Annie Wyndham Writings
Protected by Copyscape plagiarism checker - duplicate content and unique article detection software.
                                                                              THE WAR REPOSITORY

                                                                                              by Annie Wyndham

Repository:  a place, room, or container where something is deposited or stored.

War:  Middle English werre, from Old North French, of Germanic origin; akin to Old High German werra strife; akin to Old High German werran to confuse.

Of the twenty or so towns and villages that constitute rural Lanscomb County, all but one draws at least a few dozen tourists every summer.  Wilbur Falls has an annual music festival; Dunbar hosts a big agricultural fair;  Putnam Corners boasts the largest family restaurant within three counties; and Shelbyville’s popular B&B brings honeymooners from all over the state.  The only place no one from outside ever visits—except perhaps during hunting season—is the little hamlet of New Blackenburg, nestled at the base of a mountain twenty-eight miles from the next nearest pocket of civilization.  No one goes to New Blackenburg because there’s absolutely nothing there.  Nothing, at any rate, that would entice a tourist to drive half an hour out into the mountains on a really bumpy road to a place where you won’t even find a place to get a decent cup of coffee.  

Because summer tourism is the lifeblood of some of these economically strapped little towns, they sometimes fall into competition with one another over which one is able to draw the most outside visitors.  The mayor of New Blackenburg formed a committee to come up with ideas on how to attract newcomers, and especially tourists to at least pass by the little mountain community.  “We need the income.  We need new blood around here!” he wailed.  “How can we get people to come here?  What can we offer them that no other town in the county has?”

No one had a clue.  The only suggestion proposed—by Randall Perdue, the village’s retired postman—got a lukewarm reception.  Randall had the idea that New Blackenburg should offer some sort of little country museum—perhaps in someone’s barn—that would house a collection so unusual it would draw people from all over the county.    “But Pine Ridge already has a museum,” the mayor reminded him.  It was true—the town of Pine Ridge had a tiny fossil museum but virtually no one visited it except the occasional geology student.   “People don’t go there to see the rock museum, they go there to go hang gliding, and because of that fancy new sports bar,” said the fire chief, echoing the belief shared by many at the table that museums, by definition, are boring.  “What people want is fun,” he added. “Why should we have just another museum that no one’s going to come to?”

“Because our museum will be unique,” said Randall. “In fact,” he continued, “it’ll be the first of its kind in the entire country, if not the world.”

The others exchanged puzzled glances.   Randall cleared his throat, and rose—a bit unsteadily because of his age—from his seat to explain.   “Here he goes again,” one council member whispered to another.  “Maybe museum’s not the right word,” Randall said, sensing their scepticism.  “But it would function as one.  Really, all we need is some place to hold the items.”

“Items?  What items?,” a committeeman asked.  “What kind of museum are you talking about, Randall?”  What the old, retired postman proposed was to construct what he called a War Repository, a place whose sole purpose would be to house the military paraphernalia brought home by soldiers returning from war, or kept by their families if they had been killed in battle.   “You mean like medals and guns and bullets and shrapnel and stuff?,” the fire chief asked.  “Well, I got news for you, Randall,” he chuckled.  “There’s nothing unique in that.  I got a bunch of ‘em myself in the attic.  Saved ‘em all, even my old uniform—which still fits, by the way.  Don’t know who would actually pay to see ‘em, though.”  The others nodded in agreement.

“No, no, that’s not what I mean,” Randall said.  “This museum will be a collection of artefacts reflecting what war has meant, in deeply personal terms, to soldiers who survived, or to the families of the ones who didn’t make it back.”

Everyone stared at Randall, still not comprehending.  “That seems a bit intrusive, if not downright macabre,” the mayor suggested, grimacing at the words ‘deeply personal.’  “Some people might not want these hurtful memories reawakened, much less publicly displayed,” he continued.  “And who would give you such personal items anyway?”

“We’ll interview veterans, family members, comb through military obituaries, not just here but countywide,”— Randall continued, oblivious.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” the fire chief interjected.  “Who’s got time to do all that?”

“Who gets to decide whose war ‘recollections’ go into this so-called museum, is what I want to know,”, the fire chief wondered aloud.

 “Me,” said Randall, to both questions.

“Well, I know for a fact, people in New Blackenburg don’t want to be bothered giving interviews, especially to someone they see every day,” the mayor said.  “I just don’t know why you think anyone would be interested in somebody’s private personal war recollections anyway.”

After brainstorming for more than three hours, Randall’s having been the only suggestion proposed, despite their collective misgivings, and because they didn’t want to admit to failing to solve the no-tourists problem, the following week the mayor scheduled a public meeting at the firehouse in which everybody was invited to give an opinion.  Sixteen villagers showed up but in the end were as confused as the committee had been about Randall’s unusual proposal.  The villagers, not surprisingly, rejected the proposal for a war repository.

Randall was not a man to be deterred, however.  He still thought it a good idea, and if the town would not sponsor or help, he would do it himself.  He was convinced that if such a place existed, not only would people come, but it would generate interest in and provoke discussion about the reality of war, something he thought a lot about these days.  The villagers of Blackenburg, however, had other, more pressing concerns (like surviving economically), and preferred that Randall keep his war opinions to himself.  They liked their former postman, but age and old war wounds and his deteriorating health had taken a toll on him, and some suspected, had affected his mind as well.

                                *               *                 *                    *

Five years later, a visitor arrives to New Blackenburg and stops to eat at the local diner.  After paying the bill, he asks, in passing, “Do you know where I might find a place called ‘The War Repository’”? The young waitress shakes her head.  “Never heard of it.  You sure you have the right town?”  One of the diners in the back booth, overhearing the query, shouts from across the room:  “He means Randall’s museum.  That’s on the road down past the reservoir.”

And indeed it is.  Randall’s entire “museum” is a large single room in a former abandoned schoolhouse, which he renovated himself.  The first year he removed the twenty-seven scratched, worn desks bolted to the classroom floor and laid down new tiles.  The second year he painted the walls and ceiling and replaced the broken windows, covering them with hand-painted, miniature battle scenes. The third year he hooked up the electricity, hoisted up a gigantic American flag and brought in three large display cases from his cousin’s jewellery shop that had gone out of business.  The last two years he has spent collecting items for the museum.

