By Erick Messias
Nobody would call him doctor anymore. It turned out to be harder to get used to Mister Maia than to Doctor Maia, which had happened to him after moving to America for medical residency some forty years before these days. It gave him pause to hear Mister Maia, as if this was some long-gone relative from the old country. Yet, he was now Mr. Maia except to a couple of Mexican nurses who called him Señor Maia, trying to please him but only succeeding in irritating him a bit further. He did not correct them; it had been many years since the days he explained Brazilians spoke Portuguese, not Spanish, and their capital was Brasilia, not Buenos Aires.
The nursing home’s brochure had exaggerated, as marketing pieces usually do. In reality, damp and faded mini-apartments substituted for the airy and bright little cottages in the pamphlet. The staff seemed to make an honest effort to be polite and helpful, he recognized. His children also seemed sincere in believing the brochure and the apartment manager, a dignified and patient African American woman in her fifties.
The kids had helped their old man move to the nursing home after their mother, his wife for those same forty years, had died. He was now single again, and their children, one a computer engineer living somewhere in California, and the other a staff writer at some New York web-magazine, pleaded with him to leave the large house in the suburbs of Little Rock for the nursing home in the sprawling West Little Rock enclave, aptly named Mount Elysium.
He offered little resistance. He knew the alternatives were few, staying in the house impractical, and the invitations to move to California or New York sincere illusions. He knew there was no return path to the old country, where his childhood had once been and where his own siblings were still living. After all, Brazil was now the old country, where he knew few people and even fewer knew him. The old Little Rock house where they had raised their children, where he and his wife had had so many brief breakfasts and long dinners was too old, too big, and too full of used-up furniture and memories; much like him. The children did it all with American efficiency, and in little more than a week everything was gone; the house was on the market, and he moved to Mount Elysium nursing home.
His daughter had insisted he get a room with a view. The manager had promised her to find her father the best views of the whole complex. The daughter believed the manager as she had believed the brochure: wholeheartedly. His son had agreed and made sure everything was set up for him at the bank and with the real estate company. Mr. Maia drove both kids to the airport since he could still drive around town in the semi-new Toyota Camry. Returning from the airport, he drove back to the old house instead. Old habits, old pathways and turns taken for forty years had left deep impressions in his brain. He saw the “For Sale” sign, took a deep breath, and drove himself to the nursing home. They were not the kind of people to make a fuss about things.
He asked the guard at the entrance how to get to his new home, his benign incarceration in a room with a view, he told himself as he parked. He was sure it would be a view of some mountain ridge since they were far from the Arkansas River.
He had to admit the little apartment was not bad. It was clean, sparse and quiet. As a young man with literary aspirations, he would have called it spartan. He was finally alone after the back and forth of the last days with his kids in town. He set the clock in the automatic coffee maker for seven in the morning and went to bed at ten, falling asleep over a science fiction book. He fell into an exhausted slumber and woke up to the smell of fresh coffee.
The window was closed so he decided to finally check the view he had been promised. By his own estimation, it would be a front view to Pinnacle Mountain, one of the locally famous Arkansas landmarks. He opened the window and was surprised to see some thick tree foliage blocking whatever view would be in place.
He was working himself up to complain to the manager when he noticed something unusual about the tree. It was not one of the ubiquitous oak or pine trees seen in most Little Rock yards. He looked and looked and, after examining it carefully, finally recognized it was a Jambo tree, just like the one they had in front of their house in the Brazilian northeast coast so long ago. He looked at the elliptical, large, shiny leaves, at the curvy, bright red fruits; he remembered how difficult it was to keep the neighborhood kids from throwing rocks to get those fruits down. How many times his father had promised to cut down the tree to avoid the shower of stones when the tree was in season. He had not seen a Jambo tree in many years, and he now could go to his window and look at it. He looked further, past the foliage, and saw the tall gray wall that surrounded the front neighbor’s house, the wall that showed those neighbors did not think they belonged in the low middle-class street, the wall reminding them there were other, more important people in town. The neighbor was a district judge, or so he was told because he never saw him or his children, only a car coming in and out of the walled house. He looked to his right and saw the other house across the street, the one that belonged to the old lady who had married a Spaniard and whose father had given name to the street on which they lived. She was always trying to be friendly and make conversation, especially after her Spanish husband had left her for another younger Brazilian woman. Her house had a large backyard filled with goiaba and siriguela trees, and when in season, the kids, including him, would invade the orchard and have a tropical feast. He looked to the window sides and noticed the same chipped, cheap paint he and his father had coated many times. The same little chips of paint he would pull when nervously talking to the neighbor’s daughter, whom he thought was his first love. He felt his nose fill up with the tropical smells of his childhood.
