Life Among the Never-Winged

Once upon a time I was writing a book called, "Just Another Love Letter", about angels behaving badly. Now I just quietly ask myself each day, "What the hell am I doing?"

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Location: The Rocky Mountain Empire, United States

My friends always knew I was going to hell. My only hope is that God likes good jokes and bad redheads.

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  • Wednesday, November 29, 2006

    Avacadoes, Artichokes, Something Like That

    Something else I'm working on, but I don't think it's going anywhere.
    It's mostly fiction.


    Avacadoes, Artichokes, Something Like That

    The hospice nurse, Jenny, is more like a housekeeper than a nurse, always cleaning the dishes I leave in the sink, letting me do the nurse-things like taking Papa’s temperature and straightening up the sheets after one of his coughing fits. She does take care of his diapers, for which I am eternally grateful. We don’t speak much, but smile at each other a lot, as if my grandfather were a newborn baby we must nurture, rather than a dying old man we are trying to keep away from pain.
    She leaves the room when he’s in a talkative mood, so that we can have our privacy. She hums away in front of the sink, wiping the crumbs off the yellowed and cracked Formica countertop, brown-spotted from burning cigarettes left unattended. Her humming is only a little louder than the refrigerator, and I wonder if hospice nurses are trained to be so unobtrusive, or if Jenny naturally has the knack of becoming an inconspicuous kitchen appliance.
    “Paula, you there?” my grandfather asks the room.
    “I’m here, Papa.”
    “Is that wallpaper moving?” He points to the crown molding dividing the wall from the ceiling. It is water-stained, and I guess it could be mistaken for moving wallpaper by a man with bad eyes, I tell myself. I don’t want to think that the cancer has spread so quickly to his brain.
    “I’m not seeing what you’re seeing.” I try to keep my response neutral. I don’t want to tell him that moving wallpaper is crazy talk.
    He watches what I can’t see for a minute. “You know, your mind tells you whatever it wants to. It makes you see what it wants you to see.”
    I probably should have brought him back to reality, but why? I mean, to me this was like the cigarettes I brought him. Good or bad, they distracted him from the pain, and what did it matter now?
    “Tell me what you see.”
    “There’s a man up there on a green bicycle, pedaling away for all he’s worth. Look at him go. He’s trying to get somewhere, sure enough.”
    We both study the brown patches on the ceiling. My grandfather is pumping his legs under the covers, as though he is the unseen rider. He lifts his arm, fingers curling into a trembling fist, index finger extended.
    “Tell that boy he’d better watch out for that train, Paula. He won’t listen to me.”
    “Watch out, boy.” My words must have had some effect, because Papa almost immediately lowers his arm. I tuck it back under the sheets. He mumbles something else about a train and is asleep.


    “Don’t even think about calling me again if you’re going to talk about him.”
    “Mom.”
    “I mean it. He’s dead to me. He’s a drunk. He’s a bum.”
    “He’s your father.”
    “He was never there! I had no father. He was never happy with me. I was never good enough. Son of a bitch. Let me know when he’s dead so I can get up and dance.”
    “I can’t believe you’re saying this.”
    “When have I ever led you to believe otherwise? Huh? When was the last time I said something good about him? Never!”
    “You took us down to see him one year.”
    “That was to see my mom one last time. I tried to talk her into moving in with us but she wouldn’t leave him. He’s a tyrant. She was scared.”
    “He’s not like that anymore. He thinks she’s still alive sometimes and he talks so sweet to her.”
    “That’d be a first. She was never good enough either.”
    Pause.
    “So, how’s he treating you?”
    “Nice, mom. He’s quiet most of the time, but when he needs something, he asks politely, and says thank you. He says I’m the only person he’s got.”
    “He doesn’t even know you.”
    “He wishes he did. He wishes he’d pushed you to take us down here more.”
    “Wishes he’d push. Now that sounds like the Andre I remember. So are you giving him booze? That’s why he wants you there. Booze and cigarettes.”
    “He’s not drinking. Hasn’t had a drink in years, mom.”
    “He’s lying. He’d come in so drunk from the restaurant he’d be falling down, and he’d deny it.”
    “Well, I haven’t seen him take a single drink the whole time I’ve been here, so.”
    “He’s hiding it.”
    “Where? He’s skin and bones. He can’t be hiding it under the sheets, I’d see it. There’s nothing in the dresser but odds and ends. He doesn’t get out of bed anymore.”
    “He’s hiding it.”
    “Whatever.”
    “He still smoking?”
    “Well, yeah.”
    “And you’re getting him cigarettes, aren’t you?”
    Pause.
    “Yup, that’s what I thought. Wants you there to fetch him smokes. Shit. He shouldn’t be smoking anyway, damn fool. That’s what killed him.”
    “He’s dying anyway. What’s the difference if he smokes now? It’s his last pleasure.”
    Pause.
    “So will you please come down to say goodbye, mom?”
    “What are you, stupid? I’m not saying it again. He’s been dead to me for years.”
    “But you care that he’s smoking.”
    “I’m hanging up now. Goodbye.”
    “Fine. I’ll call you when he’s dead.”
    “Good. I’ll buy my dancing shoes today.”
    ”Mom, that’s so--”
    click.


