“A Special Providence” (1994)
By Jim DeBrosse
Rick Hines was giving Jasper Moss a shave that morning, the way he did every Monday, Wednesday, Friday at Sarah B. Jones Nursing Home and Convalescent Center, a grand old brick mansion that had seen its glory days long before it was declared a part of the Huffman Historic District.
As always, when Rick had finished scraping Jasper’s cheeks and got around to the old man’s throat, Jasper would launch into one of his long tales, forcing Rick to stop and listen. Shaving the old man’s hanging, bulldog flesh was futile, not to mention dangerous, while his Adam’s apple was bobbing up and down like a trapped animal. Jasper was a nervous sort of an old man.
“Boy, I ever tell you about the time I fell asleep pullin’ into the Needmore freight yard?”
Yes, dozens of times, but Rick said no because the telling of this particular story, like the repetition of a prayer, always seemed to settle the old man. The account of the night before was a little different each time in the telling – sometimes Jasper had spent the night with a sick friend; other times, which seemed more likely, knowing Jasper, it was spent downing boilermakers in a Parkersburg honky-tonk. Either way, the events of the following day were much the same.
All that morning and afternoon from Parkersburg he’d battled drowsiness with black coffee and chit-chat with the fireman, Ernie. But when evening came and they were just north of downtown Dayton, Ernie left Jasper to check on a diesel sputter in engine No. 3. So there he was – all by himself at the throttle with 120 gondola cars piled high with West Virginia coal, and pulling 50 on a slow downhill grade. Jasper had no idea how long he’d been asleep, nor what finally woke him, but when he opened his eyes he saw red lights flashing overhead and beyond and on both sides of the main trunk leading into the Needmore terminal.
Less than two miles ahead, a switcher train was stalled dead on the tracks.
“My God, boy, you shoulda seen the sparks fly when I yanked that brake. The whole valley lit up orange as a fireball and the screechin’ and grindin’ was enough to crack a man’s eardrums. But, hell, there was no stoppin’ a monster like that. We was still haulin’ 30 when I seen the brakeman wavin’ his lantern up ahead like it was the end of the world. Them last few seconds I just closed my eyes and held my breath waitin’ for the firewall to flatten me to a pancake.
“But when I got the nerve to look again, I couldn’t believe my eyes. We was stopped so close to that switcher I coulda spit out my window and hit the back door. It was a miracle, my boy. A miracle plain and simple.”
Jasper settled back into his chair again, his milky blue eyes staring at the room’s high ceiling. Miracles had never wanted for opportunities in Jasper’s 75 years. The old man had been fired from his railroad job, without a penny in pension, three years shy of retirement. Jasper, you see, had problems with the bottle.
“But you know,” he began again, just as Rick positioned his razor. “I learnt plenty from the scare I took that day. I learnt that the good Lord was always watchin’ over me, no matter how sinful my ways. Surely such a miracle meant I was blessed with His special providence, and to this day until the day I die, I know I can trust in His good graces.”
Amen, Rick thought, and set to work again, a smooth stroke at a time. He took special care with Jasper, flattered that he was the only employee at Sara B.’s the old man had ever allowed to do his shaving. Nurse Biddlemen tried once and Jasper bit her index finger so badly she rushed to St. Elizabeth’s for a tetanus booster. Jasper swore, of course, that she tried to cut his throat first.
“All right, Jasper,” he said when he’d finished. “You’re good enough to meet the ladies.”
“How ’bout a dab of that good-smellin’ stuff?”
In a cigar box in the old man’s bedstand, Rick found just enough Afta-Shave in an old sticky bottle. It had been a gift from his niece, Wanda, the only person who ever came to visit Jasper, every month or so after Sunday church service. Even so, Jasper had one more visitor than many of the residents at Sarah B.’s.
“Say, what day of the month is it, boy?”
Rick wasn’t sure, although he knew that it had been Thanksgiving the week before. Already, Sarah B. had decked out the insides of the old house with fake holly trim and big red velveteen bows. Since he’d left Kenyon College last spring, the days ahead and the days gone by seemed part of one great fog. What had started as a summer job after Rick’s junior year now seemed his life’s vocation.
