11/11/2013 06:55 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Featured Fifty Fiction: Assisted Living

You know me. I'm the old guy walking toward you on the sidewalk, a young but matronly woman by my side. Her look says she would like to take me by the elbow and guide me along, but she knows better. She knows what would happen.

You know me because you see I am wearing a wool overcoat at least ten seasons out of style, buttoned to the neck, though most fellow sidewalkers -- in your general age group of Young -- this morning are wearing windbreakers, unzipped navel to neck. My necktie is unspeakably, deliciously out of date, like a Time magazine op-ed from the Eighties when Reagan was raising taxes and hiding arms shipments. Sure, I remember 30 years ago. It's what I remember about yesterday -- or don't-- that has that young woman -- the one who is even now hovering dangerously near my elbow, now, for an instant, actually touching my elbow -- upset. Though she would never let me know it. Let her worry about my ape gait or my sense of the present; she's the one made the appointment, she's the one who knows why I'm seeing someone.

"Up the stairs, here," she says and halts, presumably so I understand we're changing course. Which is when my record collection comes to mind. Only 33's, that's all I have. Do I remember which ones I have? That would be a stupid question for any professional to ask me. I might shoot back, "Do you realize that 33 and a third is a rational number? Why would anyone collect music in any format but rational? Cassette tapes are ugly and loaded with flutter and wow. Make mine a vinyl." Then I would have this someone's attention. I tuck this away for quick access should sarcasm be necessary -- the armature reaching mechanically for the next record on the stack, ready to plop it down and drop the needle and... Play!

So, up we go and enter the waiting room. It doesn't smell like a doctor's office and my hackles go up. Is this some kind of ruse to get me here to some goddam lawyer? I was told I was going to see a doctor, that I needed to get checked over by a doctor. If this is about changing my Last Will and Testament you can count me Already Gone (Eagles, 1977).

We plop into faux leather chairs and wait our -- my -- turn.

"Open your iPad," Elizabeth says. "Write something big."

"What would that be? What is big?"

"You know--big. Two-inch Sable brush."

She gave me the iPad for my birthday. "It will help you remember. You'll manage better."

I open my iPad (with Retina Display) and begin writing this... this temporally bound and rational flow of thoughts so that I can prove --

"Doctor Prinze will see you now," some faceless 20-something announces not to me but to Elizabeth, who is now acknowledged as the one with the wherewithal to get us to wherever the hell it is we're going. She never even looks at me. I'm upset but damned if she's ever finding out about it. "Never show your emotions," Lou taught me, "feelings are a dead giveaway. Keep your cards close to your vest. Otherwise you're a goner." Lou had just been to Paris Island. It was 1967 and his draft lottery was 11.

The office is definitely not a doctor's office. There's just a guy and a desk with two chairs. There's no examination table with long paper napkin for reclining and having your bowels palpated; there's no glass jar stuffed with tongue depressors, and there's no washbasin where the man in charge can wash off the cells of the last patient with whom he engaged in this rather melancholic physical transaction of doctor-patient care. Flat out? I don't know if his hands are clean or not. As if that isn't enough, my underwear, creeping up my crack like a thong, almost have brought me to the point of not caring whether he's germy or sterile. I hate these goddam Chinese underwear. They say 32 but it's a lie, part of the Asian domino effect Lyndon Johnson warned us about. They say 32 but they're actually 28s. And they'll wear out your crack to where you're walking with a stupefied gait like you're on heavy psychotropics. Ape Gait, I call it. Silverbacks frozen in the jungle, poachers approaching. That's how I feel just now.

He sits behind a broad glass desk. Transparent, you can see his alligators. To his left is a model of a half-brain. Big clue.

"Where does it hurt?" I want him to say. But he doesn't. Instead he just looks at me like my high school history teacher, Mr. Harper. That kind of condescending, "I'm-getting-ready-to-take-your-recent history-temperature" look only head doctors can give you. "What year is it?" I want him to say. "Do you know where you are?" But he doesn't say any of this. Already I'm frustrated. How will he approach me, then? I'll be goddamned if I'm going to have his smooth questions wind me up in assisted living. Assisted Dying, really it is.

"Mr. K," he finally says. "I'm glad you came in."

I stare at the window.

He waits four beats. I count them... and I outwait him.

"Mr. K," he tries again, just the slightest seasoning of High Authority creeping into his tone, "Did you hear me? Sir?"

I can't stop staring at the window.

Elizabeth sighs and clears her throat. "He hears you. He just doesn't know why I brought him here. Or maybe he does and he doesn't want to talk about it."

"Do you want to talk to me, Mr. K?" the doctor tries. "I would like that."

Said as if what he would somehow trick conversation out of me.

I'm finally able to turn my eyes to him. He is young, probably 45, and looks queer -- gay- - but you can't be sure anymore. Some of them are built like Schwarzenegger and you wouldn't dare say the F-word to them, and I'm not talking about F*ck.

"I neither want to talk to you nor don't want to talk to you. I don't have enough evidence to make that judgment."

