The Collector

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.

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24 thoughts on “The Collector

  1. nrhatch December 15, 2011 / 9:56 PM

    Beautiful story, Janna. You’ve captured how so many feel when they find themselves surrounded by the “age challenged.”

    Love that Mrs. Babcock pulled a fast one on the “young whippersnapper.”

    • jannatwrites December 16, 2011 / 8:24 PM

      Thanks for reading it, Nancy. It seemed perfect to wrap this story up now since the Scouts are caroling at retirement homes tomorrow. I’m glad it was believable 🙂

  2. pattyabr December 15, 2011 / 10:06 PM

    The more I work with the elderly and the disabled population I realize how easy it is for them to be discounted and to be invisible to the rest of the world. My mother feels this fully as it has taken most of the year for her to recover from her medical setback. The loss of health, home, and belongings is bewildering to the elderly; not understanding why things have to change. Thanks for your short story. Nice.

    • jannatwrites December 16, 2011 / 8:29 PM

      I’m sorry your mom has experienced this, Patty. Maybe if we all remembered that we will be old one day, we might treat the elderly differently. Thank you for taking the time to read my story and comment. I appreciate it 🙂

  3. Widdershins December 15, 2011 / 11:43 PM

    Cat lady – 1, wippersnapper – 0

    • jannatwrites December 16, 2011 / 8:30 PM

      I’m sure cat lady will get a few more point in 🙂

      Thanks for reading, Widdershins!

  4. pattisj December 16, 2011 / 10:14 AM

    I could smell the place, and the meatloaf, when you opened the door. Interesting twist, and you got the point across of how the elderly are treated, from their point of view.

    • jannatwrites December 16, 2011 / 8:42 PM

      Pine-Sol and meatloaf smells yummy, right, Patti? We all change so much as we age (in appearance and behavior.) Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the person in front of us has evolved over a lifetime. Thanks for reading and sharing your comment 🙂

  5. cuhome December 16, 2011 / 12:41 PM

    I found when I was nursing that, you never know who you are talking with. Blunt, harsh reminder to me about the assumptions I think I don’t make !! Great post!

    • jannatwrites December 16, 2011 / 8:47 PM

      I think we’ve all been caught making (incorrect) assumptions at one point or another 😉 Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my story, Cuhome!

  6. Carl D'Agostino December 16, 2011 / 3:16 PM

    “It’s time to go” WATTA HOOT!!!!!!! Brilliant, just brilliant.

    • jannatwrites December 16, 2011 / 8:49 PM

      Why, thank you, Carl 🙂 I know you don’t like to read the longer pieces, so I’m glad you decided to check it out anyway!

  7. Debbie December 17, 2011 / 9:10 AM

    Janna, this is so beautiful and realistic! Too often, I’m afraid, we don’t take time to really LOOK at and SEE other people, particularly the aged or disabled. We make assumptions because that’s easier than letting ourselves get close (with all the vulnerabilities that entails). You’ve really shown how one encounter can change a person’s outlook!

    • jannatwrites December 18, 2011 / 12:02 AM

      Thanks for your comment, Debbie. It would be great if the story prompted us to stop and see the value of each person, instead of just a bunch of nameless faces. I do feel bad for the elderly, beccause it seems like many just fade into the background as they age. Sad.

  8. philosophermouseofthehedge December 17, 2011 / 5:13 PM

    Very believable – both the young data collector and the residents. I guess it’s the season to reflect. Well done – so good it should be published – it might make a difference in someone’s life.

    • jannatwrites December 18, 2011 / 12:05 AM

      Thank you for the huge compliment, Mouse. I hope it does make a difference for someone 🙂

  9. J. P. Cabit December 18, 2011 / 6:54 AM

    How intriguing! The end of this made me wonder. Was Mrs. Babcock really depressed there, or was she in a state of sardonic dementia? Did the piece have a moral, or am I supposed to leave confused?

    What skill! Keep it up.

    • jannatwrites December 18, 2011 / 10:45 AM

      Mrs. Babcock was more bored than anything else. She wasn’t suffering from dementia, she was just different and her family didn’t know how to handle that.

      I didn’t write it with a moral in mind, because I don’t want to ‘preach’ a point to anyone. You’re supposed to take from it what you want, but I didn’t intend for anyone to leave confused!

      I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment, Seph 🙂

      • J. P. Cabit December 18, 2011 / 10:47 AM

        The wonderful thing about stories is that you really don’t have to have a moral in mind when you write them. You just try to write and let the story go where it wants, and the characters do what they need to do. I believe if you let a story do its thing through your fingers, eventually, if you look close enough, you can tend to read a “moral.”

        …Right?

        • jannatwrites December 18, 2011 / 8:22 PM

          Yep, sounds about right, Seph. The moral can be whatever the reader interprets it to be. Kavita has a great poetry blog and her phrase is, “how I write, is mine…how you read, is yours.” That sums it up nicely 🙂

        • J. P. Cabit December 19, 2011 / 6:01 AM

          *thumbs up* I like that!

        • jannatwrites December 19, 2011 / 9:19 PM

          Yeah, I wish I would have thought of that 🙂

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