Warmth from the sunbaked, terracotta tiles radiates through the bottom of his thin-soled, canvas shoes. The old man eases himself into a wrought iron chair beneath the jacaranda tree. He slips a pen knife from his pocket; he isn’t supposed to have it, not after Crazy Effie threatened one of the orderlies with her nail file during breakfast. Now they’re all supposed to cut their sausage links with a fork or spoon. This place, this rest home for the retired, treats them like imbeciles. He chuckles to himself as he watches his friend, Wade, drooling as he sits strapped into his wheelchair, napping in the sun. Maybe some of us are, he thinks.
It will be a cold day in Phoenix when he allows them to remove his pen knife from his possession. It’s nothing special. No insignia from a branch of the service or Boy Scouts graces the mother-of-pearl sides. It’s just a nice knife he bought at Woolworth’s when there was still one at the mall. He thinks there might have been a matching razor with it but can’t say for sure. He’s used it to open everything from letters to wounds. Years of grime need to be wiped from the space where the mother-of-pearl meets the metal. Hell, maybe it’s not even real mother-of-pearl.
He removes a green apple from his sweater pocket. The bulge caught the eye of every resident he passed, making them wonder what he had smuggled out of the dining room. Green apples are his favorite, and the pretty Hispanic girl who runs the dining room, Gina or Tina, he can’t remember which, always keeps a few in the cooler for him. She knows he likes them cold; he must make more of an effort to remember her name.
Carefully, with much consideration and turning of the apple over and over in his hands while worrying his dentures with his tongue, he decides where to make the first cut. The vibrant green skin breaks with a crisp snap and a soft spray of juice as he slices along the entire curve of the apple. He licks the tartness from his thumb. With a gentle twist, he separates the halves.
Two seeds pop out onto his lap. He draws his knees together to catch them before they fall to the greedy earth hiding between the tiles below, enticing with the promise of life. He knows what the seeds do not: nothing disruptive, certainly not an apple tree with a vast and reaching root system, would ever be allowed to flourish here. Both seeds are pinched between his forefinger and thumb, and then placed gently on the tip of his protruding tongue.
The old man enjoys the bitter-almond taste of the seeds. He always chews them. While most people, especially his lazy grandchildren, only eat the flesh of the apple, the old man consumes every part of it except the stem. He savors the acrid taste of the seeds as he cuts a slice from one half of the apple, eating it off the thumb on which it is balanced, his knife held securely in the same hand. Another seed is visible but trapped in its pocket. A little surgery with the pen knife frees it from its fibrous prison. This seed is bigger because it did not have to share space with a sibling.
His wife once told him the taste of the seed was from the cyanide within. It seemed like a fact she would know, so he never questioned her on it. From then on, he made a point of eating every seed especially if she was watching. I’m building up my tolerance and recognition of cyanide in the event that someone tries to poison me, he had teased her. She retorted that if she wanted him dead she would use the cast iron skillet on his head while he slept. Their wicked sense of humor shocked most people, even their friends.
He wonders how many apple seeds he’d have to eat to escape this place. It’s so beautiful, Dad, his daughter had said, with flowering trees and benches, shuffle board courts and walking paths, a chess club and whirlpool. Who had she been trying to convince? One little tumble down the front porch steps and the next thing he knew, he was an inmate at Buena Vista Acres. His daughter believed she was doing him a favor moving him to Arizona to be near her. As if a fifty minute drive was near her. He might as well still be living in Ohio for all that he sees her.
If he could see anyone right now, it would be his wife. He crushes two more seeds between his back teeth, the ones that are still real. More of the apple is consumed, more seeds discovered. More memories flirt with the edges of his mind. The white walls of the main building shimmer with early morning heat, the brightness nearly blinding him even though his eyes are averted. Bittersweet and tart, apple seeds and life. The core of his existence chewed away to nothing. He will not let it poison him. He kisses the stem and flicks it into the bushes.
As he returns to his room for a nap, he waves to Maria, the dining room attendant. Maria, just like his wife. He smiles to himself, proud at having found a way to remember her name.