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Thursday, June 15, 2006 10:11 pm

Lifting the smokescreen

Life can get a little strange, cold turkey

Henry Rose is a man full of charity, kindness, and even temper; he can’t recall ever thinking ill of anyone, and he’s never been angry. Life is good, always has been, and through a combination of hard work and good luck he’s been able to retire at age 52 and immediately start volunteering his time to help others. He donates his days to many causes, but he enjoys his time with seniors the most — they give him more than he gave them. He finds comfort in their quiet dignity and in the oasis of civility they offer. Henry was reared by loving grandparents, and his time with seniors brings back memories of an idyllic childhood. This day starts as all days start for Henry. Morning coffee, always two cups’ worth, is always at Millie’s Café, always with a single cigarette between the two cups. There’s no better way to start a day; Millie is one of those forever happy people, and she is always there with apron and smile and refill as Henry sips the last of his first cup, just as she’s doing now. Just as he finishes . . . her . . . shoe . . . the bright morning sun hits her shoe buckle. He looks down, and her feet are hooves — she has pig legs! Her forearm splits open to expose a pulsating dark shadowed vein that ever so slowly, drop by drop, drips coffee-colored poison into his cup. The hand with which he holds his cup is shaking, and he must grab on with his other hand to steady it. He draws his eyes from Millie’s forearm to his own, which, top to bottom, is well muscled. Henry Rose is stronger than most men, and if . . . he wanted, he . . . he could reach over and snap Millie’s forearm like a twig! He starts to reach and . . . he . . . he instead uses all of his willpower to take his mind to the day’s senior-center agenda.
First off he is scheduled to help a few charming old gals review for upcoming driver’s-license tests and . . . suddenly he is caught behind a one-lane-road caravan of 1980 Buick Roadmasters, all driven by widows, each car purchased by the driver’s husband the year he died, most likely of the coffee poison! If the Buicks move any slower, they’ll be backing up. If “head above dashboard” indicates that someone is actually driving the vehicle, 12 of the 14 cars are on their own. Wherever Henry is going, he is late, and he’s never been late in his life — not once. The old bats ought not to be allowed to drive at all, Henry thinks — herd ’em up and ship ’em all to a walled-in Florida compound where they can rot away, out of sight of people still useful. His only option is to ram each car in turn, force ’em all off the cliff — piles of rusted bones in piles of rusted metal!
Henry bangs his head with his fist to stop the vision. Instead, he thinks of the center’s monthly newsletter. Composition is scheduled for this afternoon, with three of his favorite people; Sam Barlow, Frank Nunn, and Bill Turner — characters all, each brimming with 80 (or more) years of wisdom, and wonderful stories, and laughter. Henry Rose’s feet are asleep! The composing routine: Sam, Frank, and Bill draft each month’s newsletter in longhand, then give the words to Henry, who enters it all into a PC, adds graphics, and prints copies. It’s always the same: announcements for bingo nights, bridge tournaments, maybe a dance; the month’s birthdays; a speaker stopping by to explain yet another Medicare rule. Boring, but the time spent with his three old friends is . . . is . . . what they ought to do is add a section called “The Liver Spot” and each month feature the blemish that looks most like Jesus, or JFK in profile. And how about a trophy-wife centerfold? They could start with Sam’s wife; she can’t be older than her midfifties, and she’s one fine-lookin’ woman, mighty fine! What the hell she’s doing with an 82-year-old man is . . . no way the senile slobber-drooling old bastard can handle . . . handle . . .
Henry crushes the handle of his coffee cup just as Millie finishes pouring. Coffee runs the table from right to left. Her smile never fades as she wipes up the mess, Millie asks, “First day of the city smoking ban got you uptight? I mean, no cigarette between cups?”
Henry’s eyes are twitching, and his vision is blurred; he can’t . . . Millie’s face grows a snout! The other two early-morning customers are digging their teeth out with spoons — to leave as tips. “No problem, Millie. In fact, I quit cold turkey last night. No withdrawal effects whatsoever.”
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