“I didn’t have but one bath for three months last summer,” the old woman announces, a few minutes after we’ve met. Marie sits in a black chrome wheelchair dressed in a pale violet jogging suit with blue flowers embroidered across the chest. Her feet are covered in thin white socks, the left heel torn and frayed at the edges.
The volunteer coordinator at the agency is too busy to make the first visit, so it’s just us.
“I tried to get my neighbors to help, but they wouldn’t,” she continues. “Ruby up the street used to come by about once a month and help, but she said she just couldn’t come. Joyce is old like me, so she wasn’t any use. I couldn’t get no one.”
I’m still adjusting to the odor. It reminds me of the alleyway behind some restaurants downtown I pass on my Sunday morning runs; dumpsters spilling over with food scraps from the night before, festering in the heat. That, blended with the oily smell of her 110-pound longhaired black Labrador mix – whom I met on the way in – and the fishy aroma from the fly-covered cat food I see on a metal serving dish on the floor.
It’s mid-December in north Florida, 70 degrees outside, but it must be 80 in Marie’s living room. Her heater vibrates as it spews out more warm air.
I tell Marie that this is my first volunteer job with Good News Outreach, and I’m here to clean her home. I’ll try to visit weekly, most likely on Mondays.
“That will be nice,” she says. “It’s not much, but it’s all I got.”
It has taken me three weeks to psych myself up for this visit. It took me three months before that to even commit to doing regular, hands-on volunteer work. I had decided to move from being the person who threw money at other people’s problems to one who would try to solve them. I still wonder if I’m up for the job, and, from Marie’s noncommittal wave goodbye after our first meeting, I sense she does, too.
I was sitting at my desk, staring at the computer and wondering how the hell I was going to meet my writing deadlines that week when Amy from Good News called.
“I have a couple of options,” she started. “You said you wanted to work with senior citizens, right? Well, we’ve got this one – you would be delivering a bag of groceries about once every two weeks to a dozen houses.” The elderly were all in the same neighborhood, and I could probably be in and out in two hours, tops. I wasn’t expected to take time to visit with them, but that would be welcome if I wanted.
“Then there’s this other one,” she said, her voice rising like a salesman going for the close. “There’s this woman who lives alone with her dogs and a cat. The house is pretty disgusting. Home health care refuses to go in because it’s so awful. And let me tell you, it is. We had a workday at the home and there were dog and cat feces all over the carpet. Plates of food on the floor, crawling with maggots. We used rubber gloves to clean and when we got home, we threw them away – along with the clothes we were wearing.”
I shifted in my office chair. She continued. The agency had gotten involved after a grocery store manager called Adult Protective Services. He said one of the lady’s neighbors had been using the woman’s checks at the store to pay for her groceries, only he usually added a few six packs of beer and wrote the check for more than the total to get cash. The manager had become suspicious and asked law enforcement to check it out.
When the caseworker went out, he discovered a half-blind woman crippled by diabetes, living alone with her animals and sleeping on a urine-stained couch. They were considering condemning the place, but had nowhere to put the woman, so they decided to line up services to help. “Good News is sending canned goods and fixing up her home,” Amy said, “but it would be nice if you could just visit her during the week.”
This was not what I had in mind and I was ready to say, “I’ll take the grocery delivery,” when Amy perceptively interrupted my thought. “I’d like for you to take some time to think about it. Don’t give me your answer now, just call me in a day or two and we’ll set you up.”
I hung up the phone and returned to the article on the computer screen, but the image of the old woman wouldn’t go away. I heard the protective side of myself arguing with the charitable me: No way you have time for this. You said volunteer – well, you don’t have to take on the whole world! Take the groceries.
Other images followed…a crime-infested neighborhood, dog mess squished into the carpet, maggots and mice and all kinds of insects. All this – or handing out grocery bags with a smile and a light-hearted, “Have a good day!”
But I was feeling that chemical reaction I get when faced with a challenge. I had just completed a marathon at age 37 – 26.2 grueling miles – and my attitude about impossibilities had changed.
In two days, I called Amy back and accepted the maggot assignment, on the condition that I could back out if it was too much for me. She gave me an address and said, “I’ll tell her you’ll be there Monday.”
I notice there’s a hospital bed in the living room. Across from it is a triple-seater couch in earth tone plaid with matching armchair. There is another grimier-looking couch in the carport and I assume someone before me had the good sense to get rid of the urine-soiled couch and set Marie up with a hospital bed for sleeping. Still, I don’t dare sit on this newer model. It looks like it could be smelly, too.
