Sally was the mysterious old lady that lived across the street. That name, Sally, carried the interesting connotation of belonging to an elderly person. Many names carry weight to them, sometimes particular to the person that hears them, and yet others carry a more universal weight, or in this case, age. She fit in with people like my grandparents. Her garb was typically adorned in gray, light pink and blue, her nose strenuously supported oversized glasses, her thin, gravity defying hair floated in some invisible aqueous environment, and her wrinkles convincingly accentuated a lifetime of movements. Such a person occasionally captures my attention, if only for a moment, and a strange (as in foreign and confusing) feeling comes over me. This feeling that the world I accepted and the people I knew to inhabit it were cracking and falling apart, and that the ownership of my place in the world, which I believed in with a subconscious self-entitlement, was blatantly temporary. Strange? Maybe. However, to be frank, the elderly can seem drastically different with their sense of humor, their way of talking, their smells, etc. Is such my fate? Oh no! It’s almost as if they themselves are a different type of human. It’s as if they grew up in some completely different environment. It’s almost as if... they’re from a different planet.
It was Thanksgiving, the leaves were orange, the sky was gray, and the faces on the Halloween pumpkins had completed their decadence into a state of nostalgic droopiness. The days were shortening, and, as we began our dinner, the dining room window set a live portrait of the evening fog filtering the colors of twilight. What a poetic backdrop to our meal. We were all sitting at the dinner table like a nice happy family. My parents, my grandparents, my sister, my brother and I, there were the neighbors that lived to the right of our house, and the old lady from across the street, Sally. My dad sat at the head of the table conducting the conversation with sporadic questioning and well-timed, though occasionally startling, boisterous laughter. My mom was to his right monitoring the table and its offerings. Anyways, it turned out that Sally and I were at the far-end of the table. It was our little side of the table, mine and Sally’s. I was observing her, and all her peculiarities; the grayness of her hair, her droopy cheeks and eyelids, a pink sweater that looked conflictingly soft and itchy. But most of all I was exploring myself and the feeling that came over me in her presence, that one where the world I accepted was being challenged by alternative norms, by a ghostly confident, unassumingly haughty lawmaker who believed things were other than they were.
When I was in kindergarten, I thought my teacher was a monster. She was a short, plump old thing, and when I imagine her, everything is gray: her clothes, her eyes, her giant glasses, and her braided hair. Her hair was the most unnatural thing about her as it fell to just below her waist. Why would anyone put up with such long hair? It made me conclude that she must have thought of it like an arm or a leg. She didn’t know there was no feeling when you cut it and that it typically grew back. I assumed she’d never ever cut it. Ever. Mrs. Lendoy (that was her name) was always grumpy, which is another reason I thought she was a monster. She would also get our names wrong. Even humans have trouble with names, how much more difficult for them! One time my friend Stephen ordered a cookie and milk for lunch. When it was lunchtime, I saw her marching towards me.
“Here’s your cookie,” she said.
After a confusing moment, I replied, “But I don’t get cookies.”
“It says right here you get a cookie, Stephen,” she insisted.
“But I’m not Stephen,” I said.
“Stop playing around, Stephen!'' She exclaimed.
So I ate the cookie.
Three minutes later the real Stephen asks, “Where’s my cookie?”
Mrs. Yeldon looked baffled, then had the revelation that the child in front of her was actually Stephen, not me.
She came over and asked, “Where’s the cookie?”
“I ate it,” I replied,
“Why would you eat the cookie when it WASN’T YOURS?!?” She said furiously.
After a little trembling I sputtered “you commanded me…”
Mrs. Lendoy was the most different person I had ever encountered. She was terrifying and strange and nothing like my parents. She never wanted to go outside, and she ate odd smelling foods instead of hot pockets. The only person she seemed similar to was our computer teacher who couldn’t stop farting and constantly sprayed citrus freshener. I didn’t think much of these oddities until recently. Why are they so different? Why do they talk weird, smell strange, can’t remember stuff, and why are they so uncoordinated? After years and years of observing these oddities and suffering from this strange feeling, I concluded something was up.
