Archive for old age


Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , , on 03/22/2013 by Janet Fitch

The Word: FLOWER

Susie sat on the floor to arrange the flowers. Her mother heard her better when she was low and in front. People always loomed so over her shrunken form.  Susie examined the materials that had composed a mixed bouquet from Gelson’s–various shades of orange.  She’d hoped her mother would like them. Her mother liked orange. When Susie was a child, the largest room of the house, the playroom, had been painted a violent tangerine.  The starburst saffron gerbera, she decided, would be the focus, and the tallest of the eucalyptus spikes would be the center.

Music filled the air, a Mozart string quintet, with two violas.  Her mother loved music, but had forgotten how to manage the radio.

The rose blended  with the spicy scent of carnations and the green of chrysanthemum, the resinous eucalyptus. “How are things going, Mom? Making friends?”   Susie always waited to arrange the flowers until she’d arrived in her mother’s room, so she’d have something to do with her hands while she tried to make conversation.

“Some and some,” her mother said.  “In any place, there’s all kinds.”

Her mother looked good, sitting in her peach wing chair from the old house.  Better than she had any right to. Her thick hair,  gone perfectly white, looked just as good as it had in its former state–expensively blonde  and carefully layered. She was nicely dressed in black and gray, modern. Susie had managed to leave the pastel track suit behind.

“Bill’s in Boston, for his son’s graduation,” Susie said from the floor, enunciating clearly. “Sean’s  getting his Masters, in education.”  Snipping the stems of the button chrysanthemums.

“He speaks very good Spanish,” her mother said.  “He can talk to the people here, tell them what I want.”

“That’s Noah,” said Susie.  Her brother. “Bill’s my husband. Remember, he plays the guitar for you.”

“I know,” said her mother.

She measured the gerbera’s long stem against the vase, judging the best height for it, recalling the basics from her ikebana class with ancient Mrs. Morita at LACC. How she’d struggled with her pathetic two flowers and little branches of foliage. But she learned.  The idea was to create the shape of  a large dome using just a few sprigs of greenery, a couple of flowers, a branch.  Ikebana was about making the most impact with the least materials, a true arte povera.  Before taking the  class, she would never have thought to cut a large bloom short. Now she clipped the gerbera low, and let it come forward as the focus. “Pretty?” she asked.

But when she looked up, she saw that her mother’s gaze was trained on the swaying cypress across the street.

“I love that view,” Susie said. The light through the jacaranda, the breeze in its feathery fronds.

“Have you been here before?” her mother asked.

Susie held her breath,  felt the zing!  in her lungs.  She had built that chest of drawers herself, an assemble-at-your-own-risk kit from Crate and Barrel. The nightstand too.  She’d assembled each of the room’s four lamps—two hanging Craftsman fixtures on either side of the bed, a magnifying lamp and the corner’s torchiere.  She’d built the ikea worktable.. She’d selected every garment in the closet, put away every sweater and scarf, arranged tchotchkes and shelved the books, hung every painting.

She picked a sprig of carnation and snipped it, trying to keep her voice level. “Yes, I have.  Many times.”

The question was, why did she do this? Why keep visiting someone who had no idea who she was, and didn’t really care?

Her mother liked the new place all right, had made friends, knew where she liked to sit for meals—the round table by the window—Susie was happy for that.  But the flip side was—her mother’s  indifference. Her own mother treated her exactly as she would  a presentable stranger. Cordial but distant.

Why did she come at all?

The old woman gazed out the window at the afternoon sun filtering through the jacaranda, listening to Mozart. They had chosen this room because of the view, the trees, the hillside, the green wall and the Spanish apartment and even the traffic’s steady hum.  Now she was content.

It  beat the hell out of how she’d been–desperate, anxious, calling a million times a day,  Everything an emergency. It wasn’t long ago that Susie took off work to bring her mother to the doctor when she was panicking, my throat’s closing up! And when she got there, her mother told the doctor her foot hurt.

But now those calls had ceased, and in addition to the sheer giddy relief she had expected to feel, came a shock and a sadness she hadn’t anticipated. Although she didn’t miss the constant need, the complaining and demands, it had always been accompanied with love and tenderness. ‘I don’t know what I would do without you,’ her mother used to say. ‘You’ve really changed a lot.’ (From the sullen teenager she’d been, about forty years ago!)

But now that was over.   And this was what was left.

And she came because she wanted whatever was left, she would make do with that–the way you inhaled the last fragrance of a summer rose.

She picked up the arrangement in its vase, and positioned it on the side table. It was beautiful, airy and striking, a real painting. Her mother would enjoy it, even if she didn’t remember who had made it.

