Mrs. Bess Cunningham is on a first-name basis with Death. Bess and Death have known each other since the old days, which in her case are very old days indeed.
Some mornings it gives her the giggles to wake up alive. Just a few more weeks of not forgetting to breathe and Bess, Mrs. C to the staff, will be a centenarian. Whoop-de-do. How does one become a hundred years old? Simple, don’t die. What’s the prize for surviving an entire century? Nix, nothing, nada. A yearly interview if somehow you manage to squeak out another birthday. One hundred is the big one. A hundred and one is redundant.
Once she gets over her morning giggle, Bess sits up in her bed. She plumps her pillows, makes herself comfortable and sweeps her eyes around the single room of her existence. Four walls, two windows, one door to the toilet and another to the hallway. The entirety of her realm, the ferocity of her life tamed to this simple cage. Her world has been reduced to a few precious paintings on the walls, the last books too dear to part with, and her only tchotchke, two halves of a single Moroccan geode. Bess has always traveled light.
Beyond her four walls, Bess hears the facility coming awake. Rubber soles squeak on linoleum. A medication cart, the one with the stuttering wheel, jitters down the wide corridor outside her door, bearing the pills and potions that keep the walking cadavers alive.
Bess hears it all, the groans and cries, the singsong of the aides and nurses. She lets her mind slip past the noises outside her walls. Then she discards the walls as well. Bess sinks into her morning meditation and the world disappears.
The theater is ornate, gilded, and empty. Bess Cunningham is an audience of one, sixth row, first off the center aisle, the best seat in the house. The curtain rises to an empty stage, black backdrops, a minimalist setting straight from one of Beckett’s French nightmares.
An invisible orchestra strikes up a Strauss waltz. Shadowed figures begin to shuffle onstage. They enter from stage left, stage right, upstage and downstage. They lurch about in a dance macabre, staggering in unison on the paired descending notes.
Death swirls into the scene from upstage, a grand entrance under the spotlight, waltzing with his scythe. He takes two measures, three, spinning between the zombie dancers. Then he raises the gleaming scythe. At the descent, the accentuated Viennese waltz beat, Death swings the reaping blade, one-two, one-two.
Shadow dancers fall at each stroke, fragmenting into shards and tatters. The waltz grows stronger, building on each preceding movement. Death swirls faster, faster, his blade singing through the dark air. At the crescendo, Death throws out an extra flourish, a graceful double spin. The last dancer falls as the final note quivers in the air.
Death steps forward as the curtain falls behind him. He sweeps into a low bow, leaning on his scythe. Bess applauds. Then, like a small child in a school play, Death gives her a small wave and an unseen wink. Bess laughs at his antics and returns his wave. Back in character, Death bows once more, then glides away into the wings.
The image fades and Bess is back in her bed, smiling to herself, ready to begin another day. She knows why Death keeps her around. He needs someone who can appreciate his dedication to the craft, his long game, the endurance of his ongoing performance. She is his faithful admirer, many decades faithful. After all, what is a play without an audience?
Bess swings her thin legs over the edge of the bed, conscious of each movement. First one leg, then the other, cardboard appendages held together with rusty wire, untrustworthy. With her feet flat on the floor, she pulls the walker close, eases herself to standing. She expects to fall but doesn’t. One of these mornings she will. One of these mornings she’ll die. Curtain down, play over.
With one thin hand over the brake lever, Bess pilots the walker to the toilet, following the contraption with her mincing old lady steps. A ridiculous shuffle, the best her brittle bones can manage. And these are the very same legs that once stopped men in their tracks, hiked the North African desert, then danced all night.
Done with her ablutions, she chooses her clothing for the day. Simple colors, fine fabric, a gray cashmere sweater over silk, linen slacks. No matter what she chooses, she ends up looking like a little girl playing dress-up. Her body is shrinking faster than she can buy new outfits. Not that it matters. What’s important is that she is dressed and presentable before the morning aide knocks on her door and invades her sanctuary.
The knock does come and with it the inexorable grind of the day. First the aide, chipper and chatty, then the morning nurse with another dose of perky chit-chat. The long, slow shuffle to breakfast, the blessing of coffee, strong and black. At least something is still strong. Then out into the garden with her current novel.
