a short story by Frank Diamond
“You have a name,” Lenore Lyons says.
“You are here.”
“I am.” Silver Waters of Yardley, a nursing home outside of Philadelphia. Lenore’s bed has been adjusted so that she sits up. The snap! resurrection of sentience that just right now occurred when I arrived brightens her eyes and softens the shadows of her creviced face. Dawn slips through some openings in the shades and ordinarily—in some of the hours that bloat her empty days—Lenore would turn a blank gaze that way. But this isn’t an ordinary moment in Lenore Lyons’s sunsetting. This hour is spoken for.
She says: “And I am talking to you and I know that is going on. But I should not know, right?”
“I am vegetative, is what they call it. In a danged vegetative state with ‘no trespassing’ signs all around the normal.”
“Advanced dementia,” I say.
“Yet here you are, Mr. Gabe Sullivan.”
“I am here, Mrs. Lenore Lyons.”
On the nightstand rests a photo of the Lenore of old. Standing outside a house and projecting a vitality that pops out of the frame and suggesting that she could be holding the entire structure up with the hand hidden behind her back. Impossible posture, challenging grin. Black hair cut sharply across her forehead, and cascading down about her like a flag waiting on a breeze.
Lenore now says: “You rode that woman’s shoulder.”
“The nurse. Yes. When she came in to check on you, sit you up.”
“You rode it like some parrot. The parrot jumps off and parachutes to the ground and becomes you.” As she speaks, Lenore reaches, her arthritic fingers fumbling for an image she cannot grasp.
“Like something out of Disney.”
I was thinking more Dostoevsky but….
“Do you listen to stories? Or do you tell stories?” Lenore asks.
“I want to do both.”
I am a seanchaí (a Gaelic word, pronounced sha-na-chee), or at least I’ve come to believe that’s what I am while in this state. No living person nor spiritual entity has told me as much; there’s no certification. It’s my own uninformed diagnosis. It’s a vocation I never sought: this collecting of narratives that I guess I’ll eventually pass on to somebody somewhere. Untold story is a contradictory term. It could also be that I am crazy. But that’s a possibility that I’ve weighed more than someone who’s truly crazy would ever do. Crazy people have no doubts.
Peggy, my late wife, used to call me a seanchaí when we’d be driving home from some party where I’d been monologuing. If I’d strayed too close to the inappropriate, bombastic or—worst of all—the boring, Peggy would pull me back: “That’s enough, Gabe.”
Peggy died about three years ago. I still mourn her, the mourning being missing her badly, and working through a rough patch each day. And, of course, the anxiety dreams—they’re really the reason I commune with Lenore Lyons now.
For months after Peggy, I would think as I stumbled back to bed after one of my trips to the bathroom that I needed to quickly return to the situation I’d just been dreaming about so that I could solve the problem and save the day. But one time early on I stopped myself. “You are having an anxiety dream,” I lectured my reflection. “You can never figure this out. That’s the nature of anxiety dreams. Go dream about something else.” And so I fell into another unsolvable conundrum of yet another anxiety dream with an entirely different cast of characters save for one: the protagonist. Me.
Each sliver of sleep presents to me a problem that needs to be solved against the tick-tick-tick cadence of God’s stopwatch. For the fierceness of my quests infers not only a life-or-death resolution but an eternal life-or-death resolution. Heaven or hell await as I push toward an answer always yanked just beyond reach.
It went on like that for quite a while until one time I actually fell back into the same damn anxiety dream I’d been having and the most unlikely thing happened: This time I did in fact solve the problem. I will not divulge the specifics of that particular dream. But to lean on classic examples: I do find the exam room in time, ace the test and graduate college. I look down at church to find myself fully clothed and no longer wondering why other people don’t seem to notice my nakedness. For I am naked no longer.
That’s when this other business started. Once I’d solved the problem, escaped my own anxiety—my subconscious, my dream self; you could say my soul, if that suits you—would rise and travel.