Well, she’d certainly got the most of that small bouquet. Filled space with the modest materials at hand. She kissed her mother goodbye,  hugged her, feeling the sharp fragile bones of her shoulders.  “I’ll come back on Sunday.”

She left the radio playing, they could turn it off when they took her mother to dinner.  The old lady sat with her eyes on the trees, listening.  At least she had not forgotten Mozart.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

 Next week’s word: BITE


The Thing, That Thing…

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , on 12/01/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word: DARK

Slim woke in the dark, and could not remember.  The thing, that thing. That made it light again. She knocked something off the bedside table, she could hear it hit the floor.  “Shit.” The clock didn’t work either, the numbers, glowing. So irritating, she could see the numbers, but she couldn’t… Oh, why was she so stupid?  Was it time to get up or not?  That’s all she wanted to know.

It was dark, she didn’t think it was time, but those things, over the windows, she couldn’t tell. Was it dark outside too?

She tried to find the thing–the thing that turned on the light, but she couldn’t. Something else fell.  She got out of bed then, maybe she could light a light in the bathroom, by the commode. But suddenly, she was on the floor. She must have sat down. It was dark, and her glasses, she couldn’t see, and she was on the floor, and it was dark. She tried to get up but she couldn’t do that either.  “Shit.”  And she started to cry.

There was something she was supposed to do.  Pull something. couldn’t reach the pull thing that called–who? She believed no one would come anyway.  There was no one who worked here at night, they all went somewhere and drank coffee and laughed at the old people.

If only it wasn’t so damn dark. So many things rambled around in her head, she couldn’t say what exactly. And  there was no one to say them to anyway.   She missed Ritchie. “God, Ritchie, why did you have to leave me here?” it was cold on the floor, she pulled the blanket off the bed and wrapped it around herself.  How had this happened to her? Of all people.  Who the hell said this would be all right?

The clock was even laughing at her, glowing there with its big computery numbers like it was a rocket station. But it was wrong. Nobody ever reset it.  How she hated it here.  “Ritchie, I’m a goddamn fool,” she said.  He was waiting for her, in that place, the sooner the better if you asked her. She reached up to her bed and pulled a pillow down, lay her head on it.  Screw it.  Then she started to cry. Here she was, Slim Tolliver, queen of the goddamn north shore, lying on the floor like an overturned turtle, and there was no one in the goddamn world to help her.

It felt good, infinitely good, to cry like a kid and feel sorry for herself. Ha.  She never let her children do this, when they were young. Teased and bullied them into pulling their socks up.  “Pull your socks up,” she used to say  “Stop sniveling.  You look like absolute hell.”

If only she had a little dog, it would come and lick her face, she could cuddle with it, talk to it.  But they didn’t have animals here. That one big fluffy dog came sometimes, it had a diamond collar–oh, she loved to pet it. That great curly hair.  But she couldn’t bring her own dogs, the big one and the little one… Frenchie?  F… F something.  Cute as could be.  So funny to watch them play together, the little one running in circles, the big one just staring.

Where was her mother? Not mother… sister? Daughter. Pammy.   She came and went whenever she goddamn well wanted to.  Nice to come and go. God she missed her car. White car, white leather, two seater. Just for her. She remembered when she bought it.  She didn’t tell anybody, not even Ritchie. It was the first time she bought something like that without anybody’s say so. Ha.  His face when she brought it home.  Oh, to just get in a car and drive… a white scarf on her head.  Sun on her face.  Ah…

If only she could get the light on.  She crawled in the direction she thought was the bathroom, found the door, felt along the cold porcelain commode and pulled herself up onto her knees. There it was, the thing, the switch, she turned it on, it got light.  Never in her whole life was she so happy to see her jumbled makeup and the toilet rolls,  the towels.

Seeing she was here already, Slim used the commode and wondered if it was time to get up.  They came to give you your pills at six. She had never been an early riser, six was ridiculous, inhuman, for bakers, and people who delivered the paper.  It would probably be hours until it was six.

She decided she wouldn’t tell her mother what had happened. She’d been so mean to those kids.  Not letting them cry or be hurt.   No wonder that one had put her in here, where there was nobody to help her, they just drank coffee in the basement and make fun of the old people, their clumsiness and the mess you couldn’t help making.

She started to cry again.  If she was a dog, they could just take her to the vet, give her a shot. She didn’t think she could do this one more day.  She looked in the mirror over the sink, that blurry thing she assumed was herself. God, it was lucky she couldn’t see more than the white hair.  “Pull up your socks, Slim Tolliver,” she told herself.  “Nobody wants to see that.”

