by Janet Yung
The first Monday of the new year, Edith Watson sat in the large communal living room where she stayed, trying to read the paper. Since she’d moved into the place the previous January, she’d never used the term “living.” That would definitely be a misnomer. Almost a year and she hadn’t adapted. She was only marking time.
Someone was banging away on the piano in the corner. Even to Edith’s tin ear, it sounded like it could use a tuning. “Do you know where Mr. Thomas is?” She looked up; old lady Thomas was standing in front of her, clinging to her walker.
“My husband, dear. Have you seen him?” She smiled patiently at Edith.
“No. Not lately.” Edith turned the page of the newspaper, dismissing Lucille.
“Aah, you know he’s dead,” someone chimed in from the table where a card game was getting underway.
“Oh…” Mrs. Thomas pushed along and started to cry.
“I have to get the hell out of here,” Edith mumbled under her breath. There was nothing wrong with her. She had all her faculties; didn’t use a cane or walker, never started a kitchen fire and was still able to drive when she could get her hands on her car keys. The maid kept moving them. The days Edith drove, she checked the odometer, suspicious the maid was using the car. She recorded the numbers on a small notebook she kept hidden in her underwear drawer.
Patsy—Patricia—(she told her mother several years ago no one called her Patsy anymore; it has a negative connotation) said she was paranoid. Another reason to keep her locked up. She was furious at her daughter for putting her in the place. Edith believed she’d been tricked into entering the retirement home and had to be the biggest chump of all for agreeing to the move. “Isn’t this place lovely?” Patricia cooed when they first pulled up the long driveway, ostensibly for a “look see.” Where did Patricia come up with these expressions and why was she so condescending? Patricia walked along with the director and ooed and aahed about everything she saw. Once Edith was housed in the facility, she realized the road was so long to keep all the old coots away from the neighbors’ view. No one wanted the constant reminder of what was ahead—shrinking, winkled bodies and dementia. Death would be the upside.
“Mother,” Patricia said, “I worry about you alone in that big house. What if you would fall? Or there was a fire? How would you get help or get to safety?” Patricia had watched too much day time TV.
“I don’t plan on falling and why would there be a fire?” She couldn’t say anything to change Patricia’s mind and since she’d put her name on all of her accounts, (“as a precaution”) she came to the conclusion she’d abdicated a lot of authority in determining her own future. Eventually, they reached a compromise. Edith would give it a test run of six months. If, after that time, she didn’t like it, she could move back home. But during the period, Patricia rented the house to “a lovely young couple who would love to buy it” and stored or sold most of its contents, keeping sentimental pieces. A few things were in Edith’s efficiency apartment.
“That’s the beautiful thing about this place,” Patricia told her mother, “you can furnish your apartment with your own things.” Edith noticed the best things weren’t here. It was mostly things Patricia picked. Things stuck in the basement or attic. Stuff that had no resale value. But at least they were hers. Not like poor Mr. Simmons down the hall. Everything in his unit was provided by the facility. And, it looked pretty sad for such a new building.
“Moves kill old people,” she’d sputtered on the visit she learned the house was rented and a lot of her things gone. “Maybe that’s what you’re hoping for.”
“Mother,” Patricia replied, “we need the money to pay for this place.”
“Well, who’s idea was that?” Edith didn’t want to know how much it was costing but she gathered it was in the thousands. “It’s a good thing your father’s dead.”
At Christmas, she tried to pretend things were alright between the two of them but only because Libby was coming home and they planned to spend the holiday together. Patricia was letting her come stay with them over the holiday.
“Time off for good behavior,” Edith reasoned.
After lunch, Edith retreated to her apartment. It wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t home. What the hell was wrong with Patricia? She’d never been a burden. Never hassled her to visit; had her own friends and activities. She plumped a pillow on the sofa—one of the few things from her house that had actually been on the first floor—and settled down with the remote. She aimed it at the television and started to click. “Crap. Crap. Crap,” she muttered as she switched from one channel to the next. Talking to herself was one of the things she supposed drove Patricia to lock her up in this place. That and the fact her friends were dying off and each death would make her bluer than the last. Maybe Patricia thought being around people would cheer her up. “But they’re all so old.”
