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Jessie drew a deep breath. As deep a breath as she dared. The lower ribs on the right side hurt when she breathed too deeply. She shifted her position in the straight-backed leather chair and stared outside at the rain. On the patio, rain dripped from the fringe of the garden umbrella on the seats of the plastic chairs that stood around the picnic table.
Jessie was 86 years old and on one side of life's coin she counted the blessing that her mind was as sharp as ever it was, even if her body was in a state of disrepair. Turning the coin over, the clarity of that mind heightened the awareness of her poor state of health and the plodding emptiness of these final days.
She looked about the day room furtively, so as not to be caught looking at anyone. Here at the home, many of the guests objected to being looked at. They would look back belligerently, as if to say, "Who are you looking at? Keep your eyes to yourself -- you've got no right to be looking at me!"
"Can you blame us?" she thought, "We all know what we look like, and we don't want to be seen, even by old people."
There were six old people in the dark day room this afternoon, all of them younger than she. "I haven't met a person older than me since I've been here, and it's not likely I'm going to." Andy Sargent sat over there in the corner, was he asleep? Dead? No. Not dead, his upper body rocked back and forth ever so slowly, counting time like a metronome. Why would God permit a man to sit in a dark room with his eyes shut beating time like the pendulum of a grandfather clock? Is this the triumph of modern medicine? Therapy and pills, sitz baths and high colonics .... shall we live forever? If someone stops by in a hundred years or so, will Andy Sargent still be sitting here, endlessly rocking -- with somebody like Jessie Perkins staring at him from across the room?
"Hi, Mrs. Perkins. How we doin' t'day?"
"Oh Lord!" Jessie thought, "it's that little high school kid. What was her name again? Oh, yes, Nancy. Look at that skin of hers! Not a blemish, not a wrinkle. Full of future .... full of bounce. She smells like new mown grass. Must be after three o'clock. Will she remember us when her community service is through? What must she think of me -- I'm older by far than her grandmother would be."
"Hello Nancy, how was school today?"
"Great, Mrs. Perkins .... "
"Would you call me Jessie, dear, Perkins' was my second husband's name?"
"Why sure if you want .... Jessie. It feels funny though, a kid like me calling an ol .... a lady like you by her first name."
"Suppose I called you Miss Pogliani?"
"Okay, I see what you mean .... y'know, that's why I love comin' over here every afternoon. Y'get to learn things they never teach in school."
"We're not on the curriculum. I used to love that word, 'curriculum.' It sounded like ivy and red brick walls. School I went to called it 'courses of study'." Damn, she thought, I'm rambling again. "Got a boy friend, Nancy?"
"Yeah -- well, not really. But I mean y'can't just go places alone, y'know?"
Jessie looked at her and smiled. "No you can't." That much hadn't changed, thank Heaven. "You know, I had a boy friend when I was 16 too. Used to go dancing up at the casino in Rye. Nothing came of it .... but like you say, a girl couldn't go places alone in my day either. I had a lot of boy friends, Nancy, right up until the war. There was a Ralph, a Frank, a Desmond -- one at a time, mind you."
"Wow! You swung huh, Jessie? Guy I'm goin' with, his name's 'Swede.' He's not much for dancin', but he's straight anyways -- gonna be a computer technician."
"About finished with your community service, Nancy?"
Nancy's eyes clouded for a moment and Jessie immediately regretted having said it. But after all if she couldn't get over this little hump in the road, how could she cope with the rest of it?
"I'm sorry, Nancy. For a minute there I thought it was all behind you."
"Not altogether, Mrs. Perkins." A sparkle quickly reappeared in her eyes. "I'm gonna be sorry in a way when it is. I won't be comin' over here, I mean."
She reached out her hand to Jessie, a flawless and flexible hand with a class ring and enameled nails. Jessie took it in both of hers and saw the passage of seventy years. Is it possible this child's hand will look like mine in seventy years? Will the triumph of medicine keep it young and supple? Would she sit here with her beautiful hands in a straight-backed leather chair nodding like a pendulum and staring at the falling rain?
"Had your time on the computer today, Jessie?"
"I was hoping you wouldn't get around to that. No dear I haven't. It's not for me -- really. I don't like typing anyway, I like to see the words come out of my fingers."
Nancy stood in front of Jessie. "Come on, I'll show you some tricks. There's nobody in the room. There's never anybody in there."
Jessie got up stiffly and leaned on Nancy a moment to get her balance. Like a mother teaching a child its first steps, Nancy took Jessie's arm and slowly walked her into the computer room.
