Pushing Boundaries / Breaking Barriers

Let’s Face It

by Daniel M. Jaffe

  BOUNDARIES Home  |  Contents  |  Authors  Wordrunner eChapbooks  | March 2017  |  echapbook.com      


If Albert’s gotta watch another episode of Dennis the Menace, he’ll lose his freaking mind. They stick a brain mush marathon on TV, then go and hide the remote. Mom doesn’t give a damn as long as Albert holds her cold chicken-skin hand.

Least they could do is put on decent TV. Albert didn’t shlep across country to visit Mom in her insane asylum—harsh, he thinks, but let’s face it, that’s what this place is—in order to be treated like a child. He’s 70, for God’s sake. Or thereabouts.

He’s sure that Julie would put on good TV. It’ll be only 8:00 PM back home in Santa Barbara when he calls later and catches her after dinner (organic salad with Fairview Farms veggies and that stinky feta he can’t abide)—early enough before she settles in to watch some chick flick she knows better than to grab at Blockbuster when he’s in the house. Away only… how long?—time’s a fuzziness that doesn’t matter when you miss someone could be a day a week a month a year a decade. Calendars can’t mark love.

Albert won’t let Julie dye her hair because he saw the gray coming so it’s his. She didn’t take to the gray before he said, “More glittery silver than gray.” They were strolling down State Street at night with the moon on her curls after some forgettable movie at Paseo Nuevo. Rare for them because they usually settle into their evening cozies by 8:00. She was holding his hand as is her way in public to make him think she thinks some other woman’ll up and try to steal him. Nothing says I love you like jealousy, real or pretend. She lifted his hand to her lips when he said that about her silver chalice hairdo. That’s the phrase he used, “silver chalice,” which must have stuck in his head from some Errol Flynn swashbuckler from long-ago boyhood. A phrase worth remembering. A silver chalice moment.

See that, everybody?—a pretty lady just kissed Albert’s hand because she’s his lady. Oh, she huffs when he calls her his—holding onto all that ‘70’s feminist crap the way she does—but he’s quick to tell her he’s hers goose-for-gander, and if she likes his ass, she can whistle at it all she wants. She just shakes her head at that and tsks, but doesn’t let go of his hand. Their pretend-bicker way going on 40 years.

Albert likes that she didn’t like her hair turning gray, so that he could make her feel good about something she didn’t like about herself.

Their living room at home’s more cozy than this one at Mom’s, which is oversized but not institutional-looking. Albert’s gotta give ‘em that much. If he didn’t know this was an asylum, he wouldn’t know this was an asylum: big flat-screen TV in the corner; light green cloth sofa long enough to seat three including the two stiffies sitting there now, holding hands but with blank expressions on their faces—mummified already? He’d take a brush to the old guy’s white dandelion fluff and his lady friend’s mussed red curls if anybody asked him, but Albert wouldn’t just up and go over and brush hair without an invitation because who knows what might set ‘em off? A lunatic is a lunatic is a lunatic. On the matching loveseat catty-cornered to the sofa, the poufy-haired peroxide blond is smothering a doll’s plastic face with kisses. “Good baby, good baby.” Must’ve been one hell of a mom in her day, the way she slobbers over that doll.

When Albert calls tonight, he won’t tell Julie about Mrs. Poufy Hair because Julie couldn’t have children. Not that Albert ever minded. Well, he minded, but not enough to hurt Julie’s feelings even though she’s the one put the kibosh on adopting, which he’d have been perfectly happy to do because, he figured, they could always buy a video of some other baby’s birth—folks’ll sell anything nowadays—and call it their own. They’d sit with Baby Albert or Baby Julie and point and watch and listen to the video birth mom scream and pant and breathe while the masked-gowned obstetrician grunted “Push! Push!” the way they do on TV, and Albert’d say, “You sure had a tough time of it, Julie.” But Julie wouldn’t have it; so—just the two of them night after night, week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, enjoying coziness on the sofa in front of their TV. Not the end of the goddamn world, just of Albert’s family name.

