I had a strong hunch that God was lurking all over this place - and especially in the most unlikely spots – like the withering plant garden on the roof, the fruit fly colony hovering over the salad bar, and the always-empty courtyard that served only as the physical center of The Bailey Retirement Home.
And let me be clear. When I use the word God, I don’t mean an elderly or comical white man loitering around, a la George Burns. I mean that thing, that all-encompassing, metaphysical, unifying-oneness thing that whipped up this entire cosmic spectacle in the first place - seemingly more intangible and invisible than a molecule but as welcome and refreshing as a cool breeze in a dry desert hole.
But this place was worse than a dry desert hole. The water of freedom had long ago dried up without the promise of any more to come. There wasn’t much to anticipate here except maybe the end of anticipation. It was a place in which you could look back but not forward. And looking back brought the pain. Unless you were one of the fearless ones who could smile on their past without regret – or at least no big regrets about the small ones – but such types were too rare to be counted. The rest of the time, I could hear the moans of perception creeping down the grungy halls; the heartbreaking whimpering of time wasted, health squandered, and real love dismissed in favor of money or fear.
But that God-thing was definitely around, shining through the most helpless of the residents, the most hopeless of situations. God was the scab covering the cancerous sores of a badly crippled woman, and God was even the cancer itself. The thought hadn’t struck me as unkind but more as a relief.
Maybe there really was nothing to worry about because there was absolutely nothing outside the bounds of the divine. To not only find God in such a bleak place but to feel God here too, well that was something even more than symbolic – like an unexpected check in the mail.
And I began to look forward to seeing God. And that’s exactly how I came to behold the shriveled, potted, and discolored faces – the human terrain of deep crevasses that had been chiseled and gouged slowly by the elements (inside and out) over eight, nine, and even ten decades. Gravity had eroded flesh much like river does rock. Time was the only sculptor respected here.
The average age at Bailey’s was eight-eight, which I’d also interpreted as a sign -another nudge toward some sort of understanding. Since I was a child, I’d always loved a good figure eight – especially skating one on the ice. It symbolized an endless line without start or finish. Infinity itself. And so of course, in my mind, the average age here, 88, became infinity squared. And even though literal, countable time was coming to a close for the residents at Bailey’s (every week someone left face up on a gurney), their invisible essence would soon merge back into the whole, and continue to emerge forever as something new.
These were the lessons I was learning, almost against my will, during my very brief stay at the old folks home in the first summer of the new century.
I had ended up here as a fluke. And being that I was only thirty years old, I was the youngest living thing around by almost sixty years. Whenever I entered the bingo hall or the dining facility a hundred pairs of eyes clung to me like a drowning man might cling to a stray and slippery log. I’d sit through my meals of flat iron steak and custard feeling like either a show freak or the second coming of Christ.
Anyway, Cocoa Howard was my only earthly reason for being at Bailey’s. Cocoa was the ninety-four year old mother of my good friend and mentor, Jeannie. Mrs. Howard, as I’d been asked to call her, had recently suffered the loss of her fourth husband, Bert – a man twelve years younger than herself. She cried and cursed that it wasn’t fair, that such a younger man was not supposed to die first, and that she couldn’t go through another dreadful bereavement. An understandable depression followed as she stopped eating and refused to use her walker, leaving her starving and immobilized on her Royal blue wingback chair.
Jeannie could no longer deal with her mother, whom she blamed for the ruination of her financial, personal, and spiritual freedom. She ended up calling me in hysterics, wailing that if she had to attend to any of it, she’d probably kill one or both of them.
Therefore, my task, should I choose to accept, would involve packing up Mrs. Howard’s home and moving her as seamlessly as possible into the death camp – as she herself liked to call the place. I was assured that it would take no more than a week to complete the transition. Jeannie offered me money and other incentives, including access to her timeshare on Kanapali Beach.
When I initially exhaled my disinterest, Jeannie pleaded that she could never come out of hiding, having long ago fled her mother’s clutches (where Cocoa had successfully held court for decades in her six-bedroom Encino sprawl) for the artsy beach community of Laguna Beach. She’d been happily living at the beach for over fifteen years when I’d first met her at a seaside pottery festival. She was so ‘impressed with the contours’ of my clay figurines that she’d bought all ten and saved me from imminent eviction. A week later, she contributed a hefty sum to all my future endeavors and promptly became my mentor, if only just financially.
No matter our past and the debt of gratitude I owed her, I still didn’t want the lousy job. I again sighed rather dramatically into the mouthpiece, which launched her into a heightened round of future promises. She even pledged her new Range Rover for the move. Jeannie also reminded me (rather cunningly) that her mother thought I was one of the most caring souls she’d ever known. We’d actually only met on two occasions – both Mother’s Day; Jeannie having bribed me to join them for an expensive Beverly Hills dinner. Such visits would turn rather awkward as soon as Cocoa wanted to know why her daughter couldn’t wear an ‘alluring face’ or present herself with any sort of charm.
Yes indeed, Jeannie herself was quite shrewd, knowing how much I loved it when people thought me even remotely benevolent. She had once told me that my entire identity was built on an aggressive savior complex.
But in the end, my reluctant decision to take the deal was based more on the rising expense of gas and rent than anything else. Jeannie nearly wept with gratitude when I agreed, thanking me profusely for sparing her both an unnecessary nervous breakdown and a heart-breaking interruption of her new love affair.
Early the next morning, she picked me up in her shiny silver SUV. Her junior lover Kevin, who was driving her old blonde Benz, followed us. The drive into the valley was filled with advice on how exactly not to give up, and sporadic honks and waves between her and the new man-boy. She left me and my duffel bag sitting in the Rover as she kissed my cheek, slammed the door, and basically toppled into the waiting convertible. I sat for many minutes, staring at the immense garden-scape before me. The house was also huge and I could only guess at the amount of cleaning, organizing, and packing I’d have to do. Not to mention the tending, tilling, and general TLC this old woman would require.
Suddenly I couldn’t handle any of it. I fumbled around for my phone hoping Jeannie hadn’t yet reached the freeway. And then I remembered I’d left the damn cell buried somewhere in my cruddy little Hollywood apartment. Almost half an hour passed before I walked to the front door and rang the bell.
A cranky sweaty burly man answered, and for a second I thought Jeannie had tricked me somehow - but when I looked deeper into the house, I saw the boxes and realized he was the lead moving-man guy. Maybe this whole thing would be easier than I thought.
A devastating scratching sound filled the house, like grinding metal on bark. And then it stopped, delivering Cocoa Howard into full view. She had aged rapidly since our last meal, and seemed hopelessly sad. I wasn’t quite sure how I was supposed to get through the next seven days with her. I studied her broken walker, which had been oddly modified with what looked like rolling spikes. One of the spikes had left a hideous trail of torn wood floor jutting up at vertical angles behind her.
Upon seeing me, she seemed to light up ever so slightly, if only because I was really breathing and really here in front of her. Apparently Jeannie had tried to hire help many times before but nobody could last more than a day, citing Cocoa’s acidic nature as not even remotely worth the money.
“You’re ruining your floor ma’am,” I said, eyeing the floor behind her.
She didn’t even bother to look, “Are you Randy?”
“Don’t you remember me?”
“We had a couple of dinners together.”
She looked me up and down, and I really couldn’t tell if she was playing games or not.
“Randy?” she asked.
“Stupid name for a girl.”
I felt my cheeks flush even though I wasn’t necessarily offended.
“Well come in before I catch a chill.”
I did as I was told, and she led me to the only empty chair at her dining room table, which was covered in mountainous stacks of paper.
“Your first job is to mince up these documents.”
I was assuming she had an industrial strength shredder, but wasn’t surprised when she pointed to a much smaller one.
“Get to it,” she said.
I again did as I was told. The shredder turned out to be so small that it could only handle three sheets of bank statement at a time, or five checks inserted slow and vertical.
She brought me a very weak cup of tea and studied my method.
“You’re quite efficient,” she said.
She was really only relieved that I was even attempting such silliness, but still, I felt an unexpected rush of pride.
“Would you like a lemon tart?” she asked.
“Not yet, Cocoa.”
“Oh please, call me Mrs. Howard.”
She hesitated, rather disturbed.
“That’s how we did it in my day. We liked to call it manners, no such thing anymore. As a matter of fact, I’m quite sure you haven’t ever read Etiquette.”
“By Emily Post?” I asked.
She looked at me as though we’d once been lovesick for each other, and were now being reunited after three hundred and twenty years.
“Yes, that’s the one!” Her voice was much softer, and I realized that she was quite buttery – had a tendency to melt quickly.
“How would such a young woman know such a book?”
“I read a lot,” I said.
Now she was looking at me as though I’d just come through a death-defying stunt with my eyes closed. I didn’t dare mention that my mother collected antique books of cultural significance or that the book in question had sat in the center of our coffee table for the better part of a decade. Of course, I had never even peeked inside it and could only hope Mrs. Howard wouldn’t ask me to set a formal table, or sit at a certain angle while wearing a skirt.
“Well - that’s very very good dear, but I do have to make one slight change.”
Despite using a term of endearment, she had hardened up again.
“While I do expect you to address me as Mrs. Howard, I simply cannot call you Randy. It scares me – makes me feel like I’m living with an adolescent boy. I’m old and forgetful now. And also, I can’t imagine what possessed your parents to assign such a boyish name to such a pretty young thing, one with the loveliest dimples. They must be very silly people."
She looked at me and shook her head, as if I was the progeny of mongrels... (mongrels who just happen to read Emily Post).
“So how about if I call you Lucy?”
I already had two paper cuts and was hardly in a mood to be flung back into whatever world she was living in, but I nodded my head anyway. My focus fluctuated between the cash I was earning and my newfound sympathy for Jeannie - without my intervention, a murder-suicide could actually turn into a viable scenario.
“Lucy was my best friend, you know. So that particular name is very special to me.”
I ignored her and focused on the two feet of photocopied medical insurance documents in front of me.
“And I’m gonna go watch her right now.”
I continued to ignore her as she slowly made her way to the couch, ripping up flooring as she went.
Mrs. Howard cleared her throat, “Could you please put the television on for me and heat up a lemon tart - 14 seconds on medium heat. My best friend Lucy is on in one minute on Channel 3. My best friend ever, the one you’re now officially named after – you lucky girl. Lucky Lucy.”
Realizing I was only ten seconds away from a full-blown rage, I quickly found the clicker and turned on the television. I then chucked it at the space of couch beside her and went back to my shredding. I was already bored with the medical insurance and switched my attention to the pounds of irrelevant car rental documents and cruise ship itineraries.
“Couldn’t we just burn all this?” I asked.
Now it was her turn to ignore me.
I walked over to her in a major huff. She didn’t acknowledge my presence – probably hadn’t even heard my threatening footfalls. Instead, she was completely engrossed in a familiar episode of I LOVE LUCY.
A few moments passed before it finally dawned on me what in the hell she’d been talking about.
“Lucille Ball?” I asked.
She nodded up at me with huge tears in her eyes, “And you’re officially named after her.”
I tried to figure the math and time-lines in my head, and realized that such a friendship was indeed very possible. Although it was more likely that she was suffering from a dementia-related delusion. I could certainly ask Jeannie.
She pointed at me and then at the television screen and then back at me. This happened at least twice and with great emphasis.
“Thanks,” I said.
I walked to the kitchen, heated up two lemon tarts for 14 seconds on medium heat, and returned to watch a two-hour Lucy marathon with Mrs. Howard. The men worked around us and shook their heads in bewilderment while we giggled and blinked at the T.V. – watching as our beloved icon shoved chocolates into her already overstuffed mouth.
“She was so good.” I said.
“Yes, but she’s gone. They’re all gone now, Lucy.”
I didn’t really mind the sound of my new name. In fact, I quite liked it.
“All gone forever,” she repeated, searching me for some sort of connection.
I nodded at her with the beginning of a new understanding.
That night we ordered pizza - five large gourmet pies for the six moving men and me. Mrs. Howard only wanted a jumbo bran muffin cut into even quarters. The table was still buried in paper, so the guys ate outside on a bamboo picnic table.
I had a bubble bath and picked at the feta cheese, red onion, and colorful bell peppers covering my cracker crust slice. The bathroom was quite large and the walls were covered in mirror. I watched myself eat, completely covered in soap suds. I’d been named after Lucille Ball, and it felt kind of good.
I leaned back into the heat, and pushed the jets to full blast capacity. Hot vibrating bubbles engulfed me in an instant. It was all very yummy.
So far things weren’t turning out so bad.
After my soak, I went to three different hardware stores before finding plastic covers malleable enough to fit the walker legs and hopefully save the floor from absolute destruction. I couldn’t figure out why the old woman had become so indifferent about wounding her precious home – unless of course, age had an ironic way of clarifying what really did and did not matter. Or it could simply be that she was acting passive-aggressive toward her absentee daughter who was soon set to inherit the house. In any case, I repaired the walker as best I could to the point where only a thick rubber residue would mark her trail.
Of course, Mrs. Howard slept through all this. I checked on her in the late evening and found a tiny shriveled woman rolled into a ball. The air in the house was cold and she was coverless. I found it odd that such an old woman could sleep in such a frigid temperature, so I crept around her bed and picked up the bedding she had somehow tossed on the floor. The moonlight shining through the curtain-less window illuminated her saggy cheeks and silver hair.
I skulked out of her room and back to my mountains of paper. I began shredding photocopies of checks that were at least twenty years old: one was from 1985 for $5.86 – apparently she’d been buying supplies at FABRIC-MART; another was for $23.11 from 1983 – she’d taken herself and a friend to a European deli for what was, according to the memo, Yaney’s birthday lunch. I searched the checks for big expenses or kinky purchases but aside from the 1973 invoice for reasonably priced Elvis Presley tickets, nothing really grabbed my attention.
I walked into the kitchen and poured myself a small pitcher of Diet Coke and half and half. I stirred it up frothy with a wooden spoon and drank it slowly. It wasn’t as good as a regular float but what the hell, I was getting paid to be here. I looked through her cupboards for any other edible treats but there wasn’t much of anything, aside from Metamucil, boxes of English Breakfast tea, and some weird little shake cans for diabetics. The fridge held nothing but condiments – lots and lots of condiments.
Then I got an idea. I checked the hall to make sure she wasn’t roaming (although I knew she wasn’t), and then quickly moved some of the documents to the kitchen counter. I dumped two shoeboxes full of irrelevant bills into the sink and stared down at them. No more paper cuts for me.
With great ceremony, I lifted a bottle of ketchup over my head and brought it down in slow motion, squirting Heinz all over the checks as I did so - then I repeated the process with the mustard, followed by Worcestershire, HP, and Tabasco. I kneaded the slimy documents into a gooey ball and dumped them into a large trash bag.
