Copyright is held by the author.
JOHN MacDONALD poured the coffee and added a splash of half-and-half, watching the yellow-brown cloud mushroom. The sight was as pleasing to him as the taste, although he had not much appetite for coffee, to begin with; that was but his daily habit, a ritual that was pleasing in its own reassuring way, which today was redundant, as reassurance was on its way in the form of his regular nurse visit. Looking steadily at the clock from his deep armchair as if not to miss the moment, John was readying his regular greeting joke, “Old MacDonald still has a farm, ee i ee i o,” sipping his pleasantly warm treat to soften up and give more flavour to a piece of the freshly made toast gently tucked between his tongue and the gum. He finally heard a car pull up and park with a hissing sound as if giving out a sigh, only this time it sounded a bit more powerful with a deep growl to its engine. The thought did not form in John’s head enough to claim an explanation. He mentally sprang to his feet while slowly extricating his body out of the armchair’s hollow and reaching for the doorknob with his habitually trembling hand dotted with liver spots and crisscrossed by the blue irrigation of veins. Unaware of his lips stretching into a greeting smile, John opened the door. There she was, the explanation, giving him back her full-lipped glaring smile.
“Good morning, sweetie,” said the explanation in a thick contralto.
“Erm . . . ,” still unaware of his smile.
“May I come in?”
He stepped back giving her way, watching doubtfully her waving body fit through the door, which it did with amazing ease, carrying itself like a bucket full of water swaying to the brim without spilling a drop.
“You are?” John’s lips finally came back together in a hard fold.
“Oh yeah, honey, I’m Breanna,” the explanation introduced herself with a syrupy drawl, “a nurse with Horton Medical and Associates.”
“No,” he pleaded, “Wait, my nurse is Klaudia. There must have been a mistake.”
“Claudia? What Claudia, honey?”
“Yes, Klaudia with a K.”
“What key, love? Let me look,” she produced her phone in a bright purple casing and tapped on it with her fingers adorned in licorice colour fake nails, “No sweetie, no mistake. I have been assigned to this very address. You can see it for yourself. Mister MacDonald, are you not, sir?”
“Yes, John MacDonald.”
“Huh, old MacDonald with a farm, ee i ee i o,” her mouth, again, melted in a wide glistening smile.
Old MacDonald cringed grinding quietly his yellowish matte teeth.
* * *
“Hi,” said the girl, standing in the doorway, aiming her straight blue-eyed gaze squarely at MacDonald, taking him a willing prisoner with her frog smile. He didn’t find her particularly pretty, maybe lovely. Definitely lovely. How could she not be? With her fleecy blond head atop the swan-like neck, which her husband so liked to wrap his hands around and kiss, and play-bite before moving upward to lock lips with her frog-wide mouth spreading from one earlobe to the other; she looked like a dandelion to him. This is how he sometimes called her, Dandelion, and she would protest only half in jest, “No. You’ve got it all wrong. I’m Klaudia, remember? Klaudia with a K.” She had a funny-shaped upturned nose as if her parents’ genes fooled around a little trying to work out some acceptable compromise — “No, you do it all wrong. This way her nose will be too big for a girl.” “What? You decided to make it a girl, why bitching now?” “No, silly, I decided no such thing; you took a pot shot, and then it was a matter of chance, well, mostly, and now it’s for both of us to figure together. Hear me? Together.” “Ah, fuck it already; she’ll look cute anyhow.” Her parents, their genes, her K, and herself came from Lodz, a fly-over city in the middle of Poland, which was itself in the middle of Europe, though no one knew where the middle really was.
“Hello there,” said MacDonald feeling an unexpected breath of warmth in the frosty morning air, as if the door opened inside, not out.
“I’m Klaudia, Klaudia with a K,” she said taking a pause to have the foreign spelling sink in and take roots.
“Oh, I’m John, John MacDonald,” he said and surprised himself with a sudden inept joke that just rolled off his tongue like a raindrop off an oak leaf, “Old MacDonald still has a farm, ee i ee i o, you know.”
