“ . . . can you play me a memory? I’m not really sure how it goes, but it’s sad and it’s sweet, and I knew it complete when I wore a younger man’s clothes” [Billy Joel]
Regarding Sue, his mindless sister-in-law, Jim decided to confront her later.
Of course, when she visited again.
What else could he do?
“Maybe on Saturday,” she had claimed in that tinny voice of hers, leaning her strained face toward his like she was examining his eyelashes, and then had almost shouted, “Work is crazy. We’re so busy.”
Sue and her husband Rich, Jim’s sixty-year-old brother, didn’t have kids, they left work every day at four o’clock, they picked up fast food on the way home. Jim remembered the smell of French fries and the deflated McDonald’s wrappers that littered the floor of their van when they moved him from his home six months ago after he had fallen in the garage.
Later, he would tell them they weren’t fooling him. The same way he’d tell the big wig here at Avalon Village about the fat nurse, the one who was supposed to walk or wheel him to the dining room – that she was always late. Always busy herself.
He opened his palm-sized notebook, poised a pencil on the lined paper, and then wrote the date and a note that the fat nurse was late again, a part of her mean enough to do that to him.
Rich and Sue had dumped him here at Avalon Village.
“For your own good.”
“It’s like you’re living in a hotel with three free meals a day.”
But some days he didn’t want to eat the lunch in the dining room and didn’t care that Sue urged him to eat what they served. “You’ve already paid for it,” she explained. “It’s inclusive . . . Three meals a day . . . You’re wasting money, Jim. Eat what they give you.”
Inclusive? Jim knew what the word meant; he just never heard it spoken out loud about a place like this. He would cook for himself if they let him.
Today, however, the hunger fatigue felt like a fever. The fat nurse was supposed to come in and walk him down, and he was ready for her, dressed in his plaid shirt and heavy socks. All he needed was his pants.
Listening, Jim peered at the open doorway for the rhythmic squeaks of her rubberized shoes, but all he heard was clapping on a television game show coming from a nearby room. Someone was watching “Family Feud.” Jim kept hearing “Good answer, good answer,” then the buzzer and the audience going “Awwwww.”
Jim’s stomach growled, and the fat nurse was late. He began to doubt she was truly a nurse. She didn’t talk like a nurse; her voice was more like a man’s. She had probably eaten his dinner. The menu said lima beans. Boneless pork chops. Applesauce.
Summer heat beat against the windowpane, the glass warm when Jim had touched it earlier even though his room was air-conditioned. The sunlight provided evidence of a morning or an afternoon but not which day was outside. Tuesday? Wednesday? Friday? The sunlight gave no clue, and no calendar appeared on the wall. Yesterday, gray clouds filled the sky.
He scribbled again in his notebook what he wanted to tell the big wig, that the fat nurse had refused to tell him her name. The other day she had spilled water on his bed sheet and then trudged out of the room and back in with a new white sheet, all the time breathing hard like she had run a race. She never apologized, however. She just yanked the sheet off, trading humiliation for convenience by leaving Jim’s bare legs and diaper exposed. The door was open and Jim heard conversations in the hallway: People walking by, laughter.
They served dinner at five, and it was five now. Jim reached to the adjacent nightstand and touched the brim of his navy blue VFW cap. He almost put it on, the last apparel he would wear before departing for dinner. The cap announced he had fought overseas, and he was proud of that. He had fought in Korea, where his colonel ordered his regiment not to cross a yellow line on the map, so Jim rested in his foxhole and pointed his M1 carbine aimlessly across a frozen, pockmarked landscape knowing he couldn’t kill any more North Koreans or Chinese.
Jim listened again for the fat nurse’s shoes, but his throat gurgled, as if it had its own mind, so he focused and cleared his throat and strained his ears.
Except for more clapping and Steve Harvey’s laughter. All of it a farce because the contestants were told what to say to set up Harvey’s jokes. Jim watched television too – There was buy this, buy that, buy everything. And those players who kneeled during the National Anthem, who had everything handed to them – they should be dragged out and drafted.
They didn’t know they were dying too.
Jim turned the page in his little notebook and started a letter to the NFL commissioner.
Maybe he didn’t need the fat nurse. If he could get into his chair he would throw a blanket over his bare legs and wheel himself to the dining room. He needed to arrive at the right time to navigate the best seating. Too early and others might avoid his table, too late and all the good tables could be full. Timing was critical. It was five o’clock. Time to go.
Yesterday he had sat with Gretchen, whose face radiated illness. She cried when the aide asked her what she wanted to drink. Dennis was there – a good man even though he had that ugly blotch on his face. Jim tried to remember – was it on the left or right side? If he ended up sitting with Dennis, who asked Jim to call him Denny, he’d probably have to listen to his police stories again.
