Beth says the job is mine as long as I want it. She’s my sister and she runs the place, so I guess she should know.
Lone Star Oaks is what they call it. I bet some expert in Dallas came up with that. It’s a glorified old folk’s home, which is not what they call it. The whole place covers 250 acres. It’s a gated community, but so is a prison. You check in at the front gate. A security guard gives you the once over and waves you by. You wind through some well-kept grounds. They spend a fortune on water keeping them that way. A couple of man-made ponds and some paved walking trails, but not a whole lot of shade. A swimming pool I’ve never seen anyone use. Same with the tennis court. And the putting green. It’s just too dang hot, I guess.
Most of the residents live in one of the three big apartment buildings at the center of the property, like this one. The 1- and 2- bedroom units look like most any other apartments, except with handrails everywhere. Each apartment opens onto a carpeted inside hallway, again with railings, leading to a small sitting area and elevators.
The apartment buildings themselves are three stories high. The first floor of each building has meeting and activity rooms, including a reading room, movie room, chapel, and a physical therapy exercise room. And each building has a common dining area where folks can take their breakfast and supper. Even so, every apartment comes with a small kitchen, complete with a fridge, microwave, and stove in case people want to eat in. I don’t know how many people here cook, but I see a lot of them pocket the little packets of sugar, jelly, and margarine from the dining room, along with crackers, apples, and even bananas to stash back in their rooms for lunch.
Pretty swanky, this place. These people are well off. A few of them live in private cottages around the property. You can count all 16 houses from here since we’re on the third floor. They’re the ones with the stucco roofs. I watch the groundskeepers zip around, humming by in their white golf carts to edge the little green yards.
Sister Beth is the high muckedymuck. That’s how she was able to get me this job. My wife, Elizabeth, had been real sick and had to go to the hospital a lot. I kind of lost track about how many times and for how long, but basically one time she stopped coming home. We looked out for each other, so with her gone I was in a real fix. It was getting harder and harder just to move around in the house, what with all her knick knacks cluttering up the place.
Still, I wasn’t going to take charity or be a burden to little Liz, our baby girl. She’s grown now. I don’t remember where she moved. It was a long time ago. I probably wouldn’t recognize her now anyway.
My eyes are bad and getting worse. Sometimes I don’t recognize people, even family, and have to pretend I know them so I won’t hurt their feelings or embarrass myself. I forget conversations somebody says we just had. I forget to take my pills. Or I forget I’ve already taken my pills.
That’s when Beth showed up and offered me this job “off the books” so to speak. I almost didn’t even remember I had a sister, but she convinced me I did, and that I would be a good fit for her company. I’m basically the live-in maintenance man for Lone Star Oaks. Beth pays me $100 cash every Wednesday. The main benefit, though, is that I get free room and board, even if I do have to move every three weeks or so, depending on which units go vacant. But hey, it’s clean and safe. This is a nice operation. I’m proud to be part of it. I was lucky to get in on the ground floor, as they say, even though I’m actually living on the third floor right now.
I change light bulbs and air filters. I unclog sinks and toilets. Anything more than that, Beth calls the outside service. There are 500 apartments total, and all but four or five are occupied pretty much all the time. And while it’s a big place, it’s only a few years old and has been taken care of, so far. I’m on call as they need me, but I don’t have to burn many calories, especially now that I have a scooter and don’t have to walk everywhere.
I’d say it’s about 90% ladies in their 70s and 80s. Hey, that rhymes. I’ll tell Beth tomorrow. Probably 100% white folks, but I’ll say 90% since everybody’s color is off and so is my eyesight, so I’m not sure anymore. The staff’s mostly black and brown, though.
All the rooms have emergency help buttons so people can call for assistance, and some folks use those to try and get me to just come visit, but mostly people keep to themselves. If they get too bad off, to where they can’t take care of themselves anymore, they may just up and die here on the spot or they can transfer over to the nursing ward, which is another part of the whole set-up. And then they die sometime after that.
Seems like I move every few weeks as new people come in or when someone has died or moved over to the nursing ward. Sometimes it’s sad if I was friends with them. Like now. This apartment where I live now belonged to the Donaldsons, Bill and Kate. I just called them Mr. and Mrs. D.
The first time I met them was in the hallway on my way to breakfast. Mr. D was stooped over his walker, in full shuffle, so it must have been a good morning for them. Most days Mrs. D would have been pushing his wheelchair. I stepped around them in the hallway, and we exchanged hellos. She was hard of hearing, and his voice is paper thin, but we eventually got ourselves introduced.
I remember another time I passed them in the hall on my way to spray WD40 on a squeaky door hinge. She was wheeling him back from the chapel.
“God won’t send us challenges we can’t overcome.”
She was trying to cheer him up, but might just as well have needlepointed it and hung it on a wall.
“Oh yeah? Well, the loony bins are full of ‘em.”
“People who’ve been given more than they can handle.”
“The looney bins are full of people who have been given more than they can take!”
I had to go oil that squeaky hinge, but I’m pretty sure he was still trying to make his point by the time they got to their apartment. Or my apartment, like I said. It’s home for now, anyway. 306B. A 2- bedroom 2- bath.
My first time in here was to fix a drippy faucet in their kitchen. That, and trying to translate between them. It was like the United Nations sometimes.
