When Thomas died, I discovered he’d shifted control of our assets to our son, and one of Jeff’s first decisions was where I would live. It was obvious from the speed with which he accomplished my move, he’d been planning it for some time.
Had he asked my opinion, I certainly wouldn’t have picked Brookside Retirement Community. For one thing, there’s no brook, and for another, the cutesy bird-and-flower theme is simply annoying. Although I have an apartment and I’m free to interact with other residents, or not, as I choose, I still wouldn’t have chosen to live here.
The hallways are lined with both fussy bird prints of dubious quality and flamboyant floral bouquets in need of dusting. Each wing of the complex (there are five) has a combination bird-and-flower name. I live in the Morning Glory-Mourning Dove wing—or GloryDove for short. I suppose that’s better than the Snapdragon-Titmouse wing. I’ve already noticed people who live in SnapTit tend to hesitate when asked which wing they’re in.
Carrying the theme beyond pictures and floral arrangements, each wing has its own glass-fronted cage filled with tiny birds that dart about and tweet continuously.
Next to the mandatory enclosure of birds in the front lobby sits a morose parrot in a cage so small it can’t even spread its wings, let alone do a quick flit. I feel sorry for the parrot who, like many of the residents here, is in his nineties, but I do steer clear of him. He has a reputation for biting, not that I blame him. If someone confined me to a small cage next to the roomier quarters of luckier members of the species and forced me to listen to all their nonstop celebrating, I’d bite too.
So far, the only bright spot has been Lillian Fitzel. When I told Lill that, she laughed that deep, rich chuckle of hers.
“Me a bright spot, Josephine? Why, I’m as black as the bottom of my granny’s favorite cooking pot.”
Lill’s the one who said Brookside should be rechristened Babbling Brook, a tongue-in-cheek reference to both the nonexistent waterway as well as the more irritating residents.
Jeff parked me here because he considers me elderly, but I’m only seventy. Much too young to be shut away with a bunch of old people, fake flowers, and birds.
I’ve decided I won’t have it. I’ve spent fifty years living a life of duty and restraint, and I’m not wasting another minute. As soon as I get my financial and legal affairs in order, I’m out of here.
~ ~ ~
Shortly after Lill and I struck up our friendship, she invited me to become the fourth in a group that plays cards two days a week. I’m not crazy about card games, but I decided it might be a welcome distraction. At least until I get my next move figured out. Unfortunately, I quickly discovered it wasn’t going to provide as much of a distraction as I’d hoped since the other two women in the group are both as dull as case knives. Not a sliver of intellectual curiosity between the two of them.
Myrtle, who would make two of Edna or three of Lill, is never seen in public without makeup and carefully styled hair. She favors flowing garments in bright colors that flutter when she moves. It makes me tired just to look at her.
In contrast, Edna’s makeup ends at her chin, and her scanty hair often looks like a gerbil has been playing in it. Setting off polyester pantsuits that should have been sent to a landfill forty years ago is a strand of yellowing pearls she’s never without.
When it was finally my choice what to play next, I simply couldn’t resist the imp sitting on my shoulder, and the words “strip poker” tumbled out.
Myrtle sat back and thumped the table. “You can’t choose that.”
“Why can’t I? You picked hearts.” And if there’s a stupider game, I don’t know what it is, although in the interest of ongoing relations, I refrained from sharing that opinion out loud. “At least strip poker will be interesting.”
Myrtle’s bosom heaved, something that always makes me want to move rapidly out of her vicinity.
“Well, I never. Josephine Bartlett, you’re just, just—”
“What kind of poker?” Lill chimed in. “Strip poker can be played any number of ways.”
“How about five-card draw?”
“I don’t think poker is a very ladylike game,” Edna said, her nose elevated.
Edna’s a priss, if I do say so, although I can’t take credit for coming up with the descriptor since her bizarrely appropriate last name, Prisant, got there first.
“And what exactly has being ladylike gotten any of us lately?”
