By Ginille Forest
Originally published in The Salmon Creek Journal
The sound of the shuffling cards calls the ladies to the table. I wait for them all, trying to ignore the familiar smell of death hanging in the air. Death smells like soup.
Lottie sits first. Lottie is always first. At eighty-two, she’s the most able of the group; physically. Alice is next, pulling out the chair to my left, struggling to scoot the tennis ball legs back under the table. She’s wearing red again. Alice hates red.
Beverly’s the last, not because she’s slow, but because she never wants to play. For over a year now, I’ve played cards at Brook Haven at three-thirty every Friday. And every Friday, Beverly complains that the cards are too small, my cologne too strong and the music too loud. The caretaker guides her to the chair across from me, next to Lottie. This should be interesting.
The cards are sticky. Still sticky from last Friday when Lottie spilled her orange juice. I deal them out anyway, making small piles until they’re all divided. Beverly picks up hers first, her permanent scowl eyeing her hand. Once upon a time she was a show girl at the Golden Nugget in Vegas. I’ve heard she had spunk, could control men with the bat of an eye and hustle sharks with the best of them. Now she eats soup.
“You’re trespassing,” Beverly growls from behind her cards.
“I know,” I smile back.
“No men allowed after hours,” she adds.
It’s three-thirty eight in the afternoon. Beverly said the same thing to her son Ben just before she ran him off with the pointy end of one of her decorative spoons. She said he tried to cop a feel. He hasn’t been back since. That was six months ago.
Beverly grabs a handful of gumdrops from the candy dish and drops them into the center of the table, “I’m all in.”
“Shhh. This is the best part,” Lottie says, tapping her feet and waving her hands to the music.
There is no music. Lottie’s been here the longest. Longer than the workers even. She’s never had visitors; no one’s really sure where she came from. I wonder about her sometimes, who she was before she found her home here. Is her family out there somewhere, already surrendered to the fact that Lottie’s gone? Does she cross their minds?
Lottie looks to Alice. “Do you have any two’s?”
No Lottie, not Go Fish.
Alice ignores her, putting her glasses on and off like she’s discovering them for the first time. Alice, the matriarch of the group, is my grandmother. Her claw like hands, riddled with arthritis, struggle to grip the cards. She was once an accomplished seamstress in World War II. She was once a lot of things: a doting preschool teacher, a mother of five, a grandmother to twelve and a great-grandmother to sixteen. Now she’s a permanent resident of Brook Haven, home for women with dementia.
Alice’s hands shake as she pulls apart the cards. Her own mother died of dementia when I was four. I don’t remember her, which I don’t feel too bad about since she never remembered me. But my whole life, Alice made it clear she was never to end up like her mother. “Never put me in a home,” she’d say. It wasn’t a big speech, more in passing, like over brunch or holidays. We went on a road trip to Yellowstone when I was fifteen. Alice took one look at those woods and said, “It’s beautiful. If I ever get as bad as my mother, bring me back to these woods and shoot me.”
There’s no woods at Brook Haven. Just floral printed couches and pine potpourri.
“I need three,” Lottie says, setting three cards down on the table.
No Lottie, not Poker.
It’s Beverly’s turn. The chair to my left is empty. Rose used to sit there. She insisted on sitting next to me, calling me Billy, after her dead son. Now she sits in the living room watching I Love Lucy reruns. One day she just stopped talking. Every once in a while a giggle escapes her, but it’s almost always followed by a sob.
Lottie grabs a gumdrop and tries to put it in her mouth. Alice slaps her hand. “You’ll spoil your appetite. I’m making soup.”
She hasn’t cooked a meal in three years.
The new girl, Helen, is in her room, visiting with family. In the beginning, everyone has family. Visitors flood the place with smiles and hugs; an ease to their guilt, I suppose. But after a while, they all stop coming. I don’t think it’s intentional. I think it’s rational. A byproduct of a lingering death. Because somewhere between the repetitive sentences and the violent insults, a person convinces themselves that their loved one is gone. That they won’t remember the visit anyway. They let themselves off the hook. But not me. I’m here every Friday. Because I broke a promise.
“You shouldn’t encourage them, Jim. It’s almost their nap time,” Alice says.
That’s me; Jim. But that’s also my father and grandfather. I never know which one of us she thinks I am. Alice rubs her hand on my inner thigh. Today I’m my grandfather.
But he’s not here. Gone three years now. And he took Alice with him.
I look around at the ladies; former wives and sisters, friends and mothers; lives long forgotten. They’ll fade away slowly, like dying flames, their bodies lingering on. But I’m not here for them. I’m here for Alice. Here, searching for any sign of life. Pretending that behind her confused and weathered eyes there’s still a person hiding there, waiting to be found.
But this is Brook Haven. And this is where memories come to die.
“Gin!” Lottie yells, setting her cards on the table, the Old Maid smiling atop them.
Yes, Lottie. Gin.