“Three days,” Alice said, and everyone stopped eating. Eyes shifted toward her like
slow-moving magnets. Then, more pronounced movements began; a wheelchair turned,
a cane was jostled, a series of slow stepping walkers made their way toward her.
Nancy was nimble; she was the first person to walk up to the table. Nancy squeezed
herself into the chair and waited for Alice to say something else. Nothing.
A thunder of wrinkled hands collapsed upon the table and Nancy began to yell.
“I cannot believe you spoke. The Newswoman spoke. What does it mean?”
Nancy tried to capture Alice’s gaze and repeated, “What does ‘Three days,’ mean,
In the past two years no one had heard Alice utter one word and today she spoke two.
Every resident at Dunn Creek was talking about it over hash and eggs
this Monday morning. Everyone except for Alice, that is. Alice fiddled
with her rubbery eggs. She couldn’t help but thinking that if she were
to speak again it would be to say that this place served despicable food.
She would call Channel 6 News and tell them to do an expose on this place.
“Abuse of the elderly could be found in these very eggs,” she imagined she would say,
smiling into the camera. She let the egg jiggle on her fork as Nancy yammered
away in her ear, then the thing dropped on her lap. She removed it,
leaving a yellow speck.
Nancy rambled on the entire breakfast hour. She was convinced that what Alice had
said was a sign that Jesus may come to visit on Thursday, which meant she had
to disclose all sins today. Alice listened aptly; she wore a reporter’s ear
as Nancy spoke of her young adulthood, her poverty-evoked prostitution,
and a short bout with an eating disorder. Alice found it all marvelously entertaining.
These stories were better than a soap opera. Nancy told them passively,
as though she were speaking of another person. That is, until she recounted repentance.
Here, her voice lifted; Nancy was almost singing when she got to the part
about how she found her religion after tripping over a sewer drain and cracking
her head wide open after a night out. Jesus was the first person to visit the ER,
she said. Alice wondered how long Nancy would have been a working girl
had she not injured her head; then she wondered if it was even true.
This could be a story Nancy had seen on television and decided to
adopt as her own. She had learned a long time ago that you can’t trust the
verbal memoir of anyone over the age of seventy-five, despite honest intention.
Alice noticed a slightly sour smell wafting around the room. She looked up at Nancy ’s sagging face, watching her speak. Could the smell be coming from her? Nancy ’s wrinkles tempted downward more than up, suggesting there might have been some truth to her stories, but as Alice leaned in she found the woman to be quite nicely perfumed. The smell remained. Alice felt her eyes watering as Nancy blathered on.
Alice wanted to speak, to ask where that smell was coming from, but she could not bring her words to form. More residents sat down at Alice ’s table, and each of them had a different idea about the meaning of “three days.” A good portion of residents were of the same school of thought as Nancy , flocking to Alice for advice, thinking she may be the vessel for some prophecy. Many confided in her their demons. She listened actively, nodding, until Peter relieved her from this group. Peter. Peter was a handsome white-haired man who often sat next to Alice at mealtimes. He took the seat Nancy had occupied as soon as she left.
“You look really, truly, truly lovely today, my dear Alice,” he said.
Alice appreciated Peter because he called her by her name. Although it had been common knowledge that Alice had been a reporter in her younger years, it was only part of her past. Those that referred to her as, “The Newswoman” were not allowing her the persona of mother, wife, tennis-fanatic, and book reviewer; they did not know of her dreams as a girl to travel or that she eventually settled on the idea of retiring in London . They didn’t know that her plans were obliterated when she ended up raising her granddaughter, a child who was born to an irresponsible mother. They did not see the pain Alice ’s daughter had put her through, or the hardships she faced when trying to raise a small child late in life alongside a husband who didn’t want any part of it. They didn’t care who Alice was, only what she had done. Only one thing she had done: her job.
