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Judy Wilson


Portrait

In Mrs. Richardsonís room, Bennie was snapping her fingers, keeping rhythm with the Broadway tune she was humming. She stared at a portrait on the wall. The frame was a dark, red-tinged wood with an inscription that read "Mrs. Elizabeth Jarrell-Richardson." Bennie studied the woman in the portrait. She was a hard one to nail down, at first looking bossy, but the eyes were too soft. Maybe quietly confident. Finally, Bennie decided she wouldnít have liked the woman in the portrait. She looked too "uppity."

Across the room, the old woman was lying in a fancy bed. The other residents of the nursing home had standard hospital beds with chrome safety rails that lifted on the sides. But this was the "Richardson suite" and nothing standard remained. Hers was like a bed you would sleep in at home, a real home. The bedposts were fat and round, reaching shoulder high and made of the same cherry wood as the picture frame. It looked like the bed that Lisa Bradleyís father had made for her. Lisa was a girl she knew from school. Her father was always making things for her, things out of wood, and teaching her how to make things. Everyone loved Mr. Bradley. And Lisa.

Bennie looked around the oversized room. It was decked with furnishings all made from cherry wood. There was a bentwood rocker, two nightstands, two dressers with rounded fronts, an unspectacular but wide desk, a grandfather clock in the corner, a carved trunk at the foot of the bed, and a skinny table with legs that met the floor in the shape or paws. The skinny table sat in front of the windows and supported a twenty-gallon aquarium.

Bennie looked from the portrait to the old woman and back again. The mole on her cheek was the only similarity between the two. Bennie had liked the mole on the woman in the portrait. It made her look daring. But age had ruined it, made it big, puffy, and now it just looked like something that needed to be removed.

The woman in the bed was bony and she had that dry, onion skin look, like sheíd bruise or bleed if you touched her hard. Her hair was a fuzzy, gray, half-inch mess and you could see the pink of her scalp showing through. In the portrait, the hair was a sleek brown, thick, and pulled into some kind of an up-sweep and the skin glowed. Looks French, Bennie thought, even though she wouldnít have known French from Italian, or Russian, or whatever.

The woman stirred, opened her eyes, and stared up at the ceiling. She was surrounded with pillows and covered to the waist with a plump, blue comforter. Her puny body lay on a section of lambsí wool. Lambsí wool helped to prevent bedsores in patients who were bedridden. Money can only do so much, Bennie thought and smiled, feeling suddenly superior to the woman in the portrait.

"Whereís my nurse?" the old woman asked.

The question, the voice itself, came as a surprise to Bennie. Mrs. Richardson, she had heard, was a "veggie" case, the result of a stroke three months earlier. Bennie walked over and stood beside the bed.

Mrs. Richardson looked at her and asked again, "Whereís my nurse?"

"She had to leave, to run some errands or something. Sheíll be back in a minute. She asked me to sit with you."

There were large blue veins running their courses through the old womanís temples.

"Errands or something. Oh, joy. I pay a nurse eight hundred dollars a week. She leaves me with a sitter. How much is she paying you?"

Bennie thought sure she could see a pulse in those big veins. "Sheís not paying me anything. Iím a volunteer, a ĎSunshine Girl,í you know? But, I really didnít volunteer to be a volunteer," Bennie said.

"Explain that, would you?" Mrs. Richardsonís eyes were still as soft as they were in the portrait, but the "uppityness" was showing.

"My mom worked this thing out with the director of the nursing home. I come here every day after school until Mom gets off work to pick me up. Seems I canít be trusted at home alone," Bennie said and walked around the bed to inspect the fish in the aquarium. Just two lonesome fish in one big tank, with a ceramic diver in one corner blowing bubbles from his mask.

"If you canít be trusted, Iím not sure I want you in my room. I have some very expensive, some priceless, nic-nacs. I would be quite disturbed if anything should be misplaced."

Bennie walked about the room, touching every priceless nic-nac she saw: the gold pen set on the desk, the silver hairbrush on the dresser, a porcelain doll on the nightstand, and crystal figurines scattered about the room. She looked back at Mrs. Richardson, checked to see if she looked worried, and then smiled and said, "You can trust me. I donít steal things and I donít see anything here I want anyway. The thing is," Bennie leaned over the bed, to whisper, "I like to be with men."

