This chapter is part of the ongoing serialization of The Archaeologists, the new novel by Hal Niedzviecki, to be published by ARP Books in fall, 2016. The Archaeologists is being serialized in its entirety from April to October, with chapters appearing on a rotating basis on the Web sites of five magazines. View the schedule with links to previous/upcoming chapters, and find out more about the book.
Here we are, Charlie! They step off the elevator into the dingy hall. All the other kids are downstairs in the main floor recreation room. In the recreation room there are balloons, streamers, and plates of cookies. There’s a banner that says welcome columbus secondary. Up here it’s dark and quiet. There’s a nurses’ desk but nobody’s sitting behind it. The lady steers Charlie by the elbow of her red parka. She’s not Charlie’s teacher. Charlie’s teacher stayed downstairs with the rest of the kids.
It’s just at the end here, the lady says cheerfully. Are you sure you don’t want to take your coat off? I can hang it up for you downstairs.
Charlie crosses her arms and hugs the puffy red jacket.
No thank you, she says in a small voice. I get cold.
It’s true. She does get cold. But it’s hot in the old people’s home. The rest home, Charlie thinks, correcting herself. Their teacher told them to call it the rest home.
It’s like the dog pound but for old people! Billy Zuckers called out. He was sent to the principal. He’s always getting sent to the principal. All the other kids asked stupid questions like What do they eat? and Are they allowed to leave? On the school bus everyone talked about how lame it was—Worst. Field trip. Ever, Katie Mills had pronounced before pulling out her cherry lip gloss and re-applying it for the fourth time.
Charlie knew it was the fourth time. She’d been watching her. Katie wears skirts with leggings. Her long brown hair shines and shimmers down the back of tight white sweaters that show off her already prominent boobs. Charlie wears jeans and sweatshirts. She wears her red parka.
When they first got to the home, all the other kids were introduced to their senior partners. Then the lady came over and explained that Charlie’s senior partner, Rose, was still in her room. So the lady asked Charlie if she’d mind going up to her room to visit her instead of having the visit in the dayroom like everyone else. Charlie shrugged. There were supposed to be games later. And there were the cookies. Everybody else was already busy meeting their senior partners.
Here we go! the lady says, knocking loudly on the door. Rose is very special. You’ll see. She’s the oldest person in Wississauga, you know.
I know. Her teacher already told Charlie that her senior partner was named Rose McCallion and that Rose was the oldest person alive in Wississauga and she knew Charlie was the right person to be her partner because Charlie is so mature for her age.
The lady knocks again. Rose! Yoo-hoo! Hello! Rose! She doesn’t always hear, the lady mock whispers to Charlie, smiling brightly. Rose! I’ve got your student from the school here! The lady pounds on the door a few more times. She needs a lot prompting, the lady whispers to Charlie.
Charlie blushes. The lady talks like Rose is stupid. But Charlie’s dad always tells her that respect for the elders is the most important thing. Until today, Charlie hadn’t actually gotten a chance to meet any elders or seniors or anyone like that. Only one of her grandparents is still alive—her mom’s mom—but she still lives in Mumbai. And the few friends her parents had over to the house weren’t much older than her mom and dad. But Charlie’s read lots of stories with old people in them, and not just grandpa and grandma, those kindly storybook figures Charlie’s never met and probably never will. Charlie likes to read about other places, other times. Her favourite stories are about the Natives. Not the Indians like Charlie, but the other kind. In those stories, the old people are also called Elders and everyone is always listening to their stories. They tell important stories about the gods and hunting and who should marry who, which is way better than calling them seniors and putting them in a home to rest.
Rose! We’re coming in! The lady pushes the door open and walks in. Charlie, embarrassed, head down, chin on the slick surface of the red parka, follows her.
The room is dimly lit by two shaded lamps. It smells dusty and stale. This makes sense to Charlie. Why wouldn’t old people smell old? It’s not a bad smell. It reminds her of the books she takes out of the library. A lot of the books are really old and they smell like no one has opened them for a long time.
Hi Rose! the lady says, her voice reverberating loudly in the enclosed space. Charlie looks around. She doesn’t see her, Rose.
I’m old, not deaf. You don’t have to yell. The voice is throaty and irritated. Charlie finally tracks down the source of that raspy voice—a small withered head sticking out of an easy chair, the body lost under a heap of knitted blankets. Charlie looks, then looks away. The lady takes Charlie’s elbow and steers her in front of Rose.
Rose! This is Charlie!
It’s like she’s the one who’s deaf, Rose mutters.
Charlie peeks up at Rose. Their eyes meet. Rose’s eyes, sunken into a shrunken wrinkled face that looks like an apple peeled then forgotten, sparkle blue and silver.
Who’s this? Who are you?
I’m . . . Charlie.
Well then! I’ll leave you two to get acquainted!
The lady swishes out of the room. The door closes behind her.
Why are you wearing a coat? You’re inside for goodness sakes. Take that off immediately.
Charlie shrugs, reluctantly shimmies out of her parka. She holds it awkwardly.
Didn’t they show you where the coats go downstairs?
Never mind. Just put it on the chair.
Charlie diligently drapes the coat over the back of the empty chair.
Now, what did you say your name was?
Charlie? Come closer.
Charlie steps forward. She can see the plaster of yellow-white hair sticking to Rose’s scalp.
You’re a girl.
Charlie’s a boy’s name.
Charlie nods again.
Do you understand me? Do you speak English?
Charlie nods again. Why wouldn’t she speak English?