    So much for reconciling my mother with my grandfather. Not that I had much hope. I’m glad that he couldn’t hear the conversation. I think it would have hurt him. I’m having a hard time seeing an old man – no, the skeleton of an old man who weighs less than the pillows propping him up – and thinking of him as a tyrant and a drunk. Ok, maybe a drunk, because everybody in this city is a drunk as far as I can tell, but a tyrant? He gets this look in his eye, just before he asks for something, a drink of water. It’s like he’s afraid to ask me, doesn’t want to trouble me, even though my sole purpose of coming down here was to make sure his last days are comfortable. This is a tyrant? I guess people change, and I wasn’t there in his heyday, but still. People change.
    He always talked quietly to me on the phone. ‘So, you learned to cook yet?’ he’d say, and I knew he was teasing, and I knew he was also serious. He didn’t order me to learn. He just asked.
    We’ve only been calling each other for the past year, a little less than that, actually. I don’t really know what made me pick up the phone. I’d been feeling rootless, I guess. Mom’s not much of a nurturer, as you can probably tell. She smokes too much, too.
    My own father has a different family with different, younger children who are much more talented than I, with better prospects of becoming someone, so dad and I don’t talk much beyond Merry Christmas. He’s never remembered my birthday. I don’t send him a Father’s Day card. That makes us even.
    If you’re a shrink, go ahead and tell me I’m looking for a father figure. Or do me a real favor and make sure Papa is ok while I run down to the corner and pick up a couple packs of Winstons for him.

    When he wakes up a little later, he’s back with it. The first thing he does is ask me for a smoke. I hate that I hesitate, influenced by that stupid phone call. I take out a fresh pack, and Papa watches me tear off the cellophane like a hungry diner watching a maître d' lift the lid from a silver platter. Before I tear off the top, he tells me to tamp the pack down. He tells me this every time. I lift out the first cigarette and hand it to him along with his silver Zippo.
    “Have one yourself, Sugar,” something else he tells me each time.
    “No thanks,” I say.
    “Prob’ly best. That’s how come I’m so sick. Ruins your sense of taste too, did you know that?”
    “I didn’t.”
    “Sure does. Got so I couldn’t taste what I was cooking at the restaurant. Had to go off memory. Nobody complained, ‘cept this one old feller from Michigan said I was trying to kill him. I don’t think he’d ever tasted cayenne. No one else said anything about it.”
    “You’re probably right about the cayenne, then.”
    “You like Cajun, Sugar?”
    “From what I’ve had here, yeah.”
    “Lemme give you something then.” He looks around the room. “Katie? Fetch me that book yonder.”
    “Mamiere’s gone, Papa.”
    He takes a drag from his cigarette as if he hasn’t heard me.
    “See that old book up there on that shelf? The first one on the left? You go get that and bring it over here. Please.”
    I cross the room to the bookshelf, maneuvering my way around islands of clutter. There are piles of newspapers, cardboard boxes closed and taped shut, faded advertisements for rum imprinted on the sides. Seventeen years of widowerhood has taken its toll.
    The binding is yellowed from cigarette tar, the red letters faded from age. It is a cookbook, one of dozens in this bookcase.
    “That’s the one, Shug. Bring it on over here.”
    I carefully make my way back to his bedside. He puts out his cigarette and takes the book from me.
    “Now. I wasn’t able to cook for you but once. You remember that, Shug?”
    “I do.”
    “You were just a little girl when your mama brought you and your brother on down here. You remember?”
    “Yes, Papa.”
    “Well good then.” He taps the cover of the cookbook. “This here book has my favorite recipe in it. When I’m gone, I want you to make it, ok?”
    “I can’t answer him for a few seconds. We both just look at the worn cover.
    “I want you to make it and remember me, y’all promise to do that?”
    I nod. “Which one is it?”
    “Well now, let me see.” The book opens with an audible creak. Some of the pages are food-stained, some are loose. He turns them slowly, with increasing difficulty as he tires. “I think it’s under appetizers.” He continues turning pages, pausing now and then to read the name of a recipe. He reaches the end of the section and tries salads next.
    “Do you remember what it’s called. Papa? Maybe we can find it in the index.”
    “It’s got avocadoes in it, and artichokes. Hey, Kate? What’s that dish I like so much?”
    She’s not here, Papa, remember?”
    “Kate? Show Paula here the recipe. You know the one.”
    I don’t know what to say while he keeps turning pages. Finally I ask him, “Avocadoes, artichokes. What else is in it?”
    “You put the artichokes into the avocado halves. There’s a sauce. Katie?”
    He begins coughing and Jenny looks in at us from the kitchen. I don’t know what to say to her, either. I take the book from him and he gives it up without protest. His coughing is bad, worse every day. When he finally stops, he’s looking at the crown molding again.
    “That old train,” he whispers. “Better catch that old train.”

