All of the clocks in the room were set forward an hour. This was Madge’s way of keeping herself sharp. Every time she looked at the time, which was often, she would have to do a little mental math. She didn’t like those puzzle books her daughter brought her. She didn’t like the way her daughter looked at her like she was going crazy. Madge knew what year it was. She knew what month it was. She sometimes got the day of the week mixed up. Every day seemed the same in here. Mostly just lying in the bed, watching Dog the Bounty Hunter on TV. That man was fine. Madge wished there were men like Dog in Lucky Villa Nursing Home. Not drooling idiots who took twenty pills a day and couldn’t wipe their own asses.
Today was Wednesday, the day her daughter visited. Sometimes her daughter brought a candy bar or a soda. Sometimes both. They weren’t allowed to have candy and soda in Lucky Villa because so many of the patients were diabetic or had high blood pressure. Madge’s blood sugar was a little high, but she didn’t like to admit it. Madge was what the nurses called a “hard case,” which was ironic because Madge was one of the healthiest people in this place. Much healthier than her roommate, Greta, who was ten years Madge’s junior. They didn’t have to wipe Madge’s ass. They didn’t have to help feed her, or help her take a shower. But that’s what made her a “hard case," she still had some ability, unlike most of the geezers in this place. She could refuse to take her pills if she felt like it (which she sometimes did). She could refuse to go to physical therapy (she already knew how to walk just fine, thanks). She didn’t need some thirty-somethings telling her how to live her life. The only reason she was even in here was because her new son-in-law had knocked up her daughter again, and they wanted to convert her bedroom into the new baby’s nursery. That stupid Yank. She warned her daughter not to marry him, but she never listened.
“Mom? You awake?” Jennifer cautiously knocks at the door.
Madge doesn’t answer. She’s just going to come in anyways. She keeps watching the TV.
Jennifer steps into the room. She strides up to Madge’s bed and tugs the privacy curtain that separates Madge from Greta. “Hey mom. How you doing today? You feeling ok? I brought you something.”
She pulls a puzzle book out of her purse. “See? There are all types of puzzles in here. Remember how dad used to love doing the crossword in the newspaper?”
“Your father never did a crossword puzzle in his life. The bastard.”
“Mom,” Jennifer says, voice stern.
Madge turns to face her daughter for the first time since she entered the room. “Don’t talk to me like I’m a child. I’m not a child. And I like my damn TV shows. I don’t like no puzzles.”
“Ok Mom. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to talk to you like you’re a child, ok? I’m just going to set the book down on your table here, ok?”
They sit in silence for a while. One not knowing what to say, the other refusing to speak. Jennifer makes a soft clicking sound with her nails. After about an hour Jennifer makes a move to get up. “I’m going to get going mom, ok? Steve is at home with the kids and I told him I wouldn’t be gone too long. Jeffrey is getting to be a handful these days, and Steve loses his anger so easily…”
Jennifer picks up her purse. “I’ll be back again next week, ok? I love you mom.”
She really does love her daughter.
Another hour passes and Madge lays in her bed listening to the sound of nurses bustling around in the hallway. She’s happy her daughter pulled the privacy curtain so she doesn’t have to look at Greta. Her roommate spends her days laying on her side, staring at the wall, only turning around when the nursing aides bring her food.
Madge’s door is open, and occasionally she can see a nursing aide in gray scrubs walk past. Occasionally an aide glances into the room as they walk by. A young male aide, Henry, walks past. Henry has been going out with Linda, the brunette that works reception. Their eyes linger too long in each other’s directions, their eye contact lasts just a little too long for co-workers. Linda is also going out with Vince. Henry doesn’t know. Linda is what Dog’s wife would call a “slut.”
Madge remembers when she first started dating her late-husband. Don was all about the ladies. That didn’t stop once he started dating Madge. Not even after they got married. Don was a “man-slut.” He was an attractive man, probably more attractive than Dog. For a while they were happy. She thought, still thinks, that Don loved her at one point. They were happy for a while, even with Don cheating on her. But eventually, once Jennifer left the house, their relationship began to fall apart. Madge learned to turn on the radio just to hear another human voice and stop herself from going crazy. If Madge was being honest with herself, her and Don never really talked, not even when Jennifer was growing up. Maybe when their relationship first started. Right when they got married. Before that.
