It was winter, maybe December, when May Goddard asked Tommy to see about the clothing list for the new patient in 105. Ordinarily, he would only have had to do that for a man, but that day they were short, and May had her charting. That Wednesday was his first encounter with the woman who had mastered a grommet.
“And how might you be today?”
There were two things wrong with that question. The lady in the bed had suffered a slight stroke affecting the right side, so that there was a certain slur in her voice. Worse than that was the very weird metallic timbre of the voice, as if it were coming from a stuffed doll, a kind of pull-string Olive Oil. Maybe a third was the strange cheery tinge of the whole setting, as if they were on a yacht and not in a hospital ward with with-its and semi-with-its scuttling past in their wheelchairs.
“And are you fine? And are you half the man you seem to be? God, what a hunk, Willy. Look at him.”
The little man on the straight chair was just as unusual. He was wearing a gray herring-bone suit with a bright checkered ascot and those old buttoned high-top shoes polished to a patent leather sheen. His hair was slicked back, pepper and salt, and he had a moustache Tom King had heard about but never seen, the kind that was waxed and pointing out on each side to give even his present dead-pan a kind of smirk.
“I’ll leave this list in here. Your husband can fill it out. Just check off your clothing.”
“Willy, the man thinks we’re married. How cute!”
When he returned they were holding hands and cooing like doves, all but the metallic pull-string effect on Sally, whom he saw more closely this time, her platinum hair at over eighty, her veined rouged neck, her eye shadow, the rhinestone glasses, the ghastly pallor of her forearms, and the garter-like contrivance around her neck, a black lace affair with a very genuine looking carnation.
“I know what you’re trying to ask us. What’s wrong with her voice? Oh God, isn’t that strange how they all want to know. Well, Sally Stopper gave up caring a long time ago.”
“That’s right, Sally. Show him your neck.”
The old distinguished man had a German accent. Later Tom found out his name was Wilhelm von Kinderstat. Right now he was glued to the garter she was pulling back and to what it revealed, something Tom had heard of but never before seen, her speaking device, shaped like a metal grommet.
“You see I used to smoke five packs of Camel regulars a day, and then they had to take out my larynx, and a few years later they put this in, and they taught me how to burp through it, and now I can talk as well as anybody else even though I can’t sing, which was how I used to earn my living before your time certainly, singing and dancing and playing the piano a bit. But Willy does my singing now.”
“Show him how you can recite the Gettysburg Address without the slightest pause. Just show him, Sally. Nobody ever believes that one. How many burps does it take?”
“Willy, let’s not give away all our secrets. I WILL say to you, young man, that I am happier now than I’ve ever been in my life, especially since I met Wilhelm at the Cancer Ward. Oh yes, we were love at first sight. Sally had it in the throat and Willy in the colon, and they got together, so to speak, and now we’re a team. Willy has one of those bags, if you would just like to know, but it doesn’t slow him down, not Willy. Why, he’s just like a young stud, he is, even at 79. And well-preserved too.”
It went on like that for another twenty minutes, Willy even offering to display his colostomy bag, and then Tommy was free of them till the very next day when their new patient was up and down the hallway with her lover, already with a quad cane, the old lady, and headed out of Twin Oaks as fast as nature would permit. But not before she had made her impression, the Rolls that parked out front in the safety zone, the dinners from a catering place in Fort Lee, the ultra-lite cigarettes she smoked without inhaling, the way she had of wagging her false eyelashes at everyone, male or female, strutting her padded shanks, and then, especially, the concerts she gave for the others, the old, the crippled, the twisted creatures life had gotten its claws in, the two of them, Sally and Willy, in the dining room at the upright piano, Sally announcing each old favorite in that terrible Olive Oil voice that seemed to emanate from some manic IBM masterwork and not a human being, announcing RED RIVER VALLEY and THERE’S A LONG LONG TRAIL A WINDING and SWEET VIOLETS and SMILE A WHILE and then turning back to the upright and plodding mercilessly away with the one good hand, and Willy serving for the lyrics, the waxed moustache and the interminable changes of suits, and the ascots and the boutonnieres and the high-topped polished shoes and the socks and garters, and tapping his foot and preening himself, and under all the volume of the oldsters shaking their gourds and rattling their tambourines in time, their cracked aching voices, getting the biggest bang out of it, was the Olive Oil undertone, heading straight out of the grommet.
They said she had been as big in her time as Mae West. They said she had more money than Onassis. They said she had chosen Twin Oaks over the more expensive rehabilitation establishments in the City and further south in Jersey because she wanted to be near her friend from North Arlington, where he had a spectacular view of the New York skyline, had eight bedrooms and a ceiling high enough for a Chuck Close and several Rothkos and even a Manet. And they said a lot more about that lady in the five weeks she stayed, and they continued for months afterwards, for she came back often, walking straight, without the cane at last, and always with a new bright flaming outfit and more makeup than you could find on an inner City whore. And some of those outfits were pure cashmere and linen and silk and costing more than most of them earned in a year, and some were dated far back when the figure was still in place and the money rolling in from vaudeville and the high class strip joints of three continents. And they said she must have invested wisely, because there was no end to the presents she lavished for the longest time on that ward, designer chocolates, umbrellas for the ladies, Cuban cigars for Tommy and the porter, Charles, who had never smoked anything higher till those occasions than a White Owl. And they said a lot of things until she stopped coming suddenly, and some said she was in Switzerland and others in L. A., but no one really knowing till someone read the obituary in the Times, the column and a half devoted to Sally Stopper, who had made the final voyage with a massive cerebral hemorrhage, survived by distant relatives and certainly by Wilhelm von Kinderstat, who probably didn’t waste much time finding another Sally Stopper, slick old man that he was and all the fire in his bumpers, as she had put it so aptly, crudely perhaps, edging on with the moustache and the spit-shined boots, the ascots, the herring-bone suits toward his own reward, maybe edging on that way forever, old rake that he was, going for an Olive Oil with enough juice left to lift a certain impudent finger to the odds, going on that way till it seemed like perpetual motion, so much so that even the obituary seemed like a cruel rumor, nothing to place much stock in.
THIS SIREN OF THE BODY SHOP
THIS SIREN OF THE BODY SHOP
Large veined hands, rings like clots,
A smear of rouge and startling lips,
Bright in the pasty mass
Which started up as beauty. Reading the comic strips,
A cigarette aslant her mouth,
Charleston pageboy shaded toward stainless steel,
In time her fingers feel
The keyboard, fumble chords. She sings
Above her feckless glitter,
Timbre like an ancient windup phonograph,
Stirs the ghouls to shudder in their straps
And laugh and laugh.
This siren of the body shop
Has hands to eat and change her stump,
Adjust her splay and rump
Above the dimpled cushion, transfer, chair to toilet.
Costume jewelry claws can fuss her hair,
Negotiate a match and preen,
Adjust a sagging bodice,
Flash sound teeth, transmute this tragic scene
To cackles after lunch,
The dangling company more crabs
Than human, mindless Crystal, scabs
And mantra, poor Hutch who’d scare the devil into Church,
Lurch and scuttle,
Trailing the damaged hand,
Mackey’s stubs above the knee, crimped like Mother’s
Apple pie—in time he’ll stand—
Ruthie sucking at her supper.
And yet I hear that old insistent voice
Declare that laughter is our choice,
Cracked like a bat, metallic screed, persistent,
And sense that beauty is less easily defined
Oh yes, watch her smile. My fingers touch her chins.
Old Simone knows that even torment grins.