plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue One

Is the Third Floor Still There?


by Ryan Rickrode

Landlock by Katherine Robinson

Enter Sharon, the nursing home’s social director. “Great to see you guys!” Her smile oozes with an enthusiasm the rest of us lack, and she wastes no time corralling us into the elevator and up to the third floor. When the doors part, she starts grabbing anyone elderly who happens by, turning back to us every time she snags one, saying things like, “Who wants to go with Francie?” and “Why don’t you go with Bob?” We all look at each other and then at our shoes, and we’re slowly volunteered off one by one.

A nurse comes down the hallway pushing a heavyset old lady in a wheelchair. Sharon leans toward the woman and chirps, “Diane! Do you want to go down and play some games in the community room with these nice young people?”

“No.”

Me neither.

“Aw, but Diane, it’s going to be lots of fun.”

“No. I want to stay here.”

Diane’s rejections are flat, clear, and beautifully stubborn, and for a moment it looks like she might actually win this skirmish. But then Sharon, like a swim instructor coaxing a skittish kid into the water, says, “Then why don’t you sing for these people, Diane? You have such a lovely voice.” Two of the nurses quickly buttress Sharon’s sentences with heavy flattery, and Diane caves.

“Okay. I’m going to sing a song called ‘Paper Doll,’” Diane says matter-of-factly as she turns to us strangers. “My father used to sing it to me when I was a little girl.”

And she begins to sing an old, sweet-jazz lullaby, her high, warbling old-lady voice strong and unabashed. Her pale blue eyes are wide like they’re staring at something bigger beyond us college kids, like she’s gazing out at the night sky. I imagine she was once one of those old ladies who could sing all the extra little harmonies to the old hymns, the ones the rest of the congregation has either forgotten or never learned.

She finishes, and I don’t know what to do. I slide a hand into my pocket and shift my weight. Then Sharon and the other nurses soak Diane with syrupy praise fit for a small child. My peers and I hesitate for a moment and then follow their lead with some light applause. Diane’s will is sufficiently broken now, and Sharon moves in for the kill.

“Diane, why don’t you come down for just a little while? You don’t have to play games if you don’t want to.”

“Okay,” she says grudgingly.

“How about you go with Diane?”

I quickly look over at the kid standing next to me, but he’s already looking down at his feet. She’s got me. Sharon swiftly delegates her recruiting duties to one of the nurses and then wheels Diane into the elevator. I follow behind her, quiet and reluctant, and the three of us ride down together.

“Who are you?” Diane looks up at me.

“I’m Ryan. I’m a student at the university. We’re here to play games with you.”

“Oh.”

A second of silence lumbers by. Sharon remarks on the late-August heat that’s pocketed the Susquehanna Valley.

“Weatherman’s calling for rain tomorrow,” Diane assures us with a nod.

The elevator doors open up a minute later, and we walk down the hallway to the community room. I sit down across from Diane at a card table, and she abruptly asks me, “Do you think it’ll rain?”

“I guess.”

The question catches me off guard, but I don’t start making assumptions involving Alzheimer’s disease until Diane stares blankly at me and asks, for the third time in ten minutes, “Who are you?”

What I remember most about Diane is her eyes. Her pale crystal blue irises always stretching her black pupils wide, like she’s a child seeing the world for the first time.

Heaven scared me when I was a kid.

It’s one of my earliest memories. I’m playing in the backyard, and my mother comes out into the sunshine and sits me down at the picnic table. She tells me Grandma has gone to heaven, and I don’t understand. In my mind, heaven is a place full of pews, where Grandma will have to stand forever, singing while some monstrous organ plays endlessly on and on. And God stands at the front of heaven facing all the pews with his arms straight out, palms up. He has a green stole draped over his shoulders and a thin stream of spittle occasionally connecting his upper lip to his lower lip. Light reflects off his bald head.

Actually, God looked a lot like Pastor Witmer.

I remember wanting to know why Grandma couldn’t just come back. My mother’s answer was something like, “Well, you can’t come back from heaven.” And I felt sorry for Grandma and scared for myself. What kind of destiny is that?

At least she wasn’t in hell. From what I’d gathered at Bible school, in hell, they set you on fire.

Sometime after my grandmother’s death, I dreamt that I’d died and gone to heaven. I found myself sitting encased in a soap bubble, floating alone through dark blue space. And though I could see others trapped, floating in bubbles of their own, none of us could talk to each other. None of us could touch, and none of us could leave.

When I woke up, I crawled out of bed and walked swiftly through the dark into my parent’s room. I climbed into their bed and slipped under the warm sheets, carefully snugging myself right between Mom and Dad. I stayed there the rest of the night.

I know Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, “Hell is other people,” but I disagree. I think hell is isolation. Hell is being abandoned in the dark.

