THE INCORRIGIBLE JANICE COVINGTON
The characters of Janice Covington, Mel(inda) Pappas and Jack Kleinman from the TV show 'Xena Warrior Princess' belong to Studio USA/Renaissance Pictures/Universal or whoever actually owns them now. No infringement on their rights is intended. All other characters are created by Norsebard.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
This story depicts a loving relationship between consenting adult women. If such a story frightens you, you better click on the X in the top right corner of your screen right away.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: December 14th - 19th, 2016, for the 2017 Royal Academy of Bards' Valentine's Day Invitational.
Thank you very much for your help, Wendy Arthur :)
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: Some things never change. The sun will always rise and set; the tide will always ebb and flow - and Janice Covington will always be a short-tempered, girl-lovin', leather jacket-wearin' tuff li'l gal, no matter her age. Late in life, she and Mel Pappas have moved into the Whispering Willows Retirement Home, but they refuse to let their advancing years stop them from helping the nursing staff organize the big Valentine's Day party…
February Fourteenth, 1995.
The Whispering Willows Retirement Home occupied a golden spot in the middle of a secluded area to the north of one of the region's major cities. A duck pond, a larger fishing lake, several well-groomed lawns, a hedge-maze, and a willow grove had been created from scratch next to the four-storey, sixty-apartment building that had been designed and built in the Art Deco-style of the 1930s though it had only existed since the early 1980s.
A recurring event that always drew a large group of spectators among the residents of the retirement home was the grand view of the sunset from a platform on the upper floor. The landscape architect had cleared the view to the west so it was possible to see the sun settle all the way down to the horizon. To keep things equal, a similar viewing platform had been built on the east side of the building to give the early birds a good view of the sunrise, but that didn't see as much use as the other one.
Much lauded for its professional nursing staff and high-quality cuisine, the Whispering Willows was a comfortable, friendly, and above all secure place for elderly citizens to spend their final years. At present, it was home to sixty senior residents who had all lived full, rewarding lives; they had taken the life-altering decision to leave their own homes for various reasons, but most had simply come to realize they could enjoy life more without all the worries and hassle that came with owning a house or an apartment.
The ground floor of the main building held the lobby, the reception area, a small gymnasium, and the plenum dining hall adjacent to the kitchen facilities; the three upper floors - that were connected through several elevators and an internal fire escape staircase at each end of the floor - held twenty, fully-equipped apartments each.
Although the apartments all had TVs and hundreds of cable channels, a plush and well-furnished community TV room was located at the southern end of the retirement home's third floor for those occasions where sharing the experience was a large part of the enjoyment, like certain sporting events, glitzy galas and reruns of old favorite movies. Heavy curtains could be drawn by the push of a button so the strong rays of the sun would not disturb the quality of the picture, but even the world's heaviest curtains could never have withstood the explosive outburst that spewed forth from a petite woman who sat on the very edge of her seat on the front row.
A day nurse had been alerted by the angry shouting, and her heels performed a frantic tap dance on the carpet as she hurried through the corridor to get to the TV room in case one of the residents had fallen ill. As she whooshed the glass door open, her experienced eyes soon settled on the irate, petite woman on the front row, and she had to let out a chuckle.
Just as the nurse - whose complexion was the color of mahogany in the rain - closed the door behind her and stepped into the TV room, the petite woman had regained enough air to fire off another volley: "God damn that thief Jack Kleinman and his moronic offspring! And God damn those nincompoops who got their paws on my Xena scrolls and… and… perverted 'em into friggin' boy scout Hercules! The Legendary Journeys, my wrinkly ass! I wanna see Xena and Gabrielle, Goddammit! I mean… the power, the passion and butt-kickin' dames, and they give me Hercules! What in the holy hell…?!"
"Dr. Covington," the nurse tried, but she was cut off at once.
"That's 'Janice,' gorgeous!" Janice Covington barked, stamping the butt of her cane onto the carpet. At eighty, the retired archeologist had mellowed out somewhat since the heady days of travelling the world on the endless quest to find more of the mythical Xena Scrolls, but she still had a hair-trigger and a hot temper that would come out to play whenever the situation called for it.
Her green eyes were as razor-sharp as ever, but the rest of her body showed the signs of aging with striking clarity. She had never been large to begin with, but she was on the small side of petite now, and gravity had done its job too well in places. Her short hair had turned grayish-white, and all the years of digging and camping out in freezing cold, or steaming hot, or damp - or all three at once - conditions had given her arthritis in many, if not most, of her joints. She had a touch of osteoporosis as well, and her hips gave her plenty of grief each and every morning.
Never one to follow the latest fashion tips of the day, she wore slippers, worn blue jeans and a checkered flannel shirt where the sleeves had been rolled up to her elbows to flaunt the tattoos she'd had made in Piraeus, Hong Kong, Casablanca, Hamburg, River Plate, and even the Bronx in her younger years.
"All right, Janice," the nurse said, helping the irate woman scoot further back on her seat so she wouldn't risk falling off the chair. "We taped that episode for you because we knew you had been involved in all that…"
"Yeah, I know… and I really appreciate it," Janice said and flashed a tired smile at the day nurse that she couldn't remember the name of, no matter how hard she racked her brains. The explosive anger trickled out of her system and left her winded as it always would. Taking a few, deep breaths, she shuffled around on the seat to get more comfortable. "I just never figured they'd turn it into such a crap-fest. I mean, the telemovies from last year were exciting an' all, but the regular episodes so far… oh, man."
"So we shouldn't tape the next one for you? It's on tonight."
Janice bared her teeth in an indecisive grimace. On one hand, she did feel a little thrill to see the scrolls play out on the screen, even if they had been perverted beyond recognition, but on the other, the episode she had just finished had been like watching a train wreck in progress. "Well… if you have the time to operate that video-recorder-thing of yours, I'd really appreciate it."
"Of course we do, Janice."
"They can't screw up all of 'em… or maybe they can, I dunno. Ah, Xena and Gabrielle are bound to make their entrance at some point… I guess I just have to keep watching."
"Maybe I should screen the episodes for you so you won't suffer a coronary?" the day nurse said with a warm chuckle.
Janice chuckled back and reached out to put an arthritic, but strong hand on the nurse's arm. "Now, that's not a bad idea, ack-chew-ly."
"Will do," the nurse said and moved back. Chuckling again, she leaned in to whisper: "And I'm Shayvonn."
"Shayvonn, right. I knew that," Janice said while flashing a broad grin.
With the excitement over for the time being, Shayvonn Williams moved over to the heavy curtains and pushed the button for the electrical motor. The buzzing sound from the apparatus was soon joined by the faint swooshing of the curtains moving aside so the mid-day sunshine could be let back in. "You are going to join us for the Valentine's Day party tonight, aren't you?" Shayvonn said as she helped push the curtains the last few inches into the stops.
"Oh yeah, I'm planning to," Janice said and took a deep breath so she would be ready to get up from the chair on her own. Her old bones groaned a little from the strain, but she got to her feet under her own steam and began to shuffle over to the glass door accompanied by the tap-tap-tap of her cane.
Shayvonn Williams dusted off her hands and zipped over to the door to hold it open for the elderly lady. "That's great, Janice. I promise it'll be good fun. Just like old times."
"Huh!" Janice said as she came to a halt. Cocking her head, she offered the younger woman a little wink. "You mean there's gonna be dancing girls, a live band, gambling and free booze?"
"Mmmm… not quite. But there's going to be plenty of coffee and marzipan treats. And we may even find a bottle or two of the good stuff down in the ol' pantry," Shayvonn said and returned the wink.
"Now we're talkin' the same language, gorgeous!" Janice said and let out a chuckle. She resumed walking toward the door, but came to a halt when she realized another of the retirement home's residents occupied the space, and that she had heard some, but not all, of the conversation.
A gray eyebrow crept up past a brown frame and onto an elegant forehead as the eighty-three-year-old Melinda 'Mel' Pappas observed the goofy grin on her life-partner's face. "Why, Janice Covin'ton, tell me you aren't flirtin' with Nurse Williams!" she said in her delightful southern accent that the years had been unable to dilute.
Like Janice, Mel's appearance hadn't escaped the passing of time, but she had kept most of her regal stance, and all of her southern manners. Though she and Janice had both shrunk a little, she was still half a foot taller than her partner, and her blue eyes were clear and never missed a beat behind the nut-brown frame.
The same couldn't be said for her left cheekbone, nor the rest of her left side. Her skin was still black and blue after a nasty, dizziness-induced tumble she had taken in the week leading up to Valentine's Day, and the shock from the fall had necessitated the use of a walking aid to get around - at least as a temporary measure. She had suffered no broken bones in the ungracious landing onto the floor of the apartment she shared with Janice, but it had left its mark on her soul nonetheless.
"But of course I wasn't flirting! Would I do that, toots?" Janice said and swatted at her partner. Grinning, she turned back to Shayvonn Williams. "Well, it's been mighty fun 'n all, but we better cut it short. I don't wanna upset my sweetheart here."
Shayvonn returned the grin before she moved over to Mel. "Miss Pappas, just let me know when you need another painkiller. All right?"
"Ah will. Thank you, Nurse Williams," Mel said with a polite smile as she watched the black day nurse leave the two elderly ladies and move back to her post halfway down the corridor. The door to the nurse's station had barely closed before Mel turned back to the shorter woman who tried to be as inconspicuous as possible - without much success. "Janice Covin'ton, Ah do declare… you're incorrigible!" Mel said and turned around to shuffle back to their apartment.
"But we didn't do anything! Honest, toots!" Janice said, chuckling all the way down the corridor.
Mel Pappas and Janice Covington hadn't been granted the wish of sharing a single apartment - though they had spent the past forty-five years living together - upon their arrival at the Whispering Willows Retirement Home in late 1992, but the management had chosen the next-best solution by putting them in adjacent apartments. Better still, the internal access door between the two units hadn't been closed since the day they moved in which meant it was a single unit in all but name.
