Cricket Immerzang sat silent at the breakfast table at the Loriston Home. It wasn’t her nature to be silent. Normally she was talking. That’s how she’d got the nickname. Cricket didn’t mind. She took an interest in people. She let them feel noticed. Today, though, she felt unsure of herself, a very rare occurrence.
“Spent it all on that new wife of his,” Zilla Barrett was saying. “Can never remember her name.”
It’s your son’s money, Zilla. And his wife’s name is Isabel, same as your mother’s, which is why you don’t remember. She’s not a bad sort. She came out here for Fourth of July brunch to see the fireworks with you. She makes your son happy. She’d like to make you happy, too.
Good luck with that. Zilla was heavily invested in her unhappiness. For once, Cricket held her peace.
“I’ve told them and told them,” Xavier Holz was saying at the same time, across the table. “I can’t have anything with soy in it. Makes me sick. You remember how sick I was. Told them and told them. Sick as a sheep,” he added, ignoring Zilla’s complaints. “I had to go to the infirmary.” He shuddered. The oxygen tubes running into his nostrils shuddered with him.
Cricket forbore to point out that the infirmary was pretty good here. You got prompt attention and you almost always felt better right away. Not like the second floor. Nobody wanted to go to the second floor. People went there and stayed.
No point thinking about it. Not until the middle of the night anyway.
Meanwhile Wanda Toot was retailing a fresh horror. “The elevator doors opened and I saw her. In a wheel chair. On the second floor,” she hissed. “They had those mittens on her hands. So she can’t scratch herself.” Wanda didn’t quite believe in the second floor, She was younger, in better shape than most. She was working her way around to thinking about it, though, by cataloging the horrors perpetrated on people she knew. She preferred to think of them as wrongs done by the medical profession, not as inevitable calamities.
Cricket was aware of her own dodges and denials about the second floor. She was ninety-eight. She had buried three husbands and all their children. Cricket’s simple resistance was her bucket list, a list that got longer every week. She read widely, surfed the internet, and watched action-adventure movies, so she was able to keep that bucket list growing. Her creed was that until she got to do it all, she wouldn’t go.
Lately she’d been hearing the denial in her own voice, especially at three-forty-five in the morning. She’d lie awake wondering about death. Everyone here resisted death in their own way. When they started to embrace it, they tended to slide to the second floor quicker. Sometimes they just went: healthy-ish one day, the next…boom. Was that better? What had her husbands learned, at the last moment?
It would almost be worth it to die, just to find out. Almost.
Alban had been devout, which meant he thought it was over, finis, nothing happens, the end. That was a hell of a note. Lucien hadn’t cared. He went boom, too. Irving was completely unreligious, though he’d begun to wonder, toward the end, and he’d been grateful to leave the lung cancer behind.
In ninety-eight years Cricket had seen a lot of leading-up-to-death, but she hadn’t seen death. What happens next?
In the wee hours, she would spend a few minutes thinking all these things, even though she had thought them every night for many years, and then she would turn over with a sigh to worry about all the other stuff she didn’t know. Politics. How to keep her granddaughter Sharon from talking to her doctors. When, if ever, she would feel she belonged here. What body part would fail her next, and what functioning she’d lose with it.
Finally, at four-fifteen, she would feel a click in the back of her skull somewhere and then she’d fall asleep. She called it her worry-wart popping. But it didn’t seem to matter what she thought about. For half an hour every night, she lay awake, feeling anxious and vigilant, while nothing happened.
Cricket believed in truth and kindness, two wildly opposing ideals that made conversation with her, she was aware, a test of patience sometimes. She couldn’t go changing her chatterbox habit at this time of life. She stayed positive.
So she didn’t complain, and she didn’t talk about death, or the nearest thing, here at the Loriston Home.
Somehow there was always a bed open on the second floor. That’s how you knew how bad it was. Other floors, you had to wait months for an apartment. Loriston Home was a very nice facility. But the second floor was what it was all about. A graceful transition facilitated by expert and well-meaning staff.
She loved the staff at Loriston. She really did. It was just that they were so young.
Nor did she have a right to feel lonely. Her grandkids and great-grands were attentive. Yet, when they were here, they acted nervous. The place scared them wall-eyed. She supposed that tolerating it was a knack, like living on a volcano slope or next door to a glacier. You never knew when it would roll over everything you knew. You got used to it. And if you were one of the people who didn’t have to think about glaciers or volcanos yet, you pretended there weren’t such things.
Cricket thought glaciers and volcanos were interesting. Apart from the bit where they eventually obliterated you.
After breakfast, she changed into her bunny-printed sweatsuit and spent a pleasurable hour in the community garden out back, pulling weeds, staking up tomato plants, just staring into the bean vines. The longer you stared, the more you saw. The beans became a titanic jungle canopy where ants crawled like prehistoric monsters. The bean stems twisted and sometimes split. Overhead, cicadas sang like a million tiny chainsaws. At length she got dizzy from bending over, and returned to the air-conditioned sameness of the main building. She took a moment to be grateful for having seen the ants. It drew the sting out of having to go in early.
“You have a visitor, Cricket,” the front desk girl congratulated her when she went to pick up her mail. “I told her you were out in the vegetable garden. She’s waiting in the North Lounge. A Ms. Dee Lilah.” The girl handed over a business card.
Cricket turned it over, bemused. Black business card with red leaping flames around the name, Delilah. The flames seemed to move. Wow, fancy.
She took a moment to be grateful for the tomato-plant smell on her fingers.
Then she walked into the North Lounge.