The Skinny Dippers

 

Lake1Margie Reynolds came by Monday morning requesting to see me in my office. Margie is forty-two and gave birth to her second child, Cybil Ann this last December. Given that she and her husband Larry’s oldest child, Martha Lynn, graduated Vanderbilt in April, Cybil Ann was the definition of a bonus baby.

Margie was a tall, big boned woman with a large and loud nature. Her broad, bold featured face with its customary slathering of bright red lipstick could almost be seen as elegant were if not for her ever present sloppy smile and penchant for hilarity.

She was also a cyclone of social engagement; serving on every community club, historical society, animal rescue, highway cleanup, charity drive, band booster, and church committee within the Watervalley zip code. A devout Baptist, she even helped out with the Methodist Church’s Vacation Bible School.

But on Monday morning Margie was far from jovial. When she walked into my office, she wore a face of tacit worry, her entire countenance carrying a feverish and hectic look.

“Margie, you’re not your normal bubbly self. Is everything okay with Cybil Ann?”

She plopped down in a chair across from my desk, her mind painfully occupied. My voice lifted her out of her momentary fog.

“Oh, Cybil Ann’s fine doc, just fine,” she said, flipping her hand in dismissal. “She’s at home with her big sister. I left the house twenty minutes ago and by now there’s probably ten selfies of the two of them on Facebook.”

“As it should be. So…what can I do for you?”

“It’s mom again.”

“Oh.” I said with a nod of understanding. “I see.”

Margie’s dad, Crawford Anderson had passed away two years prior, leaving her mom, Pat, by herself out at the family farm. Despite being a farmwife, Pat had always been an elegant and fashionable woman. But within weeks of the funeral she began to let her appearance go adrift. It was the first sign. Soon afterwards, the mixture of depression, isolation, and ageing began to blur the lines of reality.

Slowly, her mind had become divided, partially living in the present day and partially ruminating more and more in the past, muttering to herself in unfinished conversations from earlier decades. Now, separated from the duties of caring for those she loved, she became bewildered, oppressed by the loneliness of the big house, haunted by the echoes of lost voices.

Having historically been an immaculate housekeeper, her life long practice of tidiness began to betray her, putting things away that later her memory couldn’t remember or find. She was slipping into dementia.

I had done a physical on Pat Anderson earlier in the spring. And while her physical health was excellent, it was clear that her mental status was deteriorating. The maladies of her mind were like an elusive butterfly, sometimes allowing her to present as engaging, brilliant, and colorful then suddenly flittering aimlessly, taking her words and thoughts in directions that were random and unpredictable.

I had little advice for Margie at the time except to say that clearly her mother needed more human interaction. So, Margie and Larry had decided to move Pat out to their place, a small farm on Fattybread Road. They had a small apartment above their detached garage.

I feared that Margie’s visit foretold a further decline.

But then, the conversation took an odd turn.

“So, Margie. Tell me what’s happening with Pat.”

“She’s taken a swan dive into the world of whacky.”

“How so?”

“Well, as you know, momma’s not like me. She’s never been bigger than a size four and has always dressed to the nines. But about a month ago she started going all sixties retro.”

“I’m not following.”

She tied a bandana around her hair and started wearing peasant blouses with no bra. Can you picture that…my sixty-nine year old mother wearing no bra?”

“Hmm, I’m going to keep that on my to don’t list.”

“Well, it’s not pretty. It looks like two gerbils are playing hop scotch under there.”

I rubbed my chin vacantly. “Pretty sure that’s a bit of an over share, Margie.”

“Then last week she had Jimi Hendrix blaring on her sound system at six in the morning.”

“And you could hear it from the house?”

Margie glared at me deadpan, speaking with unamused authority. “It could shatter concrete.”

“Hmm, okay. Interesting. Any other significant changes?”

“Such as?”

“Loss of appetite, weight loss, depression.”

“Oh, crud no. She’s darn near giddy half the time.” Margie paused, looked to the side, and leaned in toward me, her voice dropping to a confidential whisper. “Honestly, doc, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out she’s been out behind the barn smoking a little reefer.”

“Seriously?”

“Well,” she paused and slumped back into her chair, exasperated. “Probably not. But I almost wish she was. I been such bag of nerves worrying about her, I might just join her.”

