Since it inspired the name of this blog, here’s an excerpt of the short story Vodka & Sauerkraut. It was written quite a few years ago, when my writing style was a little younger, so to speak, and I’m fighting the urge to edit and revise as I copy it into this post. Remind me to write about that later – being a constant revisionist. It comes with the territory.
Here are the first couple sections of the story. Enjoy.
Vodka & Sauerkraut
Had I thought of it, I could’ve counted the time by the growth of the tiny cracks in the wood that makes up my windowsill, the years’ passing into a downward spiral etched into the green paint. One winter, a hairy spider lived in the center, where all the little cracks came together. But then it died. Margaret killed it with my cane.
Summer is the worst. The sun shines right in my window and dries the wood even more. The cracks grow faster and sometimes little slivers of green come off. Good for my philodendron, the sun. The only plant I can keep alive. A hardy bastard, that one.
And now I pass my days at the window, watching the cars outside always driving back and forth but never really getting anywhere. As if it weren’t bad enough I laid there on the church floor with my bloomers blaring big and white for all the congregation to see, my shattered hip cemented to the floor like tuna casserole to the bottom of a cake pan. If Jeremiah—my son—had been in church to help me into the aisle, this wouldn’t have happened. My hip wouldn’t have broke and I’d still be at the farm, watching the wheat fields instead of this damn window. But here I am, forced to eat three squares a day, and people always ask about my bowels.
During the day I watch the cars outside. Once, I saw a cat get run over while it was crossing the street. A white one, too. Have you ever seen a white cat get run over by a Studebaker? There’re not white for long, I’ll tell you that much. I watch Bob Barker on the television just before lunch. In the afternoons I sit by the window to watch the tumbling clouds, the treetops lush and full in the summer, then the first frost, bare branches shivering in the northern wind.
Suppertime can get pretty strange, when folks start their sundowning, and I go right back to my room. The ones who are already a little off slide a bit closer to the edge, hearing things, feeling things. But it’s no wonder, all the pills they pop into us old folks these days. I take mine at six. There’s one for this, and one for that, and this one’ll help you sleep at night, and this one gives you energy and makes your heart go thump. None for me, though. None of those that monkey with the mind. Just a couple of vitamins and something for my arthritis, which gets pretty bad on account of my hip.
The old folks can get pretty worked up. Calling out, an imagined conversation with inanimate objects and uninterested aides. And if you listen real close, it’s like music from the past, the ribbon of what was that tangles in the brain, frayed at the ends. It makes an electricity in the air that lifts the hairs on my back. On nights when it’s real bad, I leave the dayroom to spend the night in my room, alone save for the occasional nurse’s aid barging in on her rounds to make sure I’m still kicking. So far, I am.
“Ms. Opal?” Margaret knocks softly on my open door, three times.
“Yes?” I sit up on my elbow—wasn’t really sleeping—and reach for my glasses on the nightstand. Damn near blind without them. I pull myself up by the siderail on the bed and offer Margaret a tired smile.
She hands me my teeth and helps me swing my legs over the side of the bed. I like when Margaret works. She waters my philodendron without dripping on the bookcase, and sometimes she sits in my room with me to watch Lawrence Welk. Sits right there on my corduroy couch while the rest of the aides do the rounds. Laziness, if you ask me. Her hair’s always funny, too. Dyed two colors. But she doesn’t get too excited about anything, and I like her just fine.
Margaret holds out my wool sweater and tells me it’s time for supper. I prefer my housedress. Who the hell goes to supper in a slip and a sweater? Those loonies might, but I won’t. Not me. No siree.
“We’re having turkey and mashed potatoes tonight,” she says. “And apple crisp.”
“Whoopee.” I grab the cane leaning on my siderail and hoist myself up. Used to be taller, back in the day, walking upright and proud through the halls of my school, shiny chestnut hair raining down my back. Now I’m a shell, curled inward and looking forward to nothing because I already know.
I tell Margaret, “We have that same crap at least three times a week. It’s just that sometimes they call it something else,” I tell her. “Like that turkey hotdish when they take the same old dry potatoes and the brick of stuffing and mush it together.”
Margaret laughs and her smile shows the gap in her front teeth. I grin, then pop my teeth in and chomp them together. She seems to think it’s pretty funny. To me it sounds like banging a couple of butterdishes together. I settle into my housedress and follow her into the dining area. I stop next to the chair furthest from the piano—only two big pillars and a few tables to separate me from Bertha wailing “Remember the Red River Valley” as she accompanies herself on the piano, her fingers bent and shaped like bolts of lightening.
Margaret pulls the chair out for me. The little old lady with the white hair, white sweater, and glasses. That’s all of us. And I take my pills at six, at the table.
