Mel Bosworth

[I Ate]

I ate grass when I was a kid. I ate dirt, too. I want­ed to eat the grass because I was curi­ous what it tast­ed like, but not so much the dirt. The dirt was fed to me. Dirt was not some­thing I’d choose to eat, but I didn’t have a choice. Older kids are usu­al­ly stronger. They’d pin my arms behind my back and work the dirt between my lips with a plas­tic green shov­el. Even after I’d washed my mouth out, the grainy sen­sa­tion against my gums last­ed for hours.

When I was a kid, I didn’t like to eat much when I sat at the din­ner table. My moth­er used to say I ate like a bird. I nev­er real­ly knew what that meant because I didn’t eat worms.

My moth­er also used to say, “Be thank­ful for what you have.”

She would cook and serve my sis­ter and me din­ner when my father was away for work. My father used to trav­el a lot for work because there wasn’t always a lot of work for him where we lived. My father was an exca­va­tor. He’s not an exca­va­tor any­more and he doesn’t have to trav­el like he used to. I have to say, I like that. I think he likes that, too.

When my moth­er served me din­ner, some­times I’d stare at my plate and have no con­cept of what being thank­ful meant because I was just a young, skin­ny kid. I’d have been more thank­ful if the plate was cov­ered with pan­cakes. Asparagus and corn was okay, but some­times I liked look­ing at the col­ors more than eat­ing them.

So the food sat there on the plate, untouched, all yel­low and green. And then my moth­er would grow angry, maybe not because I didn’t eat, but because I didn’t know I was sup­posed to eat a full plate when it was in front of me. When I was a kid, I didn’t always know what I need­ed.

My moth­er nev­er forced me to eat, but some­times she’d play a trick on me at din­ner time. She’d say, “If you eat every­thing that’s in that bowl, you’ll find a prize on the bot­tom.”

And of course I’d eat every­thing in the bowl and when I got to the bot­tom I didn’t under­stand. There was no object, no prize I could see, no toy I could play with. There was just a pic­ture in the glass of an old man wear­ing a mon­o­cle.

There’s no prize,” I’d say.

And my moth­er would say, “I think there is.”

My moth­er knew then what I didn’t. That every­thing is edi­ble. People are edi­ble. Memories are edi­ble. She knew these things because she’d been me, sit­ting at the table, star­ing at her plate. She’d been green­er than her veg­eta­bles, green like I was, green like I some­times wish I could still be.

Sometimes I sit on my reclin­er and pop mem­o­ries from between my teeth with a tooth­pick.

Steak is always a good mem­o­ry. Like when I was a kid and went camp­ing with my fam­i­ly. I was so hun­gry from play­ing in the woods all day and I’d nev­er tried steak before. My dad grilled up a bunch of rib eyes and I ate one, swing­ing my feet beneath the bench of the pic­nic table. The meat was soft and deli­cious, medi­um-rare.

Corn on the cob is always a good mem­o­ry. Like when I stood out­side at twi­light with my sis­ter. We curled our toes in the grass, star­ing at the col­ors swooshed in the sky, all pink and red. She didn’t want to go to school tomor­row and I didn’t want to go to school tomor­row because we didn’t want the stand­ing out­side on the grass to end. Then we for­got about all that when we were eat­ing corn on the cob that Dad cooked for us. The yel­low ker­nels burst on my lit­tle teeth like bal­loons filled with but­ter.

Sometimes the peo­ple I eat are a good mem­o­ry. Like the dri­ver who saved my life by flash­ing his head­lights at me because there was a deer stand­ing in the road around the cor­ner. That deer would’ve smashed through my wind­shield and crushed me if that dri­ver hadn’t warned me with his head­lights.

Sometimes the peo­ple I eat give me a stom­ach ache. I was already full but I ate them any­way because I thought I had to. It helps if I pour Pepto-Bismol onto their heads. They like that, I think.

**

I worked in a nurs­ing home for a while. I left after a year. When I was inter­viewed for the job they said, “Good, you’re cute. The women will love you.”

I worked in the activ­i­ties depart­ment. I read to groups in the morn­ing. Sometimes I went from room to room for the ones who couldn’t get out of bed.

There was a spe­cial unit for demen­tia and Alzheimer’s res­i­dents. We called every­one at the nurs­ing home “res­i­dents” because it was nicer than call­ing them “patients.” I didn’t work at the spe­cial unit as much but I had to pass through all the time because that’s where the office was for the activ­i­ties depart­ment.

