Story: Blue Willow

I want to start sharing more of my fiction and stories with you this year.  I write stories, essays, vignettes, and poetry.  I’ve been blending my illustrations and stories more and more and have a few ideas for books that I”ll be working on over the next few months.

This story was published in Evening Street Review, a small literary press out of Sacramento, California,  in the Spring of 2017.

I’m not as attached to getting published so much as sharing stories.  I wanted to draw an illustration for this one before I shared it with you, so now that’s finally completed  I decided to go with a rough pen and watercolor piece rather than an elaborate series of illustrations.

I wrote this after I heard that the word elopement was used in the sense defined at the beginning of the story.  At the time, I was hearing a lot of stories from women in their 80s and 90s about their lives and fears and perspectives on aging, family and love.

I never know how reliable a story is, but I listen, and then I write.

evening street review evening street 2

 

Blue Willow

Elopement (noun) – an act or instance of leaving a safe area or safe premises, done by a person with a mental disorder or cognitive impairment.

 

In the cool of the morning, before anyone else woke up, I liked to slip out of bed and sneak into the kitchen.  I would put a small pan of water on the stove and heat it almost to boiling.  I was afraid that even the slosh of bubbling water would wake someone.  I made instant hot cocoa, sat at the table and cradled my hands around my blue willow cup.

I pretended it was my kitchen, my house, my reign once again.  It wasn’t.  Everything there belonged to the children, my grandson Aaron, his wife, and their two kids.  They were all like children to me, even the adults.  Though my Aaron and his wife were in their thirties, their faces seemed yet unformed.  Their wrinkles appeared when they laughed, but hardly enough for me to notice.  With my glasses off, they could well be teenagers.

The hot chocolate was sweet but almost flavorless.  When I was a young wife, I’d melt real chocolate, stir sugar into it, and thin it with milk.  I’d whip cream with a whisk and serve it in my grandmother’s cups, the blue willow china.  I had a whole set then.  It wasn’t fine china — the print was off register.  If you looked close, the images lost their edges and every line cast a blue shadow.

When my sight weakened in my forties, everything looked that way — blurred and off register.  Glasses cleared that up especially when I looked in the mirror, so I took them off to soften the signs of age.  Why did I long for smooth skin?  Aren’t the marks of age signs of strength and survival?  Isn’t survival the most beautiful thing?

Nobody really thinks so.

I’m not even sure I do anymore.  But I have time to ponder such things.  Youth is so brief.  Age goes on forever.

At my grandson’s house, there was only early morning and late night to think for long periods of time.  That was better.  I hate having time alone, thinking for endless hours.  Here at the home we have too much time.  My neighbors have outlived their dreams and can’t even bother to wipe their own drool.

I try to be sympathetic.  I know they give them drugs to make them not care.  They give us drugs.  It’s the only request we can be sure will be granted– drugs to make our last years serene.  I’m angry about that.  I’ve never taken drugs.  Even after Amos died.  Even after Ethan died.  When I fractured my hip, I had to take pain killers, but as soon as I could, I quit them.

I wasn’t happy when I first got to the home, so I complained a lot.  I wouldn’t take their pills, so they gave me injections.  I fought.  I still smile when I think of kicking the syringe out of that stupid nurse’s hand before the drug took effect and erased all my emotions.

They put me back on pills after a while to see how I’d react.  I took them like a good patient.  But really I hid them between my cheek and teeth, then spit them into the toilet later.  I pretend to be serene but I’m not.  I’ll have an eternity of serenity once I go.  Trouble has kept me going; fighting lets me know I’m alive.

Aaron doesn’t know they treat me this way or he would put a stop to it.  I wrote him a letter once begging him to come back and see about me.  To take me with him to France, that I’d watch the kids.  I’d learn French, I’d let his wife have her way no matter what.  I would not be a nuisance.  This home is worse than any foreign country. But I never mailed that letter.

He had enough to worry about.  He didn’t think I’d recover from my fractured hip.  So many just give up.  Did he think I would?  Did he want me to?

Maybe he just didn’t want to deal with another death, my impending demise looming over him like another dark cloud.  Better to go live in a foreign place with his wife and kids.  His kids weren’t really children anymore.  I know in my heart, though, it wasn’t easy for Aaron to leave me.  The home offered good care for astronomical amount of money, though he said it was cheap.  All the pension money from Amos, all the money from the sale of the house that I banked for Aaron, for his inheritance — this place will take all of it to imprison me in an antiseptic room with dung colored carpets.

He feels that I’m safe here.  He has inherited a lot of death, my grandson – his mother and father.  His grandfather, my Amos, too, who Aaron didn’t even remember.  It was a loss of not knowing.

