Wil A. Emerson WHo, Where, How, When

Wil A. Emerson: Who, Where, How, When

Excerpt from
Summer Wayside

Book 4 of the Rosie MacIntosh Series


The Rosie MacIntosh story continues: TWO LANE HIGHWAY

Follow, painted by Wil Emerson       After an accident that kills his parents, Allen Connelly’s transition isn’t smooth. A home with an insecure aunt and an uncle with Alzheimer’s isn’t a perfect fit for a boy on the cusp of teenage rebellion. Aunt Rose struggles with the edgy boy’s restlessness and her husband’s forgetfulness. Yet, it’s Allen who mends the seams when everything falls apart. Is it his need or theirs’ that keep this unlikely family together?

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Allen, Then

       The shrill of the phone fractured the cool night air. A fire truck to the rescue at two a.m.? The uncommon noise bore into my senses. Not the usual clank and crash downstairs I’d learned to sleep through. A door closed with a thud, the hum of the refrigerator, their chatter that often escalated to anger shouts. I woke in a state of confusion.

       There were only two small bedrooms in my grandmother’s house and adults had priority, of course. Gramma had the first floor as her official domain and my parents laid claim to the upper bedroom and small bathroom; steps from where I slept. My space was nothing more than the second story alcove. A twin bed and a three-drawer dresser. No barriers to ward off whatever drifted my way. Sounds and smells filtered only by likes and dislikes and a subconscious trigger that worked at its best when lights went out. Momentarily, I felt lost, out of place.

       There were only two small bedrooms in my grandmother’s house and adults had priority, of course. Gramma had the first floor as her official domain and my parents laid claim to the upper bedroom and small bathroom; steps from where I slept. My space was nothing more than the second story alcove. A twin bed and a three-drawer dresser. No barriers to ward off whatever drifted my way. Sounds and smells filtered only by likes and dislikes and a subconscious trigger that worked at its best when lights went out. Momentarily, I felt lost, out of place.

       Regaining my senses, I turned over in bed, pulled at the cover to keep the chill off my shoulders and stuffed the pillow over my ear to avoid the next cruel sound.

       Three times, four. Strange that my grandmother didn’t respond. With no sign of relief, I sat up in the narrow bed and contemplated whether I should wonder down and tackle the problem. Something important? But my grandmother controlled the phone. She paid the bill. That message had been delivered so often my parents only used it when she wasn’t in the house.

       How could she sleep through the noise? Why would she ignore it?

        I kicked back the thin blanket, scooted to the edge of the bed and let one leg dangle to the floor. Then I heard the shuffle of her feet and sank back down. Relax.

       Before I pulled up the cover, closed my eyes, though, her voice as cold as the black night, halted my action.

       Then the crack of the handset against the wall made me flinch.

       “What did he do now? Hell and damnation. And the middle of the night.”

       The call had to be about my father. Bar fights and my father were as common as fleas on the backyard dog. Kicked off the Buffalo police force, third offense. That’s why we’d moved to Allentown. Even though he’d been on good behavior for more than twelve months and had held on to the job with the Allentown Police Department for six of those months, I sensed this would be the end to a long period of calm. The return of his true nature.

       There had been an early warning. He’d left the house in a foul mood. The truth was the cramped quarters and his dislike for my grandmother’s rules worked against him.

       My mother, the eternal peacemaker, suggested they go out on the town for the evening. The change might temper his restlessness, she said.

       In the past, under even normal circumstances, his mood could turn on a dime. Edginess to fulminating rage. And he had a favorite target for venting his volcanic frustration.

       When forced out of the kitchen or living room because I’d voiced an opinion about his lack of control, when I talked back to him, I had only one place to retreat. My small bed in the alcove. No door to hide behind. Left alone, as a means of getting even, I doodled pictures of my father with pointed ears, smoke curling from within, coal black eyes with red dots. Skull bones on his forehead.

       My mother, in the middle of an altercation, would do her best to defuse the issue but sometimes it took more than a tease and a smile to get him out of the house for a dinner date. This night, she suggested they go to his favorite bar. She must have been more than afraid or she’d never suggest a night of drinking. If he didn’t retain dominance over his defiant son, who would be his next victim? Her diversions didn’t always work out the way she intended but away from home often became the best alternative.

