Smoking in the girls’ room, sneaking a drink, napping
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“Leroy’s going to stay here for a little while,” Jerry announced to my husband Ralph and me one day. Leroy stood behind him looking skinny and frail, dressed in a frayed nylon sweat suit and carrying a paper sack of belongings.
“He’s a little down on his luck,” Jerry continued, “but he won’t be no trouble, I promise.” They went upstairs to Jerry’s bedroom and shut the door before I could reply.
My husband is a quadriplegic, and Jerry is one of his live-in attendants. Almost a decade ago, Ralph had a cycling accident that left him paralyzed below the shoulders. He couldn’t perform even the most basic of human functions, such as eating, bathing, or going to the bathroom. We became prisoners in our own home, unable to attend social functions, no longer capable of the activities we’d enjoyed before the accident, such as skiing, kayaking, rock climbing, walking together, or holding hands.
Although we were insured, our health benefits did not cover full-time, live-in help. We were forced to hire unlicensed attendants to care for Ralph while I was out, and to help move him. It was the nineties, and while our friends were upwardly mobile, we spent all our time worrying about money. Ralph’s pension paid our bills, and my paycheck covered his attendants’ salaries. At the end of each month, we had little left over.
Our old friends disappeared, but we made new ones in our mixed-income neighborhood. And our attendants — the ones who worked out — became like family. Then when the economy went bust, we found ourselves part of the mainstream. In fact, we were living proof of America’s hard times. I wrote a book about our new life and got it published. It wasn’t exactly a happy ending, but it was better than I’d hoped.
Now Leroy was joining our unconventional household. Through a series of misfortunes, Jerry’s eighty-one-year-old friend had recently lost his home of forty years. He’d lived in transient hotels for a week or two, until his Social Security check ran out. That’s when he arrived at our house.
Leroy and Jerry slept in the same bed, dressed in their street clothes. Jerry came downstairs several times a day and carried plates of food and cups of coffee up to the room for him and Leroy to consume by the light of the television screen. The TV stayed on day and night, even on the rare occasions when they went out to buy cigarettes and lottery tickets.
Ralph was stuck downstairs in his hospital bed, but my room is across the hallway from Jerry’s. At night I could hear him and Leroy arguing. They quarreled over who would win the World Series. They argued over who was better, the Forty-Niners or the Raiders. They squabbled over cards and cigarettes. They used a certain obscene compound word repeatedly, as a noun, verb, and adjective — sometimes all three in the same sentence.
One night they had a big blowout over the definition of the word terrorist. Leroy said that anybody who threatened anyone was a terrorist, and gave as examples the Ku Klux Klan, the Mafia, and the Black Panthers. Jerry disagreed. He said a terrorist’s victims were random, but the Ku Klux Klan knew its targets ahead of time. Jerry and Leroy asked me to mediate, but I declined. I couldn’t keep up with them.
Another night I was awakened by a terrible row. I opened one eye and looked at the clock: 3:20 A.M.
“You don’t know nothing!” I heard Jerry shout. “The zero on your cellphone ain’t the same as the letter O, Leroy. It’s different.”
“Then why does everybody say ‘oh’ instead of ‘zero’?”
“I’m trying to explain it to you, but you ain’t listening,” Jerry said.
“I’m listening,” insisted Leroy, “but you ain’t explaining nothing to nobody, especially not to me.”
They obviously needed my help to work things out. I got up, but by the time I reached their bedroom door, I heard them both snoring.
The next morning Leroy came downstairs and announced that it was time for him to leave.
“Don’t go,” I said, surprising myself.
“Why not?” he asked.
“Times are tough.”
“Baby,” he said, “times are always tough. But OK, I’ll stick around. Not for too long, now. I don’t want to overstay my welcome.”
“You won’t,” I answered.
Leroy was a retired bartender and an avid cardplayer and sports fan. He and Ralph liked to watch the Giants, the A’s, the Raiders, and the Forty-Niners on TV. Leroy would also watch golf and tennis, if Tiger Woods or Serena and Venus Williams were playing.
