Hill Crest

Mark Warton had been a college basketball player, although not a very memorable one; he only played in four games as a walk-on for North Carolina State during the 1991-1992 season. The only play for which anyone remembered him was a flagrant foul against Christian Laettner, the star of the Duke Blue Devils at the time. Laettner was in the final season of one of the most successful college basketball careers anyone had ever enjoyed. His team finished that season 34-2 and won the national championship, and Laettner averaged 21 points and 8 rebounds while shooting nearly 60% from the field. After the season, Laettner went on to an injury-plagued, largely disappointing NBA career, and Mark Warton married his wife, Cindy, and moved to Cincinnati to take a job in her father’s insurance agency.
The year Mark celebrated his 45th birthday, he met with one of his clients, Ellis Howard. Ellis was a tall, bald man. He was dying of cancer, and Mark had helped him ensure that his family would be provided for after he died. Their relationship had been purely professional, covering only numbers and percentages, until their final meeting before Ellis’s death.
“Mark,” Ellis began, “thank you for all you’ve done for me and my family. I know I won’t have to worry about them once I’m gone. If you could, though, there’s just one more thing I’d like to ask you to do for me.”
“Of course. What is it, Mr. Howard?”
“It’s not about money.” He paused, gathering his breath, before continuing, “It’s something just for me.”
“That’s fine. What can I do for you?”
Ellis took as deep a breath as his lungs would allow before he spoke. He said, “Tomorrow’s my wife’s birthday, and I won’t be able to go see her. Could you bring her some flowers for me? She lives in the Hill Crest Nursing Home. Her name is Mary Howard.” It was the first and last personal request he made to Mark.
“Of course I can, Ellis. I’d be honored to do it.”
“Thank you, Mark.”
Hill Crest Nursing Home stood half a mile off of the highway, with a small forest around it to dampen the road noise. The home’s parking lot surrounded a man-made pond with a small fountain in the middle of it. A fountain circulated the water and kept it from becoming stagnant. At the front desk, Mark learned that Mary Howard’s room was on the second floor. The receptionist pointed to the elevator, which was halfway down the hall, with one hand while answering a phone call with the other.
Mark was taller than nearly everyone he knew, but in that Hill Crest hallway, he felt taller than he had in years. It took him a minute to recognize the feeling, and another to figure out why he felt it. The ceiling was roughly a foot above his head, but that was not it; he was used to nearly brushing his head against ceilings. Indeed, the hallway was the size of any average hallway. Wooden rails were bolted into the wood paneling that covered the bottom half of the walls, and they were fixed at such a height that even a person of average height would have to stoop somewhat to reach them. Mark puzzled over the placement of the rails for a moment, until his unasked question was answered by a resident coming up the hall. The resident was in an old, cheap-looking wheelchair, and he was using the rail to pull himself along. It was at the perfect height for him to grab it from his chair.
When Mark got to the elevator, three wheelchair-bound men were waiting for it to come down. One of them had a manual-powered chair, while the other two were motorized. None of them talked while they waited. Mark saw the door leading to the stairs on the other side of the elevator and decided to take the stairs instead of waiting with the men.
 “The elevator’ll be here in a minute,” one of the residents called to Mark as he opened the door. “You can wait and go up with us.”
“No, that’s okay. I’ll take the stairs instead.”
“There’ll be plenty of room for you,” another resident told him. “We’ve got big elevators here. They have to be big enough for a bed in case we need to move someone and they can’t get up on their own.”
“Thanks, but I’d like to take the stairs anyway.”
Mark ascended the staircase quickly, two at a time, as he had for conditioning drills in college. He was breathing hard, but by no means out of breath, by the time he reached the second floor. Running the stairs had always been his most hated drill, but now it felt good.
The stairs, as well as the elevator, opened on a kind of anteroom with a half-wall on one side. In the middle of the half-wall was a gate, which Mark noticed was within sight of the nurses station on the other side. As he approached it, the nurse behind the desk pressed a buzzer that opened the gate.
“It’s so residents can’t leave the floor without us knowing,” the nurse explained. “We’ve got a few wanderers up here. Who did you come to see?”
“Mary Howard. I have a birthday present for her from her husband.”
“From Ellis, you mean? How is he doing? It’s been a while since I’ve seen him up here. You know, you look kind of like him.”
“He’s pretty sick. He’s got cancer. Did you know about that?”
 The nurse paused, paging through her mental directory. “Oh, that’s right. Yeah, of course I knew that. I guess I’d just forgotten about it. He’s always so nice and polite when he comes to see Mary. He never complains when he’s here.”
“Well, I just have these flowers to drop off for him. Could you tell me where her room is?”
“We just put her down for a nap, actually. But you can leave them with me. I’ll make sure she gets them. It’s too bad you missed her, though. She probably would’ve thought it was her husband himself bringing them to her. They’re pretty flowers.”
Mark left the flowers with the nurse, waited for her to buzz him through the gate, and went down the stairs. He took them one at a time on the way down.