But anxiety carries me still in the sense that I control these sojourns only somewhat. I do not know why I visit nursing homes. But that’s where I often wind up. I ride the shoulders of social workers or nurses or medical technicians or—on very rare occasions, doctors—as they make their rounds.
On the doors of the residents, write-ups on paper, posters, or even faux parchment describe what had once inhabited these shells. But it’s the ones with the smallest bios on their doors; they’re the ones who interest me, the ones I am allowed to visit and talk to. The ones whose histories had been written by a volunteer because those histories merely expand bullet points on admittance forms. It’s hardly ever what you’d think: Callous family who couldn’t be bothered. Some of these just don’t have any family left. Or some families have decided that the resident—the real person, the one that they knew and loved—well that person “died” years ago.Why visit her or him? You might as well visit their couch. Those residents don’t know that they’re alive let alone that someone visits.
Now Lenore Lyons says, “There’s not much to tell about me, really.”
I lift my arms a bit and then let them flop against my side, a gesture the ethereal parrot I’d just been might make when having second thoughts about taking off.
And though there’s nothing particularly humorous in my response, Lenore Lyons laughs, and it’s one of those laughs that rumbles up from the core of the earth, one of those laughs that elicits a smile from even those not in on the joke. An “Hallelujah’ chorus to life’s absurdities, the joy of a prisoner in solitary who’s been given a weekend pass. She’s just thrilled to be here.
“I’m luckier than most,” Lenore says finally. “How I got here. Let’s see. My granddaughter, Justine, moved me in with her and her husband and their two kids after her grandfather Credence—my Credence, my husband—died. I didn’t want to do it at first. Held her off a long time. I loved my home even though it kept revolting on me. Broken heaters. Rioting washing machines. Light bulbs blinking out in places where I didn’t even know we had light bulbs. Credence took care of all of that. I was cruising around until about 90, still doing the crossword every day, meeting friends for soup and a half sandwich with our senior discounts. Meeting new friends, I should say, because by that time my old friends—my original friends?—well they’d all … you know. So rolling with a young bunch, people in their 70s. Then the cloud started coming down and I’d forget things and they say it often happens slowly, but it happened pretty quick to me.”
“And still you resisted moving in with Justine?
“Well, I wanted to keep wearing my red hat.”
“Your favorite poem.”
“Now how did you know that? Young man like you.”
I can’t explain how. Like a lot of what happens to me on these adventures, I don’t know why I know some details about those I visit that I shouldn’t know. I just do.
But instead of revealing this to Lenore, I say: “It’s a famous poem.”
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
“Yes! Yes! Yes!” Lenore says. “When I moved into my granddaughter’s little in-law suite I had to put away my red hat. Kids will see. I liked that hat, too.”
Credence Lyons delivered bread, rising at 4 a.m. every day—even on weekends when he didn’t have to deliver bread—because of his inner alarm clock. Lenore taught in Catholic schools.
“Yes, I could have gotten a job in public schools for a lot more money,” Lenore says. “But I always felt God would provide and I liked teaching values.”
Neither Credence nor Lenore really gave mortality much thought, let alone old age. No real stashing in a 401K; they were either going to die young-ish, or…. They didn’t know; didn’t really think it through.
But Justine knew. She’s the one who set up a trust fund for Lenore and put her in Silver Waters. Justine made sure her soon-to-be ex could not touch any of that money. Justine promised to visit all the time. But Justine was killed in a car accident about two months after Lenore arrived at Silver Waters and three months after her divorce. The ex took the two great-grandkids out to Wyoming “or maybe even some worst west than that,” and so no more visitors for Lenore.
“Justine was special, a special light,” Lenore says. “When she got killed, the social worker told me and I cried and sobbed for two days and even when I forgot why I cried, I still cried. They didn’t take me to the funeral.”
Her voice quakes and I quickly say: “And you taught.”