Certainly, it was good to feel needed, to have 11 men depending on him for their showers, their meals, their weekly pedicures – you name it – but it wasn’t the whole reason he hadn’t returned to school. Having been a model student for 15 years, Rick had simply burned out on books, grades, the “whole college trip,” to use the argot of his generation. The year was 1970, with that nasty little Asian war still on, but Rick’s lottery number had been high enough to escape the draft.
“It’s probably near the first of the month, Jasper. I’m not sure.”
“Then it’s Social Security day.”
Rick’s heart yearned for something more than what his middle-class parents had worked so hard to provide him – stability, security, a future of work, family, taxes and death. (Of course, he had been reading a lot of Herman Hesse and Jack Kerouac of late.) Just the same, he had promised his worried father that, starting in January, he would return to school and take his degree in sociology. College life was just four weeks away.
Rick slapped the old man’s cheeks between the cool aftershave on his hands, then slipped Jasper’s thick glasses onto his face and brought his walker up to the chair. That’s when Jasper grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him close, whispering frantically in his ear.
“You’ve got to help me with somethin’, boy. You’re the only one that can help me.”
“With what, Jasper?”
Rick couldn’t help smiling. Jasper was always confiding some secret worry. Like the time he swore he “caught” hemorrhoids from using the same toilet as Leon Johnson, the man across the hall. Rick told him the only thing he was likely to catch from Leon was a little good sense.
“You gotta keep them damn thiefs from takin’ my Social Security check.”
“Oh come on, Jasper. Who’d do a thing like that?”
“Miz Biddleman, Old Maid Jones. The whole damn bunch of ’em. I never see a penny of it.”
“But it goes for room and board.”
“I know, I know. But I’m s’posed to get $8.50 a month spendin’ cash. My niece was in here and tole me so.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“I need that money, boy. Christmas is a’comin.”
“OK, OK. I’ll look into it this morning. Now come on. I have floors to clean.”
That was the truth. Sarah B. herself would show around noon, like she did every Wednesday, to inspect the premises with a white glove and a single-edge razor. But no amount of cleaning and Christmas decorating could dispel the home’s essential gloominess – a firetrap of faded woodwork and ancient wiring. The one bright spot was the aluminum Christmas tree in the hallway by the front door. It slowly changed colors, and moods, under the glare of a rotating color wheel – from blue to green to red to blue again.
Refusing help, as he always did, Jasper rose with a mighty groan from the straight chair and grabbed his walker. He headed for the hallway bathroom at his usual snail’s pace. Although his legs were bowed and shriveled, Jasper possessed awesome strength in the stringy muscles of his chest and arms. He would slide the walker ahead of him a few inches at a time, then lean his big shoulders into the handles and, keeping his chin high and head straight, drag one leg to the front, then another, like a proud old gorilla.
Rick had worked long enough at Sarah B.’s to know that nursing homes, by their very nature, transformed the old into helpless children. After all, they were easier to handle that way. But not Jasper Moss. Even in his shabby second-hand clothes – baggy pants cinched at the waist, faded shirt pinching at the shoulders – Jasper managed always to carry himself with dignity. For that Rick respected and loved him.
Rick retrieved his mop and bucket from the kitchen, dreading not so much the task of cleaning and waxing floors but of persuading the four men in the back bedroom to retire elsewhere while the work was being done. Mr. Johnson and Mr. Putterbaugh left, as always, without a word of fuss. But Mr. Bosler had to be bribed with a can of Pepsi and Mr. Chenault could only be goaded as far as the church bench in the hallway, where he rocked and moaned to himself like a man driven from his homeland.
Rick was done in an hour or so, and while his floors dried, he pulled up a seat next to Nurse Biddleman’s untidy desk in the hallway. A heavenly harp tinkled Oh Come All Ye Faithful on the intercom above their heads. Biddleman didn’t notice him at first, sitting there cross-legged, a cigarette dangling in one hand, the National Enquirer in the other, engrossed in a story with a headline that said, “Elvis Loses 30 Pounds on All-Pizza Diet.”
Finally, Rick cleared his throat and she set the paper aside, scowling a little at the intrusion.
“I need to talk to you about something, Mrs. Biddleman.”
