At thirty-five thousand feet, there’s turbulence over the Ohio river basin. I took an Ativan. Beside me is a German woman in her eighties; when I boarded the plane she was sitting in my seat, 23F.
“Um, I think that’s my seat.” I waved my boarding pass over my armload of luggage and my blinged-out cane. “23F.”
“But I like to sit on this side!” she hissed.
“Yeah, but it’s my seat.”
“Scheisse!” she spat at me. She left for the other aisle, 23 ABC, with her two travelling companions. Moments later the steward comes by, ensuring that all luggage is in the overhead bins and that some objects, bulky and awkward, may shift during takeoff. “I want to sit THERE!” Scheisse grabs the steward’s arm with her crone-y bony fingers, points at me. I’m in the window seat, staring out the window, watching TSA operatives fumble with bulky and awkward luggage checked under the plane at the gate.
She’s beside me now, 23E. Her travelling companions are caretakers of a kind, German both, and according to Scheisse, criminals, crooks. They take her money. They have been travelling together for some time now. Their initial place of departure is a mystery to me, as is their final destination — this Boston to Los Angeles leg seems to be just one in a series of Golden Years adventures sponsored by depressed, depressing hospice care coordinators in an effort to get the dead and nearly to Budapest or Bucharest before returning to the hospice watch. This I’ve deduced in broken English and some German, but the sentiment in 23E is clear. She glares across the aisle at her caretakers. “They are CRIMINAL,” she says. “I will not rest until I see that they are kicked out.” Kicked out of what, I don’t know; I can’t imagine it matters, and anyway she moved over here, it seems, to be rid of her caretakers and closer to the window, to see the clouds, to see the sunlight. Something we have in common, Scheisse and me. Even on Ativan I need a fixed point in turbulence, some soft fluffy clouds a couple thousand feet below that aren’t moving, that put our shudderation in context; the context of the big huge sky.
United now charges for meals; $5 for any of four Snackboxes (do they carry Skiving?), $5 also for a grilled chicken wrap. Scheisse fumbled in her purse for change, among tissues folded and refolded, snotted on and resnotted on but still useable. Sucking candies. Rubberbands. String. I wonder if she’s a Holocaust survivor; the tissues make me think so, the fury, the window. She’s got a handful of Kroners or Schillings or Zloty, a quarter and two pennies, which she scrapes clean with her fingernails (there’s red sticky stuff on them, she carefully removes it from around George’s hair and neck, from around Abe’s beard and chin, from the feathers of the bald eagle) and stares at: not enough. With the snort resignation of a horse who isn’t ready to be harnessed again, she leans over to 23 ABC, exchanges some words in German with the caretaker.
The caretaker is a woman in her fifties, maybe, sixties with a bad dye job, wearing a white knit poncho and more jewelry than she can afford. She speaks better English than Scheisse, but still mostly German, and her partner (“the boyfriend,” Scheisse tells me conspiratorially. “He is also a criminal. He is deadbeat.”) sits like a lump beside her, like a bratwurst with a mustache, and doesn’t even try at English when the stewards come talk to him.
Scheisse returns from the caretaker, back to 23E with another exasperated “Scheisse!” and then, to me, and not quietly. “She is a liar. She says she have only ten dollars and will not give me money for food. I know she have more — she have all my money she took from me.”
I bought her a sandwich, grilled chicken wrap with roasted peppers and corn. I suggested she crumble up her Ruffles potato chips in the sandwich when she complained of its lack of salt. “No salt at all!” she told the steward. “Sorry,” he said. She ordered a tonic water. Also salt free. She asked me if she should crumble her Ruffles into the tonic water. I advised her this wasn’t the best way to go. The sandwich went back into the handbag, Ruffles, airline safety card, semi-useable tissues. A pair of airplane headphones and a couple airsick bags. My survivor suspicions grow. I’ve read Maus.
She said to me: “I need to find some way to tell that these people are criminal. But I have a hard time because I have hard time with my English.”
Fascinated, I offered to help, and whipped out the laptop.
“When did you first meet– ” I pointed at 23ABC..
“Oh, long time ago. We used to be friends.”
“It’s criminal. I have a room in Los Angeles, Leisure World, Laguna Beach.. And they are doing harm to people who are above 75. They try to harm them. Heard from others that the staff doesn’t listen to complaints. Turn around and blame the people who are sick and can’t tolerate the treatment they receive from their caretakers. Some of them got killed by their treatment. It’s criminal.”
My grandfather has a place at the Arbors, a retirement village in Amherst, MA, with friendly nurses, round-the-clock bingo, movies, crossword puzzles, bridge, the occasional rousing game of “I Never.” He’s 94 years old, and every night his nurse comes in to give him his diabetes finger-stick, make sure he takes his meds, and there’s always a nurse on hand in case Poppa needs a shower. They take good care of him there; they feed him three good meals and he flirts with the nurses and the cotton-tops and at the end of the day we kiss him on the head and say bye, Poppa, we love you, and we leave him there knowing he’s in good hands, five miles away from my parents and a world away from the horrors Scheisse was describing. Scheisse has tears in her eyes, and I’m still wondering what she was doing in Boston. I want to help.
