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Blame It on the Mistletoe
A Novel of Bright's Pond
By Joyce Magnin
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Joyce Magnin
All rights reserved.
It was the tricycle parked outside of eighty-seven-year-old Haddie Grace's room at the Greenbrier Nursing Home that gave me cause for concern. I first saw it when I had brought Ivy and her dog, Mickey Mantle, to the nursing home for the pooch's weekly Visit of Convalescence. It was a candy-apple-red tricycle with colorful streamers hanging from the handlebars and a note taped to the seat: "Do Not Touch." A round, silver bike bell—the kind you operated with your thumb—was attached to the handlebars, although just barely.
Mickey Mantle loved to visit with the old folks. Ivy said he enjoyed making them smile, and she enjoyed watching their eyes light up when he let anyone scratch behind his ears. And the fact that Mickey Mantle only had three legs on account of an unfortunate bear-trap accident seemed to endear him even more to the residents, a few of whom were missing limbs themselves.
"The best part," Ivy had said, "was when Mickey Mantle was able to help that nasty, cranky Erma Crump find her nice side. Too bad she died just a week after. Only a week to be nice— imagine that."
Ivy Slocum was a good friend. Never married, she was bit on the plump side and was prone to wear oversized sweatshirts to disguise her more than ample bosom.
I've gone on three or four of these visits with Ivy and watched how Mickey Mantle sits and lets the folks pet him and converse with him just like he's a person. I think he would sit there all day long if he could, soaking up the attention and returning the love. The pooch had become privy to many a family saga and secret. But nursing homes have their rules, and Ivy was only allowed to bring Mickey Mantle one day a week—usually on a Wednesday unless otherwise decided. And that particular Wednesday was no different—except for the tricycle and giggles coming from Haddie's room. Haddie Grace weighed all of ninety pounds it seemed to me, a tiny slip of a woman with nearly translucent skin.
"Would you look at that," I said. "Now what in tarnation is a tricycle doing at a nursing home?"
Ivy scratched her head. "Beats me, Griselda. Maybe it belongs to one of Haddie's grandkids."
"Haddie never had children. Never been married as far as she remembers."
"Then I reckon this is strange," Ivy said. "Maybe someone else's kids left it there."
I asked Nurse Sally about the little red trike when I saw her at the nurses' station. Nurse Sally was head nurse at Greenbrier, and we had become quite friendly since Agnes went to live there.
"I just don't understand it," Sally said. "Haddie Grace has been riding that thing down the hallways like she was three years old again. Scares me half to death. She can't afford no more broken bones. I think she slipped her rocker but good this time around."
"No fooling?" Ivy said. "That's odd, don't you think? Why do you let her?"
"Well, here's the thing about that," Sally said. "The residents can pretty much do whatever they want, and Doctor Silver thought that taking the tricycle away might be more harmful. You know, up here." She tapped her head.
"Maybe she should see that head jockey, Doctor Julian," I said. "I think that's his name. The doctor they made Agnes talk to."
"She has an appointment later on today. But I'm worried it might be something serious like a brain tumor making her act like a child. It can happen you know."
"Oh, I know that," Ivy said. "Brains ain't made to have growths growing inside of them. Delicate instruments they are. Why I remember when Bubba Knickerbocker got his. Made him fall down and lean to the left like one of them telephone poles out on the highway."
"That's right," I said. "Poor Ruth had a dickens of a time keeping him upright."
"He was much larger than her," Ivy said. "Kind of like a Chihuahua and a Saint Bernard going out for tea."
"I hear that," Sally said. "Funny thing is that every time I check Haddie's vitals she's sound as a Swiss watch. Can't find a thing wrong—even her blood pressure is good. It's almost like she's getting healthier."
Mickey Mantle let go a low, grumbly growl. Not a fierce, angry growl. He was only letting Ivy know that they had rounds to get on.
"Guess we better be on our way," Ivy said. "Mickey Mantle gets upset if he misses seeing his regulars. Gordon Flegal always has a Milk-Bone for him and that nice Mr. Tracy let him chew on a lollipop last week."
"That's fine, you go on without me this time," I said. "I need to stop in and see Agnes. Why don't you bring Mickey Mantle by her room when you're done?"
"Okeydokey." Ivy gave a slight tug on her dog's leash. "Come on, boy. We better get to Gordon before he conks out for the day."
I lingered by the nurse's station a minute. "How's Agnes doing these days?" I asked.
She fussed with some papers on a clipboard. "Agnes? She's doing quite well. I wish she'd get out of her room more, but she seems content."
My visit with Agnes was not what you would call "usual." I found her sitting in her wheelchair staring out the window. I loved my sister, dearly. Everyone knew that—even Agnes. Although to look at her you might wonder about us. Agnes weighed nearly seven hundred pounds when she checked herself into Greenbrier. Life had gotten too hard for her. Just getting from her bed to the bathroom was chore, and I usually had to be home to help her. But looking at her now I can see how the nursing home was helping. They estimate that she had dropped almost sixty-five pounds in the past several months and was well on her way to losing another sixty-five. I wish I could say her clothes hung on her like the skin on a hound dog after losing so much weight. But no, she still wore muumuus and housedresses—sometimes with pretty flowers and other times just white or pink.
