Grandma Cuts Loose
Never underestimate the power of love, even at the tender age of 83. Luanne wants to reconnect with old flame Marius at her 65th high school reunion. Mabel wants to run away with Lenny, a cyber-beau who came to her by way of SeniorsWhoWantToGetLaid.com. But they’re both stuck at Mt. Pleasant Retirement Center under what feels like maximum security.
What to do? Hatch an elaborate prison break and go on a road trip to destiny. Of course, it doesn’t help that at any given time only two of the three are on good terms with one another. Or that Luanne’s penchant for breaking the rules comes with manipulating others into doing the same. Or that Mabel “may have forgotten to mention a few things” about her reasons for leaving Mt. Pleasant. Or that Lenny is into ghosts and séances and happy to share the finer points of calling up the dead.
(from Grandma Cuts Loose, © 2012 by Ricardo das Neves)
- If it’s the last thing we ever do
Of course Mabel and I had to try to escape from the old folks’ home a third time. Just because they caught us twice (and put us on their “don’t-you-turn-your-back-on-these-two” list) didn’t mean we were about to give up. “Givin’ up means dyin’ here,” I said to Mabel often enough. Angie, the physical therapist lady who helped me heal my foot and recover from my son sticking me in that place, told me that most folks average two years in a retirement home. “We been here a year already, Mabel. We stay any longer, the only way we’re comin’ out is feet first!”
Mabel and I met right there, at Mt. Pleasant Retirement Center, when they had us doing some scatterbrain get-to-know-you games like “Everybody who likes TV stand over here” or “Everybody who likes tuna sandwiches over there” or “If you’re between 82 and 85, stand right here.” Well, Mabel and I wound up on the same corner with a bunch of the other inmates, and so far as I could see, she was the only one with her lights on. “We ain’t lived to 83 for these gas bags to go bossin’ us around all day long,” I told her. She giggled and that’s how it all started. From then on, we had each other’s backs, even when, Lord have mercy, we had those annoying do-gooders come sing to us on Sunday afternoons. (Mabel called them “Damn shiny-toothed Christians”; I did one better and stuck a bunch of cat poop in their trombone cases and they never came back.)
So, yeah, we had tried to escape before. We just didn’t plan things right
—there was always something we hadn’t thought of. Plus, like I said, after the second time, the nurses were on us like flies on flypaper. I swear to God all those nurses were from Eastern Europe and if they wanted to work at Mt. Pleasant, they had to have “Former Concentration Camp Guard” on the employment application or something. Any hint we were up to no good and they were breathing down our back, going, “You gonna try to escape today? Huh? Huh?” and checking our rooms. Thank God for that can of Folger’s Instant Coffee where they never looked—best place I ever found to hide my smokes in.
After the second try at jailbreak, Mabel kind of lost the fire. It’s not like we didn’t think about it—it’s just that we tried, we failed, and it never looked like it was going to work. Me, I was still mad as hell at my son and wanted to get out just to get even. Mabel, though, had the sweetest tooth you ever saw, and so long as they kept giving her that tapioca pudding, she’d say Mt. Pleasant was pretty tolerable.
When I heard that, I felt damn near ready to give up on life. So I’m sure both of us would’ve died in Mt. Pleasant if it hadn’t been for not one, not two, but three pieces of mail that arrived on the same day and built a big fire under my fanny.
The first piece of mail was from a Mrs. Ian MacKenzie, and had been forwarded since January from three addresses ago.
“Who the blue dickens is Mrs. Ian MacKenzie?” I thought, looking at the letter in my room and adjusting my bifocals. “They oughtta have the decency not to send junk mail to an old woman.”
Turns out Mrs. Ian MacKenzie was Belle Wallington, my high school class valedictorian. And she was organizing our 65th class reunion.
“Shoot! Like I can get out of here!” I thought. For RSVP there was an email address. Now, back in my days, RSVP meant you wrote on an actual piece of paper, not punched some keys on a computer. I tore it up and tossed it. But I have to say, it made me think about some of my old friends—and I got all sad and nostalgic-like and part of me wanted to go. Of course then there’s the folks who’d said and done mean things over the years, and I was still mad at them and wanted nothing to do with them.