“No,” admitted she simply, “I don’t know about the farm. I’m your registered mobile nurse from Horton. I do home visits. You have an appointment today.”
“I do? Oh yes, you’re right, mobile nurse. Pills on wheels!” he grinned enjoying his other joke which, too, was lost on Klaudia, who only gave it a lukewarm simper of acknowledgment. Nevertheless, the farm joke took roots in their morning greeting ritual over the months to come. MacDonald’s ‘farm’ was, in fact, a two-acre backyard consisting of a now barren lawn covered in snow crisscrossed by his footprints leading to and from a small shack with a stack of wood by its wall. John believed that the dry heat of firewood was good for his arthritis, which probably was true since the arthritis stuck with him in appreciation. Summer heat felt even better to him, and that feeling would start in the spring, readying the body in advance by sending its juices flowing, loosening up the knots and thawing the icicles of the winter freeze.
By May, the lawn was already in need of a haircut. These late days of his life MacDonald would hire kids from the neighbourhood as lawn barbers. “Kids my ass,” he would think to himself, “How, pray tell, these grown-up knuckleheads are kids? Once you start enjoying the baby-making business, you’re no more a kid than I’m a belly dancer. Ridiculous, they still have their mama do their laundry and pay their phone bills. At this rate, we’ll soon become a nation of old farts and forever babies with nothing in between to pick up the tab, a good for nothing country ready to fall prey to up and coming peoples. Is this what it will all come to, the home of the brave and all? Thank goodness, I won’t live to see the fall and carnage, which is a cowardly thought, come to think of it. What will happen to them all then? To my Klaudia with a K?” This spring, the kids happened to be a dude, as kids called each other these days, with a silky-smooth and tight like a pair of leggings skin over his lanky, loose in the joints body which moved with a carefree ease of a falling leave, and his dudette, a wiry girl with quicker than needed choppy movements and louder than wanted voice throwing around an excess of words half of them sounding random; her eyes were always glistening and jumping from object to object as if the girl was cocaine-powered. She called her boyfriend dude Smoothie, confirming MacDonald’s first impression undoubtedly amplified by the contrast with his own sagging turtle skin.
Smoothie was listening to MacDonald’s instructions with a vacant look of a chewing calf, absentmindedly stroking the thin curling hair under his chin, keeping the old man guessing whether at least some of his words were reaching the kid’s consciousness and whether there were one to reach. The girl, on the contrary, was all on it, impatiently nodding as if putting periods and commas after every second word, chopping his speech up like cucumber for a tossed salad.
“Ok, kids. You may want to get to it now. I think I’m hearing my nurse coming. Gotta go now,” concluded he, as Klaudia’s Corolla indeed pulled up.
MacDonald hurried to greet and open the door for her while the kids lingered, checking Klaudia out as if seeing a nurse for the first time, although they would not have known she was a nurse, had not MacDonald told them so, which didn’t matter anyway, nor would it the last and second time they’d see her.
“Old MacDonald,” started he his eternal joke du jour waving at a lawnmower ready for the dude team, “as you can see here. Please do come in. How are you this afternoon, Mistress Klaudia?”
A stray thought darted through his mind, fading out quickly like tracer fire, “What for-goodness-sake was I thinking? Two kids for a one-man job. Getting old. Old and foolish. Fool MacDonald . . . ee i eei o . . .”
“I am fine, thank you, Mister MacDonald. How’s your health this month so far?” Klaudia set her medical bag on the dining table, fishing out her tools and untangling the wires.
“John. John, please, remember?”
“Yes, I do, Mister MacDonald, but I need to follow the agency’s rules. Do you want me fired and to stop coming?” she turned to him her mischievous smile denting her cheeks with two dimples that Mr. MacDonald John, Sir found heartwarming. He chuckled in sync with the lawnmower’s starter growl outside.
