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Assisted Living

Louise Aronson

Mary’s not at dinner and no one knows why. Roy is limping but at least he’s up walking again after last month when he fell by the mailboxes and dislocated his new knee. He says it hurts all the time now which is a shame because the whole point of getting the new knee was to stop the pain, and it was better that first week he was back after all those weeks away for the knee surgery and then the heart attack—a small one, thank God—and then the rehab.

No, no—don’t sit there. Sit here, beside me. You can see better from here, a simple fact that you’d know if you came to see me more often. Oh dear, there’s Bessie. We usually eat together but she knew you were coming and now she’s stuck with Sadie Mangiello. Have I mentioned that Jack and Viv’s daughter comes to dinner every week? Not always on the same day, but still. Every single week. Imagine that. All right, all right, I won’t start. I know you’re busy. I remember what that’s like. I used to have a life myself you know.

Oh boy, here come Lee and Nancy. It’s nice she’s coming down again these days, though I used to really like to talk to Lee when Nancy didn’t come down and Lee sat around chatting while the girls put food onto trays for him to take upstairs. He can talk about anything, reads the Times and the Post cover to cover every day with CNN on the television and NPR on the radio, all at the same time!

Which reminds me. I didn’t tell you about Wallace, did I? He’s the one who used to be a reporter in Chicago, though you wouldn’t know it to talk to him now. Last month, they tried to put him on hospice because he keeps having these episodes where he just collapses and can’t move or talk. The doctors can’t figure out what the episodes are, and it seems hospice doesn’t want him because they say he’s not dying, which might be true but who knows? Around here anything can happen. One week a person is at dinner and the next week poof! And then the poor person’s photo appears pinned into that frame on the bulletin board in the front hall and they put a single yellow rose in the little vase attached to the frame.

Anyway, Wallace’s wife Stella—you know Stella, don’t you? She’s the tiny one. Why I can see clear over her head and that’s saying something since I’ve lost an inch or two myself lately. Well, Stella argued with hospice that they couldn’t say Wallace wasn’t dying if they don’t know what’s wrong with him and he keeps ending up on the floor with no blood pressure. I think she was hoping that instead of calling 911 the next time it happens, she could call hospice and then neither of them—Stella or Wallace— would be tortured by the paramedics who stick needles into Wallace and spill blood all over the carpet, leaving a mess for Stella which is, of course, the last thing she needs on top of everything else. In fact, Arlene said she wouldn’t be surprised if Stella started smoking again with all this stress, though I guess she had to quit when she moved in here. I used to tell Stella that at least she still had a husband, unlike most of us, but obviously I can’t say that anymore.

Of course you can have a glass of wine. I’ll call the girl. Ooh, but there’s news on the wine front. They’ve got a new rule now, or I guess it’s not a new rule but they are now enforcing it—two glasses of wine per person at dinner only, not one drop more, except for those who can’t remember whether or not they’ve had one and shouldn’t be drinking anyway and have doctors’ notes to that effect. Those people get the fake wine, and I suppose that’s the right thing since they don’t notice it’s fake, but since it is fake, they can have as much as they want. I don’t know if you remember since your last visit but the stuff they serve here is crap. Your father, God rest his soul, would not have tolerated it for one second. Can you just see him starting a committee and getting signatures on a protest document, then telling them what they should stock and pour and how soon before dinner they should open each bottle? Not that there’s any chance of that sort of organization around here, their fancy-dancy commercials notwithstanding. Your father would have managed it for them, of course. He was always busy, always helping others.

Right. I didn’t mean that. I meant before the stroke. That’s how I like to remember him. Before.

I’ll order a glass for you and one for me so you can have more if you want it. I do that for Bessie sometimes when she’s had one of those phone calls from her son that make her so upset. It’s no problem since I’ve given up drinking except for special occasions. It just doesn’t mix with my medication and I’ll be damned if I’m going to break my hip over bad wine. Also, I see some of these people and I worry because, incredibly, even the fake stuff doesn’t solve their problems. You remember Sol, the one who was after me when I first moved in, even though he’s married? Well, he can’t have wine, I guess. I mean he wobbles on that old walker he insists on using which was his brother’s or father’s or something equally ridiculous and so, I suppose, free, though of course he has Medicare and has had it for decades, which may or may not be why he can’t drink anymore because it’s also true that he’s charming and funny but the poor man couldn’t tell you whether he had the soup for his first course much less what happened earlier today. So he gets the fake wine and after the second glass, even though he could of course have as many glasses as he wanted, no harm no foul, Susan still says, “No more, Sol, you’ve had enough,” because she’s afraid since she spent so long saying that, if she doesn’t still say it, he’ll catch on that the wine isn’t real. I don’t think he would, I really don’t, and it just makes him furious when she says no, so I don’t see why she does it, but it’s not my business so I don’t say a thing, and nobody else does either, we all just look away when he yells at her in that way he has that’s quiet but vicious, spitting words from between his clenched teeth with that disgusted expression on his face.

