[Editor’s Note: Has iRunFar shared a story that’s made you smile or a humor piece that’s made you laugh out loud in 2018? If so, consider supporting us with a one-time donation during iRunFar’s end-of-year fund drive.]
“I used to be a runner, a long time ago,” Grandma says. Her head cranes upward above a pink fleece sweater as she fixes her gaze upon the people gathered, all of them taller than her. Her back is arched as if her spine had a kink in it at heart level.
“You used to be a what?” Bill asks, squinting down at her.
“I used to be a RUNNER,” she says, louder this time.
Martha looks around. “A runner? I just got a beautiful one for the dining-room table,” she said. “My daughter gave it to me. Well, actually, it was my son’s wife. Her name is Karen and…”
“I want to throw the football,” Thomas cuts in.
“You want to throw the football?” asks Mark, looking at Thomas.
“Yes. I’ll throw the football and you can solve the puzzle.”
“There’s a puzzle?” Martha asks. “I thought it was a Sudoku.”
Mark nods. “The puzzle is a Sudoku.”
Martha stares at him. “I thought we had to do a puzzle.”
Mark stares back. Everyone is confused. The group’s stress levels are tangible. The whole game is at risk of falling apart. So I speak up. “It’s not a jigsaw puzzle, Martha. It’s a Sudoku, which is technically a type of puzzle. It’s a number puzzle.”
Martha looks up at me. “Well I know what a Sudoku is,” she says impatiently. “But I thought it said we had to do a puzzle.”
“Yes,” I say, nodding. “But the poster didn’t specify what type of puzzle we have to do, and they only announced that it’s a Sudoku this morning. I think that might be where the confusion is coming from.”
Martha narrows her eyes. “Well, I don’t know about that.”
“Can you do a Sudoku?”
This affronts her so much that she pushes her walker toward me. “Young man, I do a Sudoku every day.”
“Then you must be good at them.”
She smirks, looking sideways at the ladies around her, all of whom are chuckling as if at an inside joke. “Um, yes,” she says. “I think I’m pretty good at them.”
“Well, would you like to be the team member who solves the Sudoku?”
“Yes I would,” she says, with the air of someone being very patient with someone slow.
“Okay, then,” I say, looking around at the others, all of whom have been leaning in and paying close attention to this exchange. “Then Martha will do the Sudoku. Now we need to assign everyone else a role. Thomas, you said you’d like to throw the football? Good, you do that. Now who would like to run?”
“I used to be a runner, a long time ago,” says my grandma again, looking wistfully upward.
“Okay,” I say, “Would you like to be our team’s runner?”
“Wait a minute,” says Iris. “Who’s going to do the puzzle?”
“There’s a puzzle?” asks Martha.
My grandmother lives at the Good Samaritan Society nursing home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I visit her off and on to spend a day or two participating in whatever it is she does on a regular basis. This usually involves such things as: coffee and eggs for breakfast; 45 minutes of cleaning up the dishes; an hour and a half of getting ready to go out; erratic driving directions through the city en route to shop at places like Dillard’s and Macy’s; a stop at Wendy’s that includes a lecture on the comparative quality and affordability of their chicken nuggets with various other food items; a lengthy conversation on why I should be a nurse or engineer; persistent speculation on where exactly my curly hair came from; and of course dinner at the cafeteria downstairs. This last part is my favorite, because although the quality of the meals is questionable and the hygiene frankly terrifying, as a young person in a sea of old folks I am nothing less than a celebrity.
I walk between the tables behind my grandma, flaunting my hip flexibility and hand-eye coordination. I like to flip my phone around and catch it absentmindedly, or pick up a dropped spoon by squatting all the way down and keeping my back straight. With dozens of elderly people in the cafeteria, there’s a constant shuffle of chairs being pushed backward and forward, and sometimes I’ll take my grandma’s dinner in one hand and mine in the other and navigate rapidly through the troubled sea of chairs and walkers, almost dancing with agility as I go forward and backward, side to side, like that guy in Ocean’s Twelve who gets between all those moving laser beams in the museum by doing a bunch of fancy karate moves. Along the way I’ll glance to one side and say something like, “Nice necklace, Gladys!” and Gladys will light up as her friends lean in tittering. “He noticed you!” “Oh my goodness!”
