Mr. Wyandotte by Phoebe Wilcox

As a case worker, the pendulum of my work requirements swings back and forth between client visits and documentation. But it's not simply documentation, it's documentation to the nth degree, documentation to the tenth power. If someone would compose a song called, "The Ballad of the Chronically Exhausted Case Worker," it would be my anthem. It would be three discordant piano chords played backwards and forwards across my frontal lobe, and the piano player would, on a particularly dreary winter morning at the keys, end up falling asleep beneath the instrument leaving the last chord weak and half-completed. Plink, plink, pl. ..

One Friday morning as I sat at my office computer trying to enter progress notes and demographic data (but really mostly just listening to Franz Liszt on YouTube) I got a call from a policeman in Upper Bucks County. The officer was requesting that I make an emergency home visit to an elderly man.

"He is living in deplorable filth," The officer began.

I wanted to say, "They always are, aren't they?" but I didn't. I was really tired. It felt like the neurons in my brain weren't firing properly and I knew for a fact that I could hardly string two words together coherently. It was almost like those days back in my twenties when I'd been out drinking until 3 a.m. and then had to drag myself off to some factory job the next day.

" ... and medically?" I managed to ask. Just sound like you're listening, I thought to myself, if you sound like you're listening, you can get away with not really listening.

"He's got cancer or something," the cop said, "He's not getting out of the house and the neighbors have been calling us. The neighbors are the only people who have any contact with him."

"What's his name?" I asked.

"Elmer Wyandotte."

"Okay. I'll see him this afternoon," What a quaint name Mr. Wyandotte has, I thought, and continued, "Does he have any relatives?"

"Not that we know of, at least locally. There is a cousin out west somewhere."

Meanwhile, while listening as earnestly as I could, under the circumstances, I'd absentmindedly clicked "replay" on Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On" video on YouTube. Marvin was wearing a hot pink blazer with black sequins and when he shot his super sultry camera-melting look at the camera person and me, my mind suffered a momentary spasm that made me miss a sentence or two of what the policeman was saying.

"Sorry, what did you say?"

"The guy's skin and bones, and refuses to go to the hospital." "Oh, okay. I'll go see him. I'll be there within the hour."

I chugged my chai tea, ran to the basement, packed up a bag of United Way emergency meals, and got myself and my laptop off to my car, headed for the backwoods of Upper Bucks. A light snow began on the way, filling the space between my windshield and ubiquitous gray trees. After a couple turnarounds I managed to find Wyandotte's place. His driveway was grassy and had apparently been mowed by some do-gooder over the summer. I ran across the road and collected a neighbor lady whose plan it was, knowing he was stubbornly asocial, to assist with easing me into his existence. The circa 1950's trailer had a blue tarp awning over the front door. The neighbor lady stepped onto a piece of weathered plywood and knocked on the door with white knuckles while I stood cold and unhappy behind her. All I really wanted to do was read the Juno Diaz novel that sat waiting for me in the passenger seat of my car. I hoped for a miracle, that Mr. Wyandotte wasn't home, that perhaps the same good Samaritan who'd mowed his lawn had taken him off to a doctor's appointment.

There was no answer. The neighbor lady called his name.

I wondered if there was anything easy I could do to change my career. I couldn't go back to school right now. Maybe I could start my own business or something. Even in my pockets, my hands were freezing. Why did I always run out of the house in the morning without my gloves? The neighbor lady's knuckles rapped louder on the door and sounded like gunshots going off in the woods.

"Mr. Wyadotte?" The lady tried the doorknob and the door opened.

The smell of kerosene wafted out at us. Mr. Wyandotte's bed was, oddly, just a yard or so inside the front door. He lay there with his bare feet sticking out from underneath a blanket. His feet were yellowish and I noticed that his toenails needed clipping.

"He's dead." The lady said. She happened to be an Occupational Therapist at a nursing home and had seen death before. She stepped up into the trailer and looked into his face. I took two steps backwards but not before noticing Mr. Wyandotte's arms. They were bare above the blanket, exposed as his feet were, and hovered, as if death's arrival had startled, even galvanized him. I couldn't look at his face but I imagined that his eyes gazed upwards like an apostle's in some Mannerist painting. I imagined that angels had materialized to escort him to heaven, to pull is soul from his body and out through the dark paneling of the trailer. I couldn't help but notice that his skin was sallow and pulled taut over his bones. He was like chicken parts, chicken parts swimming in a pungent kerosene stew. I wondered what sort of person he'd been. Was he bland and without intellectual ardor? Or was he interesting, like my client, the English gentleman with Tourette's syndrome? That man told me that his oil delivery man was a religious reactionary. And he'd said he made sure to jab a few swords in to make the guy feel like he was "really wearing a crown of thorns." I don't quite remember what type of swords my client may have jabbed but knowing him they were probably heathen, pagan, and just generally inconoclastic.

I walked out into the yard and upturned my face to the falling snow, feeling the gentle sting of flakes against my skin, like harsh little kisses. Mr. Wyadotte hadn't wanted to go to the hospital. He'd wanted to die at home. I felt empty or hollow or like something was missing-something like Mr. Wyandotte's soul-and I wondered where it was as I looked up into the sky and let the snow sting me. I was glad that despite my efforts to intervene, he'd beat me to the finish line, had died on his own terms. I stood outside the trailer waiting for the police and the coroner. Even after they arrived I stayed outside in the cold. I didn't want to be inside with kerosene and death. I stayed outside with beauty and loneliness, the snow swirling down over gray briars, the mystery of life ever-unanswered.

That night my daughter danced in the Christmas ballet, a production of The Nutcracker. I attended and applauded but somehow it seemed that I had brought Mr. Wyadotte along with me, or perhaps it was he who had taken a little piece of me away with him to the afterworld, because I was not fully sitting there in the James Lorah House as those shining little girls in tutus danced around the stage like living snowflakes. No, they swirled away over the gray briars of my thoughts, where life was tangled and brief, but where blessedly, we all still had, at least, the fire, the ice, the glint down inside, of our own free wills and spirits. Oh, let the little dears dance, I thought, dance while they can in celebration of it.


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