Featured Story • November 2013
The Two Annies of Windale Road
Two elderly women stood twenty paces apart on the crowded, shrub-edged lawn of the Windale Care and Rehabilitation Center. Two women with tight lips and pistols on creaking hips.
Shirley Connet was the owner of seventy-six years and Marlene Fenn had seventy-nine. Both possessed the medically noted, grandiose delusion that they were Annie Oakley.
Late October leaves scattered past wheelchairs. Reverent onlookers rubbed palms together at patio tables. Aimless walkabouts and patients of assorted debilitating afflictions knew better than to congregate to the north or south, given the possibility of stray bullets.
Marlene’s thin, red hair uncurled with the breeze.
Shirley’s left eye squinted.
A line of three dragonflies flew between the women and settled on fallen seeds at the base of a leaning sunflower.
The staff of Windale Care and Rehab devoured several boxes of Girl Scout cookies strategically placed in the break room far from the commons’ window.
That there were two Little Miss Sure Shots did not distress either woman. Yes, this was a shootout. A showdown. A quick draw. But the bloody intent was not over the Oakley name.
It was the gaps.
* * *
Before Marlene and Shirley ever spoke about the gaps, they met because of “The Cottage Cheese Incident.”
Shirley ate oatmeal at an empty table in the Windale breakfast hall.
Marlene grazed the buffet in tall-heeled cowboy boots. They did Marlene’s corns no good and her back ached, but Marlene would quit wearing make-up before she quit wearing her fake-alligator boots, and Marlene wasn’t going to quit lipstick this side of the six foot drop. Besides, boots made her taller, easier for an audience to appreciate.
Shirley noticed Marlene. How could you not notice her? All that blue fringe and matching eye shadow. Shirley was not jealous of the flash, but she did miss the days when arthritis had not made button-down shirts a bother. Shirley tipped her Stetson over her forehead and kept her eyes on the tabletop.
Shirley was eating sweet cantaloupe meat when the yelling started.
“What’s in this?” Marlene Fenn howled at a nurse.
“Meds. Eat it,” the nurse said. He was skinny. He hadn’t shaved. All he wanted was to get through the shift without a shit stain somewhere on his scrubs. These old people shit themselves all the time and got it on their hands and then it was as mandatory as dogs licking assholes that the fossils shared their shit with you.
“No,” Marlene said.
“It’ll calm you down.”
The nurse rubbed his scruff.
Murmurs began in the breakfast hall. Eat it. Go on. Don’t do it. Quit your bitchin’.
Marlene Fenn did not need medication. She needed her gun.
Shirley’s forehead tensed and her fists clenched as she watched the pair.
The nurse nodded at two orderlies leaning by the buffet counter.
Marlene Fenn dumped her cottage cheese over the nurse’s head.
The nurse grabbed Marlene’s hand and shoulders.
“Get your paws off me,” Marlene said and kicked the nurse in the shin.
The two orderlies ran.
The nurse didn’t know what to do and the cottage cheese plopped through his eyelashes.
Shirley Connet stood up. She wasn’t afraid of righting a wrong. Ain’t no man should put his hands on a lady.
All heck broke loose.
How two old women could carry on like that and not die could only be explained by witchery (so said the Baptist Art Club). Marlene busted a heel. Shirley’s Velcro shoes were stained in blueberry yogurt and so was her Stetson. The nurse broke his pinky from an undecipherable hit. Marlene had a fistful of an orderly’s hair that would never grow back. Bruised necks. Cracked dentures. The ceiling tiles were permanently stained in ranchero sauce. All through the ruckus, the women smiled. Never let the audience know when something has gone wide of the mark, that’s what Buffalo Bill had said.
Windale Care and Rehab had a zero tolerance policy for violent outbursts. The Connet and Fenn families begged second chances. The gaps were mentioned. Delusions were fine, but neither family had the sufferance for early onset Alzheimer’s. The endurance. The tolerance for what it would become. The time off of work. They appealed to Windale’s board while Shirley and Marlene sat with crossed arms. Treatment was implored rather than expulsion. An exploratory committee examined the issue. Donations were given. A new Windale Therapeutic wing was designed.
It was in mandatory therapy sessions that Shirley Connet and Marlene Fenn became closer than a cuff and a button.
* * *
Doctor Chuck led all Elder Care Emotions First group therapy sessions at Windale Care and Rehab. Doctor Chuck had a wrinkled forehead that questioned and underestimated you as you spoke. He polished his shoes each morning. He wore a tie and sweater-vest every day. His desk was stacked with Oliver Sacks’s books. Doctor Chuck would place The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat in the center of his flat desk calendar. He’d then put his forehead on the cover for prolonged periods. It made Doctor Chuck feel better. Important. Centered.
