A Short Story by JannaTWrites:
The automatic doors to Desert Manor Assisted Living opened and a rush of stale, Pine-Sol laced air smacked me in the face. My stomach lurched and my nose crinkled when I got a whiff of dinner. There was no mistaking that odor: meatloaf. I wish someone would tell Norma that her creation isn’t fit for human consumption, but no one will because she took pride in the fact that her family passed it down for eight generations. I guess the Director figured if Norma’s family survived, it could make the residents hardier. So far, that wasn’t the case. Two of my subjects died this month.
“Hi, Nattie,” the front desk nurse called as I entered the lobby.
“Hey, Doug,” I called back. “Do you mind if I start with Mr. Westerfield today? He gets cranky if it’s too close to dinner.”
He shrugged. “Don’t care.”
Doug doesn’t waste words.
I set my satchel on a vinyl covered chair; purple, no less. I wanted to have my notebook and questions ready so I could limit my exposure to Mr. Westerfield.
At the end of this shift, I will be halfway to fulfilling my obligation to Professor Whitlock’s geriatric study. You see, in exchange for sixty hours of data collecting, she promised me a glowing recommendation for grad school. That is why I endure the boredom of asking nursing home residents the same questions for three hours a week.
I can’t wait until I’m in my lab conducting drug research. I’ll specialize in geriatric medicine because that’s where the job security is. Geriatric medicine is projected to have the biggest growth in research over the next fifteen years. It’s like getting a shot, I reminded myself, just think of something else and it’ll be over before I know it.
I headed down the main hallway, past elderly men and women in wheelchairs. A woman with oxygen tubes trailing from her nostrils sat hunched over, presumably sleeping. I didn’t stop to check, but instead walked faster, my pumps clacking on the beige tiles. A shiver slid down my back.
A hand clamped around my wrist, jerking me to a halt.
“Charlotte, you look lovely today.” The old man squinted his eyes as he tried to focus on my face.
Mr. Perkins. Charlotte was his wife of sixty-one years and she died two years ago.
“Thank you,” I said. I wriggled my wrist free from his grasp. “I’ll see you soon.”
He smiled and leaned back in his wheelchair.
The smell of aging and the fog of dementia made the air hard to breathe. One hour and I’m out of here, I consoled myself.
I glanced in Mrs. Babcock’s room as I passed by her doorway. Normally, her room was empty, but today, she sat and stared out her window. I surprised myself by wondering why she wasn’t in the rec room playing Canasta.
I looked down at my research binder, with a blank questionnaire on top. I looked at Mrs. Babcock, who was seemingly unaware of my presence and dilemma. Mr. Westerfield’s gonna be a bear.
I knocked on the door frame, startled by the echo that bounced through the room. She didn’t respond. Not even a twitch in her shoulders.
“Mrs. Babcock. It’s Natalie. Can I come in?” I raised my voice so she could hear me.
“You don’t have to shout, dear.” Her gaze never left whatever captured her attention outside the window, or rather inside her mind.
I took her verbal acknowledgement as an invitation. I pulled a wooden table chair to the other side of the window – close enough to hear, but far enough away to maintain a comfortable distance.
“Age isn’t contagious, Natalie,” Mrs. Babcock said with a hit of a smile scrunching the wrinkles around her mouth. She did not look at me.
“I-I know.” I scooted my chair a couple inches closer to her; mostly to divert my attention from the burning in my cheeks.
“Are you ready to ask me questions to see if dependence will kill me?”
I gasped. Her calm, melodic voice didn’t match the bluntness of her words.
“I don’t know what the expectations of the study are,” I lied.
Her smile drew more wrinkles from her sallow skin. I wondered if she’d been spending time with crabby Mr. Westerfield.
“What color are my eyes?”
“What?” I leaned forward to check, but could not tell from her profile.
“You don’t know, do you?”
“I guess not,” I whispered. This time, the heat on my cheeks was shame. I got her point. “I’m sorry.”
“Everyone is.” For the first time, her gaze fell in the room. She uncurled her hands and looked at the object she held.
“What is that?”
Mrs. Babcock grunted. “That’s the first time you’ve asked me a question not on your list.” She paused. “It’s a cat.” She handed it to me.
I didn’t want to touch her cat.
“Go on, Starsky won’t scratch.” She let out a throaty laugh.
I took the painted ceramic piece in my hand. Before today, I thought Mrs. Babcock was one of the more lucid residents. I had my doubts, now. “Very nice,” I said, and tried to pass it back.
She didn’t take it.
“Fifty-four cats,” she murmured.
Just then, I noticed a two-foot long shelf bracketed to the wall across from me. Dozens of felines in an assortment of colors and poses cluttered the shelf.
“Too many cats, they said.”
“I’ve seen larger collections,” I said. “This lady in Vancouver had floor-to-ceiling frog paraphernalia.”
“So they put me here.” Mrs. Babcock continued as if I had not spoken. “Said I couldn’t take care of myself.”
I sensed she had more to say, so I listened.
“Those cats were loved and well-cared for.” For the first time, Mrs. Babcock looked at me. “They thought a collection of ceramic and plaster would take the place of my babies.” She jerked her head toward the shelf behind her.
Even I, a distant observer, could see the defeat in her cloudy eyes. I didn’t know what to say at the realization she had cared for fifty-four cats.
“To answer Dr. Whitlock’s question,” Mrs. Babcock leaned forward and said in a low, raspy voice, “when you have nothing to live for, death is a gift.” She leaned her head against the chair back and closed her eyes.
A chill ran through me. I wanted to give her reasons to live. I didn’t want her give up and die like this. But the gray walls, meatloaf stench, and Mr. Moriarty cursing at a helper across the hall didn’t inspire words of encouragement.
“It’s time to go,” Mrs. Babcock said.
“No, not now!” I stood and contemplated whether I should run or yell for a nurse.
She smiled. “Dear, you have to go so I can get to my Canasta game. Can’t let Flora take my spot.” She winked at me.
“It’s been years…” She laughed before walking out of the room.
I stared at the empty doorway. Alone, I shook my head. “Green. Her eyes are green.” I muttered, still confused by what just happened.
I grabbed my satchel off the floor and as I stood, I saw it. A picture hung on the wall behind my chair that explained it all. It was a black and white photo of a woman dressed in tattered street clothes with a feathered boa draped over her shoulders. Only the boa was colored a bright fuchsia. The caption underneath read, “Drama Queen.”
I leaned in closer. The marquee above her read, “Margaret Babcock Haynes in New Money.”
My jaw went slack. I couldn’t believe that Mrs. Babcock was the marvelous Maggie Haynes of Broadway fame. She spent more hours on stage than any other Broadway actor during her heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. I fell for her cat lady story, but now I suspected I had been her Tuesday entertainment.
I heard Mr.Westerfield’s English accent from two rooms away as he complained about the room temperature. I started in his direction, my heels clicking on the tile with each step. Perhaps I will discover he is a distant relative of Queen Elizabeth’s. Nothing would surprise me this afternoon.