Next, I worked on the medical insurance documents. I marinated them in chocolate syrup, strawberry diabetic shake, and a couple jars of ancient hot dog relish.
I let everything soak for five minutes, and then emptied a jumbo bottle of low-fat Ranch dressing onto the mix. I kneaded as best I could – although paper isn’t that pliable - and somehow managed another slippery mound into the now reeking garbage.
It struck me a little funny that this might be something Lucille Ball herself might do. And if I ever needed to, I would certainly plead such a defense – I’m sorry I made such a mess Mrs. Howard, the new name just sorta went to my head.
After an hours time, there was not one document or condiment of any kind left in the house, although her home now stunk like the dumpster alley of some old-time greasy spoon. I opened every window I could find and then tried to move the three hefty bags outside. No such luck. It was quite clear that the bags were on the verge of splitting open and spilling their yucky guts.
I found one of the workmen’s dollies and carefully wheeled each bag to the curb. God willing, dogs and birds would not attack in the night, revealing my dastardly deed.
The next day, Mrs. Howard woke up in a wonderful mood. I made us a strong pot of tea and heated lemon tarts, and she didn’t seem to notice that her house reeked like a landfill. She told me she’d had sex dreams all night. And then she started crying, remembering how explosive her orgasms had been with Bert.
I nearly spewed hot tea all over the paper-free table (which she had also failed to notice), “Well, you’ve certainly just exploded a myth I believed in.”
“Which one is that, Lucy?”
“That people older than eighty don’t touch.”
“What nonsense my dear, who told you that?”
Come to think of it, I was sure I had seen some sort of icky contraption in her room last night.
“Bert and I made love all the time in this house – even on the chair you’re sitting on right now. Guests would often blush at the breakfast table the next morning.”
I frowned and squirmed in my seat.
She laughed and cried and sipped her tea, “Well Lucy, I must admit that we were exceptionally loud, and rather obnoxious I suppose.”
I tried to banish the flabby-shaky-slippery-pale skin images that were now crowding my mind, but it was too late. The graphic pictures had already seared themselves into my psyche.
“But I mean, even at his age? How could he steady himself? What did he hold on to?” I asked.
I couldn’t believe how rude I was being, certainly nothing that Miss Emily Post would have approved of. The wicked fumes of spontaneity and abandon drifting through the house were making me even more bold than I already was – as was Mrs. Howard’s complete willingness to discuss such matters.
“He held on to me!” she said, pointing ferociously at her chest.
She closed her eyes and I knew she was trying to picture it. Whatever it might mean.
“Bert had a master stroke.”
Okay, too much. I simply couldn’t hold it in anymore, and ended up spewing creamy sugary tea all over her ancient linen tablecloth. Luckily for me, she no longer seemed too concerned with such things.
“What’s so damned funny, Lucy?”
“Uhm. I was thinking of a golf joke right when you said master stroke – very funny coincidence.”
“Oh nonsense, Lucy. You just can’t imagine it, he and I – wrapped in each other’s passion. Such a shame you can’t believe - it’s your loss entirely.”
“No really, it was a golf joke. Master stroke – you’ve played golf before, I’m sure.”
“He knew just how to touch me - behind the knee, the crook of my arm, a gently tease along the inside of my thigh.”
Oh my dear God.
She stared out the window, lost in what appeared to be a very legitimate afterglow. I could not believe how candid she was being – there was probably nothing she wouldn’t tell me.
“He was a very large man.”
Nope, I would be spared nothing.
She noticed the look on my face and clarified herself, “For heaven’s sake, I’m talking about his stature – 6’2 and then some.”
“Of course, I knew that. What did you think I thought?” I asked.
“Never mind all that,” she said. “Just pour me some more of that viciously strong brew of yours.”
I did as she instructed.
“Although, since you decided to bring it up, he was very blessed in that particular department as well. Not like my first husband Barney – which I don’t even count as a marriage.”
“Wait, wasn’t your husband before Bert named Brian?”
“Yes, there was Barney – who doesn’t count, then Baxter, Brian, and Bert.”
I had to wonder if she had named them all.
“Little Jeannie adored Baxter. He was a doctor – not home much of the time. But my oh my, when he was home, he liked to spoil his girls.”
I suddenly had a strong urge to call my friend.
“The first three husbands, however, were the pits in the bedroom.”
I wasn’t quite sure how accurate her stories were or if she was gleefully spinning tales now that she had an audience. But I supposed she had earned the right to remember or create just as she saw fit. Maybe remembering and creating was the same thing anyway.
“But Bert really had no problem, you know, even in his later years?” I asked.
“Getting it up?” Of course not! And we’ve covered that already.”
“Well, it’s just that… uh - I thought I saw a penis pump thingy in your bedroom.”
I don’t know what on earth possessed me to admit such a thing, but there it was, and at the very least, I certainly wasn’t bored with the conversation.
“What in Gretchen’s pantry is a penis pump thingy?” she asked.
“Well it’s a long tube with something that looks like a sticky condom attached to the end.”
“For God sake’s Lucy, that’s Bert’s catheter!”
She sipped her tea, and scolded me with her eyes, “That’s the one thing Bert never ever needed – maybe a deflator at times but never a pump.”
I bit hard on the inside of my cheek, trying to stifle what I knew would be a merciless and unexplainable round of giggles.
“And certainly not those little blue pills that sound like vagina,” she said.
“You mean Viagra?”
Luckily she was quiet for a bit, allowing me the time to re-gain my composure.
“I had to change that thing at least five times a night, Lucy. The catheter, I mean. And I got so grouchy with him, my dear dearest Berty. But I was so desperately tired.”
This started a new round of tears as she recounted the misery of Bert’s final days, and her own near death experience due to a chronic lack of sleep.
I ordered more pizza, she ate another bran muffin, and we remained at that table through the morning and the better part of the afternoon.
She didn’t seem to mind that I hadn’t packed or organized a single thing, assuring me that “those rough mannered packing grunts” could handle it. She never really mentioned what it was that I was doing here then, though the real reason was becoming ever more clear.
As clear as a penis pump.
That evening Mrs. Howard and I rested (much like cows in a field) on the large green sectional in Bert’s office and watched cable news. I was surprised to discover that I didn’t miss my cell phone – after all, I wasn’t dating anyone and just happened to be an artist on my own schedule. My friends and I chatted online anyway, and the old woman just gifted me her late husband’s pricey laptop – and there were plenty of wireless signals to hook up with in this affluent suburb.
Aside from Mrs. Howard’s nearly profound quantity of flatulence, the night was passing away in the most idle and pleasant of fashions. We were both munching and sucking on imported Australian licorice squares when she asked me which political party I belonged to.
“Whichever one isn’t Republican,” I said, hoping I hadn’t spiced a bland pot.
“Why is that, Lucy?”
“Because I’m tired of smug white guys blowing things up like their entitled to… or something like that.”
“Well it would appear they are entitled,” she said.
“Huh?” I asked.
“Because they can and because they do.”
The thought depressed me, so much so that all I could do was resume my blank stare at the television.
“I would just like to live in a world at peace,” I said.
Kinda like we are right now, Mrs. Howard.
“Oh never mind all that hokey-dokey nonsense – just toe the line and gather up your own security.”
“But isn’t my security wrapped up with everybody else’s?” I asked.
“Oh stop trying to be such a deep thinker. It doesn’t suit such a pretty face. Don’t you want kids? Pretty white youngster like you should certainly pass it on.”
“Doesn’t matter, Mrs. Howard – there are kids all over the world that need someone.”
“Oh will you stop with the hippie-jippy socialism. Don’t you want to look down into your own eyes and have some little thing looking back up at you – totally helpless and dependent? It’s the best feeling in the world, Lucy.”
Jeannie’s imagined little face filled up my head and I began choking on my licorice. At first it was rather mild, and then it seemed to lodge. I pounded a fist into my chest but it did nothing, except birth a bruise.
“Oh my good Christ – I’ll have to call 411,” Mrs. Howard screeched. “That’s all I can do, Lucy – never learned that goddamed Heimlich German thing.”
Luckily, one of the packing grunts had left an unopened spritzer on the table. The large intake of fizzy bubbles soon quelled the trouble and I soothed myself back to normal with deep, gentle breaths and little circles rubbed lovingly into my chest with the palm of my very own hand.
“By the way, Mrs. Howard, for future reference…”
She cautiously looked over at me with watery grey eyes, supported by ghastly purple bags.
“You better write that down where I can see it,” she said.
“Really?” I asked, with a tone that implied she was being lazy.
“You can’t expect a woman six years shy of ten tens to remember any sort of numbers.”
I studied her to see if she was joking but she wasn’t.
“I guess not,” I said. I didn’t add that nearing ten tens hadn’t stopped her from banging the flesh, or for that matter, bragging about it to someone as young and impressionable as myself.
“Will you turn up that damned set – my ears aren’t what they used to be.”
I did as I was told, and unpacked a large box of quilts.
Mrs. Howard and I ended up falling peacefully asleep to the droning pronouncements of doom that filled up the office that once belonged to Bert.
I woke up the next morning with a cramp in my leg and Mrs. Howard’s face three inches from my own. I didn’t scream but only because I figured I was still caught in the dream where she stuffs Jeannie and I into a large pot with potatoes and onions, and all because we couldn’t recite Emily Post.
“I think you should be pregnant,” she finally said.
I certainly hoped she wasn’t volunteering for the job.
“I don’t even have a boyfriend, Mrs. Howard.”
“You’re not licking clam, are you?” she asked.
“Uhm no, but I’m quite surprised you’d speak in such a way.”
“Oh don’t be such a prude, although I don’t think I’d be comfortable with a queer in my own house. I would be helpless if you ever tried anything.”
I wondered if I was still dreaming.
“I’m not gay Mrs. Howard, but if I were, I’d never make a move on you. Secondly, I broke up with my boyfriend a year ago.”
“Because he wanted me to get my realtor’s license.”
“Well that’s a stupid idea. You should be with child at this point – you’re certainly not getting any younger. But I’m sure you’ve convinced yourself that those ridiculous clay things are far more important to you – even if they land you in a wet paper box.”
Suddenly my stomach hurt, “Is that what Jeannie said?”
“Never you mind what Jeannie said. You should have stayed with him. You would have lovely dimpled children – provided the fellow in question isn’t short, liberal, or defective in any other way.”
“Oh no,” I said, suddenly longing to see Darion’s face again. “He’s a beautiful person.”
“Not in a sissy sort of way, I hope. Does he make a nice appearance?”
“What does he look like?”
“Uh, Darion’s tall and…”
“Barion?” she asked.
“No – Darion.”
“Darion…never hear that name around.”
“Anyway, we just had very different plans for me, that’s all.”
“Never-mind that feminist nonsense, what does he look like?”
“Beautiful eyes, broad shoulders, smooth skin, gentle manner,” I said, checking my memory for details like he was a grocery list.
Mrs. Howard’s eyes were dancing with the morning sun, and I noticed that her hands were clasped.
“Where is this Darion from?”
“Actually,” I said, with all the innocence of a lamb at the slaughter. “He grew up in Compton.”
She was still wearing a smile, but not in any way other than plastered. Her eyes hardened, “Compton?”
“Yes, Mrs. Howard, Darion’s African American.”
Now her eyes were like steel, and I suddenly remembered Jeannie blaming her mother every time a rather prejudiced comment escaped her own lips.
“Spare me the jungle speak, Lucy. I’m just happy you broke it off. Although I’m more convinced now than ever that your mother’s a very silly woman – impractical and foolish.”
Strangely enough, I felt a lump gathering in my throat.
“My mother is none of those things,” I said.
“Certainly she is, silly girl. The races shouldn’t mix, simple common sense. We’ll have a blend of people who don’t know up from down, back from front, lip from toe. Marshmallow and chocolate do NOT mix.”
“Yes they do, and quite nicely Mrs. Howard – especially nice as hot chocolate!” I couldn’t believe she’d handed me such a nice little gem.
Mrs. Howard looked away in a huff, and I was certain I saw tears. Big tears. In the meantime, I swallowed hard on my own.
“I meant charcoal,” she said. “Marshmallow and charcoal.”
“Well that’s an awful rotten thing to say to me, Mrs. Howard.”
“Young people these days,” she said, shaking her head. “No manners, no decency, no common sense or courtesy.”
“So you’re proud of being a bigot?”
She didn’t answer.
I let the rest of the morning pass without speaking to her. And she didn’t speak to me, which meant she went without her morning tea and tart. Luckily, she discovered how to work the remote on her own and spent the hours glued to Lucy with weepy eyes.
I, on the other hand, spent most of the time spying on her, making sure she didn’t die of misery on my watch. By one o’clock, I was nearly starving since I hadn’t eaten a single bite either – although, ironically, the guilt was already threatening to consume me whole.
I was still disgusted with the old boot but decided it was time to serve up her afternoon muffin – although I cut it into thirds instead of quarters. I heated up cold pizza for myself.
“Here’s your muffin, Mrs. Howard.”
“Not a bit hungry.”
“You have to eat.”
“Things are out of order. I get the tart first.”
“Fine – I’ll get you a tart.”
“Forget it, Marco’s coming by with a late lunch.”
“Who is Marco?”
“That brown guy from the death camp.”
“Mrs. Howard, please.”
“You’re going to starve me because I make an observation?”
“I didn’t starve you.”
“You young types think you’re so much smarter – but just watch and see.”
“Why is Marco coming over?”
“He’s bringing papers for me to sign, and some sort of cheese plate – a sample. My daughter arranged this a week ago.”
She brought one of Bert’s pillows to her face and sobbed into it, “ Oh Bert! I don’t want to go!”
She shook with such force that I was almost certain she’d break a bone.
“Mrs. Howard,” I began very cautiously, “Why can’t you just stay in this house? Is it really necessary to move into Bailey’s at all?”
She looked up at me with blood red eyes and skin so white it was almost blue.
“I would love to stay, Lucy. But I can longer market or cook or keep house. I can’t keep up with the gardens, can barely walk, and am afraid to sleep in an empty house.”
“Can’t you get help?”
“It would take a small army and cost a fortune.”
“What about moving into a smaller place and having a full time nurse?”
“No,” she said. “Jeannie thinks this is best.”
“Does Bert have any children?”
An image of a school-aged lad filled my head, “How old is he?”
“Have you talked to him?”
“Donny won’t speak to me because I didn’t let him come to the cremation.”
“Why not?” I asked
She looked at me with something bordering on contempt, “Because it was a very emotional, very private matter. There were only three of us – the minister, the navy captain, and myself.”
“Navy captain? I didn’t know Bert was in the navy.”
“He wasn’t, foolish child! But my father was!”
