MacArthur at Sunset
Returning from her after-dinner walk to the drug store, a video of Lethal Weapon IV tucked under her arm, Katherine stepped into her living room to find her sister Lorraine sitting in the wing back chair by the window, reading the newspaper. Half-glasses rode low on Lorraine's nose, and a pillbox hat perched high on her head. Katherine glanced at the newspaper headline: Victory in Pacific. Truman declares national day of celebration.
"What are you doing here?" Katherine asked. "You don't belong here anymore. You're dead."
Lorraine dropped the newspaper onto her lap and stared at Katherine. Lorraine's shoulders vibrated as though with palsy. Then Katherine realized her sister was laughing, silently, as she had so many times in their youth, at her own practical joke. Turning to the window, Lorraine rose and looked out into the darkened neighborhood, seeking out some ineffable presence beyond the glass.
Katherine stepped toward Lorraine. "If you can speak, tell me why you're here." Nothing. She remembered Lorraine laughing like this on Armistice Day of the Great War, when they were small children. That day, Lorraine reported seeing a white rabbit hopping through the backyard. Katherine quickly built a trap out of a soda water case and a windfall maple branch, then waited in the honeysuckle bushes for the rabbit to come by again. Lorraine sat on the porch in Dad's rocking chair, laughing the silent snicker that now contorted her face. Fanciful Katherine, Lorraine had called her, a nickname that stuck like oatmeal to the bottom of the bowl.
Katherine went to the door, stepped out into the hallway, counted to ten. I am here in the new millennium, she said to herself. Lorraine has been in the ground for eight years. This is not real. When she returned to the room, her sister was gone. Katherine fixed herself a bowl of microwave popcorn and settled in to watch her movie, but not even Mel Gibson and Danny Glover could erase the distraction of her sister's visit. Am I losing my marbles at long last? she asked herself. On the screen, Riggs and Murtaugh drove through the offices of an architect firm in the most hair-raising automobile chase yet. If that couldn't put Lorraine out of her mind, nothing could.
That night's dreams alternated between scenes of Katherine's youth and images of Lorraine lying on the floor of their back hallway, lifeless. Lorraine lived with her in the house on Elm Street after Katherine lost Robert in a B-17 mission over the Alps in 1943, and was left to fend for herself in a world that had little concern for a lady trap and skeet champion with a young daughter to raise.
Having Lorraine in her house was not an unqualified blessing. Lorraine had pretensions. During visits in their parlor, she offered the minister from the United Church of Christ lemonade, then slipped three fingers of gin into her own Collins glass before making an entrance with Mama's silver serving tray balanced on her fingers. Lorraine invariably left her glass on a desk or end table where condensation marred the finish, and left every piece of furniture in the house looking like a Goodwill castoff.
On the positive side, Lorraine set the household finances in order, got a job as a legal secretary, became a second mother to Margaret. Katherine arose late except on days she had time reserved at the skeet range, drank beer from a bottle afternoons at five, and contributed her share of the household expenses from dividends on the utility stocks Robert had left to her. In time, Margaret married and bore two sons, John and James, then divorced their father and moved to West Palm Beach, leaving the boys in the care of their father.
One hot August afternoon eight years ago, Lorraine had the bad form to drop dead. Katherine found her slumped on the hall stairs at the back of the house, an arrangement of freshly cut gladiolus clutched in her hand. Alone in the house on Elm street, Katherine roamed from room to room, often carrying her Remington 16 gauge shotgun with her to shoo off potential intruders.
Katherine kept the sighting of Lorraine to herself. This was not a thing lightly shared. People were only too eager to pronounce a person out of her mind for having encounters like the one she'd had with her sister.
The following Thursday, after a dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes at the Island Cafe, Katherine kibitzed for half an hour on Rhoda Zimpel's porch before returning home. The late summer sun had just dipped into the void behind Turner's Woods as she closed the screen door behind her, and when she walked through the foyer she found Lorraine in her living room again. This time Lawrence Welk accompanied Lorraine. The two sat on the couch with their legs crossed, watching a rerun of the Champaign Music Makers on local public television.
