May 7, 2024

“Complete Stop” by Frank Diamond

“Complete Stop” by Frank Diamond

*Image courtesy of Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash*

Frequent contributor Frank Diamond honors us again with another one of his amazing pieces. Take a look at “Complete Stop,” where our elderly protagonist is faced with making a very important life decision.

Margaret Johnson should know better. She’s driving through Lakelock Manor Borough, after all. Infamous suburban speed trap. But at 10 in the morning? She comes to an intersection, stops (a “rolling stop” the cop would contend), sees nothing in any direction except a parked SUV. Margaret continues on her way, and suddenly the SUV U-turns and tailgates her, headlights flashing the way undercover police cars do. She pulls over.

“I am going to meet my husband, officer,” Margaret explains to this kid who’s about as old as her eldest grandchild. “He’s in Grantmyer Groves.”

In other words not just any nursing home but one specifically catering to patients with dementia.

Come on now, sonny! Give the nice lady a break!

“Well, I’m sorry to hear that, ma’am,” the cop says, taking her license and registration. He walks back to his car. In her sideview mirror, she sees him enter data into his console computer. When the cop returns, he hands her the ticket. 

Two hundred dollars? Holy guacamole!

“I was hoping for just a warning,” Margaret says. “You know, we…”

She stops herself from mentioning that she and her husband, Dylan, contribute each year to both the Police Benevolent Association and the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. They never bothered to affix the bumper stickers they’d gotten from those organizations because they value their privacy but, more importantly, believe that giving should be done in secret. 

“You were saying, ma’am?”

“I’ll come to a complete stop for now on, officer. Promise.”

“That’s good, Margaret. I’ll bet that a lot of people would miss you terrible if you got killed on these highways.”

Margaret? Mrs. Johnson to you!”

“May I go?”

He tips his cap and heads back to his sneaky tinted-windowed Ford SUV that looks nothing like a cop car.

Margaret bangs the steering wheel when he drives off. She always felt that a rolling stop should be considered a minor traffic violation, on a level perhaps with failing to wear a seatbelt. 

It should be banned from the English language! From every language, even signing! 

However, even as she vents, the objective side of Margaret understands that this incident doesn’t even rise to the level of a minor annoyance, what with everything else going on in the world. She tries not to watch the news, but you’d have to have been living in a cave to not understand that interesting times prevail. Interesting as in everything’s going to heck.

I can’t worry about the planet. I’ve got enough personal concerns on my mind. 

These days mostly Dylan’s on her mind. 

They met about 30 years ago at a grief counseling group sponsored by their church. Commiseration became connection. Dylan came to Gus’s funeral, and Margaret returned the favor by attending Betty’s. 

The photo by the urn of ashes at Betty’s service revealed a woman with a winning smile and an arresting mane of red hair. Margaret’s a brunette for most of her life thanks to DNA, and in recent years owing to the artful ministrations of her stylist.

Margaret and Dylan both have two children, and back then they were teens so they traded war stories. They dated. Fell in love. Stopped dating because Dylan kept pining for Betty, looking as sad as a dog that’s been abandoned.

That stage ended and they eventually married. Which doesn’t mean that Dylan totally shook free from grief. No, it clung to him for years; undetected, he supposed, but of course Margaret knew. Cognitive decline in the last few years they lived under the same roof loosened his tongue, and Dylan’s secret mourning became not so secret anymore. 

“Where’s Betty? Where’s my Betty?”

“She’ll be here soon, Dylan,” Margaret would say, and that would calm him down at first but the magic of that mantra wore off, and she eventually decided that he needs the type of 24/7 care that she could not provide. 

Margaret carries a different story. She stuck it out with Gus for the kids. He abused her physically and emotionally. Nonetheless, Margaret felt bad about not feeling bad enough when Gus died. The kids mourned, but more for the father they thought they’d seen inside the monster, the father they believed existed but who never showed himself, the kindly Doctor Jekyll trapped within the raging Mr. Hyde.

Then came Act II.

