Prize Winners 2004
Return to Wonderland
As the old man’s eyes stared blankly at the drab gray light that seemed to ooze through the tiny streaked window that was the only link to outside his comfortable little prison, a strong familiar urge preoccupied him. Relieving himself was one of the few small physical pleasures that Walter had left in the world and he never missed the chance to use the small, dark, grungy chamber which adjoined his spartan room. Walter felt that this would be an extremely satisfying bowel movement, so he moved himself as much as he could near the door, and then began to rapidly push the button that would call the nurse to assist him. He loved to annoy the piss out of them, and pushing that button like crazy usually did it. You see, Walter was not as far gone as most of the staff on floor three thought he was. To be sure, he was already enjoying his second childhood, but he was still clever enough to realize irritating his jailers was all the excitement he could hope for at the wonderful Starkwood Manor nursing home. Sure, sure, they made it sound like some noble estate, perhaps one some snobby queen or capricious Hollywood celebrity had been using as a summer home and had donated to the cause of cleaning up all the goddamn elderly in the world, but to Walter that didn’t quite sum up how wonderful the place was. It was three stories high, dirty, had an overburdened, uncaring staff, and was permeated with, no matter how hard the diligent custodial staff tried to scrub it out, the unmistakable stench of old people.Walter was busy inhaling that fetor of old socks and curdled milk when the fumbling and obese Nurse Hayden barged through the door to his room, reminding Walter of nothing so much as an agitated, beady-eyed, red-faced walrus. She stopped momentarily when she saw that Walter was directly facing her, and coughing up phlegm in ardent fervor. She knew what Walter had in store for her, but her squat, flabby body did not respond in time to dodge the sopping greenish missile that Walter had launched. He had become quite adept at this game over the ten long years he had resided here, and the fact that his monstrous “hawkers” always landed with a thick splat on the gold nameplate worn by the staff did nothing to improve their temperament towards him, nor did they wish him an extremely long life. Whenever the call signal flashed from Walter’s room, the nurses thumb wrestled to decide who was going to attend him (with her fat, stubby thumbs Nurse Hayden lost most of the time).
In fact, most of the people working here thought the old bastard’s death would improve things quite a bit. The doctors said it would be comign soon, after all, the guy was a fossil already, but it would never be soon enough for Nurse Hayden. “You’re too slow, you fat bitch!” screamed the crinkled old goat from his wheelchair. “I have to take a shit and you’re stuffing your face with food; what a disgusting creature!” he yelled, his face turning a bright crimson as one gnarled old fist shook at her. Nurse Hayden waited patiently for this tirade to end, and at last it did, and Walter calmed himself and cackled with the careless laughter of children and old men: “Wheeeeeee! Off to the potty with me!” She began to roll him towards the bathroom, apparently ignoring the untidy green splotch on her nametag for the moment.
Walter enjoyed the bathroom about just as much as Nurse Hayden hated having to aid him in the process. You see, when he had still been alive (Walter fancied that his current pathetic existence was nothing more than a disturbing, lengthy dream from which he would never wake up), Walter had been a janitor at Beaumont National Laboratories. For over fifty years he had helped to clean up other people’s messes, and it was only after he had retired and been placed in a nursing home by his slipshod asshole of a son that the old sot realized it had been he who had needed cleaning up all that time. At least, the drunken janitor thing is what his records showed. Ever since he had been put into a nursing home where he had to talk to himself to keep from committing suicide he had come to the conclusion that his job had just been a cover story cooked up by the government. He had really spent most of his time wandering after an anally retentive white rabbit with an appointment to keep. Or had that been in a book he had read? He couldn’t remember, but Walter got confused about a great many things these days.
The sight of his beloved toilet, familiar with its grayish mildew spots and crusty stains, returned him to the present, and with Nurse Hayden’s help, he fit himself onto the pot and began his work. Walter did some of his best complaining while he was on the toilet, and he commented angrily and with an air of superiority to the nurse, “Why can’t you idiots keep this place clean? Even a child could take care of this. Is a clean toilet to settle my hemorrhoid-ridden ass into too much to ask?” The nurse ignored him and continued to read a magazine, knowing that in a few minutes the old kook would pop off to sleep and she wouldn’t have to worry about him for a while.
