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Authors: Elizabeth Bass

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BOOK: Wherever Grace Is Needed
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She nudged him again. “Stop worrying so much, Nickel. Everything’s going to be great for you.”
He sent her a tentative smile that was just a shadow of the one he would have given her six months ago. It was so full of doubt, so lacking in joy. That little smile would have broken her heart, if her heart hadn’t been shattered into a thousand pieces already.
10
W
HAT
Y
OU
N
EED
TO
K
NOW
L
ou knew where he was, what day it was, and who was in the White House. Dr. Allen, his GP, chuckled through most of the interview, especially when Lou grumbled that his children had forced him to come.
“Kids ganging up on you, Lou?” The doctor winked at Grace, who was perched uncomfortably in a chair in the corner. She hadn’t wanted to come into the examination room, but her father had insisted, as if to prove to her how wrong she and Steven were.
Dr. Allen elbowed his patient. “Well, you should know—‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is. . . .’ ”
Her father kept his eyes trained on the doctor’s face. “I’m sorry?”
Grace dug her nails into her palms to keep from blurting out the rest.
Was he kidding?
Her dad knew
King Lear
like she knew
Seinfeld.
Dr. Allen’s brow furrowed a moment before he chuckled again and asked Lou to count backward from one hundred by sevens. “I have a colleague you should meet,” he said, already reaching for a pad to start scribbling the name as Lou faltered at eighty-six. “A neurologist—big brain like you, Lou. Jacob Franks wrote the textbook they teach at Johns Hopkins. I’m just a horse doctor next to this guy.”
Grace jumped to her feet, eager to get out of there. Dr. Allen wasn’t joking about being a horse doctor—he obviously didn’t know what he was talking about. Even though she had made the appointment to see him and practically dragged her father here, she felt like giving the quack a piece of her mind. A lot of people couldn’t do math in their head, and forgetting one little quote wasn’t proof positive of anything, either. Her father was always reading and learning new things. He played chess, for Pete’s sake.
Besides, he was seventy-six. Didn’t everybody start to lose a few gray cells at that age?
Why had she instigated all this?
As they walked out to the car, Lou was still clutching the piece of paper in his fist. “Can I borrow your cell phone? I want to call this number.”
Two days later, at the neurologist’s, Lou hobbled after the nurse by himself, while Grace stayed in the waiting room. The lighting was soft and Audubon prints of wild turkeys and woodpeckers decorated the deep forest-green walls. Several ficus plants stood in corners and served as screens between clusters of armchairs. Grace took a seat near the glassed-in receptionist area. Magazines fanned across an oak table next to her, and a pamphlet display hung on the wall above it.
Each pamphlet title she read seemed grimmer than the last:
What Is a Migraine? . . . Living with Epilepsy . . . After You’ve Had a Stroke . . . When the Diagnosis is Alzheimer’s . . .
Her gaze rested on the last.
Alzheimer’s.
That word had been skittering around her mind for days, unacknowledged and unspoken.
She reached over to grab the pamphlet but recoiled before her hand actually touched it. What was the point in looking? The diagnosis
wasn’t
Alzheimer’s. There wasn’t any diagnosis yet. And she wasn’t a doctor. Steven had suggested the changes in Lou might be chalked up to a malfunctioning thyroid. Dr. Allen had run a blood test and they had yet to hear back on the results. No sense panicking prematurely.
Still, the furrow in Dr. Allen’s brow when Lou had failed to finish the quote from
King Lear
would not be banished from her mind.
She snatched the Alzheimer’s pamphlet out of its slot and inspected it. The cover was a collage of old people of all races and both sexes, usually hugging another old person or a child, or being hugged by someone else. It appalled her that her father—dignified, sharp-witted, sardonic—should be associated with anything this insipid. She flipped it open in irritation.
Alzheimer’s disease is a disease of the brain that impairs thinking and memory. It may also change behavior. It is not part of the normal process of aging.
Who on the planet didn’t know that already?
She slapped the pamphlet shut again and tapped it against her palm. The trouble with these things was that they were written for idiots. They were pointless.
She wondered if there was a section about symptoms and opened it again, just to check.
Memory loss.
Well, duh.
The second on the list was
Difficulty performing simple tasks.
But her father managed very well on his own. Except for the accident.
People with Alzheimer’s disease are apt to forget common words.
That wasn’t Lou, either.
She frowned.
Dog biscuit.
That was a word he had forgotten the other day. She hadn’t thought anything of it at the time.
But that was just the trouble. Why would she? All of these symptoms were problems everyone had. By these criteria,
she
suffered from Alzheimer’s. If it wasn’t for the words
thingamajig
and
whatsit,
there would be days when she couldn’t communicate with anyone.
