The Day Louise Fielding Was Made
Lauren Bailey Fawcett
Some people had it made and some people made themselves. Fingering the linen suit hanging in her closet, Louise Fielding knew that neither applied to her.
The suit was, she thought, the color of pea soup or perhaps rotten avocados. Either way, it was ugly. She dressed slowly, thinking of the suit, this pea green ensemble, which her husband had given her as a gift several years ago. She snorted. He’d always had bad taste. Even in women. He’d married her, after all.
There was a knock on the door, crisp and abrupt. Christy popped her head in. “Ready to go, Louise? Such an exciting day,” she said, wheeling Louise out of her room on a wheelchair.
Louise said nothing. She willed the ever joyful Christy to be stricken with silence but she prattled on about how it was such a beautiful day to have a party, how fantastic Louise looked in her suit, and oh wasn’t that such a lovely color on her? She’s lying. This suit is as hideous as the dank mold probably growing in her basement. She would ask for a new aide tomorrow, one who was less prone to babble on about nothing.
Today was her one hundredth birthday. Christy was pushing her to the party, the one the nursing home had insisted on throwing for her despite her pleas to the contrary.
Louise hated birthdays, starting, she thought, at her very first one. The story went that she had cried as the guests sang, “Happy Birthday” and had refused to try even a small lick of the icing but had knocked the cake to the floor only to splatter onto the orange carpet. For her seventh birthday, she had hid in her room. On her thirtieth, she had done the same. And on her fiftieth, she had willed herself to die.
Much to her consternation, she had lived fifty more years while everyone around her had died: her parents, her husband, her sister, her friends, her son. Only Mary Anne is left. What an atrocity. Mary Anne couldn’t even bear me a grandchild. But then again, Louise considered, grandchildren cost money. She thought of sending her daughter-in-law a Thank You card. “Please accept my sincerest thanks,” it would say, “for not burdening my life with the requisite expenses of grandchildren. Your thoughtfulness knows no bounds.”
When they reached the dining room, Louise was again struck by its revolting wallpaper, a burgundy with gold sworls and silver swirls. Upon seeing Louise, a few cheers of “Happy Birthday!” went up, but most of the other patients had hardly noticed. Lulu was there, her dog, Muffy, in her lap. Lulu darted toward Louise, shoving the animal in her face. Its mouth was crusty and stiff with dried food because Lulu fed it soups and beans and mashed potatoes as if it were real. But it’s fake and stuffed with cotton or some such unreal thing. Like me.
“Muffy wants petted,” Lulu said, hounding Louise to her place at the table until Louise, hesitating and cringing at even the thought, poked the silly stuffed animal with her left index finger. “Muffy loves you,” Lulu repeated until Louise nodded and she sprang away to bother someone else.
Louise wiped her hand on her suit.
Someone put a birthday hat on her head. It had a chin strap and Louise felt utterly ridiculous wearing it. There were flashes of light as people took pictures and a local reporter sat down next to her. His name was Matt, he said, and he was a reporter for the Brookfield Chronicles.
“You’re the first to reach one hundred,” he exclaimed, as if this was an amazing feat, as if Brookfield was a large city instead of a small town with a population of 4,264. “How does it feel to be one hundred?” he asked.
Louise eyeballed him, responded, “Like a nightmare.” She wanted him to go away but he didn’t and asked her more questions.
“What was your favorite place to visit as a child? What were birthdays like? What type of house did you live in?”
His questions were intrusive and Louise grunted, rumbled, and grumbled in response. When she thought she couldn’t take anymore, she said, “I suppose you’ll ask me next how often I took a crap as a child.”
The reporter’s eyes grew wide and white like marbles and then he grinned. “About that,” he said, “did you have an outhouse or an indoor toilet?”
Louise glared at him and swiped at the birthday hat hoping to knock it off. She missed, though, and it slid down, lopsided, to dangle from the side of her head.
Then there were people surrounding her, singing, and more flashes of light as more pictures were taken. Louise glared at the employees taking pictures, her hat now twisted over her right ear instead of on her head, knowing she looked like a funny old lady to them but pretending she didn’t care as they brought out a large chocolate cake with birthday candles in the shape of numbers, spelling out one hundred, and before she knew it the singing was done and Louise blew out the candles because everyone was staring at her and she hated being stared at.
She pushed her piece of cake away and glowered. Lulu sat across from her, feeding her stuffed dog and making barking noises. Glancing at her watch, Louise realized it was 3:00 PM. She feigned tiredness by yawning and then Christy was there, wheeling her to her room. Alone, she thought, as Christy moved her to the bed and closed the door behind her. It was just how she had wanted to spend her birthday.
