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Nov 04 2000

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FUN HOUSE CHRONICLES (excerpt)

FUN HOUSE CHRONICLES

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Fun House Chronicle: Mealtime

 

“Get me down to dinner, you goddamn bitches.” Gladys announces she’s ready to eat.

The cognitive residents share one end of the dining room, each with three tablemates. They gossip, tell tall tales, and gripe about the afternoon’s entertainment, especially if the Belly Dancing Grannies performed again. One resident might introduce another’s brittle ankle to a lightning quick swing of her walker, but otherwise meals pass uneventfully.

The more helpless residents eat in the war zone at the other end of the dining room. Some manage on their own in about the same way toddlers do. Others are spoon fed. After each meal, bits of food cling to the popcorn ceiling and to the staff. Eying an aide’s scrubs, the physical therapist says, “I see squash was on the menu tonight.”

Most aides are patient with their old charges. The youngest among them chirp like song sparrows, filling old ears in great need of idle chatter. They share their stories about two-timing men and frizzy ends and what little Bobby did yesterday. Some even seek counsel from the residents who have seen more and done more. These may be the only solid relationships they’ve ever had with the elderly. It will end, of course. These old people will die. Experienced aides grow wary of exposing their hearts.

The day passes by, and mealtime begins again. “Get me down to dinner, you goddamn bitches.”

 

Lily Gilbert counter sank another pie plate of beer under her border of hostas. Tucking a dove gray tendril into her scrunchie, she knee walked to the end of the row and sank another plate in the rich earth then filled it with flat Coors. That made four plates, one at each corner of her backyard garden. It had been a disappointment this year, suffering slugs the size of bear scat.  “Just crawl in and drown, you slimy little bastards.”

Getting down on her knees was not as easy as it used to be, but it sure as hell beat getting back up. She steadied the flat blade of her hoe on the soft ground, grabbed the handle and hoisted herself upward. Her foot slipped off the side of her Croc, and she nearly toppled because she was standing on the blade of the hoe.  After regaining her balance, she slipped the clog back on, picked up the beer can and her garden gloves, and limped back into the house.

She never felt the small wound on the bottom of her foot where the blade, fresh from the dirt and manure, had nicked her skin.

***

“Mother, you nearly died,” Sylvia Henderson said to Lily in the hospital days later as she smoothed the sheet were Lily’s leg should have been. She still couldn’t bear to touch the stump itself. “Another infection could kill you. You just can’t live alone any longer.”

“Who says I can’t?” Lily, skin grayer than her hair, was entrapped in a web of tubes and wires. Surgeons had removed her leg bit by bit battling the infection that raged from her foot upward. A nurse called it a galloping amputation. Now the leg ended at the knee.

“Who says you can’t?” Sylvia had gathered all the data she needed to win this argument. “Damn near every doctor this side of the Rockies.”

The two women locked eyes. Lily’s were crusted and yellow from the pain meds. Sylvia knew her own would be fiery red from lack of sleep, but she’d hidden the puffiness with a generous application of light-toned concealer.

“Then why don’t you come live with me?”

Sylvia had to be realistic for them both. She stiffened her spine yet another notch. “We’ve talked about this before,” she said and counted on her fingers. “I have no nursing skills whatsoever. I run a business so I can’t be with you all the time. We’d fight like two cats, and you know it. Besides, there’s Kyle.”

“Lucky for you.”

That’s the first time she ever said there was anything lucky about Kyle.

***

Eventually, they compromised. Sylvia agreed that Lily could go back home to live if Lily would accept caregivers round-the-clock.  Sylvia was thrilled to have an action plan, some way to move forward at last.

She decided it would take three full time caregivers plus visits from home health care nurses. How hard could that be to arrange? Her mission was one-third accomplished when Lily’s housekeeper, Aurora, agreed to be the morning caregiver. Lily already liked the scrappy Latina. And Sylvia knew she was reliable.

For the others, Sylvia imagined excellent women with stellar credentials, superior references and the soothing touch of Clara Barton. She soon learned that, at least in Washington, a home care aide doesn’t need training so there was no certification to guide her choice. Besides, at what Lily could afford, Sylvia would be lucky to find someone with no known felonies plus a regular pulse.

