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Two Canes

by Terry Sanville

Published on May 23, 2019  1:09 PM
DG Mag Issue 1

            At a little after nine in the morning, Douglas stepped off the bus and hobbled along the sidewalk to the Pacific Grove Senior Center. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, they served free coffee and danishes to forty-plus gray-hairs. He knew most of them. Some had been around since the 60s and the Monterey Pop Festival where Jimi Hendrix doused his guitar with lighter fluid and set it ablaze.

            A new woman named Beverly had showed up the month before. Most of the men gave her the eye, at least those who still had good enough eyesight. She provided plenty to gaze at: long hair dyed chestnut brown, ample cleavage, slim waste, and nicely sculpted legs free of varicose veins.

            Only the crow’s feet around her eyes and the three-pronged cane gave her away. Plus, the brilliant red lipstick didn’t help. Douglas never understood why some older women seemed to favor the bright colors, and wore those unflattering chartreuse and vermilion stretch pants. He never had the guts to ask.

           When he arrived at the center, Beverly broke off a conversation with Leroy and joined him at the coffee bar. “I see you brought a cane this time. I didn’t know you needed one.”

            Douglas groaned to himself and tried thinking up a snappy response. “I…I felt a bit unsteady coming out of the shower. Most days I don’t need it. I can still walk three miles in an hour.”

           “Good for you. My husband used to run half-marathons in his late seventies. But that didn’t help his drinking, poor dear.”

“Do you want cream in your coffee?” Douglas offered.

“That’d be nice. Those other gents have been bending my ear ever since I got here and the coffee’s almost gone.”

“I hope you don’t mind talking with me for awhile. I enjoyed your company the last time.”

           “I remember you, Douglas, right? You’re a nice man, a smart guy that still has all his marbles,” she lowered her voice, “more than I can say for some of these folks.”

           “I hear you. But I got used to taking care of my wife before she died and…and I have great sympathy for the disabled.”

Beverly nodded. “Yes, ‘there but for fortune’…”

“I always liked the way Joan Baez sang that song.”

“Me too.”

           Beverly’s smile faded and her eyes had a thousand-yard stare, like the Nam vets Douglas used to pass in the hospital corridors during his rehab a lifetime ago. He wondered what had triggered such a strong reaction. He knew she came from SoCal, had been married for forty-plus years to an older guy, some kind of engineer, who’d died of liver failure, leaving Beverly with enough money but only a daughter for support.

“So, you’re going to stay at the center all day?” Douglas asked.

“I think so. My…my daughter will pick me up around four.”

“You want to get the hell outta here and have a real meal downtown, maybe take in an early matinee?”

             She flashed a coy smile and glanced at the group of guys staring at them. “You mean like a date? Two other men have already asked and I turned them down.”

“Wise move. You’re too sharp for those boys. Don’t get me wrong, I love them, but…”

“Yes, I used to have friends like them. They moved away to be near their children and I’ll be damned if I can find their addresses.”

Douglas grinned. “I don’t have that problem…never had kids.”

“Really? Why the heck not?”

“It’s kind of personal…and I need a couple drinks in me to answer that one.”

“Well maybe sometime you can invite me over to your place and tell me all about it. You do have a place, don’t you?”

“So you’d trust me enough to be alone with me?”

“I’m a big girl. Nobody takes advantage of me.” Beverly sipped her coffee while Douglas struggled with what to say next.


           Two weeks passed before Douglas saw her again. He thought their first date had gone well ­­– reminiscing about the Summer of Love, the terrible war years, the rat race of making it as professionals, she as an interior designer, he as a systems annalist. After a restaurant meal downtown, they had returned to the Senior Center before the daughter showed up to reclaim her mother. They’d exchanged phone numbers. She’d rewarded him with a kiss on the mouth that lasted longer than two Mississippis. But then nothing.

           He had phoned the number she’d given him and got a “not in service” message. His own phone stayed silent. Aaah, just one of those things. Probably hooked up with some dude who can still run half-marathons. Maybe I was trying too hard and scared her off. Typical, Douglas, typical…so out of practice.

