Thursday, May 16, 2013

Go Ask Alice, Part Seven

{Part OnePart TwoPart ThreePart FourPart Five, Part Six}

The fall came in, cold and wet. The rain hammered on the windows of the activity room and changed the light. The leaves changed suddenly and with little ceremony while the wind and rain ripped them down and pinned them into sludgy puddles in any low place they could find. It was as if the world had suddenly forgotten the golden, dancing honeysuckle days of summer and abruptly moved on. I gathered residents and carved pumpkins, talked about candy and costumes; all these things we take for granted that mark the inexorable passing of time. I wore cat ears to work on Halloween and bent down to let Alice feel them. She threw me out of her room.
You're not a child, she said. You look ridiculous.
You can't see me, how do you know?
I just know.
You don't know. You just think you do, I teased.
Oh, grow up.
She knew everything. It was one of the reasons I loved her.

I brought in some apple cider for Social Club and sat and sipped this taste of my own childhood while I listened to the residents reminisce about theirs. Whenever she felt like it, Alice would show up and take over. More and more, I let her. My visits to her room became more infrequent as Death roamed the halls, emptying beds. The beds and rooms were stripped and refilled with the next person on the waiting list. All these new people who needed my attention, too. I roamed the halls, on Death's heels, greeting, inviting, patting hands, helping people settle in. The more I settled them, the more restless I became. We all put on more sweaters against the damp chill and maintenance turned up the heat in the nursing home. It was stifling.

With the first snowflakes of winter, a flurry of registration forms, financial aid packets and course catalogs filled my mailbox at home. I spent my evenings trying to reconcile the pieces of my past with my future in the very tangible jigsaw puzzle of transferring credits in theater, speech, mass media to a degree program in psychology. I'd lost my taste for trying on characters and parading before a crowd; I'd learned to prefer the hidden people, the real characters of life. I spent my days arranging evergreen boughs and making Christmas ornaments with the residents. Like in the world outside, the holidays stressed everyone out and made them cranky.

These cookies are awful, Reverend Allison pronounced around a mouthful of applesauce cinnamon ornament.
They're not cookies, Reverend, I told him while he spit it into my hand.
They smell like cookies. Why would you make cookies we can't eat?
To hang on the tree and smell nice in the room.
He shook his head in disbelief. Why would anyone want to do that?
I don't know, for fun? See? Don't they smell nice?
I don't know why you would trick us like that, he said sorrowfully and took another bite. These cookies are awful.
I held out my hand to receive some more half-chewed Christmas ornament and tried not to scream.

The last time I saw Alice, she had taken to her bed. Her glasses were off and her hair was flattened and strange on one side from the pillow. Her eyes looked like asterisks in her face and her mouth was pale without its bright red lipstick; another, larger asterisk in her face without her dentures. The TV was off and she was still in her pajamas.

Get out, honey. Don't look at me like this. She said, her voice still deep, but weaker, somehow and her lips flapped a little too much without her teeth in.
You're OK, I said. I just want to say hi.
Don't flatter me. I'm a mess.
OK, then. You look awful.
I feel awful, honey. I think I'm done.
I felt a little scrabbling fear in my guts. You're not done. You've just got a bug.
It's not a bug. Don't stand there and lie to me.
I'm not. She did have a bug that a lot of the residents had caught. A few had even recovered from it.
Well don't stand there and gawk at me. Get out of here. You don't need this.
OK, Alice. Goodbye. And I left.

I did what I always did. I left her before she could leave me. I left all of them. I left the tiny town where nothing ever happened. I left the state. I left because it wasn't just a job. And I left a trail of messes in my wake - more pretty boys and party boys, more lost and forgotten days and nights spent in the whirling twinkle lights of reckless youth. And eventually, by the time the honeysuckle had bloomed again, I left the leaving. I left because you can't stay locked up forever.

Just ask Alice.

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...}

Friday, May 10, 2013

Go Ask Alice, Part Five

[Part One]
[Part Two]
[Part Three]
[Part Four]

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...]

