It’s six in the morning and Vincent Palino, a man of 77 years who unknowingly suffers from senility and extreme delusions of grandeur is violently taking a sledge hammer to every bird bath and feeder on the grounds. Whole families of blue jays and scissortails stare at him in disgust, chirping in protest as he brings the tool of his fury down onto their cement and plastic havens.
“You fat little fucks!” he yells back at them. “You think you can stop me?”
“Vinny! What in the fuck do you think you’re doing, old man?” Leroy Hudson, a nurse, is coming at him full sprint, his exposed brown belly shaking in a wave formation below the hem of his white scrub top.
“It’s Vincent, Leroy. Vincent. You’re the only idiot around here who tries to call me anything else.”
Leroy comes to a halt, leaning on his knees with the flat of his hands. “I’m not too concerned with that right now, Vinny. What I’m concerned about is that perfectly fine bird basin you just done fucked up.”
“It was a piece of crap, Leroy. It had more bird shit than water in it,” Vincent counters.
“And so logically you decided to blow it to pieces at six in the morning then, Vinny? Was that your waking thought this morning, that you better go take a hammer to the lawn decorations?”
“My waking thought this morning, Leroy, was that I’d sure like to be able to sleep past five thirty in the morning, but that’s difficult to accomplish with these feathered freaks squawking right outside my bedroom window.”
“I don’t think you can hear them all the way from this bird basin, man. They’re up in the tree by your window.”
“Well, I reckon I better find a saw then,” he says, heading towards the groundskeeper’s shed.
“No, Mr. Palino, I think that’s about the last damn thing you should do,” Leroy says, grabbing ahold of Vincent by the arm. “Come on now man, let’s get you your morning medicine.”
Vincent brusquely removes Leroy’s hand from his arm but obliges him by heading in the direction of the center. This was purely an act of spontaneity, anyway. Under more careful consideration he would have concluded a sprinkle of poison in the bird food to be more opportune. The two make their way up the sidewalk leading into Heaven’s Ladder Retirement Home and Vincent makes a point to suck in a few last gulps of fresh outdoor air before Leroy opens the door and they are met with the inescapable stench of the living dead: Vincent’s peers. Or as he sees them, people who once had dreams and aspirations, people who once lived but who are now holed up in an institutionalized bunker of lost hope, just waiting to fall off the ladder.
Leroy follows Vincent to the pill counter, a “drive thru” window of sorts above which a sign reading MEDICATION STATION hangs crookedly on the wall, a loopy looking smiley face haphazardly painted beside it. Frieda Bullvari, a plump nurse with a lazy eye, stands idly flipping through a magazine on the other side.
“Good morning, Frieda!” Vincent says with false enthusiasm. “Leroy says it’s time for my morning dose of patriotism.”
Frieda yawns, smiles and turns to unlock the cabinet behind her. Rummaging through the various cups, she eventually comes up with the one marked “Vincent Palino.” The cup contains three pills: a red, a white and a blue. Vincent dumps them down his throat, swallows with his spit and sarcastically proclaims “Land of the free!”
“You know you’re not wearing any pants, Mr. Palino,” Frieda says while staring, with her good eye, at his ratty old boxers.
“Had to air my balls out, Frieda. You should try it sometime.”
“I’m a lady, Vincent. Don’t have any testicles to require a breeze.”
“By golly, Frieda, I know that. I was referring to your coochie.” Frieda cocks her head and slides the Plexiglas window shut.
As he walks to his room Vincent comes to Old Tomas. One of the caretakers has angled his wheelchair in front of the south windows. He stares out of them wearing his usual expression, a countenance of impenetrably rooted grief set deeply into his ancient looking face. Old Tomas has had no visitors in the year and a half Vincent has been living at the retirement center. Not once has he heard him mutter a single word. Vincent takes a stab at conversation.
“Who pissed in your cornflakes, Old Tomas?” he asks him. Old Tomas remains shrouded in silence, his gaze kept fixated out the windows.
“I figure you’re miserable,” Vincent continues. “Hell, who wouldn’t be in a shithole like this? I just want you to know, Tomas, I can help you. I’ve helped others, and I’m good at what I do.” Old Tomas looks up at him for a moment, the sunlight shining through the window lending his pale skin to milky iridescence. Vincent doesn’t bother to wait for a response.
Once inside his shanty little room Vincent opens the dingy window and lights a cigarette. He considers himself having quit nearly thirty years ago but still enjoys at least one a day. From his window he can see several birds ambling about on the broken chunks of a bird bath he wrecked. He cackles at them, sending thick wisps of smoke into the air. Turning on the television Vincent is met with the face of President Nixon. “Bastard,” he grumbles under his breath. He’s turning up the volume when a knock sounds at his door.
“Vincent, it’s Susan. May I come in?”
“No, I’m a little busy right now, Susan,” he tells her.