Dylan and Margaret’s children and friends and extendeds called Dylan and Margaret’s wedding one of the best parties they’d ever attended. All these years later the kids see Dylan as much as possible. In fact, the one who lives nearby visits often. 

Margaret comes about three times a week. Often just to eyeball him for a half-hour or so. Just enough to let the staff know that she’s watching. One time she stayed for nearly three hours over one of the holidays but that’s the most she’d ever done and if she stays an hour it counts as a long visit for her. That’s about all Margaret can take, especially these days. 

Because these days there is competition. The other woman. It’s similar to situations that have been reported on. Many people know. The dementia sufferer forgets who his or her spouse is and falls in love with somebody else, usually a fellow patient.

It’s painful. People in Margaret’s situation — wives and husbands — say that even though it hurts, they’re happy that the person has found some comfort in another human soul.

Well, OK, good for them. But Margaret Johnson doesn’t like it. Nope. Not one bit. It’s not a rational reaction, she knows, but since when is love rational? 

“Calm yourself,” Margaret thinks as she pulls into Grantmyer Groves’s parking lot. She does one of the breathing exercises she’d seen on YouTube. A cloud passes over and dims the light on this winter day. The forecasts for tomorrow call for snow, sleet, rain, on a morning-to-night loop that brings it back around to snow again. Margaret won’t visit Dylan until that’s all melted away. A few years back she fell and broke her wrist, and it could have been a lot worse.

Come on, Margaret.

She grabs the bag and heads toward the entrance.

“He’s in a good mood today, Mrs. Johnson,” the receptionist behind the glassed-in counter tells Margaret. 

Margaret smiles, holds up the bag, and the girl feigns applause.

“You make the best brownies, Mrs. Johnson!”

Margaret says, “Just be sure that…”

“I know. Two’s the limit for Mr. Johnson because of the diabetes. The rest is for us. The staff. And we just love them!”

“Well, then I’ll just have to keep bringing them,” Margaret says as she signs the visitors book. The girl slides a post-it identifier under the glass, which Margaret sticks to her blouse.

“Good mood you say?” Margaret asks. She knows what that means.

The girl looks at the book as if it’s the first time she’s seen Margaret’s signature.

“Yes, Mrs. Johnson.”

When Margaret enters the hallway, she’s hit by the scent of bleach and ammonia. At least they make an effort to keep things tidy here. No musty odor that barely disguises the urinary and fecal incontinence that wafts through the halls of too many nursing homes.

Margaret greets staff she passes, some by first names and the others with a smile. Arriving at Dylan’s room she peeks into the doorway, then quietly creeps by the snoozing roommate. 

Dylan’s not here. She turns and strides down the hall to the little lounge area that anyone hardly ever uses and there sits Dylan. They spruced him up today. He wears a blue golf shirt that complements his eyes underneath a muted orange cardigan, along with beige kakis. He could be dressed for a church social. Or a date.

His chair tilts toward an empty one to his right which tilts toward him. A little end table stands between them. Someone on staff must have set this up. 

Dylan stops talking to the empty chair when Margaret enters.

“Hello?” he says. He’s getting worse; but of course he is. It’s degenerative, only going in one direction. Not too long ago, he remembered that he knew Margaret from somewhere. Now a blank stare, blank smile, blank everything. Blanks that cannot be filled in.

Margaret places two of the brownies on a napkin next to Dylan. She bends and kisses his forehead. Dylan jerks back, steals a look at the empty chair.

“She’s my nurse,” he explains to the chair.

Margaret knows by now not to puncture his illusions. 

“And how is Dylan today?” she asks.

“Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine. Fine.”

“Shhh!” Margaret says, and immediately feels bad because Dylan pouts, reminding her of a scolded toddler. She adds, “I am glad that you’re fine, Dylan.”

“She’s happy we’re fine,” he says to the chair. “Isn’t she a nice nurse?”

Margaret pulls up a seat opposite him and listens to the jabbering he directs to the chair, some of which she understands. 

After about 10 minutes of being ignored, Margaret stands and walks to the window. The day grows darker just as the weather people predicted. Did the groundhog see his shadow last week? She’ll have to Google that. She’ll also have to look up what it means if he did or didn’t. She always forgets.