Leroy had moved to the Bay Area from Omaha, Nebraska, during World War II. He didn’t have to serve in the armed forces because he was the sole provider for his younger brothers and sister. Back in Nebraska he had trained to be a machinist, but because the union didn’t allow African Americans, Leroy was out of work. Then the government taught him to weld, and Leroy found a job in the Oakland shipyards. In 1958 he switched to bartending and worked in a series of low-rent clubs patronized by African Americans. In the early 1970s, Leroy and a handful of others sued the Local 52 Bartenders Union and broke the color line. He became a homeowner, a husband, and a father.
But that was a long time ago. Now the house was gone, the ex-wife deceased, and the children scattered and only marginally in touch. And I wondered how long Jerry would put up with Leroy sharing his mattress.
About three months after Leroy moved in, I got a phone call from my friend Ronnie. “Suzy, is that old man still living at your house?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Girl, you’ve got to get rid of him. You’ve got too much on your plate already. You don’t need another mouth to feed.”
“You’re right,” I said, and then I changed the subject.
The following Sunday my mother called. “Is Jerry’s friend still staying at your house, Susan?” she asked cautiously. “Do you really need to be taking care of him with everything else you have to do?” She handed the phone to my dad.
“I don’t like it that you are in the house with all those men,” he shouted. “It just doesn’t seem right. Plus, from what you’ve told me, they can’t fix the plumbing or change the oil in the car. Can they?”
“Well,” I answered, “Jerry and Leroy aren’t too bad at repairing things — with duct tape, clothespins, and paper clips.”
“I figured as much,” mumbled my dad.
Later, while walking my dog, I stopped to chat with my neighbor Mrs. Washington.
“Is that old man still up at your house, Suzy?”
“Yes.” I sighed.
“Honey, if it was me, I’d tell him who’s boss and give him the toss. You hear what I’m saying?”
“I hear you,” I said.
I wanted to explain to everyone why I liked having Leroy around, but I wasn’t sure they’d understand. Leroy wasn’t any trouble. He didn’t eat much, and Jerry and I got along better now that he had someone to play cards and dominoes with him. But that’s not the real reason I enjoyed Leroy’s company. My motives were more selfish.
Propped on the nightstand beside the bed that Leroy shared with Jerry was a crumpled photograph of me. Every morning when Leroy woke up, he saw my picture, and every night before he turned out the light, he saw it again. He said I had the most beautiful dimples he’d ever seen: “Three of them in a row on either side of that lovely smile of yours,” he said. When I explained to him that they are not dimples but, in fact, wrinkles caused by years of stress and frowning — lines my dermatologist has referred to as “deep trench marks” — Leroy shook his head. “You know I’ve got cataracts in both my eyes, and I can’t see a damn thing without a magnifying glass, but, baby, they look like dimples to me.”
Lately I’d been seeking Leroy’s approval on my appearance. I’d long ago stopped asking Ralph and Jerry for compliments. They usually grunted and mumbled something resembling an endorsement. But Leroy’s reaction was different. When I put on stockings and a skirt and blouse and asked Leroy what he thought of my outfit, he sat up in bed and squinted at me. “Baby,” he shouted, “you look beautiful!”
“Say what?” I asked, though I’d heard him perfectly.
“Darling,” he repeated, “you look very, very pretty.”
“Do I?” I said, not completely satisfied.
“Baby doll, you are the most gorgeous woman in the world!”
“Thank you, Leroy,” I answered, spinning around, suddenly light on my feet. “And you know, of course, that you can stay at our house for as long as you want.”
One day Jerry came downstairs to the laundry room and made a startling suggestion: “Suzy, come on. Leroy and me want to take you to lunch.”
“You’re kidding,” I said as I folded Ralph’s hospital bedsheets. Jerry had never before offered to take me anywhere. I was more accustomed to taking him places, such as the California Department of Motor Vehicles or the Oakland courthouse.
“Who’s paying?” I asked. I knew that Leroy wouldn’t have any money until his Social Security check arrived, in exactly fourteen days. Jerry’s check would come forty-eight hours later. Jerry and Leroy didn’t always know what day it was, but they knew exactly when the checks would fall through the mail slot. Ralph and I were the same way.
“Girl!” Jerry said. He rolled his eyes the way he always does when I say something that offends him. “Just get in the car.”
Leroy appeared dressed in black pants, a black nylon Raiders jacket, a black Raiders baseball cap, and a pair of dark sunglasses. On his feet were his two-tone brown-and-white loafers. In each shoe was a slot in which to put a penny. Leroy’s slots were empty.