Sylvia finally hired a student from the community college for the night shift. Lily would be asleep unless there was a problem, so the girl didn’t need to pass all of Lily’s rules for sainthood. But finding someone for the afternoon shift was a horror.

“Tell me what type of person you would like,” Sylvia asked her mother in the colorless hospital room, hoping to interest her in the task.

“A cabana boy. Italian, maybe Spanish.”

“Come on, I’m serious.”

“I’m not?”

“You’re not.”

“Okay, a fashionable woman in her forties, well educated and attractive, one who knows me and won’t steal me blind. Why, that sounds like my daughter. But, of course, she’s too busy.”

By the time Lily came home from the hospital, Sylvia had managed to hire a quiet woman who’d never been farther from Edmonds, Washington than Tacoma. Lily fired her before the day was out because, “She just crept around making me nervous.” The second hire lasted almost a week before Lily fired her for being too bossy. The third, according to Lily, couldn’t cook worth a damn.

Next, in desperation, Sylvia hired a male Certified Nursing Assistant. Lily took one look at him and said no goddamn wet-behind-the-ears boy was going to handle her hoo-haws, and if Sylvia thought that was such a spiffy idea, she could let him handle hers. Sylvia was so nonplussed she hadn’t thought to ask what a hoo-haw was.

“Lily doesn’t realize this is no picnic for me either,” Sylvia lamented one evening to her husband, Kyle. “She hates getting weak, but I hate it, too.” Your mother is always supposed to be stronger and wiser than you. But Lily was frail now. She’d lost muscle tone quickly in the hospital so her lithe athletic build seemed a thing of the past. Lily would always have the high cheekbones and sculpted features of a genuine Nordic beauty, but her lovely skin, soft as suede, now hung looser on face and body. It didn’t return to its natural pink blush but stayed as pale as ash.

Lily looked old.

Of course, Sylvia hated to see her mother lose ground for all the emotional turmoil it caused them both. But there was a practical reason, too. The more Lily failed, the harder she was to handle.

Finally, a miracle applied for the job. Sylvia prayed that this one, this Jessica Winslow, would take it. She approved of the attractive young woman as soon as she met her. Jessica was dressed in a respectable blouse and slacks for the interview, her natural curls and not so natural blonde streaks were neat, her only visible piercings were in her ears. She was younger than Sylvia, maybe mid-thirties, and looked strong enough to help Lily should she fall.

“You sure you don’t want coffee, too, Mother?” Sylvia asked as she handed Jessica a delicate cup with a matching saucer at the beginning of the interview.

“You should know by now I prefer tea in the afternoon,” Lily snapped while she gave Jessica the once over. “You have any candy?”

“I have some gummi bears,” Jessica answered, diving for her purse.

“Now you know you shouldn’t have those,” Sylvia intervened then said to Jessica, “Mother is a diabetic, you know.”

Jessica had not been an official caretaker before but said she felt up to the Activities of Daily Living, government-speak for meal prep, dressing, bathing, transferring, and toileting.  She wasn’t wild about cleaning, though, not with her own house and barn to keep up.

Sylvia quickly assured her. “The morning woman, Aurora, does most of the cleaning. And it’s just mother, so there’s never really much mess. She’s quite tidy, aren’t you, Mother?”

“Sylvia, I’m seventy-six years old. I know how to behave.” She unlocked her wheelchair brakes and pushed herself slowly to a room at the end of the hall, leaving her daughter and Jessica to their coffee.

There was a brief but very pregnant pause until Sylvia said, “Mother is a little peevish these days.”

“Losing her leg, her freedom … it must be hard for her to stay positive. Hard for you, too.”

“Yes,” Sylvia said. “I’m not sure which one of us is losing the most strength.”

***

Jessica Winslow stopped for groceries and two fifty pound bags of oats after her interview, fretting about the cost of feed for humans as well as horses. When she thought about the job as caregiver, she was excited. She wanted an afternoon shift, and this one was three to eleven. That gave her mornings to tend the horses and even filled lonely evenings.

