Dana had a medical appointment at 12:45. She asked, 'Could we do brunch instead of lunch?'
I hadn't seen Dana in over a month, so despite the fact my digestive system wants nothing but coffee until at least noon, I agreed. 'Joe Crackers patio at eleven. Got it.'
Of course, I arrived first. I always do. Call it some kind of compulsion. I'm not just punctual, but arrive everywhere ten to fifteen minutes early. Hey, we are who we are, and I'm too old to try to change my ways.
At five to eleven I heard a voice from the parking lot. 'Hey, Lynda!' She waved. 'How do I get in?'
I pointed in the direction of the front door and watched as she walked along the line of cars and out of sight, only to reappear two minutes later walking through the restaurant toward me. She arrived at the table along with a waft of some spicy scent, sat down and flashed her incredible smile. 'So girl,' - she drawled out the 'girl' -- 'how you doing?'
Dana had come to Florida from Atlanta after her husband's death in the military twenty years ago. Those years had done little to erase the soft almost demure manner of speech that often seems to disguise the fact she's one of the strongest and most intelligent women I know.
'I'm good,' I told her. 'You?'
'Sugar,' she began, 'I have got to tell you about my afternoon yesterday.'
'Please do,' I said.
And she did.
Dana first saw the old woman when she walked into the Charlotte County Administration Building. There she was, a frail, cotton-topped, wizened little thing dressed up in one of those 'old-lady' outfits, a printed floral tee shirt and Capri pants with a matching applique on the lower leg, both in a pale, pastel green. From a distance she looked like an animated after-dinner mint.
Something's up here, Dana thought, watching the old girl accost one person after another only to get a shrug or a mumbled, “Excuse me.”. Each encounter left her looking more disoriented and panicked.
'I should have minded my own business,' Dana told me with a rueful shake of her head. 'But I couldn't leave her like that.'
'Of course not,' I replied, knowing Dana is the coordinator for geriatric social services at F------- Memorial Hospital, and a truly dedicated and caring person.
'So I walked up to her and said, 'Ma'am, can I help you?'...'
The woman stared at her wide-eyed for an instant. 'Go away.'
'Ma'am,' Dana repeated, handing her a business card. 'I'm a social worker, an advocate for the elderly. You seem lost. Are you sure you’re all right?'
'Help!' the old bat screeched, spreading her hands wide in an appeal to the people walking in and out intent only on whatever business had brought them to the county office. They all averted their eyes and quickened their pace. 'Help!'
Dana stood, silent and dumbfounded.
A security officer, a large white man walked over. 'What's the problem here?'
Apparently now at ease in the presence of the guard, the woman thrust a paper at him. 'I need to go to this address.'
The guard read for a moment. 'You want the Department of Agriculture. Not in this building. Now, go out onto Murdock Circle, back to Highway 41, and take a right. About three lights down you'll see....'
He was still giving directions to the obviously uncomprehending old woman when Dana turned to attend to her own affairs, the Department of Motor Vehicles.
"Time to renew my driver's license," Dana explained. "You'd think as I'd held a Florida drivers’ permit for twenty years, doing so would be almost automatic, but no. Now I have to prove who I am by way of birth certificate or passport and my place of residence with two specimens of correspondence from either a bank or a utility company addressed to me, and the previous license. What a nightmare!' She sipped at her ice tea. 'You know I live with a roommate, and all the paper work's in her name. I called them ahead of time and asked, 'Tell me exactly what I need to show you. Their only answer was 'Bring in what you've got and we'll see if it's okay.' Does this make sense?' She shook her head and rolled her eyes. 'So I go with everything I can think to take and ---'
The line was at least forty people long. Good thing she'd taken the entire afternoon off, though she hardly planned on spending it in the DMV. No point in getting worked up over that which cannot be changed. She took a number, sat down and waited her turn.
An hour later, and with the instruction to bring in a letter from her landlady -
'Don't you think they could have told me that ahead of time?'
- she walked back out to the foyer.
The same old lady was sitting on a bench, her snowy-white head bent, eyes staring at her hands.
Dana walked by. Let the old bitch take care of herself, she thought in a spurt of anger, and suffered a stab of guilt. Didn't she work with the elderly every day? Shouldn't she, more than anyone else, understand they are not always accountable for their actions? Poor old souls, their minds were often not their own. Just as she was about to turn back and tend to woman, her thoughts were interrupted.
'You!' A bony finger pointed at her.
'You said you'd help me.' The wrinkled face pulled down in a pout. The sunken eyes blazed.
'She couldn't bring herself to ask politely.' Dana laughed. 'No, she sat like the Queen of England, waiting to be served.'
'What did you do?' I asked, knowing I'd tell her to piss-off and leave her where I found her, but Dana wouldn't.
'I said, 'Certainly, ma'am. I'd be happy to take you where you need to go.'
The old woman got to her feet. For the first time, Dana noticed the cane. Poor old thing. She offered her arm for support.
Again, the woman glared at her and spurned the offer. 'I hope your car's not far,' she whined.
It wasn't. Dana's Sebring was parked only six slots down. She unlocked the passenger door, waited for the frail old body to settle in and left the door open. 'Until I get the A/C going,' she explained. With both doors wide inviting any breeze to enter, she started the car.
'How did you get here?' Dana asked.
'I drove.' She pointed to a near-vintage Cadillac in a handicapped parking spot. 'You'll bring me back here when we're done,' she instructed.
