Margaret Grimes–Marge to her Friday night pinochle partners at Gentle Breezes–was not accustomed to seeing death happen. At the moment it did she was reading The Upper Room on the davenport of her one-bedroom efficiency unit with the patio curtain closed halfway to keep the afternoon sun from bleaching the upholstery. The Thought of the Day was, “We are drawn to what we focus on.” The obviousness of this statement annoyed her. She was beginning to think that much of what religion had to say to her was obvious and why, she wondered, had it taken her all of 77 years to realize that?
Marge looked outside for a moment to relieve her eyes and heard a peculiar sound. Perhaps it was a voice. She couldn’t say exactly because she had turned her hearing aid down, which was her habit during the long afternoons. Shortly after the sound came the strange sight–something large and dark falling past her sliding door. At first she thought it had dropped out of the sky, like from an airplane. She had heard of that happening somewhere out West.
Marge grabbed her cane and shuffled to the door. There she saw the fallen thing lying in the snow like an oversized, crumpled-up doll. It was a body. She couldn’t say for sure whose, given the angle of the face toward the parking lot. But she suspected it was Haddie, the only one in D Building to wear black knit gloves in mid-afternoon. And, of course, she lived just overhead. It didn’t take a genius to guess that the twisted-up limbs belonged to Louise Hadcock Deering.
Marge didn’t venture outside to see for herself. First of all, who knew what else might come crashing down from above? Secondly, she didn’t much care for Haddie and her yapping Yorkshire Terrier, so she wasn’t going to chance tripping over the lip of the sliding door on her account. In fact, she wouldn’t have been surprised if Harold or Sam or one of the other men upstairs hadn’t tossed Haddie overboard, being fed up at the Yorkie barking all day. It seemed odd to Marge, though, the more she thought about it, because couldn’t they just as well have thrown over the dog and let Haddie be?
When the police arrived, they made several assumptions. First, they figured that Haddie had been getting ready to go out because of the gloves. Marge set them straight on that score–Haddie’s circulation was so poor she always wore gloves. They also presumed that Haddie was one of the less well-off residents of Gentle Breezes Estates, given the condition of her undergarments–runs in her stockings, holes in her slip, a frayed brassiere. Marge leaned out of her apartment again when she overheard that crazy notion. “Haddie had money to burn,” she said. “Ask anybody.”
At this information the sergeant rose from the body and approached the sliding door. “Sounds like you knew the deceased pretty well,” he said. “Did she have reason to kill herself?” Marge thought the question unnecessarily direct. Just then the barking started upstairs, so loud that she couldn’t hear herself think.
Marge didn’t like all the commotion on her patio. She had locked her sliding door and pulled the curtain, but she could still see the shadows coming and going out there. They looked like giant animals. The idea of all those people trampling down her patch of snow put her in a very uncertain mood as she walked the long corridor from D building to the elevator, rode up one flight and then made her way into C building, past the snack bar and card shop. She didn’t even look as she passed the billiards room. She knew Mr. Bennett and Mr. Razelli and that new man in 8D, Mr. Fairmont, were in there leaning on their pool sticks. She had no use for any of them. If you were going to waste time, why not sleep? That was her philosophy.
Marge tried tiptoeing past Audrey Brennan dozing in her motor cart, but the old woman’s eyes popped open. “Mahdge!” she called, “Mahdge Grimes!”
Marge didn’t look over. “I’m heading to dinner. Can’t stop now.”
Audrey pressed “forward” on the control panel of her cart. “You said you’d come by Sunday. I was waiting.”
Marge swerved around the cart. “I say a lot of things, Audrey. I can’t be expected to remember every one of them. And by the way, it’s snowing down south.”
Audrey looked at her slip. She tried hoisting it under her dress but just managed to pull both of them above her knees.
Marge shook her head at the hopelessness of the situation and tugged the dress down herself.
She was late getting to dinner, and her regular Tuesday night group was waiting for her at the dining room entrance. Marge didn’t like being waited for. “You girls could go in on your own,” she said shooing them ahead of her. “I can find my way in.”
