No Place for Imbeciles
by Sheri Hunter
Sheri Hunter lives in Michigan with her husband and two children. Prior to earning her MBA, she worked as a writer and TV News Producer for both CBS and NBC affiliates in the Detroit Area. She was a Marketing Strategist at an academic book publisher before dedicating her time to writing. She freelances for several newspapers and journals.
In my head I focus on the equation, multiply then add. I concentrate on the sum of the Pythagorean Theorem as Marty Futsmeyer approaches because without rigorous attention to find the length of the hypotenuse, I'll bust a gut right in front of that cheek-pouch monkey. "God, his hair. And those pimpled pink craters," I utter under my breath.
"Evan," warns my grandfather, Poppo as we grandkids call him. "Snip it," he says in his tawny Irish inflection, then jabs me in the ribs with his eighty-three-year-old elbow, his equivalent of a friendly right hook. I beg air to return to the lung he just deflated.
"Decoupage," Futsmeyer says as he approaches us. Poppo raises an eyebrow to me as if I might have a clue. I stay mum, just now able to inhale. Instead, I hunch my shoulders, regroup and mercifully try to calculate the square of fourteen.
Futsmeyer pushes forward on an elegant Costa Rican cane. Even though the aisles and hallways are extra-wide for wheelchairs and walkers here at Waterview Senior Living, there is no way to avoid him without exchanging pleasantries.
"There's a decoupage class. About seven of us are in the arts and craft room," Futsmeyer says, a perfect English gentlemen with a frosty white hamadryas baboon fro that starts at the crown of his head, flares past his shoulders and curves to a perfect "U" positioned as side-burns. "Join us. You and your grandson," he offers. One-ninety-six – I recite in my head: Fourteen squared is one hundred ninety-six. Okay. Okay. I breathe, and then a dreaded crinkle comes to my lips. I try desperately not to explode into a full-on cackle as Futsmeyer wrinkles his dog-like snout because it's just rude to double-up for no apparent reason every time I am in his company. It's not his fault if his carbon copy cousin is a primate in the highlands of Ethiopia.
Poppo rescues me. "No, Futsmeyer. My grandson and I are going to join the women in the social area. "He's like me, this one, likes the young ladies." He smiles and whacks me on the back to halt my on-coming hilarity. It feels like a two-by-four. He takes me by the biceps with a stern grip before I teeter forward.
It's not every day I am assaulted by my grandfather, just the third Saturday of each month when I make the customary visit to reminisce, catch-up, and get slapped with a Ben-Frank in my palm as I depart. Poppo never calls it blackmail – his assurance to receive visits from kin on the regular – and I don't acknowledge that, just shy of twenty-five, Poppo's generosity is one of my few steady streams of income. I am unemployed again, the third time in two years, and am certain my father has shared this with Poppo; only, my grandfather will never reveal it. I suppose it is a dynamic we've grown accustomed to, me and Poppo. I don't bring up how his memory has slowly, steadily declined and he doesn't hammer me about why I can't keep a job.
Missing today is my older brother Nathan, whose trips to Waterview are as frequent as trips to the dentist – instead of practicing good hygiene over the years, he chose to embellish his uppers like a Cadillac grill. Nathan is not in need of Poppo's handouts. He earned his GED after dropping out in tenth grade, then stumbled into a gig as a grease monkey at Auto-10 Mechanics, stylizing and customizing hundred-thousand plus vehicles. Nathan now earns more in three months than I earned all of last year.
Poppo and I will probably play a round or two of chess in the reception area until two p.m. or so . . . prior to their dinner and my lunch time. At Waterview the first floor, the common areas where seniors socialize and greet visitors, resembles one of those grand Southern Victorians with the white pillars, fifteen-foot ceilings, and imitation baroque antiques scattered in groupings. There's a chintz-like motif – on the peeling wallpaper, on the heavy draperies, on the lightly stained wall-to-wall carpet – and various patterns on the sofa and chairs. It's as if they know the residents here will no longer toil in a garden, so they swath them in rosebuds and faded buttercups.
"Ev." Poppo is about to get nostalgic because he wraps a Jack LaLanne arm around my neck. "What you are about to see is why you need to . . ." He loosens me and with one hand forms a circle with an index finger and thumb and takes his other index and jerks it through the hole like a horny nymph. "Often, my boy. Often." In one of the social areas are four ladies dressed for bedtime, only it is one in the afternoon. All of them are in polyester shapeless smocks with tiny flowers to match the décor. On their legs are knee highs, for the dual purpose of warmth and fashion, I suppose; only the knee highs seem to roll down to the ankles, which forgoes my fashion theory. "Those nanny coats they're wearing are called dusters. Covers up everything. I hate 'em," Poppo scoffs.
"What you expect, plunging necklines, disco heels and fishnets?" I ask. "Geez, Poppo. They're eighty years old, seventy, at least."
"Awff." He waves me off. "Some of those gals still have great gams."