She pulled the afghan across her legs. There wasn’t much point in making new friends. Why get attached to someone who was here today and gone tomorrow? “She’ll learn someday. If she lives that long.” Edith was determined to outlive her daughter. She muted the sound and her eyes began to close when she noticed the red hat.
A gift from Patricia. “Mom, look—here’s a special present from me,” was the way she phrased it on Christmas morning.
Patricia was smiling, armed with her camera. “Libby, sit with your grandmother while she tries on her hat.” She motioned for the two of them to get closer. “Put the hat on, mother,” she said when it didn’t look like Edith had any intention of doing so.
“Okay.” She studied it, looking for the front. “Women don’t wear hats anymore, do they?” She thought she was missing some new trend.
“It’s mom’s latest thing,” Libby informed her and then whispered in her ear. “For ladies over fifty.”
“Who said I’m over fifty?” she joked.
“Mother, please, just put on the hat.” She was focusing the shot, “It’s a symbol of empowerment for us.”
“Speak for yourself,” Edith snapped as she stuck the hat on her head and pasted a silly grin on her face.
Putting down the camera, Patricia said, “I plan on buying you a purple dress to go with the hat.”
“Purple!” The hat was returned to the box. “When have you ever seen me wear purple?”
“Well, maybe lavender.”
“Honey,” she tried to sugar coat her response. “I promised myself when I got old, I’d never wear purple or any shade like it or tint my hair blue or pink.”
She tried to leave the red hat behind but Patricia dragged it into her apartment, hanging it on the hall tree. It had been in the same spot since then, Edith wondering what a decent period would be before she could get rid of it and explain she’d lost it when Patricia asked where it was or why she wasn’t wearing it. Patricia could be persistent if nothing else. Edith had no idea where she got that from.
She was about to doze off again when there was a tapping at her door. She rolled over on the sofa, determined to ignore it. Eventually, they might go away. That was another thing she hated about the place. You could never really get away from people. There was a pause for a moment and Edith closed her eyes, figuring whoever had been at the door gave up or forgot what they were doing and left. The knock was a little louder. “Hello?” she heard through the door, followed by pounding. “Are you in there? Are you dead?”
Edith threw off her covers. If there was one remark that could rouse the sometimes sluggish staff, “Are you dead?” was it.
“Hold on,” she went to the door. She looked through the peep hole more from habit than precaution. She was larger than most of the residents and reasoned she could take on any of them. It was Lucille. “Lucille, what’s wrong?” The door was only open a foot but that was enough for Lucille to charge through with her walker.
“Have you seen my husband?” She marched towards the bedroom as if she might find him there engaged in some lewd act. “Are you having an affair with my husband?” She looked pretty angry and able to take on Edith even though she was twice her size.
“Lucille, dear,” she guided her neighbor away from the bedroom and towards the door, “your husband isn’t here. Why don’t you try Vivien’s room?” Vivien was the local flirt, zeroing in on the newly arriving single males and the males whose mates looked like they might not make it till the end of the week.
Lucille gave Edith the evil eye, just in case, and then spotted the red hat. “Oh, what a pretty hat.” She wheeled herself over to it and put it on her head—backwards. It came down over her ears and to the tops of her eyebrows—what was left of them.
“Do you like it?”
“It fits me so well. You know, red was always my color.”
“Take it. It’s yours.”
“Oh. Thank you.” She left quickly, “I know my Teddy will love it.”
On Wednesday, the snow that had been threatening since the weekend started to fall. Residents gathered in the lounge and stared through the window as the giant flakes fell, covering everything. Patricia normally brought groceries on Saturday. That was part of the arrangement. “Mother,” she’d promised, “I’ll bring your groceries every Saturday when I come to visit.” Edith had voiced her concern about the lack of shopping nearby.
“I won’t be able to walk to the market to pick up a few things,” she’d said, noting there wasn’t much around, stuck in the suburbs. She wanted to say that means I’ll be forced to drive to get anything. Patricia worried about her mother driving although she’d never had a problem.
In the evening, Patricia phoned. “Mom, how are you fixed for groceries.” Her way of leading into a reason to stay home.
“I’m running low on cereal and milk.”
