“An Ordinary Orderly” by Laurie B. Ludmer

Laurie B. Ludmer


I’m sixty-two now
been working in a nursing home.
It’s not really a home,
and I’m not a nurse.
I’ve worked here for almost thirty years.
I’ve seen lots of people come,
and you know,
there’s only one way they go.

Most of the folks here are white.
Wrinkled, even scrawny you could say.
Hands all bony and such.
Age spots they call ’em.
Their hair is thin, gray or barely there.
Just a bit of white fuzz on top.
Or sometimes it’s not there at all.
I remember when I first started here,
the bald ones sort of gave me the willies.
I’ve been at funeral homes where the dead folk were better looking.
I’m used to it now.
Second nature you could say.

I push carts stacked with trays of food.
Boiled chicken, boiled potatoes, boiled soup,
chocolate pudding, rice pudding, peach cobbler, apple pie, tea, coffee.
I hear their daughters call it motel food.
Never being in a motel, I don’t know.
Kinda smells like the soul’s been boiled right out of it.
Sure ain’t smelling like nothing I cook.

I take the trays into their rooms.
A bed, a chair or two and then their bureaus.
Those bureaus sure are interesting!
There’s a lifetime right there on top.
Some of them bureaus are covered with fancy lace
or shawls like my grams would wear.
They’re all loaded up with photographs.
When they were young.
Wedding photos, a good looking soldier arms around his bride.
You know it’s them.
’Cause you can sort of see it if you put your mind to it.

Photos of grandkids, babies, families in rows.
Lots of smiles.
But I get a frown on my mind.
Their kids having moved away and all.

The old folks call me all sorts of names.
Some bad, some good.
“You there!”
But sometimes they’re nice and call me “Emmy.”
Some, real respectful like, call me “Mrs. White”
’cause it’s my married name and I wear lots of white.
White shoes, white uniform.
I press it sharp.
I like to keep myself neat as a pin.
And you know, when I’m happy,
I have that big toothy grin.

Mostly these folks sit in wheelchairs in hallways
like they’re at a train station.
But it ain’t there yet.
Some of them shuffle along.
Kind of dazed looking.
Down the halls and back again.
Down the halls and back again.

But some of ’em live tucked in their beds.
Each day, every day.
White socks poking out from tight sheets.
Mrs. Gerum’s one of them.
Tiny little lady.
They tell me she’s from some country called Hungry.
And that she’s one hundred and one.
Born in real horse and buggy time.
When she hears me rolling by with my trays,
she calls out, her voice all squeaky and creaky
“My husband was a musician!”

She’s got her pride.
When I steal a moment or two,
I like to stop by Mrs. Gerum’s room.
Brush her silky white hair.
I see her looking in the mirror.
Her eyes are a bit milky.
But I know she sees me.
And then I’ll catch a glimpse of my face.
Dark shadows under my eyes.
Baggage, they call it.
I know that one day,
I’ll catch the train she’s been waiting for.

from Rattle #31, Summer 2009

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