Old Friendsby Tracy Kidder, Lowell George Seibel
Tracy Kidder won the Pulitzer Prize for The Soul of a New Machine. House and Among Schoolchildren were national bestsellers. Now this "crackerjack reporter with a common touch" (Philip Lopate, The Washington Post) has turned his talents to his most important and universal theme in this, a close-in study of old age in America. With care and exactitude, with the… See more details below
Tracy Kidder won the Pulitzer Prize for The Soul of a New Machine. House and Among Schoolchildren were national bestsellers. Now this "crackerjack reporter with a common touch" (Philip Lopate, The Washington Post) has turned his talents to his most important and universal theme in this, a close-in study of old age in America. With care and exactitude, with the human compassion and humor for which he is famed, Kidder opens up a fascinating world to us that is, at the same time, foreign and compelling.
The narrative takes place entirely in a nursing home and focuses on two old men struggling with their circumstances, their memories, and their mortality.
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Read an Excerpt
corridors brighten. The living room windows begin to reflect the lights on the plastic Christmas tree, and the view through those windows is fading, the woods growing thicker, the birches glowing in the dusk. At the west end of Forest View's longer corridor, a white-haired woman in a plain housedress and sneakers leans against the heating register, a cane in her hands, and she gazes out at clouds. She is very forgetful and yet very nostalgic and, of all the people who live here, the most devoted to windows. "They come and go," she says of the clouds. "I guess that's to be expected. First they're dark and then they're light. First they're there and then they're gone." She makes a small laugh. She goes on gazing through the glass. "I don't know what all this business is about, living this way. I tried to figure it out, but I can't." The clouds hovering above the silhouette of the far ridge are sharply etched, clouds of the north wind, dark gray in the last light of a sky that is still too bright for stars.
corridors throw back watery images of carpeted corridors that could belong to a clean motel. It is night. Lou Freed comes out of his room, down on the north hall just past the elevators. Lou is small and plump in the middle, with fleecy white hair and thick, dark-framed glasses. Behind the lens, the lid of his left eye droops. His close-cropped mustache is a dash of white across his face. His forehead and cheeks are deeply furrowed. Lou wears a look of concentration as he comes out into the hall. He holds a cane in his right hand. Its black shaft is striped like a barber pole with yellowish tape. Lou applied the tape several years ago when his eyes began to fail and he couldn't cross a street very quickly anymore. He used to hold the cane aloft as he crossed, hoping it would catch the attention of drivers. He no longer has to worry about crossing streets, but he's left the tape in place since coming here, on the theory that it will help him to spot his cane if he should misplace it. He never does misplace it.
he extends it forward, searching for possible obstructions. Lou walks with his legs spread well apart, his left arm swinging free and a little away from his torso while his right arm works the cane. He crosses the corridor perpendicularly and then turns south, following the carpet's border, traveling in a slow, sturdy gait, like an old sailor crossing a rolling deck, passing along a wall equipped with an oak handrail and adorned with cream-colored wallpaper and rose-colored moldings, passing several numbered bedroom doors of blond oak veneer and framed prints of flowers and puppies and English hunting scenes.
as always. Lou stops at the corner of the station. He shifts his cane to his left hand and slides his right hand up the wall until it touches the edge of a four-gang light switch. His fingers are nimble. They move with a confident inquisitiveness, but they fumble slightly over the plate of the light switch. This isn't the switch that Lou wants. He finds the one he wants by finding this one first. His hand pauses here tonight, however. The plastic plate surrounding these four switches feels warm. In Lou's experience, this sometimes signifies a circuit overload. Nothing serious, but he'll have to remember to tell Bruce, the director of maintenance, tomorrow.
they strike a two-gang switch. Then with a flick of the forefinger, joyous in its certainty, Lou throws both switches up, and in all the bedrooms of Forest View the night lights come on.
falling on the way to their bathrooms in the middle of the night. They might save Lou from such a fate. April, one of the aides, has forgotten to turn them on. Or else she's been too busy. When that happens, Lou does the job. He doesn't mind. It is a job.
don't wear uniforms -- stands nearby, behind the medication cart, studying her records.
arms are thin. The flesh sags from them. But some muscle rises. "Pretty soon I'll be sweating rust." Lou has a soft, gravelly voice.
right hand, his face grows serious again, and he starts slowly back down the carpeted hallway toward his room. As Lou nears the doorway, he hears the sound of screeching tires. He enters to the sound of gunfire.