As Katherine entered the room, Lorraine and Lawrence rose and danced across Katherine's carpet. For a moment Katherine held an image of the nights she and Robert had spent at the Lake Geneva Ballroom, bathed in color on what was billed as the largest dance floor in the Midwest. They'd glided across the floor on winged feet, she and Robert, entwined in each other's arms, like two strands of gossamer.
'Imagine we're all alone,' Robert would whisper in her ear. 'Imagine we're on the white sands of a Caribbean island, the tropic breeze playing in your hair.' His hand would leave the back of her dress and become that breeze, touching her with the faintest caress. The lights would dim and the spotlight on the cut-glass globe hanging at the center of the hall would cast a million diamonds upon the walls as they danced through the stars like gods.
Lorraine and Lawrence Welk were one thing. The crowd that confronted Katherine three nights later when she got up to use the bathroom was quite another. General Douglas Mac Arthur had joined the group, along with Arthur Godfrey and Doris Day. Katherine sipped the dregs of the Pabst Blue Ribbon at her bedside table and decided something must be done. She put in a telephone call to her grandson James, the Rock County deputy sheriff.
"Grandma? What time is it?" James mumbled.
"They're all here now. And they insist on staying with me. They're hogging the TV, watching reruns of I Remember Mama and Milton Berle. I can't stand Milton Berle. Strap your pistol on and get over here."
"Yes, and Doris Day, and Lorraine, and Lawrence Welk. The whole kit and caboodle." She putzed with the belt of her chenille robe and squinted at the crowd. "They won't leave me alone."
"Grandma, there's nobody there. It's after midnight."
"That's what I've told them. All I get in return is raised eyebrows."
"Listen to me now. Go over and touch them. Put the telephone down and go over and touch each one of them."
Katherine did as instructed. A moment later she was back on the line with James.
"I did what you said. I went over to touch Lorraine."
"She wouldn't let me. Now she's behind the TV set. You'd better come over, see for yourself. And bring your badge along."
By the time James pulled up at the curb in his Crown Vic, Katherine had nodded off in the chair by the fireplace. She scolded him for his tardiness. "You certainly took your good natured time, Sunny Jim. Look, there's light in the sky."
"What's this about people in your living room, Grandma? Did you forget your medicine?"
"James, I've lived in this house since 1937. Do you think I wouldn't know intruders when I see them?" She whirled around to produce the evidence of her claim. "Look here..."
They were gone. They'd slipped off while she was dozing, waiting for James to show up.
The following week Katherine and James dined out at Chez Monty to celebrate her eighty-seventh birthday. James treated Katherine to a birthday dinner every year since Lorraine passed. Halfway through dinner, James confronted Katherine with his plan to put her in the old folks home.
"I knew it," she said with a slap of her hand on the tablecloth. "I should have kept my big mouth shut. Now you'll be dead set on forcing me out of my home."
"Not forcing you out," James insisted. "Helping you. You need more contact with other people is all. Companionship. Folks your own age. Conversation, healthy meals in the commons, activities every day. Soon these visitors of yours will leave your imagination."
"It's not my imagination, James. They're in there. They're real. They sit in my living room and make themselves at home. Why, just last night General MacArthur watched seven episodes of Victory At Sea on the television, and wouldn't let me near the set for my Jackie Chan video."
The house on Elm Street was bedecked with trophies Katherine had bagged at state and national shooting events. For years she'd considered them merely dust collectors. Yet when James suggested she put them in storage and move to Honeysuckle Manor she amused herself by finding practical uses for them. The 1972 National Seniors statuette was particularly useful as a nutcracker on the stubborn shells of pecans. The 1945 U. S. Open trophy made a first-rate tack hammer, heftier and more evenly balanced than the newfangled ones on the shelves at Sears. The Western States Combined trophy made a nice little bottle opener for cold beer.
At Chez Monty, Katherine and James enjoyed a sumptuous repast of aged beef with wine sauce, served under candlelight. Katherine may have had more than her allotted two glasses of wine with dinner. Afterwards, rather than putting James to the trouble of driving her home to Brodhead, they went to James's house, where she retired to the second-floor guest bedroom.
