By Shelly Reuben
Marjorie’s eyes darted to the clock on her dashboard. 11:55 a.m.
She had five minutes to get to her next appointment. Name? Name? She asked herself, but could not remember. She dropped her eyes to the clipboard on the passenger seat.
Elizabeth Mills. Mrs. Elizabeth Mills. Ninety-four years old. Lives alone. Hip broken three years ago. Against expectations, she recovered, survived re-habilitation therapy, and returned to her own apartment. With a walker, but mobile. Some arthritis. Avid reader. Vision okay, but needs new prescription lenses for her eyeglasses. Not religious. Sociable, but not a joiner. No bingo. No crafts classes. No jigsaw puzzles. Goes to dining room every night. Prepares her own breakfast and lunch. Needs help bathing. Otherwise, independent.
Marjorie pulled into a parking space in front of Glen Acres, a senior apartment building with a social director, its own weekly newspaper, a white tablecloth dining room, theater, library, computer room, cocktail hour, and several lounges. The only things that differentiated Glen Acres from a luxury cruise ship were the ages of the residents (none were under seventy years old, and some were over a hundred), and a little button that tenants had to push by 9:00 a.m. to assure management that they were well.
The nurse/social worker strode across the parking lot, and took a mental inventory of what her next half hour would entail. First, an introduction. Should Marjorie call her client Elizabeth? Or Mrs. Mills? She would make that decision after they met. Get the old lady to talk about herself as she took her blood pressure, temperature, and pulse. Draw her out. Be chatty. Ask about her late husband. Her children. Where she was born. Old people are lonesome. They like to talk about the past. Make her feel wanted and part of society. Break through the isolation. Let her know that she is not alone.
Marjorie continued down the hall. Look to her right. To her left. Apartments 101. 102. 105. There it was. Apartment 107. Knock on the door. Wait a minute or two. None of her clients moved quickly.
Then, after less than a minute, a surprisingly strong voice asked, “Who is it?”
The door opened. A tiny creature stood in the doorway. Large, intelligent green eyes. Long, dark, eyelashes. Short, stylishly groomed silver hair. A wrinkled face, but with beautiful ivory skin and tiny shell-shaped ears wearing small pearl earrings. Striking bone structure. The woman was old, but stunning. More than stunning. She was beautiful.
Marjorie rearranged her features into a smile, and could not help but wonder if it was a foolish smile. Something about this woman made her feel both transparent and superfluous. She tucked her clipboard under her elbow, took one step forward, and said, “How do you do, Mrs. Mills. My name is Marjorie Fieldstone. May I come in?”
Elizabeth pressed her finger down on six non-consecutive digits, hit the “Total” sign, and waited for her adding machine to print a sum. She reached for a pencil and slowly – her fingers did not readily obey the dictates of her brain – inscribed the numbers into her checkbook. Then she folded the checkbook and slipped it in her purse.
She stood up carefully. She had no intention of falling again. She hated hospitals, and she had hated how the nurses in the rehabilitation clinic called her “Mommy” or “Liz,” as if she were a mentally defective child. I am not their mother. I am nobody’s “Liz.” But she had endured it and had amazed her therapists and doctors with her single-minded focus and strong, unwavering determination to come home.
I will live out the rest of my life here, she thought and gazed appreciatively at the crimson bougainvillea and purple geranium she had planted on her balcony. I will see whom I want to see. I will go where I want to go. I will have my hair done weekly at Mimi’s and have my nails done every ten days at Geraldine’s. I will not die until I am good and ready, and that will be when I am on a cruise.
The telephone rang. She picked it up. “Yes?” she said.
It was her financial planner. He suggested that they get together to discuss her investments. They scheduled an appointment for Thursday. The phone rang again. It rang a total of five times that morning. Elizabeth’s daughter said she would pick her up after lunch and take her to an art gallery opening in Pasadena. Her granddaughter called to ask, “What was the name of the poem you recited last Sunday when we were talking about World War One?” Flanders Field. “Oh, right. Thanks, Gram.” Her son called to confirm his arrival time in two days on a flight from Albuquerque and to ask if she wanted to go to Las Vegas. She did. And the daughter of her best friend (who had died ten years earlier) called to say that she would be in town on August 15th, and would Elizabeth like to go out for dinner?
Of course I would.
She looked at her watch. 11:55 a.m. She had five minute to prepare before the arrival of the nurse/social worker from her insurance company. She clasped her hands on her walker, and turned toward the bathroom. She refreshed her lipstick. Put a dash of color on her cheeks. Patted down a stray hair. Sprayed a hint of Shalimar behind each ear.
The doorbell rang.
Elizabeth sighed with resignation. The girls they sent over tried so hard. Always attempting to draw her out. Make her talk. Such sweet and insecure young things. It was necessary that they leave her apartment feeling confident. Feeling that they were important and that they made a difference. That they mattered.
Elizabeth Mills carefully positioned her walker – such a utilitarian thing! Why couldn’t they design them to be more attractive? – and moved steadily to the door.
“Nursing Service,” a woman’s voice announced.
Elizabeth opened the door, studied the slightly disheveled creature standing in the hall, and said, “Come in, dear. You look tired. Do sit down.”
Half an hour later, after drinking tea that Mrs. Mills had prepared and eating cookies that Mrs. Mills had provided, Marjorie Fieldstone departed. She was completely unaware that, other than taking the old lady’s blood pressure, temperature, and pulse, she had spent the entire time talking about herself. What should she do about her boyfriend’s drinking problem? “Dump him.” How should she handle her mother’s religious mania? “Become co-signer on her checking account and keep her from giving all of her money to the church.” Should she go to her high school reunion? “Absolutely! But first lose ten pounds and get your hair styled by a professional.”
As Marjorie walked down the corridor, she made notations in her client log about the solitary state in which she had found her client, and when she pushed open the door to the parking lot, she gazed around herself with complete satisfaction. She loved her job and she loved that she was able to bring momentary comfort to a lonely old soul. Then she sighed happily and strode to her car.
Back in her apartment, Elizabeth Mills firmly shut the door behind the nurse/social worker. She looked at her watch, and shook her head. “Thank heavens,” she said softy to herself. “I have a million things to do today, and I thought that poor, idiotic child would never leave!”
Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com. Link to David M. Kinchen’s reviews of her novels “The Skirt Man” and “Tabula Rasa”: http://www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/060605