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Greg Kosmicki


The call was like any other one—and old man; not taking care of himself; getting feces all over everything; incontinence; can’t cook anymore, almost totally blind—with the added bonus that he won’t want to talk to the APS worker and he may have a knife.

A November day, all the leaves down. I found the address, 3014 Ash, right on the edge of an abandoned alley, in an old part of town, but one that you could see that the homes were still owned by the people living in them for the most part—lawns trimmed, siding painted, shutters straight, driveways all in one piece, flowers planted outside. Most all the houses were postwar, most from the 50’s and 60’s, most of them small ranch-style.

Frank’s was easily the oldest house on the block—an old two-storey from the ‘20s, faded Lucky Strike green, most of the paint ready to fall off and a couple screen windows torn on the closed-in porch. I knocked on the front door to the porch and it came open. It was gray wood, hadn’t been painted in fifty years or so. I stepped onto the porch and knocked directly on the front door.

The window on the front door was covered with decals for the Police Protective Society and some others from a veteran’s organization that I didn’t recognize. The last year the occupant of this house had supported the Police was 1964-5.

I knocked on the door again and no one came to the door. I hit the door with my fist, down on the panels, to get a nice loud thump. Still no one. I pulled out my cell phone and got Frank’s file out of my briefcase, an old hard-shelled Samsonite I inherited from my brother back in the ‘60’s when he got killed in that car wreck, and found the number for this house and dialed it.

Just then a an old man’s face appeared in the door window—a man who looked to be about 75 years old, with a shock of brown hair standing straight up like Ezra Pound’s. The eyes in the face squinted and the voice through the glass said “What do you want?”

“Mr. Watts?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied.

“I’m Matt, from Adult Protective Services. Can I come in and talk with you?”

“Adult Protective Services? I don’t need no protecting.” He was unhooking the chain.

“Well, I wanted to see if there were any services we might be able to help you with”

“Who called? I didn’t call for you to come out.” He threw a deadbolt.

“Just someone who knows you—a person who wants to make sure you’re OK.”

“Nobody knows me. Musta been that god-damned Marcy. I don’t need nothing,” he said as rattled another deadbolt in its channel. He pulled the door open.

“Come in. Make it snappy, before I get pissed off at you. It’s cold out there.”

He turned slowly, like a blindfolded kid playing Blind man’s Bluff. He walked slowly to the couch that was against the east wall and I followed him in. That wave of smell that always hits you when you enter an old person’s home—dirty dishes, trash not thrown out, maybe some feces somewhere, farts, cooking smells, must, dust—but not particularly strong here. It didn’t smell like there were any dead things lying around, or rotting things, just human smells, just old man smells. On the wall were framed some old certificates of military service, and a life-long membership of something to do with veterans. There were framed unit citations, framed individual citations, all World War II era.

 “Sit down.” He motioned to a tired orange arm chair with a stack of envelopes and papers next to it on the table. An ancient lamp from the 1940’s sat on the table. An old-fashioned rotary-dial phone sat on at small phone table by the entry into the dining room. I could not see well back into the dining room—the old roll-up shades were drawn on nearly every window. I saw a milky light from far back of the house, and murky outlines of objects stacked on a table. There were pictures of people from the 1890’s hanging on the walls behind the couch, where the ancient wallpaper was falling off. There were cobwebs here and there, but no roaches that I saw.

“What’s the matter? Somebody think old Frank’s ready for the funeral home?” The old man said that in with a slight smile on his face, looking off into the space somewhere over my right shoulder. “I bet it’s that damn Marcy. She oughta keep her nose in her own business.”

“Who’s Marcy?” I said, though I knew already because she was our reporter—his mail carrier from the Post Office. She was worried because he was not eating very well, and she thought he may not be taking his medicines correctly, and because he had become angrier towards her in the last couple months.

“Aw, she’s the mail lady. She’s OK. She just sticks her damn nose in everywhere.” I knew that she sees him five times a week and that she stops into his house many of those times to check his meds, or check his food. I knew that she and her husband went out grocery shopping for him once a week, and took him to the doctor at the VA. I knew she helps him pay his bills each month. She’d removed all the knives from his house when he came after her with a butcher knife one time.

