May 30, 2011
“Our romance,” Alice said recently of Mr. Fickle, “is a thing of the past.”
The man who once took her hand and squeezed it on an irregular basis rarely notices her any more. His gait has slowed and his flirtations with all the many widows who surround him have markedly decreased.
He still sometimes glances (maddeningly) away from Alice and into the post office across from her table when he walks down the hallway, and she still stares straight ahead, pretending not to notice, wanting to call out to him, “I’m over here!”
Back when things were more lively between them–even when it included hanky-panky with other women, such as kissing their cheeks or hugging them–these things only added juice to the story Alice was writing in her head so that she’d have something to tell me during our nightly phone calls.
One time she saw him pushing a woman in a wheelchair toward the elevator that leads to the upstairs apartments. When he went up the elevator, the bill on his cap was pointed in one direction, but when he came down the elevator and entered the dining room a while later, it pointed in the other direction. (See As the Cap Turns for details.)
But now the thrill is gone.
Last night I called her for advice on removing a blob of something dark, gummy and stubborn burned on to my black ceramic stove top (the single appliance in my houseboat’s galley that I am continually at war with).
I thought this would give us something, a least, to discuss, but she ignored my plea for one of her famous home-made mixtures. Instead, with some excitement, she launched into a new Mr. Fickle mystery. I got out my “magic” (not) Cooktop Stove Cleaner, which I knew would be all but useless, yanked on my rubber gloves, and started in on a session of pointless scrubbing while I listened.
Alice told me that Mr. Fickle rose from his table in the middle of both lunch and dinner to go to the bathroom that day. He has to pass her table to enter the hall where the bathroom is located.
Time goes by. She’s on the lookout. No sign of him. He does not emerge from the hallway and return to his table.
And yet! When she gets up from her table to return to her apartment after eating, she turns around (her back is to his table) and sees that voila! There he sits, calmly finishing his meal.
This had happened twice that day, and neither time did she spot him in the act of returning to his table. How did he get there?
Mr. Fickle’s logistical options are so limited for going to the bathroom and getting back to his table that Alice can’t help but be puzzled.
“I can’t figure it out,” she said. “How does the old codger do it?”
I was obsessed with my stove top. “I’d like to get my hands on the person who invented these damn things.”
She knew immediately what I meant and sighed heavily because I was interrupting her Miss Marple investigation with such a mundane issue.
“Have you tried toothpaste?” she asked in a tone that implied any fool would surely have tried toothpaste by this point. “You know you can use toothpaste to get things off that are stuck to your iron.”
“I’m not even sure where my iron is.”
“You know where your toothpaste is, don’t you?”
I rinsed off the no-good-not-so-magic cleaner, then carried the phone with me while I went to get the Crest and rummaged in a junk drawer for an old toothbrush, all the while taking in Alice’s description of the layout of dining room, hallway, and bathroom, reminding me of things I’d seen many times but hadn’t ever considered to be what she was now calling “escape routes.”
By the time I had returned to the kitchen stove and started brushing on the toothpaste, I had a clear picture of the mystery (click image to enlarge):
Mr. Fickle exits the bathroom (A) and then…what? He does not go past Alice’s table (B) to return to his table (C), so how does the old codger, as she calls him, get back there?
I suggested that maybe he goes up the stairs beyond the restroom (D) and then crosses the second floor to get to the other stairs (F), descends, and returns to his table (C).
“He’s not Superman,” she said. “He’s Mr. Fickle. He’s old. No way does he have the energy to do all that.”
“Maybe he goes outside,” I said (E), “and walks around the building and then comes in the back door by the garden (G) and goes to his table.”
She was incredulous. “Outside? In the rain?”
She had a point.
“Let’s get back to this in a minute,” she said. “How’s the toothpaste working?”
I looked down at the gooey mess on my stove top and wiped away a corner of it. The blob was still there. “Not working.”
“Put baking soda on top of the toothpaste and then mix it in.”
I obeyed. The baking soda combined with toothpaste turned into little clumps. I scrubbed the mess back and forth with my toothbrush. The blob remained stuck.
“Pour on some ammonia. Don’t breathe it!” Alice commanded.
I pictured my mother in her Lazy Boy rocker/recliner, rocking faster and faster as more and more household cleaning products came rushing in to her mind.
“Don’t breathe it, did you say, or do breathe it?” I asked.
“What? Don’t! What are you thinking?”
“I was thinking,” I said as I dribbled on some ammonia, “that maybe I should lean down and take a big sniff and then turn the burner on and see what happens.”
“Now you’re just being silly.”
The drops of ammonia did not so much as make the baking soda/toothpaste concoction fizz.
“All right,” I said. “I’ll play around with this. Let’s get back to what really matters.”
I remembered the elevator (H). “Maybe he goes up the back stairs,” I said, “and comes down the elevator.”
“I can see the elevator,” she said. “Why would he do such a thing if he’s trying to avoid me?”
“Who says he’s trying to avoid you?”
“He is,” she said, confidently. “Yes, he is.”
“I just cannot figure it out,” she said. “I watch him go to the restroom. I don’t see him come back. I get up when I’m done eating dinner, and there he is, sitting at his table. Imagine! I swear I do not know how he does it.”
My stove top now looked and smelled like a pigeon had been flying around the kitchen.
“Leave it overnight,” Alice advised. “You never know.”
I felt relieved she’d run out of ideas. One more product, natural or otherwise, and my house would blow up.
Time to say good night. We were no help to each other.
