(Writer’s Note: Formerly titled ‘Wilson, Wisconsin.’ Changed for clarity of this story versus the project as a whole.)

The view of the countryside from the pane of dirty glass wasn’t ideal, but it was basically the best that the residents of the Peaceful Twilight Retirement Center could hope for. The ownership had let them outside once upon a time, on leashes, but after the local newspaper ran a piece on the subject of the town’s elderly being tied up, the public outcry was severe enough that all of the outside time had dried up.

The proprietor of PTRC was one Winston Farnsworth, a local vacuum-cleaner baron who had established the home half a century ago knowing that Alzheimer’s ran in his family. However, he never gave up control of the establishment before his disease set in. His complete inability to run his business forced his family and attorneys to attempt to put Farnsworth within the care of his own establishment. However, each attempt failed, the reasoning being that if Farnsworth had run his own business this far, there was no good reason to take it from him. As such, the annual attempts became less and less likely to succeed with every passing year, and Farnsworth’s inability to simply die transformed the perennial event into a bit of a local spectacle. This year, the gifted and talented program in the town’s high school was writing a musical on the subject.

Ernest Letterman stared through that smudge-coated window out into the southern Wisconsin countryside. “Everything you see, kids. It was all mine once. I didn’t own it, of course. Taxes are too high to dream of that, goddamned liberals. But I was king, king of Pecatonica County and half of Lafayette County, yes, indeed.”

As the old man ranted at the window, the class of third-graders sat with half-interest in his tale. The teacher looked around, bored, having heard the same speech for years and knowing every word of it to be false. The ever-tightening belt of the elementary school’s budget had meant that field trips had decreased in size and scope every year. Theme parks gave way to the local forest preserve, which gave way to the town’s wastewater treatment plant, which gave way to this, the town’s nursing home, where Principal Abraham insisted that the students would ‘Bask in the wisdom of the town of Wilson’s eldest residents.’ Instead, every year, the kids were subjected to Ernest Letterman’s speeches, which ranged from inane to insane.

“I was a bona fide master of my dominion, kids. You could learn from a generation like ours. Fresh out of a war that chewed up the weaklings, we were real men.” At this Ernest thumped his cane against the carpeting and slowly hoisted a grin onto his face. “People like myself, we’re just better stock than the people that came after us. Like Mr. Patterson here.” Ernest gestured toward the children’s teacher, but Mr. Patterson was much more interested in watching an old woman in a La-Z-Boy die.

The children filed out after the allotted time, and a couple of disinterested teenaged employees dragged the dead woman from her recliner.

After the children returned to Wilson Elementary from the nursing home, they had math class, where Mr. Patterson had to spend twenty minutes convincing Suzie Gates that long division was not the tool of Satan, Lord of Lies. Suzie was the loyal niece of Father Gates, who ran Holy Mother Church on Wilson’s west side. She got the idea from Tobias Applegate, whose peers thought he was dumb because he was from out of town. In reality, he was smart enough to know that telling Suzie to divide two thousand by three would kill an awful lot of time for the teacher and his classmates, meaning Tobias would actually have time to read unbothered.

After Mr. Patterson let the kids out of class early for, as he told them, an appointment with Dr. Scotch, Tobias mounted his bicycle and raced home against James Gregory, who lived next door. James parked his bike on the back patio and entered his home to find a note “From the desk of Eric Gregory” claiming that his parents were at the grocery store, and that he was in the care of his sister Melissa for the evening. He shouted upstairs to his sister that he was leaving and would be back for dinner. He received a curt acknowledgement from Jason, Melissa’s boyfriend, who was at that moment giving crabs to Melissa as well as, via the bedsheets, Mr. Gregory.

James hopped on his bike and pedaled the handful of blocks from his house back over to the Peaceful Twilight Retirement Center, where Ernest Letterman was so surprised to have a visitor that he choked on his pills and had to be pulled away from yelling at contestants on Jeopardy! in order to be given the Heimlich maneuver. To this he objected. “I didn’t lose my left lemur killing Huns in Flanders just to have you hug me and name it after some German,” he said, pointing at the thigh on his bad leg. In reality, the thighbone is known as the femur, the lemur being a primate found on Madagascar. Ernest Letterman had actually suffered no injuries in World War II and been dishonorably discharged for “egregious anti-Semitism” after his platoon had arrived in Dachau in 1945.

He turned to see a small, pasty third-grader with brown hair and a baseball cap affixed to his head staring back at him. “Yes?”

James looked up into the sunken eyes. A slight breeze from the malfunctioning ceiling fan wafted Ernest’s hair slightly. “I’m James Gregory,” he said. “I’m ten. I wanted to hear some more funny stories.”

