Today, I begin a feature in which I tempt you to buy my short story collection, MATTERS FAMILIAR, or—if you’re not feeling especially extravagant—a single, digital copy of the featured story which, I’m confident, will turn your head in time.
Today’s excerpt is from “The Jewel of Genoa,” my first and still most favorite story. Pearl O. Mutter, an 83-year-old, retired Nevada cowgirl, has been shut away in a Sacramento nursing home for 15 years. Her estranged son, DelRoy, stuck her there after her beloved Earl died. The past three years have been a little more tolerable because Pearl blackmailed DelRoy into moving her best friend, Hattie, in with her after she was widowed. As this scene opens, Pearl and her co-conspirators have set in motion their plan to hijack the home’s bus and escape.
A Scene from:
THE JEWEL OF GENOA
“Attention, ‘Sprightly Seniors!’“
Anna Mae McDonald, Maranatha’s Director of Recreational Services and Spiritual Development (although not necessarily in that order), stood beside the steps of the ancient, converted Blue Bird school bus and tapped her pencil on her clipboard. It was an uphill effort, quieting the gaggle of twenty-odd residents queued up to escape, if only for 36 hours.
“Give me your attention, please, so I can review the slate of exciting activities we’ve planned this trip for all of you!”
We’re going to the playpen of the Sierra Nevada over a Friday night, thought Pearl, to go to church. Is this a great goddamned country, or what?
Anna Mae was warmed up. “We’ll be meeting Reverend Alston at the First Church of the Evangelist, as usual, for a spirited afternoon of Holy Land slides. Then, a yummy early buffet at the Royal Plate—”
“Aw, fer Chrissakes, Anna Mae,” complained Barney Rasmussen. “It’s the same dern trip every time. Give us a little credit, willya? All the droolers are stayin’ home, anyway!” His Adam’s apple bobbed over a turquoise bolo tie and under a hat that would have made Roy Rogers jealous.
“There’ll be no cursing on this bus, Barney Rasmussen,” she scolded. “Remember: ‘To say is to pray; to curse is worse.’ Now, if I may continue …” As she resumed her sing-song prattle, Pearl relived the parade of outrages that helped her crystallize her plan, beginning with getting dropped in this Bible-thumping Purgatory and culminating in the loss of her old friend. She’d known Hattie Gardner for 70 years on the outside. When Hattie’s husband died of emphysema 12 years ago, Pearl had bargained with her son, on condition of good behavior, to move Hattie over from Minden. A third-generation Nevadan, Hattie Churchill had helped Pearl over most of her country-girl innocence before she herself got in a family way with Abner Gardner. After that, they opened up the Silver Rowel, where she cooked and tended bar weekdays and sang Friday through Sunday nights. For 40 years she harbored more secrets and solved more social problems than a hatful of clergy and social workers. Not the least of these was seeing to it that Pearl Opal Veneman and Earl Ludwig Mutter were in the same place at the same time often enough to give in and make it a habit.
Having Hattie’s daily company again had become salve for the running sore that Pearl saw her Maranatha existence to be—as was the full case of Seagram’s that rode in with her, swaddled in bed linens in her second suitcase. (That stream never dried up, either, thanks to a Douglas County liquor distributor with local contacts. Seems Hattie had talked the deed to his house off the poker table and back into his pocket in Abner’s private clubroom in the rear, some years back. Being retired from the saloon business had its perquisites.) At any rate, most nights the girlish giggles started after dinner in Room 219 when the meds were flushed away. (“Buried at sea,” Hattie called it.) They became full-throated laughs after the shift change, when the shrinking staff lured the liquid courage out from behind the empty suitcases on the closet floor. The crude “Seven-and-sevens” they fashioned with lukewarm, six-ounce Sprites purloined from the dining room weren’t essential to their reminiscences, but they seemed to help loosen their memories as well as their tongues.
A month ago, Hattie had taken a header in the day room. She insisted she was only bruised and embarrassed, but the home seized on the occasion to rotate her out for hospital tests long enough to bleed off a little Medicare cash at both ends. The powers-that-be found no fractures but decided she needed a walker—meaning that she was no longer fully “ambulatory” and would be transferred from “independent” to “assisted living.” So, exactly two weeks ago, Maranatha won a higher daily rate for Hattie and freed up a bed, while Pearl lost her roommate. She’d tried to visit Hattie on the other side whenever she could, but it broke her heart that she was so miserable. A woman who’d never opened an eye on purpose before 10 A.M. after baby Johnny could find his own milk was suddenly required to present herself for breakfast in the dining room by eight. Worse, a woman who could mesmerize royalty in sentence and song was assigned to take all daily meals with the same three tablemates, all of whom were either deaf or demented.
This just ain’t right, Pearl remembered thinking. That’s when she made up her mind. She looked down at her friend, hanging on her elbow and moving with her toward the steps.
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