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"Percy's Pinup" by Jen Michalski


© 2005 Jen Michalski


Percy's first introduction to Grace was when she threw up on him. It couldn't be helped---Grace did not travel well---and when he reached over to unclasp her necklace---a choking hazard---he felt the warmth of chicken soup on his chest. Of course, Grace was immediately apologetic. Actually, she lobbed her head to and fro, muttering indecipherably as he steadied her ninety-pound frame in the bed, but Percy felt that if Grace were somewhat more conscious, she would act in a manner becoming to her name.

            He had worked at the Northwood Eldercare and Rehabilitation Center for a little more than a year. It was not a job he wanted but rather needed. Then again, he could not think of anyone else at Northwood who wanted his or her job, particularly, either. It reminded him, more often than not, of being a child, when his mother would drag him to visit his grandmother, whose small apartment was a potpourri of the unpleasantries of aging. He was always afraid to touch her because his firm, strong hands would sink into the folds of her skin straight to her bones, no matter how gently he grasped her. It seemed to him that she was death wrapped in cellophane, moving laboriously from bed to easy chair and then to bed again, her meals delivered to her from the local charity organization or Percy's mother, the television set on a local channel with beaming anchor personalities whom she had adopted into her private, sparse life.

            His grandmother, who died in the middle of the day during an episode of Wheel of Fortune, had terrified him by her seeming uselessness and decay. It was a fear that he had managed to bury in the virility of youthful pursuits---backpacking and rock climbing after he flunked out of college---but which had come full circle now that he was perilously close to defaulting on his student loans.  The bric-a-brac of the resident's lives at the Center---all needlepoint pillows and crucifixes and copies of Reader's Digest, for those who still had enough of their faculties to read---pierced his shell with memories of a woman whom he had never really known except as old. Old, half senile, imprisoned in her apartment if not her head, a woman whose genes languished futilely in the deep recesses of his own body, washed about his organs like bits of wrapper in a stream.

            Now he was surrounded by them. Or IT. The breakdown of tissue, of organs, the release of gases, excretions, and waste products. Decay. Death. He took a shower before work and immediately after, but nothing seemed to wash away the activities of his shifts---the changing of bedpans; the transport of patients from beds to wheelchairs and back again; and the disposal of diapers and half-eaten soft dinners, pill cups, ointment-soaked napkins, and the waxed packets that held sanitary napkins, dressings, cotton swabs. It all stuck to him like a strange confection---crunchy, creamy, and rich but not sweet or pleasant.

            Grace had come to the Center the day before and had been visited once since by a woman who was presumably her daughter, a middle-aged woman with short, salt-and-pepper hair and sensible clothes. He guessed she was a teacher or a counselor or a nonprofit middle manager---at any rate, someone who could not afford a lavish retirement community for her mother and had wrestled with the decision to place her in this impersonal place. She had arranged a few framed photos on the night table next to Grace and had covered her with a bright quilt before leaving, a quilt that would now have to be laundered, along with his scrubs.

            "I want my pipe, my pipe," she suddenly spoke to him, or at him. He looked up from the remnants of Grace's lunch and into her clouded eyes to ascertain whether she was truly speaking to him. "My pipe."

            Percy toweled off his hand quickly and opened the drawer of Grace's night table, rummaging through pencils and knitted bookmarks thicker than most paperbacks until he found an ordinary brown pipe. Some old photos sticking out of a flat paper bag, and he attempted to work one out with his finger. He collected old B&Ws, dating back to the time he found a box of them at the Salvation Army for two dollars. Percy liked the incomplete pieces of other people's lives. He felt that if bits and pieces were lying out, forgotten, discarded, that they were his for the taking. He could add a father, standing in front of a gleaming '69 Buick, to his life, or perhaps a freckle-faced younger brother or sister.  Sometimes he procured a few photos from patients who had passed on, that is, if no one came to claim their possessions. The other staff never wanted photos---they were partial to jewelry and electronics.

            "My pipe." She repeated. Percy relinquished the pipe and slid the brown envelope of pictures into his pants pocket. He would look them over at lunch and return them in the afternoon. He watched Grace as she smelled the bowl of the pipe. He wondered if her husband had smoked and how long ago he had passed.

            "I see Miss Gracie has her pipe again."

            He jumped slightly as Keisha walked past him into the room to attend to Grace's roommate, Beatrice, whose bed was near the window. He followed Keisha to the other side of the room and awaited her instructions. She worked efficiently, taking Beatrice's vitals, and always made Percy feel slow and clumsy. He wondered if she knew that he could scurry up steep, curved rocks like a squirrel or that he'd read most of Shakespeare's play, or if she thought he was as awkward and quiet as he was when she saw him here, among ghosts.

            "Miss Gracie loves her pipe," Keisha repeated when no answer was forthcoming from Percy. "She's always smelling it and fondling it. Ain't that right, Gracie?"
            "What's the story on her?" Percy asked, helping to reposition Beatrice in her bed. He longed to brush his hand against the smooth caramel of Keisha's skin, but he stared at where it instead lay large, useless, on the top of Beatrice's sheet.

