Ginny Hayes crept out of her room and into the dimly lit corridor. She paused, scanning the hall for the hawk-eyed Nurse Calloway.
She tightened the belt of her terry cloth robe and shuffled as fast as she could across the hallway to Room 309. The door opened with a betraying click and she flinched at the echoing noise. Hurrying inside, she carefully guided the door closed then splayed herself against the wall, listening for the slap of Nurse Calloway’s shoes against the linoleum floor.
“Who’s there?” came a trembling whisper from the darkened room.
“Who do you think it is, you old cow?” asked Ginny. “Get moving. We’re escaping.”
“You want to die in that bed?”
“No. I want to die in the muscled arms of Javier Bardem.”
“You’re old enough to be his grandmother.”
Ginny chuckled as she navigated toward the bed. She knew the layout of the room by heart. She’d been sneaking in here for nearly a year. Last June, eighty-three-year-old Maria was admitted to the Good Souls Retirement Home. The widowed mother of four, who looked like a chewed-up cigar wrapper with eyebrows, bumped into Ginny at the weekly bingo game held in the dining hall. Ginny told the short, plump woman to watch where the hell she was going. Irritated by Ginny’s cranky demeanor, Maria called her a pendeja.
For Ginny, it was love at first insult.
No one else in Good Souls had any fire left in ‘em. They knew their families had dumped them into the facility because they’d become too much of a burden. Oh, they visited once a month to assuage their guilt, but those hour-long get-togethers didn’t do much for the residents. Most of the old farts here had dementia or Alzheimer's. A few, like Maria, had terminal conditions.
That’s all this place was—a waiting room for death.
Ginny’s one and only child, Elizabeth, abandoned her in Good Souls four years ago just after her seventy-ninth birthday. Ginny’s memory had been failing her for longer than she’d wanted to admit. That’s what happened when you got old, especially if you were trucking into your eighties. But the last straw for Elizabeth was when Ginny forgot she’d starting the bath water for a nice soak and flooded the entirety of her tiny apartment.
“You can’t take care of yourself anymore,” complained Elizabeth as she surveyed the damage. Her Prada heels squished into the mildewing carpet.
“Well, I’m not moving in with you,” stated Ginny, though she half-hoped her daughter would invite her to live in the fancy two-bedroom townhouse. Elizabeth was childless and twice divorced, mostly due to her workaholic dedication. Elizabeth was a top-notch lawyer at a corporate law firm.
“I’m up for partner, Mom,” said Elizabeth. “I don’t have time for—” She couldn’t look Ginny in the eyes. “I’ve been researching retirement facilities.”
“No! You’re not putting me in the old folks home.”
Elizabeth sighed. “I’m sorry, Mom. But you’ve left me no choice.”
Elizabeth had power of attorney and guardianship of Ginny. Ginny might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer anymore, but she knew her own daughter would go to court to put her in a nursing home.
“I get to pick the place,” she said.
Ginny snapped on the lamp next to Maria’s bed. Two dark eyes peered at her from the wrinkled brown face she’d come to love. They looked like tiny raisins tucked into a batch of burned bread pudding.
“God, you’re ugly,” said Ginny.
“At least I’m not as stupid as you are,” replied Maria tartly.
They grinned at each other.
“C’mon.” Ginny helped Maria sit up and while her friend caught her breath, she grabbed the wheelchair stationed at the end of the bed. She hated how weak Maria had gotten. The woman’s whole body trembled as she gripped Ginny’s arms and pulled herself into the wheelchair.
Ginny didn’t want to think about Maria’s turn for the worse. The thing about getting old was that your options were limited. The human body had an expiration date. You didn’t get stronger or better. You got medicated while patronizing nurses tucked you into bed at night like you were a crabby four-year-old.
Ginny wheeled Maria to the heavy metal door at the end of the hall, punched in the code, and ta-da! they were free.
The roof of Good Souls was forbidden to residents, which was why Ginny and Maria had chosen it for their morning escapes. The hard rubber wheels of the chair crunched on the rough cement as she pushed Maria to the ledge and set the wheel brakes. She sat down next to her friend and dangled her legs over the edge of the roof. Ever so often, she got the urge the launch herself over the side. The drama of such a daring suicide appealed to her.