“Can’t you eat breakfast in the lunch room? Just a couple days. I really don’t want to be in this mess.” She was always pushing that damn dining room. Edith ate dinner and most lunches there, but not breakfast. She didn’t want to look at her fellow residents that early in the day. Not to mention, the oatmeal was lumpy and the eggs cold.
“It’ll be cleaned up by the weekend,” Edith said. She didn’t want to say that if Patricia had managed to stock her own larder before the storm hit, why couldn’t she pick up a few things for her mother while she was at it. After all, Patricia had emphasized the home was so close to her house, getting there would never be a problem.
“There’s another front coming through.” The discussion ended.
“Umm,” Lucille cleared her throat. Edith kept eating, her head down. “Hello.” Lucille tapped on the table with a bony finger.
“Oh, hi.” Edith put down her fork. Lucille was wearing the red hat. Breakfast was ruined. She may as well put up her tray and go to her apartment and read the morning paper. She started gathering her things.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh.” Edith stood but Lucille blocked her way, refusing to move the walker. “What did you have?”
“Eggs. Did you eat yet?”
“I don’t know.” She moved away and stood next to another table where she went through the same routine.
“Oh shut up!” another diner yelled at Lucille and a biscuit went sailing through the air aimed at her head. It narrowly missed the brim of her hat.
“Where’d you get that ugly hat?” someone else added.
Edith was putting her tray on the conveyor belt and turned around. The group at the “in” table was laughing. Lucille looked confused and then burst into tears. Edith felt like she was being sucked into the vortex.
She headed for Lucille. “Come on,” she said touching her elbow, “let’s get out of here.”
“Are you my friend?”
“It looks like it.”
She led Lucille from the dining room to the lounge. It was empty. “Here, take a seat. Let’s watch some TV.” There wasn’t much on except cartoons but Lucille was easily entertained. Edith sat there a while mulling over what to do next.
“What did you say?” Lucille looked at her.
“Me? I didn’t say anything.”
“Yes you did, Millie.” Her eyes bore into Edith.
“Who the hell is Millie?” Edith wasn’t in the best mood.
“You are, that’s who.” She turned back to the television and began to hum.
Edith seized the opportunity to retreat to the quiet of her apartment. No messages on her recorder. Another idea of Patricia’s. “You won’t miss any calls.” She settled on the sofa and tried to read the paper but her mind couldn’t focus on the words. If I don’t make a move, I’ll wind up like Lucille. The prospect seemed grim. If Patricia didn’t come to visit now, she’d never make. Then the snow started.
Sunday morning dawned on the new snow. Many of the residents had boarded buses to go to Sunday worship. Edith begged off. She wasn’t in the praying mood. She dressed and went into the hall. The place was like a tomb, and she shivered at the analogy. She wandered into the lounge: no one. There might be some visitors this afternoon but she doubted it. Any excuse not to come by. She sank into one of the oversized chairs. She was going stir crazy.
Edith marched to her room and rummaged through her underwear drawer and retrieved her keys. She pulled on her boots, grabbed her coat and the first hat she laid her hands on. A red stocking cap. She pulled it on her head. There couldn’t be the same significance to this hat. That’s what she’d tell herself, anyway. She crept down the hall. Now would be the time she’d run into somebody who’d want to ask her questions about where she was going.
She made her way to the garage undetected. Fortunately, the parking was covered, sparing her the chore of scraping ice and snow. “This is nuts,” she told herself as she unlocked the car. The engine turned over the first try. She smiled. “It’s not like I’m running away.” As she steered the car from her space, she spotted the hideous red hat heading towards her.
“Millie,” Lucille called in her high-pitched little voice. It was amazing she could see anything from beneath the hat’s brim. “Wait, wait for me.” She was in front of the car. Edith had two choices. She could make a run for it and hopefully do so without running down the old lady, or she could stop.
Edith rolled down the window. “What are you doing outside without a coat?”
“What?” Lucille clicked clicked to the side of the car. Pieces of paper were hanging from the side of the basket clipped to the front of the walker.
“You’ll freeze to death.”
Lucille began to shake the handle. “Let me in!” Her face was scrunched up like she was going to cry—the little sister left behind.
