Bert and I are best friends. That's a fact and no exaggeration, especially because both of us have a total of one friend each. And since we're both in our 80s, roommates, and both failing, our kinship gives a rather literal meaning to "BFF's." (I just knew I'd get to use that acronym some day!) I suspect we don't have long. Make no mistake, though, we are buds.
Bert has Stage 4 pancreatic you-know-what. We avoid using the "C-word" in Fairhaven Assisted Living Facility. And to top it off, adding injury to insult, Bert recently broke his left hip. But what Bert has and his sidekick lacks is a smooth functioning, sharp brain. I have cognitive impairment, emerging dementia. I also suffer severely, painfully, embarrassingly with aphasia. I'm Frank.
Together we're quite the team. Yep, together we're the equivalent of one whole man: Bert's brain and my bod. I'm as sharp as a thumb; Bert's the tack; together we're a thumbtack. Okay, so I need help with metaphors.
About now you're wondering how the guy with the mushy brain and a third grade command of syntax or elocution is writing this story. The answer is pretty simple and patently obvious. He's not! His best friend is. Told ya -- we're a team. I get to "dictate" in my fractured, laborious manner, and sweet, patient Bert "translates" into comprehensible English, while he keyboards his way to a coherent story. You probably saw that coming ... the word "elocution" in a sentence composed by Frank? Come on, get real!
Time to get on with the story. You read the title: I, as the "slow" one (with a perky body, by the way), and as the protagonist of this tale, am making an escape from this joint. But first, you need to understand a few things about my limitations. I can still think, but my processing is slower and more tedious than perhaps yours is. It's also kind of lumpy. I can have spells of normalcy, even moments of deductive cleverness, and then go blank. I am not a good observer, especially of social cues, and I'm a shit-for-brains talker. (Editor/typist's note: Frank insisted I use that exact term, and we had a good laugh! -- Bert.)
I get lost on occasion. My memory, especially short term, is very spotty, but so is yours if you're my age. Unbeknownst to most of you, I experience the full spectrum of emotions, but am residing more and more in hues of red and blue, signaling the anger and sadness of my situation of despair and ennui (right, you caught me, my word -- B). I can still read, and I'm very athletic. Did I tell you how many push-ups and sit-ups I can do?
Emotionally, Bert and I are almost identical. We're either pissed at the world, or crying our inside-eyes out, while maintaining a stoic exterior, of course. Then there's the boredom, a terribly deadening affliction. We'd try everything to chip away the boredom, engaging our old-guy storytelling acumen about the blurring past, and projecting our imaginations into futures unlikely to be. But then one day Bert asked me if I had one thing, just one thing left in my bucket-dream list, and naturally enough, what would it be? And so the grand scheme was hatched with me spitting it out in my halting, gesture-aided, but excited speech, and with Bert gradually revealing that sneaky, mischievous smile of his. We'd plan my escape.
Bert has this computer thingy he calls a laptop. I think it should be called a chesttop because that's where it's perched when Bert is in his almost-always prone position. He's a wiz with it, though; even medicated, he can find out anything he wants in a jif. Such as bus routes.
My destination is to be the local Walmart. I will scale the wall surrounding Fairhaven, go to the bus stop, catch the 14E, spend six hours in Walmart, and retrace my steps, but taking the 14W on the return. Bert has the whole thing planned and written out for me in 20 pt. Arial font. I will be missing my afternoon nap, but not my dream.
It's not that I'll have to get gussied up or anything, but I will have to trade my slippers for socks and shoes. Bert says no bathrobe. Regular old pants and shirt. A step up from my daily attire, but only a step up ... any more and I'll attract attention before I skedaddle. Out loud, I'll rehearse potential conversations I may encounter, such as with the bus driver or store clerks.
We know the routines of the facility staff, and figure their Wednesday, 9:30 a.m, on-the-dot staff meeting will enable my escape unnoticed. We are right.
I have Bert's directions, and find the bus stop just fine. I will be returning by bus from Walmart in about seven hours, after having waited fifteen minutes to catch the 14W that will deposit me back here. And after the short walk back "home," I can enter undetected through the courtyard door while everyone will be at the 5:30 p.m. dinner.
No prob with the bus. It is pretty much on-time, and Bert had purchased a muni-card that somehow stored my bus fares to Walmart and back. He bought it using that laptop on his chest. I have no bloody idea how he bought it or how it worked, but with the bus driver's help I am on my way.
I enter Walmart about a half hour later.
Once inside the store, I start in the Eyewear department. It is, after all, near the front. I wear glasses, but they're almost useless. I got them in my 60s. Today I am equipped with money, real cash, not that card bullshit that Bert knows all about. I just love a pair of periwinkle specs, and a clerk helps me to a desk where she can do measurements, and I can see my face adorned with these cool jobbies in a small mirror. She asks for my prescription, but the only ones I can think of are for Simvastatin and Wellbutrin, back at the "Haven." Turns out, you need a different prescription for new "eyewear." Confused, frustrated, and disappointed to abandon the spectacular, new, periwinkle glasses, I head away from Eyewear towards Housewares. I am seeing red and blue, my usual emotions, but I have adrenalin in my corner.