Netty and Salvatore are parked against the wall in their wheelchairs, a few feet from Mrs. Poufy Hair and her baby doll. Netty is small with a gray bun on her head. A variety of warts dot her hooked nose and square jaw. Albert wonders what on earth Salvatore ever saw in her. Salvatore’s taller and more broad-shouldered than Albert, with a thicker shock of white hair, gray eyes, and vertical creases from nostrils to chin that make his face look more a muzzle than a face, masculine the way women like—an old John Wayne boxery puss. Albert’s is more Cary Grant dapper turned saggy. Both Netty and Salvatore are in black track pants, but Netty’s wearing a white turtle neck that reminds Albert of Julie’s favorite, and Salvatore’s in a blue-striped Oxford shirt like Albert sometimes wears, but Albert keeps both tails tucked in, not one in and the other out. Sloppy. They look up at Dennis, then nod off. Bored as Albert is.

Netty turns and looks at Mrs. Poufy Hair, asks in a raspy voice, “Do you have somewhere to go?”

Mrs. Poufy Hair doesn’t turn her head to Netty, just continues kissing her baby doll.

Netty says, “You’ve been sitting here in my house since 8:00 o’clock this morning. You’ve got to leave.”

No response.

Netty turns to Salvatore, who’s asleep. “She’s been here all day and won’t answer me.” Salvatore doesn’t wake.

Netty addresses Mrs. Poufy Hair again, “Is there someone I can call to come get you?”

No response.

Mom’s asleep in her wheelchair at their table—her soft cheeks sloping lamb-like, her jowly jaw drooping open, her loose silver-gray braid dangling down her back—so Albert figures he might as well amble over and pass the time. He walks to Netty and explains that Mrs. Poufy Hair’s “hard of hearing.” He doesn’t know how he knows this, but he does. Sometimes he’s amazed at his own perceptiveness.

“She’s been in my house since 8:00 o’clock this morning,” says Netty. “I don’t even know her. Why’d they bring her to my house?”

“Maybe because they know you’re a kind lady,” Albert replies. Once a gentleman, always a gentleman.

“Well, thank you, but she can’t stay. I’ve got three grandchildren. Two are adopted. I can’t have strangers in my house.”

“Want me to call her daughter to come get her?”

“Oh, would you? Thank you!”

Albert returns to his wood-backed chair beside Mom, and Netty explains to sleeping Salvatore that “this nice man’s going to help.”

Back at their table, Albert again takes Mom’s cold chicken-skin hand. Feels soft. He’s got no intention in hell of calling Mrs. Poufy Hair’s daughter, especially not from the broken phone in his hotel room. He’s not even sure the daughter gave him her number the last time he was here visiting from California. He just wants Netty to stop fussing about Mrs. Poufy Hair’s daughter. For her sake. And, okay, maybe a little for Albert’s own because Netty gets on his nerves. Each time he visits from California.

Not ten minutes go by when Netty’s daughter really does come marching down the hall. Albert covers his mouth so Netty won’t see him chuckle—there’s no call to be mean.

As the daughter passes their table, she says to Albert, “Are you in from California today?” The first part of the question doesn’t phase him, but he wonders about that “today.” Like he comes from a different place every day. Where the hell else would he be coming from if not California?

He just nods without making a fuss because, well, she’s a pretty one with that long blond hair of hers and cute curves beneath loose yellow blouse and slacks. It’s not every day Albert gets to see cute curves except on TV when they show something other than children’s shit.

The woman crouches beside Mrs. Poufy Hair and yells directly into her ear, “Hi, Mom, it’s me!”

Smiles and cheek kisses.

Netty leans forward in her wheelchair and asks the daughter eagerly, “Is she your relative?’

“Yes, Netty, she’s my mother.”

“Oh good.” Netty looks over at Albert and nods. He’s surprised she’s holding onto the train of thought. “Your mother’s been in my house since 7:00 this morning. She just wandered in. Probably doesn’t know where she is. It’s very sad. I gave her something to eat, but she can’t stay. I’ve got three grandchildren. Two are adopted.”

“That’s nice,” says the daughter.

“Are you taking your mother home?” asks Netty.

“No, she’s staying here.”

“Here? What do you mean, here? In my house?”

“Here,” replies the daughter, her tone staying don’t-mess-with-me flat. “She’s staying here.”

“For how long?” asks Netty.

“As long as she needs to.”

Mamma mia, that’s impossible. She cannot stay in my house.”

The daughter looks away from Netty, slips her arm under her mother’s and lifts her to standing. She yells into Mrs. Poufy Hair’s ear, “Come on, Mom, let’s take a walk!” And off they shuffle into the dining room.

“That’s better. Thank you,” Netty calls after her. “It’s very sad,” she calls to Albert. “She just wandered into my house.”

“Very sad,” he replies, forcing his face serious even though this is just too funny. He can’t wait to call Julie tonight and tell her.

