Excerpt from Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Water for Elephants

A Novel

By Sara Gruen

Water for Elephants
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  • Hardcover: May 2006,
    335 pages.
    Paperback: May 2007,
    368 pages.

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In seventy years, I've never told a blessed soul.

One

I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.

When you're five, you know your age down to the month. Even in your twenties you know how old you are. I'm twenty-three, you say, or maybe twenty-seven. But then in your thirties something strange starts to happen. It's a mere hiccup at first, an instant of hesitation. How old are you? Oh, I'm—you start confidently, but then you stop. You were going to say thirty-three, but you're not. You're thirty-five. And then you're bothered, because you wonder if this is the beginning of the end. It is, of course, but it's decades before you admit it.

You start to forget words: they're on the tip of your tongue, but instead of eventually dislodging, they stay there. You go upstairs to fetch something, and by the time you get there you can't remember what it was you were after. You call your child by the names of all your other children and finally the dog before you get to his. Sometimes you forget what day it is. And finally you forget the year.

Actually, it's not so much that I've forgotten. It's more like I've stopped keeping track. We're past the millennium, that much I know—such a fuss and bother over nothing, all those young folks clucking with worry and buying canned food because somebody was too lazy to leave space for four digits instead of two—but that could have been last month or three years ago. And besides, what does it really matter? What's the difference between three weeks or three years or even three decades of mushy peas, tapioca, and Depends undergarments?

I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other.

EITHER THERE'S BEEN an accident or there's roadwork, because a gaggle of old ladies is glued to the window at the end of the hall like children or jailbirds. They're spidery and frail, their hair as fine as mist. Most of them are a good decade younger than me, and this astounds me. Even as your body betrays you, your mind denies it.

I'm parked in the hallway with my walker. I've come a long way since my hip fracture, and thank the Lord for that. For a while it looked like I wouldn't walk again—that's how I got talked into coming here in the first place—but every couple of hours I get up and walk a few steps, and with every day I get a little bit farther before feeling the need to turn around. There may be life in the old dog yet.

There are five of them now, white-headed old things huddled together and pointing crooked fingers at the glass. I wait a while to see if they wander off. They don't.

I glance down, check that my brakes are on, and rise carefully, steadying myself on the wheelchair's arm while making the perilous transfer to the walker. Once I'm squared away, I clutch the gray rubber pads on the arms and shove it forward until my elbows are extended, which turns out to be exactly one floor tile. I drag my left foot forward, make sure it's steady, and then pull the other up beside it. Shove, drag, wait, drag. Shove, drag, wait, drag.

The hallway is long and my feet don't respond the way they used to. It's not Camel's kind of lameness, thank God, but it slows me down nonetheless. Poor old Camel—it's been years since I thought of him. His feet flopped loosely at the end of his legs so he had to lift his knees high and throw them forward. My feet drag, as though they're weighted, and because my back is stooped I end up looking down at my slippers framed by the walker.

It takes a while to get to the end of the hall, but I do—and on my own pins, too. I'm pleased as punch, although once there I realize I still have to find my way back.

They part for me, these old ladies. These are the vital ones, the ones who can either move on their own steam or have friends to wheel them around. These old girls still have their marbles, and they're good to me. I'm a rarity here—an old man among a sea of widows whose hearts still ache for their lost men.

From Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. © 2006 by Sara Gruen. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

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