But instead of all that, today is their annual relay race, and I’ve been enlisted to help as a coach and referee. I’m in a bad mood, though, because someone else’s grandson is here and he’s usurping my fame just because he’s some kind of singer. His name is Manuel and he actually brought in a guitar and he keeps singing these lilting songs in Spanish and it’s like I’m not even here. You saw how Martha treated me when I asked her if she plays Sudoku. I never get “young man”ed here! So it’s really important to me that we win this competition. Sporting events are my thing; I’m a professional runner, Grandma, even if I can’t even afford to pay rent. So pick up your feet and get your shit together and LET’S DO THIS.
After at least another half hour of bickering and clarifying, I finally have the idea of writing down everyone’s roles on a big piece of paper so that we can all see it. “If it’s written down, it’s true,” I say, placing the paper on the wall above us. “Haven’t any of you seen Memento?” The paper looks something like this:
Runner: Brenda (AKA Grandma)
Wii Bowling: Mark
There are four teams, each named after a fruit and composed of six people. The race is being held in the gymnasium, which is about the size of two tennis courts. To start, the runner has to do a lap around the court. Then the football player has to toss a football into a net. Then the gardener has to, for some reason, replant a flower in one of the raised flower beds they’ve set up along one wall. After that, there’s a ping-pong match in which your player has to score one point against the cafeteria staff who have been enlisted to play. For this to work, there are four regulation-size ping-pong tables in the gym, which take up an incredible amount of space. The next person has to play Wii Bowling for two rounds or whatever you call them. They have to roll twice, is the point, and for this they’ve set up FOUR (4) televisions next to the ping-pong tables. And then, finally, Martha has to do her damn Sudoku, which seems disproportionately complex when compared to the other events, even if Martha is as extraordinary as she says.
That’s all, although I really wish there was also a slam-dunk contest because the basketball hoops in here are only eight feet high and I could dunk the shit out of them if they would let me. I suggest that we add this to the end of the event and make me and Manuel go head-to-head here, but I’m refused on the grounds that he’s a foot shorter than me and also that there are only two young people but four teams.
All in all, it’s probably the most complicated game I’ve ever been a part of. When I suggest this to the staff organizing this, led by an officious little guy named Ray, he explains that this is how it’s always done, that everyone knows how it works, that there are a lot of people helping, and that he’s too busy to answer stupid questions. I try to tell him that I didn’t ask a question, but he’s already bustled off to help the A/V guy figure out the Wii system. So I go back to my group, which is deep in conversation about the jerseys they’ve been given. Ours are yellow, because we’re Team Banana. Team Apple got red, Team Orange got orange, and Team Raspberry got pink. Martha’s upset about the shade of yellow.
“Well, it doesn’t match my shirt!” she says. “Look at this, it’s horrible.”
“Oh it’s not as horrible as all that,” says Iris softly. “Look, it’s like cream against custard.”
“Cream against…you never put cream against custard,” Martha hisses.
“What?” asks Bill. “Did you say cream? Is there coffee here?”
“No Bill,” explains Thomas. “She said custard. They’re going to have custard with whipped cream after we’re done.”
“Is that so?” asks my Grandma. “Well, I’m not sure if that’s part of my diet now.”
Grandma has adopted the role of runner not only for our team, but for her whole personality. She has hunted up an array of sports clothes that stand out against the fact that she’s leaning against a walker pretty much all the time. She’s wearing head and wrist bands, but she’s put a watch around the wrist band, explaining that that’s what wrist bands are for–padding against watch straps. She didn’t have running shoes, so she decided to wear wool-lined house shoes because, apparently, they’re lighter than her other shoes. Finally, she’s wearing sweat pants that probably fit better when she had leg muscles, and a polo shirt that has a big number 1 on the back.
I decide it’s best not to get hung up on the dessert conversation. “You’re going to need that custard to recover after your run,” I tell her. “Trust me.”