She was wearing a beat up pair of slippers with the heels bent in, and her brown hair had been cut short for ease of handling. Her right arm rested on the arm of the wheelchair and the skin kind of dripped off the edge like expanding foam. But I noticed a sweet smell, like magnolia, wafting around the room, and it did my heart well to know that she was being cared for.
"The leaves are pretty this year," I said from the doorway. "All that rain and then that blast of sunshine and heat in August really helped."
Agnes turned. "Griselda. I'm glad you're here."
I moved closer. "Really? Why? Is something wrong?"
Agnes pushed her chair closer to me. "I'm not sure. I'm not sure at all, but something is strange."
I thought of the red tricycle. "You mean like Haddie Grace's trike?"
"You saw it then."
"Yeah, Ivy saw it too. She came with Mickey Mantle. I asked Nurse Sally about it. She says Haddie has been riding it through the halls like she's three years old."
Agnes slapped her knee. "Land o' Goshen, I know! She rides that trike and rings the bell. If it ain't a sight to see."
I sat on the visitor's chair. "Sally said they're having that psychiatrist check her out."
"I know, I know. Thing is that I don't believe that Dr. Julian will find anything more than simple elderly senility stuff going on."
"Well, Sally did mention something about a brain tumor."
"Brain tumor?" Agnes slapped her thigh. The fat under her housecoat rippled like sea waves. "I doubt that. I get the feeling what's going on around here has nothing to do with tumors or diabetes or senility. Because it isn't just Haddie. It's other folks also. There's something more going on. Something stranger than all that."
"What are you talking about? You mean there're more tricycles? More strange happenings?"
"Look out that window and tell me what you see."
"Grass, trees, a gazebo—when did they put that in? I hadn't noticed it before." It was a large octagon-shaped building with a crooked railing and a cedar-shingled roof with a crooked cupola on the top, and on top of the cupola was a rooster that seemed to be crowing to the west. "It's nice, a little cockeyed but nice."
"Never mind the crooked. Look at what, or I should say, who is in the gazebo."
I stood and moved closer to the window. "Who is that?"
"That, my dear sister, is Clive Dickens and Faith Graves. They've been out there swaying around and dancing with each other like they was sixteen years old again. I tell you, Griselda, it's like that scene in The Sound of Music."
"Ah, that's OK. Old people can fall in love too."
"I suppose so, but those two? I hear that old man hasn't been out of his room in three years except when they make him go to the barber or the doctor, and Faith Graves is, well, let's just say she has one foot in and one foot out. We've had more code reds on that woman in the last six weeks than anyone. But now, all of a sudden she's up and dancing like a teenager."
"Well, yeah, that's what we call it when someone walks into her room and can't tell if she's dead or alive on account of she lays there still as an ironing board and just as stiff. She is, after all, ninety-two years old."
"I guess it does seem strange, come to think about it. What do you suppose is causing this?"
Agnes shook her head and clicked her tongue. "I'm telling you. It's like a magic spell has fallen over Greenbrier. A spell of rejuvenation."
"Is it really such a problem? Maybe it's a good thing."
"But why? What happened to all these people to make them start acting like they were sixteen years old again, or in Haddie's case, three?"
I patted Agnes's hand and filled her water glass from the pitcher. "All what people. You're talking about three people."
"Then explain that." Agnes pointed to the window.
I looked in time to see Jasper York, who was Greenbrier's most recent reluctant resident, shimmy up a tree—or at least try to. He slid back down and sat on the ground.
"OK, that's weird," I said. "Jasper York would never act like that."
"What do you suppose is causing this?" Agnes asked.
I couldn't begin to imagine. "Oh, I wouldn't worry about it. It's autumn. The holidays are coming. Maybe folks are just feeling the holiday spirit. Maybe it makes them feel young again."
"I suppose that could be it, except I have this gut feeling that something ain't right around here. Not right at all."
"Try not to worry about it. You'll make your blood pressure go up or trigger an asthma attack."
"Oh, don't worry about me. I'll be fine. I just kind of wish a little of whatever virus bit them would bite me."
"Um, no, let's hope not, Agnes. That would not be fun."
But I had to laugh when I heard Haddie Grace whiz past Agnes's room singing her ABCs and ringing her bell. "Or you might be right. It could be something more than the holidays."CHAPTER 2
I visited with Agnes for nearly an hour. It wasn't that we had a whole lot to talk about except, of course, Cliff Cardwell. It seems that ever since that pilot fella landed in Bright's Pond, he and I have been the talk of the town. It's probably because I started taking flying lessons from him and now everyone naturally assumes we're an item or something.
