My First Full Day at Beemoor Village
The first thing she told me was that she works at Victoria Secret, which I took as a way of saying she’s very sexual, very accepting of all kinds of shenanigans. And that she’s good at sex. That’s how I took it. But at that time she was already pushing seventy or so and I found it hard to picture her liver-spotted hands and bony fingers holding up a black and pink corset, bringing it up to her slightly hunched frame to give a customer a sense of how it would hang, how it would look to the guy she was planning to have sex with next.
“Really? Isn’t that the fancy lingerie shop?” I asked, pretending I wasn’t sure, that I hadn’t surreptitiously stared into its stores every time I walked by one, that I hadn’t kept my neighbor’s catalogue delivered to me by mistake, that maybe I thought it was an antique shop or a hair salon.
“It is,” she said.
“That must be a pretty exciting job,” I said, hoping the word “exciting” hinted at the sexual nature of the merchandise and, perhaps, the interactions between staff and customers, or customers and customers, or who knows who nowadays? Maybe the word would tip her off to what I was getting at and would entice her to divulge her own Victoria Secrets, the naughty ones involving, let’s say, college girls and dressing rooms.
“Well … I wouldn’t call it exciting, but it was a decent job for a while.”
Was there a reason she chose the word “decent?” Did she pick up on and not care for my attempt to steer the conversation toward the indecent? Was she trying to correct my course, get my thoughts back onto a more wholesome track?
“It isn’t a decent job any longer?” I asked, wondering how she could show up every day to that job at her age. I imagined customers avoiding her, not wanting to associate sex with death by buying something risqué from such an old woman. No wonder the job had lost its luster.
“Any longer? I haven’t worked there for over thirty years.”
“Oh! I thought you said you work at Victoria Secret.”
“I worked there. Once. A long time ago, when the company was just getting started.”
We fell into a silence as a handful of our wheelchair-bound neighbors were pushed past us toward the shade on the other side of the pool. I felt guilty for having expected this older woman… this elderly woman…to start talking about sex. At her age. To a guy she’d just met and one who's nearly as old as she. It occurred to me that she was probably a mother. Likely a grandmother. Possibly a great-grandmother. My conscience kicked in – or maybe it was my common sense – and my sick interest subsided.
“By the way, my name is Hazel,” she said, finally, smiling and extending that hand.
“Nice to meet you Hazel. I’m Jack.”
“Wanna fuck, Jack?”
My Second Day at Beemoor
She was in her late fifties, a few pounds overweight, and pushy enough to walk right into my condo after knocking on the door and without waiting for a verbal invitation. I was sitting on the couch in my underwear thumbing through my Victoria’s Secret catalogue, which I quickly tucked between the cushions. She shot a quick glance toward the catalogue peeking out from its recess, then lowered her gaze to either my hand or my underpants, or both.
“Hi, I’m Sharon Shapiro, your neighbor,” she announced in a loud, self-confident voice, one tinged with a hint of annoyance, as though I were the one in the wrong, the one who stormed into her apartment.
“Sharon, please excuse me for a moment,” I said as I stepped into the bedroom. Seconds later, wearing a pair of cargo shorts, I was back. She handed me a plastic food container.
“Two cupcakes. Made them myself.”
“You shouldn’t have, but thank you.”
After an awkward pause, I glanced at the wooden rocking chair and invited her to sit down. I was surprised when she sat by me on the couch.
“So, do you live next door, Sharon?”
“Not next door, Jack – that is your name, Jack, right?”
“I thought so. I heard a couple of the girls in the hooping class mention that the Village had a new member, a 'Jack.' But, no, I don’t live next door, I’m over in Serenity.”
“That’s the enclave way over on the other side of the campus, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but it’s really not that far from here, especially if you trike it.”
“I have a tricycle. I trike a lot. Wonderful exercise. Exhilarating! Give me a buzz if you’d ever like to take a spin.”
“What can I do for you today, Sharon?”
“Not a thing. I just wanted to introduce myself and bring you a welcoming gift.”
“Very thoughtful. Thank you.”
“Where are you from, Jack?”
“Oh, a big seafood eater, are we?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“It just so happens that I make a great New England clam chowder.”
“How would you like to drop by one evening for a bowl?”
“That sounds great. Once I settle in, I’ll be sure to give you a call.”
More silence. Sharon was staring at the bent edge of the rolled-up catalogue peeking up from the couch cushions.
“And thanks for the cupcakes.”
“You are welcome. Any time.”
As I turned toward the door, I asked, “Sharon, did you say ‘hooping class?’”