Lulu was one of those people who had it made. Sitting outside on the lawn in her wheelchair, Louise watched Lulu’s relatives hover and laugh with her. There were a lot of relatives: a husband, two daughters, one son, a brother, a nephew, and what appeared to be a young pregnant granddaughter. But that wasn’t why Lulu had it made. She had it made because she was insane. Well, not insane really, that wasn’t the proper term. It was dementia, Louise supposed, that affected her memory and behavior. Lulu didn’t know that her precious Muffy wasn’t real, that she lived in a nursing home alone, that she should be depressed and miserable and heart-sick like the rest of them. No, she was happy-go-lucky and completely naive.
It was one of those days where the sun hung high in the sky, birds fluttered about, and the patients at Cedar Meadows Care Center were allowed to romp outside. Louise was about to ask her new aide to bring her inside for a nap when Lulu bustled over. “Muffy doesn’t want to go for a walk,” she stated.
Louise nodded, pretending she knew what Lulu meant and before she knew it Muffy was sitting on her lap as Lulu and her family started down the small trail that looped around the lake.
“Take good care of my Muffy,” Lulu yelled.
The dog was worse than Louise had thought. Not only was it dirty but it stank. She didn’t dare touch it but sat there praying that someone, anyone, would come take the wretched thing away. She brightened when she saw Christy wheeling one of the new cohorts over beside her.
“This is Basil. He just got in last week.” She said this as if they were vacationing on a resort in Bermuda instead of dying slow agonizing deaths at a death center. Louise shook his hand, about to ask Christy to take Muffy away when she realized that Christy had already left.
“What’s your dog’s name?” Basil asked.
“It’s not my dog.”
“What’d you say?” He leaned closer. A hearing aid protruded from his ear.
She shouted, “It’s Lulu’s dog.”
“Lulu?” he grinned. “What a great name for a dog.” He reached over and patted its head.
Louise scowled. Wasn’t there anyone who would stop pretending that the dog was real? “It’s Muffy, not Lulu. And it’s not real.”
“That’s right, the real deal,” he drawled, “I didn’t know they let you have dogs in these places.”
They sat there in silence until Louise thought she was going to explode. “The dog has to take a crap,” she announced as she shoved it off her lap. It fell somewhere on the ground and rolled away but Louise didn’t care.
She pulled out the morning newspaper from her pack and pretended to read. It had her article in it, the one the reporter had written about her birthday, but she was too proud to say that she couldn’t read the fine print anymore. She could see the picture, though. There she was in her hideous pea green suit and a nasty look on her face.
Basil snatched the newspaper out of her hand. “Let me see that.” He squinted. “What’s that, there?” He pointed to the birthday hat that stuck out precariously from Louise’s ear.
“A birthday hat.”
“A big black bat? Wow, I’ve never seen one like that before but then they’re always finding new types of species these days, aren’t they?”
“A hat, for goodness sake. Why would there be a bat inside the center?”
“A cat, you say? How wonderful! It’s probably good company for your dog, Lulu. You look great in that suit, too. What color is that?”
She stared at him, unable to think of anything to say.
Finally, she announced that she would retire to her room. She was wheeled away where she was, once again, just where she wanted to be. Alone.
Louise was having trouble breathing. She thought, perhaps, that she was having a heart attack or maybe some kind of lung failure. But something smelled funny and the smell was burning her nostrils and her throat. Then there was that awful clanging. “Oh beans,” she muttered, “can’t anyone even get a nap in this place?” Opening her eyes, she saw smoke filling the room and began to panic.
“Fire!” she yelled out. She knew something about fires because she watched, “Firefighters of New York City” on Thursday evenings and had seen that one movie about the big fire in California but couldn’t recall its name right at the moment. She did, however, remember to stay as low to the ground as she could while moving slowly to the door. Her knees and hips ached with the effort. She felt the door with her hands to determine if it was hot and whether she should open it or leave it shut.
She decided to open it.
Smoke clung to the ceiling and threatened to take over the hallway. Shuffling along at a speed rare for her, Louise followed the bright red signs marking Exit. There was no indication of anyone else and she wondered where they could be. Had they already left the building? Without getting her? As soon as she saw an employee, she would give them a piece of her mind.
She turned the corner to see Lulu standing at her bedroom door, wringing her hands and muttering under her breath. The smoke was thicker here, clawing its way into her eyes and nose and throat, causing Louise to cough and then cover her face with her hands. Lulu must be confused, she thought and grabbed at her as she shambled by.
“Come on, Lulu, there’s a fire,” she said but Lulu pulled away.
“Can’t leave now.” Lulu’s voice tore and tears fell from her eyes.
“This is no time to cry. We’ve got to leave.” Louise grabbed for her again.
Lulu pushed away. “I won’t leave,” she said, “not without Muffy.”
