The Big Six O

Oslander and his wife, Joy, arrive at Rest of Times with a sack of blueberry muffins, his mother’s favorite, only to find her apartment empty. “You can’t keep a good woman down,” says Oslander, leaning on a rocker for support.

“I wonder where she is. It’s only 9:15,” says Joy, grabbing a plate from a cabinet and arranging a muffin centerpiece on Florence’s dinette table. There, beside an empty juice glass, sits Florence’s Saturday To-Do list: 6:30 devotional, 7:00 breakfast, 9:00 tai chi, it begins. “Mystery solved,” says Joy.

Holding onto Joy’s elbow, Oslander limps past the crafts room and the dining room. Stopping at the rec room, he looks in and sees Florence wiggling her fingers in mid-air along with five other residents. They are being led by a strikingly beautiful, young black woman in a loose-fitting, light-green tracksuit. Florence and the other women wear identical, light-green suits. Though not so loose-fitting. They remind Oslander of a half-dozen Granny Smith apples.

“We wear green for tai chi, white for qigong, and red for power yoga,” eighty-eight-year-old Florence had told Oslander after moving into Rest of Times. Each of Florence’s three silk suits had set him back two hundred bucks. But what choice did he have?

“I’m Corinda. Please, join us,” says the beautiful young woman. “We’re parting the wild horse’s mane.”

“Whoopie-ti-yi-no,” says Oslander in the doorway, just loud enough for Joy to hear.

“Come on. It looks like fun,” says Joy. “It might be good for your hip.”

“What about my heart murmur?”

“It’s more of a whisper. Now hush.”

Three months ago, while cleaning his house gutters, Oslander fell from a ladder onto his left hip. Subsequent to his fall, the Hank Williams song, “Everything’s Okay,” began worming through his ears. Relentlessly. Oslander had forgotten Hank’s lyrics, but he remembered their gist, that aside from being alive, things were not okay. The words, Oslander’s words, came easily.

I can’t walk my dog, my hip’s killing me. They leave me no choice but to practice tai chi.

With a piano melody running around the room and a flute playing catch-up, Oslander and Joy take off their shoes and join in. On either side of Florence.

After a knee implant, Florence had convalesced at Rest of Times. She had such a good time, she had moved in. “The food is good, and I get more attention here than you’ve ever given me,” she’d told her son.

“I see you every Sunday,” Oslander had said.

“A week has seven days.”

Now, parting horse hairs, Florence asks, “What’s the occasion? This is Saturday. Will I see you tomorrow, too?”

“Not likely,” says Oslander, parting his horse’s mane like there’s no tomorrow.

“Slow down,” says Florence. “You’re making him wilder.” But by the time Oslander’s horse relaxes, the women have become white cranes spreading their wings.

“Very nice,” says the beautiful black crane. “Now, let’s repulse the monkey.”

Tai chi in a nursing home, what could bring more sorrow? At least, I know that I’ll be dead tomorrow.

Seated at his mother’s table, Oslander puts a blueberry muffin on his plate. Nearby, Florence brews coffee in her tiny, chartreuse kitchen, a color so bright he passes on caffeine. “Just juice for me, Mother. Should I split a muffin for you?”

“I can handle a whole one,” says Florence. “But bring it here, Glen. I like my muffins warm.”

Before his fall, life had been good to Glenn Oslander II. But with hip pain, there came a sense of vulnerability, unknown to him until then. He gave up golf. He quit walking Oscar on the Ohio River levee, a path they’d walked for all of Oscar’s twelve dog years. And with vulnerability, there came an inescapable sense of doom.

When I look back, seems I’ve done nothin’. Far as I see, no berries in life’s muffin.

Oslander remembers when his father, Big Glenn, performed “Everything’s Okay” at a church social the night before his sixtieth birthday. Big Glenn had accompanied himself on his guitar. But the next day, things were anything but okay. Big Glenn wasn’t living. He was taken to the Big Hereafter by a myocardial infraction, according to the misspelled death certificate. A heart attack at any rate, just as Big Glenn’s father had been taken.

Just as Big Glenn’s father had been taken. Or almost. Though Granddad Henry had not performed at First Baptist the day before he died (he was a tone-deaf Methodist), he had also suffered a fatal heart attack on his sixtieth birthday.

