In which Citizen Jim finds himself in the fight of his life against geriatrics when he goes looking for Chicken Sheets.
When I glanced at the pedometer app on my phone I panicked: I’d already been at work for nearly an hour and I’d only walked 5,429 steps since arriving there. I shook the device like a James Bond martini and checked again: no change! I was never going to reach my goal of thirty thousand steps before the end of the day! Damn it!
I shoved my phone into my back pocket and hauled ass down the hall, hoping I could make it to the bathroom without being stopped by someone needing my assistance. Despite the fact that my shoes had soft soles and the hallways were carpeted, I was sure this hope was little more than a dream that could never come true. Somehow, they would sense me outside their doors, and the gravity they felt their requests held would be directly proportionate to the actual gravity of my need to pee.
I heard a door creak open. “Christine?”
In another lifetime, I might have pretended I didn’t hear the tiny, bird-like voice calling out what was close to but not exactly my name. In some parallel universe, I continued walking, adding to my step-count and getting closer to the relief of a ladies’ room.
In this lifetime, on this plane of existence, though, I stopped and turned around.
“Hi, Mrs. Milkhair. What’s up?” I asked the woman whose grimacing face was visible in the crack of her apartment door.
“Oh, Christine, could you come and look at my clock? I think the time is wrong.”
I still had to urinate. Plus, her apartment was always a hundred and twenty degrees in the summer. Since it was December, I knew it would be forty degrees hotter on this morning.
I did not want to go into that apartment.
“What time does your clock say?” I asked, hoping I could rest her mind from the cool safety of where I stood with my thighs pressed together.
“Oh, I don’t remember, but I’m sure it’s wrong.”
I braced myself, patting my pocket to make sure I had my asthma rescue inhaler.
Ten minutes later—after I had checked and fixed the incorrect times on all three of the clocks in her apartment, plunged her toilet, put another blanket on her bed, and fished five pairs of “stolen” reading glasses from between her couch cushions—I bid Mrs. Milkhair a breathless goodbye.
I stepped back into the hall, took two hits from my puffer and recommenced my journey to the nearest bathroom. Before I could even turn the corner to go down the hall where I knew a public restroom was, I was stopped two more times.
Mr. Plonkett’s computer froze while he was watching what appeared to be a pornographic video of a modestly dressed Amish woman being aroused by leaning against a washing machine in the middle of a spin cycle. I told him I couldn’t help because I had to take communion that morning from the Marian Society, citing sinful curiosity of the eyes as my excuse.
Mrs. Quick demanded her pain medication, the distribution of which I had nothing to do with despite her apparent belief that if she berated me through a veil of tears I would be able to extract an Oxycontin tablet from my ass like some white trash, trailer park magician.
When I finally got within spitting distance of the nearest restroom, a voice from the past stopped me so fast that I heard the sound of screeching tires coming from the pedometer app on my phone.
“Look here, Miss. MISS! I need an ice pick, a watermelon, and a bag of Doritos!”
The delivery was shaky and funereal: Citizen Jim’s infamous Fake Old Man Voice.
Before I had time to turn around, I was tackled from behind, my shoulders pinned to the carpet, a familiar pair of hairy, ape-like hands around my throat.
My muffled screams were like a dog whistle to the residents on the hall. Every door on either side of the corridor opened and an army of the infirm shuffled toward Citizen Jim and me with the speed of sleep-walking inchworms. The cacophony of wheezing, moaning, groaning, and creaking generated by their efforts to reach us filled the hallway with sounds to rival a Halloween-themed special effects recording.
“You call off these old codgers or I’m gonna bust your head open with a steel bedpan!” Citizen Jim shouted. He stayed astraddle my back yanking at the handful of my hair he had gripped in his hand. How I didn’t end up pissing on the floor was a mystery to me as the pressure continued to build upon my bladder.
Citizen Jim obviously underestimated the grit and resolve of a generation who’d eaten nails boiled in wallpaper soup during the Depression, as he was soon being beaten into submission by canes, walkers, orthopedic shoes, oxygen tubes, TV remotes, compression stockings filled with hearing aid batteries, aluminum Reachers (some with magnetic tips), and large print word search books.
As Citizen Jim lay on his back and tried to shield himself from attack, I jumped up and ran to the restroom, hoping he would not be dead by the time I got back on the scene.
Ah, sweet Jesus! The joy of relieving my bladder could not be spoiled by anything outside the door of the restroom, not even by the screams of my best friend in the whole world being beaten to a pulp by the residents of Extreme! Eldercations Assisted Living.
I savored the delightful sensation of being seated for as long as my conscience would let me. After I washed my hands, I checked my pedometer: only 5,690 steps? What the hell? I decided to run in place right there in the bathroom, but the wily pedometer could not be fooled. The numbers didn’t budge.
When I returned to the spot I had fled moments before, the residents were still whaling away on Citizen Jim, but with decidedly less vim and vigor. In fact, he had rolled over onto his stomach and was directing the blows as if he were receiving a massage from Erika Eleniak, his imaginary ex-girlfriend: “Left shoulder blade! Higher! Now the right one! Lower!”
I decided he’d had enough fun for one day. “Look! Matlock!” I shouted. “You’re missing Fox news! They’re giving away free toilet paper in the lobby!”