“Muffy isn’t real. Let’s go.”
Louise sighed. “Okay, where’s Muffy? We’ll grab her and go.”
Lulu wailed. “Can’t find Muffy. Can’t find Muffy.”
The smoke was almost unbearable now. Louise had trouble breathing and, as she glanced up, noticed that she could barely read the Exit sign anymore. She shuffled into Lulu’s room. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?” Louise felt faint, as if she would pass out. “Where did you have her last?”
“You had her.”
“I had her? Don’t be silly. This is no time for games. Why would I have her?” she said.
“Go outside. I’ll get Muffy.”
“You’ll get Muffy? And bring her outside?”
“Yes,” she said impatiently.
Lulu bounded toward the Exit sign. It was the last thing Louise saw as she was overcome by smoke and fell to the ground gasping for air. But it wasn’t her last thought, which was, “I knew that stuffed dog would be the death of me.”
When Louise woke she had a quick hope that she was in Heaven; a Heaven with lots of peace and quiet so that she could be alone with her thoughts. Instead, she woke to beeping and a pain in her throat. She knew this was no Heaven, especially upon seeing Christy standing over her exclaiming, rather loudly, “Her eyes are open!”
So Louise did the only thing she could think of: she closed her eyes.
The eye-closing didn’t deter Christy who shook Louise until her eyes popped open again.
“Oh beans, child, can’t you give a woman a break?” Her words came out more like “oh gee, chi, mumble mumble something-or-other ake?”
Christy laughed. “Oh Louise, you can’t have cake right now. At least, I wouldn’t recommend the hospital’s cake.”
A nurse checked on her and told her that she was doing well and Louise wondered why she just couldn’t die. Then she did something remarkable, at least for her, and she thought of somebody else.
“Lulu?” she croaked.
“Lulu’s here. Admitted for smoke inhalation like you. But she’s doing fine.” Christy explained that the fire was being investigated because they weren’t sure how it had started, and everyone had gotten out safely thanks to the quick response of the fire department. “The building’s ruined, though, and we’re going to have to send you over to the care center in Hanover when you get out of here.”
After a while, Lulu slept. When she woke, Christy was gone. Glancing around the sterile room, she noticed flowers by her bedside. “From Christy and family,” they read.
Matt, the reporter from The Brookfield Chronicles, arrived later. He was bustling with excitement. “Another great story. The oldest woman in Brookfield survives a fire to live to one hundred and one day old!” He began to ask her questions, “What was it like, the fire?” and “How do you feel now?” and it was all Louise could do not to roll her eyes. She shook her head. Her throat hurt too much and she pointed at the birthday article that someone, most likely Christy, had tacked up to the wall. She gestured for him to read it and he did.
The article briefly touched on her past; how she had been born on a large farm in Ohio and how two of her siblings had died at childbirth. Matt read off a quote from Christy, “Louise is such a sweetheart. So quiet and helpful, God bless her heart.”
The only other quote was from Lulu: “Muffy loves Louise.”
Contemplating what Matt had read, Louise felt something but couldn’t figure out what it was even after looking around her bed for something that could be poking at her chest or her stomach. It was something she hadn’t felt in a long time and she realized with surprise that she was feeling loneliness. She didn’t like that feeling and decided not to feel it anymore.
A few days later, she was released from the hospital but Lulu wasn’t. Doctors had poked and prodded and consequently found cancer. According to Christy, Lulu had refused treatment and her family had agreed. She’s too old for chemotherapy, they said. Let her die peacefully, they said. And, they asked, had Muffy burned in the fire? Lulu won’t stop asking for her and wouldn’t it be nice for Lulu to have Muffy nearby during these sad times? So Lulu was dying and Louise wasn’t and Muffy was nowhere to be found.
An elderly person’s life revolved around meals, Louise believed. First, there was breakfast at seven, then lunch at noon, and dinner at five. Nothing much happened in-between. People, when young, were so anxious and stressed that they rarely had time to eat or relax, and then, suddenly, they’re old and that’s all they do even though they have no appetite and food tastes like petrified horse dung because all of your taste-buds have gone to the way-side. Things were particularly monotonous now without Lulu’s perkiness to lighten the load.
Louise was eating a lackluster meal of steamed cabbage, cornbread, and butterscotch pudding with Basil in Hanover’s nursing home when a thought occurred to her: she had been holding Muffy on the grounds outside of Cedar Meadows before the fire broke out, and had knocked the dog off her lap in anger. It was probably still out there somewhere. Gesturing frantically for an aide, Louise flailed her arms and her breath came in ragged heaves from the exertion. Basil, upon seeing her in distress, stumbled behind her and placed his arms around her until his hands rested on her stomach. He jerked back hard. Once. Twice. A gurgle escaped from her throat but Basil didn’t stop there. He gripped her jaw with one hand and pulled her mouth open, his watery blue eyes peering into the inside of her mouth. Apparently, he didn’t find what he was looking for because suddenly his lips were over hers and his breath, hot and cabbage-y, was in her mouth.