“I’m Ernest Letterman,” Ernest Letterman said. “I’m eighty-four. And there’s nothing funny about the truth.” He scowled, but extended his hand downward to the boy, who took it.

He led the boy back to the television in time for Final Jeopardy. James got the question about the origins of peanut butter correct, as a class-action lawsuit had forced the Wilson history curriculum to mention black achievements in history at least once a week, and this week’s sidebar was on the subject of George Washington Carver. Letterman got the question wrong, stating that “I’ve got nothing against colored fellas, but they’re just not clever enough for that.”

As the show concluded, Ernest offered James a tour of the common area of the home, then led James to his own room, a drab beige affair that smelt of medicine and Old Man. The bed was along one wall, the plywood dresser another, and the window blocked by the room’s second use as storage for spare IV stands.  He then led James to meet Winston Farnsworth himself.

“Hi,” James said to the millionaire, who was leaving for the evening. Ernest and James had caught up to him between the hollow pillars that faced the center’s parking lot. Winston turned to face the child, his scruffy mustache, wrinkles, and rotund figure giving him the appearance of a malnourished manatee in a polo shirt.

“Hello!” Winston said to the boy, with the mix of wonder and bewilderment he used when encountering any person, technology, or concept younger than the wine he had in his basement. “What’s that on your hat?” he asked.

“Jeff Gordon. He’s my favorite NASCAR driver,” James said with a smile. “My mom likes him too. She said he really revs her engine and that she’d love to let him do some laps on her track.”

“That’s wonderful,” said Farnsworth, who was only half-listening. “I always liked Dale Earnhardt. You know him, in that old number three?”

“Dale Earnhardt died seven years ago,” James said.

“Oh, he’s not dead, he’s just not doing as well as he used to. I never see him up front. He’ll be back, though, you’ll see. Anyway, I’m afraid I have to be off now, though. Ethel promised to cook me a meat loaf this evening,” Farnsworth said with a wide smile.

“Your wife died fourteen years ago,” Ernest said.

“Oh, she’s not dead, she’s just not doing as well as she used to. She doesn’t get out as much. She’ll be back, though, you’ll see. Anyway, I’m afraid I have to be off now, though. Ethel promised to cook me a meat loaf this evening,” Farnsworth said with a wide smile.

“Good night, Mr. Farnsworth,” Ernest said, and the aging tycoon walked to his car.

Ernest and his companion turned and reentered the home, where they sat down for PTRC’s standard evening meal of pasta, applesauce, and regret.

After that night, James began spending more time at the Retirement Center. Ernest told him stories of a time when there was a Communist spy in every barber shop, the government faked moon landings, and certain people couldn’t sit on the front of the bus. He would relate these stories to his peers at lunchtime in school.

“Ernest met Frank Sinatra once,” James said to Suzie Gates as the two sat down at the glorified picnic tables in the school’s gymnasium, which doubled as the cafeteria, auditorium, and fallout shelter.

“What’s a Frank Sonata?” Suzie said.

He would also relate these tales to his family at the dinner table.

“Mom, when’s dinner?” he asked, tugging on the sleeve of her jacket as she came in one night with a bag of groceries.

“Soon, honey. There was a change of plans for tonight’s dinner, though.” Her gaze leveled on her husband. “We’re having crabs,” she said.

Mr. Gregory, who had looked up from the financial news on the television to face her, climbed up from the sofa and stormed upstairs.

As spring aged, James grew closer to his aged mentor. It was the second to last day of school for James, and he went to visit the PTRC. Ernest was there as usual, but this time with plastic tubes leading into his nostrils.

“Why are you wearing that?” James asked.

Ernest scoffed and wheezed slightly. “Because the fascists here think they can tell me how to breathe, as well as how to think with their progressive media and diversity seminars.”

“What’s a diversity seminar?” James asked.

“A diversity seminar is what happens when Moses Freeman and Herschel Cohen don’t know their place,” Ernest said.

The two took their place in the center of the greatroom where Jeopardy! was once again on.

“What did you do for work when you were young, Mr. Letterman?” James asked.

“Well, when I got back from the war, I got into fencing and light construction,” Letterman replied. “I never thought they’d end up closing those Japanese internment camps they opened during the war. But they did, and I was ruined. After that, I mainly did custodial work up at the UW in Madison and lived with my girlfriend.”

“Leech!” Came the cry from across the common room.

“Shut up, Gladys!” Ernest replied with all of the malice and exasperation that builds up with fifty years of animosity.

James waggled his legs under the table. “Gladys is just mad because I left her for her best friend, a girl named Sadie Williams. She was built like a lady greyhound. Lean, strong, muscular, trim thighs… she was the nicest bitch I ever saw,” he said, chuckling. “But back then I lived in Madison, and she here in Wilson. She always said she’d never leave Wilson, so we never really got together. But Gladys wouldn’t take me back. She claims she no longer loves me, but she followed me here when I retired.”