Madge watches as Vince and Henry help Mr. Smirnov walk down the hall. Every day Mr. Smirnov walks back and forth down the hall in his pajamas and those socks with the little non-skid circles on the bottom, the ones all the fall-risk patients have to wear. His first name is something with a V that no one can remember or pronounce. Something Russian. This walking is supposed to help Mr. Smirnov’s dementia. But Mr. Smirnov seems the same that he did yesterday and the day before that and the month before that. Madge learned from the aides that all of Mr. Smirnov’s family died in the second Great War or shortly afterwards. Mr. Smirnov himself is a Soviet war hero, although maybe that’s not something to brag about in America. Madge was never good with history. When he gets really angry or confused, Mr. Smirnov yells things in Russian. At one point, Madge had started compiling a list of the words he shouted. So far, she had learned otva`li, mu`dak means “fuck off, you asshole,” and `suka means “bitch,” the two phrases he uses with the most frequency. Something about Mr. Smirnov fascinated Madge. Reminded her of Don.
“`khu i!!!” Looking through the door, Madge can see Mr. Smirnov rip his arm out of Henry’s grasp. “Idi na xuy husesos!”
Something about dicks.
“Mr. Smirnov, you need to calm down! Everything is ok!” Vince tries and fails to sound calm.
“Tupoy amerikanets! Otpusti menya! Ty ne voz'mesh' menya v plen!” Free from his captors’ grasps, Mr. Smirnov sits down in the middle of the tiled hallway and hocks a loogie in the direction of Henry’s shoes.
Madge wonders where Mr. Smirnov thinks he is. Who he thinks he is. And when.
Madge relives her past every day, every hour. But not in the literal sense that Mr. Smirnov is probably reliving it. Nothing with Don was ever clear. Still isn’t. He had these annoying habits. Small things. Like he would sigh at the end of every meal, a long, loud breath. And he would take 40 minute showers, so that he used all the hot water, and Madge had to start taking showers at night. And he would overextend his elbow whenever he got nervous, stretching it until he heard a loud pop. But he was also a great father to their daughter, she reminds herself. The first thing Don would do when he got home from work was give their daughter a hug. Madge wonders if she resents him for this. For not putting her first. She wonders if Jennifer resents her kids.
Out in the hall, Henry and Vince have gotten Mr. Smirnov on his feet. They seemed to have convinced him with an offering of pudding that he is not being held prisoner in a German camp. He holds the pudding in one hand as the two men hold him up under his arms. He shuffles out of Madge’s view, dragging his feet along the floor, leaving a glob of spit gleaming on the tile.
On the TV, Dog is chasing some pot-bellied drug dealer with sweat stains under his armpits. Earlier in the episode the drug dealer’s girlfriend had ratted him out. There is a major blowout between the two of them before the drug dealer takes off running. Madge has seen this episode before. The drug dealer runs through a suburban neighborhood, trips on a toy some kid has left on the sidewalk, and Dog catches him. She wonders about the girlfriend. What happened to her. If she regrets turning in her brother. If she lives in their double-wide trailer by herself now.
She thinks about Mr. Smirnov alone in his room. Maybe he’s lying in bed and dreaming about Russia. Madge never got to travel the world when she was younger. Spent her whole life within 100 miles of this very nursing home. Don never liked to go on trips with her. Said he got car sick. Madge had to content herself with pictures of far-away places in magazines, imagining what it would be like to spend a week in Hawaii or see Stonehenge. Now she imagines what it would be like to visit Russia. It would be cold. She would need to buy some warmer clothes, that’s for sure.
Looking back at the TV, Madge realizes the episode has ended and some infomercial selling Xtend male enhancement pills is on. The infomercial features attractive young men who look like they are on steroids. She clicks off the TV. If she lays in bed much longer she’ll get bed sores. She’s seen Greta’s bed sores when the nursing aides come to change her sheets. Greenish-red pus-seeping holes in her skin.
Madge puts on her slippers and makes her way to the door, glancing at Greta on the way out. In the hallway, her slippers clop and scrape along the floor. She glances in the rooms she passes. Next door to her room is Mr. Giovanni and Louis, watching TV. Next to them is Bertha and Mary Sue, watching TV. Bertha is sitting on her bed knitting. Across the hall from them is Ted, who gets a room to himself on account of his social phobia. His door is barely cracked. Patients aren’t allowed to close their doors here. Ted is watching TV.
The hallway ends in a nurses’ station, one of many throughout Lucky Villa. The home is laid out in an octagonal shape, with branches cutting diagonally across the octagon. More than once some poor bastard with dementia has gotten lost among the maze of hallways.
