I was musing recently about the difficulties I had in my university Short Story course…perhaps more than difficulties…actually, nearly complete wash-out. I’ve just, coincidentaly unearthed a handful of floppy discs from the era containing evidence of this. Here is a draft of ‘Inside and Out’, an assignment for the class; my special favorites are the typo ‘grandmother’s doom’ and ‘(insert epiphany)’. I’m not sure if that was later added.
Eric felt sick, the odor was a cross between ammonia and the locker room at school. It was rather hot as well, but all the residents were bundled up in a patchwork array of sweaters and blankets as if the windows were open. He walked up to the nurse’s station. On a chair unworthy of her size sat a hefty nurse reading a cheap paperback. She didn’t seem to notice him standing there. He cleared his throat but the sound was muffled by one of the residents calling out for coffee. There was no bell so he tapped his class ring on the counter a few times. The nurse stuck a brochure about Tahiti in her book and glanced up with a pre-packaged smile.
“I’m here to see Mrs. Mazza.” Eric said.
“Oh hello honey,” she said, “you’re Nina’s grandson aren’t you?”
“I knew it,” she said. “I could tell by your facial features, your nose and eyes and things.”
Eric wondered if she thought he didn’t know about facial features.
“You just let me run in and get your grandmother situated for visitors and I’ll be back in a jiffy”
She stood and shuffled down the hall. Relieved to be rid of its burden, the vinyl chair re-inflated its foam stuffing. Eric sat down on a couch by the window and looked around the room. Several people were reading battered magazines that were current several months ago; others just sat staring at the snow outside. Eric looked through the window. It’s so cool and fresh outside he thought. He glanced down at the layer of dust on the sill and picked up an old copy of Better Homes and Gardens. In the middle of an article on composting, a husky old man with one leg ran his wheelchair into Eric’s knees.
“Ho! sorry son, my piloting skills are a bit rusty.” the man said.
Eric began to speak, but the man took off down the hall almost pummeling into a frail lady with a walker.
The nurse returned, had she purchased that uniform before her present size?
“Grandma’s all ready to see you.” she said. “She’s had her nap but remember the medication she’s on makes her a little nappy all the time.”
“That’s O.K.,” Eric said, “I won’t be staying long.”
She took Eric by the arm and pointed down the hallway.
“Right down there in 117, her roommate Elma’s asleep but she’s almost deaf so don’t worry about noise.”
Eric walked down the hallway; the nurse’s chair voiced a complaint about being sat upon and a piercing voice again called for coffee. He dodged the passing of the wheelchair warrior returning up the corridor by ducking into a sterile smelling broom closet. Several residents sat in the hall gazing at the floor or mumbling to themselves as if the floor was going to leave them or the wall could converse.
“Do you have Marcy?” one woman asked imploringly.
Eric stopped and looked at her, a wild tuft of her dry hair swirled round in the currents of the heating vent. She seemed surprised that he stopped; her bony hand shot up and grasped Eric’s arm. He wondered where she picked up such a firm grip.
“Marcy,” she said, “What have you done with her Roger?”
Eric loosed himself and walked down the hall as the woman continued to speak to him.
“You’ll be sorry about this later Roger.” said the woman, “Time will catch up with you and you’ll have to let Marcy go”
Eric didn’t hear any more, he turned and entered his grandmother’s doom. The blinds were half drawn casting a diffuse pale light. Eric crossed to the far bed where his grandmother lay. She was again napping, her kindly face resting on a pillowcase she had made herself. Quietly, a little cu-cu clock on the wall ticked to itself. Elma seemed to be soundly asleep in the other bed, a mild snore escaped every few breaths. Eric sat down on a stool beside his grandmother, it gave a sharp creak announcing his arrival. She stirred and looked up at Eric. For a moment her eyes focused on him but then, as if he had vanished, she looked past him through the window.
“Conrad,” she said, “thought you’d come out to see mama?”
“No Mama,” said Eric, “It’s me Eric, your grandson.”
“Oh it’s so good to see you again, your father and I thought you’d never be coming back from that old army.”
Eric didn’t know much about senility but he supposed he should humor her or else she might become upset.
“Oh, uh, Mama, it’s hard to get away from base but you know I want to come and see you more often.” He shifted uncomfortably on the stool, as if he’d just lied to a close friend.
“I know,” she said, “You’ve got a lot of responsibility on your hands. I understand you can’t come running back home every weekend.”
He wondered how far she’d fall back into this. She sat up in the bed and picked up a shawl she was working on knitting. Her fingers flew into action, agilely forming each knit with the precision of an expert weaver.
