PATRICK FORGETTE is a Seattle native. Poems of his will appear in Pontoon and Crab Creek Review. He is working on a novel.
Fortress Europe

by Patrick Forgette



      Helen pulled the kitchen window closed and secured the latch. Across the street, a blue tricycle sat in the third-floor balcony of a newly built apartment house. It seemed to sum up an article she'd read, on "diminished expectations of the young." Tricycles needed a lot of space, and there wasn't enough on that balcony to turn a tricycle around.

     An older representative of the young was in her kitchen now: Larry, her daughter's fiancé. He had gone along on Karen's European vacation and had now come along on her visit home. Sitting at the table with a mug of coffee and the morning paper, Larry didn't seem so awfully diminished of expectation. With his Mexican pullover, cowboy jeans, and Dutch clogs, the world might already be his oyster.

     "Why don't you come?" Helen asked, addressing more immediate expectations, those her houseguest might have for the day. "I'll be a couple of hours volunteering; you can look around town."

     "What about Karen?" Larry asked, running a V-sign through his loose dark hair.

     "The orthodontist will keep her that long, and she'll browse the shops anyway."

     "Say no more."

     "I'm dropping a cake at my brother's first. Tom is at Country Hills."

     "Fine."

     Had Larry inquired about her brother, it would have made her next statement easier. "He's ill."

     "Paper says there's a major flu."

     "A touch of Alzheimer's," Helen said, glancing at her listener.

     "Oh, Alzheimer's."

     "You know?"

     "I taped an hour on PBS, but I haven't watched."

     Helen was familiar, by way of her daughter, with this vague recollection of terms but not meanings. The home video recorder had given a version of Alzheimer's to the young.

     "You can meet Tom, if you like."

     Larry sat back as if experience were not normally a part of his day. "Just tell me what to do."

     "There's nothing really much."

     "I'd like to."

     "Mark, Tom's attendant, told me to bring photographs to help start conversation, and--"

     "Snapshots?"

     "Yes, and I'm putting together an album for Tom. The important thing is..." She considered the word "patience" and settled on "be cheerful."

     "I can be that."

                 *   *   *

     The nice thing about driving to town at ten in the morning was missing rush hour, or at least trading it for the rush hour of a generation before. Helen could remember the traffic of even a generation earlier, when her father thought nothing of taking the family downtown for dinner. In all that way, he would meet less traffic than today's fathers encountered in a fast-food drive-up lane.

     Drive-up lanes led to drive-up windows, and those would have been difficult in her father's old car--all that unsnapping of side curtains.

     Helen stopped her own car at the request of a helmeted flagman. Behind him, safety cones dotted the two-lane road.

     Larry's use of the word "snapshot" had sent her down memory lane, to a time when her father was not only alive but driving and she and her brother were children.

     One afternoon, when their radio program was over and she and her brother had not yet finished their snack, they heard on the news that for the war effort, the British government "desperately needed" vacation photographs.

     Helen hadn't known a desperate need, but she had been on vacation.

     "We'll send them pictures of Two-Canoe Lake," she said.

     "Two-Canoe Lake?" Tom asked skeptically. He finished his snack, draining the box of the last caramel-coated kernel.

     Helen lured him out onto the porch with her own box, the last half of which she was known not to finish.

     It was quiet on the porch. Helen's tricycle sat at the foot of the steps.

     "Dad must have taken a dozen," she said.

     "Where are they?" Tom asked.

     "In the high drawer."

     Tom draped himself on his throne, which consisted of the lower third of the porch steps. Helen occupied the tricycle, climbing onto it backward, so she would end up facing her brother. Together, the porch steps and tricycle formed a make-shift furniture group, conducive to deliberations.

     "I'll have to sneak up," Tom said, pushing aside his blond hair, revealing heavy-lidded blue eyes.

     "Can't we just ask? It's to help in a war."

     "In a war you don't ask; you strike at dawn."

     Helen took that to mean Tom was on board. She offered the remains of her snack. It was not refused.

     The next day, Tom struck, though it was closer to noon than dawn. He took the pack of wavy-bordered prints from the bureau drawer and gave them to Helen, who placed them in a handkerchief box suitable for mailing.