       As usual, I retreated up the stairs to avoid contact with him. My grandmother and watchful mother were stationed in the kitchen near the stairs. A soft blockade. He wouldn’t advance in their sight. I had refuge in my bed. The steam in his threats contained for the time being. But I did hear him pace back and forth until the bar invitation caught his attention. Michael Connelly, father of one, tormentor of many, had a taste for any lager or ale and thrived on trouble.

       My grandmother had issued her last warning that evening. If he broke anything, destroyed her property, laid a hand on anyone in her sight, he’d be out on the street.

       I’d settled back on my pillow with the thought that if my mother succeeded in changing his mood and played the date game well, he’d be tanked by ten. If not, he’d return and settle a score with me. That’s what kept me in my corner, didn’t pop out of the bed at the first sound, tried to sleep to avoid a storm. He’d never struck me when I was already down.

       Often, I hid under the bed, away from the spittle, the foul breath of beer and whiskey. The rise of his fist only landed on the pillow and a pile of blankets. Yes, I tried as hard as I could to keep my mouth shut. Not add to his rant. Sometimes I failed but if I remained quiet, he’d waddle away and fall on his bed, flat faced for at least eight hours.

       I turned my head to the faint light downstairs and listened. I had to decipher the substance of the tense conversation. Had my mother called for help? When Gramma repeated the words County Hospital, I knew the night would not end well. My mother’s safety brought the greater fear.

       Embodied with a gentle heart, she couldn’t be anything but kind to me, devoted, attentive. Her love filled the voids in my life. Was he jealous? The irony was she walked on hot fires to protect her angry husband.

       As darkness hovered and Gramma’s crackling voice shattered the chill air, I knew there’d be little sleep for either one of us. I crept down the hall and craned around the doorway to learn what had ignited her outburst. The light grew dimmer when she stood up. She turned, still clutching the phone in her hand and saw me pressed against the wall.

       “Well, can’t ya send one of his friends over,” she said into the mouthpiece. Her steely gaze fixed on me. “I can’t do nothing with the boy here.” A long pause. Her eyes rolling. ”Oh, damn it, guess I can call my sister. Why now? Middle of the night.” The phone fell back into its cradle.

       I sat down on the landing, in my undershorts. My knees knocked together. My hands failed to hold my legs steady so I leaned back on the wooden stairs and stared at the ceiling. Wait it out or succumb to that urge to run for cover?

        “Boy, I see you there. Why in the hell did you come down with no clothes on? Get dressed or stay in your bed. There’s been an accident. That father of yours. Damn him all to hell.”

       The cupboard door opened. A thud when it closed. The sound of a steady stream from bottle to glass. A swish, a slurp. I knew the routine. She’d sit for a while, an elbow on the table, the glass and its brown liquid in the other hand. Tip it to her lips, slow, methodical. Half empty, then she’d swig the last half in one long swallow.

       Five minutes passed. Bottle to glass like a metronome. The phone broke her pace and this time she answered on the first ring.

       “Yeah, I hear you. I can’t come to no trauma center. I got a kid here and I don’t drive in the dark. It’s an emergency you say but what can I do?” A long pause. “Okay, okay…I hear ya. It’ll take a while. Okay, I’ll ask for the charge nurse in the trauma ward.” A rapid hang up. “Oh hell.”

       Another lapse. Long enough for me to shake off the weariness and go upstairs for my jeans and a tee shirt. Then I heard the clack, clack rounding of the dial. Short, long, short, short…more numbers than a local call.

       I had a vague memory of the Philadelphia relative. My mother mentioned her on occasion. I’d met her when I was about four. Eight years had passed. A foggy recollection, nothing remarkable. An aunt they said, Gramma’s younger sister. Gramma called her the black sheep. I surmised it meant something was wrong with her attitude, not her skin.

       When they talked on the phone, my grandmother ended the conversation in the same way. Bitterness softened by a trip to the cupboard. A kid couldn’t be anything but be frightened by an aunt who had such an effect on her older sister.

       What words did this relative use to trigger my grandmother’s revulsion? If she came to the rescue tonight, I’d better brace for another round of familial verbal abuse.

       The doorbell rang. Gramma’s shuffle, the routine grunts, her harsh damn it, and the door opened. The news could not have been worse than what two of my father’s co-workers reported.

       The voice of a man, “Sorry, Ma’am, ain’t no easy way to say this. Michael’s gone. Your daughter hanging on. We come to take you over to the hospital.”

       The announcement of my father’s death caused a wave of heat to run down my cold back and I unwrapped my arms across my chest and breathed in a strange, new sensation.

       Relief ran like a river.

