Chapters 1 and 2 are here.
Chapter 3. A Kitchen Surprise
“Here it is,” the clerk said, in front of the door with 20D in bronze lettering above the peephole.
“Let me know if you need anything. Boxes. Garbage bags.”
Stanley turned and walked back down the hall towards his station at the entrance. Julie watched him go, until he had settled into his chair behind the counter. When he picked up the magazine he had been reading when she first entered through the sliding glass doors, Julie turned back to the door. 20D.
She didn’t learn of her mother’s death until her cousin told her in an email that was short and sweet: Julie, I hope you’re doing OK. You should know that your mom passed away a few days ago. The funeral was yesterday. I’m sorry you couldn’t be here. Joe.
Julie called the director of Shady Acres and yelled into the phone, “Why didn’t you notify me of my mother’s death?” She was gracious enough to avoid pointing out that Julie had never visited her mother during the seven years she lived at Shady Acres. Instead, Antoinette Chambliss, the director, asked whether Julie wanted to come to the home and go through her mother’s belongings. They had yet to pack her stuff up. Her unit was as it was the day she died.
Julie drove over the next day, the first feelings of guilt she had experienced for a long time creeping into that pit that rests in the center of us all. Julie lived only five miles from Shady Acres, so it certainly wasn’t the physical distance that had kept mother and daughter apart. No, it was so much more than that. Maybe Julie should have been the adult and made the first move, but the emotional gulf had been too vast. Now, her mother was gone and there was no hope of reconciliation. Don’t the experts say you should make sure to let those who are close to you know that you love them while you still have the opportunity? Julie and her mother hadn’t checked off that box.
Julie pushed the door open now and took a step inside, letting the door whisper shut behind her. “Mother,” she sighed. The front room — with a mismatched recliner and love seat covered with plastic, an old 19-inch color TV on a rickety stand, and a coffee table stacked high with magazines and old newspapers – was her. Julie sat on the edge of the loveseat, the plastic crinkling underneath her. Even with the cover, the White Shoulders her mother had worn as long as she could remember rose up from the furniture.
The tears started then. Slowly. First Julie’s eyes misted. Then she could feel the moisture collect around the rims of her eyes. Finally, a couple of tears leaked out and streamed down her cheeks before she could wipe them away. “Dammit,” Julie said to her reflection in the TV screen. Too much anger. Too much pride. A family trait passed down from generation to generation.
Her mother’s anger and pride had drove Julie from her. Her anger that Julie chose not to follow the life path her mother thought best for her daughter. Her mother’s pride that prevented her from asking for and receiving help when she needed it. And Julie’s own version of those characteristics had kept her from finding her way back to her mother. It had been so long since they last spoke. More than the seven years her mother had spent at Shady Acres had passed since their last conversation.
Once the tears had stopped and Julie had her fill of the front room, she rose and walked into the kitchen. Julie wasn’t prepared for what she saw. On the wall above the small kitchen table, was a collage of pictures, randomly thumbtacked to the wall. Every single picture was of Julie. First communion. Homecoming. With Neil, her first boyfriend. Every single class picture from kindergarten through high school graduation, scattered amongst the other pictures. Smack dab in the middle was an 8×10 of Julie walking across the stage at San Jose State University, diploma held proudly aloft.
Julie fell into one of the chairs at the table and put her head in her hands. “Mother,” she whispered. “Mother. Why, oh why?” She cried again as she looked up at the pictures. How could they have let this happen?
A few minutes later, a knock at the door brought Julie back to the front room, wiping the tears from her face. “Come in,” Julie called out. The door opened and an old man shuffled into the room. “Is Wilma here?”
“Ummm. No. Can I help you?”
“It’s my birthday today. 100th. I didn’t see her at the party. I wanted to bring her a cupcake.”
“Oh. That’s so sweet,” Julie began before her eyes misted again and a lump caught in her throat. Julie leaned against the recliner. “Wilma died a few days ago. I’m Julie. Her daughter.”
“I’m so very sorry for your loss. Please accept my prayers for you and your family.” The old man patted his hand on his heart as he spoke.