From the pocket of her robe, she withdrew two cigarettes and a lighter. She put the cigs in her mouth and lit them both then handed one to Maria.
“Who’d you steal these from this time?” asked Maria after she’d taken her first long drag.
“Carlos gave them to me.”
“He’s the one who gives you the door codes, too?”
“Why? You trying to horn in on my orderly action?”
Maria’s laugh turned into a cough. When she had enough breath, she wheezed, “You getting some?”
“You bet,” said Ginny. “I have pancake boobs and a hoo-ha that hasn’t seen action since Clinton was president. I’m irresistible.”
“I’d do you,” said Maria.
“What makes you think I want to do it with a wrinkled old prune?”
Maria grinned down at her, and Ginny laughed.
They fell into a comfortable silence, puffing on the illicit cigarettes while they watched the sun rise. Good Souls was surrounded by lush gardens crisscrossed with wheelchair-accessible sidewalks and ramps. They even had a vegetable patch for residents who wanted to spend their days playing in the dirt. Fruit trees abounded, too, and sometimes, Ginny and Maria went out to pick apples and lemons.
“Nursing homes are exactly like child daycares,” said Ginny, stubbing out her cigarette. She put the butt into her robe pocket. “First week I was here, I actually spent an hour gluing macaroni shells to paper plates.”
“That doesn’t sound like you,” said Maria.
“Well, I got booted out of class after I spelled Screw You.”
Maria choked on her laughter. “That’s my Ginny,” she said. She took one last drag of the cigarette and then flicked it off the roof.
“What if that sets the grass on fire?” asked Ginny.
“Too much dew in the mornings,” said Maria. “If I start a fire, it’ll be in Gable’s room. That pinche estipúdo always grabs my ass.”
“Do you blame him? You’ve got a cute ass.”
Maria bopped Ginny on the head. Her frail hand felt like a hummingbird had briefly landed in Ginny’s hair. “That’s called sexual harassment.”
“In nursing homes, it’s called foreplay.”
Ginny looked up at her friend, and found Marie’s gaze on her. Her friend smiled, but the curve of her lips didn’t express happiness. “The doctors want me to start dialysis.”
Ginny felt her heart drop. Recently, Maria’s Stage Four kidney failure had progressed to the final and fatal Stage Five. “You gonna do it?”
Maria shook her head. “I’m tired, Ginny. I want God to take me.”
“What if there is no God?”
“I know you are not a believer,” said Maria. She made the sign of the cross over herself as if mentioning Ginny’s atheism tainted her Catholic faith. “But I am. I’ve had a good life, mi flaca. And I miss my Jose.” She pointed a gnarled finger up at the sky. “He’s waiting for me in Heaven.”
Ginny understood Maria’s desire to move on from this world. Being old was exhausting. And depressing. The elderly didn’t make goals or plans. They didn’t think about the future.
There was no future.
Maybe that’s why so many believed in an afterlife. They wanted to escape to a paradise where their bodies and minds weren’t failing, and they could reconnect with all those who’d gone on before them.
But Ginny was too much of a cynic to believe in God. Life had kicked her in the teeth too hard and too often for her to hand over her trust to an invisible masochist who treated human beings like playthings.
“I’ll pray for you,” said Maria.
“Thanks,” said Ginny. She patted her friend’s knobby knee.
“Miss Ginny. Miss Maria.”
Ginny flinched at the sound of Nurse Calloway’s strident voice.
“Busted,” said Maria.
Ginny got to her feet, her hips protesting painfully. Nurse Calloway marched across the rooftop and grabbed the handles of the wheelchair. “What have I told you about coming up here?” she asked.
“To do it every day,” said Ginny.
Nurse Calloway was shorter than Ginny and her pear-shaped body was as soft as a bag of pudding. Today, she wore pink scrubs dotted with smiley faces. Her brown eyes sparked with irritation. “You are a bad influence on Miss Maria.”
“You’re always telling me to get a hobby,” said Ginny. “And now you’re bitching because I found one.”
