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photo by Aimee Vogelsang, unsplash

The frozen ones were being filed into the main waiting area of Sister Anne’s Home for the Elderly, some walking, some riding in chairs like long expired royalty, irrelevant, abstracted. It was luau day and leias were draped about residents’ necks some of whom experienced this as a niggling irritation of plastic on flesh, others, oblivious in wool – blankets and cardigans – despite the Florida heat outdoors – felt nothing and waited for food or for relatives to leave and tv programs or afternoon naps to begin. Sister Susan draped their regal and melting stone frames with plastic flower necklaces stabbing them with her brilliant toothy smile, willing them to life if it killed her, her five inch silver cross dangling over where her belly would have held a baby and where Mary held the immaculately conceived baby Jesus.

Greta, frozen despite herself, was not dead yet she wanted to scream though all she suspected that emerged from her throat was a panicked cheeping, the cry of a desperate baby bird. How ineffectual and undignified! And in her younger days, her long, toned legs, swaying to cheers with her girlfriends on cool high school football nights, their skirts moving in unison with their steps, their hips, their impossibly high kicks. How glorious it had been!

And yet, here was Sister Susan approaching her with a bright fuscia flower leia. “You bitch!” she cheeped at Sister Susan when the nun automaton helped straighten her hair after the plastic flowers had caused disorder.

In Greta’s room, far away from the deceptively bright and clean area open to visitors, Sister Susan occasionally neglected Greta’s sheets, taking advantage of Greta’s inability to communicate. When her sheets stank of urine Sister Susan would taunt her: “Little baby! Helpless big grown up baby!”

Stick ’em in the left side, stick ’em in the right, come on mighty Vikings, let’s fight, fight, fight!”

After the games, under the bleachers, Konrad Bengston, the cardamom smell of him, like the woods, overnight summer campouts and fires, bracing green pines closing in and watchful. Konrad’s strength a match for the trees themselves.

There would be Hawaiian pizza for luau day, the sickly sweet smell of canned pineapple and cheap ham, combined with the smells of bleach and buckets of purple industrial cleaner splashed on the floor, swished around with a dirty string mop. The surface effect suggested cleanliness. The reality, microscopically, and in most every sense, was squalor. In a deeper spiritual sense the walls cried hypocrisy, the cries of those who died at the hands of the neglectful, the killers of the barely living, murderers of faded daisies almost dead in a glass.

A stranger had started to visit Greta on these once a month occasions of a Hawaiian fete, a man claiming to be her son, but she knew it was not her son, her Bernhard, her Teutonic knight, assisting her after Jurgen’s death. The strange man had abducted her and moved her to Florida, far away from her beloved Minnesota. He said it was about the  warmer weather, the ease of finding an affordable care facility. Stranger Bernhard, a vaguely familiar person on the surface, with a character made menacing by its strangeness. Imposter Bernhard.

She had begged him, imposter though he was, not to place her at St. Anne’s but he had told here he couldn’t manage work and caring for her. She had broken down crying on the day he dropped her off. She had pulled at him, gripping his arm while the nursing attendants freed him from her deceptively strong hands.

Desperation, fear, has its own strength, she mused later as she remembered pulling Konrad Bengston from the cracking ice with a long pole, and she, laid out like an angel, distributing her weight evenly, stretched towards him. The joy of seeing him horizontal on the surface when he pulled himself out made her cry. And the two of them rolled away from the gaping maw of his near death and ran to her house which was closest. It was a happiness like no other joy short of giving birth to Bernhard, now lost to her.

The imposter sat before her, waiting distractedly for his Hawaiian pizza while he tap tap tapped on his little phone, such an undignified activity for a man of his age. This supposed Bernhard. The real Bernahd had been the child of Greta and Jurgen Hoffman, Jurgen the man she married at the urging of her family, the more fit Konrad having been called away to war.

Greta had no words for the Bernhard she labeled Bluebeard given the sonorous tones of his voice, the blue shadow of his presence, dark and imposing. “What have you done with my son?” she demanded every time he came to visit though what came out was “Cheep! Cheep! Cheep!” Helpless immature avian cries.

“Now, now,” he would say, patting her had, his fatuous gaze mocking her.

He might as well have put a wiggling worm in her beak.