In time, Walter’s eyelids did droop, and he dreamt of the duchess, the Queen of Hearts, and all his other old friends from Wonderland…and woke with a start as he felt a cold dampness creep up his wrinkled and naked buttocks. For a moment his heart skipped a beat because he could see nothing, and he didn’t know where he was. After the initial moement of panic, however, he realized that he was still in his old familiar room on his old familiar toilet. He had sunken so low that he was almost stuck in the bowl now, and struggled to release his rear end from its uncomfortable predicament. With great difficulty and after what had seemed like an eternity to Walter, he was able to get himself back into the wheelchair and rolled back to his bed. The room was usually lit brightly, even when he was sleeping, and two startling realizations suddenly dawned on Walter: 1) his room was very dark, and 2) he wasn’t alone. Had the old man been sane enough to realize that his visitor had no logical way of getting into Walter’s room, he surely would have screamed bloody murder, or dismissed it as a dream, and perhaps it would have been, but to the senile old man it seemed quite real, and so it was. The man in Walter’s room was dressed in a ridiculously oversized and archaic gray three-piece suit. His tie was in stark constrast to this, yellow with red dots. His sleeves and pant legs were far too long, and the entire suite sagged on him. This made him look as if he had been poured out of the monstrous black top hat he wore. He was a skinny, scraggly man and had a sallow color to him. His face was extremely leathery and old, but his eyes shone very bright, and bespoke of an ancient presence. On his lapel was a large button that sadly notified: the pie in the sky turned out to be miles too high. His fingers tinkered with the large gold watch in the pocket of his vest. He moved slowly at first, as if he smelled something in the air that he thought was dangerous – or disgusting.
Now Walter’s first instinct was to berate the fool for being in his room, but he hadn’t had visitors in such a long time that he bit his tongue. “Are you here to use the john?” Walter rattled off the first question that came to mind. “I got the best damn toilet in the place, you know,” he informed the visitor.
“No, I am not here to use the toilet. I haven’t the time you know. Time is very important. It tells us what to do. When to sleep. When to eat. When to love. When to cry. Without time, we’d have to manage ourselves. To have no time would be a great tragedy indeed,” Walter’s strange caller intoned. After this, he moved quite close to Walter and whispered in his ear, “I have a question for you.” Then in a ridiculously loud voice he screamed, “YOU ARE GOING TO DIE!!!” Walter could have told him that, but he waited patiently, hoping that perhaps that time would come sooner than later. “But before you do I must ask if there is anything in this life that has meaning. Your answer is very important, because I am taking a poll. You are the last one I will ask. Everyone else has said no. What say you?” he asked impatiently.
Walter did not hestitate: “Yes.”
“Really?!” the man seemed pleased. “Good, because I was starting to lose faith there for a minute – I almost destroyed the world out of sheer depression. I might have if you had said no. I’ll tell you a secret: God is just a senile old coot that has forgotten how the pieces are supposed to fit together, but you just put one back into place,” he said. And with that he turned to leave.
“I don’t believe in God,” said Walter. “That is ok,” said the man, “because sometimes he doesn’t believe in you either.” With that the visitor vanished.
“What a crackpot,” thought Walter. Deciding that he had more important things to do than rumble over the musings of someone crazier than he was, Walter rolled himself over to the dresser and took out his hearing aid. Damn batteries were gone again. He hadn’t heard half of the conversation anyway. All he remembered was something about God and being asked if there was anything in life that needed cleaning. Of course there was! Walter knew that better than anyone.
Nurse Hayden found walter stuck on the toilet two hours later. She had gone to get some candy from a vending machine and her hand had gotten stuck. Walter had been dead for a while. Apparently, he had sunk so low and was in the position for so long that his heart hadn’t the strength to pump blood through his scrunched body. She began the tedious process of getting Walter unstuck even as she gave thanks for his passing. She didn’t mind the task. God knows, she had the time.