There is some truth to what my father says about Poppo, how Poppo expects his contemporaries to be as he sees himself. Aside from the early dementia, his doctors say he's in excellent health, and Poppo is resolute that he has another twenty-five years of active living. According to Poppo, if the others at this "death camp," his new favorite vocab for his new beloved home, would get moving, stop grumbling about their no good kids, the rising cost of health care, and whether to get the pine or maple casket, they would live long too.
"You're not being rational, Poppo." I try to reason. "You've had more than eighty years to get fit. Those tree trunks for arms didn't manifest in the year since you've been here. Life happens, and before you know it, you're soaking your gums in a glass. These folks can't be you. You're an anomaly."
"Animal-ology? What's that?"
"An-om-aly. You know, rare . . . special."
"I like what I said. I'd rather be an animal. Who cares about being special in here? They're all lumps of SPAM: overused, overworked, over-processed meat that nobody wants."
As I canvass the room, in addition to the ladies in the nanny dresses, I notice there's an old guy who sounds like a jackhammer with a wheeze. Asleep, maybe? Only his eyes are wide open and drool rains from the sides of his mouth. Another resident who looks like he's covered in dried dust, his pallor a sickly grey, is reading a book, only I can't imagine how he can concentrate. His right leg shakes repeatedly like he's trying to stamp out a cigarette. I look at his cohabitants, then at my grandfather. Poor Poppo.
"Your dad was here last week," Poppo says. We're now at one of the side tables playing chess. I simultaneously work a polynomial equation in my head: X-squared, plus y-squared, plus z-squared, minus one, equals zero. I plug the numbers in my head while keeping an eye on my grandfather. He's a big cheater, and that's before his memory began to decline. I now spend half the time reminding him why he can't capture my king with a knight.
"Is he forgiven?" I ask. Poppo has his fingers poised on his bishop. He looks at me for approval. I shake my head no; he removes his fingers and mumbles.
"Only on his death bed," he says. I laugh; Poppo is deadpan as he concentrates on the chess board.
"You can't blame Dad for the dachshund."
"Like hell, I can't." Poppo moves the pawn to A3 next to my knight, leans back in his chair with a "take that" smile on his lips.
"For one," I remind him, "he's not the one who put that hound on crutches."
Our family calls the incident the "Dachshund Derby Death-squad." Every Saturday since the demise of Poppo's eyesight, dad has taken Poppo to the grocers and to run errands, much to the chagrin of my grandfather. Because of Poppo's sight and iffy memory, Dad has battled him not just for my grandfather's safety but the well-being of everyone else on the road. A year or so ago, on one of their scheduled outings, dad was running late. Poppo became impatient, flustered, and decided to get behind the wheel. Everything would have been fine and he'd still be living in his two-bedroom flat if he hadn't popped that curve and begun driving on the sidewalk, the same sidewalk where a female pedestrian was walking her prized miniature dachshund. To her surprise she was soon kissing the bumper of Poppo's Chevy. And that dachshund, on his poor little chicken-wing legs, was galloping like a thoroughbred chasing down feed. The owner wasn't injured, but her prized pooch had its two hind legs broken, his show day's kaput. That, coupled with Poppo not knowing his whereabouts once the police arrived, expedited the confiscation of his license and his residency at Waterview.
"It's called accountability, son," Poppo says. "You should be where you say you're going to be . . . on time. Your father should know that." I focus on dividing the numerator and decide not to swipe Poppo's knight nor chastise him about his illogical displeasure with my father.
Just as I am about to end my agony and call out "check-mate," Nathan arrives with a crumpled Welson's Bakery bag.
"Shepherd's pie," Nathan says, like he just purchased the hope diamond and is laying it at the feet of Elizabeth Taylor.
Poppo looks at the bag and nudges it aside, then moves his pawn. "What? You don't like it?" Nathan looks perplexed and gives me an inquisitive look. "I thought he liked this stuff."
And he does, only when it's not with frozen vegetables or bought at the local bakery, as this one is clearly marked. For the last twenty-eight years, you'd think Nathan would know just how finicky our grandfather is or would at least recall how on every holiday there was a meal for Poppo and another one for the rest of us.
"See, that's what I'm sayin," Nathan starts. "That's what I'm sayin. There's no pleasing 'em. Why can't you just eat the friggin pie and be happy. Christ-sake. There are folks in here who'd love to get a visit from their grandson and a good cooked meal." There are one hundred seventeen elements on the Periodic table and I begin to recite each one in my head, backwards.
"Poppo will eat it. Won't you, Poppo?" I ask, but know my statesmanship will not be rewarded today.
"Don't coddle him, Ev," he says to me sharply.
"I bet this one didn't bring you anything, did he?" Nathan says, raising his nose to me. "Got that pricey Chemical Engineering degree and can't even get laid with it."
"Why are you bringing me into it?" I ask, but Nathan keeps at it.
"And don't think I don't know, Poppo, that you've been giving Evan cash on the side." Nathan tightens his mouth. "Dad told me."
Poppo's head slowly turns from the chess board towards Nathan. "Oh, so now I gotta eat this rubbish you've purchased from the dollar store and inform you on how I decide to spend my money?"
