The List

This list isn’t a bucket list, but a list you wouldn’t expect from a little old lady.

This is the first chapter from my new novel.

She packed her things carefully. She didn’t need much. A small bag would do. The nurses couldn’t believe she was leaving. She, herself, couldn’t believe it had taken this long. But life had a way doing that, didn’t it? Taking over and continuing, even when you had other plans. Like that John Lennon song: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans…”

The list hadn’t always been a list. For a long time it was just a thought. A promise to herself, or maybe not a promise, but more, a way to put herself to sleep at night. But it was a list now and as any good list maker knows, the most satisfying thing after making a list, is crossing things off of it. Her life had been simple until now, although her dreams had been large. It was hard to reconcile the two.

She would now.

Sometimes she wondered if she hadn’t fought back, way back when, because she was cowardly. Or perhaps she was weak. At the time, she felt like her reasons for not fighting back were justified. Small children needed care and time. Energy was wasted on anger. That’s what all the memes on Facebook said. “Forgive.” “Forgive yourself.” “Forgive everyone.”

“Fuck that,” she muttered. The nurse’s ears perked up. She smirked and shook her head as she watched the woman continue to pack.

The pain lingered. Still. Years later. The pain was real and talking about it in therapy and talking about it in her head didn’t work. Neither did forgetting about it. She did forget about it sometimes, but not really. It was just pushed aside by other things like dishes and driving kids to practice and working. But not now. Now was the time to embrace the pain that still lingered like a bit of bitter on the back of the tongue after a bite of sweet.

She lived her whole life as though she were good. As though she were a good person. For most of her life she thought she was. She tried to be. She opened doors for people and picked up trash on the road. She soothed crying children and handed out meals to those without. A birthday or holiday was never forgotten. But buried deep, so deep now it was almost hard to imagine it, was the list.

The list gave her comfort when nothing else could. When her husband was cold and the children were off on their own, the list was there for her. With the list was also the knowledge that one day she would carry out it out. That she would cross off the items on it. This would be her last dream, quite possibly the only one she would ever fulfill, but the most important one of all. The largest one. When everything else, every other dream, was taken, the list remained. When the big dreams turned to little failures, this she knew would be true. At every time in her life when she felt like she was done, like she couldn’t go on, or simply didn’t want to, the list remained. The list was her friend. And it was such a little list too — she had to laugh.

She snapped her suitcase shut. It was an old-style case with locks on the front but it had wheels on the bottom, so it wasn’t a problem. An old lady had to have a regular suitcase. She couldn’t really go galavanting around the country with a knapsack. That would just look silly. She almost bought herself a hat, the kind she used to see the old ladies wear in old movies. But it was 2025 for crying out loud, she didn’t need an old lady hat. She had simply cut, short gray hair and that was good enough. If it got cold, she would get a knit hat.

She had been at the Center for almost 10 years now. It almost seemed like home, but then, she had had lots of homes. It was no harder to leave this one than any of the others. She had lived in a lot of places and known a lot of people. Truthfully, though, this was the only place she had ever felt really needed — at least, since her babies were young. Once they get to be about 10, they don’t really need you anymore. Maybe in little ways. Someone to remember a school lunch. Someone to remind about homework or the SATs. Someone to drive you to school and practice and then to college and then goodbye. Someone to send a few dollars on Christmas. But not really needed anymore.

It was a good feeling to be needed. She once dreamed of bigger things, but in the end, feeling useful and needed was all she wanted. Well, that and a glass or two of red wine at the end of the day. Days end earlier when you’re 85. There’s a reason they have those early bird specials at restaurants. She wouldn’t be able to come back to the Center, though, until she finished the list. Although, she seriously doubted she would ever come back at all.

There was a part of her that was sad, of course. Not sad that the list existed, but rather, sad that she was so weak in spirit that she felt the need to finish it. At the same time, she felt empowered by the thought. So maybe she wasn’t weak. Who knows? Her Buddhist friend Jan would say she was weak to give in. That it would be better to seek enlightenment than to complete her mission.

“Fuck that,” she said, again, out loud. And she started walking for the door. She had to finish it. It was, in essence, her life’s work. It was the one thing she knew that, in the end, would bring her peace. This list, this small collection of names, meant more to her than anything else in the world except for her children and grandchildren. But they had lives. They were meant to go on — to come through her, not of her…or whatever the Native Americans say.

But these names, these four simple names stood out. These names were hers and in no other universe at no other time did these four names have any relation to the other or matter in any way at all. For Eleanor Marymount, they made all the difference in the world. And if these names hadn’t been apart of her life, the difference might have been remarkable. Or, there might have been four other names. Eleanor pondered that thought more than she cared to. It was the only thing wrong with the list.

One of the nice, young nurses walked her through the “living space” of the Center and out to the front stoop. He was a good boy, still fresh from nursing school and polite as can be. He tried to pull the suitcase but she told him no.