Marie’s dog sniffs my leg and I crouch down, reach my arm around his broad shoulders and scruff his chest, like I do with my own Labrador. “You’re a good boy.”
“That’s Spike,” Marie says. “He used to have a sister that looked just like him, but she got hit by a car. Someone forgot to chain the gate and she and Spike ran off. I called the sheriff and when he brought Spike back, he said she’d been hit.” A veterinarian who cares for Marie’s pets for free came and put the injured female to sleep.
“That gate needs fixing,” I tell Marie. It had been difficult for me to get in and secure it behind me. “My brother owns a fence company, I’ll see if I can get him to come and look at it.”
“Really?” Marie says, leaning forward and meeting my gaze with cloudy green eyes. “I don’t want to lose Spike. He’s all I’ve got now.”
Picking up my cleaning supply caddie, I tell her, “Well, I guess I’d better get started. Do you have a vacuum?”
She points to an old beat up Electrolux in the corner of the living room. It’s next to the portable toilet that sits in front of the picture window. “Right there.” That’s when I notice the three television sets. “Do any of these work?” I ask, as my index finger slices through several layers of dust on top.
“Well, I don’t know. But I cain’t see ‘em if they did.”
I sneeze and feel my nose start to run. Maybe I’ll get a disposable facemask for the next visit.
Spike follows me suspiciously from room to room. Armed with a sponge and a bottle of pine cleaner, I attack the odor one surface at a time. Each time I walk in the living room, Marie attempts conversation.
“You know, I’m the only one Food Lion delivers to. They don’t deliver groceries to nobody else.”
I see her lean over toward a plastic-covered trashcan and spit a stream of brown liquid. That explains the canister of Copenhagen on the table.
After two hours, I’m beat. I offer my hand to Marie before I leave and she grasps it gently with both of hers. I tell her I’ll be back the following week.
As I’m leaving, I look around the yard, making a mental list of things that need fixing – weekend projects, when I have more time. We’ve got to get rid of that couch. The collection of television sets has to go, too. That will give Marie more room to maneuver her wheelchair.
The one-story ranch looks like it hasn’t been painted in 30 years. Its yellow surface is chipped and red trim has pockmarks. The house is on a generous lot, though, like the rest of the neighborhood homes – I guess a notch below middle class. Marie’s front yard could use some attention. Patches of grass frame the craters that Spike’s huge paws have dug and there’s a scrappy-looking hedge that her elusive cat hides in. Maybe I can find someone else to do the yard work.
On the way home, I call my brother and ask a favor on the fence. “Be sure to stick your head in the door and say hello to Marie when you come,” I tell him, “but hold your nose.”
One of my visits I meet a woman named Toni. She’s leaning over a glass table that houses Marie’s medications, disposable gloves used by the nurses and a clutter of mail. A woman of about 45 with thick, unkempt blond hair, she turns to say hello as I walk in the screen door.
“You’re doing a tremendous job,” she tells me. “It just seems to get better and better each week.” I had heard Toni was in charge of coordinating the nurses and personal care workers for Marie. And that she was also taking care of her bills.
Marie is sitting, hands folded, in her wheelchair. I set my cleaning supplies on the floor and come over to pat her hand in a greeting. She reaches up with both arms, so I lean down and give her a hug.
“She’s really doing quite well,” Toni says. “We’ve got regular help coming and I’ve actually been able to sort out her finances. She had been overdrawing checks before I took over and now she has money in the bank.”
Toni’s tone is a little too self-congratulatory for my taste. I pick up my cleaning supply caddie and say, “I’d better get busy or I’ll never get it all done this afternoon.”
She follows me into the kitchen. “I’ve left one check in the Bible, in case Marie ever needs it. But I’m keeping the checkbook with me.”
It irritates me the way Toni talks about Marie as if she’s not there. The woman may be partially blind, but her hearing is better than my own.
“I took the dials off the stove and oven because Marie shouldn’t be using the burners. She can’t feel anything in her hands, you know, and could burn herself. She has a microwave and that’s about all she needs.”
It’s about four in the afternoon and there’s a paper plate with a half-eaten waffle on the counter. It’s dotted with soft yellow gobs of margarine and syrup. I wave away the flies. “Marie, do you want me to throw away this waffle?” I shout toward the other room. “Nah. I’ll have it for supper,” she says.
As I’m getting out of the car on my next visit I hear a loud crash and look up. Spike has burst through Marie’s storm door and is galloping toward the fence to greet me. He looks around the yard, races toward a corner, then prances up to the gate with a syrup-soaked paper plate as an offering.
The chain is gone from the gate and there’s a simple latch for entry. I need to write a thank you to my brother.