She put the pamphlet in her purse and decided to check messages on her phone. Her inbox contained the usual mix of spam and messages from family and friends in Oregon. Her mom wanted to know whether she would be staying in Austin until August, in which case she would miss Jake’s birthday party. (The last birthday party of Jake’s that Grace had been to was his eighth.) She said she didn’t envy Grace having to live through the heat, or with the Olivers. Grace wondered if the thought of her in Austin was causing her mom to have flashbacks. Something seemed to be ginning up the long-distance maternal concern.
There was no message from Ben; Grace hadn’t heard from him since he’d called to let her know the water heater had been changed. One message came from Sam. Sick of chess yet? the subject line read. What followed was a typical communiqué from her brother, giving her his news and speculating about how things were going at home. The tone reminded her that she hadn’t bothered to update him about their father’s health concerns.
She started to text a reply, but then stopped. There was really nothing to tell him at this point that wouldn’t fall into the category of alarming him prematurely—perhaps unnecessarily—or leaving him in the dark.
The door to the inner office opened and her father came hobbling back out with a folded piece of pink paper protruding from his breast pocket.
“What did he say?” Grace asked as she held the building’s door for him on the way out.
“I’m going to have an MRI.”
“When?”
“They’ll call me with the appointment. The doctor said there’s a chance that I might have had a small stroke. Or maybe some kind of head trauma.”
She slowed as they reached the car. “But if you’d hit your head, wouldn’t you remember?”
“Not if hitting it caused me not to remember.”
She frowned, trying to decide if that made sense or not.
On the drive home, she asked, “What did he do?”
“Who?”
“The doctor.”
Within the confines of his shoulder belt, her father shrugged. “Tests.”
“What kind of tests?”
“Just tests, Grace. Reflexes. Questions.”
“What kind of questions?”
“What does it matter? It was me in there, not you,” he said sharply. “I don’t give you the third degree every time you come out of a doctor’s office, do I?”
At the change in his tone, heat leapt to her cheeks. “No, of course not. I’m sorry.”
The drive through the next blocks was so tense Grace fiddled with the air conditioner just to block out the rigid emptiness. A blizzard of cold air streamed from the vents.
“When this is all over,” Lou said, “I want you to go home.”
Grace glanced over at him sitting straight and still in his seat, his hand resting on his cane. “When what’s all over?” she asked.
“The tests. Whatever happens, I don’t want you staying here any longer than necessary. I’m not helpless.”
“You’ll still need me, Dad. You’ve got a broken leg. You can’t drive.”
“You’ve got a life in Portland, and the store to tend to.”
“Ben’s handling it for now.”
“That’s why I’m concerned,” he said.
“I worry about you, Dad. Sam’s thousands of miles away and Steven’s life is crumbling and . . .” She almost mentioned something about Peggy evidently not being someone he could count on—she still hadn’t been over to the house once—but she stopped herself. “Who can you depend on?”
“I’ll manage,” he said. “Life’s not a children’s game, Grace. I don’t get to count to ten before the action starts. Ready or not, here it comes. I’ll figure out a way. I’ll adjust.”
“But—”
She was about to argue, but when she opened her mouth, she realized she had no words. And as she pulled into the driveway, she noticed Dominic sitting on the steps of Lou’s front porch, next to Iago. Both of them got up when she’d parked, and Dominic crossed to open Lou’s door.
“Where’ve y’all been?” he asked.
“Out and about,” Lou said as he began the process of extracting himself from the front seat.
“I walked Iago,” Dominic said, “but you said you were going to teach me chess.”
“I did, didn’t I?” Lou laughed. “Well, there’s no time like the present.”
Without a look back, he and Dominic made their way to the house, slightly impeded by Iago, who, with the whole yard to walk in, still managed to be underfoot.
11
S
MOKE
S
IGNALS
“H
ave you bought your plane ticket?” her father asked her, for about the tenth time in two days.
The frequency of the question had been increasing over the past week, to the point that Grace was ready to scream if he asked it one more time. Convincing her to leave was becoming an obsession with her father.
“You should see if you can get a last-minute deal on-line,” he said.
She grunted as she wiped after-breakfast crumbs from the kitchen counter. “I’m not sure I should leave.”
“There’s no need for you to stay here. There are people in town who can help me, if I need it. But I won’t really need help for a long time. You heard what the doctor said. It’s a gradual thing.”
She’d also heard the doctor say that it was impossible to say how quickly his condition might worsen. She spent nights now reading Alzheimer’s case histories on the Internet, trying to figure out what
worsen
might actually entail. She felt almost nauseous with anxiety. If she left him alone now, it would be like snapping herself in two.
“Dad, who are the people in town you can rely on?” she asked. “Steven, and who else?”
“Truman pops by all the time.”
“I wouldn’t leave a pet hamster with Uncle Truman.”
Her father looked offended—as if she had just compared him to a hamster.
“Not that I . . . well, you know what I mean.”
