Retirement

A hundred dead and dying flowers occupy the shelves in Alma’s garage. Many sunlit mornings push past her window and beam in hot amber bars against her curling wallpaper. They coax her to the nursery, where she meticulously searches for the most colorful, healthy-looking plants. Petunias, violets, pansies—especially pansies—each blessed with the delightful promise of continual budding, would jerk and twist in their crates in the back of the car, waiting for their debut to new soil. Her son decided her future for her, so the foliage will now sit for a bone-dry day on the shelf; another, another.

Cathy makes her tea at six o’clock each morning. She has never been to England and hates her “first generation American” title. She speaks with an English accent acquired from her parents, dead and gone, reads etiquette books from cover to cover, writes on fancy stationery to old acquaintances who seldom return a word. Her house seeps lace, buckles under the weight of gaudy chandeliers, drowns in inherited china used once a year when her brother and his family visit for Thanksgiving. He does not speak with an English accent.

Judy pours God onto the road every morning with rice flower and colored spices in the hopes of dispelling negative vehicular energy. She powerwashes the house once a month; she prays; she reads all the important books and follows their words humbly and blindly. She sleeps in a bed with her boyfriend who never kisses her and three spiders who kiss her often. “And I’ll take this,” she says, handing the clerk a small wind chime. She picks up peacemakers wherever she finds them: incense, candles, lavender bath balm, a book of inspirational quotations compiled by Roger M. Baldwin, Ph.D. She keeps a modest home, whose roof shelters a wild daughter, a growing son, her boyfriend, and herself. The wind never blows too much around her house. She spends most of her time as a counselor at the retirement community. She works at the quilt store. Sometimes she makes quilts inspired by the work of Picasso, whose art she greatly admires. She believes above all things in happiness derived from the simplest of pleasures: the song of a sewing machine, brightly patterned fabrics, Mr. Fuzzy the cat, the perfect color of thread. She takes Paxil to see the colors brighter. The staff of the Annex, the restaurant next door, believes her to be positively imbalanced. Judy’s daughter is moving to Feather River Junior College up north, she says. It’s up north, west of some cattle ranching town that no one’s ever heard of, she says. Now Judy moves all of her quilting things into her daughter’s old room but she forgets one thimble, which sits in the corner, occasionally illuminated by the headlights of her son’s truck as he returns from another lost rodeo, or sometimes by the moon.

A visiting singer would have thought that the weekly carolers were the highlight of Alma’s week, but nobody knew for sure. “Page 33!” she would plead, and the high school good-doers would dive into a bland and overdone rendition of “Red River Valley.” Toward the beginning of their visits to the Acacias retirement home, she would ask only once. But days and their magic, miserable work forced her to ask twice sometimes. The second time through, the students would only sing the first, third, and last verse. To the singers, the shortened version always sounded funny and cheap, and maybe it sounded funny to Alma too. Maybe that was the taste in her mouth on the rainy night that she didn’t wheel out into the entryway to hear the singers. The singers didn’t know that she felt hung up by the dwarfed version brought-to-you-by-Alzheimers-by-old-age-  maybe-just-by-wanting-to-hear-the-whole-song- twice-to-hear-the-whole-song-just-once. In fact, when the wailing ambulance pulled out into the rain, they didn’t even know it was Alma.


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SUDARSHAN PALIWAL

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