            "Gracie? Don't know much. Her daughter brought her in because she couldn't take care of her any more. I hope Ms. Gracie is a singer. We need more cheer in this wing."

            Keisha left the room, leaving him in silence with Beatrice and Grace.


            Outside at lunch Percy sat under a tree with his sandwich. He could see some of the residents arranged near the garden, the water fountain, and the front entrance, forced to partake in the afternoon's unseasonable warmth, a living brochure of the varied, active life at the center on display for those outsiders who were perhaps considering booking their family members. He imagined the captain of the Love Boat, the ship's director, and some lovable niece or nephew stationed outside the entrance, clipboards in hand, eager to direct new travelers to the different decks of their sunset cruise.

            He finished his sandwich and carefully removed the pictures. Although they were small, 3 x 5, they were of professional quality. A stunning, raven-haired woman with clear light eyes stared demurely at him with a slight smile. His heart leap a beat as he studied the images. In some of the pictures she was wearing tight-fitting, feminine-cut army fatigues or a bathing suit, and in some of them she was wearing nothing at all. In all she held---and sometimes smoked---an ordinary brown pipe.

            He decided to hang onto the pictures for a little while. At least until the next day, so that he could take them home and have another good look at them. After lunch he peered into Grace's room. She sat in a wheelchair, grasping a feathered keychain and staring at the floor. He tried to fit the pliant, creamy limbs of the woman in the photographs to the small, disassembled heap that sat before him. Perhaps it wasn't her--maybe a sister or friend or sheesh, a lover or something. But Grace?

            "You gonna stand there all day?" He turned again to the sight of Keisha, who always seemed to have the misfortune of seeing him daydreaming or slacking off as she rushed around the ward, working harder than any of them were paid for. He joined her to help get residents out to the dining area for dinner. He studied their faces, forensically slicing away the wrinkles, the bulbous noses, hairy eyebrows, warts, and creases, lengthening hairlines, removing cataracts. Were there once throngs of beautiful, alluring people, vibrant with life, somewhere in these shells?

            That night he studied the photos again as he lay in bed. The woman, Grace, was more beautiful than anyone he'd ever met. Her smile, slight, playful, was wise beyond its years. She, unlike his ex, Sandy, would understand his dreams, his frustrations, his quirks. Like Percy, Grace wasn't beneath an odd job while she waited for the right opportunity in life. He told her of his plans to move to New York City and play in a blues band---he could play all 29 of Robert Johnson's songs, and a few of his own.

            He hadn't been playing much lately because the hours at the center wore him out, with the lifting and bending and scrubbing, but tonight, he decided, would be an exception. He fetched his Gibson out of its case and plucked absently through the minor 3rd and 8th scales, imaging Grace's shiny dark hair entwined in its shiny steel strings, his pin-up, his ageless angel. He felt the notes spark out of his fingers, pushing up the strings and sliding down the frets. It was almost as if he'd forgotten what it felt like, the sudden vibrations on his skin, in his ears, bouncing off the walls and startling his cat.

            At was after one o'clock when he put the finishing touches on "Pin-Up Blues," but he still could not sleep. The image of the woman in the pin-up had slowly metamorphisized into that diminutive woman at the Center, grasping her pipe with spotted white hands, a woman he could take in his own hands and crush like a bird's rib cage, he supposed, even though these pictures, these fading photographs with rounded edges, suggested otherwise. They suggested a woman to linger over, to caress and fondle, to sprinkle water on and watch it work its way around her small taut surfaces and hollows. He imagined the sun browning her skin, and the chill allowed in by a forgotten, opened window dimpling it. He imagined his cheek on her chest and the soft wet thump of her heart as he fell asleep like a puppy burrowed in its mother.

            That night he dreamt of her, of them, in a steamy, sweaty club in the bowels of the city, where he sat on stage in a wooden chair with his Gibson while Grace danced, slowly, sultrily, removing pieces of clothing as the music directed. However, with each lost article she began to age, her skin loose, her hair thin, her teeth large and discolored. And when he looked at his hands they too became larger and hairier and whiter and more brittle until he threw his Gibson on the stage and hurried to the men's room, where he looked in the mirror and saw IT. IT had overcome him.

            The next day Grace's pipe was on the floor and she was crying soundlessly, tears glistening down wrinkled, colorless cheeks. Was she crying about the pipe or about something longer lost? Percy scooped it up and wiped the mouth on his scrub shirt before placing it in her palm.

            "How's it going, Grace?" He asked. She looked at him and smiled. He had not brought the photos back as he had promised himself. Just one more night, he figured, enough time to burn Grace into his memory, the line of lip, the curve of jaw, the tendons above the octagon of her knee. He had notes, notes for every piece of her, just as surely as he had words, if could ever find them in his mouth. As he lifted her to shift her weight onto her right side, her blue gingham shoulder-snap nightshirt hitched up slightly around her hips. Two long bones with skin covering them jutted out at sharp angles before receding into thick socks. He gently moved her nightshirt back into place.

