One of the challenges of being a writer is the constant pressure to come up with story ideas. Do I write about myself? My family and friends? I write about the insurance man who ran off with his sister-in-law? Or drug dealers who frequent the cemetery? Should I make up stories so I don’t have to worry about being sued? A professor told me years ago that no matter what I put down, people will always think they recognize themselves.
When I have writer’s block, the longer I wait, the worse things get. Waiting for a glimmer of an idea, I distract myself. I drink a lot of coffee. I cook even though I don’t have much of an appetite. Sometimes I bake: This week I made a sour cream coffeecake and gave it to my neighbor, Mrs. Honeycutt, because her husband has a sweet tooth. I invite people over for dinner. Walk my Jack Russell, Polly. Talk too much on the phone. Pass the time with household projects like cleaning out closets and repotting orchids. I write notes on my ecru stationery. I eagerly await the mail — anything but address the issue at hand, facing the monster.
I study everything around me: Yesterday it was the bluebirds whose light movements suggest the coming spring; the first glimpse of daffodil stalks; the white truck carrying a coffin to be buried; or the young woman driving by who looked like she had been crying.
I remind myself that Hemingway sometimes took an entire morning to write a paragraph. “Just write one true sentence,”he counseled.
I wonder why I always have plenty to say and not much to write?
And, so, I wait, while the Muse plays hide and seek with me.
Then, lo and behold, as ever, there is a breach in the dam and the words gush forth. Not in one sentence but a few mediocre paragraphs, Mr. Hemingway. Alas, it’s a start. Peace descends and all is right with my world. Yes, I will publish again.
During my times of angst, when I go on walks I often pass a retirement home called Magnolia Gardens. One recent afternoon, a blurred February day promising more bad weather, I noticed an elderly woman sitting in front of her window and she waved. I did the same. This is her story.
The staff at Magnolia Gardens went to a lot of trouble to make sure Valentine’s Day was a special time for the residents. The art classes painted and glued sparkles on large hearts taped to the windows. There was bingo, guess the jellybeans in the jar, a special dinner — even an election for the King and Queen of Hearts.
It was the Saturday before the big day, and Belle Hardy levered herself out of a hard chair in the solarium and walked toward the dining room for a cup of coffee.
“Good morning, we didn’t see you at breakfast this morning. Everything okay?” The manager behind the front desk was actually one of the friendlier staff. The woman who worked at night was a sourpuss and seemed to be always on her phone. “Don’t forget to sign up for all our activities this week!” she said, although Belle didn’t hear her.
She poured her coffee and sat by a window to study the remnants of the fall garden: An occasional white camellia, arthritic nandina, and fatigued aucuba. What would she do with herself today? The blanket of empty hours had just become too much; she admitted she was taking too many naps. She reminded herself to join something again, maybe the bridge club, although for her this had always been like golf; much of her married life, she thought she’d pick it up in her golden years even though she never had. That had been Dan’s passion.
Looking up, she saw Rennolds Taylor making his way to her table.
“May I join you?”
“Happy Almost Valentine’s Day. By the way, I saw you the other night at the lecture. What did you think?” he asked as he sat down. “I have never been interested in mythology, though admittedly, I did learn a lot.”
A young woman from the kitchen appeared. “Would you all like more coffee? I am getting ready to clean everything up.” They both nodded yes. She filled their cups and left the pot on the table. A few minutes later, she returned with a plate of muffins. “Thought you would enjoy these. They’re still warm!”
Belle and Rennolds ate in silence — the elderly don’t feel the need to chatter all the time — and all of a sudden, Rennolds said, “I have been thinking. Since it’s Valentine’s Day this week, why don’t you come to the dinner with me? We could have a nice evening together. I find it interesting both of us have lived here and never really got to know each other. I mean, I knew you were Dan Hardy’s widow. So, would you like to go out? I will come by your room around 5:30, and we’ll stop by my place for a drink. How’s that?” he asked expectantly. The expression on his weathered face was almost boyish as he placed his hand on her forearm. “I notice you sitting out here a lot, except I hesitate to disturb you. Perhaps you prefer your own company.”