“I don’t know about you, Josephine,” Myrtle said, “but Bertie Teller came over and sat next to me at the last movie night and held my hand during the scary parts.”
“If Bertie Teller tried to hold my hand, I’d deck him. Not that it would take much. The old fart totters around here cackling like a demented hen.”
“You’re just jealous because nobody wants to sit with you.” Edna always seems to have two cents ready to pitch into any conversation.
“Better off alone than stuck with a Bertie,” I said. “Are we going to talk or play?”
Edna lowered her nose with a sniffy noise. “But really, strip poker? I’m quite certain nobody wants to see you naked.”
“They won’t since I plan to win.”
Myrtle placed a finger in the corner of her mouth and cocked her head. “I think it could be amusing.”
I sometimes wonder if she practices expressions in the mirror.
“Nobody wants to see you naked either, Myrtle. Trust me on that,” Edna said with another sniff.
I was tempted to hand her a tissue, but doubted that would go over very well.
Myrtle turned her head and gave Edna what I’ve labeled her Queen Elizabeth stare. “I think they’d rather see me than you.”
“Whatever.” Edna has at least one grandchild and proves it by keeping up with the latest slang.
“How about nobody gets naked,” Lill said. “That is, not literally.”
Lill is skinny enough she could be planted in a field to scare off crows, but she has this deep, resonant voice that never fails to startle me.
“After all,” she said, “the staff won’t stand by and let the four of us strip without stepping in with the meds. But perhaps metaphorically?”
“What exactly do you mean, metaphorically?” Edna sniffed again; I suspect golden retriever genes in there some where. “And yes, Ms. Vocabulary, I do know what metaphorically means. I just don’t see what it has to do with strip poker.”
But I did. It was as though Lill and I had discussed this ahead of time. And she was right. There is more than one kind of naked.
“How about the biggest loser at the end of the afternoon pays up with a personal story,” Lill said, confirming what I’d guessed she was going to say. “And it should be something that isn’t all sweetness and light.”
“I absolutely agree,” I said, jumping back in to take control of what was, after all, impulsive or not, my idea. “And I want to hear something down and dirty I won’t forget in five minutes.”
Edna huffed. “You never forget a thing, Josephine. It’s one of your least attractive qualities. And what are we going to use to keep track, anyway?”
“Doesn’t matter. Toothpicks, pills, dust bunnies.”
Edna snorted. I suspect she doesn’t like me. And just to be clear, if I could vote her out of the group, I would. Unfortunately, she was here first. And fair is fair.
“Never mind that,” Myrtle said. “If we’re going to do this, you have to tell us the rules, Josephine.”
“Okay, how about this? We’ll all start out with the same number of toothpicks or whatever. Then the one with the fewest left by the end of the afternoon has to tell a story.”
“I think Myrtle means the specifics,” Edna said with a frown. “You know. What beats what. Aren’t there flushes and pairs and full houses and the like?”
Truly, Edna is such a pain sometimes.
“Well, a flush and a full house beat a straight,” I said.
Lill was obviously trying not to chortle. Unsuccessfully, I might add.
“I don’t see what’s so funny,” Edna said, giving Lill a sour look.
Edna has no sense of humor, which, while we’re on the subject, is her least attractive quality.
“As you very well should know, Lillian, there are no stupid questions.”
Edna’s voice, with its upper pompous notes and its underlay of whine, always grates on me. If she did indeed once teach American youth the fundamentals of English usage beyond four-letter words, she would know that most questions are either stupid or show a lack of attention by the questioner.
It took a further fifteen minutes of wrangling, but we finally managed to get through the list of what beat what with Myrtle demanding excruciating detail and writing it all down. Then Edna suggested we liberate a box of paper clips from the associate activities director’s desk to keep track. By that time, I was profoundly regretting my suggestion.
My mood was not improved when the best I could muster on that first hand was a pair of treys. I folded early, conserving my resources. Myrtle won that hand with the full house she’d telegraphed by running her finger over the list of what beat what and settling it near the top.
