If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where my cemetery plot is, and what my lousy adulthood was like, and how my kids are occupied and all and never visit me, and all that Exit Ghost kind of crap, but I can’t even remember most of it, if you want to know the truth.
Where I want to start telling is the day I left Shady Cedars Retirement Home. You’ve probably seen the ads in AARP, always showing a smiling nurse fluffing a pillow for some senile codger, and underneath it always says, “Since 1988 we have been attending to seniors and enabling them to age gracefully and with dignity.” They didn’t do any more damn attending to at Shady Cedars than they do at any other assisted-living community. And I don’t know anybody here that’s aging gracefully and with dignity. Maybe two seniors. And they probably came to Shady Cedars that way.
Anyway, it was the night of the big Daytime Emmy Awards. Everyone was watching it in the common room, and you were supposed to take an overdose of blood-pressure medication or something if old Susan Lucci didn’t win again. I was way the hell on the other side of the home in the Arthur Madsen Nature Observatory, near the Alzheimer’s Wing. Nature Observatory, my ass—all it had was a lousy telescope and a view of a scraggly-looking field and a cliff in the distance. I frequently like to go there at night, though, before lights-out at eight-thirty, and water my herb garden. I know it sounds corny and all, and most days you can’t even see anything because the herbs are so small and your bifocals need a new prescription, but sometimes you can make out a sprig of rosemary or thyme, and even though you’re not sure if you’re doing it because you think herb gardening is relaxing or if you think you’re supposed to think herb gardening is relaxing, it can be so damn peaceful and nice. I don’t know, I don’t really feel like explaining it.
The reason I was at the Nature Observatory instead of in the common room, was because I’d just got back from the rec center. I’m the goddam board-game manager of the rec center. Very big deal. We’d planned to have a bingo tournament that afternoon. Only we didn’t have the tournament. I’d taken all the cards to the kitchen to get a new bag for them, because the old crumby bag they were in was falling apart. I misplaced them somewhere. It wasn’t all my fault. The head cook kept asking me if I was sure I knew where I was, and then one of the nurses came in and told me it was time for my three p.m. meds, and by the time they’d given me my pills I forgot where I’d put all the cards. All the bingo players ostracized me the rest of the afternoon, until they also forgot about the incident.
My adjoining roommate, Saul Banner, pushed his walker past the observatory and saw me. “Why arencha watching the Daytime Emmys?” he said. He coughed and grabbed his lower back. The sonuvabitch had just about every life-threatening ailment. Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, artificial hip. You had to feel a little sorry for the guy and his geriatric care manager.
“If there’s one thing worse than reality TV, it’s daytime television,” I said. “Don’t even mention it to me, Old Man Banner.”
“Stop calling me ‘Old Man Banner,’” he said. “I’m young enough to be your lousy grandson. And don’t insult daytime television. What do you wish you did with your daytimes?”
I thought about it a bit. I really did. “You know what I wish I could do? I mean if I had my goddam choice? I’d sit out in that field all day. And whenever a phony staff member came near the cliff, I’d just kind of put out my cane and trip ‘em over the edge. I’d just be the tripper in the field and all.”
“You have dementia, you know that, Caulfield?” Banner said.
I think I actually do have mild high-functioning dementia, but I meant it. “Listen, willya?” I said. “I’m gonna go through this door and just keep on going. You want to come with me?” I shouldn’t have invited him, because he was slow as hell with that walker, but I felt bad about leaving him behind.
“Just keep on going?” he said, picking at his ear hair. He really has a helluva lot of it, and it’s not too attractive, to tell you the truth. “It’s December. It’s freezing out, for Chrissakes. Where does an 80-year-old go in the winter?” I was 75 then, and I’m 76 now, but people always think I’m older than I am, even though the left side of my head is full of millions of dark hairs.
I couldn’t think so hot. My kid sister Phoebe was living out her golden years and all with her husband in Fort Lauderdale. And D.B. was in some Beverly Hills rest home with the other Hollywood phonies who no longer had any brains left.
Old Jane Gallagher had an at-home caretaker a couple hours west. I could take the Tuesday supermarket/mall shuttle, get a cab from there to the bus station, and take a bus to her town, then give her a buzz on my cell phone if I could figure out how to turn it on, and have her caretaker pick me up. I hadn’t talked to her since I was sixteen, but I figured it was worth a shot. I swear to God I have mild high-functioning dementia. “Never mind,” I said. “You’re a real distinguished senior citizen, Banner, you know that?”
He didn’t say anything, I thought maybe because his hearing aid battery was out of juice. I opened the door and limped through the field toward the service road. It took me forever because I don’t hardly have any wind on account of my emphysema, and it was raining buckets, and my rheumatism was acting up in my hands, especially my right one, and I damn near slipped and fell on the wet grass—twice. But before I even got halfway, this burly male orderly grabbed my arm. “Mr. Caulfield, you wouldn’t be tryna get outta here, wouldja?” he said, real nasty and all, and twisted my MedicAlert bracelet around my wrist so that it hurt like hell. Then he brought me back in and made me watch the Daytime Emmys like all the other goddam morons. I told him he was an Abu Ghraib sadist the whole way.
That bastard Banner must’ve ratted on me. It’s funny. Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, they’ll steal the money from under your mattress.