There was a door that sep­a­rat­ed the Alzheimer’s unit from the rest of the nurs­ing home. I lat­er learned it was there, in part, to keep from upset­ting the res­i­dents who didn’t suf­fer from demen­tia or Alzheimer’s. It was hard for the res­i­dents to see peo­ple with demen­tia or Alzheimer’s. Especially when they were close to their age, or if they were a part of their fam­i­ly.

The door was also there to pro­tect the demen­tia and Alzheimer’s res­i­dents. It was impor­tant to keep them from wan­der­ing. They might’ve tried to wan­der home; even if they didn’t know where their home was; even if their home wasn’t their home any­more.

In the morn­ing I’d come in and punch my card in the time clock. Then I’d say hel­lo to the cooks in their white hats and aprons. Then I’d learn who died the night before. People in nurs­ing homes die a lot because they’re old. And when some­one is old, it means they’ve been eat­ing their whole life, which means they’ve put down lots of things so they’re car­ry­ing lots of things. Even if they cry, there is still so much inside of them that weighs them down. I think this is why peo­ple get wrin­kles, and demen­tia, and humped backs.

There’s only so much a body can hold, and even­tu­al­ly it starts to run low on gas. Nursing homes are like gas sta­tions. The nurs­es are like gas pumpers, only they’re clean­er. They don’t have oily rags hang­ing from their back pock­ets and they don’t wash wind­shields. Well, maybe they do if read­ing glass­es count as wind­shields.

I used to run Bingo. That was always a big hit with the res­i­dents. The win­ners won quar­ters, some­times dol­lars. They liked to play games when there was mon­ey involved. And maybe it’s imma­ture, but every time I yelled out “O 69” dur­ing Bingo I want­ed to laugh like crazy. I wait­ed for a long time for one of the res­i­dents to laugh dur­ing a game but no one ever did. I guess they were too focused on their cards, or maybe an “O 69” wasn’t in their lex­i­con of dirty.

There was an old man named Toby who used to play Bingo. He was hunched and skin­ny and sat in a wheel­chair all day. In the hall­way in front of the nurse’s sta­tion there was always a row of res­i­dents against the wall sit­ting in wheel­chairs. They liked to get out of their rooms for the day and they liked to social­ize. Part of my job was to encour­age them to social­ize because it’s sup­posed to be healthy.

One woman with pink hair met Robert Frost back in the 1940’s. Another woman with blue hair used to be an acro­bat. Another woman with no hair had nine chil­dren. They all had great sto­ries. Even the sto­ries some might’ve con­sid­ered ordi­nary were great to me.

Like the one an old man used to tell me all the time about his hunt­ing dog, an Irish set­ter named Petey. The old man’s name was Peter, and he thought nam­ing his dog Petey was fun­ny and I thought it was fun­ny, too. When I was a kid I had a cat named Puppy. My name isn’t Pup but my point is peo­ple are fun­ny, espe­cial­ly when it comes to nam­ing their pets.

The sto­ry Peter always told me was about how he and Petey went quail hunt­ing one day in Maine. Peter sat up in bed when he told his sto­ry, his wrin­kled, spot­ted hands busy with pan­tomime. When he talked about what a good dog Petey was, he’d stroke the air at his side, some­times scratch behind an invis­i­ble ear. When he talked about how fast Petey was, he’d slap his palms togeth­er and then extend his right arm, fin­ger point­ing off in the dis­tance.

Peter and Petey were crunch­ing in the snow along the edge of a field when Petey stiff­ened up and then charged a bri­ar patch just inside the tree line. Petey, bark­ing and stamp­ing his front paws, flushed the quail out of the bri­ar patch. Once Petey was clear of the quail, Peter fired at them, tag­ging one with a spray of buck­shot. The wound­ed quail rolled in the snow, an over­sized egg, red and white. Petey snatched it up, and the quail flapped help­less and bloody between his teeth. Then Petey set the quail at Peter’s feet, tail wag­ging.

I’m damn proud of my dog,” Peter would say, smil­ing, once more pet­ting the air at his side. I’d always nod, grin at the invis­i­ble dog, play along. When it came to an old man’s cher­ished mem­o­ry, noth­ing was too much, noth­ing was ridicu­lous or ordi­nary.

And that was Peter’s sto­ry, sim­ple as it was, and he told it to me near­ly every time I saw him, and each time it was fresh to him so it was fresh to me, too. I did my best to see Peter every­day because he was hooked up to lots of machines and couldn’t get out of his room, so the least I could do was let him run with Petey in his mind.