He straightened to his full height. “I enjoy having you here, Grace. You know that. But for you to stay here permanently would be throwing yourself on a pyre.”
“Dad,
please.
That’s crazy talk!”
Their eyes met, and she regretted saying it. She regretted saying anything.
He tapped his cast. “Don’t worry if you have to take a flight in the next day or so if it would save you money.”
“You’re really that eager to get rid of me?”
His face remained a blank. “You can use my computer.”
“For what?”
“To make your reservations.”
On her last nerve, Grace thumped the sponge she was using into the sink. “All right. I’ll go upstairs now and get myself on the next affordable plane out. I’ll even take the red-eye tonight if that makes you happy.”
“Don’t be angry, Grace. Of course I’ll be sorry to see you go.”
“Of course,” she grumbled. “So sorry I wouldn’t be surprised to feel your crutch nudging me into a taxi.”
She tromped upstairs and logged on the Internet. Why was she even arguing with him? Even if he was sick, she didn’t belong here. Most of the time she wondered if the Olivers really considered her part of their family. Sure, they’d always been welcoming to her when she’d showed up for her summer visits, or on the rare holiday. Yet she had never felt that she’d progressed beyond honored guest. In terms of family, she could claim only second-class status at best. Which, of course, was also what she had at her mom’s house. But at least in Oregon there was Ben, and Rigoletto’s.
Within fifteen minutes, she’d bought a ticket for a flight at ten the next night. At least they wouldn’t have to discuss it anymore. She was tired of repeating the same argument they’d been having for the past two weeks. It was surrender time. This ticket was her white flag.
She marched downstairs, where Lou had already installed himself in his chair. “I bought a ticket for tomorrow night,” she informed him.
“Good.”
“Maybe we could go out tonight. You know, a sort of farewell dinner. Something that’s actually edible for a change.”
“Your food is
edible
,” he said. Faint praise, even for him.
“I just thought it would be a little more special if we went out. I’ve been here for weeks and we haven’t gone on a barbecue run.”
“I don’t see the need to go out,” he said. “I’d just as soon stay home.”
Unaccountably, tears stung her eyes. Was he doing it on purpose? Nothing she said was right.
She worried if she stayed in the house on her last night there, she’d spend the whole time weeping, and that would drive her father crazy. “Would you mind if
I
went out?”
“I think that would be a good thing,” he said.
“Fine.”
She went out the front door and let it slam behind her. It was childish, but she didn’t care. She pulled out her cell phone to call Steven, but when she got his voice mail she remembered that he was out of town again. Maybe she would be able to catch up with him tomorrow.
She looked one way down the street, then the other. The black SUV was parked in the drive next door. Impulsively, she hopped off the porch, marched across the yard, and knocked at the pilot’s door. A few seconds later, when he swung it open, his eyes bugged.
“Am I bothering you?” she asked.
He smiled. “My door’s always open to a pretty lady.”
Evidently it was a revolving door. In the past several weeks, she’d seen a steady stream of women, many in flight attendant uniforms, going through the yellow bungalow.
“I need someone to have dinner with tonight,” she announced.
“Where?”
“I don’t know.”
His face screwed up in confusion.
“I don’t have a destination in mind,” she explained. “I just thought we could go out.”
“Oh—you mean like on a date?”
She sighed. A fine time for the playboy of the western world to turn all bashful and fluttery on her. “I’m leaving tomorrow,” she assured him. “It would just be a one-night thing.”
Those magic words,
one night
, made the sale. “Sounds fun,” he said, grinning. “Where do you want to go?”
“You can choose. I don’t really want to think.”
“My dream woman!”
Over the next eight hours, she regretted her decision to go out with Wyatt several times. She’d been hasty. Her dad had only been terse with her because he hadn’t seemed to want to go anywhere since his diagnosis—even to the grocery store. He probably dreaded running into people he knew and having to pretend that everything was okay.
But as evening approached and a gloom descended on the house, she wondered if it wasn’t actually good that she was going. Otherwise she and her dad would both sit at home moping. Already she was dreading the long next day leading up to her flight out. What would they do?
“I’ll leave some soup out for you,” she told her dad, just before she decided it was time to go up and get dressed. When she put the can of Progresso chicken noodle on the counter, she felt a stab of guilt. This is probably how he would feed himself when she was gone. Cans of soup.
Though, come to think of it, most of the time a can of soup was all she fixed for them herself.
She hoped Wyatt Carter didn’t want to go anywhere fancy. It was a strain for her makeshift visitor’s wardrobe to handle even dress casual. She put on a clean pair of shorts, a tank and a gauzy overshirt, slipped into a pair of sandals and decided he would just have to deal.
She was relieved when he knocked on the door wearing jean shorts himself. They were already in his car before he announced, “I thought we could go to the Salt Lick.”