Take what you can get, girl. The perfume of roses beats the smell of a satin-lined coffin. The warmth of sunshine is gentler than the flames of the crematorium. Park yourself in a chair and enjoy what there is. Bess laughs out loud, blows a raspberry at her inner cautions. Who cares what she looks like, alone and ancient? One of the few benefits of being this old. She can act as crazy as she wants, and no one cares.
The morning is bright and warm and drowsy. Bess lets the novel rest in her lap, watches the bees bob and weave between the blossoms. Soon, her head bobs as well, her chin on her chest, and she drifts away.
“Good morning, Mrs. C. Are you there?”
The voice falls from the sunshine, a young voice rolling down from the blue sky above the meadow where she’s laid down to rest. Bess raises her head and blinks her eyes. She knows that voice. It’s that nice young woman with the odd name, the history student.
“Good morning, Brinkley. Silly me, dozing off and it’s not even lunchtime yet.”
“How are you, Mrs. C?”
“I’m fine, Dear, for a cranky old lady. How’s your project coming along, the oral histories?”
The young woman kneels beside the wicker chair, lithe and supple as a leopard. Bess likes the girl, likes her purple hair and her direct speech. Brinkley is sweet enough on the outside, but Bess suspects the girl has steel as well.
“I don’t know that I’m getting much my professor would call history, but I’m up to speed on everyone’s grandkids.”
Bess laughs aloud at that.
“Photos of grandchildren are a valuable commodity with the residents. The old folks flash them around like baseball cards.”
“Baseball cards, Mrs. C?”
“Sorry, Dear, a thing from long before your time. And please, call me Bess. Mrs. C is what the staff calls me, and you’re much more interesting than the staff.”
“Bess is nice. Is that short for Elizabeth?”
“No, just plain old Bess. I was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in nineteen-twenty-two. A boring town that favored short, boring names. Certainly nothing as interesting as Brinkley. Is that a family name?”
Brinkley’s face crinkles into a big grin that Bess likes, a wide boyish grin.
“Nope, I’m the only Brinkley. It was a fad name, popular for a few years, and then gone. A few of us got stuck with it.”
“Oh, don’t say stuck, Dear. I think it’s a lovely name. What’s on our agenda for today?”
Brinkley flips open a notebook, finds the entry she’s looking for.
“Shouldn’t they be calling you Miss C? Cunningham is your maiden name, isn’t it?”
“That’s right, Dear. I suppose they think I’m too old to be a miss.”
“But you were married twice, weren’t you?”
“Yes, I was, and widowed twice as well.”
“I’m sorry, Bess.”
“Don’t be. Decades gone since then. I was never lucky with husbands. Lucky in love, yes, but not lucky in matrimony. Neither of my husbands could stay alive.”
“Where did you meet your first husband?”
“I met Joe in Algiers. That was in nineteen-forty-three.”
“Algiers as in North Africa?”
“That’s right. I was a WAC, Women’s Army Corp. We fought the war with typewriters. Joe was in the infantry, the most handsome boy I had ever seen. It was a whirlwind wartime romance, a lifetime compressed into a few months. It sounds like the plot from a sappy novel, but we really lived like that back then. The war doled out time in hours, or days, but never in years.”
“You were married in North Africa?”
“That’s right, married before he shipped out for the invasion of Italy. That was the last time I saw him. Joe was killed at the Battle of Monte Cassino, cut down by a Nazi bullet. They buried him outside Florence.”
“That’s incredibly sad, Bess.”
“It was sad, but there were so many wartime stories, everyone missing someone. We all suffered together. Loss was as regular as breathing.”
“You and Joe didn’t get a chance to have children.”
“No, but it wasn’t for lack of trying, Dear. We were crazy for each other. We snatched whatever we could from the little time we had together. But it wouldn’t have mattered. I’ve got the right plumbing for sex, but not for making babies. I didn’t find that out until years later.”
Bess glances at the young woman and catches her blushing.
“Here now, you better jot this down in your notes. Old people think about sex too, you know. And they still give it a go when they can. It’s been two decades for me, but I still think about it.”
“Funny, the other residents have never mentioned sex.”
“Well, they’re boring, for the most part. Shy, too, I expect. I don’t have the luxury of time, and I’ve never been shy. Take this old lady’s advice. Have as much good sex as you can, as often as you can. Life is uncertain, and a good lover is a blessing.”
Brinkley lays a hand on Bess’ wrist. Her touch is smooth and warm and supple. Young skin, such a marvelous thing.