I smiled and placed my elbow on the desk, casually resting my chin in my upturned palm. “Margie, gee. I’m not sure what to tell you. She doesn’t seem to be a danger to herself.”

“Yeah, well, that’s not the worst of it.”

“How so?”

“Last night I got up around one o’clock to check on Cybil Ann and I saw lights flickering down by the pond in the front field. I woke up Larry and we went down there.”

“And?”

“It was momma, buck naked. She had just been skinny dipping in the pond and was now holding a flashlight in each hand and prancing around.”

“Why was she doing that?”

“That’s the same question I asked her,” Margie said adroitly, shuffling back in her chair. “Albeit, not quite with the same clinical detachment you just did.”

“And her response?”

“She said she was doing an interpretative moon dance.”

“In the buff?”

“In the buff.”

Despite Margie’s exasperation, the whole business struck me as oddly amusing. By Margie’s own admission her mom was both happy and healthy, even in light of her odd antics. I was stifling a choking laugh. “Well, given that she was in her birthday suit, did she say which moon she was referring to?”

“Not funny, doc.”

“Sorry. Just couldn’t seem to let that pass.”

“I finally got her to stop and I put my bathrobe around her. Larry had already beaten a hasty retreat to the house. He’s a wreck too. Seeing your mother-in-law naked in the moonlight is not a prescription for restful slumber, let me just tell you.”

“I’ll make a note.”

Margie grunted. “Anyway, once I regained the power of speech, I said to her, ‘Momma, interpretive dance, really? What if one of the neighbors see’s you out here?”

“What’d she say?”

“She was indifferent. She said they can do the interpreting.’”

I sat back in my chair, tenting my hands in front of me. Inside I was cracking up but Margie was taking all of this so seriously. “Was she not willing to come with you today?”

“Oh, heavens no. Other than doing Riverdance in the raw, she seemed perfectly lucid. She went on to lecture me instead. She said that Larry and I needed to loosen up, chill out, do a little skinny-dipping of our own sometime. She said she was going to invite some of her friends to come join her.” Margie shrugged and added as an aside. “Maybe I should post a schedule. It could get crowded down there.”

I finally couldn’t hold it anymore and started snickering.

“Great,” Margie moaned, rolling her eyes at me. “I come looking for advice because Batty Pat is taking the sixties for a test drive and you’re just laughing at me. That’s like malpractice, isn’t it? Can’t I sue you for that or something?”

I scratched my head, wearing an irrepressible smile. “Margie, I’m not laughing at you. I’m just, well, you know…I’m more like laughing near you.”

“I’m just afraid that the next time the moon in is the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars she’ll be back at it again.”

“You lost me there, Margie.”

“Oh, never mind. I forget that you’re still young enough for your voice to be changing.”

I let this pass. “So, Margie. Tell me what you want me to do.”

“I have no idea, doc. Is there some pill you can give her?”

“Not really. I mean, let’s face it, Margie. She’s not really sick.”

“Crap. I was afraid you’d say that,” she said, her eyes searching. “Well then, how about a pill that you can give me?”

I laughed and rose from my chair, circled my desk, and leaned against it. “Margie, maybe your mother needs some forms of mental stimulation, like…I don’t know, maybe some crossword puzzles. You’ve told me she loves to read and loves words. Maybe that will help.”

She looked at me a shrugged. “I guess it’s worth try.”

“And who knows, Margie,” I said, winking at her. “Maybe you and Larry should take her advice. Chill out, take a midnight swim, yourself. Might be more relaxing than any pill I can give you.”

“Skinny dipping in the pond? I don’t think so. News flash, doc. That sort of thing has consequences. I’ve already got one bonus baby.”

“Margie, it’s okay to leave a few details to my imagination.”

“You brought it up.”

“Anyway, it’s just an idea. Perhaps you’re mom’s not as out of orbit as you think.”

She shook her head and blew out a long sigh. “Maybe you’re right, doc. But momma and this nudity obsession could get out of hand. This thing could creep into the daylight hours and next thing you know she’ll be a sun worshiper, refining the no-tan-line look.”

“Well, maybe the next few days will be overcast.”

“Oh, aren’t you just a beacon of hope.”

“Glad I could help.

