Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
 print preview

The Forgotten Lutz

On the day in question, Lutz saw a bird on the feeder—its odd silhouette upside down on the cylinder of food, acrobatic, indifferent to gravity, pecking among the morsels of suet and safflower seed and corn—and could not remember its name. The word nuthatch was nowhere in that tiny drawer in the brain, the drawer that keeps the location of old keys, the names of high school classmates. Stolen? Misplaced? No matter, try as he might, it was gone.

His anxiety would soon have migrated out of consciousness even as the bird itself was migrating through the neighborhood, if it weren’t for what happened that evening in the Dinner King Cafeteria. Lutz went through the line (he particularly liked the meat loaf and came when it came, weekly and early enough for the senior special). At the steam table he stopped to chat with the same woman he always chatted with. She had a son in the navy.

“So how you doin’, Mr. Lutz? I just finished telling Doris. Tuesdays.” She put her hands out as if someone were throwing her a beach ball. She wore a blue hair guard, more like a shower cap, and clear plastic gloves. “Tuesdays when it’s meat loaf, it’s Mr. Lutz.” She had Bible-black eyes, and her pretty face sat without embarrassment on an enormous body. He tried not to see the discolored wen on her neck. It was easy if you looked at her hairline.

He always asked after her son. And he always called her by name.

Except today, when he could not remember it. Catalina, Luciana. He knew it was Hispanic, or Latina, or whatever you say in these times, that it was long and musical, and that it gave him pleasure to say it. Alejandra, Arianna, it was several syllables, and written in marker there on her celluloid badge, right under the red HELLO I’M. But this evening the fluorescent lights shone off the badge, and without glasses he couldn’t make it out. He moved around to reduce the glare, but it was no good. She knew he knew her name, how could he squint? He understood, even from her brow, from her young girl’s face, that she realized he’d forgotten. It pained him to disappoint her. He accepted the dollop of mashed potatoes and one of zucchini, and then a second spoonful of each and a wink; he ladled brown gravy over the three mounds and slid his tray to the beverage bar. There he tore open an envelope, plopped the tea bag into a mug, and pulled the hot water spigot. While it filled, he pocketed a second bag for later.

The name: another stone had loosed itself from its mortar and fallen from the wall.

He sat at an empty table, marbled the brown goo into his potatoes and began to eat. He didn’t much care for zucchini. He’d tolerated it when Millie made it. She didn’t overcook vegetables the way they do here, she always left them a little crunchy. So. There was the good and the bad—Millie gone, she couldn’t make vegetables for him, but he didn’t like them anyway. What were you to do?

Martina? If he only had the first letter. He finished his meal and pocketed a half-dozen envelopes of sugar substitute. The pink ones, they had more of them, they wouldn’t miss them. Get him through the week, one per morning coffee. Placed his tray on the lip of the conveyor belt and unloaded the dishes, slipped the silverware into the tray of dishwater. Esmerelda? It wouldn’t come.

Another good thing. He liked to pile food on his fork. Millie was always on him about it. You shouldn’t stuff your mouth. No one likes to see it. At home he checked his calendar. Tomorrow he’d ask Edmunson if this was anything to worry about. He and Millie had made a pact. If either one couldn’t recognize the other, they’d get the pills. Dr. Edmunson was a lean man, Scandinavian, thin lips. He had to strain to be compassionate, it didn’t come easy. Twice a year they’d see another doctor as well, a floor above. Dr. Edmunson had assured them that the gerontologist would do this for him. You have to know the name of the medicine, you must ask for it by name—Edmunson wrote the name on a green Post-it and stuck it on the computer printout for Lutz to take home. Also the procedure. Tell your doctor you can’t sleep. Then come back in thirty days, tell him the stuff worked and could he refill it. Now you have sixty pills. Eat first, so they stay down. If one of them was too far gone, they had assured each other, the other would do it for him.

Sea green, Millie had called it, the color of that polo shirt she had bought him. He didn’t have that color, and the reason, he explained, was that he didn’t like green. This was sea green, she insisted, as if that would make a difference. It didn’t.

Maybe he had it backward. Maybe you ate the full meal before renewing. Whichever, it was all written out on the Post-it.

Another thing Millie didn’t like was his habit of layering his food. Stop layering, she’d say. Either eat the vegetables or the starch or the meat. But if you combined them there were six different tastes. You could have each separately, as she wanted, or you could have meat loaf and potato, meat loaf and squash, potato and squash, or all three. Seven.