She proceeded straight to their healthcare ritual of measurements and injections with the air of habitual concern and calm confidence in her movements, which felt to MacDonald as reassuring as his own heartbeat. The touch of Klaudia’s light hands was felt in his entrails as if amplified by invisible strings, as though she was playing him like a piano. “If only it could last a couple more hours,” he mentally sighed, buttoning up his shirt and resuming his esquire demeanour before trying his usual ruse of enticing her to stay longer for lunch, which he knew she would decline, so that he could downgrade his offer to a treat she couldn’t refuse that today was an apple. As he pushed toward her a plate with a perfectly round immaculate Gala apple like the Evil Queen to Snow White, he noticed out the corner of his eye a bizarre occurrence in the yard: Smoothie driving the lawnmower with his girl riding on top holding onto his shoulders and moving her hips as in a dance. Klaudia followed his stupefied gaze.
“She should be raking the cut grass instead,” she sensibly reasoned, “the girl has no business fooling around like that. Something but the grass will get cut.”
“Hey,” shouted MacDonald out the window, “You two just stop fooling around. Get the rake in the shack and sweep the grass over.”
“Yes, sir. Tracking that. Yes to the raking sweeping,” the girl jumped off the mower stumbling by inertia and ran to the shack, capering.
“Kids,” snarled MacDonald turning back inside and sitting down across from Klaudia.
“At work you’re adult,” announced she, “at a party, you’re a teen, at home you can be whatever you want no matter the age.”
He smiled looking at how she peeled the apple with her knife having the skin come off neatly in a gentle spiral, at her earnestly bowed dandelion head on the elongated neck that miraculously didn’t break despite its slender aspect with the thin streak of a vein stretching upward under the pale skin and splintering at the chin. The smile released a wave of warmth coming down his chest. Unaware of the thought, MacDonald wished she were his daughter adopted years ago. This unnoticed thought touched off another that he did notice but quickly chased off, that of his two sons.
“Good boys,” was how he always referred to them, because they were, indeed, good boys with good jobs, families and all, only he didn’t quite know them. He knew all about them (they kept in regular contact over the phone with a compulsory face time for the grandchildren) just not them, not anymore, which may be why he never qualified the ‘good boys’ descriptor with details. He did not remember how it happened; they had been growing up, learning life, getting in trouble, turning into men, and all of a sudden, he had good boys. He knew it wasn’t sudden; he just missed it somehow; too busy, too tired, too oblivious, too sure, or all of the above.
He hardly noticed how the apple disappeared from his sight transposed somewhere into Klaudia who put down the knife, gave a light sigh of satisfaction, and was about to take the plate and knife to the sink when MacDonald intervened.
“Please, young girl, I’ll take care.”
“OK,” she waved her hands in a welcome defeat and signalled with a wide resolute smile her readiness to depart.
MacDonald looked out the window, where her Corolla was.
“Oh, wait a sec. Let me let those clowns go.”
Klaudia watched him go out in the yard to hand dollar bills to the ‘kids’ team. She saw them walk away to their car; the girl leading with a sway, Smoothie trailing her, slowly pulling his legs abreast with his lanky trunk, as if they needed encouragement to move.
After seeing Klaudia’s Corolla pull out, MacDonald took a tour of the yard, inspecting the “good job” as he had called it handing out the money as if convincing himself in a backward way that the money had been well-earned. In several places, where the fence made corners and around the old oak, unscathed patches grinned daringly at him with the survivor dandelions sticking out their merry yellow heads unaware of their sisters’ fate or, for that matter, their own.
“Kids,” he thought, slowly walking to the shed, “Sure.” He pulled out his old Stihl weeder, checked the oil and poured gas in the tank. “What was that my granddad liked to say? Something like, ‘No one wants to —’ no, not like that; he used to say it better. What was it?” With his arthritic hands, whose swollen knuckles looked like the knots in the oak’s branches and trunk, MacDonald pulled on the cord, extracting some lazy growls as an acknowledgment of the effort. “Ah, remember now, ‘Everyone thinks rich, nobody thinks work.’ Right. How do they figure it’s even supposed to work?” He took four more pulls, waking the weeder up. “Ah, now you’re talking, brother.” He felt with satisfaction the familiar whirr in his hands. “Actually, he took it from his grand or great-grandfather or something, the Russian émigré. He used to say it all the time, not that but a different line he had quoted from a Russian writer Ivan something, though they’re all Ivans. About the Great Russian Revolution or whatever it was called. He used to say it in Russian and then in English, but grandad spoke no Russian, he only knew the English quote, ‘A widespread contempt for work.’” He took the weeder to the sticking out patches. In slow thoughtless motion, he was leveling the green playing field, watching with a flat amusement the fallen dandelion heads strew the lawn like the shards of a broken sun.