“I’ll just wait for my cab,” she said.

“Miss Ellie,” he replied, “I will wait with you.”

She didn’t want to argue, so she sat in the plastic lawn chair they had under the portico and waited for her cab. There were no children to call or friends. All of her friends were at the Center or long dead. Her children lived in other towns. Other places. They called. They texted. They Facebooked. But she had a feeling that they didn’t really think of her as being as old as she was. Or alone. She tried not to care. And, in fact, didn’t, really. Eleanor Marymount had four children. Four completely successful, loving children with full lives and families and jobs and soccer practices and she didn’t want to be a burden on them. Quite honestly, she knew that any of them would take her in, but while she sometimes missed the hubbub of her own life as a mother, she didn’t want to invade someone else’s. It was fun to go her kids’ houses at the holidays and play the cookie-baking grandma, but that wasn’t all of her. There was more — although you wouldn’t know it to look at her.

She opened her list for the thousandth — or was it the millionth — time. Then she snorted a little laugh. Shane the nurse looked at her.

“Sorry,” Eleanor said. “I was just thinking of something.”

“No worries,” Shane said and went back to looking at his phone. His thumb moving, moving, moving.

Eleanor smiled again. Grandma has a dark side, she thought to herself. Wouldn’t that be a fun story to tell? Well, maybe not. She folded the list up and put it in her jacket pocket as the cab pulled up.

“Where to?” the driver asked as he came around to put her suitcase in the trunk.

“The Palmer House Hilton, downtown,” Eleanor said.

“Oh yeah?” The driver asked. “Swanky.”

Shane held the door for her as she got in the cab.

“Going out in style,” Eleanor said and both men shot her a glance. “Kidding, boys,” she said. “Just kidding.”

“Miss Ellie, you’re killing me,” Shane said. “Be safe. When are you coming back?”

“I’m not sure Sweetie. Tell everyone I said ‘goodbye,’” Eleanor said and then she shut the cab door.

Eleanor and the cab driver drove in silence. Eleanor sat, uncomfortably, in the back. Her right hip bothered her but the idea of having surgery and replacing it bothered her even more, so she just leaned on her left side a little more. She always liked to look out the window when she traveled — it didn’t matter if it was in a car or on a plane. She liked to see where she was going. Even now.

What was strange about the list, and Eleanor was well aware of this, was that it was about looking back. All her life she had looked forward; looked for windows when doors had been closed or worse, small cracks in windows that could be pried open or broken through. But the list was about the past. Sometimes, she thought, sometimes you have to fix the past to move on. She also knew that this was her only chance to put things right.

But all that was for later. For now, Eleanor was going to enjoy her solitude and her freedom. Sitting in the back of the cab, watching the cars and buildings pass, Eleanor realized that she had never been on her own. Through her whole life, she always lived with someone else. She was married right out of high school, so went from parents to husband and then husband and children. Her husband passed relatively young, so her children stayed home a little longer, her youngest daughter not leaving home until she was almost 30. They lived like roommates, though, and she was happy and sad to see her go.

After Grace left, Michael, her fourth son, moved in for a while and that was nice — and strange. He was a good boy, socially awkward, but smart and had a job as a computer programmer. Or apps. Or maybe both. He lived with her until she moved into the Center. “Assisted Living,” they called it. Whatever. Michael finally found someone to spend his life with and she wanted them to have the house and the yard and some children. They do. The other children didn’t mind about the house as long as they could come and stay once in awhile. She didn’t want to be in the “mother-in-law” apartment. Let Michael’s mother-in-law have that if she needed it. She just wanted to be the Grandma who came in with the best and noisiest presents, took kids to the arcade, and then left. She wanted to be the one to always send a card filled with cash. Because let’s face it, that’s all kids really want from a grandmother and Eleanor didn’t want to sit on anymore bleachers — at least, not as a regular part of her day. Although she would if anyone asked her. They didn’t.

The cab pulled up at the Palmer House Hilton. This was Eleanor’s favorite hotel in all of the world. She had stayed in it once with Jack when they were first married. Someone had given them a few nights at the hotel as a wedding present, and so that was their honeymoon. Before she made her reservation, she looked at the pictures online to make sure it still looked right.

It did. And as the valet stepped up to open her car door, Eleanor’s stomach fluttered with nervousness and excitement. She hadn’t felt this ready and this excited for something in such a long time. It was time to do this. It all felt so right, even though she knew it was about the wrongest thing in the world.

As she stepped out of the cab and looked up at the tall buildings all around her, Eleanor was tempted to take off her knit hat and throw it in the air and sing, “you’re gonna make it after all…” Except she realized that she wasn’t wearing a hat, she wasn’t 22 anymore, oh and she wasn’t Mary Tyler Moore. Eleanor smiled to herself at the thought. Crazy old lady. And then let the bellman take her bag.