So this Sally, our Thanksgiving guest, sat there with her head buried into her torso like an owl keeping warm in winter. She looked at her plate like it was her whole world. But I knew she knew. She noticed me noticing her. She slowly looked up, recognized my world by establishing eye contact and gave a labored smile. One could almost hear the leather stretching. I returned the amical gesture.
Her wobbly voice then vocalized some sounds which I understood as, “This turkey is delicious.”
I replied, “Oh, yes.”
After a few seconds she added, “Oh, and this wine! I usually don’t drink.”
I confirmed to her, “The wine is really good, it’s my favorite.”
The conversation at the other end of the table was simply a background noise.
She asked me, “So what grade are you in, hon?”
Pff! Calling me hon. I almost threw up.
“Actually, I’m in college,” I responded.
“Oh, wonderful! But you poor kids with all those debts. I feel so blessed that I was able to study in our women’s college. Only 80 dollars for tuition. Imagine that! Though 80 dollars went far back then. When I was your age though, it was much more of a rarity to go to college, especially for women. It really wasn’t expected of us. People just didn’t go.”
Her discourse took an eternity to spit out. Like she was carefully picking each word, and trying to avoid grammatical mistakes.
She kept on talking, “I was one of the lucky few, I went to Hollin’s University. Do you know it?”
“I’m not familiar,” I replied.
“Oh, I cherished every moment! Always had my nose in a book. It might come as a surprise to you know, but back then, I was quite the looker, hehe! I swatted the gents back with my books, sometimes literally! The gals I studied with, they always wanted to go dancing with the fellas. The ladies thought I kept myself cooped up too much. This nice fella I knew Raymond was so persistent! He caught me walking with my books one day. As a little joke, he took one of my books. I was a little annoyed. You should know I can also be quite the firecracker, ha! Well, he managed to get one of my books, but not the other. In a joking manner he was flipping through the pages, and he wouldn’t give it back. So you know what I did? I whacked him right on his nose with my book. Oh, I didn’t get him that bad, but he got a nosebleed. He was a good sport and we ended up laughing about it.”
Bravo, I thought, what a great story. I was oddly captivated by this story from an alternate dimension. But what’s it to me if his name was Melvin or Raymond, or whether she went dancing or not.
“So, are you in college, dear?” She asked.
I had just said five seconds earlier I was in college. Maybe she should give a little more consideration to others instead of her long winded stories.
I reminded her, “Yes, I am in college. And, actually, I just said so before.”
She seemed to acknowledge her self-obsession with an almost convincing feign of embarrassment.
“Oh, did I forget?” She replied, “I’m sorry, getting old is the pits! Things slip my mind.”
“I love these sweet potatoes.” She changed the subject.
“It’s my mothers recipe. It’s almost like a dessert, huh? The trick is using lots of butter for the flower topping so it gets crispy.”
“Fascinating!” She replied with a contorted mouth. “And it seems you like this wine.”
Oh, what a look she gave! She looked at my glass as if it were some tramp off the street. What, I can’t revel in nature’s bounty on Thanksgiving! I don’t go mentioning that dusty-flesh-potpourri smell emanating from her end of the table.
“Well, go figure.” I replied, “It is my favorite. If you can recall, I said so earlier. I like Argentinian wines.”
“So, what do you study?” she inquired.
“Double major. Philosophy and economics,” I replied
“Well ain’t that something. I studied finance at Hollin’s University. Have you heard of Hollin’s University?”
Is this a joke?
“I said I didn’t know it already,” I replied.
“Ah, well when I told my parents I wanted to go to college, they were worried it would be too expensive, even back then. My father and mother didn’t have very much money and on top of that were very frugal. To get the funds I had to be very convincing. I even worked on the weekends at the local grocers when I was in the 11th grade. The shop owner loved me ‘cause I could memorize the prices like that,”— she gave a surprisingly robust snap of the fingers—“and the till was always perfect! Sometimes the boys would come around and try to joke with me while I was working. There was even this boy Raymond. He would come in and pretend to buy something, then say he didn’t have any money. That rascal! Well, one time the shop owner caught him messing around and put an end to that. Almost whipped his hide! Oh, what a laugh. That Raymond was such a pest! I knew him for a long time. All the way till college! When I was in Hollin’s university, I was walking back from class with my books. Well, he comes walking up like a rooster and tries to take one of my books, but he only got one of…”
“I know the story!” I shouted. I wanted her to stop rambling.