"I hate it in here," Jessie objected, "It's too bright, the lights hurt my eyes. I don't know why the home went to the expense anyway -- we could each have a television set in our room for what this thing cost."
Nancy gently eased Jessie into the cushioned chair in front of the monitor. "There you go, you know how to turn it on don't you?"
"The chair's too high, my feet are dangling. First thing you know they'll fall asleep and I won't be able to walk again."
"C'mon Mrs. Perkins .... Jessie. Stop fussing. You sound like an old lady."
"I am old. I'm 86 damn years old, if you want to know, and these things scare me." She pushed two buttons and the monitor slowly brightened. "There, see, I know how to turn it on, you don't have to tell me how to turn it on."
Nancy sat on the arm of Jessie's chair. "Now you've got to punch in your password. Remember your password? You told me your password in case you forgot. It's a secret between you and me, okay?"
"It's 'CHERUBS.' How could I forget cherubs?"
"It's a beautiful password," Nancy said. "Cherubs are angels, ain't they?"
"Not these cherubs. It's the name of a bar I used to go to in the city with a boy named Jimmy Riordan. Before the war it was. The big war, not the piddly little tin horn wars we got these days."
"Geez," Nancy marveled at the old woman. "My father wasn't even born 'til after the war. What happened to Jimmy Riordan, Jessie?"
"He was the first one, y'know what I mean. The first one to mean something -- like your Swede fella. No matter what happens to you after that, you never forget the first one."
"Yeah, the first one's special, ain't he? What happened to him, Jessie?"
"Went off to the war. Pilot. Flew Mitchell bombers over France and Germany. You don't know what Mitchell bombers was, do you? I would'na known either, except for Jimmy." She blinked at the phrase "WELCOME CHERUBS" on the bright screen, then sniffed. "Got married over there. Sent me a letter sayin' -- "Sorry Jess, guess you won't be likin' what I have to say. The war was like that -- messed up a lotta lives."
"Why don't you look him up, Jessie?"
"What do you mean, 'look him up'?"
"If he's alive and he has a computer you can find him on the internet. If he's on the same server as you, you can chat with him just like he was here in this room with you."
"You're out of your mind! First place he's got to be dead -- he'd be older'n me, and believe me young lady nobody gets to be older'n me. Besides he's married and I don't go chasing after married men."
In spite of herself, Jessie felt her color rising. Wouldn't that be something, though? Of course if he was alive he would probably be a widower by now, wouldn't he, just like I'm a widow? It was sixty years ago, wasn't it?
"Last I heard he was in Ansonia, Connecticut, Nancy."
"How long ago was that?"
"When Desmond died -- gotta be .... " She thought a minute, ".... fifteen years."
Nancy took over the search for Jimmy Riordan. "I wanna make sure I spell it right Jessie -- is that R-E-A-R-D-O-N?"
"No! Course not. It's an Irish name R-I-O-R-D-A-N, .... here let me write it out for you."
Nancy looked sideways at Jessie and nudged her. "How did you know he lived in Ansonia, Jessie?"
"Well, he sent me a card when Desmond died. It was mailed from Ansonia, Connecticut." Nancy started to giggle. "Well it's not like me to forget something like that -- yes I know it was a long time ago, almost fifteen years to be exact, but I thought it was nice of him to send a card .... and I just happened to remember."
"Wow! I was one year old Jessie, I wasn't even walking yet .... I think we're gettin' lucky, look, Yahoo's got eight Riordans, two of them in Ansonia. There's a William and a James.
"You don't need to go any further, Nancy. It's him, the James Riordan in Ansonia. I found it myself over a month ago."
"Why didn't y'tell me?"
"Figured maybe you wouldn't find him. Took me a while -- couple of days actually."
"Did'ja send him e-mail?"
"No! Why would I want to do that? We had our time, Nancy. We knew each other maybe four months. Four months out of eighty-six years. I been through a lot since then -- so's he. I've had four kids and two husbands, Lord knows what he's been through. It's over now. We're like strangers. I wouldn't know him if I saw him and I wouldn't want him to see me."
"Oh, that's sad, Jessie -- you musta loved each other back then, you could .... could..." Her voice trailed off as she faced one of the great truths in her young life. We go one way and one way only and as we make our way through life, even though we might turn around and look lovingly behind us, we must go with the river.
"Remember what I said before about learning things here they don't teach in school?"
"Yes I remember, Nancy. I didn't learn it in school either, it's something you pick up along the way. You're not goin' back either, are you child?"
"No, Jessie. I'm movin' on."
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