catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 12 :: 2011.06.24 — 2011.07.07


Not that different

“Emma, you’re late,” my manager says as I rush into the kitchen. “This is the third time in a week.”

“I know,” I answer, throwing an apron over my head. “I can’t say it won’t happen again.”

“Too honest for your own good.” She tosses me a ring of keys. “Emil hasn’t come out of his room yet today.”

“Again?” I ask.

“Yup. Last one here gets to check in on the ‘no-shows’.”

The kitchen door swings behind me as I walk out. The dining room is full. All over the age of 70 and all full of chatter and squawking. When I retire, this is the kind of place I’d like to live.

The keys jangle as I walk between the wheelchairs and walkers parked next to the tables.

“Yoo-hoo,” one of the residents sings. “Oh, Emma! Come on over here a minute.”

“Well, hello there, ladies,” I say. “How are you all on this lovely afternoon?”

“Fine,” Mildred says. “Say, did you hear about Violet? Oh, poor Violet was taken over to the nursing home last night. Terrible fall she had.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Between us, I think she did it on purpose. She was always complaining about things here. Maybe she thought it would be nicer in the other building.”

“Mildred, you stop that,” Rosetta scolds. “You know that Violet wouldn’t do that if her life depended on it.”

“I’ll make sure to check in on her after my shift,” I say. “I have to go check on Emil.”

“You know, he’d been acting very peculiar lately,” Mildred says. “Been forgetting his dentures at meals, can’t seem to get his thermostat to work in his apartment. Very strange.”

“Thanks for letting me know.”

The sound of conversation fades as I walk down the hall to Emil’s room. Beige walls, beige carpet, beige trim. My heart beats faster, faster. Two weeks ago our janitor found one of our residents dead in her rocking chair.

“Lord, please, don’t let Emil be dead,” I whisper. “Not today. Not for me to find.”

I reach his door. The rooms around his have decorations on the doors. Wreathes, photos, name plates. But Emil’s door is just plain. Nothing special. I slide the master key into the door lock.

Deep breath. Another small prayer. Turn the knob and push the door.

“Emil?” I peek my head in. “Emil, are you in here?”

No sound. Only intense heat. Muggy heat. And a smell that I can’t identify. I can’t catch my breath. It’s a mix of fear and hot air and stench. I have to walk in. This is my job.

“Emil,” my voice is louder, shakier. “I’m coming in now. I’m just here to check on you. Make sure you’re okay.”

The door stays open. I take a few steps in. My heart is pounding so hard I can hear it in my ears, see the pulsing in my eyes.


“You blasted girls think you can just come rushin’ in my room whenever you feel like it, don’t ya?” Emil says from his recliner. “Ain’t a man got a right to privacy no more?”

The smile that spreads across my face is one of relief and amusement. Emil is the grumpiest person I’ve ever met. And he makes me laugh.

“But, Emil, you haven’t been out of your room since last night. We were worried about you.”

“Who is that? I can’t see ya.” He puts on his glasses. “That my girl Emma? One with all the tattoos?”

“Yes. It’s Emma alright.”

“You know the only reason I remember your name? Cause it was my twin sister’s name. Emil and Emma.”

“How about that. Very cute.”

“But she’d never be seen with tattoos on her. Back in my day that meant you’d been in the Navy or you’d been a bad girl.” Emil looks at me sideways. “You been in the Navy?”

“Oh, no,” I laugh. “Not a bad girl, either.”

 “Too bad.”

I stand, looking at him. His back is curved so that he’s hunched uncomfortably. His skin is covered with liver spots and sores. He’s in need of a shave — and from the smell of him, a good bathing.

“Emil, does anyone from your family check on you?”

“You know, when I was a boy, my granddad lived with us. We had a house right in the city. Barely enough room for us. But we moved things around so we could take care of him.”

“That’s very kind.”

“Back then families took care of each other. None of this moving across the country stuff like today. Kids these days just don’t want the burden of their parents.”

I sit on the ottoman next to his chair.

“I’m sorry about that.”

“You know, my boy just never needed me like I needed my folks. And he don’t seem to need the church no more either. You go to church?”

“I do.”

“The girl with all them tattoos going to church.” He looks at me again, pulls down his eyebrows. “They nice to you there, anyway?”

“My husband’s the youth pastor. And he has more tattoos than I do.”

“My goodness.” He laughs. “Bet you sing all them new guitar and drum songs.”

“We do have contemporary music.”

“I miss the old songs.” His rusty baritone surprises me, “On a hill far away…”

He sings the whole song. His voice getting stronger, clearer as he goes. At the end he smiles. I can tell there’s a memory behind that look on his face. I hold his hand.

“That was beautiful, Emil.”

“My wife loved that song. Had it played at her funeral. She was a good woman. Never worked outside our home. Put up with my troubles after the war. Loved our Lord no matter what happened. A good, good woman. Far better than I deserved.”

He has a faraway look in his eyes.

“I’d like to see a picture of her, if I can.”

“On that side table there.” He points a crooked finger to a frame.

A black and white picture is held in place behind the glass. A younger Emil, cradling a baby with one arm, the other arm around a petite woman. They are squinting in the sunlight and wearing smiles.

“She was beautiful.”

“We wanted a whole household full of kids. God just didn’t see fit to give them to us.” Emil inhales. “I miss her terribly.”

He’s lonely. He misses his wife. His son. His youth.

“Emil, are you hungry?”

“I ain’t been hungry since she died. You know that?”

“But you need to eat.”

“Emma, the world’s the same as it was when I was your age.”

“You think so?”

“It’s just full of people who’re trying to figure out how to love and survive. Seems every generation thinks they got it figured out better than their parents. They wear different clothes, do new things to their hair, change the music. But they’re all the same. And they all need grace just as much as anybody else.”

Emil has a good 50 years on me. He’s lived through more suffering than I will probably ever know. He’s a veteran, a widower, abandoned by his son. I struggle to know how we are anything alike.

“Why don’t you just have someone bring me a tray of food. I paid for it. Might as well have the pleasure of throwing it in the trash.” Emil closes his eyes. “Don’t worry, Emma. I ain’t gonna die today.”

Standing up, I lean over and kiss Emil’s cheek. He winces and then smiles.

“Bless you, Emil,” I say.

“Enjoy your day, Emma. Life goes too fast to be miserable.”

I close his door behind me, checking the lock.

Walking away, an old hymn stuck in my head, I realize he’s right. We’re not that different after all.

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