“She’s choking.” Basil shouted, “She needs resuscitated.”
“I am not choking. And I do not need resuscitated.” Her words were firm but an aide checked her pulse anyway. “It’s Muffy. I know where she is.”
“Muffy?” the aide asked.
Patients gawked at them, unmoving, one with a foot still raised as the commotion had interrupted his pacing duties.
“Yes, Muffy. She’s on the grounds at Cedars Meadow. At the start of the loop that runs around the lake.”
“Ma’am,” he said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Exasperated, Louise barked, “Lulu’s Muffy. Lulu is dying in the hospital and wants Muffy.”
Basil joined the conversation. “Oh, that dog is real pretty, all white, and she’s sweet too. Loves to eat, that dog. Especially mashed potatoes, just eats ‘em right up.”
“Calm down, ma’am. I don’t know who Lulu and Muffy are, but I’m pretty sure that they don’t let dogs in the hospital. Unless she’s one of those helper dogs. She one of them?”
Sighing, Louise said, “Just get me Christy Templeton on the phone. Lulu needs her Muffy.”
Christy later told Louise they had found Muffy behind a bush near the lake. She was intact but dirty, and Christy had given her a bath before whisking her away to Lulu’s waiting arms. Isn’t it wonderful, Christy had said, that Muffy was found in time, and that Louise was the one to find her? Weren’t they just the greatest friends, her and Lulu, she had asked. Louise had reflected on this bit of news. A friend? She hadn’t had a friend in decades, didn’t know what it meant to be a friend, but found that she was sort of fond of the idea.
Christy called Louise again a few hours later. The dog was found just in time, she said, because Lulu passed away a few hours after being reunited with Muffy.
Louise had been invited to the funeral and, on a rainy Tuesday morning, was loaded up in a minivan with wheelchair access. The weather, for once, matched Louise’s mood. She hadn’t felt so depressed and regretful since her son’s death twenty years ago.
So she wore her pea green suit.
Houses, skewed and distorted, seemed to peer at her through rain-blotched windows. As they reached the outskirts of Brookfield, Louise recognized her family’s farm, sold long ago, now razed and built up with row upon row of indiscriminate housing, one as alike as the other.
The church sat squarely between the dentist’s office and Pamela’s Styling Salon, its sprawling mass an indication of the wealth the town had once held. That wealth had moved on as the factories had moved overseas.
Mourners crowded the halls and rooms of the church wishing to pay respects to the once gentle and loving, and to say goodbye to a woman whose smile would no longer grace this earth except in the hearts of those who knew her. Christy was there with her husband and three children. One of them, a boy, reminded Louise of her own son when he was a precocious five-year-old, tow-headed and curious.
As the service drew to a close, Louise watched Lulu’s family. Her husband and daughters cried softly in each other’s arms while her brother and nephew visibly held back tears. Her granddaughter sobbed uncontrollably, gripping Muffy tight to her swollen belly.
How was it that someone as sincere and tender as Lulu could pass on from this life, leaving a family who loved her behind, while she had lived, alone and miserable, way beyond her years of one hundred?
The aide pushed her outside. The rain had stopped, leaving puddles on the pocked parking lot surface. She could remember jumping in puddles with her son before he had gotten too old for such fancies and before she had gotten too cynical with life. It had been a happy time; she wished she could share the memory with him to remind him of the good moments that they had shared. But he had died never forgiving her for not welcoming Mary Anne into the family. What she wouldn’t give to go back, to change things from the past. But it was too late, she knew. Only the future lay ahead.
She thought of calling Mary Anne to do just that. To embrace the future with the past. Her rain cap crinkled as she folded it back into her purse and she caught a glimpse of herself in a puddle’s mirror, thinking that she looked as old as she felt but that maybe she didn’t look so bad in pea green, after all.
Louise looked up to see Lulu’s granddaughter scampering after them. She held out Muffy.
“Lulu would want you to have her,” she said.
Louise shook her head. “No, I couldn’t.”
“Please. She always said that you took good care of Muffy and that you were her best friend. Please. You saved her from the fire and everything.”
Louise took the animal. She embraced it fully, weeping. And then laughter burst from her lips, a sound as thin as paper, ill-used and dusty. For just a moment it felt like Muffy was licking at her face, lapping up her tears. As the aide loaded her into the van, she asked him, “What’s for lunch today? I hope its beans and mashed potatoes.”