Older People in Cars
Carl Turnage takes slow, short steps so he won’t get ahead of his aunt Lil. They move along toward her maroon 1989 Oldsmobile sitting in the shade. It’s easy to spot because of the luggage rack on the trunk lid. They are headed to the Piccadilly for lunch, and after that he’ll let her practice-drive in the mall parking lot. Carl has mixed feelings about the driving part. Today will probably be the last time his aunt will ever drive a car—and it’s his job to break that news.
“Is that my car?” she asks. Humped over and thin, she holds to the arms of her walker. She wears gold slippers, tan slacks, Hawaiian shirt, striped jacket, and makeup that stops along her jaw like the border of a country.
“Yes ma’am. I washed it.”
“Well, it looks good.”
“I’ll let you drive it a little bit after we eat.”
He helps her into the passenger seat. Her head seems about as high as the button on the glove compartment. In her three months at Rosehaven Convalescence Center, she seems to have steadily shrunk—from osteoporosis—and has fallen twice but somehow not broken a bone. He folds her walker, and as he lays it in the backseat, her sunglasses drop out of her saddlebag and slide under the passenger seat. He retrieves them.
Back when Carl started driving, Aunt Lil owned a used 1968 Ford Mustang convertible, white with red interior. She let Carl drive it at least one Saturday night a month, as well as to his senior prom.
At the mall they park in their normal spot on top of the big two-deck parking lot.
In the cafeteria line, with tray rails to hold to, Aunt Lil doesn’t need her walker. Carl folds it and takes it on his arm.
This is a long lunch break for Carl. He’s a contractor at Richardson’s Superior Awning and Tile, and sometimes, on simple, straightforward jobs, he leaves his second- in-command, Juan, in charge of the other four or five workers.
Aunt Lil chooses chicken chow mein without rice. He gets it with rice.
Carl’s aunt Sarah, who died last year, once said that stopping driving was the worst thing she’d ever been through, including (1) her husband’s death, (2) her daughter’s divorce—it was a bad one—and (3) watching her dog Skippy get run over. Aunt Sarah was the last living of all his aunts and uncles besides Aunt Lil. She was the one who said that if she’d known she was going to live as long as she did, she’d have bought a new mattress.
Aunt Lil told that story when she bought her new mattress. That was about a month before she fell in her tub, twice on the same night. She managed, after the second fall, to get out of the tub and call Carl on the phone, and that night was the beginning of her downward drift, her gradual failing of mind and body, a decline less abrupt than his mother’s or Aunt Sarah’s.
On Aunt Lil’s tray is a plate of chow mein, a biscuit, a little dish of broccoli with cheese sauce, and iced tea. On Carl’s, chow mein over rice, fried okra, string beans, fries, cucumber salad, pecan pie, and a Diet Coke. At the cash register, Aunt Lil reaches for his little white ticket slip and puts it with hers. She’ll insist that he pay with her MasterCard.
A cafeteria worker carries Aunt Lil’s tray to one of her two favorite tables. Aunt Lil and Carl sit, Carl says the blessing, and they begin eating. He is never quite sure if he should say the blessing when he’s with her. Unlike his mother and Aunt Sarah, Aunt Lil has more or less given up on church. They don’t talk about it. Carl figures that’s one of the things they can talk about sometime, though now that they are the only two left—and now that he too has drifted away from the shore, as that old gospel song says.
He watches her look around for old friends. They talk about normal things. He checks his watch.
“Have you met Mr. Flowers?” she asks. “With that fancy white hair?” She pictures him, the new resident, rolling in his wheelchair out onto the porch—his leg stuck out straight ahead, a big smile on his reddish face. He’s a dandy.
“The one with the knee operation?” asks Carl.
“Yes. The preacher.”
“We talked a little bit the other day.”
“Where did you see him?”
“On the porch. You were with me.”
“On . . . ?” Why doesn’t he speak up?
“On the porch. When you were smoking a cigarette. You know, if you’d let me take you up to the hearing-aid place, I think we could get you fixed up.”
“I can hear okay. People’s talking has just fell off some.”
“I think it’s your hearing that’s fell off some.”