No one in town pays much attention to Randall’s personal project, first because it has taken forever to even get off the ground, and second, no one thinks anything will ever really come of it.  Nor is anybody particularly curious to see it, which would be surprising anywhere but in New Blackenburg.  But the villagers are kind to their former postman.  “How’s it going?,” they ask him when he passes by, hoping he won’t make them stop and listen again to the lecture he’s prepared for when the museum opens and the tourists come.  Everyone has already heard it, at least twice, but they still don’t understand what the heck he’s talking about. 

Fourteen people in the village have computers so that’s how they figured word about Randall’s “museum” must have gotten out.  But in truth, it was the simple web site  Randall’s cousin made for him, giving the name and address of the Repository, and the flyers Randall put on cars in the Pine Ridge municipal parking lot and left on a table at the Shelbyville library on his way back from his cousin’s last spring.  The stranger is the first person to ever ask about, much less actually drive all the way out to visit the museum.

The stranger follows the old dirt road, as instructed, toward the reservoir and finds the building the waitress had described.  It is rather shabby, hardly a place tourists would flock to unless they were really, really bored and desperate.  But he’s come this far—maybe it’s different inside.  He parks the car and walks up to the entrance, over which a crooked, hand-painted sign announces, in sombre brown lettering,

                                                                       THE WAR REPOSITORY.  WELCOME.

It’s actually not very welcoming.  But he’s seen quaint places like this in country villages—out-of-the-way refurbished garages or barns or garden sheds reborn as little antique havens where you can sometimes find unusual or valuable items if you venture past the sometimes tacky décor.  Who knows, there might be some real treasures in there.  The stranger enters the building and is immediately taken aback.  From the imposing edifice outside, he thinks there ought to be more to the museum, not just this one room.

Randall is sitting at a small table in the back, reading a newspaper. The one and only visitor who has ever come to look at the Repository  and you might think Randall would jump out of his seat in excitement, usher the man in, show him his collection.  But he just sits there, raises a cup to his lips, takes a sip of coffee, nods to the stranger, smiles, and says: “Hello there.”

The stranger nods in return and walks uncertainly toward the big display case in the center of the room.  Two other cases, dusty and neglected—and both empty—are jammed against an adjacent wall.  He bends over to peer in at the three shelves, each of which contains only a single item.  He frowns and straightens back up.  Randall cannot read thoughts but he can see that the man’s initial interest has suddenly waned.  The stranger cannot hide his disappointment in having been fooled into thinking the War Repository was worthy of inspection.  Surely this is a joke.  “You have only three items here,” he says accusingly.

Randall gets up from his chair and hobbles over to the stranger, extending his hand.  “I’m the curator of the museum, Randall Perdue.  A pleasure to meet you.”  The man shakes Randall’s wrinkled hand, holding back the laughter rising in his throat that threatens to explode over the word “curator”.  Curator of an empty room with three items, right.  Surely he has gotten the wrong information.  He clears his throat and stammers, “Well I saw the website about this place, was just curious, you know.  Doesn’t look like you got much here, buddy.  You closing up shop—or just not ready to open yet?”  He begins to suspect that his host is not quite all there.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?,” Randall offers, glancing over at the desk where the coffeepot sits percolating. 

“Well, no, actually, I was just passing through.  Don’t really have a lot of time.”  The stranger fakes a concerned glance at his wristwatch,  pretending to be late for something, turns and starts walking toward the door. “Thanks anyway, though.  Maybe next time around.”

“This scarf, for example,” Randall continues, as if he has not heard the stranger, “has a very interesting history.”  He’s opened the display case, carefully extracted a faded red scarf, and places it gently on top the case, along with the other two items—a worn leather notebook and a velvet box containing what looks like a small bone.

Succumbing to curiosity, the stranger stalls momentarily.  He can’t decide if Randall is just some crazy old man—in which case he should probably not hang around there—or if, despite the bizarre circumstances, there might actually be something highly interesting here.  He seems harmless enough, the stranger acknowledges.  Maybe he should at least listen to what the old guy has to say.  If nothing else, it would make a great story at the next office Christmas party.

“Sit down,” Randall says, pulling out the only other chair in the room.  The stranger sits down awkwardly, as Randall straightens up and positions himself importantly by the display case to give his little lecture.

 “This scarf was found wrapped around the neck of a soldier in the First World War,” he declares solemnly, “or so his great granddaughter tells me.”  But the stranger is staring at the little bone on top the display case.  “They thought at first he may have been strangled,” Randall continues, “by a woman”—he  pauses for effect—“but it turns out the real cause of death was a bullet in the back.”  Randall gently refolds and returns the scarf back to the display case.

It’s just a stupid scarf, the stranger thinks.

“The second exhibit is this leather notebook,” Randall continues.  “It was brought home by a nurse serving in a surgical unit in Germany during World War II.”  Randall hands the notebook to the stranger.  Its yellowed pages contain, in scribbled pencil, what looks to be someone’s “To Do” list:   “Buy gauze pads.” “Feed cat.” “Tell E. about M.”  “Do laundry.”  Hardly a “war” diary!  Again—of what possible relevance, to anyone other than its owner, the stranger cannot fathom.

“And the last, and best in my opinion”—Randall’s eyes suddenly light up as he picks up the box with the tiny bone—“is this.”  The stranger’s curiosity is reawakened.  Randall cradles the bone in the palm of his hand and offers it for the stranger’s view.

“What is it?” asks the stranger, suspecting it is a finger bone but pretending it isn’t. 

“Why, it’s a bone,” says Randall.  “It was a finger.”

The stranger rises from his chair to take a closer look. He’s suddenly feeling uneasy, as if his succumbing to mere curiosity has suddenly unleashed a sinister element in the universe that will trigger some unforeseen horror.  “Whose finger is it?”, he asks.

“I don’t know,” says Randall, caressing the bone.

“Where’d it come from?  I mean, where’d you get it?” the stranger probes, masking his unease with a burst of agitation. 