Edith reached across and popped the door open. “Okay.” She watched for a few seconds as Lucille struggled to get in. She couldn’t negotiate the walker and the door. “Oh, for Pete’s sake.” Edith put the car in park and went over to the passenger side. “Lucille, why don’t you go inside? You don’t even have on a coat.”
“No.” She stood firmly between the door and her walker. Edith managed to shove Lucille in the seat and fasten her seat belt.
“You’re worse than an infant.” Strapped in, Lucille smiled. Edith buttoned her sweater. “There,” she said as the last button was done up. “You really should be wearing a coat.” She fumbled with the walker, folding it after undoing the basket, and dumped both in the back seat.
“Turn up the heat,” Lucille said once Edith was behind the wheel again.
“There.” Edith turned the fan on full blast. Lucille’s wispy white hair sticking from beneath her hat blew in all directions. “Is that better?”
Lucille nodded eagerly. “Let’s go!”
Edith exited the lot, driving slowly on the unplowed Sunday streets. Lucille hummed, her eyes focused on the scenery as they drove down the block. “Pretty,” she kept repeating at the snow-covered landscape.
“Yes, it is,” Edith agreed and realized she had no idea where she was going. There were no other cars on the street and occasionally the car would slide as she tried to come to a stop at an intersection. “I guess this isn’t too bright,” she said as she glanced at Lucille. She was wearing slippers. Not even a decent pair of shoes. What if she had an accident or the car broke down? They could freeze to death before they got any help. There weren’t even any salt trucks on the road. At least not on this stretch.
Before she knew it, she found herself headed in the direction of her old home. “Guess I can’t help myself.”
“What?” Lucille asked.
“Nothing. I‘m just thinking out loud.” It was really too far to go. It would take her at least an hour to get there if she took side streets all the way and they could run into trouble. She could always take the highway. She was tempted but then turned around. She’d stop at the first convenience store she saw and get some bread and milk. She drove along and suddenly realized she had no idea where she was. Everything looked different covered in snow. Besides, she wasn’t familiar with the area. The only places she’d ever been to around here were the home and Patricia’s house. She never went on the junkets the management organized so they wouldn’t feel so isolated.
Lucille started to sing a little tune. “Are we going to stop?”
“Soon.” She hoped she was heading toward their building. She’d given up on finding a store. She should’ve planned her destination before she left. “Good. I have to pee.”
They drove along for what seemed like forever. Edith was beginning to panic when the stone posts at the head of the winding road to the home came into view. “Thank God,” she murmured. As she pulled into her parking space, she spotted the janitor hauling trash to the dumpster. “Let me help you,” she told Lucille who was tugging at her seat belt.
“I have to pee.”
“I know. Try to wait till I get you inside, okay?” Lucille nodded. Edith only hoped she was wearing a diaper. She didn’t want to be the one who ran away with the old lady only to bring her home soaking wet and ready for another bath. Once the walker was opened and the basket reattached, she freed Lucille and pointed her in the direction of the door. Lucille started to clip clip away and as if remembering her manners looked over her shoulder. “Thanks, Millie. I had fun.” Then she moved faster than Edith imagined possible.
In her apartment, Edith noticed the light flashing on her answering machine. “Hi, mom, this is Patricia.” There was a pause. “Just checking on you.” Another pause. “Where are you?” Where did she think she was? Driving around in the snow? Why couldn’t she be in the lounge playing checkers? That was where she was supposed to be according to everyone who had her best interests at heart. “Give me a ring when you get home. Thanks. Bye.”
Edith hung up her coat and slipped off her boots. She plopped on the sofa, deciding the call to Patricia could wait. Let her wonder what the hell she was up to. She snapped open the front page of the newspaper. Scanning the page, she felt unsettled. She’d been lost on the road and it was frightening. Before she had a chance to dwell on her troubles there was a tap on the door. Her first instinct was to pretend she didn’t hear it. She wasn’t in the mood for company. “Hello,” the voice in the hallway said haltingly. It was Courtney, the activities director. If ever there was a person who meant well it was Courtney. She didn’t have a lot to work with but she still kept trying to get everyone involved. She was the only staff member Edith liked.
Edith called, “Just a minute,” as she lifted herself off the sofa. She supposed she was one of the tougher cases.