I suddenly remembered Jeannie warning me about her mother’s jealousy, and how she’d managed to alienate all of her husbands’ children.
I didn’t want to push things with her but I truly couldn’t help myself, “But why a navy captain and not Bert’s son?”
Utter contempt now pulled and twitched at her sagging face, “You are a very foolish girl.”
“I’m just trying to understand.”
“It’s not your business to understand. Donny and that dreadful wife of his never once invited us anywhere – never even a call on Thanksgiving. But they certainly had no problems when it came to accepting our checks. All sorts of checks – checks for them, checks for their dratted raggy kids. I tried to warn Bert that they were using us, but my husband was a kind and generous sort of man.”
“Oh,” I said.
We sat in silence for a few moments.
“Is he big?” she asked.
“Is who big?”
“The one from the ghetto?”
“I told you he was tall.”
“You know exactly what I mean by big, Lucy.”
“Eat your muffin, Mrs. Howard."
Mr. Marco Delgado arrived an hour later with three cheese plates. I assumed that Jeannie was the one who had clued him in to my presence. He came across as a very handsome and charming man. Marco was born in Mexico City a mere thirty years ago. We were both born the same month of the same year, which made us sensitive Cancers in the local time zone and rats on the Chinese calendar. I quickly decided that Marco was closer to the latter.
Upon entering the house, I watched him place a hand on Mrs. Howard’s shoulder and commence what might as well be described as a seduction. I’m not sure that she realized what was happening but she certainly didn’t seem to mind his off-white hue.
When he discovered that I wasn’t family in any legal sense he proceeded to ignore me completely. That didn’t stop me from hanging over the proceedings like a bug or from voicing my thoughts every chance I got. Needless to say, I didn’t trust the dapper Mr. Delgado.
“You look so amazing, Miss Howard – what a beautiful outfit you’re wearing, “ he said.
“Mrs. Howard’s wearing a nightgown. The same one she rolled out of bed in this morning,” I said.
They were sitting at the table, across from each other. I was standing behind him, directly facing Mrs. Howard.
“This cheese is really nice – lovely presentation,” Mrs. Howard said.
Her vulnerability was suddenly quite conspicuous.
“Well, Miss Howard, that’s how it will be all the time at Bailey’s.”
“Really Marco?” I asked. “All the time? Even after she’s moved in and the ink’s dry?”
He didn’t bother to turn around, just swatted at me, much like one would bat at some annoying little tiny winged thing. I realized that I was staring at the back of his head through slits.
“So, I’ll need you to sign these,” he said, pushing a screenplay worth of papers her way.
“I thought my daughter took care of all this.”
“Well, Miss Howard, we’ll need your actual signature on some of these documents.”
“Mail them to Jeannie, my writing is very bad Mr.?”
“Marco, ma’am. Just call me Marco.”
“I can sign for you,” I said.
“Oh would you, Lucy dear? That would be great – save my poor swollen hand. I’ve got ruthless arthritis”
“I’m afraid that’s not allowed,” he said. “Against all sorts of rules.”
“Well what exactly do these damn things say?” Mrs. Howard asked, pushing the bundle back at him.
“One is an authorization for automatic withdrawal every month.”
“Fine, just list off the charges again – I’ve forgotten them already.”
Marco let go a very long sigh and I moved a stool to the exact spot I’d been standing. I sat down and folded my arms, trying hard not to make juvenile faces at the back of his head.
“Well there is the $4200 per month rent charge, the $200 per month moving charge –“
“What moving charge is that?” she asked.
“Your daughter said you wanted to be wheeled to the dining room at meal times.”
Mrs. Howard caught me shaking my head in disgust and I realized I probably wasn’t helping her adjust to what was looking horribly inevitable.
“Then there’s the laundry and toiletry charge.”
“I have to buy my own toilet paper?” she asked.
“Yes, but there is a monthly trip to the dollar store.”
“Let me guess,” she said, “I’ll be charged for the gas.”
“Well, you’re allowed three trips to the doctor a month, within a five mile radius. Anything else will be charged.”
“How much?” I asked, rather dryly.
“Fifty dollars per trip.”
I looked deeply into her grey eyes that were growing desperate, “Take a cab Mrs. Howard, it’ll be cheaper.”
“Okay Lucy,” she said.
“I assure you, Miss Howard, our drivers are excellent.”
When I saw the tears rolling down her drawn and worried face, I tried very hard to stifle my own sadness; it was the kind of sadness rooted in empathy, and it was also easily expressed as anger. But it was too late. I was already pissed off, furious at the thieves pretending at kindness, furious at Jeannie for not being here, and furious at a society that tossed out its old like so much putrid meat. This would be me one day - old and alone and scared. I wanted to call Jeannie and tell her that she wasn’t so terribly far away from such a rotten finale herself.
“This sucks!” I said.
I brought her a box of tissue, and she nodded up at me. I didn’t leave her side.
“How exactly is she related to you, Miss. Howard?” he asked.
“The name is Mrs., not Miss. And she is my very dear friend. Her name is Lucy. Not, Mr. Delgado, that it’s any of your particular business.”
I smiled at her wily tenacity, and finished off my cheddar sticks and Swiss triangles.
“I understand that ma’am.”
“So just please finish off the list so that she and I can carry on with our day,” she said.
“Well, there is also the three thousand dollars that you gift us before moving in.”
“Three thousand dollars – my heavens, for what?” she asked.
“Remember Miss Howard? We went over this with your daughter?”
“Well no, I don’t remember – so now it’s time to go over it with me.”
“It’s just like a donation,” he said.
“Does it go to needy children or a pet shelter?” I asked.
“No. It’s a mandatory gifting to Bailey’s,” he said.
Mrs. Howard considered this and then began to shake.
“Oh God, I don’t want to go,” she cried. “I want to stay here, in my own home.”
Now that I was standing beside Mrs. Howard and in front of Marco, I was surprised to see that he displayed zero embarrassment regarding his job, and even worse, absolutely no trace of genuine concern for the terrified bundle of humanity trembling before him.
“Do you receive a salary, Mr. Delgado?” I asked.
“I’m not sure that that’s relevant here.”
“Just answer her,” Mrs. Howard cried.
“Yes I do.”
“And a commission?” I asked.
“No commission,” he said.
“Well, you really should receive one,” I said. “You really should find something that offers a commission - you’d be a very wealthy man.”
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at, lady.”
Suddenly it didn’t matter to me if Mrs. Howard was a rather obnoxious member of the old-school racist, Republican elite. What mattered now was how I felt about her, the closest I’d ever been to such defenseless flesh and blood.
“I’ll tell you what I’m getting at, Mr. Delgado.”
I put my hand on her shoulder.
“Mrs. Howard has no long-term insurance according to her daughter, so all of these charges will be paid fully in cash. The charges are excessive and embarrassing. But however unfortunate the situation, I will be personally helping Mrs. Howard move into your establishment. I am very much looking forward to sampling more of this lovely cheese as you’ve personally guaranteed. Regarding these papers, I will see to it that she signs each and every one of them. Wouldn’t want to hinder Bailey’s in any way from a prompt and professional cashing in. You can leave the floor plans for her room with me, although most of what is being packed has already been shipped to storage, as ninety-nine percent of it won’t fit in such a tiny $4200 a month area. If we need anything Mr. Delgado, aside from any sort of authentic compassion, we’ll be sure to call you. Otherwise, Mrs. Howard and I will be seeing you in exactly two days.”
At this point, I realized that a good chunk of my anger was being projected – I too was taking cash, quite a fair bit of it, for basically keeping this woman company during what must be the most lonely and terrifying chapter of her life.
“But I need those documents signed before we can hand over the keys or allow the movers to bring in her bed, dresser, and television,” he said.
“I will fed-ex them to you tomorrow – leave me your card with the appropriate address. Mrs. Howard is now going to spend the rest of her day in peace. Thank-you and good-day.”
I wanted to ask the little bugger if he’d even heard of Lucille Ball.
“I’ll need them tomorrow by noon, or we’ll have to cancel the whole thing,” he said, although without a trace of aggression.
“That would not be Mrs. Howard’s loss.”
Marco tossed his card at me, and I somehow managed to catch it.
“How late are you open today?” I asked.
“I’ll be in my office until six.”
“Then I will be by with your stack of golden papers. In the meantime, good-bye.”
He looked like he was going to say something else (perhaps it might have been, I’m sorry) but I pointed to the door and he thought better of it.
After he had left the house, Mrs. Howard grabbed my hand and squeezed with what little strength she had left.
“That was worthy of Emily Post herself,” she said.
“Yes, I was rather polite although a simple ‘fuck you’ might have stung him less.”
“Can I admit something to you, Lucy?”
“Yes, you can.”
“You are my friend indeed but… I really wish my daughter had delivered those wonderful lines.”
“You were like a real protector, rather chivalrous even.”
“Thank-you,” I said, feeling nothing but guilt.
“Can I have my tea and tart now?”
“Will you join me?”
“Yes, Mrs. Howard?”
“You can call me Cocoa.”
“Yes, really. Do it now.”
“If you insist, Cocoa.”
Her chuckle would have been barely audible to anyone but myself, but it was the first laughter of the day just the same.
I spent the rest of the afternoon forging Cocoa Howard’s signature on Marco’s precious documents. Cocoa herself watched Lucy and Ethel and their usual antics. Intermittently, she would moan about her back pain, leg pain, chest ache and aching bunions, stomach cramps, impacted bowel, and general distress over the loss of her house, her husband, and her basic freedom and independence.
“Do we have any prune juice?” she croaked from the couch.
“I’m afraid not Mrs. Howard – I mean Cocoa.”
“Could you get some on the way back from the death camp?”
“Certainly – anything else?”
“Pick up dinner – whatever you want.”
“I was kind of in the mood for Thai. What would you like?”
“I’ll have whatever you’re having.”
“But spicy noodles might make you sick.”
“The best thing that could happen is a quick death.”
There was too much silence coming from the couch until I realized she was whimpering. I brought her more tea and sat down next to her.
“What’s wrong, Cocoa?”
“I don’t want to go into that place.”
“They’ll take all my savings – there’s going to be nothing left for Jeannie.”
“Is that what you’re worried about?”
“By the time I’m dead, there won’t be anything. What if I live another six years? Do the math yourself, Lucy.”
“If you live another six years, you’ll be a hundred years old. You’ll be an absolute marvel to behold.”
“I’ll look like a dead pile of shit.”
I was angry again. Jeannie was a no-show and I no longer gave a crap about any of her stupid petty past resentments.
“Well Cocoa, she’s got her place at the beach, and her vehicles, and she’ll be better off than most.”
“But I wanted her to have this place too, and now it looks like I may have to sell it after all.”
“Who’ll be here when you move into Bailey’s?”
“That’s up to Jeannie now.”
We sat very close together but our heads were turned in opposite directions.
“I told her,” she said.
“Told her what?”
“That it would be best if I moved in with her. It would be best for her - save her entire inheritance. I told her that I could stay in the guest room and pay a decent rent. I promised her that I wouldn’t cramp her style in any way, and that she could still come and go just as she always has.”
Rubbing her back, I could feel the cold bones through the flimsy nightgown. I couldn’t believe that a ninety-four year old parent would have to outline the favorable financial benefits before counting on help from a spoiled child. And then I remembered my own need to be incentivized into this situation (incentivized was the new word I had made up to describe this whole pitiful state of affairs). I tried to tell myself that my angle was different – that I wasn’t the pampered daughter of this poor old woman. But I felt like pond scum all the same.
“Didn’t you buy her that place in Laguna?” I asked.
“Yes I did - when she wanted to get away from me.”
“Well, you certainly shouldn’t have to pay rent.”
“I don’t want to be a nuisance to her. She’s got her own busy life.”
My head filled with visions of Jeannie bouncing all over the city with her young show stud.
“I’m assuming she said no to the idea?”
Cocoa shrunk further down into herself, “She didn’t even consider it. Not even for one miserable second.”
I was already scripting the horrible phone call I was about to make.
“She doesn’t want me around and I’ve never figured out why. I don’t understand what I do that bugs her so much.”
I thought of Darion and calmed down a little.
“Will you pack up a box of photo albums for me?”
“Over in that big cupboard underneath the television.”
I walked over to the entertainment unit and opened the cupboard.
An avalanche of picture albums, large and small, tumbled out in front of me.
“Could you please bring me a couple of those, Lucy?”
We sat together, sipping tea, and looking back at ancient snapshots.
“This is me when I was twenty,” she said, pointing out (with a very gnarled and crooked finger) a very beautiful and very poised young woman.
“Was you hair auburn?” I asked.
“Yes Lucy, it was. But how can you tell from this gray photo?”
I didn’t tell her that Jeannie often resented the red hair her mother had passed down to her.
“Your daughter told me that you were blessed with the most beautiful auburn hair.”
“She did not?” She looked across at me with nothing but hope.
“Yes, she did.”
“We were at an art gallery, it was a celebration of color. We were staring at a collection of red, and that’s when she made the comment.”
For the first time in my life, I felt no guilt offering up such a blatant lie.
“What art gallery?” she asked, still suspicious.
“It was the Metropolitan,” I said.
“Yes Cocoa, definitely the Met.”
“Was that the time she took you to New York?”
“To study galleries and paintings and figure out what to do with your clay things?”
“Yes, it was that exact trip.”
She looked down at her hands and shook her head gently from side to side “My goodness. I always thought she dyed her hair black because she hated the red. Her real hair’s the exact same color mine used to be.”
“Is that so?” I asked.
Cocoa nodded, “In any case, I’m sure she’s white headed by now, regardless.”
I continued turning pages, slowly passing through husbands and hairstyles until I arrived at baby Jeannie. She looked nothing like her mother but was a total duplicate of Barney – the only husband that was to be completely erased (I knew this only because Jeannie showed me a forbidden picture of her biological father which was always tucked safely in her wallet).
According to Jeannie, Cocoa didn’t allow any physical evidence anywhere proving his actual existence. “A good for nothing Jewish man-whore” was the only consistent character description her mother could offer about her father.
Their mother-daughter relationship seemed sweet enough in the pictures: tiny hand pinching mother’s nose; giggles around a flaming birthday cake; matching hats and scarves on some snowy street, and a rather priceless photo of Jeannie and her big brown eyes looking miserable during her confirmation into the Catholic church.
I scanned the pages for Lucille Ball but came up empty.
“Are you finished signing the papers?” Cocoa asked me.
“Can you go drop them off and pick us up some of those slant-eyes noodles?”
“I can do that Cocoa – my treat this time.”
“Don’t be long,” she said. “You know I get lonely very fast.”
“Yes, I know that.”
I gathered up the documents and Cocoa’s cell phone and headed out to Jeannie’s Range Rover that was still shining silver in the fading sun.
