Home is Where the Heart Is
Strictly speaking, as a licensed practical nurse (LPN), it is not my job to manage the table décor, but I do it because I’m good at it. Each resident gets a rose they are welcome to pass on to their valentine-du-jour. Though that’s kind of a sick joke, when you think about it.
Myself in a red sweater covered with pink and lavender hearts, myself in red fascinator designed by moi, featuring life-sized and very realistic red hummingbird. Real enough to devour, said my husband, who is a smart a___. (To Whom It May Concern in My Creative Writing Class: A “fascinator” is a kind of hat. )
Someone suggested candies with sayings on them like “be mine” and “love stuff, ” a sprinkling on each table like manna from the gods of love, but that person was vetoed. It is not a good thing to ply the residents with candy. Also, I can name one or two off the top of my head who have loose dentures. The dental insurance plans are not good. Once a month, the dentist arrives with his hygienist, a blond-haired girl with a wandering eye—frequently mistaken for a resident—who is perpetually chewing gum, setting a bad example for our clientele.
Today’s Valentine festivities, however, do not include the dentist or his hygienist, thank the lord. Instead some families have come. Missy’s mother has seen fit to join us, for example, for which we also thank the lord. Missy is prone to fits, not seizures, but spates of uncontrollable anger wherein she swears and tries to ram people with her wheelchair. Some, not all, of these meltdowns have to do with whether her mother shows up or not. Her mother: one of those senior women who tries to look younger than she is. I am not fooled, though some may be. Tonight her nails are painted black and her dyed red hair is cut in bangs across her forehead the better to hide her wrinkles. She sits next to Missy and they are hugging and kissing. Now Missy has got her mother in a headlock and is pulling her to her chest. The mother looks awkward in this arrangement, not least because her disturbing cleavage is suddenly visible, on display for all to see, I say out loud, only because it’s true. Who wants to see that?
I see she has brought Missy a bag of gifts, one of which is the straw fedora not quite fitting Missy’s big head. Missy was the victim of a brain injury and is the youngest resident. She herself claims she is the youngest by “a good seventy five years”—quote-unquote, meaning to amuse us. Missy has no short term memory, but she is considered witty.
As a writer, I have many stories to tell about this place, not the least of which is the story of Missy and her mother. Not really a story, per se, but characters who could be in a story, when I compose the story. Our teacher reminds us (and I am remembering!) that stories have to be about something; they have to have tension. So be it. I pick up my pen.
To steady my nerves, I nip into the Safeway, procure a pint of Jack, guzzle-up, stash in glove compartment, have second thoughts, re-stash in gig bag. Then I betake myself across the way where “one man in his time plays many parts.”
Although I am the official pianist for the Immaculate Heart of Mary Elementary School, I am not a gigger. In a little while (22 and a half minutes) it will be just me in the spotlight, all eyes trained my way, the ring of applause, perhaps some nostalgic weeping on the part of the oldsters, people in wheelchairs like Aunt Joan. And me, singing and playing like Frank Sinatra, though Sinatra never played as far as I know.
I owe it all to Aunt Joan, she who insisted they hire me since she is living back in the past century, way far back in her poor demented brain, and, along with the shears she remembers my mother trying to stab her with when they were teenagers, is also stuck there a certain event at the community center wherein I played a solo piano piece and sang a song with the middle school orchestra.
I think a brain must be like a ginormous apartment complex you encounter in a dream where all the rooms are inside one another. To get from one room to the next are random corridors like worm holes and most of the time, knock wood, they lead you to the place you had in mind. But sometimes they don’t. I’m sure my aunt had not planned to be trapped wherever she is, in that era of god knows, Dwight D. Eisenhower, but there she is nonetheless, having somehow taken a wrong turn, wound up in a place she was not meant to return to, and fallen asleep.
Neurotransmitter. A word I like the sound of because it calls to mind an old fashioned radio and the fatherly voice of an announcer back when life was pleasant.
There are many like my Aunt Joan in this place, this home for the whoever they call themselves these days to be politically correct, and now as I sign my name and receive my visitor’s badge which I clip to my tie, I realize my hand is trembling. Nerves again. More guzzle ups required. I am not, by nature, a performer, I am more someone who accompanies classroom after classroom of inattentive, despicable children. Who knows this may be the beginning of a whole new me?