He’ll call after he eats dinner with Mom and says good night. It’ll be 11:00 PM here in New Jersey, but 8:00 PM back in California. He’ll walk down the block to his hotel that’s clearly been designed to resemble Mom’s mental institution (let’s face it, he thinks—that’s what it is): the beige-striped wall paper, generic hanging prints of over-sized pink hydrangea and clusters of purple lilac, the shit-brown indoor-outdoor carpeting. Even the same hallway tableaux between guest-room doors: an old sewing machine here, a roll-top desk there, a couple coat racks with hanging floppy hats and pink feather boas, even a crib full of dolls and stuffed teddy bears. Makes no sense why a hotel would bother with such nonsense, but maybe it appeals to lady guests on business trips away from their kids.

He can’t recall why he chose this particular hotel—damn odd not to have a television in his room. Doesn’t look like any Holiday Inn he remembers from vacations he and Julie took to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Probably chose it because it’s close to Mom’s dementia ward (let’s face it, he thinks—that’s what it is). Maybe there’s just one interior design motif here in Cherryvale, NJ: suburban blah. Maybe hotels, asylums, and whatever else here all use the same interior decorator because, let’s face it, how many interior decorators can a small suburb support? Sad, actually, because Albert gets kind of mopey in his room with the off-white paint peeling from ceiling corners.

Julie pokes her nose up with an index finger and says “Oink! Oink!” whenever he gets mopey, which he doesn’t do so much nowadays, but which he did a lot back after that day mowing the lawn when he couldn’t remember the neighbor’s name. Neighbors for thirty years and suddenly he couldn’t remember Bob’s name—there it is: Bob. Albert’s certainly tip top now, but that mowing day threw him.

“How are you this fine morning, Albert?” Bob asked that mowing day in that overly cheery way he had.

“Why, I’m fit as a fiddle, uh…uh—” Albert couldn’t for the life of him think to say Mark or Sam or maybe Harry. thirty years. He settled on Billy, which was close, considering. “And how you feeling, Billy?” The neighbor squinted like waiting to see if this was some joke, then stammered that he had to dash back inside because he “forgot to tell Maggie something, I’m just so forgetful nowadays.” Which excuse flustered him because he obviously didn’t mean to talk about forgetfulness but that’s clearly what was on his mind, so that’s what he said. Must’ve telephoned Julie because when Albert went back in the house after sweeping up the grass clippings, Julie looked at him all concerned, took both his hands, sat him down on their yellow sofa with gray flecks—see, he remembers everything now, he’s fine—and asked if Albert was feeling all right, which he was except for the neighbor’s name that made Albert understand Goldilocks for the first time—searching for something to fit just right. He told Julie he’d been chatting with their neighbor “B…B…Billy,” as if he had a stutter.

Ever so softly, she said, “We don’t have a neighbor ‘Billy,’ but we do have a ‘Bob.’” And soon as Albert heard it, he knew it fit just right—“that’s the one,” he said, “Bob.” Julie leaned in for a hug, and stroked the back of his neck the way Albert had taught her soothes him like they did roosters when he was a boy—from bottom of the neck to top, ruffling feathers (or hair) against the grain. Something soothing about a gentle feather/hair ruffle up against the grain. Albert loves the touch of her fingertips.

He chuckled and said, “Hey, if this touchy-touchy is what I get for saying ‘Bob,’ what’ll I get for saying ‘Bobby’ or a full-fledged ‘Robert’?” He was just teasing, trying to make light because he was no idiot and knew what had just happened but didn’t want her to see him worry because he couldn’t stand that watery look of hers.

Which he had to get used to in the years after. First with names that didn’t come at all—like looking inside his head at a white smudge on a blackboard fresh after someone erased the chalk letters. Names disappeared first, and then people Julie said he knew but he couldn’t for the life of him place, like Bob-from-next-door’s son and the grandchildren. “Well, if I don’t remember the son, I sure as hell won’t remember the grandchildren, right? So, it’s forgetting one thing, not two. Anybody can forget one thing now and then.” Julie flashed that watery look. But things are okay now. Albert remembers everything just fine: BillyBob next door and his wife…the Mrs…. have a son named Frank who’s married to Stella and they’ve got three kids: Winkin, Blinkin, and Nod.

