It was a balmy 97 degrees when he stepped out of his truck into the parking lot outside Sunny Acres Nursing and Rehab Center. He looked forward to the sliding doors welcoming him into the air-conditioned lobby. It was Monday, and just like every Monday at 3 p.m. with a book tucked under one arm and a bag of peppermints clipped between the thumb and index finger of the ipsilateral hand, he would be overtaken by the quasi-mystical bouquet of antiseptic and lavender that permeated the place.
The Reader knew that Charlie, Mr. Bozak, Miss Mindy, and Beulah would be waiting for him in the lounge, eagerly sitting in their usual chairs in a semicircle by the Sunroom. Despite not being allowed to deviate from the highly regulated nutritional constraints imposed on Sunny Acres residents, The Reader assured his audience showed up every Monday by bribing them with sugarless mints.
The Reader had retired almost six months previously after thirty-seven years in academic medicine. He had done it all, career-wise: researcher, distinguished and highly decorated teacher, administrator, devoted clinician, and observer of human nature. He was still young, not burned out, and with too many bucket-list items unattainable by the constraints of a full-time job.
The Reader started volunteering in the community, teaching English to those who struggled at the public library and now also “reading to old folks” at the nursing home. “It would be simple,” the Reader thought. Just bring a book, and read to whomever was around to listen. It was his goal to become the Pied-Piper-of-titillation-by-literature of the residents at Sunny Acres. After all, he thought, it wasn’t like the residents had much on their agenda day-to-day.
During his clinical career, many of his elderly patients used to complain to him about what it was like to live in dependent living facilities. Now The Reader was in a position to liberate those he could from menial institutional constructs like coloring books and cutting paper dolls. He would become the once-a-week disruptor of an otherwise drab institutional geriatric routine, the welcome break from scheduled low-salt, low-fat, low-taste meals. He might even distract them, if temporarily, from preoccupation with constipation and incontinence and the consequences thereof.
Doctor, we would love to have you volunteer, but exactly what type of reading were you interested in doing with our residents? The Reader sensed that Volunteer Activities coordinator was a, stick-to-the-rules tightly laced middle-aged bureaucrat.
Well, I thought perhaps reading that might get an old, bored, and possibly emotionally marginalized person to feel like someone is spending personal time with them on a regular basis. I am neither tied to genre nor to subject, said the Reader.
Well, you do understand that many of our residents have memory and other cognitive issues, while others may have family who might object to their relatives being exposed to let’s say “controversial,” “highly suggestive,” or “political” materials or other “sensitive” issues. Of course…you understand, said the bureaucrat.
Of course. I fully understand, said the Reader. He thought of the small print and exculpatory footnotes included by the legal eagles who were well paid to protect the Sunny Acres from any and all possible and/or imagined liabilities that might relate to the organization. Heaven forbid anyone was guilty of elder abuse by kickstarting their imaginations….
The Reader needed to get to know his audience before he could determine what sort of reading material he would bring to them. Then there was the recruiting. This was harder than he imagined. He roamed the facility through the Recreation room and Lobby, looking for interested folks and introducing himself. There weren’t many takers. Three showed interest after he read them an article from the Reader's Digest about how two teenage boys pulled a cow trapped in a mud bog after a storm with their father’s John Deer four-wheeler and how the cow’s owner gifted them the cow as appreciation for their life-saving diligence. Not exactly Pulitzer material, but it got their attention. All three came back the following week. The sugarless mints finally lured a fourth convert.
Pushing on 101 years old, Charlie was the Casanova of the nursing home. He had been at Sunny Acres for over six months since his daughter and son convinced him to move out of the single-story home he had lived in with his family. Charlie had bought a tract home in North Miami forty-five years previously. His daughter and son had graduated from the Ivy League educations Charlie and his wife so lovingly facilitated for them, got jobs and moved out on their own to create their own marriages, homesteads and families respectively and were scattered all over the United States. Charlie’s wife of seventy years had died of a massive stroke when Charlie was ninety-one, and Charlie decided that he would stay home then with Charlie, the less-than-year-old mutt puppy they had found nearly drowned in a swirl of branches and scum in a culvert at the cul-de-sac near the canal in their subdivision one stormy South Florida night eight years earlier. After Charlie the Canine, arthritic, cachectic, incontinent, deaf and visually impaired died, there was no longer a reason for Charlie the Person to cook his own meals, clip his own hedges or sit in his trusty BarcaLounger, consuming conditioned air. After all, Charlie no longer had Charlie to care for or be cared by.
One day The Reader brought in a collection of Ernest Hemingway short stories. He read the group one of his favorites, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” Perhaps a bit edgy, but set in the plains of Africa, dealing with lion hunting, mosquitoes, and machismo in the face of cowardice and culminating in the unexpected and untimely death of poor cuckolded Francis at the hands of his wife. Charlie got a kick out of the opening scene with Francis and his wife Margot sipping gimlets during lunch out in the middle of nowhere in the African plain, pretending nothing was wrong with their subversive marital relationship. The ending of the story really got to Beulah. She just couldn’t stop talking about “That woman.”
So, Doctor, when am I going to stop having this here atrial fibrillation? That was the first thing Beulah asked The Reader every Monday as he walked through the door.
You’re probably going to have it for as long as you live, Beulah became his standing answer. Inquisitive was an understatement to describe Beulah. Bird-like, with silky white hair, one would have never guessed she had flown airplanes during World War II to deliver mail around the U.S.
I used to be a pilot you know, back in 1944. Delivered mail all around the Eastern United States during the war. She always managed to insert this introduction in every conversation. Just ask my son, Benny, he’ll tell ya.