“Harvey Lutz,” she’d said when he explained how the combinations worked. “I never heard. You’re just an old fig.”

Millie hadn’t needed the pills. An aneurysm had dispatched her, swift and, Dr. Edmunson comforted him, painless. The good and the bad: swift is good. Painless, maybe—how would Edmunson know? Lutz found her at the kitchen table, seated and bent over, her face pressed to the TV listings.

His calendar had only one item other than Edmunson for the week. Courthouse, he’d written, for Thursday and Friday. Millie had been insistent. Write everything down, even if it isn’t an appointment. That way you’ll have something to look forward to. He wasn’t sure the accident trial would last that long.

He’d been following this case, he’d heard the lawyers call it a leg-off case, and he wanted to see how it came out. He was rooting for the plaintiff, the one who sued. After all, it was insurance money, so why was the railroad fighting so hard? Why don’t they just give it to him?


At the county courthouse, the entryway was now obstructed with a metal detector, a conveyor belt, chairs for the guards. It was a pity. Before the talk of terrorists, the entryway had housed a little museum. One display case showed photos of the courthouse construction by the WPA; a second had memorabilia from famous trials. There weren’t many: a minor member of the Dillinger gang, a corrupt mayor, and that woman who’d killed her husband and claimed self-defense because he beat her. The jury acquitted. All before Lutz’s time. Juanita, Jimena, Julietta. Somehow he thought a J.

He emptied his pockets onto the conveyor belt. Jimmy was on duty.

“Hey, Mr. Lutz. What’s coming down?”

“Hi, Jimmy. I didn’t bring my shotgun today.”

“Now, Mr. Lutz. You can’t joke about those things. Don’t say that or I have to pat you down.”

“Sorry, Jimmy. I forgot.”

“Okay. You can go. Don’t forget your watch. Wallet.”

“Thanks, Jimmy.”

“You back for two-oh-seven? The leg-off?”

“What? Oh, yes. The railroad. Hey, Jimmy. Do you ever eat at that cafeteria on Sycamore? Around the corner?”

“Can’t say as I do.”

“Do you know the name of the lady who works the vegetables?”

“I wouldn’t know, Mr. Lutz. Please step on through.”

“She’s short? Maybe your age? Brown?” Jimmy, an African American, widened his eyes and held down a smile.

The guard returned his wallet from the kidney-shaped tray. “Here you go, Mr. Lutz. Second floor, first left off the elevator.”

“Thanks, Jimmy.”

That night, sleepless with the usual and uninvited visit of regret and sorrow, Lutz rose. He saw his reflection in the night-black window and waved. Then, finding a damp tea bag in the sink, he made himself a cup of tea and took the notepad from the kitchen table.

LIST, he wrote in block letters across the top of a fresh page.

1. Bird at feeder. Bluish, walks upside down.
2. Name of friend who dishes out vegetables.
3. Fellow who ran for president—WWII vet, bad arm. Sour face, good man.
4. What’s happened to my jacket?
5. 9th grade math teacher, nice, mustache, suspenders.

He sat looking at the words, but they didn’t help. He could find the Republican candidate if he had a computer or an encyclopedia, but this was the first time he felt the need for either. Clutter, Millie would call it. She’d know the rest of them; she knew her birds up and down and she was everyone’s friend, even the servers at Dinner King. She’d chatted up the woman before he had; she was the gregarious one.

An A. It began with an A, he was sure. Alicia, Adriana, Ascención.

Millie had given away the denim jacket. He used to wear it all the time when he had the landscaping business, but she never liked it. Said it made him look like a farmer. She’d given it to Goodwill or Wounded Veterans, some such name, that’s what happened to it. He crossed it off the list.

Somehow the LED on the clock turned from 4:20 to 7:15. He was sitting before a cup of cold liquid, pulling his robe tight around his body. He put the cup in the microwave and hit two minutes. Rewarm. Time for breakfast. The Dinner King tea bags had staples, and he had to take care lest they spark in the microwave. This one didn’t. He must have eaten somewhere else. He had a nine a.m. doctor’s appointment. He’d shave and put on a fresh shirt. That would please Millie. She always said dress nice but not fancy. Not the jean jacket. And for the doctor’s, no jewelry; it will show in the bill.