You would have thought I had just touched off an IED. His head jerks back and his face goes out of focus. He removes his glasses and puffs twice at lint I am positive is imaginary, as he catches his conversation breath and drives at my flank.

"Well put. If I were in your shoes I would be suspicious of me too."

"Which is assuming I'm suspicious. I'm not. I'm only bored."

"What kinds of things don't bore you? TV? Reading? Talking with friends?"

"My friends are dead. Worthless dicks that kicked off young. Or old... to you, probably."

"How does that make you feel?"

"Leery," I smile, and can't stop. "This old age thing is not to be trusted if it's longevity you have in mind."

"Dad," Elizabeth starts, but the doctor raises his hand.

"Excellent, I couldn't agree more, Mr. K," he says. "My mother always told me that old age ain't for sissies."

"Thank her for that."

"I have."

"Will you be asking us about coffee? Or is that possible anymore in these lean times?"

He chuckles, "We can still afford coffee, Mr. K. The economy hasn't devastated health care just yet." He lifts his phone and presses a button. "What are you having?" He asks me.

"Starbucks. Latte skinny," I order. "She doesn't want any. Not good for the heart." Elizabeth just looks sorrowfully toward me and I almost feel sorry for her. But the feeling is evanescent: she's the reason I'm here and not at home feeding Alice her Chicken-of-the-Sea tuna. My 401K has allowed Alice to grow fat in the luxury of warm sunlight on her window seat. She purrs when I come near, as if praising me. It is good to be appreciated and this isn't said for pity. It is good.

"Coffee's on the way. We didn't have latte so you'll just have to settle for Starbucks with milk."

"Fair enough. I would have been surprised had you produced a latte."

"Mr. K, let me be straight with you. Some of your family is concerned."

"I know that. I know that because Elizabeth showed me a brochure touting old age body storage. The last stop before the crematory." If there's anything I've gotten through to her it's this: I have no intention of spending eternity tucked alongside her mother in a cargo box for the dead. Things between us were never THAT great anyway. Give me the torch and the brief puff of ash scattered and tossed by a friendly breeze across Central Park. Freedom.

"Maybe some such places have more to offer than simple storage, as you put it. But that's not why we're here."

"What is why we're here?"

"Like I said, some people are worried about you."

"Dad, you lost your glasses three times yesterday, you can't remember mom's name half the time, and we found your hearing aid in the bathtub soap dish. THAT's why we worry."

"I remember the important things with no problem. I remember D-Day, I remember the day Lou was killed in Vietnam, I remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, I remember November 22 every year when it rolls around, and I remember your birthday, Darling Girl. The important stuff is always on the tip of my tongue."

"But maybe there's more to happy living than the big dates," offers Doctor Prinze. "My wife would be really upset if I forgot her name."

"My music is all vinyl," I begin. "33's. Who's Next, with the piss stains on the obelisk. What in the hell was an obelisk ever there for anyway. That's the important stuff."

Elizabeth speaks up like I've left the room. "He always does this. He always starts talking about his record collection when he's backed into a corner." Tears well up in her eyes.

"I like my watercolors."

"Watercolors are good."

"I know it's art therapy. Know all about it."

"That's just fine. There should be no secrets about any of this."

"Did you brew this?" He thinks I mean the coffee.

I've lived on the Upper East Side since October 27, 1986 the date the Mets won the World Series. We moved that day and I caught bits and pieces from Shea. I love my home: I have an unobstructed view of Central Park: the skaters and bikers of summer all smoothly oiled toys round and round on the tracks below me; in the fall the colors savage and the goblins and ghosts run screaming through the gold and red leaves; in the winter the cross-country skiers lay tracks across the white snow, kicking and gliding, their gloved hands and plunging poles foiling gravity as they scissor around the Park; and in the spring the white recedes, blotted out by Hunter Green running over cell walls across a white canvas until the leaves burst forth and the shadows shrink under the noonday sun. That's my world beneath my feet and I can't give it up. So far I have over thirty renderings of the Park, not counting the ones those grandkids have made off with.

(It's true, Elizabeth: some moments the words are there so clear it startles me; other days are maddening. A curtain simply closes and my words cannot be accessed. Hard drive damage. There's no word for the feeling I have about this peculiar condition. At least none that comes to mind. So I speak in watercolors those days, however poorly.)

Today I'm going for a haircut.

"Good morning, Eddie. Hail a cab, please."

"Goin' again, Mr. K?" Eddie looks troubled. Hell, Eddie always looks troubled nowadays, more often than not.

"What are you -- keeping score, Eddie?"

"Nossir. I just like to know where my tenants are off to. 'Scuz I care."

"Well, put it that way... I'm going for a haircut, Eddie."

"Again, Mr. K?"

"It's been four weeks, Eddie. I'm not too old to care about good grooming."


The back of the cab smells like cigarette smoke and perfume. Andiamo, perhaps: Myra's fragrance. Myra of the silk stockings and garter belt, her anomaly, she called it, her disdain for pantyhose. Myra could have called it anything and I would have noted. The back seat is suddenly hot. As usual I feel cramped; I'm six-four and the front seats are always backed into my lap.

"And we're going where?" the guy asks in the rearview.



