Of a Whole Body (Passing Through)
“Inhale and root yourself through your feet,” says the yoga instructor. “Reach.” And each resident reaches, forgetting to breathe. “Now, release and yearn your sternum forward.”
“Did she say turn? Or yearn?” Eve whispers to Virgil, who slouches deep into the seat of his wheelchair. The CD in the stereo skips. “I don’t think I know how to yearn my anything.”
“And now,” says the yoga instructor, “we’re exhaling.”
At 77, Allan is the youngest resident of Ecumenica Assisted Living. His lone window looks out at the service lot — five spaces and a fence white with birdshit — so he spends most mornings in Marcia’s room. She never speaks, but has the building’s best view. Out across the one-lane road, the park trees tower and moms jog behind strollers and, just above the petting zoo fence: the alert ears of a llama. Allan’s nurse, obeying the diet, forbids him coffee, but Marcia offers cold sips of hers. Allan offers his hand, which she evades. Instead, she reaches for the center of his lap.
Norma rejects the word nurse. These kids who push the chair while her knee heals, they’re not nurses. They haven’t gone to nursing school. Nurses have sass, might, wit, and far less sleep. She knows this, after a year in the hospital with Bob — nurses are nails. These dopes in their yellow polos blanch at a drop of coughed-up blood. Nurses? No.
At Wordshop, after the college student says to “meditate on dark blue,” Norma pens her first complaint, sends it to the program manager. Helper comes next. Residents and helpers. Only helper I need is hamburger, she says though her diet bars all non-white meat. All they help is themselves to paychecks and Wi-Fi. Eve, at a nearby table, adds: If they want to help so bad, then hold the exits open so we can leave!
Then, it’s handler. That’s what pushing a wheelchair is, right? Handling. Still, Norma objects. Handle who? Me? You can’t handle me — I’m a lion, she says at Music Therapeutics and then roars, scaring her handler. Her whole clique laughs. Tiny as it is, this matters to her. At eighty-six, what matters is a slippery slope. Never will she sigh, It is what it is and let death off without a fight. But seriously, she says, handler? I don’t bite. These teeth ain’t even real, and she pops her top row out for effect, but also, she loves that suctiony sound, like a fridge door snapping open.
Eve escaped once. Of course, words cause debate. To her it was escape. To Virgil, it was a suicide attempt. Norma went with protest. Allan, an errand. The program director said it was nothing to worry about. Marcia had no comment. Eve got all the way to Lacuna Road, to the farmhouse where she’d lived after retiring from the school district, where she’d spent the last free years of her life alone. That is, until the court guardian appeared at her door with an order, signed by Eve’s doctor and some judge, to take her to Ecumenica. The guardian showed photos of a mangled stop sign at the doctor’s office, asked: What if it’d been a stroller?
The day Eve escaped back to her house, a prairie wind had shaken down a farmer’s fence, and a herd of grey sheep flooded into the intersection of Lacuna and Victory Ave. She heard their hooves knocking the asphalt as she found her home: solid and locked, empty but unsold.
Virgil does not want them to pray for his health. He does not want help designing an invitation for his ninety-third birthday. He does not want dessert. In a Christian sense, he loves them all, how they deliver him to activities as opposed to leaving him in front of a TV, but he wishes they would look the other way while he spits out his pills. Ecumenical means of a whole body. The physical body being only a single, diminishing piece. He wants to be believed when he says, I want to die.
The director of operations invites Marcia to her office “for a chat.” Marcia is informed that Allan’s warning signs have progressed into symptoms. Has she noticed? On the yellow legal pad in front of her, Marcia writes, cushions. The director of operations nods. “Yes, and how do you know he takes all the cushions from the lounge furniture, piles them on his bed, and then sleeps in the tub?” Marcia writes: Beau. “Right, you two have become close, and listen, Marcia, we think that’s fantastic. Purpose. Companionship. It’s what we’re about. But you should know that…” and Marcia is told that she and Allan are forbidden to have sex. Sex. Because of his condition. Condition. His dementia. Dementia. Makes the issue of consent. Consent. Legally …tricky. Plus you know, his heart. Heart. Marcia writes on the pad: No. The director of operations squints at the word, then at Marcia, and decides they are on the same page.
