The Last Parade
by Elizabeth MacBride
Ted bent over the smallest rose bush, humming to himself and ignoring the leather gloves that thrust upward from his pocket toward his heart. He held each blossom in his bare hand, looking for the spots that meant he should spray, or for the brownish edges that meant he should prune.
He had wanted to accomplish more that he did. He would have constructed swirls and mazes and great plantings if he’d had the space. Ted had always had the time. Irene’s voice came to him, thin and brittle as a rice cracker. “Ted, could you come here for a second, I can’t get the blinds closed, I need you just for a second.”
She had wanted him a little, at the end.
He always felt closest to her here, in the rose garden, where he’d buried her ashes.
He cut a few blossoms for the kitchen, placing them in his bucket. Then, with both fists on his thighs, he tried to straighten his back. Like a hoary old caterpillar he was now, sprouting bristles from his chin and ears and back, spiky hairs that stood straight out from his body.
He turned from the potting shed to look at his garden. It was fine, all fine. Even the smallest bush would thrive in the springtime, its time coming soon. Not that he played favorites in the rose garden, no. Even the oldest ones, alive more than 60 years now--he never paid them special mind, except to let his eyes light on them just before he closed the back door.
“That rose garden is too much for you, Ted,” his niece Margy had said a few months ago. She’d been saying that for years, now, and he had been ignoring her for years, too.
He climbed the metal staircase to his second floor apartment like a vine, twisting his fingers around the metal handrails for better purchase. They’d added the rails for him.
“We want you to be independent for as long as possible,” said Margy, who was hoping for some inheritance. She would get something. Family was family, though he’d never liked her much.
His apartment was above his dental office, now closed, the four rooms where he had spent more than four decades looking at teeth. Doc. The office girls called him Doc.
He’d retired some 20 years ago, long after his son, a dentist, too, had begun nagging. “You should retire Dad. You’ve earned it.” Then: “there’s so much you could do with all that time.” And finally, simply, “It’s time.”
He’d acquiesced then. His hands had begun to shake. There was cake in the office on the last day, and cards decorated with hammocks and golf clubs. One from his assistant had been decorated with a single rosebud and hung for years above his desk in the den, until the sun faded the red rose to tan.
He was still humming as he pulled the door to the sunroom shut behind him, giving it that extra pull to make sure it clicked. The sound of his feet on the wood floor made him think of the Strand Ballroom and the night he met Irene. The way the shiny floor reflected the light onto the girls’ stockinged legs. He had lingered toward the back, behind George Strasbaugh and Frank Willoughby, who had been best man at the wedding. Smarted-up they were with their hair slicked back and those wide dark ties. He saw Irene right away, a slip of a girl wearing a floaty sort of pink dress and a white flower in her brown hair. He danced with other girls first, the Charleston and black-bottomed shuffle, while the band spun the music faster and faster. Then the first slow music, and he had gone up to Irene and asked her to dance. She came just to his shoulder, and smelled like sweet bath powder.
Edith had been there too, that night. He didn’t remember her, no, but Irene had told him later. No surprise that Edith was there – everyone who was single went to the dances to meet people to marry. Everyone was supposed to marry.
He imagined them walking in together, Irene delicate and small, Edith tall and awkward. Both teachers at the elementary school, both fifth grade. Edith had probably sat against the wall most of the night, giving Irene advice about which fellows to dance with.
Irene always said that Edith knew the way things worked. Which principal not to sit next to at dinner, because he liked to pinch. How to arrive early at the book sale, for the best copies of Johnny Tremain. Where to pick up the coats for kids that didn’t have enough money to buy their own.
Ted moved across the sunroom to the kitchen, looking down at his bright white sneakers gleaming in the dim. He bought a new pair every eight months, marked it on his calendar, because he knew if the tread were worn he could fall. That was everyone’s worry. Falling, falling. His father’s voice came back, righting him after some childhood tumble. “Get up son, it’s not going to kill you.”
He measured the coffee out with the cup he kept in the can. He made it on the stove, with an old-fashioned percolator. Everyone else had long since changed to a drip filter, pulling the coffee down instead of pushing it up. Irene’s voice, nagging: Ted, why can’t you just give that old thing up! But he thought the coffee tasted better this way, and he stuck to it. That strong dark taste easing through his joints. There were a couple of granola bars in the box. When had he started buying them? In his 60s, when he joined the hiking club. Back then, the idea of falling never would have occurred to him, not when he was finding his footing so solid on the rocks of the hills around the city.
He waited, staring out the small window at the wall next door, at the checkerboard of new mortar between the old bricks. Soon, it would be time to have his own bricks re-pointed. Next spring, maybe. He listened to the steady bubbling of the percolator and the tick of the clock. They were regular. His heart was not, anymore.
In a few moments, Jim would call, as he did every Saturday. He was a good boy, calling twice a week, tickets twice a year down to their house in Kiawah. When Irene was dying, he had been here for weeks at a time, had turned his practice over to his partner.
