Is the Third Floor Still There?

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Ryan Rickrode in the new Writers’ Institute building on University Avenue

The following article is excerpted from senior creative writing major Ryan Rickrode’s creative nonfiction story that was selected for publication in Bennington College’s plain china, a national literary anthology showcasing the best undergraduate writing in the country. This creative work originally appeared in the first issue of plain china’s 2009 anthology. To read the article in its entirety, visit plainchina.bennington.edu and select Issue One under the nonfiction category.

Enter Sharon, the nursing home’s social director. “Great to see you guys!” Her smile oozes with an enthusiasm the rest of us lack, and she wastes no time corralling us into the elevator and up to the third floor. When the doors part, she starts grabbing anyone elderly who happens by, turning back to us every time she snags one, saying things like “Who wants to go with Francie?” and “Why don’t you go with Bob?” We all look at each other and then at our shoes, and we’re slowly volunteered off one by one.

A NURSE COMES DOWN the hallway pushing a heavyset old lady in a wheelchair. Sharon leans toward the woman and chirps, “Diane! Do you want to go down and play some games in the community room with these nice young people?”

“No.”

Me neither, my mind quietly cheers.

“Aw, but Diane, it’s going to be lots of fun.”

“No. I want to stay here.”

Diane’s rejections are flat, clear and beautifully stubborn, and for a moment, it looks like she might actually win this skirmish. But then Sharon, like a swimming instructor coaxing a skittish kid into the water, says, “Then why don’t you sing for these people, Diane? You have such a lovely voice.” Two of the nurses quickly buttress Sharon’s sentences with heavy flattery, and Diane caves.

“OK. I’m going to sing a song called Paper Doll,” Diane says matter-of-factly as she turns to us. “My father used to sing it to me when I was a little girl.”

And she begins to sing an old, sweet-jazz lullaby, her high, warbling old-lady voice strong and unabashed. Her pale blue eyes are wide like they’re staring at something beyond us college kids, like she’s gazing out at the night sky. I imagine she was once one of those old ladies who could sing all the extra little harmonies to the old hymns, the ones the rest of the congregation had either forgotten or never learned.

She finishes, and I don’t know what to do. I slide a hand into my pocket and shift my weight. Sharon and the other nurses soak Diane with syrupy praise fit for a small child. My peers and I hesitate for a moment and then follow their lead with some light applause. Diane’s will is sufficiently broken now, and Sharon moves in for the kill.

“Diane, why don’t you come down for just a little while? You don’t have to play games if you don’t want to.”

“OK,” she says grudgingly.

“How about you go with Diane?”

I quickly look over at the kid standing next to me, but he’s already looking down at his feet. She’s got me. Sharon swiftly delegates her recruiting duties to one of the nurses and wheels Diane into the elevator. I follow behind her, quiet and reluctant.

"Who are you?” Diane looks up at me.

“I’m Ryan. I’m a student at the university. We’re here to play games with you.”

“Oh.”

A second of silence lumbers by. Sharon remarks on the late-August heat that’s pocketed the Susquehanna Valley.

“Weatherman’s calling for rain tomorrow,” Diane assures us with a nod.

The elevator doors open, and we walk down the hallway to the community room. I sit down across from Diane at a card table, and she abruptly asks me, “Do you think it’ll rain?”

“I guess.”

The question catches me off guard, but I don’t start making assumptions until Diane stares blankly at me and asks, for the third time in 10 minutes, “Who are you?”

What I remember most about Diane is her eyes. Her pale crystal-blue irises always stretching her black pupils wide, like she’s a child seeing the world for the first time.

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