I was unable to have more than one child.  Amos worked so hard and we gave our son Ethan everything we could so he would have an easy life.  And he did.  He was a good boy.  He married a good girl.  He had a good child.  Aaron was in the car when that drunk crashed into them.  He was old enough to remember, young enough to forget.  Five years old.  Sara, his mother, was pregnant.  For a while Aaron fixated on his mother taking the baby to heaven.  He thought she was selfish. Why didn’t she leave the baby?  he’d ask over and over.  What do you say to that?  That the baby was happier in heaven?  Then why did she leave Aaron here?  I had no answer.  Amos had died of a heart attack the year before, so I couldn’t turn to him for answers.

I was glad my mother was still around to talk with him.  I don’t know what she said, but Aaron seemed to forget about the accident. Then she died.  Oh, Lord, life seemed so brief and precious.  I did everything I could to make sure Aaron had a safe and easy life.  He did.  He does.

I don’t sleep well, so I walk the halls of the home at night, pad around in my slippers.  I wish I could walk outside, but they have a guard.  I slipped by him once but the door sounded an alarm.  I told them I just wanted air and exercise, I wasn’t trying to escape.

I got a shot every day for a month after that – maybe two.  Time blurs when you’re drugged.  It was long enough that when they transitioned me to pills that I could hide in my cheek, I felt jittery and agitated.  It was withdrawal.  All I had to do to alleviate that was swallow the pills, but damn them, I didn’t want to.  I had to be very careful not to let it show that I was in withdrawal.  Luckily, no one cares about shaky hands here.  It’s part of aging.  Of course a 90 year old will shake.  As long as I’m quiet, they don’t notice me at all.

But Charlie noticed.

He joined me one night as I paced the hall.  He found me on the second night at about 1 in the morning.  The night staff is often napping then.

“Insomnia’s a bitch,” he said and took up pacing right alongside me.

I savored the word bitch.  I hear the orderlies use it and other street words when referring to difficult patients, but I never hear the residents cuss.  We’re required to be well behaved.

“I don’t swallow what they give me,” I said.  “Once I get the drugs out of my system, I’ll sleep better.  Just not like a corpse they want me to be.”

Charlie laughed.  “I heard you were a trouble maker.”

“Really?”

“That skinny nurse with the orange hair told me.  I was fussing about the 4 o’clock dinner time.  I want to eat dinner at 6, like normal people.  She said, don’t act like Ms. Dormer.  She gets all uppity and uncooperative and we have to sedate her at least 3 times a year.  I think she was threatening me.  Anyway, I go to dinner at 5:50, just as they’re ready to close up the dining hall.  They don’t like it, but I’m paying a lot of money to be here.  Seems like I should be able to eat whenever the hell I want.”

We began to walk together.  We both have a slow gait.  I’d only been off a walker for a few months (though they said I’d never walk without one.)  He walked very deliberately, thinking about each step.

He has Parkinson’s disease and had fallen one too many times for his children’s comfort.  He hadn’t broken a bone like me.  He’s only 70.  The same age as my son would have been, had he lived.  When Charlie told me his age, I felt a shiver then broke out in a sweat.  It was hard to ever think of my son as anything other than a boy.  Now it was hard to think of this man as a boy, as anything other than an old man, given to bouts of shakiness.  But he was 20 years younger than me.  He noticed me eying him warily.  “I may be 70, but I have the body of a 90 year old,” he said.  I had to laugh.

“You know I’m 90,” I said.

“No way.  You’ve got good posture, good looking bones,” he said.

“Runs in my family.  We all out live our usefulness.”  Even as I said it, I thought of Amos and Ethan.  My chosen family, gone so young.  I started crying – not sobs like I used to cry, but tears slowly leaked down my cheeks.  Charlie didn’t ask any questions.  We just kept walking.

There are plenty of women Charlie’s age in the home, but I never saw him take up with anyone else.  “They lack zest,” he said dismissively.  “They all want a man to take care of — or for a man to take care of them.  They want me to sit around snapping puzzle pieces together.  You wouldn’t believe how happy they are to have a cracked-up picture to hang on the wall.  You, on the other hand, like to walk.  And you’re mad, like me.”  I don’t know if he meant angry or crazy, but either would fit.

He asked me to join him at dinner, at 5:50.  We laughed and talked until the server came and took all our dishes away — didn’t even leave us a cup for our decaffeinated coffee.

“I’ve got some illegal hooch in my apartment if you’d like an after dinner drink.”

What could I say?  Turned out he had a lovely tawny port and cut crystal cordial glasses.  The port was rich and warm, easy to savor.  It woke up taste buds I’d forgotten I had.  He talked about food and wine.  He’d worked as a chef for years and was deeply offended by the state of our food service.  We had no way of cooking for ourselves so we had to eat what was offered.  Many residents loved the food – it was all easy to swallow.  Charlie and I ate it only to keep our strength up and dreamt of better days.  A better day came sooner than I thought.

