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Secret Formula

Second place winner of Bookshop's annual short story contest, 2014.


Secret Formula

by Katariina Alongi


The woman’s hands were knobby and skewed as they gripped at the armrests of the chair.  She was sitting at her usual place at the window with her gray hair wilting down her back in a limp braid and her skin hanging off her face like an old, worn out tarp.  She was 86 years old, but anybody could see she had been a beauty in her day. 

I stepped into the room and coughed lightly.  Although the old lady could no longer speak, her hearing was intact.  She turned her washed out eyes towards me. Her figure, frail and folding over in the large nursing home chair made me ache with a melancholy I couldn’t name.  

“Mrs. Johnson?”  I said, putting on my nurse face.  “It is time to take your medications.” 

She turned back to the open window.  A breeze pushed the curtains around and I shivered.

“ Mrs. Johnson, are you alright with the window open?  I can close it for you, if you want…” 

The old lady kept her eyes on something outside in the distance and shook her head slowly.  I sat down next to her on a stool.  I liked to take a moment with each patient before administering the medication, to give them a chance to chat.  Although with Mrs. Johnson, of course, it was more like a monologue, than a conversation.  Outside a gust of wind pushed around the first fall leaves and I watched them dance by in the current.  The sun made an appearance, magnifying all the colors of the trees.

“What a beautiful day, isn’t it?” 

I patted her arm; it felt soft under my hand, like an overripe banana.

“I love fall, the crispness of the air.”  I pulled in some of the fresh outside air and smiled again at the old lady.  Her eyes met mine and I thought I saw a flicker of interest behind her cloudy gaze, but other than that, her face remained indifferent, vacant. 

During her month long stay at the Cedar Park Rest Home I’d never seen Mrs. Johnson smile.  The stroke that hit her earlier that year had left her speechless and expressionless.  With extreme effort she was still able to stand up, but walking more than a few feet was out of question.  If given enough time, however, she usually managed to feed herself despite the lack of fine motor skills. 

“Mrs. Johnson?”  I touched her arm again.  “Let me help you with your pills.” 

She turned her head towards me and opened her mouth like a baby, a line of spit emerging from the corner of her mouth.  I opened the plastic medicine holder and poured the different colored pills from the slot labeled Monday AM into a small little cup.

“Here they come,” I said as I lifted the cup to her lips. 




The next time I saw Mrs. Johnson, she was sitting by the window again.  Her twisted body swayed slightly in the chair as she seemed to take in the rainy scenery from her lookout spot on the first floor. 

“Hello Mrs. Johnson,” I said as I walked into the room.  “Some weather we have today.” 

She nodded slightly, her head drooping forward like a dried flower hanging on the end of a fragile stem. 

I looked at her chart.

“It is Friday.”  I said cheerfully.  “Doesn’t your husband visit today?  You must be happy to see him again.”  I patted her hand.  To my surprise, she turned rather swiftly and looked me in the eye with a watery gaze.  Her eyes were a pale blue, but behind the diluted color there was a wordless intensity. 

I could only imagine what it meant to her to see her husband only once a week.  The couple had been married for over six decades, which to me, at 35 and a number of unsuccessful relationships under my belt, seemed like several life times.  Did this woman, who had spent ions with the same person, know the secret formula for lasting relationships?  Of love?

Mrs. Johnson reached out with her other hand and clutched at my own with her crooked fingers.  Her movements were painstakingly slow and her grip was dry and hard, like the roots of an old tree reaching out for water. 

“There, there, Mrs. Johnson. Don’t get all worked up over this.  I’ll help you look pretty for your husband.” 

I watched tears squeeze through her vision and roll down her cheeks.  I was touched by her gratitude.   I had worked for years with the elderly and seen hundreds of them wither away in a rest home or hospital, but there was something different about this particular lady, something that touched me deeper than I wanted to admit.  I stood up abruptly.  

“Tell you what?  Why don’t I get the curlers from the office and we can have a hair-dresser party!”  I straightened out Mrs. Johnson on her chair.  “I will be right back.”  I smiled at her, but she had already turned her gaze back to the foggy window, her hands clamped together in her lap like two halves of an oyster shell.




Later that afternoon, after visiting hours, I saw Mrs. Johnson resting in bed.  She was staring at the ceiling with an unblinking eye. 

“Mrs. Johnson, are you alright?”

I hurried to her bedside, not sure why the look on her face had given me the shivers. 

Mrs. Johnson turned her pale, wrinkled face towards me and opened her mouth.  For a moment, I thought she was going to speak, so intent was her liquid gaze, but instead of words, out came a deep, raspy moan.  I had heard that sound before, growing up on a farm where animal slaughter was rather common.  Despite the fact that there were no visible clues to signal what was going to happen, the animals always knew their fate and would never go silently.  Hearing their cries had been enough to turn me into a vegetarian for life.

Shocked, I clasped Mrs. Johnson’s hand in mine. 

“Oh dear, do you miss your husband?  I understand,” I said, although I was fairly sure I could not even begin to understand. 

To my surprise the old woman pulled her hand away with a look of desperation in her eyes. 

“It must be hard to be away from him,” I tried again.

Slowly she shook her head.  Then she fixed her ocean eyes on mine and the emotion she conveyed was almost too much to bear.  I wanted to turn away, but could not find the will to do so; she had hypnotized my heart with her story. I knew then that I had gotten it all wrong, that my own need to believe in everlasting love had clouded what had been there all along; the truth. 

She reached over the blanket and touched my hand and it was then that I saw the bruises on her wrists.  Gently, I lifted her sleeve to uncover the purple fingerprints that had not been there in the morning and as I did so, she held my gaze with her steady, stoic existence.