“Thank you. Please sit down, Mr. …”
“Mr. Robertson. But call me Mike.” Slowly, he bent at his knees, then at his waist and, with a sigh, he backed down onto the love seat. “Aaaaaah,” Mike sighed. “It’s been a long day.”
For a few seconds, an uncomfortable silence filled the room. “Would you like the cupcake?” He still held it in his hand.
A few more quiet seconds passed before he broke it again. “Your mother was a wonderful woman.” He looked at Julie, who couldn’t tell if his eyes were watering out of sadness or if it was just the moisture all old people seem to have in the corners of their eyes. “She spoke very highly of you.”
“Really? What did she say?”
“She was very proud of you. She read every one of your books and always wanted to talk about them.”
“You’re kidding.” In Julie’s wildest dreams, she never imagined her mother would read her books. It was Julie’s desire to be a writer, instead of a “professional woman” as her mother so frequently explained, more than anything else, that opened the crack in their relationship. When her mother learned that Julie wrote erotica, well, the crack ripped wide open. Julie almost laughed at the idea of her old mom talking with Mike Robertson about her books. What must that have been like?
“No, ma’am. I would not kid you about Wilma at a time like this.” He put the cupcake down on the coffee table and stood up, much more slowly than when he had sat down. “I should leave you now. You must want to be alone.”
“Mr. Robertson, thank you.”
Julie shrugged and said nothing.
Mike Robertson began to shuffle towards the door. Julie rushed to the door to open it for him. As he got to the door, Julie held out her arms and gave him a hug. “Thank you for telling me about my mother,” she whispered in his ear. “Thank you.”
He looked at Julie and smiled a little Cheshire cat grin.
Julie walked back into the front room, letting the door once again whisper shut behind her. Seeing the cupcake, she picked it up and took a bite. 100 years? Julie pondered the idea of lasting that long and wondered whether it was worth it. With a sigh, she walked back into the kitchen and sat down. An hour later Julie was still looking at the pictures, remembering the when and the where of each and every one of them. Most importantly, she remembered her mother as she was when each of those pictures was taken. Were all of the memories good? Most certainly not. But they were her memories of her mother and she hoped she never lost them.
Chapter 4. Mr. Robertson’s Neighborhood
Maybe walking hadn’t been such a good idea. Mike’s feet hurt. His feet twinged with each step and his hips radiated more pain down his thighs. But the pain? Worth it. Mike wouldn’t have traded the weariness he felt in his bones for anything. How could he complain? The day had exceeded Mike’s wildest dreams. But, it had been a long one. One more stretch of hallway, with 17C at the end. If Mike could storm Utah Beach under the fire of the German 88s, he could do this, too.
* * *
As promised, when Mackenzie helped Mike out of bed, he slid his hand around her waist and whispered a sweet nothing to her. He pinched her ass. At first, she looked at Mike in surprise, but then she winked. “Well, aren’t you feeling a little frisky this morning?” she said around a giggle. “Since it’s your birthday, I’ll let it go, but Mr. Robertson, no more.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Mike smiled back at her. “But, please, stop calling me that. The only Mr. Robertson I know died a long, long time ago. I’ve told you before. My friends call me Mike.”
“Aah, I can’t do that. At your age, you are Mr. Robertson.”
“Mackenzie.” His voice dropped a little lower. “At my age, I’ve earned the right to tell you that you are my friend. Call me Mike.”
“Yes … Mike.”
Once Mike was dressed, Mackenzie asked, “Walker or wheelchair today, Mr. Robertson?”
“Neither. I’m walking today. Without the walker.”
“Mr. Robertson …”
“Mike,” Mackenzie sighed. “You need at least your walker.”
“Not today.” He began to walk towards the door, his feet barely clearing the level surface of the floor. As he passed through the doorway, Mackenzie walked to Mike’s side and put her hand under his elbow. “No,” Mike said, moving his arm away. “No.”
“You certainly are the stubborn one today. Do you mind if I at least walk next to you?”
“Nothing would please me more than to have a beautiful young lady to spend my birthday with,” he said with a wink.