She left the light on, and shuffled back to the bed. She was supposed to use that thing, but she had no idea where it was just now. That thing

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

 Next week’s word is: COP

Carmen, Still

Posted in The Word: Stories with tags , , on 11/21/2012 by Janet Fitch

The Word: FOIL

Yes, I’m her foil, her heterosexual Alice B. Toklas, her dogsbody, her step n’ fetchit man.  Companion was the term they used in the dear old days back when we met at Mills, that during the War. Carmen and Addy. Who was the comic who put us into the same room. Both from Southern California, poor dear. They must have supposed we knew each other. Or at least traveled in the same circles.  That we’d take comfort in one another, being so far from home.

But Carmen was from Bel Air, and I was from Whittier. Her father was a big man in the studios, while mine edited a small town newspaper. (No one ever asked what the mothers ‘did,’ but for the record, hers collected art, and mine went to church and grew a Victory garden.)

Sixty-some years ago.

Who would have put money on us?

Carmen still glittered, I’ll give  her that much.  Even as a college girl she had. I’ll never forget how a car came for us, to take us to the Opera in the City. Girls spied on us from the windows of the dorm.  I’d needed a formal gown, I remember.  I made mine, pale yellow with a jewel neck, a color I thought looked well with my pale hair, and my blue eyes and my freckles. But I disappeared next to Carmen, with her luxuriant black hair and olive green dress with the plunging back.

I don’t mean to sound envious. Who would want to be Carmen? It would be like wanting to be a hurricane. Tearing through the world, knocking down trees, drowning everything in her path.  Ruin in every direction, ruin of your own creation.

Girls didn’t like her. Women,.  She had to wait until she was so famous, everyone admired her–and took her peculiarities as part of the package. But back then, they expected you to be just another nice girl from a good family, which meant–behave. She scandalized them by being both nouveau riche, and–they didn’t have to say it–Jewish.

But I was dazzled by her.  And I was her friend.

Tonight, the hair was silver and wound in a thick chignon I knew was half purchased, her bony arm bore six inches of jeweled bangles, the dress was scarlet. Oscar de La Renta. At eighty, she was still the most daring thing in the room. And I was myself, as ever. Gray hair bobbed,  black pants elastic-waisted, wearing a silk kimono bought on a trip to Hong Kong in the ‘seventies.

“Addy! Take this, dear.” She thrust a half-eaten strawberry into my hand, a balled up napkin, turning to smile at the photographer, arms around two young glittering friends.

Yes, that was me, there to hold her sweater or a wet glass when the photographers came around,  The gooey feeling of the strawberry in my hand. I wanted to throw it at her.  People said, yes Carmen’s a handful, but it must have had its moments–a girl from Whittier, you’ve stayed at the Dorchester, you’ve met Picasso, You fly first class, there’s a a car and driver in every city.

But I’ve  been well-paid– in wet glasses and half-eaten strawberries.

I drifted back to the catering kitchen–there was a personal one and a larger one for parties–where black-and-white-clad boys and girls smoked and gossiped as they cleaned up.  I liked they didn’t stop when I came in.  I dumped the strawberry into the trash, and wiped my hand, asked a young man for a cigarette–my once a year treat.

I have been her shadow for sixty years.  Good old Addy. Through all seven of her marriages, one more disastrous than the next.  I wear the same dress to them all now–it seems ridiculous to buy new ones.

I remembered the gown she wore for my sole trip to the altar. Schaparelli pink. For a Methodist wedding in Whittier. Ha. My mother was appalled, but I should have  known. She just couldn’t bear to be in anyone’s shadow. Not even on my wedding day.

But when Jim lay dying, in the bed at Cedars with all his tubes, she brought us pastrami and pickles and scotch. Her then-husband couldn’t bear the sight of the dying–he was, as she would say, a piece of work. Number six, the designer. But Carmen stayed with us, night after night, playing gin rummy, running to the nurse’s station to bawl them out, she snapped at their heels like a border collie. She’d invited me to come live with her after the funeral.

“I can’t live under the same roof as that,” I said. The husband, Danny somebody, waiting by the Bentley.

“It’s not the same roof,” Carmen said.  “It’s the carriage house. There’s a huge lawn between you.”

Then Danny was gone, and the one after that.  But I’m still here.

So funny, who proves the most important person in your life.  I poured myself some scotch. I could hear her out there laughing, she had a big braying laugh, the girls at Mills used to mock it, but she’s known for it now.  And I toasted her. For she was my foil as well.

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is: DARK


The Sleeper Hold

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Word: Stories, Writing Exercises with tags , , , on 08/27/2011 by Janet Fitch

The Word: Tears

Georgia brought her mother dinner on a tray, El Pollo Loco, rice and slaw. Her mother lay propped in her bed, in a less-than-clean pink tracksuit and thin, draggled hair–which she insisted could only be washed once a week by Tami at the beauty parlor, set and sprayed to last the following week. Pro Wrestling blared on TV, her mother’s new hobby. Friday Night Smackdown.

