This year, for a school project, Lilly was volunteering at a nursing home, or rather, she had been volunteered. It was not a pleasant prospect. From what she had heard from her older sister, Rose, it was basically just sitting around and listening to old people talk, talk, talk. Rose was the exaggeration queen, so you could never know if you could trust her, though.
So that’s why, on a balmy Sunday morning, Lilly was standing on tiptoe at the reception desk and trying to read the very high up copy of the list of people, whens, wheres, hows…
Lilly pulled out her notebook and her purple pen and started a new page. Mrs. Riley, she scrawled in her sloppy cursive, formidable, splendiferous. Lilly kept logs of everyone she met in that notebook, their eccentricities, faults, strengths, and wonderful adjectives galore.
Mrs. Riley had the eyes of a warrior, with stories etched into every line and bravery stitched around the edges. Lilly liked her at once, from the moment she stepped into her room. She seemed impossible to defeat, Lilly thought, with the air of a general. She talked with an odd accent sweeping the edges of her words. Mrs. Riley had memories. Lilly could see them in the stories she told, of cool beaches, waves pawing the shore, wind whispering, and fresh, sweet mangoes.
“Do you really remember these things?”
Mrs. Riley laughed, not a creaky old person’s laugh, but one like bells that didn’t match her wrinkly outside.
“No, non, non, Lilly, I make it all up, pure imagination, but sometimes I feel like I was there.”
I know what you mean, thought Lilly, as she exited the grove of mangoes and stories.
Miss Ashley: loquacious, gregarious. Miss Ashley was more blunt about things than Mrs. Riley and chattered like a group of squirrels. Lilly tried her best to keep up with the constant stream but soon gave up and pretended to be listening. When she was leaving, Miss Ashley gave her a big hug and said, “Thank you, sweetie, nobody ever listens to me!” and Lilly felt a little ashamed that she hadn’t really, but smiled and hugged the old lady back.
Mr. Joseph: __________ ? Mr. Joseph was so indescribable that it gave Lilly a shock. When she walked in, he asked with no hesitation, “What’s your favorite word?”
Lilly’s words, her giant vocabulary, blanked. Then she said loudly, “Pulchritudinous!”
He nodded, then calmly replied, “That means beautiful.”
Lilly’s heart stopped, almost, and then she stuttered, “H-how d-do y-you know th-that?”
Mr. Joseph smiled warmly and whispered, “The same way I think you do.” Lilly thought back to cold nights in front of the fire, flipping through the dictionary and pointing out interesting words to her family, Mama, Papa, Rose…
She grinned back at Mr. Joseph, and he took out a worn book, the cover a rich red leather, and he held it up. Merriam-Webster’s English Dictionary, First Edition. Lilly gave a breath of awe. “Is that, like, one hundred years old?”
He seemed pleased at her reaction. “Indeed.” Mr. Joseph stroked the cover gently and said, “It was my father’s, and his father’s, and so forth. Unfortunately, I have no children to pass it on to.” Lilly stared deep into his ocean-blue eyes. “You know,” he contemplated, “you are one of the only people I have met who I feel really understands me.”
Lilly felt the praise swirl in her stomach and waved goodbye to Mr. Joseph. “Adieu.”
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?” Lilly’s mom asked, helping Lilly pull off her jacket. Lilly shrugged. She didn’t want her mom to know how much she enjoyed it because… because it was her moment, and she wanted to hold onto it a little longer.
* * *
Next Sunday was cool and brisk. Wind whipped Lilly’s cheeks as she skipped along to the nursing home. She skidded to a stop in the warm reception room, shimmied out of her coat, popped off her hat, dashed up the stairs, and slid, breathless, into Mrs. Riley’s room.
Mrs. Riley laughed. “You look like you have run a mile or two, Lilly!” She patted the side of the bed. “I’m glad you came. Come, have a seat.” Lilly sat, and breathed Mrs. Riley’s warm, clean smell, like soap and lavender. “Today, Lilly, I want you to tell me a story.” Lilly almost fell off the bed.
“I said, you tell me a story,” Mrs. Riley calmly replied, taking Lilly’s hands in hers.
“B-but I don’t know any stories.”
“Make one up. It doesn’t matter if it’s good.” Mrs. Riley tapped her temple with a long, pale finger. “Use your imagination!”
