September Stories (9/1)

Tally marks

Here begins the first entry I did on 9/1 for my September Stories project! You remember, that's the project where I crazily decided I didn't have enough stress in my life, so I'd write a story a day for the entire month based off volunteers' answers to specific criteria. I make no guarantees about the quality of the work--I mean, c'mon, they're written in 1 day, people!--but I certainly had to think around a few corners to get them down. Check back here every day in September (and the first week in October) to see what I djinned up--you can see the full list here. Now, without further ado...

Lost and Found by Danielle Davis

“The most important thing to remember is calm. You stay calm, try to keep them calm, do your best to make the whole residence calm. Always calm. The residents don’t get riled up too often, but sometimes you’ll see the odd Alzheimer’s or dementia flareup and they can get…shrill. Some folks are just quarrelsome and some can never be pleased. You don’t have to take their crap, if they decide you’re their Whipping Girl, but you shut it down in a calm, confident manner. If it ever gets too much for you, just walk away.”

“Have you ever been attacked before?” Maria asked the question in a too-breathless voice that revealed how frustrated she was getting. It was a lot to remember. Also she couldn’t remember if she’d put on deodorant that morning in her rush to get to work. Making a good first impression on her first day would prove a lot harder if she smelled like she was wearing yesterday’s gym clothes.

Jerome cocked an eye at her. “Once. But not by a resident. Another attendant got upset when I turned him in for smoking Mr. Sperry’s glaucoma medicine. Broke my nose and beat my car so hard it forgot its own name.” When he paused in the hallway, remembering, Maria took a casual, deep sniff near her shoulder. So far, so good.

“Asshole,” Jerome muttered, then strode forward so quickly Maria had to scurry to catch up. “It’s always Mr. and Mrs. Whoever. Some of them will ask you to call them by their first names, and that’s ok, but you have to wait until they offer it.”

Jerome hung a right at a hallway intersection without breaking his overview of House Rules. There was a manual all orderlys were required to read upon employment at Rollingwoods House, but Jerome wasn’t talking about those. “You can read,” he’d told her. “But you need to know the House Rules that aren’t written down.” These were the things, she learned, that made Rollingwoods House run more smoothly for the orderlys who actually had to deal with the residents.

The adult care facility was set on a gently wooded expanse of land that used to be a nine-hole golf course. Though the clubhouse had been rebuilt to accommodate multiple resident apartments under one roof, the whole atmosphere was designed to reflect a peaceful air of privileged retirement rather than an old folks’ home. At least, that was what she was coming to figure out as she followed Jerome on his rounds for her first day on the job.

“Now, your social life,” Jerome paused. “You got one?”

She shrugged, unsure of how to answer. Did it earn her more brownie points to imply she had one or that she didn’t? She could mention she’d been invited out to a comedy club with her friends later that night. Or maybe it was better to mention it but reassure him she had no intention of leaving early to get ready for it. Or should she instead admit that she actually had no intention of going because it was entirely too noisy and full of people she didn’t know and probably didn’t care to know?

It didn’t appear to matter to Jerome, because he continued as if she’d given a real answer. “Not anymore you don’t. Shift hours here aren’t a joke so much as they’re a minimal recommendation. You’re going to find yourself working a lot after-hours. Folk don’t get in bed when they should, gotta track ‘em down. Someone else decides he sees his high school sweetheart down a trail, goes out for a midnight stroll, falls and breaks a hip. Gotta call an ambulance… Something always comes up, though it’s usually not that exciting.”

She nodded as if that didn’t bother her. Actually, now that she was thinking about how little a social life she really did have, she wasn’t sure if it did or not.

Outside one apartment, where the open door allowed soft strains of some bluesey music to whisper past, he paused and looked deep into her eyes. It was the first time he’d made eye contact with her, past the cursory glance over when they were introduced—though she was used to getting casual, admiring glances, she got the impression from Jerome that he was less checking her out and more sizing up her character.

“And above all else, you do not, under any circumstances ask about or mention their tallys.” He flashed his own wrist at her and the thick band of his watch shifted a little down his wrist. It revealed an inch-long red tally mark that shone against the pale skin of his wrist. She stared at it a moment longer than was appropriate, noting that it was red, not black--he was in love with someone who didn’t love him back. She looked back at his face, but she’d looked too long and he’d noticed.

It was rude to stare at someone’s tally marks, but much like eavesdropping, people usually did it anyway when they thought someone wasn’t looking. The marks were simple hieroglyphics that told everyone’s love story or lack of. They appeared, changed colors, or faded into scars by themselves and no matter of wishing could change them. They were tied only to the person and the object of his or her affection. Since the tallys were fluid, they were an obvious way for people to display changes in their romantic relationships.