Oh, gee, there’s Katie. She looks terrible, like a stick, she’s so thin, and she was always the fittest here—probably because she’s years younger than Greg, of course. They only came here because of him. Frankly, I always thought he’d die and then she’d move out because she absolutely could have been living somewhere else, not their house anymore since they sold it but an apartment or wherever. Then sometime last month she tried to move their sofa closer to the TV because her eyes have one of those diseases, glaucoma or cataracts or that other one that degenerates you, and on the very first shove she pulled her back out. Apparently the pain was so bad she took pills that didn’t actually help the pain but made her vision worse and made her so sick to her stomach that she didn’t eat for two weeks, which seems crazy. Why wouldn’t you just call the doctor and tell him about that, especially with her being a former nurse. She of all people should know how to talk to doctors, wouldn’t you think? And how’s this for truly nuts? I hear their couch is still at some awful angle, half closer to the TV and half not since Greg can’t move it, heck he can hardly move himself even in that spiffy motorized thing they got him last fall. I just hope he lets Katie sit on the end that’s closer to the television.

Are you really going to eat that? Oh my. I suppose you are your father’s daughter. He would eat anything and with gusto, though I do sometimes wonder whether that wasn’t part of what gave him the stroke.

I’m not starting, I’m not. It’s just that you’re young—yes, you are; look around, this is what old looks like—and so pretty and I wouldn’t want you to end up like your father. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Ok, maybe I would wish it on Phyllis Thompkins who used to flirt with your father as if I wasn’t standing right there. No, I take it back. Not even Phyllis deserves to end up like that.

Ha! Not now but in a minute look over your left shoulder. That’s Fred and the new woman, Caroline. They eat together every single meal. Why, the rest of us can’t even get to know her. And they didn’t know each other before, or so they claim, only met at one of those marketing dinners they have here where prospects come and eat with residents, and I guess she got seated next to him and the rest is history. You can look now. They’re at the last table by the salad bar. I don’t think she’s that beautiful, though I guess I can see the appeal. And I do miss eating with Fred. Isn’t he lucky still having hair at his age? Your father didn’t have that much hair at thirty-five! And he’s interesting, maybe even a little strange but in a good way. I suppose I thought he, or rather we, might…well, never mind. C’est la vie, no?

Don’t look so shocked. I’m not dead, just old. And you can just bet Phyllis Thompkins would have been here in two shakes if I’d gone before your father. She still lives in that huge house on Jackson Street.

But I didn’t finish about Katie and Greg, or really about Jake. After Katie hurt her back and wasn’t coming down, Greg ate with Jake and the other single men—they all sit together every dinner at the biggest table, just as all the Chinese sit together (though they do sometimes include Pearl Akatsuka and she’s Japanese which isn’t the same thing at all, though I suppose it’s less different) and then there’s the lady drinkers table. They have to be completely devastated by the new wine rule. I haven’t heard anything but I don’t generally talk to them except to say hello since I don’t want to be associated with them. And really, these group tables make me feel like we’re all still in high school or as if the future of the human race is hopeless since we end up in the exact same situations now as we did sixty or seventy years ago. It’s absurd. Actually, it’s worse than that, it’s embarrassing. In any case, when Katie wasn’t coming down, Greg sat with Jake at the men’s table which is right over there and is the nicest of the big tables since one of the guys always signs up for it first thing in the morning when Daniela comes into work. But of course we won’t see Jake this evening, we’ll probably never see Jake again, except that can’t be right because at some point his daughter will make him come down. I’ve run into her in the elevator every day this week and she is super-efficient this… Karen is her name, I think, so I’m sure at some point she’ll wheel him in and we’ll all pretend we don’t know what happened, even though we all do know, because there is lots of secrecy around here but no actual secrets, so we know about the butter knife and how Jake tried to slice his wrists and either the knife wasn’t sharp enough or he’s no longer strong enough, or both, so it didn’t work and after they found him, he said to Sandra—that’s that horrid nurse who forgot my antibiotics when I had the infected toe—that he wasn’t any good for anything anymore, even for killing himself, which if you think about it is the most pathetic thing you’ve ever heard, and I mean that in the nicest way, that patheticness, there’s a word related to that, I know there is but I can’t remember it.

Is that all you’re going to eat? I know it’s not great but it is edible. After all, some of us eat it every day.