As for Toby, he was usu­al­ly the only man in the row. During my time at the nurs­ing home a lot of the men were bedrid­den like Peter but Toby could sit in a wheel­chair. He liked to sit at the end of the row. That was his spot, and his bot­tom lip was always stick­ing out like he was grumpy, whether he was or not. Some of the nurs­es said he couldn’t talk, but I spent a lot of time with Toby and he could talk. I just had to lis­ten.

A lot of the res­i­dents who couldn’t talk could talk. What I mean is, some grunt­ed or made hand ges­tures. Others let chop­py exha­la­tions car­ry their whis­per words. It took some time, but I even­tu­al­ly learned how to hear every­one.

One Friday I wore a maroon Boston College tee shirt to work. It was Casual Day on Friday. The rest of the time I had to wear khakis and a but­ton shirt, but on Fridays I could wear blue jeans and a tee shirt. Toby was sit­ting at the end of the row in the hall­way, eat­ing a fruit cup. I always saw him eat­ing fruit cups. Del Monte was his favorite, and he liked to save the cher­ries for last. Toby was, despite his knot­ty fin­gers, very dex­ter­ous, and he didn’t have to be fed like some of the oth­er res­i­dents.

Are you enjoy­ing your fruit cup?” I asked him.

Toby dipped his head and looked at me over the rims of his glass­es. His eyes were huge and blood­shot. He huffed and said, “Fruit cup.” Then he noticed my shirt and said, “Boston College.”

Then he laughed like Boston College was a crap school or some­thing. I knelt down in front of him. It read in his file that peo­ple should approach Toby low and from the front because he star­tles eas­i­ly. I usu­al­ly remem­bered to do this because I liked Toby and didn’t want to star­tle him.

You up for some Bingo today?” I asked.

Toby huffed for a long time. Then he shrugged and said, “Why not?”

Toby was awe­some. He nev­er got my “O 69” joke either but he was still awe­some.

I wheeled him into the recre­ation room. It was a big room with lots of round tables, tall win­dows, and ferns. There was also a small piano in the cor­ner near my desk. The main office for the activ­i­ties depart­ment was in the demen­tia and Alzheimer’s unit, but I had my own desk to do my dai­ly paper­work in the recre­ation room. It was tru­ly amaz­ing how much paper­work old peo­ple could cre­ate in a day. And the ferns were nice, but some­times I for­got to water them. Then my boss would say, “At least spit on them when you walk by.”

My boss was cool, though. She was a lit­tle old­er than me and very pret­ty. She had the soft­est blue eyes and dark hair that she usu­al­ly wore in a pony­tail. She’s mar­ried now. Even though she told me to, I could nev­er bring myself to spit on the ferns. It didn’t seem right some­how. Not like for­get­ting to water them was okay, but, at the time, being neglect­ful was a bet­ter option for me than rude­ness, at least in terms of water­ing plants.

I told Toby to sit tight, and then I went out and gath­ered up more play­ers. A lot of them had to be wheeled in but a few could walk in on their own with the help of a cane, some­times two canes. After a month or so of work­ing there, I could wheel two peo­ple at the same time, side by side. They thought it was a riot, too. They chat­ted and laughed as I wheeled them down the hall­way, say­ing things to each oth­er like, “Well, hel­lo,” and, “It’s nice to see you here.”

I ran the Bingo game and passed out quar­ters to the res­i­dents who won. Toby won a game or two. Some of the oth­er res­i­dents were hap­py for him, but Toby liked to pre­tend he didn’t care. But Toby did that a lot: pre­tend­ed he didn’t care.

When his fam­i­ly came to see him he just grumped like usu­al but I could tell he was hap­py to see his kids. They were a good fam­i­ly. And his son always brought him gifts and his grand­daugh­ter liked to dance for him. She was just learn­ing to tap-dance at the time. I liked the click­ing sound her shoes made on the white tile. I think some of the res­i­dents liked it, too.

Some fam­i­lies nev­er came to vis­it. I don’t think that meant they weren’t good; it meant they were scared. I think chil­dren are scared to see their par­ents when their par­ents have eat­en too much. It makes the chil­dren want to be skin­ny, or healthy. It makes them want to jog, or run even. It makes them want to eat gluten-free prod­ucts, which maybe they should eat any­way. Because peo­ple have told me that gluten-free prod­ucts are good, and some­times I believe what peo­ple tell me.

But it doesn’t mat­ter. Whatever is put in front of us we’re going to eat. Even if our forks don’t move we’re still going to eat what­ev­er is put in front of us. My mother’s always under­stood this. I’m still strug­gling with it but I’m get­ting there, slow­ly but sure­ly.