But some people didn’t want such intimate information shared. Given the thickness of Jerome’s watch band, it would seem he was one of them. A muscle flexed in his jaw as he glared at her.

She cleared her throat to break the awkward silence that stretched between them. “Why not? Uh, ask about the tallys, I mean.”

He screwed up his face in an are you crazy expression. “Do you know where you are? This is the place people come, either on accident or on purpose, to be forgotten. Most of the time, they just want someone to talk to because they’re lonely. And most of the tally marks you’ll see are going to be about the very people they’ve lost or who’ve forgotten them in the first place. It could make them upset, which would violate our Rule Numero Uno. They might bring up the subject themselves, but you do not ask. Ever. Got it?”

With wide eyes, she nodded. He continued to glare at her for a moment, as if to drive his point home, then knocked on the doorframe.

“Ms. Sylvain? Jerome and Maria checking in, m’am. Is now a good time?”

“I’ve told you before, Jerome, call me Margery.”

Jerome flashed a conspirator’s grin at Maria. “Sorry, Margery. I keep forgetting.”

“Your memory’s worse than mine,” the older woman grumbled as she shuffled into the living area from her bedroom. Though she stooped behind her rolling walker, her feet scuffed quickly along the floor in her gray slippers. She wore a fleece dressing gown that zipped up the front and came down to her ankles. What was left of her hair floated like a wispy cloud around her head, so thin Maria could make out the items on the wall behind her through it.

The older woman glared up at Jerome. “And it’s not.”

“Not what, Margery?”

“Not a good time. NCIS is about to come on.” Ms. Sylvain moved toward them so that they had to step back to keep from colliding with her. As she passed between them, Jerome gave Maria a look that seemed to say say something, fool.

“Sure thing, Ms. Sylvain!” Maria chirped in a too-bright voice that earned a disgusted look from Jerome.

The old woman settled in an armchair, moved her walker to one side of it, then glared suspiciously at Maria. “Who are you?”

Jerome stepped forward. “Maria, m’am. She’s—“

“Nothing wrong with my ears, Jerome!” Ms. Sylvain have a dismissive flap of her hand. “I mean, dear—“ she fixed an intense gaze on Maria “--who. Are. You?”

With a nervous glance at Jerome, Maria took a deep breath. “It’s my first day, m’am. Jerome’s taking me around to meet everyone. I hope you don’t mind my stopping by to say hello.” From the corner of her eye, Maria saw Jerome give a small nod. So far, so good.

“Keep your eyes open, Maria,” Ms. Sylvain advised. Her voice was steady and oddly gentle. “Things have a way of getting lost here. Time works different in these walls than it does outside. Passes slower. Gets faded around the edges. Be sure you don’t get lost, too.”

After they left, Maria turned wide eyes to Jerome once they were out of earshot. “What was that all about?”

He shrugged. “She’s harmless. Some days she’s clearer than others. Today must be one of those muddy days.”

“And the bit about things getting lost?”

He stepped close to her and spoke in a sarcastic, low undertone. “Look around you, Maria. Do you see a lot of visitors around? What do you think she meant?”

They passed through endless halls full of twists and turns Maria knew she’d never keep track of. Sometimes residents would wave hello to Jerome as they passed, others even calling him by name. Others drifted along past them like faded ghosts with dreamy eyes that saw far away places only they could see.

It should have creeped Maria out, but it didn’t. She rather liked the solitude of it. She could be in a room with someone, changing a bedpan or set of sheets, and they’d look through her like she wasn’t even there. Almost like she was the ghost then.

After lunch, Jerome let her try her hand at what he called A Routine. It meant dropping by someone’s apartment, like they had with Ms. Sylvain earlier that morning, to do a regular check-in. She was supposed to ask if the resident needed anything, make sure he or she was physically all right even if they weren’t mentally.

He led her to one of the apartments in the North Hall, home of one of the clearer-minded residents at Rollingwoods House. “Now if you need anything, just hit the call button on your walkie there.” He gestured to the standard piece of equipment all orderlies had to keep on them while on duty. “I’ll be in the Northwest Hall doing Routines, ok? Come find me when you’re done.” Then he was off, taking long strides down the hall, before she could even nod her assent.

It was almost like she was a ghost to him, too.