I should ask Bessie about the word, she would know. It’s probably French, pathetique or some such, so that a horrible thing sounds so romantic you’d almost like to have it or be it yourself. Bessie will know because she knows everything about words; she was an English professor at State. Oh, I forgot to tell you that she started a book group, Bessie did, with Daniela’s help of course since we can’t start official activities without staff help, but Daniela’s a sweetheart so it’s going just fine, even though only Bessie and June, who taught high school, and Doris, who maybe also was an English professor, but I must have that wrong because how many English professors could you have in one place like this? Ha! I’ll tell you how many, not as many as we have doctors, we really have a lot of those: Costa Angelopoulis was a heart man, Tan Li did eyes, Jay Schoenfeld was a psychiatrist, Tom Roth a pediatrician, and I could go on, I really could, it’s so unlikely but maybe once you get a critical mass it appeals to the others so they can sit around and talk shop. I have to admit that it’s sometimes helpful when something happens. I hear people knock on Costa’s door all the time. Miranda says she can tell right away if they’re there for Costa officially. If that’s the case she says nothing, just has them sit on the couch and then she calls Costa and disappears into the other room. He must have done well because they have a really nice apartment, one of the ones where it used to be three smaller ones and they put it together when Valley Care took over from Via Dolce. Oh no, quick, pretend you’re still eating. I’m serious. Take a bite, quick.

OK, we’re safe. Close call though. See that girl who just went by? She’s only been here a few weeks and last night when I was eating with Bessie and Costa and Miranda and Barbara—Barbara’s the black one, the only black in this whole place, and the nicest lady you ever met, was an attorney down south but then she retired and her son and daughter-in-law moved just a few blocks from here, and moved her up here too. She says it’s okay, though she would like it if there were more blacks—don’t start, I’m just quoting. I was sitting by her and Carmen one evening before the movie started and they were talking about it because, you know, there are only two Hispanics here, and Carmen was saying how it would be nice to have more of them too and maybe they could talk to marketing and do some outreach or something like that to help because it’s not as if we don’t have some variety of other kinds—there are lots of Asian people and one Sikh and more Jews than I can count. Oh, and as of last week the Jewish list includes Sylvia Solomon, do you remember her? Her daughter Jessica went to elementary school with you and you always said Mrs. Solomon brought the best cupcakes when it was Jessica’s birthday.

What? Oh right, I got distracted. The server—Chase, she’s called, a horrible name, if you ask me, which you didn’t, though I would like it if you took a bit of an interest in my life when you visit, even if you don’t want to talk about your own life these days which, let’s face it, makes conversation hard and is why I’m trying so hard this evening even though we haven’t talked in forever and I’m dying to know what’s going on and how you’re doing, not so much in the casual I’m fine, that’s life kind of way because of course you’re fine enough, you’re strong and smart and you’ll manage eventually, I know that, but I’d love to hear how you’re doing really and truly down to the honest uglies of things…

Okay, then. I guess you’ll tell me when you’re ready. I only hope I’m getting at least partial credit for being on my best behavior tonight and not mentioning the D word or asking how the kids are coping with shuttling back and forth and whether there’s any chance of reconciliation at this point for you and Tim.

But back to this Chase person. It seems she has a tendency of chatting with certain people while other people are waiting for their food or to have their plates cleared so they can get dessert or whatever, and for some reason last night she decided to chat with me and Bessie. She told us she’s in school and wants to be an activities therapist or something and work with disabled kids, and she was talking and we were nodding and asking polite questions and then she said in what at first appeared to be out of the blue that she could work at a restaurant doing what she does here and get paid more but she does this because it looks good on her résumé and that will help when she wants to do activities therapy. I didn’t really get the connection but I said that was nice, and then Chase said she really hoped her time here would end up being useful and helpful since it so often was not nice—those were her exact words—and then she said we—meaning all of us who live here— were teaching her patience because even though some of us were just fine, others were really challenging or mean, and she knew the skills she was developing here would help her with the handicapped kids later. And then—and this is the kicker—she added that the bonus of working here as far as she was concerned was that now she knew she would never, ever live in a place like this when she got old, that in fact she’d made a pact with her best friend that if they had husbands and the husbands died, they would live together in an independent apartment and hire help instead of coming to a place like this.

So finally she stops talking and there was this awkward moment after which Bessie—the reason she and I often eat together is that her son doesn’t come around much either—well Bessie said that there was much more good about a place like this than Chase realized and that after her husband Francis died and even now, two years later, it’s awfully quiet and lonely in her apartment and if it weren’t part of this place, she didn’t know what she’d do. Oh sure, she volunteers at the school down the block and does yoga and goes out for meals with friends but, as she said, and I couldn’t agree more, there are still an awful lot of hours in a day. Bessie went directly from her parents’ house to living with Francis and they had been married fifty-eight years—even longer than your father and I—and so, as Bessie tried to explain to Chase, the quiet was hard but the good part was that living here, she always knew she could come down for activities or come down alone to the dining room and people would ask her to join them for dinner and that helped more than she could say. And stupid Chase just nodded as if Bessie were some sort of deranged, demented old woman when in fact, as usual, Bessie hit the nail on the head, and then Chase said she had to go help Josephine Salvatore cut her meat, and that was the end of that.

Would you like dessert? They bring it around on trays now, but I still like to get up and go look at the dessert table and decide for myself. Besides it’s good to use the old legs while I still can. Just hand me my cane—it fell—and we’ll go see what’s on offer.