“My family lives in Wilson and stuck me in this home!” Gladys objected.

“Did you move here to be with Sadie?” James asked.

Ernest sighed. “I think I did, though I never wanted to admit it. But there’s no point in denying it any longer, I suppose. Not enough time left for me to spend all that energy denying it. I did, I chased her here and never heard from her again. She moved and I lost track of her.” Ernest sighed and took a long drag from his oxygen hose. When he tried to fiddle with the flow, however, a nurse slapped his hand.

“She said she’d never leave Wilson,” James pointed out. “Why don’t we go find her? Tomorrow’s my last day of school and it’s only a half day. My parents don’t know that because they’re distracted by stuff lately.”

Ernest thought the idea over for a moment, then nodded. “Dammit, you’ve got a point. Let’s do it. You come here after school, and we’ll go find dear old Sadie!”

There was a general assembly to end the school year the next day. After it ended, James trekked back from the gym-cafeteria-shelter to Mr. Patterson’s room to ask for help finding Sadie Williams. He was surprised to stumble upon his own mother leaving Mr. Patterson’s office, but she didn’t notice her son down the hallway as she adjusted her skirt while walking out the door. Mr. Patterson sat a bit dazed in his chair in the office, staring at nothing. He jumped slightly when James entered.

“Mr. Patterson, why was my mom here?” James asked.

“She was here to make sure I was a naughty boy,” he said, then paused. “She was here to make sure you weren’t a naughty boy,” he corrected. He hastily stuffed a stack of photographs, the contents of which James couldn’t make out, into his desk.

“She used to call my dad naughty, but that hasn’t happened since… the crabs,” he said, recalling the most awkward dinner in his memory.

“Crabs will do that,” Mr. Patterson said absently, staring now at papers needing graded.

“She acted mad at him about the crabs, even though she was the one that went and got them in the first place,” James added.

At this Mr. Patterson froze. “She was?”

James nodded.

Mr. Patterson grumbled and stood up. “I’m afraid I have to go, James. I’m not feeling well.”

“Need to visit Dr. Scotch again?” James asked.

“No, not for this… maybe Dr. Cream,” Mr. Patterson said. “I’ve got to run. It was great having you in class, James. See you next year,” he said, as he hastily headed out the door.

Thus without clues, James rode home. He took his sister’s old mountain bike from the backyard shed and walked it along with his own bike and a spare backpack over to the Pleasant Twilight Retirement Center. He walked in to find Ernest slumped in an easy chair. His eyes were heavy and his breathing labored.

“I brought you a bike to ride,” James said. “Ready to go?”

Ernest looked up at the boy. “I don’t feel like it. I don’t think I’ll make it out there to see Sadie,” he added in a melancholy tone.

James tugged at his leg. “But we have to! It’s the one that got away, like my mom says about this guy Glenn when she’s been drinking.”

Letterman steadfastly refused, his eyes now flickering between James and The Price is Right behind him. “No. We’re not allowed to leave, anyway.”

James stood in front of Ernest then, and with all the willpower he could summon, leaned in and pulled the oxygen from Ernest’s face. Shocked, Ernest sat up, hastily pushing the tubes back into place. “What are you doing, brat?!” he howled. The nurses, having heard him cry wolf too many times already, ignored him.

James stood his ground. “My dad says that life’s a bitch and then you marry one. And you were saying last night that Sadie was the finest bitch you ever saw. You need to do this. You could get married!” he exclaimed.

Ernest leveled his gaze at the boy. “You’re right, goddammit! I’m not going to let them tell me when I can or can’t leave. Screw the front desk! I’m going!” With this, he hoisted his oxygen tank up, grabbed his cane, and left his chair.

Years of forced containment of the young or even middle-aged will, as evidenced by prisons, lead to attempts to outbreaks. Years of imprisonment for the elderly, however, facilitated by those that love them, is enough to destroy the spirit. As such, the desk attendant at the Peaceful Twilight Retirement Center didn’t blink an eye as Ernest and James walked out the front door. If they were capable of leaving, they must not have been those that they’d broken the spirit of by locking in, the reasoning went. Winston Farnsworth, however, on his way back from lunch, did notice the pair, catching the two just outside the building.

“Just what the hell are you doing out here, Letterman?!” Farnsworth asked, shocked.

“You were right, Mr. Farnsworth,” James said. “The race is on in there, and Earnhardt’s leading. He did come back.”

“I told you!” Farnsworth exclaimed. “But the race? Isn’t today Tuesday?” he asked, bewildered.

