A loving niece with an aging aunt at a retirement home. Author Eve Brouwer will catch you totally off guard with the twist ending to this short story.
Earlier tonight, when I was leaving Evergreen, I called out, “Good night, Cecil,” as I walked past his desk. My usual departing words. Cecil guards the main entrance.
Guard . . . I use the word generously, considering Cecil’s age and general ineptitude. Evergreen. I’ve heard it called Ever-Gray. But it’s the hot spot for oldsters in our area, the most prestigious “retirement community” around, the best place to go when you have no place to go.
Same as ever, Cecil answered with a question, “You want me to walk you to your car, Ma’am?”
“No. No, thanks, Cecil. I’m fine. Thank you anyway.”
And, in my head: Don’t call me Ma’am. I’m younger than you.
“It’s dark out there,” he reminded me, as though I hadn’t been complaining every night for the past two weeks about the broken lights. “They called out the ‘lectric company again today. They ain’t worth nothin’. Can’t find no trouble on the line. Fixin’ to work on it again tomorrow. Fixin’ to fix it.” He chuckled at his wit.
I quickened my pace. I didn’t want to get stuck talking to him again. The first set of double doors parted as I approached. Good. I’d made it before the 9:30 p.m. lock up. The second set slid apart and I was outdoors, on the walkway, my heels clicking on the cement. At the end, where the sidewalk meets the circular drive, I stopped, as I always do, made a slight turn to the left, and waved. Sure enough, there she was, Aunt Ethel, standing at the window in her room, the dresser lamp lighting her from behind, waving back at me.
She’s at the second of Evergreen’s three stages. Like most people, she entered at the “Independent Living” stage, lived in a nice apartment, with a kitchen and bedroom, all the normal things. That didn’t last long. Before we knew it, she needed some help and had to move to the “Assisted Living” building. Now her mind seems to be going. I think it won’t be long before Evergreen suggests she go to “Skilled Nursing,” their last stage, the near-final stage. Like baseball’s three strikes and you’re out.
It’s sad, pathetic. She’s pathetic. Aunt Ethel has no idea, not a clue, that my cousin Mark—her only child…. She calls him Markie—makes it well worth my while, financially, to visit her five nights a week. Yes, he pays me, pays me well. She thinks I come because I’m a devoted niece!
And I have a secret from Mark too. He doesn’t know that I’ve been double-dipping. Or I was double-dipping. That well seems to have gone a bit dry recently. About a year ago, the old lady started giving me a few bucks here and there. I protested. “Aunt Ethel, what are you doing? Mark sends that money for you. He wants you to have some cash when Evergreen takes you to the stores.”
“I hate that bus and all those old folks,” she’d say. “You take the money. You look tired. Are you working too hard? Take it. Treat yourself to something nice.”
I didn’t want her dollars, but I eventually gave in and took the cash. And she’s right, it is tiring, standing most of the day, peering into open mouths, chipping plaque off people’s teeth. When Aunt Ethel’s singles turned to fives and then the fives to twenties, taking the money she kept offering started to seem like a better and better idea. Then, lo and behold, a good old Benjamin Franklin turned up in the twenties. And then another hundred dollar bill. And the whole arrangement became much more palatable.
Mark must be consumed with guilt, sending her so much money. Last time he visited, for Thanksgiving, almost a year ago, he cried, actually sobbed, after he saw his mother. He cried as he told me he wouldn’t be back for Christmas. His wife said no. Big baby. I heard she’s raking it in too, now. Big time degrees, both of them. Big everything. Big jobs in New York brokerage firms. Big house in Connecticut. But no time for his mama. So I’m the surrogate daughter. The hired daughter.
Meanwhile, Aunt Ethel seems to be going downhill, gradually but steadily downhill. When we walk around the grounds and through the halls at Evergreen, she loops her hand through my arm, “for stability,” she says. It’s never long before I feel like I’m holding her up, her whole weight on my arm. But her mind’s not too bad, except for when she seems to revert to automatic pilot, going through motions robotically. Otherwise, she’s fairly sharp, talkative. Every night though, like clockwork, she stands and hobbles over to the window at 9:15, to wave goodbye to me. I could still be in the room and she’d get over to that window, on high alert, all set to wave.
It is dark tonight. Pitch black. No moon. One night about six months ago, I got a scare out here. It was another dark, moonless night. I was almost to my Toyota when a guy appeared from the other side of the car, the passenger side. I screamed. No one heard me, certainly not the so-called guard, back at the front desk. The kid just stood there. I was yelling like a banshee. “Keep away. I have a gun. Stay back.”
“Cool it lady. What’s your problem? I ain’t gonna hurt you. I’m just looking around for change. You wouldn’t believe it, how people drop coins and don’t even bother to pick them up.”
I kept seeing him in the parking lot, scrounging around among the cars, looking for coins. He seemed harmless enough. I took to talking to him. His name’s Augustus. Skinny as a rail. Unkempt. Uncombed. Could a more woe-begotten kid have a more ostentatious name! One night, I called him Augie. “It’s Augustus,” he corrected me.
So there we have it. Cecil at the desk, pretend-guarding us from the likes of Augustus, who—it turns out—is only 16-years old, a junior at the school adjacent to—and affiliated with—Evergreen.
Augustus originally claimed he lives in the forest that separates Evergreen’s parking lot from the school grounds. This forest is meager, no more than a long, narrow stand of trees that was spared when the rest of the land was cleared to build the school. But it’s thick, dense with undergrowth, and topped with wild vines, rampaging kudzu vines, that scurry up the tree trunks, knit themselves through the limbs, create a near-solid shield across the uppermost branches.
