They had saved and scrimped for years. They skipped vacations and plugged away at jobs that were both tedious and dull. They sent two children to college, paid off their mortgage yet emerged debt-free. So when the time came, they approached retirement like pilgrims stepping on holy ground. Hallelujah! Their hard work would finally be rewarded. They’d reap the dividends of sacrifice and thrift. It was payback time.
First, they tackled their house. Like most homes built in Miami during the 1950s, the house looked like a bunker. Concrete walls. Three bedrooms. A carport converted to a garage. Over the years, they added central air and some pricey built-ins. But still, 2,000 square feet only goes so far. For as long as they could remember, the place bulged with toys and bicycles, basketballs and mitts. The moment the kids were settled, the landscape was cleared of debris, the din quiet.
Their wish list became their reality. Bud designated one bedroom a gym while Merle filled the other spare room with her sewing machine and craft supplies. They patrolled the aisles of Costco and stuffed the closets with their finds. Reams of toilet paper. Bulk vitamins. A lifetime’s worth of paper towels.
No longer would their home weep with adolescent angst. No longer would the walls shake with rap music. No longer would the hallways reek from sweaty socks. Now they woke up to birds chirping and coffee brewing. Then they cooked leisurely breakfasts—sausage, eggs, some buttered toast—listening to NPR, shimmying in their underwear, reading the morning papers clear through. Heaven lasted for nearly ten months.
And then Walton moved back.
They were ambushed on a Sunday morning. A knock on the door. Then the thunk of two duffels on the porch. Before Bud could hitch up his boxers, he felt his chest compress. He hated surprises almost as much as he hated uninvited guests. He glanced through the curtains and looked for a car or a taxi. Nothing. Then inch by inch he opened the door.
And there he was. Their firstborn. Bud had seen cleaner hair on mangy dogs. A scraggy beard. Military boots and camouflage pants. It was as if the Foreign Legion had sucked Walton in, chewed him up, and spit him out. Bud blinked. Maybe he was dreaming. Maybe he was still in bed with his Tempur-Pedic pillows and his nice white sheets.
“Hi, Pops. It’s me. Walton.”
Bud had read about it. And he vaguely remembered a neighbor or two complaining. An adult child would have a brief stint at independence. Then for some reason the prodigal son or daughter would boomerang back. Job troubles. Money troubles. Love troubles. Even kids who were college graduates, what with school loans and the sky-high price of rent. And forget about buying some place of their own. It could take 50, 60 years of saving to make that pipe dream happen. Once again, Bud watched the beard move and the mouth speak.
“Mind if I crash here for a week or two?”
Lightning bolts of anger may have surged from his brain, but Bud’s heart went in another direction. Adult children were like archeological digs. In one glance, a parent sees all the iterations buried deep inside. The infant who vibrated with febrile seizures. The six-year-old who lost his two front teeth falling off his bike. The teenager who fell in love with his Spanish teacher and refused to speak English for an entire year.
The slightest of breezes ruffled Bud’s cheek while the sun bathed his slippers. It was nearly November, the time of year when Floridians breathed a collective sigh of relief. The hurricane season was almost over. The skies would soon be clear, the weather cool. But rain or shine, the pages of the calendar relentlessly flipped. Bud spoke loudly and clearly as he lowered the boom.
“I find this development mighty disconcerting, Walton.”
Paying absolutely no attention, Walton flung the duffels into the living room in one grand swoop. If Merle had been sleeping, she wasn’t sleeping anymore.
“Rent’s a bitch,” said Walton. “Next time I fork over a security deposit, remind me to have my head examined, okay?”
Bud stared at his son. If he looked hard—under the layers of dirty clothes and sour sweat—perhaps a fossil lay buried underneath.
“You don’t have a whole lot of options,” said Bud. Then he pointed to the family room. “There’s the couch, and there’s the couch.”
Now it was Walton’s turn to stare. It took him a few seconds for reality to register. Then barging into the house, he wrapped his father in an embrace. Two, three seconds of awkward hugging ensued.
“I’m starving. Positively starving,” said Walton. “Like, where should I put my stuff?”
Bud sighed. From the distance, he heard drawers opening and closing. Merle was the soft-hearted one. The one who picked up the pieces when a Lego tower crashed. Who promised new crayons whenever the old ones broke. If anyone was responsible for this mess, it was her.
