The Japanese Doll
Ruth Z. DemingMy sister Eileen and I set out around noon. We figured it would take forty-five minutes to get there. With good conversation and good scenery we would enjoy the ride together. We had two choices: back roads or Pennsylvania Turnpike. I voted for the back roads and since I was the driver, I won. Eileen held the directions while I sped onward in my new white Honda Fit, with the misshapen “H” as the logo.
The weather was perfect, a sunny day, with a blue sky and a few lumbering clouds that put me in a good mood. I love to drive. My vehicle is well-stocked. A glass of water with a Flex-straw sits in the drink compartment. A handkerchief, really some pajama bottoms I turned into a hanky, is tossed in the compartment right next to me, and some tiny pine cones – we’re from Seattle, after all, the Evergreen State - are in the second drink compartment because they’re just plain beautiful.
The glove box is stocked with my invaluable handicap placard for my bad back, an assortment of napkins, a pair of cheap red gloves with holes in them and a black snow beret. All in case I forgot to bring my own.
Since I forgot to bring my sunglasses, I reached into a pouch – the Honda, your home on the road - and pulled out my spare sunglasses, which gave a burnished-orange cast to the world.
We were looking for the assisted living facility called Franklin Row. The directions I printed out from the Internet were so explicit there seemed little chance we’d get lost.
I’m trying to remember where it was we first got lost. Oh, yes, it was the zigzag of one Forty-Foot Road. We zigged but we never zagged. This sounds humorous, but it is never funny when you get lost. We righted ourselves, like a turtle righting itself after being turned over by a mischievous child.
“Eileen, which side of the street is it on?”
“It doesn’t say it on the directions.”
“Okay, we’ll keep our eyes peeled. We should see it momentarily,” I said, pronouncing it mo-MEN-trily like Daddy would have.
“Katy! We’re still five miles away.”
I braced myself. My right thigh had begun twitching from sitting so long in one position. I began to massage it.
Eileen yelled at me, telling me to keep my hands on the wheel. For the umpteenth time I told her I’m a very good driver, a very safe driver.
I was now sailing around a huge curve which opened onto a vista of pristine farmland – with an “Available Property” sign – which meant the coming of townhouses. We felt certain that any minute now, any minute Franklin Row would swing into view, as impossible to miss as if a huge mountain lay before us.
For certain I need new contact lenses. I can only see out of one eye. Of course I wouldn’t mention that to my sister. Her assignment was to read out all the signs.
“Katy, there it is on the right!”
“Where?” I asked her.
And there it was. Huge, white brick, with a green awning welcoming us. I backed into a handicap space, hung my handicap placard from the mirror, and locked my car.
I carried in a brilliantly red poinsettia while Eileen brought Swedish cookies she made. We signed in and asked the way to her room.
We took the elevator to the second floor, then walked to the end of the hall. Residents all had little decorations tucked onto shelves on the sides of their doors: vases of flowers, photographs of their grandchildren, Christmas pine cone wreaths.
“Welcome Riza Blanco!” read the colorful sign on her door.
Eileen and I looked at one another. How nice, we thought, pushing open the door which was slightly ajar.
And there she was standing like a movie star in the center of the room, Riza Blanco herself, a small Filipino woman, with shining black hair that fell just below her ears, and a face that was still beautiful after all these years. Her makeup was intact – a touch of blush at the cheeks, mascara, and eye liner.
She was 91 years old. Her face was as smooth as porcelain.
“Eileen! I am so happy to see you,” she said.
“You remember my sister Katy,” said Eileen.
Riza looked at me with her shining dark eyes and nodded.
“Sit down, sit down,” she said.
She had moved in a week ago. Eileen, who had been her loyal companion for twelve years, sat next to her on the floral couch that was packed up from her posh home in the suburbs. We remarked on how spacious her suite was and asked if she were happy here.
We had an ulterior motive. Her live-in companion at home was her nephew, Riccardo. Over the phone, she told my sister that he was stealing from her and putting her in a home while she was still able to care for herself.
Care for herself? No way. Stealing? Highly likely.
I was excited to play detective. I put my poinsettia on the glass coffee table in front of the couch, while Eileen offered Riza a cookie, a small round ball dusted with powdered sugar.
“Delicious!” said Riza, holding out her dusty hands and laughing.
Eileen ran into the bathroom to get her a Kleenex to wipe off her hands.
“My friend Lucy lives in the next building,” said Riza. “Her apartment isn’t as nice as mine.” Her friend was in the dementia unit.
“You have wonderful taste,” I said.
She appeared not to hear me.
“Katy, she’s deaf,” said Eileen, so I said it louder. “Wonderful taste,” pointing to her Persian carpet atop the white wall-to-wall carpet throughout the large two-bedroom space.
I pointed to a large Japanese doll, dressed in costume – perhaps four-feet tall – standing inside a plastic case that reflected the sunshine coming in through the blinds. There was something odd about it. As if time had stopped and the doll was locked up forever, unable to escape.
I walked up to the doll to get a closer look and knocked on the plastic. Nearby was Riza’s walker, with four wheels and a black leather seat.
“May I look around?” I asked and went into her bedroom which had a large white bureau and matching headboard. I couldn’t help but think that this is where she and Jack, her late husband, had made love.
A photo of the two of them clinking glasses at a restaurant was on her bedroom bureau. What a handsome couple they made. The two of them had gone to New York City and had facelifts.