As anticipated, my little group of Samaritans dispersed with the proper cues thrown to them. I kicked Citizen Jim’s leg. “Get up and get the hell out of here!” I said.
Citizen Jim’s eyes stayed closed, but the rest of his face became clouded with a pre-rage scowl. “If I weren’t so relaxed right now I’d jump up and beat the shit out of you for keeping secrets from me,” he said. His face smoothed over while he patted the carpet and smiled. “Sit down here and talk to Uncle Jim like a good friend.”
Did he really think I would fall for the oldest trick in his book after spending a quarter-century suffering its devastating effects?
I leaned against the wall, well out of his reach. “You better get up off the floor before someone calls an ambulance to cart you away toward certain death at Thomas Hospital,” I said.
He slowly stood up, tormenting me in the most heinous way he could think of: by cracking every bone in his body, then pretending to be finished several times only to start the whole grisly process over as soon as I removed my fingers from ears and opened my eyes.
“Listen, I went all the way to West-Bumfuck-Virginia to visit you, only to find out you’ve moved twice in the last three years!”
“Oh, Jim—” I started, but he cut the air with his hand to silence me.
“You listen to me! I got arrested for peeing on the sidewalk outside that call center while I was waiting for you to get off work, and you weren’t even there! Then I spent a whole week slaving for peanuts at that newspaper trying to get answers. Your old boss finally realized I wasn’t the proofreader and told me to leave,” he said, coming at me with his fist raised.
“You must’ve shown up there drunk, then,” I said.
“Well, I got drunk because I was mad!”
“That explains how he got mixed up,” I said, smirking at the memory of the proofreader at the Glenville Democrat who would leave for lunch on deadline day and come back three hours later smelling like a thousand cigarette butts steeping in a vat of beer. Good times!
“Shut up! So I finally left there and then I had to barter with ********* to get her to tell me where I could find you after I got down here! Do you know how much saffron and truffles cost?! And that was what she wanted just to let me past the armed security guards at the beginning of the driveway!”
“I can’t believe you went to all that trouble just to see me,” I said.
“You’re gonna believe it when I get you outside and beat enough tar out of you to fill all the potholes in that godforsaken state where you were born!”
“Oh, Precious Lamb! Why didn’t you just look at Facebook? It says right on my profile where I live,” I said.
“Last time I saw you, you were sworn off the Facebook! Because some damned girl had sense enough to kick you to the curb! I told you that you needed to be writing a book! And that’s the last I heard of your sorry ass!”
“And here we are, now! I’m so glad to see you! I didn’t think I could be any happier until now!” I said. I went toward Citizen Jim with my arms open to embrace him, but he crossed his arms over his chest.
He lifted a finger to wag it in my direction. “You can’t fool me, Missy! I know you like my wee-wee knows the palm of my hand, and you can’t tell me you’re happy in this souped-up rest home with all these Crypt-Keeper understudies,” he said. “Why the hell would you choose to live with a bunch of decrepits ready to buy the farm?”
“I don’t live here, you idiot!” I said. “I just work here. And these people didn’t come here to buy the farm. They’ve got a lot of life left in them. That’s why this place is called Extreme! Eldercations. Being here is like an extreme vacation. For the elderly.”
“Vacation, my fat, hairy ass! If they aren’t here to buy the farm, I’d say they’re definitely renting to own,” Citizen Jim said, and shuddered. “Demented people creep me out, I tellya.”
“This isn’t the part of the building with the dementia residents in it, but I’m headed over there in a minute. I have to start their exercise activity in five minutes,” I told him.
“Exercise?! You?! See? More secrets! I’m gonna pound your face in so hard that you’re gonna be eating with the back of your neck if you don’t start leveling with me! And you better hurry it up, because this story is getting way too long!”
The measly step-count on my pedometer came to mind, so I took Citizen Jim’s hand. “Let’s walk and I’ll tell you everything.”
He snatched his hand away. “I don’t have time for this! I have to go back over to *********’s,” he said. “I had to pinky-swear that I’d take her to Pensacola to collect money from all the whores she has working for her at the dog track before she would tell me exactly how to find you.”
Honestly, I was relieved. “You gotta do what you gotta do,” I said and shrugged.
“Yeah, well, if you want my advice, you better quit this job. No good can come of it,” he said.
“I don’t know, I’m pretty happy here,” I said.
He threw up his hands in resignation. “Okay, but I know how weak your little raisin brain is already. Don’t come crying to me when the dementia takes hold of you. Sooner or later you’re gonna forget how to tie your shoes, then you’ll start crapping your pants and goosing the poor nurses. Oh, it’ll be awful! Mark my words!”
“Duly noted,” I said.
He rushed over to me and put me in a headlock. “And if you ever move away again without writing a story about it so that I’ll know it happened, I will tie you to a whipping post outside the Walmart and let every granny passing through flog you within an inch of your life!”
I pulled myself from his grip and waved him on. “Okay, yeah, goodbye,” I said, gazing at my pedometer and trying to figure out how to add to my step-count and make it to my next destination without getting stopped again.
Doorknobs all around me were turning slowly as I sprinted down the hall.