“Cold, Cold Water”

The old man was a creepy feature in our house that summer. Each morning, after breakfast, my mother would wheel him out onto the landing outside our kitchen door, and there he remained for most of the day.

His eyes were sunk deep into their sockets. He was nearly blind; supposedly he could see only shadows. His nose was bony and hawkish, jutting out from a face that was just a mass of wrinkles. His pale skin appeared paler under the early morning sun, and no matter how warm it was, a heavy afghan lay across his lap and over the arms of his wheelchair. His lips were always parted, and sometimes you could catch a glimpse of his two remaining front teeth. The only time he ever spoke now was to ask for water. “Cold, cold water,” he rasped softly whenever he was thirsty. It never sounded like a request, but an observation, as though he was seeing in his mind some mountain stream whose crystal clear water was babbling through a formation of rocks. He would repeat the words at almost exactly intervals, never certain anybody was close enough to hear.

I was fourteen then, and every time I had to pass him to enter through the kitchen door, my scrotum shrunk slightly, as if the temperature on the landing was hovering just above zero. “Cold, cold water.” His eyelids drooped a bit, so you could see only a sliver of green and white. I knew he couldn’t see me, but the way his eyes appeared made me feel that he wasn’t blind, but that I was invisible.

That was the summer my brother, Ricky, decided to kill the Greek. I never for a moment believed he would actually do it. He had changed quite a bit in the last year; he had developed opinions– on just about everything, it seemed– started to pass judgment on everything and everybody. But he had not changed that much. So when he told me his plans, I was sure that it was all talk.

We sat on out on the back stairs of our house. He was sitting on one of the higher stairs, as though that somehow reflected that he was older than me and therefore ought to be elevated. On the landing the old man loomed over us, a silent sentinel.

“Why would you want to kill him anyway?” I asked.

He took a moment to answer. He looked over the railing at our small backyard, which, no matter how our mother tried to dress up with annuals each year, still managed to appear sad and pitiful.

“It’s just the way it has to be,” he said. “There’s an order to things, and the Greek is out of order.”

I considered this, but it just didn’t make any sense to me. The Greek had bought the neighborhood candy store last year. It was true that he was not as likeable as Mr. Bellini, the old owner who had dispensed candy to the kids and milk and bread to their parents for about a hundred years. He always seemed sullen, walking around in a dirty t-shirt. His black hair was receding and slicked back, and his dark eyes were somewhat protuberant, as though he was always on the verge of losing his temper. He was not the nicest human being, but I couldn’t see that he was worthy of being killed, and I told Ricky as much.

“He beats his wife and daughter, you know,” he said curtly.

“Oh, his daughter…” I said knowingly. Ricky had had a crush on the Greek’s daughter, Lori, since he first laid eyes on her. I couldn’t blame him, really; she was quite pretty, with long wavy dark hair and the kind of face you’d see on a cameo– and her body wasn’t bad, either. For some reason, though, Ricky, lately, had lost interest in her.

“Don’t give me ‘Oh, her daughter’ like you know everything,” he chided me. “She’s aside from the point.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah,” he said in a brooding tone.

“You don’t like her anymore?”

“I like her just fine,” he said, but the way he said it led me to believe that what he was saying wasn’t quite the truth.

“But you’re not interested in her anymore,” I pointed out.

“No.”

“Then you don’t mind if I took a try at her.”

“Yeah, I mind,” he snapped.

“What?”

“You just stay away from her.”

“Why?”

“Just stay away from her– that’s all,” he said. He stared over the railing again. In the yard birds were swooping down, landing in the lawn and pecking at the grass seed our mother had spread yesterday. It was no wonder why the lawn always had the scruffy look, with tiny bare spots here and there. You just couldn’t put down enough grass seed– there were just too many birds. On the landing the old man started to murmur, “Cold, cold water,” but neither one of us took much notice.