“I found it,” says Randall. 

“Found it where?  Where’d you find it?”

 “I can’t tell you,” says Randall.

“Why not?”  The stranger is in no mood for games. 

“But I can tell you what war it came from.”  Randall lowers his eyes and smiles.

The stranger realizes he’s been hoodwinked—first by a prank website about a museum that doesn’t really exist, and now by a mysterious old man who may or may not be rip-roaring crazy.  He glances around the room, wondering if there’s a hidden camera somewhere, like in that old TV show “Candid Camera”, filming his astonished reactions.  “Really, I’ve got to go,” he repeats, wanting now only to save himself further embarrassment and get the heck out of there.  Wherever the little bone came from is anyone’s guess.  It could be from the old guy’s dead cat for all he knows.  The stranger  no longer really cares.   “Hey, but thanks for the little tour.” 

 “It’s from World War Three,” says Randall.

The stranger stops and looks back at the old man.  “What?  What did you say?”

“It’s from World War Three,” Randall repeats.

“Mister, there hasn’t been a World War Three,” the stranger laughs, confirming that the whole bizarre episode—the old man, the museum, the little bone—falls into the category of “my weird summer adventure out in New Blackenburg”—which definitely he’s going to tell them about at the office on Monday.    He walks briskly to his car, shaking his head.   There’s no hidden camera—just a bored, wacky local, spinning his fantasies. The guy’s a fruitcake, a friggin’ fruitcake!

Randall puts the little bone back in its box and returns it and the leather notebook to their respective places in the display case, pours himself another cup of coffee, and sits back down.

“Who, really, did that bone belong to?,”  he wonders.  “Why can’t I remember?” He recalls that it was in the tin box with the rusted medals and old Japanese currency that Corporal Westerman’s widow had given him—wasn’t it?  But the last time he checked,  he found instead, a plastic button and a half-smoked cigar.  “Why would I throw away the coins and medals?, he wonders.   He scratches his head, confused, and looks down at his shoes, as if the answer can be found there.  “And why the hell did I tell that guy the bone was from World War III? 

A siren suddenly shrieks, rattling the colourfully painted windows and shaking the walls.  Randall, startled, falls from his chair, sending his coffee cup careening into the window of the display case, shattering glass all over the floor.  He struggles to get up, cutting the heel of his hand on a piece of glass.  Kneeling in the spilt coffee, his trouser leg wet and stained, he suddenly clasps his hands over his ears and screams; he screams and screams and screams, so loud it drowns out all awareness of anything but his pounding, racing heart.

“Wake up, Mr. Perdue, you’ve had another nightmare,” says the nurse, noting that he’s wet himself again.

“I need my coat,” Randall wails, thrashing back the covers, getting his IV entangled in the process.  “Give me my coat, I gotta go.”  One bony leg dangles helplessly over the side of the bed.

“Go?  Go where?  Where exactly is it you have to go, Mr. Perdue?  You need to just calm down,” says the nurse.

“I have to go to my museum,” he screams.  His frail arms sputter and flail like two trapped fish.  “I have to go and get my bone!”

Mary, the nurse, sighs.  It is 11:30 PM, her shift is ending, and all she wants to do is go home and get to bed. 

“What’s all this about a bone?”, her replacement laughs, overhearing them from the hallway.  “What’s Mr. Perdue mean, he has to go out and get a bone?  A T-bone steak—that what he wants now?  Our meatloaf not good enough for him anymore?  Ha ha.  Ha ha.    Ha ha ha.”  She helps Mary put Randall back into bed.

Mary is tired.  “I’ll explain later,” she says.

War objects as “collectibles”—Randall thought he could take it one step further.  He wanted visitors to his museum to get beyond the objects, to get into the minds and hearts of the soldiers themselves, the living as well as the dead—and those who loved them most.  Randall got no medals for his military service but felt compelled to create an imaginary museum to house the ghosts of battle—his and theirs—not to celebrate a victory but to exorcise the pain.  In the end, who’s to say that one’s public mantelpiece of honor—or private box of anguish—is any more or less profound than another’s?  

He chose to exhibit a whimsical set of artefacts from random, forgotten personal histories; what the visitor saw instead, were Randall’s mental wounds.   Oh yes, Mary knows all about wounds.  She deals with them every day, with broken bodies and tortured minds, racked with pain, howling for lost limbs.  They whisper scenes of carnage that just won’t leave, that scream, incessantly, the insanity of war. 

Patch and reassemble.  Rehabilitate.  Console.  Preserve and honor what’s left of them. Discharge and prepare for the next batch.

Randall was wrong, though, in believing that his little museum was unique, Mary thinks, clocking out for the night.  In the end, we are all war’s repositories. 

Published in Istanbul Literary Review,  Spring 2009.


                                                                                     THE LAST WALTZ

                                                                                              by Annie Wyndham

              I have outlived my usefulness, or so Mavis tells me.  Nothing works anymore—my trembling, knobby hands…ridiculous sagging skin, rickety legs…hell, even my ticker’s probably gonna need an eventual jumpstart.  I don’t know what’s worse, to have a perfectly fit and functioning body (like Joe) but be unaware of it, or live in a body that is slowly shutting down, where the only part that still works properly can only observe, with dismay, each progressive deterioration. 

            Now Joe here, bless his childlike heart, has the body of a god.  (I see the way the pretty aides all look at him.)   Joe’s what you might call mentally challenged, the politically correct replacement for what in my day we used to call “retarded,” but of course you can’t say that now, people get mad. When one of us has to explain why Joe seems more like a seven year old than his chronological age of thirty-one, we usually just say that he’s “slow”. 

               Unlike me, Joe can come and go as he pleases around here.  He’s in the rehab part of the hospital over in Building 4, getting physical therapy on his shattered knee, and I’m in the ‘Final Exit’ section, otherwise known as Whispering Gardens, the nursing home annexed to Rehab.  I don’t know why they chose the word “whispering” to describe this place, or for that matter “gardens.”  Gardens are supposed to signify life.  In here we’re all dying, and you’re more likely to hear carping, shrieking or howling than whispering.  Whispering won’t get you that extra piece of key lime pie at dinner time.  You gotta make them notice you, ‘cause it’s too easy to disappear in here.  Take my word on that.