The two apartments were mirrored but otherwise identical; each consisted of a small kitchenette, a smallish bathroom, a comfortable bedroom and a large living room that offered a good view of the picturesque landscape beyond the grounds. When they had moved in, Mel and Janice had flipped a coin to see which of the two apartments they would use as their primary base, and the result had been that the apartment with Mel Pappas' name on the dotted line would be used as their bedroom and den, with the other one working as their main living room and study.
On the rare occasions where they needed a break from each other until their tempers had settled, they each had a comfortable armchair set up on either side of the center wall, but the moments of self-chosen solitude were few and far between.
The den had been decked out with countless book cases that carried all the dusty, old tomes Mel had used for decades when she had translated the Xena Scrolls and other ancient works. A hefty, leather-bound book containing her own English translations of all the known scrolls written by Gabrielle of Potaideia had the most prominent place upon one of the center-shelves.
Janice had kept fewer of the artifacts they had unearthed over the years, but she did have several bronze and silver hair-clips, a dented drinking cup, two fragments of a metal sword that could potentially have been wielded by Xena of Amphipolis, and a petrified shaft of an arrow that carried Amazon symbols.
Clicking off the bathroom lights with her elbow, Janice returned to the living room after having washed the disappointment of the Hercules episode off her face and hands. She used her cane to cross the short-piled carpet that still carried a few bloodstains after Mel's fall.
In the meanwhile, Mel had locked the walker's wheels and had sat down in her favorite easy chair by the large windows. She sighed and turned to look out onto the landscape that presented a dull, gray winter scene. A frown that developed between her expressive eyebrows proved she hadn't yet fully recovered from the fright.
Janice shuffled over to her partner and leaned down to give the gray locks a little kiss. "Hey…" she whispered, "the long face shows you're still thinking about you-know-what."
"Ah am, dear," Mel said and let out a sigh.
"We've taken worse tumbles back in Greece, you and me," Janice said on her way over to her own easy chair; it was placed right next to Mel's so they could still be as near to one another as they wanted to be.
"Ah know. But we were younger then. We could dust ourselves off an' continue on lack nothin' had happened… that's over, Jan. Ah've never been so scared in mah life as when Ah lay there, hurtin' an' unable to get up on mah own. Ah really thought Celesta had come for me."
"I understand, toots," Janice said and reached for Mel's hand. Turning her head, she studied her life-partner's aged features. Though wrinkles had invaded the smooth skin, Mel Pappas was still the most gorgeous woman she had ever met, not to mention had the privilege to kiss and make love to. She couldn't help but break out in a slight smile as she squeezed the hand with the long, slender digits. "Seeing you lying there gave me an awful kick in the gut, lemme tell you. You were bleeding… and your spectacles were broken. I freaked out worse than you did… but the staff and the doc helped you. They were so gentle."
"They were," Mel said with a thoughtful nod. "An' you supervised the whole maneuver."
Janice let out a dark chuckle and squeezed Mel's hand again. "Only because my arms weren't strong enough to get you up by myself. What ya see in this ragged, old fleabag is beyond me."
"Oh, keep quiet, Jan."
They were content with looking out at the landscape beyond the panorama windows for a few moments until Mel remembered what she had traveled down to the TV room for in the first place. "Was the Hercules episode any better than the-"
"It did suck! Look," Janice said and shuffled around in the easy chair so she sat crooked. "I think we need to travel to New Zealand to kick some executive butt. That pile of camel dung they put on screen every week just won't cut it in the real world. I mean, they have at least some of our Xena Scrolls, right? Why can't they just make scripts out of those? In the episode I watched now… I think it was called The Eye Of The Beholder… I recognized a few things here and there that they had pinched from Gabrielle's scrolls, but they had twisted and changed everything! I s'pose having Hercules as the main hero is all fine and dandy 'cos Xena and Gabrielle did actually meet him from time to time, but that big lug sure ain't no Xena Warrior Princess, toots!"
"Ah think we should leave the television aspects to the people who actually understand that medium, Jan. Maybe they feel the world just isn't ready for a female warrior of Xena's caliber."
Janice opened her mouth to continue her grumbles, but realized there wasn't any point in getting all riled up about something she had no control over. "Yeah. Perhaps so. At least the previews look a little better."
"There, you see? Ah'm sure they know exactly what they're doin'," Mel said and patted Janice's hand. "Dahlin', you're a little cranky today. Isn't it time for your nap?"
Now Janice did let out a groaning grumble. "Oh, my nap… I s'pose. But you know what I'd much rather do? Huh?"
"Go on," Mel said as her lips creased into a smile. She already knew what Janice would much rather do, since they had the exact same conversation six out of the week's seven days.
"A Kentucky Mule or a double shot of ouzo… a King's Favorite cheroot… and play strip-poker with you. That's what."
"Dahlin'," Mel said and leaned in toward her life-partner.
"Yeah?" Janice breathed, closing the distance between them.
They enjoyed the moment of being so close for a few seconds until Mel reached out to place a tender kiss on Janice's lips. "Ah reckon you'd go belly-up from the Mule alone. Off you go… our bed awaits you."
Letting out a dark chuckle and an ever darker nod, Janice pulled back after returning the kiss. "You're probably right. Damn!"
Soft footfalls and a rhythmic tapping of a cane heralded the return of Janice Covington an hour and a half later. Smiling, she walked over to stand next to the easy chair where Mel was busy knitting.
The tapping of the cane was overpowered by the clicking of the knitting needles, but it wasn't long before Mel put the handiwork away and sought out her life-partner's hand. "Hello again, dear. Sleep well?"
"Kinda. I would have slept better had you been there too, ya know."
Mel chuckled and once again reached for her knitting equipment. "Janice Covin'ton, we're too old to be foolin' around in the middle of the day."
Janice blinked a couple of times before she made a beeline for one of the low sideboards on the other side of the living room.
"Now where 're you goin'?" Mel said, furrowing her expressive brow as she tracked her partner's progress with her puzzled, blue eyes.
"I need to call the undertaker… if there ain't gonna be no foolin' around in my future, he might as well come over and put me in a box right now…"
Mel let out one of those dramatic sighs that were reserved for whenever Janice did something that was too silly by far. Such a sigh was often accompanied by rolling eyes and even a slight shake of the head, but she held those back for later in case the situation got even sillier. "Ah said in the middle of the day, Jan. Ah never said anythin' about not foolin' around in the evenin'."
"Ohhh. Phew, that's a load off," Janice said and flashed Mel one of her trademark crooked grins. The two women gazed at each other for a few moments before they both let out identical chuckles. Grunting, Janice moved back to the easy chairs and sat down in the one that was closest to the electrical heater.
Ever since she had been born, Janice Covington had been unable to sit still for any length of time. Something needed to happen or she would lose interest in the whole thing. Mel had once described her partner's fiery disposition as having a lit stick of dynamite stuck down the back of her pants, and the colorful description wasn't far off. This time, Janice had only been able to remain in one position for five minutes before she was off again, headed for the antique bureau that took up a large portion of the wall in the living room.
Mel let out another of her dramatic sighs, and she put away the knitting gear for good since she knew she wouldn't get anything accomplished while Janice was in such a mood. "Dear, Ah do declare… you are particularly energetic today," she said, adjusting her spectacles. "Can't Ah persuade you to sit down an' enjoy the view for a change?"
Janice couldn't answer since she used her teeth to clench a brown envelope that all residents of the Whispering Willows Retirement Home had received the day before. Her hands were occupied carrying a silver-plated tray that held two small wine glasses and a decanter containing a deep-burgundy liquid.
Returning to the easy chairs, she unclenched her jaw which made the brown envelope fall onto the seat she had only just vacated. "I suddenly remembered we had forgotten all about the envelope we got yesterday… and then I thought, perhaps we need a little pick-me-up in case it's bad news."
"But it's only three o'clock, Jan…"
"Which means it's midnight in Athens! And besides, it's Valentine's Day."
Mel's left eyebrow crept up her forehead behind the nut-brown frame, but she wasn't able to keep the stern facade for long. As her lips creased into a warm smile, she reached out to pull a footstool over so Janice had somewhere to put the tray. "Oh, why not. Ah do hope you chose the exquisite cherry wine."
"Yep!" Janice said and took the lid off the decanter to pour some of the sweet-smelling dessert wine into Mel's glass. She took a deep sniff of the contents before she filled her own glass and put the decanter away. "Oh, the good stuff! We're almost out. If I could only remember the name of the fella who sold it to us, everything would be real swell."
"Harry, dear. Lack your father," Mel said, looking over the rim of her glass.
"Oh… I knew that." A few seconds went by while Janice waited for Mel to tell her the surname so they could find the wine shop again. "Uh… you wouldn't happen to remember his last name, would ya?" she said when nothing came from her partner.
Mel smirked. "No."
"Oh. Okay. I s'pose he's in the phonebook. Oh, to hell with that now. Yiamas!"
"Yiamas!" Mel echoed, taking a sip of the sweet wine. As always, the rich taste of cherries that blossomed in her mouth made her smile. "Wonderful. This really is the best brand we've ever had."
"Yeah, ain't it?" Janice said as she tore open the envelope that had been addressed to M. Pappas & J. Covington. Several pieces of paper fell out and into her lap. Picking up the one marked as page one of four, she began to read from the top. "Ugh… it's the list of new rules and regulations for the retirement home. Mmmm-mmmm-mmmm-mmmm… seems like they need to adhere to stricter guidelines from the department of-"
When a sudden and complete radio silence fell over the retired archeologist, Mel tried to lean over to read the piece of paper held by Janice, but she was unable to. The expression on Janice's face was unreadable at first, but soon turned into a foul mask. "Dear? What's wrong?" Mel said and put her glass down on the tray.
"Toots… looks like we need to pack our knapsacks and elope back to Greece," Janice said and let her arms fall down into her lap. Her arthritic fingers still held the piece of paper in a vise-like grip.