“You know I nearly got her,” Ricky said in a mischievous way.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” he swore.

“What happened?”

A look of disdain passed over his face. “I’m not sure I should say.”

“Well, I’m not going to beg you,” I told him.

“Cold, cold water,” came from the landing above.

Ricky glanced up at the old man, and seemed disgusted.

“We were alone in the Greek’s apartment, right above the store while the Greek was working,” he said.

“And, what, the Greek caught you trying to do his daughter? That why you want to kill him?”

Ricky snorted. “You don’t know nothing,” he said, and sounded just the way adults sound when they’re talking to kids sometimes. “No, he didn’t catch anything.”

“Then what happened?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you, if you just shut up and let me tell you.”

“All right, all right,” I said.

“She started taking off her clothes,” he said slowly, too slowly.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah, and her body was– perfect– I mean, perfect. You know? She got down to her underwear and then she takes me into her bedroom. So I’m getting excited, you know, like we were really going to do it and somehow that seemed so unreal– like it was a dream. We were going to do it while the Greek was down stairs, right under us, putting price tags on the canned food. So I start getting undressed. She took off his panties, and that was that– I’ll tell you,” he said with great disdain. “She had this– I never seen anything like it. You know, it wasn’t anything like the girls you’d see in the Playboys dad keeps hidden from mom in the back of the closet.” He leaned down closer, and lowered his voice, as though afraid the old man on the landing might hear. “She had this bush– it wasn’t a bush; it was the whole freaking forest, you know. It was totally gross. The hair went almost up to her navel– I’m not kidding. Well, I just couldn’t deal with that. I could never be that horny– no way. It was disgusting. I was totally pissed. It could have been perfect, but she ruined it.” He shook his head, as if he still couldn’t believe it. “You know, I went through a lot of trouble to talk her out of her clothes. You’d think she’d have the decency not to show me something like that, you know. I mean, her old man sells razor blades downstairs. How much trouble would it have been– you know?”

I was confused. “So that’s why you want to kill the Greek?”

“No, no, no, I told you she was aside from the point. I was just telling you what happened, because you asked. Can’t you remember anything?”

“Oh,” I said. “Then why do you want to kill him?”

“Cold, cold water…”

Ricky paused to look up at the look up at the old man.

“Why is he living with us, again?”

“I guess nobody else would take him. Grandma and grandpa are getting too old to take care of him anymore.”

“So we get stuck with him?”

“I guess.”

“See, that’s what I mean about people being out of order. Nobody ought to live that long. A person’s great-grandfather ought to be underground somewhere– not put out on the landing ever day, like… like a potted plant or something. The same thing with the Greek; he’s out of order. Old Mr. Bellini was fine; he really liked the kids. The Greek just pretends. He actually hates the kids. He just takes their money– that’s all. He doesn’t care. He gloms money, and beats his wife and daughter. He doesn’t fit.”

“A lot of people like him,” I pointed out.

“A lot of people have eyes but how many of them see? It’s funny. When you’re a little kid, you accept everything you see, whether it’s good or bad. But you get to a point where you see that some things just aren’t right and that something ought to be done about it. So, yeah, the Greek should die. He should die and his wife should get everything. That would restore order–”

“Cold, cold water–”

Ricky finally lost it. He jumped to his feet, and bellowed toward the kitchen window.

“Ma! Ma! Get out here and water your plant, will you please?”

A moment later, our mother walked out onto the landing with a glass of water. She gave Ricky a sour look– I could hardly blame her– and then she held the glass up to the old man’s wrinkled lips. He slurped the water, which started to run off at the corners of his mouth, and dripped down onto the afghan. When the glass was empty, our mother paused to give Ricky another look of disapproval before going back into the kitchen.

He became moody, then– it seemed he was always getting moody these days. He didn’t say anything more about the Greek.

I wondered why he thought he had to do something about the Greek. I was sure other people saw things that they didn’t think were right, but few people ever did anything about it.

