Opening Scene: Where You Go, I Go
Every day was Bingo Day at the Rancho Royale.
Cautiously, Bonnie Brennan lifted her hand to smooth an errant wisp of silky gray hair from her face. She did her best to move slowly — to fade into the invisible aged population. Despite her lifelong resemblance to Princess Grace of Monaco, bearing a fine-boned loveliness that deepened into gentle elegance during her 68 years, Bonnie didn’t like attention. And she especially didn’t want it today. Because, with just a little neglect from the staff, she might make good her escape.
She longed to spend a few hours wandering their town, Rancho Allegro. And then, of course, she would return. This was Bonnie’s third try. Three times charmed, she told herself. Her first two attempts at bolting were really practice drills, anyway.
The facility had been designed to help aging inmates feel better about their situation. It appeared to be some pretentious aristocrat’s estate. What an illusion! Bonnie didn't like her odds in this place, surrounded by fossils in wheelchairs — the lame, the doomed, the decaying, the moribund. Stealing a moment to peek out the ballroom’s enormous picture windows, she was tantalized by the view that stretched beyond their little rose garden to the distant foothills. She remembered hiking scenic paths and breathing free. That was before the Parkinson’s set in.
She forced her gaze down periodically, hoping that, if anyone did look, Bonnie would appear to be fascinated by that gaudy “senior-friendly” large-print game card on the table or — if she glanced up — the prize table sporting dozens of sapphire blue bottles of cheap shampoo. True, the Rancho Royale Adult Living Facility — or RRALF, as the locals called it — occasionally threw in a few additional activities — like chair Yoga, knitting, or potholder painting — but the one pastime you could always count on required discs, gridded cards, and a caller. Brains could be left in your room. Six months of this old folks’ prison, and inmate Bonnie could swear that they played this game so much because it was literally mind-numbing.
“GEEE – THREE!” the caller bawled into his microphone. He was a young man from an insurance company, apparently, who came to the facility on a rotating schedule with other insurance salespeople. Blond, unblemished and suited up for business, he took on his role with oddly serious gusto. “ISN’T THIS A LOVELY DAY IN THE GRANDE BALLROOM?”
Grande Ballroom. Like this was a gala event. The size of the room and its décor did actually suggest a fantasy ballroom featuring grandiose chandeliers and a floral-themed carpet.
At the entrance to the room, not far from their Bingo spinner, Nurse Richard, uniformed in a starched white dress reminiscent of hospital horror flicks, escorted a new jailbird into the ballroom. The patient mumbled something that apparently hit a nerve. She grabbed his arm.
“No, I am Nurse WRETCH-ED!” Her shrill voice really stood out, embellished by its distinctive Franco-Euro-Whatever-the-Heck-That-Is accent. “WRETCH-ED. NOT RRRRATCHET!”
An odd vocal competition ensued, with Mr. Bingo caller giving it everything he had. The cacophony echoed against RRALF’s baroque wallpaper lining every wall of the Grande Ballroom like a rap beat piped into a rich Southerner’s insane asylum. It made Bonnie fidget with her cane and consider how far she could get if she left early. Ultimately, she had no choice but to wait for the right moment.
Despite the Parkinson’s effects on her balance, Bonnie was usually able to walk pretty well with the help of her trusty lion-head wood cane. It was a beautiful hand-carved gift from her daughters, Isabel and Emily. They’d dubbed it Clyde, and the name stuck. Walking was good. Running, maybe not so much.
“BEEE – FOUR!” the caller wailed, as though trying to remind people of something critical. No one else seemed to grasp the pun. They just stared at their cards while clutching those plastic discs and hovering them a few inches above. Her eyes wandered over to the row of glittering plastic vases on their long table — so much like crystal, and yet not -- bursting with pink and white plastic roses. This brought to mind the glass vase on her kitchen table that always held fresh roses from her garden.