Another resurrection, displacing despair with joy. The eyes bright again.
“For years, I taught,” Lenore says. “The inner cities. I taught in Philly. I taught in Trenton. I taught in Newark.”
“All grades in elementary. And the differences.The little ones. Kindergarten, first, second, third grades. All excitals in the morning. ‘What are we going to do today, Mrs. Lyons?’’’
This imitating a child’s delighted timbre.
“Just couldn’t wait. And then the older ones, not so excitals.‘Are you going to make us do something today, Mrs. Lyons? Do we have to do something?’”
This in the drone of a recalcitrant, chipped-shoulder teenager.
“And in each school they gave me a motto. ‘Don’t Make the Lyons Roar.’ Well, actually I gave myself that motto. Because I was classroom management. That’s what I did best!” Lenore insists against an objection not raised, slapping her thigh for emphasis.
“And as years went by that became more and more important, Mr. Gabe Sullivan, parrot man. Because, you see, society changed. The kids changed. And they gave me the tough classes, too, because they knew I’d fix things. I’d always complain to Credence when I had one of those classes for a year: ‘It’s like holding down a lid on a boiling pot. Every day. Every single day.’”
“You didn’t take any guff,” I say.
“That was part of it. There were other teachers good at classroom management. But here’s the thing, they didn’t seem to much like the kids, let alone love them. Kids feel that. They sensed I loved them. I tried too, anyway. Love’s hard. It’s uphill. The negative? Easy. Just slide into it. Just let go. Drop down that garbage chute into a bin of anger, frustration, resentment, hate. No. I fought against that. And I did get my little rewards.”
“Oh, dear. So many stories.”
“Well…. At Saint Benedict’s in Newark on Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. That was walled in, that building. Took up an entire block. There were two schools on that campus. There was the prep high school for the boys. And then there was the co-ed grade school for the little kids. Kindergarten through eighth. Saint Mary’s. That’s where I taught.”
“It’s got a great reputation, Saint Benedict’s.”
“For sure. It was featured on 60 Minutes just the other day.” March 20, 2016. “I taught at Saint Mary’s in the late 1980s, early 1990s. Mostly black kids. Impoverished kids. Kids from broken homes. Kids living in neighborhoods where gangs ran the show. Kids sleeping in cars, shuffling from cot to mat. Foster home kids. Heartbreaking and infuriating. Kids going nowhere, but the lucky ones, they came to Saint Mary’s or Saint Benedict’s and then little by little they are going somewhere. To college. And I mean prestigious universities, a good number of them. Ivy League. West Point. The Citadel.”
“In Newark, no less.”
“Yes, Mr. Gabe Sullivan, in Newark, no less. It’s run by Benedictine Monks. Now, after the riots in 1967, there was a schism, so I was told. Half of the monks wanted to move upstate, somewhere rural. And that they did. The other half, said ‘no, this is exactly where we need to be. People need us here.’ And that they did. That was really Brother Leahy, who led it. Brother Edwin Leahy. Now, unlike my time, it’s all one school so the things Brother Leahy teaches—and he’s sort of famous—but now those things, those values, are filtered through all the grades. Of course we always taught those same values at Saint Mary’s, at least when I was there.”
It was 2016 when Saint Benedict’s took over Saint Mary’s. Saint Benedict’s/Saint Mary’s now operates a co-ed kindergarten through sixth grades, a co-ed middle school for seventh and eighth grades, and two prep schools ninth through twelfth grades, one for girls, one for boys. But I keep these gifted details to myself.
“And the little rewards?” I ask Lenore Lyons.
“So many.” Her eyes dart about as if a desert cart had been wheeled in. “OK. Well, one year I taught second grade. And this was a really nice group. A lot of work, though. Twenty little psyches feeding off me every day. I’d come home exhausted. They loved me. Now I didn’t realize how much until the last day of school. One little girl, she bursts into tears. She didn’t want to leave. So I told her to come on up to my desk, and I hugged her. And the next thing you know, there’s a line of little second graders crying, sobbing, wanting me to give them a good hug goodbye.”
