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.


  1. "Her eyes looked like asterisks in her face..." Do I sound like a broken record when I say I love your writing?

    1. What she said. ^

      Those lines were perfection.

    2. A broken record is all right if it's stuck on a song that I love to hear...
      You are both always so sweet and encouraging to my madness. Thank you. I appreciate it more than you realize.

  2. Tears, my friend. You have reduced to tears over my bowl of popcorn. This was the line that sent the buildup of tears over my eyelashes: "I did what I always did. I left her before she could leave me."

    1. Sorry about your popcorn. I hope it didn't get too soggy. Glad you enjoyed the story. It was a bit of a departure for me and I was really nervous about it.
      It's funny that line almost got cut...

  3. I've just come from an interview where I was hired as a housekeeping assistant. Basically I will go to the home of the elderly and do whatever it is they need me to do around the house. I think I'll often remember Alice and her story.

    1. Oh, Larissa! I am so happy to know that someone like you will be doing a job like that. It's such important work. Grueling and frustrating sometimes, but rewarding in the long run. I think everyone should have a job like that at some point in their young adulthood to give them some perspective and to see what they're made of. Congratulations on your new job.

  4. You stuck the ending. It is good. It is excellent. It is a triumph.

  5. The end almost sounds like a country song.

    1. It does a little bit, doesn't it? That wasn't intentional, but I'm OK with the effect now that you've pointed it out.

  6. I loved this. And I'm looking forward to what's next.


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