I got this job by pretending to be my long-dead, long-faced great-aunt. The credentials I listed are my own—I took the tests and got the degree. But my natural personality is more forlornly fault-finding than therapeutic, so during counseling job interviews I channel my Aunt Renata who called me “a beacon of God’s love” even after I stole her Lincoln Town Car and got pregnant in it.
When I sat down with the director of Sun Porch Retirement Village, I talked about goodness and redemption and I never once mentioned worthiness or bad apples. I put my legit GPA in bold on my resume, and then glanced down at it frequently during the interview to embolden myself and my ability to do an impression of a forgiving spirit who believes people are capable of change.
The facility director, Quinetta, asked me if I had experience working with the elderly.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “In high school I worked at a truck stop and there was a table of older men who never left. They sat in the corner near the bathroom and I always gave them real decaf when they asked for it. Some of the other gals secretly served them regular because they didn’t want to brew a whole new pot. But even then I knew that older people should be listened to, and that their specific needs should not be ignored.”
I didn’t tell her that I was, in truth, one of the gals giving them caffeinated coffee because brown is brown or that I whole-heartedly despised that table of guys who called me “Come ‘ere” and who never left tips since they never left, period.
I also told Quinetta about one of my supervised practicum session clients—a twitchy, tender woman going through the change of life. When she couldn’t sleep at night she went out into her van and pretended to honk the horn. She didn’t want her car’s midnight tooting to wake anyone, so she just brought her fist really close to the horn, over and over, until she felt two notches better. I told the client that was fine.
And now, thanks to this fine caliber of edited anecdotes, plus my good grades and my natural capabilities with demeanor-mimicry and tone-seance, I will start my job as Sun Porch’s group counselor tomorrow morning. I aim to help people connect with their inner truths and with each other. I aim to nod more than speak, to convey compassionate empathy with my eyeballs, and to always pull out of that parking lot by 4:45.
For my first day of work I wear a belted dress, white with a printed pattern of yellow flowers. The white is to symbolize surrendering to the process, the yellow is a nod to fear—whether the deep-seated or the yet-to-arise, and the belt is to draw eyes to my darling waist, which remains steadfastly defined even as the flesh above and below it expands and contracts like an inflatable kiddie pool in summer then winter then summer then winter.
Quinetta leads me into the dining hall and introduces me to the breakfast eaters. I see pink plastic plates in various states of undress and constellations of eyeglasses reflecting the overhead light. “Everyone, this is Candice Verlaine. As of today, she is our new counselor. She’s extremely qualified and experienced, and I’d like you all to give her a warm welcome.”
The residents hold their applause and greetings. They continue chewing and forking—most had stopped looking in our direction even before Quinetta said the word “today.” One man at a back table is holding up his cup of orange juice, but I don’t know whether he is toasting my arrival or asking for a refill.
Quinetta clears her throat and says, “I’m serious, folks. Candice deserves your respect and your genuine participation. We are giving this counseling program one last try but if you…she’s here to help… Let her help. Please.”
She then grabs me by the elbow and pulls me down a hall and away from the dining area before I can make a determination about the intentions of OJ man, on which, I feel certain, my fate hinges.
Quinetta directs us into a room that has a preschool feel, but with chairs made to accommodate bigger, higher butts. “This is the multi-purpose room. Anything can happen in here! This is where you’ll be spending a lot of your time.”
I stare at a paper mache foot that hangs from the ceiling. It has been painted green and the sole bears the words “walk on.” I look at Quinetta’s hair and ask, “What did you mean about this being the last chance for my program?” Her hair contains several Bobby pins and I feel entitled to one of them, maybe because of her information withholding, but I don’t touch them.
She gestures to the chairs at the nearest table, where someone has carved the word “rules” into the tabletop. As we sit, Quinetta says, “We’ve tried to implement the group counseling program twice before. First we had a nice woman, right out of school, whom residents wouldn’t speak to at all. She’d get the participants in a circle and ask them to bring their vulnerability to the circle with them and there they’d sit—round and mum. Just a lot of shifty eye contact and lip licking. She quit the second day in tears, saying she felt like the star of a reality TV show about institutions that was also a horror movie about humanity’s inability to connect.