We left Ralph at home with his weekday attendant. Our van’s front passenger seat had been taken out long ago to accommodate Ralph’s wheelchair, so Jerry and Leroy shouted directions from the back seat. Within two minutes we arrived at a church. We could have walked there just as fast.
“Is this where we’re going to eat?” I asked.
“No,” said Leroy. “This is the prelunch stop, where we get the takeouts we’ll eat later, for dinner. Come on.”
Jerry and Leroy sprinted across the street. For two old guys, they were pretty light on their feet. I followed them reluctantly. This was not what I’d had in mind.
The line snaked out the side door of the church. I stood behind Jerry, but when it came time to sign up for the free meal, I declined. There were people a lot more needy than I was.
Leroy and Jerry seemed to know everyone in the place. They each grabbed a plastic bag, filled it with loaves of soft white bread, and then stood in another line for a boxed lunch. When we got back to the van, Leroy and Jerry settled into the back seat and peeked beneath the lids of their styrofoam containers. “Turkey again,” said Jerry. “Mashed potatoes and gravy,” added Leroy. They closed the lids and issued more directions.
We pulled up in front of another church. Another line of men snaked out the side door.
“Let’s go,” said Leroy. “This is really lunchtime.”
We signed in, got our food, and sat down on metal folding chairs at a long table. People chatted in low voices as they ate. Almost all the diners were men. The women were behind the counter, barking instructions and dishing out stew, macaroni, and coleslaw.
“Where are all the women?” I asked.
Jerry shrugged. Leroy looked up from his bowl of stew and scanned the room. “Women, you say?” He paused and reflected on my question. “Baby, they’re like you. They ain’t here ’cause they ain’t hungry.”
Four more weeks went by, and Leroy was still with us. One morning he wandered into the kitchen to get a cup of coffee.
“Leroy,” I shouted, “you’re wearing my T-shirt!”
Leroy looked down, but his chest was so concave, it was impossible for him to see anything he had on except his shoes: the same scuffed two-tone loafers, more appropriate for dancing than for lying around our house.
“What?” asked Leroy. “You say I’ve got your shirt on?”
“Yes,” I answered. “It must have gotten mixed up with your clothes when Jerry was doing laundry. It’s my favorite T-shirt, so I’d like to have it back when you’re through wearing it.”
“Of course,” said Leroy. “I’m sorry about this. You know I don’t mean to be wearing your clothes. I got clothes of my own. It’s just that I can’t see a damn thing with these cataracts.”
“It’s OK, Leroy.”
Leroy went back upstairs and returned a few hours later to make himself a sandwich. This time he had on a pair of my old Lycra biking shorts. Instead of holding tight to his thighs, the shorts hung limp like a pair of boxers.
“Now you’ve got my shorts on,” I said.
“I do?” asked Leroy.
“Yes, but it’s all right. I don’t wear them anymore.”
“Suzy, I don’t mean to be wearing your clothes. I got plenty of my own. . . .”
“It’s OK, Leroy. You can have them, though I’m not sure why you’d want to wear bicycle shorts with dancing shoes.”
“Never mind,” I said. “Go back to bed.”
Several days later Jerry and Leroy came home from a late-night expedition.
“Look here,” they shouted as they came in the front door. “We got something for you!”
They laid a baby blue leather suit on the couch and stood with their arms folded to watch me inspect it. It had many zippers, pockets, and epaulets, and a removable quilted lining. The pants looked as if they might squeeze the hips of a sixteen-year-old, and the legs flared into bells at the bottom.
“Boys,” I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have anywhere to go in this get-up.”
“Baby,” Jerry said in his smoothest, sexiest voice, “this suit will look good on you. Match those pretty blue eyes. Hug those thighs of yours.”
“Did you guys win this suit in a card game, or steal it, or what? Do you want me to buy this suit from you?”
Leroy and Jerry stared at me for a moment, then shook their heads in disappointment and carefully carried the suit upstairs.
“She don’t appreciate nothing we do for her,” I heard Jerry mumble.
“That’s right,” answered Leroy as they shut their bedroom door and locked it.
I never saw the baby blue, fully lined, bell-bottomed, pocketed, epauletted, zippered, calf’s-leather suit again, though I suspect it is still hanging in Jerry’s closet above Leroy’s scuffed two-tone dancing shoes.
