By JOE COBB CRAWFORD
There she is, Dorothy Luella Jones, 92, a widow for 27 years, and my mother-in-law for more than 50 years. She sits alone most days. Her circle of friends keeps shrinking. Dorothy strongly rejects the idea that she has dementia, a disease her mother battled for seven long years. She tells herself and friends that what she really has is Arnold-Chiari—a cerebral deformity that causes a multitude of physical incapacities.
The dizziness and foggy brain could never be the result of her dementia. Family members know better. Of late, she’s becoming incoherent—speaks in a slow drawl, struggles to find the right word. She asks questions. Her questions use the exact same words that have just been spoken to her. More recently, Dorothy has become paranoid. She fears the unfamiliar. Stays in her house with all lights turned off. She hears things.
There I am, resting in her motorized recliner. Dorothy won’t sit in the recliner. To her, the chair is a symbol of old age. Prior to a recent death, the chair was owned by her neighbor friend. I’ve just finished my lunch. I’m taking a break from house rewiring and waiting for my wife, Beth, to return from the hardware store with wiring materials.
Dorothy had asked me to check her house’s wiring, a house that’s four years older than I; a house she and her husband built and wired when he returned from WWII; a house that has been remodeled several times. The last electrical work was performed by Larry, Moe and Curly Electrical Contractors, Dorothy’s recent best friends.
She vows on her mother’s grave that squirrels have overtaken her house. They’ve destroyed the wiring. At night, when she can’t sleep—which is often because she naps numerous times during the day—they feast on the aged wiring. She hears them scamper in the basement and overhead.
I’ve been working weekends to rewire Dorothy’s old house for about six weeks. To date, no wires demolished by squirrels found. What’s been found is antiquated and rotted cotton-based wire insulation. Also discovered is a rat’s nest of major wire-fare left by the last electrician imitator. The house’s wiring is not up to current building code standards. Several cycles of National Electrical Code revision have come and gone since 1948. And there are a host of other safety issues.
As I rest in the recliner, Dorothy sits silent to my right. Pen in hand, glasses hanging low on nose, she’s engrossed in a crossword puzzle, something she does several hours a day. She believes it keeps her Arnold-Chiari symptoms at bay.
Today, waxing philosophical I think of all the wiring problems I’ve fixed in the old house. I’m relaxed and ponder on miracles. I’m also amazed the old house hasn’t caught fire. I theorize on why lightning has not struck the old electrically ungrounded house – why with all the other faulty wiring, she hasn’t been electrocuted. I reason, there is a merciful God. He has a sense of humor and for some unknowable reason He really likes Dorothy.
Just then a clattering truck rumbles into the driveway. We stare at each other, knowing it’s not Beth’s car. We hear a metal-on-metal door screech. A clanging slam follows. Next thunders a rapid banging at the front door. Brow wrinkled, Dorothy whispers, “Don’t answer that door! It might be a robber.”
I motor the recliner to the offload position and stand up. While walking to the door, I hear yelling: “Dot! It’s me, Johnny. I got something for ya. Open the door!”
I turn around and look at her. She nods consent for her favorite nephew to enter the house. She’s suddenly elated and says to me, “It’s Johnny!”
He is good-hearted and accommodating. Dorothy helped raise her sister’s son, Johnny. He’s never been a slave to science or second thoughts and acts strictly on emotions and gut impulses. I open the door. Eyes down, shut-mouthed, he enters and walks past me.
“Hello, Johnny. How are you doing?” I say as I close the door.
He stays silent. I trail behind him and sit back down in the recliner.
Johnny’s a man on a mission. He marches straight over to Dorothy’s side, stops and belts out, “Dot, I got what ya asked me to get ya. You gonna really be tickled with this thing.” A devilish grin morphs his apple-red face. He reaches under his jumbo Hawaiian shirt and pulls out a pistol. He waves and twirls it like it’s a baton and he’s leading the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Like a kid on Christmas morning, Dorothy is delighted. Her eyes light up. She says, “Where’d you get it? Let me hold it. Let me hold it, Johnny!”
“Nah, can’t do that. Need to show ya a few things first … how to load it and such. It’s a Wesson .38 Magnum. Daddy had one just like it. Ya shoot a man with this thing here and he ain’t getting up again til Judgment Day.”
She asks, “Well, where’s the safety on it? A gun needs a safety, don’t it, Johnny?”
Many years earlier, Dorothy had been very familiar with hunting and gun safety. Back then she was a proud, independent, mobile sportswoman. She and her late husband were avid bird hunters. Together with their shotguns, they weekly took target practice. They’d frequently shot quail and pheasant and ate them.
Johnny blurts out his answer: “Don’t need no safety. If ya don’t pull the trigger, hit ain’t gonna fire a shot.” He twitches the weapon sideways and says, “Now see here, here’s the chamber. See them little round holes there? That’s where ya put the bullets.” His face beams proud. Dorothy’s eyes dance between Johnny and the gun. Momentarily in blissful admiration, she stares at him.
“Well, Johnny, did ya get me any bullets? I’ll need bullets.”
“Got ’em right here.” He pats his shirt pocket.
Dorothy’s demeanor suddenly changes. She gets a befuddled look on her face as though she can’t remember where she’s left her house keys. She mumbles to herself at first and then louder, “What was I going to do with that gun?”
Dorothy stares at Johnny and asks, “Did I tell you why, Johnny? Why on God’s green earth I needed a gun?”
Uncomfortable with the confidential conversation, I rise from the recliner and say, “I don’t much care for guns. I was almost killed by one as a kid. I got wiring to do. Tell Beth to come see me in the basement when she gets back.”
Neither acknowledges my parting words.
As I walk out the door into the foggy drizzle, I turn and gaze back over my shoulder at them. In dead silence they’re each gawking at the gun. Their faces display deep, disparate feelings. Johnny’s face is flush with confidence. Dorothy’s face scowls, still desperately trying to remember why she asked Johnny to get her the gun.