Just the same, Julie still worries, especially when he travels cross-country to visit Mom. Julie knows he’d rather be in their evening coziness with his feet under the orange-and-green-striped afghan Mom crocheted while recovering from her hysterectomy when Albert was 10. Julie snuggling on the sofa at his side beneath a fake sheepskin coverlet, munching unsalted pretzel nuggets. He cracking and snacking on shelled peanuts—still got his teeth, thank you very much. The two of them settling on some cooking competition show (for her), or grisly cop show (for him) or courtroom drama, or Seinfeld re-run (they both like adult re-runs)—she’s the one reminds them which episode of what they’ve seen over and over because she’s good at that, everything blurring for Albert not because of some problem but because—let’s face it, he thinks—TV mind candy all tastes pretty much the same regardless of the channel. Sugar is sugar is sugar.

If only Mom could engage in conversation. If only they’d show news or sports or interesting movies on the living room TV instead of Hallmark drivel. If only the temperature wasn’t so warm it makes him want to doze off like the inmates. It is what it is. He’s gotta make the best of it for the rest of his visit, which is…how much longer is he booked for?

Netty calls out to him, “Sir! Oh, Sir!”

What does she want now? “Yes?” he asks, reminding himself to be polite to old ladies.

“Do I have to cook for all these people? You need to give me notice. I have to make spaghetti sauce a day ahead of time.”

Boy, she’s really off her rocker, this one. Better humor her or who knows what she’ll do? Playing along, he asks, “Do you use oregano in your spaghetti sauce?” (Julie uses oregano.)

Netty rattles off, “Garlic, salt, oregano, tomatoes,” ticking the list on her fingertips as she goes. Albert’s always amazed how these lunatics remember certain things so well. Netty continues, “My mother always said, ‘If you sleep late and miss church—no Sunday dinner.’”

“She was strict,” says Albert.

“Italian women are strong.” Netty grins broadly.

“Have you met Mom?”

“I haven’t had the pleasure.”

Mom’s still asleep, so Albert checks that her feet in the black velcro-latch shoes are firmly on the wheelchair peddles, then he unlocks the whole contraption and wheels her over to Netty. He points at Mom, and Netty nods. He drags his wood-backed chair over to sit by them, and forces himself to watch Dennis the Menace with Netty.

A few minutes later, Mom opens her eyes and looks in the direction of the TV.

Netty notices and says, “Where are you sleeping tonight?”

“Here.” Mom looks at Albert, “right?”

He nods.

“Here?” asks Netty. “What do you mean—here? You can’t sleep here.”

“Sure she can,” Albert says. He pretty much knows what’s coming, but he’s so damn bored: “Mom lives here.”

“What do you mean she lives here?” Netty says. “In my house?”

“For three years now.” Not that he actually remembers how long Mom’s been living in this so-called Memory Care Neighborhood. But three’s as good as two’s as good as five.

“Three years in my house?” asks Netty.

“Yep, for sure.”

Netty turns to Salvatore, who’s awake now and dully watching the conversation. “Sal, this woman says she’s been living in our house for three years. Do you know who she is? Is she one of your putanas?”

“What are you yapping about?” asks Salvatore.

“You’ve been hiding her here, haven’t you?” accuses Netty. “In the basement, I bet. You know I won’t go down there because of the spiders. How many putanas do you have hidden right under my very nose? And we’ve got three grandchildren, two of whom are adopted.”

Salvatore turns his attention to Dennis.

Netty, eyes on fire, turns to Mom. “How dare you. In my own house!”

Mom stares blankly at Netty.

“I’ve got three grandchildren! Two are adopted. They come visit. I can’t have strangers in my house, especially not a putana.”

“Even if,” Albert asks, “Mom was in the military?”

“What do you mean?”

“Your husband, Salvatore, was in the navy, right?” Another tidbit Albert doesn’t know how he knows.

Salvatore perks up, slurs, “Lieutenant Commander.”

“On a battleship,” Netty adds with pride. “In the Pacific.”

“After the War, Mom worked as a secretary in the Air Force. She’s part of your big military family.”

“Did she fool around with my husband during the War?” demands Netty.

“I’m sure she didn’t. Mom, you didn’t know Salvatore during the War, did you?”

“Oh, yes,” says Mom. “My whole heart loved him.”

“What!” says Netty, stabbing an arthritic finger in the air at Mom. “So, you’re the one! All those months on that ship while I was home changing diapers. Lean forward, you hussy, I’ll scratch your eyes out!”

Mom, unperturbed, stares at Netty.