“Old friends sick in LA. I didn’t know until after, because I was away.”
“Where were you?” I asked.
“I have a hard time putting these together, they say I am old, I am stupid.”
“Okay,” I said. “No problem. Let’s keep going. When did you hear that your friends were being mistreated?”
She giggled, incongruously, a full-on old German lady giggle. “Oh, gossip, word of mouth, you hear around,” she said. “When I came back from the place I had been to, I found out my old friend had been mistreated in the hospital.”
“Where were you at the time?”
“I was away. Now I find out she has been mistreated, maybe if they had cared, given her the right treatment she would be all right. Maybe she is dead already.”
“And your friend is at Leisure World?”
“Yes, they are treating her there.”
We’re on a plane flying Westward from Boston to Los Angeles. We left Boston at 6:30pm, local time, today, July 26th. 23ABC flags the steward again. Points to me. “That lady over there needs five dollars. I bought three sandwiches. I bought a sandwich for [Scheisse] and so did she.” The steward gave me five ones. Scheisse grinned at me. Victory!
I started in. “Do you remember why you were in Boston?”
“Well, I talked to a couple people, but just passing by. The most important thing is that I would like to get the information together, so that I could get it to people who can help them and do something about it.”
“So you came to Boston to talk to some people about these issues.”
“Well, I’m not dropping the subject, I just need to get the information together.”
“How did you get to Boston?” I asked.
“I did not go to Boston.”
Criminy, Klinger. “I’m just trying to put this in chronological order. Because obviously we were in Boston just a couple hours ago.”
“”If you don’t make notes about these things,” Scheisse shook her head with a rueful smile. “You don’t remember.”
“Where were you yesterday?”
“I was at Leisure World with her.”
“In Los Angeles?”
“And then you got on a plane and flew to Boston.”
“What did you do today?”
“I dealt with a problem and then something happened and I had to give it up.”
Took a long shot: “Is it possible that anyone gave you any medication?”
“I was looking for medication. But I couldn’t find it so I gave up.” Dead end.
“When were you last at Leisure World?”
“Oh, not long ago, two days.”
“Where were you in between?”
“I have to find my notes, to try and make sense of it.”
“How did you get to the airport today?”
She points a thumb at 23ABC. “Them.”
“Where did they bring you to the airport FROM?”
“From my place in Laguna Hills.”
The best I can manage at this juncture’s that Scheisse and her friends hopped on a plane in LA yesterday, came to Boston, turned right back around and returned to LA.
I presented it, smoothly, certain I’d nailed it. “Tell me, does this sound likely? A couple days ago you flew out of LA and came to Boston –”
“We did not go to Boston.”
“But we were just IN Boston –”
She shrugs, shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
“You were going to go on a longer trip, right?”
“I wanted to go somewhere where I could do something about the situation. But I gave it up. I cannot find the right words. I cannot find the thoughts. It’s frustrating. I can’t help them because I can’t express it. I need to think. I would like to help them. It is just killing me. You see that they are old, that they are sick, that they have money, and no family, and they let them die, they help them die and take their money. I see it could happen to me too.”
Scheisse’s name is Helene Kosalko. She is from Hungary. I have no idea why she’s on this airplane, where she’s coming from or what she’s going back to. She came to the United States to learn about new technologies for insurance companies. She doesn’t do it anymore. “It’s killing me,” she says. “That people can hurt each other. The worst is families — they should help improve the conditions, they should stick together, but instead it’s falling apart. It’s killing me.”
The sun is going down; Helene likes the glow through the window, so I’m keeping it open despite the glare on my laptop monitor. There’s a wooly blanket of clouds a couple thousand feet down; up here it’s blue skies and smooth sailing. They’re showing Miss Congeniality 2; Sahara is over. It’s 7:00 now, two more hours.
“Sometimes I am even scared to go home,” Helene says. Later, she looks out the window with a beaming smile. “And the sun is still bright!”
Later, 8:42 and 29 minutes left on my computer’s battery. Helene asked me what the big black thing outside the window was. I told her it was the wing. The sunset’s a gorgeous strip of orange and red bleeding down from indigo, teal, green. “Gorgeous,” Helene says. “Oh god.” She covers her face with her hands. “I wish I could go to sleep and never wake up. I have no one. No family. Even if I go to Europe, it will not be better. I’m afraid to go home. I have no key. I have no home.”
“Aren’t they taking you back to Leisure World?” I asked, gesturing toward 23ABC.
Helene sighs. “I doubt it,” she says. “I don’t believe a word they say ever again.”
I’m glad I’m taking a cab from the airport, suddenly, selfishly, glad K-Town’s nowhere near Laguna Hills. Already I’ve promised this woman I’ll investigate Leisure World and find her an ally there, a nurse, an orderly, a gentle giant who takes her by the hand and eases her passage and the movie ends over some maudlin treacle: “Time in a Bottle,” maybe.