“Is Rudy dead?. That bastard killed him.” Jon pointed at Karl Homesman on the far side of the garden.
He wasn’t dead, but they had a plastic mask over his mouth to make him breathe. That usually meant the end was near, especially for the ancients at The Lodge. Rudy was old but hardly ancient, compared to Jon.
“Another one bites the dust,” Karl Homesman had sniggered under his breath.
“Don’t let them tell you he was just old and died,” Jon said.
He was left alone for his family to come in case his time was near. Left for that Dr. Hauptman from downstairs when they should have summoned the Chaplin instead.
His family never came and Rudy Wernbacher was not dead.
Walden wheeled his grandfather onto the grey hexagonal slate tiles that circled the small water fountain at the center of the garden. A little circular raised pool with black iron ornamentation protruding from its center. It looked more like a large bird bath or European drinking fountain. They stopped and looked upon the water feature as if it had once been a grand piece of artwork.
There was no shade from the high sun but the light breeze was just enough to cast a gentle warmth on Jon’s skin, and keep him from blistering beneath the deadly blaze that often comes at the height of summer. The weak finger of water that leaked from the top of the tube at the heart of the fountain did not have enough pressure behind it to spray the blossom of water that it was meant to. Still, it made an adequate center piece and at least was something to look at.
“It’s a pathetic thing, isn’t it,” Jon complained. “More like the life blood of a water pipe dripping out of an open wound than a decent water fountain. Reminds me of the one in front of the University that was on its last legs way back when I gave my first class. Rusted and broken, a hapless thing that was long past being able to do its job properly, kind of like these old relics.” He tilted his head towards a pair of residents trying to seat themselves on a bench. “But you know, I was young and fresh and new and even though the thing was old, it was new to me. Everything was ahead of me, getting to step out into the world I trained for, getting to do the thing I loved; I was a teacher to young humans. What could be better than that.”
It was seventy-seven years since Jon delivered his first lecture at the university. He was just a graduate student then, not even an assistant professor, but his life’s passion was already set, because of the deep-seeded need to understand his own roots. It possessed him like a growth upon his soul, like needing food and water to survive. It nurtured him for almost his entire long life and made him an accomplished expert in his field.
“I was a teacher then,” Jon said proudly. “It was like being born into life, with a full purpose and everything ahead of you. I was very proud of myself. Too proud maybe. I knew lots but not as much as I thought I knew. Young people are like that. You don’t have to worry about it Wal, you’re halfway, if you make it as long as me. You already know stuff and better yet, you know that you don’t know stuff. Saves a lot of trouble.”
Jon coughed. His throat was not used to so much speaking. It had been a long time, long before coming to The Lodge since he had shared more than a few words at a time with anyone. He had done more talking in the few days since his arrival than he had done since his University days.
Walden sat on the stone bench near the fountain. He removed his jacket and placed a hand over the bald spot on the back of his head, to shield it from the sun.
“Not a real teacher, mind you, but still, there I was, at the lectern pitching my lesson.” He snickered and wiped a hand under his nose. “I think there was five or maybe six kids spread across the couple hundred seats in the lecture hall. But it was a proud day for me, to be sure, just the same.” He looked at his hand. “Give me a Kleenex.”
Walden searched his pockets then shrugged.
“We’ll have to go inside for one.”
Jon wiped his nose on his sleeve.
“Nose leaks like a sieve yet it takes twenty minutes to take a pee.”
“Should we go in? Or maybe someone here has a Kleenex.” Walden scanned the collection of residents and staff for a likely Kleenex candidate.
“Sturla was an upstart. Did I ever tell you that? He was more interested in prestige and honor, perceived or otherwise, than he was in property or possessions. He had no cultural chops, even though he was a Godi. That’s a head guy. He wanted to be like them, be one of them and not be thought of as a class lower. But he was no Loftsson, that’s for sure. Got his way by bullying and bringing a gang of followers with him when he wanted to settle disputes or make a claim. He thought he put one over on Loftsson and maybe in a way he did. But the priest got off light, his wife wasn’t banished and the inheritance was settled more in his favor than not.”