“It’s not going to be easy,” she said to the talk jock on the car radio even though he always ignored her. “Sylvia strikes me as wound pretty tight.”

God help the wrinkle that mussed those linen trousers or the fingernail that split. The woman even had a personalized notepad imprinted with Suggestions from Sylvia in elegant type. “Don’t think I want to receive too many of those suggestions.”

On the other hand, the mother was a tough old bird. But she could tell that Lily knew just which of her daughter’s buttons to push.

By the time Jessica got home, there was a message from Sylvia on her voice mail offering her the job.  Had there even been time for her to check references? Personal caregivers must be hard to find, especially those who want the second shift.

Add to that I’m not a crack head, and I have more teeth than tattoos. What’s not to like?

***

Lily was more than peevish. She was pissed. After a lifetime of independence, she was stuck in a goddamned wheelchair. She had been good to her body, other than a few youthful escapades involving unsafe drugs and unsafe sex. And what sex isn’t unsafe considering all the problems it leads to?

Her body had let her down anyway, long before her mind was ready to push up daisies. The only vice she hadn’t reined in was a sweet tooth, the single characteristic she shared with her son-in-law Kyle. But it was never out of control enough to cause diabetes.

Although she wouldn’t admit it to Sylvia, Lily knew the next infection would likely kill her. Or, worse, strip her bit by bit. The other leg? Her hands? Eye sight? It was all possible. She was left with two options for the future: suicide or a nursing home. Door number one or door number two. Behind either, the Grim Jokester sat in wait.

 

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Funhouse Chronicle: The Tumbleweed

 

Ken lived unfettered as a tumbleweed. He loved racing cars and racy women, longed for that something that was just out of reach. He inhaled, ingested, or injected every type of vice, and everyone fell in love with him when he landed in his final lock-up, the small town nursing home.

He haunted the halls in the small hours, providing company for the other night prowlers. Sometimes he would simply disappear to the chagrin of the administration, and buzz down to the local steak-and-egger in his electric wheelchair. Or to Safeway to get a cherry pie to share with other residents. He always had a story, and even the overworked nurses stopped long enough to listen to him tell it.

It took a lot of time, fight and pain to finally stop his big old heart. When his next of kin was found and informed, her first question was, “Where’s his wallet?”

Everyone at the nursing home is glad that’s one final pain Ken missed.

 

Jessica belted out Kenny Chesney’s song about shift work as she drove to Lily Gilbert’s house on the first day of her new job. She was off key because she no longer had a CD to sing with. Ed had taken them all out of her Toyota and put them in his truck. It was one of the minor reasons Jessica thought of him as Ed the Evil these days.

That morning she had taken Folly for an extra long run in the woods before feeding the horses. He wasn’t used to her being gone so she was feeling guilty about leaving him alone. The cocker/dachshund mix was a rescue dog they called their cockadock. He loved a good snuffle through the undergrowth, especially if it resulted in a rancid treasure even raccoons rejected. Ed had left this little dog when he left her, so Folly had to make do with her girly toss of a stick or pine cone.

See? Ed the Evil.

She pulled into Lily’s driveway, arriving early to give herself time to get oriented. Sylvia had told her that the morning woman would show her the ropes. Aurora, a rotund Latina, was cleaning silver when she arrived. After they introduced themselves, Jessica asked, “Getting ready for a party?”

“No. No more parties. Sylvia will take the silver now.” The two exchanged a sad glance but said no more about the gleaming tableware.

For the next half hour Aurora brought Jessica up to speed on everything from petty cash to medical equipment. Finally Aurora finger combed her raven hair, shrugged on a baggy sweater, picked up a tote bag and went out the door with a cheery, “Buena suerte.”

Good luck?

***

Lily heard the new girl walk down the hall toward her bedroom. She was lying down but alert, with an old afghan in a jumble beside her where she had tossed it. Jessica. That was the name. Blue eyed blond. Irish if the freckles don’t lie. We’ll just see how long this one lasts.

Jessica peeked into the room, and Lily saw her grin. That smile’s broken a heart or two. “Well, come in if you’re coming.”