If there’s one thing the fifty-six residents agree on, it’s that Cadet serves a purpose. Yes, it’s annoying when he trespasses through the automatic doors, steps onto a café chair, and proceeds to shout about a past life. Yes, it’s strange, his braided beard. And it’s startling if your window faces east, toward the park, and, occasionally, Cadet comes into view, knocking on your window with a small stone, waving at his reflection to let him in. The crank calls get old. The theories get silly — that he lived here in the fifties when the building was a boarding school for native children, an assimilation site, a place where, according to Eve, your life was beaten out and fed back to you by book; that his granddaughter is the program manager; that he lives in a trailer by the park, and cannot, due to his arrests or lack of funds, even make Ecumenica’s waiting list.
But everyone quietly agrees on his significance: at least I’m not that crazy. This is especially so for those whose minds have become, not strangers, but quiet neighbors. They can hold eye contact with themselves in a bathroom mirror, sigh relief. Help me want to keep my pants on, says Allan to his handler. Keep me a step above the Space Cadet, who was once found in the F wing, nude from the waist down, singing.
For about a week, the word minder catches on. Mind? Huh? You think I don’t have one of those? Norma says._ I can mind me just fine. You mind your phone, she says to Kirsten, _her least favorite minder. The girl doesn’t even have her bachelor’s and smells of the mall.
Bob would’ve told Norma just to mind her own damn business — zip it. They could’ve argued this one for days. Disagreement was their pastime. Politics, thread counts, the color of a peacock, anything could fuel debate. They’d call friends separately to poll the subject, collect data for rebuttals based on popular opinion. They were unscientific, incensed, but attentive. Not once was a single issue settled, and it was perfect, the love of all those unresolved questions.
Finally, Norma calls them what they are: employees of Ecumenica Assisted Living, and still nobody gives her the fight she wants, so she uses Ecumen, or -man, for singular, which catches on — has anybody seen my Ecuman? My tomatoes in the garden need water. For Kirsten, Norma’s tempted to use Ecugirl, but instead just shouts Kirsten as the crowd files into the sanctuary. If I get a bad seat at church, she says, pushing herself just fine, I won’t hear a word.
Regardless of the weekly prompt the student brings to Wordshop, Eve writes about the day the Germans crossed the line. The soldiers took their farmhouse as an outpost, spared her family but moved them into the big grey barn with the animals. The soldiers — mostly boys under twenty — put her family to work because they didn’t know how to make Sauerbraten that tasted like memory, or how to hold a needle to their tattered coats. Ewa, age eight, remembers this most, working so diligently in the barn’s cold loft to sew buttons on a vest. She wanted her work to be perfect, hoping those boys might appreciate her craft, obedience, possibly even her grit, and eventually invite her back into the house to sleep in her room again. She had scrubbed the floors of their boots, which they never removed — she could hear them stomping.
Never did she think about escape.
But later, in America, she swore to never make that mistake again.
One day, by the Computer Café, a great glass enclosure appears. Dozens of birds, varying in size, color, and vocal register, hop from branch to plastic branch in a kind of constant frenzy. “Yellow birds, red birds, orange, grey. White ones with hairdos,” Allan says, passing through.
“But why no blue ones?” he later thinks aloud, as the program manager, leading News on This Day, asks if they want to discuss: Teddy Roosevelt’s trip to Panama (1906), Kristallnacht (1938), Opening the Berlin Wall (1989), or The IRS’s seizure of Willy Nelson’s assets (1990).
“It’s all warm colors, but nothing cool,” Allan says to Marcia, beside him. She puts a finger to her lips. “You can break a sweat just looking at the cage. Can we get some blue?”
