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In the Land of the Decrepit

Marilyn Meiselman

Love and longing, even in a nursing home, never dies, it just fades away...

His children tricked him. They convinced him he was coming to freezing New York from Florida as an experiment - to see how he liked assisted living. Facing him is his desk with his prized photos - his dead wife, three children, five grandchildren and five great-grandsons, passing through a progression of stages and ages. There’s red-headed Jake, his oldest grandson. It was Jake who towed the U-haul loaded with this furniture from his garden apartment in Florida. Jake even took the paintings, the portrait his son had painted of him twenty years ago, now hanging here in the living room, and two of his daughter’s watercolor landscapes, hanging in the bedroom. He has to admit this apartment is nice. It doesn’t have the extra bedroom, bath and patio his Florida apartment had, but it’s well planned, with holding-on bars for him in the bathroom, and buttons to ring if he needs help. He’s on the fifth floor of this large building, sitting in his mechanical chair from Florida, the one with the buttons on the arm rest that raise and lower the seat, next to a large sunny window. He likes to watch the clouds drift by and the sea gulls assemble on a low neighboring roof.

He can’t go back to Florida now. His furniture and pictures are all here. The children promised they’d move everything back if he wasn’t happy, but what a bother that would be. He’ll have to stay and die here. Hell, he’s nearly ninety-six, how much longer does he have, anyway? His lousy kids think they can run his life, just because he’s getting a little forgetful and confused about money. He’ll fix them. He’ll tell them he doesn’t know whether he likes assisted living. That’ll worry them. He’ll show them he’s still the father, the boss.

Right now, he needs his health aide, “Mary, Marcia, Marry, Merrie, Marie, whoever the hell you are, where are you?”

A young black woman who’s been cleaning the bathroom, comes to him, removing her rubber gloves. She’s a good looking wench, not too tall, nice figure, good dresser. He hates the fat ones. “I’m right here, Dr. Sam.”

“Let me look at you. That sweater is really lovely. Come closer. Let me feel it.”

“Your son said you’re not to be touching me.”

“My son – he’s a fine one to talk. He’s done plenty of touching in his life, even while he was married. I was faithful. That sweater’s beautiful, even if you won’t let me touch it. Where’d you get that sweater? Quanto dinero?”

“You know, I don’t speak Spanish. I got the sweater at Macy’s – right down the road. There’s a big sale.”

“Great, I’d like to get sweaters like that for my daughters. Maybe after lunch, you’ll drive to Macy’s and help me find sweaters for them. But now, I have to go to the bathroom.”

Marcia pulls the walker from beside the couch, opens it facing the old man with his twinkling eyes and ready smile. He pushes one of the buttons on the armrest, but the chair tilts backwards. “Damn this thing,” he mutters.

Marcia pushes another button and the chair tilts forward until he is almost standing. She places his hands on the walker and pulls him up. He winces from the pain in his swollen feet. Marcia waits patiently while he catches his breath and readies himself for the few steps to the bathroom. She walks beside him, undoes his pants, and once he’s seated on the toilet, leaves him some privacy. She gets his wheelchair out, and when he’s ready, helps him into it. She bends toward his good ear, “Dr. Sam, it’s almost lunch time. We can go now, sit downstairs and wait. There’ll be people to talk to.”

“Talk to? They’re all deaf. Half of them can’t remember their own names. What a bunch of Lulus. Do you know what they’re serving for lunch?”

“No. Do you?”

“I think my favorite soup, lentil with frankfurter chunks. They already know to give me second helpings.”

“Lentils with hot dogs - that’s gotta be too much salt for you.”

“All right, all right, so I won’t have seconds. Take your car keys so you can drive me to Macy’s after lunch, and give me my wallet and credit card from the desk drawer – right in front there. Make sure you take the apartment key and a glass of ice for my water.”

