It was mid-morning on a day in January—a very cold, bright day. Holding a potted plant before her, a girl of fourteen jumped off the bus in front of the Old Ladies’ Home. “I’m a Campfire Girl…I have to pay a visit to some old lady,” she told the nurse at the desk. This was a woman in a white uniform who looked as if she were cold, from the outside and the inside. Marian, the little girl, did not tell her that this visit would give her three points in the competition held at the girl’s scouts’ association she was part of.
“Acquainted with any of our residents?” asked the nurse. She lifted one eyebrow and spoke like a man. “With any old ladies? No—but—that is, any of them will do,” Marian stammered. The nurse shrugged and rose, and walked towards the hallway. There was a smell in the entire hallway like the interior of a clock. Everything was silent until, behind one of the doors before which they stopped, an old lady cleared her throat which sounded like a sheep bleating.
“There are two in each room,” the nurse remarked over her shoulder. “Two what?” asked Marian without thinking. One old woman was pulling the door open in short, gradual jerks. Marian saw next to her the side-face of another woman, even older, who was lying flat in bed. “Visitor,” said the nurse, and left. “
Marian stood tongue-tied; both hands held the potted plant. The old woman was waiting…Perhaps she said something. The old woman in bed said nothing at all, and she did not look around. “My, my, my,” said the old lady standing suddenly. “Did you come to be our little girl for a while?” Then something was snatched from Marian’s hand—the little potted plant. “Flowers!” screamed the old woman. “Pretty flowers,” she added.
The old woman in bed cleared her throat and also spoke. “They are not pretty,” she said, still without looking around, but very distinctly. “Pretty flowers,” the first woman insisted. “Stinkweeds,” said the other old woman sharply. She had a bunchy white forehead and red eyes like a sheep. Now she turned them toward Marian. The fogginess seemed to rise in her throat again, and she bleated, “Who—are—you?”
To her surprise, Marian could not remember her name. “I’m a Campfire Girl,” she said finally. “You mustn’t pay any attention to old Addie,” the other woman said to Marian. “She’s ailing today.” “Will you shut your mouth?” said the woman in bed. “I am not.” “The flowers are beautiful,” the other old woman whispered again. “Ugly,” said the woman in bed.
If we bring flowers— “Marian began, then fell silent. She had almost said that if Campfire Girls brought flowers to the Old Ladies’ Home, the visit would count one extra point. But the old woman had not listened, anyway. “Poor Addie is ailing.” She said. She has to take medicine—see?” she said, pointing a horny finger at a row of bottles on the table.
“I am not more sick than you are,” said the woman in bed. “Oh, yes you are! I even got more sense than you have” said the other old woman. “Will you hush! Will you hush!” cried the other one. Marian leaned back rigidly in her chair.
“When I was a little girl like you, I went to school and all,” said the other old woman. “Hush!” said the sick woman in the bed. “You never went to school. You never came and you never went. You never were anything—only here. Your head is empty, your heart and hands and your old black purse are all empty—you showed it to me. And yet you talk, talk, talk, talk, talk all the time until I think I’m losing my mind! Do they seriously suppose that I’ll be able to keep it up, day in, day out, night in, night out, living in the same room with a terrible old woman forever?”
“Now, now, Addie,” said the first old woman. “That’s not polite. Do you know what’s really the matter with old Addie today?” “The matter?” the child repeated stupidly. “What’s the matter with her?” “Why, she’s mad because it’s her birthday!” said the other old woman.
“It is not, it is not!” screamed the old woman in bed. “It is not my birthday, no one knows when that is but myself, and will you please be quiet and say nothing more, or I’ll go straight out of my mind!”
“How old are you?” Marian finally dared to ask. “I won’t tell!” The old face on the pillow, where Marian was bending over it, slowly changed into something that looked like a reflection in a broken mirror. “She’s crying!” Marian said and turned to the other old woman. “That’s Addie for you,” the old woman said spitefully. Marian jumped up and moved toward the door. She ran down the hall, without looking behind her and without looking at the nurse. Her yellow hair under the white cap, her scarlet coat, her bare knees flashed in the sunlight as she ran to meet the big bus rocketing through the street. “Wait for me!” she shouted. The bus stopped