           But when he arrived at the center on Thursday, Beverly stood gabbing with her entourage and sipping coffee. She smiled when he passed the group. As he mixed powdered creamer into his mug of decaf she tapped him on the shoulder.

“Say buster, I thought you were going to call. Did I do something wrong?”

He frowned. “I did call, tried three times, but that number is out of service.”

“That can’t be. I use the phone all the time. What number did you use?”

Douglas removed the slip of paper from his wallet and handed it over.

           She seemed confused. “Well, this looks right…oh wait. Silly me, I gave you the old number at my house. I now live with my daughter and I hate cell phones, too many buttons.”

“But why didn’t you call me? I gave you my number.”

“You did? It must have gotten lost in my purse. That thing is some kind of black hole that sucks up light and matter.”

            “Look, Beverly. I thought our first…first date went really well. I was hoping for a second. But if you’re not interested, just tell­­ me now and–”

“Don’t be silly, of course I’m interested.”

“Can I have your daughter’s number?”

“It’s in my purse somewhere. Tell you what, I’ll dig it out at lunch, my treat this time.”

“Great, I’ve brought my car.”

“Even better. And don’t think I’ve forgotten our parting kiss. There are some things a gal doesn’t forget.”

“So how’d I do?”

“You passed, but you’re a little out of practice.”

 Douglas laughed. “If you only knew…”

           He drove to Cannery Row in Monterey and parked on a side street. They walked hand-in-hand, their canes cracking against the sidewalk. The shops had just opened and they wandered from store to store, rubbing elbows with the hoards of summer tourists. When it came to window-shopping, Beverly could run her own marathon. But it was all look and no buy. Douglas wondered if their friendship would be the same.

“I’m getting hungry,” Beverly said. “Are you ready to eat?”

“I can eat. But the restaurants look mobbed.”

“Why don’t we get some takeout from the deli and go to your place.” She smiled and tightened her grip on his hand.”

           “Great idea.” But inwardly, Douglas groaned. He couldn’t remember what shape the bathroom was in, felt sure that the remains of last night’s pizza lay on the coffee table in front of the TV, and that a stack of dirty dishes squatted in the kitchen sink.

           On the ride to his house overlooking Monterey Bay, Beverly stayed quiet, let Douglas rattle on about how he and his wife had bought the place fifteen years back when he’d retired.

“For the last few years I’ve been batching it. So don’t expect much interior design.”

           “You don’t need to apologize, Douglas. I’m impressed that you’re still living in your own place. I love my daughter, but it’s her house and I still feel like a guest. I should never have agreed to move in with Ellen and her family.”

Douglas nosed his ’55 Chevy Nomad into the gravel driveway and escorted Beverly to the front door. His hands shook as he tried inserting the key.

“Here, let me,” Beverly said.

“No, I got it. The lock is a bit tricky.”

“Yeah, old hardware can get that way.” Beverly laughed and Douglas hoped she wasn’t referring to something else.

           They placed their canes in the basket just inside the front door. Douglas hurried forward to clear away the refuse in the living room and check the bathroom for anything disgusting. When he finished, Beverly had vanished. Maybe she bailed after getting one look at how I live. My wife used to get after me for being such a slob.

           Beverly’s cane still rested in the basket near the front door. He peered outside. The Nomad sat empty, ticking itself cold.

           “Beverly,” he called but got no response. He found the deli food on the sideboard in the dining room, next to the picture window that framed the bay.

           “Beverly,” he called again. Maybe she’s out on the deck. That railing’s shaky. She could take a tumble and…this is crazy…this is crazy”


           He moved down the hallway to the master bedroom and pushed inside. The drapes had been closed and the nightstand lamp turned on. He sucked in a breath. Beverly lay with her head propped on a pillow, wearing nothing. Her gorgeous body glowed in the golden light.

           Douglas managed to sputter, “Wow, I…I thought I’d lost you.”

           “I’m right here. Lose those clothes and come lie with me.”