"Ah beg your pardon? Janice Covin'ton, will you please explain what-"
"Smoking's gonna be banned throughout the entire gin joint! By the first of July! I mean, what in Sam Hill… I'll be Goddamned if I have to suffer through the ass-boring days here without the pleasure o' smokin' my own, Goddamned cheroots!"
"What kind of horse shit is this, anyway?" Janice growled, giving the official letter a fair-sized smack with her left hand. "Goddamn buncha anti-smokin' nazis… well, they got a nice, li'l surprise waiting for 'em once I figure out where to call! I'm gonna give 'em a Goddamned piece of my mind! They can have my cheroots when they pry 'em from my cold fingers!"
As always when Janice was in such a mood, Mel just leaned back in her chair to allow her partner enough time to regain her composure. Judging by the red blotches that had formed on the petite woman's cheeks, it could take a while.
"Oh, for Pete's sake," Janice continued as she read further down the first, then the second piece of paper. Her lips moved though nary a sound came out - apart from inarticulate grunts and a few groans. When she reached the end of page four, she folded everything up and shoved the papers back into the brown envelope. "That's pretty much the worst of it… there's a couple-a other things I don't agree with, but we'll talk about that later."
"Ah'm sure we will," Mel said under her breath. Sitting upright and adjusting her spectacles, she reached for her glass and took another sip. "Ah wish you hadn't taken up smokin' again after bein' off the habit for so long, dahlin'. We had an agreement, remember? That Ah wouldn't kiss you if you smoked because it tasted lack lickin' an ashtray?"
"But smoking is my third great love, toots. You first, obviously, then Xena, then smoking," Janice said with a grin.
Now Mel really did do a slight shaking of her head, but she tempered it with a wink. "At least we can agree on the cherry wine. Yiamas!"
"Yiamas!" Janice said and emptied her glass. Ahhhhh'ing, she poured herself another one at once.
"Is that wise, dear? It's goin' to be a late evenin'," Mel said, still working on her first drink.
"Wise? Doubt it. Needed? O-yeah… especially after reading that letter," Janice said and took a sip of the good stuff.
They sat in a contented - though somewhat somber, at least on Janice's part - silence for a few minutes before Mel put down her empty glass and cleared her throat. "Ah do declare, Ah'm lookin' forward to the Valentine's Day bash the staff will host tonight. Call me an incurable romantic if you will, but-"
"And I do. Often."
For being interrupted like that, Mel cast a steely gaze at Janice that evoked memories of the blue glares she had made when they were younger. "Ahem. Call me an incurable romantic, but Ah do enjoy a cozy evenin' out with good food, old-fashioned music an' a little easy-goin' romance in the air… an' all in the company of good friends an' loved ones."
"Mmmm. So do I," Janice said and leaned in to offer her partner a quick, cherry-flavored kiss. "We've been on a few grand Valentine's Day dates over the years, haven't we? Brittany, France in 1953, I definitely remember that one. Uh… and… at the Rhine in sixty-"
"Fifty-seven, right. Wherever the quest for the Xena Scrolls took us."
"Yelling, Denmark in 1952. At the Viking burial site where we found the Valkyrie's Tomb."
"Oh, right! That's when it rained for two damn weeks straight!" Janice said, shaking her head at the soggy memory. "Man, I remember that… everything was so damn soaked it was impossible to tell the difference between the dirt we dug in and the lake near the site! Man!"
"But despite all that hardship, dear, we found what we were lookin' for."
"That we did," Janice said, falling quiet as she reminisced about all the crazy adventures she and Mel Pappas had lived through over the years after they had hooked up in 1940 in the Greek province of Macedonia. That train of thought led her to Jack Kleinman, the bumbling fool they had met just before fighting Ares, the ancient Greek God of War - Kleinman, the thief, who had stolen nearly a dozen of her precious Xena Scrolls. Grunting, she reached for the decanter to refill her glass for a second time but she reconsidered when Mel moved to get up. "Hold your horses, pardner… I'll be with you in a flash," Janice said, grabbing her cane and using it to clamber to her feet.
While Janice shuffled around the easy chairs, Mel took a firm grip on the walking aid's two handles to be ready. Working together, they were able to get the older woman on her feet without too much hassle.
Letting out a sigh, Mel unlocked the walker's brakes and began to shuffle across the carpet with slow, careful steps. The tumble she had taken the other day had been caused by getting up too fast after sitting down, so she was determined to take it easy from now on.
The walker was a great help in maintaining a forward momentum, not to mention keeping her balance, but she didn't want to become too dependent on it - she had seen other residents of the retirement home lose their ability to walk unassisted after relying too much on the walking aid. "Jan, dear," she said, once again coming to a halt. "Ah was thinkin'…"
"Go on," Janice said, putting the silver-plated tray back down on the footstool.
"Ah'm goin' to splash some water in mah face and elsewhere before the Valentine's Day bash… an' Ah was wonderin' if you'd help me get undressed an'-"
"I'm your woman, toots," Janice said and grabbed her cane. Although her days of racing across any floor were long gone, she was at her partner's side at once and guided her over to the access door to get to the bathroom; she had the ever-delightful process of taking Mel Pappas' clothes off to look forward to.
An electronic ding proved the elevator had reached the lobby, and the doors soon whooshed open to reveal Mel Pappas and Janice Covington in their Sunday finest. The two worked together to get the walker's four wheels across the gutter where the doors ran, but it caused no dramas and they were soon on their way down to the plenum dining hall.
Mel had chosen an elegant floral dress with long sleeves, a narrow waist and wide lapels - the dress came to below her knees so the world wouldn't see too many of the bruises and abrasions she had received in the fall - and she had her gray hair up in a bun that was held in place by a barrette that matched the main color of the dress.
Janice had spent an unusual amount of time for her standards thinking about what to wear for the big Valentine's Day affair, but had settled for her trusty, old uniform that consisted of a khaki shirt, khaki cargo pants with a broad, brown leather belt, and finally her old, comfortable leather jacket. She even wore a fedora that sat crooked on her gray hair like she had worn it in her younger years. The only difference to the old days was that she couldn't wear her trench boots any longer. The cumbersome footwear had worked wonders when she'd had to wade through inches of sticky mud at digs, or operate motorcycles or heavy trucks, but they had grown too heavy for her old muscles - thus, she wore plain, brown loafers that she had given a spit-polish so they would shine.
Other residents of the Whispering Willows Retirement Home soon joined Mel and Janice on their way to the plenum dining hall, and greetings and polite comments on the various clothing items on display were exchanged. As expected, Janice was less polite on the whole.
"Hi de ho, Buster, ya old sonovabitch! Nice duds," the retired archeologist said when she and Mel came across an old gentleman who wore a pair of white pants with razor-sharp creases, a blue sports blazer over a white shirt, and a white flat cap. "Boy, I didn't expect to see ya again… not after the nasty cough ya had the last time we met," she continued with a grin.
Buster Brayton, an eighty-seven-year-old retired television presenter who had lived at the retirement home since the late 1980s, returned the grin as he tipped his white cap. "Good evening, Dr. Covington. Miss Pappas. Candid as ever, eh, Janice? Oh, Miss Pappas, I'm so pleased to see you up and about. You had us all worried the other day when we heard you had taken a tumble."
"Yeah, no sh- kidding," Janice said and studied Mel for a moment.
The older woman smiled at their male acquaintance but couldn't shake his hand since her own were locked in a firm grip on the walker's handles. "Thank you, Mr. Brayton. An' good evenin' to you as well, Sir. Yes, it was a terrible ordeal for both of us, but things are slowly gettin' back to normal now."
"That's certainly good news, Miss Pappas. Falls can be fatal," Buster said in a somber tone.
"They can indeed, Mr. Brayton."
Mel kept up appearances as she walked along the corridor, but Janice knew from helping her undress and get washed that she was in greater discomfort than she let on. Her cheekbone and chin looked awful, but it was minor compared to her shoulder, elbow and hip. The frail skin on those parts of her body had turned black and blue which gave it an odd, eerie appearance.
"Yeah," Janice continued in a voice that sounded ill at ease. Returning her gaze to the elderly man, she screwed a smile onto her face. "Anyway. Which table are ya sitting at, Buster?"
"Aw, we're at number three. Hey, ya planning on gettin' lucky tonight or something? I mean, you could use those creases in ya pants to slice a baloney sandwich if ya wanted."
Buster chuckled and offered Janice a dismissive wave. "Can't a guy get dressed up without someone presuming he has ulterior motives?"
"Not in the world I've lived in… but I guess that was kinda special."
Chuckling once more, Buster Brayton tipped his flat cap again before he turned away from Mel and Janice to enter the plenum dining hall. Behind him, Mel came to a halt and locked the walking aid's brakes.
"Jan, dear… Ah need a breather," she said as she turned around and sat down on the vehicle's integrated seat. The cuts and bruises on her left temple and cheekbone really stood out in the harsh glare that shone down from the corridor's strip lights. The frame of her spectacles bothered her, but she couldn't function without them so she had to endure the discomfort. She had tried to conceal the bruises with something from her meager collection of cosmetics, but the areas were still too tender to manipulate so she'd had to leave the discoloration be.
"Listen, toots," Janice said, moving around the walker so she was face to face with her life-partner. "If it's too much for ya, we can just go back upstairs… I'm sure we can-"
"No, no… Ah've been lookin' forward to this for a while now. Ah just didn't expect mah little mishap the other day. Ah just need a breather, then Ah'll be fine, dear."
Janice looked left and right before she leaned in even further and spoke for Mel's ears only: "Do you want me to appropriate a real wheelchair for you-"
"I didn't think you would," Janice said as she caressed the unhurt side of Mel's face, "but I didn't want to make the decision for ya."
"No wheelchair. Not as long as Ah have legs to walk on."
"And such legs they are, too!" Janice said and broke out in a cheesy grin that earned her one of those special, dramatic sighs.
"Janice Covin'ton, are you quite done?"
"With you? Never," Janice said and stuck her free hand down her pants pocket. "Or maybe when I'm a-hundred-and-seven, I dunno. But certainly not until then."