I was sure that it was all just talk, and remained convinced of that, until he actually got a gun.

************

He showed it to me only once. It was an automatic– a 9mm– and the handle and barrel were covered with tiny scratches, as though it had been dropped many times. After he showed it to me, he hid it some where in his bedroom. After that, I didn’t have to see it again; it was enough to know that it was in the house.

I should have told my parents then, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that. I really still didn’t think he would go through with it. His reasoning for wanting to shoot the Greek didn’t seem sound to me, and I was sure that he would see that, too, and forget about the whole thing. So I just kept my mouth shut.

A few days passed, and nothing happened, and then a few weeks, and still nothing happened. Ricky never said another word about the Greek, and I knew that I had been right– he wasn’t going to do anything, after all.

One day my mother took the old man down the stairs, so that he could spend the day on the small patio in the yard. She wheeled him out onto the landing, and then awkwardly turned the wheelchair so that it faced the stairs. She tipped the chair back slightly, which was easily because the old man was so light, and then slowly lowered the chair down the stairs. Every time the large, rubber rimmed wheels hit a stair, there was a low thump and the wood of the stair would creak, as though it was some kind of warning that something unnatural was occurring. She got him out to the patio, and arranged the wheelchair so that it was facing the yard. She seemed irrationally particular about how the wheelchair was positioned, as though she was unaware the old man was blind and was concerned about him having a good view of her flower garden. At lunchtime, she brought him a bowl of apple sauce and spooned it into his mouth. Whenever some of the apple sauce escaped his mouth and slid down his chin, which was often, she scrape it off it the spoon and fed it to him. After she had finished she retreated to the house, and settled herself in the living room to watch soap operas, as she did every day.

Later, with my father home from work, we all sat down at the kitchen table to have dinner. This was always an oddly quiet time for us; nobody ever spoke, and all you could hear was the soft scraping of folks on our plates. Nobody much looked at each other, either, but I noticed, now and then, my parents pause and frown slightly, as if wondering whether all the windows were closed because it had started raining pretty hard outside. All of a sudden my mother shot up from her chair and said something. It came out garbled, but sounded like “Oh, my God!” She raced toward the back door, and I followed her.

The old man was still sitting out on the patio. He was soaking wet by now. His head– so remindful of a baby bird’s, for some reason– was slightly tilted up toward the gray sky as the rain struck his face. His mouth was slightly opened as though he was trying to catch the raindrops.

My mother tugged him back up the stairs. As she wheeled him through the kitchen, I could hear him murmur, “Cold, cold water.” It was hard to tell if he was thirsty or complaining about the rain.

“I can’t do this anymore,” my mother said in dismay.

“He belongs in a nursing home,” my father said, chewing his food, having never left the table.

My mother took the old man into the small bedroom to change his wet clothes, still moaning that she couldn’t take it anymore.

After all the ruckus had died down, I sat down to finish eating. Ricky looked at me. Like our father, he had not left his seat. He said one word: “Soon.”

Ricky was spending a lot of time in his room. There were some days I didn’t even see him. I could hear music playing from his stereo, and sometimes he was watching the small black-and-white television that was atop his dresser. It seemed unhealthy. He barely ever went outside. During previous summers he would seldom be at home; he would go to the park to get into a pick-out baseball game, or hang around the street corner with friends, or just go for a walk– anything to be outside. Now he was content to be holed up in his room, with the door always shut. I could picture him lying there on his unmade bed. He never made his bed. His room was always a mess, with dirty clothes strewn on the floor. Once, my mother swore, she found a pair of sweat socks under his bed that were nearly as stiff as a board, they were so dirty. Sometimes, I could hear the springs of his bed squeaking, and I know he was doing push-ups; he always did push-ups off the floor with his feet atop his bed, lowering his face toward the dirty laundry. Other times, there was no sound at all. Then I’d wonder what he was doing. Was he sleeping or did he have the gun out of its hiding place, looking it over, removing and replacing the clip, thinking about his plan? I could never bring myself to knock on his door. To him that seemed to be the ultimate affront. If somebody did that, he would start screaming at them through the door– even if it was my father, who didn’t like that kind of disrespect and wasn’t shy about telling him that.