Jessica entered and put a small bag of candies on the nightstand. “These are sugar-free. Not as good as gummi bears. But pretty darn good. My horses like them, and they know about these things. What can I do for you first, Mrs. Gilbert?”

I can’t be bought that easily, my dear, not with a bit of candy. It was clever, though. Maybe there’s actually somebody home behind those baby blues.

Lily pointed to a velvet-cushioned boudoir chair. “Pull that a little closer and sit down. And for heaven’s sake, call me Lily.”

Jessica did as instructed. “Tell me about yourself, Lily. I need to know –”

Lily interrupted. “Here’s what you need to know. I am older than God and less predictable. I am not cute. I hate cute so do not confuse me with The Golden Girls. I would prefer never to be given anything with kittens or teddy bears printed on it. I like junk food when I can get it, but I don’t smoke and rarely drink, although that doesn’t make me holier than any thou. I have been a waitress, a florist, a picture framer, and a hundred other things. I did them all well, else why the hell do them? People often don’t like me, and I just as often don’t care. If you want to work for a pushover, please leave. If you’re willing to stand up for yourself and not pity me, stick around.”

Jessica nodded, then continued the statement she’d started. “– more about your medical condition.”

“Oh, that.” Lily reviewed the whole picture for Jessica. She’d struggled for years with neuropathy, brought on by diabetes. Her nerves were damaged, so her hands and her lower extremities were numb. “I stopped driving when I could no longer feel the accelerator.”

“Probably a wise decision,” said Jessica.

“Wasn’t my decision at all. I terrified Sylvia so bad tearing out the driveway that she hid the keys from me. I told her to sell the damn car if that’s how she felt about it. And by God, she did.”

“Another wise decision.” This time, Jessica added a laugh.

“Yep. Sylvia’s got more piss and vinegar that it appears at first. Anyhoo, I couldn’t tell where my feet were on stairs either, so I even had trouble with the front stoop.”

“Good thing your bedroom isn’t a loft.”

“Or that I’m not a roofer.”

“Or an aerialist.”

Lily realized how long it had been since someone had laughed with her about losses that otherwise made her cry. Jessica was earning points. “Let’s see, what else? Oh yes, since you will occasionally see me in my altogether, you better know I have acute cellulitus.”

“Cellulite?”

“No, not dimpled thighs. Cellulitus. It’s fluid build-up in the numb areas. Looks ugly and leads to infections I can’t feel. It’s dangerous because my immune system is screwed up by the diabetes.” Lily tried for nonchalance, but she was terrified her body would become a live trap. If this girl was to be her caregiver, she’d better hear it all. So Lily even admitted to her newest problem. “Since the amputation, I’ve been feeling phantom pain. As if I didn’t have enough of the real McCoy.”

“How did you lose your leg, Lily?”

“A slug got me.”

“Someone shot you?” Jessica’s eyes opened as wide as blue moons.

“Not that kind of slug.” Lily explained she was in her garden killing slugs when she stepped on the hoe. “It was rich with cow shit at the time.”

“Fertilizer is better on dirt than it is on feet.”

Lily brightened. “Do you garden?”

“Only when I have to.”

“Well, in this job, you may have to. My garden is important to me.” Not much else is anymore. Except Sylvia.

“I guess I’ll survive. What happened next? With your leg, I mean.”

“At first, I thought I had a cold. But I kept getting weaker, having chills. Sylvia says I was fuzzy headed, more so than usual. About the time I turned yellow as a lemon peel, she rushed me to the emergency room. The sepsis nearly killed me. I finally beat it, but not before my leg was amputated at the knee.”

“Will you be getting a prosthetic?”

The question surprised Lily. “I came home too weak for the sawbones to even consider one.”

“Well, maybe we can get you in good enough shape for the sawbones to reconsider.”

Okay. Sylvia might have gotten this one right.

***

Jessica was preparing dinner in the obsessively clean kitchen, wondering if Aurora picked up every crumb with tweezers. She wasn’t a stellar cook, but she could handle the basics. As long as Lily liked stew or baked chicken or meat loaf, she’d stumble through well enough.

