Here’s a short story I wrote. Enjoy! (And if you don’t enjoy it, tell me what could make it more enjoyable, eh? Let’s be constructive with our criticism . . .)
Mrs. Halsted is a trip. A lot of our dementia patients have colorful personalities, but none of them are as rude as her. What happens to your brain when you get old is that the prefrontal cortex starts shrinking. That’s the part that filters out the horrible things you’re really thinking before you say anything or do anything you might regret. That’s why we’re not surprised to see the patients with dementia sharing beds in the morning. Without that prefrontal cortex going strong, they simply forget they have spouses and can’t hold back their animal instincts toward the other silver foxes.
But I don’t think Mrs. Halsted’s prefrontal cortex filter was ever very strong. Let’s just say you don’t want to get on her bad side, and the only way to do that is not to have a penis. Honestly, the only time I ever regret not having been born with a penis is when I talk to her. And today I will have to talk to her because Craig’s out sick.
“Hey Brie.” Ronnie lets the staff room door slam behind him and he throws on a mint green canvas vest over his faded David Bowie t-shirt. The coffee percolator sneezes out a puff of steam and surrenders its final drops to my mug.
“Hellooou? Brie? Anyone home?”
“Oh, hi, Ronnie.”
“I see someone was up late last night. Chatting up potential suitors online again?”
“Jesus, am I really that predictable?” Ronnie tilts his head forward and raises his eyebrows.
“Ok, fine, maybe that’s my routine, but lately I’ve only been talking to one suitor, Alex.”
“Alex–as in ‘Alexander’ or ‘Alexandra’?”
“Just ‘Alex,’ as far as I know.”
The door bursts open again. In comes our supervisor Brenda, and out goes any fun. She charges toward us in her putty leather tennis shoes the same way she does for any announcement, firing an employee or handing out compliments (of the back-handed variety).
“Good morning, Ronnie. Now Brie, you know you’re going to have to keep an eye on Mrs. Halsted today? I’m letting Craig go home now because he’s coming down with a nasty cough. Can’t have that hovering in the air, especially with lunch service starting soon.”
“Sure, but maybe Ronnie here could watch her instead. We all know Mrs. Halsted prefers the men around here.”
“Brie, when I ask you to do something, I need you to do it. Ronnie’s got enough on his plate today with Mr. Carlson coming back after his hip replacement surgery. Mrs. Halsted’s granddaughter is coming to take her out to lunch, so you just need to check on her a couple times between now and then. Is that such an outrageous request?”
“No. I’ll be out in two minutes when my break is over.”
“Good,” and with that Brenda rushes back out the door. I’m not sure the door is completely shut again before I can’t help but mock her little squeal: “Is that such an outrageous request?” For working around a bunch of old folks, we sure are a childish group.
“So this Just Alex person,” Ronnie continues nonchalantly. He’s not the one who has to spend the morning with the building’s T-Rex. “What’s Just Alex like? Does Just Alex have a job?”
I sigh. This conversation will be mighty cumbersome if I don’t start using pronouns; “She is very philosophical.” Ronnie claps his hands and points at me upon hearing “she.” His grin takes up an abnormally large portion of his baby face. I go on, “I don’t know what kind of job she has.”
“You chat with her for hours and hours every night and you don’t know what she does? What on earth do you talk about?”
“I don’t know. Things we like? I guess if we liked our jobs, we’d talk about them.”
“Good point,” he mutters before an uncharacteristic pause. “Is she hot?”
At this time I’d like to tell Ronnie that he’s being shallow, but the truth is that the curiosity is eating away at me, too.
“Actually, I don’t know. We haven’t exchanged photos, but we’re planning to meet for a drink tonight.”
“No shit? Well in that case, I wish you the best of luck. Though, from the sound of it, you don’t really need it.”
“We’ll see, but in any case I will need a lot more luck to survive my time with the T-Rex this morning.”
“Don’t let Mrs. Halsted get you down. The last time I checked up on her, she said I’d actually be handsome if I lost sixty pounds. So you see, she is capable of being complimentary.”
“She said that, and you’re one of the few people she likes around here. I can’t wait to hear what she has in store for me.”
“Good. Because our break is over.” Ronnie frowns at his wristwatch. “I gotta make sure that Mr. Carlson got in okay.”
“Right. See you later, Ronnie!”
“See ya, Brie. Keep your chin up.”
