“Leverage” by Shane Joseph
Harry and Sally were dying. His heart had required a fourth stent recently, and the first one put in twenty years ago was now wearing down, causing him to be out of breath often, and dizzy. He was sick of doctors attending to his “plumbing” all the time. She was getting more forgetful each day and had to be force-fed her memory pills lest she become incoherent by sunset.
Well, that was not such a big deal, Harry thought. After all, he was ninety-one and she was eighty-nine. They had met in high school, married in their early twenties after the war, pursued productive careers in government and education, produced children, and had been together since. Now she was his eyes and he was her brain, for in addition to his weak heart, he was going blind as she continued her slide into dementia. They still shared a drink before dinner in the home they had owned since they were married, watched TV, and took cautious walks indoors, and sometimes outdoors in warmer weather, with the aid of their walkers. They were hoping they could prolong this sunset for as long as possible. Except that...
The phone jarred Harry awake from his lounge chair.
“Darn, what time is it?”
He heard Sally’s snores in the adjoining room. He must have fallen asleep watching the late-night news on the monster TV in the living room. He heard the CBC morning show hosts laughing at some joke and, despite his proximity to the screen, the images were blurred.
The phone’s insistent ring was annoying.
“Coming,” he said to himself and reached for the cordless phone lying on the side table amidst pill bottles, the crumbs on last night’s dinner plate, and the empty glass of pre-dinner sherry that was his only treat these days.
His trembling fingers pressed the talk button, missed, and dismissed the call instead. “Ah! Oh, well. Perhaps it was a telemarketer.” He switched off the TV and drifted back to sleep.
He shot up in his chair, the instrument vibrating in his hand, making him think he was being electrocuted. This time he hit the right button.
Harry sighed. “I am now. Whadya want?” He recognized his younger daughter, Meghan. Meghan the planner, with her constant flow of designs for her parents’ future that they didn’t always buy into: the swimming pool when she was a teenager, the extra garage when she got her first car, the cottage by the lake when her kids were young enough to swim. Harry was tired of these “plans” that he always had to pay for, in cash or in kind.
“The nursing home called. They have a bed for Mom.”
“Oh, no. Not again. Well, she’s sleeping.”
“We have to take the bed now, or else they will give it to someone else.”
“Then let ’em give it to someone else.”
“Dad, you can’t keep looking after Mom. With your heart and your eyes and all.”
“I said when we go, we go together. Do they have a bed for me beside her?”
“Dad, you know that is not how it works. There are separate men’s and women’s wings, but you can meet in the common areas.”
“And we cannot get you in at the same time as Mom. It’s one bed at a time, whenever they come available. But they will place you on the priority list for the same home and have Home Care visit you at the house until you move.”
“Definitely, no deal.”
Her voice took on a plaintive tone. Now she was going to appeal to his emotions. “Dad, why do you make it so difficult for Brad and me...we are doing our best for you.”
“If you want to do your best, you can let us hang onto our independence for a bit longer.”
He heard a clearing of the throat and a rustle of bedsheets in the next room, then a faint voice called out. “Who’s visiting?”
“No one. Go back to sleep. It’s Meghan, calling too early.”
The voice on the phone raised a notch. Meghan didn’t sound at all like her mother. Wonder whom she resembled? “Dad, let me speak to Mom.”
“You can’t. She just went back to sleep. Call me later.” He hit a button and hoped he had hit the right one. The phone went dead.
The rustling continued and soon a blurry figure stood in the bedroom doorway. Harry smiled and was glad that his eyes were dim. What he saw before him was not the dishevelled, shrunken old woman who stood bleary eyed clinging to her walker, what he saw was the young, strong woman who had awakened his libido and warmed his heart over many years through children, careers, home-building, triumphs and disasters.
She moved in closer and sat beside him.
“I had that dream again,” she said.
“Which one?” She had many dreams, all going back to childhood where people, long dead, were making sudden appearances.
“We were at a dance.”
“That’s a new one.”
“Didn’t we go to a dance yesterday?”
“We haven’t been out of this house in weeks. It’s going to be minus twenty degrees outside tomorrow, the radio said.
“We did the foxtrot. And Susie was there.”
“Susie’s dead. She died forty years ago. Car crash. Remember?” He got a perverse satisfaction when asking her to “remember.” But he knew she would never take offence. She would forget what he had just said to her in minutes. But she couldn’t forget her twin sister Susie.
