Sons need it from fathers; fathers need it from sons.
Ben halted halfway down the nursing home's white, featureless hallway. He crinkled his nose slightly, resisting the urge to hold his lightweight satchel in front of his face. The pervasive smell of bleach couldn't disguise the aroma from the adult diapers in the nearby service cart. Instead, he opened his satchel's clasp and riffled the pages inside. The door to room 127 stood ajar, but he tapped before pushing it farther open.
Nurse Gretchen glanced to see who had paused in the doorway. "Hi! Hey, Mr. Frank, your son is here to visit you," she said. She wheeled a Hoyer lift away from the foot of the gray-haired man's bed and shoved a guest chair closer.
"Hi Gretchen—I can do that," Ben said.
"Which son?" Frank asked without opening his eyes.
"The dashing, brilliant one. How are you doing today, Dad?"
"I'm abused and neglected, as usual." His voice rang strong and clear, not raspy and tired like it became later in the day.
"You are not, Mr. Frank. I take good care of you!" said Gretchen. She laid a hand on the old man's age-spotted forearm with an emphatic nod.
Frank acknowledged the truth of what she said with a crooked smile. "You're the least brutal of all the ruffians who work here." He cast a sly glance toward his son.
Gretchen recoiled. "I'm a ruffian, am I?" She wagged a finger and grimaced as she scolded, "You'd better behave, Mr. Frank, or I'll start sending Hannah in to take care of you!"
"No—not Homely Hannah," Frank wailed in mock horror. "You wouldn't!"
"Did I come at a bad time?" Ben asked from the doorway.
"No," the laughing brunette replied. "We've just finished. And I can get that breakfast tray out of your way, Mr. Frank, unless you want to keep picking at your muffin."
Frank curled his lip. "You can take it—I'm done. The cook must have run out of fresh maggots."
The nurse spluttered as she picked up the tray. "I'll be in later to check on you. Or maybe Hannah will—with the dietician." She ignored Frank's anguished moan and stepped around the bed, motioning for Ben to join her in the hall.
"I'm sorry," he said. "I'll tell Dad he can't call Hannah 'homely.' And she's not—she's really quite—"
"It's fine," Gretchen said. "It's our little game."
A petite blonde nurse emerged from another room. Gretchen clucked at her and waved her over.
"Hannah, tell Mr. Frank's son here who his father's favorite nurse is."
"I am," the blonde stated, her green eyes twinkling.
"And what does he call me when I'm not around?"
"You? Oh, you're 'Girthy Gretchen.'"
"Girthy? Like, fat?" Before he could stop himself Ben surveyed Gretchen's figure. "You're not—excuse me for—well, you're not girthy at all. You look like a runner!"
"She is a runner. We both are," said Hannah.
Gretchen nodded. "Don't look so concerned. We think the pet names he gave us are funny. And it's his way of showing affection. Whenever I'm in there, he wants me to feel like I'm his favorite nurse, and he does the same for Hannah. Initially, the thought that one of the other nurses might be abusive toward him alarmed me, so I confronted Hannah and we had a serious talk. Then we compared notes."
"He didn't tell me he'd given nicknames to his carers—derogatory nicknames, at that," Ben said, shrugging apologetically.
"Not everyone," corrected Hannah. "Just his four favorites."
"The other two are Atrocious Amber and Sadistic Sarah," said Gretchen with a chuckle.
"Good Lord. Sarah—with the curly black hair?" Ben smoothed his short-cropped hair. "Every time I've talked with her, I thought she was really sweet."
Gretchen nodded vigorously. "She absolutely is. If I were a resident here, she's the nurse I'd want."
Ben looked from one to the other. "Well, if you guys are okay with it, I guess it's not my place to butt in."
"We really are. He's our funniest patient, even though we know it's not always easy for him in here." Hannah smiled. "It's nice seeing you again. Enjoy your visit."
"Yeah, I should get in there. I brought something to read to him. He was always such a prolific writer, and an editor, and a publisher. I haven't read this to anyone yet—it's my first real attempt at serious writing," said Ben with a wince. He waved his satchel and shifted his stance slightly. "Dad seems pretty sharp this morning."
"The doctor changed one of his prescriptions and the dosage on another, and your dad's been more alert the last several mornings—and he isn't sundowning as early, so evenings are less distressing to him."
"That's good to know—thank you. I know you have plenty of other people who need attention, so I'll let you get on with it." The nurses parted, and Ben entered the room, circling to sit at his father's right, where the old man was best able to focus after his stroke.
Frank sat in his mechanical bed, head raised, knees slightly bent. He rested his head against one of the extra pillows Gretchen had poofed for him before leaving. With his eyes closed and his face relaxed, some of Frank's years melted away, and he looked more like the father Ben remembered from his youth. His chin sagged, and slow, regular breaths came from his open mouth.
Ben looked around at the sparsely adorned walls. The few pictures of family and familiar places had been hung in case they might spark memories for Frank. The radio on the corner cabinet played too quietly for Frank to enjoy the classical music he usually listened to when left alone for interminable stretches of the day.
"Dad, are you asleep?"
"Yup." Frank licked his lips.
"Do you want to keep sleeping? I started writing a novel, and I brought the beginning to read to you, if you'd like to hear it. Or I can turn your music up, if you prefer to listen to that."