“Well, then let’s go.” And, off they went at the speed of a three-toed sloth that had lost two toes.
Breakfast passed uneventfully, as did the rest of the morning. After lunch, Mike took his nap. There’s only so much protest a 100-year-old man can take. He was awakened by Mackenzie entering the room. “Mr. Robertson . . .”
Even in the fog of waking in the early afternoon, Mike expressed his dissatisfaction, “Uh-uh-uh. No more of that.”
“Mike, they’re having a party for you in the courtyard. Time for you to get up.”
Once again Mike insisted on walking under his own power. If anything, as the two walked towards the quad, he felt stronger and younger than he had in the morning. The next couple of hours passed in the warm sun of a spring afternoon. A disorganized swirl of residents and workers wished Mike many more birthdays, his friends fell asleep where they sat, Mike blew out ten candles—one for each decade—his friends forgot where they were in the middle of sentences, and there were lots of cupcakes. Mike’s dentureless gums more than handled a cupcake or two. Or three. He was one hundred years old and demanded to eat as many cupcakes as he wanted. Blood sugar be damned.
In all the hubbub of the afternoon, Mike noticed that two of his closest friends at Shady Acres failed to make an appearance. To wish him a happy birthday. When the crowd in the courtyard dwindled to just a few and the late afternoon breeze began to pick up, Mike took two of the last cupcakes and began to make his way out the courtyard and down a hallway towards Betty Ostrander’s place.
When she opened her door, Mike held out a cupcake. “It’s my birthday, Betty. I brought you a cupcake.”
“Well, Happy Birthday, Mike,” Betty said, opening the door wider to allow him to pass through the entrance. “I heard about your party, but I wasn’t feeling well.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
Betty put the cupcake down on the coffee table in front of the sofa. “Sit down, please,” Betty said, as she sat down at one end of the sofa. Before Mike sat down at the other end, he reached his hand out to her cheek and caressed it softly. “Betty, you know that every day I see you, you take my breath away. The moments we spend together are some of my favorite.”
“Well, aren’t you a sweet, dear man.” Betty favored him with a smile and the faintest hint of red in her otherwise pale cheeks. Mike sat down and Betty patted him on the knee. “Happy Birthday, Mike.”
“It’s my 100th,” he said, beaming back at her.
A minute or two passed in an uncomfortable silence while Betty looked at Mike with a strange look on her face. In the past few months, her behavior had become more bizarre. At times, calling him Steve or Joe or, rarely, Nicky. One time, Mike ran into Betty’s daughter and asked if her mother was okay. She confirmed for him his worst fear. “It’s Alzheimer’s. It just getting worse.”
“Was there a Nicky in her life?”
“Yes. Why do you ask?”
“She calls me Nicky every once in awhile.”
“Nicky was my father. Her husband, until he left her thirty-two years into their marriage.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” What more could be said?
Now, in the growing silence, Mike grew concerned that another odd incident may be about to happen. On his 100th birthday, he hardly wanted to be confused with the man who left her. Mike decided to leave before the opportunity presented itself.
“You know, in honor of your birthday, I think I want to offer you a special present.” Too late. Before he could stop her, Betty started to unbutton her blouse.
Mike rose from the sofa. “Please, Betty. Stop.”
“Oh, come on,” she said with a wink. “Let’s celebrate your birthday.” She continued to unbutton her blouse until she could pull one side down off her shoulder, revealing a bony shoulder covered with age spots and wrinkles. Mike walked to her door without looking back. As the door closed behind him, Mike could hear her. “Come back, Nicky. Come back.” Maybe it was time for Mike to end his protest. The advance of age was inevitable. Who was he kidding?
Mike began to shuffle back towards 17C, with one more task to complete. When he reached 20D, he raised a hand and knocked. An unknown voice invited him in. Greeted by a stranger in tears, confusion that had become an occasional companion threatened to sidetrack Mike from his mission. He fought it off and remembered why he was there. “Is Wilma here?”