Neil King, Class of 2004
I guess it meant a lot to him, that’s why he did it so much. I wonder if he knows how much it meant to me…when I was here, I mean there, down there, up there, wherever there is now. Why does everyone think that heaven is a place ABOVE everything else…maybe it’s just to the side? But I never got to get that far in Science class ’cause well I only finished 5th grade, and I didn’t even make it to Hallween in the 6th. My mind wanders still, but not so much now that it isn’t connected to my body anymore. I wonder how long it’s been since I was THERE. Anyway, he used to come in a few times a day just to say what’s up and give me some dap. He always talked to me like I was a grown-ass man. None of that little kid talk like the other doctors. I would just lay there and be cool and give him a nod, and say, “What’s goin’ on playa, how you livin’?” And every time he came in, my doctor would say, “What’s up little man?” and give me my daily pound on the fist, just like Uncle Buddy…except not so hard. He didn’t ask me no questions about my blood, and he didn’t wear gloves. He looked like me, but wasn’t sick like me. He was a man.
But, I never got to grow up down there to be a man. I was the 2nd oldest kid on the floor. The oldest was this really fine Mexican girl who was 15, she had a baldhead…I think she’s up here too. One of the 10-year-olds said that if I was Jewish I’d be a man on my next birthday…in February. Man it would have been cool to be a man by Valentine’s Day! I didn’t even get to become any kind of man…not even a Jewish one. I wanted to at least be a man in the end. I didn’t even see any grown men that looked like me when I was there most of the time. Where was I…yeah, I was telling you, me, us…whoever is here, how much that pound on my fist meant to me. He didn’t come around very often, and could only stay a few minutes at a time, because I wasn’t his patient. He didn’t seem like a doctor, he was more like my Uncle Buddy, before he died. I didn’t recognize Buddy the night he died, and I was there, right behind him when it happened. Nobody saw what his face looked like again. I was hoping ot see Buddy when I got up here, but maybe when our bodies rise up from the grave like Granmama says I’ll recognize him…or maybe they’ll give me and Buddy new bodies. I don’t want my old body following me here. I don’t want to get it again. My mind used to wander a lot more than this when I was there. It would get bad sometimes when they gave me my meds, and it really got bad when my belly swolled up that tiem after Halloween. He was staying in the hospital overnight that time. I kept telling him not to touch me, and that I didn’t want him to get what I got, even if it meant I couldn’t get that pound on the fist everyday. I heard myself saying those things, but it wasn’t what I wanted to say…know what i mean? He ended up sleeping in my room that night. I know because his beeper would beep, and then I’d hear him creep out of the room. I remember because it reminded me of that Dr. Dre song, and I wanted to laugh, but it came out like dying dogs moan. It was still funny.
He was the only one I could talk to about girls. Not like I had any problems with girls, I mean, I just wanted to know what having a girlfriend was like. I liked the nurses a lot, they were all nice to me and pretty. But, I wanted to have a real girlfriend when I got out of the hospital. I knew it could never come true. I was always told that I couldn’t have one…ever. I still wanted one. But kids around my way all acted like it was my fault. They called me names. Faggot, punk-ass bitch. I never did nothin’ to them. I asked my Granmama when I was younger why they said all that stuff, and said I liked other boys in THAT way? But it would just make her mad so I stopped asking those questions. All I really know is that my real Mama gave it to me…it was the only thing she ever gave me. But I still liked girls. I never got to be a man though.
I asked him about girls one time while we played checkers a couple of weeks before Christmas. I think I caught him off guard. I told him that I knew that I couldn’t never have a girlfriend or nothin’ like that. We talked for about an hour about girls until his resident came in fussin’ at him. He said having a girlfriend was a lot like that, but sometimes you got kissed. I told him I knew all about sex, and why I couldn’t do it with a girl, even with a condom. I wanted to ask him a few more things, but he had to go before he got in trouble. I talked to him real quick on his last day, it was a Tuesday afternoon, he didn’t have time to play checkers because he was studying for some test that Friday. I was mad at him because he didn’t come by the next couple of days. I pretended I was asleep when he showed up Saturday morning, but he still gave me some dap, and said he’d try to visit during Christmas break. I didn’t see Christmas that year…I didn’t even see another Tuesday. Up here you sort of get pictures of what’s going on down there. I saw everybody running into my room Monday night, I saw the Mexican girl peeking around the corner and then running back to her room. I saw my Granmama on the phone crying, and I saw my doctor sitting on the El train carrying Christmas toys for his son. For a second it seemed like he knew I was looking at him, because he flinched a little bit, I think. I wanted him to know that I left.
The way Granmama used to talk there ain’t no dancing and having sex up here in Heaven, and there’s no growing old. This isn’t Heaven if I can’t grow up. I just want to be a man. I want to get old. I want to kiss the Mexican girl with the baldhead if she is here. I miss that pound on the fist.