“Hula hoops. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning. I’m up to six at a twirl. Super aerobics!”
My Third Day
A woman of seventy or thereabouts stepped up out of the pool and stood by the lounge chair adjacent to mine. She bent at the waist and dried her hair. Her bikini top was a bit looser than, and hung an inch or so below, her drooping breasts. That inch – in each cup – accommodated her distended nipples. Hard, one-inch long nipples, their straining tips barely brushing against the fabric of the bathing suit. She pulled the towel down around her neck and snapped back into an erect posture just in time to see me staring at those wet nozzles. Our eyes met. She smiled and bent at the waist again, presumably to towel dry her feet. Her name was Joanne Barry. She said she was a yoga instructor. She asked if I was interested in private lessons.
It was clear that Laura Stevens had once been beautiful. She was blessed with a lovely, giving personality, a mind that retained its edge, a perfectly symmetrical face, lively blue eyes, and a gracious smile. She exuded strength and delicacy simultaneously. Forty years ago, when Laura was in her twenties, she likely had many young men vying for her company. And for her other gifts as well. That, of course, was back when teenage boys competed for the attention of a girl, and when they were happy to reciprocate by exchanging valued resources of their own. Today, here at Beemoor, the game is different. Competition is nonexistent as many of those teenage boys are dead, and most of the living are taken. And so it was that Laura Stevens, once the prize of Ohio’s Mentor High School, circa 1968, a woman I could only have dreamed of spending time with, appeared at my door wearing a crisp, yellow sundress. Less than an hour later, she asked if I’d like to join her on a three-day cruise, all expenses paid.
My Fifth and Sixth and Seventh and Eighth and following Days at Beemoor Village:
Diddo, ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto. And ditto.
Three Months Later
Long-time Beemoor resident, sixty-three-year-old Anita Ravoli has the body (when clothed) of an attractive fifty-three-year-old and the energy of a vibrant forty-three-year-old. And the teeth of a healthy Miss Teen pageant contestant, teeth that are perfectly even and brilliantly white. Given their barely-visible, textured-surface pattern, my guess is that they were manufactured and implanted recently. I also believe that one crown’s screw needs to be tightened just a bit. Anita is always smiling, always seeming to find humor and happiness in the mundane trivialities of everyday life. Dark clouds are a welcomed change, rain a godsend, every sunset the most beautiful ever, an old drunken oaf’s rant a hilarious stand-up routine, a nest of slimy lizards hiding behind the washing machine a fascinating element of the subtropical ecosystem, death an overdue relief. That attitude is probably why Beemoor lured her out of retirement to become the Village Life Director.
As far as I can gather, the job requires that she infect her fellow residents, especially the dourer among us, with her optimism, or that she, at least, invites us to bathe in it now and then. She does this by dropping by our units and chatting, mentioning the previous night’s sunset, and smiling. Always smiling. Or she’ll invite a small group to accompany her on a nature walk through a well-worn section of woods behind the complex. Or she’ll send a handmade birthday card, each adorned with a smiley face, and signed by whoever happened to be in the Village's Media Alcove, next door to Anita's office, earlier that day, watching Andy Griffith or Angela Lansbury reruns.
It was Anita who recommended me to the higher-ups for the limo driver position, once the former driver, Doug Zambitsky, lost most of his sight, then lost control of the Village-owned van on the Sawgrass Expressway, then lost his license, and, finally, his job. It is not a bad gig. I’ll chauffeur old Maureen Sullivan to the airport where she’ll take a plane to Baltimore to visit kids and grandkids who never return the favor by coming down here once in a while. Or I’ll drive Doug to the ophthalmologist's office every month so he can hear more bad news about his failing vision. Early one evening Anita hired me to take her to a concert at the Performing Arts Center but instead decided she’d prefer to sit at a plastic table outside an Ocean Drive dive and drink beer while tourists and locals strolled by. The Village “limousine” is a twenty-five-year-old Crown Victoria with a cassette deck, a 5.0L V8 gas-gulping engine, and a roomy back seat. Before returning to Beemoor, I pulled the vehicle a few yards into a clearing in the woods behind the complex, shut off the lights, dropped in an old Neil Diamond cassette from my collection, jacked up the air conditioning, and joined Anita in the back seat, where we pretended to be teenagers again, and where I discovered her loose tooth.
