Today is Nora Richard’s seventy-fifth birthday. She sighs, blows her nose, rests her head back against the scratchy, cheap couch that came with Apartment 205 inside Serenity by the Sea, an assisted living community she and her late husband moved into six years ago. Another long day stretches ahead of her like a superhighway to the moon. Mornings are the worst without Harvey brewing eight cups of Chock full o’nuts drip coffee instead of two cups because a full pot of brewed coffee really makes this place smell like home. Harvey’s baritone voice talking to the pot gurgling on the kitchen counter like it was one of their old, beloved greyhound dogs. What’s the matter, dear girl? You know I love you.
Shortly after Harvey’s death, Nora’s best friend since childhood shipped Nora a single cup Keurig coffee maker. Dear, kind-hearted Deanna. She knew Harvey always handled the coffee production. Unfortunately, the K-cups were the same size in Nora’s palm as the sample aortic replacement valve the cardiac surgeon passed around securing Harvey’s informed consent for his heart surgery. Nora plopped the gift in the back of the bedroom closet and switched to tea bags. Harvey’s replacement valve gave out sooner than it should have and anyway, it would be impossible to enjoy the taste of coffee without Harvey beside her. We are a symphony of sonorous sippers, sweetheart.
The avocado-colored cradle phone on the table beside Nora blares now and she jumps. Across from her, next to the dusty television, an equally dusty clock with alarmingly large numbers. 10:47. Nearly eleven o’clock. This will be their daughter Jess calling from her west coast dental office before the first patient arrives. The cradle phone is one of the few household items she and Harvey brought with them.
“Good morning,” Nora says.
“Happy Birthday, Mom,” Jess says. “It’s seventy-five today, right? I can’t believe it.”
“I know,” Nora answers. “I feel like I’m barely a day over fifty. How are you and Tom and the kids? How’s the weather? A bit humid here today. Good thing ocean breezes await at my doorstep.”
“Everyone is fine here, just crazy busy. I only have a few minutes to chat right now, but we’ll call you later from home. Will you be celebrating your day with all your friends there? Get any presents yet?”
“Are you kidding? My doorbell hasn’t stopped ringing all morning long. You should see the pile of presents I have to open. It’s like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”
“That’s wonderful,” Jess says, muffling the phone for a few seconds to speak with someone in her office. “Did you get the L.L. Bean gift certificate?”
“Yes. I love it! You know I love me some Bean. Listen, thanks for the call, but someone else is at the door,” Nora says.
“Okay, Mom. We’ll call you later.”
The truth is the apartments inside Serenity don’t have doorbells, no one has knocked on Apartment 205’s door in months and Nora isn’t sure how Jess got into the habit of sending her Bean certificates. Nora is not a big fan. Clothes an out of touch aunt would buy a six-year-old nephew when all he wants is another super soaker water rifle, but Jess is under a lot of pressure trying to balance a career, marriage and three young sons. Nora never complained to Harvey about the Bean certificates. She wanted his heart to be happy. Wouldn’t that make it healthier too? It is still hard to believe he has been gone for nearly three years.
Nora will forward the certificate to Deanna so she can use it to buy something for her husband Phil and spend her own money on herself. Deanna was born with a serious disability. Lousy taste in men. Nora tried to talk her out every guy she fell for in high school especially Phil Letterer who only cared about two things. Watching sports with his buddies and himself. People don’t change.
Nora and Deanna grew up in identical, side by side, row houses in Steelton, Pennsylvania, their fathers trudging off for hours of shift work at Bethlehem Steel like most of the fathers in that town. When the steel factory closed, the generation of families that came after had to find work and a life elsewhere. The whole area began an unavoidable tumble toward economic collapse. Even so, Deanna and Phil remained in Steelton, bought the Sunoco station out by the turnpike exchange, and made a semi decent life for themselves. Nora met Harvey in college and settled in Delaware.