Was he supposed to fast? Some days it was fasting, others just the usual pills and a sip of water. Still others no instructions at all. Except for showing up: there was a fifty dollar charge if you didn’t show up. Not covered by Medicare. Which kind of day was this? He couldn’t recall.

At Edmunson’s office, the staff wore name tags you could read. Hard, etched badges, white with bold block letters. “Thank you, Portia,” he said confidently when the receptionist invited him to take a chair and a magazine from the rack, the doctor would be right with him.

Why would they say that? The doctor was never right with you, the doctor was always behind. Even first thing in the morning. Maybe, and he smiled to himself, maybe it was a joke. A pun. Maybe she meant true, or honest. The doctor will be honest—right—with you. Every other patient he bullshits, but you, you’ll get the straight skinny. Again he smiled to himself; after all, who else is in the audience?

Dr. Edmunson went through the usual drill. No loss of appetite, no unusual bleeding, no skin rashes that won’t go away. No persistent swollen glands, sore throat, fevers, joint pain, twitching of the muscles, tremor, seizures, headache. Unexplained change in weight, hair loss, tingling, numbness, burning, or stabbing. Irritable bladder, heartburn, constipation.

He thought, that’s a good one. Not unexplained, but I weigh ten pounds less. So what’s the explanation? Simple. I’m lighter.

“Pretty healthy, huh?”

Lutz had a different list. Nothing that showed up on those flip charts that skinned the person and showed the highways and byways. What was not there. Joy, dreams, a reason to get out of bed. A restful sleep, a glimpse of the end.

“No low abdominal pain, heart murmur or palpitation, head congestion, night sweats?”

Edmunson asked about medications and Lutz handed him the page the receptionist had printed for him the last time. He’s the one who tells me, why is he asking me?

“You’re taking all of these?”

Lutz nodded.

“So let me ask you, Mr. Lutz. If you’re taking them daily, and we only give you ninety days at a time, why haven’t we renewed a prescription since your visit last year?”

“Canada. I get them from Canada.”

Edmunson nodded. Didn’t look convinced, but passed. “You’re taking your Benicar regularly? Measuring your blood pressure?”

Lutz took a slip of paper from his shirt pocket and handed it over. Most of the numbers on it he’d invented. Really, who’s to know?

“This looks good. In case you wondered, you’re allowed to take your BP more than once a month. It doesn’t cost anything, you have the machine. It doesn’t hurt.”

“Those numbers going to be okay?”

The doctor pursed his lips as if he was thinking. Lutz knew better. These numbers are fine. But what will they be tomorrow? That’s the known unknown.

Lutz handed him a second slip. Edmunson looked at it and his mouth pruned in puzzlement.

“So what’s this?”

“Things I can’t remember.” He’d added three more in the waiting room.

Edmunson scanned the list. Pursed his lips again. “What day is today?”



“The fifth. April.”

“Where do you live?” Lutz gave his address.

Edmunson handed the note back to him. “I wouldn’t worry about it. You’re not in school anymore, no one is going to ask you who ran against the president in 1996.”

That was the year Millie died. Before the elections. She adored Bill Clinton, she would have voted for him; Lutz liked to think her ghost snuck in the booth and pulled a lever before her soul went up. “Is that when it was? Twenty years ago.”

“Bob Dole,” Dr. Edmunson said. “We all move things out of the brain. Nothing unusual. Makes room for new things. I’d forget about it.”

“So who was that?”

“The man who ran against Clinton, had a bad arm.”

“So who was his VP?” Lutz asked.

“Damned if I can remember. See what I mean? We all move things. Anything else that’s bothering you?”

“I was wondering. Why do you suppose they put staples in tea bags?”


Back home, he searched for the Post-it. It had disappeared. He was sure he kept his printed reports from the doctor’s office, one a year; by now he had a collection of forty of them. That’s how long he’d been seeing Edmunson. But he had no filing system, nothing really to file. So the question was, where would they be stored? Before he’d moved, the answer was easy: a box in the basement. They used to have maybe twenty boxes, liquor cartons they’d snitch from the pile outside when they’d go to buy a bottle of wine. Millie would joke. When they come to dig us out of this place, they’ll decide we lived on bourbon. Can you imagine what they’ll think?

It made him smile, because who cared? We’d be dead. And two, she just said what they’d think.

Since the move he couldn’t find a thing. What had happened to those boxes? His daughters had said the apartment would be easier, he wouldn’t lose things. The opposite had happened.