Bennie was a well-to-do “transactional” attorney in South Florida. When Beulah’s husband, Bennie’s stepfather the Rabbi died, Bennie expedited Beulah’s transplantation to Sunny Acres Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. Beulah’s one-story 1960’s concrete block home brought in $1.7 million in resale. She always resented that Bennie “tore her” from her friends, that she couldn’t play Mar-Jong with the goyim at Sunny Acres.
For crying out loud,” she would say, “they can’t even spell 'mahjong'”!
It was Beulah’s second year since the transplantation. She had refused to unpack one of the suitcases Bennie had brought when she first came.
I’m taking this one to Sheol, just in case, she would say.
Mr. Bozak, as everyone called him, could best be described as an enigma in parentheses. Joseph Franz Bozak had been placed at Sunny Acres by a court-ordered surrogate executor of his estate, at the request of a remote niece, who lived in Boston. He had lived in a Victorian two-story in New Jersey, was a clothier in Atlantic city and scraped a livelihood renting out the second floor of his old house to guests after he retired. Estranged from family and never married, Mr. Bozak moved to Ventnor, New Jersey, after he arrived in Staten Island, New York, from Europe. The staff at Sunny Acres said he picked Ventnor at random from a card during a monopoly game, took a bus and moved to 819 Ventnor Avenue where he lived for seventy years. He hardly spoke and when he did, it was with a heavy Polish accent. He was a great listener. Mr. Bozak always wore long-shirts and a long-sleeve sweater, insisting he was always cold.
Rominda was her birth name. “But call me Mindy.” She was an impeccably dressed stout woman who always wore a pearl necklace and lipstick. Mindy had lived all her life in Southern Florida. Her husband had been a well-to-do cattle rancher-turned-politician. She had attended Stetson University and became a school teacher. Never having left the little town where she married, which happened to be the same town where Sunny Acres Nursing and Rehabilitation Center was built, she had a loving family who brought her home-cooked meals and visited with her dutifully on weekends. Mindy could be best described as a highly intellectual, closet-feminist-ex-housewife. She was sprite at eighty-one and never at a loss for correcting one’s language. Rheumatoid arthritis had gotten the best of her, and she was severely restricted in her mobility. Being fiercely independent, she did not wish to intrude on her children and requested to live at Sunny Acres.
“Alumna” is a woman graduate. Many “alumna” are “alumnae.” The world would be better off if we had more college alumnae.
Well, that was The Reader’s audience. After several weeks, he handed out blank sheets of paper to each of them and asked them to write down what topics they might wish for him to select to read to them. They were to write down their thoughts and place them in an envelope, which he would collect the following Monday.
The Reader was pleasantly surprised at the level of interest and variety of topics submitted by the individuals in the group. This was a highly interested and motivated group of seniors whose minds were fertile and who were hungry for words.
Over the ensuing months The Reader developed a routine. He tried to select either short stories or essays based on the audience requests that would be sufficiently succinct for him to complete in one or two sittings. One day the reader began to read a short piece by a Rabbi about the life of Viktor Frankl, who wrote a book about his survival in a Nazi camp during the world war. The gist of the article was about how people survive dreadful circumstances.
In the course of the reading, Beulah, who had probably been the originator of the topic request, piped up and asked many questions. Charlie argued that the atrocities during World War II were beyond malevolent. Mindy seemed intensely focused on the piece. Mr. Bozak, who normally sat quietly but was usually extremely attentive and perky during the reading sessions, had a visibly negative reaction to the piece. He lowered his head, crossed his legs and hunched over them, stared at the carpet. This was so unusual that The Reader stopped almost mid-sentence before the last paragraph.
Mr. Bozak…is everything OK? asked The Reader.
The Reader, puzzled by the awkward scene, concluded the session by switching to a lighthearted short op-ed piece by Carl Hiassen from the Miami Herald from his collection “Paradise Screwed.”
The following week, The Reader made his usual 3 p.m. Monday entrance to Sunny Acres. He had arrived a few minutes early, only to notice a commotion in the lobby. Several people were surrounding someone, who looked like he had slumped from a chair, lay face down onto the carpet in the lobby.
Call the nurse, someone, please! said one of the residents.
The Reader, naturally assuming his doctor demeanor, splayed the encircling bystanders aside and knelt by the figure on the ground. He turned the person onto his back and was surprised to see it was Mr. Bozak. Mr. Bozak mumbled in what sounded like Polish. He had a bounding pulse, but he was not answering questions. The Reader turned to find the nurse who rolled a vital signs cart towards the crowd. He asked for a blood pressure monitor, knelt beside the now delirious Mr. Bozak and began to pull up the sleeve on Mr. Bozak’s right arm. Unable to do so because Mr. Bozak usually slipped his watchband over the sleeve, The Reader tried the left arm. Mr. Bozak retracted his arm and pushed The Reader away in what appeared to be a deliberate movement.
Mr. Bozak, I need to take your blood pressure. Please hold still. Let me wrap this around your arm.
Mr. Bozak’s blood pressure was 230/130, repeated twice. In The Reader’s assessment this was life-threateningly high and indicative of a hypertensive encephalopathy that would lead to a massive stroke and death if not treated emergently.
By this time the paramedics had arrived and The Reader conveyed the medical information. As they lifted Mr. Bozak onto the stretcher and The Reader removed the blood pressure cuff, The Reader noticed that on the outer portion of Mr. Bozak’s left forearm was a wrinkled tattoo consisting of five digits. Just below the five digits was a small triangle.