“Come on, Leroy,” I said one morning, knocking on his closed bedroom door. “I’m taking you down to the senior center to get some advice.”
“All right,” said Leroy from behind the door. “Just let me get dressed.”
“Don’t wear the bicycle shorts,” I said.
“I won’t,” he answered.
Leroy stepped out of the bedroom wearing a pair of old jeans, his Raiders cap (with the bill facing backward), and a sweat shirt printed with large green marijuana leaves and the slogan “San Francisco Cannabis Buyers Club: Service, Justice, Compassion.” His cataract-damaged eyes were hidden behind shiny mirrored sunglasses.
“Leroy, you can’t go to the senior center wearing that sweat shirt.”
“Look at it. It’s got marijuana leaves all over it.”
“So what?” said Leroy. “You don’t think those old people like to smoke dope once in a while?”
“No,” I answered.
“Girl, you don’t know nothing. But I’ll change it for you anyway.” He went back inside the bedroom and came out a few minutes later wearing a pink sweat shirt with the logo “Sun Valley, Idaho: Winter Wonderland” and a picture of a skier cutting a sharp turn in the snow.
“That’s better,” I said. “Let’s go.”
I drove Leroy to the North Oakland Senior Center to see if he could get advice on housing. He’s registered on several different housing lists and waiting to qualify for government assistance. I was afraid to think of how old Leroy would be before he got to the top of any of those lists.
Shirley, who was in charge of information, assistance, and referral, asked Leroy a series of questions.
“What is your full name?”
“Salathiel Lee Ligons,” answered Leroy. “Do you know what my name means?”
“No,” said Shirley.
“King of the black Jews.”
“Are you Jewish?”
“No. That was my daddy’s name. I was raised a Catholic. Now I sometimes go to Bethany Baptist Church for lunch and Downs Memorial Methodist for supper.”
“I see,” said Shirley. “Where were you born, Leroy?”
“Portsmouth, Virginia. Moved to Philadelphia, and then went to Omaha. Spent my childhood there. We were po’. That’s spelled pee-oh: po’ — as in ‘po-er than poor.’ And Omaha was colder than a witch’s you-know-what, if you know what I mean.”
“I know what you mean,” said Shirley.
“Seventeen degrees below zero when I left Omaha in 1942,” added Leroy. “Haven’t bothered to go back since.”
“I understand,” said Shirley. “Have you been employed, Leroy?”
“All my life,” he answered. “I was a meatpacker when I was a kid. Then a machinist, a welder, and a bartender. Worked at the racetrack and Spenger’s Seafood Restaurant for years. Retired in 1987.”
“What’s your income now?” asked Shirley.
“One thousand a month. Sixteen dollars over the maximum amount to qualify for MediCal.”
Shirley shook her head and sighed. “Do you take any medications?”
“None,” answered Leroy.
“Do you have any savings?”
“Not a penny.”
“Do you own any property?”
“Not anymore,” said Leroy. “I’m a rolling stone.”
“Yes,” said Shirley, “it appears you are.”
“And I gather no moss,” added Leroy.
“I hear you.”
“And there’s something else you should know about me,” said Leroy.
Leroy looked around and then leaned forward in his chair, so that his wrinkled face was close to Shirley’s. “I don’t like being ’round old people,” he whispered.
“That could be a problem,” said Shirley in a hushed tone.
“I know,” said Leroy. “But I’ve got to be able to run.”
“Run free,” said Leroy, tapping his two-tone dancing shoes. “You know what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” said Shirley to the ancient, skinny rolling stone sitting across the desk from her. “We all do.”
Jerry’s nine-year-old daughter Jernae came to stay with us on the weekends. In theory she was visiting her father, but in reality she came to see me. At sixty-five, Jerry had little interest in a fourth-grader he had only recently met. I, on the other hand, was happy to be her friend and confidante. Since Ralph’s accident I’d become desperate for companionship of any kind.
One Saturday Jernae’s mother dropped her off with terse instructions that she not do anything that would mess up her hair. As soon as her mother pulled out of the driveway, Jernae looked up at me. “Now what are we going to do?” she demanded.
I shrugged. “Let’s see. We could practice your multiplication tables. We could read. We could go out back and pull weeds.”
Jernae’s eyes got wide as if I were crazy.
