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.