“Fran,” Beth says, “do you know that tall people do not live as long as short people? It’s a scientific fact, and most likely why basketball has never caught on in Okinawa.”
Fran, who is exactly one foot taller than Beth, leans on her custom made left-handed putter, takes a thoughtful pull off a joint, exhales a stream of sticky smoke, and says, “Gulliver should have stomped you little creeps out when he had the chance.”
Beth laughs. Just six hours ago, laughter had died out of the world. Sometime around four, Fran had awoken screaming. A coalition of uneasy dreams, dwindling morphine, and a widespread, almost sentient, cancer had turned steady, humorous, and thoughtful Fran into a gibbering, flailing monster. This sort of thing happens once or twice a week anymore, and is caused mostly by the dwindling morphine. Beth has never been an advocate for drugs—in her beloved Torqwamni Hill neighborhood, one person in three under the age of forty is addicted to meth—but she has to admit that the blue pills Fran ingests four times a day (along with the joint or two of medical marijuana she now smokes to stimulate her appetite) do good work. Within twenty minutes, the pills kick the monster aside as easily as the summer sun sweeps away July morning fog. Late at night, when she lies awake in bed, this circumstance causes Beth to question the nature of reality.
“Your carpet breaks right,” Fran says as her putt drifts wide of the plastic catch that lies in front of the television. Even though she is ill and seventy-seven, one can still catch a glimpse of the athlete Fran had been. From youth and lasting well into her later years, Fran had excelled at athletics; no women and few men in Torqwamni County could match her on the softball field, golf course, tennis court, or even on the pistol and skeet range. She still conveys an unteachable fluidity of motion within small spaces. Her long arms and legs make least movements necessary. This gracefulness, however, no longer carries over into the open; when required to travel any real distance, the steps of this natural dancer become uncertain and ill-timed.
“I have the gardener cut it that way,” Beth replies. “I’m installing sand hazards in your room next week. They’ll give you something new to blame your incompetence on.”
Fran sinks her next putt dead center. She lays her putter aside and butts her joint in one of the several ashtrays Beth has lying around the house. Fran sits down beside Beth on the sofa. In a tone of compassionate authority that she had perfected as an ER nurse for over twenty-five years, Fran says, “Don’t pull away, Bethlehem,” as she examines a brief series of superficial scratches on Beth’s left forearm. “I guess I was pretty awful this morning,” she sighs.
“It’s nothing,” Beth says.
“The scratches are nothing more than a dab of Neosporin,” Fran says. “But their just being is something. I used to see a lot of this at work. Some caregivers came in looking worse than their clients. Dementia, permanent or short term, often results in violence. Toward the end of my career, after Ray had died, I filled the empty hours by moonlighting at a geriatric home that specialized in what we then still called senility—by far and away the least popular gig in nursedom. End stage dementia reduces people to primates. They bite and kick and scratch, diddle with their own feces, babble nonsense, and often have visions—a Filipino LPN I knew, called the last thing learning God’s secret name. Religion has taught me that there are only two kinds of people: blessings and tests of faith. My profession showed me that there is only one kind of dementia patient: The better off dead. The soulless things refuse to go out—they keep going like gag birthday candles.”
“Why give yourself dementia?” Beth makes a special effort to lock her large, almost Anime eyes on Fran’s blue eyes, which have been for years magnified and distorted by thick lenses. “You’ve got that as much as either of us can have a prostate the size of a beach ball. I mean, so what? You sometimes don’t wake up all the way out of a nightmare caused by four o’clock in the morning, cancer, and, frankly, mostly by the pills wearing off. Maybe you’re entitled to go a little berserk, here and again. Besides, you know how much I hate relentlessly chipper old people, especially the tall ones. There’s something unnatural about that.”
Fran shrugs and grins. “I suppose it’s better to need pills than it to unknowingly beg people to lay a pillow across your face and push. On those crime-as-entertainment TV shows they often recount the tales of so-called ‘Angels of Death,’ who put the needle to warehoused dementia patients the same way a vet puts down an old dog. But those killers are no more nurses than the child molesters who join the clergy are priests.”
”I think it’s time for your next dose,” Beth says, “maybe even a little past.”
“I won’t pretend I don’t want it.”
“I’ll fetch them for you.”
Beth closes the medicine cabinet and gazes into its mirror. When she was seven or eight, she’d do the same and imagine her face rapidly aging the same way time-lapse photography condenses the life-cycle of a flower from weeks to seconds. Yet even fifty years gone by, her face closely resembles that of the girl she had been. This too raises questions in Beth’s mind about the nature of reality.