I never make it to Housewares. "Uh-oh, am I lost?" I ask myself, not sure of the answer. Not sure of anything. "Has Walmart reorganized their layout, or has my fuzz-ball brain once again betrayed me by acting out or shutting down?" Not sure of the answer again. I am, however, certain of the red I am seeing. "Whatever," I mutter to myself. That's my favorite word -- it comes out ungarbled, and it is universally fitting to much of what I experience.
Somehow, I am now in Women's Lingerie. Even I'm smart enough to ponder why they call it "Women's" Lingerie. I told you I have moments of clarity -- even cleverness -- and just then I wonder if there are other types of lingerie, or other genders to whom it is sold. But of course there are, my fleeting cognition informs me, but not in Walmart. Anyway, I am passing through the aisle with bras and slips. Had no idea there were so many types. Perhaps I linger a moment too long, being either observant of, or confused by these alien undergarments, because a store clerk is approaching me. Oh no, will she innocently ask something about my wife, Becky, who had the audacity to leave me eight years ago due to another variety of those "C-words"? Just then a second blip of cogency whispers to me, "move on," just in case the clerk's mind dwells towards the bottom -- the family I no longer have wouldn't want the scandal of some kind of underwear-perv in their lineage.
The safe harbor of Men's Clothing awaits my anchorage. I can spend hours browsing anonymously, invisibly. Wouldn't you know it, though, a clerk approaches me after about an hour.
"Can I help you sir?" he asks, prompting me to freeze verbally, but physically weigh anchor, silently sailing away, hoping for some abandoned island where I won't have to grapple with a conversation.
I tack over to Electronics. I am interested in learning about Bert's computer, wondering if I can buy some kind of gizmo to go with it and enhance his "digital experience." I make the foolish error of asking where the chest-tops are located. Even my limp brain operating at about 70% can discern the look of humorous disbelief in the clerk's eyes, followed quickly with some blend of pity, disgust, and total judgment. Time to move again; I can't deal with technical arrogance.
I approached what would be my last Walmart department of the day -- Sporting Goods. After going through the fishing supplies, aching to tell someone -- anyone who'd listen -- one of the three jokes I can remember (you know, the one about "catching a cold" on a fishing trip), I arrived at the firearms counter. Summoning the baritone vocal range I seldom dare use at Fairhaven, I asked to see and hold the .30-06 on display to my right. That was my first mistake. My second was turning away from the counter, gun nestled against my shoulder and eye lined up with the sights. The third I really knew better than doing, but I was hijacked by my own dim mind, sketchy impulse control, and the habit of watching too many Rambo re-runs in the Rec Hall. Yep, I knew better than aiming the rifle back at the Eyewear Department sign, yelling "Prescription? Take that!" I was tackled to the floor.
After spending about 45 minutes in Store Security, they let me go. My mumbling and bumbling, take-pity-on-the-old-demented-guy routine worked. I lied about living up the street with my daughter who was at work. I lied about being a member at St. John's, Kiwanis, and Beginner's Chess Club at the Library. And I lucked out that the municipal police got a call more urgent than the 80-something guy menacingly aiming an unloaded, trigger-locked gun in Walmart. Good thing. Getting arrested would have crapped all over my Wednesday (Frank's insistence on word choice again).
In retrospect, I was damn proud of myself that I was able to wing it conversationally in Security. Strangely, I was even proud of my rather fluent lies.
I negotiated my second escape of the day. Had to wait a little longer than expected at the bus stop. But caught the bus, paid with my muni-card, walked back to Fairhaven from the bus stop, scaled the wall, and entered unnoticed through the courtyard while everyone was eating their cardboard-of-the-day dinner. Success!
Bert and I laughed and laughed that night as I recounted my adventures and misadventures. There, for a few moments, Bert literally had tears in his eyes while he roared with laughter. In fact, he's still giggling as he writes this. We're already planning our next breakout. Maybe to the zoo this time. Yes, there's a bus stop near the zoo.
And we've considered giving our "gang" a name; something dangerously cool, something alliterative. "Dynamic Duo" won't do, already used and over-used. We've come close with "Paraplegic Pair," but neither of us truly fits. "Twilight" or "Tormented Twosome?" Nahhh. We keep laughing, brimming over our boredom pot with pure excitement. We've ended our gang discussions by abandoning an actual name, but concluding we make a "coot couple."
Bert and I have no family or friends left outside of here. But Bert and I are family and we are friends. I love Bert. (And I love you, Frank.)