Tomorrow is Oslander’s sixtieth birthday.

“So,” says Florence, joining Oslander and Joy at the table, “are you having a birthday party?”

Oslander had considered inviting his mother to tonight’s party. But he plans to tie one on. And he doesn’t want his mother to remember him like that. “Not this year, Mother.” As for how the party guests will remember him . . .

Howard FitzRoy, Oslander’s boss at FitzRoy & Son Realty, is coming. Who cares how asshole Howard will remember him? As for the other guests, Oslander hopes they’ll remember him as happy. Which he plans to be, three or four drinks in. Before his gutter needed cleaning, he had been happy. But since then, his life had clogged, too.

As for Joy, she’ll see him tomorrow, unless he’s taken in his sleep. But Big Glenn and Granddad Henry had died in daylight. Oslander expects no less. He plans to watch Season 8 of Columbo with Joy. Oscar, a dachshund mix, will be sandwiched on the loveseat between them. With a picture of their son, Tripp, on the TV credenza, Oslander will die surrounded by family.

He had heard from Glenn Oslander III, Tripp, a week ago. Tripp had asked Oslander to wire five hundred dollars to a Western Union in Basseterre, the capital of Saint Kitts and Nevis, where Tripp had lost his job tending drinks at a beachside bar. He’d told a customer that Bob Marley was overrated. “And one thing led to another, Pops,” Tripp had said.

“Led where?” asked Oslander.

“A fight. And he’s threatened to press charges unless — ”

“Let me guess, five hundred dollars,” said Oslander. As for Tripp, he’ll remember his father as the moneylending sap that he was.

Florence is slathering butter on her second muffin when she asks “Why no party? Tomorrow is your big six O.”

Until now, only Joy and a battery of doctors had known of Oslander’s obsession. To alleviate his fear, Joy had insisted on an MRI, a carotid ultrasound, an EKG, and a stress test — on a stationary bike, given his bum hip. She’d even swum laps beside him at the Y to help him lose weight. Joy’s upper arms and shoulders now look like those of a channel swimmer, rendering her all the more attractive to asshole boss, Howard FitzRoy. “I like the cut of Joy’s jib,” Oslander had overheard Howard tell sales associate, Stephanie Schmitz.

Now, with a shrug of her strong shoulders, Joy tells Florence, “He doesn’t plan to leave the house tomorrow. He’s convinced he’s going to die.”

“Don’t tell me, just like your dad,” says Florence, turning to her son.

“And Granddad.”

“That was just bad luck twice over, is all,” says Florence.

Rationally, Oslander knows that Joy and Florence are right. But for his hip and a heart whisper, he’s healthy. Up until his fall, he’d considered his dad’s and granddad’s birthday deaths to be coincidences. The fact that it had happened to each of them — a coincidence on top of coincidences.

“I expect you here tomorrow,” says Florence. “I have a present for you, and I haven’t had time to wrap it. Speaking of which,” she continues, glancing at her To-Do list, “I’m due at lunch.”

“If you want me to have my present, you’d better give it to me now.”

“Suit yourself. It’s under my bed. Pardon the mess.”

Oslander gimps down the short hall to his mother’s bedroom. Sixty years old, my hip has gone wonky. Should have parted more horse hairs, repulsed more monkeys. Nonetheless, he kneels to the floor.

I should have seen this coming, thinks Oslander, lifting the bed skirt and reaching for his gift. Placing his hand atop the bed for support, gift in hand, he wobbles to a stand. “Your timing is perfect, Mother,” he says, hobbling up the hall, holding a Martin guitar by its neck. “The last time Dad played this was the night before he died.”

“Don’t you think I know that?” asks Florence, looking up at Oslander as he enters the dinette. “He sang ‘Everything’s Okay.’ ”

“You do remember.”

“Of course, I do. But trust me, everything is.”

Strumming the Martin, Oslander serenades Florence and Joy to Hank’s tune. “When I was eight, Dad taught me these chords. This gift’s a sure sign, I’m tossing in my cards.”

“Bull hockey,” says Florence.

Thirty-two years ago, a young, newly licensed realtor stepped into Gordon FitzRoy’s office at FitzRoy Realty. From behind his desk, Gordon, asshole Howard’s father, asked, “Do you know how to turn on a light switch?”