     "What do they want them for?" Tom asked.

     "Pretty obvious," Helen said, having come across a picture in a magazine. "English people work in factories day and night. They don't have time to take vacations."

           *   *   *

     "Feels like England," Larry said.

     "What?" Helen asked, coming back to the present. She had begun to move, at the behest of the flagman, over the centerline and out into the no-man's land of opposing traffic.

     "Driving like this feels like London," Larry said.

     Helen steered along the edge of what would have been their lane. It was barricaded now and dotted with so many craters that it might have been some long-lost corner of the Blitz. "I see what you mean," Helen said.

     "Driving on the left, I mean," Larry said.

     "Oh, that. Yes, all we need is the London fog."

     "There isn't any more London fog," Larry said.

     "What happened to it?"

     "Gone."

     The second flagman was a long time coming and, coincidentally, outfitted for fog, wearing an orange vest and holding an orange paddle like the ones used to direct airplanes. He waved Helen over to the safe side of the centerline, instructions she followed carefully, as if she and her daughter's fiancé were "coming in on a wing and prayer."

                 *  *  *

     In contrast to the roadwork, the Country Hills Retirement Home offered an all-American setting. Its cedar shakes and white trim recalled for Helen a Cape Cod cottage, despite this particular cottage's institutional size.

     Her brother wouldn't be living here long. Tom was off his game, not his rocker. Familiar visitors and favorite desserts would soon bring him around.

     Helen took a seat by the window in the retirement home's lobby and placed the cake box on the chair beside her. The second floor, where Tom was staying, could be reached only by an elevator that required a key. The attendant had the key.

     Larry went over to the counter and picked up a brochure. He had exchanged the pullover for a plaid shirt, the jeans for khaki slacks, and the clogs for athletic shoes. He wore a pouch on a belt and a sweater tied over his shoulders. Dressed for a stroll, he seemed already on one, poring over the retirement home's brochure as if it were that of a landmark.

     Perhaps it was. A white mist roiled at the windows. The long-lost London fog seemed to have retired here, too.

     As a girl, Helen had tried to visualize the office where her snapshots were delivered. One in a castle, she imagined, with a suit of armor next to the water-cooler.

     When a reply finally came, its stiff, crest-bearing stationery did nothing to dispel the idea.

     "The photos themselves are fine," the letter began. "However, the appeal for snapshots, reported in your country, is directed at British subjects who, in happier times, took holidays in Europe."

     The reply went on to say that while shoreline views were important--docks, shipyards, and naval installations might turn up in the background--the boat ramp at Two-Canoe Lake was unlikely to figure in Allied plans.

     An expression of thanks, a signature, and the name of someone whose instructions were being followed made up the rest of the letter. The handkerchief box containing the photos made up the rest of the parcel.

     Helen was thrilled. The rejection was her first acceptance as an international addressee. The strange stamp alone put a spring in her step, until she realized, after listening to the news, that whoever affixed the colorful postage had likely been under bombardment at the time.

     The spring stayed longer in her brother's step. For the duration and decades after, there was scarcely a joint viewing of anyone's snapshots, slides, or home movies, featuring anything from the Carlsbad Caverns to the opening of Disneyland, during which Tom did not turn to her privately and say, "I wonder if these might help..."

     Helen's response was to fix him in a glare.

                 *  *  *

     "Heads will roll," Mark announced to the lobby's office staff, a man and two women who sat at desks and paid him no attention. "I am supposed to be notified immediately upon arrival of any second-floor family."

     Mark stood in the center of the room, hands on hips, testily tapping the toe of a black running shoe. He wore white trousers and a white shirt. His bald head beamed in the light. He cocked it at Helen. "We can't have important visitors sitting around, staring at the steam from a dryer vent."

     Embarrassed by her mistake, confusing London fog with appliance exhaust, Helen was glad to go.

     She and Larry followed Mark to the elevator. Inside he put a key in the panel, and the car began its one-floor rise. "Penthouse," he called out.

     The doors opened on a clerestory room. Chairs were gathered at a river-rock fireplace, at the mouth of which stood, in lieu of a fire, a big-screen TV. Farm implements, hoes and plows, were decoratively bolted high on the walls. Unnecessarily, Helen thought, a scythe was among them.