Let me take a moment to tell you something I’ve become more aware of since moving into an active retirement community: Our entire society is in denial when it comes to the downside of anything and everything. The tendency to systematically negate negativity is in our culture’s blood. Your husband just up and left after twenty years? Great, it’s an opportunity for a new beginning! Lost your job? Perfect time to reinvent yourself! Left your young kids? Congratulations! You’re being a positive role model, teaching them to never live a lie and to always follow their dreams. Getting old? Wonderful! Remember, fifty is the new forty and sixty the new fifty and ... well, do the math. In old age, you can be whoever you were meant to be. A gentleman farmer passing the time atop a huge tractor. A ballet instructor overseeing her young charges. A craftsman designing furniture fit for a palace or a sloop in which you'll sail the globe. Or you can soak in one of two adjoining bathtubs by a lake, holding hands with an attractive partner.
Allow me, a sixty-three-year-old white, middle class man to disabuse you of this optimistic nonsense. Aging changes you in unsettling ways that can be disguised but not stopped. I won’t mention the physical changes: they're too many and obvious and sad. Nor will I discuss those psychological changes that strip one of a sense of identity and place. And I’ll skip those social changes that leave a person increasingly alone with their jumbled memories. I’ll just say this: age takes away all those activities that were once fun. An older friend, a guy I call Lenny C (because of his ability to “see” so clearly – his perspicacity, and because his last name begins with the letter “C”) once complained that he ached in all the places where he once played; his observation rings truer with each passing year. Did you once enjoy playing full-court basketball or working hard on a humid day or engaging in the sex that ignited all of your senses or experiencing the subtle changes in weather during a single early summer or fall evening through the pleasingly-altered consciousness of an alcohol-ignited buzz? Gone. Gone. Gone. And gone. They are all gone.
Pretend things are otherwise if you want to, but you won’t trick the young, the people you’re trying to imitate. They see you for who you are: an old person who is futilely, shamelessly, fighting off the inevitable. Chances are you won’t even fool your peers who are, after all, like you, traveling around on thin and creaky bones, searching for their misplaced keys in increasingly bizarre places. My guess is that you’re not even effectively hiding the truth from yourself. Your displeasure at riding in a low-profile compact car, knowing it’ll take extra exertion and time to push yourself out, is an inconvenient fact you can’t quite ignore; your pressing need to take a daily nap or to plant yourself horizontally on the sofa every evening is another; your need to plot out a timeline for your occasional drinking bout: one beer now, then a second, but not a risky third as you must drive home. Never, ever, any whiskey. If your gullibility and desperation prompt you to attempt to recreate the pervasive commercially-generated image that’s pushed on TV, you’ll only succeed in pulling a muscle or breaking a hip trying to get in or out of that claw-footed bathtub facing a placid lake.
And so it was that my attempt to regain a degree of a youthfulness in the back seat of a Crown Vic failed. When I was eighteen, that opportunity would have been the fulfillment of a recurrent fantasy, one that had me in an earlier version of that very vehicle, with the lovely Ann Dooley, listening to exactly that music, and in air-conditioned comfort. But on this evening, the Ford’s back seat wasn’t expansive enough, our limbs weren’t flexible enough, my energy level wasn’t high enough, my tired penis wasn’t erect enough, Anita’s post-menopausal vagina wasn’t moist enough, and the old and brittle cassette tape wasn’t strong enough… and so it crumbled up, accordion style, stopping the music abruptly, just as Neil Diamond was explaining why he was a solitary man, and why I was one too.
The Next Day
Anita was sitting alone at a picnic table outside the community center writing out birthday cards to residents she didn’t know. She alternated among a handful of differently colored felt-tip pens, switching from red to blue to green and, occasionally, pink, all the while wearing a smile as broad as the ones she was drawing on the circles she outlined on the cards. Frequent, swift vertical hand movements, each followed by a forceful tap of the pen suggested she was planting a fair share of exclamation points.
“Still more birthdays, huh?” I asked as I sat at the opposite side of the table.
“Always more birthdays,” she said as though they were promises of more happy days and not additional nails in the coffin.
“Listen, Anita, I want to apologize for last night.”
“Apologize? For what was only the most romantic night of my adult life?”
“You’re right. It was a nice evening … I guess I’d give us an A for effort, but maybe not so much for performance. And I know that was my fault … so I apologize.”
“Now you stop right there Mr. Jackie McNamara. Last night was magical, and I wrote exactly that in my diary.”
“You keep a diary?”
“Of course I do. How else will I remember the really precious moments?
“There was a chiropractor on television the other day who invented an herbal supplement called ‘Full Memory.’ He swears it’ll keep any brain razor sharp, forever, no matter its age. And he guarantees it.”