Now both intrigued and perversely amused, Dana said, 'Yes, ma'am. Where are we going?'
A liver spotted hand passed her a letter carefully folded into thirds with only the top showing. 'This address.'
Florida Department of Agriculture, Dana read and noted the address, and the addressee: Mrs Rose Mahoney, Cape Coral, Florida. Re: application #2975A514-04-11..... 'You're Rose?' She was about to open the letter and read further, when it was snatched from her grasp.
'Mrs. Mahoney,' the old woman corrected in a waspish tone and closed the door. 'Let's go.'
'Do up your seat-belt,' Dana said, ignoring the woman's sour expression and maintaining eye contact until the request was fulfilled. Only then did she put the car in reverse, back out and head to Tamiami Trail. 'So what brings you all the way from Cape Coral?' she said, hoping to start a conversation and satisfy her growing curiosity.
'With the Department of Agriculture?' Dana smiled, trying to envision the frail old body working in the fields and unable to picture such an improbable scene.
'Not that it's any of your business,' Mrs Mahoney began, 'but I'm to be fingerprinted.'
'For what?' Dana stopped for a red light and took the opportunity to examine the old woman more closely. She must be in advanced dementia. Who gets fingerprinted by the Department of Agriculture? And why?
'And her answer blew me away.' Dana took a bite of her sandwich and chewed slowly.
'Come on. Swallow. Tell me,' I said, impatient with Dana's slow moving story-telling style.
She washed down the food with a sip of tea, her eyes sparkling with satisfaction. She put down her glass and stared directly into my face, relishing the moment. 'A concealed weapon permit.'
'You're not serious!'
'That's pretty much what I said.'
'Yes,' said Mrs Mahoney. 'We all applied.'
'All us girls at Flamingo Lakes. We live alone in our houses. You never know. Old ladies like us are sitting ducks, and the idiots in the gate house let anyone into the community. We discussed it and we decided we should all buy guns.'
'Oh.' Dana couldn't think of a single thing to say and opted for nothing.
They were approaching the building they wanted, but frontal access from the highway involved over-shooting the address and a U-turn at the next lights. She decided to turn left early and use the alley.
'Where are you taking me?' screamed the old woman, undoing her seat belt and cowering against the door. 'Let me out!' She glared at Dana through fear-lit eyes.
'Calm down,' Dana said and tried to explain this was the easiest approach.
'This is why I need a gun,' Mrs Mahoney shouted. 'So I can defend myself when I'm dragged into an alley by some ---'
'Honey, she used the N-word.'
'You mean nice?' I offered.
'I most certainly do not.'
Dana slammed on the brakes, angry at last. 'What is it you think I'm going to do to you? Look lady, I'm here trying to help you - God knows why - and I've given you my afternoon off - again, God knows why. You want out? Go ahead, get out.'
Mrs. Mahoney's demeanor changed instantly. She slumped in the corner. 'I don't know where I am..' A couple of tears trickled down the gray, wrinkled cheek. ‘You can't leave me here.’
No, I suppose I can't, Dana thought, her anger disappearing as quickly as it rose.
'You're a saint,' I told Dana, with no trace of sarcasm, I hoped.
'She was completely disoriented, paranoid and unable to follow the most basic of directions. Just another half-crazy old woman suffering the ravages of old age. How could I leave her there? I drove her to the entrance and told her this was where she wanted to be.'
'Will you come in with me?' Rose Mahoney asked in the sweetest of voices. 'I'm scared,' she added with a touch of plaintiveness.
'All right.' Dana pointed to the entrance. 'Go inside and wait while I park the car.'
'You won't leave me here?'
'No.' Dana sighed. 'I won't leave you here.'
The frightened old woman disappeared and the imperious lady returned. 'Open the door for me.'
Resigned and disbelieving, Dana escorted Mrs. Mahoney into the building, 'Wait here I'll be right back,' parked and walked her into the office.
'I'm Rose Mahoney,' said Rose Mahoney as she handed the clerk the letter.
Dana took a chair and watched, feeling much like Alice in Wonderland, as the old woman was fingerprinted and the final step of her permit to carry a concealed weapon was completed with no questions asked by anyone representing Charlotte County. She walked Mrs Mahoney back to the car and started the return drive to the DMV where the old Cadillac waited.
'Tell me,' Dana asked. 'Why did you have to come all the way from Cape Coral to Port Charlotte to do this? Wasn't there a place down there?'
'Yes,' said Mrs Mahoney. 'But Lee County wouldn't give me a permit. They refused me.'
'And Charlotte County did,' I said, shaking my head in disbelief.
'Didn't even blink an eye. On the drive back I told her...'
'You be careful with that gun. You do understand the law states an attacker has to be in your home before you use your weapon and --'
'Not anymore,' Rose Mahoney interrupted. 'That law has changed. They could be on my lawn.' The droopy old mouth turned up in a smile. 'Or coming at my car while I'm out, or ....' She went on, clearly enjoying the many scenarios in which she'd be justified in shooting someone. 'I learned all this in the class they made us go to.'
'You had to take a class for the permit?'
'An hour on Saturdays,' Mrs Mahoney said. 'We went together. All us girls from Flamingo Lakes.'
'I can tell you one thing.' Dana finished her sandwich. 'I'm staying out of Cape Coral.'
(Another completely true story from my neighborhood. Only the names have been changed to protect the author.)