The second letter was from a real estate company telling me they’d just paid out the last of the taxes from the escrow account.
“Escrow account? Taxes? What the hell’s this?” I stood there for all of two minutes frowning and reading the thing till it hit me: taxes on the sale of my house. I just about had a conniption.
“How you like that, Mrs. Lincoln?” I exclaimed. “Not just happy to stick me in here, my son goes and sells my house right from under me! Won’t even have the decency to wait for me to kick the bucket! Give birth to the little twit, raise him, stay up late waiting for him or go fetch him from his bad company, put him through school with a lot of begging and pleading, push him for twenty years to get better jobs and make something of himself, be on him so he gets married and has a kid instead of that endless string of girlfriends, and just how does he repay you?”
Sticking you in a prison for old fogies, that’s how. Where they serve you mashed potatoes and Jell-o. Or veggies boiled to an inch of their life. Or okra slimy like a snail. Or microwave chicken that you just know ain’t chicken—but if the other old-timers eat it (and watch TV and play cards all day), the Nazi nurses figure they can push it on us and get away with it.
Yeah, so I was mad. But there was nobody I could hit, nobody I could scream at, nobody I could complain to. That kind of thing makes for high blood pressure and I never used to have that. I’d smack an annoying husband hard upside the head, and that always made me calm. And there was a time I would’ve called up my son and given him a piece of my mind. But now? What was the point? Plus, there was Madeline. Little Madeline was old enough now to answer the phone at my son’s house, and how could I be mad at her, the only thing my son ever did right?
The last piece of mail was a postcard from Lucy. From Mexico. Now Lucy was a high school friend. Sort of. Whatever break you could catch, that woman caught it. She got good grades, she was Ms. Popularity, she got that scholarship to Howard U, where she met her future husband, who became filthy rich, and then she went on to live a charmed life. I found her at the 50th class reunion, back in ‘86, and she said she was a happy widow now and all she did was take cruises around the world with her dead husband’s money. If that wasn’t enough to make me green with envy (and honey, it takes a bit of something to make a black woman green), just think how I felt when I heard she hooked up with Marius Johnson (Marius Johnson! The star of the track-and-field program back at my old school! Be still my heart!) and then up and married him! How did that woman manage to get everything right and steal Marius for herself? It’s just not fair!
But what’s this? Was I reading right?
Having a great time in Mexico. Are you going to the class reunion? Marius is going too—separately. We had another falling out in St. Kitts and got divorced. But—life goes on, right? It’ll be nice to see you and catch up. Maybe we can go on a “girls’ cruise” kind of thing? Hugs, Lucy.
What? Marius single? And going to the reunion? I dug the invitation back out and Scotch-taped the hundred pieces back together. Oh, no! Just a month away!
I mean, if Marius was available after all these years… was I going to let that pass me by? Sure, we were both 83, but… we could be like one of those stories… always meant to marry each other… and then after a lifetime apart, we meet again, we marry, and we live happily ever after. I didn’t know if that was going to happen, but… hope springs eternal, right? If they split up and Marius was going to be at the reunion, maybe it was all meant to be.
Thinking about Marius was a far cry from living out my life in an old folks’ home in Oakland, California, where the highlight of your day was whether you got rubber fish or rubber chicken for dinner. We had to do it. We had to escape.
So I went to Mabel’s room and found her in front of her laptop computer.
“Mabel? Watcha doin’?”
“Oh, this and that,” she said, and closed the lid. Kind of fast, like she got her fingers caught in the cookie jar. “Cookie?” she asked, holding out a cookie jar for me.
“I ain’t here for a social visit. Mabel, I gotta meet the love of my life.”
I told her the whole thing, from my son selling my house to Lucy and her cruises and Marius and the class reunion.