“Lovely,” Peter said once more, this time with a drawl, a slow entrance to expound his conversation. He never said much, but to Alice it always felt as though he had been speaking to her for hours. Even without speech, Alice felt their conversations were always two-sided. He paid attention to her eyes.
Alice felt Peter’s eyes on her now. She didn’t feel as lovely as he claimed. Peter saw it though, he told her daily. He told her to appreciate the natural pink to her cheeks and her silky dark blue eyes. She was color, he said, in a sea of gray. Having not spoken in years had actually prevented many wrinkles from forming around Alice ’s mouth and eyes that would have otherwise told tales of her joys and sorrows.
Peter told Alice to be wary of those religious zealots, those such as Nancy who thought of her as some sort of prophet. “All they want is something to remedy their fear,” he offered, speaking loudly as though he wanted to be heard by neighboring tables. “Maybe, if you can speak again...not that I’m saying you can, but if you can, maybe tell them to go away or something. Otherwise, they’ll bug you all the time, thinking you may offer some alternative to death or something.” He laughed at himself for a while before growing silent. “I’m not scared of death. Are you?” Alice took a bite of toast, and savored the buttery crispness on her tongue. She shook her head slightly.
“Good. You know what, Kiddo? I’m not exactly ready, but I’m not scared. I mean, death can’t be much worse than this place.” Alice looked around at the peeling wall paper, the windows that don’t open. She took another bite of toast. “Thanks for listening to me, lovely, lovely, Alice .” Peter kissed Alice gently on her forehead and slowly moved away from her, hobbling off to his room to watch The Price Is Right with his first glass of whiskey.
Alice walked toward the common room after breakfast, a place where residents played cards and made crafts and watched a giant flat screen television that always seemed to play soap operas.
“Hi Miss Washington , how are you today,” one of the new volunteers asked. She was a lanky girl who always wore bejeweled clips in her hair and always offered Alice a wide smile. Alice found the volunteers patronizing, so she looked away. They all spoke to her as though she were a child. “Enjoying your program today?” the girl pressed on. Alice did not look away from the screen. The girl then motioned toward the television and then leaned down to whisper, “You know, I think Alexandra is going to come back to life any day now.” Alice thought so too.
Mona, one of the oldest residents at ninety-seven walked up and said, “I know you fake this. You just do this so you’ll get all the attention when you feel like it. Hell, I could go mute too if I wanted, but now you’ve already done it, so no one would care. You make me sick!” Alice was in the habit of ignoring the sharp-tongued old woman, but today Mona seems violent; she begins yelling. “Speak! Just tell me why you do this! Speak!” The girl with the jeweled hair clip asked Mona to leave Alice alone. Alice noticed the same smell as before. She pinched her nose.
“Three days,” Alice had said. She thought now, back to her anonymity before uttering these two words. The silence that she felt throughout her stay at the residence had been a welcome one, but there was appeal to celebrity too. Maybe Mona was right, maybe she had subconsciously concocted the whole muted persona only to shock and amaze on Monday, January 14th.
Alice wondered what to do next. Could she speak again? She had enjoyed the stories she heard and wanted them to continue. They reminded her of her work, interviewing people was always best when you gave long silences, uncomfortable ones even, to keep them blathering on. But what really consumed Alice now was what she had meant by saying it: “Three days.” Three days?
Could the outside world eventually decode what she had been thinking when the words had escaped mindlessly? Or had they already decoded her thoughts? Alice contemplated the possibility that her words had meant more than what she was thinking at the time. It had been three days since she had last showered and changed. She had said this aloud, so as not to forget to change clothes when she got back to the room but no one had noticed; consequently, Alice ’s thoughts were infiltrated by stories of woe, accusations of conspiracy, and now she was disillusioned by it all. She would ultimately forget again, only to wear the same blue slacks with a yellow dot and that same pink blouse on Tuesday. That is, until she would remember and say aloud, “Shit!” The entire place would be abuzz with speculation.
©2008 by Jen Knox