“Mrs. Evelyn Dormer, I’d like to take you to dinner Friday.  If you agree, we shall leave this dump at a discreet 3 p.m.  My son Bob will pick us up.  We’ll take in a movie and go to dinner at the late hour of 6:30.  Make sure the gendarmes know that you’ll be out.  If they need a doctor’s note proving your fitness, I’ll have some forged for you upon request.  No, wait, I’ll tell them we’ve discovered we have the same podiatrist and Bob’s giving us a ride and then taking us to dinner.  They’ll fall for that!”

It was easier than I expected.  I wore my blue embroidered silk dress.  It was a little loose but tailored nicely.  I hadn’t worn it in years and knew I looked ridiculous with my spindly legs and orthopedic shoes.

Charlie whistled low.  “Miz Evelyn, you look a dream.”

It was a warm and muggy afternoon.  I felt the heat prickle my skin.  He wore a linen sport coat over his Hawaiian shirt.

He escorted me out of the building where Bob waited in a sedan.  He held the door for us and we slid in.  Bob didn’t ask us any questions.  Charlie talked about how one of the art theaters downtown was showing Casablanca.  And it was right across from the restaurant he’d made reservations for – Chez Claire’s in the Mimosa Arms Hotel.  When Bob dropped us off, he asked Charlie if he had his beeper and cellphone.  “Yes, Dad,” Charlie griped and they both laughed.

We walked into the half empty theater.  I sat with my hands in my lap, but before the opening credits were over, he reached over and took my hand into his.  I looked down at our long thin fingers.  Even in the dim light of the theater, I could see the blue veins protruding out from the thin skin that covered our bones.  But something familiar flashed between us as if someone had lit a gas burner, blue flame sparked up right on cue.

As we made our way out, I said, “I would have stayed with Rick.”

“Even when you were her age?” Charlie asked.

“God, I hope so.”

Charlie knew everyone at Chez Claire.  They brought out food without us even ordering.  Everything was cut into tiny pieces like at the home, but each piece seemed to burst with flavor – beef bourguignon, tiny scalloped potatoes, asparagus tips and a rich red wine.  I hadn’t had food so good since – since I couldn’t remember when.

We ate and I laughed at his stories.  It was after 8 when we finished with a small goblet of lemon gelato.

“I don’t want to go back,” he said, “we could get a room here.” His bushy eyebrows went up and down.

I laughed.  “I wish we had a choice,” I said.

“But we do,” he said rather too loudly and grabbed my hand.  “Stay with me.  Stay with me tonight in the Mimosa Arms.”

A tremor seized him and he shook all over but his eyes stared steadily into mine.  Heat blossomed on my face.  I started to panic.  “They’ll call my son.  They’ll say I’ve run off.  They’ll put me in memory care.”

“No.  I won’t let them.”

I yanked my hand back and made my dessert bowl tip over.  “You can’t stop them, Charlie.  Aaron’s my legal guardian now.  If they tell him I’ve run off, that I’ve lost my senses, he’ll want me put under tighter supervision.  He’ll want me safe.”

“As if safety should be our only reason to live,” he sighed.  “I’ll tell Bob to come get us.”  He pulled out his cell phone.

“No wait,” I said.  “Let me use your phone.”

He seemed a little alarmed that I kept pressing buttons, but I finally got through them all, only to get the answering service.  Aaron’s wife had left a long greeting in French that I didn’t understand, but when it finally beeped, I said, “This is Nana.  I know you’re going to be surprised but I’m out on a date and it’s going well.  I’m not going back to that home tonight.  I’ll leave them a message, too.  I just want you to know, no matter what they tell you, I’m fine.  I’m…I’m…” I looked into Charlie’s milky brown eyes, “I’m happy.”  I hung up.

Charlie looked as if he might cry.  I gave him back the phone and he grasped my hands so hard I was afraid I might break.  “Thank you.  Thank you.  I’ll be a perfect gentleman.”

“I hope not,“ I said.  We actually giggled.

He phoned the home, pretended he was his son and explained that the elders were too tired to go back and he would return us both in a day or so.  Then he called Bob.  They argued for a minute, but Charlie hung up on him.

Later that night, as he snored in my ear, I wiggled out from our spoon embrace.  The room was well stocked with all kinds of drinks, even hot chocolate.  I ran tap water in the bathroom until it was hot enough.  I didn’t want the sound of the microwave to wake Charlie.  I sat on chair across from him in the dark.

I felt tender but alive.  Is touch the difference between survival and living?  My pains weren’t gone so much as shifted to the back of my mind.  I still felt decrepit in many ways, but also delicate, all the fight taken out of me, replaced with something I couldn’t quite name.  Fear was there, too, buzzing around in my head like a mosquito I had to keep shooing away.

I sipped the insipid chocolate from the heavy hotel mug, and pined for that thin blue willow cup that was sold along with my other things.  Who sipped from it now?  Had it been broken?  If so, I hoped someone took the trouble to glue it back together.  It was never worth much, but sometimes I miss it dearly.

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