A Hell of a Place


An idle mind is the Devil’s playground, and the Devil’s name is Alzheimer. ~ The Corpus Callosum Treatise

Donald Conrad

A Hell of a Place

The only thing keeping Alice from walking into the room is a narrow white mesh barrier attached to the doorframe with Velcro. She hangs a hand on it as though she is a visiting neighbor ready for some gossip at a common white picket fence. With her shock of curly grey hair and big round manic eyes she could pass as Harpo Marx’s twin sister. She says nothing.

Your mother rests quietly, eyes closed and mouth open. She has a blanket over her. She still has her sneakers on so if she does try to get up on her own later, her otherwise socked feet will not slip on the tiled floor.

Far down the hall an alarm buzz goes off sounding like a larger version of the one found in the game Operation. A computerized male voice announces, “Door alert — please respond. Door alert — please respond.” The announcement is made again and your mind allows it to fade to unintelligible white noise; one of the patients wearing a proximity bracelet has wandered too far.

Brought to audible prominence is the light howl of wind which sounds eerily like pigeons cooing; followed by the clatter of dried leaves.

Your attention is drawn down the hall by the woman whose face was fashioned of piss and vinegar. She yells angrily to the staff at the nurses’ station, “I want my husband. Where is my husband? I want my husband, you fucks.”

You mother’s face doesn’t even flinch. There was a time she would have gone into a tirade over the use of that word. Now, though, she appears peaceful.

She looks…laid out in presentation.

Alice is still at the doorway. A gremlin climbs her like a capuchin monkey. It is gray, hairless and sexless with a grin full of needle teeth. Sitting on Alice’s shoulder, it reaches in with its small little hand and scoops out some of Alice’s memories. It eats quietly. Alice nods at you with her big eyes and silly grin. The gremlin climbs back down, looks about, then saunters away.

Mom never used to take afternoon naps. She was always too busy tidying up. Only a few years ago she could be found in her own kitchen, putting jelly in the cupboard with the coffee mugs and clean plates from the dishwasher into the refrigerator. But that was just ma being ma. Now you have to ask on visits, “Ma, do you know who I am?” Otherwise she just thinks you’re one of the nice ones on the staff. Eye contact is imperative, or she’ll think you’re another of those imaginary voices.

Helena walks past the doorway, arms motionless at her sides. Barely bulbous sacks hang from her chest, unrestrained under her pull-over like ballast for a hot-air balloon. She stops at the doorway across the hall and peers into that room. She leans in, bending stiffly at the waist. She nods. She could be nodding at someone or something only she sees or at her own internal babble. Helena doesn’t speak; she only nods affirmatively.

Mom does that. Ask her anything and she’ll mostly agree. It’s her last act of defiance; a feeble attempt to cover up what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t know a lot these days. But she has the Lord on her side. She’s filled her life with catch-phrases like; for heaven’s sake, good Lord, and Jesus is wonderful. She has always exuded goodness in her own la-la way, so it came as a bit of shock to hear her use the word ‘shit’ in a sentence recently.

The gremlins eat the goodness first. It only makes sense that the goodness should be the most appealing. In a lunch-box full of angel food cakes and, say, liver, the cake would go first. The rest would only go as a way to subsist.

Heading toward the door with the keypad—456 pound; a code the patients could never figure out—you pass the nurses’ station. Patients congregate like zombies waiting for the next thing—eat, sleep, shit, or pills. You wonder what it is about them all that they carry the chains they’ve forged in life so soon. That might not be it at all. But if it is, then Jacob Marley has nothing on these people.

Gremlins crawl all over the patients in the day room. The television is on but a lot of the old timers are staring above it. Four gremlins are arms-over-shoulders doing the can-can in tempo with the Ed Sullivan recording someone has set up—a VHS tape.

You watch as one of the gremlins scoop out some memories from one and deposit them in another; share and share alike.

One of the patients is walking with difficulty because a gremlin has its arms wrapped above the knee and its legs wrapped below the knee.

A nurse has a small paper cup with pills which she has a woman swallow with water from another cup. You’re at the proper angle to see the gremlin hiding so that when she throws the pills back, he gets them. He chews three times before being nearly drown with the water.

Thank God mom doesn’t spend much time in the day room. She prefers to walk her wheelchair around humming songs she doesn’t know the words to any longer. She seems happy enough. That’s important.

In the parking lot you fob your car door lock. Before you get in you shoo away one of the gremlins, pointing back to the facility. He walks back, head down and arms dangling.

You drive off and wonder how long they’ll obey.


13 thoughts on “A Hell of a Place

  1. soesposito

    “A lunchbox full of angelfood cakes…” love this line, so perfect. I think I felt the sadness more because your protag was such a detached observer (detached emotionally, I mean). His acceptance of the situation underlined how futile fighting or denying his mother’s demise really would be. Heartbreaking. The gremlins were a wonderful touch. Sort of reminded me of one of my favorite now defunct shows: Dead Like Me.

  2. Linda

    “She looks laid out in presentation.”

    Isn’t AD like that, a monumental death? Very strong stuff here. I can tell you know this, you write it with such conviction and empathy. Peace, Linda

  3. David Shrock

    You write second person perspective well. Often I run away when I see ‘you’ and ‘your’ as too many read like poor marketing pitches. Limiting the second person references helps ease the reading. The brief sentence structure and event descriptions create a nice rhythm, and enhances the mood of this subject matter. A strong piece.

    1. donaldconrad Post author

      You know… I was waiting for someone to make a comment on the use of second person. I felt as though I had gotten away with something. Thank you for your kind words.

  4. J. M. Strother

    I agree with David. It is very hard to write convincing second person. I usually avoid reading it and try very hard not to write it. But it really did work in this piece. The reason I think it worked well (aside from your fine writing) is that the theme is SO universal, be it Alzheimer’s or some other equally devastating degenerative disease, virtually everyone can identify with it. So when you use second person it is a much more personal use of ‘you’. Good match for this type of piece.

  5. Mear Conrad

    Of all your stories, this one moved me most. Your words paint such a vivid picture of the cruelty and unfairness of this miserable disease. I have read and reread and no matter how many times, I find myself in tears at the end. As you know, my Mom’s “goodness” was her ability to play the piano. That was the first thing the gremlins took. From concert pianist status to an inability to read music. And yet she continues to “pretend play” on her BEDSIDE table …far away from the dayroom.

  6. Dan Powell

    An original way to deal with such a strong theme. Your use of the ‘gremlins’ as metaphor works really well. Some very strong imagery throughout. Thought-provoking and affecting. Great piece.

  7. Pingback: I Just Keep Moving « DonaldConrad's Blog

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