Her hand faltered on the seat belt. That was her dad’s favorite place to go around Austin. For a moment she felt almost guilty.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
She shook her head. “No, that’s great. I like it.”
He fired up the engine.
The restaurant was about twenty minutes away from town. Luckily, on a Tuesday it wasn’t as jam-packed as it usually was when she’d been there before, during weekends. The host pointed them to one of the rustic wood tables, and Wyatt pulled two Shiner Bocks out of a bag he’d brought with him. Grace had forgotten the place was BYOB.
“You look like you could use one of these,” Wyatt said, twisting the cap off a beer and handing it to her.
“You have no idea,” she said, taking a long first swig.
He brightened and waved at a nearby table. “Hey, look who’s here!” He nodded to his right. “It’s like old home week.”
One table over, Peggy sat in a bright yellow shirt-and-shorts set. Across from her was Uncle Truman. A pain pierced Grace’s heart. In all these weeks, Peggy had never made the time to visit Lou. And now . . . here she sat at a barbecue joint with Truman.
Traitor!
She faced forward, turning away before they’d spotted her. Of course, she herself was a traitor, too, leaving her dad and coming here tonight.
Wyatt looked confused. “Don’t you want to go over and say hello?”
She shook her head and fanned herself with the laminated menu. The air was warm and muggy—the building was baked from the hot summer air outside and the huge round open barbecue pit inside. She wished she’d sat closer to one of the fans.
“Who’s that old guy with Peggy?”
“My uncle Truman.”
“Your uncle?” He looked surprised. “Then maybe you really would like to—”
“No. It would probably make his evening
not
to have to talk to me,” she said, trying not to look at them. She wondered if they had spotted her yet. Probably not. They seemed completely wrapped up in each other.
Wyatt looked at Grace oddly and then stared down at his own menu. “You’re different than I thought you would be.”
“How?”
“Well—I imagined you as more of a Miss Congeniality type.”
Unable to help herself, she glanced over as Uncle Truman took hold of Peggy’s hand. Grace felt herself levitate a few inches. Part of her wanted to jump up and separate those two, to tell them to think about the spectacle they were making of themselves.
“Grace?”
“Huh?” She swung her attention back to Wyatt. “I don’t know where you would get the idea that I would be Miss Congeniality.” It seemed especially funny now that her fist was clenched and aching to clobber a little seventy-five-year-old lady.
Wyatt frowned. “I don’t, either.” He taxed his brain for a few moments and shrugged. “I guess I sort of thought you reminded me of my son.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Your
son?

“Only personality-wise, you understand.”
“I didn’t know you had a son.”
“That’s because he’s in Dallas.”
“How old is he?”
“Fifteen.”
“Fifteen!” She laughed.
He leaned forward. “Do you think that makes me seem old?”
“I was laughing because you seem to have a fifteen-year-old mentality yourself.”
He preened. “I try to stay young.”
“I didn’t mean it as a compliment.” She took a sip of beer. “What’s your son’s name?”
“Crawford. He’s nothing like me, really. He’s into band, and computers, and . . .” He shrugged. “The one thing we really agree on is that we both detest my ex-wife’s new husband. Mel. He really blew his stack a month ago when Crawford hacked into his e-mail account and discovered he was having an affair with his secretary. Now the whole family’s in counseling.” He seemed especially peeved by that. “Sharon never suggested counseling when
we
were married. Maybe forgiveness is something women learn as they age.”
“Don’t bet on it,” Grace said.
A waitress came by and took their orders. While Wyatt was engaged in flirtatious banter with the poor trapped server, Grace couldn’t help glancing over at her uncle and Peggy. Uncle Truman was pouring out champagne. Grace crossed her arms over her chest.
Champagne,
at the Salt Lick?
“Anyway,” Wyatt continued, once the waitress had left, “when I say you remind me of Crawford, I guess I’m saying you remind me of Sharon, because he takes after her. Young Sharon. Before all the problems started.”
“When was that?”
“Right after we drove away from the church.”
She laughed. “People who’ve been married make it sound fantastic.”
“Yeah, I’ve learned my lesson. I know it’s probably a blow to all the prospective Mrs. Wyatts out there—”
“I don’t believe it!”
Grace exclaimed. Her gaze had strayed back over to Peggy and Truman’s table just in time to see Truman pop open a small square jewelry box. Grace did a double-take and glared back at Wyatt. “He’s giving her a ring! An engagement ring!”
Wyatt’s jaw dropped. “That old horndog.”
“This is not right.” Truman was actually proposing to the woman whom Lou had been in love with for decades? She jumped up. “This is not happening.”
Wyatt tried to grab her arm. “Whoa. Grace. It’s not your business.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.”
She marched over to Truman and Peggy’s table and stopped, planting her arms on her hips just as Peggy was trying the ring on for size.
BOOK: Wherever Grace Is Needed
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