       Not because I’d escape his rage tonight but something deeper, more satisfying. I embraced the thought my mother would be forever safe.

       “I ain’t going nowhere with you two thugs,” gramma spit out.

       Two hours later, the strange aunt, Rose Marie MacIntosh, arrived and launched a major alteration in my life. Not by unkind words, not with condemning pity. She looked in my eyes and expressed sorrow for my loss. The unnerving fact was my grandmother had not been unable to convey any manner of sympathy toward me.


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Game Day, Rose

       “He’s taking a big risk,” I said.

       “That’s our boy, isn’t he? He runs like the devil is chasing him.” Patrick slapped his Bartram’s baseball cap in his hand. A wide grin replaced the anxious cut of his jaw.

       “Well, if he doesn’t make third base, he’ll wish he never took that big lead.”

        “He’s hungry. He’ll make it.” I considered Patrick’s remark. Allen never ate before a game. The standard measure since eighth grade. But I couldn’t be sure if Patrick meant Allen’s desire for dinner had prompted his attempt to steal third base.

       Patrick had adjusted to Allen’s need for a late meal without a great deal of stress but the routine had taken a year to sink in. Patrick, in all good intention, still sat down at the table at six if we were home even if Allen’s practice ended at seven-thirty. It wasn’t that Patrick objected to change. He had fifty-eight years behind him and sitting down at the table at a given time was as ingrained as the need for socks with shoes. Since the diagnosis, though, he forgot to put on socks before his shoes and had lost the ability to button his shirt. And if Allen or I didn’t have a jacket out for him, Patrick would go out in the coldest weather in a short sleeve shirt. And if we didn’t go to the ballgame and watch Allen play, Patrick would sit at the table and wait as a matter of routine.

       Was the remark, then, about meal time or Allen’s desire to win?

       Patrick seemed absorbed in the ball game. If I read him right today, he understood if Allen got caught in the crossfire between the short stop and third baseman, he’d be out and the ball game would end. The next batter, a heavy hitter with a record for homeruns in a clinch, would not get the chance to bring Allen in and Bartram High School would lose their last game of the season. The district championship would go to a marginal high school team whose coach had been accused of stacking the playing field. Of course, the coach denied any prior knowledge of a move three stronger players happened to make during the summer and now lived with relatives who had qualifying addresses. The situation had been explained to Patrick weeks before but he’d never mentioned it since then. So, this game was a big event for Bartram players and for a diehard fan like Patrick.

       Patrick attended Allen’s ball games with the same enthusiasm as when he played the game himself. High school, college and on community teams for twenty more years, baseball ran in his veins and beyond, beneath, between the scared gray matter that altered his keen memory.

       We watched Allen push on toward third base, his legs pumping like pistons. Patrick stood, his arms in the air, waving Allen on and I wanted to close my eyes. Allen would be in a foul mood if the infielders glove tagged his shirt. His sense of failure would be lifted for a short time if I cooked his favorite meal. A momentary fix. Silently, I’d bear the brunt of his disappointment for days. His cold shoulder, a surly manner, the bang of his bedroom door.

       Allen had the explosive temperament of his father and the tongue of his grandmother, my older sister. The mix a curse at times. But the flip side of those qualities, was a strong will and a desire to overcome the harsh reality of his young life. And nothing he did lessened my love for him.

        I focused on third base with a prayer in mind and concentrated on the base. In the dust and flurry, if a figure in a green and white uniform stood tall, left his mark on the white square, this day would end on an even keel.

       Patrick might wake during the night if Allen forgot to turn off his bedroom light think it was morning or he’d get dressed and ask if breakfast was ready. I might wake because I forgot to lock all the doors and either male in the household would escape into the night. I had no control of those events. For now, I could watch the game and hope our high school team won so these most important fellows in my life would smile all evening.

       In my fashion, I prayed/hoped for this relative short period of euphoria. The wind would shift, a mood, an event that would leave a dark stain on the day. Something I didn’t wish for but, I knew with a certainty it would come my way.

       We walked together to the car. Game over. The sophomore ball player with a heavy sports bag in one hand and Patrick with his arm draped on his shoulder. Car keys in my hand. Eager to get home.

        “Did I tell you I signed up for driver’s ed?” Allen opened the passenger door for his uncle.

        “Are you old enough to drive?” Patrick asked.

        “Not yet. By the time I know the rules of the road, I’ll be sixteen, though. Can’t stop me then,” Allen said. “Go West, young man. I’m going West.”