Driving back Klaudia was listening to her audiobook. Her long like a flower stem neck was slightly bent forward as if to help her focus on the road rather empty at this idle hour of the sleepy town, and her funny-shaped nose was turned up as if she was sniffing up her way. The book, Pride and Prejudice, was narrated by a woman’s voice as though to make it feel as if Jane Austen was talking lively from the Regency era. Klaudia felt it imperative to learn the roots and nutrients born thereby of the mighty culture she was steadily, day by day, settling in.
The clean effortless sentences flowing out of the speakers on the background of subdued humming of the engine reminded her of the fine needlework she had seen as a little girl in her great grandmother’s house back in Lodz, though that had not been the great grandmother’s work but of a more distant, buried in history mummy. She remembered getting lost in its intricate pattern like a veil covering the invisible sense and sensibilities of the past. The chirpy narrator’s voice accentuated for her the opulent dialogue of the characters. She was not as much interested in the soap-like trials of Elizabeth and Darcy as she was engrossed in the verbal tapestry unapologetic of its excessive unending qualifiers to every uttered word. She could easily imagine herself entering the Longbourn parlour, saying with a direct stare of her aquamarine eyes, “I shall be most ingratiated to humbly introduce myself to your most kind and distinguished society as Mistress Klaudia with a K.”
Fascinated with the density of the words agreeable, amiable, complacent and felicity, sensibly spiced up with occasional vexation and impertinence, she also marvelled at condescension intended as a positive and at the fancy of calling piano a pianoforte. Klaudia was trying to apply that vocabulary to the life she knew: the whisper of her Corolla’s tires, the elm and oak trees at the roadside, the green and yellow tin road signs, the Horton offices, the phone emojis and YouTube, the grey-yellow mason buildings of Lodz where she grew up, and the more she tried the more futile her endeavor felt until she finally clapped her hands in an ah-ha moment. “Old MacDonald is amiable,” she sweetly thought, “and quite agreeable too,” suddenly noticing someone on the road shoulder frantically waving her arms in a plea for help. Klaudia pulled over forcing her Corolla into a hissing stop, as though she woke up a snake.
She backed up to where the person stood, rolled down the window, and shut the book off at, “Oh, my dear, dear Lizzy —”
“Do you need help?” she looked up at the person, recognizing her at once and acknowledging with her frog smile, “Oh, it’s you. You were helping at the old man’s house, right?”
“Right, right,” said the girl with an air of urgency, “We’ve got like an emergency here, can you help? Can you? Can you help please?”
“I’ll show you, just come with me. Come with me now.”
“Come where?” asked Klaudia hesitantly.
“Here, here. I’ll show you. Right there,” the girl made a vague motion pointing to a little grove down the slope, as her tone grew more pleading.
Klaudia hesitantly stepped out looking around without much to look at but a grey-yellow field on both sides of the road with patches of shrubs and elm trees.
“Please!” the girl was rushing her, “We’re like having an emergency, emergency!”
Klaudia followed still unsure but unable to stop, scrambling for a reason to and finding none in the perturbed bumbling swarm of her thoughts.
“OK, I know you, right?” repeated Klaudia to slow the flow of events she felt by now uneasy about, yet still not knowing why, and the lack of knowledge was making her ever more uneasy and ever less capable of reversing the flow, as if watching herself in a night dream, “You were there, right? Mowing the lawn.”