Madge approaches the nurses’ station and turns right. Mr. Smirnov’s room must be somewhere close by. He can’t go too far on his walks. Maybe they could talk, become friends, lovers even. She would get to his room, he would invite her in, call her some Russian endearment, wrap his arms around her, hold her waist and she will forget about her sagging boobs and wrinkles as he looks in her eyes and they will simply connect. Maybe they will run away from Lucky Villa together, start a new life, a sort of life after life. Madge will forget about Jennifer and her shitty husband. And he will forget about the war. They will have sex all the time and be happy and in love and they will live out the rest of their lives in complete bliss.
Madge realizes she is lost. She’s taken one too many turns, hasn’t seen Mr. Smirnov’s room at all.
Having retraced her steps back to a nurse’s station, Madge is led back to her room. She’s bitter.
Vince comes in the room and tells her it is almost time for dinner. She has to fill out a card so the aides know what to bring her, checking the boxes next to the items she wants. Wednesday’s card lists meatloaf with mashed potatoes and gravy and peas or spaghetti with a slice of toast. She can also choose between water, milk, or apple juice. She frowns at the card and puts a check next to a random dish and drink. Wednesday meals are the worst. The meatloaf is like eating wet socks, the mashed potatoes are always runny, the peas hard, the spaghetti noodles are so mushy they dissolve in your mouth and the toast is always burnt. She wishes her daughter would have brought her a candy bar.
“Mrs. Greta, what would you like for dinner? We’ve got spaghetti or meatloaf.” Vince tries to engage Greta, just like he does every day, to no effect. She remains rolled over, staring at the wall.
“She’s not gonna talk to you. Just give it up.” Madge tells Vince.
“Now, Mrs. Madeline –” He touches his nose, a nervous tick.
“It’s Madge. How many times I got to tell you hair brains? And you think I’m the one that needs help remembering shit.” Madge scoffs, phlegm catching in her throat.
“I’ll just put you down for spaghetti. Is that ok, Mrs. Greta?”
There’s still no response and Madge rolls her eyes. Vince has pulled back the privacy curtain so that Madge can see Greta. A little spittle runs down the side of her mouth as she stares at a crack in the wall. She rubs her hands over a bump in the bed sheets, her arthritic fingers curled and knobby. Madge shivers.
Vince leaves the room with their cards, and Madge stares at Greta.
She remembers walking into hers and Don’s room one night after he’d been drinking when Jennifer was little, maybe 3 or 4. Don was laying on his side, facing the wall. A smell like rancid milk and decomposing fruit hung in the room. Walking into the bathroom, Madge turned on the light and saw vomit the color and texture of cottage cheese coating the side of the bathtub. She turned off the light. She would take care of it in the morning. It was late. She would just spend the night in Jennifer’s room. Avoiding another vomit stain, Madge made her way back to the hall. As she was turning off a lamp on the nightstand that Don left on, Don rolled over and groaned. His eyes opened to slits. She remembers a fight. Don yelling about the light. Don yelling about Jennifer. Don yelling. She doesn’t remember what about. She sat on the bed crying as he yelled. She remembers Don shaking her. Growling at her to stop crying. His hands around her throat. Threatening to kill her if she didn’t stop crying. The next day Don would apologize. He always did. She would feel guilty. She would beg for his forgiveness.
Thursdays were game night. The most exciting day of the week. If Madge was lucky someone would put a scrabble tile in their mouth and start choking. The whole nursing home would turn out for scrabble, minus Greta. Occasionally there would be charades. Charades was fun because someone always fell, risked breaking a hip. Some of the folks in the home lived for game night. Winning game night was their only way of feeling fulfilled. Feeling like they weren’t old losers who got dumped by their families.
Until game night starts at 5, Madge is going to spend the day watching some more Bounty Hunter. She watches Dog’s tattooed muscles ripple on the screen. His long blonde mullet slightly tangled. Her groin throbs. She doesn’t even remember the last time she had sex.
Mr. Smirnov walks by the door with his aides. He stops, looks at her. She stares back. If only she could find out where his room is, they would both be happy. She would make him happy. He squints at her, scrunching his nose like he’s going to sneeze. A little dribble slips down the side of his mouth. If Madge squints, he kind of looks like Dog. A little shorter maybe.
Madge’s partner keeps spelling imaginary words, and Madge is getting impatient. Boc. Extw. Tmnap. He excitedly shouts each imaginary word he creates.
“Jtrbkl is not a word you asshat.” He’s ruining scrabble night for her.
