By Colleen Wells
I enter Mr. Tufford’s house with the key he’s left under the mat. I feel a sense of pride in the fact that out of an army of college students and other people Norman Tufford has helping him, I recently have been entrusted with the morning shift. It’s a brisk November day and hurrying indoors the scent of stale cigarette smoke hits me. Mr. Tufford puffs at least three packs a day without cracking a window and the smell is offensive even though I smoke too.
He runs an ongoing ad in the newspaper that reads, “Retired handicapped sailor and his sweet, adorable, little dog in need of personal assistant. $7.25/hr.” Like many gullible college students I responded and started working for him in August.
I can see his big stomach rise and fall through the French doors in the dining room that he’s converted into his bedroom. I rap on the glass and he stirs, while Otto, his Doberman Pinscher jumps up, bum rushes the doors, and hurls his body against them.
“Come in!” yells Mr. Tufford.
Otto jumps up at me and I push him back with my forearm under his neck.
“Hand me my glasses.” I pick them off the nightstand, noting their filthiness. “Now help me.”
I hoist him up so he can sit on the side of the bed. His sparse white hair is unruly, as is his beard. Parts of it have a yellow cast—I’m assuming from the nicotine.
“Where’s your sling?” I ask, scanning for it. I bend down to look under the bed.
“Hold it!” yells Mr. Tufford, as if he caught me stealing something. “Scratch first.”
I pick up the metal soup ladle from the nightstand and scratch his back. Flecks of dried skin dislodge and scatter like blowing snowflakes.
“Scratch harder,” he instructs, adding with a smile, “or I’ll put you upstairs with my collection of English majors.” I don’t comment. I’ve learned that if I protest he’ll get more graphic. He continues anyway. “Oh, yes, Miss Fearrin,” he cackles. “I’ve got their heads in formaldehyde next to my ex-wife’s.” Mr. Tufford knows I halfway believe him.
When I have scratched to his satisfaction he passes gas, but pretends he didn’t. It smells like rotten eggs.
I locate his sling hanging from under the sheets and help him put it on. It must have been white once, but now it’s the color of dirty bath water. He puts his left arm into the holder by himself.
Mr. Tufford is paralyzed on his left side, but he can still drive.
Otto is doing the “I gotta pee bad” dance and whining beside us. His nails scratch against the hardwood floors as he squirms.
“Quiet, Mutt!” hollers Mr. Tufford. Then he orders, “Go ahead and take him out.”
I get the leash from the top of Mr. Tufford’s desk. It’s a large, antique, roll-top covered with piles of papers, receipts, old phone books, nautical maps, and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts.
I struggle to get Otto leashed. His coat is a shiny chestnut color. He is the most muscular and truly beautiful animal I’ve ever been this close to. The dog pulls impatiently as I navigate the steps and walks me down the street where he relieves himself in a neighboring yard. He stops and growls. Spittle forms in the corners of his mouth and he starts biting up the leash, which I have wrapped tightly around my hand. He’s never bitten me, but each time he does this I freeze. Just when he gets to my hand he stops. I’m relieved that I don’t have an audience. When I take him out on later shifts sometimes I do.
On one such occasion, Otto had pulled me into the middle of the street for this game and Jeremy, a guy I liked, whizzed by on his bike. He slowed down, circled back when he recognized me, and waved. Otto and I remained locked in the stance. When the beast released his hold on the leash I was mortified to see that he had an erection.
Finally, Otto lets the walk continue, and we finish our designated route.
When I return, Mr. Tufford is dressed and sitting at his desk, smoking a cigarette and drinking a diet Pepsi. He gulps down about a dozen of them a day by my calculation.
I hand him Otto’s leash and Mr. Tufford says, “Peanut butter and banana sandwich. Just like Mom used to make.”
I go into the kitchen, hoping that the roaches are hiding. I scout for the ingredients, which include raisons, pickles and mayonnaise. The first time he told me how to make his breakfast sandwich I said, “Are you sure about the mayonnaise?” and he said, “Why, Miss Fearrin, didn’t your Mom make you peanut butter and banana sandwiches with mayonnaise?”
I open a cabinet above the small white stove in the galley kitchen and sure enough a roach scurries up the side of the cabinet wall.
“Mr. Tufford, you’ve got roaches again,” I holler.
“Leave them alone,” he yells back. “I’m doing a scientific study on how many roaches it will take to eat an English major alive.” When I don’t say anything, he adds, “Isn’t that right, Miss Fearrin?”
“Right, Mr. Tufford,” I say, suddenly feeling tired. I begin to wonder if Mr.Tufford is fueled by more than caffeine and nicotine.
I sit in a carnation-pink faded chair with Queen Anne’s legs as he eats and scours the paper. Otto is sleeping at his feet. Mr. Tufford lights up between bites. I wish I could have a cigarette too, but I don’t smoke on the job.