Sometimes, she thinks, he’s almost as bad as his mama used to be—pressing a point. “My hearing’s fine.” She takes a drink of tea. “Somebody said Mr. Flowers is a Baptist, and somebody else said a Pentecostal. He seems to have a little personality—I guess that means he’s a Pentecostal.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know how Baptists are.”
“I know Baptists with personality.”
“You know what I mean.”
Aunt Lil laughs. “I don’t know exactly.” She isn’t sure how to talk to Carl about religion. His mama was so devout. Sarah too.
“Mama had personality,” says Carl.
“You know what I mean. Sometimes they seem kind of dead. Baptists. I don’t mean your mama, for goodness’ sakes. And I’m sure there are some lively ones around. Well, I know there are.” Now that Carl’s mama has died, a kind of torch has been handed to her, Lil, though she’d never say that out loud. It’s all connected to her wanting a child and never having had one. Now that only she and Carl are left, maybe she can tell him about that lost boy from Tad’s former marriage, about how Tad tricked her, about how . . . but what good will it do to tell him all that? It’s old stuff, over the dam, spilt milk. It doesn’t matter.
Carl glances at his aunt’s hand to see how steady it is. Within the last year, she’s begun to shake noticeably. The Taylor sisters—his mother, Aunt Sarah, Aunt Lil—practically raised him, the only child among the three of them, and now that he is caring for the last living one, he carries a vague fear that he’s on the brink of a great silence. He can’t quite name his fear, a fear somehow related to the coming loss, probably not too far away, of Aunt Lil, the last person of the generation before him—both sides of his family, aunts and uncles. And he can’t decide how that fear is related, though he feels it is, to the fact that he’s only five feet six and speaks in a relatively high voice. Up into his twenties, he’d been expecting to—had been told that he would—grow taller and speak more deeply, and he had always imagined that when that happened, he would be fully grown up. But it didn’t happen. He stayed relatively short and high-voiced, and now here’s Aunt Lil, perhaps in her last year or two, maybe three. When she dies, his family—all the main ones—will be gone, will be no more. And he’s still not as tall and deep-voiced as he ought to be, had hoped to be.
But maybe—to make things easier when she does die —there’ll be a little money to cushion the blow. His few distant cousins have moved away, he is Aunt Lil’s favorite by far, and she is the only one of the three sisters with money in the bank at the end of her life. But then again, Rosehaven will quickly eat up whatever she has.
The top deck of the two-decker parking lot is about the size of a football field, with a couple of ramps leading down to the ground-level deck below it.
Carl drives—with Aunt Lil in the passenger seat—to the far end of the almost empty lot, away from the mall. He stops, gets out, helps her out of the passenger side, gets the walker from the backseat, then follows along as she pushes it around the back of the car to the driver’s door. He helps her in, opens the back door, folds her walker, and places it inside so nothing will slide out of the saddlebag. From the passenger seat, he hands her the key. She puts it in the ignition, turns it, starts the car right up— it idles fast—and looks around.
That is probably the last time she’ll turn that key, he thinks.
“Where’s the exit?” she says. She seems determined, almost angry.
“We’re just going to drive around up here on top for a few minutes and let you get the feel of things.”
“We’re just going to—the brake’s already released—we’re just going to drive around up here on top for a few minutes and let you get the feel of things.”
“I got the feel of things.” She trusts the memory in her hands and feet to do right. It’s been a while, she thinks, but all this is the same as riding a bicycle. Once you get it, you’ve always got it. Carl shouldn’t have waited so long to let her do this. But he was a good boy, all in all—never gave Margaret and Jacob any trouble. And now she doesn’t know what she’d do without him. She’ll show him she can drive as good as he can, as good as anybody can.
She pulls the gear thing into drive, and they’re off—in a big circle. You just steer it, she thinks, and everything falls into place.
“Where’s the exit?” She wants to get out on the highway. Get on with it.
“We’re going to stay up here on top, Aunt Lil. You can drive over toward those other cars if you want to. Maybe a little slower.”
“I want to drive back. I need to get out on the highway.”
“No ma’am, just—”
“There’s a exit!” She swings the car to the left, and whoops!—they’re going down a ramp. And it’s dark. Good gracious.
Carl strains to see straight ahead, right hand on the dash, left reaching to touch the hand brake. Thank goodness the ramp is straight down, not curved. He thinks about pulling up the hand brake but decides against it: she needs to see, to prove to herself, what she cannot do.