I was on the phone with Jeannie before I even made it out of the driveway.
“I almost didn’t answer when I saw the old shrew’s number. How’s it going Rand?” she asked.
“Forget it, Jeannie.”
“Are you in bed?”
“I really need to talk to you.”
“Your mother’s really sad.”
“I’ve been telling you that for years.”
“I mean sad sad. Their scamming the hell out of her and she’s afraid you’re going to end up with no inheritance.”
“She’s been pissing away my inheritance forever – a cruise a year for the last quarter century.”
“Listen Jeannie, I don’t know how much longer she’s gonna last. Really.”
“And?” she asked.
“And it’s terrifying for her.”
“Remember that old country ditty – what was it? Oh yeah - here’s a quarter, call someone who cares.”
“Are you drunk, Jeannie?”
“Nope,” she said, followed by a hefty hiccup.
“This will hurt you someday, after she’s gone.”
“Are you trying to guilt-trip me?”
“Good. I’m not paying you to lecture me.”
“You’re not paying me at all – she is.”
“Listen, I thought you could use the money – stop making things more complicated. You always make things more fucking complicated than they should be.”
“I’m not saying she’s not difficult Jeannie, but God, she’s so scared.”
“Yeah, guess what Randy? I was scared too when she told me I couldn’t hang out with Kelly McNabe. Why? Because she’s colored, that’s why!”
“That was fifty years ago Jean.”
“It was not! How the fuck old do you think I am?”
Sixty-fucking-four, I wanted to scream.
“Forget it, it was a long time ago anyway.”
“Fresh in my head,” she said.
“You have to come see her.”
“No. I told you I could handle phone and storage arrangements, but that’s it.”
“Why do you care about her all of a sudden? I had to beg you to do this.”
Because she is US, you and me both Jeannie!
“I don’t know why.”
“Well it’s pissing me off.”
“Please come see her Jeannie.”
There was a long hesitation and I had to wonder if she’d dropped the phone.
“For half an hour then, eight fucking am tomorrow. No longer.”
I didn’t realize I’d been crying during the conversation, but when I pulled into the death camp parking lot, I realized my face was wet - and I assumed that only the tears had convinced her.
Marco wasn’t in his office, so I gave the papers to his secretary. I left as quickly as I’d come but not before noticing what I’d tried so hard to ignore.
The merciless stench of creeping death.
Cocoa Howard pooped her pants ten minutes before her daughter was scheduled to arrive - or more accurately, her cranberry St. John knit pantsuit that I’d taken all morning to fit her into. I’d never know if she’d done this on purpose or not, but I suspected the accident had more to do with the previous nights feast of prune juice and pad thai.
I managed her into the bath just as Jeannie entered the house.
“What the fuck happened to the floor?” she hollered at me.
“It was like this when I arrived. Someone had put rolling spikes on her walker.”
“How in the fuck can a spike roll?”
“I don’t know.”
“I fixed it though - with plastic.”
“This entire place needs to be re-fucking-floored.”
“Nice to see you too, Jeannie.”
She slammed her purse on the couch, “It smells like shit in here.”
“Your mother has diarrhea.”
“Thanks for coming – do you want some coffee?”
“I want vodka. Where is she?”
“In the tub.”
“It’s eight o’clock, Randy.”
“I know. She had an accident before you came.”
“She’s ninety-four years old – give her a break.”
“Then she should be in diapers - twenty-seven minutes left.”
“You’re counting down?”
“That was the deal.”
“But she’s in the tub.”
“And it’ll take her a fucking hour to get ready.”
“Okay, Jeannie. I get it. You can go. I’ll tell her you had a flat tire.”
“She can hear us anyway.”
“Then I’ll tell her you got called away on important business – that someone cancelled at the spa and a space opened up.”
“Just go. And there’s a box outside full of the pricey antique dishes you wanted.”
She stood exactly where she was, “I’ll wait.”
I ran to the bathroom and gathered Cocoa into a robe that was still covered in store tags.
“But I don’t want to greet her in my robe, Lucy.”
“I know Cocoa but she has to leave – some important meeting in L.A.”
“But I want to make a nice appearance. At least let me put on a face.”
I sat and stared at her bathroom clock while she applied three persons worth of rouge to her cheeks and a hideous shade of orange to her lips. What an appearance the two of us must make indeed: her looking like a prehistoric drag-queen and myself covered from head to toe in worry and unwashed clothes.
I practically pushed her to the front entrance where Jeannie was busy studying her palm-pilot.
“Good-morning mother – how did you manage to ruin the floor?”
“How are you then?”
“Yes, I know. It’s a good thing you’ve got Randy.”
Now I was starting to feel horrendous about the money I was being paid.
“Can you sit at the table, Jeannie dear?”
“I’m sorry mother, I’ve got to go.”
“Why so soon?”
“I have doctor’s appointment.”
“Is everything okay.”
I had to wonder how much sex she was having with her new guy or if he served some other vital purpose entirely. She was surely menopausal by now but maybe she was like her mother in that department.
“Let me know that you’re okay, Jeannie dear.”
“Did you receive all the things you wanted?”
“Yes, the movers brought them all to my storage place – just as planned. Although two of the crystal platters were chipped.”
“It’s okay mother.”
“Well, Lucy – I mean Randy. We’re moving in tomorrow. I do hope you’ll visit me dear, I’m terribly frightened.”
“Yes mother, I will. It’ll be okay.”
“I miss Bert so terribly.”
Cocoa was leaning her entire weight into me and I realized that I was the only thing keeping her from falling, and God forbid, breaking a hip or something.
“I’ll call you later, mother. I’m going to New York next week.”
“What for dear?” Cocoa asked, wiping her tears on the oversized sleeve of her robe.
“My friend is opening up a coffee shop on the upper west side – near the park. It will be very Bohemian. So, I just want to go there to support her, you know?”
At this point, I couldn’t even look at Jeannie. I wasn’t sure if she realized how insensitive she was being or if she was really that cruel.
“Yes, that’ll be nice. It’s good to support your friend.”
I was astonished that Cocoa took this news without showing any hostility towards her daughter but I wasn’t exactly sure that that was a good thing - self-absorption now seemed like some horrid affliction.
Jeannie quickly kissed her mother on the cheek and told me to give her the dishes when I dropped off the Range Rover.
I sat Cocoa on the couch, and ran outside to catch Jeannie.
She stopped and turned to me, “What do you want?”
“Can’t you stay longer?”
“Was your mother really best friend’s with Lucille Ball?”
Jeannie scrunched up her face at me, “I need space from you both.”
I stood outside and stared down at Jeannie’s overpriced box of heirlooms. If I was meant to be managing this situation in any sort of delicate way, I was truly doing a terrible job of it.
I went back inside and sat beside Cocoa, who was now curled into a ball and sobbing once again for Bert.
“Life is cruel, Lucy - terribly cruel. Maybe you shouldn’t be pregnant after all – I take it back. A baby is no guarantee of anything.”
“And tomorrow my life ends.”
“That’s not true,” I said, another easy fib.
“How is it not true?”
“You’ll make friends.”
“I’ve already seen the place Lucy! Nothing but a bunch of awful old people.”
“Not true,” I said.
“Can’t you just slip something into my tea?”
“I don’t like being cheated Lucy, or manhandled, or sitting and sitting and staring at the floor while I wait around to die.”
“No, you don’t.”
I gently placed my fingers on her forehead. She was like a delicate little pile of bones covered in a layer of ill-fitting skin.
“Since it’s your last day as a free woman, why don’t we go for a drive?”
“I don’t want to go for a damn drive.”
“That’s not the kind of language Emily Post would use.”
“I don’t give a damn.”
I cupped my hand over the back of her head, exactly as though she were a baby. In many ways, the end was like the beginning.
“Come on Cocoa – let’s go.”
The view atop Mulholland Drive, the great divide between Hollywood and the Valley, was spectacular. It even roused Cocoa a little, who seemed to be floating away into some sort of distant fog.
“I’m glad to see that Jeannie’s birthday gift handles so well,” she said.
“It sure does,” I said, accelerating along the perilously curvy road.
“It’s what she wanted most this year.”
“You’re certainly generous with her.”
Cocoa considered this as if I’d just revealed some sacred truth.
“Well, I suppose she never asked to be brought into this world – so it’s my duty to see she doesn’t go without.”
My hands tightened around the wheel, “No chance of that.”
“Although sometimes I have to wonder if she would have been better off with a real job. You know something you wake up to and work hard at. There’s probably a lot to be said for earning something on your own. But she was my only baby, so I suppose I lavished her with everything I didn’t have. I did it as much for me as for her, you know?”
“I understand. Cocoa.”
I watched her watching the opulent homes that draped the hillsides.
“You never had money growing up?” I asked.
“No. Both my parents were poor. I didn’t know money until I married Baxter. He’s technically the second one but in my heart he was the first – such a brilliant man. He came from old money; his grandfather had been involved in shipping. Anyway, he never lazed around or took any of it for granted. He put his slice of the pie toward an education, and became a gynecologist. Jeannie and I had a very nice life with him.”
“Jeannie liked him?”
“Oh yes – he bought her a pony when she was little and a white corvette when she turned sixteen.”
Not much has changed, I thought.
“I wasn’t really comfortable with her racing around in that loud old thing but it seemed to make her happy. Anyway, Baxter ended up adopting her.”
“But what about her real dad?”
“Barney was a player, had women everywhere all the time – a typical musician. It wasn’t the proper situation for a child.”
“Yeah, but didn’t he mind?”
“Mind what? Not having to pay for the consequence of his dalliance? No, he didn’t mind. When it came time for the adoption, he practically wrote us all a thank you note.”
Cocoa’s evaluation of Barney seemed to contradict what I knew about Jeannie. The fading photo of her real father was one of the first things she ever showed me. She talked non-stop about his talent for the piano and the sax and any other instrument he touched. Jeannie had told me that her father had not wanted to give her up, but that he knew it would be best for her. Not long after, he died of a drug overdose.
“How old was she when the gynecologist adopted her?”
“Sometime in elementary school - I forget exactly when.”
She had been six, according to Jeannie.
“Jeannie’s the only family I’ve got left now,” she said.
This realization inspired a new round of sobbing. She looked painfully small in the passenger seat. I immediately slowed down, suspecting the seatbelt would do her about as much good as it would a feather.
“Why don’t we go get milkshakes,” I said.
“Suits me fine Lucy,” she said, wiping more tears on the sleeve of her robe.
“What’s your flavor?” I asked.
“Of course,” I said. “Mine too.”
We ended up spending the next hour sightseeing around L.A., and trying to sip on milkshakes that were three times too thick. At one point, somewhere near La Brea and Franklin, Cocoa’s dentures fell out and I had to find a safe place to pull over.
I fixed her teeth, which were almost frozen to the touch, and gently dragged her along to a littered little park. We sat on a bench and she held my hand.
“There’s a lot of ethnics around here,” she said.
“I don’t live very far from here myself.”
“Don’t you get scared?” she asked me, in a tone that wasn’t far from pure innocence.
She looked around the park and across to the frighteningly busy streets, and then she looked directly up to heaven, “Just never mind, Lucy.”
“Talk to me.”
“This is why I couldn’t move into the Hollywood home.”
“Too many ethnics there, you know Lucy, blacks, browns, Orientals.”
“Please please stop it, Cocoa,” I said gently.
I wasn’t expecting her to look so wounded by my plea.
“I don’t understand. Things were just so different when I was your age.”
“Yeah - I guess they were. But can’t you see the improvements – can’t you feel them?”
She didn’t answer me.
We sat together with the sides of our hips and arms touching. The closeness felt nice for both of us, and we allowed the feeling to sink in. Nobody seemed to notice, or more likely care, that she was wrapped in a bathrobe.
“How’s the diarrhea, Cocoa?”
“Better dear, but I bet this chocolate thing has something in store for me later. It’s more like sipping a brick than a shake.”
“Yes,” I said, sucking hard on my own straw until my eyes almost bulged.
“Everything’s so different now, Lucy.”
“Yes,” I said. “It is.”
We drove over the hill and into the sprawling valley of San Fernando without saying much of anything to each another. And we enjoyed quite a comfortable silence for two people who didn’t really know each other. Cocoa and I inhabited the same space once and awhile, even if we did live in separate worlds.
When we got home, I set her back on the couch – propped up with pillows and quilts.
“I don’t want to move to that place,” she said.
“Is it tomorrow already that I go in?”
The situation reminded me of my first day of kindergarten, the sheer terror I had felt at being ripped away from the safety of my mother. The terror had only increased during the year – my gentle nature had condemned me prey for the abused little ones who were already becoming formidable bullies. I felt that old reliable lump of emotion consuming my throat.
“I’m scared, Lucy.”
“Me too Cocoa.”
“You? Why are you scared?”
“Because sometimes I don’t see the point of it all.”
She nodded with understanding as if I’d made myself perfectly clear, although I wasn’t even exactly sure what I meant.
“Can I ask you something?”
“It’s not possible that you yourself could actually move in here with me, is it? You could have that guestroom all to yourself. And if you don’t like the brown in there, I could buy you brand new stuff - blue or cream or whatever the young people like these days. You could work on your clay things out in the backyard. You could have guests over. All I’d really need you to do is heat up a tart now and then. I’d pay you, of course.”
I thought of my crappy apartment and the struggle it was just to pay the rent, but something deep within me understood that I couldn’t accept her offer.
“You could spare me that place,” she whispered in a feeble voice.
I didn’t have a clue how to let myself off the hook.
“But you probably don’t want to spend your days with the likes of me.”
“That’s not true. It’s just that I was planning on seeing the world this year – maybe traveling to Asia to take in all of that wonderful art. I’d kinda like to walk a mile or two on the great wall.”
“Yes, you should. Husband number three and I did that many years ago. China’s very mysterious – like a great big contradiction.”
Not unlike yourself, Cocoa.
“Yes, yes,” I said, relieved.
“But how will you afford all this travel?” she asked.
“Unless you get work on a ship. You’d be excellent on a cruise line – one of the high class ones. But they wouldn’t let you get away with wasting your pretty face. You’d have to make a nice appearance and act like a lady.”
“Yes, a cruise ship is exactly what I was thinking,” I said.
“You’re certainly articulate enough Lucy – smart as a whip.”
“Do you have a good resume?”
“Then you should start dropping it around. And start with Crystal, they’re the best.”
I nodded enthusiastically, “Okay Cocoa, what a brilliant idea. I’ll do that.”
“A young lady like yourself should certainly see the world.”
We both let out a long sigh – mine was of relief, hers sounded more like resignation.
“What about you, Cocoa?”
