Among the aides at Larville Manor nursing home in the summer of 1972, the favorite patient by far was Estelle. Not only was she one of those who could cope with food that had not been pureed beyond recognition, but she was—to use a word that got used a lot in our small Midwestern town—nice. Not whiny. Not consumed by depression or anger. Not prone to impossible demands. Also, you could have a conversation of sorts with her, and on top of that, she was beautiful, or had been. Beauty lingered on in the strong bones of her face, in her large, wide-set blue eyes, and in the thick curls of her gray hair. Beauty shone out in the mild, smiling-through-tears look she would sometimes turn on you. “Estelle will melt your heart” is what was said of her, and we, especially the three of us who were girls from the local high school with summer jobs at Larville Manor, were more than willing to get our hearts melted.
Daily at 12:15, when the lunch trays were rolled out into the Common Room on their tall, clattering metal racks, the older aides would wearily take note and begin finishing up whatever it was they had been doing, but we three—we would be ready. One of us, Carolyn, who happened to be the most popular girl at school, would immediately slide out one of the trays with solid food, and another of us, Jennifer, her best friend, would do the same. These two would then head down the East Wing to Room 112, where Estelle lay ensconced among cards and flowers and mementos from the outside world, which, like Larville Manor itself, was full of people who adored her. Carolyn would set her tray down on Estelle’s overbed hospital table, and Jennifer would adjust Estelle’s bed into a sitting position, having placed her tray on the nightstand to take to someone else—a certain Mrs. Buckingham—later.
Around this time I myself would have arrived. I would have been maybe five or so yards behind Carolyn and Jennifer in the hall; I would have got to the racks of lunch trays right after them and secured one with soft foods. I would set this tray down on a second overbed hospital table, the one for Estelle’s much less favored roommate, Minnie, a bird-like woman deep into her nineties whose awareness of her surroundings was questionable.
“Hi there, Minnie!” I would say brightly, but also gently, so as not to provoke her impressive startle response. The first time I had fed her, I had greeted her like a long-lost friend on the streets of Paris, and she had bolted up, flinging out one arm and knocking the tray and all its sectioned-off varieties of mush into my face. “Your nose is bleeding,” an older aide had pointed out as I hurried down the hall to get something to wipe up the mess. “What happened, you scare Minnie or something?” He’d laughed and continued on his way. I’d learned to watch myself around her, and to maintain a scrupulous lack of vivacity.
“Let’s get you into an upright position, OK?” I would croon, reaching for the bed controls like a cornered suspect who has been warned not to make any sudden moves. Once Minnie was sitting, with her eyes somewhat more open, I could relax a little. Meanwhile, Carolyn and Jennifer and, to some extent, Estelle would have begun their ritual discussion of A World Apart, the soap opera that nearly all souls at Larville Manor, residents and employees alike, watched on the large black-and-white TV in the Common Room every afternoon.
For the first week or two, I had hoped to join in these discussions. I had hoped to claim my place among life’s elite, alongside Carolyn, Jennifer, and Estelle, if only during this one part of the day, and so I had had to endure the process of figuring out that it was not to be. I’d had to notice that somehow the time never seemed right for me to say something. Or that Jennifer’s shoulder was turned just so, blocking me out of the charmed conversational circle. Worse, I’d had to see that if I did talk, Carolyn would talk over me, on a different topic. What finally happened was that I became a kind of eavesdropper, if eavesdropping is what you can call it when you’re in plain sight and plainly pretending not to hear. It wounded my tender social-climbing sensibilities, but by the end of June I had adapted. Just as I’d learned to make my voice low and my movements gradual for Minnie, I’d learned not to swivel my head in the direction of Carolyn, Jennifer, and Estelle when they spoke. I kept them exclusively in my ever-sharpening peripheral vision. I witnessed many exchanges.
Mostly they were about a divorced couple on A World Apart, Emily and Brad, who were secretly still in love—secretly because Brad, while estranged from Emily, had been lured into a second marriage to the evil sexpot Varina. Varina, he now complained, had only wanted his money, but as all of us at Larville Manor knew, she was governed by a rat’s nest of mostly unconscious other motives as well. For one thing, she resented Emily, whose beauty and goodness drove her into a jealous rage. For another thing, she lusted after political clout, which was sure to come when the mayor of their hometown of Fairport succeeded in persuading Brad to run in the next city council election. She would be the power behind the throne, or whatever. But here was the biggest thing: Varina was, underneath all her machinations, helplessly in love with Brad herself. Because how could she not be! He was Brad, with his fine ideals and his dark, tender eyes.