“Spike’s not eatin’,” Marie says after our hellos. “He hasn’t eaten anything for three days.” I look over at the bloated pup and joke, “I think he can stand to not eat for a few more days. He’s obviously not starving.”
I survey the range of plates and platters underneath her breakfast room table. One has a moist-mix brand of dog food, another dry, another canned. And there are plates of waffles with sausage, framed by a brown ring of Aunt Jemima.
“He’s probably eating too much people food, Marie. If dogs get people food, you think they’re going to want their own?”
“I just wonder why he’s not eatin’,” she says, dismissing me.
“Can I ask you something?” Marie says, a serious tone in her voice, after I’ve given her a hello hug. “I know it’s not your job, but can you help me change my diaper? I’m just soaking wet.”
I hesitate and think of calling Toni, but the misery in Marie’s voice urges action. I take a deep breath, “I’ll try. But you’ll have to coach me through it.”
There are adult-size diapers (they call them “protective underwear”) in the corner where I vacuum, so I go get one. I roll Marie’s chair next to the hospital bed, so she can lean on it. She reaches down to lock the brake on each wheel.
When I take off Marie’s socks, I notice the white of her toenails jutting out by at least a quarter inch. Her feet are puffy with disuse and dotted with white scales.
“OK, let’s take your pants off.” Marie leans forward so I can slide the stretchy waistband over her rear. The soaked diapers come with it and now her bare bottom is on the chair.
I think about wiping up after the stink, but I really just want to get it over with, so I toss the bundle aside and come behind her with the diaper. She steadies herself on the armrests and lifts her bottom up as I try to fit the diaper between her legs.
Suddenly I realize I am holding my breath, but I don’t want to exhale too hard and make it obvious. I back away, hands on my hips as Marie tries to move her bottom around and get the padding in the right place.
When I reach down to try to fasten the diaper on either side, she says, “No, just help me get my britches on. It’ll stay in place.”
She’s naked from the waist down and I don’t have a clue where her clothes are.
I search the chest of drawers that I’ve dusted on past visits and after about the third drawer, I find a matching top and bottom.
“Let’s change your shirt, too.” She raises her hands over her head like a little girl I used to babysit and I pull the top off. Her skin is like wax paper, crinkly and opaque. She’s given up bras long ago and her drooping bosoms resemble long white water balloons – empty at the top and filled at the bottom. I feel like a child who has just seen a naked parent, naturally curious about a body that’s seen 83 years.
“Don’t ever let this happen to you,” Marie says, quietly.
“Marie, we’re all going to grow older and losing control over the bladder is common. So don’t feel bad. I’m going to be right where you are some day.” It’s a weak attempt to mask the indignity of it all and I avoid further thought of its stinging reality.
When I arrive home that evening, I undress in the garage and carry my clothes right to the washing machine. I leave my “Marie’s house” shoes outside.
After showering, I have dinner with my husband. As usual for Mondays, the conversation turns to Marie. He is sympathetic with this new “project” in my life and listens to my concerns. But like many of my friends, it doesn’t arouse the same urge to help. He makes non-committal suggestions that usually begin with, “You should…” and I recognize the game. When there’s a shared duty that both of us can perform – say, feeding the dog – and one of us wants to suggest the other do it while we’re occupied, the terms “we should” is used. Or, “one of us should.” But when it comes to Marie, there’s no tip toeing around. It’s my job and he plays the supporting role well, always a safe distance away.
Marie is soiled again. I notice the wet mark across her lap when I hug her hello, so I don’t even wait for her to ask – I just say, “Let’s get you into some clean britches.”
This time the process is easier, but I’m silently praying it doesn’t become an ongoing occurrence. As I pull her pants off, a checkbook falls to the floor.
“Marie, I thought Toni was keeping your checks.”
“Well, I just found this one,” she says. “And besides, I don’t like not having money.” She pauses, her head and voice drop, and she meets my eyes, “You’re not gonna tell on me, are you?”
Of course not, I tell her. It’s Toni’s problem, anyway. Not mine.
Later that week, I get a call from Toni. She’s caught Marie with the checkbook and says, “I think I’ve got them all now.” On a visit weeks later, I bump up against the bed and a checkbook hits the floor. I tuck it back where it came from, letting the cat and mouse game continue.
The phone rings and Marie shouts, “Will you get that?”
I’ve learned that she can be very independent, cleaning up after herself and answering her own phone when no one’s around. But when someone else is there to do it, she likes to be waited on.