"Then you should go fishing with your father."

Mrs. Richardsonís answer had come too quick, revealing none of the shock that Bennie had hoped to see.

"My father doesnít fish."

"Oh, well, then of course. What else is one to do? Besides fishing with our fathers what is left for us women except to spend our time being with men? So then, youíre quite right. You should be with men, lots of men, all kinds of men. And right you are to start young. There are so many of them, you see." She squinted her yellow eyes, multiplying the wrinkles that skirted them. "How old are you?"

"Sixteen," Bennie said, beginning to like her.

"Oh dear, you should have started much earlier. Your clock is ticking you know. You may have to double up on them, take them by the pairs. Do you think you can do it?" Mrs. Richardson had yet to smile. Her purplish mouth was a little oval with tight wrinkles radiating outwards on her sallow face, like the lips were pulled together with a drawstring.

Bennie giggled and shook her head, "No maíam. I donít guess Iím ready for doubles."

"Then I shall pray for you child. What is your name? I must know. I will ask God to give you the stamina to catch up, to double up, triple up, if you must."

"My name is Bennie," she said through another burst of giggling. She felt like a small child and she enjoyed it.

"Bennie, my goodness, isnít it just a perfect name. A manís name. Well, Bennie, I shall pray for you and you, dear, must take vitamins every day and walk, yes, walk at least a mile. Every day. And youíll see, before long you will have the stamina to take on a whole covey of men."

Bennie was laughing, almost at the point of tears when the nurse came in. The nurse, tall, lanky, and severely flat-chested, put her brown purse down next to the bentwood rocker. She put her hands in the front pockets of her uniform and let her long, monkey-like arms hang limp. With one eye squinting and the other open wide, she stared at Bennie. Bennie looked at the nurse and didnít understand her expression, why she should look so outdone. She gave one last giggle, a stifled one, and looked back at Mrs. Richardson. The old woman stared straight up, without blinking, as if she had just checked out.

"Are you making fun of Mrs. Richardson?" asked the nurse.

Bennie mimicked her, "No, Iím not making fun of Mrs. Richardson. We were just talking about men," she said and looked at the old woman with a smile. But Mrs. Richardson acknowledged nothing, only stared like one of the veggie cases. The sunlight from the window, filtering through the water in the aquarium, made it appear foggy. An angelfish hovered near the center and a high-strung scavenger vacuumed the blue and white gravel at the bottom.

The nurse sighed, reached over, and smoothed back the old womanís hair, then roughly pinched her cheek. "Mrs. Richardson canít talk; hasnít been able to say a word since her stroke and I donít find this funny in the least."

Bennie didnít like the nurse. "She does talk, airhead. We just had a whole conversation about screwing men." Bennie leaned over Mrs. Richardson and whispered, "Show her you can talk." But the old woman didnít respond and Bennie saw nothing when she looked in her eyes. There was a red mark on her cheek where she had been pinched.

The nurse hustled around the bed and grabbed Bennieís arm. Squeezing it hard, she started leading her to the door. Bennie, confused, couldnít speak.

"Itís a pitiful thing--a girl your age making fun of someone as helpless as Mrs. Richardson. I want you to leave and I donít want you back." The nurse was holding Bennieís arm with one hand and opening the door with the other.

Bennie looked over the nurseís shoulder at Mrs. Richardson. The old woman, looking at them now, winked and smiled. Then she turned into a veggie again.

As Bennie stepped through the door, the nurse said, "Iím going to speak to the director about you."

Bennie caught a glimpse of the portrait on the wall behind the nurse, recognized the soft eyes now and the peachy smile. She grinned and said, "Suck eggs," and walked the long white hall to the lounge. She gathered up her books and purse and went outside to wait for her mother.