The sigh returned, and this time it was accompanied by a slight shaking of the head. Mel couldn't hold the dark tone for long and soon let out a warm chuckle. "Since you have so much energy today, perhaps you could give me a hand up? Ah think we're already fashionably late."
"I'd love to," Janice said and put her best hand under Mel's armpit to give her a boost up from the walker's seat.
The retirement home's staff had done a high-quality job of decorating the plenum dining hall for the Valentine's Day dinner: a large, pink banner that reached from one side of the hall to the other was suspended from the ceiling, and there were plenty of pink ribbons, buttons, festoons, artificial rosebuds and assorted other thrills and frills associated with the event. Sixty red, long-stemmed roses were spread out on a tabletop by the far wall awaiting their new owners, but that was for later on in the evening's entertainment.
Although all fifteen round dinner tables were dressed using the regular white tablecloths and stainless steel cutlery, the mood among the fifty or so eager residents present was electric. A few had declined to come to the dinner, and one or two were too ill to attend, but they would receive their meals and roses when the kitchen staff would go on their so-called 'soup runs' later.
Like Mel had predicted, she and Janice were fashionably late for the dinner. She received plenty of supportive glances and queries on their way down to table number three, and she answered them all with her trademark honesty and southern charm.
"Still the natural center of attention, toots," Janice said as she pulled out Mel's chair and shuffled aside to make way for her partner's somewhat clumsy walking aid. "I kinda like that in a gal. Gives me a thrill 'cos it means I've got something they want!"
"Oh, Jan…" Mel groaned as she steered the walker in front of the chair before locking the brakes. Putting her hands on the sturdy handles, she lowered herself onto the dinner chair; the exercise came easier to her than she had feared, but her left hip was still sore after the hard landing the other day. Getting the chair back to the table was another matter, but she received assistance from Nurse Williams who happened to swing by at the same time.
The black day nurse smiled as she gave Mel a helping hand to move up to the edge of the table by the setting. "Oh, that's a lovely dress, Miss Pappas. Trés chic. Love the colors."
"Thank you, Nurse Williams," Mel said with a smile as she unfolded the napkin that had been placed on the dinner plate.
Shayvonn didn't need to help Janice as the retired archeologist had been able to get close to the table on her own, but as the day nurse eyed the elderly woman's khaki garb and leather jacket - that was already hanging from the left-hand side knob atop the dinner chair's backrest - she scrunched up her face and let out a "Hmmmm… now there's a kind of outfit you don't see every day around here."
"It's been a while since I wore it, but it was one hell of a hit with the dolls in Greece back in the good, old days, I can tell ya," Janice said while flashing a crooked grin. She took off her Fedora as well and let it dangle from the other knob on the dinner chair's backrest.
Chuckling, Shayvonn Williams moved away from the colorful women to check up on some of the other residents.
"Yeah," Janice continued, allowing herself a brief gaze at Shayvonn's wiggling hips. When she felt someone tapping her arm, she looked at Mel. "Oh, I'm sorry, toots… were you speaking to me?"
"No, I was tappin' your arm! Janice Covin'ton, Ah do declare… you are incorrigible! I saw where your eyes were. Don't pretend it didn't happen!"
"I was looking, all right… but there's a difference between looking and loving. Looks are a dime a dozen, but love only comes around once, ya know." The last part of the sentence had been delivered in a low, sincere tone that Janice only used when the subject was of the utmost importance to her.
Mel paused for a few seconds before she smiled at her partner and reached over to give the arthritic hand nearest her a little, comforting squeeze. "Ah know, dahlin'. Let's see what's on the menu for tonight," she said and picked up one of the folded sheets of paper that had been left on the table for the residents' perusal.
Mel and Janice didn't have table three all to themselves. On the opposite side of the round table, they were joined by Lawrence Milburn, an eighty-two-year-old retired librarian - who was never seen without beige pants, a salmon-colored shirt, a deep-purple pullover and a matching bow tie - and Florence Cassidy, a bespectacled, retired school teacher who had never wanted to reveal her age but whose lived-in face proved she had already experienced her first and second blooms. At present, she wore a coffee-brown dress with a loose collar that allowed the world to see her exquisite, gold necklace.
Having a Lawrence and a Florence at the table was a disaster waiting to happen for Janice's tongue, so she had nicknamed them Larry and Flo the minute she had been introduced to them - that way, she wouldn't get their names mixed up.
The conversation between the four senior citizens was off to a good start while they waited for the waiters and the nurses to pick up the orders, but Janice kept quiet through most of it. Now and then, she added her two cents' worth, but she spent most of her time glancing at Mel who seemed to have forgotten about her physical discomfort as the topics of the discussion started at current authors before it strayed into the classics and ended up at European Romantic poetry from the latter part of the nineteenth century.
Janice had only ever read the works of two poets - Sappho and Gabrielle of Potaideia - and she didn't think a librarian and a school teacher would be too impressed by that short list. Thus, she reached into her breast pocket to find her indispensable pack of King's Favorite cheroots and a lighter that her arthritic fingers could operate without any problems. Knocking a cheroot out of the small pack, she tapped it against the table a couple of times to get the tip flat before she stuck it between her lips. "Mind if I smoke? Thank you," she said, clicking on the lighter's large, disabled-friendly button before any of the others at the table had time to raise a complaint.
As she inhaled, the rich smoke filled her mouth and lungs before it returned to trickle out of her nostrils. "Smoking. That's life for me," she said with a smug look on her face.
"It could be the death of you, too, Dr. Covington," Lawrence Milburn said. As with many of his profession, the retired librarian's personality was on the dry side, and although he was able to crack jokes now and then, it didn't happen every week.
"Aw yeah, sure," Janice said which made the cheroot dangle from the corner of her mouth, "but the way I figure it… I've just barely scraped by so often in my life and career that one more visit by Celesta won't make much difference to either of us."
"Celesta?" Florence said, furrowing her brow.
Janice nodded as she stuck her lighter back in her breast pocket and knocked off the first tip of ash. "Yeah. The ancient Greek Goddess of the Dead and Dying. She was the one who brought the recently deceased down to the river Styx for further processing by Charon and those fellas."
The retired school teacher furrowed her brow once more and shot Janice a puzzled look that was meant to see if the woman in the khaki garb was trying to pull her leg. "Well, I do beg your pardon, Dr. Covington, but I used to be quite fascinated by ancient Greek mythology, and I've never heard of such a Goddess. Are you sure you have the right name?"
A big smirk spread over Janice's face, and she glanced over at Mel to gauge how strongly she could risk wording her reply. When Mel just sighed and looked skyward behind her nut-brown frame, Janice leaned forward and tapped a crooked index finger against the tablecloth. "Well, Flo, it just so happens that I have my information from an eyewitness. In fact, I have it as a handwritten note in indigo-on-parchment-brown. A two-thousand-year-old scroll, give or take. I found that scroll myself in Macedonia back during the war. You need to remember that Greek mythology ain't what it used to be when we were kids. Because of the Xena Scrolls, we know a whole lotta different stuff now."
The answer didn't seem to appease the retired school teacher all that much, but she chose to turn the conversation onto other topics before she would get into too much of an argument with the unusual, retired archeologist. Soon, she was once again speaking to Lawrence Milburn and Mel Pappas on the relative merits of poetry versus prose.
Janice smirked again and took a deep puff from her cheroot. Gabrielle of Potaideia had just won another round.
When the food carts were wheeled into the plenum dining hall, all the people present cheered. The delightful smell of food soon spread throughout the large room as the kitchen staff removed the lids from the large pots and began preparing the first course. The residents of the Whispering Willows Retirement Home had had the choice of either a creamy tomato soup or easy chicken broth, and most seemed to have sprung for the broth.
Not so Janice Covington who was already looking forward to digging her spoon into some spicy tomato soup. "Oh, I could tell you a few stories about me and the joys of tomato soup," she said as she stuck her napkin down the front of her khaki shirt so she wouldn't get too many splatters onto the fabric. "Yessir… once, what feels like a hundred years ago… in Peru, me and my father were sitting at a campfire sharing our last can of soup. We had bought it at a local vendor, but what we didn't know was that-"
"Jan, dear," Mel said and put a gentle hand on her partner's arm. "Ah'm sure Miss Cassidy an' Mr. Milburn aren't too interested in hearin' your old stories. Especially not that one, if Ah remember it correctly."
"Well… all right," Janice said and offered her two opposite-tablemates a quick look. Mel seemed to be right regarding their interest, so she shrugged and continued tucking in the napkin. "Oh! Oh, but I have another story… from Piraeus in Greece. Aw, this is much funnier. Now, just before the war, me and a couple o' friends were-"
"Dr. Covington," Lawrence Milburn said somewhat sternly, "if this is the story about when you discovered that your sausages contained questionable meat, we've already heard it, and we would greatly appreciate it if you would refrain from telling it again just before dinner is served."
Janice's jaw began to grind and she wished she could rip into the fellow for his abrasive attitude. A few grunts escaped her sealed lips, but a small caress by Mel's long digits eased her foul mood. At that moment, the waiters arrived at table three with the first course, so all thoughts of talking vanished.
As the bowl of steaming hot tomato soup was put on the table, she leaned forward to sniff it with a delighted look upon her face - but came away with a deep frown between her fair eyebrows. A quick sample later proved it was as un-spiced as the aroma had suggested. "Oh… damn," she said and eyed Mel's chicken broth and roll of bread that didn't look so bad all of a sudden.
Mel had noticed her partner's dissatisfaction, and she leaned over to her left to speak for her ears only: "Dahlin', if Ah may be so blunt… your stomach can't handle the spices any longer, an' you know it."
"Yeah. I s'pose," Janice said and dug into the tomato soup. It wasn't too bad, all things considered, so she shrugged and went to work on emptying the bowl.
When the main course was served a little while later, it was done to the musical accompaniment of a female singer with a spunky voice. The music was from a compact disc rather than someone performing it live, but the old-fashioned swing tunes still spread plenty of joy among the residents of the retirement home who had never really warmed to distorted, amplified guitars, or even the electronic sounds that had ruled the world of music since the early eighties.