It’s like this. I used to take tae kwon do at the YMCA when I was a kid. After we’d all bow out and class was over, the first people to leave were the kids whose parents were out in the parking lot waiting for them. I’d sit out in the lobby and watch them go as I stared through the glass doors, hoping, praying for Mom’s van to pull up. I was always the last kid left.

Then adults would start drifting by, and I’d try to pretend like I wasn’t panicking. Dennis, twenty-something and almost a black belt, would walk by, scowling straight ahead and looking dangerous, leaving me unacknowledged as he passed. Then Jeff, the big soft-spoken businessman, would come by and give me a nod, his face pink from the shower. Then Edgar, then Cricket, then Darryl, then Sue, then  Tommy, the sensei, last of all. Cleaned up and wearing a golf cap, he’d give me a wave before vanishing out into the parking lot.

I’d watch the adults drift out the doors, scattering in all directions like marbles spilled from a jar, until it was just me and the guy behind the front desk.

If Mom was five minutes late, I’d break out in a cold sweat.

If Mom was ten minutes late, I’d start pacing the lobby.

If Mom was fifteen minutes late, I was an orphan for sure.

And then seventeen minutes later, the van would pull up, and I’d be demanding to know where she’d been. The grocery store was never an acceptable excuse.

C.S. Lewis once dreamt he was in the afterlife. It was an empty town, submerged in unending rain and perpetual twilight, in which people abandoned house after house, spreading slowly farther and farther apart out into the darkness for all eternity. This is Lewis’s picture of hell. A far cry from Dante’s crowded, constricted Inferno, in this Hell, Lewis barely sees anyone at all. Henry V and Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar are all millions of miles away from each other and everyone else. Napoleon’s house is nothing but a distant star, light years away from everything.

It seems to me the universe works about the same way. Starlight tinted the color of red shift  has told scientists that everything is drifting away from everything else. High-powered telescopes have killed all the men on Mars and shown us we’re just floating all alone in the solar system. Maybe we’re floating all alone in the universe. When scientists talk about extraterrestrial life now, they’re hoping for bacteria shivering on some distant moon.

I read a book once for a philosophy class that said the universe is surrounded by nothingness. The book said if the universe contains every single place there is, then there can’t be any place outside the universe. If you telescope out far enough, beyond counties, countries, continents, orbits, and galaxies, out beyond the universe, we’re nowhere. The universe is floating in nothingness, suspended like a soap bubble.

“I live on the third floor,” Diane tells me as I dump a box of dominoes on the table, but she’s not completely sure about that. Her window, she tells me, looks over a farm and a wheat field. Then with wide eyes she whispers to me, “I hope my room will be the same as it was this morning.”

Our conversation is a five-minute loop that’s always circling back to the third floor, back to Diane not knowing where she is. We eat ice cream and drink the generic-brand root beer Sharon carted in and Diane continues changing her mind about her room. Sometimes she asks me, “Are we on the third floor?” Sometimes she tells me she lives with her sister Rosemary in Harlington, and then she recites Rosemary’s exact address and phone number, clinging to those seven digits like they’re a life preserver.

“What floor do I live on?” she asks.

“I think you live on the third floor,” I say, trying to reassure her even though I know my words won’t pierce the fog around her mind.

Sometimes, with a quiet panic in her eyes, she just admits it: “I don’t know where I live.” And almost as an afterthought, she adds, “I don’t want to be alone.”

I live in a house made of red brick, a one-story rancher with a white picket fence. My dad could probably tell you exactly how many pickets there are. Last summer he had my brother and I help him cut, paint, and put up every single one. The house faces west, so in the afternoon our three maple trees cast big shadows over the front yard. That’s why nothing grows in our flower beds. Our front door is green, though. It matches the shutters and the front porch swing. The porch roof is held up by white four-by-four posts that we wrap with red ribbon at Christmas time to make them look like candy canes.

Can you see it?

The house you’re picturing isn’t mine—not unless you’ve actually seen my house. Think about it. What color are the shingles on the roof? The knob to the front door, is it on the right or the left? I could tell you. I could count up all the pickets and all the bricks and fill a page with details. But I don’t think any amount of words could ever get you to truly see my house. Only your eyes can do that.

So how am I supposed to tell Diane the third floor is right over her head?  How am I supposed to tell anybody anything meaningful? I’ve heard in chemistry class that atoms never actually touch, not even when they bond together to make salt or water or rust. Sometimes it feels like people work the same way.

When I was a senior in high school, I dated a girl who told me she had a problem with comparing herself to other people. I never understood what it was that made her think like that. Girls are supposed to have hips. I thought she was beautiful—her smile is what drew me to her—but nothing I told her kept her from worrying about how she looked. By January she was barely eating a meal a day, and that meal was usually just Saltines. She told me she was having trouble keeping food down. I think even then I knew I was up against something too big for me to fight. In a poem written out on notebook paper, I told her: “I wish I could give you my eyes so you could see you.” It was a sappy thing to write, but it was honest and I’d like to think that, for a moment, she understood what I was saying. In the end, though, we just drifted apart. I couldn’t get her to see things the way I did.