One evening I noticed his bedroom door was opened. His dirty clothes almost spilled out into the living room. He was nowhere in the house. My mother told me he’d gone for a walk. I felt like searching the room to see if he’d taken the gun with him. But I wouldn’t have known where to start; his room was such a mess, it might take hours for me to determine if the gun was there.

When I looked at the kitchen clock and saw the time, I knew he had the gun with him. It was almost seven o’clock, the time the Greek closed up for the night. I was struck with the buzzy feeling people get when confronted with something otherworldly. He was actually going to do it. It seemed so unreal, but I knew it was true.

The next day the news was all over the neighbor. Even people who didn’t like the Greek were horrified that he’d been shot dead while closing up the store. Nobody saw who shot the Greek, but there were police cars cruising throughout the area all day long just the same.

The old man sat in his wheelchair in the living room all that day. My mother was afraid that he would catch a chill and develop pneumonia if she put him outside. She fed him his lunch, and then took the car to the store to buy groceries.

I sat on the sofa, and watched cable shows. I tried my best to ignore the old man, but sometimes I couldn’t help looking at him. His sightless eyes seemed to be staring at me. I couldn’t concentrate on what was on the television. I kept wondering what the old man knew, how much he heard and understood– if anything. I was sure he didn’t know that the Greek was dead and that his great-grandson had killed him and that his other great-grandson had known that he was going to do it but didn’t do or say anything to stop him. Beyond that, the old man could have been thinking anything, or nothing.

Ricky wandered out of his room just then. It was almost noon– he was sleeping later every day, it seemed. He was wearing sleeveless shirt that showed off his well-muscles shoulders. His hands were jammed into the pockets of his pants, and he seemed to be in one of his broody moods. He looked at me briefly, and then turned to stare at the old man.

“Somebody ought to put a pillow over his face, really,” Ricky said.

I must have given him a look of disapproval– either that or a look of panic at the idea he might actually do it. I just didn’t know what to expect from him anymore.

He shrugged his thick shoulders. “There’s definitely a quality of life issue here.”

“Don’t even,” I said, disgusted. I felt that he had betrayed a trust by actually killing the Greek. He knew I hadn’t believed he’d do it, and when he actually did do it, he made me his accomplice. I couldn’t say anything now, and he knew that– he wasn’t stupid. I didn’t much like the feeling of being put in that situation.

“The guy had it coming,” he said, as if reading my mind. “Don’t sweat it.”

“I didn’t have anything against the guy,” I said glumly.

“Only because you’re ignorant. You don’t see things right.”

“Yeah, he was out of order, but now he isn‘t, huh? I think he just told you to stay away from his daughter– that’s all.”

He snorted. “Think what you want. I explained to you how things were. I can’t do anything if you don’t understand. Some people are just out of line. Nobody does anything about it, and that’s what causes the world to go wrong. You think it’s right for that old man to still be living and breathing? What’s the point of it?”

“Cold, cold water,” the old man croaked just then.

Ricky smirked. “You hear that?” he said to me, then turned to the old man. “Dry up and die, you old fart.”

“Cold, cold water,” the old man repeated.

Ricky gave me a crooked look.

“Don’t,” I warned him.

“Old people go to sleep, and never wake up. It happens. It’s normal,” he said, and seemed to enjoy my discomfort.

“What happened to you?” I asked sincerely, and would regret even asking.