What’s a girl doing with a boy’s name? Or don’t they believe in that where you come from?
What does she mean? Charlie was born in Wississauga.
My real name’s Charulekha.
Well never mind. Go make me my cup of tea.
Charlie follows Rose’s gaze to the kitchenette. She finds tea bags and an old plug-in kettle. She boils the water and dunks the tea bag. She knows how to do it. She’s made tea for her mother lots of times. She returns proffering a steaming mug.
Your tea’s ready.
Thank you, Rose says pleasantly. Just put it on the table here.
Charlie carefully puts the mug of hot tea on the side table. Then she hovers near Rose, not sure if she should sit in the empty chair. The quiet in the room is occupied by the rasp of Rose’s breathing and a farther away background sound, a kind of steady, empty thrum. It’s cars, Charlie realizes, the sound of traffic nosing along Wississauga’s busiest thoroughfare. Rose regards her with a bright-eyed stare. Charlie blushes again. Rose is supposed to tell her stuff. About how it used to be and everything. Charlie looks away, looks around the dark crowded room. Silk-white roses greying in a vase, fraying quilts, the credenza heaped with yellowed cuttings from old newspapers.
See anything you like? Rose snaps suspiciously.
No . . . I . . .
It doesn’t matter. I’ll be gone soon either way. I don’t even lock my door. Why bother?
Rose waves a dismissive, translucent hand. They’re always barging in here, trying to get me to take this pill or that pill. I don’t need it! Before they stuck me in here, I didn’t see a doctor in . . . well, they had just built that new road leading from the highway. So that would have been…let’s see now, 1992? That busybody daughter-in-law of mine insisted.
Charlie nods. She wasn’t even born in 1992.
Doctors! Rose lowers her voice conspiratorially. They make a good living, don’t they?
Charlie looks down at her sneakers. Both her parents are doctors.
Rose slowly raises her mug to her pursed grey mouth. Liquid sloshes.
Did you put in the sugar?
Put three in next time. I can’t taste it.
Next time? Charlie thinks.
They sit in the silence of passing traffic. Rose takes a few more sips, shakily returns her mug. She closes her eyes. Charlie stares at her white running shoes, at her knees, the weave of her blue jeans. She concentrates on the distant hum of traffic and the steady rumbling sound of the old woman’s breathing.
But then, suddenly, she can’t hear it anymore.
Charlie holds her breath. She hears: car wheels treading asphalt, thousands of shoppers circling the Middle Mall.
Uh . . . Excuse me? Miss . . . Rose?
She tries again, louder: Miss? Rose?
Finally she wills herself to look up. Rose is a shapeless form tucked into a heap of fraying yellowed spreads. Charlie’s never seen a dead person. She approaches gingerly. She inspects the old lady’s pruney lips. In first aid they talked about the airway. Signs of breathing and movement.
Rose? Charlie leans in close. She puts her ear over that wrinkled gash of mouth.
I’m not dead yet, dear!
Ah! Charlie jumps back.
Ancient crone eyes sparkling.
Scared you, did I?
Charlie’s heart pounding.
That’ll teach you to sneak up.
I didn’t— I wasn’t—
Ha! You’re just like the China-lady. Sneaking around! She stopped coming. I asked them where the China-lady went and they said cutbacks. Cutbacks! Well, they’d skimp on their own mother’s gravestone. I remember when you could walk right into the office and see the mayor. Walletville had the same mayor for twenty years, you know. A very respectable man from a wonderful family. The Cartwrights. A very proper family. But things are different now, aren’t they?
I . . . I don’t know.
Never mind. Rose sighs. Well, I suppose you’ll have to do. So let’s just get to it. Rose looks at Charlie expectantly.
Rose holds up her see-through hands, showing her long gnarled nails. Never had any use for them, Rose says, even when they were the fashion. They just get in the way of doing what needs to be done. Now you’ll need to get the scissors. They’re in the bottom drawer in the kitchen.
Charlie stands there. Rose looks at her expectantly.
In the kitchen, dear.
In the kitchen Charlie finds an ancient pair of steel scissors, a heavy ominous object nipped with rust. She returns to the living room, holding them in front of her like a gun about to go off.
Of course. Now let’s start with my toes. If you’d be a dear and just help me take off my slippers.
Your . . . feet?
Well where else would my toes be?
Rose wiggles her feet, soft lumps under the heaped blankets. Charlie digs around underneath. She finds pink slippers, the fuzz long since flattened and worn away. The smell is mothballs, talcum powder, wet wool, decay.
Take them off now, dear.
Charlie slips off the slippers. She starts pulling down a thin brown sock. Rose winces.
Fabric keeps catching on the nails. Charlie slowly reveals them, long yellow serpentine twists, some kind of relic holdover from past times, evolution’s not yet completed task. Charlie gingerly grasps a big toe, wizened and turtled into itself. The flesh is cold and listless. The scissors are huge, not altogether inappropriate. Charlie fits the blade around the nail, a spiralling thick fossil.
Um, are you sure I should—?
Just cut them right off dear.
But I think it might—
It’ll be fine.
Wouldn’t it be better if I ask . . . the lady?
Just cut them. Go ahead, girl.
Charlie closes her eyes. She wishes she was in the woods by the river. She goes down there sometimes. She’ll go after school. It’s quiet down there. She lies in the leaves by the river and thinks about how it used to be a long time ago when the First People Indians lived down there.
Go on now, Rose says. Get it over with.
This was an excerpt from The Archaeologists, to be published by ARP books in fall, 2016.