She cranes her neck up at me and nods sagely, her wispy hair flattened under the headband. “Exactly what I thought,” she says. “Well, here, take my earrings so I don’t cut anyone.” And she hands me a fistful of jewelry.
Against all odds, Ray has managed to get everyone into position. By getting each participant to stay at their spot, there’s less chance someone will forget what they’re supposed to do and wander off. He starts the race by firing a gun full of confetti. I decide I need a confetti gun and start scheming to steal his. Grandma and three other seniors, meanwhile, are on the move. Grandma takes the lead from the start, pushing her walker along at a brisk pace, and things are looking good for Team Banana until the first corner, when a guy who can’t be much more than 70 years old runs by her looking smug. “They’ve brought a ringer!” I scream at no one in particular. “Grandma! Hurry the hell up!”
The man is wearing a pink jersey and looks like an Olympian compared to the rest of the field. Grandma and the rest are only about halfway around the court when he jogs across the finish line and high-fives Manuel. Of course they’re on the same team, I fume. Their team’s football player immediately grabs a football and throws it toward the net, but he’s so excited to be winning that he throws too hard. The ball bounces off the rim and hits the back wall, then rebounds and hits Team Orange’s runner lightly on the calf. The runner stops and looks around curiously, then picks up the ball and keeps running. This seems to give him some motivation and he rounds the fourth corner on the inside, giving Grandma a kind of stiff-arm on the way. She seems unfazed, though. She’s breathing hard but has maintained a surgeon’s focus from the start, and she finishes with Team Apple’s runner.
Because Team Raspberry had to get its football back from Team Orange, those two teams are now head-to-head. They sink their shots simultaneously and turn to their gardeners in one motion. Behind them, our football player Thomas proves his choice to throw the football a good one. Demonstrating the calm of a well-disciplined soldier under fire, he takes the football in his hands, pauses long enough to sight the net, and then sends the ball hurtling through the air. It flies in a perfect spiral and hits the net with incredible velocity; I’m surprised it doesn’t blast right through. Instead, something better happens: the net gets toppled over by the force of the throw, which effectively puts Team Apple out of the race. Their player tosses the football underhand and it lands more or less where the net used to be, which Ray tries to use as an excuse to let them continue. “What!” I scream. “No way! They didn’t get their ball in the net!”
By this point the gardening race has really heated up. There are now three women seated at the raised beds deep in concentration. Their job is to dig up a small plant roots and all, then transfer it into another hole nearby. Each works at the task diligently, wielding trowels and some kind of long forked tool to disengage the plant from the soil. Working quickly, they remind me of waiters carving turkeys at fancy restaurants, or of the chefs at Benihana. Team Orange’s gardener even flips her trowel around her hand at one point like Tommy Lee. She’s clearly the most efficient in her task, and before I know it Team Orange has moved on to the ping-pong competition.
I’d assumed that the cafeteria staff would go pretty easy on the old people. Like, maybe give them one or two rounds and then let them continue. But I was wrong. As each team transitions to the ping-pong tables, they demonstrate resolute determination to defeat the racers. Ping-pong balls pummel the jersey’d players brutally and fly off in all directions, sending Ray and several other staff scurrying around the gym to retrieve them. At first I’m shocked at this, then I start to laugh as the cafeteria staff savagely defends its position opposite the teams. But then I realize I’m missing a great opportunity. As Ray dives off toward a corner after a rogue ping-pong ball, shouting curses at the cafeteria employees, I seize my chance. In a single motion I step to the left, sweep up the confetti gun, and stuff it under my grandma’s sweater on a bench against the wall.
As I look back toward the ping-pong tables, I hear a loud crack! as, in one of those freak moments of random multiplicity, all three balls hit at the same moment. But all of them hit something different: Team Orange’s ball is coming directly at him from the paddle of his opponent; Team Raspberry’s ball seems to have hit the table extremely hard and is now flying vertically into the air; and our ball hit Bill in the face, conveniently bouncing off his glasses, and is now returning to the other side of the table with good speed. Bill’s opponent goes to swipe at it, but then Team Raspberry’s ball, after completing an arc that nearly touched the ceiling, slams down on our table. This throws off the young lady with the hairnet and she misses Bill’s ball completely. “YES!” I scream out. “Good job Bill! Now go, Mark!”