The seniors at Waterview are not accustomed to loud voices, loud noises, loud colors or anything, well . . . loud. There are seven pairs of eyes on us and even though for many their eye-sight has faded and they can't identify folks from a distance, their ears perk up like jack-rabbits.
Poppo's gnarled hand reaches for the brown bag; he opens it, looks inside, and crumples it back tight. He says nothing. Nathan says nothing. I say nothing.
Apparently whatever art class Futsmeyer was taking is now over because he's making his way towards us. I place my head down and focus on the now defunct chess game as if it holds the clue to the Dalai Lama's secret temple.
Futsmeyer places his hand on my shoulder, and I compel myself not to look into his face. "May I join you, gentlemen?" he asks. My eyes plead with Poppo. My grandfather twists his mouth to the side and I see his mind working.
"Of course, Mr. Snout-meyer." My brother grins and points to the empty chair. Both my grandfather and I have whiplash as we turn toward Nathan, because this is not the first time he's gotten the man's name wrong. It's not the second or the third either. It is times like this when I wonder if my brother is just a nasty a-hole or a bona fide derelict. I've come to the conclusion he's neither, he's a mixed-breed.
A barrage of "I'm sorrys. My apologies. Excuse hims. He didn't mean its." come from both me and Poppo. Nathan just looks at us two like we're a circus act as we try to make amends to the man he's just insulted.
My brother offers his hand to the elder gentleman, and at first Futsmeyer looks as if it is a snake before he gently provides his palm to shake.
"Don't mind these two. I meant no harm, really, Mr. Futsmeyer. Have a seat," Nathan says before leaning back on his chair, rocking it back and forth. "Just trying to lighten the mood. Besides, you must get that all the time, huh? Or did, before you came here where everyone has lost their sense of humor." About now Poppo looks like he wants to take that Shepherd's pie and cram it up Nathan's axle. All I can manage to add is two plus two is four, reserving all my energy in case Poppo decides to throttle my brother.
"It's perfectly okay," Futsmeyer says kindly to my grandfather and in perfect English intonation. "The problem with the gene pool is that there's simply no lifeguard." Futsmeyer bows to Nathan and walks away. Poppo nods and pats his parting lips with his forefinger. I grin too as Futsmeyer departs, and for the first time it's not because of his uncanny carriage.
Nathan sits perplexed, "See, that's why I can never live in a place like this. You gotta live with all these whack jobs."
Poppo takes a hand and pushes it through his silver strands, tightens his lips, and shifts his eyes between the two of us.
"You're right, my lad," he starts softly, almost a whisper, so much so that we have to lean in to hear. "This is no place for you. See Futsmeyer, the fine British gentleman you kids ridicule or insult each time you manage to visit? He was with the Royal Navy during World War Two and his carrier crippled enemy ships in Italy during the Battle of Taranto. Bemus Tadworthy, he too worked on cars, Nathan. He assembled them at Chrysler Jefferson Auto Plant in Detroit. Forty years he did, put his kids through college. Marty over there, he's got a bit of a drool, he worked forty-three years for Minnesota Water works, screwing water valves and securing pipe plasters. Yeah, you think it's funny. Waterworks, drool, but he'd rather bite off his tongue than say an unkind word or make himself feel big by making someone else small. Forty-three years. Evan, he held a job and never refused to do work beneath him. Never whined, never complained. He had to take care of himself and his family, and he did. Bridget Omarian, she may not look like it now, but she was Miss Ohio, and after that she fought breast cancer, and after that she nursed a kid who battled polio, and after that she taught students at Chester Middle School for twenty-five years. There's Paul Winsley who's a deep-sea fisherman and Robert Kresspel who is an ace poker player. No one can beat him. Good folk. Decent people. They've managed to live full lives and now are tolerant of those they love and those they don't because as you boys say, 'Life happens.' So no, you wouldn't fit in here. And guess what, no one wants you. You see, in this place you have to have some gumption, some fortitude, some smarts. In this place imbeciles are not allowed."
Perspiration has beaded up on Poppo's forehead. He removes a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wipes. "I'm going to dinner," Poppo says, and our eyes follow him as he heads to the dining section. Nathan grabs the brown bag and at first I think he's going to chuck it in the garbage and bolt. But instead he bypasses the trash and the exit and walks in the same direction as Poppo, looks back at me and waves me on.
In the dining area are about sixty people, some gumming soup or tapioca; but the main entrée is something that looks like beef stroganoff with some packaged mixed veggies and chocolate pudding for desert. Poppo is at the table with several others, but with no extra chairs, Nathan and I sit at a vacant table.
What is on the menu at Waterview looks less than appetizing, and it makes no sense in letting edible Shepherd's pie go to waste. Nathan grabs some utensils and plates and we each spoon a serving. I hear the chair between us scoot across the floor and in it sits our grandfather. He looks at us shoveling beef, gravy, and pasty veggies down our throats and I see his lips turn up. He takes his spoon, puts it in the center of the pie, and puts a tablespoonful in his mouth. Unlike other times when there's the three of us, I have no formulas in my head. I think of absolutely no numbers at all.
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