(Young Adult Novel Excerpt)
"Chill," I said to Halley. "They're just people."
Twisting around from the registration desk, we peered through the day room glass. Seven or eight ancient bodies in wheelchairs were parked at odd angles.
"Yeah. Creepy, old, sick people," Halley said. "You have no idea what we're in for."
Okay. As usual, reality didn't match the vision I built up in my head. I didn't see any perky, smiling grandmotherly types. We had agreed to hang out with these people a couple times a week, or people just like them, people knotted up and still as lawn gnomes.
"Don't freak me out," I said to Halley. Her mom was a nurse here, and Halley had been inside for bingo and family days since forever. I should have listened to her.
"Ella, I'm telling you, it's not like the brochure. Their idea of 'having another pleasant day' means drooling and spitting and asking you where their dead cat is 472 times an hour."
"So?" I wasn't backing down now. I knew how to suck up fear and loathing. I did it every day at home.
I'd just have to handle some gross. Writing poetry with Alzheimer's patients was my crazy idea. Initiative, creativity, community service and rising above the gross were going to get me into college next year. Any college. My one-way ticket out of Lincroft, New Jersey.
Halley's mom met us at the reception desk. She looked like a clown's assistant at a five-year-old's birthday party. Pink and purple rocking horses and smiling squirrels in polka-dot bandanas skipped across her big shoulders—and everywhere else. Jackson Garden Manor Alzheimer's Community was "The Fun Place for Family." Mrs. Gaur fit right in.
She flicked her glasses down her nose, looking at us over her clipboard. I loved her toothy smile, with its big even spaces between her big white teeth. Her face was 90% mouth and 100% happy to see us.
"Okay, girls. I've got two residents eager to visit with you."
Eager? Could lawn gnomes be eager?
We followed the waist-high red arrow border to a doorway labeled "Visiting Area." Mrs. Gaur slowly cracked open the door and stepped through. We slipped in behind her with Halley's hand gripping my arm. It felt like we were slipping into an incomprehensible French movie where two teenagers get sucked into the bizarre lives of a demented magician. The door on the inside didn't even look like a door. It was painted the same pale pink as the walls and had a watercolor painting of flowers on it, just like ten other paintings of flowers spaced evenly around the room. I wondered if we'd find our way out.
The room—or maybe the people—reeked of bleach and peppermint candies. Of the six plain round tables, three were occupied. A man, so old his neck disappeared and his chin stuck to his chest, sat next to two younger, but still really old, women. They looked set for a fast getaway, jackets on, old-fashioned pocketbooks in hand. Halley spotted the vintage Gucci bags right away. "The blue shoulder bag with the gold Gucci clasp? That's like $120 on eBay," she whispered. "And the classic clutch, that's..." Mrs. Guar hushed her, but I was glad Halley found something normal to think about. I dragged her into this plan, and it wouldn't take much for her to drag me out.
Our lucky victims sat at their own tables at opposite ends of the room.
Mrs. Gaur used her eyebrows to point to a thin woman in a wheelchair who had the palest hair I had ever seen. Her pink scalp glowed between the strands. She sat primly, her back straight, with pearls around her neck and a snow-white cardigan draped around her shoulders. The sweater had a column of small pink bows, a bow by each buttonhole. The pink matched her cracked and crooked lipstick. She'd clearly spiffed up for this event.
Mrs. Gaur whispered to Halley. "That's Mrs. Swanson. She'll be your first writing buddy."
"Who is she expecting—the Queen of England?" Halley asked.
Mrs. Gaur twitched her bunny nose giving Halley her "Behave yourself!" look.
She told Halley to wait there and took me across the room to the other loner.
"Mr. Weiss? This is Ella McGiven." Her signature smile demanded his attention. "She's the teenager from Lincroft High School—the one who is doing the poetry writing project."
Mr. Weiss gripped the table and pulled himself up from his armchair. He was wearing gray flannel trousers with cuffs, black shoes neatly tied, a white, ironed button-down shirt, and a clean green and brown argyle sweater vest—retro on steroids. More likely on Preparation-H. I read Alzheimer's patients can't button buttons and tie shoes. Some very patient nurse's aide must have helped him dress this morning.