                Joe spends most of his time hanging out in our section, though--probably because of its proximity to the big dining hall.  Rehab has a shitty little cafeteria and the food sucks, according to Mavis.   She’s always sneaking cake and stuff over to the aides in Rehab.

            “Let’s trade bodies,” I shout over at Joe as Mavis wheels me past the lounge we share with Rehab, where Joe lies sprawled on a leather couch, staring at glossy pictures of cars in a six-year old magazine.  He smiles and waves back, uncomprehending.  I can’t get used to having to ride in a wheelchair.  I keep forgetting to put my feet on the little metal footpads or whatever they’re called, and Mavis yells at me for slowing her down.  She likes Joe, though.  Everybody likes Joe.

            “He do like his car mags, that boy,” Mavis chuckles.  “Hadn’t been dropped on his head as a baby, no tellin’ what kinda great guy he coulda been.”

            “He IS a great guy, Mavis,” I reply.  “And unless you know his family, which you don’t, you can’t speak with any authority on why he is the way he is.”  Mavis just harrumphs and wheels me toward the dining room.   Lately I find myself defending Joe’s mental ‘slowness’.  Now, I know he’s not the brightest bulb in the socket.  A little 40-watter can’t hope to outshine a 100-watter, but on the other hand, you can be blinded by too much of anything.  It can disorient you, make you lose perspective.  With Joe, you always know that what you see is what you get.  I get tired of people denigrating those less intelligent than themselves, highlighting their perceived defects, as if we must define them by how they differ from the norm or what they lack. People use that as a way to maintain the fence between “us” and “them.  I confess that I have not entirely evolved to the point where I don’t sometimes slip up in this regard, and for convenience sake resort to a handy label. (I never said I was perfect.)

               Mavis steers me into the dining hall, parking me in my usual corner next to the kitchen.  You might think that’s a really strange thing, to specifically request to be seated right near the noisiest, busiest part of the dining room.  It’s not quiet—the kitchen door bangs open like fifteen times a half hour, and you can hear the kitchen staff shouting and joking (or swearing); and you get the occasional spill on your table from the awkward ministrations of some overly eager teenage volunteer trying to juggle too many trays at once.  But one can filter that out, I’ve learned.  No, what I like about this corner is its solitude.  My own private space, where I’m not forced to converse with someone while I’m eating.

               The lady in charge of social activities at this institution—Charlene—gets upset if everyone’s not “trying.”  Sitting alone in a corner, by choice, is considered anti-social, like you consider yourself somehow superior to the others, implying it would be beneath you to mingle with them.  It took some time for me to convince her that was not the case, that I was not being deliberately anti-social, and that I was perfectly happy to mingle and socialize at any other time--but at dinner I preferred to be left alone.  In order to justify giving in to me, she is pretending my mental sanity depends on it (which, in a way, it does).

               Anyway, the reason I chose this noisy, but secluded corner was because it’s the one place in here where Charlene and her rampant do-goodyism cannot penetrate.  Plus I get to pick first when the desert trays with fresh apple strudel or key lime pie are being carried out from the kitchen.

              We’re both here for rehab—Joe over there in Building 4 for a busted kneecap, me over here in Whispering Gardens for general resuscitation and maintenance—except he’ll get to leave someday and I don’t.  Over here in the nursing home annex we’re what a car mechanic would call “high maintenance.”

               After his PT sessions, Joe hobbles around on crutches looking for magazines.  He’s the happiest, gentlest, kindest, most energetic person in the joint and we have all sort of adopted him, those in my section of the building anyhow.  He’s the kind of person who can light up a room simply by showing up.  Mavis scolds him as if he were one of her children, Grace knits him industrial-size woolen green slippers, Isabel gives him her horded cherry-filled chocolates, and Jackson searches for car magazines for him.  Me, I just give him advice, which has elevated me, in Joe’s eyes at least, to the status of Wise Resident Counselor, much to the annoyance of our salaried resident social worker, who believes she holds a monopoly in that department.

               Joe came by his first week in Rehab looking for magazines.  I wasn’t aware that patients from Rehab in Building 4 could just up and wander over here and walk around like it was an extension of the Rehab wards.  It isn’t, and normally, you can’t.  But all of a sudden there he was.  No one stopped him the first time; maybe they weren’t looking the second time; and by the third time, the tall smiling guy on crutches was a familiar face.  I guess the staff all thought he was somebody’s relative just visiting.  Anyway, be began stopping in all our rooms to say hello, introducing himself, and asking us if he could borrow some magazines.  That’s how it started.

               We were perfectly willing to oblige.  A visitor who pops in during non-visiting hours and doesn’t get caught?  It is to our credit that Charlene did not find out about Joe until his third week here, and only relented on allowing him to continue visiting us after we all threatened to boycott the dining room, which meant administration would come down on her for her loss of control of us.  Well, those of us in the moderately mobile (as opposed to completely bedridden) section, at any rate:  that would be me, Grace, Isabel, Jackson, Charlie and Fred.

               When Joe first appeared, Fred, the bald guy in the bed next to mine, handed him last week’s TV Guide, People Magazine, and a never-opened Sports Illustrated.    Fred is nearly blind.  I think his family provides these publications for when they come to visit, so they’d have something to look at while they sit there “visiting”.  Poor Fred doesn’t even know they’re there most times; he’s kind of in and out of reality, but the family comes anyway; sometimes the brother, sometimes a niece or nephew.  Sometimes they say hello, if they see that I’m awake, but mostly they just sit there ten or fifteen minutes thumbing through Fred’s magazines. 

               Why they gave him the TV Guide, I don’t know, because Fred doesn’t even have a TV.  In fact, that’s why I asked to be put in with Fred as a roommate.  My former roommate Charlie had a TV—a big 27-incher—and it was turned on, 24/7.  The aide turned it on the minute she arrived to wake Charlie up for his meds and it didn’t get turned off until after the last aide brought his night meds, around 11:00 pm. 