She checked the name against the list on her clipboard. Ms. Felicity Sullivan, Apt. 703. Maria took a deep breath and knocked gently, almost fearfully. About the time she realized Ms. Sullivan probably couldn’t hear her, a wavering voice called “Come in.”

She stepped into the spare, clean apartment and breathed in the lush floral scent that permeated the room. She grinned in surprise as she called, “Ms. Sullivan?”

“Back here!” the voice called again. Maria followed it into the bedroom, where Ms. Sullivan sat gazing mournfully at a ripped quilt.

“Everything ok, Ms. Sullivan?” Maria asked.

“Felicity,” the woman murmured. “Call me Felicity, please. And you must be Maria?” She raised rheumy blue eyes to look at Maria. “Thomas—Mr. Johanneson, to you, I imagine—told me we had someone new running around.” Be warned, they gossip like children, Jerome had warned her. It was one of the unwritten House Rules. Expect that anything you tell one will come back around the next day like a senile game of Telephone.

Maria nodded, trying not to act surprised, and Felicity turned her gaze back to the ripped material in her hand. She was quiet for a long time, and Maria felt too conspicuous standing half-in, half-out of the bedroom doorway. She couldn’t remember if it was ok to walk in to someone’s bedroom without explicit permission or not.

“Can, er…can I get you anything, m’am?”

“Felicity.” The word was a breeze of a sigh. “This got torn somehow…” Felicity gazed around her room with a confused look. Maria noticed her head waggled slightly from side to side. “I’m not sure when. But I need a new one, I think. It gets cold here, some nights.”

With a directive to act on, Maria stepped forward. She reached out a hand for the quilt, saying, “Sure thing, m’am, I’ll just take that—“

In a flash, Felicity was on her feet. “No!” She held the quilt to one side of her. It rippled as the trembling palsy of her hand became more pronounced. She glared at Maria, who stood frozen, her hand still outstretched. “It’s mine!”

“I wasn’t going to take it—“ Maria began softly, but Felicity sagged to the bed with a wheezy grunt. She lifted the material to her face and rubbed it gently across her cheek and nose, inhaling with a shuddery breath. “It’s all I have of him,” she murmured. Her tone, though reedy, was apologetic.

“Who, Felicity?”

Felicity looked up at her and held out one arm wrist up. An inch-long scar sat in the middle of the wrist, still visible among the blue map of veins and the tendons that looked like thin twigs under the skin of her forearm.

Maria couldn’t ask. Jerome had said so. Had been very explicit about it.

And yet, even as she repeated his admonition to herself, her lips betrayed her. “Who was he?” she asked softly.

Felicity looked down at the inch-long scar on her arm absently, as if unsure how it got there. But when she spoke, her voice was warm and confident with the memory and barely wavered at all. “James. James Sullivan. We met on a train headed to Dallas when I was in college.” Her long thumb rubbed over the line of the scar, still straight despite the tissue-like thinness and wrinkles of her papery skin. Maria thought she could just see a faded darkness to it from the black tally it used to be, as if a darker mark was hidden under the almost-translucent thinness of the skin and showed through only barely.

She gave a surreptitious glance at her own wrist, then rubbed her other hand over the smooth, unmarked skin of it. Someday, she told herself. Someday.

“He was the son of a potato farmer, back during the Fifth Depression. I was the daughter of a politician, headed to support my Daddy at a rally.” Felicity’s lips pulled thin as she smiled up at Maria. The expression brought a light to the woman’s face that seemed to smooth the wrinkles away. Though Felicity’s jowls sagged in a way that made her look a bit like a frog, when she smiled, her face lifted in a way that transformed her. As if a small glow began under her skin, she appeared younger and lighter. “It was very Mark Twain, our romance,” she drawled. Maria nodded as if she knew what that meant.

Felicity gave one final rub with her thumb and her smile faded, taking the light out of her face with it. Once again, she was just an old woman with a slouching, ancient frame. “He’s been gone near thirty years now.”

Maria frowned. “But that meant that you were in your…” She let the question trail off hopefully.

“Early fifties,” Felicity supplied.

“So why is there only the one?” If Jerome heard any part of this conversation, he would fire her on the spot. But she couldn’t help the question. She’d surreptitiously noted all day that most other residents had at least a couple marks on their arm, some faded to scars, though several still sported a black tally on their wrists as bold as a fresh tattoo. For those folks, their spouses were usually in the same apartment or just down the hall.

Felicity gazed up at Maria with a pitying look. “Because he was my one true love.” Her voice was so wistfully matter-of-fact that it broke Maria’s heart. That voice still held a longing to see him again, like he was on a trip and wouldn’t be back for a while. The sadness in it seemed too intimate, too embarrassing.