Team Raspberry, confused by the noise and chaos now reigning in the gym, seems to think it scored a point too. Their bowler moves with Mark to start playing. I’m on the verge of freaking out at this injustice when I’m nearly hit by Team Orange’s ping-pong player, who is lumbering toward me like a drunken gorilla in search of his ball. I step to the side just in time and he careens off toward Team Apple’s football player, who is still feebly trying to lift the football net back into position but doesn’t seem to be strong enough. This pleases me, because it means we’re now down to two teams. I turn back to the bowling game, deciding in the same instant to let the two teams continue as they are, because if there’s any dispute at the end I know I can carry the day for Team Banana with a clear explanation Team Raspberry’s corruption.
That’s how you have to handle these kinds of situations: ruthless high-handedness.
The bowling game is relatively tame, and both players roll their two turns without much drama. Team Raspberry scores slightly more points than us, and I want to ask Ray whether or not that will factor into the final outcome. But he seems to have aged several years in the past 10 minutes, and he’s sweating profusely as he sprints over to help put the football net back into place. Before I know it, the attention of the room has turned to the final table, where two ladies have now commenced to solve a Sudoku.
This is a big deal, judging by the intensity of the focus on the two women. A little group has gathered behind them like a panel of judges and is discussing the game in the same quiet tones that golf commentators use. I move over to get a closer look and immediately realize that Martha is now wearing pink. She switched jerseys! “Martha!” I scream at her. “What the f*** are you wearing!”
This gets both their attention. They look up and Martha shrugs complacently. “Pink goes much better with my outfit,” she says. “And Andrea agreed that yellow matches her blonde hair quite nicely.”
I’m apoplectic with rage at this point, but my fury is such that I can’t get any words out. While I sputter, they return to their puzzles and the peanut gallery behind them resumes its commentary. From their comments it sounds like Martha is pulling ahead by using some truly visionary Sudoku tactics. Andrea, now wearing yellow, is no doubt a strong Sudoku-ist, but apparently Martha’s reputation as the Good Samaritan Society’s Sudoku-Master-in-Residence is well warranted. Before I can marshal my thoughts and rectify the horrifying mistake that has taken place, the worst happens. Martha finishes her puzzle and puts the pencil on the table, sending cheers up from Team Raspberry. Manuel appears out of nowhere playing some kind of flamenco tune on the guitar and singing wildly. The pink-clad players stomp in time with the beat and lift Martha up onto their shoulders, parading her around the room like she just won the Super Bowl. Even Teams Orange and Apple get in on this, which is probably a good thing because this definitely looks like a disaster in the making.
Ray apparently thinks the same thing, because he comes blustering up and yelling to put Martha down, but the old folks seem not able to hear him. They march and sing in concert with each other, all the jerseys together now, arm in arm, moving through the gym with Martha on their shoulders as if returning from a successful war campaign. My fury has fizzled into sheer bewilderment at this turn of events, and I’m simply watching, dumbfounded, when I hear behind me a quiet, “What’s this?”
I turn, horror bubbling in my stomach, and see my grandmother near the wall, holding her sweater in one and the confetti gun in the other. She’s holding the gun by the barrel and looking down into it like a telescope. “Grandma!” I scream out, lunging toward her. “NO!”
But it’s too late. The gun goes off. Confetti goes everywhere. My grandmother drops. I catch her just in time and lower her gently to the floor. The room has become completely silent, all celebrations screeched to a halt, but I have eyes only for my wounded grandmother. She lies in my arms, blinking dazedly. Her face, ringed by the headband like a halo, is now a gruesome a mask of multicolored paper. In the center of her forehead, a red mark is growing. I know this is the end.
“Okay, everyone get out of here!” screams Ray. “Give me that gun! You are all terrible! I hate this job! I’m quitting! This event is cancelled, forever!”
And that’s why we can’t play fun games anymore at the Albuquerque Good Samaritan Society Assisted-Living Home.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Ummm, so, happy holidays?! ;-) Care to share any of the equally sensational goings-on of your family and friends this holiday season–half fictions and all?