The tomato sauce on the pizza had a heavy smell, like salt, like blood. It was the same tomato sauce they used on the spaghetti for the theme Venice Vacation and the meatloaf for Southern Style Summer. Bernhard would never have eaten such things yet there was this madman, shoveling a huge piece of pizza pie into his his eager maw, grunting and nodding as he chewed. Trying to feel jovial about Hawaiian Holiday? Or in actuality feeling jovial? Were his teeth filed to points like her picture book of Bluebeard from her childhood? Was his face blue with a dark tattoo? She shuddered at his thick fingers grasping for his second slice. She couldn’t watch him.

“Eat up, Ma,” he said, smiling, some stray sauce lingering on the corner of his mouth.

“I wouldn’t trust that one,” said Ruth, the ghost of a resident who used to organize pinochle when they lived on the lower floor that housed the more independent residents. Ruth as a ghost was a bit like Ruth as a living person. Greta could hardly tell the difference apart from the skin peeling at unexpected places, the edges of her face, the top of her hands. She had a habit of peeling it away with her nailed hands, as vain in the afterlife.

Ruth sat in the empty chair beside Bluebeard and played with his hair.

“There’s a breeze in here, Ma,” said Bluebeard, unwittingly reacting to Ruth’s phantom fingers. “Here, let’s get you covered up a bit more,” and he reached over to pull her shawl up higher, up to her ears so that the woolen scratchiness felt like a brillo pad  in the close warmth of the room.

“No!” the tiny bird screeched, scrambling to fly loose of its fragile cage, its heart pounding against her delicate frame. He would kill her! He wanted to kill her! Smother her. Then he would take her money. What had the man done with her Bernhard?

In legend, Bluebeard was serial killer Gilles de Rais. Did serial killers spare their mothers? A man who tortured then sat on child victims, laughing as they died could scarce be counted on for an moral scruples whatsoever. Then again Gilles craved young flesh, like the craving one develops for veal once it is savored.

Bluebeard sat down on a highbacked wooden chair across from her, a medieval carved piece likely donated and a mismatch in the room. It sat in the center of everything, dark and imposing among sun washed beachy themed low uphostered pieces. It held the whole of his frame quite comfortably. He propped his feet up on the low, scuffed Queen Anne table, something Bernhard never would have done.

“Maudit!” screamed Ruth into his ear and pushed her peeling hand against the toe of his boot. Accursed. She spoke in her mother’s tongue when alarmed.

Bluebeard shifted and uncrossed his legs, removing his feet from the table, not letting on the unexplained force against his foot. A madman gives nothing away.

The first time he came to see Greta at St. Anne’s, Ruth mockingly genuflected at the doorway, and when he sat, genuflected deeply on her wobbly old phantom knee, the flesh flaking, her eyes cast to the floor. “That’s not your Bernhard,” she said to Greta, at last looking up, grinning, “that’s the man who ate your Bernhard.”

He folded a second piece of Hawaiian pizza and shoved it into his bearded face.

She sometimes prayed Konrad had died in war. She didn’t hear from him when it was over. She prayed this because to die with dignity for one’s country was preferable to dying like this, this wasting away, this humiliation.

And she was ashamed to admit to herself she didn’t think much of Jurgen, her husband. Bluebeard did have some of his features, though in mock exaggeration, his bulbous nose overwhelming the lower half of his face or at least putting up a stiff competition with his full red lips pursing out between his beard and mustache. In Jurgen, such features had been more subdued, refined though otherwise Jurgen made few impressions in his life. Not much of a physical man, he was mild and quiet. She wondered sometimes if he knew she had been secretly in love with Konrad. She had no way of knowing. Maybe Bluebeard was her punishment.

“I can make this bastard go away,” said Ruth, “at least for a time! I’ll scare the shit out of him!”

“Cheep! Cheep cheep cheep!” she said laughing and slapping her knee. What a pair they made, a bird and a ghost!

Had Ruth known her in high school, she would have participated in the dirty cheer her friends chanted in the locker room after the game, all of them passing around cigarettes and flasks, doing up each other’s hair, falling out laughing:  We are the best team all the others suck! Let’s go mighty Vikings rah rah fuck!” 

Before she became a woman with a bird in her throat she had taught Ruth the dirty cheer and Ruth did the cheer moves for her right there in the common room. And Ruth added her own words now on special days like luau day, shaking her imaginary pom poms and bopping Bluebeard on the head with them: Mighty Ruth and Greta all the others suck! Old ladies rock the world, rah, rah, fuck!