By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
Though Lois learned to live without prying too much, it was a question from Allen that heralded the seven years of strangeness that would end their Montrose idyll. Riding the train from Venice to Vienna, on yet another of their leisurely trips, Allen suddenly asked, "What do you call those black things out there in the fields?"
"Cows?" Lois answered. "You mean the cows?"
Alarmed, she tried to forget the scene. Five months later, they returned home, and Allen began a two week series of tests at the Veterans Administration hospital. Allen, the doctors concluded, had Alzheimer's. Though its symptoms and pace differed from person to person, it was progressive and degenerative, ending in loss of intellectual functions and finally death.
That evening, Allen and Lois dined at the Houston Club. Allen took her hand and told her how much he loved her. He asked Lois to go along with his wishes to continue their lives as if he'd never been diagnosed. Then he repeated a request he'd made years before, after visiting his mother, who also had had Alzheimer's.
"When I get like my mother was," he told Lois, "I want you to take those necessary steps to see to it that I don't hang around some nursing home for years .... I sincerely hope that you will have the courage to carry out my wishes."
Pat Gross remembers the Alzheimer's diagnosis as well, though she recalls it coming six months, not two weeks, after her employers' return from Europe. And it seemed, Gross says, far longer. Odd things were beginning to happen on Helena Street.
Gross would finish cleaning a section of the house and put her equipment away in the closet. An hour later, her mops, cleansers and buckets would mysteriously spring up like mushrooms all over the house.
"I didn't know if he was playing the tricks or her," Gross says. "It plays with your mind." Before she was informed of the diagnosis, she suspected either Lois or Allen had gone mad. She considered leaving. "My husband said I should keep working there," Gross says now, "but to never turn my back on either of them."
Gross wasn't imagining things when she felt someone had singled her out. Allen had become consumed with driving her out of the house. On days that she came to work, dirty dishes showed up in the oven and trinkets would disappear from the parlor. Once, a Waterford crystal bowl appeared with a big crack in it, strategically placed for maximum visibility. "That damned Pat," Allen said. "We've got to get rid of her."
As Allen's disease worsened, though, it was Lois' sanity that became his target. No matter how ill he was -- and at the end of seven years of Alzheimer's, he could neither remember recent events, much of his vocabulary or why he had undertaken particular tasks -- Allen's shrewdness remained astonishing. "He's working on your mind," Pat Gross would tell Lois after each episode.
For the most part, Lois treated Allen's behavior with wry resignation. "There was no time for trying to explain it," she says, "I spent most of my time trying to keep up with him." When bills didn't appear as expected, Lois investigated: it turned out that Allen was methodically slipping the mail into the garbage. Over a period of three or four months, dozens of light bulbs went out all over the house. It was Pat Gross who realized Allen was meticulously unscrewing each bulb just enough to break the connection. Mechanical things still enchanted Allen, who'd always been something of a handyman. For seven years, he fiddled with an 18th-century clock in the foyer; finally, he got it going so that it clanged loudly and abrasively through 30 complete cycles a day. Sometimes he would amuse himself for hours listening to the whine of a 33 1/3 rpm record sped up to 45 rpm.
To make matters worse, Lois' children believed she was imagining things. Allen could still rise to a social occasion and be his old courtly self, and Lois' children flatly didn't believe their mother's stories. Not even their constant flat tires, which seemed to occur each time they visited the house, changed their minds. Over seven years, Lois' daughter got 32 flat tires. One day Pat Gross caught Allen red-handed: enraged by anyone who parked in front of the house, he had taken to slipping nails under each end of an offending car's tires, so that no matter where the car went, the tire would puncture.
Allen's peculiarities were slowly hardening into aggression. You could see it at first in small things, like the way he pinched and prodded Iris, their black Labrador, who yelped in pain but wouldn't leave Allen's side. One disastrous night at the opera, he fell asleep during the performance and began snoring loudly. Hustling him out of Jones Hall, Lois tried to retrieve his keys. But Allen snapped awake, threw her into his truck and clamped his hand firmly over her mouth. The moment she could, Lois leaped out the door and began tottering toward home.
"I pretended I belonged on Smith Street, downtown, alone at night," she writes. "Then came the unmistakable sound of the Chevy engine approaching from the rear. There was a slight screech of the brakes, and there it was in all its glory, the big yellow truck with the small decal on the window that read, 'DON'T FUCK WITH MY TRUCK,' and the simple blue-and-white bumper sticker that read, 'OPERA' ... Soon there came a loud cry. 'Hey, you stuck-up Yankee bitch, where do you think you're going?'"