“I think Emily understands Varina much, much better than Brad ever will,” said Jennifer one day at the very beginning of July, trying to look busy. Since Estelle could pretty much feed herself, this consisted of refolding the extra blanket at the foot of her bed. I was developing a more nuanced view of Jennifer than I ever could have at school, where all I had known was that she was a plump, snobby, mostly nondescript brown-haired person who was Carolyn’s best friend, and one of the things I now recognized was that she was as vigilant as a squirrel. What if she gained weight? What if Carolyn decided she didn’t want to be best friends with her any more? What if an authority figure noticed that Estelle in no way required the services of two aides for lunch? Better refold a blanket! “Emily is very sensitive to everything in her environment,” Jennifer declared.
“Nope,” said Carolyn, brazenly taking a load off in the room’s Naugahyde Barcalounger, her long, sleek legs crossed at the knee. I was developing a more nuanced view of Carolyn as well, and had discovered, among other things, that she was as confident and assured of her place in life as she appeared to be. Carolyn flipped back a lock of her famous Rapunzel-like blonde hair and explained, “They’re pretty much in the dark, Brad and Emily both. They have no idea what makes someone like Varina tick. ‘Why, Brad? Why does Varina hate me so?’” Here Carolyn adopted a querulous falsetto and clutched at her throat, imitating Emily’s entreaties in the out-of-town restaurant where she and Brad would arrange their trysts. The whole universe of the soap opera instantly conjured itself in my mind. The descending chords of organ music after the commercial breaks. The tenebrous set lighting, and the atmosphere of intimacy and barroom confession. The planes of shadow cast from everyone’s furrowed brow.
“Sorry, Estelle,” Carolyn went on, abandoning the falsetto and taking on a frank, brass-tacks air. “I know you love Emily. You’re a little like Emily yourself.”
Estelle rasped something modest, something to the effect that no, she was no Emily, not by a long shot, but Carolyn didn’t buy it. In fact, she noted triumphantly, such a protest only proved that Estelle was like Emily. “Because Emily-type people, people like you, never know how good they really are!
“And actually that’s the whole problem with Brad and Emily: They’re too good, they’re both too good, and for some reason they don’t realize it. They even think that everyone else, underneath it all, is like them. They don’t get it that some people are bad.”
Oh do tell, Carolyn, you are just so perceptive I can’t even stand it, I thought. Because yes, I had adjusted to being an outsider, and yes, I had realized that simply by being in the room with Carolyn and Jennifer and Estelle at lunch I was more on the inside of things than most others would ever be, but no, I didn’t like my status. I had come to despise Carolyn, with her blind hair-flipping authority and her supposedly brilliant insights, as well as Jennifer, with her over-engaged survival instinct, and even, in a way, Estelle, because how could she be so sweet and dumb?
I often rebuked myself for ever wanting to be part of the gossipy colloquium in the room, and it became a point of pride that I had never competed for Estelle. Go ahead, I would think, let Jennifer tend to the blankets! Let Carolyn present the Salisbury steak, the reheated canned succotash, the Boston cream pie! Let Estelle bring her knife and fork to bear; let her efficiently! Competently! Grind each mouthful of her meal into a paste that can be swallowed without risk of a choking incident, and let her, moreover, smile in her benign way and occasionally say something that related to something someone else had said. Who cares?
As Carolyn continued to hold forth that day, and Jennifer, who had smoothed the refolded blanket into place, moved on to needlessly buttering Estelle’s roll, I wiped Minnie’s spoon clean with a napkin, dipped it into the jewel-like square of green jello, and brought it to her mouth. It seemed to me that she accepted this, her dessert, somewhat more enthusiastically than the pulverized peas or meat, and I was glad, because it suggested that maybe she did have some awareness, maybe enough awareness to appreciate how kind I was being to her.