He shrugged. “I started to understand things, I guess. You know, they try to teach you right from wrong, but they don’t really want you to know. They want to keep you stupid. And you know why? Because they don’t want you to know that half the things they do are wrong. Like last year, when I had to go to summer school. Remember? They were all concerned about my falling behind, and, oh, they were going to help, and they were going to take care of me. Yeah, right. Then when you go, they treat you like you’re stupid. They even call you stupid. What?– is that supposed to help? They just don’t know what they do to kids. Not me, of course– I understand what’s going on; I see their faults. But you take your average kid. He’s trusting and all, and listens to everything he’s told, and believes it, and they end up making him feel he’s not even good enough to go to school. It’s not worth their precious efforts. That’s what they do, every one of those teachers who teach during the summer at school. They tell the parents one thing, and then turn round and treat their kids a whole different way– as though they’re burdens the teachers have to endure. Well, that’s what they get paid for, right? It’s their job. But they can’t just do it; they have to mess with peoples’ minds. I wonder how many kids they ruin every summer, how many kids never get to go where they’re meant to go, because they’ve been discouraged, because they’ve been led to believe they’re hopeless. It’s not right, I’m telling you, it’s not right. If I walked into that school tomorrow morning I shot every one of them in the head, I’d be doing everybody a big favor.”

Long before he finished, I had begun to get a sick feeling in my gut. It wasn’t that he was getting excited as he spoke; he showed no passion at all, in fact, but just spoke in a steady, calm drone. That was the creepiest thing about it, really, the way he said the words as though he was reading off the batting averages of his favorite baseball players.

I knew he meant every word he said. The threat was real. He’d already killed the Greek. He was like a tame animal that tastes blood for the first time, and now he was ruined forever. Every time he passed judgment on somebody now, it would not be enough; he would actually want to do something about it. It was madness. I couldn’t understand how this had happened to him, how he’d had turned into himself and got so twisted up. He wasn’t even like my brother anymore, but some stranger that had invaded the house.

Before he walked back into his room, and shut out the rest of the world, he paused to look at the old man.

“You’re on the list, too, Methuselah,” he said coolly, and then closed the door.

I listened to the hush in the house, then, and wondered what to do.

“Cold, cold water,” I heard the old man say. At the moment they seemed like the saddest words in the world. For a change, I went to the kitchen to get him a glass.

**********

During the following few days, Ricky didn’t mention anything about the school or the teachers or about shooting anybody. He seemed pretty cheery, actually, and whether or nor it was all an act; I had no doubts that he was still dwelling on some new plan.
At night I had dreams about him. I couldn’t rightfully call them nightmares, because they lacked the terror that true nightmares evoked in me. The content of the dreams were disturbing enough, but it presented itself in such a matter-of-fact way that I barely found the dreams disturbing. In one of the dreams Ricky had been wounded by the cops. He was holed up in one of the abandoned factories that were plentiful in our lower-middle class neighborhood. It was bringing him food in a large open room that had once been filled with machinery used in the manufacturing of bicycle parts. Everything appeared in black and white. He was wearing a sleeveless white tee shirt and the large splotch of blood that showed at the side of his stomach appeared in dark gray and not red. The beat-up 9mm poked out from the top of his jeans. He paced around slowly, but not as though in pain, eating a tuna salad sandwich that looked dull and tasteless. Between bits, he droned on how the world was filled with wrong that he planned to make right. He would give his life if he must. He painted himself as some heroic figure on a noble quest. Then, just as the last crumbs fell from his lips, he pulled the 9mm from the front of his pants, aimed at me, and fired. The 9mm bucked in his hand, but made no noise. That was when I’d wake up. I wouldn’t be soaked in sweat. I wouldn’t feel fear or even dread. I wouldn’t feel anything, in fact, as though it all had been of little importance. Maybe I felt this way, I thought, because it all seemed so unreal to me. Maybe Ricky had been right to suggest that I was blind to things that he could see. I suspected I would be better off to go through life so unenlightened.

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One Response to ““Cold, Cold Water””

  1. Wow, I just read your wonderful short story and i absolutely loved it.

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