“Pfister. Pfister Bennett. He had just transferred to the school about two months earlier. He sat with his hand on his face looking around, perplexed. He said, ‘Mrs. Lyons. This never happened at my old school.’ I laughed. I forgot to tell you, Gabe Sullivan, that I need to laugh at least once a day. Need too. That’s how I recharge. Oh, it was a moment. Hugging all the kids and telling them how much they’re going to love third grade and Sister Terry.”
“What a tribute.”
“Oh I have a million and one stories. I am not special. Every teacher has stories like that.”
“Not every teacher.”
“I am not special.”
“Do you remember what you used to tell the younger teachers, the ones you mentored?”
“I told them a lot of things.”
“You taught them a lot of things.”
“One of the first things I’d say to them is ‘you’re the most important person in somebody’s life and you don’t even know it.’”
“What about the bigger kids?”
“Oh, I had classes that were just wonderful and classes that were godawful. With the older kids, a whole different set of problems. You know, puberty and all those hormones rampaging like the store just opened on Black Friday. The cliques, the arguments, the backtalk, the sneaking about. They learned that Mrs. Lenore Lyons misses nothing. I’d nail them. And it could be a real mess.”
Lenore’s wave says “you don’t want to know.”
But then she then says: “Oh, those older kids. Too much! They’d sometimes have these horrible fights. And I’d have to manage those. Settle things down.”
“Well, in dire occasions, I’d sit them in a circle and we’d pass around something. And the only one allowed to speak was whoever held it. That something changed over the years. For a spell it was a rubber ball. The idea being they could squeeze out the anger. But then one time Pfister Bennett—yep, that same Pfister; taught him in second and eighth grades—Pfister had his say and then he threw the ball hard at one of the kids he argued with. So no more rubber balls. Then it would be a porcelain angel or some little statue of something. I always told the kids that whatever it was it was precious to me so please try not to break it.”
“Was it precious?”
“Oh, heavens, no. It’s something I really didn’t care about, but because they thought it was precious to me, Mrs. Lenore Lyons, they handled it gingerly. With love. They would never want to damage something that I cared about; they cared about it too. And doing that sort of drained the anger out of the discussion and we’d talk until—lots of times—we’d be laughing at the end. I so enjoyed the kids. Even when I wanted to kill them. Each age level had its hidden levers and I knew how to work them.”
“That Pfister kid. That was pretty outlandish, that behavior.”
“He could have been expelled, but we worked it out, Pfister and me. There was one other time….”
Lenore looks down at her hands, folded on her lap. Shakes her head.
“Please,” I add.
“What he did that time was so off the charts. But I handled that, too.”
“What did he do?”
“Well, Mr. Gabe Sullivan, I am not going to tell you.”
“I collect stories. It’s a miracle that this conversation takes place.”
“Maybe it’s a miracle or maybe it’s dementia.”
“No, because I gave my word to that young man and his family. So, sorry, that’s one story that you’ll never hear from me. Sometimes it’s the stories that you don’t hear and the stories that you don’t tell that matter most. Lessons delivered without words.”
“Those aren’t stories. Those are secrets. But this is your last chance. And look, anyway, I might not even be real.”
“No, you might not be. But you just might be. I can tell you this. At the next PTA meeting Pfister’s father showed up. He was an editor high up at the Newark Star-Ledger. He stayed behind. Thanked me for how I handled that situation with Pfister. He says, ‘We’re getting him help.’ But the kids—even the Pfisters, especially the Pfisters—them kids knew I loved them. It could be tough love, but it was there.”
“They loved you back.”
“Oh, my goodness gracious. It got embarrassing sometimes, and not just with the little kids. On homecoming days during Catholic Schools Week, some of the graduates—they’d be in high school at this point and not all them just across the campus at Saint Benedict’s. Some went on to different high schools, but they’d come back to see me. And a few of them in college, even—they’d come back and they’d all visit me. Mostly me.”
