Take Me Out to the Ball Game
It’s not easy growing old. No, not just because the body won’t do what the mind remembers—although that’s no picnic, believe me. And it has little to do with how the brain seems to act more like a sieve than a sponge. No, the hardest part of growing old for me is dealing with the people who think it’s their life’s duty to help the elderly, like the social director here at Hollis Hills Assisted Living Center.
Rayna Horowitz is her name. Fresh out of college, she must have taken a course in Applied Cheerfulness. She never stops smiling. I find it more annoying than people asking what color my hair used to be. She’s the kind of woman who doesn’t walk into a room, she swirls. The residents call her Loretta. Our generation, of course, understands the reference to Loretta Young, but Rayna thinks we’re all senile because we don’t remember her name.
“Uh-oh,” Mrs. Golden says to me as we eat our breakfast. “There’s Loretta. Look at what she’s wearing today.”
It is some kind of red and yellow ankle-length dress with a design that might have looked good as drapes in a child’s room. My guess is she thinks if she wears something colorful it’ll brighten our lives, as if she’s the sun in our universe.
“Don’t look directly at her,” I say. “You can go blind.”
“Good morning, everybody!” She shouts as she enters the room, over-articulating her words. A few “good mornings” are mumbled, but mostly the joint goes silent. But she never stops smiling. She scans the room to make sure no one is sitting alone, the cardinal sin of Hollis Hills. She immediately spots a sinner.
In a corner, sitting by himself, is Marty Bejma, a sad sack, but an interesting fellow once you get to know him. He played professional baseball, mostly in the minors, but had a short run with the Pirates in the early 50s. We had a nice chat when he first moved in. But when Rayna found out about his past from his children, she wouldn’t let the poor man alone, wanting him to tell us stories about Babe Ruth.
“And how is my favorite baseball player?” she asks, without giving him time to reply. “Why is a man as handsome as you not eating with one of these beautiful ladies?” She spreads her arms across the room, as if perfecting her Loretta Young impersonation. “If only I didn’t have to work today, I’d join you for coffee and never let you out of my sight.”
Marty stares at her hand, which is now resting on his shoulder. Then he looks up at her smiling face.
“Coffee tastes like tobacco spit.”
The smile never leaves her face. “What a kidder,” she says. She points to a table with three women. “Why don’t you join these ladies, Marty? I bet you have wonderful stories to share.”
She wraps her fingers with their bright red nail polish around his coffee cup and places it in front of the empty chair at the women’s table. The women begin rearranging their plates to make room for one more.
“I was just leaving,” Marty says, and he pulls his tall, bulky body off his chair, grabbing the table with one hand to give his knees a chance to adjust to his weight. Without turning to Rayna, he nods at the women and shuffles off.
For a moment, Rayna’s smile vanishes, but it returns as she picks up his cup and makes her way to the kitchen by way of our table. “Alex,” she says to me. “Do me a favor and drop by Marty’s room when you finish. Maybe you can talk to him about baseball or something.”
“Some people,” I tell her, “like to be left alone.”
She shakes her head and, of course, smiles. “He’s just shy is all. I want him to feel at home here.”
What she refuses to accept is that none of us feels at home here. There’s nothing wrong with this place—three meals a day, a maid to clean and make my bed. I even have my computer set up in my room. But it’s not home. I’m not complaining. The children did the right thing putting me here. After my stroke, I was forgetting to turn off the stove when I made dinner and I fell in the shower once and dislocated my shoulder. Allie begged me to stay with her, but it’s not right having your daughter care for you the way I know she’d have to in time. I could have stayed with Mark and his wife, but that would be even worse. You think I want to be in the middle of their marriage?
I talk with Mrs. Golden a little while longer. She’s been a widow for almost twenty years, but she still likes to be called Mrs. Golden. She fills me in on the latest gossip. Bernie Eldridge and Martha Bedlow are sleeping together. I think she wanted me to disapprove because both of them are over eighty. That seems to be the cut-off age around here. The “youngsters” are under eighty and the old-timers are over. At seventy-six, I’m just a kid.
“Good for them,” I tell her. “I should be so lucky.” She laughs and, I swear, she blushes. It’s good when a woman can still blush. We talk a little more and I finally take my napkin from my lap and put it on my plate, the universal sign of having finished a meal. I excuse myself and head back to my room.
I have no intention of intruding on Marty’s privacy, but the door to his room is open and he nods as I walk by. I stand at the door for a second. “That Rayna,” I say. “She can drive you crazy. Separating a man from his morning coffee. Sinful.”
He smiles, showing a mouthful of yellow teeth. “She wants to throw me a birthday party,” he says. “She found out I’ll be seventy-five in a couple of days.”
“Maybe she’ll invite the Babe and your other baseball friends,” I say. “You think Honus Wagner is free?”
He has a good laugh, although his face is so wrinkled it looks like it might crack open. “Look, Alex,” he comes so close to me I can smell the coffee on his breath. “You seem to be able to talk to her. Tell her I don’t want a birthday party. Tell her—tell her whatever you want. Just no party.” His voice has the texture of concrete.
“I’ll see what I can do. No promises, though. When she decides to make you happy, there’s no stopping her.” I look at his classic, old-time baseball face, the heavy bags under his eyes, a round nose bent to the side. “Just keep your sense of humor when you deal with her. It’s about all we have left.”
Back in my room, I close my door and turn on my computer. The children and grandchildren email me almost every evening and I answer them in the morning to assure them I’m still alive. There was a time they’d call. I’d get three or four calls every day. “At least take turns,” I told them. “How much do you think happens to me in one day?” Email is better. I can answer when I get to it, and I can find things to write about easier than talk.