“After she left, I took different residents aside and tried to understand why they refused to participate. They told me (each in their own way) that they didn’t appreciate a woman their grandkids’ age trying to tell them how to live, seeing as her experience with living was pretty paltry. I explained that she wasn’t telling them how to live, she was only asking them to talk about the life they’d lived so far, to get to the deep truth of it all. And Candice, every time I said the word ‘truth’ there would be a physical reaction from the person I was talking to—they’d bug their eyes or snort or fiddle around with a shirt button. It’s like the truth was on strike and the counselor was a scab, crossing the picket line.
“On the second go-around we went another direction. We hired an older man—closer to their age—who had more of an authoritarian vibe. We thought they’d consider him harder to defy, like maybe he’d remind them of their belt-wielding principal. And, sure enough, they talked to him plenty. On his first day they went on and on about their father’s hours at the chicken plant or how their grandma slapped them for putting a fork with the spoons. They told these stories in great detail and talked all about how it made them feel. When my daughter gave me a Dustbuster for my birthday twenty years ago I felt like she was saying it was time for me to start cleaning up my own messes. That, and because she stopped sweeping the slugs off my porch and bringing me bottles from the liquor store. That kind of thing. Or when I caught my husband of forty years standing in a public fountain and fondling a nude statue I knew it was time for us to rekindle our physical relationship. And how did I feel about that? Dry. Dry but… willing.
“But by day two the giggling started. The stories got even more far-fetched. One of them said he’d always had a sexual fantasy about being boiled into a harder version of himself, like an egg. No one could keep a straight face. It became clear that it was all a performance, that they’d banded together to give us the only truth they could part with—blatant lies.
“Honestly I think they did get some benefit from working together on their little show. I know better than to downplay the health effects of communal laughing. I was willing to let it continue as a tall-tale contest, since my ultimate goal was to boost morale, but the gentleman counselor thought it beneath him to nod along to manufactured emotions. What’s funny is that I think the young woman, the first counselor, would have gone along with this pretend-therapy arrangement. It’s hard to make situations align, isn’t it? But that’s my job. As director.”
Quinetta has been talking for a long time and I have fallen into a sinkhole of regret. I don’t want this job. I’m used to being without health insurance. I’m good at being without health insurance, even—when I sprained my wrist I fashioned a homemade cast out of packing tape and two menstrual pads, which are offered free-of-charge in the public restroom near the outdoor tennis courts. This job isn’t worth the headache. I look Quinetta in the eye and say, “I served them regular coffee. The table of older guys, I dosed them with caffeine.”
She smiles at me like I’m a child who made marker dots all over her skin in an effort to stay home from school. “Too late,” Quinetta says. “Your first group starts in half an hour.”
I’ve been in the bathroom for twenty minutes. Stalling in the stalls. The yellow flowers on my dress look more yellow than they did at home—it’s either the fluorescent lighting or the amplification of the fear they represent.
I try again with my self-centering pep talk. Okay so… I am about to lead a counseling session for a group of people who denigrate the truth. How fitting it is that I lied to get this job. How touching. How easy it is for situations to align.
I need to land on a tactic or a strategy before heading into the multi-purpose room for the session. Should I acknowledge the past antics right away? Should I give them a fresh start, a clean slate, a blank stare? Perhaps I should walk in with threats and belittlement. Maybe I should open with a song.
Someone outside the bathroom calls out, “Ma’am, are you still in there?”
I do not answer. I am a liar, not a bathroom hollerer. I leave the stall, wash my hands and exit the bathroom to find a man and his cleaning cart. The cart holds a mop and full rolls of individually wrapped tp. He eyes my waist and says, “Sorry, but… I saw you go in, and I’ve been waiting for you to come out for quite a long time.”
His face tells me that this is more patience than he offers most, and that I ought to be both grateful and sorry. Meanwhile, the wet blue loops of the mop come up to his shoulder, making him look like he has depressed-Raggedy-Andy for a conjoined twin. I say, “If you must know, I have a nasty UTI. My doctor said she hasn’t seen a case this bad since Elizabeth Taylor.”
He laughs and I wince at the friendliness of the sound. He was supposed to be stunned, not amused. “Wow,” he says, “which stall were you in, lady? Maybe I should scrub it extra.”
He is beaming now. I’ve inadvertently opened myself up to banter. My UTI line was intended to be a conversation-ender, not an open invitation to a chat-and-cackle. It’s my fault, I went too specifically absurd by referencing a dead celeb.