           He struggled with his sport shirt, his hands getting stuck in the tightly buttoned cuffs. But everything else slid off his slender body.

           “Are you all right?” she asked. “I didn’t scare you, did I?”

           “I was worried that you had cut and run after seeing my messy place.”

           “Does it look like I did?”

           He lay next to her and she turned and kissed him, a long kiss. She tasted salty. Douglas liked savory. “Do you want the light out?” he asked.

           “No, I want to see everything. Don’t you?”

           “Of course.” He pulled her against his eager body.

           In what seemed like no time, the grandfather clock in the living room chimed two. They lay side-by-side, sweat covered, drained but smiling stupidly at the ceiling. The background ache of loneliness and lack of intimacy that Douglas had tried to ignore for years began to fade. He tried speaking but Beverly shushed him.

           “That…that was great, honey,” she said. “My bell rang more times than that clock of yours.” She kissed him and rose slowly from the bed, her body trembling. “Which way is the shower? Care to join me?”

           It was the longest shower he’d ever taken. Afterwards, while dressing, he felt shy and would only snatch quick glimpses of Beverly.

           “So, are you ready to be taken out for a late lunch?” she asked. “My daughter won’t be picking me up until five.”

           “Aren’t we going to eat the deli food? I’m sure it’s still good and I have some nice chilled Chardonnay.”

           “Lord, I forgot all about that. Yes, let’s eat on the deck. I’d better get my cane. My legs are wobbly for some reason.” She smiled at Douglas and he fought the urge to throw her onto the bed and start the afternoon all over again.

           They agreed to meet at the Senior Center twice a week and spend the days together. Beverly didn’t want her daughter to know about their relationship.

           “It really bugs me,” she complained, “this role reversal thing. It’s as if Helen thinks I’m some horny teenager in danger of getting pregnant. I can’t talk with her about men, especially ones I care about…that I love.” She leaned across the Nomad’s front seat and kissed Douglas.

He responded with a longer kiss. “I love you too. But…but I thought you told me your daughter’s name is Ellen.”

“When did I say Ellen?” Beverly asked indignantly. “I think I know my own daughter’s name.”

“Of course. I probably just misheard you. I’m old. I do that sometimes.”

            A few days after New Year’s, Douglas arrived at the Senior Center early. He hadn’t talked with his old buddies for several weeks and wanted to catch up. Leroy had parked his wheelchair near the coffee bar and hurried to pour his friend a cup of decaf.

“So how are you lovebirds doin’?” he asked. A leering smile creased his face.

“Beverly is great. We have a lot of common interests.”

           “Yeah, I’ll bet. One of them’s between the sheets. I see how she looks at you. And ya know, it’s totally uncool for us geezers to get hard-ons in public.”

          “What? It’s cool for younger guys?” Douglas joked. “Hey look, she’s beautiful, wants to be with me, and I’m too much of a gentlemen to tell you any more.”

           Leroy rolled to the corner of the room before continuing their conversation. “Have you noticed anything a bit off about her?”

“No, why”

“Some say she’s startin’ ta lose it, ya know, up here.” Leroy tapped the side of his head.

“Really? Are you nuts?”

“Ya know, she’s been around town a long time.”

“Yes, so?”

Leroy sighed and sucked in a breath. “A couple three years ago Beverly drove south to visit her daughter in Santa Barbara.”

 “So she was living in her own place?”

“Yeah, a nice house in Carmel. Anyway, the Highway Patrol found her hitchhiking alongside the 101 next to her car.”

“What happened?”

“She’d run out of gas somewhere near Paso Robles and it was way past midnight.”

Douglas grimaced. “She must have been terrified.”

          “Yeah, but that’s not the creepy part. It seems that her daughter, Ellen, didn’t live in Santa Barbara anymore, had moved with her family to Santa Cruz years before.”

“Yikes, that’s one hell of a misplaced memory.”

“Ya think! The daughter was so freaked out that they moved here to be closer to Beverly and Bev finally moved in with them.”

