By Hege Lepri
The very last Mr. Jones was grumpier than the others. He’d been something or other during the war that still made him feel important. He had steel-grey hair, combed to one side, leering eyes, and all his shirts had blue stripes. He’d wait for us in his arm-chair ready to boss us around. And when there was a word he didn’t remember, or something fell to the floor, he’d find a way make you feel it was your fault. “Ennah!” he’d thunder, and there was no point in telling him that wasn’t your name.
There wasn’t supposed to be a second Mr. Jones. In July, we had decided that Mr. McLean was to be our last one. We’d been at it since the middle of seventh grade, but with high school around the corner, we needed to move on to new things. The other girls had a head start. Already established with boyfriends and bras and braces. Between Jenna and me there wasn’t enough boob for a single bra, and money was too tight to spend it on fencing in our teeth. But something was about to change, I could feel it in every bone.
Mr. McLean had been the perfect old man, sufficiently confused, and grateful for the sudden presence of two grandnieces. We played cards, and there’d be the occasional twenty dollar bill when we left. He repeated himself and coughed a lot, but still managed without old-folks diapers. I drew the line at diapers, and even Jenna held her breath when we passed a room with that special smell of old folk’s waste.
Mr. McLean was clean and sweet and he deserved a nice send-off. But as we were preparing for the end, Mr. Mclean’s daughter had appeared from out of nowhere and put a stop to it all. All of Jenna’s planning, the black dresses from Goodwill, the roses we’d planned for his casket, the poems we’d read, all wasted when this woman stormed in and blew our plan. Sick, little twisted girls, she had called us – as if she’d ever been around to see us with her dad while he was ailing.
If we’d been looking for a sign, this was the one. Like a big red STOP sign in the middle of the road. Even Jenna could see that.
“Maybe we can use the dresses in the school play or something,” I said.
Thing is, you never knew with Emma. She liked all the wrong things, and cried at the wrong time. As soon as I’d dropped that stupid line, she opened her waterworks and started shedding all the tears she’d saved up for the funeral.
I’d long learnt that people like what they like. I didn’t argue when my mother took to that grease-ball Franco either. And it wasn’t like I had anything better to offer. Watching Full House in an empty house without A/C had gotten old. Jenna didn’t stop her sobbing until I’d agreed to do one last time. It was early August; we could still have another go.
Before Mr. McLean there had been a Mr. Turner, Mr. Jones and Mrs. Jensen, and before her the first Mr. Jones. We preferred men. We’d learnt a thing or two from the unfortunate case of Mrs. Abbott. That had been in our first year, and we’d been banned from the nursing home by the local library. A girl in our class even asked why our pictures were hanging on the bulletin board where her Granma was staying. It had been embarrassing, but we’d learnt our lesson. If you want to pretend to be someone’s relative, you’d better choose someone who can’t remember their real family. Men were better suited. We only needed to think of our own dads.
The day we walked into Rowanwood was just like the rest of the summer, stuffy with smog and humidity. Jenna had decided we should wear dresses to look younger, but mine was already tight over the chest and too short. Jenna still looked eleven when she braided her hair, and her dress fit her the same way it did last year. It was the closest untried facility, way at the other end of town, a forty-minute streetcar-ride away. Clearly, it was time for us to retire.
We rock-paper-scissored to select our last last-name. When Jones came out on top, I remembered the kindness of the first Mr. Jones, and thought we might just stumble upon a happy ending after all. I liked the symmetry of it. A Jones first and a Jones last.
There was almost always a Mr. Jones on the lists, and if there wasn’t you could pretend you actually meant to say Johnson. Johnson was also a good, solid name.
It was mid-afternoon when Jenna stood at the information desk, me a few feet behind staring at the floor. Enough distance so I could say it was all her idea, or run, whichever was the case. But the afternoon nurse didn’t even look up, just indicated room 307. Through the few half-open doors drifted the gargling and snoring sounds of nap-time. The corridor smelled of Lysol, almost covering the faint scent of piss. The very last Mr. Jones was in his bed sleeping when we got there, drooling slightly from the left corner of his mouth.
“Stroke,” Jenna whispered. “I like stroke patients.”
“What’s not to like?” I said.
There were no pictures on the wall – just a generic landscape painting that may have come with the room. On his bedside table only an old picture of a soldier in uniform.