Minnie, in fact, had begun to preoccupy me more than I ever would have thought possible in my early days at Larville Manor. Feeding her, careful to keep up a steady, soothing rhythm, I found myself reflecting on how bare her side of the room was compared with Estelle’s. There were no cards, no flowers, no quilts from home, no letters from grandchildren, no evidence in sight that anyone ever came to visit her, or even knew about her. Nothing softened the anonymity of the institutional furniture assigned to her. Nothing distracted the eye from the exposed undercarriage of her bed or the stark gleam of its metal guardrail. If Minnie died in the night, the staff could clear away her personal effects and strip the mattress in an instant.
I dipped the spoon into the jello again and this time I thought I saw her open her mouth just perceptibly in anticipation. I felt the beginnings of tears behind my eyes, and told myself they were for her, but knew that they were for me. They were for me because just as desolate as she seemed, that was how desolate I felt. Others were loved and valued; we were not. We were exiles—that was how I put it to myself. Two exiles together.
Over Fourth of July weekend, which I spent at the home of some relatives on the other side of the state, I wondered what she would be doing, and whether she would even realize that it was a holiday. When I went back to work on Tuesday, I saw that she had a new nightgown. So someone had come to see her. She had people. But in a way, that was even worse, because obviously whatever people she had came so infrequently, and did so little for her.
I would have spent more time turning all this over in my mind, but by Thursday, there was a new thing to think about. On A World Apart, Varina revealed that she was pregnant! “With Brad’s child”! Or so she said.
At lunchtime in Room 112, Carolyn, ever astute, observed that there were others who could be the father, and that the “night of passion” Varina kept referring to might not necessarily have produced the results she claimed for it.
“Maybe Brad is sterile,” she suggested, delighted with herself for imagining this plot-twisty possibility. “Did you ever think of that?”
Jennifer admitted that no, she hadn’t, and then attempted to steer the conversation toward Emily, who was more tortured than ever now, because one of the heartaches of her marriage to Brad had been that she had not been able to “give him a son.” Or a daughter either, but what she always talked about was a son.
“Just imagine what it must be like for her,” Jennifer said, and Carolyn, sighing the patient sigh of a teacher with a slow student, said that, again, the whole thing could have been because of Brad; maybe Brad’s reproductive equipment was at fault—it took two to tango, if you knew what she meant—but it was not long before a silence fell. It was the silence that comes when almost everyone has been overtaken by a single, elephant-in-the-room fixation, which, in this case, was not male infertility, or even female infertility, but what the subject of pregnancy sooner or later brought up for any girl who had attended Larville High School in the past year: Peggy Carruthers, a sophomore cheerleader who had not been seen in the halls, in class, or at any extracurricular activities since February. I had to concentrate harder than ever to keep my gaze trained on Minnie.
“So Peggy had the baby,” Jennifer said finally, unnecessarily. She had been one of the first to learn the news, and had got into the habit of telling people. Carolyn already knew, though. Even I already knew. “It was a boy.” That, too, was common knowledge. “I visited her. She mostly doesn’t go out of the house. She’s got the crib in her bedroom where the vanity used to be. She says she’s going to get a job eventually and her mom is going to babysit.”
Another silence fell as Carolyn and Jennifer, and I, pondered Peggy’s new circumstances, and then Carolyn remembered her manners. She filled Estelle in on the Peggy Carruthers situation, including the part about the boyfriend, Kevin Spencer, a quarterback and student council president, who denied that he could be the father. Estelle said that it was a disgrace, but she also said another thing. “You girls,” she said, “you are so young. You have your whole lives ahead of you. Don’t throw it all away like that girl did.”
Jennifer said, Oh don’t worry about us, and Hey we’ll be OK, and Carolyn said, Really, Estelle, don’t worry, but Estelle stopped them. “No,” she said, with a new urgency in her voice. “I’m serious. You are—you are like caterpillars. You have to give yourself time to change into butterflies.”
Yeah you guys, you are just exactly like caterpillars, I was thinking then, the spell having broken for me. I dabbed at some mashed potatoes that had got onto Minnie’s chin. Carolyn and Jennifer were saying, Oh Estelle, you are so lovely, Oh honestly you are the best, and—as I could tell from the lilting timbre of their voices—smiling their heads off. They were probably envisioning their future lives as butterflies.
