Jennie Connors stood for a moment at the turning of the corridor, assessing the activity in the large open area that served as a lounge. Voices hummed in an easygoing camaraderie, providing soundtrack for a series of tableaux that, for Jennie, defined the retirement community known as Riverview Manor.
In one corner, a few of the more serious residents stared at the TV, their expressions bemused and skeptical, while a political know-it-all held forth on the all-news station. At a round table near the window, the tea ladies had their heads together, no doubt plotting something Jennie would, at some point, be asked to subvert. In another corner, a foursome studied the Scrabble tiles in front of them with calculating solemnity. Near the window, with the sun shining on him like a spotlight, Nathanial Pynchon strutted back and forth, declaiming eloquently: “Wherein I spake of most disastrous–”
“I wish you’d go ‘spake’ somewhere else,” one of the TV watchers called out.
Nate rolled his eyes and lowered his voice, but only minimally.
The TV watcher held out the remote and clicked the volume up a notch. His action was, in its own way, as dramatic as Nate’s theatrics.
Everyone else ignored the old actor.
Jennie smiled. Each scene hinted at mild conflict, but taken together, they reinforced her feeling that all was well in Riverview’s world. Not quite all. Where’s Jake? She looked away from the lounge, slightly to her left, down the long hallway that housed residents’ bedrooms. At ten thirty on this Tuesday morning, most doors were open. At the far end of the hall, a glassed-in area looked out over a construction site. Beyond the glass, giant yellow machines were gouging holes in the earth, preparing a foundation for the new activity center that was being added in conjunction with repair work necessitated by a recent fire.
In front of the window, half a dozen low chairs were mounted on swivel bases so they could be turned outward to watch the construction or pivoted toward each other in a manner more conducive to conversation. Only one chair was occupied. Not surprising. Noise from the construction site made conversation impossible and most of Riverview’s residents were of a sociable nature.
Jake Appleton was the exception. He sat alone, with his chair turned toward the window, holding a pair of binoculars against his chest with one hand and scribbling in a spiral notebook with the other. Viewing him in profile, Jennie saw that his lips were moving and knew from his expression that he was dissatisfied about something. “Sour Appleton”, the nickname given him by Nate, sprang to mind.
“Morning, Jennie,” Georgie called to her from the tea ladies’ table.
Doreen pivoted her wheelchair a quarter turn and waved. “Care to join us?”
“Wish I could,” Jennie called back, “but I have a couple of things to do first.” She headed down the hall toward Jake. As Activities Director, it was her job to keep residents busy and engaged in Riverview’s social life–a job that would soon belong to someone else. Jennie had just been named Assistant to Executive Director Leda Barrons, and would assume her new duties as soon as her replacement was hired. Jake Appleton was a relative newcomer and a real challenge–the one resident Jennie hadn’t been able to integrate into Riverview’s social fabric. She stopped when she reached his chair. “Morning, Jake. Anything I can do for you?”
“Doubt it.” He spoke in his customary brusque manner, keeping his eyes on the notebook and not bothering to look at Jennie even when she stepped around the chair so they were face to face. He moved his hand so that his fingers hid the words on the page.
She ignored the rebuff and tried again. This was a nut she was determined to crack and she was running out of time. “Why don’t you join the Scrabble tournament in the lounge? They could use a little new blood down there.”
“Blood! That’s what you’re going to see if somebody doesn’t start paying attention.”
Jennie pushed to the back of her mind the thousand and one things she had on her plate and pulled up a chair beside the old man. “I’m paying attention.”
If that response had come from any other resident, she would have been discouraged but, from Riverview’s resident grouch, it was actually encouraging. At least he was willing to acknowledge her presence. She pasted on her best smile and asked, “Still think the construction company’s cheating us?”
“No doubt about it.”
He closed the notebook and waved it in the direction of the window. “World’s full of crooks.”
There was no doubting his conviction. Jennie looked out the window, trying to gauge what had prompted it. To her, it looked like any construction site. Cumbersome machines made jerky progress amid clouds of dust. Workman dodged around the equipment. Everything and everyone was in motion. She glanced back at Jake. His eyes seemed focused on some point beyond the activity. She looked outside. A flash of heat lightening illuminated the sky.
She said, “Maybe we’ll finally get that rain they’ve been promising.” No response. Maybe he hadn’t heard her. She tried again. “Hope so. We sure could use it.”
Finally, he brushed his fingertips over the notebook. “It’s all in here.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
After a few seconds, he squared his shoulders and looked at her. “Some other time maybe.”
Jennie waved to the source of the recurring booms. “Lot of racket out here,” she said. “How about your room? Later this afternoon?”