               Charlie was hard of hearing and asked that the volume please be turned up, which Mavis did, because she could then hear her soaps as she was mopping down the hall outside our room.  Charlie didn’t care what was on, he fell asleep again as soon as he had breakfast.  Sometimes another aide would come in and change the channel, announcing (to the air, because Charlie couldn’t hear her), “Well, let’s see what’s on Channel 7, shall we?”  She knew that I knew that her program came on Channel 7 at that exact time but she always pretended this was for Charlie’s benefit.  In my first months here I have had more game shows, soap operas and the shopping channel seared into my brain than in my entire lifetime.  So when a bed became available in Fred’s room and they granted my request to move in there, I was ecstatic.  Quiet at last! 

               Well, as I said, Joe comes by that first day looking for magazines and takes what Fred offers.  He thanks Fred but seems disappointed.  Then he notices me in the opposite bed behind the cloth partition.  “Hi, I’m Joe,” he says, bursting forward, extending his hand.  “You got any magazines?”

            I point to a pile on the chair near the window:  Crossword puzzles, Time, Newsweek, two daily local newspapers, several books, yellow tablets on which I scribble things and document the death of my legs.  (Mavis considers this morbid.)

               We all soon realize Joe’s voracious interest in our leftover reading materials is not to read them (he can’t read, we soon discover), but to look at the pictures—and the ones that interest him most involve big, shiny cars.  He is especially happy when we tell him he can keep the magazines, no need to return them, for he then goes and cuts out all the car pictures and saves them.  Mavis tells me one of the nurses over in Rehab told her that Joe keeps them in a shoebox in his room and won’t let anybody touch them. 

               Sunday is an especially horrible day here, because Charlene has the aides come by and round us all up, whether we want to go or not, and deposit us in the Activity Room—which on Sundays becomes the Religious Services Room.  If you are walking by the hallway and happen to peek in, here is what you will see:  a large dark room with dark green walls, and two rows of wheelchairs, lined up side by side, followed by a row of gray metal chairs (for the ambulatorily blessed), all facing a box in the front of the room.  It might just as well be a big empty box—it’s a TV that has been shut off, so everybody’s just sitting there staring at the blank screen.  From a corner somewhere in the back, Charlene’s boom box plays tapes of Christian music.  Far as I know there are 2 Jews, 4 Catholics, 1 Jehovah’s Witness and the rest are various assorted Christians—Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Episcopalian.    Somebody took an unofficial survey one time in the dining hall and I vaguely remember who raised their hand and what religion they claimed to be.  No Buddhists or atheists, as I recall.  But here we are, all glumped together listening to some generic religious music.  You can’t not go, because then Charlene gives you one of those looks that suggest you’re not “trying”.  Protest is futile.

               Some people need this, though.  Grace for example, really gets into it, clapping her hands and swaying to the music, shouting “Halleluja!” at appropriate intervals.  Isabel sits with her hands discretely folded in her lap, as if waiting for something meaningful to transpire, or maybe a minister who never shows up.  Jackson scowls (he hates Sunday “service”) and Fred and Charlie doze.  In fact, the majority of the participants are simply asleep in their wheelchairs.  Afterwards we’re all escorted or wheeled back to our rooms, and wait for someone to come visit (or not).  And that’s why Joe has become so important here.  He visits, every day, each and every one of us, in Section 5 of Whispering Gardens.

               For Valentine’s Day, Charlene decides to have a special Valentine’s Day Party.  She has the aides string decorations all over the Activities Room while she runs out to buy red paper napkins and heart-shaped candies.   This does not go over well with Mavis or the other aides because the place is short-staffed enough as it is.  “They take in $2000 a month from each patient, and pay us a whopping $6.00 an hour to care for them,” Mavis mumbles.  “And Charlene,  takes off for TWO WHOLE HOURS to go shopping and buy goodies and we’re supposed to stop whatever we’re doing to go blow up balloons and decorate and have everything ready for when she returns!.  Remind me again why I work here?”

                “They turned down your application for Attorney General?”  I smile, hoping she won’t hit me over the head with the bedpan.

               Mavis’s heavy bosom shakes with laughter.  “You watch it, Mister,” she says with a cocked eyebrow—“or I’m gonna fix your wagon good.”  I’m used to Mavis’s threats.  They’re invalid because she always grins when uttering them. 

               The Valentine’s Day party is only for our residents.  The folks in the Rehab building next door aren’t invited.   Joe stops by, as usual, and goes first to Charlie’s room.  No Charlie.  He pokes his head into Isabel’s room.  No Isabel.  He goes to all our rooms.  No Grace, no Fred, no Jackson, no me---no Mavis.  “Where the heck is everybody?”  He hears music coming from the Activities Room and hobbles down on his crutches to see.

               We’re all sitting here at the table finishing up our cake and ice cream.  Isabel is having trouble getting her ice cream out of the paper cup.  To save money, management here buys the cheapest, most tasteless ice cream possible.  First off, it’s not even real ice cream.  Second, it’s frozen rock-hard-solid and virtually impossible to dig out with a mere spoon.  You need a pick-ax and it requires real elbow juice.  Some of us—like Isabel-- can’t even raise a hand to brush our hair.  How the hell do they expect her to dig out this fake frozen ice cream shit?  So she has to ask for help, which is embarrassing.  They even serve this disgusting concoction to diabetics, who aren’t supposed to have ice cream at all.  Which puts a lie to their oft-repeated slogan in the glossy brochure that they send out to attract more business.  “Patients first!” my eyeball!

               Anyway, here we all are, finishing up our cake and punch and wondering what special activity Charlene has up her sleeve today, when Joe hobbles in on his crutches, grinning from ear to ear.  Everyone’s face lights up and we invite him to sit down.  Charlene knows better than to say anything.  Even she accepts Joe’s power among us.  (I say power, because he is able, by his mere presence, to effect changes she can only dream about.  And for this, she secretly resents him.)