Finally they noticed the time. It was late! Lunch was supposed to be over, almost! Jennifer went off with her tray of now-cold food to feed Mrs. Buckingham. Carolyn whisked away Estelle’s tray—she had finished eating long ago—and returned to help her into her wheelchair and take her to the Common Room for a game of Crazy 8s with a new resident who seemed like he might be her intellectual equal. He might even become her boyfriend, or at least that’s what Carolyn thought, but Estelle, being Estelle, demurred.
I was alone in the room with Minnie, directing the straw into her mouth for one last sip of milk. You ’n me, Minnie, I thought at her. I considered saying it out loud, but any number of people could have come in at any moment, and they would think I was weird. Also, there was the chance that Minnie herself might respond in some way, and if she was with it enough to do that, she was with it enough to think that I was weird herself.
It was an old question for me by that time: Just how vegetative was this vegetative state that everyone assumed Minnie was in? But even if the question itself was old, it had a way of rising up anew and with freshly realized implications. Maybe Minnie really could, for example, appreciate the green jello, or acknowledge the Fourth of July, or understand that someone in particular had come to see her, and if so, what else might she be capable of? Sometimes she would open her eyes and look straight at me with what seemed like an audacious intelligence. “Hello,” I would say then, thinking of the multifarious things she might say back. Hello, my friend! Hello, you twerp! Hello, whoever you are, what the hell do you think you’re doing here? Only after an interminable breath-holding moment would I see that what I had imagined was a confrontation or some kind of Namaste recognition was an empty stare.
The slumber-party-like lunches could not continue, and they didn’t. An authority figure—George, the director of nursing—caught on, just as Jennifer had always feared, or at least I assume he did. What I know for sure is that one morning he came into the break room at around 10:00 and summoned Carolyn and Jennifer. Then that very day, at lunchtime, Carolyn picked up her usual solid-food tray, while Jennifer picked up a soft-food tray for once. I didn’t understand what was happening until I saw them stride down the East Wing hallway purposefully, with much-improved posture, to Room 112, and enter together as they always had.
Of course: Carolyn would feed Estelle and Jennifer would feed Minnie. That way if George looked in, it would seem like they were both working. But they would still be in the same room, hanging out with Estelle. This would be possible because Estelle required no real attention from an aide, while Minnie demanded none.
I pressed on into the following weeks, because what alternative did I have, but the dullness of lunch outside Room 112 made the greater dullness, and the effluvia and the petty indignities and the sheer hard work, of the rest of each day inescapable. There were the rounds of bedpan emptying and bedsore dressing and sheet changing and bathing and showering and humoring; there was the sole respite of A World Apart. I missed listening in on Carolyn and Jennifer and Estelle. Even more, though, I missed feeding Minnie. Feeding was the one service I provided that was neither distasteful nor stressful nor arduous, and Minnie was the one patient I had ever looked forward to feeding.
It was only after a long, dispiriting shift in late July that I knew what I would do. As I walked home that day, remembering the two different residents who had urinated on me as I retrieved their bedpans, and the other resident who had accused me of stealing a silver picture frame, apparently on the grounds that I’d been in the room when she’d learned that it wasn’t where she thought it was, I lapsed into take-this-job-and-shove-it rancor, and eventually, free-associatively, into a critique of A World Apart, which had become mired in the tedious intrigue of Fairport politics, with only occasional appetite-whetting reminders of Emily and Brad’s dilemma. Why did I even watch that stupid show? What, really, would be the downside of not keeping up with it? Nothing was going to happen! Nothing ever happened!
Well, sometimes something happened—you couldn’t say that Varina’s pregnancy wasn’t something—but still. It was a safe bet that I could miss an episode here and there. And between 2:30 and 3:00, while everyone else with the ability to follow a plot was watching and I wasn’t, I would have some time. No, I couldn’t feed Minnie—I wouldn’t have any food, and anyway she would have already eaten—but I could be with her.