He pulled himself up from the couch. That action left him winded and disoriented. He stood still until the lights settled down in his head. “Time for breakfast.”
He loved making bacon and eggs and sliding bread into the toaster - the smells made him come alive. Navigating the items in the kitchen was getting difficult and his aim was a bit off the mark; the other day he burnt his fingers when he poured hot water into the teapot. But Sally was no good in the kitchen anymore; she left ovens on until the smoke alarm rang; she forgot how many sugars went into her tea and kept adding teaspoons full until the liquid was displaced from the mug.
As he lit the old gas oven by holding a match to it, he listened for the pop when the ring caught fire. If he was off target and the pop did not sound, he would turn the knob back for fear of releasing too much gas into the house. Meghan had been pestering him to buy a new electric oven but he just liked this old warhorse that had served him for many years, and was reluctant to let it go.
At the sizzling smell of bacon, Sally ambled off to the kitchen table and sat at her place as if on auto pilot. This was a routine they followed each morning, and routines were good, especially for Sally.
“Don’t forget to tell Edna to put on a fresh diaper after your bath.” Forget? Edna would not forget. There he was using his funny words again. Incontinence had been recently added to Sally’s growing list of disabilities.
He switched on the radio to listen to the news, and then set plates of eggs, bacon and toast down, along with two steaming mugs of tea. Then he ate with relish. Nothing would steal him away from his breakfast and the image of Sally at the other end of the table. Theirs was an eternal friendship.
After breakfast, while he was putting the washed mugs and plates away, Edna arrived. Edna was their caregiver who attended to everything: cleaning and bathing Sally, cleaning the house, buying the groceries, even shoveling snow; not all these items were on the list of support activities provided by the social services agency but Edna did them and Harry made sure to compensate her on the side—the poor woman needed all the money she could get. Except for cooking that is; cooking was Harry’s last bastion and he was hanging onto it for as long as he could, even though his hands had accumulated many scars and burns recently.
Edna was in her late forties who lived in the subsidized housing project in town. Her husband had abandoned her ten years ago and she had raised two children on sheer grit. Now Tommy was in jail for a felony and Tina was a hooker in Toronto, and Edna never talked about them. She had come to work for Harry and Sally five years ago, and not a day too soon, for the old couple had started to lose one marble after the other around that time.
“It’s a cold one, today,” Edna said, taking off her coat and clutching the sides of her threadbare sweater. “Ready for your bath today, Sally?”
“I took one yesterday. Why do I need one today?”
“You last bath was four days ago. Remember?” Harry said. He was finding no more space in the cupboard. What was that big blob at the back? He pulled it out and peered at it closely. A cushion. What the heck was a cushion doing amidst the crockery? Sally!
Edna was rolling up her sleeves to escort Sally into the bathroom. “This may be one of the last baths I’ll give ya.”
“Whadya mean?” Harry turned around, mugs in one hand, cushion in the other.
“They have to increase rents or shut down the housing project—the municipality has no more funding. I can’t afford the new rent. I’m moving in with my sister in Kingston.”
“They can’t do that.” But they could, and Harry knew it. “When...?
He heard a sniffle emanate from Edna.
“Next month. I gave my notice today and they have my deposit rent for this last month. You folks have been so good to me. But what can I do? Anyway, Sally, let’s go see about your bath...” They went out of his sight and Harry closed the cupboard and pushed his walker into the living room.
There were moments like this when he felt impotent, not from the infirmities that plagued him but from the obstacles out in the real world that he had no way of overcoming. He was losing leverage on the world.
The phone rang again and he stumbled towards it. Relatives and friends knew he had no voice mail and that the phone would ring until he got to it; telemarketers hung up earlier. This didn’t seem like a telemarketer, but he couldn’t find the phone despite following in the wake of its continuous ring. It had slipped under a cushion. The instrument was still ringing when his shaking fingers pressed the talk button.
“Dad” It was Brad.
“I just got your taxes done. You owe $8106 in back taxes.”
“That fund you had parked your retirement money in before I took over. You never reported your earnings from it.”
“Well, you didn’t report enough.”
“How am I going to pay that?”
“Dad, you have plenty of money. You sold the cottage last year.”
“Do you want me to sell this house also?”
“No. Just draw down your fixed deposit and pay this off.”