He hadn’t planned to, but he went back to the courthouse. It would make the afternoon pass more quickly.

“Hey, Jimmy.”

“Hey, Mr. Lutz. Back for more?”

“I want to see if they convict this guy.”

“What guy is that, Mr. Lutz?”

“The felony murder. Armed robbery. The dry cleaner’s store.”

Jimmy handed him the plastic tray with his wallet, keys, and change. He began to repack his pockets.

“That was two years ago, Mr. Lutz. Remember? They convicted him. Maybe three. Remember?”

“Oh yes. Sure.”

“You’re second floor. The railroad accident?”

“Sure, sure. Leg-off.” He had a pocket in mind for each of his possessions.

“Tell me, Jimmy. You remember that fellow who ran against the President, the vet with the bad arm?”

“This president? Obama?”

“No, no. The Arkansas president. Got sex from that girl in the beret?”

“Before my time, Mr. Lutz.”

“No, no. You were here then. 1996.”

“Sorry, Mr. Lutz. Don’t remember.”

“Yes you do. He had a sour way about him. Sounded angry, like a school principal. Same name as a fruit. But it turns out he was a damn fine man.”

“President Banana.”

“That’s a good one, Jimmy. But he ran, he didn’t win.”

“Sorry, Mr. Lutz. Move on through, please. People.”

He looked around but no one was waiting.

Afterward he decided to get dinner. It was five o’clock, the special was on.

The signboard gave the special entrée as tilapia, but the vegetable lady touted him off it. They just make up names for the daily fish, she said. Try the beef dish. They all came out of the same carton: frozen fish fillets, the box is labeled. Today’s meat slab was indeterminable. Maybe a crime lab with DNA testing could identify it, but no one less. He worked around the fat and mopped up the tomato sauce with a hunk of roll, abandoned the green beans turning to mush, picked instead at the potatoes gratinée. Millie would say they ought to spend more money on the chef and less on the menu writers.

His friend was sitting behind the cashier’s desk on the high stool, reading a paperback. Big as life, wen and all. “Camilla” on the tag. Of course.

“I knew it had an A,” he said and handed her a ten.

“What’s that, Mr. Lutz?” He didn’t answer, hadn’t meant to say it aloud. She smiled to see him, mentioned he was off his schedule.

“I’m expanding my universe,” he said. That was Scorpio, today’s advice: Expand your universe. He hadn’t taken any tea bags or sugar packets or napkins yet. Pleased with himself, he looked over the gum and candy laid out on an open shelf between them.

“What had an A, dear?” She had white, even teeth.

“No matter,” he said. “What happened? You’re not on the steam table.”

“That’s Breanna,” she said and winked. “New, she bumped me up. I been promoted.” Hearing her name, Breanna looked over.

“Congratulations. Breanna seems nice. Though she doesn’t know about my little extra.”

“I’ll clue her in,” Camilla said and waved. While the women were signaling each other, Lutz took a 3 Musketeers bar from the shelf, slid it up his sleeve, and put that hand into his jacket pocket.

“I’ll clue her in, what’s what. She’ll get the picture,” Camilla said and handed him some bills and silver. “I’ll clue her in.”

“You gave me change for a twenty. I gave you a ten.” He held out the bills. She put her hands to her mouth, as if she were in a silent movie. “You got to be more careful, Camilla. If you short them, I bet they deduct it from your take-home.”

“Oh, they will, they will.” She took back two fives and placed them in the cash drawer.

“But not the candy and cigarettes? At least that’s what the old girl told me. They don’t dock you for that, do they?”

“No.” Her smile had turned to concern. “Just the cash drawer.”

“Well, you be careful.”

“You too, Mr. Lutz.”

He walked out with a grin. That wasn’t bad for the meat special. He was pleased. He ate half of the 3 Musketeers bar. He’d have preferred the Hershey’s semi-sweet, but it sat closer to the register. He’d get home, make a cup of tea, and eat the other half.

It occurred to him that he intended to look for something, although he didn’t recall why. It had something to do with that polo shirt, the one he didn’t like, but he couldn’t think what. The known unknown. It didn’t much matter, he didn’t want to wear the shirt, and he didn’t know where it had got to.

The 3 Musketeers bar had milk chocolate, not dark. If he had his druthers, he preferred the semi-sweet, but at this price who could argue?  

return to top