My newest book, THE BUTCHER, is out in July, and it stars an 80-year-old retired police chief who has lots of secrets. It was a bit of a gamble for me to write a character so old. I mean, I’m still a spring chicken (*cough cough*), and all my grandparents are dead – what do I know about old people?
It turns out that I actually do know a little bit. Until recently, I lived in a building where 80% of my neighbors were retired. The other 20% were recently separated or divorced (*cough cough*). The building was a fairly social community, with Coffee Tuesdays and Card Thursdays. It was a nice, clean place to live, and many of the residents have been there for over a decade.
For the year that I was there, I lived next door to Del, who’s 92 years old. A feisty old bugger who always wore his pleated pants too high, I always knew he was home and doing fine when the hallway smelled like cherry-flavored cigars and chicken noodle soup, and I could hear M.A.S.H playing at full volume on the TV.
One day last fall, I noticed Del’s door was open. Concerned, I put down my groceries and called out to him. Sounding panicky, he told me to come inside. Of course I did… only to find him on the toilet with his pants down around his ankles, smoking a cigar and grinning like the sneaky bastard he still was. “Hey Jennifer! How’s your day going?”
But it wasn’t always funny. I found him wandering lost in the underground parking garage more than a few times. Sometimes his home nurse (a different one every day) would be running late and he’d knock on my door, asking if I had anything to eat.
The last time I saw him, he didn’t recognize me. Shuffling behind his walker, he looked so lost. “Do you know which apartment is mine?” he asked. “I can’t remember where I live.”
Neither of us live in the building anymore. I’m in Seattle now, and Del has gone on to an old folks’ home. I often wonder if he’s doing okay. I tell myself that he is.
I’ll never forget this conversation we had back in April, when he still had his wits about him:
Del: Hi Jennifer. I thought you were great in that shampoo commercial. I watch it all the time. Comes on every night during Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy.
Me: Shampoo commercial? I’m not in a –
Del: Last night, I says to my daughter, I says, “That’s Jennifer. She’s my neighbor. She writes books but she also has good hair. And my daughter says, “That’s so cool that your neighbor is a celebrity, Dad.”
Me: That’s sweet, Del, but I’m actually not in a shampoo –
Del: And I says to her, don’t take this the wrong way, but I says, “You know, her hair doesn’t look like that every day. Most days it just looks regular. They do that for the commercial, to sell the shampoo.”
Me: Yes, well, most days I do just wear my hair up –
Del: But I wonder, you know, I wonder, how do you find the time to write books and do the modeling?
Me: I’m not a model, I only write –
Del: And they slim you for the commercials, don’t they? Because you look very thin on TV, but I figure what with all the technology nowadays, they can take a little weight off you so that you look good on TV. I mean, compared to how you look now.
Me: Um, I, well –
Del: Not that you’re a big girl, you’re not a big girl, but you do look thinner on TV. And your hair looks good on TV. You should do your hair like that more. You know, make it all straight and shiny. You won’t be single for long if you looked like you do on TV.
Me: I’ll keep that in mind.
Del: Little effort never hurts. That’s what I tell my daughter. She gets mad when I say that, though.