We talked a moment more about Cybil Ann and her next check up and soon afterwards, Margie left, only somewhat ameliorated.

Watervalley had no assisted living or nursing home facilities. Families simply took care of their own. And instead of shunting their crazies away the people of Watervalley simply gave them a sunny place on the front porch for all the world to embrace with an attitude of tolerance and understanding. Aging relatives weren’t inconveniences, they were family, and the locals had learned to endure the good and bad of it.

Later that day I retraced my conversation with Margie, pondering. There was something about Pat Anderson that left me unconvinced of her dementia, something that spoke more of a need to adapt and adjust rather than a slow drift in to senility. I could draw no conclusions.

The week passed and I accidentally ran into Margie and her mom at the grocery store. They were on the magazine aisle and Margie’s mood seemed much lighter, back to her old effervescent self.

“Hey, Doctor Bradford! How are you today?”

“Doing fine, Margie.” I smiled warmly and then turned to her mother. “Pat, it’s good to see you out and about.”

Pat Anderson said nothing but simply smiled at me pleasantly. Even still, there was something different in her gaze from when she had visited the clinic several months earlier, a kind of calculated intelligence buried within.

“We’re here to get another book of crossword puzzles. Mom has already burned through two of them.”

“Well that’s fantastic!” I paused for a moment, studying both of them. “So, Margie…tell me. How is life on the farm?”

Margie put her arm around her mom and spoke triumphantly. “Well, we had a long talk. Mom has agreed to employ a little more modesty and to do things that keep her mind active so long as Larry and I make a few concessions.”

“Oh, such as?”

“Larry and I have agreed to slow up some, unwind a little, drop a few committee memberships, eat more family dinners together at the table.”

I shrugged. “Nothing wrong with that.”

“It’s been a good thing, a really, really good thing and,” she paused, speaking in a lowered earnest voice, “I think this is helping momma.” Margie smiled instructively, looking fondly at her spritely parent, her arm still wrapped around her diminutive mother’s shoulder. “I think it reminds her of how family life was when I was growing up.”

As I nodded in understanding, a question occurred to me. “So, this unwinding…has that included some evening aquatic activities?”

The corners of Margie’s mouth inched into a wry smirk. She spoke with an amused diplomacy. “Nice girls keep a few secrets, Dr. Bradford. Especially in front of their mother.”

Our entire exchange had occurred under the silent, observant eyes of Pat who stood by with a docile and pleasant continence.

Margie gave her mother another exuberant squeeze and began to step away. Great talking to you Dr. Bradford. Excuse me for a second…I need to grab a jar of mayo.” She stepped away leaving Pat and me in a rather awkward moment of sudden silence.

I offered an accommodating smile, but this was met with an expressionless, albeit amiable stare. I searched for words to fill the void.

“Sounds like things are working out for you with the move to Margie and Larry’s.”

She said nothing, offering only a short, obliging nod.

“Um, apparently you being there has had a positive effect on them as well.”

Again she remained silent, responding with only a frail smile and a subtle drift of her chin.

Admittedly, by now I wanted to depart…bow out of this uncomfortable moment. I looked down and noticed her holding the new book of crossword puzzles. I made one last attempt at conversation.

“So, this is your third crossword book this week. That’s fabulous. I had mentioned to Margie that perhaps some mental challenges would be a healthy exercise for you. I’m glad that seems to be working out.”

I had spoken in an accommodating, tactful tone…unsure as to what level of understanding Pat had regarding my comments.

That was, until her eyes tightened and a large mischievous grin spread across her face. She glanced over her shoulder to ensure that Margie was still down the aisle and out of earshot. She spoke with fluid composure.

“Dr. Bradford, I’ve been trying to tell Margie to slow down for years, but, God love her, she has a hard time listening with her mouth open. Anyway, don’t kid yourself. I hate crossword puzzles.” She stepped to my side, opening the small paper book to the last page and held it before me. “Fortunately, all of the answers are written in the back.”

With that, she bumped my shoulder with hers and winked at me. Then, she contentedly strode away in the direction of her flamboyant, impractical, and…in reflection, much loved daughter.

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  1. Tom Cheatum says:

    Great story, nice warm-up for your next book!

  2. gk says:

    Wonderful series and short story. I’ll keep looking for more.

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