I’m wondering what I’ll be doing for the remainder of the shift when Mr. Tufford says, “Let’s get the place cleaned up, starting with the study.” I don’t believe what I’m hearing. Mr. Tufford has never had anyone clean, and by the looks of the squalor he lives in, has never done it himself.
He rises from his chair grabbing hold of his arm canes, nudging Otto to get out of the way. Otto groans and scampers to a corner of the room.
I follow Mr. Tufford through his bedroom to get to the study. The walls are lined with bookcases filled with encyclopedias, almanacs, yellowing newspaper, Shakespeare collections, old paperbacks, and paper sacks. The floor is covered with bits of paper, more books and boxes of old National Geographics. I can see dust in the air through the morning sunlight filtering in through the room’s only window.
I’m thinking I’ll stack the boxes in the corner to free up some space to work when Mr. Tufford says, “Go in the garage and get some empty boxes.”
I trip over a sack of Farmer’s Almanacs on my way out. I’m almost to the front door when I hear, “And paper sacks. Get some of those.”
After my second trip of carrying boxes he tells me he’s changed his mind and just wants the paper sacks.
As I crouch down on my hands and knees sorting papers he hovers over me demanding to know what each item is. My back hurts, but I’m determined to get this project done so I can sweep and dust.
Mr. Tufford slams one of his canes down on my pile, and growls, “Hold it!”
“What, Mr. Tufford,” I say, starting to get exasperated.
“What is that?” he demands.
“What is what?” I say, eyeing my pile.
“That piece of paper.”
“The small one by your left hand, Miss Fearrin.”
I hand him a receipt. It’s so old the ink has faded.
He examines it and says for me to go and put it on his desk, which I do.
When I get back I see that he has dumped a bag of old magazines on the one spot I had cleared. I figure I have two choices at this point: one is to walk out; the other is to enter some kind of Zen state. I strive for the latter because I’m making $7.25 an hour and I really need the money. I recently applied for my first credit card and just got the bill.
Miraculously, Mr. Tufford leaves me alone and goes back to his desk. Occasionally he shuffles in and says, “Nice work, Miss Fearrin. There will definitely be a little something extra for you when Christmas comes.”
I open a shoebox, and quickly close it, hoping Mr. Tufford is not behind me. Inside are CliffsNotes to Shakespeare plays. Mr. Tufford had always told me that he had read the entire works of Shakespeare and the Bible by the time he was 11.
“A person should read all of Shakespeare and the Bible before they die. Have you read all of Shakespeare and the Bible, Miss Fearrin?” he’d chide.
I organize, sort and stack until I can see all of the floor. I find Mr. Tufford at his desk bent over a nautical map.
“Come look,” I say. He follows me in and I tell him I need a broom and a mop, thinking he’ll have me walk to the corner grocery store to purchase them. I might even have a cigarette on my way back to celebrate that I have somehow inspired Mr. Tufford to live in a clean house.
Instead he says, “Very well, Miss Fearrin. I just wanted to see how long it would take you to see the floor.”
“You mean we’re not going to clean the house?”
“Why would we do that, Miss Fearrin,” he says, clearly taking pleasure in my disappointment.
I don’t know who is more twisted—Mr. Tufford, or me for working for him.
Mr. Tufford looks at his watch and I think he’s going to start taunting me about how long it took me to see the floor. Instead, he says, “After all that work, Miss Fearrin, you must be famished. Shall we go for a sumptuous repast?”
“What’s a repast?” I ask, thinking it has something to do with food, but I’m unsure.
“What’s a repast?” echoes Mr. Tufford. “The English major doesn’t know what a repast is!” he booms a few times with glee.
I look at him, irritated.
“Get the dictionary,” he orders.
When I look up repast my heart sinks. The last thing I want to do is join Mr. Tufford for a meal, but I need the hours. Maybe it will even help me earn that Christmas bonus.
“Okay, but can I drive?” I ask. Last week we had to make a junket to the West side of Indianapolis to get a car for his train set. He crossed the middle lane a few times on the interstate and we almost got into an accident.
“Of course, Miss Fearrin. Take me to Grisanti’s.”
As we sit in the smoking section, Mr. Tufford stuffs his mouth with the bread. Marinara sauce dribbles down his beard. He sucks in his lower lip and tries to lick it off. Then he adds another packet of Sweet N’ Low to his tea. It is the last one in the container, which was full when we arrived.
“Miss!” he shouts at a server walking by. The woman comes over. “You think it would be too much trouble to bring me more sweetener?” he barks.
I look down at the table. It is covered in pink paper, bits of salad, sprinkles of sweetener, and marinara sauce.
“Sure,” she says, giving me a look like, who let him out of the asylum?
When she returns she tosses the packets down and walks away briskly.
“Hold it!” yells Mr. Tufford. “Some more ice, Miss.”
“I’ll let your server know,” she says.
At the end of our meal Mr. Tufford doesn’t leave a tip and I don’t have any money on me. I think about walking him to the car and saying I forgot something and returning to apologize, but as I devise the plan he says, “What are you waiting for, Miss Fearrin?”