Lily was parked in her wheelchair at the kitchen table, having a cup of tea and watching her every step. As the day had progressed, Jessica had realized Lily was inquisitive as a cat. She was fairly sure she would never be fired as long as there was more to any tale she was telling. So Jessica began telling her own story, doling out installments like Scheherazade.

“I board horses, give riding lessons and show my own Paso Finos,” she said while chopping a red pepper for a salad. She carefully wiped up the seed that fell to the floor.

“Paso Fino … past their best, right? That pretty much describes me.”

“It doesn’t mean they’re past their best. It means fine step. A Paso Fino horse is a very smooth ride. They prefer a kind of speed walk to a trot.” Jessica dried her hands, then took her wallet from her purse and removed a photo for Lily’s inspection. “That’s me with Latin Lover.”

“The horse or the guy? They’re both gorgeous.”

“The horse. The guy is Ed, my husband. Well, he was my husband,” Jessica said, her voice catching just the slightest bit.

Lily peered up from the photo. “Touchy subject?”

It was inevitable that Lily would hear the story of Ed the Evil. But not now, not yet. Jessica wasn’t ready to reveal that much of herself. Her old charge might decide she was in less need of care than her caregiver.

***

Sylvia sat at her mahogany desk in her home office. She was trying to work, pasting a love seat in front of a fireplace then dragging it into the floor plan’s bay window. She sat back against the lumbar support in her ergonomically designed chair and frowned at the monitor. She clicked on the love seat, turned it slightly and pasted an end table to its right. With a sigh, she saved her work and closed the program. She really couldn’t concentrate while she hovered near the phone waiting for a call from the new girl.

If she wasn’t all goosey about that, it would have been a wonderful afternoon of blessed quiet, the first time to really concentrate on her work in weeks. She just couldn’t help holding her breath, waiting for whatever would hit the fan.

She wondered where Kyle was at the moment. His real estate business was tricky right now so he was always out with some prospect or other. Sometimes he got a listing for a house that she was hired to stage. It was always fun to work together. That hadn’t happened in a while.

Her glance meandered over to the photos nearly buried under fabric swatches on her desk. There was the studio shot they’d had taken for their twenty-fifth. They were still handsome people thanks to the sensible diet and exercise program she managed for both of them. Goodness knows what he might do on his own without her to watch over his taste for sweets. Probably end up just like Lily. With her help, Kyle was still slender, sporting that little bit of gray at his temples which helped dignify his boyishness.

She had bigger breasts and wider hips than when she was young, of course. But it wasn’t unattractive, especially if she were clever about the clothes she chose. She favored suits that highlighted her small waist.

Thinking of their youth, she rummaged under the swatches until she found the small snapshot of them both from design school, what, twenty-six years ago? Twenty-seven? We look too young to be so sure of each other. Kyle was the first person she’d ever met who liked her just the way she was. He didn’t try to change her. And that thought bounced her right back to life with her mother.

When she was a little girl, she’d wanted riding lessons. She’d requested English style, loving the look of the proud ladies on their jumpers. But her mother bought her Western lessons instead so she would be at home on trail rides anywhere in the country. Sylvia fancied the grand plie of ballet over the shuffle ball change of tap dance, but Lily laughed at the little pink tutus. Sylvia loved her mother without question, but they were as different as lady fingers and molasses cookies. Their prowess at irritating each other grew as the years went by.

“I like to follow the rules,” she’d once said to her mother.

“And I like to flout them,” Lily had answered.

Lily was a time bomb at home just waiting for another infection to explode. She’d no doubt need a nursing home one day. That fact filled Sylvia with a burning knot of dread that even Prevacid couldn’t touch. She knew that in the end she’d have to be the bad guy and say when it was time.

She hoped Lily’s finances would allow her the best care choices. Sylvia wanted every nickel to go to her mother’s welfare, not to her own inheritance. She’d even asked Aurora to clean the silver that had been her great grandmother’s, the antique samovar, teapot, bowls and tray. She’d sell it when the time came that cash had more value than legacy.

