Authors: Donald S. Smurthwaite
Tags: #ride, #retirement home, #cross country, #North Dakota, #family, #car, #road trip, #bountiful, #Utah, #assisted living, #graduate, #Coming of age, #heritage, #loyal, #retirement, #uncle, #adventure, #money, #nephew, #trip, #kinship
Cover image © larshallstrom courtesy of 123RF.
Cover design copyright © 2013 by Covenant Communications, Inc.
Published by Covenant Communications, Inc.
American Fork, Utah
Copyright © 2013 by Donald S. Smurthwaite
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any format or in any medium without the written permission of the publisher, Covenant Communications, Inc., P.O. Box 416, American Fork, UT 84003. The views expressed within this work are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Covenant Communications, Inc., or any other entity.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, names, incidents, places, and dialogue are either products of the author’s imagination, and are not to be construed as real, or are used fictitiously.
For all who understand that back roads are the best way home.
Thanks to the people at Covenant Communications for helping to bring Loyal and Levi to life.
My Name Is Loyal
Somewhere across the wheat fields of eastern North Dakota, my great-nephew is behind the wheel of a big, fast, and new car, speeding toward me. He will arrive late this afternoon, we will pack up the few belongings that I did not give away, sell, or ship to my new place of residence, and we will begin the drive west: the second part of his journey, the first and likely last part of mine, one that will take me to my new home.
My great-nephew’s name is Levi, and he probably doesn’t have much of a memory about me. I can barely remember him from a family reunion fifteen years ago at a park in a steep, red-walled canyon in the mountains of central Utah. My memory tells me he was the short towheaded boy, wide-eyed, skinny as a cornstalk, who climbed many trees, hiked high on the rocks of the canyon, jumped too close to the evening bonfire, and played hide-and-seek with his cousins well into the night. He didn’t say much to me then, nor I to him. Daisy and I were just two people, two faces among many, an old great-uncle and an old great-aunt. Distant relatives, distant family members, I suppose, with no claim upon his life. Daisy, by then, was ill, and when the announcement of the reunion was pushed through the flap of the mailbox in our house, she, with only a few words, expressed her desire to attend.
Neither of us mentioned the words, “To see everyone one last time,” but we both knew it, even though the doctor had yet to offer a conclusive diagnosis. My Daisy asked for so little. A trip to see family was not too much. We caught a plane from Bismarck and were picked up at the airport by my daughter Barbara and her husband, Warren, and we wound our way to the faraway canyon where we met many members of our family for the first time and, true to our premonition, saw many of them for the last time. Even now, it seems peculiar to me that we met our family far from our home, in a narrow canyon with high stone walls. It seems odd that we all had to wear name tags, mine reading, “Hello, my name is Loyal.”
By trade, I was a pharmacist. I ran the town drugstore for forty years. Daisy and I lived within walking distance of my store in a tall, brown, two-story house with a basement. We knew everyone in our town of two thousand souls, and everyone knew us. I was the pharmacist, the druggist, the man who knew what ailed everyone, illnesses both real and imagined. I would drop a piece of candy into the bag of medicine for a sick child, undercharge someone who I knew was experiencing hard times. Old Doris Simpson huffed when I finally added a dollar to the bill for her colitis medication, though it still cost me more than what I charged her. And the sugar pills I gave to Sloan Jenkins for the last twenty years of his life? He swore they kept him going. “Don’t know what you’ve got in those pills, but they sure straighten me out,” he’d cackle. “You’re better than any doc I ever had.” I never could charge John Fetzberg, one of the three town firemen and the father of six children, any more than I figured he could pay; he always lowered his eyes and mumbled his thanks when I handed him the bag of medicine and watched him as he shunted, slope-shouldered, out of the pharmacy.
On ice-cold mornings, with freshly fallen snow, and with frost and ice crystals hanging in the air like small, twinkling diamonds, I often would awake to the tinny scrape of snow shovels on my sidewalk and driveway, manned by John and his older boys and girls, their very life breath heaving and steamy and frosty blue on those below-zero mornings.
We never talked about it, John and I. Not a word between us. He never said anything about the medicine, and I never mentioned how nice my walks and driveway looked on those frozen mornings. We understood each other, as gentlemen do.
But the times changed. A big store was built in Grand Forks, then another and another. I tried to keep my prices close, but it wasn’t always possible. And people could buy clothes and food and tires and tennis shoes and cosmetics at the big store, and my business dwindled. The long drive to the big store in Grand Forks didn’t seem to matter. It became part of the experience, part of the adventure. A trip there a month wasn’t so much, and if medicine were needed, it became only another reason to make the journey.
Finally, there came a night when I took a piece of light yellow construction paper and carefully printed in blocked letters, “Closed for business. Thank you for many fine years. Good luck to you all. Sincerely, Loyal.” I hung the sign on the front door when I closed the store the following day, and that was that. The pharmacy closed. Not much was made of it. People knew it was coming, thought it was just a sign of the times. They mourned a little and told me they were sorry and would miss me and then drove on to Grand Forks. John Fetzberg said those things to me too, but there were tears in his eyes, and my sidewalk and driveway continued to be shoveled in those early, frigid hours. John, he remains a gentleman.