I did it the very next afternoon. “And now . . . we welcome you . . . to A World Apart,” the familiar male voice intoned, setting off at uplifting swell of violins, and for the first time, I did not subside into a seated position. I departed the Common Room, entered the East Wing, and passed, on the right, Room 102 (empty), Room 104 (empty), Room 106 (empty except for one of the older aides hastily mopping up a puddle of vomit), and, my step quickening, Room 108 and Room 110 (both empty). When I reached Room 112, I stood for a moment on the threshold. There was Minnie, alone, on her back, her hand playing vaguely over the thin cotton blanket. She was awake, then. The room was silent and dim, the shades drawn against the harsh midday sun.
I entered, treading softly now. “Hi there, Minnie,” I whispered as I approached her bedside. This of course was the kind of thing, often the exact thing, I used to say to her every day at lunchtime, but now, in the hushed underwater gloom, I could hardly say it. Speaking was like speaking while sunk in a dream. “So . . . hi.” She didn’t respond. It’s OK, I told myself. You can do this. “Looks like you got a new nightgown.” It was the one somebody had given her over Fourth of July weekend, pale blue with a pattern of deeper blue flowers. “And your hair is so pretty and clean.” I knew it was clean because one of the older aides always washed it on Wednesday, and this was Thursday. “Do you want me to brush it?” My voice was louder, a little, but still barely audible. If anyone could hear me, it was just her. “There’s a brush right here.” I carefully lifted a hairbrush from her nightstand and touched it to the wisps at her temple.
Again, she didn’t respond. I began to brush, gently. “You have such nice hair,” I said. She was practically bald, but it was true that the hair she did have was nice. “It’s so wavy. My hair is so straight, but yours is just so . . . wavy.” I pushed all feelings of awkwardness away. I kept brushing. Brush, brush, brush. “It’s a good length, too. Not too short and not too long.” In fact, it was pretty short. That was so that it would be easier to care for. But it wasn’t as short as the hair on some of the other residents.
Brush, brush, brush. There was a place where a strand undulated off her forehead with an especially graceful flourish. The scalp beneath glowed pinkly in a thin bar of light that the blinds could not keep out. “So beautiful,” I said, returning the brush to the nightstand. There was a toothbrush there, too, I saw, and a glass with a few inches of water left in it, probably left behind by Jennifer.
“Do you want me to brush your teeth?” By this time I knew that she wasn’t going to respond. I picked up the toothbrush and dipped it in the water. “Open up now,” I said, inserting a tentative finger into her mouth and finding no resistance. There inside were her teeth, brownish nubs. I touched the toothbrush to the upper ones. Brush, brush. They were still brownish. I tried the lower ones. Brush, brush. They, too, were still brownish. Brush, brush, brush, brush, I went with the toothbrush, a little more firmly, more boldly, and then I noticed. One—no, two—of the teeth had come out. They were drifting in a pool of saliva behind her lower lip.
All at once I was fully awake. I heard the toothbrush fall to the floor. I felt my heart beat. I reached into Minnie’s mouth, fingers trembling, and plucked out the teeth, then took a step back and stood in the middle of the floor with my hand closed tight. What now? I thought. What am I going to do now? Minnie, still oblivious, let out a weak sigh. The teeth dug into my palm.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said aloud, and it was the first time in the last ten minutes that my voice sounded normal to myself.
What I did was pretty straightforward. I flushed Minnie’s teeth down the toilet, then went back and picked up the toothbrush, returned it to the nightstand, and rejoined everyone in the Common Room, where A World Apart was slightly more than halfway over. I had chosen the wrong day to miss it, because it wasn’t about Fairport politics this time, not at all. The Larville Manor audience, arrayed in folding chairs and wheelchairs and the seven orange vinyl armchairs, was rapt.
There on the screen was Varina the devil woman, as unmaternal-looking as ever yet attired in a loose top that might discreetly conceal a burgeoning pregnancy. She had devised some pretext to show up at Brad’s office, where he was meeting with a couple of business associates; she was voluptuous and smug while they were still around, and once they left, she gloated openly. “Soon the world will know!” she told Brad with a kind of megalomaniac glee. “The whole world will know that you’re mine!”
“The whole world already knows. You’re married to him,” said Carolyn from one of the orange vinyl armchairs, between Jennifer in a folding chair and Estelle in her wheelchair.
