Palo Alto Weekly 17th Annual Short Story Contest
Eighty-Eight Years, Four Seasons, then Home
by Wendy Hagenmaier
The old woman in room 209 is at her window today. Her lotioned fingers, tender and bloated, woven together like puff pastries, rest in her crocheted lap, and I wonder what she sees. The peach flannel robe with appliqued roses enfolds her as if it sought too hard to make her comfortable, and as she breathes, slowly and heavily, particles of dust swim in the wedge of fluorescent daylight that seeps from the bulb on the ceiling. I cannot blame her for seeking natural light. Her tarnished hair runs from the roots in subdued streaks -- as if she had just been in the rain -- like it was when she was in the rain ... how many years ago now? ... a small girl, thirsty after the day's activity, stretching her cheeks for a few cool drops. Her mouth is small and crinkled, reddish brown as though seventy years of lipstick were hesitant to leave. Memories of kissing times sleep there like leaves in autumn ... waiting. And I wonder, is this her winter? As she sits there, gazing, my eyes fall to her feet. I see they're uncovered and begin to worry, but then spots of color catch my eye. Red. Someone on the morning shift has painted her toenails flaming red. I'm startled, and as my tray wobbles, one of the plastic juice cups I have been carrying falls on the linoleum. She hears this and twists her head, the lines in her neck forming soft valleys and hills like places I have never seen before, and I'm forced to look into her eyes. With a delicate smile of forgiveness she turns back to the window.
Silly me, I was just wondering ... could you tell me how I might get home? It's drizzling out there, can't you see? Come look. See, drizzling. I like to catch the drops on my tongue as they fall. They come glittering down, wayward, sleek, and then icy as the red flesh greets each one. Icy. My skirt of navy winter wool swirls around my legs and skates, my raven braids flying. Blades meet the surface of the frozen pond and cut, slice, slash in solid-liquid dance. Round and round, and we hold hands sometimes in girlish glee, the trees, the neighborhood spin, spin, spin. After school, not too far from Singleton street. That's home, you see. Home. I was just there, you know, and mother painted my toenails red. She lines the bottles up in rows on the vanity, a crystal menagerie. The bottle of Posy Pink sits timidly against the mirror, but Tango Red stands in front, flashy and insistent and it flows over my toenails like the suave movements of the Spanish dancer I saw at the county fair last summer before Auntie Ann whisked me away like she always does. Summer. and we're off to Sugar Creek. My sisters - Elizabeth (so sad to leave the piano), and Ruth and Henrietta giggling on the rumble seat, big brother Louie with crisp, new trousers and a beard coming on. Games of croquet and afternoons of wiggling sticky toes on the porch as Little Orphan Annie's radio adventures pipe through on the breeze melt like the Drumsticks Mr. Martin brings us in the ice cream truck at three o'clock on Fridays. Cream that oozes between your knuckles in blissful rivulets. Then crickets in the quiet night, mournful troubadours of the wilderness, lonely, vacant clicking, and I miss home. Maybe it's out there, through those trees and to the left along the wet road. Do you see where I'm pointing? Do you think so? Perhaps I should ask my friend Esther who just passed by here a moment ago, carrying a tray. You see. she is fond of make believing and loves to play the little hostess with her mother's chinaware. A teacup slipped once, and she stared at me in terror, trembling and astonished, so I reassured her with a smile because we're playmates and sit next to each other in the schoolhouse and have pledged to always share our secrets and our pains. Perhaps she'll take my hand and walk me home.
The old woman in room 209 is at her window again today. Passing
down the hail this morning, thermometer and vitamin bottle in hand
as usual, I pause before her doorway in anticipation. Will she be
there again, sitting, with the robe taut and constraining around
her middle, gazing into nothingness? Impelled at once by both curiosity
and dread, I draw her chart from the slot outside the door and search
the pages, eager for understanding, for the facts of her case: "Louise
Weiland, 88 ... Advanced dementia ... Alzheimer's diagnosed ...
occasional incontinence ... difficulty verbalizing thoughts ...
problems/complaints: daughter visited one week ago, was upset to
find that her mother had lost wedding ring," one of the doctors
has scribbled. 'But why always at the window?" I inquire of
the chart. It gives no reply but scoffs at my entreaties in its
smug statistics. I step hesitantly into the room, anxious that she
might recall the clumsiness of yesterday -- which I immediately
realize is foolish for I now know she would never remember ... but,
shifting suddenly about in her chair, she looks at me with an air
of startling familiarity. How are you doing today. Louise?"