“Luanne! I’m so excited!” she squealed. “I love cruises! Your friend and I can go on a cruise while you and Marius… you know. Plus, you could have a honeymoon cruise, and I’d come along too! And you know another cruise I’d like to take? Out in the Mediterranean—”
“Mabel, honey, we’re gonna need a lotta plannin’ and a lotta guts to break outta here. You know how they lock the doors now? Not just at night but during those awful Sunday shows too?”
So we started another breaking-out plan and wrote it on the back of a doily, so we could turn it over if they ever came to check up on us.
“We gotta get this, then this, then that,” I said, pointing at the chickenscratch and stick figures we had on the doily. Would we escape at night (if so, we needed the keys to the front door and the gate) or in the middle of the day? (The doors were unlocked thenm but you try running down Piedmont Avenue with your luggage and a bunch of East European goons on the chase!)
“Maybe if we got a hold of Boris’ keys,” Mabel said. “And copy them, so when we’re good and ready…”
Boris was the cook.
“But how’re we gonna get away from the staff to copy the keys?” I asked. That’s because anytime you went out, you were chaperoned like a criminal. Your crime? Being 83. And stupid enough to let your kids talk you into living there, even though you knew better.
“I know!” Mabel said. “I’ll get Lenny to do it! All we need is a little cash.”
I twitched. For one thing, I wasn’t sure if Lenny existed. I’d never seen Lenny. He was her boyfriend on the Outside—or so she claimed. She had another one Inside, a fellow by the name of Oswald with a limp, Coke-bottle glasses, a scraggly face and a tendency to carry on conversations with himself. I suspected Mabel had made up Lenny to make hanging out with Oswald just bearable. But she claimed that no, Lenny existed and they were in love. So I acquiesced, but I sure as hell didn’t pin my hopes on that plan.
“Well, I got the cash for copyin’ the keys,” I said. The staff wouldn’t let us have more than three dollars on hand so you couldn’t buy little luxuries like grappling hooks to climb the prison walls. “I got twenty-five singles rolled up inside the leg of one a’ my night stands.”
“Luanne!” she exclaimed. “That’s so… double-oh-seven!”
“You been watchin’ too many movies, girl.”
Two days later Mabel had a stroke of good luck (none of the other strokes around Mt. Pleasant were of good luck) and stole Boris’ keyring. She brought it to my room and dangled it in front of my damned impressed eyes.
“I got ‘em, I got ‘em!” she exclaimed, all excited and out-of-breath-like. “You got the money?”
I gave her five singles from my hiding place. “You think you can get Lenny to pick ‘em up?”
“Yep,” she said. “I sent him an email.”
“I don’t get this whole email thing. Seems like you could just grab the phone and talk to a live person and save yourself a lotta hassle.”
“Yeah, but there’s no privacy for a phone call around here! Anyway, he already replied. He’s coming by in fifteen minutes. He’ll honk three times and that’ll be the signal. You be on the lookout, Luanne! Make sure the coast is clear!”
And with that, she took off. For a second there I got worried she was going to buy herself cake or ice cream (that woman could eat a whole half-gallon container of ice cream in one sitting, one dainty lick at a time), but I worried for nothing. I stood at my window, spotted her in the garden, and then there were three honks. From where I was, I could see to the other side of the street, but not the street lane closer to the wall. Mabel looked up at me, I confirmed none of the nurses were looking, flashed a thumbs-up, and Mabel flung the keys. They clunked on the pavement, jingled when someone picked them up, and then a car took off.
When later Mabel showed me the copied keys (one to the front gate and the other to the garden from the kitchen), we could barely keep ourselves from jumping. Mabel returned the original keys all sneaky-like, and then we tackled what was left over: a getaway car, and a time when all the staff was busy—which, unless there was a fire, was never going to happen. We should know: last couple of times we got busted at the last minute. But two days later during tea and scones (tea was like cat piss; scones were so hard you needed steel dentures to bite into them) Mabel looked around to make sure the nurses weren’t watching, and whispered, “I think Lenny’s got the getaway car covered.”
“You think he’s got it covered, or he’s really got it covered?”
“He told me he wouldn’t mind a little road trip.”