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Go Ask Alice, Part Four

[Part One]
[Part Two]
[Part Three]

The summer opened up its wide, Indiana corn-fed yawn and the world continued on. Social Club finally hit its stride. I spent my days off researching ideas for engaging my group. I dove into studies on memory, end-of-life crises, and period music and photos from the residents' youth. I invited guest speakers from the community to help facilitate the conversation. The president of the Garden Club, a Girl Scout troop, local religious leaders and business people - all with varying degrees of success. I nearly fainted when Reverend Allison told a visiting pastor that "it was awfully nice of them to have a colored man to preach," while shaking his head slowly in disbelief. Eunice thought one of the young Girl Scouts was her sister, Paul clumsily hit on the president of the Garden Club, and Ferd thought that the CEO of a local import-export business was there to interview him for a job. But our guests were gracious and the Club became a bright spot in the week where I saw my sleepy group start to open up and enjoy the stimulation. Alice continued to steadfastly refuse to participate. She still occasionally stopped in the doorway to tsk-tsk and mock, but mostly contented herself with her Yankees and her solitude.

The honeysuckle bloomed and bloomed. It perfumed my comings and goings and became part of the background of my life. It was a pleasant addition, but had lost its immediate and devastating hold over me. There are so many things we learn to take for granted, and in time, I could rush past it without a second thought. The summer was hot. It was sticky and thick and everyone discussed how the corn would do. The residents began to reminisce about other summers they'd seen. There was talk of the summer that the rations ran out, of running down the street to see if the neighbors had an egg. I lived in an overlapped world where I listened to CD's and worked in air conditioning, drove my car and was a young woman on my own, unchaperoned. And like double-exposed film, I lived in a world where the fields were plowed with horses, babies died at home, and sodas cost a nickel.

Summer brought its particular itch, too. That thing you feel in the nights covered in a sheen of sweat, twisted in the sheets, seeking the comfort of a breeze. The thing that makes you want to take long drives to nowhere with the windows down and the music loud. The thing that taps into the ripe, verdant world and wants to expand. My aged cohorts felt it, too.

Tempers flared a little more easily, laughter became maniacal a little faster, confusion was more acute, clothing was removed in the hallways, there were more tears and sighs and fighting with colostomy bags. I knew my own restlessness and theirs was not much different, except that I could get out. I could listen to my music and open my windows, go for drives, scratch that insatiable itch. They were bound by failing bodies and minds and the strictures of the nursing home to express their freedom by the only means they had at their disposal. The only one who seemed untouched by all this summer fever was Alice. Her room remained hot and dark, with only the flickering of ESPN while she alternated dozing in her chair and hollering at the umpire or at me, when I bothered her. I sought her abuse with impish amusement. It had become a regular part of my life and a test of my mettle.

Finally, one midsummer week, our collective restlessness buzzed so relentlessly that I threw open the doors and windows of the activity room and greeted my Social Club with chocolate sodas made with purloined ingredients from the dining room and ragtime on the loudspeakers.

 I stood as nervous as a wallflower while the residents started to wheel and shuffle in. As they crossed the threshold of the activity room, it was magic. Toes tapped on wheelchair footrests, those who couldn't tap their toes wiggled their fingers or bobbed their heads. Furrowed faces fell into soft smiles and they eagerly chattered with each other and sipped their chocolate sodas through flexible, institutional straws. I could almost see them in new summer dresses and corsages, dapper suits, hair curled or oiled and vibrating with the excitement of a summer dance.

Ferd slurped down his soda and grabbed my waist and started to guide me around the room in a clumsy, shuffling foxtrot. Mary raised her plastic cup and said That's very good, dear. While the others smiled and clapped along. Those who could, got up to dance; those who couldn't shouted deafly at each other about the weather, the sodas, the music and all the locked-up memories those contained. I tripped along in my clumsy foxtrot, half-remembered from ballroom dancing in high school gym class, and let this double-exposed life settle around me in the gaiety and release of an impromptu midsummer dance. Ferd dipped me when the song ended and upside down and silly, I saw Alice standing in the doorway.

You can't foxtrot worth beans, she said and carried on down the hall.

[To be continued...]