Oh look, we are to have entertainment, says Missy’s mother to Missy. That small man with the moustache is setting his up his amplifier on the piano and look, now he’s plugging in a microphone. And now, you should really turn around, he’s scratching his butt, he doesn’t think anyone is watching. God help us, says Missy. Despite the fedora balanced perilously on her head, she is looking especially beautiful with her hair pulled back in a black plastic claw and wearing wooden earrings shaped like leaves. I know, says her mother, do you suppose he’s mentally ill since he keeps scratching the butt? And now, he’s pacing in back of the piano and let’s face it there is not much room for pacing. Oh now he’s sitting down and blowing into the microphone, now he’s up again fiddling in that bag for something, maybe his crack pipe. Do you suppose that’s a fake moustache? He can’t seem to sit still—it’s all the crack. I guess they’ve hired a tiny mentally deficient dope fiend to play the piano tonight for everyone. I myself plan to cover my ears. Shall I turn you around yet?
Missy thinks her mother is hilarious and so she laughs until her face gets very red and Missy’s mom loves when that happens so she keeps it up. I dare you to go up and offer him a candy, says Missy’s mom. Maybe he’ll ask you on a date. I’ll do it, how much will you give me, says Missy, laughing. A million billion dollars minus nine hundred ninty nine billion million.
The mom has given Missy a card, a heart-shaped box containing five chocolates and some blue earrings, as well as the fedora. The hat and the earrings are re-giftings, culled from the mom’s store of possessions. The hat still had the tag and this worries the mom who thinks she may be heading into hoarderism. One of the signs of a hoarder is buying things and forgetting you bought them and/or leaving them in bags all over the house and/or not removing tags for years since never worn. Yikes. Unlikely as it is, she has a persistent fear that the hoarder tv people will one day show up with their crew and want to televise her glut of meaningless, forgotten, still-tagged and bagged purchases.
Missy is digging into the box of five truffles, variously shaped. Mom eats two, one of which is an orange cream. The hoarding and the compulsive eating are the same pathology, she muses, as the delicious chocolate covered orange cream fills her mouth. She wishes she had purchased a bigger box. Maybe a stop on the way home is in order. What about the piano dude, should we offer him a sweetie? says the mom. I think not, says Missy, laughing at the word “sweetie.”
Joan sits in her wheelchair and smiles so knowing and wise a smile that anyone would swear she were compos mentis. That she has not, for a long while, been compos mentis must be weird to those who knew her way back when, one of whom must be Daniel her nephew, who she does not recall, even though he just greeted her dutifully with a kiss on the cheek. To the kiss she gave no response except to swat peevishly at her own face, as if at a mosquito.
There’s Daniel, I say, turning her chair so that she can see him setting his sheets of music on the piano. There he is! I say again, pointing. Joan looks away and down at her plate of cookies, one of which she has begun to devour methodically, nibbling around the edges like a mouse until there is nothing left but crumbs on her fingers. Not too many, dear, I say out of habit. She has snow white hair that she wears short and wavy which makes her look youthful, I always tell her. After all, she is not that old, only maybe 70. It’s hard to tell with some of these, partly because they have in a way stopped advancing and so are stunted somewhere back when they were advancing. That’s not a very nice way of putting it, “advancing,” said my husband when I shared this theory with him. Well, he is not a trained professional. Also he has not met Missy who is forty something and looks seventeen. The truth hurts.
Joan is giving Missy a thumbs up re the fedora. Missy nods, grateful for the compliment. They are not completely gone, this lot, thank the lord, they still have manners and some form of wherewithal, though the wherewithal part is diminished. Tragically. I think I will write about the fedora, since we are told that specifics always make a story come to life. I will call it the “jaunty fedora” and I will omit the part about it not fitting.
Oh look, dear, I say to Joan, there is your Daniel getting ready to play something. Look he is sitting on the piano bench, oh no, he is up now and getting some books to sit on. Was he always so short?
I suppose this is to be expected, this cluster of inmates—can one say inmates?–, not your usual person in the street, I can tell you that. The most normal ones are that pretty blond and her boyfriend or husband with the handlebar moustache and the checkered shirt, probably related to that morbidly obese woman in the wheelchair. That woman has a mouse-colored braid running down the back of her head like Fu Manchu and a stretched unpleasant face. Her friend or sister, the highly attractive blond, holds the rose on her lap, as if she were Miss America, and turns her chair so that she is facing me, The Entertainment. Her husband or boyfriend with the handlebar moustache also turns his chair, so now that whole table is facing me and waiting for me to start. It is not time yet, I want to tell them. Look at the clock. I have been hired to play at 5:30, People, not 5:20 or 5:25. My hands are sweating.