        I took the wheel as usual. “Big plans, Allen. Let’s take one step at a time. You’ve got a lot to accomplish before you hit Route 66.” I laughed.

       “Hey, nothing’s gonna hold me back. I’m rolling as soon as I can. Well, I’ll finish high school. For sure if we win Districts in junior year. Could get picked up by a minor league if the winning streak continues.” He sighed and laid his head back on the head rest. “Say, what’s for dinner? I’m starving.”

        “Your favorite. Macaroni and cheese, with hot rolls. Your uncle, the psychic, said you were hungry.” The evening would be a summer picnic. I’d get drunk on his smiles.

       “Not food,” Patrick corrected me. A sharp tone to underscore his point. “Hungry. To win. Third base come hell or high water. Win.”

       I gripped the wheel. Patrick’s ability to sense Allen’s thoughts, decipher his needs, dumbfounded me. For all my husband had lost in that cognitive fog, the damn Alzheimer’s disease, he’d retained an uncanny knack to get to the core of a matter. He and Allen had bonded in a way I couldn’t comprehend.


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Patrick, Then

       I gripped the wheel. Patrick’s ability to sense Allen’s thoughts, decipher his needs, dumbfounded me. For all my husband had lost in that cognitive fog, the damn Alzheimer’s disease, he’d retained an uncanny knack to get to the core of a matter. He and Allen had bonded in a way I couldn’t comprehend.

\       My wife looked at me as though I’d lost my mind. A lapse. Time, place. A long day. Not enough water, no lunch. The kids at school as restless as they’d ever been. Spring has that effect on teenagers. Youngsters are hormone driven. Boys aggressive and testy. Girls whiny and menstruating. Rosie didn’t understand. I came home and we made love as if we were kids.

       She said she was worried. Granted, someone sitting butt naked on the side of the bathtub makes a person consider the reason why an individual would forget what they were doing. Not even a towel underneath me. I just couldn’t figure out why I was there. Hot, sweaty. Did I want a shower? I’d been at school all day. Did I take a shower every day after school?

       We didn’t hop in bed on an ordinary day but we did that afternoon. I’d heard her singing when I walked in the back door. A Beatles’ tune we both liked. I did love her. Then and now. She looked like the twenty-year-old girl I’d married. Last year? Something tells me longer. Five or fifteen?

       My hair wasn’t gray then. Hers didn’t change.

       She said take the shower. Go ahead. Even tested the water for me. It wasn’t too hot. We laughed. After the shower, I felt better. I did know the difference between a memory lapse and a black out. So I humored her and the night ended on a pleasant note. Dinner together, in front of the TV after I checked notes for the next day’s classes.

       Chemistry and biology came easy for me. That’s why I became a teacher instead of a lawyer. Not what my father expected but then one must lead their own life, he said. He didn’t add his blessings. I intended to stay true to myself after I earned a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania.

       The year of my graduation—a long time ago. And does it matter when? I do remember I liked kids better than young adults. Something about the college crowd got on my nerves. Not eager to learn. On a mission for a degree—not an education. So, when I went back to the real classroom, high school, I had a passion about the day. The hope of planting a seed in the minds of kids who were still eager, not arrogant. Not too wise, not too tainted by the system.

       The year of doubt, 1963, maybe 62, was a turning point in my life. Our life. But seriously, I’ll stick to my viewpoint, my selfish experience, because then, I needed to focus on survival.

       I felt the change. Not physical yet uncannily visceral. As though my blood had changed course; the fluid in my veins sticky. I thrived in the morning but pushed through the afternoon. Evening—a ritual and Rosie took the lead. Our routine was automatic, comfortable.

        If I closed my eyes, I could walk through the day. Classroom, home, bed. All because of a profound love for what I’d chosen. My work, my wife. At peace with myself, with Rosie. Often the moments together were exhilarating. And yet, as the change crept up on me, I had to work at catching the essence of her questions, her statements. A flash in her eyes would signal I’d let the ‘it’ of this evolution in my body leak out.

       She insisted I see a doctor. I fought the notion as though it was a personal affront. Summer just around the corner. Time to regroup, recharge. In my mind, I carried the body of a warrior but the present calendar told me fifty had come and gone. Fifty-five. I read my driver’s license just to make sure. But for the sake of unity and the fact I’d lost my car in the school parking lot, I succumbed to pressure and made an appointment with a man I hardly knew.