“That’s good advice, Bess. I’ll do my best. What happened after your husband was killed? Did you stay in North Africa?”
“No, I was a war widow, but I was still in the Army. The WACs followed the troops. I was sent to Italy. The Italian campaign lasted until nineteen-forty-five. After that, I volunteered for Germany. I wanted to see the war through until the end. The war ended, but the work didn’t. The Army was sorting through DPs, the displaced persons. Millions of people were left homeless. Some were trying desperately to return to their homelands, others just as desperate to be sent anywhere else.”
“When did you go back home?”
“I didn’t, Dear. I stayed in Berlin until forty-eight. I went home a few times after that, but there wasn’t anything to hold me there. I moved from job to job. There was always another agency to work for, another desk to fill. Eventually, I made my way to Tangier.”
“Wow, Morocco. That must have been exotic.”
“Yes, Tangier was exotic and magical and ancient. All those things and more.”
“Wasn’t that dangerous, being a single woman on your own?”
“Maybe, but no more dangerous then than it is now if one believes the news. For folks in Europe, the years after the war were hard. There were shortages of everything, rationing, blasted cities. But we had survived, and there was great joy in that. We drank, we danced, we laughed. Life was sweet again. And there were love affairs, a great many love affairs.”
Brinkley cocks her pretty head, pen poised over her notebook.
“Are you speaking generally or personally?”
“Both, Dear. Very much both. I was a young widow and life was an adventure. Speaking personally, there were men to share the adventure with, and a few women as well. The old rules had been blasted to kingdom come, so why not? I learned that women have a different smell, a different taste and touch. But I gravitated mostly to men, and then to Tangier. That city has a gravity all its own.”
“Tell me about that. What did you do there?”
“Tangier was a magnet for writers and artists, like the Left Bank of Paris in the Twenties. I started working as an editor. All those years correcting letters written by bone-headed officers paid off. I knew a good sentence from a bad one. It wasn’t much of a living, but living was cheap.”
“And did you know some of these writers and artists?”
“Everyone knew everyone in Tangier. I met Paul Bowles first, then his wife Jane. Lovely people. And then William Burroughs. He was on the run from Mexico after shooting his wife. Not such a lovely man, but he had the best hashish. Later, it was Tennessee Williams, then Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac. By then I had fallen in love with Bernard. Never marry a poet, Dear, unless you enjoy poverty. We were poor as church mice, but so happy.”
Bess watches Brinkley scribbling notes.
“Am I going too fast, Dear?”
“I just need a second to catch up. I want to ask you about Bernard, and then come back to some of this.”
“Ah, Bernard. Such a beautiful man, but not blessed with luck.”
“And he was an American?”
“No, Bernard was French.”
“Do you speak French?”
“Bien sûr, like a Parisian back then. I’m rusty now. No one to speak with, you see. Bernard died a very long time ago. Heart attack, poor man. Less than ten years together and I was a widow once more.”
“That’s incredible, Bess. Can we go back to the thing about Burroughs? Are you saying you smoked hashish in the Fifties?”
“Yes, I did. Tangier was a city of possibilities. Bernard and I had a favorite spot, Beit Hahayim, the old Jewish cemetery that overlooks the harbor. We’d sit on the broken grave slabs under the junipers, smoke hashish, and gaze out over the Mediterranean. And we certainly weren’t the only ones. It was quite the gathering spot on a warm evening. Which reminds me of something I wanted to ask you.”
Brinkley looks up from her note-taking.
Bess laughs at that.
“Never answer yes before you hear the question. Another piece of old lady advice. Anyway, what I was wondering is if you could bring me some marijuana. I’d pay you, of course.”
“Marijuana? You want to get high?”
“That is the point of the stuff, as I remember.”
“Right, but should you be smoking? I mean…”
Bess waves a frail hand in the air.
“Yes, you mean I’m old as dirt and smoking is dangerous. Let me tell you, Brinkley, life is dangerous. Every single thing about it is dangerous. And love too, the most dangerous thing of all. Compared to that, a little marijuana isn’t going to hurt me one bit.”
“Sorry, I get your point. How about a vape pen? That’s super easy and a bit more discreet.”
“Oh, I’ve seen the aides using those gadgets on their breaks. You press the button and smoke pours out everywhere.”