At the next table sit two women, a very young one with a sweet face and freckles wearing a hat and a red-headed older woman who is half-naked and talking loudly as if her friend were deaf. Perhaps they are lesbians. All they do is laugh, kiss and eat, these two, and I am keeping my fingers crossed that they will not be disruptive. Another guzzle up of Jack would be just the thing to calm me down.
Then there’s Joan and her caregiver of the evening, Mary Beth, who has the smallest eyes I’ve ever seen on a human and is wearing a truly hideous red sweater and some kind of coördinating headgear. Joan is eating cookies and Mary Beth is staring at me with those tiny bullet hole eyes of hers. I’m not sure what to make of that. Perhaps she thinks I’m attractive.
I am attractive. There are many women, past and present, who have thought so. I have large, soulful eyes, a dapper moustache and, despite my smallish stature, I possess a good-sized schlong. The schlong has been an asset on many occasions.
Should I grow a handlebar? And purchase one of those belt buckles like the blonde’s husband or boyfriend? That blonde is a babe and she is looking at me. You can always tell when a woman is intrigued. But it is not 5:30. The obese, incarcerated relative of the blonde is shoving cake into her mouth and the husband or boyfriend of the blonde is standing up showing off that belt buckle which is embossed with a pickup truck I can see from here. He is not as handsome as I am, by a long shot. His schlong is likely medium-sized.
Five foot two, eyes of blue, coochie-coochie-coochie coo, sings Missy’s mom to the music. She has turned Missy around and they hold hands while singing. Missy has not been blessed with a good singing voice, but she sings loudly anyway, and the mom who believes she has been blessed with an excellent voice also sings loudly. Between us, we are wreaking havoc, says the mom. It’s our favorite thing to do, agrees Missy.
That piano player plays a one-two-three-four rhythm with each song; it’s annoying, says the mom. It’s as if he were playing for a group of kindergarteners.
Which in fact he is, says Missy, with a sly grin. Missy doesn’t miss a beat either.
Missy and her mother sing Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey and when they get to the part about the fine-toothed comb, Missy’s mom interjects: Do you suppose Bill Bailey had lice? Missy laughs.
They are always laughing because Missy’s mom believes that the more they laugh they more they have a shot at staving off their sorrow, which is a deep well. A Deep Well of Sorrow is how Missy’s mom expresses it. During most days, she repeats this phrase compulsively, thinking that to name it A Deep Well of Sorrow will have the effect of making the well of sorrow less deep or less sorrowful. Missy who will not remember that her mother visited. Missy who can no longer write her name.
Daniel is in full swing, pounding out the oldies but goodies. “ Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” at the moment. Joan smiling, Ray tapping the side of his nose with one finger, fat Pamela rocking in her chair. Missy and her mom screaming I don’t care if I ever come back and some of us would like to tell them to put a sock in it, if you know that expression. My husband says it sometimes: Put a sock in it! As if I have extra socks around to stuff into my own mouth. Ha ha.
My husband: he is home at the moment parked in front of Law and Order, as is his wont. I hate that show. I hate that skinny girl and I hate her bald-headed partner and the fact that they all talk in the same gloomy voice. What’s so hot about real life? I want to say. But then I remember where I’m coming from, this place and its one-card-short-of-a-full-deck population. I can just hearing him saying, That’s not a very kind way of putting it. Mr. Law and Order. But I am a writer. We have to be honest.
Wake up Joan, I say, because now her head has fallen forward and she’s closing her eyes. Say what you want, but in this world, in the world I mostly inhabit, which is here in this place because my shifts are long, people do more or less exactly what they feel like doing, which I admire. Wake up, dear, I say anyway, and I shake her shoulder.
Blue Moon/ You saw me standing alone/ without a dream in my heart/ without a love of my own. I am in splendid voice tonight, if I do say so. I aim my words at the blond woman who has begun to finger her rose, tearing at the outer petals. The only drawback is that my sheets of music are in keys for the children at Immaculate Heart of Mary and so a few times I am unable to hit a note. What do they want for $35?
That rose must be slowly dying is the thought that occurs to me in the middle of the song. This is such a surprising and unwelcome idea that I stop singing and let the piano take over. We are all dying. The rose is just a manifestation of what’s happening every second to me you everyone. I am sweating now on the forehead.
The husband or boyfriend or whoever he is and his blonde are having a conversation and laughing with their heads together and for a minute I think they’re laughing at me. At the next table the lesbian couple are singing loudly, even though I myself have stopped singing. Those two know all the words, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own. There’s a part of me, if I’m honest, that would like to smash their homosexual heads together until they crack like eggs and all their brain goo spills out over their clothes but since, along with the rest of us, they are doomed anyway I don’t bother overmuch with this fantasy, admittedly morbid.
