June 20, 2010
Mr. Fickle is my mother’s name for a man in his eighties who lives at The Place. He kissed Alice’s cheek on New Year’s Day and occasionally he holds her hand, in a passing hello, a bit longer than, as she puts it, is necessary. His real name is Howard. “He’s not as handsome as your father was,” she’s told me more than once. “Not by a long shot.”
The man is balding, tall and stooped, with a protruding belly and a kindly face, though not a face of any distinction. My father, who died in 2000, was an athlete and always trim. In his youth, according to Alice, he’d been compared to Dean Martin. Mr. Fickle lacks his charisma. Further, Mr. Fickle wears slacks from a range of colors unknown to Dad–from burgundy to plaid to gold–and he favors cardigan sweaters. My father was what my mother calls “a snappy dresser.” He hit his 70s before he wore a pair of jeans, and then only around the house. Denim reminded him too much of his childhood spent working hard on his father’s North Dakota ranch when he’d have preferred hiding out in the barn, reading a book (which he did so often his mother placed the books she wanted him to read in the hayloft). Cardigans never cozied their way into his wardrobe.
Mr. Fickle is the leader of the Rosary group. They meet nightly at six sharp in a common room only a few feet away from Alice’s apartment door. He first came to her attention when he stood to open the common room door for her so she could get from the dining room, where she’d been lingering, to her apartment. She walked slowly with her cane through a steady rain of Hail Marys. This made her self-conscious. Although she’s careful about hair, makeup and clothes, she doesn’t like anyone to look at her. From that night on, she wanted to avoid the Rosary group, but had taken note of Howard’s graciousness, and therein began what she laughingly calls their affair.
Unaccountably, Alice changed Howard’s name to George one day when we were at an office supply store looking for a desk to put in her apartment. All the desks came in kits that required home assembly. As we walked up an aisle, picking up and putting down complicated diagrams, she said, “I wonder if George could put one of these together for me.”
“You know who I mean.” She scooted off on her walker.
When I caught up with her she was admiring a particularly daunting rolltop. “How do they expect a little old lady to take pieces of wood out of a box and end up with this?”
“Who’s George?” I asked again.
“Howard. I don’t have any idea why I called him George. I like it better than Howard. I guess that’s why.”
For many weeks she gave me news of George: He’d switched to a different table in the dining room. He ran his hand along the smooth wooden counter top near her table and smiled at her. He waved from across the room. He did not look at all good in yellow (new cardigan).
One day she came to the dining room early and pretended to be looking for something on various tabletops so that she could read George’s place mat. Several residents wrote their hobbies on these plastic mats. She learned that his was fishing. “I pretended I had lost something,” she said, “so that the people who set the tables wouldn’t think I was spying on him.”
Alice was taken by surprise one evening long after the New Year’s kiss when she saw him lean down and kiss the cheek of another resident. Shortly after that, he held the hand of a woman on The Place’s administrative staff for almost a full minute. She changed his name to Mr. Fickle and has been calling him that, though not to his face, ever since.
© 2010 Andrea Carlisle