Standing by the double doors, she lit a cigarette and stared down at the clean, red mat with a black WELCOME. A gold and white vendorís van pulled up and a short, bald man in a green uniform got out and proceeded to fill the snack machine in the foyer. The traffic had started backing up at the stop light. Rush hour had begun. She finished her cigarette and lit another. The Frito Lay man slammed the door shut on the snack machine, picked up his empty boxes, and shot her a disapproving look as he walked past her. She smiled, said, "Bye," and watched him drive away. She couldnít figure out why the old woman wouldnít want the nurse to know she could talk. Hell, she told herself, itís no biggie. Iíll find out one way or another. Maybe, she thought, I can get her fired.

Her mother pulled up in the sleek, white Lincoln. Bennie mumbled, "Why canít she drive a Volkswagen?" She flicked her cigarette in front of the car, got in saying, "A little white Volkswagen. Yeah, thatíd be cool," then shut the heavy door.

"Jesus, Bennie, how do you think that looks? The daughter of the high school principal, sitting out front, where the whole world can see you, smoking a cigarette?" Her mother steered the long car to the exit and looked hopelessly at the line of traffic.

"You worry too much what everybody else thinks. Me--I could give a flip what they think." Bennie shucked her Nikes off without unlacing them and propped one foot on the dashboard. Her mother looked nervous. Her foot danced from the gas pedal to the brake, gas pedal, brake and the car moved only in inches.

A man in a yellow Nissan waved and let them slip out in front of him into the backed up lane.

"Mom, I need you to do something for me."

"Which is?" Her mother adjusted the rear view mirror, smiled, and waved backwards to the man in the yellow Nissan.

"Iím worried about Mrs. Richardson."

"Elizabeth Richardson? Why?" Her motherís attention perked up at the old womanís name.

"Sheís a high risk patient, you know? She needs round the clock care."

"Bennie, for Godís sake, she has her own private nurse."

"Yeah, well, that nurse is a flake. Leaves poor Mrs. Richardson alone for hours at the time. Honest. I had to sit with her today, a long time. Mrs. Richardsonís paying her something like eight hundred bucks a week. And she leaves her alone like that. Itís a rip off." Bennie looked at her mom. She looked like she was being convinced.

"Well, honey, what can I do?"

"God, Mom, itís obvious. The director is like Dadís best friend."

"Well, maybe Iíll talk to your father about it." Her mother busied herself with trying to get through the light before it changed again.

Bennie sat satisfied. Her mother would make the story even worse than sheíd heard it and her father would feel a civic duty to relay the ugly story to Ray Kitchens, the director. Mr. Kitchens, of course, would be obliged to inform Mrs. Richardsonís family members and they, no doubt, would axe the nurse.

 

 

That evening, as they sat around the supper table, cutting their pork chops and passing the rolls, Bennie asked her father, "Dad? Do you think we could do something really outrageous this weekend? Like go fishing?"

He looked at her mother. They put their forks down, stopped eating, and stared at Bennie. Her fatherís bald head was dotted with small, black moles, fourteen at last count. Her father looked down at the table, a serious mood wrinkling his forehead, and began dabbing at the sesame seeds that had fallen from his roll onto the table by his plate. There was silence in the dining room and for a second the light seemed more intense, the way it did during a half-second surge. Then he said, "Well, Bennie, I donít know about this weekend, but we could look into one of those deep-sea fishing trips like Earl Smith is always raving about. If youíd like I could arrange one of those." Having gathered a fingertip full of the seeds he carefully rubbed them off onto the edge of his plate.

"Canít we just find a pond somewhere, dig up some fishing worms, and fish?"

Her father laughed, nodding his head, and said, "Sure, Bennie." Then he and her mother looked at each other and grinned as if to say, "Oh, isnít she adorable," and started eating again. The knives scraped across the china. Her mother dabbed her mouth with a linen napkin and returned it to her lap, and Bennie knew they wouldnít go. Iíll have to talk to Mrs. Richardson about this, she thought, and cut her asparagus in two.

 

 

The next Wednesday the yearbooks came out. Bennie shoved hers in with her other books, so no one would suspect she was excited about it, and picked a seat in the back of the bus hoping she could glance at it. But Jason Mann dropped down in the seat across the aisle from her so she never even looked at the cover. He had one in his stack of books, too, and he stared out the window while the books sat on the seat beside him.