Lily would be as hard to transplant as a wildflower. When it happened, she’d give up on life long before she died. Sylvia shuddered and willed the bubbling grief to still before it overflowed. Then she replaced the photo, blew her nose, and stared at the phone.

She’d waited to get the “I quit” call from Jessica all afternoon. She’d just have to call her mother herself.

“Hello?” Lily answered.

“Hi, Mother, how are things going?”

“Fine, dear, but would you mind calling a little later?”

“Well, okay. Are you all right?” Her mother was never too busy to talk these days.

“We’re having dinner. Jessica made me oyster stew! I haven’t had it in years.”

“Oyster stew? You hate oysters.”

“No, dear, I just hate them raw. And that’s the only way you ever serve them.”

Maybe I’ll just go kill her now. No jury of my peers would convict.

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

Fun House Chronicle: Glossary

 

Nursing home trade speak can be irreverent, offensive, even morbid. It’s not spoken in the public lounges or resident rooms. But when the staff lets it rip in the privacy of their break room it is not for the faint of heart.

            Chrissie suffered a direct hit on her first day, fresh from her Certified Nursing Assistant classes. A coworker welcomed her to the job, calling the nursing home the Departure Lounge. Over time she learned a dying patient was CTD (Circling The Drain) or ART (Assuming Room Temperature) or FTD (Fixing To Die).

            Incontinence is a Code Brown or Code Yellow, depending on the source of the leak.  Seniors are Raisins, and the ones who use walkers or wheelchairs are Creepers. Gardening means tending to those in a vegetative state.

            It went on and on. And it appalled Chrissie. At least it did until the night when, attending to a patient blowing vomit and diarrhea simultaneously, she heard herself call for help with an OBE (Open Both Ends).

Now Chrissie understands the language is a way to cope with ongoing trauma and death. These days, she goes about the wiping and cleaning a far more tolerant servant in God’s Waiting Room.

 

Clarice Hagadorn avoided being drawn into the lives of a bunch of sad old sacks. Life can be depressing enough without that, thank you very much. Still, the morning news was damned irritating. The dingleberries at Madrona Park Assisted Care had announced they’d no longer take Medicaid patients. They were looking for other facilities to take their current handful of long term residents.

“I don’t understand. How could something this horrible happen?” asked Lia when Clarice arrived at work that morning. Lia looked up from the newspaper spread open on her reception counter. The Indonesian’s soft brown eyes usually looked serene as a doe, but today that doe was caught in the headlights.

Clarice explained. “A state law passed that denies facilities the right to take in private pay patients then evict them when they go on Medicaid.”

“That sounds like a good law.” Lia’s brows puckered in concern. “Doesn’t it?”

“It’s well meaning. But it scares the crap out of some places.”

“Why?”

“They don’t want Medicaid people if they aren’t profitable. Now they have to find loopholes. Some claim they can no longer meet the patient’s needs. Some are dropping their Medicaid contracts so they can evict patients they already have, and carry on with only a private pay clientele. That’s the Madrona Park route.”

“But that’s cruel! It’s these peoples’ home. Where will they go? Just out on the street? Who’ll take care of them?”

Clarice didn’t know the answers, so she hated to be confronted with the questions. As the bookkeeper for a nursing home, she knew how thin the profit line could be. “Care facilities are in a bind. We all need to make a buck to survive.” She shrugged at Lia then trudged on to her office.

After hanging her windbreaker on the peg behind the door, she flopped into her desk chair and turned on her computer. She forgot Madrona Park when she remembered the joy of losing another half pound that morning.

Six months ago, Clarice had been 70 pounds overweight. She was tall so she carried it well, and her job at Soundside Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center was sedentary enough that she could do it in comfort. Still, drop a pen and let it roll under her desk, she was in trouble. She was only forty-two, but she was as out of shape as someone twice her age.

Then their gung ho administrator, Jeff Parkinson, had come up with a new torture. Office staffers were to take turns handing out food trays to residents who didn’t eat in the dining room. Jeff believed it was good for everyone to get to know the residents. It was part of his from-our-family-to-yours-because-we-care bullshit.