"Ahhhhh, Dinah Shore. Wonderful gal," Janice said with a cheeky grin.
"That's Doris Day, actually," Lawrence Milburn said, dabbing his mouth on his napkin.
Janice stared at the librarian for several seconds before she had gathered her wits enough to counter the point. "Well… no, that's not Doris Day. That's Dinah Shore. Mel and I knew her well back when that kind of music was king. We lost her early last year… damn that cancer."
"I'm telling you it's Doris Day. I used to listen to her all the time."
Janice didn't know how to respond to that, so she turned to her 'neighbor' for help. "Toots, help me out here…"
"Ah have to agree with mah partner here, Mr. Milburn," Mel said while performing a respectful nod. "That's in fact the luminous Miss Dinah Shore."
Lawrence seemed to ponder that for a short while, but then he crossed his arms over his deep-purple pullover and shook his head. "I'm not convinced. Perhaps the staff will know which record is being played."
"Ah'm sure they will, an' Ah'm sure they'll say it's Dinah Shore," Mel said while her left eyebrow crept up her forehead.
Janice noticed and patted her partner's slender hand at once to stop the small deal from turning messy. The argument was interrupted by a staffer wheeling a food cart over to the table, and soon, the delightful aromas of the main dish stole all their attention.
When the kitchen staffer moved the cart further down the line of tables, Lawrence Milburn groaned out loud upon realizing he hadn't had time to ask about the music. Since the compact disc had moved onto a different artist, it didn't matter any longer.
"That ain't Doris Day, either, fella… that's Peggy Lee… damn sexy dame… sultry as all hell," Janice mumbled under her breath as she thought about all the swell gals that used to inhabit the music industry before bare skin became more important than vocal talent. The food beckoned, and she picked up the disabled-friendly cutlery that the retirement home had made available for her to get on with it.
The main course was much closer to Janice Covington's tastes than the spiceless tomato soup had been: rolled joint roast with prunes, pickled cucumbers, halved potatoes and hot, brown gravy made with plenty of cream. She liked to call dishes like that honest food for honest people.
She had to chuckle when she caught a glimpse of Mel's slender fingers working the cutlery with such elegance she could have been back dining at the White House like the time where they had been invited to attend a formal dinner hosted by President Kennedy.
Looking down at her own plate where she had cut up the two, thin slices of the roast into bite-sized pieces so she could stab them with her fork and be done with it, not to mention mashing the potatoes and the pickled cucumbers into the brown gravy with little attention to the mess it had made on the plate - her beloved prunes had gone as the very first item - she once again chuckled at the vast difference between the elegant Southern Belle and herself. Somehow they had managed to keep the flame burning for decades despite all their differences, and she wasn't about to do anything that would challenge that.
"Find anythin' amusin' in your rolled joint roast, dear?" Mel said, shooting her partner a sideways look through her lenses.
"Naw," Janice said as she stabbed her disabled-friendly fork into a bite-sized piece of roast. "Just the food, you know. And you and me."
Mel furrowed her expressive brow for a moment or two when she didn't quite get the deeper meaning of what Janice had said, but soon returned to her own dish to enjoy the roast while it was hot.
Most parts of the Valentine's Day dinner had gone well - the dessert consisting of a genuine, old-fashioned Sundae with cherry sauce and wafer-thin chocolate tubes had been a hit in particular - but now the first part of the evening's entertainment was winding down. Almost as if by design, the CD playing the evergreen hits came to its end just as the senior nurse picked up a cordless microphone and turned it on.
"Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen," the fifty-seven-year-old Sharon MacNeill said into the mic. The softly-spoken woman whose face was locked in a permanent, and infectious, smile was dressed in the regular white uniform of the on-site nursing staff save for a pink ribbon that had been pinned to her lapel to mark the day. "Dear friends, I hope you've been enjoying our Valentine's Day festivities. We have more to come, but first, we would like to ask for a couple of volunteers to help the staff and our newest residents, Agnes and Joseph, get everything ready for the soiree."
As Sharon MacNeill looked around the plenum dining hall in the hope that someone would put their hand in the air, the excited din fell to nothing like a soufflé that had been taken out of the oven too soon. The silence continued, and it was glaringly obvious that nobody wanted to volunteer, or at least not be the first one to speak up.
The lack of participation soon turned so embarrassing that the senior nurse turned back to the CD player to find a new disc to play instead. The kitchen staff had waited for the senior nurse to conclude the announcement before they would wheel the empty carts among the residents to collect the dishes, but even they looked embarrassed by the uncharacteristic silence.
"Aw, what the hell's going on here? Damn, what a bunch of yellow-bellied…" Janice growled under her breath. She turned to Mel to see if her partner was up to the task, but even if she proved not to be, she was going to volunteer to help the staff on her own - whatever chores they would have her do. "We got a couple of new folks up there… they're gonna get a crappy impression of us! Mel, can you believe this sh-?"
"Ah can't, Jan. This is embarrassin'. Poor Mrs. MacNeill…"
"Are you up for it?"
"Ah am," Mel said and nodded in a decisive fashion that necessitated a small adjustment of her spectacles.
"I guess it's down to the halt and the crippled," Janice said before she took a deep breath. "Hep! Mrs. MacNeill! Table three! Melinda Pappas and Janice Covington reporting for duty!" she cried, thrusting her arm in the air.
A lot of sighs of relief were heard from around the other tables, and Lawrence Milburn and Florence Cassidy both let out the breath they had been holding while they had studied the intricate, and no doubt fascinating, patterns on the white tablecloth.
Up at the other end of the plenum dining hall, Sharon MacNeill paused the CD player just as the first notes of one of Benny Goodman's best-known hits were heard. "Oh! Thank you very much, Dr. Covington! Nurse Williams will be at your table in a moment," the senior nurse said into the cordless microphone.
"Aw, there's no rush. We ain't goin' nowhere," Janice said which drew a few grins from the other senior citizens in the dining hall.
While the bouncy sounds of Benny Goodman's big-band orchestra took care of the musical entertainment, the kitchen staff moved around the fifteen tables to collect the dishes, cutlery and tumblers that had been used for the three-course meal.
A few of the retirement home's residents wanted to make it an early night in the break between the dinner and the soiree, so they shuffled - or were helped - over to the low table where the long-stemmed roses were still waiting for someone to take them home. Once the nicest flowers had been selected, the residents were helped back to the upper floors by the nursing staff after a host of goodbyes had been said.
Table three still had four people sitting at it, but Florence Cassidy looked to be getting somewhat tired. Lawrence Milburn was in full vigor, however, and was relaying a lengthy tale of the time when he had earned his driver's license.
Janice kept looking for Nurse Williams to show up so she and Mel could escape the clutches of the dry school teacher and even drier librarian, but the charming nurse had been so busy helping some of the other residents that the entire timetable had been pushed back.
The delay called for a cheroot, and Janice reached for her King's Favorites at once to light up. Shoving the disabled-friendly lighter back into her breast pocket, she turned to the conversation that continued to take place between Mel and Lawrence Milburn. "A driver's license? Yeah, I've had that since before the war. I drove trucks in my younger years. And cars. Hell, even a US Army ambulance when we had to fall back in a hurry during a Nazi counteroffensive, but that was a one-time thing. And I used to ride motorcycles all the damn time at home and abroad. Never did get around to flying an airplane tho' I woulda loved to try it," she said and knocked off the first tip of ash.
"Trucks? A US Army ambulance? Really, Dr. Covington, I find that exceedingly hard to believe," Lawrence said and crossed his arms over his deep-purple pullover in a clear display of annoyance over being upstaged by the petite, elderly lady.
"Aw, ya better believe it, Larry. Not semis or eighteen-wheeler trucks, but troop transports during the war. Six-wheel-drive all-terrain vehicles… CCKW's," Janice said which made the cheroot wobble in her mouth. Looking at her partner, she pointed at her as well to underscore her next words: "Me and Mel were never at the front as such, of course, but we helped where we could, and that required a lot of driving through bad terrain. Once our GI's had liberated a town with a major museum or library, we were sent in to help them get their collections back in order. Hell, we busted a ring of black-marketeers wide open once in a small town in Belgium… toots, where was that, do you remember?"
Mel nodded. "It was in Marche-en-Famenne, at the forty-four, forty-five New Year. An' it was in Luxembourg, actually."
"Aw yeah, that's right… not even a week after the Battle Of The Bulge had ended. I'm sure you've heard of that one, Larry. Mmmm… yeah," Janice said, taking a deep puff from her cheroot while she reminisced about the freezing conditions they had to endure that winter - not to mention the death, despair and misery that surrounded them.
When Mel noticed that Janice had zoned out, she took over the conversation to avoid another embarrassing bout of stony silence. "Ah don't know if you've served our country, Mr. Milburn, but war is such terrible business. Inhuman. When peace finally came, our main goal was to resume searchin' for the Xena Scrolls, but several years went by before we had that opportunity. It wasn't until 1951 that we were able to return to Greece to continue the search, an' even then, it was by a complete fluke that we uncovered a cache of scrolls. Ah'm sure you remember that, dear?"
"I sure do, toots," Janice said, knocking off more ash. "That was a wild ride. To get home, we traveled on the Orient Express while chased by a couple-a knuckleheads who wanted a precious gemstone we had discovered. I still have a scar to prove it, too."
It didn't appear Mel and Janice's exploits made too much of a positive impression on the retired librarian and school teacher sitting opposite them, so the conversation soon fizzled out again - it was clear by the skeptical looks on Lawrence and Florence's faces that they had come to consider Janice Covington as someone who didn't keep the proper company with truth and fact.
Mel looked down to study the fascinating pattern on the tablecloth, but Janice had never been one to back down from a confrontation, especially not with people who irked her for whatever reason. Cocking her head, she took a deep puff from her cheroot to have plenty of ammunition for the naysayers at the opposite side of the round table, but her blood pressure was spared an unhealthy spike by the arrival of Nurse Williams.