“Yeah,” said the girl looking over the shoulder, “I did,” and a momentary thought seemed to have crossed her mind like a shooting star expiring in half-flight “Come, come.” She beckoned trotting down the slope and through the grass toward the grove.
In the clearing on a fallen tree trunk sat Smoothie thoughtfully stroking the tuft of hair under his chin. He looked up with a smile of acknowledgment. Klaudia froze standing there in front of him with the girl close behind her. She instantly knew and acknowledged back to him the predicament, which surprisingly gave a measure of order to her thoughts.
“What kind of emergency do we have here?” she said with a resigned firmness to her tone.
“Please, I don’t want to feel anything. I just don’t want to feel, please,” she pleaded in her thought quickly.
“There’s always one around,” said Smoothie in a swinging drawl with a light chuckle at the end, slowly getting up as if unfolding, still stroking his chin hair.
“You’re funny,” he said staring her straight in the eyes and resting his long-fingered hand on her shoulder. She swiped it off with a sudden resolve.
“Whoa,” Smoothie said, raising one eyebrow. “You’re bitchin’, girl.” And he chuckled in a high pitch with his eyes expressionless.
“You need to let me go,” she said with a frown and then suddenly gave her frog smile. “Please, let me go.” Her eyes welling up.
“You’re funny.” He giggled again, stroking gently her neck along its full length up and down. “We’re gonna do it, she gonna watch it,” he said, nodding at the girl, who was training her phone at them, and completely encircled Klaudia’s neck with his fingers, pushing her steadily to the ground. “Down, bitch, get down,” he uttered under his breath. “You don’t wanna get no hurtin’, it’s all good.” His stare grew harder and his face paler.
The same thought beat violently between Klaudia’s temples: “Don’t want to feel it,” and an overpowering meekness started setting in her whole body. In the agony of her last spark of bitter despair, Klaudia screamed, wildly flailing her arms.
“Ahhhoww,” screamed Smoothie in his indecent high pitch, as the fingernail of Klaudia’s middle finger dug deep into his left eye. Letting go of her neck, he swung slightly back and to the side, and with his right fist delivered a swiping blow to the back of her head where it sat atop her swan-like neck. She felt no pain, nor did she hear the crackle at the base of her head, just jerked awkwardly forward and folded on the ground.
“Yo,” cried the girl, still keeping recording, “What did you do that for?”
“What?” said Smoothie cupping his eye with his hand.
“What did you do that for?”
“Poked me in the eye. The bitch’s crazy.”
“Still had no business whacking her like that, eye or not. Look, she ain’t moving no more.” The girl pointed at Klaudia lying at the ground with the phone, having stopped recording by now.
“She’s gentled all right.” He blinked in a quick succession checking his eye’s vision.
“Ain’t jerking no more. Just now was jerking her foot but not no more. She don’t feel nothing now.”
“So what? She ain’t good for nothing now.”
“No, she ain’t. She don’t even jerk no more.”
Indeed, Klaudia could not even hear them speak about her and the state of her welfare. The girl was dead on; Klaudia did not feel anything, just as she had hoped.
* * *
After Breanna from Horton and Associates carried her jello body out the door and rolled it away in the gently growling Wrangler, old MacDonald came out on the porch with the now cold coffee in hand. He took a long vacant look at his “farm” of two acres of neatly cut grass with a squatty oak tree full of knots as if from tree arthritis. He spotted a lone dandelion by the fence, an old one with a fleecy grey head on its still luscious green stem, like a lawn lollipop.
He walked straight to it as if with a sense of purpose, plucked the flower and took it to his lips, blowing the white seeds off, leaving the stem’s stub bald, watching the seeds float in the air. They called them parachutes as little boys, when farms were farms. The seeds floated and would be carried away on a journey to their new home to settle in and take roots on a faraway farm that he couldn’t see but knew was there some place, where, maybe, Klaudia with a K would see them one day as they spread their golden heads’ petals wide above the green stubble of a spring land. Maybe she would see and remember her old MacDonald, and flash her funny frog smile at the thought of him. He knew she would.