“Not always. And yes, I would love to have an evening with you. I admit I am a little betwixt and between these days. I have been spending too much time alone and I am dwelling on things I can’t do much about anymore.”
“Did I tell you I will come by at 5:30? Oh, yes, I think I said that. Would you like to come to book club with me tomorrow? We are reading Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.”
“Oh, Paris,” she laughed. “Such memories. Wish I could, except my family is taking me out to lunch and I don’t know when we’ll return. Another time. Have you finished your coffee? I should head back,” she said, wondering why she was in a hurry to leave. It’s not like she had anything to do other than mail a few Valentines.
Rennolds stood up, extending his arm. “Milady?” As they returned to her room, he asked if there was anything he could help with.
“No, I just need to have a better attitude or, as my mama used to say, ‘Buck up,’” Belle answered. She didn’t invite him into her room because it was such a mess and Rennolds said he really was looking forward to their date. A smile was her answer.
Something to look forward to, she thought as she closed her door. Finally. And who cares if he repeats himself? Who doesn’t in this place?
Rennolds Taylor may have repeated himself; nevertheless, he was a man with a mission. When you live in a retirement home and have charm and money (he had been one of the local bankers), usually you get your way. For the past few years, Glenn from the Social Activities staff had always helped out with a late-night six-pack here, a Washington Post there, but a few years ago he’d stuffed the ballot box for the King and Queen of Hearts election so Rennolds and Frances Aberstraum could win. (Sad to say, Frances had died year before last. Stroke. Found dead in her bed.) So, he had tipped Glenn again and that was that. Or so he hoped.
Valentine’s Day finally arrived, and Belle was a little nervous all afternoon, not to mention tired from the pleasant lunch she’d had with her family. She started to think about her late husband — oh, stop it, she told herself. She tried reading; however, who can concentrate on The Riviera Set when you’re apprehensive? (Once a Hollins College French major, always a Francophile.) She looked out the window, saw one of those aphids that looked like a ladybug on the sill and killed it with a tissue, noticing a young woman walk by with a small brown and white dog. They waved at each other. She tried to paint her nails, although today her hands were shaking so she gave up. She walked over to see her friend Margie Higgins, and knocked.
“Come on in.” Margie was in her bathrobe watching General Hospital. “Want some cookies?” She held up a plate of Oreos. “Have a seat.”
“I have a question for you.”
“What is Rennolds Taylor really like?”
“What do you want to know about him for? Uh, oh,” and a knowing expression washed across her face. “Well, I like him. Smart in a polite way. Wealthy like most bankers. Everyone goes to him for financial advice. Very interested in politics and belongs to a lot of clubs. Certainly is handsome. He reminds me of a Christopher Plummer without hair. And he likes the ladies,” she said, turning down the television. “I knew his wife from garden club — she died a long time ago. I always thought he’d remarry.”
“He has asked me over for a drink and to eat Valentine’s Dinner with him.”
“Well, well. That’s nice. He certainly does get around. I thought he was dating Anne Bater.”
“What did you say?”
“I said I thought he was dating Anne Bater.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well, she’s difficult and a flirt. I think she spends half her week at the hairdresser. That platinum hair has gotta be pricey. I must say: It is flattering to have our Romeo alight his eyes on you. Maybe you all would enjoy each other, and I think you’d be a good catch. You’re certainly pretty enough, and anyway, you spend too much time in your room.”
Belle laughed. “At my age, I could use a little romance. Who knows? Maybe he’s a sex maniac!”
“Maybe that’s why Anne has to go to the hairdresser so much!”