Walden had heard this story many times. Jon had long ago given up on keeping track of who he had shared stories with or who had heard this part of his lectures. It didn’t matter anyway. The more you hear it, the more you know it.
“We should go inside Afi. It’s pretty warm out here, you might get burnt. We can come back out later when the sun is lower.” Walden patted his bald spot.
“Alright. It smells like something is burning anyway. Maybe it’s me. We need to check on that Rudy fellow; I’ve had this feeling all morning that Karl is up to something with him, sniffing around like a hungry rat waiting for something to die. We can’t let him get away with what he’s up to.”
“I think that poor fellow was near his end Afi. I don’t think there will be anything to check on. His family was coming, weren’t they? He may have passed away.”
“No,” Jon said indignantly.
Walden wheeled his grandfather back towards The Lodge. More had come outside to enjoy the sunny day.
Mr. Z was wrapped in a heavy blanket, like a swaddled infant. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead and beneath his eyes and nose. His face was kind and jolly, a gentle old man that nobody would ever have known had once been an Israeli spy. Peter van der Groot, the tall Dutchman, was quite happily having a conversation with a nearby rose bush, tickling a flower as if he was caressing his dog’s chin. Who would guess he had once been a policeman in Amsterdam, known for treating criminals with such brutality he was feared by many. Greta Lundberg repeatedly dipped her hand in the fountain water, scooping the liquid to her mouth then spitting it out. She did this over and over, sampling the water as if she were at a wine tasting. Greta had made her life’s work caring for patients and residents on the 2nd floor at The Lodge, but after the car accident, her head injury, and the mysterious disappearance of her husband, she began to act more like those she cared for than their care giver. She was retired to the 3rd floor, as a resident, even though she was not a geriatric. She was alone, no family except her fellow nurses at The Lodge.
“They must not be crazy, they’re not on the 2nd floor,” Jon said. “Why not taste the water or talk to a flower, nothing wrong with that, it’s okay to do everyday things. We are all ultimately lost to history, even the most famous among us, not that I’m famous. But if one can only make the century mark, there could be a special surprise. Poor Snorri never even came close; those bastards, but we’ll make it this time, you’ll see.”
Peter waved to Greta, as if they had been long parted friends coming together after an absence. They smiled broadly at each other, though when Peter approached, Greta turned and hurried away, leaving Peter to shrug in disappointment.
“She ran, like Snorri must have run,” Jon said.
An image of Snorri’s assassination played in Jon’s mind, as if he were a participant, not simply a viewer. It was always there, lurking, waiting to pop into his thoughts, coaxed to life at the sight of someone moving swiftly or studiously writing or addressing a group of people.
Walden pushed the wheelchair up the long gentle sloping ramp towards the front doors of the lodge. A grey stone building, square as a box, with aluminum framed windows. A retro looking edifice of a design so old that it was almost back in style. The entry way was a large covered alcove flanked with red brick that funneled the entrant towards a set of heavy dark steel doors with thick glass windows.
‘Could be bullet proof glass,’ Walden thought. ‘Like a prison’.
Karl Homesman leaned against the wall, at the front of the alcove, drawing on an unlit, unfiltered cigarette. He took a black Bic lighter from his lab coat pocket, striking it to flame and holding the fire to the tip, but didn’t set it to the cigarette. He inhaled deeply, exhaled his smokeless breath towards Jon then handed his lighter to a small, frail, pale face companion dressed in baggy denim jeans and heavy plaid hunting shirt. The frail man’s hand shook noticeably as he reached for the lighter. Karl smirked as he grasped the shaky hand and stuffed the lighter into it.
“You won’t be able to light it, you know. You’re gonna have to let me do it or you’ll go without.” Karl grinned at the hapless smoker.
“That doesn’t seem very friendly,” Walden whispered to Jon.
“That shaky guy reminds me of Eddy Johnson,” Jon wrinkled his nose and whispered back to Walden.
