The new arrival, Tony, insisted on being the center of attention at all times. He was like an actor on stage playing to a rapt audience. Some of the residents found him to be a breath of fresh air. But I thought the air he brought into the place stunk.
Longwood Gardens’ motto is “Independent Living with Peace of Mind.” We have all the amenities: a well-stocked library, beauty salon and barber shop, a wellness facility, restaurant-style dining room with decent food, visits from musicians and lecturers. There isn’t much to complain about, although we complain anyway. Euphemisms abound. We are “late lifers.” Or “active elders.” As an antidote, we call Longwood the “Old Folks Home.” It feels transgressive.
Tony came at the tail end of winter when everyone was in the doldrums. We were anxiously awaiting spring, but it was a soul-crushing March, with freezing rain pelting the rolling hills outside our windows. Ed Rooney, a long-time resident and one of the nicest guys ever, had recently been moved to an assisted living facility after he had become bed ridden. We took it hard when he left.
I first noticed Tony, tall and thin with a shock of salt and pepper hair combed into a mini pompadour, at dinner. The Old Folks Home pipes in music at meal times. They were playing “Songs for Swinging Lovers” by Sinatra and Tony was crooning along to “You Make Me Feel So Young,” hamming it up with dooby-dooby-doo vocal tics. The women at his table were giggling like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard. I laughed a little too until I saw him slide out a deck of playing cards from his pants pocket and start performing magic tricks. He pulled an ace of spades from behind Doris Jennings’ ear. What’s next, I thought, sawing Lorraine Baxter in half? I try not to pass judgment based on first impressions. Maybe he’s just anxious to please and will settle down when he gets comfortable.
But he kept it up. He ruined a ballroom dancing class by repeatedly breaking into odd, spastic movements for laughs. At dinner, he did hackneyed, unfunny impressions: Jerry Lewis as the Nutty Professor, Inspector Clouseau, Dom Delouise in Cannonball Run. He was fond of practical jokes and laughed uproariously when Larry Feggman sat on a tack Tony had placed on his chair. I tried to talk to Tony a couple of times, but he had roaming eyes, constantly looking over my shoulder to see if there was something more interesting going on.
When he had been here about six months a group of us went bowling on a Saturday afternoon. At the bowling alley I noticed that Tony was getting cozy with Arlene Roberts, his hand resting on her leg. Arlene is a handsome woman and retired psychologist, and she and I have had an on-again off-again affair. She is a mercurial lady and our relationship is fiery, the opposite of my calm 42-year marriage to Edna, who passed away five years ago. I’m not usually the jealous type but when Tony leaned over and kissed Arlene on the lips while Emma Albertson rolled a gutter ball I could’ve killed the son of a bitch. I’d had it with him. He was single handedly ruining the atmosphere of the Old Folks Home with his antics. I didn’t sign up for geriatric junior high.
It’s been three years since I moved to Longwood Gardens. I probably could have continued to live on my own, but I yearned for a communal experience. I’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe my fellow residents and I’ve concluded that the way a person deals with old age is a snapshot of their character. The world may love the eccentric senior citizen with a lust for life but to me, Tony’s behavior was the equivalent of shouting “I’m afraid to die!” from the rafters. I’m all for taking advantage of the time we have left on this good earth but a 75-year old who behaves like an adolescent isn’t an amusing novelty, it’s pathetic.
One night at dinner, while regaling us with stories of his life as an engineer at Motorola, Tony’s eyes rolled back in his head and his face descended into a bowl of pea soup. Heart attack. It was the first death at the Old Folks Home since I’d been there. It was a shock: one minute he was goosing Linda Ryan and the next he was a corpse. They offered grief counseling for those of us who witnessed Tony’s demise. I declined but I noticed Arlene Roberts attended several sessions.
In the next few weeks we talked a lot about Tony. We agreed he had turned the place upside down. Most seemed to think it was for the better. I expressed my contrary view lightly and I hope, with tact. The dead are entitled to a certain measure of respect.
After about a month, the Old Folks Home returned to normalcy. I resumed my relationship with Arlene, but something had changed. We no longer had the passionate couplings and anger-filled arguments. Instead, we spent a lot of time in silence, my hand resting on her leg, her head nestled on my shoulder. Tony passed away in late January and by March, we were anxiously awaiting the arrival of Spring. The freezing rain pelted the rolling hills outside our windows and some, caught up in the doldrums, wondered out loud whether we would ever see the sun again.
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