He was a man easily over-taxed by details, but obsessed with collecting them. He had files on both Shirley Connet and Marlene Fenn.
Doctor Chuck found that Ms. Shirley Connet often sat in her room and watched a crack in the windowpane spider outward. When asked if she liked being alone, Shirley responded, “I get angry around people.” The word apocalyptic appeared in a previous Connet file. Shirley chaired up for meals with C4 spinal cord injury patients because, quote, “They don’t talk.” She avoided the television room except when informed of a Dark Shadows or Top Chef marathon. She won every gin rummy game she played. She was fond of Nurse Edward Yee, whom she referred to as Eddy. When asked why she liked Eddy, Shirley responded, “He’s a queer, but he pencils my eyebrows in even-handed and if I was friends with Sitting Bull and his redmen, why for rope can’t I be comrades with a nance? He’s a good egg.”
What wasn’t noted in Doctor Chuck’s file was that Shirley loved Eddy because he didn’t snoop and because he didn’t snoop he didn’t know that Shirley had a gun in a shoebox hidden under her desk. Shirley found that she remembered things better when she held a gun in her hand.
Marlene had an equally detailed file. Someone had scribbled out total bitch in the side notes. In Doctor Chuck’s observations, Ms. Fenn was not shy to recall her mother identifying her as everything from Jezebel to trash-walker. Quote, “I like a good romp in the closet as much as any gal and I don’t care who can see that truth in the waggle in my walk. ’Sides what’s the worth of a fringed outfit if you can’t shake what’s in it?” Doctor Chuck also noted that Ms. Fenn thought Windale had much too much beige paint and she, “. . . didn’t like sitting with drooping old horndogs in the TV room when she could be out romancing the young and firm at the Dollar Mart.” It was previously noted on Marlene’s chart that she requested a day pass to go to the shooting range. When denied she berated the staff as “wingdings” that couldn’t understand “. . . the obligations and the expectations of Wild Bill Cody.”
Doctor Chuck’s file on Marlene was missing the key fact that she traded a strong-armed patient named Benson, down in room 204, a tad of fringe shaking for a .22 mini-revolver.
Doctor Chuck wanted to write a profile of the two Annie Oakleys. He imagined awards. He pictured shaking Oliver Sacks’s hand, which Doctor Chuck believed would be manicured. There’d be two shakes downward, a smile and business cards exchanged.
As expected, at their first Elder Care Emotions First session both Shirley Connet and Marlene Fenn were argumentative. Doctor Chuck’s semicircle was converted into the therapeutic equivalent of an Annie Oakley PBS special.
“Shirley, why don’t you start today’s session by introducing yourself,” Doctor Chuck said.
Heads around the semicircle twisted to Shirley.
“You know my name,” Shirley said as she made knotted martyrs of her hands.
“Ahh, but tell the group.”
“I was born Phoebe Ann Mosey on August 13, 1860,” Shirley stated.
Doctor Chuck took notes.
“Are you saying you’re Annie Oakley?” Marlene asked and paced around the room, lighting up a cigarette.
“Ms. Fenn, there is no smoking,” Doctor Chuck said.
Marlene continued to smoke.
“Ms. Oakley, there is no smoking.”
Marlene put her cigarette out in a potted plant and leaned on her chair. She wore a spangled green v-neck sweater. There was a bullet scar near her collarbone.
“You have a dog?” Marlene asked Shirley.
“Dave,” Shirley answered.
“Perhaps we should discuss ‘The Cottage Cheese Incident’,” Doctor Chuck suggested.
This suggestion was ignored.
“Do you have a husband?” Marlene asked.
“I met Frank after I walloped him in a shooting contest,” Shirley said.
Shirley asked Marlene, “You ever meet Buffalo Bill Cody?”
“Toured on the Wild West circuit ’bout seventeen years, didn’t I?” Marlene said.
“I had a train wreck,” Shirley said.
“Me too. 1901. Partial paralysis and five operations. But I’m still walkin’, ain’t I?” Marlene said.
“You’re Annie Oakley?” Shirley asked.
“Seems like we both are,” Marlene said.
It was here that Rudy, an Elder Care Emotions First session junky, jumped in. He tugged on his long socks underneath his rolled trousers.
“Doctor Chuck, my family hasn’t come to see me in two weeks.”
Doctor Chuck nodded.
