Image by Kristin Beeler
After my morning workout and shower at the YMCA, I finish drying my hair then pause at the mirror, looking for one more wrinkle or blemish to cover. That is when I notice her.
She is older, perhaps early eighties, naked, and she wanders around the lockers holding a towel to her breasts. Her hair is the kind of red that wants to be gray but is chemically constrained. Her eyebrows are fading, almost hairless, and her back is slightly humped. Another naked woman, about her age, towel tied around her chest, face long, eyes alert, follows her.
“What’s in it, Betty?” the woman with alert eyes says. “What were you wearing today?”
Betty doesn’t respond, keeps walking.
“My pants are blue,” she finally says as she stops and waves a hand at a row of lockers. “I know it was right here when I left. It was one of these.”
Betty’s friend opens several lockers–all empty.
Another naked elderly woman, a towel tied tightly around her chest, appears. Her hair is a lovely poof of yellow, so fine I imagine if I blew, it would fly away like dandelion fur.
“Dark blue?” the yellow haired lady asks.
“No, Ann. Light blue,” says Betty, still walking, now over by another set of lockers. She leans in to study the number. She moves on. The women follow.
Ann opens the lockers with fury, pushing clothes around before slamming the door shut again. She is faster than the long faced woman, more efficient. She goes through several lockers, before marching into the adjoining room.
“Betty, you didn’t change in that room,” Ann says. “You changed in here. You get confused when you leave the showers because of all the turns.”
They wander about the room, opening lockers. I decide to help out.
I hear Ann again in the distance. “Here it is Betty! Right here. Blue pants. This must be your locker.”
Betty looks inside. “No.” She steps away and stares off into space. “Ann, I don’t have blue pants.”
Ann says nothing. We all wait, not knowing what to look for.
“No,” Betty says again. “Not blue. I think my pants were beige, actually.”
Ann calls out. “Andrea, we are looking for beige pants. Betty’s pants are beige.” They haven’t noticed me because I work quietly, peaking into lockers and closing them quickly. I pause before closing one door to touch a lavender silk blouse; the smooth, light feel reassures me its authentic. The pants are black linen and the black heeled sandals have just that trace of lavender that says the woman not only has taste but time and patience to synchronize her clothes. The locker behind me slams shut.
“Is that your locker, or are you checking it?” Ann says.
“Sorry, I’m slow. I’ve checked most of this row. No beige.”
Ann walks past me, towel still to chest. “I liked that shirt too,” she says.
Andrea is in the other room, checking the dressing rooms. When she returns to the lockers I hear her open one, shuffle clothes around, then step back.
“Here we are,” Andrea shouts. She pulls out worsted wool beige pants with black specks and holds them up. Betty is saved. She does not have to go home naked.
Back at my locker I turn to Andrea, now getting dressed near me. I say, “You know, I lose my car in the parking lot all the time, so I can relate.” Her smile is weak and she looks at me in a way that implies, at your age we call that mentally ill. I quickly add, “But I always find my car!” She laughs and I feel sane.
I overhear Ann talking to Betty, now seated on the bench, as if exhausted with the trauma of a lost locker.
“What I do?” Ann says. “Is this– I always place myself wherever I go. I notice things. Where I am in relation to other objects in the room. I find this helps.”
Betty thanks Ann and says she will try to remember to do that. She pauses a moment then drops her head. “Gene did so much for me. This past year I realized how much he did. My brain can’t hold it all.”
“Yes, it can,” Ann says, now walking to a dressing room, looking straight ahead, not back at Betty. “And don’t think Gene didn’t place himself, too. He’s up there placing himself right now.”
WHEN I DRIVE out of the parking lot, I can’t stop thinking about Betty. I imagine she is leaning over her steering wheel, heading home. I wonder if she is alone. Where are her children right now at 9 am in the morning? Perhaps she has a daughter with children off at college. Perhaps this daughter has an important job. She’s a lawyer in New York, now seated at a conference table, its periphery filled with important people who have come to close a “deal.” They are making small talk. One asks her where she’s from. And maybe at the precise moment Betty parks the car in her garage, her daughter tells the man she is from Darien, Connecticut.
Betty turns the ignition, gets out of the car, leaving the keys inside. She pauses at the front door, trying to remember what it is she needs to get inside.
Someone at the table in New York asks Betty’s daughter if her family is still there. She says, well, her mother is there, her father passed away last year.
Betty turns and faces her car. She regards its fender peaking out of the garage. Her azalea bushes are now in full bloom and the splash of red and white gives her house a certain vigor. She is proud of her flowers. She steps back into the yard, and the colors, her home, the car, are before her.
The daughter falls silent after she says “mother,” her past meeting her present quick like a camera flash. Someone asks her a question, but the flash comes again, and she is back with her mother.
It works, this placement of herself. Betty thinks keys! The keys are in her car!
The daughter smiles, sips her coffee, looks at the papers before her, the men and women at her side. The meeting begins.
Debbie Ann Ice has been published in numerous online and print journals such as Storyglossia, Night Train, Fence Magazine, and others. Like the entire universe, she has written a few novels and is constantly editing them. She is originally from Savannah, Georgia but has lived in New England so long that the sultry, humid days by a river seem like a dream. She loves her family–one husband, two teenage boys, two girls( who happen to be English bulldogs but are treated like humans). She has learned to love New England– the tough as nails women, the matter-of-fact, sometimes abrupt, way of facing people and life, the genuine strength of character, the ability to walk around in 15 degree temperature with a stiff smile and straight back. But when she dreams, it’s always about humid days by a river.
Read our interview with Deb here.