“The other teachers got jealous.”
“Some did. Sometimes. My grade partners some years just got hurt feelings, and that was worse. But we’d work that out, too. It’s amazing how many things you need to work out or ride out just to get through. They were good years. I had good years. You’re leaving?”
Lenore sensed this. I had given no indication.
“My time grows short,” I said.
“Ah! Charles Dickens. The Spirit of Christmas Past says that to Scrooge. You think I’m a Scrooge?”
“Mrs. Lenore Lyons, I think you’re the furthest thing from a Scrooge.”
“But I am no saint. I’d hate whoever you tell to get that idea. I’ve done things that shame me to this day. Some of the things I said to Credence. Times I lost it. Oh, too much. No, Mr. Gabe Sullivan, I am no saint. I’ve sinned. Maybe not so much anymore, because I just don’t have enough in the tank. I miss going to confession, though. It cleanses the soul. No confessing to you. I don’t know what you are and looks to me that you don’t know what you are neither. But I do know you’re no priest.”
“Thank you for the stories.”
“You coming again?” Before I can respond “probably not,” she adds: “Did you get what you wanted for now?”
“I think so.”
But Lenore Lyons doesn’t answer. Because—and this is something that I control not at all—the mental gate slams shut again, and she goes blank. Maybe she still sees me. I doubt it, though.
The four people who enter the room a moment later certainly can’t see me, as I am now perched invisible on Lenore Lyons’s right shoulder.
The nursing home administrator leads this delegation. Two young women professionally dressed and a middle age man wearing a suit, looking like he just stepped out of GQ. He moves deftly, economically. He’s proud of his physique. He’s the force in the room.
The administrator says: “Here she is, Congressman. Lenore Lyons.”
The Congressman stands for a moment, looking down as the old woman looks up.
“It’s like she’s looking through me. Well, she always could.”
One of the women with the Congressman says to the administrator: “The Congressman’s visit. That’s a pretty big deal for Silver Waters, right?
“It’s an honor having such a champion for elder care as Congressman Pfister Bennett on our premises.”
“No,” Bennett tells the woman, still looking at Lenore.
“You have to at least let the local paper know,” the woman moans. It’s an argument she’s lost many times in the last 48 hours, but she keeps trying.
Both staff members sigh.
“This visit is entirely off the record,” Bennett says. “I was never here.”
“OK. You were never here.”
“Not everything needs to be a photo op. I will do a photo op at Silver Waters some other time.”
“That would be great, Congressman,” the administrator says.
“Schedule that,” Bennett tells his aides.
Then Bennett says: “Mrs. Lyons? Mrs. Lenore Lyons?”
The administrator says: “She’s well taken care of, Congressman.”
“May I have a few minutes alone with her?”
The administrator heads to the door. Bennett turns, looks at the women.
“Oh,” one says, “you mean alone alone. OK.”
When they leave, gently closing the door with a click, Bennett pulls one of the chairs in the room closer to Lenore’s bed.
“I couldn’t visit you like this during COVID-19,” Bennett says. “What a horror story that was.”
Agitation flashes across Lenore’s features when Bennett takes her hand, but then blankness again.
“Mrs. Lenore Lyons. It’s me, Pfister. Pfister Bennett. I heard about you. I had to come. I should have said this to you or written this to you long ago but it’s one of those things I kept putting off. At first because I hadn’t worked it all out, and by the time I did too much life had passed. I’d say I’ll get around to it. And now it’s too late for you to hear me. But it’s not too late for me to say.”
Bennett clears his throat, looks at the window shades for a minute. During his short reintroduction, a cloud outside had drifted by, dimming the light streams that had been dappling the room. Bennett rolls his head, cracks stiffness from his neck. Stares again into the old lady’s “no vacancy” eyes.