I point my thumb back at the door. “I was in the one closest to the hand dryer. I hope you have bleach.” I walk away quickly before he can volley back a response with the corresponding level of wit. I make sure my shoes clack the floor in self-assured tones and I try not to wonder if, perhaps, something about this building enfeebles my ability to lie in a way that gets me what I want.
The participating residents are already in a circle when I enter the room. They’ve pushed the tables back and brought the chairs forth. I’m waylaid from the start, as the only line I’d rehearsed back in the stall was, “Let’s form a circle.”
They’ve not left me an empty seat and there are too many kinds of shoes being offered toward the middle of the circle in twosies. I remember to smile. As I try to make my smile into a shape that is both trustworthy and stern, I orbit the group with my eyes. So this is the cast of our in-house production of “Whose Lie is It, Anyway?”
I do not judge their faces harshly. Now that I am with them, I get the rather lame sense that we are in this together. Their chins and cheeks appeal more to my sense of let’s-get-this-over-with than as a direct challenge of my authority. I don’t feel opposed to them at all, really. I feel drawn in.
As I take in each face, I am momentarily inhabited—I become each participant during the flicker of eye contact we share. Without moving my body or features (but within my self-perception) I hold my jaw and my wrists the way they do. I narrow or widen my eyes and raise or lower my chin as my hair grows, shrinks, curls and balds. It’s an inner imitation. A motionless morph. It’s an homage—not a lie—because the becoming isn’t even a choice.
This loss of bodily boundaries reminds me of when my daughter was just-born. I hadn’t slept in two days, so they took her to the nursery to let me rest. Every time my eyes closed, I became the baby—hazy but alert. My mouth wanted and my arms went like second-hands on a watch that has no regard for time. My nose became flattened by my own insistently narrow birth canal. That sensation was my hormones letting me know who was important to the survival of the species. Don’t forget the baby! You are no one, husk. You sleep in minutes now, but the baby sleeps in swaths.
What could my hormones be up to now, letting me slip into such late-stage shapes? Maybe my perimenopausal estrogen levels are showing me what lies ahead—where I’ll so soon put my shoes in twosies.
That’s a misfire, estrogen—we could never afford this place.
I retire my smile and decide to speak before I feel ready, just in case a sudden start shocks me into competency. “Good morning. Thanks for getting the circle started. I’m Candice. I’ll be your…”
My mouth blanks but my brain fires a list: counselor, leader, server, foe, guru, employee, buddy-ol-pal, listener, niece, straight-man, truth diviner.
Before I land on who I am to them someone else calls out, “Guide.”
I nod at him, the orange juice man, and say, “That’s right. Thank you.”
I make a big show of pulling up a chair. Instead of picking it up and carrying it, I drag it along the floor so I’m contributing something as the incoming hired professional, even if it’s only a scraping sound. I reach the circle and the people closest to me dramatically scoot their chairs over to make room, which means the people closest to them need to resituate as well. Soon the whole room is loudly scraping their chairs out and back, and the noise reaches such a decibel that I am certain they are mocking me. It’s so loud, I suspect that half the people are standing in place and grinding the chairs into the floor, not to make space, but just to contribute to the ruckus. I mentally accuse them of lying through their seats, but no—everyone’s still in a chair, and the sounds they made were in service of my joining.
I sit and the scraping stops. The shape we’ve made is still technically round but has become jaggedy like a fried egg. This could be to my advantage—broken chains can’t conspire without considerable effort. “Why don’t we start with introductions?”
The woman next to me says, “We’ve all known each other for some time.” She points to a man across from her. “He’s actually my brother-in-law.”
“Right. The introductions would be for my benefit, then. Why don’t we make it into a game?” No one audibly groans but I swear I hear several people swallow at me. “Now hear me out, think of this game as a nod to the history of this group. Quinetta told me about your first couple go-rounds—the not-talking and then the false-telling. And I’ve taken all that on as helpful feedback. It has heavily influenced the way I’m approaching this whole endeavor. Have any of you ever played ‘Two Truths and a Lie?’ You’ll each tell the group three tidbits about your life. Two will be true… or, let’s use the word valid—and one will be made-up. Then the rest of us try to guess which tidbit is fiction.”
The self-identified sister-in-law asks, “What do we get if we win?”
I start to say, “It’s not that kind of a game,” but then I remember how it felt to hold her shape—undefined, graspy. “I could pat you on the head if you’d like?”