“That’s all right, we don’t mind standing,” Florence said.
“Table for five, ladies?” asked Celia, the hostess.
Marge shook her head. “We’re just four on Tuesdays–from now on,” she said, and Celia promptly erased Haddie’s little red X on her seating chart. Marge was a little unsettled at how easily a person could be rubbed out, but she took a menu and went into the dining room. She noted that the entree was meatloaf, which she couldn’t abide, having prepared it for her own family for so many years. So when she sat at her customary seat facing away from the strangely wilting silk flower centerpiece, she chose the chicken mignon, with pearl onions, potatoes au gratin and, of course, baby peas. You could always order chicken at Gentle Breezes.
Dinner proceeded like almost every other on Tuesday night. The scalloped butter reminded Helen of her 30th-anniversary trip to Paris with husband Al, and she recalled their itinerary meal by meal. Sarah lamented that she hadn’t done more traveling in her life, but of course she had the four children to raise and trips became just memories while children lasted a lifetime. Florence admitted that she felt blessed having had children and travel.
Marge ate and nodded, but something about the conversation didn’t seem quite right to her. Then she put her finger on it–Haddie wasn’t there telling about her children and her trips and her three houses. Could it be, Marge wondered, that she missed the old braggart?
Julie, the waitress, cleared the plates and brought dessert. Marge held up her bowl of grapes for the others to see. “Imagine,” she said, “serving loose grapes!”<br?”I wouldn’t eat them,” Sarah declared from across the table. “They could have been rolling on the floor in the kitchen.”
“I can’t believe it’s almost February,” Helen said. “Seems like we just got over Christmas.”
“I never saw time go so fast,” Florence said, and the others agreed with her.
Marge stuck a large, hard grape into her mouth, and an overwhelming sourness flooded her tongue. It was all she could do not to spit it out. She looked around for Julie, but as always the waitresses were in the kitchen when you needed them. Marge swallowed.
After finishing dessert, the four dinner companions hurried out to the lobby to claim seats by the large front window where they could see everyone coming or going. Marge sat on the hard edge of the sagging chair cushion. She couldn’t conceive of how the management of Gentle Breezes could be so dim-witted as to buy soft sofas and chairs.
Florence cleared her throat. “Well, it’s a shame, I guess we’ve heard the last from Haddie.”
“She was good company,” Helen said, “but I can’t say I’ll miss hearing about her children. What were their names?”
“Rex,” Florence said, “that was one of them.”
“There was the boy in Arizona–Sam, I think it was,” Sarah said.
“And Roscoe,” Florence added, “I remember a Roscoe.”
Marge slipped her heels out of her dinner shoes. She knew the conversation would soon come around to her–what she saw and what she heard. She wasn’t about to volunteer the information.
“That woman did go on about her children, didn’t she?” Florence asked, and they all concurred, including Marge. Of course, the same could be said about Florence. There wasn’t a night that went by without her bringing up one or another of her sons.
“Speaking of children,” Florence said, “I didn’t tell you–my Robert got a promotion. He’s second in charge of the whole factory now.”
Marge rolled her eyes. She wasn’t going to say anything, but then she found herself saying, “He’s second in charge of a factory that makes those little metal things you stick the laces through on shoes? Is there even a name for them?”
“Of course there’s a name for them,” Florence said. “I’ll just ask Robert when he calls tomorrow. Every Wednesday and Sunday, that’s when he calls.”
“We know, you’ve told us a thousand times. And he always remembers our names when he visits.”
“That’s right,” Florence said. “It’s a comfort to have the children nearby. You can see what happens when they’re far away like with Haddie–they never visit.”
“So,” Helen said, leaning forward, “what was it like yesterday?”
Marge pretended not to know what she meant. “What was what like?”
“With Haddie, I mean, did she really land on her head in the snow?”
“I heard she was naked,” Sarah said, “not a stitch on her.”
“Except those hideous black gloves,” Florence added.
“Well, it was like this,” Marge said as Sarah inclined her head so as not to miss a word, “I was sitting on my davenport reading The Upper Room…” Marge went on to recount the unusual noise, her first sight of the body falling, the tell-tale gloves, and of course, the police and all of their ridiculous assumptions.
