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It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 1, 2013
pp. 78-90 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0001

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Photo by Alyssa L. Miller

In the locked unit an old woman slumps on one of the mismatched sofas that line the walls, crocheted blanket draped over her head. Beatrice, I think. She snores softly, and I consider nudging her awake, leading her to the dining room. But I don’t. I need to hurry. Ada is yelling at one of the others to “Wake up! Wake up!” I grab the cassette player from the shelf near the door and head to the dining room—crowded with six tables, a wall of cupboards and a cart of bibs—to keep the residents busy while they wait for their eggs and toast.

I’m the activity girl.

Fran is asleep, forehead pressed against the table, white hair streaked pink from the lipstick she rubbed there a day ago. Ada sits across from her, slapping the table with both hands. “Wake up! Wake up!” Her voice is hoarse. I open the cupboard and rummage through the basket of rumpled clothes I sometimes give the women to fold. Near the bottom, I find a plastic baby doll.

“Ada, look what I found.”

“Give him here,” she says. “He’s mine.” She slaps the table with more urgency. “Here. Here. He’s mine. Here!”

I hand her the doll, and she wetly kisses its bald head. She hums and swaddles it in her terry cloth bib, fat fingers clumsy but deliberate, forgetting all about Fran, who does not lift her head from the table but sings, “I love you little, I love you big, I love you like a little pig.”

At another table, Art has taken his wallet from his shirt pocket and pulled out the photographs, business cards and flattened cough-drop wrappers. He sighs.

I get a toolbox out of the cupboard and sit beside him.

“Miss,” he says, tipping his Mariners cap back on his head, “how will I pay?”

I help him gather the contents of his wallet. “Your wife has already paid for you.”

“No.” He puts his wallet in his pocket. “No, she hasn’t. I’d better find some money.”

He pushes back his chair and starts to get up, so I open the toolbox and pull out a screwdriver, a screw and a piece of wood.

“What’s this for?”

“Will you please fix this for me?” I ask.

He doesn’t question why he’s driving the screw into the piece of wood, and when he finishes I take the wood to a corner of the room where he can’t see me and remove the screw. Once more I hand him the screwdriver, screw and piece of wood. “What’s this for?” he asks. We can go on like this all morning.

Some of them forget they’re waiting for breakfast and try to leave as soon as the nurses’ aides bring them in, so I play an Andrews Sisters cassette. “Lift up your arms,” I tell them. “Now wave them from side to side.” I try to keep them—about twenty residents in all—seated until the breakfast cart arrives. In the locked unit, their diagnoses are all the same, their activity care plans similar: Diversional Activity Deficit r/t diagnosis of Alzheimer’s dementia. Activities staff will involve in structured programs daily, especially exercise groups and sing-a-longs. A few half-heartedly follow along, mouthing the words to the song—Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me—flapping their arms like broken wings. Ada rocks the baby doll, Art works on the wood, Fran sleeps, and Emily, whom an aide has just seated, takes off her bib and folds it on the table in front of her.

“Can you lift your arms over your head?” I ask her.

“You do it,” she says. Then she pushes back her chair and wanders away.

I follow her. Past the scuffed piano, past the television, which shows musicals most days—Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, Carousel— because so many of them like to sing, past the nurses’ desk and the yellow cat hiding beneath it. She pauses at a vase of plastic pink carnations...



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