Harry let the news sink in. Since the last financial crisis in 2008, he hadn’t trusted stocks and bonds anymore, even the ones that Brad had recommended. He had parked everything in a fixed deposit but had found that he couldn’t earn much in interest. Now, inflation was shrinking his nest egg.
“Actually, Dad—I was wondering whether you could draw down about twenty-five thousand dollars from your fixed deposit. Jared is going to university this year...”
“You shouldn’t have got divorced and married a much younger woman. You’re close to retirement yourself.”
“We don’t want to have that discussion, do we?”
“Yes, we should. Your first wife, what was her name again... took you to the cleaners. Now you want my money.”
“Our age is different to yours, Dad. Spousal loyalty died somewhere in between.”
“We had nothing in my time, with the war and all. Yes, our age was pretty darned different to yours.”
“Meghan said that they found a spot for Mom at the nursing home.”
“Don’t change the subject on me.”
“This is important too. You just are too darned stubborn about going it alone.”
“Well, it’s our life.”
“Will you think about the twenty-five thousand?”
“I’ll think about it.”
“And the nursing home?”
“That’s a closed subject.”
“Okay, okay. Well...bye, Dad.”
Harry was glad when Brad hung up. He fell back into his lounge chair in front of the TV and switched on the news. Depressing stuff. Donald Trump was banning immigrants from his country, The Brits were leaving Europe after all they had done to bring peace in the continent, that dreaded Zika virus was still around and shrinking children’s heads, and everyone was gearing up to make money when marijuana was legalized with no concern for more children’s heads that would be damaged in this rush for riches. The news depressed him. It was as if the more they had, the less they had. He definitely was losing leverage on this world.
On impulse, he picked up the phone. He scanned the speed dial numbers. One had to special to be on Harry’s speed dial list: the doctor, the lawyer, Brad who was now also his accountant, Meghan, and Edna. There were numbers for his former legion buddies but they were all dead now.
“Mr. Weisberger’s office,” the chirpy secretary, whose voice he couldn’t recognize, answered.
“Can I speak to Nathan.”
“May, I tell him who’s calling?”
The finality of his voice caused her not ask any more clarifying questions, and he was put through immediately.
Nathan Weisberger’s affected nasal tone made Harry wonder why he still dealt with this man after forty years. But Weisberger was a sharp lawyer who produced results.
“Harry! How’s it going?”
“I want to change my will.”
There was silence at the other end. Then, “But you changed it only last month.”
“Right. And I want to change it again.”
Harry rattled off the new conditions as if he had deliberated them for weeks and was reading off a script. The words did come from a script, one that had been building in his head only this morning.
When Harry finished, Weisberger whistled. “That’s a severe change. It could be challenged in court.”
“I don’t give a damn. I’ll be dead and you’ll collect more legal fees. Can you get it drawn up quick?”
“Do you want to talk it over with Sally, at least?”
“No need. She’ll forget it anyway.”
“How is she, by the way?”
“Is it worse now?”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. How about your children? How about talking to Brad, at least, as he does your finances?”
“No way. No Brad. No Meghan.”
“Listen, Harry. In a will as dramatic as this one you propose, we also need to ascertain mental ability. Not to say that I have any doubt in your case, but you see the predicament I am placed in?”
“Do you want to do this and earn some money, or lose me as a client?”
Weisberger’s tone became even more nasal and whiny. “Oh, no Harry. I didn’t mean it like that. I was just showing you all the angles.”
“Well... will you do it?”
Weisberger swallowed. “Yes, Harry. I’ll send a draft over to you and then we will have to get it signed in front of a witness.”
“Can you bring it over yourself? Today? And bring your secretary over as a witness.”
“I’ll see what I can do, Harry.”
“She all washed and ready,” Edna said, gently easing Sally onto the sofa next to him. He peered at his wife. She smelled clean, with that rose talcum powder that marked her presence for him.
“Thank you, Edna. Not sure what we will do without you.”
“Thank you, dear,” Sally echoed.
“Well, I’ll be off to clean up the house now. I brushed the snow off the driveway before I came in. Freezing rain’s coming next.”
As Edna moved about the house vacuuming rooms, arranging beds and taking out the garbage, Harry and Sally sat listening to the radio. Their favourite show, Coronation Street, was on. Radio was one medium they could share on equal terms now, for their hearing hadn’t deteriorated that far yet.