“Well, I–”He stopped abruptly and looked over her head.
She turned to see what had distracted him. Lizzie Stafford and Bruce Appleton, Jake’s children, along with an older man she didn’t recognize, were standing in the hall a few yards from her. She’d been so intent on wooing Jake that she hadn't heard their footsteps.
“Hi.” She smiled at Lizzie and Bruce. “Nice to see you.” She extended her hand to the older man. “I’m Jennie Connors. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
He grasped her hand and gave it a firm shake. “Bob Walthman. Jake’s brother-in-law.” Walthman was a handsome man with an easygoing, hale-fellow-well-met manner. He directed an engaging smile at Jennie.
The smile set off an itch in her memory. She’d seen him before. Where?
Before she had a chance to pursue the thought, Lizzie said, “Uncle Bob, Jennie’s the woman I told you about. She’s been wonderful to Dad.”
“Good,” Walthman said with another huge smile. “Appreciate that.”
Jennie returned the smile, uncomfortable that the family was addressing her instead of Jake, who hadn't said a word to any of them yet, nor they to him. Instead, he sat ramrod straight in his chair, scowling out the window and grasping the notebook in both hands.
Hoping her departure would lighten the mood, Jennie said, “Sorry, Jake, I don’t mean to steal your family's attention. We’ll talk later. Say about three o’clock?”
Jake nodded and tilted his head down the hall. “My room. No privacy out here.”
Jennie said, “Fantastic. I’ll be there.”
The whole time they were speaking, intermittent booms intruded from the work site. An unusually loud blast stopped conversation. A whirl of dust rose to engulf one of the yellow giants. About ten yards from the work area, flames licked at the top edge of a metal drum used to burn trash.
Jennie leaned closer to the window, examining the area around the base of the drum and was relieved to see that it was clear. The last thing Riverview needed was another fire. August in Memphis was always hot and frequently dry, but this year threatened to set a record on both counts. She sent up a silent prayer that the weather gurus had it right and the area would get rain overnight. The sky looked promising. To the west, a bank of clouds hovered above the river. Jennie studied the darkening billows. She loved watching the many moods of the river, but there wasn’t time for that now. She smiled at Jake, patted his arm and said, “See you later,” then headed down the hall.
Nate, grinning his most wicked grin, waylaid her. “Dragon Lady’s looking for you.”
Painfully aware that she was poised to become Assistant Dragon Lady, Jennie swallowed the first response that threatened to spill out.
The rat-a-tat of stiletto heels approached.
Jennie stood a little straighter and pushed back an errant curl. Despite the fact that she was pudgy and not much taller than a ten-year-old, Riverview’s Executive Director inspired best-foot-forward demeanor. Every day. Every encounter.
Nate scurried off in the opposite direction as fast as his arthritic knees would allow.
Leda reached Jennie just as another boom sounded. She waited for the echo to subside before she spoke. “Jennifer.” She pronounced the name in three perfectly-enunciated syllables as she always did and paused, making sure she had Jennie’s full attention. “We need to work on finding your replacement. I’ve set up an interview for Thursday afternoon. One thirty. I want you to look this over.” She waved a crisp sheet that Jennie realized with a heavy heart was a resume.
It was almost three thirty by the time Jennie made it back to Jake’s room. The door was firmly closed. She grasped the doorknob, but knocked before she turned it.
She tried again.
She figured he was angry at being kept waiting and prepared to humble herself. She tested the knob. It turned easily so she pushed the door open a couple of inches and called out. “Sorry I’m late. I got here as soon as I could.”
Still no answer.
“Jake?” She pushed the door another six inches and knocked again. “You decent? Okay if I come in?” She listened, heard only the radio, tuned to a station that played oldies–real oldies–big band music and the sweet love songs of the forties. She listened a little longer, reflecting on the inconsistency of his taste in music with his cynical outlook. Another tap on the door, this time louder. When he still didn’t answer, she had no choice but to go in. As much as she hated to violate a resident’s space, especially one who guarded his privacy as jealously as this one, in a retirement community, safety concerns trump modesty.
She called out, “Coming in,” and pushed again. The door moved another couple of inches, then refused to budge. She leaned into it. It still didn’t give, but something on the floor did. She glanced down. A shoe-clad foot. Omigod! He’s fallen. No wonder he didn’t answer the door. Jennie squeezed through the narrow opening. And froze in her tracks. Jake Appleton lay on his back. His face and head . . . She averted her eyes, unable to look. The floor in the area surrounding Jake was dark red. One silver curl stretched like a question mark in a pool that had to be blood.
Jennie’s scream merged with a boom from the construction site.