“Yes, sir,” answered young Glenn Oslander II.

“Can you set a thermostat to seventy-two?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Can you empty ashtrays and pick up crap?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’re hired. And always arrive at a showing fifteen minutes early.”

“Thank you. I will, sir.”

The advice had stood Oslander well. He’d enjoyed selling houses, and in so doing he had made a comfortable living for Joy and Tripp, enabling Joy to become a full-time volunteer at Wellborn Hospital. Pink Ladies, the volunteers were called. In her snazzy pink pantsuit, Joy delivered mail, flowers, and whatnot to patients.

Eight years ago, Howard joined the firm, putting the Son in FitzRoy & Son and a stick in Oslander’s craw. Five years ago, Gordon retired. Howard, who claimed to be a descendant of Robert FitzRoy, Captain of the HMS Beagle, became Oslander’s boss.

Howard’s propensity to nautical terms was tiresome. And no matter one month’s numbers, he expected bigger numbers the following month — from Oslander and fellow associates, Eloise Wexford and Stephanie Schmitz. Like Oslander, the women were knocking on sixty. Howard, a forty-something-year-old bachelor, had a thing for older women. “They know how to hoist my sail, if you know what I mean,” he’d confided in Oslander. And one time, as Eloise reached into her car for a SOLD sign, “Get a load of that stern.”

Both Eloise and Stephanie had assured Oslander that their appreciation of Howard amounted to zero. With no hope of increasing any month. But at last year’s Christmas party, while walking past the break room, Oslander saw Howard squeezing a woman’s shoulders from behind. None of my business, Oslander thought as he walked on. Still, within earshot, he heard Howard say, “From swimming?”

Quietly, Oslander retraced his steps and entered the room, tapping Howard on his back. When Howard turned to face him, the look in his eyes could have sunk the Beagle. The look in Joy’s eyes sunk Oslander.

“I went into the room to get more dip. That dip followed me in,” Joy told Oslander later that night on their loveseat. “The only interest I have in Howard is your paycheck.” And yet it made a dying man wonder.

Boy, oh boy, first I’m under his employ. Then I find out asshole Howard is attracted to my Joy.

The call comes in shortly after returning home from Rest of Times. Oslander is watching The Andy Griffith Show with Oscar when his cell phone chimes.

“Hello, Glenn Oslander . . . 3109 Chestnut? Yes, it’s available . . . Five o’clock? Sure, I’ll meet you there. And your name is . . . Fine, Mr. Conway, I’ll see you at five.”

As his birthday approached, aside from showing houses, visiting Florence, and streaming old shows, Oslander had felt less and less inclined to see anyone or do anything. Before his fall, he was part of a Saturday morning golf foursome with three other realtors. He enjoyed Endless Shrimp Mondays at Red Lobster and Early Dinner Duos at Olive Garden. Despite memories of Big Glenn’s farewell performance, he’d found Praise Time services at First Baptist uplifting. No more. Until this year, he’d been mad for March Madness. Devoted to his Hoosiers. But with his death-day looming, life had become a solicitor, knocking on his door.

Knowing Joy will object, he waits until four o’clock to inform her of his showing. Joy is in the kitchen, busy with party preparations, when Oslander ducks beneath a Happy Birthday! streamer and walks in — Oscar in arms.

“You have to be kidding,” says Joy. “Your party is at six.”

“I’ll be back by then. It’s your Pink Lady friend’s house.”

“What does that have to do with it? The house will be there tomorrow.”

“It’s only ten minutes from here. And it’s a small two-bedroom. Takes about ten minutes to show.”

“What if they want to buy it?”

“Another ten minutes. Besides, we’re talking two thousand dollars in commission. You’ll need it.”

“Go, just go. And put this on the credenza next to Tripp’s picture,” says Joy, handing him a dish of mixed nuts.

With Oscar in his back-seat bed, Oslander turns onto Chestnut, singing, “My time is up tomorrow. The worst part is knowing. Who would have thought that this is my last showing?” He pulls into the drive at 3109, fifteen minutes early, and tells a whimpering Oscar, “You wait here, buddy. I won’t be long.”

The house is a red brick ranch, if 800 square feet can be called a ranch. The Pink Lady owner, who moved to Des Moines to be near her son, had entrusted Oslander with two keys. One is at the office, and one is in an electronic key box on the house’s front door. Oslander pops the key out, slips the key into the lock, and walks in.