Irene’s eyes, Ted’s nose, that was the common saying in the family about Jim, but Ted knew he was more Irene’s son than his. They were both always so ready to laugh. While Ted would sit engrossed in a rose book, trying to hit upon the right hybrid to win the prize at the York County Fair, the two of them, or the three of them, if Edith was there, flipped the channels on the TV to find a silly sitcom. What was their favorite? Three’s A Crowd? Three’s Company.
Ted wondered what would have been different if May had not died. He remembered the day his daughter was born, the look on his wife’s face as she bent over the baby. After Jim, she had been wanting a girl. Edith was there at the hospital, arriving as Ted was leaving, sweeping in and planting a kiss on Irene’s head. She carried a bouquet of bright yellow daffodils that dwarfed his pink rosebuds. He had turned away, giving up his place by the bed to his wife’s friend.
The phone rang.
“Yawp,” he said into the receiver. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Hello.”
“Dad, how are you. I can’t talk for long. I just wanted to tell you – remind you, in case you forgot – not to take the front stairs on your own for the parade.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” Ted said. “How are you? How are my grandkids?”
“Oh, they’re good, Dad, we’re good. Sammy just weighed in at 125 for the high school wrestling team. And Ted just got picked to be a wizard, Harry Potter I think, for the Halloween play. He’s running around with a green lightning bolt on his head. He says hi.”
“I remember when you were a tooth.” said Ted. “Don’t they do those anymore?”
“Maybe in the younger grades. Listen, Dad, I can’t talk long. I have a tee time.”
“I was joking. How’s the beach?”
“I’ll, we’ll, call on Wednesday, OK? Wish we were up there watching with you.”
It was almost time for the parade to start. He carried the plate of granola bars to the front room and then made a second trip with his coffee mug, passing by the tall shelf he had installed for his book collections. A big section on roses, willed to the Garden Society, and down at the bottom his small collection of poetry.
The front room was full of the midday sun, falling through the old glass of the bay window to shine on the dust in the air. He pulled a hard wooden chair up to the window.
The loudspeaker crackled from the street, the words unintelligible. Charlie was leading the way, the fat mayor in the red convertible. He had been a plump youngster, too. Chocolate stains on his police uniform. These days, he was always coming up with bad ideas, like a big sound system for the town square that nobody wanted. On his last trip to the eye doctor, Ted had seen a wooden fundraising bulb in the square, painted one-quarter red.
He stirred his coffee, turning the spoon around in his fingers, reassured by the feel of the metal. He worried sometimes that he wouldn’t be able to feel anymore. If eyesight faded and hearing declined, couldn’t the ability to touch go, too?
The marching band came into view. The high school where he had carried books was long since gone, but the colors remained, maroon and noxious yellow. By habit, he craned his neck for the first sight of the drum row, that thundering quintet of high school boys. Jim had played the drums, some 40 years ago.
What was the name of Nick’s boy, who had been in the drum line at the same time? Each time he’d gone to the barber, Ted had been sure to ask about him. “In the hospital again,” Nick would say, lifting a section of Ted’s hair. Or, “home, finally.”
Cystic fibrosis. They thought he would die before he was 10, but he had lived through high school. Now, what was his name? Phil, that was it, Phil.
The quiet of the house settled all around him. In the old days, his kitchen would have been bustling by now, the women putting their casseroles and salads on paper plates and the men darting in and out for the beer in the fridge. Some of the worrying wives frowning at the snap of the beer cans opening. The party always spread over the stoop, and mixed with the other stoop parties up and down the street. He pictured Edith and Irene, arms around each other’s waists, side by side on the steps, their cinched-in belts giving them the shapes of cellos. He had hung back, talking to the fellows.
Ted looked down at the street. Bethel AME was coming by, the gospel choir in shining green robes, led by Mr. Edwin Heard, the tall black preacher who had lost his sister back during the riots.
A fleet of antique Fords came into view, among them that beautiful Cabriolet. It was a ringer for the one he’d taken Irene for spins in. Down to the river. “Sure, Ted, I’ll marry you.” Putting her small hand in his, her skin as soft as feathers.
He remembered a picnic lunch later, in the early days of Edith. The three of them, on a blanket at the park, raising shots of Yaegermeister. That was before Jim. Before May. Before.
The first of the troops of little girls was passing by, little girls molded and pressed into sparkling uniforms. He hated the sight of them, partly because little girls should not be made to go barelegged down the street in the chill, and partly because even after more than 50 years, he could not help but think of May.
She had been four. He always remembered the terrible heat in her face. Just measles, the doctor said, but he had been wrong. The measles turned to pneumonia. He remembered Irene’s desperate hands, rubbing the icy washcloths over May’s lean body, trying to bring the fever down, not allowing the nurses to do it. The little girl’s hacking coughs, himself bending forward to wipe her mouth. Irene’s eyes, as she looked up from their daughter’s still body.