Beth has an IQ that would make for a fine bowling score, or a lousy cholesterol count—it depends on how you look at things. While in college she had displayed a savant-like talent at improving and perfecting extant computer script. Her “little knack” made Beth, as they semi-jest in Silicon Valley, “rich, and often,” at a very early age. But as it is so often the case, madness can accompany genius in equal measure, and this is true about Beth. She’s agoraphobic; it has been fourteen years since she’s been out of the state of Washington, twelve since she has set foot outside of Charleston, and nowadays she seldom ventures beyond the shadow of Torqwamni Hill.
Beth has to laugh upon her return to the living room. Fran is lining up a putt and has, once again, of all things, the German heavy metal band Rammstein, hammering away on her smartphone. To her credit, Fran doesn’t eagerly accept the pills, but she doesn’t waste time taking them, either.
“Fran,” Beth says as she brings a kitchen match off the coffee table, lights a cigarette, and sits down on the sofa, seemingly all in one motion, “since when are seventy-seven year old women included in the death rock demographic?”
“Rammstein isn’t death rock, silly. You’ve got to go to Norway or the American suburbs to find that. And as far as age perception and what music is allowed in the eyes and ears of the beholder goes, I’ll testify that this listener can hear Rock Around the Clock or A Stairway to Heaven only so many times before going completely out of her goddam mind. The trouble with you young people is that when an older person says ‘fuck’ or enjoys something that wasn’t already very old when the Ark was on its shakedown cruise, that older person comes off as insensately cute as a chimpanzee wearing a three-piece suit.”
“No need to get sensitive, Frances. Please let me know when you are high; you’re less touchy that way.”
The days since Beth decided to move Fran in with her have shaped into a comfortable routine: Drugs, cigarettes, putting, catty remarks, Rammstein, and then a cab ride down Corson Street to the White Pig Tavern—where Fran nurses a vodka and Fresca while watching baseball, and Beth drinks staggering amounts of coffee. A major part of Beth’s condition requires a set routine; without such she becomes anxious, which can lead to a panic attack. Taking someone into her small house would be madness, if it was anyone else but Fran, whom Beth has known and loved for life. Beth’s father died prior to the early dawn of her astonishing mind and memory. For all intents and purposes, Beth’s late mother, Harry, and Fran had been her parents.
Within a nicotine nebula, Beth gazes out the living room window. Why someone worth several million dollars would live in a small eight room house in a neighborhood in which tennis shoes commonly dangle from the power lines, bored cops fish for bail skips, and kids are everywhere, is as unanswerable as why a person who is smarter than 99.994% of humanity chain smokes cigarettes. The world is full of terrible inconsistencies. And as God may have said to Job, Lot, and Abraham: “Deal with it.”
“Fran, you wouldn’t happen to know God’s secret name, would you? We could start a contest. I’m going to lay money on Judas Adolph Kardashian.”
Fran’s putt strikes one of the other balls lying on the carpet. “That would be real good, if this was fucking curling,” she mumbles.
“That sounds like an awfully convoluted secret name.”
“You’re a wit, my little star,” Fran then tilts her head a certain way, which informs Beth that she is casting about her mind for a memory. This is a pose that Beth can trace back to the Big Bang of their relationship—back when Beth had found Auntie Fran as pretty as Kim Novak. Two things become obvious to Beth: 1) Fran’s memory isn’t as quickly accessed as it used to be; 2) The pills enhance the relics when they are found. This too raises uneasy questions in her mind about the nature of reality.
“I once knew a patient who showed me God’s secret name,” Fran says. “I’m certain of that. His name was John Mallory. He had been a pipe-fitter in the shipyard for over forty years, and Catholic enough to father eleven children. By the time he had arrived at Martha and Mary’s for, um, storage, he had the mental acuity of a pipe wrench. Lewy body dementia is an especially evil disease. And Mallory had a full snoot of it. He had been as dead as a breathing thing can get. Never made a sound; just lay there. Toward the end, however, he began repeating the same phrase over and again—two words—or sounds, really. I heard ‘snipe tail,’ but others it thought it ‘white whale.’ Subsequently, for the last two or three days of his life, John Mallory was known to the staff at as ‘Ahab.’”
Beth now knows that Fran has, in the idiom of junkies, “gotten well.” It’s remarkable how quickly the pills affect her. Throughout her dialog, Fran has kept putting and is currently good for two of three from the distance of ten feet. Fran is aware of Beth’s assessing gaze. “Isn’t it funny how morphine strikes people, Bethlehem? Most folks fall asleep—or just get less there—but others, like yours truly, react if we’ve just done a line of cocaine.”