            "Percy, you here again? I didn't know Ms. Grace had a boyfriend." Keisha stood by his side with a pill cup. "You want to give your girl her medicine?"

            "She's a person, you know." Percy filled with sudden anger. "Let's not talk about her like she's not here."

            "Oh, pardon me, Grace, Percy. I'm sorry." Keisha stiffened slightly, and he wanted to take her in his arms and apologize, but instead he took the cup and gently held it to Grace's lips, looking into the fluffy latticework of her eyes, wondering if she was seeing him, if she as saying something he could not decipher. She spoke to him last night, those eyes, wisdom now seemingly trapped behind a cataract.

            "I'm sorry." Percy corned Keisha at the nurse's station. "It just bothers me sometimes's like the residents here aren't treated humanly anymore because they're old."

            "I'm offended, Percy, really, I am." She did not look up while logging her rounds into the computer. "I am not that type of person, and you know it. In fact, if anyone is scared of the residents, it's you."

            "I know---I am. You're right."

            "So what? Now you're the judge of everyone here?"

            "I didn't say that, Keisha. I just said I was sorry. That's all." He left the nurses station. There was so much he wanted to tell Keisha, not just about Grace, but himself. He wanted to tell her that the blues had a lot in common with the gospel music she adored so much, and maybe she'd like to go to a club downtown, a little place, cozy that didn't charge a cover. Maybe after that she'd like to come to his apartment and hear his songs. They could dance around the sparse living room, and he would lead her the way he had led Grace in his dreams, Grace who was all legs and smile. Grace, who would tell him to ask her; what would he have to lose?

            Well, he would lose Keisha just as he lost Grace's the night before, in his dreams, her memories certain to wind up in some desk drawer for some disinterested aide work to rifle through before deciding on her jewelry. But it was not enough reason to not live at all, was it? Grace was no different for her beauty; she was spared nothing in the long march to the end. It didn't matter, he supposed. One lived the best they could and faced the music later.

            The next day he brought the pictures back, although he had cheated a little and made photocopies at the local stationery store. He smiled and winked at Grace before slipping the photos back in her drawer. He touched the fine white hair near her temple and then walked to the break room, where he was sure to find Keisha studying for one of her health administration classes she took at the downtown college. He grabbed a cup of the thin, brown coffee from the pot and sat down across from her.

            "I'm busy," she replied to him without looking up.

            "Are you busy Friday, too?" He leaned back and smiled.

            "What are you talking about?"

            "There's this club downtown--they play blues music. So do I, coincidentally, but anyway...I wanted you to come with me. We could have dinner beforehand. What do you say?"

            "I thought you didn't like me," she smiled slightly. There was so much he didn't know about her, but at least he would have the opportunity to ask. "I thought you thought I was mean."

            "I never said that," he smiled back. "And I didn't heard you say no, so I'll come by your place at seven, okay?"

            He left the break room feeling another song begin to swell in his chest, and he tried to remember the notes so he could work out the arrangement later. As he passed Grace's room, he noticed Grace's daughter had come for a visit, talking to her in a low, comforting voice as he had. He stopped at the door.

            "Hi, are you Grace's daughter?" He held out his hand. "I'm Percy. I work here."

            "Hi, Percy." She stood up slightly to take his hand. "I'm Shelly. You've been taking good care of my mother?"          

            "Yes, ma'am." He put his hands behind his back. "She's a real pleasure. She loves her pipe, that's for sure."

            "Yes, she does," she laughed, crossing her legs. "I can't say I understand it, but it makes her happy."

            "I assumed, ma'am, that perhaps her husband smoked a pipe. Is that not right?"

            "Her husband? No." She shook her head and laughed, much like he had imagined the young Grace might, spontaneous and full and melodic. "My father never smoked a pipe. He hated smoking of any kind. No, it's a strange story. My mother found these pictures--pin-up pictures--at an estate sale once. She collected antiques, high-end stuff, until she got sick and let most of it go cheaply. Anyway, the woman in the picture smoked a pipe, which was a strange thing in those days, especially for a pin-up girl. My mother was so fascinated with the woman that she started carrying around one of the antique pipes she'd picked up---may have even tried to smoke it once or twice.  She always fetched the pictures and the pipe out of the trash when anyone tried to get rid of them. In fact, they're here with her now and will probably follow her to her grave. I guess it was her way of being unorthodox. Not that she needed to prove it---I always considered my mother wonderfully unorthodox and intellectually engaging, but that's a story for another day, I suppose."

            "If you don't mind, ma'am, I would like to hear it," Percy responded.

            "What do you mean?"

            "I mean about Grace. I'd like you to tell me about Grace," he answered, and when he went on break for lunch, he took Shelly's daughter down to the sub shop, where she did.  









All work is copyrighted property of Jen Michalski.






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