So even if chil­dren don’t go to vis­it their par­ents in nurs­ing homes, they’re still car­ry­ing them, they’re still eat­ing their par­ents, and their par­ents are still eat­ing them­selves. That’s the thing I’ve come to real­ize. At some point we all start eat­ing our­selves, like a star col­laps­ing into itself, like a black hole. Like old peo­ple do. At some point we become a bulging hose or a scream­ing faucet. We stand in the yard or we hunch at the sink, and we have to turn the spig­ot because at some point we become the water, spilling all over the place and into our­selves. It’s the release we crave, the release we need so we can make more room inside our­selves to car­ry things, things we may not have found yet, things we have found but just don’t see yet.

After the Bingo game I wheeled every­one back into the hall­way. The ones who could walk walked. Some went back to their rooms to count their win­nings, while oth­ers went back to their rooms to sleep. Some of the ones who went to sleep nev­er woke up again. I’d learn about them in the morn­ing and I’d feel bad all day, but I’d try to smile, laugh. Because part of my job was to smile and laugh.

Toby was the last one in the room after Bingo. He was look­ing out the win­dow, chin rest­ing in his palm, peace­ful. I came up from behind him and touched his shoul­der.

Are you ready to roll, Toby?” I asked.

Toby jerked around in his wheel­chair, star­tled. His eyes looked at me, but I could tell he didn’t see me. Like he didn’t know who I was. Then, out of nowhere, he punched me in the mouth and my head snapped back. When my head fell for­ward, I saw that Toby’s arm was still extend­ed in a frozen jab. I grabbed his wrist, try­ing to under­stand what had just hap­pened but know­ing that by grab­bing his wrist I’d pre­vent it from hap­pen­ing again, at least from his right hand.

For a few sec­onds there, I want­ed to slap the old bas­tard, pull his thread-thin hair, scream into his face that he was going to die soon. I want­ed to spin his wheel­chair around and crash him into the wall. I could see it, too, in a flash, just like that, but I knew I couldn’t do these things and I nev­er would, because one day I’d be Toby, all hunched and huff­ing, sit­ting twist­ed and fright­ened in a wheel­chair, pre­tend­ing I didn’t care. So I took a deep breath and gath­ered myself, feel­ing his skin­ny wrist try­ing to spin in my grip.

Don’t do that, Toby,” I said, my lips already swelling. Then I let him go.

Toby huffed. Then he said “Boston College,” and start­ed laugh­ing. I wheeled him back to his place in the hall­way with­out say­ing anoth­er word.

I still liked Toby after that day but not as much, and I nev­er star­tled him again. I always came at him low and from the front, low and from the front. It became my mantra. Toby had put a lot down in his day, and I’m sure he put down some men with that jab of his. He was fast, accu­rate, and, despite his somber appear­ance, full of fire. Toby would live a long time. I’m sure he’s still huff­ing now, wher­ev­er he is, prob­a­bly at the end of the row with his nose in a Del Monte fruit cup.

I think there’s a dif­fer­ence between putting things down and eat­ing things. When I put things down now, I know I’m putting them down, but when I’m eat­ing I don’t always know I’m eat­ing. I prob­a­bly won’t learn this until I’m old­er and I’m play­ing Bingo, but I might not know then either because I might put that mem­o­ry down some­where and then for­got about it. Even so, I think a part of me will remem­ber, though it might not be a part that I remem­ber all the time.

Growing old is going to be tricky, although I’m sure I’ll laugh when the young man run­ning Bingo calls out “O 69,” or if he’s too much of a chick­en­shit to hit me back after I punch him in the mouth. I’ll see the red­ness and fear in his eyes, and I’ll rec­og­nize it as my own. Maybe I’ll laugh at his shirt, too.

**

One time my friend Doug stopped me as I was pass­ing through the Alzheimer’s unit. Doug was one of the res­i­dents there, and his wife Roberta lived on the oth­er side of the nurs­ing home with the res­i­dents who didn’t have demen­tia or Alzheimer’s. I liked Roberta, too. Her eyes were bright and sharp, just like her mind, and her fin­gers were nim­ble when she sat at the piano in the recre­ation room. She liked to play church music. How Great Thou Art was her favorite, and I heard her play it so many times it became my favorite, too.

Roberta was allowed to vis­it Doug in the Alzheimer’s unit but some­times she’d have to leave because they’d fight. Or she’d fight. Doug didn’t remem­ber as much as he used to because his body had eat­en too much, and a lot of what he’d eat­en had to be put down. Roberta would grow angry and yell at him for being so stu­pid. “Stop act­ing like a damn child!” she shout­ed one time, right in his face. I don’t think she yelled at him out of mean­ness; she just missed her hus­band.

