When most of the world is asleep, Darla Jones wanders through the dim halls of Miller’s Merry Manor nursing home, fighting to stay awake.
It is eerie at night, buzzing with an unnatural quietness. Moonlight sifts through the blinds, pooling on the floor as Darla attends to her duties. She goes from room to room changing her residents’ briefs, slipping the fresh one between their legs, turning them over and securing the sticky tabs from back to front.
A call light flashes, beckoning Darla to another room. The woman asks her for a Pepsi.
The woman is capable of the small tasks, but she is always pressing the call light. While other nurses think she is just lazy, Darla searches within and chooses empathy. She imagines this is what she might do if she were here, if she were lonely but too proud to say it aloud.
She takes the woman to the nurse’s station and sets her in a recliner. Darla brings her cookies and sits next to her. She explains as she folds laundry that she has a sweet tooth — sugar has replaced alcohol in Darla’s newly sober life.
Darla talks endlessly, occasionally pulling other nurses into the conversation, filling the night’s silence with the stories of a life filled with adventure, heartbreak and horrible dates. Her stories never resolve; they dance around a meaning, crash into a sudden turn and end with another beginning, ceasing only when the sun rises and the fluorescent lights come on and Darla collapses at home, ready to get some sleep.
In the mobile home park where Darla lives, children play football in the road and relish the breezy autumn weather. Cars roll obediently through the park, slowing as they approach the speed bumps and pulling into patchy gravel driveways with lawns full of flags: the Stars and Stripes, “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Fuck Biden.”
In a town of 9,000 nearly halfway between Bloomington and Indianapolis, Mooresville, Indiana, is not the usual place for Darla, who has traveled most of her life, living chunks of it in California and Washington.
Darla was born near the end of the Baby Boomer generation, making her 60 years old. She reminisces as “Sweet Child O' Mine” blares, filling every inch of her living room with electric guitar.
“I can still remember when that song had just come out,” she says.
Darla leads her two dogs, Looney and Sweet Pea, between landmines of steel water bowls and coffee tins full of dog food. She takes them to her bedroom, which is across from a wall plastered with an American flag and a row of unhung frames, which Darla calls her “Wall of Fame.”
Darla’s beloveds include former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Judge Judy and Elton John. A photo of Donald Trump, complete with a fake autograph, is placed right next to a photo of Barack Obama — she doesn’t want people to think she is too much of a Republican.
Darla enters the kitchen and pours fresh coffee into a teacup she got from the local antique store. She is talking about her philosophy on nursing homes and old age when she hears a muffled shout from outside.
“Hey, you need to get your dogs!”
Darla freezes: “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.”
She hurries out the door, yanking Looney inside. Slobber is dripping from her teeth to the floor. Darla runs across the street, where a kid wails on the ground.
Looney, in his excitement and trepidation, has nipped the child. His parents are here, soothing him and checking the injury while Darla apologizes.
“She got him a little bit worse than I thought,” the kid’s dad said. “It just kind of got his butt cheek.”
He asks if Looney has all her shots, and Darla says she does.
Back inside, Darla types quickly on her computer.
“Hold on, I just need to look up something about rabies real quick.”
She double-checks that the shots haven’t expired and breathes a sigh of relief.
“Looney, Looney, Looney, Looney,” she mutters. “Crazy dog.”
It’s time to visit her friend Judy, so Darla swaps her blue slides for boots and slips into an American flag jacket.
Darla loves animals; the two saddest places a person can be, she says, are a pediatric ward with children who have cancer and an animal shelter. She fills a third steel bowl with water for the dogs, just in case something happens to her while she’s out.
In her Dodge Ram truck, Darla drives around the park once to check if there’s anything good in the dumpster and to give her phone number to the family of the kid in case anything happens when she’s gone.
“Put it this way — public relations.”
Before Darla Jones was a certified nursing assistant, she was a journalism major at San Diego State, a stripper at Paddy Murphy’s Irish Pub, a singer for her friend’s band Tight covering Pat Benatar and ZZ Top and an employee in a group home for juvenile offenders.