It’s like we’re all Pyramus and Thisbe, whispering through cracks in the walls between us because kisses won’t fit through. I guess for some people it really does feel like sharing an urn would be better than enduring the separation.

Diane tells me she had a son named Tracy who lived on the West Coast. “T-R-A-C-Y, not T-R-A-C-I-E. He’s a boy,” she explains to me. “Tracy’s in heaven. He committed suicide because he missed his mother.”

I take a sip of root beer and stare down at my dominoes.

The first time I seriously doubted God’s existence, it was because nobody was waiting for me at my locker in the morning. I was in the eleventh grade. The girl I’d been dating the year before had gone off to college and gotten engaged, and I felt like a used Kleenex. I felt like I was trapped on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, reaching out toward God and his throne of cherubim, stretching my arm so that my finger might touch the tip of his. But it didn’t. Our finger tips were frozen just inches apart, never connecting. I still went to church and I still prayed, but I didn’t feel anything. Either I’d gone numb to God, or God just wasn’t there.

When the loneliness finally thickened into real questions, I ignored them as long as I could. Because if there were no heaven and no hell, if the God I’d anchored my life to was nothing but superstition and delusion, then I was just drifting through dark blue space, and that terrified me. I know the Bible says seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you, but that’s easy for God to say while he’s standing on the other side of the door. On this side, sometimes it doesn’t look like a door at all. What if there is no door? What if you’re just knocking against a wall?

I’ve read that solitary confinement is how they punish you when you’re already in prison. The lonely cells are reserved for violent prisoners and inmates involved in gang activity. And terrorists—when they’re deemed risks to national security—are specifically sentenced to solitary confinement. If you get put in solitary, you stay in a concrete closet for twenty-three hours a day. Everything is concrete-grey except for the stainless steel toilet. For an hour a day you get to exercise alone outside. Then it’s back to your cell. Dinner is slid through a slot in the door. For five to twenty years, this is your existence. The only physical human contact you get when you’re in solitary confinement is called the pinky shake. In the cell door are two nickel-sized holes just large enough for a human finger to reach through.

There are cracks in Diane’s walls: the melody of her father’s song, the cadence of her sister’s phone number, the spelling of her son’s name.

The first time I went to the university’s chapel service, the organ sounded so big it gave me goose bumps. Majestic is the word for it, I guess. The choir sat to my right, facing me, a warm wave of harmony. To my left a tone-deaf environmental science major was doing her best to take me down with her. Never sing next to a drowning person, I told myself. You have enough trouble treading water as it is.

During the Lord’s Prayer, I was the only one who says “trespasses” instead of “sins.”

Like the God of my childhood, the chaplain sported a green stole and a shiny, bald head (but no spittle). His cool, clear words echoed off the back wall as he told us we all want to give up our lives to something bigger than ourselves, no matter what the cost. Then the blood-shed-for-me was burning warm in the back of my throat, and we were singing again, the choir sweet and perfect, me just good enough, and the girl beside me adding her own special harmony, just the way God made her. All of us, one body, one voice.

I’m not scared of heaven anymore.

When Dante emerged from the inferno and journeyed as high as he could up into the stars, he didn’t find himself floating in nothingness. He found himself gazing at the God whose sphere encircled all the others. He found the universe wrapped in God.

For me, believing in God has become like gazing at the stars—something I could never touch, but on the clear nights, when I look up, they’re always shining down on me like fingers from heaven. If love is what puts the cracks in the walls between us, then heaven must be when our cracked walls will crumble and our kisses will finally connect. When my bubble pops, that’s where I’ll land.

The sun’s shining through the window in the nursing home’s community room.

“I don’t think anybody lives on the third floor,” Diane tells me as she studies the table for a moment and then slides another domino into place. She connects seven green dots to nine purple ones. I choose not to point out her error.

“I hope my room will be the same as it was this morning,” she says again.

“I’m sure it’s still up there,” I say softly, as I slide another domino into place.

About the Author


Ryan Rickrode

Susquehanna University

Ryan Rickrode, of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, is a creative writing/religion double major at Susquehanna University. He was a finalist in the Lex Allen Literary Festival writing contest at Hollins University and received an honorable mention in Central PA Magazine’s annual writing contest. His work has also appeared in Essay and RiverCraft. He is a co-editor-in-chief of The Susquehanna Review, a national literary magazine for undergrads. Ryan’s favorite writers include Russell Banks, Tom Franklin, C.S. Lewis, and Anton Chekhov.