Okay, Albert realizes he went too far. “Netty,” he says, “Mom wasn’t on any ship with Salvatore, but in the Air Force. In an office in Baltimore. Salvatore wasn’t stationed in Baltimore, was he?”

“No,” says Netty, calming down. “Never in Baltimore. In the Pacific. And then in San Diego.”

“So you see—Mom and Salvatore never even met.”

“Then why’d she say she loved him?”

“Mom loves everyone.”

“Oh, I see,” says Netty. “A good Christian.” She nods approval.

“No, Mom’s Jewish.”

“Well, I guess she’s one of the decent ones.”

Is that an anti-Semitic crack? Should Albert let it slide?

“So,” asks Netty, “where are you taking her to sleep?”

“She’s staying here. You’ll like having her around. She’ll help you with the housework.”

“I will?” asks Mom, shifting in her wheelchair.

“Oh no,” says Netty. “I can’t have that.”

“Mom’s great with children,” Albert says.

“I don’t know…”

Alicia, one of the health aides in khaki scrub top and beige slacks, enters the living room from the hallway. Albert finds her sexier than Mrs. Poufy Hair’s blond daughter: big-busted yet graceful, thick black hair, always looking tanned like from the beach. Makes him think of Southern California. “Hola,” he calls out. “Do health aides give sponge baths to visitors?”

Alicia smiles politely and says, “Hi, Mr. Albert, baths are on Sundays. Are you in from California today?”

Again with that “today” business. Where the hell else do these women think he comes from? Doesn’t matter—from this one he’ll take it.

“And,” Alicia adds, looking at Mom, “I see that Miss Julie’s looking well.”

“Julie? Julie’s back in Santa Barbara. This is Mom, don’t you recognize her?”

“Of course, my mistake. I see so many people that sometimes I get confused. Hi, Mom!”

“Hello, darling,” says Mom. “I love you.”

“You’re not the only one who gets confused,” Albert explains to Alicia. “Netty doesn’t want Mom ‘in her house’.”

“Yes, our Miss Netty’s got that notion. Last night’s shift people tell me Miss Netty wouldn’t go to bed until they got all these strangers out of her house.”

“Who can go to sleep with strangers in your living room?” asks Netty. “I’ve got three grandchildren. The adopted two are little girls. You can’t allow strangers in the house when you’ve got little girls.”

“You’re a good grandma,” says Alicia. “Miss Netty, I came to check if you might need to go to the ladies room.”

“Thank you, yes, now that you mention it. Salvatore—“ says Netty to her sleeping husband “—I’ll be back in a few minutes, so don’t you go messing with that one.” She jerks a thumb at Mom.

Alicia wheels Netty out.

Albert watches Dennis mess up something or other for his TV neighbor, Mr. Wilson. Meanwhile, Netty’s anti-Semitic remark is sticking in Albert’s craw. He thinks for a bit, then decides to do her a not-so-nice turn: he wheels Mom’s chair into Netty’s empty spot beside Salvatore. Then he taps Salvatore’s hand until he wakes.

“Why are you poking me?” Salvatore mutters.

“I want to introduce you and Mom. Mom, this is Salvatore.”

Mom looks at him and says, “Hello, darling.”

“Hello there,” says Salvatore, perking up enough to sport a big grin. “Pretty braid you got there.” He leans forward, reaches over Mom’s shoulder and strokes her single, silvery gray braid.

“What are you doing?” asks Mom.

“Yeah, what are you doing?!” cries Netty as Alicia wheels her back into the living room. “You son of a bitch!” Netty yells. “You cheated on me!”

“What the hell you whining about now?” he asks, yanking back his hand like he was just stroking fire.

“I caught you red-handed! How dare you do that to me! I’ll tell the children! I’ll have you arrested!”

“Mr. Albert,” says Alicia, “maybe you could wheel Mom back to the table?” Her eyes are stern and scolding.

“Why are you calling her ‘Mom’?” Albert asks, not wanting to be rude, but Alicia shouldn’t go around confusing everybody.

“My mistake, Mr. Albert,” says Alicia, her face softening. “Could you please wheel Miss Julie back to the table?”

“Okay,” Albert says, feeling a sadness for Alicia, confusing Mom and Julie that way. At least Alicia’s in the right place. Probably doesn’t even work here. Maybe they let her dress up like she works here. To keep her quiet.

Damn, it’s a good thing Albert didn’t fall for her flirtiness. Especially in front of Julie. Last thing Albert needs is some demented woman latching onto him.

end of story

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