Ron is the always at the table in the dining room well before Isabelle, Al or I get there for dinner. Until earlier this week, he always ordered the same thing: a chicken sandwich, a cup of coffee and a glass of lemonade. It wasn’t much of a chicken sandwich: a grilled breast from a not terribly well-endowed chicken on a plain-Jane hamburger bun, no lettuce, no tomatoes, no onion, no pickles, no mayo, no mustard, no ketchup, no nothing but an anemic hunk of chicken on an uninspiring bun.
The coffee and lemonade came first. Ron put two sugars and one cream in the coffee and slurped away. He seldom took more than a sip or two of the lemonade. Then the server would set the sandwich in front of him. He’d lift it to his mouth and eat quickly and nosily. He never ate the whole sandwich. He would eat about three-quarters of it on most nights. But once or twice a week, he’d quit after three or four bites, put the sandwich back on the plate and place his napkin on top of it, as if fearing the server would make him sit there until he finished whole thing. Then, he’d try to get the server’s attention as she went by carrying a large tray of dinners for other residents. “I’d like a bowl of chocolate ice cream,” he’d say impatiently. Often he would say it two or three times before the server finished serving the main course to everyone. Ron tried hard to eat all of the ice cream, but a spoonful or two always landed on the table cloth. As soon as he’d swallowed the last bite, Ron would push his chair back, slowly get up and say, “I’ll see you all tomorrow.”
A few weeks ago Ron began talking more during dinner. He didn’t say anymore, but he repeated what he did say more often. He’d ask Al if he’d sold his car yet five or six times a night. And poor Isabelle has endured Ron telling her, “Well, we all have to go some time,” over and over again every night since Ralph died. And the last bite of ice cream was no longer Ron’s cue to exit stage right. Instead, he’d slurp his way through another cup of coffee, and some nights another cup after that.
This week, Ron expanded his culinary experience. He’s been ordering a salad and eating most of it; he doesn’t like the cucumbers or onions. And he’s been finishing his sandwich every night and draining the glass of lemonade.
“I’ve got to start eating better,” he tells us several times a night.
The transformation seems to have coincided with weekly visits to a psychiatrist.
“I owe the shrink $600,” Ron told us last night.
“What shrink is that?” Al asked.
“Dr. Peterson, the quack.”
But the question of whether Ron has stopped taking some pills he is supposed to take, or started taking again some pills he had quit taking months ago, or if the quack has prescribed all new happy pills, remains unanswered.
Al, it turns out, can be terribly difficult to please when the subject is Al. Penelope and her friend Beverly are working on a book project, interviewing residents and writing stories about them. Al is not happy with the story Beverly wrote about him. “It doesn’t make any damn sense,” he says. The story does contain a number of errors, and Beverly and Penelope are in the process of correcting them. But the story does make sense.
The story, which is about six pages long, focuses on Al’s youth, his determination to get to Europe during World War II and the Battle of Song Be, where Al was “blown all to hell,” in Vietnam. Al is worried that readers will be confused because all the stuff in between those parts of his life has been left out. “I think I’ll tell them to just forget about it,” Al said last night. I hope he doesn’t. I can’t imagine anyone here having lived a life more interesting than Al’s.
Sunday dinner is served at 11:30 here at Covenant Woods. I got there in timely fashion today, but there were already four people at the table for four at which I usually sit. Al doesn’t eat in the dining room on Sunday, but Grace and Bob were at the table with Isabelle and Ron. So, I sat with Coach, who was alone at a table, and a few minutes later Leila and Ruth joined us. Leila lives next door to me, Ruth next door to her, and Ralph lives across the hall from Ruth. You might think that we’ve talked together before, but we haven’t, other than saying hello in the hall.
“The big game is Saturday,” Ruth said.
I first learned how big the big game is in 1971. I was a radio operator in the Tactical Operations Center at Fire Base Jack in South Vietnam. Captain Holsapple, the operations officer and an Auburn graduate, spoke of little else in the week leading up to the Tigers’ big game with Alabama that year. He didn’t say much when it was over, however. The Tide rolled to a 31-7 win that year.
“I played in that game four times,” Coach said.
In 1949, his senior year at Auburn, Coach, an offensive end, linebacker and team captain, helped lead the Tigers to a14-13 win over Alabama.
Talking about the big game reminded me of a question I wanted to ask Coach. Over the summer, to make it easier for the dog owners at Covenant Woods to dispose of their dogs’ doo-doo, several bins were put in at convenient locations around the complex. To make the purpose of the bins more obvious, a plastic statue of a Dalmatian was placed next to each bin. Saturday morning, as Russ took me out for a visit to the barber, we noticed the Dalmatian outside the B building was sporting Auburn colors. Someone had painted an Auburn sweater on the dog.
“Are you responsible for that?” I asked Coach.
“I didn’t paint them, there are two of them,” he said, “but I was behind it.”
He also said that the two tigers outside his apartment door aren’t tigers. They’re cheetahs that he had someone paint.