She patted the little curls at the back of her head, escapees from the bleached prison of her beehive. From everything Rick could tell, Biddleman was a competent nurse, but she was lazy and she was sloppy, which may have explained how she came to be at a place like Sarah B.’s.
“Well, it’s about Jasper’s Social Security check. He claims he isn’t getting his spending allowance.”
“That’s absolutely right,” she said, as calmly as if he’d asked about the weather. “Jasper probably told you we were stealing his check money. He tells everybody that, but don’t you listen for a minute, young man. We keep his spending money in a special account for all his personal items. What we don’t do is put the money in his hands, and for a very good reason. When we do, he only gives it to his niece to buy him cheap whiskey.”
She stopped to mash her cigarette in a plastic ashtray, compliments of the funeral home across the street. Rick noticed she had that red, wrinkled skin around her neck, the mark of a heavy smoker. Like turkey skin.
“For a long time we couldn’t figure out how Jasper was getting his bottle every month – then I caught her red-handed one afternoon, slipping it right out of her purse.”
She worked on the curls at the back of her neck again. “Don’t worry. If Jasper needs anything, all he has to do is ask and we’ll – “
Bonnie was calling from the top of the big hallway stairs. “Give me a hand a minute, please!”
He knew it was either Mrs. Hendricksen, who took two people to drag her 300 pounds from bed to commode, or else Miss Rainer was laid up again with an attack of her “artheritis.”
Sure enough, upstairs Miss Rainer was lying flat on her back in her pretty blue house robe and pink furry slippers. Her scrawny legs were sticking halfway out of the robe and quivering a little, like a tiny bird’s. Bonnie was nearby giving Mrs. Hendricksen a sponge bath.
“I guess I could lift her myself,” Bonnie said. “But she don’t trust nobody but you when she gets like that.”
“I got the artheritis so bad this morning,” she said in her dry, chirpy voice. Rick stooped low and got his arms under her knees and those sharp, bony shoulders. She didn’t weigh more than 80 pounds, and was smelling like a baby from all the talcum Bonnie doused on her. As Rick held her in the air, she looped an arm around his neck like a tendril.
“Getting fresh again, Ms. Rainer?”
“Oh go ‘way,” she said, her brown eyes lighting up. Suddenly, she was a teen-ager again.
Rick carried her to the padded high chair where she ate her meals and set her down as lightly as a trembling leaf. Nearby on her dresser was an old tin-framed portrait of a young Elsie Rainer, a live wire in a flapper dress, a mischievous smile playing on the pixie-ish face. Rick wished everyone at Sarah B.’s had a photo like that – a reminder to anyone who worked there that these people, too, once had a life and destiny of their own.
“You do remind me so much of Freddie,” she said.
“Only handsomer. Right?”
“Oh, dear my, no. Freddie was so . . . so. . . .” But while memory overwhelmed her capacity for words, Rick made for the bedroom door. There was no time that morning to hear how Freddie would come evenings in his shiny new Cadillac roadster and wheel her around town, the envy of every girl in Shelby County. There was still that front room to wax.
He had just reached the top of the stairs when he heard Nurse Biddleman shriek in a way that meant real trouble.
“Jasper, no! I won’t let you! Don’t you dare!”
Rick crashed down the steps two at a time, jumped the banister rail and landed just outside the hallway bathroom. There he saw the strangest sight: Nurse Biddleman tugging with all her spindly might on Jasper’s shoulder – trying, it seemed, to keep the old man from stepping inside the bathroom door.
“Rick, hold him! He’s going to flush it!”
He grabbed Jasper’s shoulder and saw the gray envelope at the end of the outstretched arm – inches from the toilet bowl. Rick tried yanking the old man’s arm back from the elbow, thinking it would be easy, but the arm was as rigid as an oak limb.
“Let go, boy! If I can’t have it, ain’t nobody gets it!”
Jasper launched into every curse his old brain could think of, grunting to pull free. The veins in his neck were bulging like rope. But Rick wasn’t doing much better – it was taking all his strength to hold back Jasper’s lunging weight.
“Drop it, Jasper!”
“To hell with you, boy!”