“I would have fainted away at the blood,” Helen said.
“It was gruesome,” Marge admitted, “but of course, I was a nurse, so I’ve seen worse.”
“What do you think will happen to that terrier of hers?” Helen asked.
“Don’t worry about that mangy thing,” Marge said. “I wouldn’t put it past Haddie to leave all her money to a dog.”
Wednesday afternoon Marge spent trying to ignore the activity going on in Haddie’s apartment overhead. The clomping of shoes was so loud on the ceiling that she wouldn’t cross the room for fear the light fixture might shake loose and fall on her. So much fuss over one old lady, Marge thought. She certainly didn’t want all of this to-do when she went. It was unseemly. Just put her in the ground and be done with it.
At five minutes past four o’clock, she tied her blue silk scarf around her neck and set off for the dining room. She felt a little light-headed at several points and thought maybe she had forgotten to take her blood pressure pill along with her Lasix that morning. She wasn’t about to turn around, though. She figured she could get by without her medication for one day.
As Marge moved through the lobby, she gave a little wave to James, the guard, and then peeked into the card shop. She couldn’t believe her eyes. “Doris, have you looked at yourself lately?”
The woman behind the counter felt her face. “Why? What’s wrong?”
“Looks like you put your lipstick on in an earthquake.” Marge held up her hand and shook it to help Doris understand.
“No wonder you don’t get any customers in here–you scare them to death looking like that.”
Marge left the card shop and started across the lobby. After a few steps a man came running up to her, just about startling her off her feet.
“What is it?”
“I’m Sgt. Rowley, remember? I talked to you yesterday.”
“Of course I remember. What do you think, I’m daft?”
“No, of course not. I’d like to ask you a few more questions over dinner.”
Marge didn’t much like changing her plans at the last minute. On the other hand, she wasn’t all that fond of her table partners that evening since all they talked about was Bridge, a game Marge thought needlessly complicated. “All right,” she said, “but I don’t know what you can get from me.”
Not being a fan of eggplant parmesan, the sergeant ordered chicken, as Marge suggested. She soon wished she hadn’t, for he proceeded to pick up the fried chicken breasts and gnaw on them, skin and all. Between bites he asked questions. Had Haddie been depressed lately? What happened to people’s units when they died? What if someone couldn’t keep up the monthly meal fees? Marge answered as best she could, but it was a struggle to even look at the detective. Would it have killed him to use his napkin now and then? Marge picked up her own cloth and dabbed her lips, but he didn’t seem to get the message.
“There have been a lot of people dying at the Breezes recently,” the sergeant said.
“Dropping like flies,” Marge said and started down the list: “Haddie, Nathaniel Bergman, Frenchy Larreau, Carolyn Strange, Nicholas Bennett…” She tapped her head to knock the last name out of her memory. “…and Jonas Archibald.”
“Do you have any thoughts about all of these deaths?”
Thoughts? Of course she had thoughts. “It is an old-age home,” she said. “What do you expect to happen here–births?” She knew she was being blunt, but the plain senselessness of his questions was beginning to grate on her.
“The ones you mentioned all happened in the last week or so. That’s more than average.”
“Well now,” Marge said, “I remember something about that from my schooling. Averages don’t mean the same number of a thing happens every week. Some weeks you have a lot, other weeks you have none. We just happened to have a week with a lot of people passing on.”
The sergeant nodded, and Marge thought that was the end of it. But then he said, “When we talked yesterday, you seemed to think Mrs. Deering was rich.”
“She had millions,” Marge said.
“I’m told she was almost penniless. Two hundred seventy-two dollars–that’s all Mrs. Deering had at the end.” Marge was having trouble understanding. Was all of Haddie’s bragging about houses and vacations just a show?
The detective coughed loudly, and Marge leaned out of the way of his germs. “It’s probably just coincidence, all of the deaths,” he said. “But when there’s questionable circumstances, we have to investigate.”
