I stopped by Alice's room after Social Club to accept my daily dose of abuse. I was still giddy and high from the dance party atmosphere and I found her in her usual spot by the window. The curtains were drawn and the TV muttered quietly to itself, unwatched. She turned at the sound of the door and said quietly, Go away, honey. Don't bother me. I'm tired. Something in her voice caught at me and I silently backed out of the room, closing the door behind me.
The snow had only just begun to thaw when I took this job. My world was gray and haunted by my own mistakes and loneliness. I saw the nursing home as a challenge when I took the job. It was like nothing I had ever done, or even wanted to do, and I thought I could hide there. I believed that I was safe with all these old people, that they couldn't really touch me. I had moved away from all the people who caused me pain and planted myself with the corn in this little Midwestern town where nothing ever happened. I thought that this self-imposed isolation would protect me. If I didn't engage, I couldn't get hurt. I couldn't hurt anyone else. The snow was long gone, though. The world had thawed and bloomed and scented my days and nights with the vines and tendrils of connection to these people who had become my odd little band of comrades. We were ghosts; hidden people. What remained of our lives teemed beneath our broken surfaces and when given the chance, wound its way out of the shattered places in the ways it could and sought the warmth of exposure to the light. You can't hide forever.
The little plastic cup of chocolate soda was sweaty and cool in my hand as I pushed my way into Alice's room. I held her hand and placed the cup against it.
What's this? You come to poison me?
Yes, Alice. I've come to poison you with chocolate soda. Take a sip.
It's called an egg cream, honey. You Midwesterners don't know anything.
I'm not a Midwesterner. Take a sip.
She snorted and huffed a little bit and moved the straw to her bright red lips with her free hand and took a long, slurping sip.
Ahh. Not bad. She slurped some more while I sat and watched her.
Are you married, honey? She asked suddenly.
What? You're not a little... funny... are you?
I'm hilarious. I just don't have a boyfriend right now. Do you?
She settled back in her chair and she laughed gently and with real humor.
You should marry a good man. Bob Crandall was a good man.
I'd never heard her talk much about her late husband. She'd outlived him by many years and he was the one who had set her up with enough money to retire to this expensive nursing home. I sat and waited for more as she fiddled with her cup and looked off into the distance with sightless eyes behind big glasses.
I went with his best friend. Oh, honey. He was handsome. His friend. Not Bob. I thought Bob was such a square. He had a big nose and so serious all the time. His friend... what'shisname... oh I don't remember... he was one of those boys. You know? No. You don't know. You're a good girl who spends all her time locked up with old people. What do you know?
I knew those boys. I knew more than Bingo and wheelchair aerobics. But I wanted to know what she knew. I just laughed and hoped she would continue.
He was a pretty boy. A party boy. We danced. Oh... we danced. All night, I'd stay out sometimes. My father, he nearly killed me. 'Alice,' he'd say, 'you need to get married.' She shook her head and chuckled a little bit and finished her soda. I helped her set down the cup and she disappeared from me into a world of boardwalks and big bands, of sneaking out to Atlantic City with her girlfriends to dance and meet these pretty boys, these boys of summer, and worry her father and embarrass her mother.
I didn't want to get married, I wanted to have fun. And then my stupid friend, she got herself in trouble. She raised her eyebrows over the top of her glasses at me. And my father locked me up. No daughter of his was going to... blah... blah... bullshit. Pardon me, honey. That was good egg cream. Do you have any more? I haven't had an egg cream in years. It was good. Not as good as the ones we used to get on the shore. Those were the real ones. There's nothing better than an egg cream on a hot day. He couldn't lock me up forever, though. She seemed to sink back into herself and sag a little bit. Get outta here, honey. I'm tired.
Over the next few weeks, I continued to visit her and bring her little treasures I had found. I popped some popcorn and brought it to her; a seashell, more chocolate sodas, my Walkman with ragtime music. Sometimes she threw me straight out, but more and more, she faded into a softer version of herself as she reminisced about her younger days.
Nobody could foxtrot like me. I wasn't the prettiest girl, but I had a brain in my head and I could dance. You young people don't know dancing anymore. Not like that.
Hey, I can foxtrot... sort of.
No you can't.
How do you know? You can't see me.
I just know. Shut up. My father made me go with Bob, you know. He was the son of a business partner. I thought I would die of boredom or kill him. So serious all the time. He didn't dance. Our families ran in the same circles and I'd always get stuck with Bob. But you know, he was a good man. A kind man. The kind of man you marry.
This hard and grouchy woman unfolded pieces of her past for me to look at like a scrapbook with vivid images of a young and strong-willed girl who wanted to be free to have fun, who sought adventure and found trouble, whose lust for life brought her crashing against the boundaries of her family and her time in history. Her world wanted her to settle down, and she just wanted to dance and wisecrack and run around and leave the serious to someone else. But eventually, she settled into her world. She'd learned to love a man who was chosen for her by her father for his respectability in an attempt to tame his wild daughter. She put up her dancing shoes and she married Bob and raised his family, helped in his business. I was an idiot. He was a good man. But here she sat, all these years later, with her Yankees and her egg cream and the ghosts of her past: her younger self, the pretty boy whose name she couldn't remember, the lights of the boardwalk and the good man with whom she'd made her home.
She always sniffed what I brought her; another concession to her blindness, and a testament to her lingering suspicion of me. So one day, late in the summer, I brought her a sprig of my honeysuckle.
I'm not going to poison you. I'd lose my job. I laughed.
Would that be so bad? she smirked.
Well, I wouldn't get to see you anymore. It would be just awful. I imitated her Jersey accent. I figured she had a healthy appreciation for sarcasm. I spoke to her in a language she understood.
Shut up and get out of here. I sighed and stood up to go.
No, get out of here, she said. You don't want to be here. You don't belong here.
What do you mean? This is my job. I'm fine.
A girl like you needs to live. I've already lived, honey. I'm done. You get out and do what you're going to do. She held the wilting sprig to her nose and made a face. I've always hated honeysuckle. It smells like my mother's perfume. Take it back. It stinks. And she turned back to the TV to dismiss me.
[To be continued...]