roommate, Joe Torchio, lies on his back on the bed nearer the door, a bald-headed, round-faced, round-bellied man. In the changeable glow of his TV, Joe looks beached and bristly. Lou feels his way past Joe to the other side of the room, and in a while he begins to get ready for bed. The charge nurse knocks. Joe flicks his remote control at the TV, leaving it lit but mute, and the nurse enters, carrying pills.
medicines. Now he takes too many to remember, though he still makes inquiries about new ones now and then. Joe has said he doesn't know what pills the nurses give him and he doesn't care. "If they want to kill me, go ahead," Joe likes to say, and Lou replies, "Joe, don't talk that way." But Lou says he isn't worried either, because the pills he takes all have arrows on them, to tell them where to go once they get inside. The nurse laughs: Lou and Joe may take a lot of pills, but they are among the most physically healthy of Linda Manor's residents.
climbed into his bed and under the covers. 'We're the best!" Joe exclaims.
He smiles, the covers pulled up to his chin, and he sighs. "Ahh, dear. It's a great life, if you don't weaken."
chase resume, and Lou drifts off to sleep.
At eleven, the night shift takes over on Forest View. They turn out the hallway lights, leaving the corridors in the glow of the cherry-colored exit signs, a red that grows increasingly lurid as the night wears on. The charge nurse and her two aides sit in the pool of light at the nurses' station over endless paperwork. The lights on the Christmas tree blink on and off in the living room across the way. Christmas carols play softly on the staff's communal tape recorder. It is the season of long New England nights, the year's midnight.
o'clock, a voice comes out of the darkened west corridor. "Howdee! Howdee! Howdee! Hello to you, hello!" the voice sings.
wings of gray-white hair on either side of his bald dome and a gray mustache.
and smiles at him.
and, cane in his left hand, his right arm held tight to his side, he limps on, with a purposefulness that makes his progress seem rapid, up to the living room doorway. Deftly, Bob lets his cane handle slip deep into his palm and snaps on the living room lights with his fingers. He surveys the room, twisting his mouth critically. Then he lays down his cane on the seat of an armchair and starts moving furniture around, pulling chairs here and there -- one-handed and hobbling. Bob is a victim of left-brain stroke. He is seventy. "There," Bob says when he's assembled a semicircle of armchairs near the living room door. He sits down to wait, keeping an eye on the door.
in slacks, orange sweater, and high heels, carrying a gigantic pocketbook. Without asking or being asked, she bends down and ties Bob's shoes, Bob saying, "Excellent! Beautiful! Thank you kindly." Then Eleanor comes in out of the shadowy corridor. She wears a red flannel floor-length robe and pink slippers. Her short, curled gray hair looks as neat as if she'd just come from the beauty shop downstairs. Her makeup is already in place. Eleanor enters in quick, dainty steps, with slight unsteadiness and yet with erectness of shoulders and chin. Eleanor is eighty. One can imagine her in younger days sweeping into a grander room and turning some heads, not so much with her looks as with sheer force of will. She sits down in a tall-backed upholstered wing chair, looks at Bob, and says, "So."
eighty-four with a fine head of white hair and sad-looking watery eyes. Art has the Parkinson's shuffle. He walks as if wading through water up to his waist. But his voice is cheerful. It is also deep and sonorous. "Good morning, Mrs. Zip Zip Zip," Art says to Eleanor. She beams up at Art. Only Eleanor knows the song to which Art is alluding. He sang it for her not long ago. It dates back to World War I:
armchair in the circle. Art sits down, and the circle by the door of the living room is complete. With shaky hands, Art pulls his electric razor from its case and begins to shave. First he asks Eleanor, "This won't disturb you too much now, will it?" To which Eleanor waves a deprecating hand. "No!"
begun to fraternize with other residents. To her select group of confidantes, made up mostly of nurses and aides -- she refers to most other residents as "them" -- Eleanor has begun to speak of Art as if he were her personal discovery. "A bon vivant," she'll say, pointing out the many coincidences of their lives. That they both got married around the same time and had their first children the same year, that her husband, too, was named Art, and that both she and this Art knew a passion for performance, Art through his singing and she through the theater. Eleanor's father was a flamboyant, itinerant producer of minstrel shows late in the last century and early in this one. Eleanor acted all her life in amateur and semiprofessional theatricals. Some months ago she assembled a theater group, the Linda Manor Players. Eleanor is the director. She has a production coming up.
helps. "This takes two people," Art says to Eleanor. Art's hands shake, and Bob can use only his left. "There," says Bob at last. Art pulls a cracker out of his shirt pocket and hands it to Bob. Art laughs, Eleanor laughs, Bob laughs as he bites into the cracker, and Clara looks confused and starts laughing just as the others are finishing. It is a two-way conversation after that, in the small circle of armchairs, Clara listening quietly and Bob listening with agitation, his eyes jumping back and forth between Art and Eleanor.
nobody's business. Then the change hit. Around twelve or thirteen. I became a baritone." Art smiles. The expression looks brave beneath his sad-looking eyes.
at a numerous amount of weddings. And funerals." Abruptly his voice gets very soft. "I won't say any more. People would say I was bragging."