               Mavis gives Joe a red balloon and a piece of chocolate cake on a paper plate and pulls up a chair for him, as one of the aides slides a cassette of  waltz music into the boom box.  Now I don’t know about you but it’s been my experience that women can’t resist a waltz.  Don’t care how old they are, eighteen or eighty, you play a waltz and the ones that can, jump up and dance, and if they have no partner, well then, they dance with themselves.  Like my mother used to do when she was “down,” or after my father screamed at her and stormed out of the house, slamming the door behind him.  She would go and turn on the record player and waltz around the kitchen, dancing with a broom as her imaginary partner.  The anger would eventually go out of her and she’d be swept into a whole other world, and when the music ended, she was okay again--almost like she went somewhere inside and got a shot of happiness.  She never did this if anyone was looking, though; she’d wait till she was alone.  Her music was like her own private well where anytime she needed, she could go and draw from it, the way other people do with their booze or Prozac.   

            Isabel has that same kind of look on her face when the music starts playing as my mother did when her music came on.  The look that says, “Oh, take me!  Take me there! Free me!”  Mavis says Isabel was a famous dancer in her time, though I had never heard of her.  I guess she means locally.  Isabel rises timidly from her chair and looks expectantly at the few men present.  Most are in wheelchairs but that doesn’t deter her.  She doesn’t seriously believe any of them are actually gonna get up and dance with her, does she?  That’s my thought, and apparently Charlie is thinking the same thing, because before she looks his way, he gets up and asks the aide to quick help walk him to the bathroom down the hall, pretending it’s an emergency.  Coward that I am, I silently pray she will not ask me.

            I turn around and wheel towards the refreshment table to get a refill on the punch when I hear clapping.  Joe has entered the room and has asked Isabel to dance!  Now you really have to see this to believe it.  Picture this if you will:  Here’s this tall, strapping young guy with a banged up, bandaged knee, on crutches, who can hop on one foot probably but that’s about it.  Isabel, aged 81, is like five foot one in high heels, dressed in a frilly pink ruffled dress, the kind you find in thrift shop windows.  If you open the door and a bit of wind blows in, she’d be swept away—that’s how tiny and delicate she is.  Charlene’s first impulse is to laugh, and she does, not even trying to stifle it.  When they passed out manners, she must have been asleep.  Jackson and Mavis glare at her and Charlene about chokes, trying to cover her mouth and pretend it’s a cough.   All other eyes, however, are on Joe and Isabel. 

            Joe isn’t actually dancing.  I mean, how can you, when you’re on a pair of crutches?  But he holds Isabel’s hand and guides her to the center of the room, because that’s what she wants really—attention.  And then she takes off by herself dancing, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three in tiny, graceful swoops,  like a little bird, her arms raised around an imaginary partner, just like my mom with her broom, while Joe stands there “conducting”, waving his right hand in the air in time to the music.  Unable to contain herself (I call it the “waltz impulse”, a disease that only women are inflicted with), Mavis wiggles her large rump up off the chair, brushes the crumbs off her uniform, and marches across the dance floor, positioning herself into place as Isabel’s new dancing partner.  They glide off together, the most improbable of couples, patient and aide, in a melodious whirl across the linoleum floor, Mavis huffing and puffing and sweating; and Isabel, her eyes closed, her little bird legs sweeping along, completely lost in the music.  Meanwhile, Grace edges her wheelchair over alongside Jackson’s, takes his hand, and orders:  “Ask me to dance, you old fart.” 

            “I don’t know how,” Jackson stammers, terrified. 

            “Well then just twirl around with me.”   Grace is unrelenting.  Jackson doesn’t move.  Realizing Jackson will not submit to “dancing” in a wheelchair while everyone stares at them, Grace relents and takes his hand instead.  They sit, hand in hand, side by side, listening to the music. 

            Jackson has forgotten how soft a woman’s hand can feel, how good women smell, how pleasant to just have someone sit with him when they don’t really have to.  Daily life here only brings him roughness—stiff, starchy bed sheets, the odor of a bedmate’s urine-soaked diaper, excuses from the family for the lack of visits (“Next week, Dad, I’m tied up this weekend, sorry.”)  Somewhere in the far reaches of his memory are saved-up vignettes of such things--touches, smells and feelings long absent, now making a surprising return, here at a Valentine’s Day party, with Grace.

            The waltz ends and Mavis helps Isabel, now flushed and completely out of breath,  back to her chair.  Mavis plops into the chair beside her, panting, and wipes her brow with her party napkin.  Joe hangs around afterwards to help the aides clean up and comes by later to say “G’night mate” to each of us. 

            Silly little ritual, and I don’t remember how it started but we all look forward to it.  It means another day ends with someone acknowledging we’re still here and still somehow “connected” to the living.  Grace and Isabel find being addressed as “mate” endearing.  It makes us fellas feel we’re somehow equal—not so, well--over the hill.  In another life, another generation, we could be Joe’s companions.

            Nothing is permanent, right?  But when Joe announces he is leaving in two weeks, his physical therapy sessions having ended, a total carpet of gloom descends upon us.  Even though his announcement prepares us for his eventual departure, it’s like we can’t really fathom it.  Grace works feverishly into the night knitting another pair of green wool slippers for him; Isabel calls her granddaughter to please bring two extra boxes tomorrow of cherry-filled chocolates so she can give them to him; Jackson bribes one of the janitors to go out and buy the latest Car & Driver to give to Joe.   Mavis goes around for days beforehand, looking distraught, as upset as if her only son has told her he is leaving for Timbuktu, or joining the Army.  It doesn’t matter the reason—it’s going to leave a big hole in her heart.  Me?    I’m trying to be stoic about it.  People come, people go.  Get over it.  Life goes on.

            I wish I could say I’m succeeding.

            We decide to give Joe a little going away party.  Nothing like Charlene’s Valentine’s Day shindig.  Mainly we want to keep it secret from her, because we don’t want her there.   She can say her own private goodbye to him-- we want Joe for ourselves this time.   But as these things go, it doesn’t come off.  You need someone to organize stuff, and none of us can.   Mavis wants to be the one in charge, but Isabel and Grace object.  “She’s an aide.  It should be one of us,.” Grace says.  And for the first time, that insidious, divisive little monster rears its ugly head.  The one that always reminds you that “they” are not “us.”  Can’t get away from it, no siree sir.  To your dying day, you’re always gonna be on one or the other side of the Us/Them divide.

