In September of 2013, I was bored. I’d spent the past nine months killing at Words With Friends, but never writing a word.
A friend said, “Why don’t you do a reader’s theater class? It’s big in the elementary schools.”
“People are busy,” I said. “Kids do reader’s theater at school. Would such a simple thing attract anyone with a gajillion TV channels, the Internet, and cell phones to play with?”
She said, “Try seniors. They need some fun besides BINGO.”
So I dusted off my trusty laptop and adapted “A Christmas Carol” to a play format and peddled it to the local assisted living as a program to produce a forty-five-minute play every two months. To my surprise, the activities director accepted my offer. A retired teacher friend offered to help me wrangle the seniors. In her words: “Working with seniors is like working with kids. Or herding cats.”
Unsure about it all, I was amazed when eight octogenarians and nonagenarians showed up at the first class meeting. As we practiced, two ladies seemed pretty Alzheimer’sy. I gave them shorter parts.
My trusty helper sat by them and poked them when it was time to read. “You read only the yellow words, Mathilda.”
Mathilda would then read, “Tiny Tim: God Bless us, every one!” Bless her heart.
Jane would dither, “Where are we? Am I on the right page?” (She never was.)
But no matter. We enjoyed including them, and they sang well.
Once my earnest seniors started reading in their gravelly or high, thin voices, the play was like a glacier, barreling slowly, but with deceptive strength, towards its denouement.
I could barely squeeze in a note—“Speak louder? Clearer? Repeat that, please?”—between their inexorable lines.
Sitting all spiffily dressed with their walkers lined up to one side, their hands fiercely clutching the pages of the script, their glasses firmly in place, these beaky bulldozers pressed forward with determination and occasional giggles. If they messed up words or delivery or song tempo, they’d soldier on.
Can’t reach ninety without perseverance.
We started with scripts printed on both sides, stapled in the corner. This caused some confusion and arthritic flapping of pages until we went to booklet format. I always tailor the scripts to the vocabulary easiest for them to read aloud. At first, for every reprinting, I laboriously highlighted every part for every character in the 32-page scripts by hand. Now, my two-sided color printer and highlighting macro for Word do the job super fast.
Readers have come and gone (sometimes to heaven), but reader’s theater is still fun for everyone. I’ve stocked up on costume hats and feather boas for performances. We have a blast putting on the plays. And the need for 4500-5000 words of funny script (including songs and sound effects) every two months has gotten me back to daily writing. I’ve adapted six plays, written five original plays and published two old manuscripts since 2013.
Win, win. Thanks, seniors. It’s been fun.
Here’s an excerpt of Roll with the Punches:
I was just getting ready to call Marian’s copyright lawyer, Jack Pruitt, at lunchtime when my cell phone rang.
“Rhonda? Is that you?” said an older female voice.
“Yep. This is my cell phone.”
“It’s Arlene, honey. You don’t happen to know where your dad is, do you?”
Alarm bell. “No. He should be in Anaheim, at home.”
Polite Arlene minced words. “Well, Corliss Greene was with him this morning, but your father, well, maybe … kind of yelled at her or something. Your mother told her to make cereal for his breakfast, but Harold insisted on making eggs and bacon. I think it may have ended in kind of a … well, a food fight. Then he wanted to go see your mother right away, but Corliss was still cleaning up the kitchen. He got real impatient, I believe he swore some, and he took off, she thought for a walk. That was about 9:30 or so. She called me at my job an hour later when she realized he’d taken the car. She said she couldn’t work for a man with a mouth like that. She quit.”
Stomach sinking, I said, “So did he go see my mother?”
“He never showed up there. Nobody knows where he went. I got some neighbors to look in the neighborhood, but no luck. Your mother told me not to bother you, but it’s been almost three hours, and I’m really worried.”
Oh boy. Orange County was a giant place, and Dad was loose in it.
“I’m coming. Try the local donut shops, okay?”
Stooped, gray Marla in her stout librarian’s shoes was deeply unhappy at my leaving work early on a Friday, but I finally got a hall pass and flew back to Anaheim in my little Honda, like Boudicca in her chariot, ready to save her royal ancestor. On the way, I stopped at my condo for some fresh ice packs.
The Santa Ana winds had intensified overnight to produce a hot, dry, hazy October day. During my drive, my head filled with a blast of acrid wood smoke blowing in from wild fires in the hills near Silverado and Modjeska Canyons. My eyes watered and my nose ran. It was the type of day we Southern Californians used as an excuse for arson, murder, and bad hair.
When I pulled up at the curb outside the folks’ house, I had already peeled off my green linen jacket. I ran inside. A quick tour of the suffocating house revealed no sign of Music Man, not even the old blue Chevy in its normal mooring place. In the middle of the family room, I slammed my bag on the brown shag carpet, shed all my clothes except my underwear, and screamed loudly. Then I flipped on the cranky old air conditioning, crouched low under the kitchen window and Arlene’s visual radar, and slapped together a peanut butter sandwich at the kitchen countertop, all the while trying to read Dad’s mind.
Where are you, you old coot?
But my sports bra and underpants were soaked with sweat. So I popped them in the microwave and found a chunk of ice to rub on my stomach and chest and stood in front of the family room air vent feeling quite free in an odd sort of way. The hall mirror showed me a slightly rounded Roman statue of Pomona, goddess of fruit, come to life. Me. Au naturel. I posed a second for the glass. Not bad, except for the dorky sandals.