“You know what?” says the program manager, looking up from the article. “There just aren’t a lot of natural things that are blue. Meaning, like, in nature, blue is very rare.”
“Whoever told you that never looked up,” Norma says. “Hello — sky?”
“There’s nothing actually blue about the sky,” says the manager. “It’s more a reflection.”
“Right,” Eve says. “Because water is blue.”
“Water is not blue,” Virgil says, holding up his glass, which is still full, because he did not need it to wash down his pills after he successfully spit them out behind the couch.
“Water is so blue!” Eve says, prepared to prove it.
“Have you seen the Minnesota river?” Norma says, switching sides. “Its color is mud.”
“What I’m saying is that blue almost never appears on animals, plants, land.”
“Blue Jays, bluebells, Blue Earth County,” Norma says.
“Enough,” the program manager says. “We’ll look into getting a blue bird for the aviary.”
Allan raises a hand. Though no one calls on him, he says, “You ever seen a purple one?”
No, Marcia writes. Shaking her head will no longer suffice. She must write it down, underline it. Because this is not Allan’s first proposal, nor will it be the last. The thing is: marriage means a wedding, government, money, another military funeral. And why spend any more of what’s left of her life disappointing someone and then watching him die? She just wants to spend her mornings looking out the window beside this handsome man, this man who makes her feel new every time he gathers her breasts into his hands. She underlines No a second time.
Allan closes the invisible box on the invisible ring, and staggers back to his feet.
Touch me, Marcia writes. And outside, pulling bags of birdseed from her trunk, the program manager notices Allan obeying.
No one agrees on the birds. Or the cage. The pro-bird residents argue it isn’t even a cage. Some love the sight of it. Some, the sound. Some, familiar with the article taped to the library door, accept the birds for purely practical reasons — life extends life, and a few ferns do not suffice. Others see cruelty, want the birds freed, prefer to find them brown and unimpressive right outside their windows, crowding a feeder but welcome to leave. Some say these exotic birds wouldn’t make it on their own out there in December, in Minnesota. What about winter? The cold? Surely an orange chick smaller than a scone could not make it all the way south. Still, some would like to see the creatures spill out into hallways and find their way home, but no one would ever take action, the way Cadet one day will, charging into the building past the distracted Ecupeople to smash the glass with a rock. Almost everyone will agree it was quite a sight, all those creatures careening for the door. That is, everyone who is not Allan, who will be near the glass admiring the new blue thrush when it happens, and who will watch that bird writhing on the carpeted floor, a shard stuck far into its feathers.
When the students realize that volunteering to lead Wordshop does not count toward school credit, they stop showing up. “I’m sorry to say,” the program manager tells the five still-dedicated writers gathered in the library. “But this activity is on hiatus for now.”
“What?” Norma says. “You can’t give us something to write about?
“I’m not exactly a writer.”
“What about the internet? Look one up? Ask Kirsten here, she’s online as we speak.”
The program manager turns to Kirsten, who stumbles, but only for a moment. “Um, okay,” she says, reading. “Write about your life, as a movie? I mean, like, who would play you?”
In B-wing, a dull blue sign reads, DAYS SINCE LAST ACCIDENT: 0. Eve is convinced that there is blue outside, too. If she could take one of her old walks, she’d find the blue. There was blue, blue something, growing in the brush behind the house on Lacuna. Maybe she’d bring some back to end that argument still happening in her head. Or maybe she wouldn’t. Maybe she’d keep on walking, right past the house, toward something else entirely.
She makes a course down the hall with her walker, all the way to the unmanned security desk. She peeks over, looking for keys, but sees a news clipping with a sticky note that says WHY WE MUST DO BETTER. It’s a back-page story from the local paper, dated months ago, telling of an elderly woman who fled Ecumenica and made it all the way out to the prairie. At first Eve is grateful that the writer didn’t name her, but then again, maybe she’d like some credit.