On the table next to the cradle phone, Nora’s recent copy of Pitters and Patters, Serenity by the Sea’s weekly newsletter. It should be Senility by the Sea. Harvey’s health was failing, so Nora didn’t object to moving there even though most residents have shifty eyes and nod “yes” to every “yes or no” question directed to them by staff members. Did you enjoy the vegetable lasagna the chef prepared for lunch? Many struggle to recall what they ate ten minutes ago. Assisted living isn’t about living. It’s about assisted deterioration and dying. The Amazon boxes piled sky high behind the front desk in the turquoise and peach wallpapered lobby all contain the same thing: Depends Flex Fit Pull-up Adult Underwear. And an ambulance swirling bright red lights across and across rocking chairs lined up on the front porch arrives weekly to load up someone who may or may not make it back.
Inside Pitters and Patters, the same round up of weekly activities that should make it easier for every resident to look forward to their respective, ultimate demises. Crack of the dawn van ride to Denny’s for breakfast. The 6:00 pm movie in the “theatre,” a dingy, mothballed conference room with a crooked, portable screen and a feature film circa 1943. So many repeats. Casablanca. Casablanca. Casablanca. Other goings on at Serenity not to be missed? The Bridge Buddies. The Canasta Clan. Women Who Knit Together Stay Together. Irish step dancers. Frank Sinatra impersonator. The people running this place mean well but something about the weekly calendar is humiliating.
Picking up the newsletter, Nora rereads the paragraph about a new activity. “Introduction to Watercolors” to be taught by Geraldine Foster, “a fellow happy resident” of Senility. Geraldine’s watercolors have been plastered all over the building for years. Apparently, Geraldine has decided that other old women might want to learn to paint replicas of petunias and pansies, white picket fences, birds in barn style bird houses. Geraldine constantly rearranges the resident artwork displayed throughout Serenity so that her paintings are always in the prime locations. That might seem mean or pathetic to the outside world Serenity, but once you are an insider, you come to understand that everyone is just trying to cope in their own way.
Nora reads through the final pages of the newsletter, stiffens when she discovers that Douglas Trist has employed some bold letters in a paragraph of his weekly column.
Unfortunately, this week we have some upsetting news. A front door decoration has apparently been vandalized. This is discouraging to all of us in the office. This is criminal behavior, folks. We urge all residents to report any unusual behavior they witness in the building by calling the front desk immediately so prompt action can be taken against the perpetrator(s). Sincerely, Douglas Trist, General Manager.
Nora blinks at her wide-eyed reflection in the darkened television screen, lifts a hand to her pounding heart. “Vandalized” seems like an extremely harsh judgment. Criminal behavior! Perpetrator? Was it really that big of a deal? Maybe it was just someone being silly. Did Doug ever think of that? An innocent practical joke? Surely that’s what it could have been.
Nora sighs again, stand to stretch her stiff back. The sun outside the living room window is blinding. That celestial object has been relentless all summer. She is so sick of the bright, gaudy orb. What she wouldn’t give for a week of dark clouds, rain, dimness. Some relief from an overly lit world.
“Someday you are going to grow to be so fat you will collapse under your own enormous weight,” Nora hisses and heads to the bathroom to pee.
Letting her cotton panties drops around her ankles, Nora hesitates like she always does before sitting on the toilet. Harvey died on that toilet nearly two years ago, lime green flamingo boxer shorts crumpled around his milky white ankles, chin slumped onto his chest. Heart attack, of course. Why he didn’t just topple forward will remain one of life and death’s great unanswered questions. When Nora found him, she had thought inexplicably of the toys Jess liked to play with when she was a little girl. Such a catchy advertising campaign. Weebles Wobble But They Don’t Fall Down.
It wasn’t a very dignified way to die, yet Harvey’s face had looked peaceful and there was no unpleasant smell involved, nothing to mumble an apology about when the man arrived from Trover’s Funeral Home two hours later to heave Nora’s soulmate of sixty some years off the toilet and gurney him out the side doors of Serenity. Doors which have two, official purposes at Serenity: carting away the eternally draped and hauling out the trash.
Nora watched from her window as the man slid Harvey’s form inside his van, none too gently. After the van pulled away, Nora stayed by the window staring at turquoise sky, the occasional dark boomerang shape of a bird resembling the scythe of the Grim Reaper flipping triumphantly back and forth between cotton ball clouds.