Then, just like my karate-loving brothers at age five, running around with weenies flapping at bath time, my lack of clothes freed the real Pomona inside me. I stretched like a cat, working out muscle stiffness, and danced a swirly, twirly dance around the room. As I did, my goddess energy shifted more toward Athena in battle, throwing air punches at the mirror and striking defensive stances. I snatched a pot lid for my shield and lashed out with a stirring spoon, my spear, then whirled and stuck the butcher knife deep into my imaginary opponent’s invisible heart. A high kick at his compadres with my magic sandal finished the job.
Which was when Dal walked in the garage door and got a comprehensive view of everything I had to offer. Faster than a speeding bullet, I was down the hall, leaving the spoon and butcher knife suspended in mid-air like in Tom and Jerry cartoons. Then silence. For long minutes.
“Could you throw me my bra? It’s in the microwave,” I finally yelled.
Pause. It sailed down the hall.
I waited. “And my underwear?”
It came after another pause, with elastic now as limp as old celery.
“You nuke elastic?” he said.
“Never,” I yelled. “Clothes?”
“Why?” He laughed.
When I came out in Mom’s robe, he was rooting in the fridge. “This house has unexpected and wondrous views.” he murmured to the lettuce.
“Mm-hmm,” I agreed, appreciating my view of a tightly muscled rear end and some long, sleek, brown legs disguised in old cut-offs and Nikes. Not bad. “Forget what you saw or you die.” I bit into my sandwich.
He closed the fridge and turned, imperious with all that startling nose. A smile quirked his lips. “Not sure it’s possible,” he said, then laughed.
* * *
After I’d changed, I found him out on the driveway, unloading his over-stuffed silver Toyota. “Have you seen my dad?” I asked, holding a cold Coke to my forehead. It was still mercilessly hot out.
He was arranging an armload of long metal pipes, two-by-fours, saws, and other tools, including some evil-looking axes, on and around the workbench in the garage, ponytail wagging as he bent and lifted.
“No, I just got here. Your car was here and the garage door was open. So I …” He stacked a giant plastic bin full of scrap metal on top of a pile next to the workbench.
I said, “Listen, Music Man took off in the car three hours ago. No one knows where he is.” A little frantic note crept into my voice.
He stopped and looked at me. “Music Man?”
“Dad. Harold Hamilton, Harold Hill. He was in the school play.”
“He’s not at the hospital?”
“Never went there. He’s been gone for hours.”
“And your little naked dance in there was aimed at getting him home fast?” He frowned.
“I was nuking my underwear. I couldn’t call the police naked.” I pulled out my phone and dialed the police as I spoke, and got put on hold.
“Why not? People do it all the time.”
He gave me a measuring look. “You seem relieved.”
He shrugged. “He’s wandered off. Pardon my bluntness, but isn’t that a perfect excuse to put him in assisted living and not have to deal with him anymore?”
“What the—! Who asked you? See, I work for a living. I can’t be here every minute. And I didn’t lose him. He took off.” The police operator finally picked up, and I barked out all the pertinent information into my phone, including Dad’s driver’s license and license plate number. I’d memorized them long ago.
Dal’s eyes were unreadable. “Was he alone this morning?”
Hanging up, I turned on him, blood in my eye. “You mean did I leave him alone just to give him the chance to wander off so I’d have an excuse to commit him? Boy, are you a snake.” I stomped into the house to get my purse and an apple.
He was waiting in the yard, an eyebrow raised, when I got back outside.
I burst out, “Look, everyone says he’s fine. The doctor said he should stay home, and he agrees. So we’re trying that. He doesn’t want a keeper, but he takes off when he’s left alone. At least in one of those assisted living places, we could locate him. But why am I talking to you? According to you, whatever I do with him is wrong.” I got in my car and slammed the door. My butt bruises screamed. I’d forgotten to bring an ice pack.
He stood impassive in the yard, arms crossed.
I wrestled with my seat belt, still grumbling. “He was so obnoxious that his companion left today. But I’m the one to blame! The doctor assured me—” The seat belt would not unroll. “—all Dad needed was a normal life.” Tug. “At home to get past the stress—” Tug. “—of Mom’s surgery and my sister’s moving.” I looked up and he was gone. I fought the damn thing for several minutes and got as manic as my sister on prom day.
Then suddenly he appeared at the driver’s side window and shoved three more cold Cokes at me. “Move over. I’ll drive.”
“This is my car, and someone needs to be at the house in case he comes home.”
“The neighbor’s right next door, and you’re too mad to drive.”
“A minute ago you blamed me for leaving him alone,” I complained, scooting over painfully. I hated women who always handed over the steering wheel whenever a Y chromosome entered a car. But I was too hot and frustrated for more protest.
The seat belt worked like silk for him, and he swung the car into the street. “Is there somewhere we should check, some favorite place where he might spend three hours?”
I held a Coke to my rib cage, then took a swig.
He said, “Some restaurant? A library? A bar? The beach?”
“That’s it!” I said. “The beach. He loves the beach. There are only a few thousand miles of that to search.”
In 2005, my dad died of Alzheimer’s. It had been a long 4 years with him, or the guy masquerading as him, using his body, moving from place to place. No place seemed just right for him.
Later that year, still processing this huge issue, I sat down and started writing this book. In the book, I wanted romance and adventure and a mystery and a light feel. I got that, but Dad showed up in the book too, but not really Dad. A much larger, more expansive, more fun version of Dad, one I think he would approve of. Orange County showed up in the book too, in very large, distinctive, rather earth-moving ways.
I hope you like the book. Its title is Roll With The Punches, and I’ve been working on it for 10 years.
This is so exciting!!!!!