A creature of habit, I always face my car directly into these trees. It amuses me to get in my car and shine my brights right through these survivors of chain saws and bulldozers, right through this border between Evergreen and the school.
A border but not a barrier. A path was cut out so kids could visit the old folks. They’re encouraged to do this. To build emotional bonds. The elders supposedly come to think of these kids as grandchildren. And the kids, of course, are urged to adopt an elder as an extra Me-Maw or Paw-Paw. So idealistic and oh so sweet, so saccharine sweet. Hurts my teeth to think about it.
Augustus, on the other hand, really is sweet. He’s got no family to speak of, goes to this fancy-pants school on scholarship and lives—not in the woods as he first claimed—but on the school grounds, in a construction trailer left behind when the building was completed. Basically, he’s homeless, virtually abandoned by his parents, living off the largesse—and prayers—of the church and school “family.”
From that first night when he scared me, I’ve felt sorry for him. I’m big-hearted, too generous for my own good. I started bringing him Aunt Ethel’s leftovers every evening. I even talked her into ordering a bit more for her dinners, especially chops and steaks that I knew very well she’d leave on her plate, treats I could take to Augustus.
He’s sweet but he can be the sly one. He wormed Aunt Ethel’s room number out of me. He started visiting her, proudly claimed that he was her “adopted grandson.” Almost boastful.
Tonight, I was still standing on the sidewalk, staring off into the pitch black parking lot, when a bolt of lightening streaked through the humid air and lit everything in my field of vision. Just that quickly, I caught sight of Augustus, leaning against my car, waiting, as I knew he would be, for Aunt Ethel’s leftover steak. In that instantaneous flash, I recognized the school jacket he’d recently acquired and wore constantly, constantly, regardless of the Louisiana heat. I knew he’d have his new shoes on too, expensive high-tops, endorsed by some athlete.
The headmaster’s secretary, he’d told me, bought the leather jacket for him. “She had a son,” he’d said, “who died, but he’d be exactly my age if he’d lived. She’s taken a liking to me.”
“And the shoes?” I’d asked. And he’d given me another cock-and-bull story. A story I tried to believe. But truth was, I’m sure the truth was, that he’d gotten the money from Aunt Ethel. Maybe as gifts. Maybe he’d stolen it. Either way, her “gifts” to me had shrunk considerably, from twenties back to fives. And there were definitely no more good old Benjamin Franklins stuck in between the bills.
I’ve found my best ideas strike me out of the blue. It happens suddenly, like a thunderbolt, like the flash of lightening that had just lit up both my car and the teenager slouching alongside it. Looking back, I realize that’s when I decided, in that very instant, that I was scared, that I needed protection, that I needed Cecil the guard to accompany me through the parking lot. I retraced my steps, was stopped at the first layer of double doors, locked. I rang the bell, incessantly. Isn’t that what a frightened woman would do? Cecil jumped up from his desk and literally ran to let me through both sets of doors. “Cecil, I’m being silly I know,” I blurted out breathlessly, “but I changed my mind. It’s so dark out tonight. There’s no moon. Will you walk me to my car?”
“Of course, Ma’am. Let me grab my keys.”
I stewed while he took the time to meticulously lock the doors behind us. Then he walked like a snail, talking all the time, chattering away, completely oblivious of his role as my protector.
I tried to bring him back to the duty at hand. “You wear a gun? That will keep us safe,” I said, glancing at his holster.
“Well, it’s pretty much for show, Ma’am, from my days as a police officer.”
“Oh, I’d forgotten you’d retired from the force.”
“I didn’t ‘xactly retire Ma’am, leastwise not of my own free will. That’s all in the past. Important thing is I was fully ‘xonerated, even allowed to legally carry again.”
“The gun, Ma’am.” And then he unsnapped the fastenings and took it out of the holster. He seemed less wimpy with the gun in his hand. As we walked, he crouched a bit and pointed it straight ahead.
“Is it loaded?” I asked. Curious. A little excited too.
We were almost to my car. The timing couldn’t have been better. Right then, for a change, nature cooperated! The sky parted and another perfect flash of lightening came streaking across it, lighting the stand of trees behind my car, revealing the figure of a predator trying to escape into the woods.
“Shoot!” I cried. And he did. Augustus screeched and stumbled forward. I couldn’t believe it. This old guy, this Cecil, probably hadn’t shot that gun in years and just like that there he goes and makes a bull’s eye. I was so beside myself, I could barely work my cell phone. Cecil was no help. As I was babbling to the dispatcher, he crumbled to the ground himself. It took two ambulances to clean up the mess.
I thought Cecil’d had a heart attack. But no, he’d fainted. Now, sitting with him at the hospital, waiting for his wife to show up, he makes it clear he’s mad at me. He blames me! Says I made him kill the kid. Because I yelled “Shoot.” Really now. How was I to know he’d been a sharpshooter? Just a coincidence, a problem-solving coincidence!
Eve Brouwer is a transplanted northerner. “In Chicago,” she says, “I wrote brisk press releases and full-of-wind advertisements and cold science textbooks. In Louisiana, I breathe thick air, clasp a sweaty pen, and on damp paper write tales of minor incidents and burning passions that propel us through our lives. Eve leads Poets Alive on Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain and has released her new book, My Grandmother Danced.