He’d check for the blotch and sit on the opposite side. Yesterday, Denny talked and then chuckled, but Jim couldn’t hear his entire story, so he grinned to be polite. It was a story about stopping a car without a license plate, a fourteen-year-old boy at the steering wheel; he was on his way to get cigarettes for his mother . . . and ice cream. “Vanilla ice cream,” Denny clarified, his fork pushing peas because he couldn’t get them onto the fork until he blocked them with a bony finger.
Jim definitely did not want to sit with Martha. She always bumped the table legs with her electric wheelchair and rambled on and on about her former house, her husband, the trips they took. She’d traveled to Egypt, heard dogs barking in Morocco, smelled flowers somewhere else. Martha’s husband was dead, that was for sure, because she had revealed this to Jim and Denny over chicken soup one day. Actually, she announced, “I’m not married anymore.”
Jim shook his head. “I got married once, and once was enough.” Twenty-one years, Jim remembered, that he had lived with a pain in the ass. The last ten years they were more like roommates who had either forgotten to say goodnight to each other or who had decided the effort wasn’t worth it.
Yeah, he loved her once, but then years passed, and car keys went missing and they argued over late Christmas cards and she didn’t say, “I love you” those times. Neither did Jim. They kept the television on just to have some noise in the house. In the divorce he gave her the house and the furniture. All he wanted was his truck.
The chicken soup reminded him. The fat nurse – where was she? Jim was hungry. He looked at his tray table. His bag of chocolate donuts had disappeared. Probably stolen last night by that bubbly nurse with the corn-colored hair when Jim was sleeping. The donuts Rich had brought yesterday – a whole bag of them – and now they were missing, which, Jim concluded almost immediately, was to be expected. The last guy who had occupied the room on the other side of the hall claimed his clothes had been stolen when he’d been sleeping. Jim remembered seeing him leave days later with paramedics on his way to the hospital, how the bed sheets were wrapped cocoon style around his body – a language promising death. He never returned.
The bubbly nurse, the one with the five kids, had disturbed him last night, waking Jim to give him a pill. Jim opened his eyes and lifted his right arm as if to ward her away. “What are you doing here?”
“Meds, Mr. Simpson. You need to take your pill.”
“It stops the shaking in your left hand. Remember?”
“I don’t want it.” Didn’t she know she was dying, too? They all were. How could a pill stop that?
She elevated the bed, set the little pill cup in his right hand, and held the sippy cup with the straw by his lips. “There you go.” She nudged the hand with the pill cup toward his mouth. “That’s it,” she whispered. “That’s it.”
Jim dropped the white pill on his tongue, sipped, and swallowed.
“Okay now, go to sleep,” the bubbly nurse whispered. “Go to sleep, honey.” She took his watch off the nightstand and put it in her shirt pocket.
“What are you doing?” Jim reached weakly for her hand, his eyes blinking, a greenish light coming from outside the window.
She pushed his arm back onto the bed cover. “Go to sleep now, Mr. Simpson.” She paused, studied his face for a moment, and then gently touched his cheek. “You know, I’m going to bring some blemish tomorrow and cover that blotch on your cheek for you. Make you look handsome for the ladies here.” She smiled, but her palm felt so rough on his cheek Jim worried his skin would tear.
Was that last night?
Dinner yesterday was meatloaf and mashed potatoes. They were serving pork chops today. Jim used to grill them in summer months, drinking beers with his two sons who visited him on July 4th but were gone now, living in other states, their lives entangled with wives whose names he had forgotten, their homes off limits to him, unless they needed to borrow money.
Not really borrow, of course. His son Franklin had never paid back the $3500 he needed to put appliances in his Florida home. Franklin’s wife, a shrew of a woman, demanded Jim park his truck in the street, not in the driveway because, she claimed, a truck in the driveway made them look like hillbillies.
The daughter-in-law, Franklin’s big-busted, chunky wife, was just like Jim’s ex, especially after she’d been drinking. That’s all they did now – was drink.
The ex had moved on to two more husbands: The first one drank with her a lot until his liver gave out and she buried him. The second one quit on her too, Jim had learned from Franklin who had called – maybe four, five years ago. Franklin needed money again – two thousand dollars to get his Chevy van repaired – since the new father-in-law refused to give him the money.
Jim listened again for the squeaking shoes. Maybe this delay in taking him to dinner was about the swallowing – how they thickened the water because he supposedly had trouble swallowing. The fat nurse had told him this, which made Jim think again she wasn’t a real nurse, even if she did wear a flowered blouse and navy blue pants.
What did she know about who could or couldn’t swallow; she wasn’t a doctor. And where was she? It was dinnertime. They were serving pork chops and applesauce. In fact, they had to be serving the meal by now.