“How does she do that?”

“Aw she thinks she’s gotta make me do this and do that. She’s OK though. I like Marcy. I like Bill.”

“Who’s Bill?”

“Her husband. He’s real nosey too.”

I asked Mr. Watts if I could collect some information from him for our files and he said it would be OK, so I asked him about where he does his doctoring (the VA) and where he banks (he’d rather not say) and what his Social Security number is (he’s not telling) and how old he is (95). I asked him if he’s a veteran then, of World War Two.

“I was in the mountains of northern Italy. We were out on patrol one day and we hadn’t seen any Jerries all day long—it was around noon. My buddy Wenzel and I stopped behind this big rock to have a smoke.”

“What town were you around?”

“I don’t remember—we were up in the mountains where the Jerries had taken it over from the Italians, right on the border between Italy and Switzerland. We were having a smoke. We finished our smoke and got back up to continue on. We were advance scouts, looking for gun emplacements.”

“Sounds like a good day…”

“Wenzel got sorta crazy. He said ‘Shit there ain’t no Jerries up here!  We ain’t seen a Jerry all day.’ I said ‘Keep your fucking head down Dave, you never know.”

As he talked he looked straight forward into the air between us, as if he were watching a movie of the scene he was telling me. He talked as if the story he was telling me was something that had happened a day or two ago. He reminded me of the blind seer—was it Tiresias?—in the Cohen brother’s movie, “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” the way he looked off into the distance as he spoke.

“We finished our smokes and started to move out, me and Wenzel. We were keeping low, behind these big rocks along the trail. Wenzel said ‘This is bullshit man! There ain’t no Jerries out there!’ so he stood up, straight up. He got hit.  27 bullet holes in him.”

“Jiminy Cricket!”

“27. I counted. He was a mess. He was deader than hell. I pulled off all his grenades and took his knife and bayonet and I kept low. I started back on the trail from the way we’d just come.”

I couldn’t figure out why he was telling me this story. I’d never asked him to tell me, I just asked him the routine question about whether he was a veteran or not, to check off the box. I already figured he was a vet since he goes to the VA to see his doctor.

“I started to crawl back. I crawled a long time. I kept low; I had my belly to the ground. I was moving silent.”

He seemed almost under pressure to tell me this story, as if he had to get it out, get it told to someone, anyone, as if he had experienced it so recently that it was still bothering him. I didn’t say anything and just watched my blind narrator.

“I crawled clear around that valley to the other side and I got up to where those two Jerry bastards were sitting beside their machine gun. I crawled up on a rock above them. I could see the backs of their helmets. I smelled their cigarette smoke. I had my knife in one hand and Wenzel’s bayonet in my other hand. I had another knife and my bayonet on my belt. I had my grenades. I knew I could toss my grenades down there and blow those two sons-a-bitches to bits.”

“And so what did you do?”

“I jumped down from that rock behind them. I stabbed my knife into the one’s back and slit the other’s throat.”

I said nothing. I had just listened to a 95 year-old man recount a story of how he killed two other human beings with his own hands. It was like I had been told the story of a murder by the murderer. But he was in combat. He was doing what he was supposed to do—but why did he tell me? Was he feeling guilty, or was he telling me this story to let me know that he was someone to be reckoned with—that he is not a defenseless old man, that I should be careful around him? Was he still plagued by guilt, or was he proud of what he had done?

“That was it.” The war story was over—you know, I thought at that moment of telling this story to my wife, and I thought “I bet she will question it. I bet she will say ‘how do you know he’s telling the truth? How do you know he’s not just making this up?’”

I would reply to her “Why In God’s name would anyone make up a story like that? I mean, a 95 year-old man? Who’s he got to impress? Why would he care what I thought? What difference could it make to him whether I thought he was a war hero or not—he doesn’t even know me.” And that’s exactly the conversation we had that night. I was kind of pissed off at her—it seemed to invalidate the old man somehow, though I knew her skepticism is natural, even necessary, for a social worker, for a person who works with other people who have something, somehow, to gain from stretching the truth or in fact flat-out lying.

