"Mr. Weiss? I want to write a poem about you. About your life. That's why I am here."
"Why? So we can read it together. So you can remember."
"Remember? So much is gone. Maybe it is all gone."
"It can't be all gone. I'll help you find some of it."
Mr. Weiss shook his head. "Nothing but loose screws up there!"
Would it be mean to agree with that if it was the truth? It wouldn't kill me to be nice. "That's okay." I held up my special pen. "I've got a magic screwdriver, right here!"
He looked at me, a flash of hope in his raised eyebrows. "Well, then. Start writing."
"Sure. You write and I'll watch."
"That's not the plan. You haven't told me anything. What can I write?"
"You'll think of something. I must have said something."
"Have you?" I looked down and picked up my pen. Writing would be a relief. I could drop the painful smile and not have to look at his sad eyes. I mean the guy was locked up with crazy people and the people who weren't crazy just smiled at him as if it was normal to wear diapers and forget where your chair was.
"I'll write if you do, too. Ten minutes. Here's some paper. You can use the magic pen."
"Got my own."
And he did.
"Read me what you wrote." Mr. Weiss came back into focus. He'd been so quiet, writing next to me, I'd lost track of time. Ha! Maybe I ought to reserve a spot here for myself. That was way more than ten minutes. I'd have to wrap this up or be late and Dad + Late equaled One Bad Night.
"It's just some notes, nothing really," I hedged.
"No 'It's nothing's'—let me hear it. I came here for some poetry."
I flipped back a page on my pad and read.
"I know you," he says
"I don't know you," I say
"I know what kind of girl you are," he says
And he's right.
"I don't know you," I say
"You know me," he says
"I've told you with my eyes
I've held your hand in mine."
"That's not all I need to know.
What about your life before—
before you sat here next to me
and made me feel like you knew me?
What about your life when I am not here?
What about the things you love
Let's start there."
Mr. Weiss listened and nodded. "You are a writer! Special! I am, what's the word?" He started whacking the table with his gnarled knuckles, wrinkling his face up like an overcooked baked potato.
"Honored?" I asked.
He relaxed and put his warm hand over mine, elbows on his paper.
"Honored, I am honored. Ella. Can I call you Ella?"
"Sure." Not bad, he remembered my name. He wasn't as sick as we were warned in orientation, or else he was having a very good day. I started to relax. "Your turn," I said, pointing to the lined sheet in front of him.
Mr. Weiss picked up the paper. He stuck his arms out as far as he could and squinted at the page. "We're in luck. I forgot my glasses," then he started to crumple the page. I grabbed for it.
"Don't...!" I said. Oops. I was not supposed to shout, that was Rule Number 5. I calmed my voice. "I can read it for us." I coughed to steal a minute to decipher his scrawly handwriting. "You wrote,
'Tell my story
Tell me a story
Store is full of things I don't need
Where are you?
In my head.
Come out. Please.'"
I put the paper down and looked at Mr. Weiss. He was somewhere else, not seeing me. I felt sad, sad but also happy because I thought I could help. "That's beautiful, Mr. Weiss," I whispered. "We'll get that story out of your head, don't worry."
I reached for his hand and smiled as big as I could. A real smile this time, not a fake one. "We're gonna have a good time with this. We will. Trust me. We'll talk in a few days, okay?"
"A few days? It is always today here, Miss."
"What? You won't remember me by Friday?" I asked, trying to tease. Pretty stupid thing to say to someone with a fatal memory disease but it just popped out.
He lifted his hand to his temple, pointing to his brain with a pretend pistol.
Do you think you'll be able to picture me up there?" I asked, glancing at the side of his head. "When I leave today, try to picture me in my striped sweater and corduroy jeans."
He looked at my sweater and down at my legs as if trying to memorize each line of weaving. "I might not remember the sweater. But I might remember your smile. And your fancy portfolio."
"Well, probably not. Don't get your hopes up. I will remember one thing though."
"That I like you."
"I'm glad! Thanks. That will be enough."
"And your name again, was, what? Ellen?"
"Close. Ella. Ella McGiven."
"Bella Ella." Mr. Weiss stared at the backs of his hands and seemed to fade into the chair. I must have worn him out. I looked over my shoulder and nodded to Mrs. Gaur who had just picked up Halley from her conversation with Mrs. Swanson. I looked at my watch. We'd been talking for over an hour. I was really gonna take shit at home. I put a hand on Mr. Weiss's shoulder, and he looked up at me.
"Bye, Mr. Weiss. I'll come back soon. Thanks for talking with me."
"Bye, young lady. Keep your dress down, you hear?"
I laughed, glancing at Mrs. Guar and Halley. "Yes, sir!"
I could explain that crack to Mrs. Gaur and Halley. My dad was a different story. Maybe it was safer not to tell him anything at all. It was time to go home. Past time.
Pamela Burke's poems and articles have appeared in Mischief Caprice and Other Poetic Strategies (Red Hen Press), Art Calendar Magazine, and in Inspiring Creativity, an anthology published by the Creativity Coaching Association Press. She teaches leadership and innovation skills in the graduate program at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. Pam is a 2009 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship recipient in Fiction.
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