard sale: stickers with $1 and $5/whole box all over everything. He shook the image from his mind, and turned instead to the things he did have.
An old, mildewing Seven Star liquor box had been carefully stored in the gap between the bed and nightstand. Inside were maybe thirty old, well-loved vinyl records. Robert had over a hundred more at home, some stored in proper record totes, most in old liquor boxes such as this one.

David had intentionally sent this box to Mountain Grove. It was one of the few actions he had taken as of late that made Robert think his son might still love him.

This had been Robert’s most favored portion of his collection, his Hall of Fame Box. Everyone was in it: the Carter Family, Flatt and Scruggs, June Carter’s solo records (the good ones, anyway), Roy Orbinson; even the Man in Black – the early recordings, not that Rick Rubin mess produced for those depressed kids moping around in baggy pants.

And toward the back of the box, edges worn from years of love, was an LP by a now-unknown country-western duo, the Swinging Songbirds. Robert pried the old album out. He looked at the cover. Two fine-looking young men with smiles on their faces leaned against a picket fence on the edge of a mighty cornfield. One held a guitar, the other a banjo.

Robert touched a finger to the face of the young man with the acoustic. No wrinkles on that face. No need for a walker, only a fifth of Rebel Yell. And his sweet Daisy Bloom.
Robert traced his finger along the bottom edge of the guitar, where, unseen in the picture, he knew there to be a name. “Tom” was written there in permanent marker, a long time ago.

Tom Sawyer was presently laid out on the room’s small guest sofa. From his bed, Robert could see the name. He could also see the small crack on the bottom edge. Oh, a hell of a night that had been!

The Songbirds had been playing a little country music festival in Knoxville. This would have been around 1965. Playing alongside them were the Memphis Messengers, a Southern gospel group who drank as hard as they preached.

John Horton, who sang tenor, had gotten good and liquored up after the show. He began flirting with Daisy, who’d come out to watch the Songbirds from backstage. Little Davie stood by her side, gripping her hand. Robert came upon the scene just as Daisy slapped John for trying to cop a feel. He took old Tom right upside John’s head. That ended that. John cursed and stomped a little, but never threatened to fight. Perhaps it was the mild concussion he’d just received.

Robert laughed aloud at the memory. Later that night, on the ride back in the Streamline RV (nicknamed the Tuna Can), he’d told Daisy: “You know, John Horton may be a bastard and all, but you can’t altogether hate a man who has good taste.” She threw her neck back and brayed laughter, her face turning deep red.

It wasn’t long afterward that Robert’s 1959 Ovation acoustic had been christened Tom Sawyer. Talk of the incident with John Horton may have been what started the conversation.

“You know Bob, trouble always seems to follow that there guitar of yours,” Bill Davis, Robert’s fellow Songbird, had said. “And you just go right along with it.” Robert had nodded. “Yes sir, I reckon I’m just old Huck Finn, and that’s my Tom Sawyer.”
And so it had been for the last forty-odd years. If old Tom could talk, he’d have a lot to tell. Why, he was the only one left from the old days, besides Bob’s own withered hide, of course.
Good old Bill was gone; the cancer brought him down in 1976, three or four years after the last Songbirds gig. Daisy Bloom…bless her heart, she was gone, too. Her light had shown mightily for sixty-seven years, but as Robert had learned, dusk always comes. Her sun had set on Christmas Eve. Doctors blamed her weak heart. Robert blamed God. David blamed himself, for not making his mother go to her appointments. Robert always thought David had blamed him as well, for the same reason, though he had never said such.

And little Davie had grown, becoming David Robert Perry, ex-husband of one, father of none. He had acquired Robert’s passion for music, just in a different manner. David liked being behind the performers. He never seemed to care one iota for actually being a performer.

That had been fine with Robert. He put David through a fine music program in Nashville himself, without financial aid, without loans. A portion of the money came from his touring days. Most, however, was from what came after: coal mining.