Mr. D had gotten a new wristwatch from his kids for his 90th birthday. He was really proud of it, too. It has a Velcro band, so you can take it off and on easily. You push this little button and the face lights up so you can tell time in the dark. Anyway, while I’m in the kitchen, he gets up to go to the bathroom. We ask him if he needs help. He says no as he pushes himself up from his wheelchair to his walker, and then creeps his way to the bathroom. We don’t hear from him for awhile, I’ve gotten the leak stopped, Mrs. D has the TV turned up loud, and I’m edging toward the door to leave, when he emerges from the bathroom, white as a sheet.
“I nearly fell.”
“I say, I nearly fell down in there.”
They went back and forth awhile until I finally explained to her that he had nearly fallen down in the bathroom.
“What happened, Mr. D?”
“I turned off the bathroom light to look at my watch glow in the dark. I guess I lost my balance.”
“I nearly lost my balance!”
“He says he almost lost his balance when he turned off the bathroom light, Mrs. D.”
“Don’t do that, Bill.”
“Thanks for the tip,” he mumbled, inching his walker back to his wheelchair.
I left to go on to my next call.
Most people here are pretty nice. The Donaldsons were some of the nicer ones, though. They always remembered my name and would ask how I was. If they were in the dining area, they would invite me to sit at their table. Some folks here can get pretty rude if they think you’re sitting at ‘their’ table, although I don’t see any signs anywhere. One old crow actually told me not to sit at her table. She said I must not be from around here. I asked her where she was from and she said New Jersey. I just let that hang in the air, to teach her a lesson.
My typical day starts at 6. I wake up earlier and earlier these days. I started using a scooter this month. Mr. D had one but couldn’t get in and out of the thing anymore, so they sold it to Beth, and she gave it to me as a bonus for organizing the books in the reading room. Anyway, I get dressed, wash my face, and scoot down to the dining room. I’m usually early. Lots of us are, so there’s a line waiting when they open. Short line or no, it takes awhile to get through the buffet line what with all the walkers, wheelchairs, canes, and such.
I find a table, set my tray down, and wait for one of the helpers to bring coffee. I’m usually out of there in an hour. Especially now, when I eat by myself. I stop by the office and say hello to Beth and pick up any work requests that need my attention. There usually aren’t any since the day before, as most people have been sleeping. Most of the calls come during the day. Maybe one or two. Beth lets me know. An air filter here. A light bulb there.
I patrol the halls in my scooter, making my rounds. The dining area always smells like whatever they cooked yesterday. The nursing ward smells like disinfectant. In the hallways of the living quarters, it smells like old curtains and rugs. You occasionally hear a TV blaring through the wall, turned up too loud, but most people are losing their hearing, so you don’t get many complaints.
One day I got a call from 306B. It took me awhile to get there, but that was before I had my scooter. Mrs. D opened the door about an inch to make sure I was alone before letting me in. Mr. D. had fallen on his way to the bathroom.
One thing I am not supposed to do is pick anyone up. We’re all brittle. I’m supposed to call an aide. Actually, the tenants are supposed to call an aide. They’re not supposed to call me for something like that. That’s one of the ways the nursing staff keeps track of whether people can still take care of themselves or whether they need to transfer to the nursing ward. I guess that’s why Mrs. D. called me. So we could keep it way off the books and they wouldn’t have to move. They were both embarrassed. Working together, we finally got the old man up to his knees and then to his chair.
Once we caught our breath, Mrs. D suggested we have some medicine. No one protested as she stepped to the kitchen and then returned, almost tiptoeing, with a tray holding three matching teacups I recognized from the big dining room on the first floor. We drank a toast with cooking sherry.
I told them we should report Mr. D’s fall to someone. That’s when they gave me his birthday watch. We didn’t say anything else about the fall. See what I mean, about the face lighting up? You can see it better if the lights are off.
There were other falls, and the staff learned about some of them, enough so they started counseling them about Mr. D. having to move to the nursing ward. There were other things, too. Mrs. D. was not keeping up with the pills they were supposed to be taking. She’d buzz me to come re-organize their pill boxes from time to time, which is another thing I’m not supposed to do.
Well, one day Mrs. D woke up dead, I don’t know how else to put it. It happens a lot here. Then the jig was really up for the old man, just like it had been for me when my Elizabeth passed. There was a family powwow with his kids when they came down for the funeral and that was all she wrote. He’d have to move to the nursing ward. I was on call a lot over the next few days, boxing up her stuff for Goodwill and trying to help Mr. D. pare his stuff down for the big move. He supervised from his wheelchair, but to tell you the truth, he mostly just looked at the wall.
“Go ahead and take my suits to Goodwill. They’re too big for me now anyway.”
I’m bundling them up when he holds up his hand. I have to lean down to hear him, his voice is so soft.
“Better hold that black suit back.” He’s eyes well up and spill over.
Have you ever been someplace where it gets so quiet the air feels heavy? It was like that. I promised him I’d ride my scooter over to the nursing ward to see him once a day. But it’s in a different building and it’s Texas and it’s too dang hot. I started feeling dizzy and they had to get Beth to help me back to my apartment.
Beth says I need to get ready to move again anyway. New tenants are coming.
“There might be a place over where Mr. D’s just moved, assisting him and looking after some of the other patients in the nursing ward.”
I told her I’d think about it. Beth says I’d be a natural for the job.
Copyright © 2014 by Robert R. Carter