Derek M. Guirand, M.D., Class of 2003
Things We Give Up
The smooth ocean breeze gently floats me awake
I open my eyes, as my arms and legs regain consciousness from the paralysis of sleep
I roll my head to face the symphony of lights
I know it wasn’t there seconds ago, but now it gently blooms with the sounds of string violins,
its heart beating at an inhumanely constant 60 BPM, forever unchanged, forcing me to abandon
the warm cave she and I built overnight.
And now the cellos join the chorus.I slither out,
immediately enveloped by the morning’s chill
I seal the cave behind me – she can still enjoy its warmth, if only for two more hours
I snap at the power button – light and sound die instantly, and only the heart remains.
Heartless heart. Blin-K! Blin-K! Blin-K! “4:33 am,” it rushes me along,
separates me from my wife once again
at our warmest moment, with the coldest of grins – few benign digital lines arranged into a
I head reluctantly for the cold bathroom floor.
Luckily she’s a deep sleeper – even Niagara could not wake her this early.
She doesn’t have to partake in this daily misery.
She’ll have her own, two hours from now: awaking along.
Alright, this is Mr. Oswalt, who is a 64-year-old gentleman, hospital day number four for small bowel obstruction. He complains of being unable to drink his favorite coffee; his wife Susan had brought him a Hazelnut Latte from Starbucks becasue she did not know any better – they’re so sweet together, they haven’t been apart in like nineteen years – anyway, he can’t have any right now, so they just watched TV and went over the details of their daughter’s wedding. The daughter also came by, by the way, she asked if he’ll be out in two weeks or do they have to move the wedding.
– Whoa, way too much information. Try again.
Okay…Mr. Oswalt, 64-year-old gentleman, hospital day number four for SBO, wants to know if he’ll be out of the hospital in time to see his daugher get married two weeks from now –
– Any complaints overnight?
Yes, he sorta wanted to know if his wife could sleep over next time because he gets really lonely at night since they’ve really never been separated –
– Any fevers or chills?
No fevers or chills.
– Any nausea or vomiting?
– Any pain?
Well, he looks a little depressed to me, because of the fact that his wife –
– What’s his abdominal pain on the scale of one to ten?
He says it’s like a three.
– Did he pass gas?
– Okay. Next time you present, this is how I want it done: 64-year-old male, hospital day four for SBO, no evnts overnight, denies fever chills nausea vomiting, denies flatus or bowel movement, pain control adequate. Got it?
– Remember, we’re just addressing the patient’s needs here. His vitals stable? Physical exam unchanged?
Yes and yes.
– Alright, we’ll watch him one more day and if he doesn’t far we’ll explore him. Who’s next?
This guy’s really pissing me off…Pick a lane, yo!
The heavy Cadillac rolls forward, at least ten miles under the speed limit, his right wheel a foot and a half over in my lane, enough to discourage me from just flying by his slow ass. I hate old people drivers! The speed limit is 35!
I run through my mental list of things to do and try to prioritize what I absolutely have to get through in the next two hours, before my brain shuts down beyond revival for the night. The presentation tomorrow is top priority, I still have to make handouts, and it would be nice if I read up on pancreatitis and adjuvant treatment of colorectal cancer and you are NOT going to make me miss that green, biatch! I can’t believe this!
The Caddy did crawl into my lane over the last 15 seconds, and now it’s slowing down for its right turn, still 200 yards away from the intersection. I watch the stale green over its roof up ahead, which surely enough changed into yellow only seconds before the Caddy got there.
“You can turn on the red!” I wanna get out and yell it to his ear. But I hold back.
His right turn signal comes to life. Whatever. He takes the Caddy a step forward then slams the brake, its ass lifting, then dropping violently. He spotted pedestrians on the other side. He insists they cross in front of him. I swear these people live in a different time zone!
The merciful light finally turns green, and the massive silver bumper in front of me is in motion once again, weaving side to side, mocking my every attempt to get by. I follow him all the way to the parking lot. I lost this one, I admit defeat. That’s what I get for renting a parking spot at the Edgewater Retirement Community.
