It wasn’t a proper place for a sixteen-year-old to be, let alone work. But jobs were limited in the small suburban town that I called home. I suppose, in retrospect, my name (Rose) probably set me up for this fate, being apart of that strange sect of girls born with old women’s names. Thus, the subtle blue light of every old person’s private “television set” must have beckoned to me like a house fly. Called to me from some deep place within that told me I was going to be there myself one day.
Because it was the early 00s, I had found out about the job merely by driving by the rest home’s location every day on my way back home from school. The Now Hiring sign had been out for a month before I finally decided to pull into the parking lot, go inside and ask the equally as decrepit front desk person for an application. I filled it out in about ten minutes and was hired the next day. Clearly, people weren’t clamoring to work with the elderly. Not with. For. And they did all have an entitled tendency to treat you like you were some sort of Mammy. One woman in particular, who wore a wig that looked like an overused mophead, would always call to me when I was all the way across the room, clanging her fork against her empty prismed wine glass to demand, “More pank wine please!” She had a Southern drawl despite the fact that I think she was originally from Hawthorne. Like Marilyn Monroe. Maybe that gave her an added sense of entitlement, somehow made her feel like a “star” by proxy. She was not. And her husband certainly seemed to agree that she was overbearing and over demanding as he would give me pity eyes whenever I had to refill her glass with more Franzia, which I would go into the kitchen to do so as not to ruin the illusion that they were getting their alcohol from a bottle instead of a box. It was important for them to maintain their dignity in any way they could, and this false sense of glamor was a part of it.
The dining room was massive, with a hideous carpet colored in a combination of grays and greens that coalesced together to create a more puke brown effect. If I stared too long at it, it would, in turn, compel me to puke. So I tried to keep my head up, even in the face of the endless criticism from these merciless old bags. I say bags because there were only about five men in the facility. Maybe all the others had been hen-pecked to death. The fact that they had the right to fill out comment cards assessing the service and food only added to my increasingly mounting fear of being there. This one group of Mean Girls-type “ladies” were especially fond of laying into the service aspect, with the head of the group, Lila, writing in her arthritic hand, “Needs to be trained,” of me…even though at the time of the card’s submission, I had been working there for six months. Some people just get off on being cunts. And when you’re old, there’s little else to get your jollies out of. Unless you were Larry, who was fond of masturbation and enjoyed telling me all about it as I poured hot water into a mug each day for him so that he could slowly sip his Lipton tea. He was never without sunglasses. I don’t know if that was because of a medical condition, or he just didn’t want to look too closely at any of the snatch surrounding him. Maybe it was an aggregate of the two. Whatever the reason, I could still feel him ogling me through those shades. It made me shudder without control, yet he didn’t seem to care how uncomfortable he was making me if it meant he could take in the rare sight of supple skin.
When there was a pause in between serving them and then watching them eat the slop served, it meant we were cleaning. At this point, the “mess hall,” as it were, had emptied out entirely, leaving me and whoever else was on duty the opportunity to play whatever music we wanted as loudly as we wanted. I often chose Turn On the Bright Lights by Interpol, while my usual cohort, Leif, opted for the bitch rock that was Coldplay’s A Rush of Blood to the Head. In this way, through this form of freedom, we got through the job, despite how we were treated like vermin by the olds. Know-nothing zygotes that were taking up their air even by being at their beck and call.
After eight months, my skin would start to crawl every time I pulled up to the establishment to start my thankless shift made even more thankless by being paid $6.75 an hour, the minimum wage of California at the time. It amounted to three dollars an hour, really, when taking into account the tax raping. Even so, I volunteered sometimes to man the special events activities. When they would take jitterbug classes or tai chi in the main area from a person equally as insane for volunteering their time.
Why do so many activities look incongruous when old people perform them? Is it because they’ve been reduced to the same handicaps as children all over again? Relying on other adults to sanction and aid their actions. As I adjusted Florence’s arm positioning so that she was executing her tai chi movement correctly, I had a vision that soon, I would be Florence, and some other hapless sap would be wielding me like a wrinkled marionette to get me to do what was needed in order to help me to believe I still had a purpose, was still useful.
By the one year mark, I couldn’t stand the sight of any of them anymore. They were all so miserable (more than the average person still able to fuck with flexibility of course), yet refused to admit that they no longer had any value, unless it was to tell fabled stories of “the way it used to be,” when things were better. Why would any of us want that to be lorded over our current state? In this way, I found olds to be sadists that got away with their sadism precisely because of the “right” they had to act as such for being so old. Well: fuck. that. I finally thought while on a cigarette break interrupted by Gladys, a woman in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank who pointed her misshapen, bony finger at me to wheeze, “You’re going to get lung cancer if you keep that up.” I inhaled deeply and blew the smoke in her raggedy mug. God, I was becoming a full-fledged gerontophobe. The polar opposite of Harold in Harold and Maude. But maybe Harold would have felt like I did if he had to work for olds instead of fuck them. And that image, too, made me practically vomit all over Gladys’ standard-issue floral print dress. What the fuck is it with old ladies and floral prints? And overpowering perfume that seems only to accentuate their pungent odor of decay as opposed to masking it. That’s what the entire building smelled like: bad perfume and decay. This was probably also the reason old men didn’t take an interest in old women–the pheromones coming off of them were riddled with noxiousness.
And maybe it was time for somebody to do something about that. That somebody being, of course, me. I probably wasn’t going to do much with my life, doomed to become just another townie, a girl who couldn’t make it out and so decided to either get married or work in an office park or both. Unless I took my fate into my hands to make a palpable difference in the world–or at least the world in my own backyard.
So in late December, the peak time of visualizing just how depressing it is to grow old and be relegated–quarantined–into a space where your own family won’t even come to visit you, I added my own secret ingredient to the chef’s seemingly only specialty of beef burgundy, sometimes called beef Stroganoff the next day. That’s right, I peppered every last one of their plates with strychnine. And as I stood there leaning against the counter where I could oversee the entire dining area, I relished the collective respiratory arrest overtaking all of them, setting them free from a life that was already challenging enough with seamless mobility. Doing for them what they didn’t have the courage to do themselves: surrender to darkness. Or lightness, if you’re religious.
When the ambulances and police cars came, I waited calmly to give my statement, both to the authorities and to the press. They dubbed me the Grandma Killer. So be it. As they escorted me away from the premises, I took in one last whiff of that foul rest home odor. Even to this day, the smell of any old person takes me back to that place. That horrifying, wretched place where the elderly are penned like cows unknowingly waiting to be slaughtered.
Bette Davis said that getting old is not for sissies. I tended to disagree. Getting old and relying on others so shamelessly is the weakest, most selfish thing you can do, perhaps even more so than killing yourself when you’re young. Yet the older you become, the less aware you are of what you’re doing to others, specifically the youth you’re so convinced is taking from you, when it is you who are taking from them by getting greedy with your lifespan.