Nora flushes the toilet, freshens up at the sink and heads to the bedroom closet for the new satin shift dress she ordered from Chico’s. Classic navy with some oversized yellow and white blossoms around the hemline. Leaning against the wall in the back of the closet, beside the forsaken Keurig machine, a new toilet seat also from Deanna. The sparkly seat is pink, Nora’s favorite color. As toilet seats go, it is divine, but Nora doesn’t want anything to do with that either. Call it crazy. Call her crazy. But when her butt hits the toilet seat in 205, it always feels warm. Like Harvey was sitting there just before her. Nora decides on buttercup yellow sandals for her daily journey to the beach and closes the closet door.
The only good thing about Serenity is the beach. No more than thirty steps from the back patio, the lapping edge of the Atlantic Ocean, salt air, sounds of the surf, and an attendant Sam who brings a chair and an umbrella. Sam has Downs Syndrome. Such a nice fellow. Can’t speak, but he always smiles and nods enthusiastically when Nora brings him a snack. The first day Nora arrived at the beach alone, Sam gave her a hug. She’ll never forget how kind that felt.
In the kitchen, Nora opens a cabinet, grabs two packets of Lance peanut butter sandwich crackers, one for herself and one for Sam. Apartment doors are opening and closing outside in the hallway. Lunch is being served downstairs in the dining room. Herd mentality. Everyone wants to be first in line. Nora changed her meal plan to evenings only when she lost Harvey. One complete meal a day is more than enough. Often, she foregoes that too.
A month or so ago, Gus Freeman, who lives across the hall in Apartment 209 with his wife Cinthia, placed a Cabbage Patch doll outside his front door. A boy fishing. Nora watched as Gus fussed over the little troll who had a white hat nearly identical to the Harvey’s lucky fishing cap. In addition to the hat, the doll had a vest with pockets of fishing lures, cargo pants, flip flops and a fishing pole with a stuffed fish, likely a cat toy, dangling from the end of the line.
Last Wednesday afternoon Nora stopped and yanked the fish off the line as she passed by 209. The purloining of the stuffed fish is most definitely what Douglas Trist is referring to in the recent issue of Pitters and Patters. Nora isn’t sure what came over her. She’d never done anything so impetuous. She hurried into her apartment, snipped the mouse into bits with her sewing shears and stuffed the remains in the bottom of an empty soup can in her trash. She has been struggling to forget about the whole thing ever since, comforting herself with the fact that Harvey was surprised at the absence of security cameras in the hall of Serenity when they moved in. Good news though, Nora. There must not be much of a crime rate around here.
Maybe she did it because every single time Harvey ran into Gus Freeman around Serenity, Gus insulted Harvey. Things like: Hey there, Harv. Still hangin’ on to that fish gut-stained top hat of yours? Or the time he called Harvey an outright liar in the middle of the dining room during a friendly exchange of fishing stories among some of the guys, saying he had fished the Florida Keys all his life and he knew for a fact that there were no fish that size in those waters. Gus accused Harvey of exaggerating by a couple hundred pounds. Harvey never lied. He had caught a nearly 500-pound swordfish near Marathon when he was in his late twenties. Nora had the snapshots to prove it. When she heard the story, Nora was spitting bullets mad, but Harvey convinced her to let it go. Gus is just full of hot air. He can’t help himself. Keep the peace, Nora. Still, the likes of a guy like Gus Freeman living longer than her Harvey. It’s been a lot to take.
Locking her apartment door behind her now, Nora hurries past the Freeman’s door with its empty fishing line and heads for surf and sun. There is a ramp leading to the beach front so that no one topples over trying to navigate the uneven footing of a sand beach. Nora never uses the ramp. She always slips off her shoes and marches along the side. Today, the ramp is empty. The current weather pattern draped over the state of Delaware is too oppressive for most of the regular beach goers.