“Right, except it’s not smoke, it’s water vapor.”
“How ingenious! So, will you do it?”
Tap-tap-tap, pen against notebook.
“Okay, Bess, but probably better if you don’t tell anyone where you got it.”
“Mum’s the word, Dear, and thank you. How much does one of these gizmos cost?”
“Let’s worry about that later.”
Brinkley glances at her phone, frowns.
“Damn, I’m going to be late for class if I don’t get my ass in gear. Bess, thank you for a wonderful session. Your story is so amazing. I think you should share this with the other residents.”
“How do you mean share it?”
“I don’t know, maybe a story circle or something. It could be a great tool, get the other residents talking about something other than their grandkids.”
“That’s a big rock to get rolling, Dear.”
“Well, give it some thought. If anyone can do it, you can. I gotta run. I’ll see you in a few days.”
“If I’m still breathing.”
“You stop that, Bess. It’s not funny.”
“Try it from where I’m sitting, and you might get the joke. Off you go now, you don’t want to be late.”
Brinkley leans in to kiss Bess on the forehead, stands, and smiles. Bess shoos her with the back of a hand. A quick wave and Brinkley is walking away.
* * *
The idea of a story circle is ridiculous, but it nags at Bess like a yappy lap dog. She knows it’s her own fault. Imagine, giving in to boredom and at her age, a condition that was, until very recently, foreign to her.
Human beings have always been so fascinating, so tragic and comic and wonderful. Bess herself has played the fool more times than she cares to remember. Who could be bored living through that wonderful farce? But the play has grown dull and ground to a halt. Now the only entertainment is the ridiculous countdown to her hundredth birthday.
And so, the silly idea takes on a life of its own and sets Bess in motion. She slides her walker through the facility, stops at the common room, the game room, chats it up at lunch. By dinnertime, one of the aides has tacked up a signup sheet: Oral History Group—Ten A.M. Mrs. Cunningham, Chairperson.
Leaving the dining room, Bess stops to read the notice. An even dozen residents have already signed up. Their names are stacked down the page, some scrawled, others elegant, a few written in block letters by the aides. Not all the residents can manage a pen.
She shakes her head, amused by her foolishness, then aims her walker towards the garden. The sunset is just beginning, and she settles in to enjoy the show.
* * *
Bess looks out over the semicircle of residents who have arrived for the history group. Fifteen in all, three more than the sign-in sheet. There are six with walkers, four wheelchairs, and five ambulatories. Their eyes are on her, more or less. Time to kick off the meeting.
“Good morning and welcome to our first gathering of the oral history group. I thought I might begin by clarifying what we are trying to do here. Oral histories, memorable experiences from our own lives, spoken aloud to the group. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we are here to talk about ourselves, not our grandchildren.”
Bess sees a flash of disappointment cross several faces. She decides to encourage rather than chastise.
“Our purpose is to remember and share the important events each of us has lived through. I would very much appreciate it if we could all keep our histories personal, told in the first person so to speak. Now, who would like to begin?”
A few glances around the group, a cough or two, then one resident raises his hand. Bess recognizes him, Dan Hughes, a gangly man, one of the ambulatories. Loud, off-color. A small warning bell sounds in the back of her mind, but it’s too late now.
“Mister Hughes, our first volunteer. What would you like to talk about, Dan?”
The old boy leans forward in his chair, smiling like an eager puppy.
“I once had sex with Janis Joplin.”
Bess takes in the group’s reaction. As opening lines go, it’s a doozy. Now that he’s got their undivided attention, Dan takes the bit in his teeth and charges on.
“Yup, it’s true. Back in the Haight, April, nineteen-sixty-eight. Janis was singing with Big Brother and the Holding Company. I was crashing across the street from where they rehearsed. Used to help them out toting amps and whatnot. Well, one thing led to another, and there I was, alone with Janis.”
The story runs on, hot and heavy. Bess manages to rein Dan in just as he enters the realm of graphic detail. A few of the old ladies look like they’re about to go into cardiac arrest. Dan Hughes sits back in his chair, arms crossed over his bony chest, looking smug and proud.
“Well, that is certainly fascinating, Dan. Thank you. Now, who would like to go next?”
The answer, it seems, is no one. Dan’s opening salvo also proves to be the coup de grâce. Mary Meyers tries a half-hearted remembrance of the day JFK was shot, but she loses her steam and quits. After a few more stuttering starts and stops, it’s clear that the meeting is dying, and no amount of resuscitation will save it.