“That’s some story.” Chills shoot down Douglas’s spine.

           “Well, don’t get too spooked by it. It could be nothing but I just thought you should know. Besides, Beverly’s a total fox. We’re all jealous that she picked you as her lover boy.”

Douglas grinned wryly. “Does it show that much?”

“Hell ya. You’re like a stallion curlin’ his upper lip before doin’ the mare.”

The door to the center swung open and Beverly stood in the entry, letting her eyes get used to the darker interior.

Leroy clapped Douglas on the arm. “Just go for it, man, and don’t worry ’bout nothin’ else. Crappy diem, brother.”

           Douglas smiled at his friend’s mispronunciation of the Latin aphorism. He watched Leroy roll away to join the grumbling old men at the pool table.

“Was…was that Leroy you were talking to?” Beverly asked.

“Yes, the very one. We were in Vietnam the same year.”

“Well, don’t believe everything he says. I’ve heard him tell terrible stories about me. I am not that kind of gal.”

“I know, I know. Don’t worry. He’s just jealous.”

            Beverly smiled but didn’t look convinced. “Sorry I’m late. I almost forgot today is our day. Thank God for the reminder notes I leave in my undies drawer.”

“We can change the days if this doesn’t work for you.”

“God no, I’m getting used to this schedule. But before we go to your place for…for morning prayers, my daughter wants to talk with us.”

“Really? That sounds ominous.”

“Yes, I thought about ignoring her. But Helen will keep after me, so I think we should just get it over with.”

“What does she want to talk to me about?”

“Oh, you know: Are you screwing my Mom? Are you using protection? Has she given you any money? What are your intentions?”

“She sounds extremely protective. Why is that?”

“I don’t know. I’ve always gotten along fine by myself – although I do sometimes depend on the kindness of strangers.” Beverly voice had slipped into a Blanche Dubois accent.

           Douglas took her arm and steered her toward the door. “Come on, let’s go to my place first for…”

           “Why are you always more frisky in the morning?”

           “It’s the only time I can keep up with you. Besides we both need to be relaxed when we talk with your daughter.

           Beverly pressed against his side and whispered, “And screwing our brains out will help with that?”

           “One can only hope.”

           After driving up and down Carmel Valley Road with Beverly as navigator, they arrived finally at the daughter’s home. A Mercedes sedan occupied the driveway of the sprawling ranch-style house surrounded by orchards and fields.

           “Come in, come in, so glad to meet you.” The smiling daughter had blonde hair tied back in a long braid, her face without makeup. “I’ve just put on some Brazilian coffee. It’ll take a while. I hope you like it.”

           “I’m sure I will,” Douglas said. “I’ve been drinking the Senior Center’s decaf for months and have almost forgotten what good coffee tastes like.”

           The trio moved into the living room with a large picture window looking onto pastoral fields. Beverly sat on the edge of the sofa next to Douglas while the daughter pulled up a chair to face them.

           “I don’t know what Mom has told you about our family. My husband, Stan, is out doing something in the orchards and our two boys are away at college, and I don’t want to know what they’re doing.” She laughed, the color coming up in her pale cheeks.

           Douglas cleared his throat. “I’m sure you have a bunch of questions for me. I’m not sure what you mother has told you.”

           “Are you kidding? I have to drag every scrap of information out of her.”

           “I prefer to be discrete,” Beverly snapped. “We may be old but we still have our own lives.”

           “Yes, Mom, I know. But you’ve been…been happy these past few months and I just wanted to–”

“Butt into our affairs?”

            Douglas took Beverly’s hand and squeezed. “It okay, I don’t mind. If your daughter knows nothing about me, how can she trust me?”

           “Thanks for understanding,” the daughter said.

            Without prompting, Douglas summarized his life: the Vietnam War, the years in school struggling to find himself, his marriage and rewarding career, retirement, becoming a widower, and meeting Beverly.

The daughter sat on the edge of her seat, not interrupting, seeming to ponder Douglas’s story.