They were shoulder to shoulder, arm to arm for so long that Rick feared the old man would have a stroke. There was only one thing to do: Rick kicked Jasper’s feet out, and the old man tumbled backward, a mighty fallen tree. Rick snared him in a bear hug and dragged the old man into the hallway, where Nurse Biddleman snatched the check and, for good measure, his glasses as well.
“Don’t you dare steal anything from my desk again!” she screamed.
“It ain’t yours, you old witch!”
Jasper swiveled his head around, eyes wild and bulging.
Thonk! – his dentures snapped the air half an inch from Rick’s nose. The old man worked his arms inside the bear hug, straining to loosen an elbow with the intention, no doubt, of ramming it into Rick’s stomach.
“Whose side you on, boy?!”
Rick had never been in a real fight before, nothing but a few childhood scrapes with more sobbing than punching, and now here he was trying to defend himself against an angry old man – a man he called his friend. Either way he could only lose.
“What do I do with him?” he screamed at Biddleman.
She was standing there fingering the check and glancing at the front door, where Sarah B. might show any second for her Wednesday noon-hour inspection. Manhandling a client was one thing Mrs. Jones wouldn’t tolerate.
“Stretch him out on the floor.”
“On his back?”
“Yes. Lay him out on the floor and let him cool off.”
Rick did as instructed, but the moment Jasper’s shoulders settled to the linoleum, the old man landed a fist across his jaw and knocked him backward to the floor. He sat there dazed, humiliated, rubbing the numb side of his face, listening to his head buzz. Some detached part of himself was thinking: I’ve been punched and this is how it feels.
In a while, Nurse Biddleman’s voice cut through the fog. “Rick, are you all right?”
“Yes. I think so.”
He saw Jasper shouting from the floor, flailing his arms and legs in the air like a giant, overturned beetle, and for the first time felt something like hatred for the old man. The ingratitude, he thought – after all those shaves, all those talks together.
The feeling was mutual. “D’ya hear me, boy?” the old man shouted from the floor. “You ain’t no better’n the rest of the thievin’ scum around here.”
All he had done was follow orders, he thought, but that didn’t sound right, so he didn’t say anything at all. Over the intercom he recognized the soft strains of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and nearly laughed.
Jasper was still in high gear. “I’m goin’ to report the whole thievin’ bunch of you to the FBI. You hear me? The F-B-I. . . .”
“Just shut your mean old trap, Jasper Moss.” Nurse Biddleman was still worried about Sarah B.’s arrival. “You’ll lay there until you cool off.”
Jasper called her something with a fricative so harsh his false teeth nearly flew from his mouth. Then he put his hands behind his head and calmly grinned.
Nurse Biddleman turned crimson, especially the turkey skin under her neck. “Why, you filthy old man,” she said. “You can lay there and rot, for all I care.”
She sat down at her desk and rummaged for her cigarettes, but a moment later, they heard the dieseling of Sarah B.’s Seville outside in the driveway.
“Oh dear,” Nurse Biddleman said. “You better get him off the floor.”
Rick would have preferred lifting a killer whale, but the specter of one of Sarah B.’s tongue-lashings made him hop to.
He retrieved the walker from the bathroom and set it beside Jasper. The old man’s eyes were closed and he looked so peaceful that, for a second, Rick thought he might be dead.
He curled his lip. “Don’t you come near me, boy.”
“Come on, Jasper.” He reached down slowly with one hand, just beyond denture range. “I’m only going to help.”
The old man scuttled back to the wall. “I can stand up myself. Don’t need no help from some thievin’ jackal like you.”
With his back flat against the wall, Jasper drew back his shrivelled legs and tried pushing himself upward with the sheer force of his will. It was an impossible task, but the old man got farther than Rick would have imagined before his knees began to quiver and gave out.
“Jasper, let me help.”
Outside, they could hear Sarah B. barking orders at Nate, the part-time maintenance man. It was time for stringing up the Christmas lights.
Jasper said nothing. He just sat there looking tired and helpless.
“A truce?” Rick said, smiling now. “Oh, come on, Jasper. ‘Tis the season to be jolly.”
The old man only sneered.
