Monday, May 13, 2013

Go Ask Alice, Part Six

{Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five}

The summer was fading into that gentle twilight where the air stirred with an undercurrent of cool and dried the sticky sweat, raising goosebumps and rustling the trees. The corn had grown tall, in spite of speculation that this would be the summer it didn't. It had grown tall and been harvested and now the fields were full of browning, broken stalks like kneeling supplicants. The new breeze shifted in, carrying the sweet and earthy scent of decay to town from the cornfields. My honeysuckle still bloomed its fresh and spicy sweetness, but it dwindled and it was hard to pick the honeysuckle out of the overpowering smell of dying corn.

I stayed at work late one night and watched Madge die. I sat in her little room with her nurse and silently watched as her body went from struggling, to sleeping, to empty. In the end, there was no fight. Just a simple exhaling and stillness, but there was no doubt the moment there were no longer three women in the room. I felt suddenly extraneous and large, too full and noisy - with my heartbeat and my respiration, my digestion and my movement and my silent tears that surprised me. The nurse looked up from her chart where she was noting the time of death. It's the first one you've seen, isn't it? she asked. Her voice was quiet with respect, but it still seemed to tear open the room. I nodded, afraid of my own voice. It's what we're here for, honey. It's part of the job. You can't cry over all of them. She was ready to go. I nodded again and wiped my face with the back of my arm. The nurse checked her watch and stood and handed me a tissue. I have to make the calls now, she said, sighing, and turned and left the room. I sat for a moment more feeling electric, buzzing with all the things I took for granted, happening just under my skin. I couldn't stand the smell of it and the stillness of Madge's body in the bed and I fled the room as the sun quietly set through the windows.

I bumped into Ferd right outside the door. It surprised us both and I laughed - too loud, frantic.
 I don't have time to dance, he said. I can't find my keys.
Why do you need your keys, Ferd? I asked him.
I need to go home. I've had a lovely day, but I need to go home and I've lost my keys.
He rubbed his forehead in frustrated confusion. I can't seem to remember where I parked my car, but I need to get home. My family will be worried about me.
He shook his head and looked around. I can't seem to remember... I need my keys... I've lost them... I need to go home. His voice trailed off while he looked around, seeming to take in his surroundings for the first time. His eyes started to water. I can't find my keys, he said quietly.
Come on, Ferd. We have a room for you here. Your family knows you're here. You can stay here tonight and we'll worry about the keys tomorrow. I took his hand and walked him slowly to his room. He sat down on the edge of his bed and looked at his feet.
Thank you, honey. This is nice, he muttered.
Good night, Ferd, I said and turned to leave.
He didn't look up from his shoes and I left him there muttering, his voice cracked and swollen.
I can't find my keys. I need to go home.

In Social Club the following week, I brought in a tray with cups and vials and an odd assortment of things. The sense of smell is the most closely linked with memory, so I brought a lot of things to sniff. Lemon oil, lavender, coffee beans, vanilla, cologne, chocolate. The idea was that we'd all sit around and huff them and talk about what the scents evoked. I left the honeysuckle at home. We were off to kind of a rocky start. Reverend Allison tried to eat the coffee beans. Paul announced that he had no sense of smell, hadn't had one since birth. I don't know. I guess I was born with my nose on backward. He reached up and touched his rather large nose. Feels all right to me. He let out a large guffaw and choked a little bit on his popcorn and dissolved into a frightening coughing fit while we all sat and watched in horrid fascination. Peggy asked if I had a cigarette for her, announcing that she'd like to inhale that. I sighed, suddenly exhausted with all of it.

Alice regally walked in with her purse and sat down in an empty chair.

You don't smoke anymore, Peggy, she boomed. What are we up to in here today?
Mary turned her chair to let Alice into the circle a little more, We're smelling these things this nice girl has brought in. 
Alice snorted. That nice girl is always up to something strange, isn't she?
Mary blushed and giggled a little bit, Well, yes. I suppose she is. 
Gimme something to smell, Alice demanded. Do you have chocolate? Let's do what the nice girl says.
Paul scooted over next to Alice and put his hand on her knee, Here's the chocolate. I can't smell it anyway.
Don't you get fresh with me, Paul! Alice barked at him, but she was laughing. We'll get in trouble from our little teacher, here. She meant me. Laughter all around and some sheepish eyes from Paul and the deed was done. In the course of a few minutes, Alice had come in and commandeered Social Club and re-aligned the hierarchy, deftly cutting me out of it. I was just the nice girl with silly ideas and they were only indulging me by playing along. I may have had full mobility and control of my bodily functions; perfect eyesight and hearing and all my own teeth, but I stood completely outside of them.

Do you remember that chocolate shop on the corner downtown? Paul asked.
Oh, yes, Alice sighed. Bob used to bring me chocolates from there on my birthday after we moved here. They're nothing like the ones we got back home, but they did the trick.
We used to stand outside and just smell them while Mother was shopping, Mary said. We could never afford them.
Didn't a Jewish fella run that place? Reverend Allison rumbled.

And they were off, down on that corner so long ago where the chocolate shop stood. They moved from there to the old department store and the park and what is that newfangled thing that's there now? It's so ugly. And so on, wandering through a town that existed only in their collective memories.

As I sat and listened, the layer of film lifted. I didn't remember the chocolate shop. It had been torn down decades ago and a gas station stood there, shiny and new. It was where I stopped to fill up my car and buy fake cappuccino out of a machine. I didn't even remember what had been there two years ago; I had only just moved to town. This town where I arrogantly took it for granted that nothing ever happened. I felt a little tug of sadness as I realized that I was done. My silly little activity had conjured these connections, however distant, that they had with each other and those connections had nothing to do with me. It's what we're here for, honey. It's part of the job. I sat back, suddenly untethered; unexpected relief mixing with the sadness.

{To be continued...}


  1. You have captivated me with this series.
    Watching Madge die was powerful…” but there was no doubt the moment there were no longer three women in the room. I felt suddenly extraneous and large, too full and noisy - with my heartbeat and my respiration, my digestion and my movement and my silent tears that surprised me.”
    This particular passage brought back an emotional and poignant memory.
    Beautifully written. Thank you.

    1. Wow, Lynda! Thank you! I was very nervous to publish this because it's so different from what I usually write, but I'm glad (and kind of surprised) that it's so well received.
      You know, you crossed my mind when I wrote the part you quoted. I was thinking that you would probably know exactly what that was like and I wanted to do it justice. I'm glad you think I did. It's a hard thing to write about.

  2. One of the benefits of being so far behind in my blog-reading is that I got to read so many installments of this wonderful story all at once. You've brought these people to life with your words. Amazing work as always. Looking forward to what's next.

    1. Thanks, Masked Mom! I'm glad that you've caught up with us here, right before the grand finale. I would love any editing suggestions and feedback you might have. I think I'm going to stick it in a drawer for a while and then polish it up for sending out.

  3. Replies
    1. Is it really, though? I could never get the hang of that. Nothing is just a job to me, I've found. Even working at a bookstore became a kind of do or die situation for me. Maybe that's just me...


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