"Hello, everybody," Shayvonn Williams said in a cheery voice as she came up to stand behind Mel's chair. "Miss Pappas, how are you feeling? Do you need a painkiller?"
"Ah'm feelin' just fine, Nurse Williams," Mel said with a polite smile. "Thank you for askin'. Ah don't need any med'cine at the moment, but perhaps later dependin' on what it is you have in store for us."
"Oh, I promise it won't be too hard. Miss Pappas, Dr. Covington… when you're ready, we can get started," the nurse said and took a step back.
Chuckling, Janice stubbed out her cheroot in a hurry and pushed her chair back so she could help Mel get on her feet. "Ya know, gorgeous… the last time a swell dame said that to me, I got in all kinds of trouble with Mel here…" she said as she released the walker's brakes and pulled it over to Mel's chair with her free hand.
Shayvonn Williams laughed at the older woman's humorous comment as she put her hands on Mel Pappas' arms for support. When the retired translator was able to get up on her own by gripping the walker's sturdy handles, Shayvonn stepped back to make room for the walking aid.
Janice couldn't leave without getting in a parting shot, so she turned back to the table after donning her leather jacket and her beloved fedora. "Good evening, Mr. Milburn. Miss Cassidy. Don't get frisky with each other now, ya hear?" Tipping her hat, she broke out in a grin as she followed her partner and the day nurse.
When a gasp, a strong harrumph and a "Well, I've never!" reached her ears from the people at the table she had just left, she couldn't stop a cheeky chuckle from escaping her lips.
Mel, Janice and the two new residents who were busy introducing themselves to the oldtimers walked around the fifteen tables to get to the cozy coffee room which was hidden behind a pair of closed sliding doors. The regular buzz and din had returned, aided by Benny Goodman's big-band orchestra, and the conversations were once again flowing freely among the other residents while they waited for the next part of the evening's entertainment.
As the volunteers went past some of the other tables, they were given glances that ranged from 'Preposterous! A woman wearing a leather jacket?!' to 'Gosh, I wish I'd spoken up sooner.'
The tables weren't placed in numerical order, so when Janice walked past Buster Brayton, whom she knew had no physical ailments to speak of, she was inclined to ask in her typical direct fashion why he hadn't joined the volunteers - but a single glance at the shy-looking elderly lady to Buster's left made her change her mind and keep quiet. The two residents were holding hands underneath the table, and it was clear that one of Cupid's arrows had done its business.
Instead of ribbing Buster from afar for his lack of participation, Janice made a detour over to the table where she leaned down and tipped her fedora to the blushing pair. "And a mighty fine evening to you, Sir. Ma'am. Are those wedding bells I hear? You will remember to invite ol' Janice to the festivities, won't you? Canapés and champagne are among my favorite things, 'specially if they've been paid for by other folks."
"Oh, go away!" Buster Brayton said in a good-natured fashion. As he spoke, his hand never left his blushing date's underneath the table.
Janice chuckled and patted her friend's back. "All right, Buster. I'll catch up with you tomorrow at lunch unless one of us has croaked in the meantime. Yeah? Hi de ho, bub. Ma'am." - There was no logical comeback to that pun, so Buster Brayton settled for nodding.
Mel had come to a halt to catch her breath when she noticed that Janice had left their little group. Turning around, she waited for her partner to catch up before she would go on toward the coffee room. "Janice Covin'ton, Ah can't take you anywhere… was that Buster Brayton you were talkin' to?"
"Yes it was, toots," Janice said, moving as fast as her strength and bum hips would allow her to.
Mel furrowed her brow as she watched her partner hurry across the carpet in a full-scale effort to catch up. It looked less than safe, and she bared her teeth in a worried grimace at the possible implications. "Oh, dahlin', please be careful… there's no need to tempt fate. Slow down, Ah'll be waitin' for you here no matter how long it takes."
"Good point," Janice said and reduced her pace. Much as she was loathed to admit it, the brief sprint had left her winded and wheezing, and her right hip was giving her a little more grief than typical. She had taken many tumbles in her unusual life - some caused by fumbling about in a drunken stupor, others caused by falling into sudden sink holes at digs, and others again had been caused by aggressive thugs wanting to teach her a thing or two - but she was in no hurry to repeat the experience. She had a hunch that the next one would hurt as much as the twenty previous ones combined, and she would prefer to avoid that if at all possible.
Like Mel had promised, she was still there when Janice arrived. Carrying on together like they were supposed to, they soon reached the sliding doors that would take them to the coffee room.
Once inside, they were met by Shayvonn Williams who helped Mel drive the walking aid over to a chair by a table that saw a good deal of pink ribbons, red roses and small vases. A lightweight pair of scissors designed to be used by people with weak hands was ready for her in case she accepted the task the staff had in mind for her.
Janice leaned on her cane while she glanced around the coffee room. The nursing and kitchen staff had already decorated quite a few of the tables, but there were three or four empty ones left for the volunteers. She chuckled when she realized it had all been a ploy to get the new residents introduced, and the oldtimers to mingle a little beyond their regular groups of acquaintances.
"Now, Miss Pappas," Nurse Williams said as she picked up the lightweight scissors, "if you can, we were thinking that you and Mrs. Eliasson could tie the pink ribbons around the long-stemmed roses there, and put them into the vases. If you run out of ribbons, just use the scissors to cut more from this piece of cloth."
"It shall be mah pleasure, Nurse Williams," Mel said and took the first of the pink ribbons to get a close-up look at what she needed to do. Before she began to manipulate the ribbon, she turned to greet Agnes Eliasson, one of the new residents of the Whispering Willows Retirement Home. "Good evenin', Mrs. Eliasson. Ah'm Melinda Pappas, an' Ah'm so pleased to be workin' with you tonight. Ah take it you've only just moved in?" she said and put out her slender, elegant hand.
Agnes Eliasson was a hefty matron in her late seventies whose meaty paw fully engulfed Mel's far more delicate hand. She wore a yellow dress that featured white ribbed edges around the upper and lower hem, and she carried a pair of jingling rings in her earlobes that matched the dress. "Good evening, Miss Pappas. Yes, I'm new here. I'm really a Miss too these days. I lost my husband the other year," she said, revealing she had a pleasant voice.
"Oh, Ah'm sorry to hear that. The Whisperin' Willows is a wonderful place, an' Ah I know you'll feel right at home here. Well, shall we get started?" Mel said and held up one of the pink ribbons.
Mel and Mrs. Eliasson soon went to work folding the ribbons and tying them around the stems of the roses, but Janice could only grimace as she took in the sight of her crooked, arthritic hands. Sighing, she turned around to look for the charming nurse instead.
She found her instructing the new male resident, Joseph Pierce, on how to use a peculiar-looking contraption, so she shuffled over there and tapped the younger woman's shoulder. "Uh, Nurse Williams… yeah, I know I volunteered and stuff, but I'm afraid I can't do much with those ribbons. My fingers are… shoot, pretty much useless when it comes to handling such tiny things."
"Don't worry, Dr. Covington," Shayvonn said, stepping aside so Janice could get a full view of the peculiar machine that looked like two scuba-tanks welded together, "Joe and I were hoping you could help us inflate the balloons we need. We know you have plenty of hot air, so…"
"Oh, haw, haw, haw! Just because an ol' gal ain't timid, she's given a bad rap!" Janice said and slapped her forehead in a comical fashion. "But sure, I can inflate a couple-a balloons for ya… on that thing there?"
"Yes," Shayvonn said, moving back to the twin tanks and the new resident. "Mr. Pierce, say hello to Dr. Janice Covington. She's here to help you with the balloons. Dr. Covington, meet Joseph Pierce."
Forming a striking contrast to the hefty Mrs. Eliasson, Joseph Pierce was a rail-thin gentleman in his mid-eighties who looked as if he had been a bank teller or possibly an accountant for most of his years. Semi-bald to the point of having very little hair at all - his eyebrows were still intact, and they were bushy and unkempt - the curved lines of his round head were broken by a pair of square, metal spectacles that sat low on his nose. He wore black loafers, gray pants, and a gray cardigan over a white shirt that hadn't been buttoned all the way up for the lack of the number-two button. "Ah… hello, Doctor… Covington, was it?" he said, squinting through his spectacles at the petite woman in the unusual garb.
"That's right. Janice Covington. Hi de ho, Mista Pierce… nice to see ya, and welcome to the Whispering Willows," Janice said and took off her leather jacket. The fedora was next, but there was nowhere for her to put it. After a brief moment of indecision, she mashed it on top of her gray locks and pushed it back from her forehead like all the matinee idols had done in the good, old black-and-white days. This gave her the opportunity to extend her hand, and she shook Joseph's with a flurry.
"Thank you. Call me Joe. Are you a doctor of medicine?"
"Naw, of philosophy. I used to be an archeologist, and a doctorate was required to go on official digs in those days. I wanted to be a doctor of applied mechanics, but they didn't want to let in girls, so… philosophy it was. And you?"
"Oh, I've worked at one insurance company or another for most of my active career. First as a broker and then in the accounting department. Boring for the most part, but it gave me a steady paycheck."
"Aw, yeah… I was surmising it would be something like that. You have that sorta look about ya."
Joseph 'Joe' Pierce nodded in a thoughtful fashion before he turned back to the odd-looking apparatus. Picking up the bag of balloons he and Janice were supposed to inflate, he took one out and stared at the limp shape for a few seconds before he mashed it onto a metal nipple on the machine. "I hope you're not embarrassed by this, Dr. Covington."
"By what, exactly?"
"This," Joseph said and tapped the limp balloon that dangled back and forth on the nipple. "Because I am. It reminds me of a condom, and here I am working with a lady."
Chuckling, Janice patted the new resident's shoulder. "I'm all woman but I sure ain't no lady, Joe… or a shrinking violet for that matter," she said with a grin. "Let's inflate this sucker," she continued, pressing the button that was labeled Press for Air.