“Nope, Sunday,” James replied.

“Oh. Then why am I here at the home?”

“I don’t know. You should go back to your house.”

“You’re right, I should. Ethel promised to cook me a meat loaf this evening,” Farnsworth said with a wide smile.

“Wonderful,” Ernest said. “Say, think you could give us a ride on your way out?”

Farnsworth dropped the two off at the town’s library. James went up to the bank of computers in the back of the room to look for information while Ernest walked to the front desk. A young, caramel-skinned girl with a ponytail was checking out a family’s books.

“Excuse me,” Ernest said. “Could you go get one of the white librarians for me?”

James ignored the sound of the slap and ensuing shouting match, instead finding Tobias Applegate at one of the computers.

“I’m not finding an online white pages listing for her,” Tobias said. “By the way, I’m going to be moving this summer. My dad says that since the school board passed the measure requiring the teaching of intelligent design, he wants me to go to a school with real science. So we’re moving somewhere else in a couple of weeks.”

“That stinks that you’re moving,” James said. “I’m going to miss you, Tobias. But thanks for all your help. Here and with schoolwork.”

“No problem,” Tobias said. “You’ll be fine without my help. My dad says your family is the right kind of stupid to be successful. I don’t think you’re stupid at all, though, so you should be okay.” He paused. “Ahh, a hit. ‘Sadie Williams dee,’” Tobias read aloud. “Was Williams her middle name?”

James shrugged.

Tobias shrugged as well. “Well, I’m printing it out for you now. Looks like it’s by the church.”

James grabbed the page from the printer. “Thanks, man. You’re the smartest guy I know. Have fun where you move to, Tobias.”

Dragging his charge from the tussle at the front desk, James exited the library with Ernest in tow and the two hobbled toward the Holy Mother church in the central part of town. The silent stony building stood proudly at the core of Wilson. Suzie Gates was there, gardening with her uncle in the flower gardens adjacent to the small cemetery on the grounds. Across the street, James and a rapidly deteriorating Ernest looked down the row of houses.

“7 14… 718… 726? Where is 715 Maple Drive?” James asked. He jogged around looking for a better view. “I’m going to go ask Suzie,” he said, and ran off in that direction.

“These are all even numbers,” Ernest observed. “Is this the right block, or do we have to go over one more? …wait. 715…”

“Ernest! Here!” James called, waving from the green area behind the church.

Ernest looked up to the faded, carved 715 in the side of one pillar of the Holy Mother church. He then slowly turned to see James waving in triumph. He had found Sadie, or rather her headstone, in the church graveyard.

“I’m six years too late,” Ernest lamented as he stood beside the moss-covered rock. “Sadie, Sadie… you were too good for this world. For me.”

James stood beside him. “It’s okay, Mister Letterman. Getting married was a dumb idea. Girls have cooties anyway,” he offered. “Life’s not over, right Mister Letterman?” He turned to watch Ernest Letterman crumple into a ball on the ground. Suzie screamed for Father Gates.

In the coming weeks, Tobias Applegate did indeed move away. He gave some books to James, along with a note detailing a plan to tell Suzie Gates to multiply 444 by 1.5 if he didn’t have time to read them.  James moved, too, from one house to two different apartments, each owned by a different parent. On the plus side, his mom was living with Mr. Patterson.

Winston Farnsworth was found competent to continue running his business. It was closer than usual this year, however, as he missed his Tuesday court date thinking it was only Sunday. The musical, “The Farnsworth Paradox,” was performed once in Wilson. A letter to the editor in the local newspaper said that it wasn’t funny. The writers responded by saying that the humor was over the town’s head, citing its becoming popular up in Madison.

And as summer waned, another grave was propped up next to the one marked with the name of Sadie Williams. Clean and simple, it read merely “Gladys Coulton” with birth and death years. Ernest Letterman, however, was oblivious to this development. He didn’t awaken from his coma until after the stone had been erected. He awoke in a bed in Wilson’s hospital. The light streaming unfettered through the window in his room almost blinded him, and he squeezed his eyes shut. Footsteps attracted his attention, and he carefully turned his head toward the sound.

A female voice greeted him. “You’re awake! Wonderful.”

Ernest groaned. “What’s this on my head?” He didn’t raise his arms, feeling the tubes hooked into them.

“That’s a Jeff Gordon hat that someone left here for you. It’s rather handsome on you, sir.”

Ernest groaned again. “Ugh. Very well. Nurse, could you get my doctor for me?”

The woman sighed. “I am your doctor, Mister Letterman. Doctor Judith Weinstein at your service.”


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Wilson, Wisconsin by Taylor Vincent is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://wilsonwi.wordpress.com/.

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