Doug touched me on the shoul­der and said he need­ed help. Then he laughed.

What can I do for you, Captain Doug?” I asked.

I always called peo­ple fun names because it made them smile some­times. I called one woman Pricilla the Princess and I called anoth­er woman Gorgeous Gloria. Pricilla was a tiny woman who always wore spark­ly dress­es and dan­gling chan­de­lier ear­rings. She real­ly looked like a princess. Gloria had the thick­est hair of any woman in the nurs­ing home, and a warm south­ern drawl that made me feel relaxed. They usu­al­ly smiled and blushed when I called them by their fun names. I think the old and dying want peo­ple to make them smile, or they want to be left alone. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which.

Anyhow, I could tell Doug was embar­rassed about some­thing by the way he fid­get­ed and looked at his shoes. He always wore black shoes and tucked his shirt into his pants. He was wear­ing a light green shirt that day, and I could tell he’d just got­ten a hair­cut because lit­tle gray hairs cov­ered his shoul­ders. Leaning close, he whis­pered, “I don’t have any mon­ey.”

The hair net­ted servers were on the floor, push­ing squeaky carts filled with lunch. Doug watched the carts rolls by, his eyes dog sad.

That smells good,” he said. “But I don’t have any mon­ey to buy lunch.” Then he asked if I could spot him some mon­ey for lunch.

I put my hand on his shoul­der and said, “You don’t need any mon­ey today, Doug. Lunch is on me. I already gave it to the cooks. In fact, you’re good for the rest of the week. I know how hard you’ve been work­ing. I know you’re a good man, so pay me back lat­er.”

He shook my hand and smiled and said, “Thank you. Thank you.” Then he went off and found some lunch. I stood there, watch­ing him from the door­way of the din­ing room for a while. He spooned peas into his mouth and chat­ted with total strangers who had been his clos­est friends only the day before.

I thought of my mother’s words: “Be thank­ful for what you have. If you fin­ish the bowl you’ll find a prize.”

As I watched Doug fin­ish his bowl, I won­dered if his moth­er hadn’t told him some­thing sim­i­lar when he was a boy. I won­dered if he’d found his prize. When he looked over and saw me watch­ing him, he winked, and I winked back.

When Doug died, Roberta would sit in the recre­ation room after every­one had gone but me. She’d play the piano—Abide with Me, or An Angel from on High to go along with her favorite and mine, How Great Thou Art—and then she’d cry. Mostly, I’d sit at my desk, qui­et­ly fill­ing out paper­work for the day, some­times star­ing through the frost on the win­dow at the dark lumps I knew were hydrangeas. But some­times I’d come out from behind my desk and sit in a chair behind her. I’d just lis­ten to her play and I’d lis­ten to her cry. When she was fin­ished, she’d tell me, “It’s hard.” Then she’d get up from the bench and walk to the win­dow. She’d stare into the dark­ness, hands emp­ty, fin­gers often pulling the loose threads on her sweater. I’d stand next to her, look out, try to see what she saw. Sometimes I put my arm around her. I nev­er said any­thing, though, because I didn’t know what to say.

In the spring, Roberta and I began a new rou­tine. At least once a week, I’d help her climb the stairs because she didn’t always want to rely on the ele­va­tor. Roberta was a strong woman, even when she was lean­ing into me, hold­ing my hand. She’d lost more than I could fath­om, and yet some­times I felt like she was the one help­ing me. And as I was watched her ascend the con­crete steps, time and again, it occurred to me that when we think we’re play­ing one role, some­times we’re play­ing anoth­er, or maybe even both. Not long after, I got a bet­ter pay­ing job work­ing in a grav­el pit, so I left the nurs­ing home.

I was younger then and didn’t have my beard yet. I had lots of room inside of me to car­ry peo­ple, but I didn’t want to car­ry just any­one. And I still don’t. I try to be selec­tive, but it doesn’t mat­ter; I con­tin­ue to eat, I con­tin­ue to car­ry.

Now if I chew on grass, it’s not because I’m curi­ous to see what grass tastes like, it’s because I’m think­ing about what it means to tru­ly car­ry some­thing. And if I chew on dirt, it’s not because I’m forced by some jerks with a plas­tic shov­el, it’s because I miss that grainy sen­sa­tion, scratch­ing against my gums, hours after­wards. And there’s a world of dif­fer­ence.