“Sleeper hold,” the old woman called out, pointing to the TV. “Look, Georgie.  Aw, that Viper’s a monster.”

By the time she looked up, a nearly naked man in a mohawk and hip boots was smashing another man over the back with a folding chair.

She could barely recognize her mother these days, her face and legs all puffy. T The doctors had run test after test, they couldn’t figure out what was wrong. They’d been trying to control the swelling with diuretics, but so far nothing worked. Worse, she’d been forgetting medication, or else pulling stunts like applying half a month’s worth of analgesic pads all at once, so they’d had to arm-twist the pharmacy to refill the prescription ahead of time.

On TV, two large oiled men grappled and grunted. One got hold of the other and attempted to pound his head into the floor. Her mother lifted the rice to her mouth, not taking her eyes from the screen, getting half of it on her bosom.  “Piledriver.”

Georgia wished she’d been firmer about getting her mother out of the house,  back when her father died. But she hadn’t, so here she was coming over after work to feed her mother before going home and throwing something together for herself and Arthur. A good stiff drink was what she needed.  She was tired. She was fifty-six years old and bone weary. Sometimes she would like to just take her mother and apply the sleeper hold.

She went back downstairs to see if there was anything that needed throwing out. She’d asked Charlene, the caregiver, to keep the refrigerator updated, but the woman wasn’t getting paid enough to care about milk souring in the refrigerator. Her mother was sure the woman was stealing toilet paper, canned goods. “Why does she need to bring shopping bags to work?”   Georgia checked the trash, the refrigerator, sniffed the milk.  Everything was fine. She went around the kitchen like a hound, sniffing.

The floor proved wet around the old Westinghouse washer.  She was tired and hungry, and now there was this leak. She saw it all.  The repairman, late. The expense. It was an old machine, should she bother repairing it? But to replace it, for what? She took a mop and some bleach and mopped up the wet floor. If only Charlene could put the damned machine in her shopping bag, and the rest of the house too, and good riddance.

She knew she should just go home.  It was almost eight, a long day.  But the smell was stronger in the hall.  Noticeably so.  With a great deal of trepidation, she opened the door to the closet. Yes, there it was–musty, stale, like old ladies.  Age, decrepitude, feebleness.

It sapped all her strength. She’d always been the youthful looking one, of all her friends, everybody said so, but now nobody said it.  Her jaw, softening, her neck had its own flesh turtleneck. She wasn’t sleeping well, and she’d noticed just this morning how much she was coming to resemble Somerset Maugham.

Steeling herself, she pushed the coats aside, freeing up the area that led to the basement.  The smell flooded up. Dank, cold.

She didn’t like basements.  Her own house didn’t have one. Who had basements in Los Angeles?  Even as a child she was afraid of it.  It was dark, earthy smelling.  You could hear the creaking old house settling overhead. She’d gone down there just a half-dozen times in the fifty years her parents lived in this house, and only with her father, holding his flashlight.  The rotting ship’s ladder of a stairway.

Of course, the flashlight was dead. She went back out into the kitchen and found a 12 pack of D batteries. Outdated, useless.  She found two more flashlights, three, but none of them worked. Finally, armed with her cell phone, she returned to the dark opening of the basement and shone the feeble light down.

Water lapped halfway up the water heater. Water covered the lower vents of the furnace. Dirty, stinking, stagnant water  Water hid the bottom two rungs of the flimsy ladder.

Georgia sat on the top step and gazed into the murky water.  She felt the weight of the house on her shoulders, the house and her mother in it.  She had no ideas. Not a single one.   Tears slid down her cheeks, and she didn’t even bother to wipe them with the back of her freckled hand.  She could feel her mother upstairs, watching men in Mohawks and skull masks grapple and pin one another, roaring with outrage and murder.  But this, this water, this is what was happening to them. It wasn’t a wrestling match.  It was the slow filling of basements, the thing that eroded the foundations.  Silently, only announcing itself by the smell of decay.

She went up to the room and kissed her mother’s forehead.  “There’ll be a plumber coming tomorrow.”

Her mother tried to see around her as a man in a Batman mask threw himself at a man in black leather pants with flames coming up the sides,  wrapping his legs around the other man’s neck. “We need more toilet paper, that woman’s been taking it by the sixpack.”

Something was being stolen here, but it wasn’t the toilet paper.  “Sure Mom, I’ll bring some tomorrow.”

Part  of a semi-weekly series of short short stories based on a writing exercise, The Word.  “Inspired by a simple word, chosen at random, write a two-page double-spaced story, using the Word at least once.”

Next week’s word is:  pepper