Marcia gets everything asked for and an extra sweater, jacket and hat for the old man. He’s always cold, even when it’s eighty five degrees in the apartment he  won’t let her open a window or put on the air conditioning. Pushing the wheel chair down the long hallway to the elevator, they pass one of his neighbors, a small, thin, white-haired lady. in a tailored navy skirt, white blouse with string of pearls. She, probably, couldn’t see herself clearly in the mirror, for her skirt is hanging low on her waist permitting her blouse to come free; her face is over-rouged face and eye make-up too dark. She holds on to her walker. Dr. Sam signals stop. He likes this old lady. “Good morning, Cathy dear, how are you feeling today?”

The old woman bends toward him, “I can’t hear you. What’d you say.”

Dr. Sam screams back, “I forgot my hearing aides. I can’t hear you. What’d you say?”

Marcia shouts in Dr. Sam’s better ear, “She said she can’t hear you.”

The elevator arrives. Marcia pushes Dr. Sam’s wheelchair in and holds the door while the old woman trundles in with her walker. Another health aide enters the elevator, and greets Marcia. Dr Sam asks the young woman, “Do you come from Jamaica like Marcia?”

She nods affirmatively; so he tells her, “I’m from Jamaica, too.”

She laughs, “No, no you’re not.”

“I’m an honorary Jamaican. I’ve had so many terrific Jamaican aides and they’ve brought me such wonderful Jamaican food. I’ve adopted Jamaica.”

 A pleasant girl, he hopes she and Marcia will become friends. Marcia says she doesn’t want people here knowing about her affairs, but she’ll be happier if she has a friend, someone to eat lunch with and talk to.

They exit the elevator on the main floor where many of the old people are already waiting around in the large, pleasant, rose-colored sitting room. Marcia spots a plush empty chair at the side. She pushes the wheelchair there and is about to sit when Cathy trudges over with her walker. She wants to sit next to Dr. Sam. He is all smiles and shouts into her ear, “You know this place is really very classy, these Oriental rugs - top quality, the woodworking around the fireplace - detailed, careful work, the tables and lamps - real elegance. Being here costs our children a bundle. Of course, it’s my own money. My kids use my money to pay for all this. But, it’s fine stuff. It has to cost a lot of moola.”

He’s surprised when Cathy’s head drops on his shoulder. He tries to sit very still so as not to disturb her. The bald basketball coach, still thin and erect in his jeans and sweat shirt, shambles over to talk. He likes the coach, even though the man can’t remember a conversation from one day to the next. Every time the coach speaks to him, or anyone else for that matter, he boasts about his basketball team winning first place seven years in a row, but the coach conducts Jewish services on Friday nights and Sam respects him for that. He likes the feel of Cathy’s head, so pointing to the sleeping woman, he motions the coach away. Sam sits still, feeling strong and protective, until it’s time for lunch. He wakes her gently. He wishes she ate at his table instead of the old hag. That one orders everything on the menu, takes one bite and pushes it away - a criminal waste of food. He’s already told her she should eat what she orders, but she ignores him. She shouldn’t be allowed to waste food like that. He should complain to the management. He should also complain about the bastard who sits across from him, angry and cursing. You don’t use language like that when women are around. He’s told him to keep the conversation clean, but only got cursed for it. The coach doesn’t like the bastard either.  There’s not much conversation at the lunch table anyway. It’s hard to eat and speak at the same time when the teeth in your mouth aren’t your own.

After lunch, he’s tired and could use a nap, but wants to get those sweaters. Marcia tells him he’ll be missing Bingo and word games – both things he likes.  He hadn’t wanted to play Bingo, because you had to put a dollar into the kitty. He told Marcia, “Bingo is for idiots,” and just sat in back and watched, keeping his dollar in his own pocket, thank you. But his older daughter Marge caught him watching the game and insisted on putting up a dollar for him. He won the jackpot, seven dollars and thirty cents, and was hooked. Cathy plays Bingo, too. He could sit near her. No, no, he’ll get the sweaters. His daughters will be so surprised that he got himself to Macy’s and bought them presents. He knows Marcia is a little worried about taking him out. It’s the first time he’s asked, but she’s a good kid and mostly does what he wants.