Later in the day, Belle took special care to get ready. She wore the pink, green, and lilac flowered dress with the ruffled bottom, that swayed out behind when she walked, and sandals with a small heel so her ankles wouldn’t roll over. Her mother’s pearls. Extra Chanel No. 5, even a swish between her breasts. A longer shower than normal. She didn’t even have afternoon tea. Maybe there would be a little smooch, and she felt a small tingle in her stomach because you can take the granny out of the girl, but you can’t take the girl out of the granny. Dear God, it’s been so long.
At 5:30 there was a knock on the door. When she opened it, Rennolds was standing there, a rubicund face, wreathed in cologne, and dressed in a striped tie, blazer, and khakis, his Sunday best. He was holding a single red rose.
“How sweet!” Belle motioned for him to come in and she found a small vase, filled it with water, and placed it on her bureau. “I’m sorry I don’t have anything for you — couldn’t get to the store.” Actually, she’d been so busy getting ready, she’d forgotten. She didn’t drive any more since last fall when she had backed into her daughter’s car. Now she relied on the Magnolia Gardens’ bus.
As they walked to his apartment, they made quite the shining couple in the winter of their long lives. (He was 78. She was 72.) They bumped into all sorts of dressed-up residents, made small talk, admired the hearts on streamers in the lobby and looked out the window at the whisper of rain. “Blow, blow thou winter wind. Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude!’” Rennolds remarked. “The great Bard himself.”
“Oh, I love quotes. Dan always quoted a lot of Kipling.”
Rennolds opened his door — he lived in the wing the residents called Richie Row — and Belle admired the male décor: the brown and green plaid sofa, the books, the duck prints, a mounted sailfish. Wine glasses and a plate of cheese and crackers beckoned from the coffee table. Classical music trembled softly in the background.
“Isn’t it funny we’ve lived here these past few years and never really gotten to know each other? I will get the wine.”
“You are usually dating someone,” laughed Belle. “And a little bird told me you were dating Anne Bater.”’
“We broke up, although I won’t get into all that. She is a lovely fun lady. My children are always telling me I need to learn how to be by myself sometimes, and I guess they are right. I haven’t liked being alone since Virginia died.”
They caught up on family news, what their children and grandchildren were doing (and didn’t everyone sound so darn successful and smart?) and how they missed their spouses and old lives.
Sipping her wine, Belle said, “Enough of this. Sadness will dampen our lovely evening. I must say, though, I feel like a fish in a fish tank here. No privacy. At dinner tonight, a few will already be talking about my being with you.”
“One big happy family,” Rennolds chuckled. “And we must keep an eye on the time.” He held out the bottle, she nodded yes, and he filled both the glasses. The wine was already making her feel better. Younger. Carefree.
He passed Belle a cracker, scooted closer to her on the sofa and patted her knee kindly. “Do you mind?” and when she shook her head, he gently kissed her on the cheek.
Belle smiled wide as the moon — thanked God for wine — turned her face towards his and kissed him on the lips. They wrapped their arms around each other, embraced by all the pent-up hunger, all the loneliness and disappointment of yesterday and tomorrow. And oh, what a night it promised to be.
Rennolds said “We need to watch the time,” and they had a little more wine and kissed again. Belle asked where the bathroom was, and he pointed down the hallway. She ended up staying in there longer than she’d planned — her skirt and slip were all fouled up. Why had she worn pantyhose? When she returned, she saw Rennolds with his head on the back of the sofa, his mouth wide open. She walked quickly towards him, banging her knee on a table. “Oh, please, don’t be dead, he looks like Dan in those last moments,” except just then he let out a big snore. She noticed he had a wet spot on the front of his pants.
With a sigh, Belle picked up her handbag and, weaving into the hallway, headed back to her room: The forgotten queen, returning to her castle, with surely, a pale cloud of hope on the horizon.
Tyler Scott has been publishing her stories and essays since the early 1980s. She now lives in a small town in Southside, Virginia. You can also read this article courtesy of the St Croix Review