She was surprised, and I felt a silence settle onto the table. I didn’t want to stretch my gaze any further up the table, as I could already feel two heated glares coming from the conductor and my mother.
“Just.. I already heard that one… You said it already’ I said.
There was a brief interlude of clanging silverware. The atmosphere seemed to have tensed up, so I poured Sally and myself a glass of that red wine. Eventually the conductor re-started the conversation at the head of the table. I decided to break this new silence with a more interesting discussion.
“Sally,” I asked, “Hollin’s University, it must have been nice. So, since you studied finance, I’m interested, how did people take to Medicare when it first came out in the 60’s?”
She looked intrigued.
“Oh, we thought it was wonderful.” She replied, “You know, the elderly provide so much for the youth during their life that it’s only right for them to be taken care of in their turn. My parents worked hard to give me a better life, and they didn’t leave much for themselves.”
“So why didn’t you just take care of them,” I inquired.
She seemed a little flustered, and I thought I saw a flexing jaw muscle.
“But it’s just,” I said, “well, it’s interesting that we have to FORCE people to do that, isn’t it? Isn’t it a little unnatural? I mean giving money to people who aren’t actually doing anything is kind of silly. Why fight nature? The elderly do have their own family to care for them, after all. I mean, I will gladly provide for my parents and grandparents when the time comes, but why should I pay for everyone’s parents when they haven’t done anything for me? Now that isn’t quite fair! And what do you think about medicare having been mostly lobbied by the pharmaceutical and hospice industry to funnel more taxpayer dollars into an already over-invested industry. It’s just a complete joke! And if you ask me, it almost seems like… like some alien people came to earth disguised as the elderly, just trying to take advantage of Medicare!”
“What’s that?” brashly intruded my grandfather. “What’s this about Medicare? A brazen headache, doesn’t even cover a bottle of Aleve!”
I was a little out of breath. During meals, I prefer to not leave things empty. I like to leave a bit of food on my plate, I like to have some water in my glass, and I don’t like looking at an empty wine bottle. I turned to my brother and asked for the one in the center of the table. He was sitting right next to me but didn’t even turn his head. So I said loudly:
“Boo-boo, uncork your ears and hand me that bottle!”
“How about some dessert!” my mother declared.
Everyone agreed and got up to head into the kitchen where a nice lineup of pies and cakes were waiting. Of course, there was a big pumpkin pie, there was also an apple pie, cherry pie, chocolate cream cake and some ice cream. Since Sally and I were at the end of the table, we were at the end of the line. People slowly meandered their way through the spread, and it was finally my turn to scoop some pie. Of course, I followed our societal norms and let the old lady go first, but oh the eternity it took for just one scoop! Finally, it was my turn and I reached for the scooper in the pumpkin pie. Awkwardly, Sally reached for it, too, and we bumped hands. We chuckled and then I apologized and invited her to go first.
She declined and said, “Go ahead, sweet boy”.
I said, “No, you!”
After the awkward moment she created, I reached for the scooper again. She reached at the same time, and we both grabbed it. Like a weirdo, she didn’t let go and it caught my mother’s attention.
My mother scolded me, “Let it go.”
I was astounded by Sally’s iron grip, and by the fact she hadn’t let go.
“But she said that I could have it! Hm, but maybe she already forgot. All night she was just thinking of herself!”
She was shockingly strong.
“What the hell, gran! Medicare is working for you!”
“Let. It. Go!” My mother insisted.
“Why? This old wench is probably an alien! Look at her grip! This thing ain’t human! You need to let go! It’s mine now!”
The scooper was loosed from her grip, and then I heard my mother gasp. Before I knew it, a white, flat object was flying straight at my face. Things went kind of fuzzy after that and all of a sudden I just woke up on the couch. I was on the couch. How did I get on the couch? Confusing. It felt like my head was going to explode. The fire was blazing, the TV was on and my brother was watching it.
“What happened?” I asked.
He smirked and replied, “You drank a bottle of wine, called our old neighbor an alien wench, and she smashed a plate into your face. You kind of went lights out.”
It was fascinating. She was strong. She was very strong. Unbelievably strong.