"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 cob.
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 McGuinty.
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.
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