She rolls her eyes and sticks out her tongue a tiny bit to show she knows she’s being mocked, but I think we both feel as if I had patted her head. I feel like my counseling program really underplayed “gentle ribbing” as a therapeutic technique.
“Who wants to go first?” A woman in a denim jumper waves both of her hands like she’s trying to stop a full-speed big rig from running over a tricycler. She seems young for the group, not much older than I am. None of them feel much older than me, now that I sit among them. I’d say they range in age from early-sixties to mid-eighties. When I pictured myself here I thought I’d be among those who felt like grandparents—at least two generations removed—but I forgot that time has moved me forward as well. People in retirement homes are more like the age of my parents, my elder cousins, my first grade teachers, my cool aunt. They watched a lot of the same commercials I did.
I nod permission to denim jumper and make a mental note of her volunteering. I’ve always felt that wanting to go first is a cry for help.
“I’m Marla,” she says, “and I’d just like you to know that I was the only one here who told the last guy the truth. I really did work at a car dealership owned by a second cousin of Robert Altman and he really did talk over me every single time I spoke.”
I tell Marla that I believe her, while deciding her clarifications and location both feel misplaced. Groups members in the most jagged seats are forced to lean in or out to see her face, and if we are after the truth then we need clear, plain views. “Why don’t we move you into the center?” I look around for a hot seat. The piano bench will do.
I pick up the wooden bench and carry it against my rib cage, the flat top resting right under my breasts. Seat’s taken. I turn sideways to fit through the hole I’d made by leaving, and set the bench down gently, careful not to make a sound. “There. It’s more ceremonial this way. Marla?”
Marla looks like she has been waiting her whole life for someone to ask her to move to the center of the group, but plays it a little cool by not breaking into a full run. She sits on the bench and puts her thumbs under the shoulder straps of her jumper. “As a child my eyes crossed then went back to normal the very next day, and the doctor said it may have been a stress response to seeing my cat Speedy get hit by the mail truck. Two: When my oldest grandson comes to visit, I pretend I’m less recovered from my stroke than I really am, so he’ll keep his visits brief. I do this for two reasons: I can’t listen to any more about his fitness routine, nor face the depressing sight of his receding hairline. No wonder he’s doing so many pull-ups! Number three: I once made love to a stranger in an outdoor plant nursery. He was an employee there, helping me select which type of low-light flower would replace the collection of rustic mailboxes the previous owners had left on the north side of my house. I guess they’d been folksy plant holders once upon a time, but when we moved in they were just rust-covered, open-mouthed eyesores. The way half of them were leaning over onto the others made them look like a living flock… every community has its pillars.” She nods as if to cue to the orchestra, then adds, “Oh! I was married at the time. I didn’t tell my husband and he never found out and now he’s dead. So is that a foible or a freebie?”
Marla looks around the room with her eyebrows raised but no one pops out a guess. She spoke so quickly, it’s possible that they are just now, in the silence, understanding what she said. I give the lag its moment and then say, “Anyone want to venture a guess as to the lie?”
Marla looks a bit rumpled and confused. She starts to speak but she’s cut off by someone calling out, “Dull grandson!”
“No,” she says, “that’s true. And he was such a thoughtful kid. He used to draw spirals, paper after paper covered in spirals. He wouldn’t even consider learning to write a ‘P’ or a ‘7’—he was devoted to expressing this one shape. He said they were his visions and that he had to write them all down. We thought he was a genius, but I think he was just lacking in imagination. He used his one creative idea on a form that occurs constantly in the world without any guiding hands, and he’s been boring ever since. But wait, did I say—”
A man with droopy shoulders raises his voice above hers. “The sex one! I don’t buy it. Weren’t there other customers? Didn’t you care that they might see your butt? And wouldn’t you have wanted to at least sit across from him in a booth before sleeping with him? I know you better than that! When Mallory Hendrix moved in next to you, you wouldn’t even say “good day” to her until she’d been here three months, and you’d confirmed she didn’t make night noises or ask you how you’d slept each morning? You need a warm-up period! Am I right?”
Marla shakes her head. Her once frenetic movements are now muddled and hesitant—as if speaking out loud expended all her certainty. If she could change out of her jumper and into a flowy prairie skirt, she probably would. “Sorry, Richard. That happened too. I had just weaned m