     Meals were served in a room to the side, and the residents' rooms could be found in the corridors surrounding a rooftop garden, amenities approximating the dining room, bedroom, and yard of the homes these people had left. It was an expensive approximation but one Tom wouldn't need for long.

     Tom was sitting where Helen often found him, in an armchair, his feet up on an ottoman.

     She was about to go to him when a man wearing a golf hat approached her companion. "Do you know Carlton Park?"

     "Sorry," Larry said. "New in town."

     A woman wearing a pants suit and propelling herself on an aluminum walker stepped into their midst, grabbed the man's zipper, and pulled it down.

     "Excuse us," Helen said, taking Larry's arm.

     "Tom is much better than most. See how he's sitting?"

     "Which one?"

     "I'll introduce you."

     She went to her brother's side, said hello, rubbed his shoulder. "This is Larry, Karen's fiancé."

     "What she needs is a financier. Hi, Tom."

     Tom looked up. His heavy lids were matched by bags now, but the eyes were Tom blue. He wore a white shirt, a green Christmas-gift cardigan, white jeans and a pair of brown wingtips. From a breast pocket, a pen poked at the wool of the cardigan.

     An almanac and a folded newspaper lay on his lap; he looked like a man doing research, not one dependent on it.

     "Larry is Karen's fiancé," Helen repeated.

     Tom looked past Larry.

     "Karen isn't here," Helen said. "Dentist appointment."

     Tom shivered. Helen beamed.

     "I thought Larry might like to see the tools," she said, pointing at the wall-mounted implements. She hoped Tom would make the same joke he had on moving here, that he wished the tools had been bolted down when he was a boy.

     He said nothing now.

     A woman wearing a print dress and too much lipstick approached, wringing her hands. "You wouldn't be going north, would you?" she asked.

     "I'm afraid not," Helen said.

     "I'll pay for gas."

     Helen waited until the woman moved on. "I brought a cake," she said.

     "How much is gas?" Tom asked, producing the pen.

     "I'll put the cake in your room. You can have it tonight."

     The rooms had small refrigerators. Helen opened Tom's and placed the cake on a rack next to an open can of soda.

     The man in the golf hat came to the doorway. Someone had fixed his zipper. "Do you know where Mark is?" he asked.

     "I'm sure he'll turn up," Helen said, which seemed to satisfy him.

     Her daughter's fiancé had pulled a chair to her brother's side. Together they were bent over something. Sitting down on the edge of the ottoman, Helen could see they were looking at a deck of photographs. "I mean to bring you some too," she said. "I'm putting together a whole album."

     Her brother studied a photograph. Along with the newspaper, the book, and the pen, it gave him a professional look, as if this young man were submitting something for his approval.

     "Color," Tom said, handing the photograph back.

     "Go ahead," Larry said, "look at the rest."

     Tom took another photo from the deck and squinted.

     Curious, Helen reached over and took the next. In the photograph, a wooden table and benches sat out front of a half-timbered building. She recognized nothing and realized she'd neglected to say, when telling Larry of the photo idea, that what were needed were settings familiar to the patient.

     "Where did you take these?" she asked.

     "England," Larry said.

     "Pardon me?"

     "On vacation. That's a great pub in the one you're holding, what the English call a 'punt' in the one Tom has."

     Helen pulled her brother's hand so she could see. The snapshot featured a small boat on a river, somewhere, evidently, also in England. Tom would have to see the joke; it was tailor-made for them.

     She wished he would say something. It would mean so much to glare.

     "Everything OK?" Larry asked.

     This was a moment best had alone, not in the company of a cheerful youth, dressed for a stroll, getting a look at something half heard about, videotaped but as yet unwatched.

     "Something I said?" Larry asked.

     Helen sought help in the yellowing newspaper, in the cracked binding of the world almanac, in the ballpoint pen, poised to record the price of god-knew-what.

     She let go of her brother's hand. With his feet beside her, the ottoman felt like the end of a bed.

     "Was it something in the pictures?" Larry asked.

     Helen was suddenly thankful for her daughter's fiancé, whom she could address in a tone that was matter-of-fact. She hadn't even to search for words.

     "The photos themselves are fine."




    

  
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