“Is that you, Joe? Well, what are you waiting for? Come on in!”
I brushed my feet across the little rubber mat to get the grass off, and entered the house through the back screen door – same as always. As I walked through the kitchen and stepped into the living room, I could see Ms. Shepherd sitting in her chair with her afghan spread neatly across her legs – same as always. Before I saw her, I could smell the “old people” smell.
Apparently it’s a different smell for everyone. My wife says that, for her, it’s a smell of mothballs and old roses, the source of which, I am sure, is her grandmother. But, as a boy of eleven, as I was on this particular day, the smell was more sterile. It was kind of a mixture of rubbing alcohol and eucalyptus.
I had first smelled the smell a few years before when I would visit my mom at work. She worked at a nursing home, and I would go there after school and wait until she got off, when we would walk home together. While I waited, I would usually spend my time in “happy hall”. I didn’t know at the time the real reason it was called happy hall, and I didn’t question it because most of the patients I saw there were undeniably happy. Let’s just say that some of them were artificially jovial.
Happy hall was where I met Cherry. I would sit with her for hours and play cards or Yahtzee. We would work on jigsaw puzzles or, sometimes, Cherry would read to me from her favorite books. I have no idea how old she really was, but it seemed to me that she must have been at least a hundred. It was the first time I noticed the smell. I asked her about it once and she told me the aides always rubbed her down with alcohol at night, and she added the eucalyptus to try and get rid of the odor.
One day I showed up to visit Cherry and found her bed empty. She had never been out of bed before, and I couldn’t imagine where she had gone. My mom found me sitting in her room, still waiting for Cherry to come back, when she got ready to leave. That day, as we walked home, mom held my hand and explained to me the real truth about happy hall. Cherry, she told me, wasn’t going to come back.
I never set foot in happy hall again.
Ms. Shepherd had no family and her grass would just get completely out of control if I didn’t mow it for her. Mom greatly encouraged me to help her out. Now, as always, I stood in her living room afterwards, making the obligatory small talk. As always, she wanted to pay me, and, as always, I said no.
“Come over here, Joseph, and talk to me a few minutes.”
“Its just Joe, ma’am, just plain old Joe.”
“What about Joey? Can I call you Joey?” There was a hint of a smile around her eyes.
“I just like being called Joe, Ms. Shepherd.” We had been through all of this before, too; it was her way of prolonging the contact, trying to engage me in some conversation. I just wanted to get out of there and go play. It was a beautiful day outside, where it smelled so fresh.
“You don’t like old people, much, do you Joe?”
I didn’t answer. I Just stood there, fidgeting, waiting for my opportunity to escape.
Finally she sighed, giving up on me once more. “I guess we are a little scary to someone so young.” She said. “But, let me tell you, Joe. I have so much to share, and no one to share it with. If only someone would let me in, just a little.”
It was a desperate plea from a very lonely person, and I’d like to say I grew a little in that moment and tossed aside my afternoon of playing baseball and basketball to stay and keep her company – playing cards, drinking tea and laughing. But I ducked out of there as fast as I could, and the lonely old lady was completely forgotten fifteen minutes later – same as always.
Ms. Shepherd passed away before the next mowing day. I wondered briefly then, and a little more often now: Did she give up on more than me, that day?
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