As the cherry on top of this pile-of-shit ride he served me tonight, the old man forgets where he put his magnetic gate card. Minutes flicker by on my dash as I wait patiently, boiling with anger. The parking attendant finally makes him spell his name and blissfully raises the gate. This is not the first time.
The Caddy shakes. The taillights flicker. The gear engages, at first reverse, and finally…drive. I want to tear this guy apart. He rolls forward once again, snaking slowly down the ramp. I catch up to him in no time, and as we both sink our cars into the underground lot, he heads for the extensive handicapped zone near the elevator, while I break off and zoom out to the periphery, my assigned distant spot, owing surely to my healthy legs. I think about how reflexes and reaction time suffer with age, I think about my presentation and how much time I’ve lost, and how my eyes are already starting to close and no amount of coffee is going to keep them open. I think about my college classmate, the 19-year-old valedictorian pre-med who was waiting for a bus one sunny morning when a 72-year-old grandma mistook her gas pedal for her brake, and ended up dragging this girl under her car for a distance of 30 yards, straight into a curb, a seven-month coma, and a subsequent indefinite vegetative state.
We arrive at the elevator at the same time. He only had 10 feet to go. “Aren’t you that…um, medical student?”
“Cordero’s office. You were my patient!”
“Yea, that’s the one. So what are you, first year, second year…”
“You know, my sister’s niece is a…nurse, over at that…big hospital downtown…” BING! The elevator door opens. Thank god.
“Northwestern? That’s outstanding! That’s a great hospital. She must be very good! Have a great night!” I hate it when they turn out to be my patients. Could have been worse, could have opened my mouth.
Dude, you’re SMOKING?! How can you SMOKE?!
You KNOW what this stuff does to your body!…Hm?
It’s like oh my GOD, I don’t even know where to begin! We had like four lectures on this last week, you were there…!
….Pufff…. – Calm down. Want one?
new messages.BEEP! Hey guys, it’s Natalia. Matthew and I are going out for drinks tonight because we found a babysitter, and we were wondering if you want to come, or at least one of you. I know you’re probably busy, but if you want to come give us a call. We should be home all day. Okay, bye!
Saturday. Eleven. Thirty-six. A.M.
BEEP! This message is for Lukas-z Swistun. This is Fletcher Jones Nissan, calling about your missed oil change appointment. Please call us back to reschedule, 312, 628, 4855. Thank uanavagreat da-
Saturday. One. Fifteen. P.M.
BEEP! Hey Luke, it’s Simon. Hey, guess what, Microsoft called me back and they said they want me for the summer! so now I have to choose, EA or Microsoft…anyway, I’m gonna go get wasted tonight with a bunch of guys from the fraternity. It’s for a good cause. Call me if you have time. Later.
Saturday. Six. Forty-six. P.M.
BEEP! Hey little dude, it’s me. Just to let you know, it’s only me and the intern here tonight and we already had four admissions, all stupid crap, but he said it’d be nice if I helped out tonight, so I guess I’ll have to stay…Sorry, I hope your exam went well, but now your “post-examinal” and you should go out. I think Natalia is doing something tonight so you can hook up with them. I’ll see you tomorrow, I promise I won’t fall asleep and we’ll do something cool. Alright? Love you dude…Later.
Saturday. Six. Fifty-one. P.M.
BEEP! Hey guys, it’s Natalia. We’re at Chili’s right now, and Lenka is here too, and we ust got here, so if you want to join us we’ll be around for like two…what? Two hours. Lenka wants to see a movie later. If you get this message, please call us back, or just come here. Okay? See you, bye!
Saturday. Eight. Thirty-one. P.M.
BEEP! Hey big dude, it’s me…Lisa called and said she’d be back like real late, probably after two A.M. since they’re driving home from Wisconsin and they got a flat, so she offered I just sleep here tonight…Such a pain in the ass, I wanted to go out with you since I’m “post-examinal”…hope your day was alright, you should go out if you’re not too tired, I think Lenka and Natalia are getting togehter. Anyway, talk to you later…
Saturday. Ten. Fifty-one. P.M.
BEEP! -is ready for pick-up at your local Walgreens pharmacy. This message will be repeated. Your prescription is ready for pick-up at your local Walgreens pharmacy. This message will be repeated. Your prescription is ready for pick-up at your local Walgreens pharmacy. This message-
Sunday. Ten. Fifty-one. A.M.
End of final message.