David graduated, at which time he was supposed to come back home and try to open a recording studio. Instead he stayed, found work in a Nashville recording studio, and found what he considered love. So, Robert had briefly had a daughter-in-law. He met her once. She was seven years younger than David, and wouldn’t have put her cell phone down to save her life.

Turned out, her texts were going to the inbox of a backing guitarist for Hank the Third.
An amusing idea came to Robert, in spite of the tears forming at the corners of his eyelids. He leaned over, reinserted the Songbirds, and carefully thumbed toward the middle of the row. From there he pulled a dusty LP with little wear to be seen (due, naturally, to little use).

As he pulled it out, Robert caught a whiff of that peculiar smell old vinyl albums seem to always develop. He liked the smell; so much so, he would sometimes hold the cardboard sleeves directly up to his nose. He was sure this habit made him about as healthy as those nit-wits who sniffed Magic Markers, but he didn’t care. It reminded him of good things.
The album was Because He Loved Us, by the Memphis Messengers. Wonder whatever became of them?, Robert thought. Probably drank themselves into the ground years ago.
Bob placed the 45 on the turntable of his small antique Crosley, which presently sat atop his nightstand. He touched needle to vinyl, and in a few seconds heard the first chords of “Lead Me Not to Temptation.” Robert felt a laugh rise as his ears distinguished John Horton’s voice.

Side A seemed to end quickly. Robert flipped the record over to Side B, and before he knew it, supper arrived. Another burnt roll (likely a remnant from lunch), cool, unsalted mashed potatoes, and country-fried steak with an outer texture similar to fiberglass were set before him. There was also a small carton of two-percent. Robert had little doubt the milk tasted like cardboard.

He ate all the food, as though he were obligated. He drank the milk, too, and found his hunch about the taste was correct.

After supper, Robert played a few more records, enjoying the warm sounds, the even warmer memories. He closed his fatigued eyes. With a feeling somewhere near guilt, he brought the sleeve of the last Songbirds album, Headed Back Home, to his nose and inhaled. He sighed deeply.

“Sorry, Mr. Perry, it’s time to turn that off.”

Nine PM had snuck up, and at Mountain Grove, that meant Bedtime.

Bob filed his records away in the box, turned out the small lamp, and settled in under the covers. And then, he waited. He waited for what he knew would come; what may have been the worst part of living at Mountain Grove, or any retirement home.

The longing calls of those poor souls suffering from Alzheimer’s disease always pierced the dark, making sleep invariably difficult for those not suffering.

And soon enough, they did begin.

“Billy? Hey Billy, go find your brother! Billy? Billy!”

Robert listened to the cries, then the shuffling feet of orderlies, followed by their soothing voices. In many residents’ rooms, this was the nightly order of things.

To Robert, the worst part of hearing these almost ritualistic cries was the thought that he may one day do the same…perhaps not too far ahead.

He saw Tom’s silhouette in the light of the moon.

Trouble really does follow you, huh?

Bob pondered for a moment. What was he, though, but a regular old Huck Finn?
Had it been a quiet night, which it certainly was not, the orderlies would have heard Robert’s walker wheeling across his room to the couch where Tom was. But they couldn’t, for the cries of those detached minds were growing louder.

Bob scooted Tom over a little and plopped down on the small couch.

“Well pal, what say we try to fix some trouble for a change?”

Within a half-hour, all the sad voices had ceased their pitiful crying. Their owners’ tired bodies had slipped into rest.

There was, however, one lone exception. And that exception was not pitiful. It was joyous, full of soul. It soared high above the other voices, but was not offensive.
This voice addressed no one in particular, yet was far from unattached. It was a voice for all to hear.

Combined with the soft acoustics accompanying it, that voice was magic in the dark. There was no more trouble at Mountain Grove that night or for many afterward. No sir. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were there to tend to it.


Author Brandon Whited is a young writer from Southwest Virginia. His work has previously been published in the Clinch Mountain Review, Bewildering Stories, Death Head Grin, and Weird Year.