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       Unspeakable, p.8

           Erika Rummel
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IT MAKES NO sense staying in the dark and cold on my own. I might as well go back to the cabin up the road, crawl under the duvet and sleep. I’m terribly tired all of a sudden, especially when I think of the long trek back. I wish I had taken up Luis’ offer of a blanket, to wrap around my shoulders.

  I step into the cold night and don’t look back. There is nothing left of Luis in the broken-back cabin.

  As I trudge along, I mouth the words Luis said to me tonight and add them to yesterday’s words. I have to memorize them. They are my new prayer. When I get to the part where Luis told me about wanting to be a social worker, and I started telling him about the nursing home, I can’t go on. I don’t want to reach the end of the story, Jaime picking him up, the two of us kissing good bye. Instead I think about the story I never got around to telling Luis, about Ernie Bassman at the nursing home.

  On Thursdays, my mom works late and can’t have dinner ready for me when I come back from the warehouse. To make up for it, she bends the rule about eating fast food. I’m allowed to go to McDonald’s and have a Big Mac and fries. So that’s where I am one Thursday afternoon, enjoying the calorie overload.

  A woman comes in pushing an old man in a wheelchair and parks him at the table next to mine. He looks like a wizened beast. His ears and nostrils are hairy crevices. His body is disjointed, as if his legs were just hanging off his hip bones. In his eyes there is pain. It’s something worse than physical pain. It’s despair, sucking at his eyelids and making them droop.

  I can’t take my eyes off him sitting in the wheel chair. His mouth is crooked, the left side of his face frozen into a grimace. His arms stir and start working under the blanket in his lap. The woman who is with him lifts off the blanket, and his hands emerge. They are seamed with blue veins and tremble. He tilts his head in silent inquiry, and she hands him his hamburger, with the wrap neatly folded back, ready for him to take a bite.

  “Here, grandpa,” she says. “Your favourite. Double cheese.”

  He says nothing in reply. I watch him discreetly, my fellow mute.

  After a while, the woman takes her purse and tells him that she has to go to the washroom. Squeezing between our two tables, she eyes me, checks me out for reliability.

  “Would you mind keeping an eye on my grandfather,” she says. “Just so he won’t feel lonely.”

  “Sure,” I say.

  “Thanks,” she says. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

  I go over to his table, ready to catch him in case he falls out of his wheelchair. He stops eating and eyes me. I introduce myself.

  “I’m Melanie Swan,” I say.

  He makes an awkward movement with his neck, a convulsive start and brings out a sharp ER sound. He takes a breath and makes another sound, like ERNN. I think: maybe he’s trying to say his name.

  “Aaron?” I say. “Earl? Eric?”

  A glimmer of hope appears in his sunken eyes and a lopsided smile that says Keep going! But I’ve run out of guesses, and the smile gives way to a sullen expression – something like disgust for the world. His lips tremble. He clenches his teeth. His case is worse than mine. He can’t say anything even if he wants to.

  “I’ll ask you granddaughter when she comes back,” I say and take his hand.

  He grips mine and makes a low rumbling noise, an urgent demand for I don’t know what. The power of speech? It’s unnerving, the way he gloms on to me and looks at me with pleading eyes, pale circles around his irises. I can’t say no to his eyes. They make me care in a willing-to-sign-a-petition way.

  His granddaughter returns, and he lets go of my hand. She tells me his name: Ernie Bassman.

  “He enjoys his outings,” she says. “I’d like to visit him more often, but I live in San Diego.”

  “I could take him on outings,” I say in spite of myself. There is something in Ernie’s unwillingness to surrender to speechlessness that fascinates me. Reason kicks in and argues: you don’t want to spend your time with an old geezer. But I’m too far gone to listen to reason. Ernie has the allure of a horror film. I want to close my eyes, but I can’t. I’m hooked and want to know how the ominous scene will end. Will he be saved by a miracle? A volcano is shaking his body. Will the magma in his mind cool, condense, and crystallize into words?

  “We could go on outings together, Mr. Bassman,” I say, and he nods breathlessly.

  “It’s very nice of you to offer,” his granddaughter says. “They’re always looking for volunteers at the Home. You want me to introduce you to the administrator?”

  I go back with them to the Home, pushing my bike. It’s only two blocks from McDonald’s.

  The administrator asks how old I am and whether I have any experience volunteering.

  “No,” I say, “but I think I can push Mr. Bassman to McDonald’s and back. It can’t be that difficult.”

  She smiles and says their volunteers are generally older. In any case, my parents will have to agree to the arrangement. She gives me a form for them to sign and takes down my name and phone number. I give her my real name and make up a phone number on the spot. Marlene, Ernie Bassman’s granddaughter, has to sign another form.

  After all the paperwork is done, and after I return the form, on which I’ve faked my mother’s signature, Ernie and I are allowed to go to McDonald’s once a week. Marlene has left meal vouchers for us, and we develop a routine. We eat a Quarter Pounder with cheese, fries, and a coke, then we go back to the Home, sit in one corner of the lounge, and I read the paper to Ernie, or an article from a magazine. I read mechanically, discreetly watching his mouth. It moves as if he were chewing the cud. He is coaxing ideas forward, but he can’t spit out the words. They get stuck somewhere on the way from his brain to his tongue. I wonder if inside his head there is a pool of quicksand that sinks ideas before they have a chance to develop into words. I want to know the route his ideas are taking, where they are intercepted. Ernie is a good specimen to watch. Normally ideas move along secret pathways. Their progress is hidden from sight, but in Ernie’s case everything happens on the surface. The ideas make a brief show on his twitching face, percolate through his shaking hands, and evaporate, hanging heavily in the air. I’m afraid to breathe. Ernie’s speechlessness may be contagious. I keep my distance from him. I don’t give him another chance to grip my hand, but I can’t get away from his eyes. He gives me a look as if he wanted to steal something from me. What if he pulls off a heist of words? His concave chest heaves with the desire to act. Sometimes I have to stop reading. The words fly around in circles. Ernie is stirring them like a witches’ brew. I squirm, but I can’t get out from under his ancient spell. I bate my breath, withholding consent, but my will plummets, waiting for a catastrophe (me going silent) and a miraculous reversal (him going vocal).