“Well, I think we’re off to a very interesting start. Perhaps this would be a good place to close for today. Thank you all for coming. I’ll post a notice for the next meeting.”
Which will happen over my dead body. Bess grits her teeth to avoid saying it out loud. The residents begin to disperse at a snail’s pace. Bess forces a sweet smile.
“Dan, could you spare a moment before you go?”
* * *
It’s after lunch when Brinkley makes a surprise appearance. Bess sees her purple hair flashing down the corridor and a large shoulder bag jostling against her black jeans. Brinkley is a welcome sight. Bess enjoys any disruption to the routine, and Brinkley most especially.
Bess waves. The young woman spots her, zips across the common room, and flops into an empty chair beside Bess. Brinkley is going ninety miles an hour even while sitting still. Bess is envious of her energy but very happy to see her.
“Hi, Bess! How are you?”
“I’m just fine, Dear, but you’ve got me doubting my memory. Am I off my schedule? This isn’t one of your regular days.”
Brinkley breaks into that big grin that Bess likes so much.
“Nope, I’m dashing between work and class, but it was on the way, and I’ve got something for you.”
Brinkley leans in close and lowers her voice.
“That thing you asked for, and a surprise as well.”
“How lovely! This must be my lucky day.”
Brinkley slips off the shoulder bag and opens the flap. She holds it forward so that Bess can see the contents. There’s a silver laptop computer in the bag, and beside it, a small, white box.
“Your new vape pen, as requested. It’s all loaded up and the battery is fresh. The directions are in the box, but it’s dead simple. Put it to your lips, press the button, and inhale.”
“That’s very exciting. Thank you, Dear. How much do I owe you for this lovely toy?”
“I have to dash, so we can settle up later. I saved the receipt. Keep it in the messenger bag for now. I’ll pick it up at our next session.”
“That’s very generous of you, Brinkley, but what about your laptop?”
Another grin, this one even bigger.
“Ah, that’s the surprise, Bess. It’s not my laptop, it’s yours. I scrounged an old Mac from the department. When I explained my idea to my professor, she loved it.”
“And what idea is that?”
“That you should have your own computer. You can use it to write down your story, Bess. I set it up with a writing program. It’s very simple. Have you used a computer before?”
Bess laughs at this.
“Yes, Dear. The information age is only one of the revolutions I’ve lived through. I know how to use a computer.”
“Great! The password is easy. Paul Bowles, all one word, all lower case.”
Bess shakes her head and smiles at this lovely young woman.
“You are a marvel, Brinkley. I hope your professor appreciates you.”
“She’ll appreciate me a lot more if I get your history written down.”
“I’ll do my best, Dear.”
“I know you will, Bess. And we don’t need to share where the vape pen came from, right?”
“Right as rain.”
“Okay, great. I’m so sorry, but I’ve gotta blast. I can’t be late for class.”
“Off you go then. You’ve got a professor to impress.”
Bess can still feel the kiss on her forehead as the tall girl dashes for the door. She wishes there had been time to tell Brinkley about the disaster of the first and only oral history meeting. Oh well, the next time then. We’ll have a good laugh over that one. Provided there is a next time, of course.
She closes the flap of the messenger bag, hangs it over her walker, and pulls herself to her feet.
* * *
The evening meal passes with the usual companions around their usual table, but Bess seems to drift through the dinner. No one remarks on it because, in this place, drifting is a state of being.
But Bess is not so much drifting as dreaming. She pokes at the bland chicken breast on her plate. There is nothing wrong with it as much as there is nothing right with it either. She imagines a beautiful Moroccan man whisking the soulless food away, returning with a heavy clay tajine. The waiter smiles at Bess, lifts the coned lid to reveal a spicy lamb stew. Then someone at the table speaks her name. The lovely image dissolves into a ring of very old faces and plates of under-salted chicken.
* * *
Bess holds the vape pen in her hand. She thinks it looks elegant, a far cry from the sticky hash pipe she and Bernard kept hidden at the bottom of an old coffee can. She reads the directions twice, then tries a test puff at her window. Pleased with the result, she slips the gizmo into the pouch on her walker and makes her way to the terrace.