Daniel, why are you so morbid? I can hear my mother saying. Because I’ve always had a morbid streak. Perhaps that is why I don’t have a girlfriend. Correction: I have had very successful sexual intercourse from time to time but those girlfriends have fallen off. People tend to fall off you, Daniel, I can hear my mother say. My mother: Dead. Aunt Joan: Bonkers. Who’s falling off now, Ma?
In her real life, her life away from Missy, Missy’s mother is not nearly so cheerful and funny. Why is that? In truth, being with Missy wears her out. Keeping Missy laughing wears her out. At home, Missy’s mom collapses onto her bed, exhausted as if after a performance. She doesn’t even take off her shoes. But here, waging war with the Deep Well of Sorrow (DWS), in the trenches with it, so to speak, and armed to the teeth, she is genuinely happy. The sweet chorus of freckles on Missy’s shoulders makes her happy and holding Missy’s bad hand—they call it the bad hand because it’s paralyzed– makes her happy. The bad hand is warm and soft, as opposed to the good hand, which is damp. In the past, before the accident, Missy’s hands were always clammy and Missy’s mom would tell her they felt nasty, even as she held them. They always held hands, those two. Before and after, the hand holding persisted. Persists.
Well, what do you think? Missy’s mom asks Missy. Boyfriend material or not? Not, says Missy. I don’t like a man with a moustache. But such sprightly playing would be a plus, no? I think he’s more your type, says Missy, laughing. You could drown him out with your stupendous voice. Bitch, says Missy’s mom.
For dinner, Missy has ordered her mom a piece of salmon and herself some chicken cordon bleu. The cordon blue looks like a kitchen sponge and the salmon like a club foot garbed in a soiled athletic sock. I think possibly the chef has been overly ambitious, says the mom. Oh eat it and shut up, says Missy affably.
At home, Missy’s mom subsists on rye toast and candies. It is the DWS, she tells herself. Her shopping may also be due to the DWS. She shops as if in a dream, casting about in stores for something to take home, speeding through aisles with her cart, as if she were a participant in that tv contest where whoever stuffs her cart with the most things in 20 minutes wins a prize. Only the really repellent item is off-limits, everything else is fair game: potholders, cans of ginger snaps, tee shirts with glitter, high heel sandals she will never ever wear. Ditto the coral lipstick and the violet eye shadow, the rum balls (hates rum), the yellow patent leather overnight bag—how cute is that?–but she never goes anywhere except to visit Missy or to meet Missy somewhere for an outing.
At the next table Missy’s mom is poking at her food with her fork as if it were a dead animal. Well I guess it is a dead animal, but geez, we do try our best here and we don’t need some smarty pants looking down her nose at what we try our best to do for them and theirs. Perfectly good salmon with hollandaise, you couldn’t do any better at the Olive Garden.
Of course Pamela consumes all. Her own cordon bleu as well as her sister’s salmon. Pamela is on a restricted diet but she finds ways around it, goes off next door to the Safeway and stockpiles cookies and cupcakes in her underwear drawer. Do not think we don’t know this, Pamela. Missy is not allowed to go to the Safeway unaccompanied. When her mother comes, off they go together, but alone she is prone to wander and forget on account of her short term memory deficit. We’ve installed an alarm on her chair in case she gets it into her head to go to the Safeway unattended, but she hates the alarm and sometimes the alarm is the signal for Missy to have a meltdown. You learn all the ins and outs of these people, all the ups and downs of their idiosyncrasies and moods and toileting habits. Which I am planning to incorporate into a funny story entitled “Get Me Off this F___king Toilet,” which is an actual quote from Missy.
Just now Joan lurches in her chair and lets out one of her famous moans. I can see it has made Daniel stumble on the piano keys. He looks up and blinks his eyes a few times, then stops playing, mops his forehead with a handkerchief. I’m thinking he is probably hungry and maybe I should order him up a plate of food, he might want to eat a snack before going on since he is sweating a little, maybe feeling faint from lack of food. And all around him people eating and sawing their chicken cordon bleu and licking up the hollandaise on the salmon. Must be hell for him. I am like that. I feel for others.
But when I go up he says no, no food, but wants to know, in re to the hummingbird in my fascinator, is that a real stuffed bird? Then requests a bathroom break.
