The Afterlight

Deshaun slunk low on the bench as the evening wound to an end. Before him, the horizon squeezed the day pink over the pond, and he wondered–eyeing the kazeebo near the exit, if his friend was going to miss the show just as the door opened.

The old man shuffled down the walk way, wheezing and heaving until he collapsed onto the bench with a grunt.

“Evening Spyros,” Deshaun said, reaching into his pocket.

Not a word. The old man didn’t nod or even seem to acknowledge him. Deshaun chuckled, pulling the chocolate bar from his pocket. A small, satisfied grin emerged at the sound of the rustling.

Two lazy swats to clear the bugs. The old man reached out to accept the treat. Spyros’ yellow, papery skin—splotched with freckles, scabs, bruised to the tint of hard-boiled egg yolk—contrasted with the brown, wiry thread of the orderly’s arm.

For Deshaun, the offering was a daily occurrence. For Syros, well, Deshaun liked to think that somewhere in his friend’s big, blocky head, the feeling was mutual. The old man took his treat, tearing open the package and wolfing it down without shame. Never a pretty sight, Deshaun thought with a laugh.

Spyros swiveled around to face him. “It’s nice to be home, David.”

Deshaun gave his friend a broad smile. Tonight he was David. The oldest son. Sometimes he was Derrick, and other times he was just some guy who happened to have his favorite candy bar. Only once he’d been Judy.

Deshaun slid back in the bench. He figured he’d give the man a few extra minutes. It was somewhat of an honor to be David.

Most of the patients at Autumn Springs were in various stages of dementia, some more difficult than others, and Mr. Spyros Tuck was considered by most employees to be the unruliest of the pack. But Deshaun and Spyros had an understanding. Both men appreciated a good sunset, so they sat contently in their chairs on the longest day of the year, washed in the soft glow of dusk, enjoying a mouthful of chocolate.

Mr. Tuck’s family visited only twice a year. When they did it was only to fire off a litany of complaints and grievances. The food, the conditions, the entertainment, and most especially, the employees.

Deshaun took it all in stride. Eleven bucks an hour was the most money he’d ever made, and man did he ever earn it He’d wiped so many pasty white backsides he could make a positive I.D.. He’d had more than one old lady refuse to let him in her room. Another accuse him of stealing the necklace around her neck. In his two years at Autumn Springs, he’d developed a thick skin and deaf ears. Most of his patients didn’t know what they were saying. That’s what he chose to believe.

So he tried not to get too attached, even when Spyros referred to him as his oldest son. His favorite son, the life-long Philadelphia police officer who’d been shot in the line of duty. Deshaun knew what David meant to Mr. Tuck, and took it as a privilege to feed the man contraband Snickers bars at twilight—twenty minutes after his shift ended.

“You know, David,” Spyros said, wiping his teeth with his tongue. “I think you ought to marry that girl you’ve been seeing.”

Deshaun awoke from a daydream, unsure if he’d heard the man right. If the gleam in his eye was real or just that gentle sunset playing tricks in the dusk. Had he remembered?

“Yeah? So you think I should, huh?”

Spyros nodded earnestly. “I do. I certainly do. Jill, right?”

“Jaida,” Deshaun said, more to himself than out loud. He felt his cheeks redden. A spark of panic. He’d more been jawing to himself last night. Had the old man really remembered?

“Well, she sounds like a doll. Especially if she’s putting up with a numskull like you. You still taking those morning classes?”

Unbelievable, Deshaun thought, swiveling to look Spyros Tuck head on. Medication around the clock, a platoon of doctors who all agreed that it was hopeless. Yet one look into the man’s eyes and he was right there with him. Deshaun sat up straight, aware of himself now. Smiling. “Get my associates this spring, if all goes right.”

“That a boy. I knew you had it in you.”

“Thanks.”

“So,” he said, slapping his knee with some strength. “That reminds me. I know you don’t have a decent rock for that girl, so…”

Deshaun watched as Spyros reached into his pocket, just as the lamppost clicked to life. Sure as the moon he came out with a ring. Three diamonds shimmering in the night.

“This was your mother’s ring. When you asked me for it I just wasn’t ready to part with it, but now,” his hand trembled some as he leaned over. “I think you should have it.”

Deshaun backed away like it was toxic. Took a good look around. The windows held their reflection, a most unlikely portrait of friendship.  “Mr. Tuck, I can’t accept anything like that. I mean, thank you. Really. But I can’t…

“David, listen to me,” the old man said with husky clarity that was every bit as powerful as it was real. “When you get to be my age, you don’t tend to give a rat’s ass what other people think. I never have anyhow. I hate that I’m stuck in here. I hate that I have to be attended to. I’ve lived a full life, and in that lifetime I’ve watched people become nothing but selfish assholes. So let me do this honor, please.”

Deshaun took the ring. Hugged Mr. Spyros. He helped him up and they shuffled the pathway back to his room. A television flashed bright, pulsing light onto the sidewalk. At Mr. Tuck’s door the old man was all but checked out. David was gone, so it was Deshaun who eased Spyros into bed, slid his shoes off, and got his pillows the way he liked them.

At the dresser Deshaun glanced over the pictures. Of Spyros and his wife. Derrick on a motorcycle. Judy and her family. David in uniform. His eyes fell to the ring in his palm. Then up to his own reflection in the cloudy mirror.

He placed the ring on the dresser, tucked a Snicker’s bar into the sock drawer. Then he clicked off the lamp, shut the door, and started off on his way home, wondering just who he might be tomorrow.

 

–Pete Fanning/2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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