In Marcia’s room there’s a small photo of a man petting a horse. He looks like a hippy. So, after a month of wondering why she won’t marry him, Allan decides he’ll start wearing his hair long. Being career Army, he’s never in his life felt his hair touch his ears. At his appointment, he tells the travelling barber: “You know what, Helen? Just wash it. No trim for me. Can we just wash it and say you cut it? Can you do that for me, Helen?”
“Yes sir, Mr. Allan, but my name is Gina.”
Each month he savors the way her fingers probe his skull, the spruce and cucumber shampoo, the small talk. The wash and dry takes five minutes, tops. With all the time left over, Allan and the barber chat about Marcia, sometimes Helen, and he can feel it, his hair growing.
At Lifelong Learners, the middle-aged man controlling the slideshow praises the amazing advances of 3-D printing. “This is a 3-D printed carpal trapezium,” he says, pointing to his palm.
“Oh, perfect,” says Norma. “Can you print me a new Ecugirl?”
Her audience laughs. The man does not. “I’m sorry?” he says.
“Me too,” Norma says, turning toward the corner where Kirsten sits.
“When the hell are you going to leave me alone?” Kirsten says, silencing the room. Norma thinks she sees tears in Kirsten’s eyes, but maybe it’s glitter. “What’d I ever do to you?”
“Finally,” Norma says. “We get a little rise out of you.”
On the coldest morning of the year there appears in the sky three separate hazy suns. One bright and round like a flashlight through a bed sheet; two dimmer slivers on either side. It’s as if a giant eye has opened up. “My barber says it’s called a sundog,” Allan tells Marcia, as she runs her fingers through his hair. Over by the park, they see Cadet in gym shorts, shoveling snow.
Tomorrow they’ll move Allan up to the Memory Wing, where the nurses are actual nurses, where there’s no dining hall because all the food’s delivered, where a single cold symptom turns the whole hall into a quarantine, and Marcia will map a path there. She’ll wake early, pack a thermos, and try and fail and try again to make the elevator move without a key.
The program manager asks them to write about what they want from the New Year. Resolutions, goals, keep it positive. Only Virgil writes of hope for death. “It’s the same resolution every January, and I never get it crossed off the list, but finally, I want to die,” he says — and he will, in February, with pneumonia, after leaving his bedroom window open night after night after night.
“Thank you all for sharing,” the program manager says. “Now let’s prepare to transition.”
“What do we do now?” says Eve.
“Next, I believe, is Wii Bowling.”
“No, I mean, now,” she says, holding her paper up in the air like a flag. “With this story.”
“I’ll type it. Then we’ll put it in your binder so you have all your writings in one place.”
“What do I do with it,” Eve says. “What do I do to get it in the paper?”
“The Free Press?” Norma asks and begins to laugh.
“Well,” the program manager says. “I don’t know if this is something the paper — “
Eve tears the paper from her notebook, folds it in half, and rises to her feet.
“I know an easier way to get your name in the paper,” Norma says, tilting her head to the right, rolling back her eyes, sticking out her tongue. “They call it the obit — “
“Shut up, Norma,” Kirsten says. The room is silent until Norma smiles warmly, then everyone starts talking at once, each with their own opinion.
Eve hears none of them as she inches her way toward the place where she will go at the close of every Wordshop from now until her death — the mailroom.
“My movie was straight to TV, late to the producers, and somehow still way over budget. No one saw it. A knockoff Mary Pickford, that’s who plays me. My movie airs on Channel 11, late, Tuesday nights, and it’s that thing from the seventies how at midnight the national programming stops, just the American flag waving over the anthem,” says the program manager, sharing Marcia’s page aloud above the sound of the crowd’s laughter at a community reading held in the sanctuary. “My life, now just those colorful bars and that noise.”
And everyone present makes the noise, each note uniquely flat and belonging to no scale.