“What is this? Chicken? It tastes like chicken.”
“Of course it does! Everything tastes like chicken at our age!” George peeped over his half-moon reading glasses toward the new guy, Raymond. He almost felt sorry for him.
George remembered his first meal at Fair Plains Retirement Home. It was a mash of tasteless gumbo. He was numb from shock. As unbearable as it was to bury his beloved Anne, companion of sixty plus years, it was almost equally deplorable to be removed from everything familiar and deposited amongst strangers.
It was like being sent off to boarding school but worse. Much worse.
At boarding school George had purpose: excel in classes, join appropriate clubs, make friends who were bigger than him, and wait for holidays. Each year it got easier to go back to school and harder to find something to talk about with his parents over the Christmas ham or Easter Turkey.
He graduated at the head of his class, went on to university and fulfilled his dream of becoming an architect. He had it all: a great wife, healthy children, a satisfying job, wealth....where did it all go? Where did the years go?
“George?” Teresa gently tapped his shoulder. Her wrinkly brown face peered at him. “Maybe you could give some of your secret sauce?”
“No.” He shrugged his shoulder and grunted into his stew. The nubie could just suffer and find out the reality of communal living. Every man for himself.
“But George!” Teresa lamented, “He just lost his wife.” She leaned forward and whispered in his hairy ear.
George glanced across the small table. Raymond was sitting there staring into the stew. He was ashen. George looked away.
Henry, the fourth member of the table, was happily slurping up his lunch, spilling most of it on his towel covered lap, secure in his own world. He didn’t notice the new guy and wouldn’t remember him five minutes after lunch, let alone tomorrow. George wondered if losing one’s memory was maybe the better way to go.
“I’m not going to be here long, you know,” shuffling his feet and mindlessly turning his spoon over and over, the newest member of the table looked George defiantly in the eye. “My son and his wife are going to...”
“Let me guess!” George cut in, “sell their house and buy one where you can come and live with them? Humph!” He threw his spoon down. “I’ve heard that one a time or two.”
Raymond’s ashen face grew paler. George looked away. Hope was for suckers. All that was left in this life was the moment you had. Food, drink, and company. Isn’t that what Solomon came to in the end? He reached into his pocket and drew out the tiny bottle.
“Hey, Raymond,” George softened his voice. No use letting the entire dining room in on the conversation.
Raymond’s watery grey eyes locked on to George like an imprisoned dog at the catchers.
“This helps bring out the taste in the food around here.” George passed the hot sauce across the table. Raymond stretched out his brown spotted shaky hand to take it.
“Thank you” he whispered.
Teresa broke into a grin that exposed the gaping holes in her dentures. She squeezed George’s arm in delight. Henry went on slurping, oblivious to anyone else at the table.
“I know you’ve probably had the official tour of the joint,” George picked his spoon back up, “but if you want, after lunch I’ll take you on my own special tour.” The men’s eyes met again. A faint flicker of light was breaking out of the grey.
“I was an architect for forty-five years. I know how to get in and out of places even the Director doesn’t know about.”
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