When the bus took the curve on Trevor Bridge Road, Bennie watched to see if Jason would put his hand out to steady his books. He didnít. They could have spilled over onto the floor of the bus. He didnít look as though he was trying, like Bennie, to be cool about it. He looked like he really didnít care. He has a life, thought Bennie.

The bus stopped at the nursing home and she got out, walked across the parking lot, and went in the side entrance instead of the front. She wanted to get to the lounge and check the yearbook out before she got wrapped up with Bingo. Wednesday was Bingo day. She would have to help get all the old folks in the rec room.

She got a drink out of the machine and sat at the table. She lit another cigarette and ran her fingers over the leather cover of the yearbook. The name embossed on the front felt like braille. She took a drag off her cigarette, set it in the bean bag ashtray, and opened the yearbook to the first glossy page. Turning the pages slowly, she absorbed the faculty, the office workers, then the various clubs.

The pages were full of black and whites taken during school events, everybody in action. The debate team, the prom queen, the Harvest Dance, pep rallies, cook outs, tailgate parties, scoring the basket, sliding in at home base, making a winning touchdown, pyramids of cheerleaders--and one face graced almost every page. Lisa Bradley. Lisa on top of the pyramid, Lisa on the stage in a Cinderella gown, Lisa playing Santaís elf, Lisa riding her horse at home--how the heck did she sneak that one in there? Lisa was on the yearbook committee as well as countless other committees.

This is disgusting, Bennie thought. This is supposed to be one of those important keepsakes to be cherished throughout life, to remember all the cool times twenty years from now. Good ole GCHS, the green and the gold, go Eagles go.

She crushed out her cigarette, and looked at her watch. It was 3:45. Bingo at four. She stuck the yearbook back in the pile with her other books, turned to go, but changed her mind and grabbed it, holding it under her arm, as she headed down the hall. She could get some of her old buddies to put their X in it at the Bingo game.

Ida, the recreational director, stopped her in the hall. "No Bingo today, Bennie. I have to go sit with Mrs. Richardson."

"Why have you got to sit with her? Sheís got a nurse."

Ida was a short, black woman in her late forties who looked great in jeans and cowboy boots, which is the only thing she ever wore. She had a collection of western shirts to complement the jeans and boots. She was cool.

"Iíve got to stay with her until the new nurse comes. The old one quit. After ten years of being with her--just up and quits." She reached around and made sure her shirt was tucked just so in her jeans, her huge breast threatening the buttons, the beaded fringe dancing at the yoke. "Stupid move if you ask me. That old woman hasnít got much time left. The family has probably already ordered her a cherry wood coffin. They might have been real grateful for those ten years of devoted service, you know what I mean?"

Bennie was trying not to grin. "She just up and quit? No one knows why?"

"No oneís saying if they do."

Benny felt important. "Iíll sit with her for a little while if you have something else to do. I like her."

"No. Bingoís canceled. I can do it."

"Please, Ida, let me. Just fifteen minutes. I promise I wonít touch anything and Iíll watch her real close. You can go to the lounge. Relax awhile. Come on. Kitchens isnít here. His car isnít in the parking lot. Just fifteen minutes."

Ida looked at her from the corners of her eyes, thinking. "Iíll give you fifteen minutes, but I canít figure why you want to. Donít touch anything."

"I promise. No touching." Bennie hurried to the Richardson suite, pushed the heavy walnut door open and stepped in. She walked to the edge of the bed. Mrs. Richardsonís eyes were closed. Bennie walked around the bed as loudly as she could, dropped her yearbook on the floor, and looked to the bed. The old woman had not stirred. Bennie picked up the yearbook and leaned over the bed. "Mrs. Richardson," she whispered.

The eyes opened and Bennie smiled down at her. "Hey, Mrs. Richardson, itís me, Bennie."

"You got my nurse in trouble and you smell like a cigarette factory," she whispered back and her face was stern. Then she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and said, "God, what I wouldnít do for a cigarette."

"She was an airhead, Mrs. Richardson. She said you couldnít talk."

"She thought I couldnít."

"You made her think that. Why?"

"Youíre very nosy. But Iíll tell you if you promise to sneak me a cigarette next time you come."