“He’s perfect,” Jenna whispered. “No relatives, no hobbies, he won’t mind us even if he finds out we’re not his nieces.”
“Grandnieces,” I said.
Except for the mouth, he didn’t look off. Jenna liked stroke patients, but if she wanted a quick funeral, he probably wouldn’t do.
“Hoo aaah oo,” he said when he woke up. We both stood up as if it were a command.
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Hoo aaa oo,” he repeated, louder now, almost shouting.
“I think he means to say, ’Who are you?’” Jenna said, looking at him and not at me.
I was never sure if Jenna faked it, or if she was really in to all those old people. She was a natural; I just wasn’t sure at what.
Mr. Jones played his part too. He didn’t twitch, nor make a fuss when Jemma walked over and sat on his bed. There was even a half-smile. Or maybe that was his whole smile. You never knew with stroke patients.
After that first time, we were back twice a week. Three times would be suspicious. Three times or more was only for daughters and wives. When we came, he’d be in his armchair, grinning with one half of his face, drivelling and ogling with the other. Jenna beamed, the way she had with the first Mr. Jones. But before long he started bossing us around: Get a mop, call the nurse, fill my glass, scratch my back. Either his speech had gotten better or we’d learnt to decipher his sloppy syllables. And when I pretended to not understand, he turned to Jenna, who translated his every wish.
By the third week, the nurses knew our names and Mr. Jones would complain if we were late. His yelling could be heard all the way to the nurse’s station when he told us what he thought of tardiness. He was getting better, recovering his voice.
“He’s getting worse,” I said, “He’s nothing like the other Mr. Jones.”
“But he’s our last one,” Jenna said, “We can’t quit now.”
There was no reason we couldn’t. We could walk out of his room and his life and be erased from everybody’s memory before Thanksgiving. I could pack away the old dress, put on shorts and work on my tan before school started. But there was no talking to Jenna, she really couldn’t let go of a bad idea.
The week before Labour Day they let us take him out for a walk. As he tilted to one side of his wheelchair, we walked him to the strip mall with the ice cream store. He hadn’t been generous so far, barely covered the bus fare. There were no ten or twenty dollar bills in our pockets when we left. But ice-cream was different, not buying ice-cream on a hot day would be plain mean. And we’d made sure he had his bag strapped to the back of his chair.
“Ice cream, uncle?” Jenna said when we’d paraded him twice along the store fronts.
His half smile turned into a grimace. “Nooh, theeeh” he said and pointed a crooked finger to the used magazine and comics store at the other end of the mall. We had no idea he was into comics.
The store smelled of old socks and stale fries. It reminded me of Franco, so I stayed close to the door. So it was Jenna who navigated the very last Mr. Jones him between the narrow aisles between the display tables. It was Jenna who called the store clerk. And it was Jenna who held the dirty magazine away from her body while she rolled him back to the cash register. I was looking out the window thinking this was an even shittier part of town than our own.
We rolled back out into the sun with a huge pair of tits spread across Mr. Jones’ lap. Big and swollen like some kind of disease. I had to help push the chair now, as if the old man suddenly had gained weight. Jenna’s face looked like an old woman’s. It was like she’d skipped high school and boyfriends and having kids and working, and had gone straight on to be seventy. I stopped pushing the chair. It was hot, but I needed to think.
“Waan eiis c-reem?” Mr. Jones asked after a while, blinking his right eye. He sat almost straight now, and resembled someone I’d seen before and didn’t want to see again. He looked me in the eye, then patted the magazine with his right hand.
I don’t know what he expected to happen. Maybe he thought a bit of money and something sweet would make everything right. Maybe he thought that’s what girls liked. He wasn’t the first sucker to think that, and he wouldn’t be the last.
But while Jenna stood frozen, melting away in the August heat, it was me who found the wheelchair brakes. Pulled them so tight Mr. Jones tilted the other way, his good side down. And it was me who shook Jenna hard and told her to stop crying and grow up for once. And it was me who never looked back to see the very last Mr. Jones one last time as we headed for the streetcar stop. I didn’t need to, I knew his kind.
“Do you think he died there, all alone?” Jenna asked when we sat in her basement reading Seventeen on Labour Day.
“Neh,” I said, “Someone must have seen him. Who’d leave an old man alone in a wheelchair under a scorching sun?”