Shortly after midnight Katherine's stomach began to churn like the workings of an industrial cement mixer, and she roused herself for a dose of Pepto from the medicine cabinet. As she approached the top of the stairs the hallway began to spin and she lurched forward, then tumbled like a Chinese acrobat down two flights, ending up on the faux marble entryway floor. In her wake came Newt, James's slobbering golden retriever, barking as though he had discovered an armed intruder. Following Newt came Sassy Tucker and Abscam the cats, with James bringing up the rear.
Katherine sat at the bottom of the stairs, legs splayed like the crook of a willow branch, checking over her injuries. Her head hurt, but that was minor compared to the pain in her left forearm.
"Eighty-seven year olds are supposed to break hips, not arms," she complained to the young resident in the emergency as he set the bone and prepared a cast.
"You'll stay with me until the arm knits up," James declared. "You can't take care of that big house with a broken arm. As a matter of fact," James asserted, using the infirmity as a wedge to have his way with her future, "this would be a good time to move into that apartment at Honeysuckle Manor."
Even the name of the place offended Katherine. The honeysuckle was an invasive plant, taking over and creating impenetrable thickets in which no lily or rose could survive. That's what this younger generation felt about its elders. It was clear that James regarded his grandmother as a weedy growth, inconvenient to the fast-pace of his young life. She was to be left in the care of a ragtag army of strangers, to grow wild and uncared for.
When Katherine returned from the hospital to recuperate in the back bedroom of James's house on Turbreck Avenue, she decided not to come down the stairs until she was able to give James a good punch in the nose with that arm. Not even meals could coax her down the staircase that had so recently done her in. She locked herself in the bedroom, leaving only momentarily to answer the call of nature. It was a protest against the indignities age had visited upon her.
Six weeks later the doctor pronounced her arm fit for service, and James drove her to Brodhead to examine the facilities at Honeysuckle Manor. "If Lorraine were alive today," Katherine muttered as they approached the double door entrance to the six-story high rise. "If Lorraine were alive today, this would kill her." She snorted. James pretended not to hear.
"What about my guns," she asked as they looked into the apartment. "Where would I put them in this tiny space?"
"Put them in storage, along with your other things. Until you can decide what you want to do with them permanently."
"What about the trophies? There's no room for my trophies."
Despite her protests, James got an order from the Rock County court giving him power of attorney, and a For Sale sign went up on the lawn of the house on Elm Street. Later that night, Mohandas Gandhi joined Xavier Cugat and Kate Smith in her living room. Gandhi was a welcome visitor: he sat on the floor, legs crossed, leaving the morris chair for Katherine. That night, for the first time, Katherine served up a plate of crackers and cheese for her guests. She reasoned that if they were to be her companions, they ought to be treated as company.
The visitors reacted to this act of welcome with a cacophony of conversation, immersing themselves in subjects as wide-ranging as the prospects for independence on the continent of Africa to the pennant race in the American League. Accepted as equals, they gave Katherine insights into their lives and experience, and prompted her for details of her own. Later, the group watched reruns of I Love Lucy until Katherine dozed off, waking hours later with a stiff neck.
When the day came for Katherine to be moved to Honeysuckle Manor, she sat in her chair with her arms folded, daring the attendants from the old folks home to touch her. She'd learned a thing or two from Gandhi during his visits. Instead, the young men lifted the chair itself, Katherine still sitting with arms crossed over her chest, and moved it out to a van specially equipped to accommodate elderly ladies in morris chairs.
The house was slow to sell. As if Katherine had placed a hex on the place, buyers came and admired the construction, the appointments, even the walnut display case that housed her shooting trophies. Then their attitude mysteriously cooled, and they promised to call the realtor in a day or two. The follow-up calls never came. James visited the house at intervals, to check up on things. On each occasion, he took the key that Katherine had reluctantly given him, and unlocked the door. He was greeted by the familiar musty odor produced by mohair furniture and closed windows.
He was on his way to the kitchen one day when an object on the occasional table by the window caught his eye. He went to it. A half-empty glass of lemonade, ice cubes still floating in it. When he lifted the glass to his nose, he detected the unmistakable odor of gin. And noted that the glass had left a white ring on the table.
Everything else in the house was in perfect order: dust covers draped over the overstuffed furniture, newspaper neatly folded on the end table. Then James looked at the date on the newspaper: August 7, 1945. He turned to the entryway, cocked his head like an inquisitive dog, then quickly stepped over the threshold without pausing to lock the door.