By the time Bess reaches the garden, the last of the sunset is fading over the edge of the horizon. The garden terrace is filled with pools of light shining from lamps hidden under bushes or tucked into wall sconces.
Bess takes a seat in her favorite wicker chair. Not only is the chair comfortable, but it’s strategically placed between a clump of pampas grass and a potted bamboo. Bess has been a resident for a very long time. She knows the security cameras, and she knows the blind spots.
Not that she’s doing anything wrong. The vape pen is legal. Bess is of legal age almost five times over. The choice is hers. Which won’t stop some nosy nurse from checking up on her. Bess doesn’t want to be interrupted. She just wants to get high in peace.
Bess puts the gadget to her lips, presses the button, and inhales. She expects the harsh, resinous burn of hashish, and the hacking cough that inevitably follows, but that is not what happens.
Instead, she exhales a huge white cloud. She feels like a very small, very old fire-breathing dragon. There’s no blind spot in the world big enough to hide the enormous plume drifting above her head. The duty nurse is probably already phoning the fire department.
Well, if they’re already on their way, there’s nothing she can do about it. May as well enjoy yourself. Button, button, where’s my button?
Bess giggles at the voice in her head, thumbs the button and inhales. She holds the vapor in her lungs, then lets another huge cloud roll into the night air. The plume is as big as a blimp. Bess laughs out loud as she watches the white vapor cloud roll into the night sky.
Oh, you are so busted now, girl. Brinkley should have warned you about the smoke signals.
Then Bess hears a man’s voice, deep and musical, and she knows that she really is busted.
“Miz C, is that you out here?”
Bess grins when she recognizes the voice. Luis Reyes, the handsome aide from the Dominican Republic. A single smile from Luis set many an old lady’s heart aflutter.
“Mister Reyes, how nice to see you.”
Luis squats on his haunches beside her chair. Even sitting on his heels, he is at eye level with Bess.
“Didn’t mean to interrupt you, Miz C. Just checking that you were— Wait, is that a vape pen?”
Bess starts giggling like a schoolgirl. Can’t stop herself. She nods, holds out the gadget.
“Would you like some, Luis?”
Luis takes the vape pen from her and tilts it toward one of the pools of light.
“What you got in this thing, Miz C?”
“Hash oil. Or maybe juice. Yes, I think juice is the right term.”
The big man is shaking his head at her, his smile brilliant in the glow. Which sets Bess off on another round of giggles.
“Go on, Luis. I certainly won’t tell.”
“They fire me over something like this.”
Bess points to the bushes.
“We’re tucked into a lovely blind spot. Just lean in close, you handsome devil.”
It’s Luis’ turn to laugh.
“You a trip, Miz C. Okay, one quick one.”
Luis leans in close and hits the vape pen not once, but twice. He’s near enough that Bess smells the musk of him, feels the heat of his body. And yes, her heart flutters a bit. He returns the vape pen and perches himself on a low garden wall.
“Whoo, that takes the edge off, don’t it.”
“Luis, how old are you, if you don’t mind my asking?”
“Be thirty-eight this year.”
“Excuse a nosy old woman, but are you married?”
“Naw, Miz C., no wife for me.”
“What a shame, a handsome man like yourself.”
Luis laughs aloud, turns his smiling face to her.
“Exactly what my abuelita says every time I talk to her. She’s got three, four women all lined up for me.”
“Is she here, your grandma?”
“No, Miz C. She back in the Dom-Rep. Wants me to come home.”
Bess hits the vape pen again and Luis gives her the eye.
“You want to go easy on that at first, Miz C. Gonna sneak up on you.”
Bess giggles again, tries counting something on her fingers.
“I’d like to sneak up on you. So, if you’re thirty-eight, I’d only have to lose, um, six decades to make a play for you.”
“Miss C, I believe you’re a little high. Fact, I know you are, ’cause I’m a little high myself. You better put that thing away.”
Bess tries a pouty look but ends up smiling.
“So, what do you think, Luis? If I dropped sixty years, you think I could give those Dominican women a run for their money?”
Luis is smiling at her, a very warm, soothing smile.
“I’m sure you could, Miz C. My abuelita would approve of you, that’s sure. You think you can manage the walker? How about I help you back to your room?”
Bess reaches out and pats him on the arm.
“Thank you, Luis. I would be honored if you would help me back to my room. Truth is, I’m high as a kite.”
“Okay then, here we go.”