I’ll tell you one more thing, if you allow, and that’s this: As a young man, I tried everything I could think of to find a girl who would have sex with me and love me, forever. Back then, they were the same thing, more or less. Love and sex. At least for my cohort, in my Irish Catholic neighborhood. My mother and the nuns had me believing that a “good boy” – a sinless boy – would reap the benefits of this world and the next, including the affection and devotion of a good Catholic girl. Didn’t work. My father taught me through example that tough guys – fearless fighting boys – received and sometimes took what they wanted, especially pretty, if intimidated, girlfriends. But I was always pounded silly and was subsequently deemed less, not more, desirable. My hometown, the girls included, worshipped the high school basketball team, especially its stars, so I devoted hundreds or maybe thousands of hours to making the team, but even that feat didn't lead to a single minute of making out with a future wife. When I entered college, I realized that the attractive co-eds, who were by then searching for a spouse, gravitated to those men who had established a reputation for being smart. So, I read and studied and waited and hoped.
That last strategy, the “getting smart” one, was imperfectly executed, but it worked, somewhat. I found a girlfriend and had sex. Then I landed a second girlfriend, had sex, and got married. Then my wife took a job with a guy who was brighter than I was, and she had sex with him. Then my marriage ended. And my future did, too, or at least the future that had been instilled in me, the one I envisioned and planned for. My assumption that sex and love were only different parts of the same thing also came to an end. And my reservoir of trust evaporated. Poof! Gone! I was hollow and alone again except for the bond I felt with Neil Diamond, through his music. Betrayed by that damned Melinda, Neil, who only ever wanted one girl, one who would always stick by him and never play games behind his back, was, like me, a broken, solitary man.
At the local high school production of Stomp!, which was being performed at The Beemoor Walt Tamarek Theater, I spotted Joanne, the so-called yoga instructor, sitting with Tony D’Angelo, a toupeed former cop from New Jersey who spends an inordinate amount of time in our puny gym, shamelessly checking out the female arthritics hobbling gingerly by the exercise equipment, as if their close proximity to an elliptical or treadmill would by itself relieve their pain; the previous night I had seen her sharing an ice cream sundae with a retired dentist in his eighties, a gregarious gentleman who offers a free oral examination to every female Beemoor resident he meets. Hazel, wearing what appeared to be a Victoria Secret-like semi-transparent top that hung from one shoulder, was with DJ Harold Rosen, a former carpet salesman from Georgia, who earned his name overseeing the musical selections during our monthly village mixers. Throughout the first half of the show, my friend and neighbor, Howie, made a point of displaying his intuitive rhythm by clapping loudly to the cacophony of deafening stomping and banging coming from the stage. Sharon Shapiro was there, regularly reaching into her massive purse to remove various snacks, including what appeared to be a Taco Bell chalupa supreme, which she shared with her date, a groundskeeper I had seen several times tending the vegetation by the complex gate.
I stepped outside during intermission and was assaulted by more discordant banging noises. In the middle of the sprawling promenade leading to the theater’s front doors, a group of seven or eight residents sat in their wheelchairs, an overturned plastic bucket on the lap of each; each was grasping a soup ladle or other kitchen utensil and pounding it randomly against their bucket’s bottom. Sitting on a nearby artist’s easel to the left of the group was a large poster which read, in multiple-colored lettering, “Handicapped? How about handi-capable!” The poster board’s white space was filled with smiley faces. On a similar sign sitting on an easel to the right was the message, “We can stomp too!” Acting as the maestro, Anita stood facing the line of chairs, using a stainless-steel barbecue spatula as a baton.
When I turned to reenter the building, I noticed Laura Stevens standing off to the side of the entrance by herself, staring toward the parking lot.
“What do you think of the performance?” I asked.
“It’s appropriately titled,” she replied.
“Yeah, a lot of … stomping. Much stomping. Reminds me of my first apartment, which was beneath Godzilla’s.”
She smiled politely.
“So how did you like the cruise?” I asked.
“Oh … geez … that’s too bad.”
“Yep. Too bad.”
She might have been waiting for a friend or a date, but I took a chance. “Listen, I’ve had enough of this racket. I’m heading over to the Village Bean for a coffee and ice cream. Will you join me?”
“Ummm …” A pause. “… sure.”
The Day After That and the One After That and So On ...
Ditto, Ditto, and so on.
John Hearn is the co-author of Shade It Black: Death and After In Iraq (2011), as well as quite a few short stories and essays. (See Johnhearn.org) He lives in Jamestown, New York.