Fiction from Tallia Deitsch: The Famous Patient

Cold winter weekends are perfect for short fiction (actually, all weekends are, but I’m trying to embrace the current weather).

It is our pleasure to share another story from NDQ 88.3/4: “The Famous Patient” by Tallia Deitsch. It tells the story of a caregiver’s time with the reclusive, and exceedingly difficult Mr. Foal. Atmospheric,  mysterious, and suffused with the Gothic spirit of its New England setting, Deitsch pulls the reader into a very small world where there is only way way to escape. Read it to the end.

As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small presssubscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts.     

The Famous Patient

When I look back on my time caring for Mr. Foal, I am always surprised to remember that I was with him for only one month. So much seemed to happen in that short time. I had been a live-in companion to the sick and elderly for nearly thirty years and seen a great deal of life through other people’s eyes, but I’ve never before or after come across a situation in which I found myself with Mr. Foal, and I feel I must at least get my experiences down on paper so as to make sense of things, if only because of what happened.

I didn’t at first know who I was to care for, beyond the general ‘reclusive elderly man.’ Foal is a plain enough name and doesn’t sound like it belongs to anyone very interesting. I remember the conversation I had with his doctor, who facilitated my hiring.

“He’ll be eighty-five next month, yet he refuses to keep a cell phone or wear a medical alert button. Even celebrities have to see sense.” And that’s when he explained about Mr. Foal’s having been a famous actor back in the sixties and seventies. Of course, Foal isn’t the name he used in the movies. His stage name, that careful creation of Hollywood executives, was much more manly and alluring. And he hadn’t been just any actor, but one of the greats and extremely attractive. So of course when I first arrived, I quite didn’t know where to look or how to act. I felt terribly girlish, and me fifty-three! I’m sure I must have been blushing.

Our first meeting was not what I expected. He refused to get up from his armchair by the fireplace and spoke without turning around. “You’re the new live-in.” It wasn’t a question, nor quite an accusation. His voice wasn’t nearly as suave as it had been in all those movies I admired. I suppose it’s never satisfying meeting your idols or seeing celebrities in real life, especially after their prime.

“Companion,” I said cheerfully. “I’m Miss Peabody.”

“I’m difficult,” he said, with almost childish relish.

“I’m sure you enjoy it, too.” That got his interest. My mother used to say keeping people company was all I was good for, but I must say it’s not something everyone can do. There is a certain knack to spending your days with stubborn and demanding people, that I had much opportunity to develop growing up.

He stood and looked at me appraisingly. He didn’t seem much impressed, though I must say I felt rather the same. Having in my mind, I mean, the picture of a confident, handsome, upright man in his thirties only to encounter a hunched, rather negligible-looking figure with a wrinkled face and vein-swollen hands. You never would have guessed that he had been one of the most adored heart-throbs of Hollywood. But of course what was I expecting, more than forty years after his last film?

He gazed at me for a few moments and seemed, I’m ashamed to say, to guess at my thoughts. He didn’t look terribly upset, only slightly amused. “You won’t last long,” he said. “The others didn’t.” And he shuffled away.

~

Difficult he proved to be. He liked his soup at one particular temperature and no hotter nor colder. His laundry and his lap blankets had to be folded in a precise manner, and he hated when I dusted, claiming that I never put things back in the right place. He was also determined to bathe and dress alone, so that I had to hover rather awkwardly outside the door.

“Mr. Foal?” I would call at intervals. “How are we doing?”

His replies, always curt and ungracious, ranged from “We seem to be developing a multiple-personality disorder,” to “Go away.”

Of course there wasn’t anything very unusual about all this. Most of my clients have been particular about one thing or another. What was rather curious were some of his habits, developed I gathered, over his long years of solitude. Sometimes, sitting by the fireplace and thinking I couldn’t hear, he would talk out loud to himself, addressing himself by name. He would say the harshest things and then become almost groveling and whining. Muttered phrases of “why were you so selfish?” and “you should have done something,” often degenerated into “how dare you” and “I hate you.”