Bennie nodded. The idea of this frail old woman puffing on a cigarette--she couldnít picture it.

"I had a series of mini strokes," Mrs. Richardson began. "I happened to overhear the doctor explaining to my daughters that he was uncertain if my speech had been affected. I seized the opportunity."

Bennie waited for more. The old woman returned her stare.

"I donít get it."

"Neither do I," she mumbled. "I was sick to death of small talk with my nurse. And I was sick of trying to defend myself. You see, I never was a traditional mother. I was busy. I did not put my life on hold when my daughters were born. Actually, I stopped just long enough to give birth. They want answers I canít give them. They want a mother I canít give them."

Bennie felt compelled to take her side. "Donít you miss talking to people?"

"Not at all. I have ninety-two years worth of memories and delightful conversations in my mind. I am never bored."

Bennie walked to the aquarium and bent over, looking through the glass. The angelfish was gone. It made her nervous. She turned back and asked, "Why did you talk to me then?"

"You hum Broadway tunes. I used to."

Bennie smiled. Cool, she thought.

"What have you got there?" The old woman pointed to the yearbook.

"Oh, yeah. Just got it today. I want you to sign it." Bennie offered the book to Mrs. Richardson and helped her turn the stiff pages.

"Who is this young man? Heís absolutely beautiful." She was pointing to Jason Mann.

"Oh, absolutely. Trouble is, he knows it. Heís Jason Mann. King of the green and the gold."

"King of what?"

"Never mind. School colors."

"Oh, yes, well I knew that. My, my, my. This girl must be very important. Sheís on just about every page," Mrs. Richardson was pointing a crooked pinky at Lisa in the elf suit.

"Itís that obvious, huh? I guess you could call her queen of the green and the gold. Thatís Jasonís girlfriend, Lisa Bradley. I hate her."

"Yes, and go right out and cut her throat then. Have no mercy."

"Donít tempt me."

"Then debone her, make some fillets, smoke a ham, cut some stew meat. Looks to be pretty lean meat--very healthy. I donít know about the heart and liver though. Iíve never been much for that, but I suppose if you smother it in onions and gravy, it might make a pleasant meal."

Bennie giggled again like a child. "Yeah, right, you mean Dahmerize her."

"Beg your pardon?"

"Oh, never mind. I forget youíve been out of circulation a while." Bennie was sorry she said it, but Mrs. Richardson didnít seem offended.

"Go to the desk there and bring me my pen."

Bennie walked to the desk and got the gold pen from its velvet nest. She gave it to Mrs. Richardson who scribbled something quickly, slammed the book and handed it back to her. She held the pen out for Bennie to take and at that moment, Ida walked into the room. Bennie grabbed the pen and walked to the desk to put it away. She knew sheíd been busted. She looked at Mrs. Richardson and was surprised to see her smiling at Ida.

Ida went to Mrs. Richardson, leaned to kiss her cheek, and said, "You talk to her, huh?"

"Oh yes. Sheís quite interesting."

Bennie liked that--quite interesting--cool. But she was disappointed that she wasnít the only one that Mrs. Richardson talked to. It had made her feel special, important.

"Well, she has to clear out of here now. Mr. Kitchens is on his way with the new nurse."

Bennie asked, "Is she young?"

"Mercy, no. Sheís ancient. The family wanted someone old and settled. Now, you gotta go. Go!" She made a fuss with her hands toward the door and Bennie scooted out with her yearbook under her arm.

 

 

Back in the lounge, she couldnít wait to see what Mrs. Richardson had written. It was across the top of the page, in a fancy, though shaky, script. "Bennie--In the words of John Ruskin: Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies, for example. And in the words of Elizabeth Jarrell-Richardson: Lisas come by the hundreds. A Bennie is rare." The signature said, "Liz." Bennie sat reading the words over and over. When her eyes got hot and teary, she gathered her books and went out front to wait for her mother. She lit a cigarette and opened the yearbook again. After reading the words out loud to herself she stuck the yearbook back in with the others. The welcome mat was still clean. Traffic was lining the street again. She saw her mother coming down the street with her turn signal on. Sure would be nice to believe sweet bullshit like that, she thought and flicked her cigarette in front of the car.

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