But for a standing lamp inside the door, the living room is empty. With no overhead fixture, Oslander had previously brought the lamp from home. He turns on the lamp, opens the blinds, and limps to the hallway. There, he flicks on a wall sconce and turns the thermostat to 72. Next, the bathroom light. Followed by the master bedroom’s ceiling-fan light. He hears the furnace kick on. On his way down the hall to the kitchen, he reaches into the second bedroom and gives that switch a flick. Kitchen wagon-wheel lights, flick. The light above the sink, flick. All the upstairs lights are on. Thermostat is set. No ashtrays to empty. No crap in sight.

Considering his hip, Oslander would prefer to wait for his client before descending the basement stairs. But glancing at his phone, he sees that he has ten minutes before Conway is due to arrive. And since more than one sale has been lost to basement surprises (clogged floor drains, mice droppings, a dead rat), he turns on the light above the stairs, plants both feet on a step, and continues to the next, the next . . .

Oh, my God, these basement stairs are steep. If Conway rings the bell, he’ll think I fell asleep.

By now, almost five o’clock in dead winter, the light through the window-well windows is dim. The basement, dimmer. Oslander walks forward, pulling the chain beneath an overhead bulb — the light so inadequate he walks into a spider web. Much as he parted the wild horse’s mane earlier today, he removes the web from his face.

Continuing clockwise around the basement, he pulls a second bulb’s chain, revealing a trace of mold in one corner. Mold he hadn’t seen before, but no biggie. He hasn’t seen a basement yet that didn’t require abatement. Another right, on to bulb three. Chank-chank. On to bulb four.

There is enough light now to see that the floor is dry. Always a relief. And there are no watermarks up the furnace, which kicks off as he passes by. Dead quiet.

The fourth and final bulb is within three feet of the stairs, where a storage closet fills the space beneath them. Reaching for the chain, Oslander hears a faint stirring. Mice, he thinks. Good thing I came down. The light will scare — But before he completes his thought, no sooner than the chain’s first chank, the closet door flings open and a man wearing a mask from The Shining jumps out and, axe in hand, yells, “Here’s Johnny!”

The chest pain is immediate. “OHH!” Oslander screams, grabbing his chest, dropping to his knees, and rolling to the floor. One day early, he thinks, just as Johnny puts down his axe and says, “Pops, can you hear me? Pops!”

Angels? thinks Oslander. Though not in clear focus, five come into view, with a young, beautiful angel standing out among the host. All arrayed in white silk. Hovering above his face, a wrinkled, non-standout angel asks, “Glenn, can you hear me?” As all the angels become clearer, the beautiful angel says, “Deep breaths, Mr. Oslander,” placing her dark hand on his belly, “from here.”

Even in his present state, whatever and wherever that is, having a beautiful angel’s hand on his belly is pleasant. He is thinking that he might have seen her somewhere, when he recognizes the hovering angel without question. “It’s your mother, Glenn. Snap out of it. You’re in the hospital, but you’re going to be fine. Colleen, go tell Joy and Tripp to come up,” Florence tells a would-be angel.

“Sure thing,” says Colleen, exiting the room.

Florence explains to Oslander that she and her Rest of Times friends are staying with him while Joy and Tripp eat dinner in the cafeteria. “Howard FitzRoy and two women are down there, too. They came to your party early, just as Joy was running out. Your friend Howard left a note on the door that told us to come here.”

Howard, a friend? That’ll be the day, thinks Oslander. “So, you knew about my party after all.”

“A mother knows everything. I told Joy my qigong class meets on Saturday afternoons at 4:30. She said my friends could come, too. Our teacher — you remember Corinda — she offered to drive.”

That explains the white silk, thinks Oslander. That explains the beautiful angel, smiling at him now.

Florence says that, thanks to Joy’s Pink Lady connections, the hospital stretched the rules to five visitors at a time — plus Oscar, who rode in the ambulance with Tripp. Florence and her friends are relieving Joy, Tripp, and the others from their watch. “What happened to me?” asks Oslander.

“The doctor said the scare put a bubble in your heart. The whole thing was Tripp’s idea. So you could enjoy your party tonight and your birthday tomorrow.”