“I’ll be okay – better knowing that you’ll be sailing those endless blue waters.”
I wasn’t sure if she was sparing me the guilt or not, but I had rarely felt such gratitude.
“Why don’t you go pour some of that good sherry? It’s in my bedroom closet, next to Bert’s ashes. He’s in that European vase.”
“Okay,” I said
“We can’t forget to pack him tomorrow.”
After many glasses of sickly sweet liquor, Cocoa fell asleep in her nest on the couch. Her bed had already been moved over to Bailey’s. I watched her until the snoring began.
I sat in a bubbly tub and wondered about why I hadn’t accepted Cocoa’s offer. I waited for an answer but my intellect could only offer logic. And logic was a reason to take the offer - not turn it down. It would be so easy to lounge away my days molding clay, not having to hustle around for my next meal.
I closed my eyes and let my mind wander. Jeannie instantly filled my head. She wanted me to know how much she hated her mother. I asked her if it was because she had completely negated her real father. Jeannie never answered me, just dissolved into nothingness again. I figured that must be the reason for her behavior – it was the only answer that I could come up with.
At such a late hour of a person’s life, who should really care about enforcing resentments? Weren’t those details supposed to eventually fall away? Didn’t a grudge eventually destroy the person holding it? I figured that Jeannie must be really hurt or really scared to be so fucking cold. And it was probably ripping her apart inside.
They must be so afraid of each other. I really wanted to help them but didn’t think I had the tools to bring down such a history.
The next afternoon was complicated.
Cocoa Howard and I moved into the Bailey Retirement Home without a hint of fanfare. There was no welcoming committee standing guard to meet us at the front entrance, and the cake and balloons were noticeably absent in the $4200 room. Nothing was waiting for us except more papers to sign.
Luckily, Cocoa’s meager belongings were already unpacked and in order. The bed, dresser, and television had all assumed their proper position. I unloaded a box of photo albums, a small handbag of liquor miniatures, and an apple box worth of toiletries.
Bert required an extra trip, as I had to lug his ashes with both arms free. It amazed me that a person’s residue could end up being so damned heavy. Maybe it was meant to be symbolic. I asked one of the staff to help me unload the wheelchair.
I had practically begged Cocoa to bring her holiday luggage along, promising that she had at least one more cruise left to sail. She told me she had no more interest in material things or fluffy distractions. The only things she wanted now were chocolate, Lucy re-runs, and interesting booze. And maybe an occasional game of solitaire provided the rules weren’t too tough.
A beautiful young man brought the wheelchair to us and informed me that I was illegally parked. Cocoa handed me her handicapped placard and I handed it to him. He hugged Cocoa with a genuine embrace and reminded us that dinner would be served at four pm. When he left the room, I joked that things were looking up. Cocoa didn’t laugh and I suddenly regretted not filling her room with expensive flowers from Jeannie.
We were seated in the dining room at 4.15 pm and the place was already swarming with very slow-moving creatures. Everyone’s hair was red, white, or blue. There was a certain mood that blanketed the place, and it didn’t take me long to feel it myself.
I was still in the clothes I was wearing on day one of this endeavor while Cocoa was sitting in a lovely mandarin orange muumuu with a large white hat covering the rat’s nest that had become her hair.
A very obese, very charming Hispanic male asked us what we wanted for dinner. He was sweating terribly and looked like he hadn’t slept in a week.
“I’ll have a chef salad and a bottle of Pinot,” I said.
He smiled and repeated back my order.
“I’m just kidding sir,” I said. “I’ll have a chef salad, a well-done steak, and a large glass of milk – no ham on the salad.”
Cocoa informed him that she wanted a piece of lasagna provided it didn’t contain a single pinch of salt. She also wanted a dinner soup, dinner salad, and a dinner roll – as well as a very potent glass of whiskey.
He smiled and nodded and wiped his brow with the back of his sleeve.
Cocoa looked around the room with contempt, “Nothing but old people here.”
“I suppose,” I said.
“They’re all waiting around to die.”
“Aren’t we all?”
The waiter brought Cocoa’s soup and informed us that his name was Eddie. He clasped his hands together like he was about to pray and then promptly left our table.
“Nothing here but old people and Mexicans.”
“Please stop being so sour, Cocoa.”
She took a large sip of her soup and promptly spat it onto the stained tablecloth.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“This soup is stuffed with sodium.”
I took a spoonful of what was surely the blandest concoction I’d ever tasted.
“This is practically tasteless, Cocoa.”
“Really, there’s no salt in here. Actually there’s not much of anything in here. It’s just a basic broth entertaining the odd sliver of carrot and mushroom.”
She hadn’t seemed to mind the salt content when it came to the pad thai.
“Call him over,” she barked.
I did as I was told with an enthusiastic wave. I noticed that every eye in the place was fixated on me. When I moved my arm, a noticeable flurry of activity swept across the room: points, gasps, and rumblings brought a slight flush to my cheeks.
Eddie returned already well aware of what to expect.
“This soup is dreadful,” Cocoa said. “All I can taste is salt.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“It’s very coarse salt too. Did you go scoop it out of the sea?”
My cheeks were now a full-bodied red.
“No ma’am, I didn’t. Can I bring you a straight cup of chicken stock?”
“I don’t want a straight cup of anything – unless it’s my damned whiskey. Do you know how much I’m paying to eat at your establishment?”
“I’m sorry ma’am, I’ll take it up with the chef.”
“Yes, do that! Is he here?”
“No I’m sorry, she’s not here.”
“Well excuse me, if she’s not here, than who’s running the show back in hell’s kitchen?”
“Things pretty much run themselves, Mrs. Howard.”
“Well there’s been a derailment… and how in our savior’s name would you know to call me that?”
“It’s on your name-tag, ma’am”
Two nametags had been sitting on top of the stack of papers we had received earlier. I had not hesitated to smack a nice big Lucy on my chest.
“Oh,” she said, fingering the slick paper over her heart. “Yes, I’m Mrs. Bert Howard.”
“Your dinner roll and salad should be right out.”
“No, forget it. Cancel the whole damn thing. I’m not sure what my stomach can handle after all that damned coarse salt. Just a small bowl of pimento ice cream.”
Eddie nodded graciously and ran the palm of his hand down his sweaty face.
“Unless you add salt to your ice cream,” she said, raising an eyebrow at him.
“No ma’am, that’s one thing I’m certain of.”
Eddie made a literal run for the kitchen.
I was glad he was certain but I wasn’t so sure how I was going deal with such an insipid menu.
“Shouldn’t let women be chefs – just look at how they ruin things,” she said.
“That’s absolutely ridiculous, Cocoa. And for someone who doesn’t like salt, I’m surprised you’d want pimento ice cream – isn’t that a pepper? Yuck. I thought chocolate was your favorite?”
“It’s a sweet pepper,” she said, as if I was a complete idiot. “You’ve really got to expand your sense of taste, Lucy.”
I stared at her with my mouth open, certain I had now entered some sort of old folk’s twilight zone.
A very tiny wizened old lady came over to the table. Her lipstick made a fluorescent pink circle around her bare lips, and her curly wig hung over her left eye. She stood next to us without saying a word.
“Good afternoon,” I said.
Cocoa scoffed at us as if we were offering to wipe her face with a filthy rag.
“Only newbies get the names,” the woman said, pointing to my Lucy tag.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
Patty reminded me of a slightly inebriated Ewok.
She ignored Cocoa completely and asked me when I was moving in.
“I’m not here permanently,” I said.
“Too bad - thought you might have some magic potion to share with the rest of us.”
Patty and I laughed at her sharp (and rather unexpected) wit while Cocoa literally positioned herself so she was facing the wall. A wall, by the way, that looked as though it hadn’t been washed in a decade.
“How old are you Lucy?” she asked me.
“That’s quite rude,” Cocoa offered to the wall.
“And yourself Patty?” I asked.
“Two hundred,” she said, deadpan.
Cocoa let out a rattled cry.
“How is that possible?” I asked.
“Why are you encouraging such nonsense?” Cocoa hissed at me.
I ignored her.
“Lots of things are possible. Just broaden your imagination,” Patty told me.
My imagination and my sense of taste.
“Fair enough,” I said.
“No Lucy – enough isn’t fair but that doesn’t mean it’s not magical,” Patty said.
I nodded at this odd yet rather amazing person, taking in everything she said and knowing somehow that it was exactly what I needed to hear.
“I’ve lived a very long life, young lady,” Patty said.
“Clearly,” Cocoa said.
“My children are all dead as are two of my grandchildren. I spent ten years on the pro-bowling circuit, knew the Reagans personally – although I couldn’t stand their politics. They watered the seeds of the current nightmare, if you ask me. Except the boy was always a gem – the biological one.” She coughed up something that sounded almost mortal.
Eddie quickly dropped the ice cream scoop in front of Cocoa like it was a hot potato.
“Would you like to join us for dinner Patty?” I asked.
“I’m not sure that your companion would prefer that. This is her first day here, and I can see that she’s unsure of herself. I was too – it’s only normal. Ask me in a week and maybe the chill will have thawed. Nice meeting you though, you’ve got great dimples – maybe you’ll drop by the century club if you’re not too tired.”
“Century Club?” I asked.
“Some of us ol’ relics here have finally reached three digits. Others here are hoping to. So, it’s like an encouragement club – emotional fitness. I run the show, try to keep everyone peppy. We’re all reaching for a century, Dimples. It’s a real milestone here – the only one left for us, really.”
I knew that Cocoa was rolling her eyes this way and that for the sole benefit of the grimy wallpaper.
“Awesome,” I said.
“Drop by the bingo hall at seven if you’re interested.”
Patty turned on her heel and began her turtle walk through the dining room. I watched her until she disappeared out the front door.
I turned to Cocoa, “Your pimento scoop’s completely melted.”
She turned to look at me with tears running down her face.
“What’s wrong with you?” I asked.
“Using a word like awesome to describe such nonsense. She made me uncomfortable and you allowed it.”
“Who? Patty? She was friendly and sweet.”
“You’re so damned gullible, Lucy. She made me feel like a fool.”
“I think the century club sounds really neat.”
“Give it sixty years and see how neat it sounds, Missy. It’s a load of horseshit – rotting away in some old chair, and for what? There’s no prince at the end of this road – just an ungrateful kid that hates your guts and a body that feels like it’s been mashed into the ground by a Mac truck. Who in their right mind would want to join a club where you sit around waiting to see who can decompose the longest before finally being tossed on the coals?”
“You’re being really truly awful right now,” I said.
“I’m being honest.”
“Well quite frankly, I prefer her attitude to yours.”
Cocoa winced as though I’d slapped her.
“I hate Patty, and I’ll never be her friend.”
“Fine then, I will.”
“And I bet she just polished the floor with those pull-dog breasts. And did you see that grimy overcoat she was wearing – just like some old-time butch?”
“You’re spoiling my dinner, Cocoa.”
“Welcome to my fucking world.”
I quickly finished my dinner and a custard before wheeling her back to her room. She swatted at me when I helped her into the bed.
“You must be hungry,” I said.
“Leave me alone.”
“Where am I going to sleep?” I asked her.
“Go knock on Patty’s door.”
I called the front desk and requested a cot be brought to the room.
“How much is that little nugget gonna cost me?” she asked.
“Where is Bert?”
“I put him in the bathroom closet.”
“Well get him out of that stinking dungeon! You don’t put my husband in the toilet room!”
“I’m sorry, Cocoa.”
I brought her the lavish European vase filled with Bert.
“Give him to me!” she screamed. “He’s the only thing I’ve got left in this miserable shit hole life.”
I placed him on the bed and she tried to maneuver him on the pillow next to her but the lid was not secure and some of him sprinkled onto the pillowcase.
“Oh my God, Bert! Tighten this lid, will you?”
I tried to tighten the lid.
“Wait - first we have to put him back in!”
I noticed a plastic cutlery set on top of the television, and immediately went for the spoon. I gathered Bert back into the vase and secured the lid. It reminded me of my high school custodial job cleaning public ashtrays.
Cocoa was now a complete mess of burps and tears.
“I’m sorry about Bert. Can I bring you some French toast or go get you a milkshake?”
“You can just leave me the fuck alone!”
I waited for the cot to arrive before leaving Cocoa to her new home – the big square with the stinking toilet room.
I felt terrible and confused, as if it was entirely my fault that she would end her life in this place.
But at least one thing was obvious.
Cocoa was not unlike her daughter when it came to dealing with large amounts of fear.
The century club was probably going to be as grim as Cocoa predicted but I couldn’t resist the possibility of witnessing Patty orating to her cohorts. The bingo hall turned out to be a large dusty room that smelled of stale farts.
I smiled and sat down at the long table but felt only the sting of suspicious eyes. It felt preposterous to be here without Cocoa, but I had been invited after all. There were seven other people here but no Patty. I stared straight ahead at the giant clock on the wall that read 7.04. Knowing how early life happened here at Bailey’s, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d already missed the meeting altogether.
And then I felt the tap tap tap of a bingo dobber on my shoulder. I turned to my left and saw a happy face covered in hideous open sores, but the vibrant joy in the eyes was unmistakable.
‘My name’s Marie – who are you?”
“My name is Lucy.”
“Welcome to the century club, Lucy.”
Marie’s hands were twisted and bent into unsightly stumps.
“Where are you from, Lucy?” she asked.
“A native. I myself come from the land of milk and honey.”
“What happened to your face?” I asked.
“Don’t be – lesions from countless years sitting in the sun. I’d be surprised if I didn’t have them – know what I mean? Like I said Lucy, milk and honey.”
The lesions were gruesome and looked as though they were contagious. I felt myself inching away from her ever so slightly. Now I was relieved that Cocoa had opted out of this little adventure.
“So you’re gonna be okay?” I asked.
“Face cancer is all,” she laughed.
“Not to worry?”
“You a new resident?” she asked.
“Nah - just helping someone out.”
“Awfully nice of ya – so what brings you by our little clubhouse tonight?”
“Patty invited me.”
“Did she? Patty’s quite a girl. She herself hit the mark two years ago last Christmas.”
“She’s a hundred and two now?” I asked.
“Yep. She started the club the day after she claimed her century.”
“Yep. Patty’s the instigator alright. Said she felt like a brand new person on that day.”
“On her hundredth?”
“Is that so?”
“So what do you all do here?” I asked.
“Talk about the future.”
“Not the past?”
“Not if Patty’s around. She won’t let us talk about the past – says it’s completely over with and a gall-darned waste of time. She says that suffering is the first choice of the stubborn.”
Marie scratched at her face and I held my breath.
“Looks like you’ve still got quite a ways to go, Lucy. I haven’t ever seen a child like you in here, not even a grandchild – it’s a real first.”
“Yes – a few more decades at least,” I said.