"The barber."

"Adrian the barber? I'm afraid that doesn't ring a bell, pal. Got anymore?"


"Street -- gimme a street and number and I'll leave you alone."

"The street--"

There it is. Like a black curtain, dense and cloying, the street, the number, the thing we're after -- is gone. Poof! Like magic. Except there's no magician back here with me. Just me and some old odors. Suddenly I want to go home.

"Never mind. Just drop me back home."

"And that would be where?"

"Where you picked me up."

"Buddy, are you playing hide the ball with me? Do you got street numbers and names, anything else besides 'take me home.'?"

"Now look who's forgetful. Now look who can't remember. You just picked me up there."

"Just testing. I'll take you back."

He winks in the mirror.

The cab lurches to a stop and I throw open the door before Eddie can get down off the curb.

"Back already, Mr. K?"

He looks me over with his kind, fluid eyes. "Still no haircut?"

"Changed my mind."

"Pay the cabbie, Mr. K."


"The cabbie. He's waiting with his flashers on."
Of course. One thing at a time."

I shove a twenty through the passenger window and Eddie is waiting just as I turn around.

"Mr. K, that's the third time this morning you've gone for a haircut. And each time you come back without. Now something about this is troubling me, don't be offended."

"I'm telling you I changed my mind, if it's a damn bit of your concern. You're getting pretty personal aren't you, Eddie? My God, you're just the doorman."


Mama gave me a kidney in 1969. It was October and Neil Armstrong had just had his stroll on July 20. I had just started law school that September but then my own kidneys suddenly shut down. Instead of contracts and torts class I now found myself tethered to a dialysis machine. I was in orbit as I sat there and read constitutional law while my blood was strained. Then the dialysis was less effective. And less. I was dying and Mama and I knew it.

"Call Dr. Edison tomorrow," she told me one night as I was struggling to sleep. Dr. Edison was my kidney doctor. I asked her why I should call him.

"Because I'm giving you a kidney."

"Don't be ridiculous. You need your kidneys. Elizabeth is only 7 and she needs you around for a long time."

Mama sat straight up in bed and switched on her lamp. "That's bullshit. She needs both parents. Besides, you owe too much in student loans to croak now."

We both cried. Me with relief, Mama...because she was my best friend. She was my best friend and she cried for my relief.

The surgery was successful and six weeks later I was back in law school full time. For Mama and Elizabeth I proceeded to live inside books for the next two years. As my reward, I was elected Law Journal Editor. I had my pick of jobs on graduation. Now I live on the Upper East Side. All right, you could say. I did all right. To this day I can access almost every visual cue from those early years -- where we lived, the color of the wallpaper, Elizabeth's glass bottles when she was a baby. I still remember. Mama, thank you for the life i have been privileged to live because of your gift to me. But how can I tell you I Iie awake at night and stare at the black ceiling and try to draw your face there, try to remember how you looked when you said goodbye. Mama, forgive me the black, it all runs together.

Alice and I have more in common than I had with Mama. Alice succumbs to naps in warm sunlight behind glass; my La-Z-Boy (Mama's bane) catches the same sunlight as soothes Alice. As it puts her under it does me along with her. We snooze together, Alice and I. Alice likes her fish; I all but live on fish. Poached salmon from Monti's, Tilapia at North Bay, Fish n'Chips from Barry's Brown Bag. If it's fish, I'm on board. Alice gets my leftovers. And Alice gets her Chicken of the Sea tuna. Her breath gives her away across the room. They say when you get old you lose your sense of smell. At 73, I haven't found that to be the case at all. I can smell that cat.

It frightens me, somehow, that Alice hasn't moved from her window seat since... two days ago. She hasn't moved at all, in fact. As for me... I don't want to disturb her. She needs her rest and I get that, as Elizabeth's Mika likes to say. I get that.

When I came off the elevator (after finally getting my hair cut), the floor looked unfamiliar and dark. Then it was undulating. For a moment I panicked. Am I on the right floor? Am I even in the right building? Is this happening or am I putting it down in the iPad? But then it comes back to me as the key card lights up the green LEDs. I lean on the door and push. A sickly, decaying smell broadsides my skin, my pores, and slams against my nose. I want to cry. Cry... why would I cry? I don't know...I don't get that.

From my La-Z-Boy I can see that Alice still hasn't moved. And hasn't touched her Chicken of the Sea. I've emptied and filled the bowl for how many days now? Three? Or just two? She refuses everything.

The clock strikes one and I'm alone. It was nine when I left for the haircut. Dammit, I have lost several hours. The iPad is open on my lap. It comes to me... I'm alone. And somewhere below, somewhere between where I sit and the sixty floors beneath me Eddie is pressing buttons, making calls. Soon Elizabeth will be here. She'll want to take me away. I wait and think about my record collection.

But the record collection doesn't work this time. She is insistent, pressing me, pointing out the one-bedroom units. 24x7 assistance. How can I tell her? How can I tell Elizabeth I'm going to need more than assistance. Is there anything left I can hide? Anything that's mine alone?

I close my iPad. But not before I write: Elizabeth, I hope this is big enough.