“The older I grow, the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.”
― H.L. Mencken
B-17 Nose Art, Commemorative Air Force
I have been feeling in a deep hopeless rut lately, and I’m sure a lot of you have too. After writing another Sunday Snippet I decided to set an ambitious goal for myself. I’ll write a short piece of fiction every day and put it up here. Obviously, quality will vary – you get what you get. Length too – I’ll have to write something short on busy days. They will be raw first drafts and full of errors.
I’m not sure how long I can keep it up… I do write quickly, but coming up with an idea every day will be a difficult challenge. So far so good. Maybe a hundred in a row might be a good, achievable, and tough goal.
Here’s another one for today (#91) Almost There! What do you think? Any comments, criticism, insults, ideas, prompts, abuse … anything is welcome. Feel free to comment or contact me.
Thanks for reading.
It was so hot that the air conditioning in the clunky old radio station van couldn’t keep up and Emily had to keep daubing the sweat off her face. Bernard, the assistant sound engineer kept giving her a hard time.
“Man, you’re sweating like a stuck pig… good thing this is radio,” Bernard said.
“Shut up Bernard.”
She was getting sick of doing all the crap assignments, and today was the worst of all. It was Tuesday afternoon and it was time for a new bit, something called “Senior Smackdown.” It was one of the bits that came down from corporate – they said they had focus-grouped the whole thing and it was super-fun and popular for their target demographic – the urban teen and tween girls that spent the most money at their sponsor’s stores. To Emily, it was just another humiliation she had to endure.
“OK, Bernard, enough of this crap. Remind me again, what are we supposed to be doing? What is this ‘Senior Smackdown’?”
“Simple enough Emily,” said the assistant sound engineer, “We drive out to this old folks home, we’ve got their permission, and they set us up with some old geezer. We’re supposed to get somebody really old and kinda crazy, someone that doesn’t really know what’s going on. You ask them some questions – the station will send suggestions in on your device, keep an eye on it – and we broadcast the hilarity.”
They pulled off onto a loop driveway and parked in front of a long, low, dingy gray building. A sign said, “Lazy Acres,” in peeling paint. Bernard unloaded his remote broadcast gear and checked it out.
They walked in past a clump of old people sitting around staring into space. Emily didn’t like how they looked at her or how the inside of the Lazy Acres smelt.
“This place smells like pee,” she said as they walked up to the head nurse’s station at the intersection of two long halls.
“Get used to it,” said the nurse, glaring at Emily.
“Oh, Hi,” said Emily, pulling up her best fake smile and a little giggle, “We’re from KKDA and we’re here to…”
“I know why you’re here,” said the nurse. Her voice dripped poison. You’re late, Helena is waiting for you.
“Yea, Helena. I chose her for you myself. She’s ninety five years old. No family, never been married. She really looks forward to any visitor she can get, not that she gets any.” The nurse paused and looked Emily up and down. “I think she is just what you need.”
“Well, good,” said Emily while she did a little eye-flutter that she knew would aggravate the nurse. “Let’s get this over with.”
They walked down the hallway and the nurse opened a door without knocking. “Helena, the radio people are here.”
There was an ancient old woman sitting in a simple desk chair. There was a comfortable padded lounger facing her for Emily to sit in. She smiled eagerly as Emily and Bernard entered and the engineer began to set his equipment up.
“Can she hear me?” Emily asked the nurse.
“I can hear fine,” the old woman answered. “My name’s Helena,” she said in a clear and strong voice. It’s so nice to have someone young and pretty like you come to see me. I’m so sick of the old people in this place.”
“Helena, this is Emily,” the nurse said. “I’ll leave you to it now.”
Bernard managed to get the remote humming and started his sound checks while Emily and Helena sat quiet, staring at each other. Emily felt the sweat running down the side of her face.
“Here, honey,” Helena said, “have my handkerchief. They do keep it warm in here.”
Emily felt like screaming. Finally Bernard tapped her on her shoulder and gave her the two minute sign. In her ear she could hear the intro bump music for Senior Smackdown and the guffaws of the two disc jockeys back at the station.
“Ok, now Jane, it’s time for a new segment, Senior Smackdown!” said Bruce.
“That sounds like fun Bruce!” Jane shouted back at the station. Jane then launched into one of her famous laughing fits, her voice booming out in rough guffaws while Bruce tittered in the background. This was the signature of the two afternoon jockeys – this constant laughing. They could vary it from simple giggles to obscene snorts and sniggles all the way to booming shrieks of hilarity. The focus groups indicated that their listeners loved this.