On his way out, Mark noticed a man sitting on one of the couches in the lobby. The man was rocking back and forth, as if to accumulate the momentum it would take him to make it to his feet. He was a tall man, only a couple of inches shorter than Mark.
“Would you mind if I helped you up, sir?” Mark asked.
“I’d appreciate that, thank you,” the man replied. “I’d also appreciate it if you didn’t call me ‘sir,’ though. Makes me feel old.”
Mark held his arms out in a bar, which the man used to pull himself up. Once he was standing, he alternated lifting his left and right legs, as if he were reminding them of the motions necessary for walking.
“Thank you. My feet just don’t move the way they used to. They’re so far down there, I’m always afraid the signals won’t get where they need to go. Say, you’re a pretty tall guy yourself. I suppose you know what I’m going to ask next.”
“What’s that?”
“‘Did you play basketball?’ of course. I can’t count the number of times someone’s asked me that.”
“Oh, that. Yeah, I played. In high school, mostly. I wasn’t good enough to get a scholarship anywhere, but I managed to get a walk-on spot my senior year of college. I think it was mostly because we were short on big guys that season. Did you play?”
“Yes, I did. Even made it to the NBA for a few years in the ‘50s.”
“Really? What team were you on?”
“You probably wouldn’t know them. They’re not around anymore.”
“Who was it? The Syracuse Nationals, maybe? The Rochester Royals?”
The old man smiled. “Now a man who knows his history like that, I need to shake his hand. I’m Jim Corbin.”
“Mark Warton.”
“I was on the old Fort Wayne Pistons. Most people think they’ve been in Detroit forever, you know. If you don’t mind, though, I need to take a little walk. My legs get stiff pretty quick these days.”
“Sure. Would you mind if I walked with you?”
“That’d be nice, Mark. I’d appreciate the company. Especially from a basketball man such as yourself. Say, where’d you go to school?”
“N.C. State. I grew up out there. We moved back out to Cincy because my wife’s family is out here.”
“Okay, let me guess. Were you there for the Jimmy V years?”
“Not quite. You’re close, though. He was there when I started at the school, but he was gone by the time I made the team.”
“You weren’t there with Sendek, then. Who was the coach those years?”
“He was a guy named Les Robinson. Not many people remember him. Those were some tough years for the program. I don’t know if I would’ve made it without all the sanctions we had on us.”
“That’s right. I remember that now. You said you were a walk-on, right? Did you get in any games?”
They turned a corner and were walking down a hall with rooms on the left and a floor-to-ceiling window running the length of the wall on the right. They had to maneuver around the residents who had parked their wheelchairs in front of the window to watch for birds and the occasional deer.
“I only got in a couple games. I did get to play against Duke at Cameron, though. We were getting blown out, so I got to play. I think they were up 30 when I went in.”
“Isn’t that the year they won the championship?”
“Yeah, it was. They were loaded that year. I had to try and guard Laettner.”
“How’d you do? He was awfully good in college.”
“He blew by me from the high post, so I pushed him from behind. Did it hard enough to knock him into the cheerleaders. They gave me a flagrant on it. Laettner was pissed.”
“You’ve heard of George Mikan, right?”
“Of course. Did you ever play against him?”
 “Yeah. He beat us, too. I wish I could’ve knocked him down like you did Laettner. He was the meanest S.O.B. I ever guarded. I was faster than him, but he was stronger than me, and in those days, strong guys won. It’s funny to think of how I used to be able to move. You look like could still get out there and play, though.”
“I still did until a year ago. My knee finally decided it’d had enough.”
“I bet you’d still beat me twice over if we had a race down this hallway.”
“You think so?”
“I wouldn’t ask you for a race, of course,” Jim continued, as if he had not heard Mark’s question. “My hips are creaky enough as it is.”
“What did you do after you retired?”
“Well, since us players didn’t get paid the way they do now, I had to work after I stopped playing. I graduated with an engineering degree–players did that back then, too–so I went up to Detroit to build cars. Did that until I retired. That was fifteen years ago. I met my wife at the church we were going to up there. She was in college at the time, and we got married a year later. She’s from down here, just over the border into Kentucky, so we moved back here after I retired. And then when she died three years ago, I moved in here. You said you’re married, right?”
“Got any kids?”
“Yeah, a son, Christian. He’s seventeen.”
“Christian, eh? Did you name him after Laettner?”
“Yeah, I did, actually.”
“Does he play ball?”
“No. I tried to get him interested in it, but he just never wanted to. He’s a good musician, though. He’s planning on going to college on a music scholarship.”
“What’s he play? What instrument, I mean.”
“That’s nice.”
“Yeah. He likes it, at least.”
“Well, that’s my room over there.” Jim pointed across the hall. “I’ve had a nice time talking to you, but it’s time for me to take my medicine and then take a nap. The stuff they’ve got me on always makes me sleepy after I take it. I never liked taking naps, but now I can’t get through the day without one.”
“That’s okay. I’m not a nap guy myself, but my wife is, so I know how it goes. Thanks for talking to me, Jim. I had a good time with you.”