The tear-stained woman shared with Mike the worst news. Wilma had passed away quietly in her sleep a few days before. Wilma, who had been the first person to greet Mike with a smile when he first came to Shady Acres, was no more. That first afternoon, after Gerry and John left Mike in the quad, he had sat in the gathering gloom of dusk with a darker expression on his face. Convinced that he was in a place for old people where he did not belong, Mike was determined to glare and stare his way out of the home. His boys would eventually see the error of their ways. Hopefully, sooner instead of later.
It didn’t last long. A few moments after Mike sat down, Wilma sat on the bench next to him. “Good evening. I’m Wilma,” she said. The fading light reflected off her teeth, displayed by her wide smile. There was laughter in her eyes.
Wilma held her hand out. Mike took it and shook it lightly. “Mike. Mike Robertson.”
“Welcome to Shady Acres, Mike. I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not.”
“Mike, we all think that when our kids first leave us. I most certainly did. I was already struggling with my daughter. Somewhere along the way, we’d lost touch with each other. I even hated her for a bit when I first got here. Haven’t talked to her much since.” Wilma sniffed a bit and looked at Mike as he glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes. “It’s okay. Don’t say it,” she said, patting his hand.
“I still wish I was ‘home.’ But, I’ll never go back there. ” Wilma withdrew her hand from Mike’s and looked out towards where the sun was setting. “‘Home’ doesn’t exist anymore, except here. So, this place is what you want to make of it.”
Wilma stayed with Mike for a few more minutes. There was nothing more than the small talk that passes between two strangers who have lived a lot of years. Each day after that, she made a point of finding Mike and sitting with him, sharing more small talk, more smiles, and eventually shared laughter. Wilma taught him how to play canasta. Mike taught her cribbage. Old dogs can most certainly learn new tricks.
* * *
Now, Mike’s first friend at Shady Acres was no more. It hurt Mike like a punch to the gut that might knock his breath out. But, standing before him was a young lady in tears. Mike decided to deal with his own pain later. Although it troubled him that he had never before seen the woman, claiming to be Wilma’s daughter, he spent the next few moments comforting her with the truth.
Mike laughed with Julie at the idea of Wilma sharing her stories with him. Two old folks reading and discussing her books full of passion between lovers and strangers, sex in places that made them laugh, and ideas that more than once may have led Wilma and Mike to engage in a little more than they should have. But that was Wilma. She discussed anything and everything with Mike and helped him become more comfortable with the vagaries of human nature than he ever had before. And, more than once she told him, “At my age, I really don’t care if people approve.”
When Mike rose to take his leave and told Wilma’s daughter this, she looked at him with a puzzled expression. Mike knew then that she had never known her mother.
* * *
The strength Mike felt earlier in the day had left him. His feet slid along the floor. His hand reached out to the wall. The darkness outside was complete. Lights in the ceiling guided him the last thirty feet to his door. His breathing was ragged and Mike could smell his own old man scent rising from his pores. When he arrived at his destination, he reached his hand out, but he was too slow. Another hand, soft, graceful and so very pale, reached the handle first and opened the door for Mike. “Come on, Mike, let’s get you to bed,” Mackenzie said with a laugh.
“What are you doing here?” Mike said a little more gruffly than intended.
“I’ve been here all day. I’ve been keeping my eye on you.” Mackenzie placed her hand under Mike’s elbow and began to guide him inside. “You didn’t really think I’d let you go off on this little demonstration of yours without making sure you made it through the day, did you?”
“You’re an angel.” Mike accepted her assistance now with gratitude. In a few minutes, he was once again cleaned, brushed, and dressed. This time for bed. Mackenzie helped him settle his old bones.
“Good night, Mike,” she said. “I hope you’ve enjoyed your birthday. 100 is a pretty big number. You should be proud of it. You should be proud of everything you’ve done in your life.”
Before Mike could respond, Mackenzie took her young, lovely self from his room, turning the light off as she went. Mike lay down in his bed for a few moments and pondered the mysteries of the day. It’s one thing to turn a hundred years old. It’s another thing altogether to go beyond it. Tomorrow would be a new day, with new challenges. The real beginning of Mike’s second century of life. Mike fell asleep to the same question repeating itself in his head. What to do? What to do?