“Look,” she said, ticking off the activities on her fingers, “we can’t swim or bike-ride, ’cause my hair will get messed up. So that means we could go bowling, ice-skating, or to the movies. Take your pick.”
I knew I wouldn’t like Jernae’s choice in movies, having already seen, at her insistence, a remake of The Mummy. That left either ice-skating or bowling.
While Jernae and I discussed the options, Jerry was in the dining room, sharing breakfast with Ralph, and Leroy was sitting in the kitchen sipping coffee and reading the newspaper headlines with a magnifying glass.
“Leroy,” I said, “are you interested in going bowling or ice-skating with us?”
“Sweet Jesus,” he replied. “I’d kill myself ice-skating, and I haven’t been bowling in thirty years. But if you’re letting me decide, I say let’s bowl.”
On the way, Leroy gave me a history of his bowling prowess. “I was a damn good bowler,” he said. “Used to win all kinds of trophies. Had me a sixteen-pound ball with my name engraved on it, a bag, and my own shoes. But that was a long time ago. I wonder if I can even pick up a ball now.”
As we entered the bowling alley, Leroy smiled. “It looks just the same. It sounds and smells the same, too. I used to bowl here for five cents a game.” When I forked over twenty-one dollars for two adults and one child, Leroy muttered, “That ain’t the same.”
We found our lane, and each of us selected a bowling ball. Jernae’s glittered like a disco light. Mine looked like the solidified contents of a lava lamp. Leroy’s was plain black. He stared for a few moments at the electronic scoreboard overhead and then sighed. “Who’s going first?” he asked.
Jernae threw a gutter ball and said she was out of practice. On her second throw, she almost flew down the lane after her sparkling bowling ball.
When it was Leroy’s turn, he bent low to get a good aim and stepped gracefully toward the line. As he let go of the ball, he slipped and fell.
Good Lord, I thought, we’ve killed him!
But he jumped up, brushed himself off, and laughed. “Just warming up,” he said.
And it seemed to be true. As Jernae and I threw gutter ball after gutter ball, Leroy’s aim improved. He bowled a spare, then a strike. Suddenly Leroy didn’t look so old. He gave us the thumbs up as he came off the lane. There was a spring to his step.
The game ended with Leroy the winner. “Let’s play another,” he said. “I think I can do better this time.”
“My feet hurt,” complained Jernae.
“I’ve got a headache,” I said.
“OK,” said Leroy, “just one more roll, and then we’ll go.” As Leroy threw another perfect strike, I realized that someday soon he would no longer be able to go bowling, and that Jernae would no longer want to go anywhere with me.
“Come on,” I said, linking arms with both of them and steering them toward the checkout counter. “Let’s get to the skating rink before it closes. Hurry up. We’re running out of time!”
In February 2003 Leroy was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He accepted his fate, made his preparations, and was gone within six weeks.
There wasn’t much to prepare. He didn’t have a house, a car, an insurance policy, or a bank account. He owned a cane that his sister Cleo had given him, a bag of clothes from the Salvation Army, and a pinkie ring that was missing its diamond chip. When the visiting hospice nurse asked him if he was ready, he replied, “Oh, yeah.” And at the end of each visit, when she said, “Goodbye, Leroy. Nice seeing you again,” he always answered, “Darling, the pleasure was all mine.”
I watched over Leroy as he grew weaker and his breathing became more labored. One day he struggled downstairs, lay on the living-room couch, and didn’t get up. I asked my neighbor to help me carry him back to his bedroom. Leroy, who was six feet tall, must have weighed less than a hundred pounds.
He went in and out of consciousness for several days. Finally, as I held his hand, he took his last breath. His heart kept beating for several more minutes, and then stopped. I lowered his eyelids, crossed his arms over his chest, and covered him with a quilt. Then I called the hospice nurse and his sister. There was nothing more to do.
Salathiel Lee Ligons’s body was cremated and his ashes interred on May 2, 2003, at Rolling Hills Memorial Park in Richmond, California, not far from where he’d lived and worked when he arrived in California as a young man more than sixty years ago. He is survived by his loving sister Cleo, his son, Salathiel Mark Ligons, and his numerous grandchildren. He left behind a cane, a worthless ring, and his false teeth. I gave the cane to his sister and the ring to his son. I keep his teeth in a small box in my bedroom. I miss his smile.