Kristy visited her Grandpa George at the Sunny Hills retirement home on the last Saturday of every month. When she was little, she used to ‘run away’ to his house down the street whenever she was sad or did something she knew would get her in trouble. He would take her in and comfort her by singing her songs and feeding her cookies. Eventually he would return her to her parents after things have calmed down. He had been there for her, so now that he was in a home, she would do what she could to return the favor despite her busy school and work schedule.
With the keyboard strapped to her back, she was greeted with the familiar scent of piss and soiled laundry when she walked into Sunny Hills. The off white walls and lightly yellowed tiles were always immaculate so she knew they took good care of the place, that’s just what old people who can’t take care of themselves smell like. Brandi, a CNA, walked into the room to check who came in and smiled.
“Hey Brandi, how’s he been?”
“Been real ornery with me today. I think he remembered you were coming today cause he insisted on taking a shower by himself so he could get ready for a guest. I told him, ‘George, you know I can’t let you do that.’ And when I walked him to the bathroom he shut the door and locked it on me. Then he turned on the shower and started singing at the top of his lungs to drown me out.”
“Yeah, he’s kind a butt head like that.”
“Glad I didn’t have to say it!”
They both chuckled.
“He’s still in their if you wanna go get yourself set up. Make sure he keeps it down today.”
“Yeah, I can do that.” Kristy looked at Brandi, cringing a little she twisted the keyboard strap. “Has anyone else come to visit him?”
Brandi exhaled deeply and shook her head. “Sorry honey, still only you.”
“OK, thank you.”
There was a small hallway past the kitchen that led to the rooms. Ruth, and old raisin of a woman, was in her walker coming down the hallway with Carol, another CNA, close behind. She had thick glasses wore a light blue night gown covered with a floral pattern and had an overwhelming amount of perfume on. Kristy smiled and waved at Ruth. She looked up from her walker returned with the biggest smile.
When she entered his room she saw that his bathroom door was still shut but didn’t hear the water going. The yellowish tiled floor continued into the room where it clashed with the drab olive green walls that did nothing to help liven up the place. The only saving grace was the comforter he had on his bed. In sharp contrast with the rest of the room, it had a manically colored paisley design. Grandpa George liked his colors loud, just like his music. Next to the bed was a nightstand with an over sized alarm clock and a glass where he kept his teeth. On the other side of the room was a small desk.
She set the keyboard down on the desk and retrieved the plug in from her purse. As she got down under the table to plug it in, she heard the bathroom door open quiet and deliberate. Following that was the sound of soft foot steps sneaking up on her. She knew what was about to happen so she stayed there for a moment longer to let him have his moment. He loved sneaking up on people. Then she felt the swift kick of his slippered foot on her butt and let out a playful yelp.
“Grandpa George!” She said as she got up, giving him a pout as she held her butt as if it was actually hurt.
He had a look of pride about himself, giving her a gummy grin. He had some stubble on his head where what was left of his hair would have been and had on his giant thick glasses. She went in for a hug and despite his frail look he had a tight grip. He smelled of lime shampoo and strong deodorant. He was still slightly moist.
“It’s always good to see you Jennifer.” He said as they let go.
“Grandpa, it’s me, Kristy.”
He stepped back and adjusted his glasses, giving her a once over.
“Oh, even better! Sorry, I’ve been… muddled.”
“It’s ok Grandpa. It’s ok. Hey, I brought the keyboard. Wanna play me some tunes so I can work on my homework?”
“Oh, you don’t wanna hear those old commercials-”
“Please? It would mean so much to me.” He always seemed stronger, more lucid, after his songs and they could chat for a while before she left.
He was already sitting down, hunched over the keyboard. “Well, if you insist. How do you turn on this damn thing again?”
He fidgeted with his glasses trying to look at the settings as she turned it on for him and put it on the settings that he liked.
“We have to keep the volume on 3, ok? I don’t need you getting into trouble again.” Confusion soured his face until he realized what she meant then he smiled at her. He liked trouble. “Don’t even think about it.”
“Would you hand me my teeth? I sing better with my fancy teeth.”
He cracked his knuckles as she placed the glass with his teeth on the desk. She gave him a quick peck on the cheek before she sat down on the bed and pulled a book out of her purse to work on her homework.
“Shall I serenade you with the songs that bought our family home?” He said after he got his teeth in place.
“Of course, I would love to hear them.”
“Would you like to sing them with me?”
“Grandpa, I can’t sing. Besides, I have to work on my homework. It’s due Monday.”
“Have it your way then.”
This was their routine. He didn’t remember much now a days, but the jingles never left him. He used to be a musician and was semi famous from writing commercial jingles for over 30 years for some of the biggest brands in the US. No one outside the industry knows who he is, but his jingles were recognized around the world.
He needed the mental exercise and they would only let him play if someone was around to keep an eye on him. She sort of felt bad for him, but at the same time she knew why they made the rule. If he had his headphones on, he would just disappear into the music and the CNAs had a hard time getting him out of it. With the headphones off, well, he liked it loud.
As he went through his set list he repeated himself a few times which was fine as it generally went like that. At the end of “Super Sugar Flakes Cereal” he started to slow the song down and it sounded different, sad somehow. Something was off, so she put down her book and went over to him placing a hand on his shoulder as he finished the song.
“You ok Grandpa?”
He sighed and put his hand on hers. “I used to be a real musician, you know?” He shook his head. “I used to write real music. Songs that meant something to me. No one wanted those songs. They just wanted these damn jingles to sell their crap.”
It was odd seeing him like this. For a moment she wasn’t sure what to do. Then it came to her.
“Would you play me one of those songs then?”
He looked up at her, sadness in his eyes. He took a breath, squeezed her hand and gave her a faint smile.
Letting go of her hand and adjusted his seat. She stood back and watched as he sat up straight, proper. He pressed a button and looked to her.
“This is the last real song I wrote before going full commercial. I always wanted it pressed on wax but never had the opportunity. It’s called ‘Separate Ways’.”
The first notes he hit swirled around the room with a melancholy melody and seemed to tell her there was a lot more to this goofy old man then she had ever known. In a tender, falsetto voice, he sang a story about a love he had once when he was young and ready to take on the world. He learned from her what it meant to truly live, and to truly love, but their time together was brief. She had plans and was moving across the country for college to make a better life for herself. Even though he truly loved her, he knew he couldn’t follow her.
The song moved Kristy to tears, she never knew this side of him before. As he finished the song, the chords in the chorus were drawn out as he breathed out the last chorus.
“Maybe we’d still be together, who am I to say. We understood each other, but had to go our separate ways, our separate ways.”
The final note hung thick in the air and the room seemed still as it died out. He hung his head low and slouched over the keyboard closing his eyes. She was shocked by the beauty of the song and it broke her heart. She wiped away a tear and knelt down next to him.
“Thank you Grandpa, that was beautiful.”
She looked to his face and saw his eyes were closed. He wasn’t moving. Panicked, she nudged him and his eyes shot open, looking around the room frantically until he saw her and smiled for a moment but saw how sad she looked.
“Oh, Jennifer. Hello. Is there something wrong dear?”
“No, nothing at all.” She said, then she hugged him.