The front left tire scrapes the curb. The car stops.
“What’s that?” asks Aunt Lil.
“We drifted left. Let’s pull on straight ahead, on down there beside that column, and I’ll take her back over.” He’ll let her drive down there by herself. And that will be it—the end.
She starts out slowly, drifts right, and runs against the curb again. “What’s wrong?” she asks.
“You keep running up against the curb.”
“Oh.” She looks over at Carl. “Am I driving?”
“Yes, yes. You’re driving. Pull straight down to the bottom and I’ll take back over.”
“I need a little more padding under me. I’m too low in this seat.”
“I don’t think that’s the basic problem, Aunt Lil.”
At the bottom, just off the ramp, she stops the car.
Carl takes a deep breath. This is the time to tell her, he thinks, but . . . “Okay. Put it in park.”
He gets out, opens the back door on the passenger side, gets out her walker. He’s sort of preparing his speech. He wants to make it as easy as possible on her, to kind of set it up so she might make the suggestion herself, set it up in such a way that if she doesn’t take the bait, then he’ll say, Aunt Lil, I think you’re just going to have to give up driving. Simple and straightforward. And then he’ll say something like, I’ll be able to get good money for your car, and then you won’t have to pay for all that insurance and repairs and all that.
As he passes around the back of the car, he sees her head leaning into the middle of the car, looking down at something. Then he notices one of her feet hanging out the open door. “Be sure it’s in par—”
The car is . . . both gold slippers are now hanging out the door, her head is back up, her hands are on the steering wheel—and the car is moving away, like a ship leaving port, her door and the passenger door wide open.
He lifts his hand, opens his mouth.
The car is moving along in a wide circle at about two miles an hour, missing one of those big columns, then another, circling around. He glances down. He’s standing in the damn walker.
Free at last, she’s thinking. Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last. But where in the world did he go? What is he trying to do? Now she’ll have to go back around and get him. She’ll just drive on around in a big circle here. That would be easiest. She doesn’t seem to need to do anything with her feet. There is no clutch in this one, is there? She clearly remembers her Ford Roadster. What a car! Boy, that one had a clutch! How about that time before she and Tad were married when they went to the state fair and she let Tad drive, and the man directing traffic wouldn’t look at them, and Tad just ran the car up against him, so that he ended up sitting on the hood? And what about that time he almost drove it off the high rock at the old quarry? She’s been through the mill with automobiles. That’s for sure. And Carl sure loved that Mustang.
She’ll steer clear of all those big columns and go back and get him, for goodness’ sakes. But why are her feet outside? Well, there’s no need to bring them back in, it looks like.
Carl watches, his mouth open. She seems to be steering. He decides just to stand and wait, because it looks like she might come on back around. Something tells him if he hollers, she’ll try to get out.
Here she comes. He sees the front left headlight as the car turns toward him. Then there is the full front end. The car looks like it’s smiling. Just over the steering wheel he sees the top of her head. Can she see? He sets the walker behind a column, takes a few steps so he’ll be on the driver’s side when she comes by. There are those gold slippers just under the open door. Now he can see her eyes above the steering wheel. Here she comes. Man, this is something. He starts walking beside the open door—breaks into a slow trot, puts his hand on the door. For a second he visualizes himself in the Secret Service.
“You need to put it in park,” he shouts. She’s looking straight ahead, frozen.
Wham! An explosion—and pain. He has run into a column. He staggers backward and then heads out after the car. He runs to the passenger door, jumps in, grabs the hand brake between them, and pulls it up slowly and firmly.
“Where’d you go?” she asks.
“Where’d I go?”
“I didn’t go anywhere.” He touches his head. A bump is rising. He looks at his hand to see if there is any blood. No.
“Well,” she says, “you just disappeared.”
“You drove off without me, Aunt Lil.”
“I . . . That’s a good question. Here. Let me get the keys.” He reaches over, cuts the engine, and pulls the keys from the ignition. He looks at her. Her back is to him. He feels sorry for her, decides they can talk after he gets her to Rosehaven and they’re settled in her room and he has eaten a couple of Tootsie Rolls. She keeps Tootsie Rolls in her blue bowl for everybody who comes in. He buys them for her, along with bananas, apples, and sugar-free candy.