He stares at her blankly, mouth hanging open, pink tongue bulging and wet. Spittle is gathered at the corners of his mouth, little bubbles stretching when he moves his tongue. Madge can’t stop staring. Can’t look away from the disgusting decline of this man. Drool drips from his mouth and lands on the scrabble board covering a T and a M.
Madge has had enough. She gets up to go get an aide. Asks for a different scrabble partner.
Mr. Smirnov sits by the door, refusing to play. He has a crossword in his lap and Madge wonders if it is in Russian.
Don always kept crossword puzzles in the house. He would leave them laying around so that guests could find them and see how smart he was. The New York Times would sit on the coffee table, perfectly filled out in pen. If they paid attention though, guests could have noticed that the crossword was always a week old. Don would wait for the answers to each crossword to come out the week after the crossword was released and then carefully fill in each square. Another façade. Just another one of his lies. It’s funny really, that Jennifer doesn’t remember Don did this. As a kid, she would sit on his lap and say each letter aloud as he wrote it down. Maybe that’s why she ended up with a man just like Don. Twice. Jennifer’s first husband, Jay, was a nightmare. He would stay out late and come home drunk almost every night. It took Jennifer years to leave Jay, and even longer to get over him. When she did though, she ended up with a man even more like her father. Madge has seen the bruises Jennifer tries to hide when she comes to visit.
Mr. Smirnov looks at Madge as she passes. She stops, considers beginning their romance, but no, there are too many people around. She has to wait for the right moment. She looks in the direction of her room, back at Mr. Smirnov, tries to figure out how she can tell him to follow without being too obvious. She’s not even sure what the rules about sex are at Lucky Villa. She read somewhere once, or maybe she saw it on TV, that the feet are indicators of attraction. They point towards what a person is interested in. She tries this now, points one foot at Mr. Smirnov, another in the direction of her room. She wants him, there. Madge begins to lose her balance, has to scrunch her knees up so she doesn’t fall. She gives up and heads to her room. Scrabble night doesn’t seem like so much fun anymore. Greta lays on the bed, staring at the wall. Madge sits on the bed and turns on Dog the Bounty Hunter. It’s one she’s seen before. She watches Dog’s muscular body move on the screen and she thinks of Don. Out of the corner of her eye she sees Mr. Smirnov standing in the doorway. His crossword puzzle dangles from one hand and his mouth hangs open. He takes a step forward, crossing the threshold into the room. He’s really not so bad looking. Not really. He’s better looking than most of the old fuckers in this place. She looks at his body. He’s tall. Or he used to be probably. He’s a little hunched with age now. She looks at his groin. Wonders what his pants conceal.
“What are you doing here?” She’s surprised that her feet trick worked.
“W-Wom-an.” He stutters in broken English.
He wants her, wants to be with her. He’s been thinking about her as much as she’s been thinking about him. He’s been walking around trying to find her like she’s been searching for him. She can forget about Don.
“Here.” He pronounces the word like it rhymes with star. “Pudding. Russia.”
He takes a few more shuffling steps towards her. He’s about 6 feet away from her now. His arms have fat-sags. His knees knock together arthritically and his knobby hands are covered in liver spots. His fingernails are long and yellow.
Madge is suddenly repulsed. Mr. Smirnov looks nothing like Dog. Just another old person, but worse because he’s here, so close she can touch him. He opens his mouth to speak and she cringes, pulling away from his decaying teeth and thinning hair.
“Don’t. Don’t come near me.”
He takes another step forward, leaning towards her as he speaks.
“Stop.” Her voice is shaky. She doesn’t want this dying body in her presence.
“You.” He tries to talk. She can’t take it anymore. She just wants him away. She pushes him. She feels his fragile body under her hands. His caved in chest and fleshy stomach. His eyes widen as his non-skid socks lose traction. He falls on his back and lays still. His eyes spasm behind closed lids.
She looks at his prone body and thinks about Don. About Steve and Jay. It’s lonely in here, but maybe it’s better that way. She looks at Dog on the TV. Damn is he fine. She flips off the TV. The crossword puzzle lays a couple feet away where it slid when Mr. Smirnov fell. Greta lays on the bed, still staring at the wall. Her eyes are open, but it’s as if she didn’t hear a thing. Her hand rhythmically fidgets with the bedsheets. Maybe Greta’s the lucky one. Madge steps around Mr. Smirnov towards the door. She picks up the crossword puzzle and heads back to Scrabble night.
BRITANI BAKER is finishing up her Master’s in Literature at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she plans to continue with her Ph.D. She received her Bachelor’s in English and Latin from the University of Alabama. She hails from Charleston, South Carolina.