           From the kitchen came a pleasant chimes sound. “Mom, that’s the coffee. Could you fix us a tray? The cream is in the refrigerator and the sweetener in the cabinet right next to it.”

“I know, I know,” Beverly muttered. She stood, retrieved her cane, and left.

The daughter pounced. “First off, what’s my name?”

Douglas’s forehead wrinkled in surprise. “Your name?”

“Yes, my name. What has Mom told you?”

“She calls you both Helen and Ellen. They sound so much alike, it’s easy to–”

“No, I’m afraid its not. My name’s Ellen. And I’ve gotta ask, have…have you been intimate with my Mom?”

“Yes, she’s wonderful.”

“I don’t need details.”

           “Good, because you won’t get them from me. And you don’t need to worry about STDs.”

 Ellen sighed. “Thanks for telling me. I really don’t want to pry, but I’m Mom’s…well, I’m her caretaker and I know how attractive she is to…”

            “To gray beards like me?” Douglas chuckled and sat back against the cushions. “I take good care of your mother. She’s a wonderful woman…and I love her.”

“Oh God!”

“What’s wrong with loving your mother?”

“Absolutely nothing. She seems happy to be with you and has been more active around here, walks three miles a day and is taking care of her looks.”

“So what’s the problem?”

            “Last year I took her to Stanford for a complete evaluation. The doctors concluded that she’s in the first stages of Alzheimer’s. And it’s…it’s progressing.”

           Douglas tugged at his beard. “That’s…that’s hard to believe. Your mother and I have wonderful conversations about everything and her mind seems sharp. Sure, she stumbles sometimes. But I’m also 72 and scramble my words and ideas.”

“I know, I know. I denied her memory lapses and confusion for a long time, figured it was just normal old age.” Douglas sighed. “I might be doing the same thing. A friend of mine at the Senior Center warned me that she might be slipping. I told him he was nuts.”

           Ellen moved next to Douglas and took his hand. “I’m sorry, but at some point she will need full-time care. And she won’t know either of us. I dread that day, but it’s coming.”

Douglas sat in stunned silence. “I…I still can’t believe–”

“Wait, just wait a minute. Remember I told Mom where the cream and sweeteners were kept?”

“Yeah, in the refrigerator and the cabinet next to it.”

            “Just wait.”

In a few moments Beverly called from the kitchen. “Helen, where did you hide the sweeteners? And does anybody want cream?”

             Ellen called out instructions as Douglas’s mind raced. Should I end this thing before I get hurt badly? Let her down easy, but firmly? Or should I ignore what’s happening and continue on? Will I be able to handle such a long forgetting?

             Ellen cleared her throat and Douglas looked into her eyes, so much like her mother’s, full of life.

“I know it’s hard to deal with,” she said. “But if you’ll tell me what you’re thinking, I can help. I know you don’t want to hurt Mom if you break it off. But it might be the best for both of you – before it becomes…too painful.”

           Douglas thought about living without Beverly, knowing they could never be just friends. The words to Somebody to Love, an old Jefferson Airplane song, filled his head along with Grace Slick’s quavering voice.

            More noise came from the kitchen. Douglas stood and fumbled with his cane, ready to go help Beverly. Ellen stared at him, waiting for some kind of response.

           He smiled. “You know, I think I’ll take the advice from an old friend, the same one that warned me about your mother’s condition. He told me, ‘Just go for it, man, and don’t worry ’bout nothin’. Crappy diem, brother.’”

Ellen raised her eyebrows, then a smile stretched her lips. “Crappy diem?”

           Douglas grinned. “Well it’s really ‘carpe diem,’ you know, seize the day. My friend’s not exactly literate, but he is wise.” ♦

Terry Sanville lives in San Luis Obispo, California with his artist-poet wife  (his in-house editor) and one skinny cat (his in-house critic). He produces short stories, essays, poems, an occasional play, and novels. Since 2005, his short stories have been accepted more than 340 times by commercial journals, magazines, and anthologies. Terry is also a retired urban planner and an accomplished jazz and blues guitarist.  

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