Colleen Wells, 5/11/2020
Current Occupation: Writer, Editor, Wordpool Press, Activities Assistant for a retirement community, Owner, “Putting the Funk in Junk”- Antiques, vintage, painted furniture.
Former Occupation: Adjunct Faculty Member
Contact Information: Colleen Wells’ work has appeared most recently in The Ryder Magazine, The Voices Project, and Workzine. She has an essay forthcoming in An Inkslinger’s Observance. Wells is the author of Dinner with Doppelgangers – A True Story of Madness & Recovery and editor of One in Four – a collection of student narratives about mental illness and a collection of elder poetry called Dirty Birds – These are our Words. She believes a bad day can get better with a pen, paintbrush, and some beads, or by watching vintage Saturday Night Live skits.
Normally I drive the fourteen-seat bus on our grocery outings, but the brakes are failing so today I am taking the retirement home residents in the mini-van. Bi-Lo is our destination. It’s a store in close proximity so we can take multiple trips to accommodate all of them if needed. Usually we visit Kroger which is a longer drive. In a lot of ways, the elderly people I work with in our small South Carolina town are like school children. For example, they can struggle with changes in their daily routines.
A small group of them gather on the long southern porch flanked with white columns several minutes before it’s time to go. They check their watches and scout around. Typically I drop ten of them off to shop for an hour and they line up at the bus when finished. There can be as many as thirty paper bags to mark with names and room numbers. Getting them buckled in safely and making space for the bags amongst walkers, canes, and motorized wheelchairs is a chore. The trip today will be a cinch.
One of the perks of the grocery trip is picking up a few things for myself while the citizens of our retirement community shop.
I am ringing up my groceries at the automated check-out area when Ms. Lentz, pushes her cart to the teller behind me. She has never used the automatic check-out. I pause in my own transaction to assist her at the station next to me. As soon as I swipe her bread across the scanner she yells, “God-Dammit!” Her hands clench into fists, her face turns tomato red. Ms. Lentz’s white hair is rolled at the top like Nurse Ratchet in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She shakes her hair and glasses askew. A tiny woman with stooped shoulders, as she rages at the ceiling while continuing with a litany of curse words, she no longer seems diminutive.
My own neglected transaction informs me in robot-speak to “please place the item in the bag.” The people lined up behind us watch the scene unfold. I don’t know whether Mrs. Lentz is having some sort of a spell or just having a bad day, but I try to calm her with a reassuring voice.
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“This bread rang up more than it was marked,” she hollers.
“Oh. Well that’s not good,” I say.
I take the bread to the clerk overseeing the machines. She re-rings the purchase as the advertised price which saves her fifteen cents, and I finish my transaction. Despite the correction, Ms. Lentz cannot be consoled. “This place is a clip-joint. I’m never coming back here again!”
As we leave the store she inhales deeply; then, like a toddler losing the fight to take a nap, Ms. Lentz slows her tirade, but keeps grumbling, “This place is a clip-joint!”
Everyone is inside the van and I start the engine. I overhear Ms. Stockwell tell Ms. Lentz what she thought of the store.
“I found everything I needed.”
“Well, I thought it was terrible. It was a bloody clip-joint.”
Several weeks pass and Ms. Lentz doesn’t go on the grocery trip even though the bus is fixed and we’re back to our normal routine.
I begin to wonder what it must be like for the residents to monitor their pennies so closely. The majority of elderly people want to keep on living like the rest of us, only they have the burden of a fixed income. As is the case with Ms. Lentz who is in her late eighties, there is no possibility to get even a part-time job.
The Great Depression has left an imprint on the people we serve at the care home. In the public bathrooms there are signs reading, “Please don’t remove the rolls of toilet paper.” When we put candy or cookies in the lobby, the goodies are quickly slipped into pockets to be put with the other stashes of food items in their rooms. Many of them don’t eat all their lunch, instead filling up on salads and saving the mashed potatoes, meat, and bread for later. And when they win at Bingo, they receive quarters, palming them like 3-karat diamonds.
Weeks pass, and to my surprise, Ms. Lentz boards the bus for Kroger. I thought maybe the clip-joint experience had turned her away from grocery shopping all together.
“You look familiar,” she says, making me realize she’s forgotten me.
Ms. Lentz is the first one to finish shopping. As I reach for her bag she says, “I couldn’t find those Little Debbie cookies I like so much.”
“I’ll go look for you,” I offer.
“Oh, would you? They’re the little chocolate sandwich ones with the swirls. You know which ones I mean.” I do know what she means. My sons won’t even eat those cookies. She hands me two dollars.
When I return with her cookies, she is surprised to see change. I got her the senior citizen discount.
She beams at me and chucks me under the chin.
“You do a good job.”
Then she opens the box and hands me a cookie. The little cellophane wrapper crunches in my hands as I accept the gift.
“Thank you. I’ll enjoy it later,” I say, placing it inside my purse.