A second after pressing it, Janice came to realize she should perhaps have waited for Nurse Williams to give her the instructions on how to use the machine. The balloon did in fact inflate, but it flew off the metal nipple and screamed through the coffee room while letting out a sound akin to an angry, buzzing bee.
"Oh, sh-" Janice said, but she was cut off by her partner's voice before she could utter the profanity.
"Janice Covin'ton!" Mel cried from the other side of the room as the limp balloon finally ended its brief run of success down on the carpet. "Ah don't know what you did, but Ah'm sure you did somethin' you shouldn't have!"
"She's right there… hell, she's always right," Janice said and let out a belly-laugh. A moment later, she stepped aside for Nurse Williams who came to her rescue. "So, now we know what not to do, huh?" she added, nodding at Joseph.
"Mmmm-yes," Shayvonn Williams said as she took the next balloon from the pack. "You did most things right, but you missed an important detail. When the balloon is on the nipple, you lower this handle which brings down a clamp that'll secure it," she said as she carried out the procedure she had described.
"Ohhhh! Now that would explain the kamikaze run, eh, Joe?" Janice said with a grin - Joseph Pierce grinned back.
Shayvonn eyed them both before she turned back to the machine and pressed the Press for Air-button. The balloon inflated at once but stayed on the nipple unlike the other one. "And when it's fully inflated, you move the handle back up which seals the balloon's neck so it won't leak. It also releases the clamp so you can take it off and move onto the next one."
Chuckling at the advanced nature of the machine, Janice used her free hand to make a fist and swing it through the air. "Gosh golly almighty, Nurse Williams, those things get cleverer for each passing year. Me and Joe got that down pat now. How many balloons do you want us to make?"
"Oh, the entire pack. Fifty or so, if you can handle it."
"Stand back, gorgeous, we're on it," Janice said, sending the day nurse a crooked thumbs-up.
The production of inflated balloons came to an end at the forty-seventh one - of the remaining three, one exploded on the nipple, and two were leaky from the outset. It had taken Janice and Joseph longer to complete their task than it had taken Mel and Agnes Eliasson to fold the pink ribbons and tie them to the roses, so the intrepid balloon-inflaters had a pair of interested spectators for the last few in the pack.
"And that's how you do it, ladies," Janice said, moving the handle up on the final balloon which sealed the neck and allowed the finished product to be released from the metal nipple. She made a sweeping hand-gesture to show that she knew exactly what she was doing, and that she had in fact been on top of everything right from the get-go.
While the two volunteers and the two residents had finished their tasks, Shayvonn Williams and a few other staffers had been busy dressing the coffee tables for when the remaining residents would appear at the stroke of seven. The finished balloons were scooped up in a hurry and distributed on the tables and elsewhere, and Mel and Agnes' many vases with the ribboned, long-stemmed roses were put at the center of each table.
Some of the kitchen staff wheeled in three food carts that carried several thermos'; some held coffee, others hot water for those who preferred tea. Little, marzipan treats had been arranged in neat piles on silver trays, and there were sugar bowls and cream jugs for those who couldn't drink their hot beverages straight.
Nurse Williams came in at the end of the line carrying four bottles of spirits. She got the biggest cheer, at least from Janice, but she let out a laugh as she deposited two bottles each of brandy and tawny port on a low table. "Oh, Dr. Covington, this is for all the residents," she said in a tone of voice that was just on the verge of admonishing the elderly lady while still remaining cheery.
"Oh, gosh-darnit!" was Janice's predictable reply.
As Shayvonn left the coffee room to get the glasses for the drinks, Mel rose from the walking aid's integrated seat and turned around to put both hands on the two sturdy handles. "Jan, dear… Ah need your help. Ah need to frequent the restroom after all that mineral water. Do you mind?"
"Of course not, toots," Janice said and got to her feet. Shuffling around using her cane, she put her free hand on Mel's elbow and guided her and the walking aid over to the bathroom facilities that were just beyond the sliding doors to the plenum dining hall.
Back into the coffee room, Mel came to a halt to admire the decorations that she and Janice had been a small part of: all the tables had been dressed in pink-and-white tablecloths, and the red roses stood proud in the white vases. There were pink napkins, white dishes, pink-and-white festoons, white coffee cups and tea mugs, frosted tumblers, and a sea of pink balloons here, there and everywhere. "Ah do declare, Jan… what a magnificent sight. So romantic. Don't you agree?"
"I s'pose. It's certainly pink," Janice said with a grin as she rubbed her partner's arm. "And I inflated the balloons! Well, me and Joe."
"You did, there's no denyin' that, dear. Let's find a seat, shall we? Mah legs are gettin' a little tired," Mel said and began to shuffle forward.
Joseph Pierce and Agnes Eliasson were already sitting at one of the first tables, and Janice steered Mel over to their fellow volunteers so they wouldn't have to suffer through another lecture by the dry librarian and the retired school teacher. "Ah'm sorry, are these seats taken?" Mel said as she came to a halt at one of the free chairs at the table.
Agnes smiled and gestured at the free chairs. "Only when you sit down, Miss Pappas. We were hoping you and Dr. Covington would come back before the others arrived."
"Why, thank you, dear. Much obliged," Mel said and returned the smile before she began shuffling the walking aid around so she could get closer to the chair. Joseph got up at once to help Mel pull it out, but Janice beat him to it and made sure that the older woman sat down safely on the chair.
With Mel seated and comfortable, Janice pulled out the last remaining chair and bumped down onto it. Leaning the cane against the table, she took the frosted drinks glass and studied the craftsmanship. "Nice," she said as she began looking around for an even nicer bottle of tawny port or brandy to pour into the glass.
"Dr. Covington," Agnes Eliasson said, folding the napkin in her lap, "do you have any children?"
"Naw, but Mel here does. Ain't that right, toots?"
"Indeed, Jan," Mel said and nodded. "An' Ah've already spoken to Mrs. Eliasson about him."
Joseph Pierce looked from one to the other while Mel spoke. It was clear he was interested in hearing about the family relations, but also that he didn't want to come across as too interested, or even nosy.
Mel picked up the gentleman's curiosity and decided to fill him in as well. "Ah have a son from mah first marriage. Paul Giorgios Pappas. He's livin' in Greece with his own family," she said, adjusting her spectacles.
"It's a clan now!" Janice interjected.
Chuckling, Mel looked at her partner. "Ah suppose you could call it that, yes. Ah have grandchildren, an' even a great-grandchild since last August. Mah son turns sixty next year, an' he's invited us over to Thessaloniki for his birthday celebrations."
Agnes clapped her meaty paws together to applaud the action. "Like I said before, Miss Pappas, that sounds so exciting! Oh, I wish I could go to Europe… my kids both live in Cleveland. It's not quite the same!"
"Just goes to show that no matter where in the world you ask, there's always someone there from Ohio, Mrs. Eliasson," Janice said with a grin that earned her a little nudge by Mel. "Well, it's true!"
"Ah wouldn't doubt it, Jan, but we were talkin' about Greece."
"Aw yeah, but I'll bet you a kiss that if we asked around in the central station in Thessaloniki if anyone there was from Ohio, we'd get at least one 'yes'!"
They all laughed at that for a few moments before Nurse Williams came over to the table with an opened bottle of brandy. "Oh, I'm glad to hear you all get along so well. Could I tempt you to sample the brandy?"
Joseph declined the invitation on medical grounds, but Janice, Agnes and Mel all put forward their frosted glass. Once Janice had received her share of the spirits, she sniffed the deep-maroon contents and broke out in a grin. "Oh, this is the good stuff right here, gorgeous! Yiamas!"
Agnes, Joseph and Nurse Williams looked at each other displaying similar, puzzled expressions, but Mel leaned in to translate: "That's Greek for bottoms up."
"Oh… well, in that case, bottoms up," Agnes said and sipped the brandy.
Janice had already finished hers, and she put the empty glass down on the table. "Yeah, that's the good stuff. Not like the rat poison you sometimes get in the seedy dives around the world. Aw, that reminds me of a story from once upon an eon ago… in Buenos Aires, a friend and me were out looking-"
"Dr. Covington," Shayvonn Williams said, putting her hand on Janice's shoulder. "I'm afraid I can't stay for your story… I need to let the others in now. I hope you don't mind."
"Of course not, gorgeous. I'll tell you in private later," Janice said with a grin - Mel's immediate reaction was one of those patented dramatic sighs. "So, anyway… a friend and me went into a back-alley dive and asked for…"
The Valentine's Day event was going well in the coffee room as the clock struck eight thirty. The warm, soothing tones of Jo Stafford, Frank Sinatra, Kay Starr and many other unforgettable artists from the golden period of swing wafted out of the loudspeakers to the delight of everybody, and the happy din that rose from the residents of the Whispering Willows Retirement Home proved that all were having a great time.
Not only were the coffee cups and tea mugs put through heavy use, the marzipan treats and the slices of freshly made cheesecake - it had been a surprise announcement - had all vanished. The brandy was already out, but there was still a little tawny port left for those so inclined.
A thick layer of smoke hovered over the tables created by the many cigarettes, pipes and cheroots that were puffed on by the residents. At times, it was difficult to see the next table over, but the experienced smokers didn't seem to mind too much.
"Yiamas!" Janice said and chugged down the last of her final glass of brandy. The others at her table all echoed the cheer and matched her drinking, save for Joseph whose prescription medicine prevented him from enjoying alcohol.
"Ah do believe Ah've had enough for tonight," Mel said as she put her empty glass on the table. She needed to adjust her ill-fitting, nut-brown frame before she could focus on the woman sitting on the opposite side of the table. "Mrs. Eliasson?"
"My sentiments exactly, Miss Pappas," Agnes Eliasson said and pinched the bridge of her nose. "Oh wow, is it just me, or is the smoke particularly nasty all of a sudden?"
"I dunno, is it?" Janice said, taking her latest King's Favorite cheroot out of her mouth to knock off some ash. Looking around, she came to the startling realization that the air in the coffee room had turned a murky shade of gray. "I guess it is. Looks like Frisco Bay when the fog rolls in, huh?"