“Marie’s house,” I answer. “Hello,” a mature woman’s voice responds. “Um,” she pauses, “this is Marie’s granddaughter, is she there?” I note a New England accent, so I link it with the name Barbara, who Marie told me once lived with her. “Sure.” I hand over the phone and Marie’s voice cracks as she adopts a pitiful tone, “Hel-lo?”
I go back to cleaning the kitchen, trying not to eavesdrop.
“No. I cain’t come live with you. I cain’t leave. There’s too many people here coming to see me each week.”
Oh, so now the tables have turned; we’re dependent on her.
Before I leave, I sit on the hospital bed and Marie turns her chair toward me. “You know, Zelda asked me the other day, ‘I don’t know how you don’t go crazy just sitting here.’ I told her I’m fine. You know I’ve never gotten depressed, and I’m never alone. Jesus is right here with me.”
“You’re one of the lucky ones,” I tell her. “My grandmother was like you once. Real independent. But then she started getting depressed about growing old,” I think about stopping there, but find myself confessing, “she shot herself with a .22 in my Mama’s kitchen, just before her 90th birthday.”
As usual when I bring up the topic, silence follows and I wonder if I should have said it.
“She shot herself?”
Marie shakes her head. “I wouldn’t have the nerve to do that.”
One afternoon I’m cleaning some knickknacks off a side table and open a drawer to store them. There are pictures scattered there and I see a color photo of a woman standing with her right hand on her hip, looking away from the camera. She’s showing another woman a vase.
“Marie, is this you?” Reaching for the photo, she pulls it close to her good eye. “Yeah. That’s the ceramics shop I used to own up the road. I did hair after that. But I had that place for years. You know where the Pizza Hut is? That’s my old building.”
I remember going to a shop like that one year when I was about eight years old. My mother decided we would only give Christmas presents we made with our hands, so we visited the do-it-yourself ceramics shop to paint vases and statues of all sizes. They were roughly hewn, chalky models we would scrape and polish then paint. We left them to be fired and pick them up on the next visit, a finished piece of art. I just saw one of those gifts in my mother’s laundry room last week – a gold-toned deer with blue eyes that somehow survived.
I recalled that the ceramics shop we visited was on the same road as the Pizza Hut and suddenly the name came back to me: Marie’s Clay House.
“Toni quit on me,” Marie says. I’m calling on my way to ask if she needs me to pick up anything. I can tell she’s been waiting all afternoon to hear from me, like a friend with juicy gossip.
“Well, you can tell me about it when I get there.”
Darn it, I’m thinking. Who’s going to coordinate all the help for Marie? And what about her checkbook and bills?
When I get there, I let her tell me everything. Toni came to see her on Saturday and said there was this woman she wanted Marie to meet. She brought her in and introduced the two. Then Toni said she wanted Marie to hire the woman to do errands and pick up groceries. The stuff Toni didn’t have time to do anymore.
“I flat out told her, ‘What do I need her for?’ I don’t even know what I pay you for, why should I pay this other woman?’
“When I told her no, I wasn’t gonna hire her, she quit! Just walked out the door, brought me my checkbook and this envelope here from her car, and left.”
I unlatch the tan-colored envelope and look inside. It appears to be full of bank statements, cancelled checks and payment stubs.
“Who can you get to pay your bills, Marie?” A question I’m really asking myself out loud.
“Well, you can do it, cain’t ya?”
“Oh, no. Uh uh. No way. I can hardly balance my own checkbook, you don’t want me near yours.”
Besides, I think, I’ve got my hands full getting the roof patched, the electric circuitry re-wired, a new clothes washer, new storm door after Spike broke the last one, plus the heating and air conditioning repaired, laundry and cleaning. My hands are full keeping this place operating, no way I’m doing the bookkeeping, too.
“Well, there’s just those two bills that came in,” she says in her pity-me voice. “Can you take a look at them for me?”
On my way down Marie’s street, I try to find the house she says Tommy lives in. I’ve caught him buying beer and cartons of cigarettes with Marie’s checks again. She sent him to the grocery, but I told her she had to save any receipts whenever she used a check – or else how was I supposed to keep up with her checkbook. He had the nerve to give her the receipt with the extra charges spelled out.
I see a neatly kept house with a bruised brown truck parked on the side of the carport. A man’s jeans-covered leg is hanging halfway out. That’s him. Marie says he’s not allowed to smoke or drink in the house, so he sits in his truck all day and has his fill.
“Marie, you don’t have the money to be buying Tommy’s beer and cigarettes,” I tell her, after we’ve said hello and exchanged small talk. I now know she receives $726 a month – $520 from Social Security and $206 from an annuity. “He’s going to overdraw your account again.”