    11 people left me a love letter:

    Blogger Irrelephant wrote in a love letter...

    Two things really caught at my mind, and both involved your attention to details:

    1) opening the cigarette pack; the mention of the cello and tamping the pack down. Smoking can become a deeply ingrained ritual, and that first crinkle of the cello coming off a new pack, that's powerful stuff. Tamping the pack before it's opened? A wonderful holdover from filterless cigarettes, to prevent wasted tobacco bits; something you obviously know, and something that an old man who smoked as a young man would no doubt remember.

    2) "Mamiere" Suddenly that young lady is one of my people--French. I've got a dear friend who still calls his departed mother "Mamiere." For me it evokes the genteel old South, and I have to wonder if Paula is maybe from New Orleans.

    Simple things to build powerful images. Brava!

    6:38 PM, November 29, 2006  
    Anonymous O wrote in a love letter...

    This seems to be a conglomeration of every faulty personality trait of every person you know (including me, but not at all like your grandfather). And I remember a few of the scenes quite clearly. At least you still have the cookbooks he gave you.
    O

    10:29 PM, November 29, 2006  
    Blogger Bud wrote in a love letter...

    This is some beautiful, skillful writing. You don't waste a word here. I'm captivated by the characters and the story. Dialog is very very good. I couldn't stop reading. Just smashing work. Tell me what you're gonna do with it. It's a beauty!

    8:57 AM, November 30, 2006  
    Blogger Nancy Dancehall wrote in a love letter...

    Thanks, Ir! I originally placed the story in New Orleans, but that was before Katrina. After the hurricane, I set this piece aside for over a year, to let some time pass and see if I should change the location.

    It actually has a happy ending, (the part that's still in my head) but because of Katrina and the horrible aftermath, the particular happy ending I had in mind might not work. And I don't think it would fly with a "this story takes place Pre-Katrina" disclaimer.

    So, Paula is not FROM New Orleans, but her papa is, as was her mamiere.

    Anyway, glad you liked it, and that it rings true to you. Living down there, you're my expert! :-)



    Huh? What faulty trait, O? That you smoke?


    Thanks, Bud. As I told Mr. Ir, I had set it aside due to Katrina, (yeah, and because I was still too close to certain elements)and I ran across it yesterday looking for something to post. I've been turning it in my head, and I think there _might_ be some life in it. We'll see. Thanks again!

    9:31 AM, November 30, 2006  
    Blogger Schmoopie wrote in a love letter...