“I only have five years to go,” she said.
“And then what?” I asked.
“Don’t you flatter me.”
“No way. You look ten years younger.”
“Nope. Five years and I will have breathed through an entire century.”
“Did you say breathed or breezed?”
“What’s the difference, Lucy?”
I shrugged, “That’s something huge to look forward to.”
“I’ll bet you’ve seen some changes.”
She nodded and flashed me a wide shot of perfect dentures.
“Yeppy so, they certainly weren’t flying airplanes around when I came on the scene. I didn’t even drive a car until I was forty.”
“That’s pretty old to start driving – when was that?” I asked.
“I’m not even sure my parents were born then,” I said.
Marie laughed hard, as though I was the funniest person ever, “I’m sure sorry that I’ll have to miss out on space travel though - that’s the only thing that really bums me out.”
“Yeah – that is a bummer.”
“Not that I could ever afford to take a ship around ol’ Betty – not with what they charge us to live here.”
“Ol’ Betty?” I asked.
I highly doubted that I had ever met anyone as enthusiastic as Marie, let alone anyone who was ninety-five years old.
“Imagine watching the sun go down fifteen times in a day as you’re zooming round and round ol’ Betty – just like old superman himself. And imagine staring across at that big ol’ ball of fire. She’s been ablazin’ for billions of years – makes me feel real young.” Spit and hand-stumps were flying.
“What’s a hundred when you’ve reached a billion – good ol’ blazin’ sun’s probably chucklin’ at us right now,” she said.
Marie nodded and calmed down a little.
“That’s my very favorite thing – a sunset. I get wheeled up to the garden on the roof every single night – I just tell them to plant me towards the west,” she said, laughing from some infinite depth within herself.
“Cool,” I nodded.
“You should go up there – take your friend.”
“My son’s taking me up to Oregon next year – for my birthday. He’s got a sweet little log home right on the ocean, and we’re going to sit on big wooden chairs and sip wine and watch the sun drop. Hopefully he’ll drive me up to the top of that big hill so that we can watch the sun rise too. He might say no because he’s such a late riser himself. I used to get the big rises when I lived in Hawaii. I’d wake up at two-thirty in the morning and ride my bike up to Haleakala. I was in some shape back then. Either way, I’ll definitely get to see my sunsets.”
“Do you go up to Oregon every year?” I asked.
“Nope, my son’s too busy with his glass blowing business.”
“He’s an artist?”
“Yeppy so, and an accountant.”
“I’m an artist too but I work with clay.”
“I love clay! I love how it feels between my fingers – squishy and wet.”
“Yes,” I nodded.
It was 7.16 and still no sign of Patty.
“Oh I remember!” Marie said, like she’d just found her car keys. “I’m also gonna miss out on the flying cars.”
My stomach growled and I realized I was still hungry – the dinner portions had been way too small. I wondered if Bert had rolled out of bed and onto the floor yet, “But you won’t miss out on melting continents and rising seas.”
Marie looked momentarily stunned as if she couldn’t digest my pessimism, “Don’t worry about that, Lucy. You kids will do the right thing. And if not, well, look at it this way - you made your choice.”
“But not everyone gets to make the choice.”
“Sure they do, precious.”
I frowned at her, suddenly missing the familiar gloom of my cantankerous charge.
“Betty’s gonna keep on spinning and the sun’ll keep on blazin’,” she said. “You watch.”
“And we’ll keep screwing up.”
“So what? So that’s what we do. But just imagine doing the same thing for billions of years,” she said. “Imagine the stars, beaming light and warmth year after year without complaint.”
“Yes,” I said.
Marie was beaming her light and warmth right at me.
“But don’t worry about anything Lucy, just enjoy your moments. You kids will do the right thing.”
I mumbled something about rotten stewards.
“You’re very very lucky, Lucy.”
“Why is that?” I asked, growing more miserable by the second.
“Because you’ve already met the person it took me nine decades to meet.”
I thought for a bit and then remembered why I was here, “Patty?”
“Patty Broughton is the single most amazing person you will ever meet, and I can say this with quite a bit of confidence. It’s very rare to come across someone like her, not random chance but providence itself. It’s like the years have only added good things to her, you know?
I remembered the little Ewok in the dining hall and had my doubts.
“You really like her, and that’s good,” I said.
“No, it’s far more than that. You’ll see.”
And just like magic, Patty entered the room to sporadic clapping. She was wearing a new fluorescent circle around her lips – this time it was purple, and her wig was sitting atop her head, very much in danger of falling off. She stood uneasily at the microphone stand.
“Sorry I’m so late clubbers, I was bunged up worse than usual. No more cheesecake for me – so much harder to evacuate the bowels now.”
I started to chuckle but noticed that everyone, including Marie, nodded with solemnity.
Patty noticed me and squinted without recognition.
“Who’re you?” she barked into the microphone, setting off terrible reverberations.
“I’m Lucy from dinner – remember?” I asked.
I smiled as wide as I could but my cheeks were hot.
“Oh Dimples! Glad you could come. Where’s that other one? The shy, cranky one?”
“In her room – not feeling well.”
“Of course she’s not feeling well. No one wants to be in this place – unless you’re Marie.”
Marie delightedly raised her hands and nodded her head.
“Most people see this as the last stop on a trip bound for nowhere, a one way ticket straight down a deep dark hole called nothings Ville.”
Everyone in the bingo hall nodded.
“But,” Patty said, with her index finger pointed at the ceiling, “most people like to suffer. And if you ever even try to take their suffering away, they will fight you tooth and nail.”
Patty started blinking rapidly as if she’d lost her train of thought.
“Most people enjoy feeling guilty. And why is that?” she asked.
Nobody raised a hand.
“Come on people, this is our third year – you should know this by now.”
“People like to feel guilty because it gives them an identity. And it gives them something to do. The thought of having nothing to agonize over or worry about or regret would leave you feeling…what? How about invisible - maybe like you never even existed at all.”
Nods and whispers.
“Let it all go, all of it,” Patty continued. “What’s left? Just a nothing – feel it.”
She gave everybody ample time to feel it.
“Am I right?” she finally asked.
She was right.
I looked around the makeshift bingo hall. Three people were snoozing, one person was busy looking out the window, and the last four of us paying attention were silent. Luckily, looking out at a room full of duds didn’t dampen Patty’s spirits. Nobody could tell that I was in awe.
“That’s why the past cannot be spoken of here, in this place - a prison that longs only for the past. No past will be spoken of here my senior seniors - unless it’s brief and with some kind of fondness.”
I tried to imagine how much of my own young life was lived looking back.
“So how many of you succeeded with last week’s assignment?”
Not a single hand was raised.
“Well that’s too bad, the assignment’s been the same since we started.”
“I tried Patty, but I only lasted half an hour,” came the gruff voice of a man at the back of the room.
“Well good for you, Bill. You really lasted thirty minutes without speaking of the past?”
“No war stories, no more detailed accounts of what was left of Hiroshima?” Patty asked.
“There was nothing left of Hiroshima,” Bill said. “Except death and ash and leukemia.”
“And you’ve been serving up that misery, piping hot every day, for over sixty years now,” Patty said.
“Yes,” Bill admitted.
“What if I could take away all your visions of Hiroshima?”
Bill started crying a little, “You couldn’t.”
“You wouldn’t want me to, Bill. Think about it for a bit. What would you do with your time if you could no longer fill up your days with your horrible pictures? Those terrible images? It’s who you’ve become Bill. It’s who you are. Am I wrong?”
“You’re not wrong,” Bill said, wiping his face with a shaking handkerchief.
My own eyes filled with tears because I knew that Marie was right about Patty. I was witnessing some kind of miracle here. My head couldn’t quite understand it but my heart knew instantly.
I looked at Marie with my peripheral vision and saw that she was smiling – not at Patty but at me. As if she could feel the precise moment I would GET IT! And it hadn’t taken long. It was quite clear that we were all out of Patty’s league – except for Marie, who seemed an absolute natural at the art of living.
“How does she do this at one hundred and two?” I whispered to Marie.
“It’s easy child,” she said.
“She doesn’t hinder herself in any way.”
“She says that all the time, don’t hinder yourself.”
I thought about all the ways that Cocoa and Jeannie and me hindered ourselves on a minute-by-minute basis; all the fears that we continuously pumped like a perfectly running well of despair.
Patty turned her attention back to me, “So of course your friend’s upset. I would be too if my only identity existed in the past - if my only passion and comfort and hope was already behind me. Why not just send a bullet to my skull – priority delivery.”
“I wish she was here,” was all I could manage to say.
“You’re the one that’s meant to be here,” she said.
I gulped back my tears.
“I don’t really feel like I fit in here,” I said, in full hindering mode.
“You’re a very deep young woman.”
“So what does that say about your companion in the other room?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Yes you are.”
“It means that she’s deep too, because she could see it in me.”
“Yes,” Patty said.
I wiped at the salty tear that had worked its way into my mouth.
“And what does that ultimately mean?” Patty asked.
It took me a couple of seconds, but then the answer emerged with force.
“It means that she’s going to be okay.”
“That’s exactly what it means,” Patty said.
“No matter what?”
“No matter what.”
Patty left the meeting with as measly a fuss as she had entered with. I sat in the room long after everyone else had shuffled off. My stomach had stopped grumbling even though I was still hungry. But something else, something I couldn’t even put my finger on, was at peace.
Patty Broughton, 102, knows everything’s gonna be okay.
I went to the dining hall but the door was closed. I knocked and waited and explained my situation. They took my name and room number and I felt awful because I knew that Cocoa would be charged to the hilt.
The salad bar hadn’t been put away yet, so I started there. I literally had to scrape the fruit flies off the cottage cheese and canned peaches. Even the beets were darker than they should be. And there wasn’t a fancy cheese plate in sight. My head screamed at me that these conditions were deplorable, and that Cocoa shouldn’t be left to expire in such a dump. I even agreed with myself but nothing could shake my peace.
Patty’s peace - the kind that could even let you end the war with yourself.
I ate the sticky food and let the extra traces of protein do their job.
One of the bus boys stopped by my table, and I asked if I could trouble him for a grilled cheese sandwich and a Coke. He nodded happily that I could indeed trouble him.
Thirty minutes later I was full. I wandered around Bailey’s, past the empty courtyard, and found the stairs leading up to the plant garden on the roof. The sun had already slipped below the horizon but the western sky was still a swirl of electric pink and baby blue – just exactly as stunning as Marie would have wanted it
The garden, on the other hand, had obviously gone a very long while without the touch of any thumb – let alone a green one. Even the low maintenance plants had wilted. Everything up here was either brown or yellow.
My mind warned that this was an ominous sign. If this was how they tended the flora, imagine what must happen to the residents. It was a brilliant argument but still fell short of knocking away the foundations Patty had laid. My peace was still firmly intact as I found a large watering can and filled it to overflow.
I began with the largest bushes and shrubs and then worked my way down to the cheap little plants they sell at the grocery store. It was getting weird and creepy up here with all the spidery shadows, but no sooner had I alerted myself, the outside lights flickered on.
Tonight was truly bizarre - I could no longer scare myself.
I walked downstairs thirty minutes later, only after each and every plant that had a chance at life had been watered, weeded, and encouraged to keep going. Emotional fitness, Patty would have said.
I could already hear Cocoa’s wailing from the second floor landing.
A maid was frantically knocking on her door when I arrived waving her away with my key. Cocoa was on the verge of hyperventilating and had turned a very scary shade of blue.
“Get somebody!” I hollered.
I grabbed Cocoa by the arms and asked her if she was choking. She shook her head that she wasn’t. So I scooped her into my arms and rocked her gently back and forth.
“I’m here Cocoa, I’m here.”
“Where were you?”
“A meeting of the century club and then I had to water the plants,” I said, as if this had been my daily routine for years.
“You were gone too long,” she whimpered.
“It’s so cold in here, I don’t know how I’m going to survive it.”
The maid returned with a huge African American woman. She had the kindest eyes I’d ever seen. She was carrying a chart of what I assumed was Cocoa’s medical history.
“Hello,” she said. “My name is Maddy, short for Madelaine, and I’m the head nurse here at Bailey’s.” She shook my hand and smiled down at Cocoa, who was curled into a very tight ball on her bed.
I was afraid to look at Cocoa now, nervous at what horror she might spew. Instead, she looked nothing but completely exhausted – a terrified little woman who could offer no more than a hearty tremble.
A Black nurse for Cocoa.
I could only stand in wonder at the irony of it all. The universe, in its mighty wisdom, was certainly weaving its synchronicity here tonight.
“It’s says here that this is your first day with us, Mrs. Howard. Is that true?”
“Yes that’s very true, Madelaine.”
“Call me Maddy.”
“Okay Maddy, that’s a very pretty name,” Cocoa said.
I exhaled relief.
“Well, thank you Mrs. Howard.”
“You’re welcome. I’m very sad, Maddy.”
“I know it’s a big adjustment all at once, right?”
“Yes, it is.” Cocoa’s face was swollen rosy just like that of an inconsolable child.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Maddy asked.
“Can’t I just take something for it?”
“What would you like to take?”
“A little something for my nerves.”
“Are you nervous, Mrs. Howard?”
I was once again surprised at her candor and felt my heart tighten.
“What do you normally take when you feel this way?” Maddy asked.
“Sometimes vodka or whiskey, sometimes sherry. I’ve got a little bag full of stuff.”
“Did you bring the little bag with you?” she asked Cocoa.
Maddy smiled at me with big kind eyes, and I knew what we were both thinking. Something important was being reversed - or shifted. Or stripped away entirely. Yes, that’s what was happening here. Something that had been stuck for a very long time was finally being stripped away, and the debris was being hauled off by something else. But what was the something else? I wasn’t exactly sure – all I knew was that it was wise and good and very kind. And it had something to do with what Patty had spoken of at the century club.
Maddy’s eyes fell on the little bag that was sitting on my cot, “May I have a look inside?”
Cocoa and I nodded in unison.
Maddy looked through Cocoa’s little bag of booze and I had to wonder how many times the head nurse had witnessed just this sort of stripping away, and how the very act of such witnessing must add to her already enormous compassion.
“Look at all these cute little guys,” she said. “You’ve even got some Grand Marnier in here. What do you say we each indulge a little – maybe it’s what should have happened when you first arrived today.”
Cocoa nodded again, breathing back to comfort.
Maddy studied the old woman and then picked up the phone, “You haven’t eaten much today, have you Mrs. Howard?”
“Do you like waffles?”
Cocoa mouthed the word ‘yes’.
Maddy pushed a button on the phone and asked for a large waffle covered in only the freshest berries and cream. It was delivered ten minutes later.