“But he always comes when I need him,” she says. “Even in the middle of the night, if I fall out of bed. Who else can I call?”
The more I know about this guy, the more it irks me. An unemployed Vietnam Veteran, he claims to be disabled – some sort of a back problem. He looks about 45, a lanky, leather-skinned man with a mustache and dark but graying hair. He still lives with his mom.
He keeps telling Marie that the Veterans are going to pay for his back operation. But it’s been years and he’s never gotten it. He can’t work because of his back, but he can carry grocery bags and pick up a 140-pound woman off the floor when she falls?
“Wasn’t it Tommy’s kid that burglarized your house that night, Marie?”
How can I get across the dangers of allowing these people in her life? Marie was sleeping in her bedroom that night, when she heard noises. She pretended to be asleep, but saw two teenagers rummaging through her stuff. They took her cash, then stole lawn equipment that was parked outside a few weeks later.
“Just wiped me clean,” she says.
I want to march up the street to this guy and scream in his face, “Who do you think you are, stealing from a defenseless old woman?”
Her pleading tone convinces me to stay out of it.
My 17-year-old nephew has to work some community service hours for school, so I volunteer him to do yard work at Marie’s house. On the telephone, I lecture him about how to treat Marie. “She’s had too many disappointments, too many people in her life have taken advantage of her. I don’t want you to even think about doing the work unless you are going to treat her with respect.”
Not having kids of my own, I thought the talk went well. He even responded to several of my stern warnings with, “Yes ma’am.”
The next week, my nephew’s truck is parked outside of Marie’s house and he’s pushing the mower while his friend rakes leaves. If only Marie could see what her yard looks like. But even if she can’t see it, other people will and maybe they won’t be so quick to take advantage of her.
My sister calls a few days later and asks me why Marie is paying my nephew. She’s found some money in his pocket and he said Marie gave it to him. Doesn’t she know it’s community service – volunteer work?
I figure Marie’s just being generous. Maybe wanting to spoil the kid. I decide just to kid her about it on my next visit.
“But he asked for it,” she says. “He came by to see me one day and said he needed gas money, so I gave him twenty bucks.”
“Remember that $14 you left me last week?” Marie asks, after I’ve set my cleaning supplies on the couch. Marie likes to have cash on hand for pizza tips and so I’ve started to cash checks for her a couple times a month. “Well, that new girl they have at Food Lion, she wrote out a check for me to sign. And the cash was in the checkbook. When I went to pay the pizza man later, it was gone.”
Marie may be 83, but her memory for details is better than most people half her age. I remember the time she needed a part for her wheelchair and I had no idea who to call. She said, “Open up the yellow pages and read me the names.”
OK. Sure. Right.
I looked under medical equipment and read about five names. When I got to Option Care, she said, “Try that number. And ask for Wendy.”
Obediently, I dialed and said, “By any chance do you have a Wendy who works there?”
“Yes, just a moment. She’ll be right with you.”
Thanksgiving at my parents’ house I find myself scrutinizing the choice of dishes on the table. Marie likes stuffing, I know. And the turnip greens with bacon are a must. Skip the green beans, though. And she likes dark meat, not white.
After I finish my meal, I grab the two Styrofoam “to go” boxes I brought with me and load up for Marie. She gets two desserts, since I don’t know if she prefers apple or pumpkin pie. I grab a plastic zipper bag and fill it with several heaping portions of scraps for Spike. I’m pretty sure he’ll get her leftovers, too.
No one seems surprised when I excuse myself early from the family gathering. “I told Marie I would bring her Thanksgiving,” I told them earlier in the month. When we did a head count to plan quantities, Marie was included.
Recently I noticed Marie used my name. I walked in the door and she said, “Spike, Julie’s here.” I had always figured that she didn’t know my name or feel it was important to know because she would tell people on the telephone, “Let me get ‘the girl’ to read it to you – I’m blind.” Then she would shout directions for me to come and read a number from her Medicaid card or medical statement.
After a year of weekly visits, holidays included, plus some weekends, the name to me symbolizes trust. Something else changed, too. In our routine parting recently, she said, “I don’t know what I would do without you,” then paused. “I love you.”
Ever since, I’ve been wondering if I really am up for the job.
Julie S. Bettinger has been entertaining readers with her stories for more than 25 years. Whatever the medium, she will morph to fit the style. Personal essay, football coach quote book, website or social media post – Julie finds a way to connect audience with story. She received a master’s in Creative Writing from Florida State University and is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Find writing samples at: www.juliebettinger.com.