That spring morning Mel Jacobs had an appointment at the Dermatology office of his health maintenance organization (HMO). He was a regular visitor there with what they called pre-cancerous bumps on his now bald head. The office was about a half hour’s drive from the Northern California retirement community where he lived and for the first time he took a Lyft car to it. He chose Lyft over Uber because with his Jitterbug phone, recommended by the American Association of Retired People (AARP) , he could dial a number and speak to an actual person, who’d then arrange for the ride. He trusted a person rather than an App on his phone or iPad.
Jacobs and his wife Sylvia had started using Lyft the year before when her bad knee had given out and she had a number of visits to the HMO hospital, first to a doctor and then to a surgeon and finally to have knee replacement surgery. You had to park in a garage and then take an elevator and then find your way to whomever you were seeing. With a Lyft ride, you could be let off at the entrance of whatever building you had the appointment in and that was much preferable. Jacobs, who’d be ninety next year, had been finding driving increasingly stressful so decided he’d keep on using Lyft for any drives longer than ten or fifteen minutes.
The Lyft driver, who arrived at their house in five minutes, was a taciturn young man who seemed intent on listening to music on his car radio and Jacobs was content to look out the window as a passenger, noticing buildings and stores he wouldn’t have as a driver since whenever he did drive now he was concentrated on the road. Almost as soon as he arrived at the Dermatology office and had started to do the crossword puzzle in the morning paper, his name was called and a nurse led him into the usual sterile cubicle to wait. He was told that a Dr. Dawson would see him shortly. He asked about Bill Patterson, a medical technician, who’d usually examined him. The nurse told him that Bill Patterson had passed away. Jacobs was shocked. Patterson was about five years younger than he was and lived near the retirement community and over the years they’d struck up a kind of friendship. Now Patterson was gone. He had a hard time believing it.
Jacobs had time to finish the crossword puzzle while waiting in the little cubicle before Dr. Dawson finally appeared and he was surprised to find that the doctor was a woman, a petite blonde who was, he thought, kind of cute; she was, he guessed, only in her thirties. Whenever he watched one of those medical shows on television Jacobs always thought that he’d never had a doctor, or a nurse for that matter, who looked remotely like the pretty actresses who played them. Dr. Dawson, he thought, came pretty close and he’d have to tell Sylvia that he’d spent the morning with a cute blonde. While she was examining his head he asked her if she’d heard the old joke about the baseball player Dizzy Dean. She hadn’t. “Well,” he said, “Dizzy Dean was a great pitcher but kind of flaky, which is why they called him Dizzy, and in this one game he was beaned, hit on the head. The next morning the headlines said, Dizzy Dean’s head examined, nothing found. I hope it’ll be the same for me.” Dr. Dawson didn’t seem to get the joke; at any rate she didn’t laugh and continued to intently examine his head. At the end she sprayed the usual freezing stuff on a couple of pre-cancerous bumps and told him he was okay until the next visit.
The Lyft driver on the way back had no trouble finding the medical building, Jacobs was always a little anxious about this, and was driving a blue Dodge Dart. Jacobs told the driver, a young man with a beard and tattoos, that one of his early cars was a blue Dodge Dart and he didn’t know they made them any more. The driver, who seemed to know a lot about cars, said they’d stopped and then started making them a few years ago. Jacobs then remembered the car he’d had, after he’d married Sylvia and they’d had their three sons, another Dodge, this one a green station wagon, which Consumer Reports had recommended. It was the only new car he’d ever bought and it turned out to be a lemon. He tried to remember what it was called but couldn’t. The driver suggested several names but it wasn’t any of them. Then Jacobs told him that his first car had been a Volkswagon, black as they all were then and a much better car than the American-made Dodges.
When he got back home Jacobs told his wife Sylvia that a cute blonde doctor had examined his head and found nothing. He asked her if she remembered the name of the green Dodge station wagon they’d bought when they had their three boys. She remembered that it had been nothing but trouble but didn’t remember the name. Jacobs had his lunch and went out to collect the mail. It seemed nice out and he told Sylvia he’d try going for a walk in their nature area, which was adjacent to the Lodge, the center of activities for their retirement community. She told him to be careful. He said he was always careful.