The next time Mark visited Hill Crest, he went in the morning, before his workout. On the way in, he passed some of the hardier residents on their way out for a walk around the grounds. Even though it was early, several residents were already sitting in the lobby. In fact, it was livelier now than the first time he visited, which had been late in the afternoon. In the corner next to the fish tank, he saw a woman in a wheelchair holding an envelope. She brought it close to her face, until it was practically touching her nose, and then stretched out her arm and leaned as far back in her chair as she could. She was frowning.
“Ma’am, are you all right?” Mark asked.
“Well, I feel fine, if that’s what you mean,” the woman answered. “But I do have a problem.” She paused, giving Mark time to walk away. When she saw he was not going to leave, she said, “The problem is, I came down here to pick up my mail, but I can’t see who this letter is from. I lost my glasses the other day, and my new ones aren’t ready yet.”
“I could read it to you, if you want. My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, but they’re not too bad yet.”
“Would you mind? That’s so sweet of you.”
Mark grabbed a chair and sat down next to the woman. “Well, let’s see. The envelope is addressed to Alice Philips. That must be you.”
 “Of course it is! Do you think I’d nab other people’s letters?”
“And the return address is from Larry Philips.”
“That’s my son. I wonder what he wants to tell me. Probably needs money or something. That’s usually why he writes. Do you have any children?”
“Just one. My son Christian is seventeen. He’ll be going to college next year, so I’m sure he’ll probably start asking us for money before too long. Do you follow basketball at all?”
“No, not really. Why do you ask?”
“My son’s named after a player I played against in college once. His name was Christian Laettner.”
“You must have been quite the player, then.”
“I was okay.”
“And your son, is he a basketball player too?”
“I hoped he would be, but he isn’t. He’s a musician.”
Oh, good for him. I used to play the piano before the arthritis hit my fingers.”
Mark sighed. “Would you like me to read this letter now?”
“Oh, could you? Thank you.”
“‘Hi Mom,’” Mark read, “‘sorry it’s been so long since I talked to you. I have some pretty big news. I’m getting married in August. My fiancee’s name is Brianne. I met her on a trip I took to Hawaii last year. She’s from Oregon, but after we met, she moved out here to be with me.’”
“Could you check his address on the envelope, please? I’d like to see if he still lives in the same place as his last letter.”
“The return address is for Norman, Oklahoma,” Mark said.
“That’s the same place.”
“‘Anyway,’” Mark resumed, “‘we’d love it if you could come out for the wedding. I’d really like you to meet Bri. In fact, you’ll get to see her even if you can’t come. We’re going to fly in to visit you next month. And I know what you’re thinking now, but I’m not writing to ask for money. I have a good job now, and so does Bri. If you think you’ll be able to come for the wedding, we’d love to pay for your flight out here. We can talk more about that when we see you next month, though. Your son, Larry.’”
“You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for that letter,” Alice said slowly. “I don’t mean that letter specifically; what I meant was I’ve been waiting years for my son to tell me something like that. You know how they say that everyone gets old, but not everyone grows up? I’ve always thought that was Larry. But now it sounds like he’s really growing up. Thank you again for reading that to me.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you? I’m here to visit someone, but I’m not in a hurry.”
“No, you’ve done more than enough. Don’t let me keep you any longer. Are you visiting one of your parents?”
“Something like that,” Mark said, and left before Alice could ask him to explain.
He took the stairs again, practically sprinting up them this time, and stopped on the landing to catch his breath. A different nurse was at the desk. “Could you let me in, please?” Mark said. “I’m here to visit Mary Howard.”
The nurse watched him come through the gate. “I’m sorry, but you look kind of familiar. Are you Mary’s husband?”
“No, I’m not. Do you think I look like him?”
 “I thought so when you were way over there, but now that you’re up close here, I guess you don’t. He looks a little younger than you. I don’t work on this floor much, though. I’ve only seen the pictures of him in Mary’s room.”
“Which way is her room?” Mark asked.
“She’s on the hall to your right. Fourth room on the left side.”
Mary Howard’s door was halfway closed, shrouding in shadow part of the rainbow that spanned the top third of the door. Mark knocked, but no one answered. He went inside.
She was asleep on her propped-up bed, head cocked to the side and mouth open. What little hair remained on her head was gray, but so thin it was almost transparent. Mark got a chair from across the room and sat beside her. She woke up when he put his hand on hers.
“Ellis,” she said distantly, the inflection somewhere between a statement and a question.
Mark ran his free hand through his rapidly thinning hair before saying, “Mary, it’s me. I just wanted to come visit you one last time. I’m sick, Mary. I probably don’t have much longer to live. But before I go, I wanted to tell you I loved you one more time. I love you, Mary.”
“Ellis,” she repeated dreamily, her eyes half closed.
Still holding her hand, Mark leaned forward and kissed her twice, once on the lips and once on her forehead. She sighed softly as he left the room.
He took the elevator down to the lobby.
On the way back to his car, Mark saw the residents he had passed on his way in, the hardy ones going out for a walk in the morning sun. They were on their way back inside now, and moving slower than they had on their way out. He ran past them.

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