Other times, when he thought I was being particularly meddlesome, he would declare that who knew but that his heart would stop at any moment at the least provocation, just as his father’s and brother’s had done, though they’d been in perfect health. Now I knew from the doctor that his father’s and brother’s hearts had done no such thing and that the only family history he need have worried about was alcoholism and diabetes, neither of which seemed to be afflicting him. I decided it was just his morbid way of seeking attention. I do find it interesting how people change as they grow older. I would study an old picture of him on the grand piano and try to trace the progression from confident emblem of masculinity to bitter and antisocial grouch. I wondered if there were something in his past—perhaps also the reason for his sudden departure from Hollywood. But who wouldn’t be a little gruff, after living apart from society for years, hidden away in a private mansion, with the groceries dropped off on the front porch and the mail slid in through the door?

~

Mr. Foal spent a good deal of his time wandering alone about the house, a three-storied brick building with large windows, trim lawns and sprawling patios. I remember reading that he had bought the place after filming a movie in Boston. A sort of keepsake for the rich I suppose, like buying a painted seashell from a beach shop. It was much too large for one person I should have said, but then celebrities always seem to have homes like that, as if they wanted to be prepared for an impromptu party of one hundred-fifty, or to have room for an entire movie’s cast and crew to sleep over should they have the need. Mr. Foal didn’t look as if he’d partied a day in his life, but that’s aging for you.

The interior was rather a museum to old Hollywood. There were movie posters everywhere, along with props from some of his films, all carefully labeled with small plaques. A reproduction of a cannon from a Revolutionary War movie sat on the back patio, and on the living room mantelpiece stood a brass candlestick, the murder weapon in one of those star-studded, 1920s glamor whodunnit movies. Quite obsessed with his past he seemed, though I suppose I would have been too if I’d had all that fame and money and now had only a middle-aged caregiver for company and only death really to look forward to.

When not wandering the house, Mr. Foal usually installed himself in either the green velvet armchair facing the living room fireplace or the striped chaise longue in the backyard by a very pretty apricot tree. He’d planted it himself, so the doctor had told me, soon after he’d moved in. It certainly looked rather old, and was quite twenty feet tall, with bright green leaves gently ruffling in the breeze. It had never borne fruit apparently, despite his persistent fussing and pruning. I’ve heard that even so-called self-pollinating trees won’t if they don’t have a mate and I wondered why he had never bothered to get another.

~

Only rarely was Mr. Foal in a chatty mood, and then he would talk at length about topics and places forty years out of date. He once asked my opinion of ‘that women’s lib movement’ and if the government had finally given up on the idea of nuclear power. It was during one of these odd discussions that I asked why he had left Hollywood, abandoning his career, his home and his loved ones (though I knew he had never married and hadn’t, as far as the gossip magazines reported, ever had children), merely for a secluded house in New England where you were never sure what the weather would be, except not what you’d prefer.

He only grumbled about ‘what career and loved ones’ and ‘who cared about the weather, anyway’ since he had a sunroom if it wasn’t clement enough to go out.

I couldn’t help suggesting that he might like to have a visitor or two (what all that isolation must do to a mind, even a strong one), but he only said, quite sharply, “No visitors! Not unless they’re the dentist or the barber.”

Later, while looking for extra blankets, I found an old framed photograph in a bedroom dresser, wrapped up in a frayed woven throw and shoved to the back of a drawer. It was a picture of Mr. Foal as a young man, before he disappeared from public life. He stood on a movie set, California mountains in the background, with another man beside him who had a pleasant but rather forgettable face. He seemed vaguely familiar and I thought he must have been a famous actor too, but couldn’t for the moment remember his name. It didn’t look like a publicity shot. They seemed like genuine friends.

I showed Mr. Foal the photograph that evening, thinking it might cheer him up. Instead, he turned white and snatched it from me. Told me not to go snooping around and that next time there would be consequences. Well, I mean! I did try to explain, but he wouldn’t listen.

That night he woke me up, talking in his sleep. I could hear him murmuring through the wall. “No, I am! Timothy, no, it’s me.”

The next day I asked gently who Timothy was.

“A forgettable name for a forgettable person,” was his gruff reply.

My tentative, “Was he an old friend?” was immediately shot down.

“Your friends are never your friends. People only look after themselves.”

It did make me curious.

~

The days passed slowly, the nights more so, when he would go to bed early and there wasn’t much for me to do. I took to rewatching his old films, of which he had a complete collection on VHS. I must say it was quite fun seeing them again—the Revolutionary War epic, the murder mystery, the courtroom drama, and that ocean liner adventure. Mr. Foal didn’t seemed to mind that I watched them, though he did appear rather anxious for me to understand that they were only films.