Macy’s is a crowded mad-house. Thank God, Marcia knows her way around, what a competent kid. She pushes him to the women’s section. He stops her before they get into the crowd. “Put on the brakes. I’ll just sit here. You find two beautiful sweaters and bring them to me. I need a medium with bright colors for Marge and a small for Gloria, with softer colors, something with flowers maybe, sort of old-fashioned.”

Marcia is reluctant to leave him, but follows instructions. He waits patiently, closing his eyes, until Marcia’s return startles him. Her arms are loaded with sweaters. “Here, put that load on my lap and hold the sweaters up, one at a time, so I can choose.…That’s right…No, I don’t like that one, too much red…. That one’s not  bad… Let’s see the next… Lovely, that’s the one I want for Marge…Now, we need one for Gloria…. No, that’s dull….Why did you pick that ugly one? There’s nothing to it… Ahah, that’s better…..keep going…. No…..No…..No. Go look, again. I don’t like dull. Find something with a little pizzazz, something like what you’re wearing.”

Marcia returns with only one sweater, soft blue with a repeated pattern of pink and yellow flowers. The old man is delighted , “Marcia, you’re good. It’s perfect for Gloria. I spotted the cashier, but there’s a long line. Damn it, we’ll have to wait. Here, give me the sweater and push me over.” 

The old man’s exhausted. Finally, he signs the charge slip, and they find their way back home. First the bathroom, then the bed, he sleeps until Marcia wakes him and takes him down to dinner.

Marcia is relieved by his evening nurse Iris, a heavy, plodding, church-going, bible-reading, woman, who meets him in the dining room. The old man doesn’t like her as well because she’s bossy. She thinks she’s smart, smarter than him, what a fool. He puts up with her attitude because she handles him gently, gives him good baths, and medicates and bandages the sores on his behind. After dinner, Iris pushes him into the pleasant sitting room where there is music playing and people are singing along. He motions to a spot next to the coach and talks with him, until he spots Cathy going to the elevator. He waits a while so as not to be too obvious, and then tells Iris to take him upstairs. As they pass Cathy’s apartment, he signals Iris to stop and leans forward to knock on the door. Iris jerks the wheelchair backwards. He grabs onto the arms and screams at her, “What the hell’s wrong with you? You almost threw me out of the chair.”

“I’m sorry; but you just can’t go knockin on ladies’ doors.”

“How dare you? What makes you think I need you to tell me how to behave? Push me back there.”

“No, you’re not allowed to visit other people’s apartments at night.”

Iris tries to push him to his own apartment. He pulls the hand brakes and puts his feet down on the floor hard to stop her. “Now look here woman, I make the rules around here, not you. If you don’t like it, you can leave. Push me back to Cathy’s door, now.”

“No, you’re not allowed.”

He holds onto the wheels with all his strength so she can’t push the chair and screams, “I don’t need you taking care of my morals. I’m not going anyplace except to Cathy’s door.”

Doors of adjoining apartments crack open. Old heads peer out. Somebody calls the front desk. The evening manager comes running. She tells him he can’t make so much noise. She takes him to his apartment and then dials Cathy’s number so he can speak to her. Cathy says she’ll visit him tomorrow after breakfast. He’s ashamed of all the fuss and everyone knowing his business. It’s all Iris’s fault, that bossy idiot. She’ll do things the way he wants or he’ll get rid of her, but fast. He still has the phone in hand; he’ll call Marge and tell her to find him a different nurse. It’s a good thing she lives so near, that’s probably why she chose this place. “Hi Margie, we have a problem. Come right over. Nothing serious, but Iris isn’t working for us anymore. O-kay, I’ll see you in ten minutes”

Iris says, “Dr. Sam, I’m responsible for you. I can’t let you do things you’re not supposed to. You have to listen to me.”

“That’s what you think. I’ve been running my own life since before you were born. The only way you can keep your job is to do things my way, and keep your opinions about right and wrong to yourself.”

“No, Dr Sam, I can’t. I’m responsible. I can’t let you jump out the window.”

“Don’t be a fool. I don’t need you to tell me not to jump out the window. It’s cold out there. There’s Marge at the door, already. Let her in.”