“Jack!” I said to her with a loud voice. “How lucky you were.” My sister had told me her financial portfolio was worth over a million. Everyone who knew her hoped they’d inherit some of it.
“How about if we go see Lucy?" I suggested.
“Yes, said Riza. "She lives in the next building. Her apartment isn’t as nice as mine.”
Eileen rolled the walker over to Riza, who gripped the black handlebars and moved carefully out of her room, locking the door behind her.
Riza repeated the refrain about Lucy’s apartment several more times as we approached the section called Daybreak, a euphemism for the dementia unit. An aide jingled her keys and let us into the locked facility.
Lucy was another beautiful rich Filipino. She was very sociable introducing us to the aides and some of her friends, who sat in rows in the Great Room watching television. Most were insensate and stared straight ahead with empty eyes.
Then I saw the woman in the dining nook. She reclined on a gurney looking like Miss Havisham in “Great Expectations” with her mouth open and her eyes closed. Was she dead or alive? She was a complete horror. That age does this to you! You! Not me. She looked like a dead tree, hollow to the core. I watched her from the corner of my eye with morbid fascination.
Riza was ready to go back to her apartment. The exit doors, locked, of course, were painted with a brilliant scam: a white picket fence and flowers of all sorts that made you think a flower garden lay just outside, a Frank Baum wizardly trick. Again, the keeper of the keys let us out and we dropped off Riza inside her room.
We left around three o’clock, just in time for the commuters to start home from work. I had been pushing back thoughts of how we would find our way back home.
I put the handicap placard back in my glove compartment, cracked my knuckles and started the engine. I said nothing to Eileen but I was petrified about finding the way home.
“Tell me everything to do,” I said to Eileen. “I’m a good driver but I have no sense of direction.” Plus I can’t see. That I would keep to myself. My dad’s family doctor had only one eye. His glass eye replaced his cancerous eye. And of course I thought of this as we made our way home.
Eileen knew every correct turn for the first ten minutes. Right here, two lefts coming up, stop at the stop sign and turn right. Very good, Eileen! Where we began to screw up I can’t remember. Forty-Foot Road, again, and not knowing which direction to go on Route 63.
“Quiet!” I commanded Eileen as she began to talk about Riza. “I’ve gotta concentrate.”
I was now in full panic mode as we pulled into a Shell station and asked a man how to get to Willow Grove. I wrote down the directions on a pad I keep in a pouch on the driver’s side. He routed me on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Once you get on, you can’t get off. So if you make a mistake and go the wrong way, you may have a fifteen-minute wait until you can get off.
I was forced to go fast. Speed limit was 65. I drove 60 and watched all the cars pass me. I’m competitive and I hated that. But worse than that I hated the vast expanses of miles where I was trapped and couldn’t escape from the road.
Construction zones were the worst. There were no shoulders and I had to balance the car – which shook when tractor-trailers passed us by – and when I crossed bridges with low rails I imagined plunging into the rivers below and drowning. Such a shame, I thought, in spite of our good deed.
“We’re going the wrong way, Katy,” said Eileen. “We have to turn around.”
“Damn!” I yelled.
She suggested I pull over and take a rest. C´mon! We’d never get back on the turnpike if we did that.
The woman in the tollbooth wore white plastic gloves. Eileen wrote down the directions she gave us.
We paid the toll and sailed through, took a right and I got ready to merge into the traffic.
“East or West?” I asked.
“I think it’s…..”
“You think! You were supposed to write it down, Eileen!”
She said she was sure it was East.
I merged into the East lane. How does “panic” feel? When you’ve drunk too much coffee, say, ten cups, and you feel too revved up and can’t rev down, yes, you feel drugged up and giddy, that’s how my panic felt as I drove faster than my normal speed, my eyes never leaving the road.
Of course it was getting dark so I turned on my lights and followed lines and lines of cars with their red back lights on, and then their braking lights on, and I got more and more dizzy and thought I’d pass out.
How in God’s name had I ever gotten myself into this mess!
Speeding, plunging over the side rail, drowning in the water like a scene from a film noir, and what about the corona? The halo I would soon be seeing due to my failing eyesight that makes it virtually impossible to drive in the dark.
And then we saw it. The first sign of reassurance. “Fort Washington Exit,” 10 miles away. I stepped confidently on the gas. Our exit – Willow Grove – was next.
Even this was tricky.
“We can’t miss Willow Grove,” I said.
We went through the tollbooth. Willow Grove was on the left.
Slight coronas began to appear but I was fine. I dropped Eileen off at home, where she lives with Mother, who is the same age as Riza. Ninety-one.
“I’m sure going to sleep well tonight,” I said. “Driving is exhausting.”
Later that night, around ten o’clock, as I was reading a New Yorker profile, the phone rang. It was Eileen.
“Riza just called,” she said. “She thanked us for coming and said Riccardo and his boyfriend Rudy” – Riza doesn’t know they’re gay – "asked for a loan of ten-thousand dollars. Rudy is a gambler and needs to pay off his gambling debts. What should Riza do?"
I told Eileen we’ll work on it tomorrow. I put down the New Yorker and went up to bed. I was right. This insomniac slept for nine hours straight, with vivid dreams that I was driving off a cliff with a Japanese doll in the passenger seat.
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