“And on the scene is our very own roving reporter, Emily Lighthouse, to talk to one of the city’s oldest senior citizens, Helena. Emily, ask Helena if she has ever been married.”
And that was her cue.
“Helena, have you ever been married?”
“No Emily, I’ve been single all my life.” Helena suddenly became silent. Her face became calm, reflective. It looked for a moment like she had forgotten about Emily sitting there.
Emily felt a moment of panic and glanced down at the handheld device. It flashed a lurid single word, “LEZBO!” in bright flashing letters. She was relieved when Helena spoke first.
“Well, Emily, I haven’t been single by choice. I was engaged once. It was back in nineteen forty one. I was engaged to a boy named Ralph and was so much, so deeply in love. We were so young. After that, I couldn’t find it again. I remember when he joined the Navy. We were to be married at his station on Hawaii. I was going to fly out on the Clipper for New Year’s. I went to San Diego to watch him set sail on the Arizona. They were, all the boys, a thousand of them, all lined up on the rail in their dress whites. It was such a sight to see. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“Well, what happened?”
“I said, he sailed to Hawaii on the Arizona. Nineteen forty one.”
“And?” Emily asked. Helena suddenly stared at Emily with eyes as clear as spring water, her face as sad as a dream denied. Emily felt that she had disappointed Helena somehow.
“He died at Pearl Harbor.”
“Oh… and you never married?”
“No, I’ve already told you that. Well, I did have some chances, I was asked. But I always thought of Ralph, and those other boys. It just didn’t seem right.”
“Well, then, how did you get by, back then, by yourself.”
“Oh, I know you probably find this hard to believe, but I was a professional tennis player. I was pretty darn good too. I toured the world. I was a real up-and-comer. It was all there, all in front of me.”
“So you played tennis? What tournaments…”
Helena kept on, ignoring Emily. “I had it all. Well, that is, until I go the Polio.”
“Yes, honey. You don’t know anything about that, I’m sure. Thank God. You’ve probably never seen an iron lung. Probably never had any of your pretty friends going to a dance with braces on her legs.”
Emily glanced down at her device. It was flashing, “THIS ISN’T FUNNY” Emily didn’t know what to do. This isn’t what it was supposed to be like. That nurse had set her up. She was supposed to be interviewing some doddering old fool, someone she could make fun of, someone the radio audience could laugh at.
Helena was no doddering old fool. She was still talking, about polio, about some guy named Salk. She was talking about how hard it was to get by as a single crippled woman and about how it felt to have your dreams taken away from you. She then talked about how she had found strength and how, now, looking back, she could not imagine wishing it to be any different.
“Umm… what did you do?”
“I was a school teacher, a teacher for fifty years, eighth grade English. I taught Kindergarten for one year – kind of tapering off when my mother got sick.”
“You said earlier that you are sick of old people.”
“I look around at these women here and think about whether I would want to be married to any of them, if I was a man, and I think, no. They line up like a bunch of old crows at the front windows waiting to see who comes to visit, I’m not like that, I like to talk to folks, but if nobody comes I’m happy to get back to my room.”
“Ummm, uhhh, like, what else do you want to say?”
“There’s been a few highlights in my life – I saw the president, Kennedy, in his car ’bout twenty minutes before they blew his head off – that was a highlight… if you can call it that.”
“You were there?”
“Lived in Dallas all my life. I guess I’ve had a pretty ordinary life – never did anything much – I probably would have if I hadn’t got the polio.”
Emily glanced at her device, it said, “CUT IT OFF NOW!”
And that was the end of this week’s Senior Smackdown. Emily couldn’t even make eye contact with Helena while Bernard packed up his equipment. She heard Bernard thanking Helena and asking her if she needed anything while she fled the room looking for the head nurse. She wanted to give that bitch a piece of her mind, but she was nowhere to be found.
All the way back to the station Bernard couldn’t stop talking about Helena.
“Wasn’t that the most amazing shit you’ve ever heard? Think of it. Pearl Harbor. Polio. Can you imagine what it was like to be a professional female athlete, a tennis player, in the nineteen forties? ”
“Oh, shut up, Bernard.”
“I mean it. I’m going to go back there and tape her some more for myself. Can you imagine the stories she can tell? What an amazing life. Jeez, she was there when Kennedy was shot.”
But Emily wasn’t listening. She felt another rivulet of sweat course down her temple and mopped at it. She realized that she still had Helena’s handkerchief. She took one last swipe at the sweat, rolled the widow down and threw it out into the breeze.