“A friend of mine when I was about seven years old. Back on the farm. They had a pig farm down the road a mile or so. It was something, must have had a thousand hogs. When the wind was blowing our way, you could hardly breathe from the stench of pig shit and piss.”
“You can remember stuff from when you were seven; that’s amazing.”
Jon waved the air.
“Not so amazing. I can tell you about stuff that happened at my second birthday party.”
A smile grew on Jon’s face, wrinkling his grey skin, as he recalled his friend from long ago.
“We were playing cowboys and Indians one day at Eddy’s farm. He climbed into the hayloft to hide, I don’t remember who the cowboy was and who was the Indian. I climbed the ladder after him, saw the top of his head poking from behind a small haystack and I called him out. Poor Eddy though. He went running when I found him, scooting across the loft to hide behind another haystack, but he tripped over a hay fork and he slid right out the open loft door and fell headfirst into a big manure pile, all the way to his waist. It looked like a funny thing, to see it happen and I laughed at the time. But Eddy was stuck solid in that shit pile. His legs kicked for a little bit but he was dead as a doornail by the time I got his dad to come pull him out. I don’t know if he broke his neck or suffocated on pig shit. What a way to go. He was a good friend though and I missed him a lot, especially in the winter. His dad used to come by the house with their cutter so I got to ride to school with Eddy. The pig stink smells different in the winter, when it’s really cold.”
Jon coughed; his throat strained from this much speaking. A twinge of regret settled on him that his voice had lost the strength it had in the days when he could lecture before a class for hours.
“And that old fellow reminds you of Eddy? Does he resemble your old friend?”
“Nope, but he smells like him.”
A wind gust blew scraps of debris and dust into the alcove. The flame of the Bic lighter went out and the old smoker cursed. Karl laughed, his jowls and the loose skin beneath his chin flapped, his belly jiggled.
“I think his name is Oddar,” Jon said. “An Icelander, like us. People call him Odd.”
Walden looked at the smoker.
“Karl is just setting him up, you’ll see,” Jon said. “Pretending to be his buddy and next thing you know he’ll do him in. Just like they did me at Reykholt.”
“What,” Walden said quizzically.
“When they hacked me to death in the tunnel. Arni and Simon. That Karl is just like Gissur, a traitor pretending to be our friend.”
“It’s not that I’m afraid of the time when I pass forever from this place, it’s just the trepidation I have of not existing here anymore, like before I was born into this world. I don’t expect to see Eddy when I go, nor Hallveig or Harriet or any of them. I won’t be sad because I won’t be anything at all. And when I go I sure don’t want to go the way Eddy Johnson went or how Oddar is going to go, in a fit of coughing his black lungs out onto his plaid shirt top. That’s if that bastard Karl doesn’t knife him with that needle of his, one night in his sleep. And I don’t want to be hacked on again with an axe.” Jon gave Karl Homesman the stink eye as they passed. “Just get me to my hundredth and we won’t have to worry about any of that.”
Jon turned his head down so as not to look at the pair of smokers. He was conflicted with two voices in his head, one telling him he didn’t believe in any kind of existence after he died and another telling him existence could be eternal if he could just make his hundredth birthday. He wanted both voices to just shut up and leave him be so he didn’t have to think about it.
Walden pressed the large silver button that opened the big steel doors with the thick glass windows at the entryway to The Lodge. The vestibule inside was spartan, slate floors with dark grey brick on the side walls ascending the three floors of the atrium. At the center was the single elevator shaft, rising like a concrete obelisk.
‘How would you ever evacuate everyone in a fire,’ Walden thought. Although the 3rd floor residents were ambulatory, most were not spry enough to prevent a fall in an escape stampede. ‘There would be trampling, one falling over another and another like tumbling dominos. Of course they wouldn’t use this tiny elevator as an escape route. They’d evacuate down the stairwells. It would be madness and chaos. It would be carnage. Most of those on the second floor could make their way out just fine, but if they escaped unsupervised onto the street it could be as much a disaster as if they burnt up like match sticks inside the flaming Lodge.’
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