The retirement community was built around a golf course and there must have been a lot of golfers out on this nice day because the parking lot was almost full. Jacobs finally found a handicapped space and took his walking stick, he preferred calling it that to a cane, out of the trunk of his car. He’d gotten the handicapped placard, and the stick, after having hip replacement surgery a few years before. He didn’t ordinarily use the stick but the ground in the nature area was uneven and he didn’t want to take any chances. Too many of their friends in the community had fallen, some with dire consequences.
There was a circular path in the nature area that in earlier years Jacobs had walked in fifteen or twenty minutes. This was the first time he’d been there in months and his reason for walking the path that day was to prove to himself that he could still do it, even though he’d sit down on each of the three benches along it. That day the sky was cloudless and it seemed a deeper blue than usual. The trees, mostly oak, he thought, had started to leaf out. He saw the Bird Lady, as he thought of her, a woman in a wheel chair he’d last seen the year before. She had binoculars that she spotted birds with, birds that Jacobs could hear but never see, and she took pictures of them that she posted on Facebook. They talked for a few minutes, then she wheeled away while Jacobs sat down on the first bench. Well, Bill Patterson was gone but he was glad the Bird Lady was still there. After a few minutes, he got up and walked to the second bench, where he rested for a while, looking at the trees and the sky. Then he walked to the third and last bench and sat for quite a long time. His knees were starting to ache. Finally, he finished the path and walked back to his car. He had made it.
When Jacobs returned home Sylvia told him that Jack, their oldest son, had called. Jack lived nearby and had taken to calling them every week. Jacobs thought it was to make sure that his aged parents were still alive and, if not too well, still tottering along, just as he’d tottered along the nature area path. He sat down in his bedroom armchair and watched some TV news, the usual circus going on in Washington. He’d thought the 2016 election had offered the worst choices for president in history, Trump or Hillary. The 2020 election promised to be even worse, Trump against one of the many clowns competing for the Democratic nomination. Half an hour of the TV was enough. It was time for his afternoon nap.
After his nap Jacobs went to his computer and looked at his e-mails. As usual, they were mostly spam and most of these offered him loans, ranging from $10,000 to $50,000 and he could get them almost immediately. Well, thought Jacobs, with all of those offers he didn’t have to worry about his finances. As it happened, he didn’t need any loans, not any more, as his assets had piled up. He’d saved as much money as he could from his salary when he worked and invested conservatively in treasury bonds and over the years, as interest rates had gone down, the value of those bonds had soared. He’d also invested in California municipal bonds, as these were tax-free, and with a new ultra-liberal governor, he wondered if he should sell some of these. He’d think about it.
After supper Jacobs and Sylvia watched television as they usually did. On this night they decided to watch the movie that had won the Academy Award, “The Green Book,” about a white guy hired to drive a black piano player to his concerts in the 1960’s South. The first leg of their trip was from New York City to Pittsburgh and Jacobs was reminded of his first trip out of New York, as a teenager hitch-hiking to Idaho for a summer job in the Forestry Service. He’d been in the back of a pickup truck going over the Pennsylvania Turnpike with another hitch-hiker and they hugged each other to keep warm until they reached Pittsburgh and he got off.
When Jacobs went to bed that night he thought again of that hitch-hiking trip and then of the next trip out of New York. This time he was almost thirty and for a number of reasons he’d decided he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in a city that had become increasingly hostile to civilized living. A friend at work had been out to San Francisco and had told him what a great city that was. So Jacobs had quit his job, packed the old black Volkswagon he’d bought with his few belongings and once again headed out West. He was leaving behind his family and friends. He didn’t know anyone in San Francisco. Looking back, it was a crazy thing to do. He wondered what his son would think if he told him about it. But Jacobs rarely talked about this part of his life. As far as everyone knew he was a retired civil service employee who’d proceeded cautiously through life, someone who stuck to a secure job, who invested in bonds and, now that he was almost ninety, took Lyft rather than drive. Before falling asleep, Jacobs suddenly remembered that the name of the green station wagon he had was the Dodge Aspen.