I’m leaking, they tell me. Leaving a trail of thawed out broth, hued like spicy mustard, in blotchy patterns behind me. One of the aides, bleached in milky attire, tells another not to leave my wheelchair outside when it rains, or else it starts to leak. He says that he did no such thing, and I can see their faces turn sour as the smell gains origin. More enamel white aides scurry into the room, towels in hand, as they push me toward the showers.
Alden-Gardens Senior Living, a day-care if you ask me. We all sit like the wrinkled bodies we are, waiting for the aides to tell us the day is over, waiting for our children-now-parents to pull up in their vans and blouses to bring us home. Except the days all blend into one and the children-now-parents only come to visit, and always leave alone. The staff are always quarreling over me. Like I’m an ex-president or something. The incoherent infant form of William H. Taft, hardly knowing the difference between eating and vomiting. They treat most of the patients this way, like children. Important children, who can’t possibly grow any older, so instead sloppily grow younger.
When I was first admitted a large portion of the staff recognized me. They called me Funny Man. They had seen me on television or read my books, and were always telling me to say something clever, or recite the one about the poodle and the liquor store, or the circus and the prostitute. One afternoon I told them that the best way to get a girl is by saying you have a long tongue and can breathe through your ears. They’ve been giddy ever since, swarming me like buzzards. I decided to study the other patients: trampled vegetables all some shade of purple, strewn across the day room like shriveled salmon, too far from the stream to even care. I found that if I myself played the desiccated eggplant I’d find some peace from the harassment. Spiritless peace, but peace nonetheless. So I shit on the floor and leave my dentures in the cafeteria. They haven’t told me to be funny since.
I can sense the remnants of sunrise still dancing around outside when the nurse comes in and instructs me to get ready to go to the dayroom. She tries to sound polite, but nothing is polite so early in the day. The other patients get awoken by thin nurses with blonde hair, or if they’re chubby they at least have hearty laughs. I receive a scratchy whisper from a short nurse with thick calves and facial palsy. She’s irritating in the same way mothers are with vacuums on a Saturday morning. She rips open the curtains and through a sideways grin tells me to be cheery. I want to tell her that parents always said not to make faces, but I decide not to watch her longer than I have to and wheel myself out.
Mornings in the dayroom are stale with the sporadic coughs and gags of men who can’t remember. The body awakening is a tedious process in the later years of a man’s life, and it can be seen in the grey routine of breakfast; the slosh piles of hash and granola rusting under eyes smeared shut with scabs. The gurgles don’t adjourn until about the time of lunch, only to start up again, and the cracks of oxidized joints reverberate through the halls like carnival rides just getting going.
I feel that on these colorless mornings I’m most capable of coming to grips with the stillness of life, as it is now ruthlessly presented to me. I often fall into a stupor, a sort of tired inertia where it all feels like another gig at the Ice House, or a cameo on ABC. It all feels so close and comforting in the numbness of the morning. This is until the nurse with facial palsy wheels me to the window. Each day I tell her I despise windows. They have too much authority over what I choose to look at. Each day she attempts a chuckle and tells me that she hasn’t heard me laugh since my arrival. She says that if the staff hadn’t shown her archived footage of my routines she would never have guessed I was a comedian.
At the window I’m decrepit. I feel as purple and congested as the rest of the wheeled-around carcasses. There is no more justifying my mileage. There are no more sets, or parodies, or punch-lines when peering out at long pines, springing from the ground like fingers and pointing to the sky. Grass as trimmed as army cuts makes me wonder if stages and microphones ever even existed.
I eyeball the nurse, her imperial regimentals starched frozen, rejecting the sunlight like a glacier. She is pacing the room with her face stuck in time, helping some of the more chronic patients with hand strengthening exercises. They squeeze their thumbs with their index fingers for a few seconds, before moving down the line. Switch hands and repeat. I wait for her to focus a bit more intently, so that I can wheel myself away, off to a corner as far from the window as the dayroom allows. It will only last a minute before she notices, walks over with as much of a smile as her half stiffened face permits, and wheels me back to the unchanging scene.
Finally I see her bend down to help the remains of a man clasp his skeleton finger. I begin to cycle the wheels, proving my hands are still strong enough, when a dull thud sends me flinching into my own arms. The sluggish thump is followed by another. I turn back to the window. This time the wallop has a face, along with a small black beak and two beads of wet ink for eyes. Another one follows, and this time I spot it from its descent atop a tall pine. It comes spiraling forward, wings erect and slicing through the air like a wrought iron discus. As it approaches the window it does not slow down. With all its force and frailty it collides with the invisible wall, pausing for one brief eternal snapshot before slugging down the glass like a frozen liquid. Some of the other patients have turned their heads to look. The nurse runs to tell another aide and instructs us to keep calm and proceed with the daily routine. I wheel myself forward, claiming my front row seat. Another heap of feathers takes off from the tree, following its companion in similar fashion. Though I’m expecting the hollow clunk, I still can’t help but flinch.
They’re raining down now, like BB’s into a magnifying glass, coordinated in their plunges. As the next one dives I can’t help but feel a stir in my diaphragm: a current almost, something electric charging in my rib cage. As the next one smacks the smudged glass I let out a bellow. A low snicker follows. By the time the next bird face plants itself in front of me I’m yawping like a madman, the current now a wave crashing through my insides. I wonder if the line of suicidal feather puffs is endless, and I cackle with authority. The nurse sends an aide outside and my maniacal howling brightens, smothering the sounds of fossilized joints and smacking lips. The nurse tells me to stop laughing. I can hear it in her voice that she’s frantic. The problem is I can’t stop. I can feel it circling through me, the circuits hard at work, dispatching the electrostatic tides to my stomach, my lungs, my heart, my brain. For the first time in a long while I remember what it’s all about. I’m practically convulsing when I feel her hand on my shoulder. She asks me to please stop, says I’m frightening the others. I can only respond in snorts and clucks. It’s not funny, she finally tells me. I tell her that she wouldn’t know funny if it made her face freeze.
She shuts the blinds immediately and locks my wheelchair in place. You’re not a funny man, she says. The energized jolts and giggles are still alive inside me, pulsating with the tired throbs, infused with my bloodstream in coiled wires running throughout. My voice rings out with laughter long after the dry collisions quiet, and the riled bunch of ghouls around me moan and dance along. Beneath my feet the stage is cold.