In succeeding hands, the gods of poker continued to favor Myrtle. But although I couldn’t beat her with cards, I was able to stem my losses by watching where on her list her finger ended up.
“About time for a story, isn’t it?” Myrtle reached out plump hands to pull the latest pot to her side of the table, leaving the rest of us with dribs and drabs.
I did a quick count. “Edna has the fewest clips left, so she’s the one who has to tell a story.”
Edna sniffed. “If a person didn’t know better, Josephine, they might suspect you kept folding just so you wouldn’t have to tell a story.”
I have to admit, Edna in her own vague and annoying way sometimes has a point.
“So. Okay. A story.” After sniping at me, Edna appeared eager, which in my view, did not bode well. “Well, then. When I was nine and my sister—Helen was her name—was ten, she’s dead now, you know. Of the cancer, about fifteen years ago.” She pulled out a tissue and dabbed at her nose. Finally.
I sighed, wondering if she would ever get to the point.
“Anyway, as I was saying, Helen and I were given a cocker spaniel puppy that Christmas. We were supposed to share her. I named her Jonquil, and I loved her with all my heart. She was my best friend. When we got home from school, she always came to me first. And she slept on my bed and followed me everywhere.”
Satisfaction made Edna’s voice even more annoying than usual. Although I wouldn’t call the look on her face a satisfied one. It changed as she spoke to something much more complex.
“Then one day, Helen took Jonquil for a walk into the woods next to our house. When I went looking for them, I found them in the small clearing where we often played. Helen was tying a rope around Jonquil’s neck, and when I asked her what she was doing, she lifted the rope with Jonquil dangling on the end.” Edna paused and blinked with a far away look in her eyes.
“There was a tussle. I ended up with Jonquil, but Helen had a bad scratch on her cheek and bruises on her arm and she’d ripped her dress. She ran away while I comforted Jonquil.
“When I got home, Mother came rushing out. She grabbed me by the arm, and before I could say a word, she started thrashing me. You see, Helen told her that I’d attacked her when she tried to pet Jonquil, and Mother believed her.” Edna paused, and for an instant, seeing the expression on her face, I could tell the story still pained her.
“After that, I wasn’t allowed to pet Jonquil or take her for walks. And Helen…” She shook her head and sniffed. “Helen always told Mother the instant I got near Jonquil. It went on…” Once again she paused to compose herself. “For years. But I finally got back at her.” A smile crept over Edna’s face, and it wasn’t a nice smile.
“What did you do?” Myrtle said, sounding breathless.
“I seduced her fiancé, then I told him I was pregnant so he had to marry me.”
We all sat blinking at Edna. Her story was more down and dirty than I, at least, was expecting.
“And then what?” Myrtle said. “What happened after that?”
“What do you mean, nothing?” Myrtle said. “Were you pregnant or not?”
“Of course I wasn’t.” Edna gave a so, there huff.
“What happened when he found out you weren’t?”
“I just told him I’d had a miscarriage. But not until after we were married. He never knew it was a trick.”
Myrtle frowned. “How do you fake a miscarriage?”
“Oh my, you do have a lot of questions. But I only owed one story, isn’t that right, Josephine?”
Mesmerized, I nodded, and Edna closed her mouth and made the sign for zipping her lips.
I might just have to revise my opinion of Edna. It appears she’s a pistol, as we used to say. None of the young people today know what that means. To them a pistol is just something they use to shoot someone.
As we gathered up cards and clips, one of the staff stopped by our table and reminded us there would be a concert beginning in fifteen minutes. Edna’s story had so preoccupied me, I hadn’t even noticed the slow shuffle of other residents taking the seats nearby. But now I did.
The perverse mood that had led to my suggestion we play strip poker dissipated, leaving behind a bad taste in my mouth. Unfortunately, the next time we played cards, it was Edna’s turn to choose what we’d play, and she chose the Naked Poker Game, as she called it.
“After all,” she said, “I shouldn’t be the only one who has to tell a story.”
So that’s how it started, and I have no one to blame but myself.