Short story by Brian Wright
The Proprietor is posting his first short story today, actually a roughly 1000-word excerpt (out of ~3000 words), with a link to the full PDF version at the bottom of the excerpt. I’m asking that those who are interested in viewing or printing off the full PDF short story kick in a dollar or two via PayPal in the spirit of new-author encouragement—if results are positive, more stories will come. Still, access to the PDF file is not contingent on donation. Thank you. — bw
“Say hi to your new meal mates, Mary,” the aide walked her to the assisted-living dining-area table.
After eight years in the senior section of North Battle Creek Golden Fleece Manor—noted ‘Haven before Heaven’ to countless cereal-executive widows, and others—Mary Beth Nielsen (88) moved to assisted for reasons of insurance and arthritis.
“Joy, Betty, Jean, this is Mary Beth.”
“Please, just Mary.”
Normally, that would have begun some banter, but the gazes of Joy and Betty stayed fixed into space as if nothing were said. Jean, however, piped up, “I sure hope you’re a good listener, Babs, because I’m a dynamite talker.”
Was there a grin or some other sign she was kidding? Jean’s expression stayed tautly serious. Egads! The aide informed Mary that Joy and Betty were hard of hearing.
Welcome to assisted living.
Mary recalled a phrase from her childhood on the farm: “Isn’t this a fine howtodo?” Her mom often used the phrase—on occasions ranging from one of the kids dropping a plate on the kitchen floor to a tornado funnel making a beeline for the barn.
Not fully sharing her mother’s casual fatalism, Mary did have a high threshold for worry about life’s slings and arrows. Now with the ironies of advancing years, her sense of humor made the small misfortunes even less so. For instance, she thought it funny her nieces never called… just as she was forgetting their names.
So Mary laughed to herself about these two women at the table, Joy and Betty, who couldn’t listen and the one woman, Jean, who wouldn’t.
She mused, “What no one warns you of at 70!”
Mary Beth’s first dining event in assisted living was, if not swell, then, at least a few rungs above awful. Jean, as advertised, turned out to be a bona fide Chatty Cathy. In fact, Mary considered finding one of the old CC dolls and having some techie-youngster reprogram it… stand it up on the table, pull the cord repeatedly:
“Jean, you don’t say.”
“Jean, you don’t say.”
“I know what you mean, Jean.”
“Please pass the salt and pepper, Jean.”
Not so bad, though, sometimes Jean was even entertaining. Her late husband was a Kentucky horse-breeder; she’d loved everything about that life.
More than anything she “liked to watch…” the act of horses copulating. That’s right: the ol’ horsey hokey pokey. Jean’s eyes would grow wide recounting the cataclysmic carnality of it all.
Mary, in her mind, pulled the Chatty Cathy cord:
“Oh really, Jean? You’re kidding.”
“No, I’m not kidding. Why would I kid about something like that?”
Mary was trying to change the subject. (Like most WASP Americans, Mary was reticent about sex, even between consenting livestock.) Eventually, Jean would leave the equine love stories and tear into men.
“You know men aren’t even close.” Jean’d say.
Mary thought, “Geez, I certainly hope they aren’t.”
Jean the Queen, more a ball-buster than a man-hater. No mystery she’d outlived Hubby Harold. To Jean, Tarzan the Ape Man was weak and effeminate. And Harold (Hal)—Mary read between the lines—was more the gregarious George of the Jungle type. His family had the lineage and the money, but Jean had developed the domination of weak, well-heeled men into an art form. She ground him into fine Arizona road dust. He died young.
Joy and Betty were perfect table mates for Jean: she could pontificate at will. And they liked Jean because they could actually hear her. Mary Beth brought in a new dynamic, though, a caring presence that made Jean want to discuss things like politics and religion. Hoo boy! Jean made Ann Coulter seem like Mary Poppins: “Hey, you’d better be voting for Sarah Palin (and Sen. Fuzznuts).”
Just let it go.
Mary’s habit is to eat quickly then move off with the stroller, visit with her community of friends. The arthritis is cruel and unyielding, but thanks to iron discipline for nearly 50 years—rigorously keeping to her walking and calisthenics—she can still make the social rounds on foot.
Mary realizes that if she has to sit every meal at the Joy/Betty/Jean (JBJ) table she’ll go batty. So after more days than she cares to admit, Mary asks the attendant, “Donna, how do I get out of this?”
“Well, we like to assign new arrivals to the JBJ table as kind of a buffer zone. Jean is easily frustrated by Joy’s and Betty’s hardness of hearing. If we don’t put a good listener in there, at least someone without a hearing aid, Jean gives the whole wing a screechin’ hard time.”
“There’s sort of a formula…” Donna’s voice trails off.
“Take one for the team, eh?”
“Mary, you’re a nurse, you’re wonderful with people. We know it’s tough duty, give us a few weeks, then we’ll rotate you out. Just say the word.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that.”
That night Mary, after her rounds, returns to the small room and, as usual, watches Jeopardy then checks out the Cheers rerun. Still no avoiding the voice in her head:
Monkey Brain: “You’re getting old, girl.”
Mary: “I am old, you twit. So what? Go away.”
“You sit here in this room, just think about the loneliness. Who calls, who visits?”
“My nephew Wayne drives my sister Steph over every few weeks. We go out.”
“Sure. Pub and grub at Arcadia, followed by a drive in the sticks. Big whoop. How sad is that?”
“It’s not sad, it’s fabulous: we see old digs, towns I’ve known: Allegan, Plainwell, Marshall, Paw Paw, places where I’ve lived, worked, and/or exchanged pleasantries into the wee hours.”
Eventually Monkey Brain lets go. But he (Monkey Brain’s always a guy) usually gets Mary worked up enough to point her mental stroller in an uncomfortable direction, down the Lane of Nostalgia.
Though quite a looker back in college, Mary rarely had time for pitching—or catching—woo. She hid out in her dorm room studying her sweet bippy off. Through plain hard work, she’d won a scholarship to University of Michigan Nursing School, then made the cut (only half the freshmen in ’39 graduated in ’43.) The Army Nurse Cadet Program paid tuition and books, then if the war was still on, she’d be called to duty.
Boys? They became scarce on campus, or anywhere else stateside, after December 7, 1941.
One guy stood out: Gentleman Jack….
[To read the whole story, please download this PDF from the link here. A $1 or $2 donation via my PayPal button toward the bottom of the Coffee Coaster home page would be appreciated.]