“Everything I have ever done or will ever do, I owe to you,” Bennett says. “My parents’ love and belief in me never wavered, but they carried it like a cross. I needed outside affirmation. Your belief was buoyant; laughing at the ridiculousness of me doubting myself. And that made me laugh, too. You brought me faith. Faith. When I went on to Saint Benedict’s, I’d visit you once, maybe twice a year. Remember? Oh.”
Bennett had been talking as if in a trance, and blinked when he realized that, no, of course Lenore Lyons didn’t remember.
“Saint Benedict’s was hard,” he continues. “My brothers—my classmates—they helped, and the teachers helped and the coaches helped but still I barely hung in. I wanted to quit, drop out sometimes. I never told you that’s where my mind was at when I’d stop by to talk, but you seemed to know. And you didn’t even need to say anything. But I’d go back to Saint Benedict’s. And I’d shout the school chant, and believed in it all over again. ‘You can be any good thing you want to be! You! Go! And! Conquer!’”
Bennett whispers these words he had yelled throughout his high school years.
“Yes, conquer,” he says. “I’ll never forget the time you had us write essays about what we wanted to be grown up. You said it had to be something other than music or entertainment or sports. And you made some of us rewrite them. You marked in big red letters: ‘That’s it?’ Because some of us were already settling. And that’s the first time ever that I wrote that I wanted to go to a good college and build my own business. I didn’t say anything about being a Congressman. A Congressman? Me? Pfister Bennett? But your belief latched on, something I could pull out any time I faced others’ doubts. Faced my own doubts. You told us to have ambitions and to work hard. But also to never forget little things that really matter. You quoted William Wordsworth at us:
The best portion of a good man’s life:
his little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love.
“Never forgot that. I don’t know if this visit counts as such. But I try to live by that. I fail. I fail often. But you also taught how failing isn’t final.”
For a moment, Bennett’s gaze shifts from Lenore’s face to something over her shoulder. To me, it seems. He smiles and I irrationally fear for an instant that I’d been found out. But that’s impossible. Isn’t it? When he shakes his head, thinking about something, I am relieved. I remain invisible.
Congressman Pfister Bennett continues, talking slowly, distinctly, as he probably talked to his children when they were little. Laying out his story. How he made his millions. How he gave a lot of those millions away. How he knew that a meaningful life includes giving back. That eventually brought him into politics. His story becomes bullet points and though Lenore Lyons isn’t really here, he continues with it as if she is.
Then, he stops cold in mid-sentence. He looks again at me but this time I do not panic because I know he can’t see me. He’s working something out, debating himself. His lips move as if he’s just tasted something whose flavor remains uncategorized. In his hesitation I sense a story lurking just beyond the borders of revelation. It’s a story he’s kept inside all his life.
Now’s the time! Now’s the time! Do it!
“Unremembered acts,” Bennett whispers. “More like undisclosed acts.
“Congressman?” someone calls through the door after a gentle rap. “Breakfast for Miss Lenore? It’s ready? And her medicine?”
Whoever it is waits on Bennett’s permission to enter.
So that story isn’t coming, and I am assaulted by sadness. It will pass, I know. Just like that untold story. It gets swept into the currents of a mighty tributary flowing toward an unfathomable vastness where float and bob and sink all the stories through all the ages that will never be heard because they will never be told.
“Congressman?” Another soft rap on the door.
But Bennett’s not quite finished.
“Thank you, Mrs. Lenore Lyons, for saving my life.”
When Bennett lets the others in, I sense that I will awaken in a moment in my own bed and with another story that should be told. Apparently, though, this story doesn’t want to end quite yet.
Lenore Lyons looks incomprehensibly at the people whispering at the doorway; a veritable commotion in her shrunken universe. There’s one last thing to say and though nothing changes in Lenore’s face and her lips don’t move, it’s her voice that I hear.
“Well, well, well. Congressman Pfister Bennett. That child never could stop running his mouth.”