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Go Ask Alice, Part Three

{Read Part One here}
{Read Part Two here}

Alice sat in the dining room by herself at a small table in the corner. She sat up straight and carefully guided her fork to her mouth with two hands, one supporting the other. It was a concession to her blindness, this feeling her way to her mouth. I watched her for a minute with her bright red lipstick and her smudged glasses, resolutely going about the business of her lunch and all these things we take for granted itched and chafed around me like a new sweater. I had decided to meet her on neutral territory to ask her about Social Club and seeing her here in the dining room made her look almost vulnerable.

Social Club?! Are you outta your mind?! She laughed her booming, derisive laugh. There was broccoli in her dentures. Ho, ho, ho, honey! You're killing me. The things you think of... you have fun with that. She sat and shook her head to herself as if I'd told her an off-color joke. Except that she would have appreciated a dirty joke. Well, just think about it. I told her and excused myself from the dining room to get ready for the club. She sat there laughing to herself and muttering and shaking her head. Heh. Social Club.

It was a complete disaster. I had gathered some of the other residents on my list and as we sat down to begin, the nurses wheeled in whoever was hanging out in the hallway. No matter, we were an equal opportunity social club. I took a deep breath and started in.

So, um, welcome to Social Club. We thought it would be fun to get together one day a week after lunch and discuss, um, things. 

I got a few encouraging nods, Eunice shrieked, and I continued. I thought we'd talk today about the things that interest us. You know, hobbies, sports, politics, that sort of thing. So we could come up with some future topics. 

More nods, a couple of quiet burps, and polite stares. Well, I like books. Do you like to read? What kind of books do you like? More silence. I used to read mysteries. You know, Agatha Christie? I really like Jane Austen, too, but... um... she's not a mystery writer... She is British, though, like Dame Agatha... I like other authors, too... Those are just two that I thought of... they both happen to be female and British... but you don't have to like them... they're just examples... 

I paused and looked around helplessly. A few of them had nodded off and started to snore softly. Mary, a gracious woman and former school teacher, smiled and patted my hand. You're doing a wonderful job, dear. Please continue. As if I were a small child making a book report. Like a small child, I nearly cried. Instead, I asked: So, are there any books you like to read? 

Reverend Allison was a taciturn man who had been a preacher all his life, right here in this same town. He had been sitting with his eyes closed in his wheelchair, but then cleared his throat. It was a rumble from deep inside his skinny, upright frame. His voice came out gravelly and grave, you could almost imagine him in his heyday, bringing the hell fire and brimstone from the pulpit with that resonant growl. I used to read the Bible every day. But I can't see to do it now. Then he rested his hands in his lap and closed his eyes again.

There were several nods of assent from the other members. Yes, it's so hard now... It gives me headaches. My magnifier doesn't work very well... I just can't see as well as I used to... I felt awful. Of course it was hard for a lot of them to read anymore. How about I just sit here and cheerfully remind them of things they've lost?

As if on cue, Eunice started sobbing and wailing: I can't find my sister! Where is my sister? What have you done with her? Eunice's wailing startled Madge awake and she, too, started to cry. Peggy rolled her eyes at Eunice: She always does this. Your sister's dead. She's dead! Everyone looked uncomfortably to me while Eunice flailed her arms and really began to shriek in earnest. I looked up toward the doorway to see if there was a nurse nearby. There stood Alice, with her handbag over her arm, just outside the door. She was still laughing and shaking her head. She didn't have to be able to see us to know what was going on. Have fun, honey! she hollered over her shoulder as she continued down the hall.

Mary stood and tucked her tissue into her sleeve. Thank you, dear. This was nice, and turned and left the activities room. There it was. My shipwrecked maiden voyage of the Social Club lasted all of ten minutes. I spent the next forty minutes of the allotted time trying to console Madge and Eunice and trying to convince Peggy to go someplace else so that she would stop telling Eunice her sister was dead. Her sister was dead - had died as a child - but that was not particularly helpful information right now. Eunice clung to me with gnarled, bluish hands and wept. I went home that night with a screaming headache and scratches up my arms.
Courtesy of the MorgueFile

The entrance to my apartment was a set of rickety stairs with an iron railing off the side of the house. It was early spring when I moved in, and I didn't pay much attention to the weeds that covered the iron railing. But as the year started to age into mellow early summer, the weeds took on a new life. I came home every night with decay and effluvium saturating my nose. My clothes wore a dozen old lady perfumes and the industrial orange room deodorizer that only made things smell like orange soda and urine. These smells I barely noticed while I was at work rode home with me in the car like unwanted hitchhikers, and I carried them into my "real life" unwittingly.