       At first, the friendly practitioner who recommended rectal exams on a yearly basis, something about prostate cancer of which I had no fear, said I had nothing to worry about. But he conducted a few tests, some mindless games, a needle, one dense picture of my brain. One thing led to another. It didn’t take long before I sat in front of an arrogant bastard with too many degrees on his wall and listened to his cold, dry pronouncement.

        His ability to connect with real humans, in my humble opinion, had been annulled by an overload of intellectual material. Granted, the man knew neuro-science—I’d had a few basic courses and recognized his broader span of knowledge, not the defining details, so I’d tolerated his discourse about my hardened gray matter. Another round of questions, puzzles, riddles, drawings from the expert. When he declared I had early onset Alzheimer’s disease, I replied it was time to go home.

       He suggested I take my time dressing and left the exam room to talk to Rosie. I followed his advice—as I knew Rosie would ask questions whose answers would not make her happy.

       She’d push the doctor to his limit of social grace and professional toleration. An undereducated woman questioning a professional’s diagnosis? His demeanor left her seething. I never told Rosie that I suspected they would interact like vinegar and oil. She needed to hear what the specialist had to say, for better or worse, and make a decision about the future. I had plans. It was time for her to make her own, too.

        That particular day was one of my better days. Lucid and memory in full drive. Rosie drove us home, though. My suggestion. She had to concentrate on the highway, her teeth clinching her bottom lip, her eyes on fire. She’d been shaken to the core. Frightened, brave, angry, compassionate. But better for her to deal with heavy Philadelphia traffic than the reality of my mental demise.

        We entered the unknown that day. The aura of hidden anxiety as though we were the Flying Wallendas. Walking a high wire. Eyes wide open, arms spread. Trying to please an audience of two. The effort to ignore the obvious led to hours of emotional neglect. We feigned a connection and slept like ghosts beside each other in our bed. When she cried, I hide my face in a pillow. When she trembled with fear, I made jokes about the uncertainty of life.

       I’d make new friends every day, I said. It cut deep into Rosie’s heart and left a scar. The first time I couldn’t remember how to get home after a day at school, I decided suicide was the only answer. But how and when? I had a contract. Committed to another semester.

       The first time I wet my pants, I knew it was too late to escape the hands of a caretaker. But I didn’t want that aide, the diaper meister, to be my beloved wife.

       I have little time left to express my thoughts, my emotions. Most are too raw, untamed to share. Some are too dehumanizing to utter. I hate life; I hate god. I love life and its last speck of sand. God is my master, my savior.

       When mental faculties, for the most part, were still intact, I drove us to the Pocono Mountains to regroup. Springtime. My plan for a last weekend together. I wanted Rosie to leave, strike out on her own, before she lost her dignity. A mere servant to dysfunctional man. It wouldn’t be long before my self-worth would just be a shadow in someone else’s memory.

       I could always read her eyes. She wanted to run away. I had to give her permission because she was too loyal, too much in love to do what was right for her. We argued over--something. I ran to the woods. To carry out the plan. Freedom for her. Uncertainty over. Two thousand feet above sea level, deep in a forest. A perfect ending.

       But love is a tough glue, gorilla form, a magnet, a chain, a rubber band. Our needs too great. She’d never let go. I couldn’t die yet and leave her alone at night.

       No children to wrap her sorrow around. Twenty years of marriage and childless. A heartache for her to remain barren. My unspoken truth. I’d never wanted children with Rosie. It caused a wedge for a time—for that I am sure. Did the creator have a plan? Prevent me from adding to another generation of despair? Wasn’t my disease familial? So, my burden would be Rosie’s to bear alone.

       Except for another act of fate.

       Allen came to live with us. Allen is unruly at times. Disconnected. A mass of muscle, sinew, bone. Intelligent but naïve, inexperienced as youth should be. Fragile. Hostile. Sorrow moves in and out with each breathe he takes.

       Two parents lost to a drunk driver—his father. Reckless. An abandoned child. Not left in a basket on our doorstep but cast off by a grandmother, Rosie’s sister, who let hardship turn her into stone.

       He didn’t want to live with us. It wasn’t a matter of choice. Eleven or more, on the verge of self-destruction, the only home life he knew imploding around him. We were a temporary solution for his lifelong problem.

       We gave him more than a bed. He gave us purpose.

The Rosie MacIntosh Series

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WIl Emerson and Taking Rosie's Arm


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Author photo courtesy of the Pioneer Group .
Excerpts © Copyright 2018, Wil A. Emerson. All Rights Reserved.
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