Her friends describe her as vivacious, impulsive and loud but also sensitive. From her days as a topless dancer to a certified nursing assistant, Darla has always had a big heart.
Earlier this year, Darla’s heart led her to create the Hot Old Broads' Society, a group of 144 mostly single, middle-aged to elderly women. The group’s goal is to make sure no woman ever feels lonely.
Darla writes in the description of the group on Facebook:
“We can have fancy teas one day and get muddy in the creek the next day. We can be benevolent on Monday and then hit the dance clubs on Saturday night.”
“It’s a new club that will unfold as time goes by. Or not. It might be a fat flop. LOL.”
One member of the HOBS is Darla’s friend and favorite resident Judy. Darla loves her job but hates to see her residents suffer.
“Once you’re in a nursing home,” she says. “You’re fucked.”
Darla envisions HOBS as a vessel for helping her nursing home residents. By making the group fun for its members, the tone is different from a volunteer group — and she doesn’t want the residents to feel like a charity case. If she ever ends up in a home, she wants HOBS to be there in case she gets lonely.
“There is no such thing as a selfless good deed,” she says with a chuckle.
“Knock knock!” Darla says. “I’m here to see you Hot Old Broads.”
The residents of the nursing home sit at white-tableclothed tables with fall decorations and half-drank cups of lemonade and iced tea. They each push a runny pile of stuffing around on their plates with plastic spoons, staring at the air.
On the front desk, there is a bouquet of carnations from the family of a man who has just passed.
“It’s already too quiet in here,” Darla says as she sits next to Judy and leans back.
Judy is thin and delicate-looking, with eyes like jade pieces. Darla jokes about kidnapping her, and Judy smiles.
“That’s why I like her,” Judy says.
Darla sets her sights on a group of ladies sitting at a table across from her.
“How about we get some male strippers in here?” she hollers.
One of the ladies recounts a time where she confused the Chippendales, a troupe of male strippers, with the cartoon chipmunks Chip and Dale. Gentle laughter erupts from the table.
There is a sense that here, among death and silence, Darla’s personality is a gift. She is not like the other nurses, who don’t peel back the packets of butter and jam for breakfast and take too many smoke breaks.
At some point, Darla begins talking about a recent drunken driving accident that occurred a few weeks prior in her hometown, where the driver hit a girl as she was crossing the street to board the school bus. Darla understands the girl and her family can never forgive the drunken driver, but Darla feels sympathy for him — sympathy for the way he must live forever knowing what he’s done.
“I had to stop drinking because I couldn’t keep myself from driving,” she says to no one in particular.
Deep down, Darla is grateful that it wasn’t her that hit the girl.
A little over three months ago, Darla found herself stuck in a ditch. Instead of calling for help, she sat in her car for hours and drank.
When the police arrived in the middle of the night, glowing fluorescent red and blue, she let them take her to jail and braced for a DUI charge. But for months, she heard nothing.
Darla was disappointed. A DUI charge would be a sign that her drinking had gone too far. She would be forced to confront the dissonance between her preaching about the dangers of speeding and tailgating with her own dangerous habit.
The stakes are high, too. In 2020, there were 11,654 alcohol-impaired traffic deaths. Darla knows someone who killed a person and injured a family while driving drunk but says the woman continues to drink. In the same month that the kid in Darla’s town was struck by a drunk driver, a drunken driver in Bloomington killed an IU student on an electric scooter.
Driving now as she details the accident, Darla grips the wheel and stares at the road as it rolls beneath her. She recalls thinking as she debated sobriety: “Do I have to kill someone before I stop?”
“There’s no such thing as ‘just one drink.’”
- Darla Jones
She made the decision to quit alcohol, marking her journey by scribbling the number of days on her kitchen calendar in between notes reminding her to mow the lawn. When her dates offer her a drink, she firmly declines.
“There’s no such thing as ‘just one drink,’” she says.
But Darla’s sobriety is only half the battle.
In mid-October, four months after the incident, Darla was charged with two misdemeanors alleging driving under the influence. Her blood alcohol level was over 0.15.