I always recall this one guy in particular who went to the adult day program at a community mental health agency where I worked who pretended that he was a Viet Nam vet—played it to the hilt. It was the early 90’s so it was far enough away from Viet Nam that a faker could fool most anyone except for people who really were vets from that time, and especially combat vets, like one of my coworkers at the agency was. The fake Viet Nam vet’s name was Dave—one day he even burned an American flag in the empty lot across from the agency, on the anniversary of the supposed death of one of his combat buddies in Nam.  My coworker, who also claimed to be a Viet Nam combat vet, finally checked through Dave’s records closely enough to note that Dave would have been eight years old when the last troops were pulled out of the country. So my wife and I always have a healthy skepticism about war stories.

I thought this was different. I could see no reason for anyone as old as Mr. Watts to make up a story like that, nor to tell it to a person from APS he’d only met ten minutes before. What would be the point? But the story was done with and I asked nothing more about his military history.

While those thought shot through my head, the old fellow hardly missed a beat talking—

“She thinks I was going to kill her, you know.”

“Who does?”

“Marcy. She took away all my knives.”

“Why’d she do that?”

“She was telling me I needed to be in a nursing home. I was telling her I didn’t need to be in a god-damn nursing home. My mother told me never to go into an old-folks home. I had this bayonet and I showed it to her.”

“Does she know the story you told me about your buddy Wenzel?”

“Sure, I told her. That don’t mean nothing. I wouldn’t hurt her. She’s nosey but I wouldn’t hurt her. She helps me out a lot, her and Bill.” 

I called her the next day and she told me that he had pulled out the bayonet and come at her with it. She went through the house that day when Bill took him to the store and found all his knives except for his butter knives, and took them out of the house.

“She’s got all my knives. I know she does. She says she don’t but I know she does. I need my knives to defend myself.”

“How do you know she took them?”

“Who else would have? Sure, she’d got ‘em. I need ‘em back. I don’t know how she thinks I’m supposed to cut up anything around here.”

“You still cooking?”

“Sure, I cook. Well, a little bit. Marcy makes a soup for me every couple days. I eat that. I scramble eggs.”

“Is that what I can smell? Is that the soup? Can I go look?”

“Sure, yeah. It’s back there through the dining room. That’s where I have my fridge and hot plate. She won’t let me use the kitchen no more.”

“Who won’t?”

“Marcy for Christ sakes! Marcy! She runs everything!”

The dining room was empty and dark enough that it was difficult to see the old pictures hanging on the wall, and the old chairs sitting in the corners of the room. Past the dining room Frank led me to was a sort of second dining room, or sun room. It was hard to tell what the original purpose of the room was supposed to be, but it was now Frank’s kitchen. On the hot plate, a 6-quart sauce pan bubbled with soup. All around on the table were dirty plates, an open box of Velveeta, chicken bones, forks and spoons, and a couple empty trays from Meals on Wheels.

“I see you get Meals on Wheels.”

“They keep me alive. I don’t like ‘em much.”

“What kind of soup is that?”

“Dunno. It’s got some ham bone in it. Smells good.”

“Yeah it does. Hey, where’s your bedroom—did this used to be the bedroom?”

“Yeah it was. Marcy cut off the gas to my stove. She said it wasn’t safe. God dammit, now I can’t even cook. I got no knives. I got no gas."

“So you sleep on the couch then?” I had noticed some blankets folded up on the couch. I had noticed when we were talking that there was a dark stain in the center cushion of the couch.

“Yup. She says I got troubles getting to the toilet. I only had a problem once. So I sleep on the couch.” That was another thing that Marcy told me later—that he had been incontinent with his bowels a couple times in his bed and that he just laid there in it. She and Bill had thrown out the mattress.

“So tell me Mr. Watts—did you grow up here in Omaha? Did you have any kids?” The old man found his way to the couch and sat back down.

“Nope.  I was raised in Pennsylvania. Grew up on a farm. That’s where I hurt this. I couldn’t have no kids.”  He pointed to his groin area.