Marge still didn’t understand what was questionable about people dying at an old age home, but she held her tongue.
The sergeant left the dining room without eating dessert, and Marge figured he was no wiser after the chicken than before. But she was more confused. Haddie poor? That didn’t make sense. Why would someone go to all that trouble to deceive?
Marge departed a few minutes later, just as the elevator opened and out came Irene Iransky, dressed in her summer robe and slippers.
“Irene,” Marge said, “you’re wandering again.”
“I am?” Irene asked and lifted her arm to chew on her sleeve.
“No use doing that,” Marge said and tugged the cloth from Irene’s mouth. “Why don’t you head back up to Personal Care before they call the guards? You don’t want them strapping you down, do you?” Of course they wouldn’t do that at Gentle Breezes, but Marge didn’t see the harm in suggesting they did. Irene turned back into the elevator.
Marge headed for the lobby. The girls were already there, and her favorite seat was being sat in by Florence. Marge said hello and hovered near the chair.
“Aren’t you going to sit?” Florence asked.
Marge squeezed into the only spot free, between Helen and Sarah on the sofa.
“Was that the policeman eating with you?” Helen asked.
“He’s a sergeant,” Marge said.
Sarah gasped. “Are you a suspect?”
“A suspect? Now how would I be a suspect?”
Florence opened her pocketbook and took out a tissue. “Well,” she said, “maybe Haddie took you serious.”
Marge didn’t have any idea what Florence could mean by that.
“Don’t you remember? At the table last week, you said that if her boys were so all-fired wonderful, how come they didn’t visit her?”
Marge thought back, but the furthest she could remember was the stomping on her ceiling earlier that morning. Of course, she could remember sitting on her father’s shoulders as President Roosevelt’s train pulled into town, but that was almost seventy years ago, not last week. She said, “I don’t remember saying any such thing.”
“I remember,” Helen said. “I thought you were a little harsh.”
Marge was getting provoked. Why were the girls remembering her words so darn well when they could barely remember their own from five minutes ago?
“Not everyone is blessed with thoughtful children,” Florence said. “That’s the sad truth of it.”
“Well,” Marge said, “I didn’t mean it that way.”
Helen turned on her. “How did you mean it?”
“I meant she was always going on about them, and it kind of burns you up hearing how good her boys are when they can’t even visit. Ten years and not one visit. And they call themselves Christian.”
“It is inexcusable,” Florence said. “I’m just saying you needn’t have pointed it out. I think you made her feel bad. And maybe…” Florence opened her pocketbook and took out another tissue. Now she had two in her hand. Marge waited for Florence to finish her sentence or do something with the tissues.
“Maybe what?” Marge said.
Florence shrugged and looked knowingly at Sarah, then at Helen. “Well, maybe you pushed her over the edge.”
Marge leaned forward, trying to get out of the sofa. “I did no such thing! Why, I was sitting in my own living room when it happened.”
Florence rubbed her nose with the tissues. “I meant maybe what you said pushed her, that’s all.”
“That’s all? You’re saying I caused that fool woman’s death, that’s what you’re saying!”
Helen reached out to her, but Marge pulled away. She could see now what was happening here–the three of them were ganging up on her. They’d always been jealous of how she dressed and did her hair, and how well she got along with everyone at Gentle Breezes. Marge figured she knew all 272 residents, and they certainly knew her. Could Florence say the same?
“Don’t get in an uproar,” Florence said. “Nobody else has thrown themselves over the railing after you spoke harshly to them, so I don’t expect Haddie did either.”
Marge couldn’t bear hearing another word. She called to James, and after a minute the young guard strolled over. “I’ve seen molasses move faster,” she said to him.
He yawned without covering his mouth. “Need another yank, Mrs. Grimes?”
Marge couldn’t believe the stupidity of the question. “No, I’ll just stay stuck here all night–of course I need a yank.”
She held out her arms, and James slipped his big black hands behind her elbows and pulled her standing. Marge steadied herself and then took off across the lobby without even a glance back at her so-called friends.