“She means everyone will know their marriage is real, because they still have sex,” said one of the older aides.
“Then why didn’t she say that,” said Carolyn, and then they both shut up, because it looked like Brad was about to speak, but he didn’t.
In the next scene, after commercials for Prell and Shake ’n Bake, Brad and Emily were back at their restaurant, clutching each other’s hands across the checked tablecloth and having another of their agonizing, glacially paced conversations.
No one knows where I was, no one knows what I did, no one even noticed that I was gone, I thought. It was a relief, but what if they found out?
As far as I could tell, they never did. Over the next several weeks, as I went through the motions of my job and waited for someone to send up the alarm that two of Minnie’s teeth were at large, my suspense and dread leaked away. It sometimes seemed as if I had imagined the whole incident.
It was the end of August by that time, and as hot as it would get all year. Outside, the grass was pale and stiff, the gardens overrun with weeds. The grasshoppers were full-grown, leaping onto screen doors and clinging there. And at Larville Manor, where the air conditioning was broken, no one seemed interested in anything outside their own personal concerns, even when A World Apart came on. They all watched impassively, facing the TV as if it were a horizon and they were passengers on a Greyhound bus, traveling into it.
Before Carolyn, Jennifer, and me lay a future in which we would either get pregnant or not, and if so, either at an opportune moment or not. We either would or wouldn’t fulfill our destinies as butterflies, or, in my case, perhaps some other insect, and in the end we would grow old and die, or, failing that, just die. But one thing was certain, which that was that in this heat, no one was talking about any of it anymore. Whenever I looked over to where Carolyn and Jennifer sat with Estelle, it seemed to me that even the klatch of Room 112 must have worn itself out, that Estelle, having bestowed the last of her god-motherly blessings, was thinking her own thoughts, and Carolyn and Jennifer theirs.
I, meanwhile, was thinking mine, which grew more and more lighthearted even as I sweated through my now-dingy white uniform, because the summer was drawing to a close and with it, this god-awful job. Also, the new-school-year wardrobe updates were approaching. Shoes: there were some black ballerina-slipper shoes at Thom McCann that I liked. A sweater: I was thinking a lime green turtleneck. No, a burgundy V-neck. No, a black turtleneck. And a straight skirt, with a kick pleat in back. In red plaid, No, navy blue. Also, my best friend and fellow nonentity Brenda would be returning from northern Michigan, where she had been a junior counselor at a sleep-away camp. I enjoyed contemplating the tales I would tell her about Larville Manor and in particular my brush with fame there. Carolyn Beasley—she is even more conceited than you think! And Jennifer Morville—pathetic!
Only occasionally did I think of Minnie, and when I did, my thoughts refused to shape themselves into anything I had words for. I just remembered what it had been like to sit on the floor of the bathroom with her teeth in my hand. This was the private bathroom of Room 112, so I could close the door and lock it and have some time to consider what to do next, but as soon as I was there, I knew I had already decided. I felt the comforting solidity and welcome coolness of the tiles beneath me. I looked at the teeth, so factual and specific. Whatever Minnie’s life had been, they had been there for it. When I was ready, I dropped them into the toilet and flushed, and they vanished. There was a scouring sound like that of a departing jet.
Beth Horning has spent most of her adult life as an editor for Boston-area alumni magazines, specifically Technology Review (MIT) and Tufts Magazine (Tufts). She has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in Creative Writing from Indiana University, and has previously published poetry in The Beloit Poetry Journal, short humorous pieces in Smithsonian and the Washington Post, and fiction in Sojourner. She grew up in Indiana and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and, occasionally, her 21-year-old daughter.
Christine Webster is a French composer and sound designer living in Paris. She studied electro-acoustic music with Jean Schwarz in the late eighties and worked as a sound engineer and sound editor for television and movie audio post-production. She began to produce her own sound works in 2003 and started to write for the french KR-HomeStudio magazine.
She performs laptop, prepared guitar and recently modular synths, improvising with her instruments on the fly or mixing more complex and deep sound layers live. She is also exploring experimental sound composition in 3D virtual reality contexts. She is member of the Spatial Media research laboratory at EnsadLabs in Paris.
Ostinato is part of a modular synth experiment created in January 2015.