            Mavis storms off, muttering under her breath; Isabel and Grace shrug and  exchange embarrassed glances.  Of course, Charlene finds out about our plans and wants to “supervise.”  You know how some people always have to be the Big Cheese?  Well that’s Charlene, and that pretty much kills it as far as having a private little going-away party for Joe is concerned.  So we decide to just, each, say our goodbyes, one-on-one, with Joe before he leaves.  Charlene even wants to be let in on this, probably to stand outside the door and time each person’s goodbye visit, to make sure no one gets more time with Joe than another.  After all, she chirps, “we live in a democracy.” 

            It’s funny, our putting so much emphasis on the finality of it—why do we keep referring to it as his “last” day?  It’s like, moaning to your wife, over and over and over, “Louise, stop your damn bitching.  You’re driving me insane!”  And then you go and actually lose your mind.  Overusing certain words can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  You tell your kid he’s being a pain in the neck and then bang, you come down with cancer of the neck.  Maybe our collective repetition of this day being Joe’s “last” somehow contributes to what happens next.  I like to think not, as it assuages my guilt, but you never know.  Words do make things happen.  I’ve seen it.

            Charlie gets all emotional when Joe stops in to say his “Goodbye, mate.”

            “Gonna miss you, kid,” Charlie sniffles, hoping Joe doesn’t notice he’s been crying. 

            Grace hasn’t quite finished the pair of green slippers for Joe.  She spends all morning flitting around her small half-room, arranging and rearranging the items on her bureau, as if it were the King of England who were coming.

            “Thank you for waltzing with me on Valentine’s Day,” Isabel beams at Joe when he appears at her door, the memory still fresh, the feeling still capturable. 

            After they exchange a brief, manly hug, Jackson watches as Joe waves goodbye. Joe is so appreciative of all those car magazines Jackson got for him, and Jackson wishes his own sons could, just once, exhibit such warmth. 

            Fred is asleep when Joe arrives at our room and Joe doesn’t want to wake him.  Poor Fred probably wouldn’t remember anyway.  He’s out of it most of the time but Joe stops to talk to him anyway.  I marvel again how much time Joe has had for all of us.
                                                                                                    *  *  *  *  *  *

                It’s one week since Joe left and it’s back to the same ‘ole, same ‘ole around here.  One of Jackson’s sons comes and takes him home.  Some dispute about unpaid nursing home bills, and it seems to Mavis and me that Jackson no more wants to go home with them than they want to bring him there.  It’s sad, but what are you gonna do?  Life sucks sometimes.

            Grace and Isabel, once warm friends, are no longer speaking to one another.  Mavis has been talking to each of them, trying to get them to call a truce.  This morning at breakfast, Grace leaves a pair of knitted green slippers on the table near Isabel’s breakfast tray.  I think they’re ones she had started knitting once for Joe but never finished.  They seem rather large for Isabel’s tiny feet. 

               Fred passed away, quietly, in his sleep, the day before yesterday.  My new roommate’s name is Evan and he has brought his TV with him.  Thankfully, he only watches it for the 7:00 AM and 7:00 PM news, or the occasional tennis match, then turns it right off again.  He’s not overly chatty either, though he is a bit nosy.  I caught him looking in my bureau drawer when I returned from lunch today.

                                                                                                            *  *  *  *  *  *

            Mavis has a weird look on her face as she enters the room to change our bedding today.  It’s like she’s hiding something.  Evan has the news on full blast and it’s hard to concentrate.  “What is it, Mavis?” I ask.

            “Joe’s gone.”

            “Who’s Joe?” Evan shouts from the other side of the curtain, afraid he’s missing something.

            I’m wondering what Mavis is talking about, since she was here when Joe left over a month ago.  What does she mean he’s “gone?”

            “Joe’s dead,” she whispers, catching her breath in a wave of stifled emotion.

            “What?!  When? How?” I stammer.   “Who told you that?  What are you talking about?”

            Mavis leans over closer to my wheelchair and lowers her voice.  “He got hit by a car over in Millersville.  Tuesday.   Killed instantly.  Julie over in Rehab told me.”

            I scramble to find today’s paper, under a heap of crossword puzzle magazines on the floor and flip through to the Obituary page.  Nobody named Joe has died.   Ditto for yesterday’s paper.

            “Well maybe they didn’t put the notice in yet—or it could be in another paper,” Mavis offers.  “Anyway, does it matter?  I mean, what they say about him—does it matter?  Obits are just a bunch of cold facts that don’t say nuthin’ about who you really were in life.  All that ‘beloved wife of so and so’, ‘loving father,’ ‘devoted husband’ crap—like icing spread on a cake to make more of it than it is sometimes, or hide the truth.   ‘Devoted’ my football! The guy slept with half the women in the neighborhood!”

            “What the hell are you talking about, Mavis?”  

            “Sorry, I was thinkin’ of someone else,” she said, ripping the sheet off my bed and stuffing it into a laundry bag.  “But what I mean is, no matter what they write in some Obit about Joe—it don’t make no difference.  Joe was like family to us.  He might have that other family out there somewhere, the one’s that brung him up, but …”


            “What?” Mavis looks at me as if I have three heads.

            “Brought.  You said ‘brung’, Mavis.  There’s no such word as ‘brung.’

            “Why you fussin’ about words when we’re talkin’ about JOE!?”  she sputters, exasperated.

            “Who’s Joe?” Evan shouts again from behind the curtain.

            The dinner bell sounds, and I hear Isabel and Grace in the hallway, being escorted into the dining room.  

            “Are you going to tell them?” I whisper to Mavis as she’s leaving.

            “Tell who what?” Evan asks.

            “The others--that Joe died.”  I explain.

            “Who’s Joe?” Evan repeats.

            Mavis just looks at me.

            Mavis doesn’t think we should mention it.  I’m the only one in our section who reads the newspaper and unless someone from Rehab tells Charlene, none of Joe’s ‘mates’ here will likely ever find out he’s dead.           