Iris opens the door and greets her, “I’m sorry you had to come out so late, but your Dad, he aint behaving right. He wants to go knocking on ladies’ doors and no room visiting is allowed after dinner.”

The old man interrupts her. “Who said visiting? I was only knocking at the door - - and where’d you hear that crazy rule anyway? Plenty of visiting goes on here. I assure you….Margie, this idiot thinks she’s in charge of my morals. No one’s going to work for me who can’t do things the way I want them done.”

Marge leans over the old man and kisses his cheek. She takes off her jacket and opens the window. The old man would normally complain about the cold, but restrains himself. He needs his daughter’s support. Gloria is jealous when he has girl friends, she wants her father for herself, but Marge never seems to mind, so he counts on her support.

Marge turns apologetically toward Iris, “I know you try to take care of Dad and I know how difficult he can be. But you work for him and if he’s not pleased, I’ll have to find another evening nurse. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it has to be. I hope you will stay the rest of this evening and think about it. Tomorrow morning you can call me and tell me what you’ve decided. Dad’s not a bad man, Iris, and he still has all his wits about him. He has the right, as all of us have, to make his own mistakes.

The next morning, after Iris helps him bathe and dress, he phones Marge and tells her everything is all right, Iris will continue working for him. Iris takes him down to breakfast, and after breakfast, Marcia, back on the job, pushes him back to his apartment. He tells her he wants to sit on the couch.

“Dr. Sam, you don’t sit on the couch. You sit on the chair which is easy to get out of.”

“Not today, dear, today I’m sitting on the couch, so Cathy can sit next to me. Put the box of chocolates my children gave me on the table. By the way, I don’t want you listening to my conversation with Cathy, you nosey body. You can be cleaning the bathroom or bedroom.”

Cathy arrives, her back bent over her cane, her neck jutting forward, her head wobbly, like a turtle’s. The old man pats the seat and she sits next to him. He likes  feeling her leg against his own. He puts his arm on the back of the couch behind her, and says, “You were a chemistry teacher. I was a principal. We sort of belong together, don’t you think? Have a piece of chocolate, my children brought them. They always bring me the best.”

Eating chocolate, her head bobbing, she says, “I liked teaching. I wish I was teaching now.”

He moves his arm down and rests his hand on her shoulder, “I loved being a principal, and I was a damn good one, too, the best they ever had. The teachers loved me; the parents loved me; my school was the star of the district.”

She says, “I liked working with young people.”

He moves his hand inside her blouse and touches her brassiere strap. She jumps up fumbling for her cane. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I have to leave now.”

He’s insulted, “Well, if that’s how you feel. Marcia come open the door, Cathy’s leaving.”

Marcia walks with Cathy to her apartment. The old man can hear them talking but can’t make out what’s being said. He’s really disappointed. He thought Cathy would be his girlfriend.

Marcia comes back, “Dr. Sam, you scared her. You can’t move so fast on an old lady.”

“She’s not old. I thought she liked me.”

“She does like you. She’ll visit again, but you have to go slowly. Give her a chance to get used to you. How young do you think Cathy is?”

“She’s about fifty.”

“Dr. Sam, your daughters are well over fifty.”

“I don’t know if I’ll bother with her. I thought she liked me. Putting her head on my shoulder and things like that. Well, she liked my chocolates, anyway. Help me get to my chair. I’ll look at the paper and there’s the book Suzey, my little, librarian granddaughter brought me. She’ll be coming to take the book back, and I’ve hardly opened it. Too bad about Cathy, I really thought she liked me.”

After lunch, his beautiful Suzey, Gloria’s youngest child, comes to visit. She’s a little thing and always seems scared. She and her husband are both mousy creatures.  He bets she hasn’t been to Macy’s. She’d be too afraid of the crowds. He’ll give her courage. “Suzey, I bought your mother and your aunt Marge beautiful sweaters at Macy’s. They’re having a great sale. You should go over. If your old sick grandpa can get there and shop, you surely can.”

“You’re not so sick, grandpa. You’re a tough guy. Mother showed me the sweater you gave her. It’s very pretty. I’ll go to Macy’s and look, but you’d better get busy reading the books I bring you. Of course, I can let you keep them overtime.”

