Helon had a lot of blood on his shirt when we sat down for lunch, but what could I say? Probably nothing. Probably dining with dried blood on your person was par for the course at this place. We were at an upscale senior living facility, referred to as “the manor.” Despite it being the swankest old folks’ home I’d ever been to, the side effects of having been alive a long time still shattered every pretense of sophistication and humanity. Cloth napkins were folded into birds and orchid arrangements exploded out of tables. But so did farts. Tomato soup dribbled down chins and got caked into wrinkles. Teeth fell out on corncobs. So what, Helon had some blood on his shirt.
Before I’d met Helon and his wife Flora, I grabbed their town’s local paper and saw a story about their million-dollar loss. It was sub-headed: “A flat-screen TV and two Mercedes Benzes are saved by homeowner, firefighters, but furs are lost.” I planned on not liking them. I know it’s narrow-minded and rather expected to plan on not liking the wealthy, but I’m justified in hating inventorying their palatial fire pits. I can breeze through the self-assembled IKEA lifestyles of the low-to-mid incomers and positively ID their Target patterns from five feet away. With the well-off, I have to flick every glass and listen closely for that crystal ping. I must remove my latex gloves and touch all the dead animals they fling around their necks, pretending I might know the difference between a dead fox, a dead coyote and a dead lynx.
Helon and Flora had moved into the manor a month ago, just before the fire, and could stand on their fifth-floor balcony and stare six miles across the valley to a small forested hill. Flora was the one who saw the smoke billowing from the dark hilltop and knew their home was on fire because theirs was the only home on the hill. They owned the hill. Flora was also the one to answer the door and sit down with me and begin answering my panoply of tedious questions. And while Helon peed with the door to the bathroom wide open, Flora put her hand gently on mine and said, “Won’t you please join us for lunch? There’s a marvelous buffet with salad and soup and, oh! Do you like dessert?”
After I revealed that I liked dessert, I was going to lunch in an upscale senior living facility. Flora helped Helon into his wheelchair and pinned his nametag neatly to his shirt, somehow missing the blood, fluffed her scarf to hide her neck, and then we were slowly off. Flora stopped to greet everyone in a genuine and attentive way, taking the time to notice something specific. Rosie’s shirt was a marvelous color on her. Claudine had a clever hat. Helon sat in his wheelchair working up a wan smile for the recipients of his wife’s accolades, waiting to be wheeled to his soup options. “Today there’s French onion and potato leek,” Helon said staring straight ahead.
“I know, dear,” Flora said. “It was printed in our newsletter.” Helon flung his thumb limply back in my direction, “I’m talking to her.”
“Her name is Stephanie,” she said stopping his chair and turning it 90 degrees, but Helon didn’t turn his head around the rest of the way around to see me.
I was never sure what Helon had done for a living because, during our meetings, he preferred watching CNN with captions or flipping through the paper to talking. Through my carefully-timed inquiries—when he glanced up from the stocks, began his slow trundle toward the bathroom—I’d ascertained he’d moved the family to China where he came into ownership of a Coca-Cola franchise and several successful import-export businesses or something. The reciting of the soup options was one of the longest sentences he would say to me.
At lunch, Flora introduced me around enthusiastically, as if I were her granddaughter, just graduated with honors, rather than someone hired to dig through her rubble. She invited me along on every trip to the salad bar. Once, she leaned over a trough of iceberg lettuce and told me I had a classy confidence. Really, that described her. So did striking; she was the rare older woman who you would call beautiful without adding “in her day.” But how to tell her any of this? Instead, I said “Hey, we both make our salads pretty.” I meant that we drizzled the dressing and sprinkled toppings artistically. Only a certain kind of person pays that kind of attention to stuff they don’t put their signature on.
I had not been as careful or graceful inventorying their million-dollar home. It was a specific kind of hell there—one you’d think a person could avoid by having a college degree. The temperature was in the high 90s and the debris from the fallen roof was nearly a foot deep so I had to hack away at it with a garden hoe I found to get access to the lower cupboards. Then I had to hack at those because they were swollen shut from the sprinkler system. After I tore a hole into one cupboard and was pulling the wood off in small chunks, I decided I was quitting and going to law school. But I just took a break under a tree and stared at my feet. When I’d done enough of that, I flung a crystal decanter against a wall to see what it sounded like.