Truthfully, part of it was the competition, but part of it was that I was tired. Forty years in the same location, the same job, the same cold winters, the same searing summers. And then Daisy grew worse and then she went away. Perhaps it was time for me to go as well, go to somewhere different. Years before, I had played bit parts in our community theater and learned about entrances and exits. I never missed my exit cue and didn’t plan to start now.
I add it all up, this life of mine, and maybe the most telling moment of all came at a family reunion in a glade among the spires and aspens of a Utah canyon. Here was my family and my family did not know me. I have spent all those years in North Dakota. I have been happy, but perhaps it is time. I ended up wearing a name tag to tell my own family my name at a reunion. Was there a message for me, for my family, for all of us?
Yes, things were changing in my life, and not just with Daisy and my pharmacy practice and my two daughters grown and moved so far away from the Dakota Plains. I knew things were different and that some things needed to end, or at least would come to an end. I did not like to see the old way end because I am part of it, as it is a part of me.
I am Loyal. That’s who I am.
That’s probably why I was not surprised when Barbara called and said, “It’s time for you to move closer to us, Dad. You’re there alone. There aren’t many people to look out for you. You are too far away. What if something happened to you? We’ve found a place for you, a nice place. It’s very private. They play games and have sing-alongs at night. The food is good. They told us to come in and have a meal. You’ll make new friends. We want you closer to us. We want you to be cared for.”
I could imagine her then cradling the phone even closer to her mouth, the lids narrowing over her deep blue eyes. “What’s keeping you in North Dakota? Mom is gone, and you only have the old house. We have plenty of money; we can help out. Come and be closer to us, Dad.”
Then she mentioned the name of the place, Glad Tidings Assisted Living Home. A biblical ring to it, that name. I had a funny vision of old men dressed like the Wise Men on their way to Bethlehem, walking around a sparkling new retirement facility. Maybe they were just in their bathrobes and slippers. Might I become as they were? I felt uneasy for reasons I could not explain. Yet as soon as she said it, I knew that I would live there someday, within my will or without.
“Come and be closer to us,” she said. “Closer to your family.” Well, I am Loyal.
I can see it now, as though it were written in the “Comings and Goings” column of our weekly newspaper: “Loyal Wing, a pharmacist here for more than forty years, has taken up residence in Bountiful, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City, to be nearer his daughter Mrs. Barbara Bates and her husband, Mr. Warren Bates. We will miss you, Loyal. Good luck and God bless.”
I didn’t put up much resistance, though I would have been content to spend the remainder of my days in the tall brown house on Chestnut Street and watch the seasons pass slowly. To feel the emotions of an eighty-two-year-old man as time gently passes—the huddled-up comfort of crackling fall mornings and snap-clean air; sweeping, elegant blizzards pounding across the stubby winter plains; the fresh green of spring and the hope it brings that all will begin again; and voluptuous summer, when the wheat fields around town grow from jade to tawny to golden amid the mixed chorus of calling birds and noisy bugs and the deep drumming of distant, throaty thunder.
I am satisfied in the ancient turning of this ancient earth and the ancient joy it brings me.
And so my great-nephew Levi is dashing toward me. What he thinks of me, I do not know; what he thinks of his mission to fetch and deliver his great-uncle Loyal safely to the Salt Lake Valley, I can only guess. He is the agent in my new life, but to him, it is likely just a trip from here to there with an old man he does not know, a few days of time, that’s all. How I wish I could look upon the frittering of a few days with such insouciance.
He’s out there, somewhere on the prairie, closing in on me with each blink of my eye. He is hurtling toward me, and with him, I go to my future. A child will lead them, I think. He is twenty-something now. How can he know what his mission to my home, across the great sweeping plains, is all about?
He can’t. He just can’t. He is too young. He does not understand my story. He does not yet understand journeys. To him, this is likely just a long trip.
I will go inside my old brown house and walk around it once more. I will touch the walls and listen for laughter long ago faded. I will say thank you to this house, and I will know that it hears me. Then I will hoist my two suitcases onto the front porch. I will look at the Sold sticker slapped across the For Sale sign in my front yard.
Then I will sit on the highest step leading to the porch and wait for Levi to come and take me away.
By a Series of Strange Coincidences
The world is flat. At this moment, someone could tell me the world is flat, and I would believe them, no questions asked. Let’s see. Long line of corn, followed by another long line of corn, followed by another long line of corn. What’s this? A wheat field. Followed by another wheat field, and after that, another wheat field. And stretching on toward the horizon, crops and more crops, on a landscape as flat as a cookie sheet. And about as appealing.
Let’s see. One more time. Just why am I gunning down a two-lane highway somewhere in North Dakota, on my way to pick up Great-Uncle Loyal, my dear, sweet, kind uncle Loyal, and transport him to an old folks’ home in Salt Lake City before getting on with the rest of my life? And the little annoying voice keeps echoing in my head, “Levi, what are you doing? Why are you here?”
I’ve got to be honest. I’m not gonna lie. I am not doing this for pure reasons, the need to assist a family member, the cry of help by a dear loved one. I am not doing it because I am a necessarily good person or kind or caring or just about any other of those Boy Scout law things. I am doing it for a simple, basic, and probably base reason: money. I need the money.
Allow me to explain.
Allow me to tell you.
Allow me my youth, my greed, my pitiful finances, and my mounting bills.
Allow me those things, and maybe you will have a bit of sympathy for me and not quite write me off as purely mercenary or just some kind of immature tool. I have a story to tell.