In the stall I remove the Jack from gig bag and guzzle up. Burns going down and if I’m honest I have to admit that even at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Elementary School, I sometimes nip into the Boys for a guzzle up. It is calming to me. The children are often raucous, which gets on my nerves, but here with this brood, who are not raucous, the problem is having to look around, having to fill up eyes with the spectacle of inmates. Not big-eyed second graders with hair plastered on foreheads and chirpy voices who when you say shut up you could hear pins drop, but hunched over and moaning fatties or crazies, staring into space, or eating with hands, thumping on table out of time with music or because requiring more food, it’s hard to say which and to say shut up to these.
An additional guzzle up of Jack, oh yes, and now in the mirror I admire my moustache and am glad again for choosing to sprout one, which was not always the case. Without a moustache I am less attractive there being a lack of upper lip, as my mother often informed me. No upper lip just like your dad, true, gave me a look that made people go off me.
I am already planning my finale of songs to include I Wish You Love and Moon River and Old Black Joe for the African Americans in the audience. But no My Funny Valentine, since I don’t know that one, sad but true.
Missy’s mom leans over and asks if she has to pee because just yesterday there was an incident. I’m wearing a brief, Missy whispers to her mom.
Missy was wearing a brief yesterday, too, and they were at the nail salon run by the Asian women who had always been so kind to them. Always holding the door so Missy’s mom could push Missy inside, always allowing mom to hold Missy’s bad hand open for the polish, which was hard on the mom’s back having to bend over Missy’s shoulder and forcing the bad hand open and holding it still for what felt like an eternity so the polish would not get ruined. But this day, yesterday, in the middle of the aforementioned proceedings, appeared a puddle under Missy’s wheelchair and the Asian ladies normally so kind and friendly, became suddenly distressed and horrified. And Missy’s mom ran to fetch paper towels out of the ladies room dispenser but the handful of thin paper towels were no match for the steaming puddle of pee that had poured from Missy onto the floor. So to no avail did Missy’s mom on hands and knees in front of other nail customers try to swab up Missy’s pee, hands getting all full of pee. Missy saying sorry sorry to everyone and everyone, meaning the Asian ladies, saying nothing but becoming in the face more and more frozen-looking, the nail operation halted, the implements gathered up, the little bowl of warm water with the glass balls in it, taken to the sink, etc.
The Asian ladies now making a motion with their hands, as if wafting a stray dog out into the street from whence it came, at the same time holding the door for Missy and her mom to leave. We get mop, you go, one whispered to the mom and this one smiled showing all her teeth, like a jackal, thought the mom. Sorry, said the mom again, pushing Missy outside. Sorry, said Missy again. And Missy all wet down the front of her pink slacks and the mom put her own jacket on Missy’s lap to hide the mess.
Once in the parking lot and waiting for Handicar, Missy has already forgotten the episode, the Asian ladies, even her incomplete and ruined lavender manicure strikes her as perhaps something she chose for effect. The mom, on the other hand, feels the DWS rising up and, as soon as the Handicar has fetched Missy, she plans to appease severely rising DWS by cruising down the aisles of Ross Dress For Less.
And just then they see in the distance an old friend wearing a straw fedora, not unlike the one fruitlessly occupying a shelf in Missy’s mom’s closet. And because Missy’s long term memory has not been affected by her accident, she cries, Robert! –so overjoyed to see him that her eyes brim with tears. I like your hat! And Robert kisses each of them on their cheeks and they all chat as they wait for Handicar, Missy still with the mom’s jacket covering the wet spot on her pants.
Where are you living now, Sweetheart? An innocent enough question posed to Missy by Robert. And Missy, who can’t remember that she peed on the floor of the nail salon or the look on the Asian ladies’ faces or her own repeated heartfelt apologies or why in the world she is holding her mom’s jacket on her lap, Missy will quip, deadpan: At a resort.
Karen Brennan Ph.D. is the author of seven books of varying genres including poetry collections Here on Earth (1989) and The Real Enough World (2006), both from Wesleyan University Press; AWP Award-winning short fiction Wild Desire (1990), U Mass Press; The Garden in Which I Walk (2005), Fiction Collective 2; a memoir, Being with Rachel (2001) Norton, and poems, little dark, (2014), Four Way Books. “Home is Where the Heart Is” is from the story collection, Monsters, forthcoming from Four Way Books. Her fiction, poetry and nonfiction has appeared in anthologies from Norton, Penguin, Graywolf, Spuytin Duyvil, Michigan and Georgia, among others. A National Endowment of the Arts recipient, she is Professor Emerita at the University of Utah and teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.