    I want the recipe. I love avocadoes and artichokes. Wonderfully written. When I worked at hospice for clinicals, I was so angry at one very sick mans' daughter for going skiing instead of visiting her father in his final days. I was reminded, by a very thoughtful nurse, that maybe the man had been unkind to his daughter during her life and that we shouldn't judge how people react to death. Everyone is very different and each situation is unique. Your story reminded me of that conversation. It is an important one for me to remember!

    9:20 PM, November 30, 2006  
    Anonymous Anonymous wrote in a love letter...

    I do like a lot of the images, and the cigarette pack is a very nice one. The conversation between Mom and storyteller rings true.

    I do have one gentle critique, though. Having done some hospice nursing, and being present for several deaths and near-deaths, including my Nan's and Grandpa's...he doesn't sound like a dying man, and definitely not end-stage final-days dying. He's too lucid.

    It sounds like you're shooting for final-days, and the storyteller and the family stuff is great. A person in final days would be calling your storyteller 'Katie', not able to read, but would remember the recipie of the top of his head.

    And hospice nurses don't do dishes. :D
    /jo

    p.s. If he's dying of lung cancer (presumably), he's looking forward to that morphine a heckuva lot more than that cigarrette. Really.

    12:55 AM, December 02, 2006  
    Anonymous Anonymous wrote in a love letter...

    I know that this is mostly fiction, and built from snatches here and there from life.

    I do like a lot of the images, and the cigarette pack is a very nice one. The conversation between Mom and storyteller rings true.

    I have one critique that's meant gently, though. Having done some hospice nursing, and being present for several deaths and near-deaths, including my Nan's and Grandpa's...he doesn't sound like an end-stage final-few-days dying man.

    If your intent is that his hallucinations are those had by people actively dying, it feels like he's too either clearly 'here' or 'there' to me. The deaths I was present for, that line was very blurry for the dying person. If it's dementia you're goin for, which sounds a little more the bit with the trains, I wonder if he'd know who the storyteller was at all, or if he'd call her 'Katie'.

    That being said, maybe you're going for sooner than the-very-end. And everybody's death is different, and you may have known somebody whose moments of "here" and "not here" were that rapid of a switch.

    And, er. Maybe you knew a hospice nurse once to do the dishes.

    Er, I have never seen that. :D Unskilled aide that costs $50 - $75 less an hour, maybe. I haven't met a home care hospice RN without at least a bachelor's and 10 - 25 years of clinical expertise in critical care or periop.

    Dishes? When able bodied family is present? When she has seven other actively dying patients to visit that day?
    *blink* *blink* *flutter*
    /jo

    p.s. If he's dying of lung cancer (presumably), he'll want the cigarrette, but he might want the morphine even more. Really.

    4:30 AM, December 02, 2006  
    Blogger Nancy Dancehall wrote in a love letter...

    I do have the recipe, Schmoop, (unlike Paula) though it took some doing to find it. But now I need to dig out the box with the cookbook and endure some unpleasant smells reminiscent of a cheap French whorehouse.

    Jo, check your email. :-)

    4:44 PM, December 02, 2006  
    Blogger amusing wrote in a love letter...

    Orange Tangerine just posted a really nice memorial to her grandmother and the help of the hospice nurses at the end.

    9:25 PM, December 03, 2006  
    Anonymous Anonymous wrote in a love letter...

    You know what my honest to goodness response to this story is?

    Extrememly well written, with lovely pacing and nice images.

    Just enough of everything to draw you along as a reader...

    good dialogue...

    all the usual pats on the back...

    BUT--

    As a reader in a world full of writing, I feel like I am looking at a very nice and shiny train coming up the same old tracks...

    I feel like I've seen this story told many times before, and I wonder if it'll have enough spark to actually excite me in its reading?

    Know what I mean?

    The trouble with witing is that in describing a box, one can only come after it from so many angles. It gets harder and harder to find a new angle or way of looking or telling or depicting...

    And I am only this honest because you are such a good writer.

    Truly--

    8:31 PM, December 05, 2006  
    Blogger Nancy Dancehall wrote in a love letter...

    Thank you so much, Scott. I respect your opinion. I do have a twist or two in store for the story (it's not about 'coming to terms with death', or 'reuniting the family').

    I'm curious; what's your favorite book? Author?

    12:26 PM, December 06, 2006  

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