“Did you have any questions about my Ikebana containers, my suibans?” Flora asked while handing me a glass of ice water. Her what and her what? This was not the first time Flora assumed I possessed all of her sensibilities, which was flattering since I’d admired her instantly and hoped it was mutual. Flora explained that suibans were vessels for making Ikebana, which was Japanese flower art. She pointed to a lightening strike of branch blossoming with flowers that she’d been working on. Helon was Picassoed behind it, dozing. I’ve met so many women, on the job and off, who hide behind their husband’s successes and choices, but Flora made art out of hers. Our meeting ended when Flora woke Helon for his doctor appointment. He had a rare blood disease and needed to get weekly transfusions. Perhaps this explained the blood. She brought his wheelchair to him and he groaned and winced as she helped him to it, guiding his arms.“God damn it to hell,” he said breaking away from her and swatting the air limply with his hand.
“Yes, dear, perfect,” Flora said as he crashed down into the chair.
I brought two twigs to our following morning’s meeting. I’d found them the evening before on a hike for that purpose. The first twig I collected was good but not great. I carried it with me until I found two better twigs with greener moss and lichen. I couldn’t wait to give them to Flora, but when I was about to ring her doorbell, I felt stupid. Flora answered wearing lipstick. Her thick grey hair was pulled into a sleek ponytail and she had on what I think she would call, “smart pants.” She looked amazing. She looked like someone I wanted to be one day. I carried the sticks all the way into the middle of the room and just stood there with them.
“Here,” I finally said. “I found these for you. I thought you could use them.”
“Oh!” she said like she was noticing them for the first time. “What a wonderful gift!”
Flora took the twigs from my hands and arranged them in a natural stone suiban where there was already a pale pink orchid and some kind of dried seed pod. The assembly seemed effortlessly beautiful. “Ikebana isn’t arranging flowers, it’s an art form that combines nature with humanity. It’s about stages of life,” she said turning the dried seed pod a different direction, then stepping away and looking at Helon who was slumped in an easy chair by the window with bunch of metal pieces at his feet and an instruction booklet across his lap. “Look what Stephanie did, Helon,” she said. Helon looked up and waved at me. There was no noticeable blood on his shirt.
For the next several hours Flora and I went over the details of their old home. Helon had a lot of expensive tobacco pipes made from rare wood, which Flora asked him to describe. He ignored the request and continued screwing metal pieces together, then unscrewing them, farting, and re-reading the instruction booklet. Every so often, he’d flop everything back into his lap and stare out the window, muttering, “Come on Helon, get it together.”
After spending five minutes trying to describe a bronze head made in Helon’s likeness, Flora asked him if he ever wanted to tell me any details about his stuff or if he wanted me to just make them up. “I want us all to go to lunch,” he said. “It’s gazpacho today. You like gazpacho?”
That evening I had to climb a chain-link fence the police erected around their home since I’d already claimed I was done with the property. I went back to Flora’s stockroom and counted and measured each of her suibans, which I’d initially called “terra cotta type thingies.” I found all of Helon’s pipes, lined them up and snapped their photos. His bronzed head was on the grand piano gazing stoically at the spot where the walls of his great room used to be. Probably the next thing that would happen to his head, would be that a big earthmover would clench it in its jaws and dump it into a black void.
The following day’s soups were black bean and tomato bisque. No one made it to lunch, though, because Helon had a doctor’s appointment. Flora and I had just finished with our inventory when a nurse’s aide wheeled him in. He was wearing a blazer, and a box of peaches sat in his lap.
“Want a peach?” Helon asked. He possessed what the maker of his bronze head had intended for him: A proud, confident happiness.“We love bringing peaches to the nurses, don’t we?” his aide said, like she was teaching him how the world works instead of the other way around. Then, in an efficient flutter of professional helping hands, Helon’s new pills were on the counter and he was moved from one chair to another.
Flora went outside and motioned for me to follow. She was building a Japanese garden in the small corner of her balcony. She told me the key to a Japanese garden is balance. “Keep in mind you always have to create a big landscape in the smallest of spaces.”
Pretty soon, it would be dinnertime and everyone would pin on their nametags and walk, shuffle or be wheeled down to their options. They’d try to tell their life stories between soup and dessert. Flora would probably be late. She was busy moving some river stones around carefully, in a way that made them seem to have a purpose on a five-story-high concrete slab. I would like to think I would have moved them the same way.