That night in early summer I hurried up the stairs, dying to get out of my pantyhose and trade other people's ghosts for my own. As I stood and fumbled with the keys, a new smell tugged at me. The spicy sweet ambrosia of honeysuckle. The weeds had bloomed hundreds of delicate yellow-pink flowers like tiny open arms, flung joyously wide, waiting for embrace. The fairy hair of their stamens exposed and tickling the evening air with their sweetness. On instinct, a distant sense memory, I plucked one and held it to my tongue. It tasted of innocence, distilled purity in a tiny drop of perfect nectar. I buried my face in the tangle of vines and let the flowers brush my cheeks like gentle fingers and cried. I cried for broken lives and empty rooms. I cried for people I had never met. I cried for all the ways I had forgotten what innocence tasted like. I cried for failure, for ever bothering to try. I cried with the pulsing, bubbling ache of nameless nostalgia for something lost that I never knew I had. I cried for all the things I told myself I wouldn't cry about. Finally, when there seemed nothing to cry about any more, I sat on the stoop and gulped deep breaths of the darkening summer night, emptied and covered with sweetness.

{To be continued...}

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Go Ask Alice, Part Two

[You can read Part One here]

Like any closed social system, there was a pecking order among the residents of the nursing home. If you still had your own teeth, you told people about it with pride. Walkers took preeminence over wheel chairs. Bladder control over incontinence; fading memory over dementia. Even at the very end of life, the residents sought social cues to align themselves into a hierarchy. To the outsider, they just looked like a bunch of bored old people, but walking and working among them every day, I knew that Paul was a ladies man, Peggy was ostracized because she had alcohol dementia, Madge was everyone's sweetheart, and that Ferd was well respected for his business acumen. Had Alice deigned to get involved, she would have been pretty high up in the pecking order. She wore dentures and was blind, but she was still mobile - no walker or wheelchair for her! - she wasn't incontinent and she was mostly in her right mind.

courtesy of

But Alice didn't deign. She spent most of her time in her private room at the end of the hall, sitting in her recliner by the window and listening to sports on TV. Her room was always dark and the air was close and smelled strongly of her baby powdery perfume, but she was always up, dressed and sitting in her chair, hollering at the TV. I'm not like these layabouts, honey. No sir. I'm not going to spend the day in my pajamas like a baby. But I'm not gonna play Bingo, either. Stop asking me. So I did. If part of my function there at the nursing home was to help preserve a sense of dignity and engagement with life, then why couldn't Alice preserve some of her dignity by not engaging with her peers? It made complete sense to me.

Why do you spend all your time bothering old people? she would ask me. Young thing like you. You should be doing something fun. You should get a life. I would always laugh and tell her that I was doing something fun, I was playing Bingo today. She would snort and insult me and kick me out of her room. What do you want me to say, Alice? That I'd tried having fun and it wasn't? That I'd had so much "fun" that I'd destroyed my life and had to come crawling back to this tiny town to try to sweep up the pieces? That I had, until only recently, been sleeping in my childhood bunk bed with my sister in my parents' home? That I tried to get a life and I failed? That I didn't feel young at all? That I felt old and tired and used up and all I wanted to do was live as far away from myself and my messes as possible? No. It was easier just to paste on a bright smile and invite her to Bingo, suffer her insults and move on to the next room. This kind of rejection and failure was manageable and couldn't really touch me, I thought. I could just make a note in her chart at the end of the day - refused engagement - and my job was done. I'd tried, right?

