Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Into the Mouth Again

When I was in fourth grade at Northwest Elementary School there was some event when old people came to visit. They must have been from a nursing home nearby. Were they invited to tell us their stories growing up, about schools and teachers long ago? Or were we meant to entertain them, to lift their spirits on their long, dull slog towards death? All I can remember is lunchtime, when they joined us in the cafeteria. They sat segregated from us—for their comfort, or for ours, I don’t know.

The menu that day was grilled cheese sandwiches. For dessert, canned peaches in syrup. I stared at a sclerotic man with unkempt white hair. He wore a tan windbreaker. Why didn’t he bother to take it off? His spotted face hung low over his food, as though he were scrutinizing something unfamiliar. Like the others he ate silently, mirthlessly, paying no attention to his tablemates.

He speared a peach wedge and lifted it out of its pleated paper cup. Luscious drops of golden syrup ran down along the edges of the technicolor fruit, and down the white tines of his plastic fork, and onto the institutional pale-green tray. He placed it into his mouth and chewed. The sight was jarring. An old man eating little kids’ food. Accepting something designed for juvenile appetites. Was it humiliating? He didn’t care. Was it delicious? No. But I’ll never forget his air of duty, of determination. Into the mouth. Chew, chew, chew. Into the mouth again.