“Good girl, but remember I don’t like paying library fines. If your old grandpa can go to Macy’s, so can you. I want to see the sweater you buy. I want to give you courage.”

Here’s Marge at the door again. She comes nearly every day. His damn children don’t leave him alone. When he lived in Florida, one kid visited each month, to check up on him, he supposed. Here, all three of them can visit on the same day. With his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren living nearby, he’s busy all the time. As soon as Suzey leaves, he’ll tell Marge about Cathy. See what she thinks he should do.

“Dad, I just stopped by to pick up Suzey. I’m taking her to lunch.”

The old man lets out a mock cry, “Whaaa, fine pickle of fish, how about me? What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I go out to lunch?”

Marge says, “We were going to eat Thai.”

“Thai? What kind of food is Thai? We’ll go to Ben’s. I’ll get a tongue on rye with mustard and pickles. What do you say Suzey? Isn’t that a good idea? You and your aunt can take the old man out for lunch once in a while, too.”

Suzey is laughing, “Sure grandpa, it’s a great idea.”

When they get back from lunch, Marge and Suzey leave together. Suzey probably wanted to talk to Marge about something. She often confides in her aunt. Marcia has startling news for him. She had lunch with some of the other health aides and heard that Cathy has a fiancée who sometimes takes her out for dinner and sometimes even sleeps over in her apartment, strictly against rules. What a revoltin’ development this is. She can’t be engaged. She started up with him. He’s not afraid of a little competition. He vaguely remembers seeing some feller visiting Cathy in her apartment. He seemed young and strong. Maybe, it was her son.  Marcia says the fiancée is a tough guy and he’d better stay out of the way. Hell, he’s not afraid of some toughie. He can take care of himself.

That evening he is sitting next to Cathy during the sing- a-long program, and they’re both singing good and loud, when the fiancée man appears. He comes right up to Cathy and giving her his arm, pulls her up next to him, then he turns to the old man. “You’ll stay away from Cathy, if you know what’s good for you. If I ever see you near her again, I’ll beat you up.”

Cathy walks away with the toughie without looking at the old man. Of course, his evening nurse Iris has to put her two cents in, “Dr. Sam I told you not to go courtin’ any old ladies.”

“Just, shut up Iris.”

When his daughters visit the next day, he tells them the whole revolting story. Gloria thinks it’s very funny.  She laughs and laughs, trying to talk at the same time, “What, he’s going to beat you up? You’ll take your cane with you and bop him one.”

 “It’s not funny, Gloria. You know visiting isn’t allowed after dinner. Maybe, I’ll complain about his being in Cathy’s room at night. That shouldn’t be permitted Marge, what do you think?”

“I don’t think you should complain, Dad”

“I’m not afraid of the idiot. I’m still going to be very friendly with Cathy.”

Gloria is laughing even more. “Dad, all he has to do is breathe on you and you’ll fall over.”

“That’s what you think, kid. I can handle myself. I’ll be friendly with whoever I please. I’m not afraid of anyone, anyone. You hear that kiddo?”

Now Gloria is laughing so much she can’t even get words out to answer him. The old man gets annoyed. “You can leave, you know. You don’t have to stay here laughing at my problems.”

Gloria tries to get her laughter under control, but the giggles keep slipping out. Marge is trying very hard not to look at her. When they were young, they’d both go into laughing fits, together. They’d drive him crazy, particularly when they started giggling during dinner. He’d have to send them away from the table. He could never figure out what they were laughing about. He’d be damned if he knows what’s so funny about his situation now, with some young man, steady on his pins, threatening him. Laugh, that’s all they can do, laugh. “Why don’t you both leave. I’m ready for a nap anyway.”

After breakfast on Sunday, Marcia pushes him into the sitting room and then into the game room looking for Cathy, but she’s nowhere to be seen. He asks the attendant at the front desk where Cathy is, and learns that she goes to church Sunday morning. Church?  He just assumed she was Jewish. He never dated anyone who wasn’t Jewish. No, this relationship will have to end.