Desperation breeds desperate measures. He pulls the fire alarm. Going out the door with everyone else, he turns right, behind the bushes, and heads off around the building to the street in back. The aides are so busy with the ones in wheelchairs that they won't miss him until they do a head count. Catch a bus downtown, get on a Greyhound, and he's long gone while they are still scouring the local neighborhood thinking he's just 'lost'.Sam's knees ache with each step, but less than last week. The stairwell in the derelict building smells almost as bad as the county nursing home. It reminds him of Malcolm, his old roommate, lying there smelling of death. He pushes open the door to the roof and stops to catch his breath. His lungs fill with the fresh air. He is much stronger since leaving the nursing home. At first he had to stop at each landing, but now he makes it all the way to the top.
There is a light mist today and Sam is glad for the little tool shed next to the listing pigeon coop. After he got rid of the litter and aired it out, the shed didn't smell musty at all. He looks up and is happy to see his plastic bag fix has actually stopped the small leak in the roof.
Sam sits on the wooden chair salvaged from an apartment below and opens his bag, checking the food gathered from the restaurant's dumpster in the alley. His best find is the bag of bagels. He takes his pocket knife and trims the ends of some wilting broccoli and puts it in a bag of ice he'd gathered — the ice smelling just slightly of fish. Tomorrow it should look good again and be edible. He slices a couple tomatoes and adds the remaining good parts to the bag. Maybe there'll be a discarded jar of dressing tomorrow to eat them with. The food is much better at the mission, but he hates it there; he feels like a beggar. He has always made his own way, never asking for other's help.It all started one day when the wind had kicked up and the aide neglected to close the window. The fresh air blowing in, smelling of rain, had seemed to wash away the nursing home smell and with it his acceptance of his children's wishes — that he go live in a 'quite nice' assisted living facility 'for his own good', where he wouldn't have to 'cook his own meals', or 'do his own laundry'. They didn't add 'have control of his own life'. But the insurance and money ran out and he was downgraded to a much cheaper nursing home. There was no use bringing up the idea of leaving to his kids — where would he go now. They had sold his house and car — and everything else of value that he had owned and loved. If he had resisted, maybe he wouldn't be in this mess.Later that afternoon the sky has cleared. Sam stands in front of Mailboxes R Us trying to make up his mind. This will be a mistake if his family is actively looking for him, but he needs his Social Security check, pitiful as it is. The government had taken money from him every month of his working life. Now he needs some of it back. With his check he can live without being so beholden to others. Finally he takes a deep breath, goes in and rents a mailbox.
But the more he thought about it, anywhere — and anything — would be better than this and began plotting his escape.
The next time his daughter came for one of her infrequent visits, he watched as she took in the surroundings of the nursing home and tried to hide her distaste. Sam eyed her purse sitting on the floor next to her chair. He could sense her anxiety to leave.
"Before you go, could you go ask the aide for another blanket?" He needed another blanket like a hole in the head.
"Sure, I'll be right back," relieved for an excuse to leave the room.
As soon as she was out the door, Sam rummaged through her purse and grabbed a fifty and two ones. Money for bus rides. Tomorrow would be the day.
Next stop, the library. Logging in on one of their computers, he goes to the Social Security website and opens his account and changes his address so his checks will be sent to his new mailbox. In days when banks transfer money around the world instantly, the government computers need two months to change a simple address. Two long months of scrounging.
It will also be an anxious two months, waiting to see if the family comes looking for him at the new address. Sam checks his remaining cash after renting the mailbox. Pitiful, he thinks as he heads down the street to scavenge cans. He needs to scrounge enough money for a bus ticket in case he needs to escape again. If they come after him, he will run. He is never going back.
For Sam it is not just a motto. He will Live Free or Die!
Lester L. Weilis an ex-professional bassoonist, ex-professor, ex-custom furniture builder, ex-house builder. He is retired in Arizona near the Mexico border.