The two of them had always disagreed about parenting. For Merle, parenting was a seesaw. You enjoyed the highs and suffered the lows. But Bud saw things differently. His job was to set the game pieces on go. To give their kids an even chance at the game board of life. Growing up, Walton had always been the lucky one. The dice tosses, the get-out-of-jail-free cards, all those matching pairs when they played Fish. But good luck was a curse, not a blessing. Bud could see that now.
A professional student, Walton managed to start and stop six different associate degrees. Hotel management. Graphic design. Veterinary tech. Merle, of course, would make excuses (He has so many talents! How does one decide?) while Bud footed the bill.
But ever since Walton turned 30, even school had lost its attraction. Now what would they do?
Merle had to admit that their new life with Walton was a challenge. They completely changed their food habits, concocting vegetarian menus, convincing themselves that fake meatloaf tasted real. If they wanted to watch television, they sat on a bundle of twisted sheets and blankets that merely got more tangled as time progressed. And Walton, it seemed, had turned into a nocturnal animal. They tiptoed around the house all morning. But when they got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, they’d hear the ping ping ping of his video games and catch the neon blue of a screen.
But what exasperated both of them the most was their son’s complete incompetence. If they asked him to wash his clothes, he’d use too much detergent and cause a suds avalanche. He broke dishes in the dishwasher and sucked socks into the vacuum. What he needed, they decided, was an intervention. So a few Sundays later, a full month after Walton showed up, they invited Kara and her husband to dinner.
Whatever Walton lacked in direction, his sister made up for. A schoolteacher married to a schoolteacher, every hour of her day accounted for. When she wasn’t working, she was tutoring. And when she wasn’t tutoring, she was cleaning her apartment or making home-cooked meals.
That night their meal went on and on. Like soldiers, they suffered through braised Tofurkey and lactose-free ice cream without the slightest complaint. Meanwhile brother and sister barely made eye contact. A mushroom cloud of recrimination hung over the table. Small talk disintegrated into long empty pauses. Then finally, only the long, empty pauses were left.
As soon as everyone finished, Merle raced to the kitchen. Their long-established routine was simple. Merle washed while Kara dried. Soon they found their rhythm.
“You and Dad aren’t young anymore,” said Kara. “So people like Walton take advantage. They’re squatters. They hang around like bad splotches of mildew until you shrivel up and die. Then it takes a whole squadron of lawyers just to get them out of the house.”
Merle winced. The words felt like toothpicks prick prick pricking her skin. “I have to admit,” she mumbled into her chin. “Walton’s not as helpful as he could be.”
Kara stopped in her tracks. Then she wiped her hands on a towel and took a step back. “Give me a break, Mom. He’s made helplessness an art form. While most people major in English or engineering, you know what Walton majored in? Ineptitude. Do you realize how hard it is to act that stupid? Meanwhile John and I work our rear ends off. How do you think that feels?”
Merle’s eyes darted toward the door. Then she spoke in a whisper. “So what should I do? He barely has the energy to brush his teeth.”
Kara wrung the towel over the sink, twisting every last drop. “For starters, you cut the cord and toss the video games.” But then her face creased into a smile. “Why don’t you use positive reinforcement? It works for my third graders.”
Merle knew that smile. It was the same smile Kara wore when she gave her Barbie a mustache. With permanent marker no less.
“Walton’s acting like a child,” said Kara. “So treat him like one. Who knows? Maybe a few gold stars would actually work.”
Of course, Kara was kidding. Walton would never be seduced by a few glitzy stickers. But the next week, Merle bought a piece of poster board, hung it on the wall, and wrote The Chart on top. Then she wrote Make Your Bed, Clean Your Clothes, Wash Your Dishes! underneath. Merle figured all children deserve an allowance and with the going price of inflation, $50 bucks a week seemed fair.
To her shock, The Chart seemed to work. Walton sponged the counters. He lowered the toilet seat. He actually combed his hair. But after two weeks, he spent all his cash on a new video game. And then they were back to square one.