Rick crouched down and slipped his hands under Jasper’s armpits – Jasper showed no inclination to bite – then, with a mighty heave, raised him from the floor. He had no idea the old man would be so heavy, and Jasper made it all the harder by dangling in his grip. With his guts straining, Rick reached behind the old man for his walker. That’s when something snapped up hard between his legs and seemed to explode clear through to his chest.
While Rick was on the floor gasping for breath, Jasper clung to his walker. He was laughing like the devil himself.
“How’s it feel, boy? Bein’ on the other side?”
Worse than the pain was the awful sick-in-the-stomach feeling of being paralyzed and speechless when he was mad enough to kill Jasper Moss. If he could just catch his breath, just stop his squirming gut muscles for one second, he would smash the old man’s dentures clear down his throat. When he rolled to his side, the first thing he saw was the aluminum Christmas tree, turning gradually from from red to blue.
Nurse Biddleman turned Rick on his back and began pumping his legs back and forth like pistons. He felt ridiculous.
“Do you see what he’s like now?” she said. “Relax now. Just relax those muscles.”
Then there was the sound of the front door opening, and the whole house seemed to go dead as a sprung watch.
Only it wasn’t Sarah B. arriving, it was Jasper leaving.
“Where do you think you’re going!” Nurse Biddleman crashed through the door after him. “You come back here this minute!”
“Ha! Tell it to the F-B-I!”
She snagged him by the arm, but Jasper used the other to fend her off. When she grabbed that, too, Jasper spat into her golden beehive and she came sobbing back into the house.
“That filthy, disgusting old man,” she wailed, walking fast for the bathroom.
Rick crawled over to the church bench and sat down. Four more weeks. Four more weeks and he’d be rid of all this. He thought of how nice it would be to sleep until 9, leave his room in a mess and answer to no one until exam time.
Nurse Biddleman came running back through the hallway. “Well, just don’t sit there. He’s probably halfway to Third Street.”
Rick tried to yell, but couldn’t more than croak. “Let him go.”
“Let him go?” she said. “Why, young man, have you gone crazy? Why if anything happens to that old man, they’ll close this place in a minute.”
“Good. Maybe they should close it.”
Nurse Biddleman stood there with her fists screwed into her hips and her lips trembling. “All right, buster. But you just wait until Sarah B. hears about this.”
“Don’t bother. I quit.”
But he didn’t move from the bench. There didn’t seem much use in doing anything. He could hear Sarah B. by the side of the house now, still barking at Nate.
Nurse Biddleman shouted from the bottom of the stairs. “Bonnie!”
“What! I’m awful busy up here, Miz Biddleman.”
“Drop whatever you’re doing and bring Mrs. Talbot’s wheelchair. I need your help immediately!”
While Bonnie was grumbling upstairs, Nurse Biddleman pocketed Jasper’s glasses from her desk and ran to the screen door for another look. Even Jasper could have made Third Street by now. She dashed up the stairs. “Bonnie! Quick!”
Rick decided to take a look for himself and walked to the door. He was feeling very strange, as though he were there only in some nightmare and expected to wake any moment tangled in his sheets.
Outside, the air was cold but the street was so bright it was painful to look at. Squinting, he could make out Jasper all by himself about two-thirds the way up Linden Avenue, a dark splotch against the sunny pavement. Once he stumbled over a tree root in his path – he could barely see without his glasses – but he kept moving on, an inch at a time, a blind, determined old slug.
But where did he think he was going? He had no place anybody would take him, not even another nursing home, not on his measly Medicaid check.
Mr. Bosler came up to the door behind him.
“Where you s’pose he’s going to, Rickie?”
Rick thought again and smiled to himself. “My guess is the FBI.”
He heard a wheelchair clattering down the hallway stairs, then saw Biddleman stumbling behind it, holding on for dear life, and Bonnie pulling up the rear. They were almost comical, like a couple of white-uniformed Keystone cops, until Rick saw the restraining jacket in Bonnie’s hands. They were going to bring Jasper back all right, like some big shackled bear, with no part of his dignity left. It was simply too much. He stopped them before they could reach the door.
“Everybody just hold on and let me handle this my way.”
From the back bedroom closet, he grabbed Mr. Chenault’s ratty charcoal suitcoat and Mr. Johnson’s skinny black necktie with the trail of gravy stains. The moment he ran out the door, the December cold seared his nostrils. He tied the tie along the way, walking fast at first and then breaking into a run for the corner of Linden and Third.