“It’s funny that we are reduced to this,” Harry said. “Like during the war, before we had TV. You remember?” He knew she would remember the very distant past even as her cloud of dementia penetrated deeper each day. When her childhood gets wiped out that’s when things will be dire.
“We listened to Glen Miller on the radio.”
“That’s good. It’s good that you remember.” He reached out and took her hand in his. It was a small, delicate hand, like the hand of the shy girl he had dated back in 1945 after he had returned from the war in Europe.
“We fought for a better world,” he said.
“We danced in the streets. The ground was cold because we had kicked off our shoes.”
“I’m impressed - you remember.”
“Who is in the next room?
This was it, from one moment to the next, from deep memories to forgetting what had just taken place. He stifled a tear. Then he panicked. What if he died before she did? They’d put her in the nursing home without batting an eyelid. She’d die there faster than if she remained here. He couldn’t let that happen to her. He looked towards the gas oven and shuddered. He had contemplated that option many times—a way out for both of them at the same time. They said you died peacefully that way.
“I would like for us to die together, sitting down like this,” he blurted out suddenly.
She giggled. “Will you hold my hand when you die?”
“Can I go with you?”
The radio show ended but they remained holding hands until Edna returned, buttoning her coat. “Well, I must be off. Have to go for my shift at the supermarket.” After a sigh, she added, “That’s another job I’ll have to give up soon.”
“Edna,” Harry rose, waited until the lights stopped spinning, and pushed his walker over towards the caregiver. “A word with you, please...”
He walked with her down the passageway to the front door. He stopped at the entryway table where he kept a notepad and pen. He scribbled a name and phone number, ones that had been with him for forty years.
She took his hand at the door. “Harry, please try and understand, I am not trying to desert you. The agency will find you another caregiver if you let them know today.”
“I don’t want another caregiver.”
“You mean...you mean, you are going into the nursing home? Meghan has been trying to do that for awhile, hasn’t she?”
“No. But I want to give you this.” He handed her the note. “If anything...should happen to me, I want you to call this number. They will help you.”
“Oh, Harry. I can’t take money from you. You have treated me so well as it is. Besides you need it for your selves.”
“Just make that call,” he said and closed the door on her lest she protest any further.
It was after 5 p.m. when the signing ceremony wrapped up. Only the chandelier above the dining room table provided light, driving creeping shadows into the corners of the room. Nathan Weisberger, in his elegant navy pinstripe suite with red pocket square, sat back in his chair and inspected the signed document, then handed it over to his bespectacled secretary, Abigail, to attest. Across from Weisberger, Harry sat with Sally huddled against him; she had been bored by the proceedings and had fallen asleep against his shoulder.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to advise anyone else, other than this Edna person?” Weisberger asked, arching his bushy eyebrows.
Just then the doorbell rang.
“I’ve spared you the agony,” Harry said. “That will be Brad and Meghan. I asked them to drop in on their way home from work.”
Weisberger’s eyebrows arched higher, as Abigail rose dutifully from her chair and said, “I’ll get the door.”
“Who’s at the door?” Sally had stirred from her slumber.
“The kids.” Harry said.
“We have kids?”
Weisberger cleared his throat. “That will be your son Brad and your daughter Meghan.”
“Oh. Why are they coming today?”
Before the lawyer could reply, two figures came rushing down the hallway and into the light.
“Hello, hello - what do we have here?” Brad was a paunchy, bald man in a dark suit and tie. When he stood, his belly flopped over his belt and his hands flapped out like wings. He’s overdue for a heart attack, Harry noted. Behind Brad stood his angular sister, a head taller than her older brother. And she will die of anorexia.
“Come in,” Harry said. “Take seats.”
“It’s dark in here,” said Meghan, switching on lights in the dining room. In the flood of the extra light Harry could make out his daughter’s aquiline nose and severe grey suit that matched the colour of her hair. Meghan was a school principal, but she had not inherited any of her mother’s warmth that had endeared Sally to children.
Brad pulled a bench over by the wall to the table and sat down, and immediately pounced on the will that lay face up on the table. “What’s this? Another change?” Everyone remained silent as Brad read the document and went pale.
“Is this some kind of a joke? You call us here at the end of a tiring work day to read this?”
Meghan who had remained standing at the table, took the papers out of Brad’s shaking hand and read them. She nodded silently and her features hardened; there would be no explosion from her. “I think you both need to get to the nursing home quickly.” She looked across at Weisberger. “You let him sign this?”