At eight o’clock next morning, Marge filled a washer with her white laundry and headed upstairs to Haddie’s. As the organizer of the annual White Elephant Sale, it was her job to go through the apartments of those recently deceased and pick out items that could be sold later for the benefit of the Gentle Breezes Aid Fund. It had been a busy week, with all of the dying going on.
Marge opened Haddie’s door and stepped inside. Everywhere there were stacks–of old magazines and dusty books, of blouses and sweaters, of shoeboxes, china plates, linens and Lord knows what else. She wandered through the apartment, picking up things and setting them down again. On her first pass through the living room and bedroom, she didn’t find a single item worth taking. The White Elephant Sale had its standards.
Marge needed to get off her feet. She picked up a picture album from the hard chair near the sliding door and settled in. She figured this was where Haddie sat through the long afternoons, and Marge was surprised at how different the view was from one story up. She opened the album, and there was Haddie as a baby sitting plumply on the ground, her dress spread out around her. Marge flipped through the pages–Haddie with a bow in her hair, Haddie riding a horse, Haddie leaning on a railing on the boardwalk. Then came her wedding picture–Haddie in a beautiful flowing gown and her husband in his Army uniform. He was a small man with a small head and a boy’s arms. Marge couldn’t conceive of him carrying a heavy rifle, let alone taking a whole hill in Italy by himself, as Haddie had described.
Marge turned the page, expecting to see more of Haddie’s little war hero, but the photographs suddenly jumped ahead a few decades. In bright color now, Haddie was standing on the porch of a duplex holding a box with three puppies in it. Written underneath was, “My Three Sons–Rex, Sam and Roscoe.”
Marge lifted out the picture, thinking that it had been put on the wrong page. But on the back was written the same thing–Rex, Sam, Roscoe. Marge figured that this was a good joke–writing her sons’ names on the picture of her dogs.
She turned another page. Haddie was washing one of the dogs in a tub in the yard. The caption said, “Roscoe Gets a Bath.” Another photograph of a dog sniffing a bush…”Sam Goes Exploring.” And a third picture, “Roscoe Begging a Biscuit.”
She turned more pages, all of them filled with Haddie and her dogs. Marge remembered her last words to Haddie–How come your sons don’t come visiting, if they’re so all-fired wonderful? What had possessed her to say such a thing? She clapped shut the album and dropped it on the floor. She pushed herself up and looked through the sliding door. She imagined stepping onto the deck, leaning over the railing and letting herself go. How quick and easy it would be.
She had reason, too–who didn’t at Gentle Breezes? Did Haddie think she was the only one with great disappointments in her life? Keep your troubles to yourself that was Marge’s motto. You didn’t hear her complaining about a husband who smoked himself to death before her eyes or two daughters who barely remembered her with useless cards at holidays. Marge had children, so she knew they weren’t always the comfort that everyone at Gentle Breezes made them out to be. That’s all she had been trying to say to Haddie. That shouldn’t drive a person over the railing.
Marge turned from the door. The sight of Haddie’s possessions stacked on chairs and tables made her uneasy–a life reduced to such neat, worthless piles. It made her wonder, who would come into her apartment after she was gone and pick up her things and shake their head that none of it was worth much of anything?
Marge ate alone at dinner. She couldn’t bear hearing about travel or children one more evening. There had to be more to life than memories. It was below freezing outside for the sixth straight day–how come nobody talked about that? She knew the answer, of course. Only a handful of the residents ever ventured out of the overheated corridors of Gentle
Breezes. Why would they care about the cold?
The girls came toward her, gabbing away like clucking hens. Marge stared into her bowl of butter pecan ice cream.
“Did you see Hazel on her way out?” Florence asked. “Wasn’t that the sorriest-looking outfit you ever saw?”
Marge had seen Hazel–it was difficult to miss a 200-pound woman wearing a red-checked blouse and a short plaid jacket. Nobody in their right mind dressed like that. Of course, Hazel wasn’t in her right mind, so there really was nothing odd about it. “I thought she looked…interesting,” Marge said.
“Interesting?” Florence repeated.
Marge ate another spoonful of the butter pecan.
