To Alice: A Novel

Chapter 1- Clyde Nason

Alice Hammond passes the third of six switchbacks on Beckley Hill Road, three more to go. Even in good weather the road is treacherous. One-hundred yards beyond the fourth switchback the road surface changes from cracked tar to loose gravel and the moderate incline steepens to resemble the initial climb of a roller coaster. In April, especially the day after a hard rain and rapid snow melt, the gravel turns to tire-sucking mud.                                       

            Yesterday, it rained for nearly three hours. Before the rain, the snowpack in the woods along the side of the road was four feet deep. It is less than two feet deep now. The bottom of her Ford Focus is rubbing against the mud. The tire grooves in the road were made by much bigger vehicles with much larger tires. She has only a quarter mile to go. She chokes the steering wheel with both hands. “I can do this,” she says to herself.

            Alice is a home health aide for the Providence, Vermont Visiting Nurse Association. Her patient is Clyde Nason, a former logger who hasn’t left his house without assistance in over five years. She helps him bathe and checks his pulse and blood pressure. She stopped recording his weight two months ago when he topped the two-hundred-eighty-five pounds maximum on his scale.  

            Today is Clyde’s fifty-fifth birthday. Alice has a Far Side card for him, a bouquet of flowers, mostly red carnations, two cupcakes with pink frosting and the DVD True Grit, with John Wayne. She has scrubbed Clyde’s body clean twice a week for thirty-one months. He needs her because he can’t get in and out of the tub without help and he can’t reach most of his body. The first few weeks his nakedness embarrassed both of them. The embarrassment is long gone. Now, when she pushes aside his drooping stomach to clean the rolls of his skin, she and Clyde continue their conversation as if they were two friends sitting on kitchen chairs chatting about the weather.

            She parks her car on the side of the road, opens the door and searches for a dry spot. A muddy soup surrounds her car. She grabs her nursing bag, the cupcake bag, the birthday card, the DVD and the flowers from the passenger’s seat. She steps to the ground. Her left leg sinks five inches into the mud. She lifts her foot. Her foot is free but her boot is buried in the muck. “Damn,” she says. When she reaches down to pull the untied boot out of the mud, she drops the cupcakes and the flowers. She grabs her boot, opens the car door, sits on the driver’s seat, puts her muddy boot back on her foot and ties the laces on both boots extra tight. She slogs the fifty yards to Clyde’s house. Each step sounds like the plop of a toilet plunger.       

            Clyde’s dog Ella is barking. The dog is several pounds lighter than Alice’s cat. “Shut up,” she tells the dog. The dog barks louder. “Shut up you stupid dog.” Her words won’t insult Clyde. She tells him just about every visit his dog isn’t a real dog but a yappy, rat dog and he tells her, her cat is fat, lazy and useless. He has seen pictures of her cat. 

            Ella is at the front door barking even louder than before and scratching madly on the wood. “Relax Ella, I’ll be in there in a minute.” She turns the doorknob. The door is locked. She knocks hard. “Clyde, it’s me, Alice.” There is no response from him. Ella’s barking continues. She pushes her face against the living room window and shades her eyes to see inside. The only thing she can see clearly is the television. Steve Harvey is rolling his eyes in mock disgust. A tall, Black woman wearing a tight, red dress, has said something dumb on Family Feud. Her family members and the audience are all laughing at her. 

            “Clyde, it’s me, Alice.” Still no answer. She taps the glass and scans the room. She can see better, her eyes are used to the dark room. Clyde is laying face down on the floor in front of the couch. Ella is on his back, barking. 

            She pounds on the front door with her fists. It doesn’t open. She pushes against the living room window frame. The window doesn’t move. She swings her nursing bag into the window and smashes the glass. She kicks the glass shards still attached to the frame and crawls through, careful not to cut her back. The room smells like rotted cabbage. Ella licks the mud on her ankles. “Good dog Ella,” she says. She tries to roll Clyde over onto his back but he is too heavy. She grabs his arm. His skin is cold. She checks for a carotid pulse. There is none. He is not breathing. She calls 9-1-1.  

            Clyde’s logging days ended eight years ago when a tree fell the wrong way and landed on his legs. He was working alone. No one found him until the next morning. His right leg was shattered and couldn’t be totally repaired. His left ankle needed a six-inch long, metal rod and four screws. Eight months later he could walk with a cane but with great difficulty.

            Clyde was Alice’s first patient. It was obvious to him she did not know what to do. She told him, “I have no clue what I am doing.”

            “No kidding,” he said.

            Her twice-weekly visits were the high point of his week. As best he could, considering he couldn’t reach most of his body, he tried to sponge bathe himself clean before her visit.

            The only person who visited him on a regular basis was his younger brother Bill who brought him food, mowed his lawn, took his trash to the dump, plowed the driveway in the winter, bought clothes for him and helped him pay his bills. Bill was often annoyed with Clyde and frequently told him so.

            Clyde watched the news every night to make sure he could talk to Alice without embarrassing himself and he read books he thought would impress her. But mostly he talked about his passion for logging. When he described the sound of the wind blowing through the trees she would close her eyes and imagine the cool breeze on her face and smell the pine needles and rotted leaves. One afternoon, three black bears walked so close to him it was as if they were lost and needed directions. The day he was pinned under the tree, he was afraid he would die. “I don’t want to die but I’d rather die here than anywhere else in the world,” he said to himself as he looked up at the night sky.

            On his fifty-fourth birthday Alice brought him the book Poetry of Robert Frost. She read him the poem where the woodcutter cuts off the boy’s hand.

            “Why did you read me that poem?”

            “I thought you’d like it.”

            He thought for a minute. “I do like it, not sure why, but I do.”

            After her work was completed, she and Clyde would play chess for five minutes, sometimes a bit longer. Each match took eight to ten visits to finish. She has been warned several times by Susan Young, her work supervisor, that her visits to her patients take too long and cost the agency too much money.

            The chessboard is on the kitchen table. Alice is white, Clyde black. She looks at the board. The white king is laying on its side, checkmate, her fourth loss in a row. She remembers when she taught him how to play. This is a foolish game he told her. He learned quickly. She won the first six games easily but he got slightly better with each match. By the second year he won most of the time. One day she found the book Modern Chess Strategy hidden under a towel in the laundry basket. She held the book close to his face.

            “You cheat, you sly son-of-a-bitch,” she said.

            “You’re just jealous of my superior skills.”

            She swatted the top of his head with the book. That memory makes her cry.

            She opens the front door and looks for the birthday gifts she had left on the porch, under the kicked-in window. She brings them into the house and places them on the kitchen counter. His birthday would have been a very good day, she thinks.

            Ella trots to the kitchen, to her empty food dish, and whines. “I guess I better feed you.” Ella does a happy dance around her feet.