I offer the prescribed greeting and approach her at the window.
"Just ... fine. You?" The "you" in this question
is ambiguous but she uses it as if she had studied my chart, as
well, as if I were her daughter or her bosom friend. I ask her what
she's studying so thoughtfully outside the window. "There ...
you ... so many things ... to see ..." I sit down beside her,
take her gentle hand in mine, and the two of us wait in a painful
interval for a conclusion that won't surface. "I understand."
I assure her, half to fill the agonizing silence and half because.
I think I might. Just then I notice a groove below the knuckle of
her fourth finger -- a
The old woman in room 209 is at her window once more today. I left the room yesterday, but she didn't leave me. Passing down the hall with thermometer and vitamin bottle in hand, I look everywhere I for the lost ring, and her blue eyes linger and haunt me. I can't go back there, into that room -- it's too ungrounded, a tangle of memory and confusion, and the facts of her case are no comfort. But then I remember I've lied to her, promised her home, tempted her earnest eyes with a facade of hope. Stepping through the doorway, I wonder if that facade is what she thinks she sees, so vaguely, out her window. She doesn't hear my footsteps, so I approach her and take a seat. "Louise," I greet her, more genuinely this time, and take her hand. "How are you?" She smiles at me dreamily, a timid smile. She doesn't know me today. I have to say...! well, yesterday ..."! stumble, and she gazes at me in passivity and patience. She knows how it feels to falter over words, over thoughts like this. "I was wrong yesterday when I said that you could go home. You have to stay here; we'll watch out for you" I sit in pain and wait for the tear, for the knitted brow, and squeeze her hand as if! might be able to keep her in my world. No reaction, no reply, the truth leaves her unruffled. Just calm determination. ! watch her turn back to the window.
Silly me. I seem to be a bit confused today. Would you take me home? The leaves are falling today. Come see. Tangerine, marigold, vermilion, flashing. Gusty. A storm, cloudy, and I am lying down, waiting. Hazy, white, then searing, slicing, tearing, red rivers through the folds. Blurry, then tenderness, now soft life in my arms, a rosy blanket, rapid breaths. We'll watch out for her. Open the door and I'll carry her home. Home. Push, now. Out we go. Wisps of black velvet, newly sprouted hair, blow in the wind. Chilly, soft puffs of baby's breath. Let's go home now.
The old woman in room 209 is away from the window today. They say
a storm passed by last night, a gale that forced her fragile window
open in one labored heave, one last struggle to remember. It's amazing,
they say. Eighty-eight and agile enough to climb straight through
a first-story window, to hop down, wander. Wander, of course, they
say, like so many of her kind do in their convoluted dreams. The
police are going out first thing to find her, a routine call, they
say. Thermometer and vitamin bottle in hand, I enter her room, glide
to the window, take a seat. Outside, there is peach flannel strewn
across the grass, the robe with appliqued roses discarded, and I
search for her through the window.
The old woman in room 209 is away from the window today. She must be wandering far, they say, an advanced case.
It's around the corner there, see where I'm pointing? A few paces, now. Let's count our steps: one, two, six Drumsticks, eighteen orchid corsages, thirty aprons, eighty-eight... Look, there, at the side of the road, lazy sweet peas. Rumbling past, a model T - he's there, bumbling, waving.
No luck in the surrounding area, the police said, no trails. Do
you have any idea where the silly woman would have wandered,"
they ask me, in their dark uniforms, weapons glittering at their
sides, symbols of force. Where the silly woman would have wandered?
They'd bring her back here, I think to myself.
Blades meet the surface of the frozen pond and cut, slice, slash in solid-liquid dance.
Round and round, let's hold hands in girlish glee, the trees, the neighborhood spin, spin, spin.
Perhaps it's that she simply went home. I shake my head and am silent.
Here, on Singleton Street. It's home, you see.
The old woman in room 209 is at home today.