Meanwhile, Dylan’s lost in conversation with the chair. “Yes.” “Of course.” “I don’t like that man.” “You and me, sweetheart.”

Sweetheart? He never called me sweetheart.

Dylan gains some semblance of lucidity when he starts in on his “remember whens.” Only a few Dylan/Margaret plotlines surface, and she knows that somebody else plays Margaret in these scenes. 

“Remember the cruise to Alaska?” “Remember when we copped tickets to see Hamilton?” “Remember those great discussions we had in the book club?”

Most “remember whens” are not Dylan/Margaret plotlines.

“Remember when we hiked in the Appalachians?” “Remember when we skied on Mount Oliver, and how great that hot chocolate tasted afterward?” “Remember how every year we trained to run the 10K marathon in the city?” “Remember when we drove all the way down to Florida that time?”


“I’m leaving you now,” Margaret cuts in.

“Oh, goodbye Nurse….”

“Margaret’s my name. Margaret Johnson.”

“We’re so pleased to make your acquaintance, Margaret Johnson.”

As she walks toward the door, he calls out, “Oh Johnson?”

Margaret turns.

“Yes Johnson?”


“Yes Dylan?”

“Could you maybe leave a couple of your brownies here for Betty?”


Margaret once again fights the urge to tell him that Betty’s long dead and gone. Just another fossil. Once again, she restrains herself. Margaret knows that soon Betty too will be exiled from Dylan’s dwindling mental capacity and not too long after that Dylan will die, and everybody who truly loves him will give thanks that he’s finally at peace. 

Margaret knows what she’ll do when she gets home. Over the years, she transferred their tapes of special occasions onto DVDs just to remind herself that Dylan once loved her and spoke her name as though it was some precious code. And in a way it was. They shared over 30 wonderful years together. 

She remembers, even if he doesn’t.

“I’ll leave Betty some brownies at the nurses station,” Margaret says.

Margaret wishes she could deal better with this; that she could thank the illusionary Betty for bringing some peace to Dylan. 

It’s difficult.

After the first few times, one of the staff asked her, “Did he know a Betty?”

“Yes,” Margaret responded curtly.

Nobody ever asked her about Betty again. They figured it out. And when she walks through the corridors, she sometimes senses pitying eyes following her. She wishes she could become invisible. 

Why does she even put herself through this? It’s a question she’s asked herself ever since Betty’s resurrection. The answer has always been some riff on the “in sickness and in health” vow. She also thinks that if the roles had been reversed — if she’d been the one with dementia — Dylan would be just as steadfast. Would he, though? And could she blame him if not? 

Dylan doesn’t even know I’m alive at this point. He barely knows he’s alive.

As she heads to the main lobby, Margaret feels her face burning with sorrow and embarrassment. Suddenly anger, as well, because she reaches into her coat pocket and feels the traffic ticket that she’d been slapped with on the way over. 

Rolling stop indeed! 

That’s four demerit points, which not only hikes her monthly insurance payment, but puts her only two additional points away from having her license suspended. 

With her unblemished driving record, Margaret knows that she should be able to get it knocked down to a non-moving violation. However, that will probably involve having to hire an attorney and she’ll still have to pay the two hundred dollars.

She’s learned her lesson, though: Come to a complete stop.

As Margaret signs out, the receptionist says — as always — “have a great day, Mrs. Johnson,” and the girl probably doesn’t notice that Margaret doesn’t respond, as always, “See you soon.”

Instead, this time Margaret says, “Goodbye.”

Frank Diamond’s poem, “Labor Day,” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize Award. His short stories have appeared in RavensPerch, the Examined Life JournalNzuri Journal of Coastline College, and the Fredericksburg Literary & Art Review, and the Fictional Café among many other publications. He lives in Langhorne, Pa.

#Dementia#fiction#frank diamond#short story#Traffic stop
1 comment
  • Jim R says:

    What a lovely story! Now I know some of Emily’s excellent writing skills came from you, as well as Kate.

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