Marlene fought back a cruel laugh.
Shirley took the moment to close her eyes and process her new friend.
“Rudy, that’s your name, right?” Marlene asked.
“Rudy, I’ll bust you up. My gal and I were talking here.”
Rudy looked at Doctor Chuck for help.
Doctor Chuck looked at Marlene for intentions.
Marlene lit up another cigarette.
The session spiraled downward from there. Doctor Chuck lost control. Marlene smoked a total of eleven cigarettes. Shirley rubbed a worry-hole into her sweater sleeve.
It took four months, but Marlene Fenn and Shirley Connet caused the white flag and resignation of Doctor Chuck. They never gave him written permission for his dueling Annie Oakleys profile.
Sessions were cancelled until a new therapist was hired.
“Don’t need no Elder Care, shmelder care,” Marlene said.
The ladies saved the real talking for their quiet times together.
* * *
Marlene stubbed out her cigarette on the patio table.
Shirley smoothed her slacks.
Someone slammed a horn in the parking lot.
“Do you forget things?” Marlene asked.
“Forget things how?” Shirley said.
“I can remember my first day at the Wild West and I can’t remember if I had apple juice this morning. You ever forget things, girl?” Marlene asked.
“Sometimes I’m standing in front of the buzz-in guest door and I don’t know how I got there,” Shirley offered.
“How old are you?” Marlene asked.
“What now?” Shirley shyly looked at her nails.
“I’m eighty in December. Eighty. Now I don’t know why I know that I’ll be eighty in December and I can’t remember if I ever had kids.” Marlene blushed, but she kept her smile on.
“I can see the faces of people sitting in the front row when I dimmed the flame off a candle from a shot over my shoulder thirty years back and I don’t remember how long ago I came here,” Shirley admitted.
“I bet you could yet hit six holes in a playing card before it hit the ground,” Marlene praised.
“And I believe you could still smite a dime tossed into a glare from over ninety feet,” Shirley regarded.
“There are gaps.” Marlene said.
“Little gaps,” Shirley agreed.
“Every day there are more,” Marlene said.
“Too many,” Shirley said.
“I don’t want to end this way,” Marlene said.
“Which way?” Shirley asked.
“In a slow fizzle and outta my gourd.”
Shirley closed eyes and thought on this.
“It doesn’t have to end this way,” Marlene said.
“Then how?” Shirley asked.
Marlene took Shirley’s hand and they talked it over.
* * *
The back lawn of Windale Care and Rehab was more twigs, dirt and dead leaves than greenery. It had briefly rained. The ground was soft. The nearby highway hummed. Worms sorted around. The sky was a plate of grey clouds.
Shirley and Marlene stood twenty paces apart.
The congregation of onlookers knuckle cracked and foot shuffled.
Marlene’s nails were a fresh coat of purple. They matched her eye shadow and her fringe. She wore her fake alligator boots. Shirley had mended the heel for her.
Shirley’s nails held their usual French manicure and matched her cream cardigan perfectly. She wore beige flats that Marlene had painted in glitter in the art studio. Each woman had a letter in her pocket. A gun at her hip.
Over several months, Marlene and Shirley had measured the gaps.
The gaps had turned to clefts and would turn to chasms.
There was only worse and worser.
Neither woman wanted to miss themselves anymore.
Marlene and Shirley made a choice.
Calm hands on guns.
Someone threw a dime in the air.
The three dragonflies watched from under the sunflower.
Shirley and Marlene fired when the coin touched dirt.
Each woman hit the other in the heart.
Shirley died first. Marlene two breaths after.
Each was smiling.
The knitters went back inside. The alcoholics hid behind the shed. The pill-poppers went to their evening meetings. The staff quit eating cookies at the sound of gunfire.
The police couldn’t believe that two old biddies had such good aim.
Patty Templeton writes hellpunk in a handbasket full of ghosts, freaks and fools. Her work has appeared in Pseudopod, PodCastle, Steam Powered II and Criminal Class Review. She won the first-ever Naked Girls Reading Literary Honors Award (Editor’s note: With this very story that you’ve just read!) and has been a runner-up for the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award. She can most often be found reading, writing, stomping around at underground country shows or posting to pattytempleton.tumblr.com.
She had this to say about the origin of “Two Annies”: “My urge to write of multiple people owning the same persona came after reading The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, by Milton Rokeach. It is an ethically questionable psychiatric case study of three paranoid schizophrenics who all thought they were Jesus Christ. I wanted to explore the possibility of people becoming friends even though their delusions could cause conflict.”
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