She leaned through the front window of the cab and paid the driver, thanking him for his driving skill. “You should do this for a living,” she said, winking at him. He looked at her curiously, then got the joke and laughed. People didn’t expect old ladies to be funny anymore.

Eleanor walked, straight and tall, to the front desk. She was proud of the fact that she didn’t walk like an old lady. She refused to. She didn’t want to be stooped over and she didn’t want Boy Scouts to offer her an arm when she crossed the street. If they still did that sort of thing. No. She liked to walk and run all on her own, thank you, and if you had borne seven children, raised four (surviving the deaths of three) and lived a lifetime through their hopes and dreams and failures and accomplishments, you’d feel that way too. Or maybe not. Maybe she was just too proud. But who cares if she was? Pride may be considered a sin, but Eleanor had always thought it was an underrated characteristic.

Pride, after all, it was kept people getting up in the morning. Pride is why people mow their lawns and take out the trash and take shower for chrissakes. Pride in yourself, in your accomplishments, in your past, in your future. Pride was good, Eleanor thought, and no one would convince her otherwise. Pride would help her complete her final mission in life and would make sure she did it as thoroughly as she always knew she would. Eleanor Marymount was proud of her children, her grandchildren, her husband and herself. And she would make sure that the list would not go unfinished.

She took her keycard and walked towards the elevator. She took a circuitous route around the lobby, pausing at all of the art and ephemera that had mesmerized her so many years ago. The fancy chandelier that sparkled in the dull incandescent lightning, still gleamed as it did then.

The elevator operator took Eleanor up to the 22nd floor. At first, she hesitated at staying up so high, but someone told her that it was better “up there,” so she reserved the space. She felt a little guilty staying in a huge room for just herself and then thought, “eh, who cares?” Just this once she was going to live with a little luxury and not care about the consequences to the environment or the inconvenience to someone else. There were other rooms and other hotels, right?

“I am putting it out of my mind,” she said out loud. And then quickly looked around to see if anyone heard her. If the other guests in the elevator did, no one looked at her or appeared to notice. The truly wonderful thing about being a gray-old hair old lady was that people rarely noticed you, even when you did silly things. It was also saddest thing.

Her room was perfect. Everything in order. Big fluffy pillows on the beds, and fluffy towels in the bathroom. It was the perfect place to rest. And watch TV. Eleanor loved to watch TV. She loved to read too. She had always been a hoarder of books, but she wouldn’t deny her love for TV and movies. Too often in her life she tried to deny this love. There was always the super kale-loving, crunchy-mom of one child (one!), who was so “stressed” but somehow managed to keep her child from TV and claim it as a virtue. “Oh, we don’t watch TV,” she would say. Ugh. Eleanor felt, especially in her younger motherhood years that she had to somehow agree with this and say that she too abhorred that terrible screen. The family even went months at a time without a TV. Eleanor refused to allow the thing to control her life. But they missed it. Not because it was a good babysitter (although sometimes it was), but because the family had fun sitting around it and laughing together.

Her kids were her best friends in the whole world then and she loved nothing more than to read out loud to them or watch a documentary or a cooking show or a funny movie. They spent almost all of their time together. She homeschooled her kids. So having “family dinners” was really unnecessary since they did almost everything together all of the time. But the one thing they really loved to do was watch TV together as a family and eat whatever creation whoever was having a cooking thing would create. Jack had been a great cook and often loved to cook dinner in order to relax. The kids all had times in their lives when they enjoyed cooking too. Eleanor didn’t mind cooking and sometimes enjoyed it but usually it was just a struggle each day to think of something to eat for dinner they hadn’t already had that week.

Menu plans were all the rage now her daughter Emma told her. Emma plans out her meals two weeks at a time, buys all the ingredients, puts them all in freezer bags and has them all ready for the oven or crock pot in like, three minutes. Brilliant! Eleanor wished the Internet had been a thing during her first years of marriage and childrearing. Then again, maybe not. It was kind of nice to not have a thousand devices of all sorts lying all over the place. Up until recently, Eleanor herself had four — a laptop, a Kindle, a tablet, and a phone. Irritating. Now she just had the laptop and the phone. She gave the Kindle to Henry at the Center and the tablet to Jessica, who needed a way to read in larger print. You could read one word at a time on a tablet if you had to and make that word the size of a Stop sign.

Eleanor needed to rest a bit before she worked on her next task. She also needed to figure out how to do it. Maybe she could call the concierge. Sure. They would help.

Eleanor picked up the phone.

“Hello Ms. Marymount. This is Joey at the concierge’s desk. How can I help you today?” the concierge said. It always freaked her out how they knew her name.

“Oh, um…hello. Can you help me find somewhere to buy a gun?”

If Joey at the concierge desk was surprised by the request, he certainly didn’t act like it. He swallowed and then said he wasn’t sure and could he do a little research and call her back?

“Oh, of course,” Eleanor said. “I was going to take a little nap anyway.”