To handle the multi-level meal cart, Clarice had to get her back in shape for bending and lifting. That meant another fucking diet. The day Jeff circulated his memo, Clarice snuck into the rehab room to weigh herself while the residents were gathered in the activity room listening to the AccordiAnnes butcher polkas. She was appalled when she tipped the scale at 240 pounds. She gasped so loudly that Babs Sloane, the Activities Director, heard her and came to see if a pipe had burst.

“No, no, everything’s fine … just stubbed my toe,” Clarice said, quickly turning so Babs wouldn’t see her tears. She turned her head away from Lia, too, passing behind the reception desk and scuttling into her own office.

To be caught crying would be the icing on the cake. The no fat, no sugar, no taste cake. Being fat is public enough as it is. Everyone could tell she had security issues since obesity is as obvious as a clown’s shiny red nose.

Dieting was nothing new to Clarice. She’d lost weight before, always regaining those pounds and more. But this was the first time she was living alone, not counting the two Burmese cats, Kit Kat and Hershey. Dick Head had divorced her years ago. And her son Cole was off at college. Dieting might be easier now that she wasn’t cooking for anybody else.

Before that brief flicker of hope could die out, she’d emptied her dish of Werther’s Originals into the wastebasket and placed an online order with NutriSystem. She needed portion control, but she damn well wouldn’t go to any groups. My name is Clarice, and I’m fat as the Hindenburg.

That had been six months ago. She was down almost 40 pounds. She still was heavy, but the other staffers had started saying things like, “Did you get a new hair cut?” and “Are those new glasses?”

Clarice kept a list on her home computer of things she noticed as she lost:

–        My pants are getting longer.

–        My boobs stick out farther than my midriff.

–        The bus seat next to me isn’t always the last one taken.

–        Kit Kat and Hershey can’t fit on my lap together.

She glanced around to be sure nobody was looking her way, and rummaged inside her blouse for a moment. Then she emailed herself an addition to her list:

–   With your bra hooked in the smallest position underwires poke you in the armpits.

***

Jeff Parkinson, the administrator at Soundside Rehabilitation and Health Care Center, was taking inventory of his progress toward a smoother operation. All in all, he was pleased. In his first months on the job, he’d made changes that settled major staffing issues.

“You want a latte, Jeff? I’m making a Starbuck’s run,” Lia called from the reception desk.

“Make it a decaf, thanks. Iced with two percent.” A few months ago, Lia hardly spoke to him, much less offered to be the coffee mule. Of course, he couldn’t pat his own back too energetically about his success with the staff. It was in no small part due to their disgust with his predecessor. The numbskull hadn’t done the slightest thing from their point of view. On day one, Jeff revised the rules. He allowed CNAs to work four long days so they could avoid paying for day care or buying gas on a fifth day. The new policy was an instant hit.

Next he began giving the Certified Nursing Assistants bounties if they brought in friends to take the CNA course. Because they liked him, they actually did it. Now Soundside trained enough CNAs to fill its own needs and to staff one of the other centers in the CompreCare Group. Happier CNAs made for happier nurses and, in theory, happier residents. He wasn’t naïve enough to think they all loved him, but he doubted they called him a JAFA, their term for ‘Just Another Fucking Administrator.’ Jeff could almost see his star rising in corporate eyes.

Jeff’s good mood was shattered when he finally found the time to scan the newspaper. He grappled daily with the crisis in costs for long term care, so he wasn’t really surprised by Madrona Park’s plan to boot out their Medicaid residents. He even knew of one place that got around the law by sending some to the hospital and refusing to take them back. They had the stones to call it ‘dumping.’

Jeff had no stomach for such conduct. He’d never offload Soundside’s lifers. We can even take in one of the displaced seniors from Madrona Park. CompreCare corporate doesn’t have to know as long as I keep Soundside operating in the black.

Jeff patted the short hair around his prematurely bald spot, wiped his glasses with a lens cloth, and left his office to take a stroll around the halls before Lia got back with the coffee.

Clarice was covering for Lia at reception, and Jeff said hi but she apparently didn’t hear. He wondered if something was different about her, a new hair style or some such. But he forgot about it as he prepared to greet Gladys, the resident most likely to tell him to go to hell.

***

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