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...]


  1. How did she know unless she could see you doing it?

    Sorry, but that home is one of my pictures of hell. I sure hope when I get old that I don't end up somewhere like that, just waiting.

    1. Patience, Grasshopper.

      You know, the whole nursing home scenario is hellish to a lot of people, but after working in one, I can see some of the advantages. But ultimately, I would agree with you.

  2. Well really Alice.. come show how it's done then!

  3. This: "I sought her abuse with impish amusement." is somehow my favorite sentence. I think I might know Alice. :-)

    1. I think a lot of people know an Alice if they take the time to slow down and listen...

  4. This is really quite a bit too good to be on your blog, TL. You need to publish it.

    1. I agree, but selfishly, I don't want to miss reading these.

    2. Sweet, sweet people. This project has kind of taken on a life of its own, but I put it on the blog to force myself to actually finish it. I may remove it and polish it and submit it... it hadn't really occurred to me to do so. I am not a very fair judge of my own work.


Thanks for reading and taking the time to say hello!