Through a Glass Eye Darkly
On the drive back to Rosehaven, Carl thinks of Anna Guthrie, the social worker there. Maybe he can stop by her office and talk to her—about Aunt Lil and this driving business. She has experience with this sort of thing.
Anna, ten years or so younger than he, is exactly what—or who—or rather the kind of person he can see himself marrying, when he gets around to that, maybe before too long. He stops in and says a few words to her once in a while, words spoken with relaxed vocal cords, dropping the pitch of his voice a good bit—and the topic is always his aunt, of course. He never stays very long, because then he’d have to think up other things to talk about. That’s one reason he’s not married. He doesn’t like to sit with another person through silences, and he also doesn’t like to talk a lot. He pictures himself stopping in and saying to Anna, Let me ask you something: how do you tell them they can’t drive anymore? And then he’d tell her the whole story about the afternoon, along with those funny things his aunt Sarah once said about giving up driving. That will make Anna laugh. She has a good laugh.
She also has photographs on her desk of two little girls. But she doesn’t wear a wedding ring. The girls may be her nieces.
Marriage. The whole business of it. He’s not altogether sure he can make somebody happy. His mother and aunts and uncles hadn’t seemed all that happy in marriage, something he dimly felt—but never thought about—while growing up. He’d felt a sadness hovering around Aunt Lil and Uncle Tad’s marriage but never asked her about any of that.
And there’s something else, a simple secret. He doesn’t like the thought of undressing in front of a woman; but on the other hand, he knows he’s okay sexually—he had enough experiences during his stint in the navy to prove that.
That long period when he’d stayed with his mother a lot, while she was sick, didn’t help him get out and meet women, and some of the guys at work had given him a hard time about that—not out loud, but you could tell. For a while, at Andy’s Café, this guy around seventy brought his about one-hundred-year-old mother in for lunch every day. Carl had pictured them as himself and his mother—thirty years down the road—and had worried about that.
Now he figures he just needs some time to get to feel comfortable with somebody, and he is certainly comfortable with Anna—until she stands up. She’s taller, by three or four inches. Anyway, now that his family’s entire older generation has died except for Aunt Lil, his favorite aunt, the pressures to get married have actually eased up some.
Back at Rosehaven, Faye Council, the physical therapist, holds the therapy room door open for L. Ray Flowers, her new favorite. He rolls in briskly, right leg propped straight out from his wheelchair. She is ready for his daily trick: after a strong shove on the wheels, he raises both hands as his wheelchair rolls toward the far wall. “Help! Help! Watch out, watch out!” He slows the wheelchair at the last minute, then maneuvers the chair back around to face her. “Howdy, Faye. What a day, what a day.” A white, forward-and-back hair wave covers the front of his balding head. He is fair, almost red-complexioned, and thin-lipped. His quick black eyes are set so deep he sometimes looks cross-eyed.
Faye doesn’t often take her work home with her, but the night before, over supper with her husband, Manley, she related Mr. Flowers’s version of his own life story—a story he told quite readily: he grew up dirt-poor, one of nine brothers and sisters in a Kinston, North Carolina, churchgoing Pentecostal family, became an evangelist, traveled to the Midwest, where he served, “pedal to the metal, a-healing and a-squealing, a-touching and a-feeling.” He even preached to Faye the opening of a sermon that came to him on the spot one time, standing at the pulpit. He said that happened a lot—something real good would just pop into his head. Then he’d go write it down and memorize it for some other time. The sermon opening was so different from any sermon she’d ever heard, she wrote it down herself and read it to Manley there at the supper table.
“Listen. Be good to your feet. You walk on them every day, if you’re lucky. Don’t be afraid to buy expensive shoes. I’m L. Ray Flowers. I’m a prophet; I’m a snake. I’m a salad; I’m a steak. I’m a gun; I’m a flower. I’m weakness; I’m power.”
He was married once, then not married—enough said, he told her. After he finished his calling out in the Midwest, he lived at the beach for a while, running a little church near Dove, North Carolina, and almost got eaten by sharks while fishing. Then he moved back to a small plot of inherited land in Hansen County to recover, so to speak, and started a furniture-building and -repair business as well as a substitute-preaching business before (1) having his “final” heart operation—“Sir, we can’t go back in there; it will kill you, I’m afraid”; (2) falling off a ladder while painting his shop gutters, severely injuring his knee; and thus (3) ending up at Rosehaven for physical therapy, which would be over as soon as he could bend the knee ninety degrees and also put his weight on it. And the sooner the better. The last place he ever envisioned himself, he said, was in a nursing home.