Settled in a beach chair under an umbrella, reaches into her beach bag, grabs her packet of peanut butter crackers, a water bottle, her current Agatha Christie novel. Nora reads some pages, tries in vain to solve the mystery before Agatha does, dozes off here and there to the soothing sound of the sea. The even keel of water that must come and go. She has become immune to the screechy cries of seagulls, the constant lifeguard whistles echoing up and down the beach, the banging rhythms of the music blasted by groups of teenagers in front of the rundown Driftwood Motel next door.
Closer to the water, a young couple visiting a resident of Serenity are spread out on a bright red blanket, fawning over an infant inside a covered carrier. The ponytailed mother reminds Nora of a young Goldie Hawn, so great in that old TV show Laugh-In. That’s another thing that sucks about days spent without Harvey. No one to laugh at Nora’s jokes, though no jokes seem to pop into Nora’s head anymore. Goldie Hawn reaches into a bag decorated with giraffes, removes a bottle, uncaps it.
The day before Harvey died, Nora and Harvey spent the afternoon sitting side by side on Serenity’s beach, reading, talking, and snacking as they liked to do. At the time, Harvey had been deep into another one of the biographies he enjoyed reading: Churchill: Walking with Destiny. A book Nora has kept in her beach bag ever since.
That day, a different, young couple was visiting. Their child was older. A freckled, dark headed boy with one front tooth missing. Drippy red, white, and blue swimming trunks. Mosquito bites galore dotting his boney chest. When he ran full steam toward Harvey and Nora, Nora stiffened for impact, but the boy managed to halt his forward momentum just in time. Looking straight at Harvey, he’d shouted his question, obviously planning ahead for some level of hearing impairment in Harvey.
“Hey mister! Are you a walrus?”
That had sent Harvey into a spiraling round of glorious, belly quaking laughter. Nora will never forget the sound. She keeps the memory close, thankful for that little boy. And the little tyke nailed it. Harvey did look like a cheerful, charming, beached walrus in his chair with his jolly Rolling Rock beer belly, his big bowling ball of a head, his thick, bushy white eyebrows and mustache.
Just before Nora folds up her chair and packs her things to go, she decides to give herself the gift of bravery in celebration of her seventy-fifth time around the sun. She has done her best to ignore the ocean for three years running. Observing the ocean and pointing things out about tides, currents and fishing conditions had been Harvey’s favorite pastime when they spent time together at the beach. Taking a few deep breaths, Nora walks down to the water’s edge and wades in up to her knees.
She had almost forgotten how wonderful saltwater feels. How cool it is. How the waves lap and lap against you as if the ocean is breathing too. Shielding her eyes, Nora gazes out at the rolling water, the glinting, jagged whitecaps, a distant, grey lit horizon and allows herself to picture Harvey out there somewhere alone on the top of the water. Happy and content. Salt air on his cheeks. The nets he cast into the waves at dawn heavy as he tugs them one by one. He has found the spot he has been looking for. The tide is rising, and the fish are biting.
Back inside, Nora quietly closes the door to 205 behind her. Her empty teacup and the folded copy of Pitters and Patters are on the table beside her chair in the living room just as she left them. Footstool set aside. Only her own footsteps in the thick pile wall to wall resembling one of those Dot-to-Dot puzzles Jess completed in grade school. There was a time when Nora could still detect the aroma of Harvey’s brewed coffee pots, but not anymore. Maybe Deanna is right. Maybe she should leave Serenity and relocate to a condominium community in Steelton. She still has a few cousins living in the area and of course, she’d have Deanna. She could give Deanna frequent breaks from Phil, and Deanna has been sending such enticing brochures. The condominiums may not be oceanfront, but they do have nice indoor pools.
Nora traces the smile on her lips with her fingertips. She is truly sorry about stealing that fish, no question about it, but she can set things to right. She can order a similar cat toy from Amazon for overnight delivery and tie it to the fishing line early in the morning when the hallway is nothing but a deafening tunnel of snores. Then she can go anywhere she wants to go. And when she does, she will take the toilet seat that came with 205 with her.
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One thought on “Serenity by the Sea by Virginia Watts”
I got caught up in Serenity after the first sentence — perhaps it’s my age, close to Nora’s. The story rolls on easily, as Nora becomes visible. The ending, without certainty, works well. Thanks.