  The nurse on duty tells me that Ernie has self-published a book of poetry. She fetches the book from his room. I read the poems, but Ernie doesn’t perk up. I guess he’s heard the poems often enough in his head. They do nothing for me either. They are maudlin stuff, thank God, or I’d be lost. I’d give up my word power to him.

  “Does he want to read any other books?” I say to the nurse.

  “Let’s ask him,” she says, and brings out an alphabet board, on which Ernie can spell words by pointing to the letters. The nurse holds his elbow to keep his arm level, and he taps out: PROUST. The nurse and I look at each other. We can’t figure it out. Is it a spelling mistake? Does he mean “browse”? “Prose”? Ernie wrinkles his brow and adds AUTHOR. Oh, the nurse says, it’s a name. We are still not sure what to do, and he taps out a bit more: TITLE REMEMBRANCE. He rests, looks at us rheumy-eyed and taps again: MY ROOM. So that’s what he wants: a book in his room by Proust, entitled Remembrance. The nurse goes and returns with a volume.

  “It’s called Remembrance of Things Past. It’s a set of six books. I got you this one for a start. It will last you a while.”

  It has 598 pages and a strange subtitle: “In the Budding Grove.” It’s not much of a story, but Pro
ust and I are on the same wavelength. “Our frail self is the only habitable place for memories,” he says. That’s what I meant when I said to Luis: if you share your memories, they become polluted. Proust takes hold of me. I’m slipping away from Ernie’s grip.

  He is impatient and directs me to go forward in the book, first to one passage and then another, picking his favourite parts. None of them has a good story line, but some of the ideas could have come straight out of my head, for example, that it’s difficult “to calculate the extent to which our words and gestures are apparent to others.” That’s exactly how I feel. I’m never sure that I’m making myself clear, or that I understand other people’s meaning. It’s a lot of guesswork. I listen to them stringing together words. I understand each one of them, but I don’t know what they add up to collectively. It’s like doing a puzzle. I sort through the pieces, I check the words against the gestures and facial expressions of the speaker and think of all the combinations in which the words could appear. I look for a fit, a possible meaning, but it doesn’t always work out. And another thing I have in common with Proust: “Interlocutors control my choice of words,” he says. So I’m not the only one who falls in line! It’s good to see on paper what’s happening in other people’s minds, and even better to read what you’ve only half guessed, an idea that keeps slipping sideways, refusing to gel, and suddenly you see it there, in a book: the author has said it for you, quite naturally and easily. I calm down. Ernie pales beside Proust.

  One day when I arrive at the nursing home to pick up Ernie, the administrator comes out of her office and says we need to talk. Once we are inside, she puts her hand on my arm and says:

  “I have bad news, Melanie. Mr. Bassman had a stroke on Friday. I tried to phone you, but the gentleman answering the phone said he didn’t know anything about you volunteering. Do I have the correct number?”

  She shows me the fake number she has on file.

  I look at it. “The last two digits are inverted,” I say. “It should be 21, not 12.”

  “That explains it then,” she says.

  “Can I visit Mr. Bassman in hospital?” I say. The words are out of my mouth before I can repress them. Why would I want to see Ernie in hospital? Here is my chance to get away from him. But he still has power over me, and pity reinforces it.

  The administrator hesitates a little, and looks at me strangely. “There’s more bad news,” she says. “He suffered a stroke on Friday, as I said, and on Sunday he passed away. His granddaughter would like you to phone her. She wants to thank you in person for making Mr. Bassman’s last weeks so pleasant. She asked me to give you this.”

  She hands me an envelope with a thank-you card and a gift certificate from Barnes & Nobles.

  “I would like to thank you, too,” she says. “We really appreciate volunteers like you, Melanie. I hope you’ll continue with us.”

  “I’m not sure I can,” I say. “I’m just not–” I trail off.

  “I understand,” she says. “You need time to grieve, but when you are ready to come back, we’d be very happy to assign you to someone else.”

  No, I can’t help anyone. I know I’ve failed Ernie. He wanted me to unravel the knot of his unspoken ideas. They were suffocating him. That’s why he was chewing and chewing. They were stuck in his throat, a tumorous growth blocking his breath, but I couldn’t help him. The way he looked at me, snatching at the words coming out of my mouth – he was draining my supply, little by little. One day my words would have run out. Ernie died just in time. I got away. That’s what I meant when I said to Luis: I want to help people, but I don’t think I have what it takes.

  I used the gift certificate from Barnes & Nobles to buy In the Budding Grove. I have no real use for the book. I doubt I’ll go on reading it by myself. It’s a memento – like the radio Luis got from his abuelo. But in spite of the book sitting on my shelf, Ernie is slowly decaying in my memory. His face was on the brink of departure when I recalled it. The Ernie episode isn’t a good memory, but anything is better than thinking of Luis kissing me good-bye and going away.

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