He noticed some drops of rain and had to close the window. A cup of warm coffee started his day, and he went to his new routine of news on the internet, driving around by himself to find a place for a light lunch, and coming back for a movie at the dollar theater or on the computer. Each morning, his coffee machine did not have to wake him up as he was itching to enjoy his view again.
He opened the window expecting the Jambo tree and was greeted by the great sandy plains of the South Atlantic. It was the green beach of his childhood, the one that had given his state the nickname of Land of Green Seas. The air smelled of the salty breeze, and he felt tiny grains of sand hitting his face. He saw the long fingers of the breakers holding the tides to protect the city; he saw in the distance a few jangadas, the small rafts used by local fishermen to bring home their oceanic harvest. Along the shoreline, there was a runners’ lane where people would do their morning walking and running, and along with it the many sellers of local arts and crafts. He took a deep breath and shut his window, sitting down in front of the computer for his morning coffee and news.
Next morning, he walked slowly to the window. He put his hand on the small latch and stayed there longer than expected. Instead of opening the window, he moved his fingers between the louvers and peeked outside. A small house loomed on the other side of a cobblestone street. The sidewalk in front of it was a couple of feet higher than the street level. He remembered his grandfather telling him that the high street level was done to prevent the floodwaters to get in the house. That house across the street was a bar, and he remembered peeking through the window at night from his grandparents’ house in Jaguarana, the city where his mother would take him and his sister on vacation every year. His grandmother did some peeking too; to see who was going to the bar, how long were they staying, and who was taking them home. He had his own reasons to look since the daughter of the bar’s owner, a girl with long black hair, would come help her father from time to time. That was their own version of beer commercials pairing women and alcohol; and to him the best.
On a cloudy Little Rock morning, he opened the window to the dark corners of a motel room. What he saw lying in bed, getting undressed nervously, was a young, blond, and pale eighteen-year-old girl he recognized immediately as his wife of forty years. He saw the quiet pride in the young body; he saw the white skin punctured by birthmarks, and he saw her long hair running all the way to the small of her back. She would never have it as long as that again. At first, they would do just that, lie in bed in awe of each other’s body, youth, and inexperience, afraid that if they had sex suddenly everything would change in some unpredictable way. Eventually they did and it did. They did not know at the time they would be spending the rest of their lives together and witnessing the inclement effects of time on their firm muscles and smooth foreheads. He did not know at the time she would only get more beautiful to him, after each child, after each year.
And so, his final routine was born. It would not last long but it lasted enough. One day the nursing home cleaning crew found him dead, sitting in the recliner by the window. His children came again from the coasts to Arkansas. His son talked to the nursing home manager, and she told him about a placid pattern and a peaceful death. She told him he had a smile on his face when they found him looking out the window. His son imagined she told that to all grieving children, and he chose to believe it.
The son remembered his sister insisting on the room with a view, and for some reason he could not discern, he remembered one of the many sayings from his father, “The best part of doing a good job is to be able to look at it when you are finished.”
His son looked at the view outside and saw Pinnacle Mountain looming in the background. He was reminded of how beautiful the Natural State was, and then he shut the window.
Erick Messias, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., is a professor of psychiatry and the Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs in the UAMS College of Medicine.