Maria found she couldn’t meet the older woman’s eyes. “I’ll get another quilt for you, m’am.”

She was almost to the door when Felicity spoke again, though it was soft enough Maria wasn’t sure if the words were meant for her or not. “The worst part?” she said, as if Maria had asked the question. “The thought that I’ll live long enough to forget who the mark was for at all.”

It was a horror Maria almost couldn’t imagine. She ducked out of the room and hurried down the hall, brushing angrily at the tear that crept down her cheek.

For the rest of the day, each visit, each somber duty, felt like it had sucked part of herself away. She started to understand why Ms. Sylvain had said time moved differently there. Everybody was in slow-motion, the tasks unchanging, unchallenging. A fresh supply of sheets here. A bedpan needing changing there. New pillows. Change the TV channel to this channel or that one. By the time her shift was up, she felt like a washrag that had been rung dry.

She drove home on autopilot, her mind fixed on the residents she’d met, on their silence, their misremembering of her name, theirs…and above it all, their tallies. They were marks she couldn’t get out of her head.

At home, choked down a quick peanut butter and jelly sandwich, then headed upstairs to take a bath. She had a strong desire to let the heat soak away the terrible sadness that clung to her skin like clothing. She stripped, scattered some scented Epsom salt in the bottom of the tub, and settled into the empty basin as the hot water began to fill. She closed her eyes, breathing in the steamy aroma of lavender and eucalyptus as the water crept up her body. It was an effort to push the faces of the residents from her mind, so she counted her breaths instead. One. Two. Three. Four. If she got so high she lost count, she started over.

At some point while she was distracted with the gurgling splash of the water and with keeping the right number, she began counting inch-long marks that faded in and out of her mind to be counted. A black one, a red one, a flesh-colored line... She gave herself a mental shake and switched to counting heartbeats.

When the water was high enough, she turned off the water and let her head sink under the surface until only her nose poked out. Underwater, the whooshing bellows of her breathing filled her head. Here there was no need to count. Just focus on the in and out of each breath.

And still she could see them.

Mr. Garrett, whose left side of his face remained frozen in a sneer from last week’s stroke; his inner forearm patterned with three scarred tallys—three dead loves and perhaps not even the memories of them left. Mrs. Mason, who was nearly blind; her wrist sporting five scarred tallys and a bold red one—five dead loves and one who didn’t return her love. Hers was all the more depressing given her husband, who lived down the hall and who had a few scarred tallys and one bold black one marking his arm. Maria wondered who the black mark represented, if not his wife. Ms. Sullivan’s radiant smile as she rubbed her single scarred tally, the lost husband who’d had no successor, her only love after eighty-plus years.

Maria sat up, wiped her eyes, and blinked angrily at the tiled wall. “I’ll quit.” It made the most sense. She wasn’t cut out for this line of work, with these sad, forgotten people set aside like dusty furniture nobody wanted anymore. At seeing their faces light up because they mistook her for some family member come to visit, or worse, because they knew she was just a nurse and they were that lonely for someone—even a stranger—to remember them. And all the scarred tallys lining those crepe-skinned forearms.

Her hand rubbed absently at her unmarked wrist. Which was better? To reach that point in her life and have several red or scarred tallys marking her arm, reminiscent of earlier times where she’d loved freely and widely, presumably with an array of experiences that varied with each lover? Or to be like Mrs. Sullivan, with just the one mark, scarred or not, having felt the single burning love of just one person and never needing another for comparison?

Things have a way of getting lost here, Felicity had said. Be sure you don’t get lost, too.

She glanced at her phone lying on the edge of the counter nearby. 10:00. Her friends wouldn’t be getting to the comedy club until 10:30. And she was only fifteen minutes away.

With a pop, she twisted the drain plug open. The water gurgled happily as it drained away and when she rose from the water, she felt a fresh sense of renewal. She snagged a dry towel off the wall hook and wrapped it around her. The knowledge that today had been her first and last day was revitalizing. She felt bold.

As she got dressed, a thin gold bracelet caught her eye and she put it on. When she twisted her wrist, it sparkled in the light, highlighting the pale, untallied skin of her wrist. It was eye-catching, so it was perfect. Because tonight, she was going out. She knew she might not find someone that would put a tally mark on her skin. But she also knew it couldn’t hurt to show that she was looking. She’d find someone or be found herself. It was one step away from loneliness, away from becoming lost. So far, so good.

Total Writing Time: 3 hr., 15 min.

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