“I didn’t say a word.”
“With peepers like yours, you don’t have to.”
“It’s all right if you’ve forgotten God’s secret name,” Beth says. “I’m sure that he won’t hold it against you.”
“Still a wit, my little star,” Fran says. She leans her putter against an occasional table, and sits down in an extremely expensive, antique rocking chair and smiles at Beth—who, despite her small home’s many pricey furnishings, never sits anywhere except in an old Ikea sofa—and always at the same end. “A part of the trouble with understanding what dementia patients have to say usually involves a lack of teeth. Mallory had dentures, but you can’t leave those in or the things will either bite you, or throw them at you, or even try to swallow them. I know what I say about ‘Ahab’ and ‘things’ and such might sound cold to you. But you’ve got to be like that to do your job. And I won’t lie to you and say that those things aren’t thought or said meanly, because they usually are. It’s difficult to get all warm and fuzzy inside over someone who unerringly flings their shit at you. Their minds may be gone, but the bitches and bastards retain uncanny arms.”
“I wonder if I can order a suit of armor my size on Amazon?” Beth says as she brings a match on the sole of her shoe and lights yet another cigarette.
“Such a wit. Sometimes I think that’s why Harry had you—she didn’t have mouth enough to say everything, and had decided to bless the universe with a cohort to fill in the empty spaces.”
“I do my humble best.”
Fran laughs and extracts “nutrition” from her sweater pocket, in the form of a Hershey’s kiss. “We junkies love our sugar,” she says, and without further prompting she resumes her story.
“My favorite priest, Father Gentry, used to put down a fifth of Jack a day. Whenever he got into his cups, he’d opine that the torments of old age burn all the evil out of the soul and make it as pure as a newborn’s. Well, no matter, whatever sins Mr. Mallory had needed expunged were at long last consumed one night on my watch. According to Father Gentry’s heresy, Mallory had exhaled his last snipe sail one moment and was passing into the Kingdom the next. After someone in the office had notified the next of kin, I volunteered to take Mallory’s effects to his oldest son’s house—which I soon found out had been Mallory’s house—for it was on my way home. I saw Mallory’s version of God’s secret name the instant I got out of my car.”
After a long moment passes, Beth says, “And?”
“I paused to allow you to favor me with one of your witty remarks.”
“Sorry, Frances, that part of my mind is on its cigarette break—Oh, hold on—how’s this: ‘I’m agoraphobic, you can’t take me anywhere’?”
“Anyway,” Fran continues with a wry expression on her face, “do you recall that godawful fad in the sixties in which exterior stair rails were cobbled together from lengths of pipe and elbow joints?”
“I do,” Beth says. “Those were versatile things; ugly and ingenious at the same time.”
“Agreed. It made sense that Mallory should have had one since he had been a pipefitter. And it made sense that ‘pipe rail’ was mistaken for ‘snipe sail’ and ‘white whale.’ What didn’t make sense was a vivid completeness of knowing I experienced upon seeing it. I can’t lay the right words to what I felt then in my mind for maybe five, six seconds—yet the memory of it is a fresh as if it is happening now. In my mind I was Mallory going up that pipe-railed concrete staircase and glancing up at the sky, which was that pastel shade of blue you see only in old color photographs. And I knew with every atom of my soul that it was Saturday; and I smelled steak broiling in the kitchen, and heard the voices of unseen children stepping on each other’s words as to get themselves heard. I t was a fine memory, and something inside me knew that Mallory had hidden that day from his disease, and pulled it out to relive endlessly when his mind realized that his time, as Father Gentry used to say, was nigh.”
Beth awakens at four a.m.—which, today, arrives shortly after five. She hears Fran sobbing softly in her room. Beth rushes out of bed and gets the pills out of the medicine cabinet. She isn’t surprised to see Fran sitting on her bed holding her target pistol to her head. This scenario has been popping up in oblique comments and odd asides for almost a month, now, and “forgetless” Beth has recently removed the trigger mechanism from the gun. The glaze is already clearing from Fran’s eyes. And she looks in horror at the pistol.
Beth nods at the gun and shakes the pill bottle and says, “One of those, or two of these.” Fran hands Beth the pistol and accepts her dose.
No further mention is made of this event, and the day unfolds and passes as the days before have unfolded and passed.
Leila Allison (where you can read more about these wonderful ladies)
Banner Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=430014