The Jewel of Genoa

 

E. G. Fabricant

 

From Matters Familiar. A retired cowgirl and her best friend resort to drugs, kidnapping, and interstate flight to escape the nursing home and reclaim their lives.

 

It started like any other Friday at Maranatha Senior Residence.

Just give it a few more hours, she told herself.

Pearl O. Mutter gathered up her purse, gloves, and hat. Oops—Almost forgot. She stepped over to her freshly-made bed and retrieved the balled-up napkin she’d carried back from dinner last night and secreted under her pillow—a ritual begun at each meal, years ago. She opened the linen carefully and picked out the tiny, peach-colored oval. Huh. Xonoft. Get on it, like Fern, you don’t give a shit. Get off it, you can’t stop. If that pill-peddler Delroy hired ever saw me, he’d know I don’t need it. Old Doc Morgan never would have stood for this. Oh, well—it’ll come in handy today.

She added the dose to the dozen others she’d squirreled awayin an old breath-mint tin. She smiled at its pregnant slogan—’Curiously Strong!’—and returned it to the bottom of her purse. She walked around the second bed and stood behind the half-closed door to find herself in the full-length mirror.

Even after all this time, she still couldn’t believe her eyes. In another glass she’d seen a strong, brown woman with auburn locks, eyes that danced over a nose that drew more breath awake and alive than asleep, and a grin-prone mouth. Sturdy frame in a faded denim shirt, Levi’s, and rough-out boots. A woman more familiar with the essences of lime, sweat, and just-singed cowhide than with those of Paris. Sinewy forearms and gnarled hands with the veins, knots, and calluses standard on the wife of a working cattle feeder. All she could find now were the eyes, if she allowed it, and the hands, which she couldn’t help. Where did she go?Pearl asked herself. Well, I’m going t’ find her again, and the lookin’ starts now.

The door parted slightly and a dark-haired woman with brown skin appeared—the nurse-assistant. “Señora Mutter, are you ready? You must hurry or you will miss the bus!”

Pearl looked grave and took the attendant’s hands gently into hers. “Marisol, honey, you’ve been real good to me for a long, long time. Made life in this place almost bearable—almost. I’m goin’ to miss you the most.”

Marisol Contréres patted Pearl’s hands, puzzled. “But, Señora; you are only going overnight to the South Shore, like you do every four months.” Her eyes flashed. “Maybe even to gamble a little, yes?”

“Whoop-tee-do,” Pearl said. “If Miss Goody Two Shoes takes her eyes off us for five minutes.” She dropped her hands and her eyes. “Anyway—Goodbye, Marisol.” She sidled past her and pushed her octogenarian’s bones determinedly down the dim hallway toward the lobby.

“Attention, ‘Sprightly Seniors!'”

Anna Mae McDonald, Maranatha’s Director of Recreational Services and Spiritual Development – not necessarily in that order – stood beside the steps of the ancient, former 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,” said 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 passel 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 short, distracted night shift staff teased them to bring 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, and 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.

“Now, Hattie, you just stay quiet ’til Bea and I get you past Anna Mae and to the seat in the back. Okay?”

Hattie nodded, just about halfway between anticipation and fright.

Pearl looked across at Beatrice Knudsen. “Bea, if you would just help me get Hattie up the steps, I’d appreciate it. Just wait ’til Hector goes into his little act.” Beatrice winked and caught Hattie at the other elbow.

Pearl tapped Hector Alvarez on the shoulder. “Hector, you ready?” Hector turned and smiled furtively. He played out most of the slack in his oxygen line into large loops. As he drew abreast of Anna Mae he tripped into her magnificently. He grabbed for her upper arms after thrusting the loops over her forearms. She reacted by stepping backward and jerking her arms violently upward, which drew Hector, the lines, the little green cylinder, and its trolley to her—tight. She struggled and shrieked.

Pearl and Beatrice hustled Hattie onto the bus. Bertha pulled up to block the aisle while Pearl herded Hattie to the last seat on the left. “Duck down, dear, while I find Lindell.” Pearl unlatched and lowered the top half of their window. She peered out, searching for her inside confederate. Clockwork. Around the end of the building came an imposing orderly, with two suitcases. He muscled the grips adroitly through the window. “Thank you, Lindell,” whispered Pearl. “Hattie and I—”

“Uh-UH!” Lindell drew his arms quickly to his sides, palms down and fingers spread, striking his best ‘Whachoo lookin’ at?!’ pose. “I got a Spalding leather basketball signed by Chris Webber and a half-case of Seagram’s. That’s all I need to know!” Still, he cocked an eyebrow. “Where’d you get that basketball, anyways?”

“Gift from my son, Delroy,” Pearl replied. “Just the thing for an 83-year-old cowgirl, don’t you agree?”

Lindell approximated half a wave as he strode away, his stern expression barely masking his amusement.

Pearl stashed the cases beneath their seat. She and Hattie donned their best innocence as the shortish bus filled up. Pearl leaned over. “You ready, hon?”

Hattie opened her shoulder bag. Pearl could just make them out, between the Preparation H and the Fig Newtons: A nickel-plated, pearl-handled, .32-caliber semi-automatic pistol with a nine-shot magazine, and a box of cartridges.

“Ready to fornicate, fight, or flee,” grinned Hattie.

Pearl smiled. “Let’s just stick with the ‘flee’ part, for now.”

Due to their late start, some heavy-duty whining, and Pearl’s representation that she was good for it, Anna Mae was persuaded to depart from the usual plan, which was to stop briefly for coffee and relief at Denny’s in Placerville, then drive straight into South Lake Tahoe for a late lunch of equivalent elegance. Instead, they motored straight to the Heidelberg Inn, between Pollock Pines and Kyburz, for heavy German food. (Besides the cuisine’s desired post-prandial effect, Pearl also hoped that some of the more excitable members of the troupe might be thirsty enough to sneak some fine Bavarian ferment to help things along. She did advise her co-conspirators to “stay sharp,” however, since she knew they were already bent in that direction.)

Pearl got back on the bus and summoned Hattie back to a sitting position, placing a Styrofoam “go” box on her lap. “I’m sorry I had to leave you out here, dear, but I couldn’t risk Anna Mae finding out that you weren’t on her list. You know Anna Mae and her goddamned head-count.”

“Are you still worried that Ellie Hathaway might snitch on me?”

“I was, but not so much any more. You’ve only been gone from independent living a couple weeks, so I don’t think she’s even noticed. You know how busybodies like her are—so taken up lookin’ out the side window to catch the neighbors at somethin’ that she doesn’t see her husband goin’ over the back fence.”

“So, did you get ’em into her?”

“The Xonoft? Yup. It didn’t come to me until we were all inside that this place probably didn’t have any fish dishes, so I got a little worried since I’d made up my mind that tuna salad would’ve been perfect. Anna Mae was a failed Catholic before she went fundamental, you know, so that ‘Fish on Friday’ habit dies hard—especially since it still had Hell attached to it when she was a girl. I regrouped and told her I’d order for her, since Earl’s folks were German and it was my treat. I snatched up her menu and studied it hard until she went to the Ladies’. Then I grabbed a waiter and ordered the Szegediner Goulasch with Spaetzle for both of us.

 

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