“What do you mean?”

“Where I got hurt. Me and my younger brother Lester was climbing a shed. We was playing it was a horse and we was riding it.”

“The shed?”

“The shed. The wind came up and it started to rain. Lester fell down somehow, I don’t know how. He was on the ground with blood all over his face. I thought he was dead.”

“How old were you then Mr. Watts?”

“I was ten. Lester was eight. I was scared to death, I thought Lester was dead. That’s when I got hurt.” He looked like he was watching the movie again, staring up into the wallpaper above my right shoulder.

“So did you fall?”

“Somehow I slid. I don’t know if the roof was slick or if I tried to jump. I think I had a rope. I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I fell right onto a wagon wheel of the lumber wagon. Fell right on it. That’s how I got hurt down there. I never had no kids. I ain’t never been with a woman.”

“So then you never got married?”

“I come to Omaha after the war. My mom had moved here to be with her sister. Yeah I got married once but it didn’t work out. I couldn’t do nothing. But I was a tough son-of-a-bitch. I come back from the Army and all I’d done but I couldn’t find a job. I took a job as a short order cook at Janey’s Home Cooking on Leavenworth and I stayed there for thirteen years. Thirteen god-damn years. I was the short-order cook. I didn’t take shit offa nobody. I told her I didn’t take it from nobody. I didn’t make the coffee.”

I was thinking right then of what Marcy had told me—that Mr. Watts was being harassed by the neighborhood kids—they’d come and pound on his door and throw rocks at the house. He’d go outside and shout at them in the vilest of racist language and they’d laugh at him and throw rocks. She was afraid he was going get hurt by a rock, or hurt someone himself.

“Whattya mean, you ‘Didn’t make the coffee?”

“I didn’t make the coffee. That wasn’t my job. My job was short-order cooking. I could of gone anywhere in the city of Omaha and found a job cooking anywhere, and I did. Later on after that they found Janey in the alley out back of the café.”

“Umm… what happened with the coffee?”

“One day she came in there all high and mighty and she said I had to make the coffee because she didn’t have time. There was a couple cops there wanted some coffee. She was making goo-goo eyes at them. I said ‘I don’t make the coffee. You make the frickin’ coffee. I’m the short-order cook.’”

“She said “You make the coffee buddy-boy or you can take a hike.’ So I said, ‘Okay, fine, I’ll take a hike, Miss Janey,’ and I took off my apron and set it on the counter and walked out. I never came back.”

“So what did you do? I mean, did you find work? What about Miss Janey?”

“Well the cops talked to me when they found her but I told ‘em I didn’t have nothing to do with Ms. Janey being in that alley and they said OK. I went back to my place and I said to my roommate Paul, I says ‘Let’s get out of this fucking town. It makes me sick.’”

“Paul had a Crown Victoria, a beautiful green baby. He said ‘Sure, let’s go.’ We drove all over the west—Colorado, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Nevada. Five or six years. I always found a job here and there as a short-order cook. He always found work in a warehouse. We did whatever we wanted. But one day my mother asked me on the phone to come back. She was sick. So we came back to Omaha.”

“Did you ever hear anything again about Miss Janey?”

“No. I got a job short-order cooking for Hank at Hank’s Café on Farnam. You remember that place?”

“No, I’m not from Omaha originally. I don’t recall it.”

“That was a good job. I’ve always been able to find work. But I had to take a lot of time off to take care of my mother and he fired me.”

“What was wrong with your mother?”

“She got really old and she didn’t ever go see the doctor. She told me “Frank, don’t ever go to the doctors. They’ll kill you.’ And she said ‘Don’t ever put me in a old-folks home. That’ll kill me.’ So I stayed right here with my mother till the day she died. She died in that room right over there.”

“So do you know what killed her then?”

“She just said one day ‘I’m going to die today,’ and she died. I called the undertaker. I never could get a job after that.  I guess I was too old. I looked but all the cafés were closing up. My back was bunged up from the war and I couldn’t lift anything.”

“Sorry to hear about your mom.”

“The last thing she said to me was ‘You never had any children. You’re not a man.’