This morning, Lindsay, my oldest granddaughter, who is home from college, writes me about the courses she’s taking and asks me if she should declare her major or remain undecided for another year. I know her mother put her up to writing and asking for advice. “Make him feel useful,” I can hear her say. “After all, he used to be a college professor.” I tell her to follow her heart and she’ll know what to do. Brilliant, eh? That’s what getting old does for you. It allows you to pass off clichés as wisdom.
I answer some more mail, including one from an old colleague at NYU. He sends me articles from the Times, usually book reviews or critiques of art exhibits. He lives with his daughter in Naples, Florida. I’m here in Hollis Hills, Ohio, near my daughter. Funny where life dumps us as we near the end of the line.
I decide to go for my morning walk. It’s April, and I can hear Janice reminding me there’s a chill in the air. Janice has been gone now four years, but still her voice is in my head. To be honest, I hope it’s never silenced. I pull a sweater over my shirt and grab a light jacket. This place is so overheated, I immediately start perspiring.
I walk down to the front desk where I have to sign myself out and tell them where I’m going. “I’m just going to walk around the block a couple of times,” I tell George, the security guard at the desk. “I’ll drop bread crumbs so I find my way back.” I remember saying that yesterday.
He laughs like he’s never heard anyone so witty. “Enjoy your walk, Mr. Cole. Don’t pick up any young ladies along the way, now.”
I’m about to make my usual response, “Who remembers what to do with them,” but I figure he’s expecting that. So I fool him. “If I do, I’ll be sure to bring one back for you.”
He laughs with his whole body, slapping at the desk with the palms of his hands. That’s another privilege of age. Young people are obliged to laugh at your jokes, no matter how dumb they may be.
At any rate, I walk across the small parking lot towards the street when I see Rayna in her car talking on her cell phone. I figure this is as good a time as any to speak with her about Marty.
As I get close to her car, I think how different she looks. Then I realize she’s not smiling.
The driver’s side door is open and she’s sitting sideways, talking on the phone, with her legs dangling out the car door. She has her dress hiked up above her knees, probably trying to feel the morning sun, and I realize that there is an attractive young woman under her clown outfit.
I hear a little bit of her conversation. It seems like she’s talking to a friend. I’m momentarily surprised that she has a life outside of Hollis Hills.
I try walking away, unnoticed. But she sees me and covers her legs. She tells her friend she has to go and, although I wave and try to walk by her, she clicks off her phone and stands up.
“Hello,” she says. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No, no. I was just taking my morning walk. I’m sorry if I interrupted.”
“Don’t be sorry.” I see she’s patting her eyes with a tissue, trying not to smear her makeup. She’s been crying.
“Are you all right?” I ask. I realize she’s not much older than my granddaughter.
“All right? Yes, of course. I’m just fine.” I watch her lips angle upward, as if she’s trying to force her smile to return. Then her upper lip begins to twitch and her nose turns red. Before I can do anything, she breaks into a full-fledged, can’t-catch-her-breath blubber.
I stand there for a moment, hands at my side. Then, before I have time to think or make a joke to separate myself from her, I wrap my arms around her and pat her back. She buries her head on my chest. It’s a strange moment for me. A sense of concern fills the space usually reserved for making fun of her. I think how long it’s been since I felt genuine concern for another person.
“What’s wrong, honey?” I ask. I used to call my daughter “honey.” When she’d scrape her knee or break up with a boy, I’d hold her and say, “Everything will be all right, honey.” The last time was when she dropped out of medical school because of the pressure. “Don’t be angry with me, Daddy,” she cried. “Please don’t be disappointed.”
“Disappointed?” I said. “You do what’s right for yourself, honey. That’ll make your mother and me proud.”
It was probably my greatest moment in child rearing. I never once showed my disappointment. But it was so long ago.
Now Rayna needs me. In an odd way, it feels good.
“Tell me what’s wrong, Rayna. I’ll listen.”
“It’s Kurt, my fiancé.” She pauses, dabbing at the spot her make-up left on my jacket.
“I didn’t know you were engaged.” She wears so many rings, I can’t tell which is for engagement.
“I’m not anymore.” I can hear the anger in her voice. Part of me wants to say something that will create some distance between us. After all, I’ve grown accustomed to living an insulated life. But she needs me to listen and reassure her. And to my surprise, I really don’t mind.
She had recently discovered her fiancé cheating on her with her best friend. I want to tell her to add a truck and it would make a good country/western song, but for once I hold my tongue. Instead, I tell her it’s her fiancé who should be crying. “He’s the one missing out on a wonderful woman.” I think I might choke on the words as I say them. Instead, they feel good, especially as Rayna’s smile returns.
This time I enjoy seeing it.
I assure her everything will be all right in time. “It’s hard now, I know. But in time….” I stop myself. “You want to know the truth? This will always hurt. But you’ll learn to live with the pain. Just don’t let it harden you.” I hug her once again. This time, I feel my own tears.
She returns to work and I continue my walk, taking a couple of extra turns around the block.
When I get back, I pass Rayna’s office. Her door is open and she waves for me to come in and sit down as she talks on the telephone. I do so, unzipping my jacket. The overheated office feels oppressive. I realize she’s ordering a cake for Marty’s birthday party. I try to stop her, but I see how happy she is making the arrangements.
She gets off and tells me, without taking a breath and with the smile back on her face, how the cake will be shaped like a baseball diamond with little plastic baseball figures and instead of us all singing, “Happy Birthday,” we’ll sing, “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
“Marty will be so happy. Won’t he, Alex?”
I stare at her smile and her newly applied makeup, trying to choose my words carefully.
“Sure he will, honey. He’ll be thrilled.”
Return to Volume 2.3
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