I looked over my shoulder. “We’re going to Florida, Mabel. That ain’t a little road trip. It’s clear across the country.”
“I know, I know. I told him. He says he’s fine with that.”
“The man’s gonna travel four thousand miles with us just for the askin’?”
“He’s in love, Luanne. Of course he’d do that for me! Just like you and Marius! And,” she added, looking this way and that way, “I think we’ve got our distraction lined up.”
Mabel was five feet short, with carrot-colored hair that curled to the sides, kind of a radish-shaped nose, and blue eyes that had an innocence about her but every now and then kind of yelled mischief. Back and shoulders a bit rounded, but she made up for that with bright dresses and colorful scarves and fancy necklaces. Her eyes got dry often and so every now and then she’d stop to put drops in and then bat her eyelashes like some society girl.
“There’s a distraction?” I asked. “What? When?” I looked around, just to check that the nurses weren’t about to get all suspicious-like on us. But there was too much happening in the cafeteria for them to notice.
“The Amazing Armando is performing right here this Sunday.”
“The Amazing Armando?”
“It’s a magic act.”
“No kiddin’?” We’d never had magic. Goat-petting, out-of-tune-Christians and some cross-eyed lady telling folk tales was about the best we got.
“Maybe I can arrange it so we can sneak out then!” Mabel whispered.
“You don’t think they’ll notice us gettin’ out?”
“It’ll be fine! Remember, Lenny’s got the car!”
“And we can trust Lenny, right? How did you two meet, again?”
“On the Internet.”
I frowned. “On the Internet? How’s that work?”
“We both were on www.SeniorsWhoWantToGetLaid.com.”
Well, all I can say is, it’s a different world out there. And, I didn’t have a better plan, plus the class reunion with Marius wasn’t getting any farther away, so I went along.
“All right, so I’m gonna start packin’, then,” I said. “Let’s run through the checks again.”
“Keys, check,” Mabel said. “Getaway car, check.”
“Music, check,” I said.
“Music???” she asked.
“We ain’t drivin’ all the way to Florida without some music for the car, that’s for sure! I’m assumin’ your gentleman friend has a tape player in his car?”
“Yes, of course. He’s got all the modern stuff.”
“Good. I’m bringin’ Aretha with me.”
“Fixings for sandwiches, check,” Mabel continued.
“Hair curlers, makeup and mascara, check.”
“Laptop, extra batteries and portable printer.”
“Honey, what on God’s earth do we need that for?”
“So we know where we’re going! And so I can chat with my buddies online.”
“Honey, how about stuff like wigs and disguises in case they send the police—”
“Oh, puh-leez, Luanne! They’re going to put out an APB on two old ladies who bolted from Mt. Pleasant?”
“They might start lookin’ for us.”
“We’ll be halfway to Vegas by then! Toiletries, check. Beer for Boris, you got, right?”
“Check. But what about the maps, hon?”
“I got maps for the entire USA on my laptop. We can print them out as we go along.”
“So where do we hide the bags till we’re good and ready?”
“Remember the old fridges they haven’t thrown away yet?”
“In the back a’ the kitchen?”
“Yep. That’s where. Nobody looks in there.”
“I’m nervous, Mabel.”
“Me too. But we can’t go back now.”
“No, we can’t.”
You know those football huddles where the men put all their hands together and then lift them and yell something at the end? Mabel and I did that with our cat-piss plastic teacups.
For once, entertainment looked like it was going to be entertaining: some young kids came and the way they built the stage in the living-room and added the curtains, there was no question a magician was coming.
My knees were shaking like maracas when they sat us all down, not just because I was nervous, but because carrying my suitcase all hush-hush-like in a place like Mt. Pleasant was no walk in the park. But I fit it in the old fridge just like Mabel said and left the beer for Boris to find. With any luck, he was going to be too drunk to notice us running out the kitchen door.
The lights went down in the living-room, which was a big old place with sofas and chairs and enough room to hold all sixty residents, twelve nurses, three cooks, the physical therapy lady and Mt. Pleasant’s evil director. They closed the blinds, so it was kind of dark. And spooky, if you ask me.