“Well I’m coming in anyway Mr. Palino.” Susan Saunders pushes open the door. She is standing in the doorway and takes up most of it, which is really saying something considering it’s an extra wide handicap accessible frame. Susan always wears pantsuits, as though being the director of a cheaply run retirement center necessitates formal attire, as though she really needs to be wearing a suit to come talk to an old man in his boxers. A woman in pants irks Vincent. Today’s suit is gray and he is a moment away from telling her that in that particular color selection she resembles an elephant but Susan jumps in first.
“First off, I’ll ask you as I always do to please put out your cigarette,” Susan says while crossing her arms over her rotund belly.
“I’ll be sure to put out the butt just as soon as I finish smoking it,” he tells her with a false toothed grin.
Susan ignores him.“Furthermore, Leroy has informed me of the incident this morning concerning the demolition of several pieces of our personal property. We here at Heaven’s Ladder pride ourselves in providing a peaceful and inviting environment for …”
Joanna Selensky, a nurse with a beehive hairdo the size of a mixing bowl, rushes up to Susan, interrupting her. “It’s Mrs. Blakely,” she says flatly, completely uninterested. “She’s passed.”
Susan gives Vincent a stern glance as he flicks his cigarette out the window. “We’ll continue this conversation soon, Vincent.”
“I look forward to it, my lady.”
Vincent throws on a faded tee shirt that reads “World’s Best Grandpa,” one he wears for irony’s sake as he never had children, or grandchildren for that matter. Pulling up his pants, he has to adjust the belt to the tightest notch to keep them from falling off. Anyone who gave a damn about their well-being would be concerned by such rapid and substantial unintentional weight loss, but Vincent Palino figures he’s about as good as dead and thinks that’s just fine.
“I ain’t a lily liver,” he says, directing his face upwards where he supposes God resides. “I just want it to be on my terms, okay? I call the shots around here.”
He heads out to the community hall, a large room with flickering fluorescent lights and rickety folding tables for cards or Bingo, or as for most the residents of Heaven’s Ladder, sitting miserably while staring at their wrinkled hands, overly medicated and wondering when it will all be over. Through a large window Vincent peers into Cecilia Blakely’s room where a few police officers, Susan and two people he doesn’t recognize are huddled. Vincent is not nervous. Cecilia is the third person he’s given what he considers a gift of perpetual solace and not once has any extended investigation taken place. If Cecilia were a beautiful young woman found hacked to bits in an apartment, it’d make the front page of every newspaper with countless investigations. But it’s 1974 in Silverdeen Montana, a town as backwards as they get, and nobody bats an eye when an 86-year-old woman is found peacefully at rest in a retirement home, not even the people who are paid to care.
Vincent guesses the only real risk he took was in changing Cecilia’s clothes. He had come into her room and found her crying and moaning as he’d often heard her do at night, a photo of her late husband in her hands. The nurse who had gotten her ready for bed had left her caked in a layer of her own excrement. He asked her if he could help change her, and she nodded yes. He wiped her clean and got her into a fresh bed gown.
“You’re tired of living in this place, aren’t you Cecilia?” he asked. She managed only a feeble “Yes,” her eyes brimming with tears again. The nurse who’d failed to change her soiled night gown had been high on a cocktail of small town speed and opiates stolen from the center’s stockroom and had given Cecilia four times the appropriate dose of her night time medication. Cecilia would have agreed to just about anything in the moment.
“I can help you if you’d like. I can make the pain go away. Do you want it to be your time now, Cecilia?” he asked her. Again, she wheezed out only a single word of affirmation.
Vincent removed a comb off her nightstand and gently brushed through her fluffy white locks, all the while her cataract glazed teal eyes rolling around involuntarily in their sockets. He leaned in and kissed her left cheek gently. She smiled and giggled, thinking of her husband. After maybe twenty seconds of Vincent pressing the pillow down on her face, she began to flail around a bit, her body’s natural reaction to suffocation. Despite the weight he’s lost, the fifty odd years of working construction kept a permanent layer of muscle stretched across his old bones. It was no effort for him to keep her contained. Soon the convulsions ceased and Vincent exited her room with a smile and a sense of accomplishment.
Preparations are being made to move Cecilia’s body and Vincent has seen enough. He walks back to his room, on his way passing by Leroy Hudson. Leroy shakes his head at him, mumbling “Crazy son of a bitch,” under his breath.
Once inside his room Vincent decides another cigarette won’t kill him, and if it does, who cares. Images of Old Tomas’s permanently sulking posture plague his mind as he puffs away, accompanied by an incessant call to action that he considers God signaling him to carry out His will. Vincent won’t sleep tonight, not until he performs his duty and does what he must. His hesitation to execute this task two nights consecutively results in him comforting himself with the assurance that he can’t go wrong while obeying his maker. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” Vincent speaks aloud to himself as a mantra.
Night has fallen and most of the nurses have gone home. The few that remain are sharing a joint and a bottle of Jack in the back room, discussing their plans to get out of the town they hate and out to the east coast. The halls leading to Old Tomas’s room are deserted and Vincent’s loafers are silent on the floor as he makes his way in the ill lighting. Tomas’s door is ajar when he comes to it. Through the gap he sees Tomas staring intently at something in his hand. Vincent pushes the door open abruptly and Tomas jumps a little, nearly spilling the contents of his hand. Vincent walks to the side of his bed and sees cusped in his palm a small mountain of white pills. He can’t help but laugh. The vulnerability breaks Tomas’s silence.