“By scaring me to death?”

“By showing you that it could happen anytime. That tomorrow’s no different from any day. He only scared you half to death.”

“Sounds like something Tripp would come up with.”

As if on cue, Tripp enters the room. Oslander hasn’t seen his son in two years. Without a mask, anyway. With graying beard stubble and cheeks like Keith Richards, the mask was overkill. “Sorry about all this, Pops,” says Tripp.

“Remember, deep breaths,” says Corinda, waving goodbye.

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” says Florence. “We’ll celebrate then.”

One by one, they leave, as Joy, Howard, and FitzRoy & Son associates, Eloise and Stephanie file into the room. “Land ho,” says Howard, maneuvering Oscar through two IV lines onto Oslander’s chest.

Standing behind Joy and Tripp, Eloise and Stephanie smile and give finger-waves. “Happy Birthday!” says Stephanie, ever the optimist. She thinks global warming will be good for her roses.

“You’ll be here a few days, but you’re going to be fine,” says Joy, giving Oslander a kiss on his forehead. “The doctor said a rush of adrenaline caused a bubble in your ventricle.”

“A takotsubo cardiomyopathy,” says Tripp, reading from his phone. “It’s shaped like a Japanese octopus trap. That’s where it got its name. Look.” Tripp enlarges the picture on his phone, turns it to face Oslander, and rests the phone on Oscar’s head.

“It felt about that big,” says Oslander, staring at the takotsubo. “How’d you get into the house?”

“With our help,” says Howard, giving Joy’s shoulder a squeeze.

“I knew about the extra key,” says Joy. “Howard met me at the office last night on my way to get carryout from Olive Garden. He gave the key to me, and I gave it to Tripp after he flew in.”

That explains my five hundred dollars, thinks Oslander.

“He thought you might enjoy your party more if you saw your worrying made no sense,” says Joy. “We did it because we love you, Glenn.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” says Howard.

With sunlight peeking through east-facing blinds, Oslander awakens to the drips of his IV’s. From his hospital bed, he hears the occasional door shutting, people speaking, and carts rolling in the hall. But otherwise, silence. The earworm has departed. Is it possible Tripp’s plan worked?

Three years from now, Oslander will be driving down a gravel road — on his way to a rural showing — when an innocuous ocular migraine starts to bloom. “Here comes another one,” he’ll tell an arthritic Oscar, asleep in his back-seat bed.

Oslander started seeing these shapes after his sixty-first birthday — spectacular, crystal-shaped illusions that form in the center of his vision and expand outward, disappearing thirty minutes later. In truth, he enjoys them. Translucent snowflakes. Turreted crystal palaces. Conjoined bolts of painless, see-through lightning. This one reminds him of the octopus trap that bubbled in his heart. What a day that was. And what all has happened since.

After his hip implant, he and Joy travelled to Costa Rica. When they came home, they took up ballroom dancing and adopted Mr. Peabody, a ten-year-old shi-poo who follows Joy everywhere.

Before returning to Basseterre, Tripp met Sophía, a Latina tattoo artist with twin seven-year-old girls. Joy’s Pink Lady friend agreed to rent her house on Chestnut to the newlyweds. Tripp shaved off his stubble and worked up to assistant manager at Red Lobster. For Oslander’s sixty-second birthday, Sofia inked a smiling octopus on his left shoulder. The twins call Oslander, “Abuelopops.”

Surprisingly, Howard married Eloise Wexford, who assured Oslander, “Howard leaves his bluster at the office. He’s as insecure as the next guy.” Nautical references notwithstanding, Oslander no longer thinks of him as asshole Howard. Just Howard.

Even Florence found a boyfriend. Marlin Scott moved into Rest of Times, two doors down from her. “Our classes filled up after Marlin joined in,” Florence said of the lithe, lifelong letter carrier. Her “catch,” as she described him.

Driving by a duck-filled pond, accompanied by the pleasant sound of crunching gravel, Oslander thinks that everything is more than okay. With less than a mile to arrive at his showing, fifteen minutes early, he is mesmerized by the takotsubo that fills his field of vision. Eight, no, ten cows munch inside the trap. “Amazing,” he says, oblivious to the flashing lights that signal the coal-filled train.

Photo by Curtis Adams from Pexels


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