               As these things go, some people simply can’t wait to spread bad news.  Charlene soon learns about Joe’s accident and the way she chooses to tell us is the height of tastelessness.  She’s such a drama queen.  But like I said before, some people like to be the Big Cheese.  As they are bringing in the dessert trays, Charlene stands up at the head table and tinkles her little Made-in-India brass bell, to get everyone’s attention.

               “People, people,” she calls out.  “I have a sad announcement.”           

               A few of us look up but mostly everyone ignores her.  Sad announcements from Charlene can be anything from “Our volunteer pianist is on vacation this month” to “Due to a recent change in our kitchen staff, key lime pie will no longer be served on Wednesdays.”    (By the way, the key lime pie announcement was not sad, it was TRAGIC, for some of us!)  But when she mentions “accident” in the same sentence with the name “Joe”, heads raise, Grace gasps, and Isabel’s fork hits the floor with a clang. 

               Charlene surveys her audience, assessing the reaction.  Having received the desired effect, unashamedly basking in the total attention of all, she rattles off the facts about Joe’s accidental death.  With Joe gone, she’s the Big Cheese again, or so she thinks.   Silence engulfs the dining hall. Isabel and Grace bend their heads and huddle together, like two wounded little birds, whimpering; the aides look stunned.  Evan asks the old man seated next to him at the table, again:  “Who’s Joe?”

               Well, what can I say, life goes on.  After we get over the initial shock and realize Joe isn’t coming back to visit again—not ever—nor will he be sending us any postcards, since he couldn’t read or write—we pretty much accept that that is that.

                Grace writes to Jackson now, did I mention that?  And they talk on the phone sometimes.  She’s knitting him some slippers, which he has agreed to wear but only on condition that they aren’t green or with bows. 

                 I no longer attend religious service in the Activities Room, and Charlene no longer forces me to go, which is nice.  Probably because she knows it was me who wrote that anonymous note for the Suggestion Box outside the nurses’ station saying there’s nothing particularly spiritual or uplifting about being parked in front of a blank TV screen for half an hour listening to old, canned hymns, and maybe just for variety’s sake we ought to play some Buddhist chants for a change.   Somehow these views reached management and Charlene must have gotten chewed out for not putting more time and effort into multiculturalizing the religious services more so that all beliefs are given equal representation.  I’m just guessing that’s what happened because they’ve now at least replaced the TV as the icon of adoration at Sunday services, with a long cloth-covered table.  A big gold-framed picture of Jesus sits on one side, surrounded by plastic flowers; a wooden garden Buddha on the other side.  The Buddha is compliments of one of the aides, who says if you rub its belly, you’ll have a good tomato crop.  As for hymns, they’ve a chosen a tape of Elvis singing spiritual songs, which gets a few more people humming along.

               I’m walking past the Activities Room (which on Thursdays becomes the Music Room) and there’s Ronald, our volunteer pianist, plinking away on the keys, which by the way need serious tuning.  He just loves it when someone asks him to play something.  He’s like a walking archive—you just name it, and he can play it, by ear.  I can’t even get my fingers to turn the pages of my crossword puzzle magazine anymore, let alone hold a pencil.  I’m mesmerized by how deftly his fingers sweep over the keys.

                 “Hi Ronald,” I say.  “You know any waltzes?”  I’m joking, of course.

                  Ronald’s eyes light up, his smile widens.  He immediately begins tapping out The Blue Danube Waltz.  I wheel myself over to the piano to watch him play.  I hear Isabel out in the hallway, being escorted back from the bathroom, holding onto Mavis’s arm.  They stop to listen. 

                 “Hello there, ladies,” I call out.  “Come on in.  Would you two like to waltz?”

                 I don’t know why I say that.  Mavis gives me one of those looks.

                 “Oh my dear, I…  oh but thank you, but ….,” Isabel stammers.  “My poor legs, they’re not what they used to be.  I’ll just sit and watch, if you don’t mind.”

                Watch?  What’s she mean, watch?  Watch who?

                 I don’t know, maybe this is what you do when you can’t “do” anymore.  You watch.  And if there’s nothing to watch, you take yourself mentally to some place—back in time to a younger you, maybe, or to an imaginary life where the You that’s there is infinitely more interesting than the You you’re now stuck with.  You watch yourself skiing, running, swimming--or dancing, whole, unencumbered, Free.  For us oldies, it is sometimes our only means of escape.  Now, if you’re a teenager and you do this, they label you a daydreamer. 

               In any case, it’s something usually frowned upon, because it’s the one activity where only you get to choose who participates, and once you go there, “they” can’t reach you.  This drives Charlene nuts, by the way.  For example, she’ll come into our rooms in one of her fussbudget moods and start rearranging the things on top our bureaus.  “You KNOW your toothpaste is supposed to go in your bed-table drawer,” she’ll scold.  “Now what would visitors think, seeing this messy, capless tube of toothpaste lying here on top your dresser?  It reflects badly on ALL of us.”  Yadda yadda yadda.  And what we would do—Charlie, Isabel, Grace and me—and Jackson before he left—is, we would just sit there with our eyes closed, humming.  Like we’re somewhere else and “We can’t HEAR you, Charlene!”

                Don’t laugh, one day you’ll be there too. 

                So here we sit, three old mates and Ronald, our volunteer pianist.  Well, Mavis is not that old, but she’s our mate.   Which is to say, she’s not “them” anymore, she’s again become one of “us”.  Our eyes are closed as Ronald plays the waltz.  We’re all remembering.  We’re all now watching Isabel dance with Joe.   Joe’s dead and we’re alive.  How ironic.

            “Goodbye, mate,” says Isabel, to the Joe in our shared vision.

            I wonder where Joe is exactly, if he can see us.  Guess I’ll find out one day. Or maybe not.   I’m not going to lose sleep over whether I actually ever know for sure or not.

            I’d love to see Charlene’s reaction to my latest comment in the Suggestion Box, though.  I signed it “Anonymous” again, of course.  I know she knows it was me.  It said:  “15-watters RULE!!!!”  Bet that’ll keep her up some nights trying to figure out what it means!

Published in Coraddi, Spring 2009.