"You still involved with him?" Agnes asked with a bit of a grin.
"Who? Cliff? I keep telling you and everyone else that Cliff and I are just friends and he is only teaching me to fly his airplane, nothing else."
Agnes peered out the window. "Uh-huh, I suppose there can be more than one connotation to the word fly."
"Agnes. That's ridiculous. Just because Zeb and me broke up again doesn't mean I'm flying—that kind of flying—with Cliff Cardwell."
Zeb Sewickey and I had been dating on and off since high school. I would have married him a long time ago—I think. But he always had one excuse or another. It usually had to do with his business. Zeb owned and managed The Full Moon Café in town. It was kind of a diner and looked a bit like a solid steel train car with windows. Zeb was also the chief cook and bottle washer, as he always said. Or he would use Agnes as an excuse to break up. But that was back when Agnes still lived with me. Except, he still finds ways to blame Agnes. I suppose everyone wants to blame things on something or someone besides themselves.
"But you do like Cliff," Agnes said. "And you did break it off with Zeb."
"I just got sick and tired of the way Zeb smothers me, and orders me around like I was one of his waitresses. I need space, room to breathe. And up there, in the clouds, is where I have felt the freest. It's like being almost weightless."
"Now that fat Agnes isn't taking up your living room," Agnes said in her best little-girl voice.
"I didn't say that, but I am not going to lie and tell you or anyone that I haven't enjoyed living by myself." I looked into her beady little round eyes. "But that isn't to say I don't miss you. I love you, Agnes. I do miss you. Many nights I wish you were still at the house, and I was making tuna sandwiches for you."
"You do make the best tuna salad in Bright's Pond."
I patted her hand. It felt warm—too warm. "Maybe I'll sneak one in the next time I come."
"Will you? That would be scrumptious."
"But I don't want to mess your diet up too much. You look like you're losing some weight.
Lots of it. Seems just last week that wheelchair was a snug fit."
Agnes moved her butt in the chair. "It does feel a bit roomier. My rear end doesn't rub so much on the sides."
"Pretty soon you'll be up and running down the halls."
"Nah, not me—not unless whatever bug bit Haddie bites me too."
I was glad we had gotten off the subject of Cliff Cardwell and Zeb Sewickey.
"Well, look Agnes," I said. "If you don't need anything else I should be getting back to town. I'm taking Ruth into Shoops to shop for Thanksgiving." I saw the change in Agnes's countenance.
"Thanksgiving? You having dinner with Ruth?"
"Me and a few others. But I'll be coming by to see you. I promise to bring you a plate. I doubt even Nurse Sally would deny you Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings."
Agnes didn't say a word. The look in her eyes was enough to tell me that missing Thanksgiving at home would be hard. I patted her hand and then hugged her the best I could. "I know it's hard. But look, I'll come by the nursing home with Ruth and Stu and Ivy and whoever else wants to come along. We'll make it a party—just like old times."
Agnes pushed herself toward her bed. "It'll be nothing like old times. No matter how you slice the pumpkin pie, the fact remains I'm here. It's not home."
She was correct. People are supposed to go home for Thanksgiving. "We'll make the best of it. You'll see."
"You ever eat nursing home food?"
"No, well, at the cafeteria—a little. It was pretty wretched."
"Imagine Thanksgiving nursing-home style."
"It's not all about the food."
Agnes looked up at me. I watched her eyes glisten with tears. "I know that, but good food goes real well with good friends, like hand and glove, Starsky and Hutch."
"We'll find a way for you to have both." That was when Ivy appeared at the door with Mickey Mantle. "Hey, Agnes," Ivy called with a wave. "I saved the best room for last. I always said you have the best view."
"Howdy, Ivy. Bring that pooch over here."
Ivy dropped Mickey Mantle's leash and the dog trotted in his own three-legged style to
Agnes. She held his snout and looked into his big brown eyes. "What a good dog. How've you been, Mickey?"
The dog licked her cheek.
"Maybe you can bring Mickey Mantle for Thanksgiving." Ivy looked at me.
"I was telling Agnes about our plans for the holiday. I told her we'll all come by her room on Thanksgiving and bring her a plate of food and pie and we'll have a party, right here."
"Oh, s-s-sure, Agnes. You got that right. Wild horses couldn't keep us away from Greenbrier on Thanksgiving."
Agnes smiled. "What time? What time will you all be coming?"
"Well, I can't say. Not just yet," I said. "I'm not certain what time Ruth is planning dinner.
But I'll let you know. We still have a week to work it all out."
Agnes's mood deflated again. "I had no idea it would be such trouble."
"It's not trouble. It's just a matter of coordination and timing. But we'll be here with plenty of time to celebrate—good friends, good food, our many blessings."
Excerpted from Blame It on the Mistletoe by Joyce Magnin. Copyright © 2011 Joyce Magnin. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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