by Dwight R. Hilson
Oh, you will love it here; everyone is so nice and friendly, and the nurses on the full-care wing can handle all but the most severe cases—God forbid. There’s almost no reason to leave.
I heard you’re in the Dayton Wing. You know, they’re all named after the towns to which they point—like a compass. I’m in the Downtown Wing, but yours is the best. Everyone calls it the “Happy Wing” since the renovation. Those old rooms were simply dreadful: so small and dark and the heat never caught up with winter. When Hazel Welter caught the pneumonia, they just had to do something. But it’s nice now, with the golden-paisley wallpaper, and your walker will just glide over that carpet like a Cadillac.
Can you hear me okay? I do tend to natter away, and I know some of the caregivers are glad we have to wear these things, as if it will muzzle me, but no sirree. The cotton ones are supposed to be the safest, and they are soft, but my face just gets so warm. You see? There I go again, Chatty Granny; that’s what they used to call me back when—well, you know.
Now where was I…oh, right, Cadillacs. I always liked Cadillacs the best, always bought a white one—they called it Pearl White—with chrome wheels. Herb wouldn’t ride in it, said it was my “girlie” car, God bless him. He’s been gone for I don’t know how long. Happened the night that Boston player let New York win the World Series—the ball went clear through his legs, not that I care so much about baseball, but that’s what Herb was watching before bed, so I remember.
Oh good, it’s pot roast today. You’ll love the food. My little Coco adores the pot roast. Sometimes she’s a fussy little poodle, but not when I bring her pot roast nibbles. I would love for you to meet her, but the rules say she has to stay in my room, bless her tiny heart. She doesn’t have much hair left, but she’s still my little baby. Can’t imagine what I’ll do when she’s gone. I’d adopt another, but that’s against the rules too: Only pets allowed are the ones you came in with. We’re in the Downtown Wing.
Did I say that already? I’m sorry, sometimes I lose track when I’m excited. I think we’re lucky today—they may serve cake. The cake is special. I had cake on my birthday; it was so beautiful, with a single pink, spiral candle. They even let me blow out the flame. They stood quite a ways away, like they trusted I had enough air to do the job all by myself. But I needed help to pull the candle out so I wouldn’t lose any frosting. That’s the best part.
Sometimes I wish they’d bring out the whole cake, but I understand. I think they’d bring me another slice if I asked, but I don’t want to be a bother. Everyone is so nice and friendly. They used to take you shopping, right downtown if you wanted. Of course, I never asked—no need; I’d just as soon drive myself. I’m a good driver. Fast too. That’s why Herb wouldn’t drive with me.
Oh, I don’t think he thought himself too manly to ride with me, no; it was the speed—I liked to get where I was going—fast—and Herb was content to putter along at the speed limit. So we mostly took two cars, and you can just imagine how long I spent at places, waiting for him to arrive. Always loved to drive, and started young; my pappy taught me not too far from here in a Ford Model T. Pappy sure loved that car—the first in our family. He was a machinist, you know, could fix most any part all by himself. I was twelve when he told me to climb in—it looked as high as a second-story window. You didn’t need any permit or license back in ’27. I expected a nice ride but no sir; he sat me on the driver’s side. Couldn’t see over the wheel, and my feet were too short so he got pillows and lashed blocks to my shoes. Never so scared in my life. Stalled her a couple times and could barely turn that wheel, but Pappy said I was a natural. I’ve never forgotten how he looked me clear in the eyes, saying, “Don’t ever let someone say you can’t do something, Olive—you can drive.”
You should’ve seen the looks on all my friends’ faces when Pappy let me ramble that Ford down Main Street—and I was only twelve. It just came naturally.
By the way, do you remember that old news store past downtown, off High Street? Just three blocks from the high school? Last time I was by there, saw a new sign saying The House of Love. Thank God my Herb didn’t live to see that one. You’d think it was a cathouse, not a Baptist church, but Herb would’ve thought that was even worse. He was Episcopalian himself but held no great affection for the pious—thought them a bunch of phonies, mostly, same with politicians.
Haven’t been by there for a spell. Used to pass it on my way to Greenwood Cemetery, but those streets got all dug up and the detour took you along 4th Street. Never liked going that way, lost my little Ruthie over there. Can you believe it was a drunk driver? Middle of the day. Pappy and Mother had just picked her up at high school in their new coupe and never saw the son of a bitch who hit them. Oh, I’m sorry for my language. You just never lose the bitterness for some things. She was more than a big sister, and I didn’t get to the hospital in time to hold her hand.
I’m sorry—did I tell you about Herb yet? Well, he was the cat’s meow, if I do say so. We met in 1940 at the paper company. That’s right, National Paper. I worked as a secretary in the executive offices. Herb was one of the big shots; his grandfather started National. And let me tell you, he was tall, lithe, and had a smile that could ruin a nun. He flirted with me something awful—told me my curves could stop a freight train—but I kept my distance. He was more than a decade older and married with two teenage girls, but I guess you could say he plain wore me down. One day he took me to lunch and said, “I’m divorcing Millie and I want you to marry me.”