It's almost six, isn't it?"
out the door. It is time to turn on the corridor lights. Bob does that every morning. Then he returns to his seat in the living room. Eleanor, meanwhile, goes back to her room. She takes the diuretic Lasix for her heart when she first gets up, and it takes effect around six. But the weather report is not entirely a ladylike ruse. When she returns to the living room a few minutes later, with little steps -- in her hybrid gait of daintiness, frailty, and vigor -- Eleanor announces to the others, "All right. It is twenty-six degrees. It is going to snow in the Berkshires. It is going to sleet tonight. Tomorrow's going to be cloudy and cold."
breakfast. "We never have donuts here," Eleanor says.
a boxer jabbing, in obvious approval of Lou Freed and his breakfast.
"Phil causes trouble," Eleanor says.
one topic to another. Boy, she can do that smoother than anybody I ever heard. I remember the first time I met her. I kept thinking, 'I'll get out of here sometime. There's got to be a break somewhere.' First chance, I got out of there. 'Twas rude. But I had to. If I hadn't I'd still be there, I guess."
behind him. Out there, around the nurses' station, the night nurse and the aides hurry to and fro. Many call bells are beeping. The bustling in the corridors makes the living room seem cozier, like a cabin in a storm.
windows, black mirrors a moment ago, now opening on the view of the woods to the south. Art has announced the dawn, saying, in an ironic tone, "Darkness shall not prevail." And the four coffee klatchers have begun laughing again -- including Clara, who has developed an ensuing case of the giggles, which has reignited the others' laughs -- when the imposing figure of Phil rolls up in a wheelchair into the doorway. Phil has a huge head and huge ears, the head of an old lion. He wears the same institutional-green cardigan sweater as always. His silver hair is slicked back. His lower front teeth are missing, the effect is more disturbing than if he had no teeth at all. He looks dangerously irascible, but his hands are soft looking, white, and small, and his trousers bunch up at the waist, a common sight here, signifying diapers beneath.
wheelchair through the coffee klatch. The others move their feet out of the way. Phil rolls up to the center of the room and the table piled with magazines. Eleanor studies Phil and makes a face. "Now he'll complain about how old the magazines are," she murmurs.
expression. "October 1990. That's good. That's only two months old." He starts paging through it. "Old George, he's got troubles over there in Kuwait."
then Eleanor mentions the Forest View resident who broke her hip a few days ago and has not returned from the hospital. And Phil, still sitting in front of the table, joins their conversation. He says, "That's the thing. First they have the walker. Then they have one of these." Phil looks down at the arms of his wheelchair and pats them with his small white hands. "Then they go to the hospital. And that's the end of that."
"You fell down the other day and nothing happened to you.
cocking his great, leonine head. "Yeah," he says. "Leonard Bernstein, he died. Only seventy-one. I used to love to watch him jump around the podium. He was Koussevitzky's pet."
seems deep in thought.
pleasantly. "Another actress died. She was really famous. I can't remember her name."
other day. She looked wonderful." Eleanor's voice quivers over the last word.
daughter, lost her husband."
he's dead. He was only in his fifties, for cryin' out loud."
died three or four years ago, didn't he?" Art's voice insinuates the question, Why bring that up now?
"Sergio Franchi. He had some voice. His sister was a singer. Country and western."
daughter who sing country music. The mother's s'posed to be dyin' of cancer."
silence descends on the room. Bob, who is Phil's roommate, has not uttered a word since Phil's entrance, but has glared at Phil from time to time, making a chewing motion. Now Bob stands up, says, "Bye-bye," and limps out. Each of the remaining coffee klatchers gazes a separate way. They seem lost in a collective case of the long thoughts, distant memories at hand, and none of them happy. Phil stares at his lap, but he alone does not look sad. I never saw Al Jolson in person," he says.
sick," says Phil. "And that was the end of that."
the subject, Phil is bound to win.
Meet the Author
TRACY KIDDER is the author of several novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Among Schoolchildren
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I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful book about residents of a nursing home. You will fall in love with all the men & woman in this book. I highly recommend it to anyone!