“All those people in the movies,” he said. “That’s not me.” Of course I knew that, but it must have been disappointing to play grand and courageous characters only to find you were still yourself at the end of it.

As the weather became especially fine, Mr. Foal spent more and more time outside tending to his apricot tree, pruning shears and spray bottle always within reach. I wondered if he saw the barren tree as a symbol for his own lack of progeny and I couldn’t understand why he refused to see the little family he had left or why he’d shut himself away from the world so completely.

One night, when I thought he’d long since been in bed and the wind whistled and the rained poured down, I saw him through the window, sitting out there, quite unprotected. I ran out, my clothes drenched in seconds. “You’ll catch pneumonia!” I shouted. “We both will.”

He seemed almost not to notice me as he stared at the tree. He said, “I missed my own sister’s funeral.”

“What?” His sister had died years ago, I seemed to remember. “Come inside, please.”

“My own sister’s funeral.”

I touched his shoulder, something he would normally have shrunk from. “Please.”

Finally I was able to lurch him to his feet. Inside, I got us both into dry clothes and in front of the fire with some hot tea. He didn’t protest once at my helping him.

When we had warmed sufficiently, he said, “My whole life has been a charade. But it’ll be over soon.” He sounded very tired.

“You’re not going to die yet,” I said. “Your health is very good, despite tonight’s episode.” But he only shook his head.

~

Mr. Foal’s birthday was two weeks away and his wanderings about the house became almost constant. More and more quickly he ended up back outside by the apricot tree, like a compass needle being drawn to North. He might have taken his meals out there if I’d let him. One morning he didn’t heed my call to come in for breakfast until I was by his elbow, almost shouting in his ear. His doctor said he often felt melancholy around his birthday, but I was getting quite worried, with him so lost in his head.

The next morning, when I was sure he was outside with his tree, I hunted through an old roll-top desk in the study. Curiosity is a dreadful weakness of mine, and I suppose that I am rather meddlesome. After sifting through a few stacks of bills and various papers, I found a small photograph of a young man and woman in wedding clothes, tucked into one of the pigeon holes. I recognized the man as Mr. Foal’s younger brother, who had been a relatively famous director. On the back was written the name Gretchen and a phone number.

Of course the number was about thirty years out of date, but after some searching through phone directories and a few wrong calls, I reached Mr. Foal’s sister-in-law. She seemed a bit surprised, though quite delighted to come once I’d explained things. She even offered to get in touch with the other relatives. It would be just what he needed, I thought.

I spoke with Gretchen on several occasions. She was seventy-five now and had rather a lot to say about her estranged brother-in-law. “I think the last time I tried to see him was on his birthday, but he refused to come to the door. I’m surprised he still has that place. I didn’t think he could afford it. He was certainly good at blowing through money when he was younger.”

I asked what he had been like then. “Gruff? Moody?” she said. “No, blithe is a better word, or blasé. He was always a little careless of others. Used people without really realizing it. Though if you ask me, he knew exactly what he was doing. But that’s actors all over.”

She knew about Timothy too. “They were always together,” she said, “though sometimes Timothy seemed more lackey than friend.” He had apparently grown up with Mr. Foal and been his close friend through drama school and their first forays into Hollywood. There were rumors that Timothy had been as good an actor as Foal, if not better, but that Foal had bullied him into playing second fiddle and had maybe even bad-mouthed him to the studios.

“Whatever the reason,” Gretchen said, “Timothy blamed him for his lack of success. It didn’t help that he had a knack for disappearing in an empty room, shy man that he was. Finally they had a falling out and Timothy I think moved East and went into the parking garage business, but I didn’t really keep track of him. And that was years ago now. In fact, I think that birthday was the last time I saw Timothy too. He came to the door and said the party was off. Looked very upset. Harsh words must have been exchanged.”

How terrible, I thought, that your birthday should be the day on which you lose your best friend. But I didn’t want to believe that Mr. Foal could mistreat someone so badly. Gretchen must have gotten the story mixed up somehow.

I did know that there was something weighing on his mind. He had gotten so quiet that I sometimes lost track of where he was. While doing some light dusting in the living room and thinking he had gone outside, I nearly tripped over his feet, stretched out over the rug by the fireplace. Gave me quite a shock. But he knew I was up to something. His first words after my apology (the usual remonstrations to leave his mantelpiece alone forgotten) were, “What are you planning?”

