|Mattie sat quietly in her chair,
her fingers working independently, surreptitiously, plucking the tied yarn knots from the
quilt that covered her knees. Her fingernails were relentless as they plied apart the
strands, that once loosened, were flicked aside to float gently to the floor. She had
worked her way through nearly a third of the blanket, shards of yarn settling like bits of
red dust, before someone came by to check up.
It was Miss Priss -
which was Mattie's own name for the young aide who crept around tippy-toed on white crepe
soled shoes and pursed her lips as if she smelled something nasty when she was displeased.
She was generally displeased with Mattie.
"Mattie, what on Earth are you doing? You're simply ru-in-ing
that spread," the aide exclaimed.
Mattie as usual, didn't reply, deep in whatever distant universe she was
Miss Priss made a clucking sound of disgust, pursed her lips, and bent
to gather up the scattered yarn which she promptly chucked into the nearby wastebasket.
She turned the blanket around and flipped it over to the other side, hiding
the yarn knots from Mattie's eager hands.
"That will be enough of that, Young Lady," the aide concluded,
scolding Mattie as of she were a willful child. Then, satisfied that order had been
restored, she tiptoed off, the noise of her retreating soles scuffing against the carpet,
music to Mattie's fading hearing.
But Mattie's eyes were eager and bright and constantly darted about the
room. She wasn't seeing this grim and falsely cheerful space. Her eyes saw
inward to a world of her own imagination. She had peopled it with all those who had
been a part of her past. The mail carrier was there, and the iceman, and lots of
relatives, the majority of them now dead.
Mattie knew that, that she was alive, and they were dead, but it didn't
matter. In the dreamlike state where she spent most of her time, she could range far
from this room, this time, this feeble body. She didn't care to make connections with what
passed for reality today, where everyone was under thirty, and perpetually annoyed or
clinically efficient with her.
She could still speak perfectly well, but chose not to. Her frame
of reference and that of those who passed through her life now were so diverse that the
chance that any of them could connect was as remote as Mattie addressing the U.S.Senate on
Health Care Reform. Not about to happen.
She'd tune in, occasionally, just to observe the natives who inhabited
this region called Westbury Senior Center. They generally spoke a foreign language,
which they believed was English, but Mattie, having been an English teacher in a life so
long ago that they'd long since torn down the school, knew the fundamentals of English
speech, and she marveled at how little like English their conversations sounded - that is
at those rare times she listened.
Miss Priss was her special adversary. Too professional by far for the
likes of Westbury Center, the aide was nonetheless hanging on to her ideals of caregiving
for dear life. Mattie wondered what would happen when that fine young idealism
turned to burn-out. The thought of Miss Priss as a Wal-Mart greeter in a future
career path amused Mattie's undiminished sense of humor.
Then there was Javon, the West Indian aide, whose dark face was
highlighted with a wide smile showing white teeth offset by one gold tooth in front.
He teased and flirted with Mattie, though she didn't respond. Every now and
then, she couldn't help a tiny smile in response to his nonsense, and he'd wink at her, as
if to say, "I know you can hear me."
And there was Lump. That was what she ungraciously labeled her
current roommate. An old woman surely, but younger than Mattie herself - she'd
overheard a conversation that confirmed it - who'd totally given up. Mattie could
have understood a desire to escape from pain, or as a protest against stupidity - but Lump
just lay there. It was the moaning at night that got to Mattie - and even the
thought of a fellow human in such a depressive state, failed to force Mattie to be
"It is good to persevere," Mattie's father had told her once,
many centuries ago when she was just a little girl. And Mattie had done so for -
what was it now - nearly ninety years. She stopped talking at eighty-seven, sick of
answering inane questions. It didn't really make any difference, anyway, they poked
and prodded, and submitted her to all sorts of indignities, rather she consented or not.
For a while, it had been a staff-wide effort to pry Mattie from silence.
First the speech therapist showed up, then the Center's pet Doctor, and finally a
visit from the local shrink. But Mattie refused to give in and give them what they
She rather enjoyed being known famous for the last statement that she
had uttered in the presence of witnesses: "What do you expect?" she had
said, "After all, I'm no Spring Chicken." And that was Mattie's last word,
and the rest, as far as Mattie was concerned was history.
She knew that as long as some spark of electricity still connected the
synapses of her memory, however weak, that she'd persevere. Until the day that last
shovelful of dirt dropped on top of her coffin - then maybe she'd close her eyes for a bit
and let the dreams take over. For now,she had a reputation to maintain, and all the
attempts to mold her into the perfect patient were fruitless.
A smile appeared on Mattie's lips, and she folded her hands in an
attitude of supplication. In her mind's eye, a handsome young man appeared, carrying
a wicker basket topped with a red checked cloth. He was a much younger version of
the old man of a couple in a frame that someone had placed on Mattie's wall to "help
her remember." But Mattie didn't want to remember him that way. She had
her own way, and he was calling to her.
"Come on, love," he called. "Let's go on a picnic
today. No time to waste."
"I'm coming," Mattie called silently, and enjoyed the feel of
the sun on her face, the cool of the breeze in her hair, and followed her young man down
the path, feet skimming over the ground, knowing that the lithe figure that had first
attracted him was still hers to command.
No Spring Chicken, indeed.
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