His short white hair still had a bit of curl to it. I bent down so I could look up into his eyes for a second. He straightened his back, balancing on one fist, and reached his other hand out for a shake.
"Pleased to meet you, Miss McGiven. I don't have many opportunities to sit with a lovely lady."
I smiled. "I'm in high school, you know."
"Yes, high school. You think that means you aren't a lady? I know."
"I'm a teacher, I can tell which girls are ladies and which girls are—well, you know what some girls are." He blinked at me, an enthusiastic, if ineffective attempt at a wink.
I felt the blush move up my cheeks. I didn't think old men talked like that.
He laughed. "See? I told you so! You're not one of those 'pull up your dress in the back hallway girls,' right?"
Ack. It was my luck to get a perv for my first writing buddy. Weird though. He was right. I wasn't one of those 'pull up your dress in the back hallway' girls. For one thing, my dad would tear the guy's heart out and bury it in the dirt, and for another, most guys avoid me. I have that calm-on-the-outside, explosive-device-on-the-inside smell about me. It figured that a ninety-year-old man could tell how hopeless I was in one glance.
"Okay, Mr. Weiss. I'll sit here," I said, hoping he'd take the cue and sit down, too.
He looked around like he didn't know where he was for a second. The chair was behind him, out of his view. He shuffled backward losing his balance, his hands grabbing the arms of the chair as his butt hit the plastic seat. His face lit up like he'd just found a long lost friend.
"Okay, then," I repeated. "We are supposed to... I mean, I'd like to... Can we talk for a while?" Oh, brother, only I could be that nervous talking with a man who'd forget me the minute I stood up.
I slipped my backpack to my lap and took out the real leather notepad portfolio and my favorite roller ball pen. For writing fast. The portfolio had my initials—EEM—printed on the front. I won it in a poetry contest, and it was the one thing I owned worth keeping for college.
"Nice case you have," Mr. Weiss said, nodding at the smooth leather as I flipped it open.
"Thank you. It's special. I won it." I wondered why I was talking in two-word sentences. This man was a little shaky, but if he was a teacher he was probably pretty smart.
"Tell me about it."
"I think you're supposed to tell me stuff, Mr. Weiss."
He just sat there like I hadn't said anything.
I shifted in my seat. I fumbled for my notes about how to talk with an Alzheimer's patient. 1. Smile. 2. Speak slowly. 3. Share something about yourself to make them comfortable. 4. Don't expect a response.
I took a deep breath and smiled like I was in a tooth-whitening ad. Maybe if I babbled about something in my life, he'd want to change the subject. "I entered the state poetry contest last year, the one for high school students. Actually Mrs. Redmond, my English teacher, entered some of my poems. Somehow, I was one of the winners and they gave me this. To use as a writer, you know. I love to write. I don't always use this pad, but I like to. I brought it today because this is a special kind of writing. And I don't really know what I'm doing!"
Mr. Weiss smiled. "Yes, you do. You look like a professional."
Right again. I felt professional with this portfolio. It was strange how he paid attention to me and knew what I felt. And he wasn't even drooling.
"Yeah, your turn to tell me something about yourself."
I looked back at my notes. Ask simple questions. "Like, what's your favorite color?"
"My favorite..." He looked around the room, concentrating like an algebra student hoping the kid at the next desk had big handwriting.
"My favorite color is tangerine," I butted in. "You know, orange with a bit of red?"
"Mine is grape."
"Do you like grapes?"
"Grapes? No. Seeds get stuck here." Mr. Weiss lifted his top lip with both hands and stuck his tongue between two teeth.
Okay, a little drool. No biggy. I looked at my watch. I had handled ten minutes.
Mr. Weiss moved one hand to stretch the neck of his sweater. He reached in with his other hand and found a white handkerchief to dry his chin. I was impressed. "Bear with me. I'm not much to look at, but I clean up well," he said.
There was definitely someone still in there somewhere. Someone whose story I was going to get.