Well, of course, I had to tell him.

He was extremely angry. My comment that it was after all his birthday and he should let people do nice things for him only seemed to make it worse.

“I said no visitors!”

“Then call them yourself and disinvite them.”

“I want you out of this house.”

“You can fire me,” I said, “but your problems will still remain.”

“Less one.”

 

He didn’t call his relatives, but nor did he demand again that I stop them from coming. The night before they arrived, he was in thoughtful mood. As I carried in his decaffeinated tea, I saw him standing before the fireplace, holding the old photograph of him and Timothy. I thought he had destroyed it weeks earlier. As I paused, I heard him murmur, “I’m sorry,” then he threw the picture into the flames. I waited another moment before going in.

The next day arrived with sunshine and birdsong and warm temperatures. Mr. Foal spent almost the whole morning tending to his apricot tree. Feeling fidgety, I turned to some unnecessary dusting and soon found myself contemplating the living room mantelpiece. It really was grimy, what with its forced neglect. The brass candlestick in particular, that prop from the whodunnit movie, was in need of a thorough cleaning. The plaque on its wooden base was barely readable with tarnish.

It was hardly my fault. How was I to know the candlestick was improperly fastened to the base? It simply came apart in my hands. Perhaps it had been precariously balanced like that for years. But I thought I might as well take advantage of the accident and give the whole thing a good cleaning. The bottom of the candlestick was even starting to rust. A thin red-brown line ran in a circle around the underside rim. But then I thought, brass doesn’t rust.

I went out to Mr. Foal, not quite sure what I was doing. He saw me holding the candlestick and there was such a strange look on his face, a sort of mixture of defiance and relief. “People always said Timothy could never let anything go,” he said.

My mouth felt dry as I spoke. “You never told me what happened to him.”

“When the sale went through on this house, I supervised most of the renovations. I had everyone call me Mr. Foal. It was sort of a joke. But then later it made it easy.” I shook my head, not understanding, and he continued. “We had a fight—about the rumors told to the studios—made out to be unreliable, unstable. It wasn’t true.”

I gestured at the line of would-be rust. “This is his blood?”

“It was an accident. I was angry. I grabbed the nearest thing.”

The candlestick felt suddenly hot in my hand. I let go and it thumped onto the soft grass. “But what about—the body?”

He made a slight, almost unconscious half-turn and I looked up and behind him at the apricot tree that he tended so faithfully, that he had planted all those years ago when he’d first shut himself off from the world.

“Why didn’t you ever come clean? Why did you trap yourself here?”

“I thought I finally had what I’d always wanted.”

“You murdered your best friend! You used and bullied him, and then when he tried to stand up for himself, you killed him.”

“No, you don’t understand.” He took a step forward.

“Don’t!” I staggered back. It was ridiculous. He was an old man. Should he be punished for something he did more than forty years before? But then I thought of Timothy, poor Timothy, and how he had forever lived in Foal’s shadow. He deserved for the truth to come out.

My head was spinning. The guests were arriving any minute. Should I call the police?

“Please. You of all people can understand.”

Me of all people? “I can’t.” But he looked so hurt, I couldn’t help but feel a slight pang of compassion.

The doorbell’s chime echoed out onto the lawn.

He seemed to shrink into himself. He looked gray and defeated. “What will you do?”

“I don’t know.”

He didn’t try to stop me.

I don’t remember my walk to the front door. I barely remember the faces of Mr. Foal’s relatives. They seemed to swim before me like floating specters. I tried to make an excuse, to send them away, but the words weren’t coming and they just surged past me through the house and outside.

He was sitting by his apricot tree.

“Mr. Foal?” I felt as if in a dream, my own movements out of my control. “Mr. Foal, your family…”

One of the women screamed.

“My god,” said a male voice. “He’s dead.”

Bodies rushed about in a blur as I stood frozen, that still figure in the chair the only vivid image.

“His heart?” someone said.

“Should we call an ambulance?”

Then a woman’s crisp voice stood out from the rest. “But who is he? And where is my brother-in-law?”

My vision focused as I understood who was in the chair and who was in the ground.

~

Talia Deitsch is a private chef living in Boston, MA. She has studied short fiction and screenwriting at Harvard University and is a longtime devotee of GrubStreet. Her work has also appeared in Leon Literary Review.

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