“Courtney, how are you?” She opened the door wide, inviting the young woman in. She reminded Edith a lot of Libby. She wondered if she ever mentioned this to Courtney. Courtney stepped across the threshold. “I didn’t know you worked on Sundays.”
“Sometimes I like to stop by and check on things.” Patricia must’ve called.
“That’s sweet.” They sat down and an awkward silence ensued. “Can I get you something?” It was a hollow offer since Edith was pretty sure she didn’t have much to serve any guest thanks to Patricia.
“No, I’m fine.” She cleared her throat. “I heard you and Lucille went for a little ride.”
So, that’s what this was all about. She stirred up a hornet’s nest without even trying. “Who told you that?” It wouldn’t hurt to act a little incredulous before spilling her guts. After all, she had the right to drive. She couldn’t help it if some befuddled little old lady wanted to tag along.
“Well, I spoke with your daughter and said she was having trouble reaching you and then one of the aides checked your room and it was empty.” Edith bristled. That was an invasion of her privacy. It would have been one thing if she were lying dead or unconscious on the floor, unable to call for help. But anything else bordered on snooping. Did aides come in during the night to see if she was sleeping alone or had smuggled in a guest? She’d prop a chair against the doorknob starting tonight. “And we checked all over and couldn’t find either you or Lucille.” She was staring at Edith now with the look of an inquisitor who knows the witness isn’t telling the truth. “And your car was gone.”
“Well, what if I did go for a spin?”
“Edith, you know today isn’t the best day for that sort of thing.”
“I needed a few things.”
“You could always ride on the bus to the supermarket in the morning.”
Edith had seen that bus and there was no way she was getting on it. When she was still living at home, she learned to avoid the store on the mornings the bus lumbered onto the parking lot, came to a lurching stop by the front door, and the parade of walkers disembarked in a long line. Now, Courtney wanted her to join the parade. “I suppose,” was all she could say.
“I know you’re having trouble adjusting to life here.” That was an understatement. “But I wish you’d try a little harder.” Edith looked at her like she was crazy. If she got too comfortable, she’d never be able to go home. Or, at least, be on her own.
“Courtney,” Edith said, “you’re a nice girl and I do appreciate your concern.” She knew Courtney had a hard row to hoe. She’d watched while she tried to engage residents who were only a few weeks away from being shipped to the nursing home or one of the floors filled with patients suffering from dementia. If she stayed here, Edith was convinced she’d wind up on that floor. Resisting was her only defense mechanism. “You look at me and the rest of the residents and I’m sure you think you’ll never get like this.”
“Edith,” she started.
“No, no, dear, I felt the same way when I was young. The truth is I don’t think I’m as bad as everyone else here.” Courtney reached over to pat Edith‘s hand. Her skin was smooth and soft without wrinkles or spots. Edith’s hand looked like the loose piece of skin on a chicken thigh. It was impossible to remember when it had ever looked any different. The skin around her ankles was beginning to sag, too, like a baggy pair of stockings. She didn’t linger too long in front of the mirror.
“Edith, if you’re so unhappy maybe you should talk to your daughter. There are alternatives.”
Edith hoped she was talking about the same alternatives she was planning. Her tone of voice almost indicated it was time to put the old dog down. It might be, but Edith reasoned she had a lot of living to do and the fees around here were eating up her income, taking away any opportunities to do so. “That’s what I was thinking, too.”
“If you’d like, I could arrange for the social worker to talk to Patricia.”
“Would you?” It was the first real hope she’d had since the day she’d moved in.
“Yes.” She squeezed Edith’s hand. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said and then went back to her office.
Edith watched the grey sky grow darker. The smell of dinner wafted through her door. She might as well go to the dining room and enjoy the evening meal. She switched on the lamp and pulled the curtains shut. There was nothing about this place she’d miss. She only hoped she had enough forces on her side to ward off any attempts by Patricia to keep her there.
Lucille was waiting for her in the dining room. “I saved a place for you,” she smiled, patting the chair next to her.
Edith took the seat. “Thanks.”
“You have to help yourself,” old man Walters shouted from the other side. “They don’t have any waitresses here.”
Her first impulse was to say they ought to. Instead she snapped, “I know that.” Definitely wouldn’t miss him. “Are you ready, Lucille?”
“Yes, Millie,” she smiled, grabbing her walker.
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