Speaking of spooky, some bone-chilling music came on while Armando the Fabulous, or whatever his name was, stepped down some stairs we hadn’t noticed on the stage, draped in a sheet and making us black folks old enough to remember the KKK get all mad and think, “What the hell is this?”
Plus, it looked like ghosts were floating around him—sort of fading in and out and moving about the room. Armando the Great says the spirits are here, and they’re going to help with the magic today. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be funny or not, but the music comes to a high and all of a sudden, there’s a BANG! as the magician pulls off his sheet and the lights come on. Scary crap, excuse my French! Speaking of that, I looked over to poor old Jerry Muncasen. He already had an incontinence problem. This couldn’t have helped.
Well, long story short, The Amazing Armando turns out to be our age! A wiry, skinny fellow with a bald head, a square face, a hook nose, a funny-looking floral-print necktie that’s too short for him, some wisps of hair around his temples, and this worn-out voice that comes out kind of like a whisper even when he’s trying to shout. It’s cruel for him to be on the Outside and us, probably no older than him, all locked up in here! But anyways, the lights come down again and the spirits move about and he starts to do card tricks, saying the spirits are doing all the magic. He pulled eggs from behind Meredith Pringle’s hearing aid and then a live, upside-down duck (I kid you not!) from the vase that’s usually by the front door. We all clapped and then he asked for a couple of volunteers.
Now, you’ve seen this kind of stuff before. The guy has to nag the audience before some poor fool has the gumption to get up on the stage. Not today—no siree! Spirits and scary stuff and all, there were two volunteers who rose all enthusiastic-like.
“Thank you!” Armando the Amazing said. “Please put your hands together for these two brave ladies.” Everybody clapped—even the nurses, who I bet were thinking the ghosts ought to do a number on us. “It’s dark up here, so watch your step, ladies. What are your names? Luanne. Mabel. Let’s give Luanne and Mabel a big hand!”
Yeah, yeah. Come on, I don’t have all day, I thought.
Well, then Armando the Magnificent brought a big box onstage, stuck us both inside it, and closed the lid.
What happened next… well, listen to how The Piedmont Avenue Registrar tells it.
The Amazing Armando rotated the box to show there were no false backs or bottoms. Then he struck the box and it fell apart, empty. Everyone clapped and looked for the women, but only ghosts moved in the dark. The magician asked everyone to keep their eyes on the box while he stepped behind the curtains. All of them are missing since then. Anyone with information on Armando or the two women, please call the missing person’s bureau at …
It was hot in that 1960’s coupe left parked in the sun just outside Mt. Pleasant’s gate, but did we care? No. We’d crawled like toddlers under the stage to the kitchen and from there we ran past Boris, asleep from the beer. We grabbed our bags from the fridges and left through the garden door and the main gate. And now we waited, hearts all a-flutter. We just wanted Lenny to show up and drive us off: after two botched jailbreaks, I couldn’t wait to dash out of there.
“Where’s he at, already?” I fretted in the back seat. No sooner had I said that than the driver’s door opened.
“Was I great or was I great?” Armando the Marvel asked, slipping into the driver’s seat and kissing Mabel.
“Wait!” I said. “This is Lenny?”
“At your service, ma’am,” Armando said, taking off his cape and hat and turning into an average Joe. Or Lenny.
He started the car and pulled off—though not fast enough, if you ask me.
“You were great, Lenny honey,” Mabel gushed. “I’m so proud of you.”
Lenny smiled, all pleased with himself, and took his sweet little time merging onto Grand Avenue. Then he stopped for a yellow light. And then he didn’t take a left when he had the right of way. And then—
“Hey, Lenny,” I said. “This is a getaway! You can’t drive like you’re off to the grocer’s for milk and some peanuts! Step on it, honey, step on it!”
He frowned at me and finally made the turn. God help me, if I didn’t get behind that wheel and started driving, I was going to pop a vein!
(from Grandma Cuts Loose, © 2016 by Ricardo das Neves)