Chapter 2: New Residents
For the past several months, everything seemed to be running smoothly for Matthew Dudley. This was a very welcome relief after the tragic incidents related to the presence of Stuart Montgomery, the so-called Steward and his Flock of young assistants. The death of two residents had seriously shaken La Vida Aureo and most of the residents were only just now beginning to feel comfortable and secure. Dudley had tried to do his part by spending time with as many residents as possible as he went about his routine maintenance and repair activities. He reassured each person he talked with that all of the problems were temporary and had been the result of what he called outside influences. He spoke of Isabella Duncan’s capabilities and her commitment to the health and well being of the entire La Vida Aureo community. Matthew Dudley believed this himself and had spent many hours talking with Isabella over these past few months about how to reestablish a high level of confidence among the staff and residents.
One afternoon, Dudley had just finished a minor plumbing repair in the casita of Laurence Blackburn, a relatively new arrival. As Dudley was cleaning up the area around the sink and putting his tools away, Blackburn called out, “Say there, Mr. Dudley, have you got a few minutes to visit? I just finished putting some additional photos in my album and I’d like to show them to someone. I promise not to keep you too long or bore you with a bunch my war stories, although most of these photos are from my time in the Army.”
“I certainly do have time, Mr. Blackburn, but I prefer that you call me Doc.”
“You got a deal, Doc, but you’ll have to call me Larry in return.”
“OK, Larry. I’d enjoy seeing your photos and would appreciate hearing the story behind them.”
The two men sat together at the small dining room table as Larry Blackburn opened a rather large photo album. It was readily apparent to Dudley that Blackburn had put considerable effort into organizing his photos and carefully placing them in this loose leaf album. In addition to the photos, there were letters, post cards and newspaper clippings that Dudley assumed pertained to the photographs on that individual page. The first few pages were obviously of Blackburn’s youth. Dudley watched as the obvious pride in Larry Blackburn was tempered by sadness as he studied each page before saying anything.
Blackburn became upset and quietly closed the album. “Some of these are very difficult,” he said. “I know that, in subsequent pictures, some of these guys are missing, and I really need to share this with someone. It would help me to be able to walk through the entire album and talk about each page. For the past few months, I’ve just concentrated on collecting the pieces and organizing them and putting them into the album. I didn’t pay too much attention to any of the individual pictures or letters, etc. But now that everything is in one place, I am able to see the whole story and parts of it are very troubling to me. My mind keeps jumping ahead because I know what happened and some of the future is not very pretty.”
“If it wouldn’t be too much to ask, Doc, I’d appreciate it if you could spare the time to accompany me on this journey. I’m fortunate in that I am not plagued by nightmares or that level of trauma; sometimes the sadness is a bit too much, that’s all.
“I can do that and would be honored. If you were experiencing any severe effects, I’d be the first to help you get some professional support. I’m a good listener, but I’m certainly not a shrink.”
“Not to worry. I really feel for so many of those guys that served in Iraq and Afghanistan that are struggling with PTSD. My tour In Vietnam was difficult, but nowhere as tough as some guys had it. The toughest part was reading about the protests back home and the abuse that so many guys took when they returned home.”
“I never was in the Army. I guess I was lucky that my number never came up in the draft during all those years when so many of my friends were called and most went to Vietnam. I have the greatest respect for all of you and would be honored to share in your experience.”
One afternoon, Paloma was sitting in the main dining room planning her menus for the upcoming week. She had always considered herself to be a very capable cook and took great pride in the variety of meals she prepared. She was well aware of the challenges of preparing meals for the diverse population of La Vida Aureo and was particularly concerned with the declining sense of taste as people aged. Paloma was concentrating on the task at hand and did not notice the woman sitting just a few tables away. It was not until the woman rose to leave that Paloma was interrupted by the sound of the chair on the hardwood floor. As the woman approached, Paloma stood up to introduce herself. “I am so sorry. I did not notice you sitting there. Please forgive me. My name is Paloma Angostura and I am the cook.”
“That is quite alright. I was lost in my own thoughts and did not notice you either. My name is JoAnne Elliott,” she said as she extended her hand.
“I have not noticed you before in the dining room, offered Paloma. Are you new to La Vida Aureo?”
“I moved here almost three months ago and live in one of the newer casitas on the west side of the village. I prepare most of my own meals and have not taken the opportunity to sample your cooking, which has an excellent reputation.”
“That is most kind of you to say that,” blushed Paloma.
“It has just been convenient for me so far. I spend most of my time as a volunteer at the local VA hospital and my schedule can be a bit unpredictable. But, one of my reasons for coming to the dining room today was to inquire about the meal schedule.”
“Please have a seat. Let me see if there is any fresh coffee in the kitchen and I believe there are still some sopapillas available. I made a large batch just a while ago for the house staff and they won’t miss one or two.”
“Please don’t go to any trouble on my part.”
“It is no trouble and I consider all the La Vida Aureo residents as my extended family. Perhaps you can tell me a bit about yourself, if you are comfortable with that.”
Paloma quickly returned with a small carafe of fresh coffee, two china cups and saucers and a small plate of sopapillas and some honey.
“This is most gracious, Señora Angostura. I haven’t had home-made sopapillas in so long”, beamed JoAnne.
“I will not brag, but many people say mine are the lightest they have ever tasted. But, how do you know sopapillas?”
JoAnne sighed. “This is my home. I grew up in Bernalillo, but have been away for most of my life. When I retired last year, my heart told me that I need to return.”
“It is good that you followed your heart back to your home. Why did you leave? Don’t tell me you left with some dashing young man,” said Paloma before she realized that she was recalling much of her own life’s story.
“Just the opposite. I was in love with a beautiful boy who went into the Army and was killed. I could not bear the loneliness so I went as far away as I could. I buried my pain and hurt in a variety of activities for several years. I was very angry at the very notion of war and the lives it destroys. Eventually, I went back and finished college with a degree in psychology and have spent my entire life working for the VA trying to help young men and women returning from war. In some ways, I guess I see my Eduardo in the face of each of these young people.”
“I am sorry to hear about your loss. I can see the compassion in your eyes and I know that you have helped many young people. But, now that you are here, you can become part of the La Vida Aureo community. I know you will meet many truly wonderful people here.”
As Paloma and JoAnne continued to talk, Cesar Ramirez strolled into the dining room. He scanned the room, apparently looking for someone in particular and, spotting JoAnne, walked over to introduce himself. “I have not seen you here before, Pretty Lady; you must be new. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Cesar Ramirez and, if there is ever anything you need, please feel free to call on me. I am at your service.” Then, spotting Paloma’s look of obvious disapproval, Ramirez bowed to JoAnne, turned and quickly walked away.
“That man is not a person you want to know,” frowned Paloma. “He considers himself to be God’s Gift to Women, but he is certainly not a gentleman! Please be very careful around him.”
“Not to worry, replied JoAnne, I’ve learned to read people pretty well over the years and I can tell that he is someone to avoid.”
“On the other hand, here comes one of the most honorable men I know,” said Paloma as she spied Matthew Dudley walking into the dining room. “Let me introduce you.”
“Señor Doc, please sit down and let me introduce you to JoAnne Elliott, a relatively new resident. JoAnne, this is Matthew Dudley.”
“How very nice to meet you Ms. Elliott; welcome to La Vida Aureo. Please call me Doc”
“It is a pleasure to meet you as well, Doc.” JoAnne looked at Paloma and said, “Thank you so much for the coffee and sopapillas. I appreciate your kind words and look forward to spending more time with you in the future. And, you can count on me to show up for regular meals as well.” With that, JoAnne smiled at Paloma and Dudley and left.