Bud’s friend Sherman owned a travel agency. They never stepped inside the door because the two of them hated travel. Merle was terrified of planes while Bud liked his comfort. But as they considered every possible employment option, the travel agency came out ahead. Walton spoke Spanish. And thanks to the dark hair that carpeted his entire body, he passed for a dozen different ethnicities. Soon it was time for another difficult conversation. Not for nothing had Bud been a salesman for 40 years. He and his friend spoke for 20 long minutes before he worked up the nerve.
“Any job will be fine, Sher. Part-time’s okay, but full-time’s better. Computer skills? Absolutely. Bilingual? Without a question. Hardworking? Sure Walton’s hardworking! But he’s more of an intellect than a people person. You know what I mean? You got a coffee machine? Stash him there. It’s near the photocopier? Even better!”
Naturally, his parents prepped Walton first. A trip to the barber. A field trip to the mall for spiffy sneakers, new jeans, fresh shirts. But two weeks later, Bud endured another phone call. Yes, Walton had great computer skills. Yes, he was bilingual. And yes, he was smart enough. But the guy had… well… zero interest in the tourism industry.
“There must be something that he likes,” said Sherman. “Besides computer games. He’s a fucking Zen master at computer games. But not on my nickel. No way, no how.”
That night, after commiserating with his friend Jack Daniels, Bud confronted his son. Walton was splayed in the family room, his ass glued to the couch, his eyes turned to the screen.
“How was I supposed to know that there’s a Paris in Texas? Or a London in Ohio?” Walton shrugged his shoulders as his torso bobbed and weaved with the video controller. “And they both have Marriotts! Now what’s the chance of that?”
Hours later, Bud lay in bed glaring at the ceiling. Images flew through his mind as he rewound the tape. What do young men think about? He had to admit he was stumped.
When his parents died, Bud grew up fast. He put his two younger siblings through college. For years he put a roof over their heads. There was never time for beer binges and pot parties. Adventures and risk-taking were choices that other people made—just like other people flew to the moon.
His life didn’t start until he met Merle. They were at a church dinner and spotted each other across the room. He couldn’t sleep for weeks afterward. The scent of her hair. The dips and curves. The way she laughed at his jokes when they weren’t even funny. His body ached, and his hopes soared. There wasn’t enough antifreeze in the universe to cool his engines down.
He watched Merle breathe slowly in and out, gazing at the rise and fall of her chest, listening for her soft snores. And soon his own heart was beating in tandem.
First, they gave Walton some privacy. Merle bought a queen bed from Rooms To Go, some Egyptian cotton sheets, and a flat screen on clearance. Then they carried her sewing machine and craft supplies into the garage and covered it all with a tarp.
Miami’s a driving city. If there’s pecking order, a label that defines you the moment you step out your door, it’s the vehicle you’re driving in. Though their budget set certain parameters, Bud bought Walton a bright red Mustang that had barely been used. It was a beauty. Convertible top. Satellite radio. Leatherette seats.
The stage was set. The door was opened. All they had to do was push him out.
The dilemma, thought Merle, was simple. Walton had no idea what he was missing. And if he didn’t know what he was missing, why would he even care? Social media, in her opinion, was their ruination. For a person with no actual friends, Walton was astonishingly content.
He friended dozens of people on Facebook. He spent hours on Instagram. Plus, the countless avatars he met through video games all seemed real enough. But when she complained, he always countered with a neat reply.
They were in the kitchen. Merle was pretending to organize the pantry. Walton’s head, as usual, was inside in the refrigerator taking an inventory.
“You know, I’ve been reading,” said Merle. “Maybe this is a kind of depression. The sneaky kind. Like an ingrown nail or a torn cuticle. You think you’re fine but there it is.”
Walton spun around and grinned. “Do I look unhappy? Do I look lonely? Life is good, Mom. Honest.”
Merle was dumbfounded. In the grand scheme of things, Walton’s glass was not only half-filled. It was upside down and empty. And so that’s when she created The Schedule.
Day one started when they drove home the new car. While Bud and Walton took it for a ride, Merle cleaned the family room. The couch was vacuumed, the floor swept, the dishes gone. When Walton came back, he was shocked. He marched his butt up and down the cushions but couldn’t find his spot.
“What happened, Mom? Like… everything’s different!”