He got up roughly from the chair, willing the memory away. When he was busy, with his dentistry, with his hiking, with his roses, he did not think of his daughter. But the parade day was a day for remembering.
They had installed a railing for him in the bathroom, next to the toilet and the tub. He held on while he peed. Soon he would need to sit down to pee. He tucked his limp penis into his pants. Most of his trousers had small stains near the crotch, but he thought the cardigans that he usually wore covered them pretty well.
This bathroom had been Irene’s, after May had died. He and Irene had abandoned the master suite on the third floor. Having developed a taste for the cold, he moved to the back bedroom, where he could leave the window open in the winter. Irene took to sleeping on the couch in the living room, and when Edith slept over, the two of them used the foldout bed in the den. He found them there in the mornings, soft and rumpled with sleep, wearing their cotton and flannel pajamas.
“Good morning, Ted,” Edith would always say. “I think I hear that coffee pot calling.”
And Ted would swallow his own bitter coffee, and leave for the office downstairs as soon as he could.
The sirens sounded on the street. Fire engines! He hurried forward to see. One, two, three, four … eight engines total, nearly the whole complement of the city fire department. “Hurry, hurry, start the engines,” the song that one of his grandsons -- was it Sammy or Ted? -- had loved to sing. He had given the boys the old fire truck that had belonged to their father. York, PA it said on the side in letters that were still bold.
In the old days, he would have been able to identify each of the firemen on the truck, despite the bulky uniforms. Now, he couldn’t name any.
He lifted his hand, anyway, hoping that one would look up and see his wave.
Ted remembered standing in this room, with Irene, waiting for Jim to pick them up and take them to Edith’s funeral. Irene’s face was so sad, so much sadder than it would have been for him. He laid a hand on her shoulder, for comfort. Maybe now, finally, that it was just the two of them. She had shrugged him away. “I’m sorry, Ted.”
She was gone, too, less than a year later. She had wanted to be buried in the cemetery, next to May and her parents. He had put her, instead, under the smallest rosebush. Because he could. Because he still loved her. And because it was best for a body to nourish the growing plants.
The downstairs doorbell was ringing. Someone raising money? He would never get to the door in time, before they went away. He reached the top of the stairs as a voice floated up.
“Doctor, are you there?”
Sandy. Sandy who worked in his office up till the end, and lived four doors down.
“Well, hi,” he said, as she appeared at the bottom of the stairs.
“We have an extra folding chair out front and I was wondering if you wanted to come down,” she said. “Jim called, said you were watching from upstairs.”
“Well, when you put it that way, if you have an extra chair … “
She came up toward him, a sudden loud presence in the house. The stairs creaked under her weight.
“Now,” she said, getting on one side of him, a stair ahead. He kept one hand on her plump shoulder, feeling the buckle of her bra strap through the black sweater she wore. They passed through the small entrance hall. He looked at the knob on the door, noticed it was chipped at the bottom, remembered himself, on his knees, installing it long ago.
Sandy’s husband Joe was there, too. “Hey Ted,” he said, reaching into the cooler beside him. “Good to see you. Like a beer?”
Ted accepted it, for form’s sake, and sat with it unopened.
“I didn’t know if you were watching this year,” Sandy said. “Until Jim called. He’s a good boy, Ted.
“I never miss the parade,” Ted said.
Now, here was the big green car that carried Sam MacPhee. Bent nearly in half with arthritis, wearing a green derby, he was hardly visible over the sides of the car. A sign on the side said: York Salutes Veterans.
“See old Sam, there? He doesn’t look like much now, but he had a battlefield commission for bravery. Took a machine-gun nest, I think,” Ted said. He left out the end of the story – that Sam was in a nursing home now, after he had taken his big Caddy out for a spin and hit a boy in the East End. Miracle the boy lived, they said.
“What would we do without you, Doctor?” Sandy said. “Everything you know about this town, you should write a book.”
He smiled and maneuvered one thumb with its yellowed, ridged nail under the tab of his beer. Snap. He raised it to his lips. He had always been more of a liquor man, a Manhattan drinker. But this was a parade day.
“How’s your boy?” he asked.
“Jeff,” sighed Joe. “That girl he was with, she’s pregnant now. They’re going to get married this summer.”
“Not married,” Sandy said, rolling her eyes. “It’s a unity ceremony. Out in a field.”
“Pisses me off, all that money for two years of college, and we get a manager at a pizza joint.”
Jeff had worked for Ted a little in the office. Taken a few nips at the nitrous, which Ted had never mentioned to Joe or Sandy, but he was a bright boy. He just maybe liked to have fun a little too much. Maybe he would grow out of that, and maybe he wouldn’t.
“I just hope he can be a good father,” Joe added.
“He will be,” Sandy said, putting a hand on his arm.
“Not much you can do about other people,” Ted said. “Not even your own.”
Elizabeth MacBride is a writer living in Alexandria, Va, and a student in the MFA program at George Mason University. After more than a decade as a business journalist, she is freelancing and pursuing a long-held dream of writing fiction. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek, among others.