While driving back he keeps poking me in the arm with his cane telling me where to go as if I don’t know. When I turn left onto a street that runs by a strip mall he shouts, “Go into that parking lot. We’ve got to do a trash dump.”
I open the back of his white Jeep Cherokee and pull out a heavy black trash-bag. I toss it in the dumpster next to the drugstore where he has me dump stuff sometimes. I’m curious about the contents, but instead of asking about them I decide I’m just grateful they don’t smell.
When we get home I have to walk Otto again then calculate the times for the high and low tides of the ocean using the Farmer’s Almanac. I don’t know if he makes me do this because he likes watching me struggle with the math or because he’s doing some sort of research.
As Christmas break grows near and his behavior more bizarre, I keep wondering what my bonus will be. I know that Mr. Tufford pays for everything with credit cards and has a bookkeeper. He gets checks in the mail, but I’m never sure where they come from. Mr. Tufford always calls the newspaper and I think he used to be a journalist or something. Maybe the checks are book royalties.
Since I started working for him, every month or so he seems to have a new, expensive hobby. There is a large, wooden sailboat in a building on his property that he pays a man to wax. While Mr. Tufford forbid me to go into the building, I once noticed the padlock open and peeked in. There stood a majestic Y-flyer. The grain in the wood sparkled and the boat seemed to want to set sail. Mr. Tufford’s train set is so huge the tracks run around the perimeter of his enclosed front porch. I’ve only seen him run it once. Most recently he purchased an elaborate telescope that I’m not allowed to touch.
I begin to imagine that he won’t let me go upstairs because that’s where he hides all his money. Not that I would go up there anyway.
When Christmas break comes I stop by to collect my pay. Standing on his side porch I tear open the check. It is for the amount of hours I worked last week and nothing more.
After the holidays I return to work. The colder it gets the longer it takes Otto to do his business. Mr. Tufford seems quieter. He doesn’t send me to the corner market as much for random things like marshmallows and boxes of stick matches—items I would normally buy and never see him use. He does make me get cases of Diet Pepsi, though, and he still meets me at the door when I return, demanding his receipts.
We spend most of our time pouring over the Farmer’s Almanac. He is keeping a close eye on when the sun sets and rises. As I sit with him at his desk one day, I offer to empty his ashtrays.
“Why Miss Fearrin? Are you afraid they’ll catch on fire and you’ll be trapped in here with me?”
“No,” I say, thinking that he’s in a better mood. “Were you in the Navy?” I ask.
“Miss Fearrin, you can go home now,” he says.
“What about figuring out the tides?” I ask.
“Go on, Miss Fearrin. Before you end up upstairs.”
Spring passes and I never learn in what capacity Mr. Tufford used to sail, whether it was across the sea, across the lake, or just across the channels in his mind.
I leave town and after a period of drifting acquire a good job as Marketing Director for a company in Indianapolis. I’m back in town one day to give a lecture at the business school on the importance of creativity in Marketing. During lunch I pick up a newspaper and begin randomly thumbing through it. I see a block ad in Classifieds that reads, “Retired handicapped sailor and his sweet, adorable, little dog in need of personal assistant. $7.25/hr.”
I dial the number and am greeted with a gruff “Hello.”
“This is Norman Tufford. What do you want?”
“Fearrin,” I say, wishing I hadn’t called. “I live in Indianapolis now and have a good job in Marketing.”
“Is this a telemarketer?”
“No, It’s Colleen. Remember?”
“Whatever you’re selling I already have two of.”
He slams the phone down.
A few years later my husband and I move to the college town where I worked for Mr. Tufford. We think it is a great place to raise our newly adopted sons. As I get to know Matt, the contractor who is remodeling our house, we realize that we both know Mr. Tufford. He has a friend who also worked for him.
One day toward the end of our remodeling projects, Matt says, “You know Mr. Tufford died, don’t you?”
“I didn’t know that. When did he die?”
“The other day. He died at home. Apparently he had cancer for a long time.”
“At least he died at home,” I say, wondering who was there to help him.
“They’re auctioning off all his property, including his rentals. Apparently he didn’t have a will.”
I vaguely recall a guy who came to Mr. Tufford’s house to get keys on occasion. I never knew he was a landlord.
Matt says I should go to the auction, but I don’t attend. I’m not interested in finding out anything more about Mr. Tufford. I prefer to recall him as an eccentric man I once worked for who I know liked me because of all of the teasing, a man who might have been a writer, a sailor, or a Shakespeare scholar in his day.
A native of Indiana, Colleen Wells lives in Aiken, SC, with her husband, Rick, their two sons, Yakob and Ayalkbet, and four dogs. Her work has appeared in various publications including Adoptive Families Magazine, NUVO, ORION, The Georgetown Review, and Chicken Soup for the Adopted Soul, and online at VerbSap.
Photo Doberman Pinscher courtesy of Martin K., Czech Republic.
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