Meanwhile Merle stood there, her waist swathed in an apron, her hands cocooned in yellow gloves. “Here’s a news flash, Walton. From now on, you’re leaving the house. Every day. Even if it’s just for an hour or two.”
Then she handed him an Excel spreadsheet. Each day of the week featured an activity. Go to the library. Swing by the dry cleaners. Here’s the grocery list!
“And each night we’re going out to dinner. Nothing fancy. But we’re getting you some fresh air and exercise.”
“Exercise?” said Walton.
Even Merle had had enough. “Exercise, Walton. That’s when you put one foot ahead of the other and walk.”
Though Walton barely tolerated his daily errands, he had to admit he enjoyed the dinners. He and his parents explored new neighborhoods. And the vegetarian options were infinitely better than his mother’s cooking. He had no idea how they found The Lotus. Looking back, it’s hard to remember what he fell in love with first: a plate of roasted sunchokes or Shareen.
Black jeans and a black T-shirt. Hair a nimbus of curls. Skin like a burnished penny. When she looked up from her pad and pencil, their eyes locked. “You gonna order or you gonna stare?” she said.
Walton froze. The words seeped to his brain and percolated. Then it took him a full minute to reply.
“Stare,” said Walton.
He insisted that they eat there every night at the same time and at the same table. And eventually, he gleaned bits and pieces of information. She had a 12-year-old son named Jamal. She worked mornings as an aide at the assisted living facility. She lived south in Perrine with her mother but hoped to get a place of her own.
Soon he was driving her home after her shift ended. Then he started picking her up in the afternoons. Sometimes while she was working, Jamal came over. They’d shoot hoops. Finish up his homework. Watch sports. But never did they play video games. In Shareen’s mind, video games were part of an international conspiracy.
They were at The Lotus. As usual, it was impossible for Shareen to stand still. If she wasn’t wiping her customer’s tables, she was cleaning counters, sponging walls, and mopping the linoleum.
“You think you’ve got power, right? Thanks to that itty bitty dipstick in your hand, you control the screen, you control the world.”
Then she adjusted her jeans and swung her rag. “But they’re sucking out your brains, Walton. That’s what they’re doing! Your brain cells are sneaking up that little black cord. And when they get to that little black box, they’re eaten. Good riddance and hasta luego! Gone!”
Even Walton saw the merits of her argument. Now that he wasn’t tethered to a machine, his life was changing. His horizons had broadened. His step was snappy. And for the first time in a long time, he appreciated his family. His father’s advice. His mother’s compassion. Not everyone, he realized, was quite as lucky.
Take Shareen. While Walton’s parents were always pushing him forward, Shareen’s mother pulled her back. For as long as she could remember, Shareen was fighting off bill collectors, scrounging up food, keeping the atmosphere calm. It wasn’t dementia, she told him. She’d seen plenty of dementia when she worked in assisted living. Her mother was mean. Crazy mean. A padlock on the refrigerator. A gun by her bed.
“I sleep with one eye open, Walton. Because one day soon she’s gonna explode like a busted pipe. Then it’ll be boom! Dial 911 and call the Rescue Squad!”
Walton never imagined that life could start at 30. But suddenly each day seemed brand new. Now when he gazed through the window, every green leaf and budding branch seemed a minor miracle plopped on the planet just for him.
By Mother’s Day, the final days of spring had come and gone. Flowers were drooping. The hurricane season was bound to be stressful and hot. It was time to purchase supplies and fortify the trenches. So when the family conferred, the vote was unanimous. Shareen and Jamal would move in.
The logistics were complicated. They sold the exercise equipment on eBay. Then what used to be Bud’s gym was outfitted for Jamal while Bud and Merle took over the old sewing room. Meanwhile Shareen and Walton moved their stuff into the so-called master suite.
But like most plans, the situation was temporary. The new baby was coming in November. And what with the crib and the changing table, a nursery was needed, too. Not to mention some fresh paint. A bouncer and a rocker. A mobile. A dresser. A rug.
But instead of complaining, Bud and Merle counted their blessings. There was much to look forward to. Their family was growing. Their son was looking for a job. Of course, they’d need to move their cars into the driveway. And sleeping in the garage would not be ideal. But who can anticipate the bends and twists along life’s winding path? They had managed in the past, and they assured themselves that the future would be no different.