Luis’ hands are huge and warm on her shoulders, helping Bess defy gravity. Then she’s floating behind her walker and Luis is floating beside her. They drift out of the garden and disappear into the residence.
* * *
Bess sleeps soundly, content as a well-fed child. She does not remember her dreams, not until the first birds stir outside her window. In the tilting balance between the dark and dawn, Bess finds herself in a familiar theater.
The curtain rises as the invisible orchestra strikes up a waltz. Shadowed figures shuffle onstage and begin the dance macabre. Her old friend Death swirls onto the stage, his scythe swinging in three-four time. Shadow dancers fall at his strokes, the waltz grows stronger, but Bess does not stay for the finale.
In the middle of the waltz, Bess rises from her seat and steps into the center aisle. The orchestra toots and stumbles to silence. Death stands stock still at centerstage, the blade of his scythe resting on the boards. Unattended, the shambling dancers lurch away into the shadows.
Bess pauses, turns her eyes to the stage. She sees Death leaning on the handle of his scythe, slumped and melancholy. She gives him a bow. He returns it. Then she walks up the aisle and out of the theater.
Bess wakes to the inexorable grind of the day. She has slept later than usual, but so what. She’s ninety-nine years old, soon to be a hundred. Who cares if she sleeps in a bit?
The morning aide raps on her door, two short taps and then another, the knock of a happy chipmunk. Did they teach that in some orientation class? Then she’s through the door, all chipper and chatty.
“Good morning, Mrs. C. How are we this morning? You’re still in bed. Are you feeling okay?”
Bess manages a smile under the barrage of good cheer.
“I’m fine, Dear. Just enjoying being lazy. I wonder, could you do me a favor?”
“Sure, Mrs. C. I’d be happy to.”
“Never say yes before you know what the question is, Dear. But this is an easy one. I’m not feeling very social this morning and I have things to do. Could you bring me a cup of strong, black coffee, and one piece of toast?”
“Do you need anything else?”
“No, Dear, just the coffee and toast, thanks.”
A big smile on the young woman’s face. Barely a woman. What a mystery, to be that young, or to be this old.
“I’ve got a few more residents to check on, then I’ll be back with your breakfast.”
“That’s fine, Dear, no rush.”
Then the aide is out the door and Bess breathes a little easier. She swings her bird legs over the edge of the bed, first one, then the other, pulls her walker close, and stands. One morning soon, she will discover she can no longer stand, but this is not that morning. Bess smiles to herself and pilots the walker to the toilet.
When the smiling young aide returns with the breakfast tray, Bess is already sitting in front of her new laptop.
“Here you go, Mrs. C. Black coffee and toast to start your day.”
The aide slides the tray onto the desk beside the laptop and takes a step back. Bess gives her a small smile and wills her to be gone.
“Thank you, Dear. That’s lovely.”
The young woman seems to take the hint, but not entirely. Maybe nothing can penetrate the armor of that smile.
“Writing emails to the grandkids?”
“Yes, something like that.”
“I’ll leave you to it then. Don’t worry about the tray, Mrs. C. I’ll swing by for it later.”
And then, thankfully, she is gone.
Bess reaches for the coffee and takes a first sip. She ignores the toast. Brinkley will be here this afternoon. Bess has a lot of work to do, and the clock is ticking. She returns the coffee to the tray, raises her fingers to the keyboard, and begins to type.
Marco Etheridge is a writer of prose, an occasional playwright, and a part-time poet. He lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His work has been featured in more than seventy reviews and journals across Canada, Australia, the UK, and the USA. U6 Stories: Vienna Underground Tales is Marco’s latest collection of short fiction. When he isn’t crafting stories, Marco is a contributing editor and layout grunt for a new ’zine called Hotch Potch.
Author website: https://www.marcoetheridgefiction.com/
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Bess Gets High”:
From his wonderful opening line and through the entire story, author Marco Etheridge made us smile. Bess is quite the character, and there is never a dull moment. His attention to the details of her environment, character, and life experiences let us know her perfectly. What results is the delightful tale of a ninety-nine-year-old who thinks she has lived life to the fullest only to discover that she’s not quite done with it yet.
There are so many great lines in this, but if we had a favorite line, it might be Bess’s response to whether she knows how to use a laptop: “Yes, Dear. The information age is only one of the revolutions I’ve lived through.”