Weisberger cleared his throat again. “Your father is of sound mind, and he has power of attorney for your mother.”
“Why, it’s Brad and Meghan” Sally suddenly came alive noticing her two children for the first time. “Come and give me a hug, will you, darlings.”
“Yes,” Harry concurred. “You both might want to do that instead of jumping to monetary matters straight away. I can see where your priorities lie.”
Sheepishly, Meghan went over to her mother and gave her a peck on the cheek. Brad just sat on his bench and waved. “Hi Mom. We’ll do a proper visit after this business is concluded.”
Everyone resettled, and an awkward silence descended. Abigail excused herself to go to the toilet.
“All right. Let me put you all out of your agony,” Harry said. He felt a surge of energy course through him. “Last month, I changed my will, leaving everything to you—Brad and Meghan.”
“As you should,” Brad prompted. His face arched upwards, smugly.
“And ever since that time, thanks to Meghan’s assiduous work, we have had four attempts from nursing homes to take your mother in.”
“As it should be!” This time it was Meghan’s moment for interrupting.
“Well, since you have such charitable dispositions, I am donating all my money to charity now, with a small allowance for Edna.”
Brad pounced to his feet and banged his fist on the table. His pale face had turned purple. “And I’ll challenge this new will in court.”
Weisberger yawned. “You’ll lose. This is not British Columbia. In Ontario, a person could leave the proceeds of his estate to anyone he chooses in a duly signed and witnessed will.”
“Sit down, Brad.” Harry’s voice was stern. He was feeling so heady that he was having trouble with his breathing. Leverage, he was re-claiming it, and he could barely contain his excitement. Yet, this was not the time to get another heart attack. “I haven’t finished.”
“Let’s hear him out, Brad.” Meghan’s voice was low, modulated. “Let’s not be labelled ungrateful, despite his ungratefulness.”
Brad crumpled onto the bench but kept his clenched hands in fists on the table. Silence descended on the room was like a thick fog.
“Does anyone want a cookie?” Sally suddenly jerked awake again, dispelling the gloom.
“In a moment, dear.” Harry patted her hand. Turning around to the rest of the group, he said, “I changed my will today. I can change it again tomorrow. But until then, I want you all to butt out and leave me and your mother alone. We don’t have a lot of time left and we want to spend it together.”
Weisberger gathered his papers, stuffed them into his briefcase, and rose. “I think your father has articulated it clearly. There is nothing more to be said here tonight. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to leave. And I’d better check whether Abigail is discreetly avoiding us or has had an accident in the toilet. Good night, everyone. I will let myself out.”
At that point the flush rang out loudly, and in perfect timing, Abigail stepped out of the toilet with a “Oh, I’ll get our coats.”
“I’d better be going too,” Brad said. “I have a family waiting for me at home. A family that cares.”
“Bye, Mum.” Another peck from Meghan. A distant, “Bye, Dad,” from Brad, and both siblings hurried out after the lawyer and his assistant.
“Put those lights off when you leave,” Harry called after them.
“Yes, yes, I know, ‘your father doesn’t own the hydro company,’ as you used to tell us as children,” Meghan replied icily.
Harry and Sally remained silent for a long while after everyone had departed. Then Sally stirred. “I could have sworn that the kids were here.”
“Yes. Don’t we have kids?”
“Yes. Although they didn’t turn out as expected. We are bonded by blood and separated by money.” All the excitement had left him breathless. He rose slowly from his chair and pulled his walker over. He moved to where Sally’s walker was parked and wheeled it back to her. “Come, my dear. It’s just you and me again. Time to enjoy quiet time with a bit of sherry and some classical music on the radio.”
“Yes. I would like that. I remember we danced to Glen Miller.”
When they were ensconced in their seats by the radio in the living room, he held her hand, and it felt good. A patter on the windows said that the snow had turned into rain. A brief thaw before the mercury plummeted again. And it had been worth the fight. The sherry too tasted better than normal. And he didn’t steal any glances towards the gas oven in the kitchen anymore.
Tomorrow, he would call Weisberger and change the will back to the previous version. But this time he wouldn’t let the “kids” know. In the dark, the touch of Sally’s hand took him back to those early days when they had been young lovers. He wouldn’t let her go then, and he couldn’t let her go now.
Yes, it had been worth the fight. Leverage was all you needed.