Faye told Manley how, at his second therapy session, Mr. Flowers asked her to move the exercise table against a wall so he could prop his feet high up, with his knees slightly bent, and then inch the foot of his bad leg down bit by bit. He’d learned about the use of gravity from moving furniture, he told her. She can’t believe she’d never thought of that foot-down-the-wall trick—what a great idea. In fact, she plans to write up the technique for JPT: The Journal of Physical Therapy.
L. Ray’s niece, Gladys Jenkins, whom Faye met in the hallway at Rosehaven, said to Faye on the day L. Ray was admitted, “All that stuff he did in the Midwest, all his nervousness and heart attacks and talking out of his head and stuff, is just the start of a slow brain rot that’s being caused by him near about getting eat by sharks. Me and my husband, Gerald, we’ve just moved to Topsail Island, and I can’t be bothered with him anymore at this late date in my own pretty dern frustrating life with my children and all. I’ve got enough to look after.”
“Okay,” says Faye, “if you’ll roll over on your back, Mr. Flowers, we can finish our routine.”
“You can call me L. Ray, Faye. All day.”
Faye laughs. “Better not. Rosehaven policy. There. Now, let’s get you positioned. Okay, that’s good. Now, I’ve got to get over to Mrs. Osborne. I’ll be right back. You know what to do.
“Okay, Mrs. Osborne, let’s see if we can’t lift this arm a bit here. Now, here we—”
“I got more problems than China’s got china,” says Mrs. Osborne. She lies on her back on a therapy table, looking—unhappy and worried—up into Faye’s eyes.
“Well, we’re going to work on some of them right now.”
“Sometimes I wonder about people that don’t have no problems. What do they do with their time? I wish I could come in here one day and say, ‘I ain’t got no problems,’ just to see how it is.”
“That’s right,” says Faye. “What would we do then?”
L. Ray listens. That’ll make a good song title, he thinks: “Ain’t Got No Problems.”
Outside, Carl sits in a porch rocker beside Aunt Lil while she smokes a cigarette. He scans the wide lawn, checks his watch. He needs to have that talk about her driving. He wonders if this is the time. Roman, the Rosehaven outdoor maintenance man, trims hedges at the front porch rail. Roman speaks only if spoken to. Carl has never seen him without sunglasses, outside or in. Mrs. Flora Talbert sits in her wheelchair by the door as if poured into a mold—a statue with moving eyes only. She has a large head, close-cropped white hair, and wears a pink housecoat. She also has a blue one and a yellow one. And a brown one that she doesn’t like, because it’s brown. She wears that one on gray, cloudy days.
Mrs. Talbert loves to look at shoes from her station by the door. Shoes tell a lot about the wearer. Some men’s shoes have little tassels. Anybody wearing shoes with tassels likely has loose morals. And some of the shoes on women that sashay by show way too much skin—so much skin that they aren’t even shoes, just straps. Mrs. Talbert is proud that all the shoes she ever bought for anybody in her family were good shoes, wholesome and solid. For men, a shoe without shoestrings is like a boat without a bottom.
By the other side of the door, backed against the wall in her wheelchair, sits Darla Avery. Darla is fifty-eight and knows she looks older. Much older. She is thin now but was overweight as a young woman. She has diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and an immune-deficiency disorder that’s so hard to pronounce, she doesn’t try anymore.
And get this: a few days ago, she recognized L. Ray Flowers. He has not recognized her. Thank God.
It—the thing—happened in 1956, and that’s all it was, what he did. She ain’t over it and never will be. He looks a lot like he did back then, except for his white hair. He’s now about, what, sixty-one or -two?
It was the eighth-grade end-of-the-year dance. L. Ray was in the shop class, and shop met with Mrs. Waltrip down in the littler cinder-block building where they had electric saws and everything. In assemblies and parties and trips and all that, shop—back before it was called special ed—was considered eighth grade. When eighth grade went on a field trip, shop went along.