“She must have pulled her clothes out of the Goodwill box,” Helen said.
“Maybe she’s gone blind in both eyes,” Sarah said.
aWhy, Marge wondered, were they making fun of a poor soul like Hazel? There were wars going on and the election coming up. Why would they spend their time talking about the crazy get-up of one old woman? “If you can only speak ill of a person,” Marge said, “don’t speak of her at all.”
Florence stared at her in wonderment, as if she’d declared red was green. “What’s come over you?”
“I just don’t think we need discuss Hazel’s outfit.”
Florence’s face stiffened. “That’s just a bit odd coming from someone with a tongue like yours, isn’t it?”
Marge pushed away her dish of butter pecan, leaving one big spoonful. She hated Florence’s British mannerism of turning into a question what was clearly a statement. She hated even more being surrounded by three old ladies acting as if something were wrong with her. How had it happened? she asked herself as she looked at Sarah’s dried-up face and Helen’s drooping eyelids and Florence’s snow white hair. How had she gotten this old and this unpleasant?
Marge rose to her feet. But where would she go? Back to her apartment to watch Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy like everyone else? Could she stand one more clicking spin of the wheel? Could she bear going another half hour not knowing the answer to even one of Alex’s questions? And what if she managed to keep her eyes open till the 10 o’clock news? Then she’d be treated to murders and rapes and child beatings.
“Don’t go off in a huff again,” Florence said.
Marge felt faint. She felt as if her bones had no more strength to hold her up. She felt like she might collapse to the floor and never stand again.
“Come on, let’s go out and sit awhile.”
Florence’s stiff fingers fell upon Marge’s arm and coaxed her to move. To where–the lobby again to sit like invalids watching people come and go? The thought of it raised the bile in her stomach.
“No,” she said, “I’m tired of sitting. I’m tired of talking. I’m tired of being tired.”
Florence laughed. “There’s nothing you can do about that, dear.”
Marge twisted out of Florence’s grip and headed out of the dining room. People spoke to her, but she was sick of shouting hello into the ears of folks who wouldn’t hear a bomb go off next to them. She walked through the lobby faster than she had in years, straight toward the front door.
“Going somewhere, Mrs. Grimes?”
She turned toward James, who was rising from his seat behind the guard’s desk. “Just leave me be,” she said and wagged her finger at him.
“You know you’re not supposed to go out front on your own,” he said. “It’s icy.”
Marge stepped in front of the double doors, and they opened for her as if she had waved a wand. When she walked outside the sudden burst of cold air took her breath away. She hugged herself with her one free arm, and with her other hand, tapped her cane ahead of her on the black asphalt. The sight thrilled her–snow plowed up all about the parking lot in mounds so high she couldn’t see over them. She felt small again and a little scared at being outside at night.
Marge turned and saw the guard coming toward her. He was just doing his job, she knew that, and how could she be angry with him on such a wondrous night? “Look, James,” she said and pointed into the brilliant sky, “so many stars and planets, there must be life up there, there has to be.”
James tilted his head back, and Marge thought how sad it was that he probably never came out here either to see the world beyond the double doors. She reached into the snow in front of her and pulled out a handful. She squeezed it a little, and her fingers ached from the cold.
“You probably shouldn’t do that, Mrs. Grimes,” James said.
“I shouldn’t?” she said. “Well what if I do this?” She reached back her arm and threw the snowball. It fell to the ground and splattered a few feet in front of him.
James bent over laughing, and when he looked up Marge was making another snowball. “You’re playing with fire, you know that, don’t you?” he said as he reached into the snowbank himself. She threw at him again with better aim, and he danced out of the way. Then he smiled in a way she had never seen him before, as if some mischievous spirit were possessing him. He raised his hand and tossed his snowball in a soft arc toward her. It looked like a beautiful icy comet to Marge, something fallen from heaven. She watched the snowball smack against her stockinged leg, and the shriek she let out was so loud it could be heard all over Gentle Breezes.
–from “Gentle Breezes,” published by StoryQuarterly, October 2001
Copyright 2001 by George Harrar. All rights deserved.