Morse Sheffield lay alone in his bed in the late heat of August. Shades pulled down against the sun, darkening the room. The air, close and heavy. A thin sheet over him. He is dreaming his unpleasant dreams.
Someone on the stairs. Two of them. His father. Leave the cat alone. Do your homework. His mother. Come take your bath. Morse? Morrison? You hear me? Cold and wet. Dust in the air and in his mouth. Knocking on the door. Go away. I’m not dressed. He’d wet the bed again. His legs would not move. Tangled sheets around his ankles.
“Morse? Are you here?”
A hand pushes against the door.
“He’s in here,” one of them, a young woman, says.
“Oh my God, Morse. It’s like an oven in here. Morse? Morse?”
“It must be a hundred in here.”
“Morse? Can you get up? Simon, open that window. Morse?
“Morse, why is air conditioner off? Can you get up?”
“It’s Didi, Sigrid’s daughter, Morse. Can you sit up? Do you need help?”
“Do you have any water? Simon, go get him some water. Help him up.”
I need to go to the bathroom. What time is it?
“It’s two o’clock. Do you need help to get up?”
Yes. Can you give me my robe?
“Get him his robe. And turn on the air conditioner.”
“Don’t turn it on. Leave it. I don’t want it on.”
“But it’s so hot in here, you’ll die. Get him some water. Do you want some water?”
I need to go to the bathroom.
“Simon will help you. Morse, Simon will help you. Get him his robe so he can go to the bathroom.”
“It’s Simon, Morse, can you get up? Morse, lean over this way.”
I can’t. Don’t touch that shoulder.
Simon walks with Morse into the bathroom, helps him turn and eases back him down on the toilet seat.
“Are you okay in there?”
Don’t come in. Just help me get my shorts down.
“Ask him if he wants something to eat. Should I call 911?”
Don’t call anyone. I won’t let them in. I will not go. I’ve told them before. I’m staying here. Just help me pee. Please. I’ll eat something. Don’t call anyone.
For over a week, the heat had been oppressive. Over ninety each day. The nights unbearable.
Sigrid, who came in to clean once a month, is the one who had found him. She knocked on the bedroom door. He told her to leave. To go away. She called the brother. The one with the house by the water. The only family of his she knew. No answer. She called her daughter Didi.
“You have to come to Mr. Sheffield’s house. He’s in his bedroom with the door closed and it’s a hundred and ten up here. He won’t let me go in.
Morse Sheffield had been a Navy man. He joined right out of high school. 1944. An air crewman, flying patrol bombers on the Pacific coast.
He met Margret in college. In ’55 they sailed from New York to Gothenburg on the freighter Drottningholm to meet her parents in Stockholm. They married there and, after Oslo, Paris, and London, they made a home back on the east coast, in the town where his grandfather and his grandfather’s father had grown up.
He had no trouble finding work. Enjoyed working, no matter the job. He was gregarious. They liked his attitude.
He and Margret were together. They had a daughter. Life had no end.
Then Margret died and, soon after, Agatha got married and moved away.
He stayed in their small dark house on the corner of a quiet street up the hill from the center of town. His sadness weighed him down.
One winter he’d fallen down the back stairs carrying a bucket of trash out to the garage and he lay on the ice in the cold till a neighbor saw him. When the ambulance came, he told them to go away. He thanked his neighbor and told the police officer he would not be taken from his home against his will.
You have no right to take me anywhere. This is my home. Getting old is not a crime. I want to stay in my home. This is my home, and you have no right to take me from it. Living alone is not a crime.
The officer helped him back up the stairs, made a note in his notepad and said, “Mr. Sheffield, you’d better get someone to put a railing up along the stairs there for you.”
Thirty-five more years he lived there. Went working in an office in a nearby town, keeping house, paying the bills on time, reading books on the war, Lincoln, the depression. All the presidents. He kept his Saab running, saved his money, trusted few people, had fewer friends. Year after year. Solitary. Thoughtful. Kind. Carefully generous. Never speaking ill of another. Keeping things in order. Was he happy? It was not a question anyone would think to ask him.
He started his own business and kept it going for a few years, working out of his home, selling insurance for a company in Hartford, never taking out a policy of his own. He never talked about illness, infirmity, or death.
He’d say that keeping your affairs in order, preparing and planning, not being a burden, was what mattered. He wrote a will. Leaving the house to his son-in-law. The one who had married Agatha. His only child. His only daughter, who died young and fresh, just like her mother had.
He turned the lights off when he left a room. Wrote reminder notes to himself and thank-you and birthday cards to others. He cooked when he was able and ate what he made, and then later, when he couldn’t manage the pots and pans, heated up the Swanson’s pot pies and frozen dinners in the microwave. He didn’t renew his tickets to the symphony. He had to stop walking to the beach and the market and the bookstore.
He wrote notes with detailed instructions in uniform capital letters and taped them up on everything. “Unplug when not in use” over light switches. “Do not touch” on bookshelves, file cabinets, the stove, cupboards.
He catalogued boxes of 35 mm prints, names, dates, and places on the back. Made notes of thoughts and quotes and left them folded in the books he’d read. David McCullough. Goodwin. Tuchman. Caro. The Bible.
Didi waited at the bottom of the stairs. Simon had helped Morse fit himself into the stairlift. He rode down holding on to the armrests, in his slippers and his robe.
She had opened the back door and the window above the sink. He ate the eggs and sausage and sipped the tea she prepared for him, eating without speaking, and when he’d had enough, he asked Simon to help him go back upstairs.
You’re both kind, he told them. I don’t want you to call anyone, and please shut the door when you leave.
In the evening, Didi returned with a small dinner she prepared. When she could not waken him, she called the police. The ambulance came and took him to the local hospital. He refused treatment and was moved to a bed near a window in the nursing home nextdoor. He took no food. He accepted only pain medications he could take with a sip of water.
Morse Sheffield passed away in bed in a quiet room near a window. Neither in the bed of his dreams nor in the one or in the manner of his own choosing.