Ronnie rushes out. Just the morning shift today. And somehow in my zombie state, five hours have passed already. Working in a retirement home certainly requires a lot of interaction with people, but at a certain point, all the interactions become scripts. Each shift is just a dress rehearsal for the next. The cast rotates, but my bit part stays the same day after day.
I leave the dregs of coffee to darken the permanent stain in my mug, and I fumble around in my cubby hole, looking for my phone. No texts from Alex. Not since the 2am “goodnight.” Heck, I don’t blame her. I would have slept in this morning if I didn’t have the wrath of Brenda to deal with.
I manage a fake smile and head back into the baby powder-scented daycare for forgotten dinosaurs.
“How are you doing this morning, Mrs. Halsted?” I say, my voice just under a shout. The T-Rex is sitting in front of me with the home’s single, very battered romance novel. Her fuchsia lipstick knows no bounds this morning, voluntarily swiped well-over her lip-line and involuntarily feathering into every surrounding wrinkle.
“Oh, you know, fine, Brie—just the same as anyone in this shithole. Good thing I’ve got Craig around. You know that tall glass of water looks just like my third husband?”
“No, I didn’t know that, but I have to tell you something–”
“Yes, just like my third husband. And you know what they say about husbands: the first one you marry for love, the second you marry for money, and the third you marry for sex.”
“Oh is that how that goes? I was unaware of that.” I have to cut her off. I cannot permit myself to think about geriatric sex before lunch. “Well then I’m sorry to tell you that Craig got off early today.”
“Oh, I bet he can get off.” Oh dear God. So much for my appetite.
“Your hair looks very nice today, Mrs. Halsted. Did you go to the salon recently?”
“I go every week, Brie. They put these big ol’ rollers in there. And they wash it, too, even though I tell them it doesn’t need washing.”
“Well, I would trust them. Your hair always looks very nice.”
“I don’t know if a compliment coming from someone with hair like yours is really a compliment, but I’ll take it anyway. At least you don’t have one of those lesbo haircuts. My granddaughter’s got one of those.”
“Oh, you mean those short pixie cuts? You don’t like those?” We’re treading in dangerous waters, here. I think she may have seen me cringe when she said “lesbo.”
“Pixie? Call it what you like, but a dyke’s a dyke whether she’s got a pixie or a lesbo cut. Revolting, is what it is.” I cannot let this go further. My forced smile disappears in one fell swoop.
“Mrs. Halsted, you do know that Craig is gay, right?”
“Yes, but what does that have to do with anything?”
“And you don’t think Craig is revolting?”
“Heavens, Brie, how could you even suggest such a thing? Craig is such a nice young man. You know, you should be looking for a boyfriend like him. So polite. So fun. Not at all like you.”
“You’re right,” I feign agreement. “Now if you don’t mind, I’m just going to check that Mr. Carlson got back from the hospital all right, and I’ll be back in a little while.”
“Oh, I don’t mind. I’m fixin’ to start a round of bridge in any case.”
“Ok, see you later then.”
I storm down the hallway with no particular destination in mind before stopping at the front desk. I pretend to look for a file in the giant tower of former, deceased patients as I collect my thoughts. How can someone be homophobic regarding lesbians but not gay men? Oh right, penises. Why does Craig get along with her so famously? Oh right, he’s got a penis.
Behind me I hear someone talking to Brenda. I’m not in an any state for interacting with her. I duck under the front desk and start to search for an imaginary paper clip on the floor.
“Hi, I’m here to pick up my grandmother, Mrs. Halsted, for lunch.”
“Right this way, honey. There’s your grandmother playing bridge. Just sign this, and you’re free to go.” Brenda brings her clipboard back to the front desk.
“Brie, what are you doing here, still?”
“Oh, I’m just looking for something.”
“I can see that, but your shift has been over for twenty minutes.”
“Oh, really?” This is the first time I’ve ever not left the building within one minute of my shift ending. “Thanks for letting me know. I guess I just got carried away with some paperwork. See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, and maybe try coming to work well-rested?” Her last words trail off as I nearly break into a run getting to the staff room. I grab my purse and jacket out of my cubby. My telephone is blinking. One text. Received half an hour ago.
Hey, Brie! Sorry I didn’t text you earlier. Just woke up and now I’ve got to take my grandma to lunch. Can’t wait for tonight! xo Alex