Darla had been a friendly, overweight eighth-grader, not the depressed, withdrawn type. She was like Miss Piggy, in a way—sort of like a Miss Piggy cheerleader jumping in the air, tossing flowers out behind her. She was that kind of person, always very happy, with lots of girlfriends, always talking, always giggling about the boys, and always full of curiosity about who liked who and who was going steady.
And for the entire eighth grade, L. Ray kind of liked her. She could tell, but at the same time she wouldn’t admit it to anybody, because L. Ray was in shop.
She made good grades too, and teachers liked her. She was not bad-looking at all. She never had the first pimple, if you can believe that.
Oh, my God, there he comes in his wheelchair. Big as day.
L. Ray Flowers rolls across the porch, leg outstretched. Glances her way and nods. He doesn’t recognize her. But who would?
Carl, sitting beside Aunt Lil, is deciding how to bring up her driving situation when up rolls the preacher, Mr. Flowers.
“Lord have mercy, Carl. Hello, Miss Lil,” says Mr. Flowers. “I think I’ve stumbled onto a country song: ‘Ain’t Got No Problems.’”
“Carl has got a roomful of country song albums,” says Aunt Lil. “He saw that movie . . . what is it, Carl?”
“O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
“Yes. How many times did you see that?”
“Four, so far.”
“I heard about that movie.” L. Ray turns his wheelchair a bit toward Carl. “Ralph Stanley’s in that one, idn’t he?”
Carl looks at Mr. Flowers. “He sure is.”
“So you’ve got a few Dr. Stanley albums?”
“Yessir, I do.”
“Do you have the one with the cross on the hill that has lightbulbs stuck in it all the way around?”
“I do.” Carl notices Mr. Flowers gently touching his stiff helmet of hair with his fingertips.
“That’s a good album,” says Mr. Flowers. “I’ve done a little gospel music in my time. Out in the Midwest, I was preaching all over and couldn’t get consistent music help, so I started a little group and we did right well. You play music?”
“You took those lessons,” says Aunt Lil.
“That was a long time ago.” Carl remembers his songwriting notebook full of half-written lyrics, only two or three complete songs—which all sounded alike when he tried to put them to music.
“Aha, here comes some more of my little congregation,” says Mr. Flowers.
Along the sidewalk, from around the side of the building, comes—very slowly— two residents, Mrs. Maudie Lowe and Mrs. Beatrice Satterwhite, and an aide, Carrie Dillinger.
Suddenly the idea for that song, “Ain’t Got No Problems,” blooms full in Carl’s head. Pop—there it is. A guy has a bunch of bad luck, gets thrown in jail or something, then gets out, and everything goes just the way it should. He suddenly has no problems. Things are going so well that when he tries to . . . when he tries to write a country song, he can’t. There’s nothing to write a song about.
Mr. Flowers says—bellows—“Welcome to the porch, ladies.”
The aide looks like she’s ready for a break.
Carl checks Mrs. Lowe’s name tag. They are all required to wear them. He hasn’t quite learned these ladies’ names. Mrs. Lowe—Maudie—the very small woman. Her three-pod cane seems too tall, even though it’s adjusted to the shortest height. He pictures her sitting down in a rocker, imagines her feet not touching the floor.
He thinks about his song again. The guy in the song finds a job, his girlfriend hasn’t left him, his truck is not broke down, his lost dog is found. He’ll start writing it after supper.
Beatrice Satterwhite, the large woman, big auburn hair with a gray streak, wearing a nice dress and a gold Victorian mourning pin, pushes her three-wheeled walker onto the stepless porch. The walker has handlebars and hand brakes—a Cadillac among Chevrolets, thinks Carl. He wonders if he should say that to Mr. Flowers. In the center of her walker is a sturdy, turndown leather seat. Carl has seen her roll it from inside the building straight to the porch rail, take a little U-turn, and instead of sitting in a rocking chair, fold down the walker seat, lock the wheels, turn around, and sit facing the lawn.
Unless he takes Aunt Lil inside, Carl figures he can forget about their little driving talk. He needs to be getting back to work anyway.
“It just stays very wide open,” says Mrs. Lowe, “and very still, no matter what she’s doing with her other eye. I guess it stays open when she sleeps at night.” They have to be talking about the resident with the glass eye, a good buddy of Aunt Lil’s, though Carl can’t remember her name. . . . Cochran, that’s it, Mrs. Cochran.