Ginny saw amusement flash in Nurse Calloway’s gaze, but the woman pursed her lips to prevent a smile. “Let’s go, ladies. It’s time for breakfast and morning meds.”
“Yippee,” muttered Ginny.
Maria missed lunch and dinner. Ginny waited until after the 9 p.m. round of night-night meds to sneak out of her room. She had about fifteen minutes before the Ambien did its work.
“Maria?” she whispered as she slipped inside the room. The nightstand lamp cast a jaundiced light over her friend’s wrinkled brown face. She stood beside the bed and reached down to grip Maria’s frail hands. “Hey, you old cow.”
Maria’s eyes drifted open and her lips pulled into the smallest of smiles. “It’s time to escape, mi flaca?”
“Not yet,” said Ginny.
“I’m so tired.” Maria stared up at Ginny, her eyes glazed from whatever pain drugs they’d given her. “Maybe this time I escape without you.”
Her eyes closed.
Ginny swallowed the knot in her throat as she watched the slow rise and fall of her friend’s chest. She leaned down and kissed Maria’s brow. “I hope your Heaven is real,” she whispered.
Her heart heavy, she returned to her room and climbed into bed. A few minutes later, she fell asleep, her pillow wet with tears.
Ginny woke up the next morning and saw Nurse Calloway puttering around her room. When the nurse noticed Ginny was awake, she sat down in the chair next to the bed, her expression saying what words could not.
“She’s gone, isn’t she?” asked Ginny.
“I’m sorry, Miss Ginny,” said Nurse Calloway.
“Yeah,” said Ginny, turning her gaze to the ceiling. “Me, too.”
For the next three days, Ginny took her meals in her room. She didn’t eat much because grief had stolen her appetite the way death had stolen her friend. On the fourth day, she refused breakfast.
On the fifth, she passed on lunch, too.
She saw the worry in the gazes of Nurse Calloway and her favorite orderly, Carlos. But she couldn’t bring herself to leave her bed, much less her room. She even endured sponge baths and watching re-runs of Matlock. The only indignity she refused to suffer was a catheter, so she took herself to the bathroom when necessary.
Six days after Maria passed away, Elizabeth bounced into Ginny’s room holding up a greasy white bag with the golden arches on it.
Ginny sat up, and stared at her daughter. “What are you doing here?”
The smile on Elizabeth’s face faltered. Then she drew in a big breath, widened her lips and said, “I thought we could have breakfast together.”
Her daughter dragged a chair to the side of the bed and plunked the bag down next to Ginny. “I got your favorite.”
“McMuffin with bacon?” asked Ginny as she opened the bag.
“Oh. Um. I thought you liked the Sausage McGriddle.”
Ginny took out the only contents of the bag, a single wrapped sandwich. She put the sandwich on her lap without bothering to open it. “Where’s yours?”
“I don’t eat fast food,” said Elizabeth. She placed a hand against her trim tummy. “It’s not hea—um, not for me.”
Ginny sighed. “They called you, didn’t they?”
“Of course, they did. They said you weren’t eating, Mom. Nurse Calloway told me your friend died. I’m sorry.”
“No, you’re not.” Ginny put the sandwich into the bag, rolled down the top, and handed it back to her daughter. “I don’t want your pity breakfast.”
Elizabeth refused to take the bag, so Ginny deposited it into the trash can next to the bed. “I think you’d prefer it if I died. Why don’t you come back after I’ve breathed my last?”
“Mom! That’s a horrible thing to say!”
Ginny’s shoulders sagged. “I don’t care.” She picked at the comforter. She felt like an anvil was housed in her chest. And it was so heavy it might well crush her insides. “I haven’t seen you for two months. Your last visit took all of half an hour before you had to get to an important meeting.”
“That’s not fair. My job is—”
“I know you love me, Elizabeth,” said Ginny quietly. “I know you avoid this place because it reminds you that I’m old and frail and useless.” She looked up at her daughter. “You can hide in your work. You can live in your perfect house. You can keep busy so you don’t have think about me. But none of that will change the fact that one day I will die. And you won’t be here when it happens.”