Even as he ran, he couldn’t believe how such an evil scheme could have hatched in his brain, this ultimate betrayal of the old man. But if it worked, it would at least bring him back without a fight.
Jasper stood trembling at the corner, confused and frightened as a child, squinting at all the cars whizzing by on Third Street. Anyone could tell he didn’t belong on the outside. He had no coat, just a faded flannel shirt and pants way too short, his red socks flashing below like a pair of distress signals.
Rick stood back a moment, deciding how best to make his approach, then saw Jasper move his walker close to the curb. Just then the light changed and an electric bus lurched forward through the intersection. There was the soft clatter of wires, the low whine of the engine as the bus picked up speed, coming toward Jasper. The old man leaned hard into his walker and, in a heart-pounding instant, Rick knew what he was up to.
He rushed from behind and snared Jasper by the arm.
“Can I be of any help, sir?” he yelled as the bus hurtled by. Jasper reeled backwards and almost fell. His whole body was tensed and quivering.
“Who the hell are you?” He was squinting so hard there were tears in his eyes.
Rick let out with a hearty laugh and slapped him on the back, as if it was the funniest thing he could have asked.
Then he whipped out his wallet and flashed his driver’s license in the old man’s squinched-up face.
“The name’s Howard Borden,” he said in a deep, official-sounding voice, “Assistant chief of the Dayton office, Federal
Bureau of Investigation.”
“Well, I’ll be. . . .”
“What seems to be the problem, mister?”
“The name’s Jasper H. Moss. And how did you know I had a problem?”
The old man had him there. “Well, uh, Mr. Moss, you standing out here in the cold without a coat and all – I thought perhaps you were running from some kind of trouble.”
“Yes sir. That’s downright perceptive. I live just up the road there. . . .” He was pointing toward Sarah B.’s when a bus roared by, discharging a cloud of diesel smoke. Jasper started hacking.
“Perhaps we could best discuss this matter at your residence, Mr. Moss.” Rick coaxed him by the elbow and they started up Linden Avenue together. A bitter wind swept down the wide street and bit into their faces.
“Like I was sayin’, officer, I live just up the road there at Sarah Jones. Well, I ought to tell you right off the place is full of lyin’, cheatin’ crooks. Since day one, the whole bunch of ’em has been conspirin’ to take my Social Security check.”
“You don’t say?”
“Yes sir. Includin’ this one boy who works up there. I thought I could trust him, but I sure learnt different. I can’t tell you how deeply disapointed I was – I couldn’t have loved that boy more’n if he was my own. I was all set to buy him a Christmas present – just a little somethin’, you know, maybe a handkerchief. If I coulda got my hands on my money, that is. And then the boy ends up doin’ me violence – flippin’ me on my back and takin’ my check right out of my hands. I tell ya, an old man ain’t worth nuthin’ in this world no more. Nuthin’!”
Rick walked arm-in-arm with Jasper, inhaling whiffs of his stale after-shave and watching so his walker wouldn’t catch on the pavement. The old man talked, but Rick wasn’t listening any more. He’d heard all he really wanted to know.
Then he looked into the old man’s watery blue eyes, and that sagging, bulldog face he’d shaved clean that morning and he wondered if anyone was worthy of a thing so blind and frail as another man’s trust.
He would make it up to the old man, Rick vowed. He would try again to be his friend, no matter how long it took.
Kenyon, his other life, all that could wait.
Jasper rested a moment and took time to find his words. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this,” he said. “But I was on my way to doin’ a very desperate thing when you caught hold of me on that street corner. I couldn’t see much point in goin’ on. Truly, it must have been the Good Lord Hisself that sent you there, right in the nick of time.”
Jasper broke into a smile of perfect bliss. “The Lord, he works in the mighty strangest ways.”
Up the street, Rick saw Nurse Biddleman and Bonnie coming with the wheelchair. He waved them back, then eased Jasper along again. For now, it was just the two of them against the cold and wind.
“Indeed, He does, Mr. Moss. Indeed, He does.”
Copyright, 1994, Cox Ohio Publishing. All rights reserved