The music was so loud you couldn’t hear a sound. It wouldn’t have mattered if the volume was set to five or cranked up to eleven, the shoddy condition of the woofers and tweeters still gave off a relentless buzzing with annoying efficiency. In the end, anyone without earplugs would walk away with their bones rattling and one hell of a headache.
Marvin seemed immune to it all. He was in his nineties, nearly deaf, with a mind half-eaten by dementia.
Months ago, Marvin was unceremoniously dropped on the doorstep of Blissful Valley, location irrelevant, like an abandoned puppy. His supposed family, who was already in the market, had read a local newspaper advertisement touting the facility as a superior home for the aged. The headline Hospice Care with a Smile was what grabbed their attention, that, and the price. To all but the naïve, the hidden message was obvious: Blissful Valley was the place to be when the end was near.
Against neighborly advice, and that of the Better Business Bureau, the choice was made in short order. Marvin’s WWII duffle bag was dug out of the attic and stuffed with weathered clothes, pictures of lost faces, and an assortment of personal items, most notably his infantry metal and a pack of playing cards with Betty Boop gracing the back. Anything that wouldn't fit was promptly donated to the Salvation Army or the local sanitation department.
The next day Marvin had a new home—for the duration.
Early each morning, Orderly Turtle, with earbuds inserted, wheeled Marvin into the multipurpose room where their state-of-the-art eighties sound system was already blaring its mind-numbing Muzak. What better way to drown out the droning of old men?
He joined the other muted residents and waited for breakfast: runny eggs, toast, and a can of apple or prune juice, diner's choice. In time a caregiver stopped by just long enough to help Marvin gum a few bites. Next, Marvin choked down a handful of meds intent on keeping him alive, at least until the night shift arrived.
With his morning routine over, Marvin was left to his own devices. He sat alone at his table and stared at the nothingness in his mind, content in his inner-state of nirvana. Soon, if the pattern held, his friend Betty Boop would show up to play cards with him. He couldn't remember being an only child, of being part of America’s Greatest Generation fighting in WWII, or fighting through two failed marriages and a loveless family. His mind was blank now except for Betty. She was all he wanted to remember.
Orderly Turtle eventually made his rounds and put Betty onto Marvin’s table before rushing off. His eyes beginning to open, Marvin glanced at the card deck thrown in front of him, his lips curled with a barely noticeable grin. Unwinding his fingers, fighting his arthritis, Marvin took the cards out of the box and meticulously dealt out seven piles.
He’d never won at solitaire, but that was never the point. Betty was the only thing that mattered. She was the one constant in his life—ever-smiling, everlasting.
Marvin held the remaining cards in his left hand and counted out three with his right to lay them down, placing the aces on top then playing the cards in suit and sequence.
When he lost, he’d mush and mix the cards on the tabletop and start again.
Albert, suffering from Parkinson's, sat at the table next to Marvin. Thin as spaghetti with a gray complexion, he slept through breakfast even after some weak encouragement from Orderly Turtle. Albert hadn’t stirred. He was slumped over, his forehead almost in his eggs. Albert’s mouth was wide open with a string of spittle puddling on the tabletop. Just one more puppy recently surrendered to Blissful Valley.
Marvin played the ten of hearts on a black jack of clubs when a voice came over the PA system (providing a brief respite from the nauseating elevator Muzak) announcing the day’s outdoor activities were canceled again due to inclement weather. The orderlies justified their inaction that it was pointless watching the snowmelt knowing most would never see spring. To no one's surprise, not one resident put up a stink about the cancellation—the voiceless rarely object.
The mumblings of the old men increased as lunchtime neared like prisoners at Rikers Island banging tin cups against the bars of their cells, prompting an orderly to bump the volume up to six on the sound system. There was a deafening silence inside the MPR.
Marvin continued to play. It’s what he did. It’s all he did. He turned over a seven of diamonds, oblivious to the delicious selection of imitation lunch meats offered by Turtle. With the aces on the board and each stack in various stages of success, the part of his mind not stolen by dementia was still in the game. With every card played, his brain smiled, knowing Betty was with him.
Before long, Orderly Turtle noticed Albert was either asleep or had left Blissful Valley for good. His face was buried in his eggs. Turtle checked for a pulse. Finding none, he rolled his eyes, swore underneath his breath, and called for help. After looking like they had just stepped in a dog pile, the orderlies placed the dead man on a gurney and threw a thin white sheet over Albert’s face. More so to shield them from the dead man’s stare than out of respect.
Getting close to the finish, Marvin flipped another card. Betty cheered him on, puckering her ruby lips.
As usual, the late afternoon saw the orderlies and caregivers congregate in the inner office, thankful that their shift was drawing to a close. The old men were fed, medicated, and left to peacefully stew in their own juices. It was time to blow off a little steam before quitting for the day. With their feet kicked up, they drank from bottles wrapped in brown paper bags, and BS'ed about the day's happenings. Albert was today's hot topic.
A glass window separated the health workers from those entrusted to their care. With an occasional glance to make sure the old men hadn’t run off, they quickly reverted to their locker room banter.
The white noise of the Muzak was intense on its own, but combined with all the residents sounding like a party of geese, no one could hear Marvin cough. It turned from ordinary to violent within moments. Caused by acid reflux, an empty stomach, or simply advanced old age, Marvin's daily meds were coming up his throat—bile, and all.
Marvin dropped Betty and grabbed his throat, choking and gasping for air. He leaned over the table and opened his mouth, hacking and spitting out chucks.
Orderly Turtle and his buddies held their bellies and laughed as he recounted a grotesque story involving runny eggs and an old man named Albert. Tomorrow, the newspaper advertisement would still read: Blissful Valley, Hospice Care with a Smile.
Marvin never finished the game. But nothing else mattered—he always had Betty.