"It does indeed," Mel said and adjusted her spectacles so she could look around the coffee room. Fanning her nose, she turned back to the others. "Goodness me, it really is quite thick tonight. Ah reckon it's because we've all had such a good time."
The statement had only just left Mel's lips before one of the other residents began to hack and cough. The coughing fit grew stronger and was soon accompanied by unhealthy sounds of wheezing. "Oh dear," she said, trying to look over her shoulder, "Ah think someone's havin' an asthma attack…"
"Doesn't sound too damn good, that's a fact. I need to see what's going on," Janice said and stubbed out her cheroot in a hurry. Not bothering with the 'tut, tut' that came out of Mel because of the blue language, Janice clambered to her feet and shuffled across the floor as fast as her hips and her cane would allow her to.
Just as she reached the table where the coughing resident was sitting, she realized it was Florence Cassidy, the retired school teacher they had shared table three with earlier. "Aw… sh-" she said, but that was as far as she got.
From one moment to the next, the heavy coughing caused Florence to slip off the chair. Though she tried to cling onto the table, she landed on the carpet with a bone-rattling thud. A cry escaped her lips, and it was clear from the pained look on the woman's face that she had been hurt, or at least stunned, in the fall. The coughs that racked her being only made it worse.
"Oh, Goddamn!" Janice barked, clenching her fist around the cane's knob. In her glory days, she would have jumped down and come to the woman's rescue, but that glory was long gone. Her only other option was to cry for help, so that's what she did. "Nurse Williams! Nurse Williams, we got an emergency here!" she cried, catching the attention of the day nurse who was already zipping over to the table.
"I'm here. Please stand back, Dr. Covington," Shayvonn Williams said on her way past Janice. At once, the nurse went down on her knees and helped Florence into a sitting position so coughing would be easier for the elderly lady. The coughing fit receded somewhat, but Florence began letting out pained moans instead which couldn't be counted as an improvement.
While the nurse fluffed open the loose collar on Florence's coffee-brown dress to make her breathing less restricted, Janice scrunched up her face into a dark mask. Although she didn't have much appreciation for the retired school teacher, she hated to see a fellow human being in such pain. Among other dark images from her life, it gave her an unwanted flashback to the time just a few days earlier where she had watched the love of her life keel over and land with a sickening thud.
She had been unable to do anything then, and she was equally unable to do anything now. Growling from somewhere deep in her throat, she looked down at her crooked, arthritic fingers and let out a tormented sigh. With Florence being well-tended to for the time being, Janice turned around and shuffled back to her own table where Mel was waiting for her.
"There wasn't a Goddamn thing I could do other than to call the nurse. Growing old and frail sucks!" she said as she bumped down on her chair. She had already snatched her glass of brandy to drown her disappointment before she realized it was empty. Sighing, she put it back on the table.
Mel was about to add her two cents' worth to the depressing comment when the senior nurse and the in-house doctor came whizzing past while putting on surgical gloves in case the patient was bleeding.
All four senior citizens watched in silence as Nurse Williams worked with the doctor and the senior nurse to stabilize Florence Cassidy and examine any potential injuries she might have. They all waited with bated breaths for the tell-tale, soul-tearing cry that would escape Florence's lips when the doctor ran his hands over a potential injury or fracture on the elderly woman's body, but it never came.
While the nursing staff worked on examining Florence, her coughing fit died down and her breathing became easier. After a minute or so, they helped her up on the chair, but when it became clear she didn't want to stay in the thick clouds of smoke, Shayvonn Williams rushed off to find a wheelchair so they could get her out of the coffee room and back upstairs to her apartment.
"Crap," Janice said, sounding very much like she meant it. She cast a final glance at the medical emergency before she turned her back on it and put her elbows on the tabletop. "That's what I call a lucky escape. If that had been a broken hip, we would never have seen her again."
"Janice Covin'ton, can we please have some optimism here?" Mel said, but Janice shook her head.
"Naw, toots. She woulda been confined to a hospital bed for so long she'd have lost the ability to walk on her own. We've seen it often enough to know."
The upbeat song that played from the loudspeakers, Blacksmith Blues by Ella Mae Morse, was inappropriate considering the grim drama they had just witnessed, but as Florence Cassidy was wheeled away by Nurse Williams, the din of the other residents wasn't slow in returning to previous levels.
"Damn, I hope that old bird is only gonna have a sore ass after that tumble," Janice mumbled as she watched the sliding doors close after the wheelchair had passed through it. "Valentine's Day is supposed to end with a kiss and a cuddle, not a busted hip."
The mood around the table needed a boost, and it came when Joseph held up the last thermos of hot coffee. "More coffee, anyone?" he said, looking at the three others in turn.
Mel and Janice looked at each other to gauge their partner's interest. It soon became clear they would prefer to go upstairs to have some quiet reflection on not only Florence's accident, but Mel's as well.
"Not for me, Mr. Pierce, thank you," Mel said and pushed herself clear of the table. "Ah fear I need to call it a night. Ah feel so tired all of a sudden. Please allow me to wish you both a good night."
"I'll take a rain check as well, Joe," Janice said and once more used her cane to get to her feet. Donning her leather jacket and her fedora, she offered her two tablemates a grin that wasn't as broad as it could have been. "It's been a fun evening, Mr. Pierce. Mrs. Eliasson. Let's hope we'll see each other tomorrow."
Agnes settled for waving, but Joseph Pierce rose at once to bid a proper farewell to the two elderly ladies. "Have a good evening, Dr. Covington. Miss Pappas. Take care on your way up… and don't forget to collect your Valentine's Day roses."
"Uh… roses? But they're all in the vases," Janice said and scratched her forehead. "Aw yeah, that's right, the other roses are still on the table in the dining hall… thanks, Joe! Completely slipped my mind," she continued as she put two fingers on the rim of her fedora and saluted her new acquaintances.
An electronic ding once again heralded the arrival of the elevator, this time on one of the upper, residential floors. When the sliding doors whooshed open, Janice helped pull the walking aid's wheels across the gutter before she and Mel strolled down the hallway on their way to their apartments.
"Man, I hope you can lose this contraption before long," Janice said and pressed her free hand against her lower back where a stubborn twinge had just finished trickling through her muscles. "It's giving me a crimp in the old bones…"
"So do Ah, Jan. It's so cumbersome. Ah'll… Ah'll need it for a few more days, though. Ah need to see if the new med'cine the doctor prescribed me will reduce mah dizzy spells first."
"Aw yeah, I hear ya. Don't want no repeat performance of that stunt of yours, no Ma'am."
The hallways of the Whispering Willows retirement home were always well-lit so they wouldn't create any hazards among the elderly residents, but Janice had discovered not long after they had moved in that if she stood still long enough, the main strip lights would almost fade to black and only run on partial power. It was for economic reasons, but she enjoyed the effect so she didn't care which reason was behind it.
"Dahlin', how about we strolled down to the window an' looked outside for a while? To mark the end of a romantic Valentine's Day, roses an' all," Mel said, offering her partner a smile.
"Sounds good to me, toots. There's only one damn photoelectric cell down there, so when we lose this Godawful bright light, we might even be able to see the stars… unless its overcast, of course."
"We'll just have to find out, won't we?"
"Mmmm! Lead on, my lady!"
Reaching the window at the far end of the hallway, Mel locked the walking aid's brakes and picked up the red, long-stemmed rose that she had put on the integrated seat. Holding it, she turned around and lowered herself onto the hard plastic with great care.
Janice came to a complete halt as well and sought out her partner's hand for a little squeeze - the retired archeologist had put her rose in her leather jacket's upper buttonhole above the sturdy zipper.
They only had to wait for a minute or so before the lights faded down to enter the power-saving mode. Once their eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness inside and out, they were able to pick up plenty of details like the dim street lights that followed the access road onto the retirement home's grounds.
It was partially overcast, but a few stars peeked through the layers of gray to offer the two elderly women the occasional twinkle.
"Ah'll never get tired of watchin' the stars, Jan," Mel said in a quiet voice that wasn't quite a whisper. "How many times do you think we've done it over the years?"
"Haw, that's impossible to count," Janice whispered back - it seemed right for the circumstances. "Including our famous ancestors, I'd say… oh… tens of thousands of times. At least."
Mel looked back out at the sparse stars before her eyes fell on her life-partner's aged face. "Do you think we'll be here next Valentine's Day?" she said in a somber tone. When Janice didn't answer at once, she let the red rose trickle across her frail skin to enjoy the rich scent.
Letting out a sigh, Janice turned to observe her wife of nearly five decades. The question caused her heart to clench; the thinking behind it even more so, and yet, recent history had shown it was the right question for the right time. "I dearly hope so. I want it to be so. But we both know that when Celesta finds us, there'll be no bargaining with her."
"Ah don't want to lose you, Jan. Ah still love you… even after all this time. Ah don't want it to end for another fifty Valentine's Days."
"I love you too, toots," Janice said and let out a deep sigh. Scrunching up her face, she looked back out at the dark scene outside the window. "Like I told you once, if you go first… I'll follow you a day or two later. By my own hand if I have to. There's no Goddamn way I'll even contemplate living without you. No Goddamn way."
Mel matched her partner's sigh with one of her own. Grunting, she moved to get up which triggered the photoelectric cell and made the strip lights in the ceiling flash back to full power. "Enough talk about dyin'. Let's go inside an' live a little while we still can."
"I second that motion," Janice said and helped Mel turn around and put her hands on the walker's sturdy handles. Before they went anywhere, she stood up on tip-toes and placed a warm kiss on Mel's aged lips. "Still love ya like crazy… and happy Valentine's Day. Neat roses, huh?" she whispered, winking at her life-partner while waving the red rose around.
Working together, they shuffled back up the hallway until they reached the door that carried a nameplate that spelled out M. Pappas in large block letters. The door was soon opened, then closed with a soft click.
Moments later, a voice belonging to a southern belle drifted through the closed door and out into the brightly-lit hallway: 'Oh! Why, Janice Covin'ton! Ah do declare, you are incorrigible!'