Avalon had a new chef. Jim had seen him – a colored guy who looked like a South American colored – and there were rumors. Supposedly he’d been fired from his last job at Haverford. Another was that he used to cook for inmates in a correctional facility. The goofy meat loaf yesterday was dry and tasteless.
Jim took his notebook and wrote a reminder note to talk to the big wig about the chef and his bland meat loaf. Jim was paying for this, wasn’t he? The residents were fed up; a week ago, Denny had pushed his plate away in disgust and pulled out his teeth, telling the Chinesey-looking aide when she came over to help him put the teeth back in that he didn’t need his dentures. Why bother if all they were going to eat was soup and pudding?
Jim eyed the clock on the wall, which told him it was past five o’clock. He strained his ear for noise in the hallway. His shoulder hurt. His stomach growled. His room smelled like stale breath.
He recalled the old guy from across the hall, “They don’t do anything,” Norman had complained. “They don’t come. I push the red button over and over, and they don’t come.”
Jim pushed his call button and waited. Two minutes felt like two years, but the fat nurse finally ambled into the room, all smiles and white teeth and plump arms sticking out of her flowery blouse. “I’m here, Mr. Simpson. What do you want, sweetie?”
Jim tore the sheet from his little notebook and waved it at her. “Give this to the big wig.”
She took his notebook paper and studied it. “What is this, Mr. Simpson? A river? . . . Are these like waves? I didn’t know you liked to draw. Do you want me to bring you some sketching paper?”
Jim ignored her question – designed, he speculated, to distract him – and set the call button on his bed. “I want to go to dinner. I don’t want to miss dinner.”
She smiled again, even laughed a little. “It isn’t dinner-time yet, Mr. Simpson. It’s only two o’clock, but when it’s time, I’ll come get you.” The fat nurse started for the door.
Jim’s throat gurgled again. He looked away and sighed. “Why are they paying you?”
The fat nurse turned and put her hands on her hips. “Why are they paying me? I work here of course.”
“Oh, Mr. Simpson, behave yourself.” She checked his oxygen and smoothed out his bed cover. “So, can I get you anything?”
“I want my watch back.”
She went to the nightstand drawer and pulled it out. “Do you want me to put this on your wrist?” She held it toward his face. “See? It shows a little after two o’clock.”
Jim recognized the watch in her hand. “I don’t want it stolen.”
“Nobody is going to steal your watch” She slipped it onto his wrist. “Are you sure you don’t need anything?”
“Take me down to dinner.”
“At five o’clock. I promise. But do you want a snack now?”
A snack? Like he was a dog who needed a treat. Jim smirked at her, certain now he could catch her in her crime. “Yes . . . a chocolate donut.”
She glanced at his nightstand. “Those ones you had yesterday?”
His smirk turned to a broad grin. “Yes.” He saw her nametag. “Sheila.”
Sheila nodded at a memory and gestured at the nightstand. “Oh, Mr. Simpson. Did your grandkids eat them all yesterday? Your son should have stopped them. I’m sorry . . . Do you want me to check if they have some cookies in the kitchen?”
Jim thought of the convict chef and pulled his blanket toward his chin. “No.”
Sheila paused. “You sure?” She set his note for the big wig on the tray table.
“Yes.” Jim didn’t look at her.
“Okay, I’ll come get you at five o’clock.” Sheila finished tucking the blanket and left.
Jim picked up off the tray table his notebook page for the big wig. He noticed the wavy, horizontal lines and wondered how Sheila had replaced his words, how she had smiled while tricking him like that.
Jim settled again into his bed. The view of blue sky and green grass outside the window brought no comfort. A view that got boring after ten minutes, but he kept looking anyway to see if something – anything – different would happen. Jim peered at his watch and saw it was only three o’clock.
He started crying.
Tears that burned the corners of his eyes as polka music came from the recreation room down the hall. A guy was singing. Were they dancing?
Jim squeezed his eyelids shut to block the leftover tears and crumpled the notebook paper, his notes, in his right hand, the same way he did last week with the squishy rubber ball given to him at physical therapy by the twenty-something kid in the warm up outfit with the clipboard. The kid had put him on this pedaling thing, which was just a 1970 garage sale stool with handlebars.
Jim shook his head and tried to pedal. What did the kid know? What did any of them know? All his years had piled up to yesterday and to last week and to last month and to six months ago when he had fallen in the garage. He had told the doctor that his head still hurt, but the guy didn’t care.
When Jim could open his eyes, he peered at the crumpled paper in his palm and wondered who had given it to him. He dropped it on his tray table next to the tissue box and realized he needed his pants. Dinner was at five o’clock. Timing was everything, but the fat nurse was late.
He pushed the call button.
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This story was so sad, but factual about what happens to the elderly. Very well written.
Thanks, Catherine, for this poignant response.
Well written and thoughtful. Great story
This story is clever, well written, and unpredictable. I like it.