I sat on my cot, sipping a tiny bottle of coconut rum and watching as Cocoa gobbled up her dinner like she hadn’t eaten in weeks. Half of her face was covered in purple blueberry stain. Maddy sat down next to her, and gently placed a hand on her shoulder. To my amazement, Cocoa rested her very white cheek on Maddy’s very brown hand. I felt like the proud owner of a bratty pet that had just been tamed of its more ferocious tendencies.
Maddy was like some sort of bad old lady whisperer.
Cocoa was crying again, “I miss my husband.”
“Of course you do,” Maddy cooed, and placed her other hand on Cocoa’s other cheek.
“Are you married, Maddy?” Cocoa asked.
“Yes I am – nineteen years next month.”
“How does your fellow feel about you working at night?”
“My fellow loves the paycheck.”
Maddy and I laughed but Cocoa frowned as though she were trying to solve an algorithm.
“It’s going to be okay here Mrs. Howard – you wait and see.”
“But I don’t know how to work the temperature in here and it’s way too cold,” she protested.
Maddy went into the bathroom and returned with something that looked like a television remote. She held it in front of Cocoa.
“You see these big arrows?”
“Yes I do.”
“The up arrow makes it warmer and the down arrow makes it colder. All you have to do is push one and watch how the number changes. That number tells us the current temperature in this room, and you control it with the arrows.”
Cocoa was quiet for a bit, grieving the loss of one of her major problems.
“And then there’s the music issue. I have no record player in here and I need some music. Otherwise, I’ll be even more lonely than I already am.”
I thought of what Patty had said earlier. Without something to fret about, would a person simply dissolve?
Maddy turned on the television, “Oh good, the cable guy’s been in here already. I’m assuming you enjoy the big band era, Mrs. Howard. Am I right?”
“You certainly are. How did you know that?”
“You’re clearly a woman of taste – look at the company you keep.”
Cocoa looked at me and let out a weak chuckle.
Maddy turned the channel to a very huge number and the room was suddenly filled with a giant orchestra doling out a classic in the genre known as Swing.
“Benny Goodman,” Maddy assured. She pulled a post-it notepad and pen out of her pocket. She wrote the channel number on a post-it note and then stuck it on the bottom of the remote.
“Just push this number and then push ENTER, and you’ll have music just like this in your room.”
Cocoa was looking at Maddy in the same way she used to look at me – with something bordering on reverence. It was amazing to me how all the entrenched intolerance could so quickly melt away in such an extraordinary situation.
Compassion is all Cocoa really wanted. I guess that’s all anybody ever wanted - even if they didn’t figure it out until the bitter end. All the rest of it was just learned and practiced bullshit.
“Anything else?” Maddy asked playfully.
“Yes, there is.”
“What’s that Mrs. Howard?”
“Do you have any tarts?”
“What kind do you prefer?”
“I’ll see what I can find in the kitchen.”
“Thank you, Maddy.”
Cocoa reminded me of a tiny little girl who’d just been soothed after some brutal nightmare.
“You’re welcome, Mrs. Howard.”
“Will you be my nurse?”
“Yes I will.”
Maddy nodded back.
“Don’t ever take your husband for granted.”
I finished off my little rum and opened another.
“By the way, Mrs. Howard,” Maddy said.
“There is one thing I would highly recommend to you, if you’re up for it.”
“And what is that.”
“Her name is Patty Broughton.”
“Okay,” Cocoa said, as though this was the first she’d heard of her.
“And she’s only four doors down the hall.”
“That’ll be fine.”
Maddy left us, and had a bus boy return with two slices of banana bread.
Not tarts but devoured without prejudice.
The next morning I woke up extra early and drove to Cocoa’s favorite bakery. I bought her a dozen lemon tarts and a dozen bran muffins and two chocolate donuts for myself. I drove over to her house and packed Jeannie’s dishes and some of Cocoa’s clothes and things into the Rover. The house felt cold and empty and made me want to cry.
Mulholland Drive was a breeze all the way to my apartment. When I arrived, it actually seemed like something of an alien world. The bustle of young people on the street outside my building seemed way too fast. Everyone was on a cell phone, or poking furiously at some tiny computer, or completely shut off from each other by ipods and iphones and every other soon-to-be-obsolete gadget.
It looked lonely and independent and cold, and I felt no joy at my return. I sat in the car and watched the flurry of activity, so completely devoid of any true interaction. I thought about last night in the smelly room with Patty and Marie and the others. There was something crucial they possessed that I’d lose out on forever when I came back to this. The self-absorption and isolation of my generation had always made me uncomfortable but I never really understood why – especially since I epitomized self-absorbed and isolated. But now was different because I was beginning to understand something that had always been rather elusive, and maybe my life could be different somehow.
I walked to my building very slowly, trying to take in the gentle breeze that was teasing the large green shrubs that lined the street. I looked into the faces of those who passed me - only a couple of feet separated us, but no one looked back into mine - too frantic to be lost in some device. A hundred private worlds mingled so close.
Suddenly I wanted to be a dog. I noticed that the current brand of person here in twenty-first century L.A. tended well to their dogs. They were walked, watered, well fed, and cuddled. Much easier to love something that couldn’t hurt you, or dump you over the side of a hill when you were no longer useful.
I emptied my overstuffed mailbox and took an elevator upstairs. My studio stunk like gym shoes so I opened all the windows. The world outside shrieked with sirens and traffic and helicopters. I hunted around for my dead phone and found it in the tangle of my bedding. I reunited it with its charger and fell on my pillows, surprised to discover that I’d actually missed the scent of myself.
Self-absorbed and isolated.
Lovers were humping loudly next door. I giggled and thought of Cocoa and Bert but doubted very much they sounded anything like my neighbors.
My phone beeped back to life, jammed with new messages. Most of them were from Jeannie wanting to know why the fuck I wasn’t answering my phone. I deleted her voice without listening and ate my donuts at the sink.
I stripped out of my body-odored clothes and stood in the shower. The water pressure was so low that I ran a hot bath instead. I scrubbed myself with soaps and gels, shampoo and conditioner.
Soon I would be back from the past permanently.
When I returned to her room, Cocoa was still sleeping. I gently poked her and she stirred – still breathing. I was relieved that she could actually rest here, in the death camp. My own back was aching from my battle with the cot.
I figured I probably had fifteen minutes to spare before she woke up. God forbid I wasn’t here when that happened. I run-walked her tart to the kitchen and heated it on medium for 14 seconds. I grabbed a small pot of water and three tea bags. The dining room was already empty. The staff informed me that the senior seniors had finished their breakfasts long ago.
Cocoa cried with gratitude when she saw her breakfast: the familiar muffin was there - cut into squares, along with the lemon tart and strong brew tea.
“Hopefully their microwave is similar to yours,” I said.
“I want my microwave,” she said.
“Then I’ll bring it to you, no problem.”
“It’s in the parking lot, in the back of the Rover.”
“It is?” She looked at me as though I’d just filled the Grand Canyon with gold coins.
“Of course. We can’t have your tarts out of whack.”
We spent the rest of the morning in a slight quandary. She didn’t know whether to watch Lucy or listen to Jack Benny. It was finally settled that she could schedule both of them into her day.
“I need some plants in here,” she said. “Maybe even a sunflower or two.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“Need to pretty it up a bit.”
I wheeled her into the dining room at noon. We sat in a corner under a window.
Eddie appeared with menus, “The special today is turkey, potatoes, peas, and gravy. I will remind the kitchen of your salt issue, Mrs. Howard.”
“That’s fine Ed,” she beamed. “I’ve had my proper breakfast. Just bring me a custard, will you?”
“And I’ll have the special,” I said.
“One custard, one special – coming right up, ladies.”
Eddie left our table, revealing Marie. She’d been standing behind him the whole time.
“The special’s delicious,” she said. “Love that gooey gravy.”
“Marie!” I squealed. “This is my friend Cocoa Howard – she’s the one who moved in yesterday.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Cocoa.”
“Pleased to make yours, Marie.”
They shook hands and smiled at each other.
Suddenly I felt guilty knowing I wouldn’t be here every morning to give Cocoa her proper breakfast. It obviously set the tone for a better day.
“Your face looks much better this morning,” I said.
“That’s because I’ve stopped picking at the scabs,” she grinned mischievously, and her blue eyes literally glistened, completely oblivious of their age.
“Have you lived here long?” Cocoa asked her.
“My God, how is such a thing possible?”
“It’s very possible,” Marie said.
“What do you do here?” Cocoa asked.
“Play bingo and crib, watch the daytime dramas, eat and visit, and eat.”
“Don’t forget about the century club?” I said.
Marie winked at me, and I got the feeling that I had spilled a cosmic secret. Then she turned to me, “You were up on the roof last night.”
“How do you know?’
“Patty told me.”
“How does she know?”
She gave me another wink, “I look forward to seeing your work.”
“Oh it’s nothing. Those poor things were almost dead.”
“Almost,” she said. “You’d be surprised at their staying power, especially given a little tender loving care.”
“I hope to see you both at the meeting next week,” she said.
It made me sad to think I’d be missing out on such meetings, but it was becoming clear that my time with Cocoa was coming to an end.
“In any event, I’ll let you ladies get back to your visit. I’m in room 127 Cocoa – so feel free to drop by any time.”
“Thank you, Marie.”
She nodded and walked away.
“She’s a sweet lady.” I said.
“Yes – she certainly is.”
Eddie brought our lunch, and we ate in silence.
“When will you be leaving here?” she finally asked.
Cocoa stared down at her custard.
“To sail the big seas?”
“Walk along the great wall?”
“Will you drop your resumes?”
“Send me postcards?”
“I’ll die once you leave.”
“No, you won’t.”
I studied her face and knew that she meant it.
“But there’s really good people here Cocoa. It’s fine. It’s slower yes, but that’s okay. Trust me, it’s okay. You don’t have to be out there in the traffic and the stress and the dirty race – it’s constant and it never ever lets up. You’re much better off away from all that – it’s so much safer in here.” I hadn’t realized I was crying until the tears were falling off my face.
“Oh Lucy,” she said.
“You’re so much safer in here,” I whispered.
I wondered if she knew I was talking about myself.
“I hurt,” she said. “My body hurts in a way that you can’t fathom, and I’m glad you can’t. I really really hurt, Lucy. My heart hurts and my soul hurts and my memories hurt the most. The things that I once did and the person I once was are gone… and the memories only haunt me now.”
“Buts that’s exactly what they talked about at the century club.”
“I won’t be joining the century club.”
“But why not?”
“Patty says the past will kill you.”
“But so will the future. And my future is looking very short.”
I put my head on the table and let the sadness rattle through my body.
Eddie raced over to us, and Cocoa assured him, with tremendous charm, that I was perfectly okay.
“She’s highly emotional at this time of the month.”
Eddie laughed nervously and backed away, as if he’d walked in on us naked.
I looked up to see her shaking her head and rifling through her purse.
“I think I’ve got Kleenex in here somewhere.”
“It’s all because of Jeannie, isn’t it? She should be here right now instead of me. She should be with you, and take you shopping and out for nice lunches.”
I knew that I was screwing my friend but I couldn’t help it. The elephant had to be acknowledged.
“None of this is her fault,” Cocoa said.
“It’s all her fault,” I cried.
“I was already thirty years old when she was born. You can’t blame this on your friend.”
“It’s just like you to go on protecting her, the spoiled little princess who can do no wrong.”
“No, no, no, Lucy. Yes, of course, she’s disappointed me just like I’ve disappointed her. That’s what parents and children do for each other.”
“But she should be here now.”
“She can’t be here now and that’s okay. You see Lucy, I did her wrong in some ways. I never let her grow up, never really expected anything from her – no accountability for anything. I allowed her, even demanded that she be totally dependent on me. It gave my life meaning, you see. It added purpose and value to my life. She needed something and I was there, she didn’t need something and I was there.”
She found her little pack of Kleenex and passed it to me.
“And now the tables are turned, everything is reversed. She’s had no training for this. I had always been her security blanket,” she said.
“But you’re also a human being, with feelings. You shouldn’t have to go through this alone.”
“Oh Lucy,” she said. “This is exactly why I picked you. Jeannie didn’t pick you, I did. I rather insisted on it. I knew you were a young girl of such exceptional heart.”
“But you’re paying me to be here, and that hurts me.”
“Nonsense - you need the money. Where else am I going to put it?” she asked.
“I wouldn’t want to have to pay for companionship.”
“People do it all the time, Lucy – it’s called marriage.”
“Don’t be silly,” I said.
She smiled and wiped her mouth.
“But I care about you, Cocoa.”
“Clearly,” she said.
Something about the tone of her voice and the absurdity of the situation inspired a modest little round of hysterics.
“Please promise me you won’t withdraw from my daughter.”
“I can’t promise.”
“Because I’m angry with her.”
“Because she’s a scared little girl who doesn’t know how to lose her mommy.”
“Has she been kind to you, Lucy?”
I had to think about it. Jeannie had done nothing but help and encourage me.
“Well then, use that as your measuring stick. Use that as your guide in dealing with her.”
I wiped hard at my runny nose, and finally calmed down.
“She should be here though.”
“So take it up with Patty.”
It was such an unexpected thing to hear that we started laughing again - so hard that I was back to crying.
I wheeled Cocoa back to her room, promising myself that I’d never forget the meal I’d just had or what it had meant to me. There had never been another where I’d shed so many tears of both joy and pain.
Cocoa and I spent the rest of the afternoon napping together in her bed. She slept, I didn’t. A woman in the next room was groaning in agony, like she was being slowly bent into excruciating knots. I wondered why she hadn’t tugged on her help chain. After ten minutes of staring at Bert resting in the corner, I got up and went next door.
A nurse was in the room. Her name was Juanita and she was crouched over the woman, who was lying on the floor in a pool of her own vomit. I asked Juanita what had happened to her, and she smiled as she told me that Dorothy could no longer hold her food and that she was rapidly losing her ability to grasp and hold things. Consequently, she was falling a lot. I asked Juanita if she needed any help and she said she did not. And then I asked her if I could bring her a tart, and she smiled again and said no thank you.
I stumbled out of the room and wandered down the hall to the stairs, each step upwards hurt my knees. The day outside was fresh but the plants on the roof still looked dead. Two women with large red wigs were huddled next to each other in folding chairs. Neither of them had a walker or wheelchair and they looked a little too young for Bailey’s – like maybe they were in there seventies or something. They looked at me as though I was interrupting something important.
“Can we help you?” the youngest one asked. I noticed that both of her feet were swollen, bulging out of her broken strappy sandals.
“Is Marie up here?”
“Lady that comes up here a lot – she’s got skin cancer.”
“Oh yes of course, the sores. No, I haven’t seen her today.”