I’ve been sidelined. Her body felt hollow; The rollicking energy fueling Bonnie for a lifetime of outdoor activities had begun to dissolve the day she was told that residents must stay inside. After that, her only happiness came from the girls’ visits. Oh, Bonnie’s family still loved her, but they kept her on a shelf to be dusted and viewed occasionally. Isabel brought baby Mia to visit every Saturday. And Emily stopped by twice a month, always bringing her a fresh cupcake from Maggie’s Muffin Stop, the town’s best bakery. Bonnie understood that she’d raised competent, confident women who enjoyed busy lives. They’ve grown and flown. She was proud. But she also missed her life, her home, and the people she cared about. The months rolled by slowly, like a hearse leaving a church. She had to take action, or the emptiness would eventually consume her completely.
Finally! Ten o’clock, and the uniformed attendant at the garden exit door walked off to take his break. According to her mental notes from several days of keeping track, there would be a 15-minute opportunity in which she could slink out that door without any argument about rose bush thorns, hazardous paths and a busy nearby parking lot.
A frumpy man in plaid, coincidentally answering to the same name as her cane, coughed and sputtered in the chair beside her. For several weeks, Clyde had made a habit of seating himself nearby and striking up conversations at any opportunity. He slammed a plastic disc onto his card, drawing her attention. Offering a toothless appraisal and a wink, he murmured, “Hey, Bonnie, why do you want a plastic Clyde when you could have a real one?”
“He’s not plastic,” she answered firmly. Desperate to avoid yet another feeble pass from this doddering Don Juan, she stood up and pointed at his card. “Oh, LOOK! You’ve WON, Clyde!” Waving her cane excitedly to attract the caller, she shouted, “Bingo! HE HAS Bingo!” No matter that it wasn’t true. Half the time, people shouted out by accident, anyway. Still, the excitement woke up the room.
Double-checking that her fanny pack purse had been strapped on securely, she backed away from old-fool Clyde just as the attendants — some garbed in stark white uniforms and others in colorful scrubs — rushed at him, congratulating their winner.
Clyde tossed her one last sad smile before reluctantly accepting their attention.
Turning from her washed-up wooer, mournful though he was, Bonnie ambled down the table aisle that led straight over to the garden door. Nobody noticed.
Shouting erupted from a nearby table, as a woman who wore pink pajamas repeatedly demanded, “WHO WON? WHO WON?” An attendant suggested she sit back down, which made her shout, ‘I ONLY NEEDED O-3 to WIN!”
Nurse Richard grabbed the caller’s microphone and announced, “VALSE ALAHM! Let’s CON-TIN-NEW!”
Reclaiming his mic, The caller bellowed, "OOOOH TWO!"
Pink PJ Lady clucked and slapped the table, which then bounced all the pieces off their cards. And she was no slouch with five cards. She plopped each piece back onto its rightful square, though one or two required some guesswork. She muttered something unintelligible.
Stick with the plan! Keep moving! But she tottered slightly and grabbed the wheelchair handle of gentlemanly old Mr. Theodore who was now parked before her. He had to be 105 years old. Unfortunately, his wheelchair slid forward, making him scream. He calmed down when she apologized and pulled him back. Then she let go and stepped away, but her balance faltered, and she wavered briefly. That signaled a sweet-faced attendant in flamingo-themed scrubs to run to her. "Mrs. Brennan," he began. "Don't we like our Bingo game today?"
"Not so much. How about you?"
"Well, I - uh," he stammered.
"Y'know, I think I'd like to go rest up for chair Yoga. That takes so much energy. It's at 4:00, right?" She smiled innocently.
Checking his watch, the attendant asked, "Leave now? So early? But you'll miss out on these fabulous prizes."
"Oh, dear, call me when it features two tickets to Hawaii. But only if it includes a surfboard."
"I know you're messing with me," he teased.
Desperate for another decoy, Bonnie noticed Mr. Theodore resting his forehead on his Bingo card. Before she could point it out, the attendant raced past her to tap his shoulder gently. Waking suddenly, Mr. Theodore leaped out of his wheelchair with amazing vigor and yelled, "Bingo! I WIN! I WIN!" That, of course, wore him out, so he slumped back to be wheeled toward the hallway exit and his room. As they passed the prize table, his bony hand darted out, snagging a bottle of shampoo for the trip.
And while everyone gawked at that, Ms. Bonnie Grace Brennan crept out the garden door.
To find out what breathtaking surprises await Bonnie, get the book at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08KWX4QQK?