PAST LIVES • by Wayne Scheer

Every afternoon, Oscar took his walk through the gardens of the Eastland Park Assisted Living Center. Despite dragging his right foot like a reluctant dance partner, he enjoyed watching the daffodils give way to the tulips, the pansies yield to the marigolds. Everything appeared so orderly in nature.

Looking up from his reverie, he saw a slim white-haired woman he didn’t recognize. After two years at Eastland Park, he knew all the residents. Then he remembered. Pearl Saylor in Room 241 had died over the weekend. This must be her replacement. Eastland Park, in its way, was as orderly as nature.

Oscar brushed back his hair and quickly put his right hand in his pocket as the woman came closer.

“Hello,” he said. “I haven’t seen you here before. My name is Oscar.”

“I’m Agnes.” She smiled and held out her hand.

He hesitated before awkwardly extending his left one. “Mr. Righty doesn’t work so well,” he explained.

“I’m new here,” Agnes said. He heard a familiar sadness in her voice and guessed her husband had recently passed.

“It’s not a bad place to be. It’s just… well, it’s not home.”

“No, it’s not home.”

Quickly filling the silence, he told her there were plenty of planned activities to keep busy. “Some are all right, like the morning water aerobics and the book discussions.” He sighed. “They’re painting ceramic ashtrays now.”

“I know. That’s why I’m outside.”

“Me, too. I haven’t smoked in twenty years, but they want me to decorate an ashtray.” Pausing, he added, “They call it therapy.”

“They want you to work on your fine motor skills.”

“Ahh, I’ve had enough therapy.” He lifted his right hand from his pocket. Crooked fingers appeared glued together. “This is what a year of therapy has done for me.”

She offered a sympathetic nod.

He enjoyed the camaraderie, but didn’t like feeling weak. “I get along. I can even bang out a song or two on the piano with my left hand.”

Agnes smiled. “I’d like to hear that.”

“But just so you know. The piano is out of tune, so what doesn’t sound right is the piano’s fault.”

“I had a piano like that.” Now she laughed out loud, showing a full set of unnaturally white teeth.

“Do you play?”

“Badly.”

“Good. You’ll fit right in here. Most of the residents are deaf.”

Oscar liked the way she laughed with her whole body. It felt good making a woman laugh. “So,” he asked. “You look healthy. What are you in for?”

Her expression changed quickly. “I’ve been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It hasn’t been too bad so far, but I’m forgetting more and more. My husband passed away six months ago and I decided to move here before I burned my house down.”

“That makes sense. Most people prefer denial.”

“Believe me, I tried that.”

Oscar didn’t know what to say, so he changed the subject. “Do you have any children?”

“A daughter. But I’m not senile enough yet to move in with her and my son-in-law.”

“Wise woman. When my wife died, my children made offers for me to live with them. Not thinking clearly, I moved in with my daughter. But I got lucky. I had a stroke, and I needed professional care. That gave me the excuse to move here. Now I wonder what will give out first, my heart or my money?”

Agnes reached out for his hand, his right one. His first inclination was to withdraw it. But it felt so good to feel a woman’s touch.

Oscar wanted to share more with her, but he didn’t want to sound like a whiner. Instead, he waved away his thoughts. “It’s not all that bad. There are some interesting people here. One man played baseball with the Pirates in the late fifties. We have ex-cops and college professors. There’s even a woman, in her nineties, who claims she danced in burlesque.” He leaned closer, as if to share a secret. “But don’t believe a word of it. The closest she ever came to burlesque was watching Milton Berle on television. Some of the people here make up new lives to replace the old ones they’ve left behind.”

“That may be me soon.” She raised her eyebrows. “Maybe I’ll claim I danced for the King of Siam or climbed Mount Everest.”

“I tell people I was Liberace’s piano teacher.”

“And the truth?”

“I was his tailor. The sequins? My idea.”

“You make me laugh, Oscar. I need that.”

“We all need that.”

“So what did you really do in your past life?”

“I taught high school history.”

“And I worked as a bookkeeper in my husband’s trucking company until I thought I’d go crazy. So I got my real estate license and started my own business.”

“Good for you. It’s important to remember we had lives once.”

Agnes took Oscar’s arm. “For as long as we can remember.”

They let the words hover like a dark rain cloud.

“So,” Oscar said. “Let me show you around your new digs.”

“That would be wonderful. And maybe you could play something on the piano for me.”

“Only if you remember it’s the piano’s fault if I sound like a bumbling old fool.”

They began walking arm in arm towards the main building. Oscar wondered if it would be forward of him to ask if she’d join him for dinner.

Agnes turned. “Who did you say you were again?”

Oscar laughed when he saw her wink.


Wayne Scheer has been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net. He’s published numerous stories, poems and essays in print and online, including Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories. His short story, “Zen and the Art of House Painting” has been made into a short film.


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