Elizabeth’s eyes filled with tears. “You’re always making me the villain,” she said, scooping up her purse. “I have your best interests at heart, Mom.”
Ginny sighed. Keep telling yourself that, kid. Maybe one day you’ll believe it.
“Eat something, Mom. I have to go.” Elizabeth leaned over and kissed Ginny on the head. “I’ll see you soon.”
Ginny watched her daughter leave and whispered, “No, you won’t.”
“Hey, you old cow.”
Ginny blinked awake. Her nightstand lamp glowed a dull yellow. She squinted at the figure standing next to her bed. “Nurse Calloway?”
“C’mon. We’re escaping.”
“Unless it’s to Maui, no thank you.”
“Too bad,” said Nurse Calloway. She showed Ginny a Styrofoam to-go container and popped open the lid. “This escape comes with all-you-can-eat bacon.”
“Hmph. You think you can tempt me with bacon?”
“Damn it.” Ginny sat up and removed the covers. Nurse Calloway helped Ginny to her feet and into her terry cloth robe. The nurse led Ginny out of the room and down the hall to the heavy metal door, where she tapped in the code. Less than a minute later, they were walking across the roof to the ledge. Ginny sat on the edge and let her feet dangle. Nurse Calloway joined her.
The sun hadn’t yet broken the horizon and the sky was still smeared with deep oranges and purples. The nurse put the container of bacon between them and Ginny wasted no time snatching up a crispy slice and crunching down on it.
“Oh, that’s good,” said Ginny. She slanted a look at Nurse Calloway. “Thanks.”
Ginny looked down at the gardens and sidewalks and fruit trees. She thought of Maria, and how she’d escaped. Maybe Ginny could escape, too. If she leaned over just enough…
“Oh, no you don’t,” said Nurse Calloway grabbed the back of Ginny’s robe and yanked her back.
Ginny frowned. “What do you care? You’d have one less old person to take care of.”
“First, they’ll replace you before your body turns cold. There’s a waiting list for your room. Second, I don’t want to spend two hours scraping what’s left of your bony ass off the sidewalk.”
“You say the sweetest things,” said Ginny. She batted her eyelashes at the nurse. “I think I’m in love.”
Nurse Calloway laughed. It was a big, bold laugh, one of pure delight, and that joyful sound stabbed right into the tight ball of grief lodged in Ginny’s chest.
She put her hand over her mouth, but she couldn’t stop the sob. Nurse Calloway moved the Styrofoam container and draped her arm around Ginny’s shaking shoulders. Ginny cried, her despair pouring from her in ugly, choking waves of tears and wails.
Finally, she was wrung dry. Sniffling, she pulled out of the nurse’s embrace. The sorrow was still there, a wounded bird fluttering inside her, but she felt a little better.
Nurse Calloway offered her a small packet of tissues.
Ginny wiped away the evidence of her anguish, putting the soggy tissues into her robe’s pocket. She returned the packet to Nurse Calloway. “Thanks.”
They turned their gazes to the brightening sky, the silence between them as comfortable as an old coat. Ginny slanted a look at Nurse Calloway. “You gonna keep all that bacon to yourself?”
“Apparently not.” The nurse returned the container to the small space between them and Ginny swiped another piece.
Yellow streaked over the treetops and the chatter of birds infiltrated the quietude. Ginny’s heart squeezed as she thought about all mornings she’d shared up here with Maria. “Getting old sucks,” she said.
“Yeah, it does,” agreed Nurse Calloway. “But there are some perks. Beautiful sunrises. Tasty bacon. Don’t forget all the groovy drugs you get to do. And those Saturday bingo games are almost like episodes of Jerry Springer.” She paused to eat a bacon strip. “What are you going to do today, Miss Ginny?”
“Well, I’m not watching another episode of Matlock, I can tell you that.”
“Why don’t you pick some apples? You bring ‘em to me and I’ll bake you the best pie you’ve ever eaten. We can eat it tomorrow—if you want to escape again.”
“You trying to give me another reason to live?”
“Is it working?”
Ginny smiled. “Maybe.”