So Lilly took a deep breath and began. “Once upon a time, there was a creek full of splashing, glittering water, babbling, stories flowing out from every drop.” She was surprised she was sounding like Mrs. Riley. “The creek was in a wood, light and green, the sun catching big, fanlike leaves, glimmering like emeralds. Through the wood, there was a house like a cottage, gardenias placed meticulously in the window boxes, and daisies, roses, and violets scattered around the yard in clumps.” Lilly paused. “I don’t know what comes next.”
Mrs. Riley clapped her hands. “Superb, Lilly, don’t worry, I’ll tell you the rest next week.”
Lilly was baffled. “You’ll tell me the rest?”
Mrs. Riley smiled at her. “Yes. You started a story, I’ll finish it for you.” She then pulled Lilly into a strong embrace for someone of her age.
Miss Ashley was having a talk with a friend from next door so Lilly’s company was unneeded, thus she skipped over to Mr. Joseph’s room.
“Remuneration,” Mr. Joseph said as she walked in.
“Reward, or payment. Her remuneration was a trophy and a medal.” Lilly replied automatically, sounding like she had swallowed the dictionary.
He grinned. “Good! The only other person in this place who knew that was Miss Ashley.”
Lilly was disconcerted. “Miss Ashley?”
“Yes, indeed. Miss Ashley thinks the greatest pleasure in life is reading, yet the workers, so ready to help in other circumstances, were oblivious to this need. So I let her borrow the Merriam-Webster.” Mr. Joseph held up the shabby book.
“Rather dilapidated, but full of reminiscence,” Lilly commented.
“I think so, too,” concurred Mr. Joseph. “But the threadbareness of it adds to the magic.”
It does, thought Lilly. She didn’t need to say a thing, because Mr. Joseph knew. He was a bit peculiar, how he made you want to pour all your thoughts out and confide everything in him. He would listen and understand, and yet you could tell all you needed was a smile, or a look into those deep blue eyes.
“Can I hold that, please?” Lilly asked, eyeing the book.
“Here you go, but be careful. This baby’s ancient,” Mr. Joseph said, placing it in her arms.
Lilly gently picked up the dictionary, cradling it in her arms like a precious jewel. She turned the pages with a loving finger and breathed in the warm, musty scent of time. Words flew by on the pages, beautiful words, calling her.
“You like that, don’t you?” Mr. Joseph murmured. “I can tell by your eyes. I see affection, true caring. You really do love words.”
* * *
It took a million years, or so it seemed to Lilly, for the next Sunday to come. She sprinted down the sidewalk, piercing the warm, thick air like an arrow, and didn’t stop until she reached Mrs. Riley’s room, and only barely. She nearly crashed into the wall.
“Goodness!” Mrs. Riley laughed. “You certainly are a ball of energy today!”
“I… want… to hear… the rest… of the… story,” Lilly panted almost indecipherably.
“I should suspect you do.” Mrs. Riley tried to hide a smile. She handed a small, boxy, journal-like book to Lilly. “It’s in there. Treasure it, and add your own words.”
Lilly opened to the first page. It was covered in neat cursive, and Lilly knew it promised to be an amazing read. Anything that came from Mrs. Riley was bound to be.
Miss Ashley turned out to be a good listener. How strange that Lilly, usually so subdued, was bubbling like a fountain. Naturally, Miss Ashley couldn’t be too quiet for too long, so soon the room was spurting with activity and chatter.
Mr. Joseph leaned over and pulled a chair right up close to his bed and motioned for Lilly to sit. When she did, he reached into his dresser drawer and took out the book. He placed it in Lilly’s hands and hesitated for a moment.
“I’m giving this to you.” He looked straight into her eyes, blue by brown.
“I know I can… trust you. I know you will appreciate the gift of words.”
Lilly didn’t know what to say. She wanted to give a long, eloquent speech, but that still wouldn’t show all the gratitude she was feeling, brewing up inside her.
So, she took a deep breath and said, “Thank you. I love it.” It was five words, and none of them had over five letters, but a three-hundred-word essay with all complicated words couldn’t have done better.
Lilly gave Mr. Joseph the best hug she could muster, and he hugged her back and whispered in her ear, “I knew you would.”