From the dining room I hear, “Vodka and sauerkraut! The spices of life!” Phyllis. She gets stuck on a phrase and says it all day, chanting it again and again, a nursery rhyme with no apparent rhythm, flat and familiar like the food they serve. It’s funny like that. There’s hardly a one of us that’s ever done anything wrong, and here we are, inmates on death row with nothing but three hot meals, a rubber mattress to sleep on, and a pot to piss in. If you’re real lucky, you get one by your bed so you don’t have to get up at night.
Margaret helps Clarence sit down across from me. He lives down the hall, close to the nurse’s station. The poor old fellow wanders for hours, searching for his wife, Irene. He calls her name all the time, short and quick like a dog’s command, then a drawn out plea—Irene! But she had passed giving birth to their only child. Lucky for him he doesn’t remember that.
“Goddammit ya wh-whore!” Rose’s raspy voice rises over the dirge of activity, the rattle of pills in the medicine cart, the splashes of juice spilled on the floor, the urgency of call lights down the hall.
“I do not have to sit here, you. You floozy,” Rose erupts again.
Margaret smiles across the tables at the other aide, a gesture of support. A kind soul, that Margaret. The aide, a plump young woman with her bangs in her eyes—how I hate that—pushes Rose up to the table and backs away, blushing. But Rose keeps at her. And the worst part of it is that my ears have become accustomed to her foul mouth, and I dare say that sort of behavior no longer strikes me as odd.
“—seven kids and three dead husbands. Took care of them all by myself!” Rose is never too clear how many kids she had, five, seven. Once she even said ten. “And look at you! Still wet behind the ears, telling me when to sit, sleep, eat, and shit!”
But none of the aides are around to hear that sour old Rose, and she’s not hollering at me, or even looking my way, but sort of up and to her left, her toothless mouth twisted into a grimace, as if a little angel or, more likely for her, a devil, sits upon her shoulder, and she disagrees with its counsel.
Sometimes the past, well, it just comes up and takes a little bite out of the present, steals little slices of time and replaces them with things that have already happened, in a different life, a newer life. Some of those old timers don’t even know their own kids anymore. I swore I wouldn’t know Jeremiah no more, until he got me my private room. At first I was thrown into a room with a miserable old bat who did nothing but complain about her arthritis or her gout or the corns on her scaly feet or the rash on her be-hind. You get the idea. A person could get old sitting here naming all the things that’ve gone wrong with old Ethel Schlightenburg. So I told Jeremiah I’d dissolve the trust and leave everything to the pet shelter downtown if he didn’t see to it that I got a private room. I would have done it, too.
Margaret is over by the piano, passing out trays of turkey slop. She ducks her head quick to dodge a spoonful of mashed potatoes. Amos always throws his food. Crabby old bastard.
The nurse starts to walk toward my table, shaking pills in a medicine cup. I wonder what’s in the dixie cup in her other hand—juice or water. Either way, they never give you enough drink to swallow your horsepills. Mine come at six. About three or four of them, two blue, one red, and one purple. And sometimes a white one, too, but mostly just at night.
It’s that young nurse tonight (so many come and go—talking about little Tommy’s first day at school, the evils of wayward men, the aide who threw her back out lifting old what’s-her-name—they go on talking like we can’t hear, or if we can, we can’t make sense of twentieth century speech anymore, like we crawled out of some giant abyss, a rip in the Great Ribbon, some black hole where our ways, our worth, don’t translate across the generations). And tonight it’s the young nurse with short, choppy brown hair pinned back at her ears. She’s got this look about her eyes that she really, really cares about the arthritis burning in your fingers, your bad hip, but you can tell her sympathy is a costume, as much as her pink lipstick and white uniform. It doesn’t stay white for long. Not when she walks past old Amos. But the mashed potatoes shouldn’t show too bad on her.
This nurse, she set the two little cups on the table in front of me, one with my pills and another filled halfway with amber liquid, either apple juice or a urine sample. Bad enough the cups are so small, but then they only fill them halfway. Won’t have to take us to the can as much then, I suppose, or change too many diapers. I don’t particularly care for this gal. The insincerity of her smiles of reassurance and her pats on the back almost offend me, leave a bitter taste in my mouth. She moves my long braid from my shoulder so that it dangles down my back. She always does that, as if I need it. I like it on my shoulder—it keeps my neck warm and I can’t reach that far behind my back on account of my stiff arms. So I sit here, in my chair, and suffer with a cold neck and the sight of Rose sloshing pureed turkey through her pink gums and onto her dry lips while she hollers at someone no one else can see.
I empty the pill cup. Colorful beads rolling around on the table. One is small and dark gray in color, the iron. It makes your poop black. Scares the dickens out of you the first time it happens. There’s a shiny red one that almost scooted itself right off and onto the floor, and two white ones that just spin in place on the tablecloth. The bright orange horsepill is all the vitamins in one, just to be safe. I take them at six. The prettiest one is half white and half blue, but there’s all kinds of tiny beads inside it, too. This one I slip into my pocket for after my supper. It goes down a little better with some decaf.