Well, of course I said yes. Wouldn’t be any children, however—that was part of the deal. But I have no regrets. Herb’s daughters always treated me like blood kin, and he made me feel like a queen. You know, I had to buy larger jewelry safes three times. And we never stopped traveling—coast-to-coast, around the world, and always first class. I think we stayed in every fancy hotel from Cairo to Tokyo.
My oh my, I’m just jabbering away. Sometimes I can’t stop myself; Chatty Granny, that’s what they used to call me before—well, you know. And now I’ve gone and lost track of what we were talking about. Did I mention the bus? I think you’ll like this story.
I thought my Herb had lost his marbles. He goes off and buys a real, full-size bus decked out like a luxury camper—one with side-by-side bucket seats more comfortable than a La-Z-Boy up front and a queen-size bed in back. He’d retired by then and wanted to roll that thing down every back road we could find, just the two of us. Sometimes I lie on my bed with Coco, remembering those trips, and it’s like I’m living them all over again.
But here’s the thing; Herb let me drive her, a GMC Hydramatic and a beast to steer—worse than Pappy’s Model T. Herb fashioned a wide leather belt to hold me in the seat so I could get leverage to spin that wheel, and he welded an extension on the shifter to help me reach it. But it was the brakes that gave me the most trouble.
One trip, in the Rockies, we’d gone over one of those high passes, and on the downgrade, I turned to Herb and said, “Honey, what would you do if you lost the brakes?”
I can still see how his eyes got all wide. “I’d pull off on the shoulder and scrape the side to slow her.”
“Well, you better get away from that window,” I told him, “’cause that’s where we’re heading!”
It worked, too, but after that I told Herb we needed a bus without air brakes, one that I could slow by shifting gears. Did I say I’m a natural at working a clutch? Yes, driving came as easy as wearing diamonds. And wouldn’t you know it, we brought jewelry on near every trip too.
Once, during one of our longer rides—oh, my, I hope I’m not boring you. But anyway, we started at that Masters golf tournament in Georgia, then drove to Indy for the 500, same year Bill Vukovich went over the wall; couldn’t hide my tears that day. Then we headed west. I think we were crossing New Mexico—I remember the heat waves rippling off the desert far down the road. Herb was sleeping, so you can imagine I was working that accelerator pretty good, and we came behind another bus, maybe a big camper; I don’t remember for sure. But I was gearing down to make the pass when Herb opened his eyes and grinned that devilish smile at me. “Well, if you’re gonna pass them, why don’t we give them a show? Put on those chandelier earrings and show ’em some skin.”
My Herb could be such a joker. He grabbed my jewelry box and found the earrings, most beautiful ones you ever saw—four inches long, with enough flashy diamonds to satisfy a thief. You wouldn’t believe how sunlight bounced stars off those bangles. I kept my hands on the wheel as Herb fastened each post. My neck tingles just thinking how his fingers raised the moisture on my skin.
Then, just before starting the pass, I pulled my top off the shoulder and jammed on the gas. I roared up alongside the driver and held steady until he looked over. Herb had the side window open and leaned back as I blew that man a kiss. Good thing no one drove toward us because that man’s eyes went wide as the horizon before his wheels inched onto gravel and his head jerked back to the road. Herb was laughing so hard, I thought he might fall out the door.
We stopped at a campground that night and never left the bus. Some men want their women demure and obedient but not Herb. He made me feel like a goddess.
Yes, that bus was something else, Herb too, and lucky he had a sensitive nose. We were up in northern Michigan when he woke up smelling smoke. A worn electrical wire arced, igniting fuel dripping from a faulty seal. He pulled me out of there just as the smoke started thickening into clouds. We stood in our pajamas, watching that bus just explode in flames.
We stuck with cars afterward, and that’s when Herb bought me my first Cadillac.
I do miss it now. Sold it on my birthday almost a year ago, March. Did you know that car had a trunk hood that would close itself? Hard to believe kids today won’t ever know how good it feels to slam a trunk. I did receive a birthday card from the DMV, however—more like an invitation, actually—but it seemed a waste of time to RSVP.
Oh, how I miss driving, the speed always feeling like freedom. I had a daily routine…you know, before. I would head down Main past the Walgreens and elementary school, wave at the workers on break, then head across the downtown bridge; always liked the view of the old paper mill, still chugging away. Of course, downtown had become a little scraggly. There weren’t any For Rent signs back when Herb was on the city council. He told them to lobby for the interstate to connect with downtown, but Herb said those boys couldn’t see past their lunch plans, and I guess he was correct.
The part I liked best, though, was visiting Greenwood Cemetery. All my family members are there; we have a section shaded by a magnificent sycamore. There’s a space waiting right next to Herb’s headstone. He wanted his to be huge—bigger than the ones marking all those blowhards he thought deserved only a mushroom patch. I do miss visiting, leaving flowers, or just chatting with my memories. Oh, I imagine that one of these days they’ll offer me a ride over to Greenwood, but it won’t be the same as driving myself.
And can I tell you a secret? My Herb isn’t actually buried there. I spread his ashes in a secret spot, and only my lawyer knows where. I’ll join him soon enough, and we’ll be back together again.
Oh good, it’s time for dessert. What do you say we ask them for some cake? Did I tell you how good it is, especially the frosting? You know, they’ll bring you cake anytime you want it. All you have to do is ask.
Category: Featured, Fiction, Short Story