Then in a quiet voice she said, “Earlier tonight I remembered how passionately he grabbed me and kissed me on the cheek that first time. And then that other time too…and always smiling at me. And now it has dwindled down to nothing but wondering how he gets back to his table from the bathroom.”
“But at least he’s still there,” I offered, “for you to wonder about.”
“I’m afraid poor old Mr. Fickle is failing,” she said. Failing is a word, she explained, that her mother, Martha, used about elderly people who were not in any obvious way ill but were running out of steam.
“In any case, you’re failing to figure him out,” I said, trying to cheer her a little.
“See what you’ve got tomorrow morning,” she said, skipping back to the stove top. “If that doesn’t work, try vinegar.” Vinegar is her cure-all for nearly everything. She was amazed she didn’t think of it first.
The next morning the blob was weakened enough by the assault of Alice’s concoction that all it took was some careful scraping with an Exacto knife to get rid of it.
I told Alice this news and she was happy for me. Still, the intrigue regarding Mr. Fickle’s comings and goings remains unsolved.
if you have any ideas about how Mr. Fickle gets back to his table, please share them.
October 23, 2010
About six months ago Alice was sitting on the edge of the bed folding laundry, one of her favorite activities, and suddenly found herself on the floor. She couldn’t remember exactly how it happened. “I’ll be okay,” she said as paramedics surrounded her. But no. Her right hip was broken and had to be replaced. After the surgery she lay in a hospital bed under the spell of the painkiller Oxycodone. She hallucinated dancers on the walls, as well as elegantly dressed couples going out for dinner at candlelit restaurants. “Who’s that man?” she’d ask me as she looked across the room at the blank wall beside the whiteboard that listed her doctor for the day, and I would respond, “Tell me what he looks like.” She’d describe some tuxedoed stringbean, and I’d say, “It’s Fred Astaire. No? Cary Grant. No? Frank Sinatra. No?” We did this over and over, and she always shook her head and insisted I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Every day the same nurse came to her hospital bed and bathed her. One day a new nurse showed up. She wore a purple scarf wrapped decoratively around her small, perfect head. Alice found the scarf fascinating and wanted to know where the woman was from.
“Zimbabwe,” she answered.
She asked her name.
Alice’s eyes, dimmed by pain, met mine. “Queen of Zimbabwe,” she said. “I wonder how much this bath is going to cost me.”
All three of us found this funny, but Alice was too deep in Oxy-fog to laugh.
Although the surgeon had confidence, everybody else at the hospital–floor doctors, nurses, and aides–continually reminded me that my mother was probably too old to survive a broken hip.
“Like you say, she’s 94,” they’d invariably start out, even though I hadn’t said a word about how old she was. But I guess they didn’t want to be responsible for the long, winding road of years that had led to this pretty pass. “Well, you know,” they’d say, “these things happen and then…” They’d trail off, and I would point out that she was still in there, still Alice, still making jokes. It was plain to me that she didn’t know how serious a broken hip was for someone in her age group, or she had forgotten. I instructed them not to tell her and to let her keep trying to be whole again. And so she continued to expect herself to improve and she did, little by little, inciting disbelief, astonishment and, eventually, celebration.
After she left the hospital, the doctor ordered her to go to a nursing home for a month. Her first room-mate talked incessantly. That inmate was followed by another who slept with her television set turned on full volume all night long. Finally, along came a woman who sat in her wheelchair and banged the door against the wall, trying to get someone’s attention so she could go to the bathroom. Alice stayed sane by doing books of word puzzles. Whenever I complained about anything to the kind and overworked staff, they reminded me there weren’t enough of them to get around to everyone in a timely manner. I moved Alice back to The Place with a stack of puzzle books all filled in. “Don’t lose those,” she said. They were artifacts of a time gone way wrong that she had survived.
All the physical therapists who visited her apartment for lengthy sessions of exercises fell in love with her. “She does everything we ask!” Each of them (a rotating staff of three) reported this with utter amazement. I wondered what other people did in order to walk again. Half of what they asked? None?
When physical therapy finally ended, the head of the team called me and said, “I’ve enjoyed every single second I’ve spent with your mother. We all feel the same way.”
Thanks to their dedication and her own, Alice now goes for walks almost every day, as long as there’s no wind to muss her hair. The other day I joined her for a short stroll in the sun.
“That sky,” she said looking up into a marbly blue, “reminds me of my new sweatshirt.” Before I could say anything she started to laugh, “Oh, what a thing to do to the beautiful sky, to compare it to a sweatshirt!”
As always she was intoxicated by trees and greenery.
But her arms began to ache from pushing the walker. “My arms aren’t so good today,” she said. “And my shoulders are hurting. They don’t work right any more. Have you seen how shabby they’ve gotten?” She turned around to show me that she could not make her shoulders raise her arms very high.
“But you are walking very well,” I said.
“I can walk. Yes!”
That night she called to say she was soaking her feet in a white vinegar foot bath and had added a few drops of cocoa butter lotion from the Dollar Store. She swears by vinegar’s power to cure all aches and pains. (Here’s a list of the wonders of vinegar.)
And while she soaked her feet, she said, she was sipping her nightly drink, which she calls a Tartini.
1/4 glass cranberry juice (straight; no sugar)
1/4 glass red wine
1 tbsp Bragg’s vinegar
Yes, it’s awful, but she swears she has even seen a few strands of black hair among the white since she started this regimen. “Vinegar is good for everything.”
She told me she was looking forward to watching the President on television. “He’s here in Portland today, you know,” she said, sounding as pleased as if he’d come to town to see her personally which, if he knew her, he might find useful.