“I wish your father would let me get back outside.” she said, “But he says, ‘Nina you’re just too sick and need to stay in bed.’ I’d argue, but I suppose he’d just worry if I was out working.”
She put down her knitting and looked outside with a slight sigh.
“Look out there, I could at least help plant in the garden.”
Eric glanced at the snow covered ground. A group of well insulated children were making a snowman across the street.
“Where’s my teefh?” Elma shouted. She bolted out of her bed and began to search around the room.
“I wish they’d take that crazy woman away.” Nina said “I don’t know why were putting her up. You think she’d be in a hospital.”
Elma stooped over to search in a cabinet, tossing various memorabilia into a pile on the floor.
“Your teeth are in that little jar by the picture frame dear.” Nina said. She pointed with her needle to a jar containing a set of teeth in a blue-green liquid. “Though I don’t know what you want them for now, it’s hours till dinner.”
After swishing them around in the jar a few times, Elma fished out her teeth placing them in her mouth with a squelched sucking sound. She then wrapped herself up in loose blankets and lay back down in bed.
“Anyway,” Nina said, “As I was saying parson, the more you preach on sin the less people are going to want to hear you.”
Eric looked down at his faded jeans and climbing boots, wondering what kind of preacher would make calls dressed like this.
“I’ll tell you one thing.” Nina lowered her voice to a whisper and leaned toward Eric, he hunched over in the stool closer to her. Her grey eyes looked into his with the strictest of confidences. “Some of the people in church,” she glanced around furtively to make sure nobody was listening, “some of the people really need to hear about sin. I know about some of the things people have done. If their deeds could just be brought out in the open maybe they’d repent. I could tell you some things…” She trailed off as a nurse entered the room and walked to Elma’s bed. She was carrying a rubber basket in from which she picked out an handful of pill bottles, emptying out their contents onto a little plastic tray.
“Time for your medicine Elma.” shouted the nurse.
Elma pitched over and cast a wary glance at the cheerful nurse.
“Take em’ yourself skinny!” said Elma. With this she rolled up armadillo-like, protected by the shell of her blankets.
The smiling nurse murmured something under her breath and walked out of the room.
“You see,” said Nina, “if you’d just spend more time on your vocabulary you’d have less trouble with the reading assignments.” She pulled out a Reader’s Digest and proceeded to quiz Eric on a word list. After about ten minutes she seemed satisfied of his capability and put the magazine away.
“Marcy!” The old woman wheeled her chair down the other side of the hall. “I’ve got the cards if I can just find you.” She passed by the door, pausing long enough to say hello to Edna.
“Hello Edna,” she said, “How’s Howard?”
Edna popped her head out from under the covers,
“Take em’ yourself skinny!” she shouted as she withdrew back into her den.
Eric decided he’d better venture some reasonable conversation since that’s what his mother had sent him for.
“Mama,” Eric said, “Do they treat you well here?”
Nina picked up her knitting once again and thought for a moment.
“Don’t ever grow old son.” she said “Everybody you know just dies, your body doesn’t work right anymore, and you get scared to walk around outside. Sometimes I get lonely here, but it’s not like I’m alone. You see one of a person’s best friends is memory. When I start feeling heart-sick I just think back to the past and I’m not here in this little room. I can be anywhere.”
Eric stared at his lap for a moment then looked up at his grandmother.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “that I don’t stop by more often.”
“I understand.” she said, “If I were young it would be hard to visit a place like this, it would seem so old and stale, But don’t think of the place, think of the people. A person adds up to a collection of his experience and that’s what you’re visiting. Not this old body but what’s inside.”
The clock on the wall struck three, thrusting a colorful little bird out of its maple case at each gong.
Eric and his grandmother sat and watched the children play with the nearly completed snowman. One child was putting the finishing touches on the face while another was placing a black cowboy hat on its icy head. A woman with a camera emerged from the house to record the moment. As she snapped away the children danced around their newly created playmate, the falling snow provided a pointillistic picturesque quality to their glee.
Nina yawned audibly and lay her head back onto the pillow.
“Think it’s time for another nap.” she said.
Eric rose from the stool and stood over the bed
“I let you sleep then.” Eric said. He rested his hand on his grandmother’s shoulder.
“It’s been good to see you” He said. “How about a visit next week?”
Nina was already fast asleep, a smile came up on her face and planted itself there. Eric reached down and pulled the covers up over her. He walked back down the hall past the nurses station.
“How’s your grandmother doing?” the oversize nurse asked, her chubby arms spread out over the cluttered countertop.
“Better than I expected.” Eric said. He passed through the door to the crisp snow outside.