“I just wish she wouldn’t talk so ugly,” says Mrs. Satterwhite. “All that cursing. Once in a blue moon, I can understand, but she just don’t let up, does she?”
“Well, Beatrice,” says Mrs. Lowe, the little one, “you say that word for ‘woman of the night’ every once in a while.”
“I’m not going to say it. When you talk about Walter Cronkite.”
“That’s not a curse word. That’s just what they are.”
“I think it is.”
Mrs. Satterwhite begins to rock slowly, making little grunting noises. Carl wants to say something to either his aunt or Mr. Flowers, but he also wants to listen in case the other two start talking again.
“Did you say it stays open at night?” asks Mrs. Satterwhite.
“Clara’s eye—does it stay open at night, do you reckon?”
“I’m sure it does.”
“No, she’ll take it out at night.”
“Not if she doesn’t want to.”
“I’ve seen them that look more real. They move and everything.”
“It’s like they put hers in but they didn’t connect it to any nerves that can turn it.”
“I don’t think they connect it to the nerves, do they?”
“Well, they connect it to something, else it can’t move around in there right along with the other one.”
Aunt Lil is talking to Mr. Flowers about a squirrel almost getting run over in the driveway.
“Maybe they connect it to muscles,” says Mrs. Satterwhite. “Nerves wouldn’t be able to move it, would they?”
“Well, I don’t know. They connect it to something.”
“I know that. The question is, what do they connect it to?”
“I’m not a doctor. I don’t know,” says Mrs. Lowe.
Maybe there’s a song in here somewhere, thinks Carl, but . . . maybe not.
“Looks like she’d just get a patch.”
“Then she could get rid of the eye. You don’t see people with glass eyes under their patches.”
“Who can know?” says Mrs. Satterwhite. “I guess we’ll have to go look it up in the encyclopedia. That’s what they tell you to do in school. I remember doing a report on the presidents, and I found everything I needed in the encyclopedia. They have every one of them in there at one place or another.”
“Probably under the letter their last name starts with.”
They are silent. Then, “That’s a funny word, encyclopedia,” says Mrs. Satterwhite. “Gymnasium is a funny word too. There are lots of funny words, if you just think about it. . . . La-boon is a funny word and it’s not even a word.”
Mr. Flowers says he has to go inside and starts to move away.
“Mr. Flowers,” says Mrs. Satterwhite. “Do you know anything about glass eyes?”
He rolls to a stop. “Glass eyes? Let’s see. No, I can’t say as I do.”
“I wouldn’t get Mr. Flowers involved in that,” murmurs Mrs. Lowe.
Mrs. Talbert checks on the preacher man’s shoes. Bedroom shoe on his outstretched foot is okay, but on his other foot is a tennis shoe, of all things. Men are wearing tennis shoes all over the place. A tennis shoe in a house of worship is worse than a worm in pudding. Or is this a funeral home? It’s a nursing home. She knows that. She’s not even supposed to be here.
“We can’t figure out how you hook up a glass eye to the nerve endings,” says Mrs. Satterwhite to L. Ray. “Do you know anything about that?”
Carl decides he has to go—at least stand up to go.
“But you can’t see through a glass eye,” says Mr. Flowers, smiling.
“I know that. But somebody said you could see through a glass eye darkly, didn’t they? And besides that, I don’t think the nerves will actually be wha—”
“The muscles, you mean,” says Mrs. Lowe. “Something to move it. But how can you hook up something to a smooth, round ball, like a marble, that can move it around?”
“That’s the sixty-four-dollar question,” says Mrs. Satterwhite.
Carl looks at Mr. Flowers. Mr. Flowers is looking back at him with a gleam in his eye.
Under the mimosa tree, behind the fence, Carrie, the aide, sitting at the picnic table, smoking, says to Latricia Willis, another aide who’s just come out and asked for a cigarette, “Did you hear what they talking about out there?” She reaches toward Latricia, holding out the cigarette pack, a cigarette shook up. She is tired.
Excerpted from Lunch at the Piccadilly by Clyde Edgerton. Copyright © 2004 by Clyde Edgerton. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.