"I'd like to hear what you've written." Frank opened his eyes and grabbed the bed rail to shift himself a little more upright.
"Good. I've enjoyed so many of your stories through the years, and I'm glad to finally be able to read you one of mine." Ben turned the guest chair to face his father and withdrew a sheaf of papers from his satchel before dropping it on the tile floor. After he glanced to be sure Frank was still paying attention, Ben began.
A breathless, disheveled boy burst through the door of the great hall without pausing to knock. He staggered and fell heavily against a standing suit of armor, which rattled loudly as though it would topple. Several maids and an armed steward leaped into the hall to see what had caused the noise.
"My Lord," the boy screamed. "Where is Lord Rhys? My Lord!" He continued calling out as he struggled to get past the steward, who held him tightly.
"What do you want, boy?" the steward demanded.
The housekeeper hurried forward and scolded, "You cannot rush into the Lord's house and demand to see him any time the notion takes you."
Still kicking and biting to get loose, the boy screamed, "They will kill him—they will kill him!"
"Who will kill him?" The steward shook the boy angrily.
The maid who glimpsed Gareth Rhys at the head of the stairs barely had a chance to hiss at her nearest companion before the Lord's rich baritone voice filled the hall, seeming to mute all other sounds.
"More to the point," he said as he descended the broad stone steps, "Whom will they kill?"
At the interruption, the steward relaxed his grip just enough for the boy to wrest free and couldn't catch him before he had scrambled partway up the stairs to kneel and plead, "Lord, they are killing my uncle! Please, you must come."
Ben looked up from the page. "Interested in listening to more?"
"We at least have to find out what the uncle did," said Frank.
"We will. And—I don't know if you're listening with your reader hat on or your editor hat, but if you hear anything that should be improved or explained better, feel free to interrupt me."
Frank bobbled his head. "Reader hat. Read on, MacDuff."
Ben resumed where he had left off, occasionally lifting his eyes to be sure his father wasn't dozing. He modulated his voice, squeaking to convey the young boy's panic and deepening his voice for the Lord's dialogue.
The elder toyed with the edge of his blanket or brushed invisible crumbs from his shirt as he listened.
In the narrative, Lord Gareth reacted quickly to the waif's impassioned plea. Leaving the dirty, hungry boy in his steward's care, he mounted up and rode out of the castle accompanied by the captain of his guard and a half dozen other riders. Their powerful horses consumed the miles in a fraction of the time the boy had run them. The Lord and his men arrived at the Colspring village commons just in time to witness a lynching.
"How's that for a stopping place? We can read more tomorrow," said Ben.
Aghast, his listener exclaimed, "You can't leave me hanging when there's a man about to be hanged!"
Ben grinned. "I'm just giving you some of your own medicine. That's what you used to threaten to do when you read to us."
"We're in luck," Bledig said in low tones, viewing the gathered villagers.
"Luck?" Gareth asked with a surprised expression.
"The body is still warm." Gareth's captain smiled grimly and nodded toward a young man, the obvious center of attention prior to their arrival.
Four men flanked the victim, two armed with scythes and two with heavy flails. He stood facing an ancient oak with his hands tied behind him. A noose hung around his neck, and its coil of rope lay where someone had dropped it on the ground in front of him. He had been severely beaten, and blood from cuts around his eyes made tiny, sticky rivulets through globs of rotten fruit and excrement.
The crowd parted as the Lord and his captain rode forward to dismount a few paces in front of the group. Ignoring the armed villagers, Gareth spoke directly to the man who must have been acutely aware that his last breath was only moments away.
"Why do your neighbors hang you?"
The man's head jerked at the sound of Gareth's voice. "My Lord!" He looked around wildly, finally gazing beyond Bledig's shoulder with eyes swollen almost shut. "Lord Rhys!" He took a step, and, tripping on the coil, fell heavily to the ground.
At that instant a woman carrying a baby broke from the crowd and rushed at Gareth. She fell to her knees and wailed, "Have mercy, Lord! They kill my husband!" Two other women separated from the crowd, one taking her baby from her, the other trying to get her to stand. Instead, she lay at Gareth's feet, sobbing, "Mercy—mercy—mercy!"
Ben concluded the scene several minutes later. He looked up for a reaction and was startled to see tears flowing from his father's aged red eyes.
"What's the matter, Dad? It looks like you're crying—is my writing that bad?" Ben joked.
"No, no," Frank whispered huskily, smearing his cheek with an arthritic hand. "I heard the clop clop of the horses' hooves on the paving stones turn to thuds as they rode onto the dirt road. I was blinded by sunlight glinting off armor, and I could smell the fresh cut hay in the fields they traveled through. I felt Phelan's shame over what he had done as well as the captain's inborn passion for justice—and I shared the Lord's desire to extend grace to a man who had been starved into becoming a thief."
Ben's own eyes grew misty as he listened, realizing he had finally found a way to touch his father's heart.
Frank sniffled, and his throat constricted as he tried to catch his breath to continue. "I'm sorry I never knew—I never knew you had stories like this in you."
"You were a good father. You filled my youth with stories and kindled my imagination. You are a good father, Dad."
"You have to keep writing."
"I will, Dad. Thank you for listening."