Darla plans to plead not guilty, arguing there is not enough evidence to prove she was driving drunk since she was drinking in a stopped car that she could not get out of the ditch. But in the courts, Darla’s journey to sobriety will be outweighed by the question of her past — where the difference between innocence and guilt could mean jailtime.
On her 100th day of sobriety, Darla wheels her nursing home resident and friend Judy, dressed in an all-denim outfit and sunglasses, to a Hot Old Broads craft event at an ice cream shop.
The broads are a bit disappointed with the turnout; several people canceled last minute. The person who was supposed to bring craft materials — Hope — got sick and couldn’t come.
But these are not ordinary women: they are HOBs. Absent of Hope, they will get by with grit.
The women pull out random materials and half-baked ideas — a wide roll of shimmery ribbon with gold decoupage, plastic dye gloves, candy pumpkins, a broken fall decoration.
Shelley, Darla’s neighbor, cuts up a magazine into strips and shows the group how to make paper beads by rolling the strips on a coffee straw and sealing it with clear nail polish. Another HOBS member, Jo, pulls out several hollowed-out gourds that have been dried to the texture of wood and describes the process of carving designs and wrapping pine needles around the gourds. The broads laugh and take pictures and forget about the last-minute cancellations.
The ladies soon move from crafts to chatting over ice cream. Darla eats her ice cream — salted caramel truffle and peanut butter cup — in the biggest bowl they have with a fork she brought from home. Small next to her, Judy stays mostly quiet and eats her butter pecan ice cream.
As she snacks on a sundae, Shelley suggests an idea for an event where groups speak to the HOBs about safety in dating.
“How many of our HOBs are still dating?” Shelley asks.
“Dating?” Angie, another HOBS member, asks. “Well, I’m not really trying … I mean, I would like to, but … ”
“These kind of topics could still be good for us,” Shelley says. “Especially when you’re getting into online dating and stuff and you haven’t dated in 20, 40 years.”
“Or even just safety being a woman out in public,” Angie adds.
All the broads seem to agree they enjoy being single.
“I used to think I wanted a boyfriend who would give me really good sex, and now I’ve decided what I’m really looking for is a handyman,” Shelley declares.
Others chime in:
“I’m focused on my kids and grandkids now.”
“I don’t care about sex anymore.”
“But it would be nice to have somebody to go to the movies with, or out to eat.”
A fact of life, one HOB says later, is it gets harder to make friends as you age. But HOBS has changed that for her. At the core of the Hot Old Broads' Society is the radical notion that a woman can be both old and hot. A notion that anyone, at any age, can have friends and have fun.
“I don’t want anyone to feel like they don’t have options.”
— Darla Jones
As 4 p.m. approaches, the broads collect their purses and tote bags. One laments the low numbers for the event, but Darla reassures her.
“What’s sad is if somebody doesn’t come because they’re too afraid,” she says. “I don’t want anyone to feel like they don’t have options.”
Although HOBS helps women around Darla’s age find community, Darla was thinking about her residents when she made the group. HOBS is about aiding people in crisis, and if you’re in a nursing home, you’re in a major crisis, Darla says.
Some residents have reached a stage of acceptance of their condition. Others, wracked with grief, refuse to take their medications. As they wrestle with the idea of death, their ailments cause them to be treated as less than human.
Darla recalls the group’s motto: leave no broad behind.
On a visit to Miller’s to see her residents, Darla sees a woman sitting alone in the corner of the lunchroom.
“The people over there need meal assistance,” Darla says. “But other people call them ‘feeders,’ which I just hate. We’re not feeding the squirrels.”
She gets up and wheels the woman who needs meal assistance over to her table. She takes a Styrofoam box of chocolate cream pie and readies a forkful, scraping some of the filling on the sides of the box. She lifts the fork to the woman’s mouth.
“Here ya go, doll.”
The lunchroom is nearly empty now, absent of the nurses’ chatter and shuffle of the residents. Darla continues to talk, pausing only to gather the whipped filling with a steady hand.
The woman loosens her jaw, and Darla Jones feeds her a sweet bite of pie.
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