Excerpt of Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
(Page 4 of 7)
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"Oh, here," clucks Hazel. "Let's give Jacob a look."
She pulls Dolly's wheelchair a few feet back and shuffles
up beside me, clasping her hands, her milky eyes flashing. "Oh, it's so
exciting! They've been at it all morning!"
I edge up to the glass and raise my face, squinting
against the sunlight. It's so bright it takes a moment for me to make out what's
happening. Then the forms take shape.
In the park at the end of the block is an enormous canvas
tent, thickly striped in white and magenta with an unmistakable peaked top
My ticker lurches so hard I clutch a fist to my chest.
"Jacob! Oh, Jacob!" cries Hazel. "Oh dear! Oh dear!" Her
hands flutter in confusion, and she turns toward the hall. "Nurse! Nurse! Hurry!
It's Mr. Jankowski!"
"I'm fine," I say, coughing and pounding my chest. That's
the problem with these old ladies. They're always afraid you're about to keel
over. "Hazel! I'm fine!"
But it's too late. I hear the squeak-squeak-squeak of
rubber soles, and moments later I'm engulfed by nurses. I guess I won't have to
worry about getting back to my chair after all.
"SO WHAT'S ON the menu tonight?" I grumble as I'm steered
into the dining room. "Porridge? Mushy peas? Pablum? Oh, let me guess, it's
tapioca isn't it? Is it tapioca? Or are we calling it rice pudding tonight?"
"Oh, Mr. Jankowski, you are a card," the nurse says
flatly. She doesn't need to answer, and she knows it. This being Friday, we're
having the usual nutritious but uninteresting combination of meat loaf, creamed
corn, reconstituted mashed potatoes, and gravy that may have been waved over a
piece of beef at some point in its life. And they wonder why I lose weight.
I know some of us don't have teeth, but I do, and I want
pot roast. My wife's, complete with leathery bay leaves. I want carrots. I want
potatoes boiled in their skins. And I want a deep, rich cabernet sauvignon to
wash it all down, not apple juice from a tin. But above all, I want corn on the
Sometimes I think that if I had to choose between an ear
of corn or making love to a woman, I'd choose the corn. Not that I wouldn't love
to have a final roll in the hayI am a man yet, and some things never diebut
the thought of those sweet kernels bursting between my teeth sure sets my mouth
to watering. It's fantasy, I know that. Neither will happen. I just like to
weigh the options, as though I were standing in front of Solomon: a final roll
in the hay or an ear of corn. What a wonderful dilemma. Sometimes I substitute
an apple for the corn.
Everyone at every table is talking about the circusthose
who can talk, that is. The silent ones, the ones with frozen faces and withered
limbs or whose heads and hands shake too violently to hold utensils, sit around
the edges of the room accompanied by aides who spoon little bits of food into
their mouths and then coax them into masticating. They remind me of baby birds,
except they're lacking all enthusiasm. With the exception of a slight grinding
of the jaw, their faces remain still and horrifyingly vacant. Horrifying because
I'm well aware of the road I'm on. I'm not there yet, but it's coming. There's
only one way to avoid it, and I can't say I much care for that option either.
The nurse parks me in front of my meal. The gravy on the
meat loaf has already formed a skin. I poke experimentally with my fork. Its
meniscus jiggles, mocking me. Disgusted, I look up and lock eyes with Joseph
He's sitting opposite, a newcomer, an interlopera
retired barrister with a square jaw, pitted nose, and great floppy ears. The
ears remind me of Rosie, although nothing else does. She was a fine soul, and
he'swell, he's a retired lawyer. I can't imagine what the nurses thought a
lawyer and a veterinarian would have in common, but they wheeled him on over to
sit opposite me that first night, and here he's been ever since.
From Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen. © 2006 by Sara Gruen. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.