“What the hell are you laughing at?” he asks Vincent, his annoyance showing through clearly in his tone.
“It’s nothing I could possibly explain to you, Old Tomas,” he tells him, shaking his head at the humor of it all.
“Well I’m gonna do it,” Tomas says. “Don’t think you can stop me.”
“Honest to Pete, I’m not here to stop you, Tomas. I’m here to help. Those pills won’t work in time though. They’ll find you in here sick as an old dog in the morning and rush you off to the hospital.”
Old Tomas clasps his trembling hand tightly around the pills until his knuckles turn white. In a swift motion he opens it and thrusts it forward, projecting them in the air like balls from a canon.
“Every day I lose another piece of myself to this place,” he says, his voice growing louder with every word. “And every day I pray to the Lord, I call out and ask him to take me off this earth. I guess he doesn’t have time to listen to an old man like me.”
“I won’t let this place take another part of you,” Vincent tells him. “I reckon you’ve made it to the top of the ladder.” Tomas dons a muddled expression as Vincent walks to the dresser and takes a Bible from where it sits on top. He fans through the pages until he comes to the passage he’s looking for.
Vincent begins reading in a thunderous voice. “So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Vincent rips the page out, folds it and places it in Tomas’s nightgown pocket. He then climbs into his bed and hovers above him. “God sent me here tonight to answer your prayer. He has been listening, and He told me tonight you’ve been patient long enough.” For a moment a flicker of life runs through Tomas’s eyes, a streak of excitement for his divine death appointment. “Anything left to say, Old Tomas?” Vincent asks him.
“Glory be to God,” says Old Tomas in an empowered voice. A pillow is lowered onto his hollowed visage. His frail body quickly becomes limp beneath Vincent as four solid inches of foam answer long awaited prayers.
David Orion, a nurse who’s sobered up some and decided to emerge from the party in the back room is passing by Old Tomas’s room just as Vincent replaces the pillow beneath his head.
“Hey man, lights out was hours ago,” he tells Vincent, concentrating not to slur his words but failing miserably to do so. Vincent freezes for a moment.
“I was looking for the sugar plum fairy,” Vincent says, widening his eyes while waving his hands spastically. “Have you seen her? I can’t sleep until I kiss her good night.”
David laughs a little too hard. “Yeah, I’ve seen her man. She’s in your room, told me to come get you.” As he walks over to lead Vincent by the arm, David doesn’t notice the unnatural way Old Tomas is propped in his bed. Vincent heaves a sigh of relief as he closes the door behind them.
As they make their way to Vincent’s room, David is thinking about how nice it must be to be an old person. They don’t have to do shit. Their whole life is like a good trip. Vincent is thinking about the pack of razor cartridges inside his medicine cabinet and how tonight he will use one to sever the fraying fibers of his life.
Once inside his room undisturbed Vincent begins tidying up. He makes his bed, lines up his shoes, straightens the photos on the wall. He takes a scalding hot bath, combs his hair and begins pacing the floor of his room, completely naked.
“Vincent Palino was a good man,” he says aloud, continuing to walk the length of his floor with repetitive strides as he eulogizes himself. “A man who remained remarkably untainted by the evils of this world. His life was long and filled with countless acts of selfless humanity. The deep love he had for everyone around him radiated from his life with a glow that will continue to blaze long past his death. His unrelenting devotion to his maker, our Lord, gives us assurance that Vincent’s soul has passed into a place of unending paradise, a place where he will be unceasingly rewarded for his altruistic feats.”
Vincent takes a seat on the end of his bed, settling his gaze skyward as he speaks. “You know I’m not one to get down on my knees,” he says. “I’m just gonna lay it out straight for you. I reckon I’ve done you enough favors, and tonight you almost got me caught. You’ve trusted me with giving tired old souls the rest they longed for and now I’m gonna give myself the same, on my damn terms.”
Vincent walks to his bathroom, opens his cabinet and removes from it a fresh razor. He doesn’t feel fear or apprehension, only a consuming sense of authority to be awarding himself the ultimate birthright, death. He extends his left arm out straight over the sink; in his right hand he holds the slice of metal. As he readies himself to lower it to his wrist, a tremendous pain shoots down the length of his arm and a sickeningly tight feeling overcomes his chest. The razor escapes the grasp of his fingers and falls to the porcelain with a metallic tinkling sound that rings in his ears. Crumpling to the floor, his world becomes a strange pandemonium of absolute confusion. In his mind he sees himself teetering on the topmost rung of a ladder. As his sagging jowl wilts onto the cold tile floor, Vincent Palino croaks into the mildew two final words.
About the Author
Brianna Sanow is an Honors student at Tulsa Community College where her work was recently published in the school’s literary journal, Tulsa Review.