“Alright. If you see her, tell her I said hi. My name’s Lucy.”
“Nice to meet you, Lucy. My name is Dorothy. And this here is my sister in-law Dorothy – she’s visiting me from Wisconsin.”
“You’re both Dorothy?” I asked. “There’s another one downstairs.”
“Yes,” said the one with the swollen feet. “There’s actually six of us on the first floor alone.”
They both looked at me like I should leave.
“Well, I guess I’ll be going.”
“Yes dear, goodbye.”
I started to go and then stopped.
“Would you happen to know what room Patty Broughton’s in?”
“That old nut?”
“Of the century club?” I asked.
“Yes. I think it’s 109.”
“Thank you, Dorothy.”
I looked at the other lady who hadn’t spoken a word, “And you too, Dorothy.”
She smiled at me like she had no coherent clue about anything.
I ran downstairs and checked on the Dorothy next door to us, the one who’d been writhing in her own puke. Her door was locked. I hoped that she was okay.
Cocoa was curled into a tight ball, snoring.
I put a lemon tart on a paper plate and walked to room 109. The smell of incense got stronger as I approached, and I could hear voices coming from the open door.
I peeked into the room and saw Patty talking to a breathtakingly beautiful Asian woman. They were sitting on separate twin beds, facing each other. The woman had short black hair - cut for style - and wore big round glasses like she’d just stepped out of the disco era.
Patty herself wasn’t wearing her wig, just little white wisps of hair that were roused by the whir of her table fan. I noticed that she looked a lot less like an Ewok. A large stack of books sat in her lap.
Finally the Asian woman noticed me and I crept into the room holding out my tart like it was an offering for the gods. Patty took it and placed it next to the fan.
“Dimples, good you could come,” she said.
“Were you expecting me?”
“I’m always expecting you.”
“Because we’re all coming and going.”
“To exactly where it is we need to be.”
“It’s called the process of becoming,” the Asian woman said, in a very thick accent.
“This is Bret,” Patty told me. “She’s from Beijing.”
“Nice to meet you Bret. I’m Lucy.”
“As in I Love?”
“Yes exactly,” I said, as if she’d just solved the riddle of the universe.
“I’m not interrupting a private discussion, am I?” I asked, thinking of the two Dorothys upstairs.
“You’re not interrupting anything but a meeting of the century club,” Patty said.
“But I thought that was once a week in the bingo hall?”
“The century club is not strict or static,” Patty said. “It flows – just like a river. Or even more like the pleasure of enjoying whatever moment you may find yourself in.”
I noticed that Bret’s skin looked brand new. She radiated something that was hard to describe, except that it was really safe and inviting. I found myself yearning to be closer to her.
“Bret here has fifteen more years,” Patty said.
I had yet to take my eyes off the inexplicable woman from Beijing, “Pardon?”
“You know, until she claims her century.”
The words sounded garbled, like something about an uncertain history.
And then my brain snapped awake, “What did you just say Patty?”
Patty smiled slowly and with confidence, just like Marie had - like she was expecting my reaction, “I said that Bret here has fifteen years to go until she claims her century.”
I blinked furiously at Patty and then at Bret. Bret was still there, beautiful and unblemished. I reached out and quickly touched her hand, flesh for sure. Human. She wasn’t a mirage. Maybe I’d been cooped up with an old woman too long, and was nearing certifiable myself.
Only one more year until I can claim insanity.
I gawked at Bret, “You?”
“Yes dear, me really.” It sounded like me reary.
“But that’s not possible.” Now I really ignored all western boundaries of personal space, and took her hand in mine, rubbed the top layer of her skin. “You’re flawless.”
Patty began to laugh as though she had masterminded the whole scene, the wizard behind the curtain.
“I’m eighty-five. Came over to U.S. forty years before.”
I said nothing.
“Good life for me here.”
“What do you do Bret? How?” I asked.
“Ate a lot of rice and fish and coral powder, walked many miles up hills, had only two kids, lots of water, good card games.”
“But I mean, what do you do?”
The urgency in my own voice startled me.
Bret looked at Patty, as though gravely considering whether or not I should be let in on the surprise.
“What do you think she does?” Patty asked me.
“I have no clue,” I let each word go with an exaggerated breath.
“Think about our meeting.”
I flipped through the files in my head, “I can’t remember.”
“Relax and breathe,” Patty said.
Moments passed and my head slowed.
“She doesn’t hinder herself,” I said.
“Exactly, and what does that mean?” Patty asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Think about your own life?”
“Most people your own age wouldn’t be sitting around a smelly old lodge with a pack of withering coots. Most are out making money, buying things, stuck in traffic, stuck on the phone. Trying very hard to be somebody, poor things. So what makes you so different? What have you seen or done or felt in your short life that makes you so different?”
I wondered if Patty was telepathic, and felt my heart pumping. She must know more about me than I did.
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe you’re just special,” Bret said, feeling sorry for my discomfort.
“What does it mean to not hinder yourself, Lucy?” Patty asked again.
Bret stuck a tentative finger into the lemon goo center of the tart.
“It means not living in the past,” I said, regurgitating her favorite theme.
Bret nodded her head, “Not stuck in the illusion of time.”
“But what does it mean for you, Lucy? Patty pressed.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do.”
I closed my mind and focused on my heart. What was there? Cocoa was there, and I was there. We were the same somehow but in different forms. What happened to her would happen to me, was happening to me. That must be the answer somehow, the one that Patty wanted.
“I know that my friend who moved in here and myself are…well, somehow the same.”
Patty nodded and smiled big. All I could see were gums but it didn’t matter - she was simply majestic.
“And,” she said.
“And you and me too, and you and Bret.”
“Yes, and what does that mean?”
“I’m not sure.”
“What does it mean for you?”
“It means that everything’s heightened?”
“What’s heightened?” she asked, nodding.
I looked through the dirty window between her and Patty. A large wilted plant sat alone on a square patch of concrete deck. A lively orange bud had somehow managed its way up the dead stem. It almost seemed to be cheering me on, almost whispering the answer between the smudgy streaks marking the glass.
“Awareness is heightened,” I said.
“Awareness of what?” she asked.
“Of what we are, the connections between us.”
“What are we?” she asked.
I sighed and tried to let go of my thoughts, my ego, and my intellect. All my fucking cleverness could go take a prolonged hike. I looked at Patty and than at Bret. They wanted me to feel something, and I did. I saw it in their eyes and I felt it in my heart. I felt it when I looked at Cocoa curled into a ball or thought of Jeannie racing around L.A. popping tranquilizers. What I felt was deep within the lively orange bud outside and even the dead bush that allowed for it. Oh yes indeed, I knew what I felt.
“Yeeeeessssss,” Patty sighed, as if she’d been waiting for this answer for a hundred and two years. “The big love, Lucy - not its imitators.”
Bret and I nodded.
“Real love is the way in which you don’t hinder yourself… but the world is so scared Lucy. Scared. Scramble that word a little and what do you get? Sacred. It’s all perception.”
“God,” I said.
“Yes,” Patty said.
I left Patty Broughton’s room five minutes after Dorothy Burnett, 87, passed away in the room next to Cocoa, and ten minutes before the dining hall had opened for dinner.
The death next door had shaken Cocoa, and also reaffirmed her own belief that she would soon follow. We were sipping salt-less pea soup in the dining room.
“I wonder whom I’ll end up with next door,” she said.
“Maybe some cute stud, like Hume Cronyn or Don Ameche.”
“This ain’t Cocoon,” she deadpanned, and suddenly she reminded me of Lauren Bacall, asking some guy if he knew how to whistle.
“Isn’t,” I said. “What would Emily Post think?”
“She’d say screw it and pour herself a vodka.”
“Anyway, think positive, you might end up with a neat guy next door – a Burton or a Bruce.”
“I’ll be lucky if he’s upright and breathing. There’s only women left at this age anyway – a dreadful gaggle of nattering hens. Besides, I have no more interest in that nonsense. I’ve done the ride a million dozen times.”
I thought about how enthusiastic she’d been recounting her passion with Bert.
I dipped my dinner roll in my soup, hoping it would somehow add flavor.
“Can I say something to you Lucy?”
“You don’t have to ask.”
“It’s not easy for me.”
I wiped my mouth on my napkin.
“Take your time then.”
“I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“For what?” I asked.
“Well, for what I said about your boyfriend. The gentleman from Compton.”
“That’s the one.”
“I’m sorry about what I said.”
I nodded and smiled.
“I’ll bet he’s a really nice fellow.”
“Yes, he is.”
“Sometimes, I wish I had more…you know?”
I instantly wanted to transform Jeannie into a fly on the wall.
“I happily accept your apology.”
“Do you think if I had more of what you have…well, that Jeannie would like me?”
I wasn’t quite sure exactly what it was I had.
“I don’t know, Cocoa.”
“I bet you do.”
“But I think we all need more understanding,” I said.
“I guess so.”
“How do you like your room?” I asked.
“I hate it.”
“The cot’s pretty uncomfortable.”
Cocoa started to cry.
“You’re leaving tomorrow, aren’t you Lucy?”
“I’ve got to get back.”
“Okay… I understand.”
“I’ve got to get the car and stuff back to Jeannie.”
We were quiet - stunned and overwhelmed.
“But your life’s been here with me for a little while, hasn’t it?” she asked.
“Yes, it has.”
“You’ve been my Lucy?”
“Yes. I have.”
I wheeled her back to her room and we spent the night in her bed eating tarts and watching television. Sometimes she would cry and I would hug her, and sometimes she would say something so adorable that I would squeeze her as tight as I could without breaking one of her ribs.
Before she fell asleep, she asked me a question.
“Yes?” I asked, yawning.
“What is God?”
I was quiet for a long time, not sure exactly what to say but knowing this was my one chance to leave her with some kind of solace.
“I used to think god was a man,” she said. “A very stern man, white for sure. Sort of like a dictator. That’s how I went through most of my life, being judged and appraised by a stern white man who dictated all the rules, and allowed little room for error. That’s the god I raised Jeannie to believe in. I didn’t let her question it until she forced it on me – the questioning that is. I couldn’t stop her. At first I was against it and then a funny thing happened. I began to notice that her ideas brought me to a nicer feeling. Of course there was guilt, I was letting my parents down and their parents and so on back to the dinosaurs. But I couldn’t deny the nicer feeling – like a hot bath or the first bite of a lemon tart, you know?”
“Remember the moment when the pain stops, the precise moment the headache eases up or the pressure relents, that’s the feeling I’m talking about. I fought myself about it, always torn, but it was as inevitable as the tide. And you know what Lucy, I still can’t figure out what exactly has replaced that stern old dictator.”
She looked at me as though the grand finale was here, and I should now reveal the ultimate truth.
“What do you think, Lucy?”
“I think God is this very moment.”
Cocoa was quiet, probably expecting a bigger bang.
“But what if this moment sucks ass?”
“Where did you learn to talk that way?” I asked playfully.
“You’re saying I should enjoy being as old as rock?”
“Only if you want peace, really. What else can you be?”
“Old and miserable.”
“If it makes you happy, Cocoa.”
“So God is not a white man?”
“Only if it makes you happy.”
“You’re saying it’s all up to me?” she asked.
I shrugged, still not exactly sure what I was saying.
“What makes you happy?” she asked me.
“Because it gives me the chance to tell you that you’re such a good person.”
I had expected her to cry at this but she didn’t.
“Yes you, Cocoa Howard.”
“Pass me my purse, will you.”
I did as I was told.
She dug out a check and handed it to me.
“I wish you didn’t have to pay me, Cocoa.”
We both laughed. Destiny had so clearly drawn us right here together – like two points on a very obvious circle. I looked down at the check – double what was initially promised.
“Why so much?”
“Where else am I going to put it?”
I tenderly wrapped my arms around her.
“I love you, Cocoa.”
She looked into my eyes with big huge tears, just precisely like those of a truly good person.
“And I love Lucy.”
I left Bailey’s Retirement Home the next day, never to return.
Cocoa died a month to the day after my departure – Jeannie never told me until well after the funeral. Cocoa and Bert Howard were scattered over the Pacific, as per Cocoa’s request. I asked Jeannie why I hadn’t been invited, and she told me she was still dealing with her anger at me. She felt I had overstepped my bounds and taken the job too seriously. I asked what her mother had died of, and Jeannie told me it had been ‘easy natural causes’.
I had hoped that Cocoa would have taken in a meeting or two – taken in Patty Broughton herself. Maybe she had in her own way. Many days after this news, I myself longed for a meeting of the century club - almost going so far as showing up at the place and tracking one down. But I hindered myself, as the girls would’ve said, and didn’t bother.
But I did call the home once, almost a year after Cocoa died. I asked for Marie with the face cancer and they told me she had transferred up to Oregon. Then I asked about Patty and they told me she had died eight days ago, during a nifty little talk she was giving to a few of the residents in the bingo hall.
Somehow I knew that Marie would achieve her century, and it made me feel good - as though some things really did work out the right way. Maybe she was ending each of her final days watching the sun sink below the horizon. And if not, maybe she was already zooming around good ol’ blue Betty.
As for me, I never did drop my resumes at the cruise ships or sail the big seas. And I’m still waiting to walk along the Chinese wall. It could still happen one of these days – I wouldn’t want to let Cocoa down, after all.
But I did come back to the present and the little blip of existence I call my own. Sometimes I am happy and excited and sometimes not, but when I’m really lonely, I have my friends. They always seem to come at the right time, almost out of nowhere. They aren’t tangible necessarily, but I can feel them offering me their enthusiasm and encouragement just the same. Emotional fitness, as Patty would have said.
A little package came for me not so long ago. I recognized the handwriting as Jeannie’s. She wrote a note apologizing for not sending it earlier and suggesting a cup of tea sometime.
Then I saw the image: two redheads in bathing suits happily wrapped in a summer day embrace. Cocoa and Ms. Lucy Ball, queen of all comedy. I turned over the photo: to my Lucy.
I smiled only for the benefit of myself. I just should have known. No one had ever called me Lucy again. It had actually taken me awhile to get used to Randy once more. So it would have to be our private joke, just for Cocoa and me… lost and found forever in the ether.
And I still watched Lucy, especially on a sad or rainy day. So very odd, but I could almost smell the warm lemon tart beside me.
It was funny how the mind remembered the past. Sometimes it was rough but it could also be quite nice – just as long as you didn’t get stuck. Although I wasn’t really sure I wanted to achieve my own century anyway. Maybe yes, maybe no. Or maybe it was just best left to the masters.
Either way, I was never the same again. Not after my time at Bailey’s. It was a place most people went to die. But I ended up there for a very different reason, and there was never a day that passed again where I felt divided from the big love. The really big love.
No matter what.
And that was God, ever alive in the ruins.