I loved my job. Day after day, I held wrinkled hands and listened to stories, wiped drool, pushed wheelchairs and called Bingo. The girl who used to hide when her siblings were sick, who hated amusement parks and zoos because of the potential for vomit and unwashed humanity, would now calmly accept a set of dentures that were handed to her for popcorn removal. As far as nursing homes go, it was a nice one. It was expensive and tastefully decorated. But all the mauve cabbage roses in the world couldn't cover the fact that it was a place full of rapidly decaying bodies and tired souls. I watched families as they came in to visit their loved ones. That subtle wince in the doorway when the smell hit them, the shifting of breath from nose to mouth, the removal of sweaters and coats in the overly warm, pungent air, the look of alarm on their faces when Eunice met them at the door and shrieked. Eunice met everyone at the door and shrieked. It was how she amused herself. I immersed myself in all of it - the smell, the shrieking, the sweaty heat. I hated my life, but I loved my job.

I spent my days trying to cajole people four times my age into associating with their peers and went home alone to my tiny apartment every night, resolutely avoiding association with anyone. I had moved out of my parents' house - again - and taken a small upstairs apartment in an old house. None of the walls were straight. It was all eaves and gables and there was a dresser in the kitchen to hold my plates. My bedroom was little more than a glorified crawlspace in the attic with a mattress on the floor. I lit my incense and listened to my music and cooked cheap dinner on the dangerous old 2-burner gas stove. I had my books and my cat and my potted plants for company. With those and the lingering ghosts of my past, it was more than enough.

You are going to start a social club, my director informed me one day during our weekly meeting. It was a club designed for the higher functioning residents to be able to get together and discuss certain topics that interested them. The idea was to continue to engage them in stimulating conversation and keep them interested in the world around them. We would talk about current events, about politics, religion, books, music, movies, food, and anything else that interested the residents. There was a tendency to become absorbed with their own bodies, their health and their imminent death so the idea was that we would use this club to help alleviate some of that internal fixation and keep them connected to the outside world for as long as possible. The director thought I would be just the perfect facilitator for this new endeavor. I thought the director might be joking.  Be sure you ask Alice, she told me as the meeting was breaking up.

[To be continued...]

Monday, May 6, 2013

Go Ask Alice: Part One

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Alice grew up in New Jersey. She had the accent and the attitude to match. I have no idea how she ended up in a nursing home in southern Indiana. She didn't really, either. That part of her memory was a little sketchy.

She wore her glasses every day: great beetley red plastic frames, at least fifteen years out of date and smudged almost to opacity. She was completely blind. Cataracts, you know. But the glasses were a part of her face. Some niceties must be observed. Like the one that dictated going each Friday to get her hair washed and set into a sproingy, iron-gray helmet. Like the one that dictated carrying a purse to the dining room because a lady never leaves the house without her purse. The one that necessitated wearing pantyhose with slacks. The one that necessitated calling them "slacks".

Other niceties? Eh, she would say, those we can let slide. The ones like please and thank you. The ones like not screaming and cursing at the nursing and activities staff. The ones like not calling a fellow resident a "crusty old bitch". And all niceties went out the window altogether if anyone dared interrupt her for any reason while she was listening to the Yankees play.

She was cantankerous and rude. She would wind up her Jersey upbringing and holler at me with flat vowel sounds and call me names when I stopped by her room to invite her to activities. Oh yes, dear, she'd say with sweet sarcasm, I'd love to go and watch Lawrence Welk with a bunch of drooling lunatics who piss themselves. Getouttahere! She thought everyone was stupid and told them so in no uncertain terms. I'm almost 90 and I can do whatever I goddamn well please. Get a job! She was a tall woman with a big, deep voice for her age and I could easily imagine her in younger days with a baseball bat, collecting debts for someone named Vinny.

She was a scary old broad, Alice was, and I loved her for it.

I took the job at a nursing home against all reason. But you're afraid of sick people, my mother said. And rightly so. The smells, the bodily functions... are you sure you want to do this? What about a nice desk job? My other top choice was at the oil change place. The owner looked me up and down and stood next to the "Help Wanted" sign and told me he wasn't hiring, honey. But I know how to change oil, I said. It didn't matter, really. This was the heartland. Boys will be boys and men doing men's work and so on. No room for a scrawny girl with dyed-black hair and an inescapable air of sadness. A crow with a broken wing in jeans and a flannel shirt. I didn't want a desk job. I wanted to shed my feathers and crawl out of my skin and do something completely different. So instead, I put on some pantyhose and lipstick and talked my way into the job as an activities assistant at a retirement home. What else was I going to do?

{To be continued...}