As they shuffled slowly into the cafeteria/common room, she was already sitting, hunched over, at her usual table in the corner by the window. She didn’t even look as the others sat in groups. Some were bragging about their grandkids while others complained of the cold. A middle aged bald man followed them in and walked to the front of the room. He waited a few moments for the chatter to stop.
“We have a special surprise for you today. Instead of our weekly sing along, some students from the community college are going to spend the day with us.”
The chattering started up again as half a dozen community college students walked into the room. Six tables were occupied, including the old woman in the corner. The administrator paused momentarily and then started showing the students to different tables. He came to the old woman’s table last with a twenty year old boy. He had studiously shaggy hair, glasses and a scarf.
The old woman glanced at the pair before turning to look out the window. The administrator said, “Agnes, this is Matthew. He’s going to visit with you for a while.” As he turned to leave, he mouthed, “Good luck,” to Matthew and scurried off to another table.
Matthew looked at Agnes while Agnes looked out the window. “So. . .,” Matthew started, “What is it like here?”
Agnes didn’t answer or even look at Matthew. Matthew sat down in her line of sight. Agnes shifted to look at the table with the utensils. “Do you like sports?” Matthew asked. “I used to watch the Sox with my grandmother.”
Agnes didn’t answer. Matthew started again, “It’s hot in here.”
“I’m cold,” Agnes mumbled. “Take off your scarf.”
Matthew fingered his scarf, but didn’t remove it. “I’m in my third year,” Matthew tried again. “I’m a poli sci major. Most of the people here are sociology majors. I want to go into politics, but I think it’s important to understand the issues. A lot of poli sci majors never take any other classes. But, really, how can you talk about disarmament without taking history classes or social security without talking to retirees?
“I mean there’s just tons of important issues out there and I need to do something about them. Look at Iraq and Ukraine. We can’t just let this stuff continue.”
Agnes kept looking at the utensils. “I’m sorry,” Matthew said. “You can’t be interested in that.”
Agnes glanced briefly at Matthew. “May I have a rubber band?” she mumbled.
“Please, may I have a rubber band,” she said, at the same volume as before.
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you.”
“A RUBBER BAND! GET ME A RUBBER BAND!” she screamed. Matthew stood up nervously and walked over to the administrator. The two argued briefly and the administrator gestured to the door. Matthew went out.
Agnes stood slowly and walked towards the utensils. The administrator approached and said, “Now, Agnes, you can’t yell at people and it’s not time to eat.” Agnes didn’t acknowledge the administrator. She picked up a paper bowl and a pair of chop sticks before returning to her seat by the window.
Matthew returned with a red rubber band. He handed it to Agnes as the administrator walked over to their table. “Agnes,” he started, but Matthew interrupted with, “We’re fine.”
Agnes looked Matthew in the eye and mumbled, “Thank you.” Then she looked at the administrator and said, “Ssss.”
The administrator shook his head and walked away. Matthew sat down as Agnes pulled a bobby pin out of her hair. She used the bobby pin to poke a hole in the bottom of the paper bowl. She picked up the rubber band and put it between her teeth. She pulled on it until it snapped. She tied one end of the broken rubber band to the bobby pin. Agnes lifted the bowl in her right hand and the loose end of the rubber band in her left. She poked the rubber band through the hole on the concave side of the bowl, switched hands and pulled until the bobby pin was flat against the inside of the bowl. She put the bowl upside down on the table and picked up the chopsticks. She separated the two and put one down. She tied the loose end of the rubber band to the thin end of the chopstick.
“What is that?” Matthew asked. Agnes ignored him again. She lifted the chopstick with the rubber band end up and placed the other end on the rim of the overturned bowl. She rested her left hand on the bowl and pressed the rubber band against the chopstick with her right index finger. She plucked the rubber band with her left middle finger while rocking the chopstick forwards and back. She started humming a note a little lower than what the instrument was making. She relaxed the rubber band until they matched. She hummed a note a fifth above the first note and pulled back on the chopstick until those two notes matched.
Matthew’s mouth was open slightly as he watched Agnes. Agnes continued rocking the chopstick between the root and fifth while humming softly. Her voice was both low and high. The notes were true, with an edge, a bit of rasp.
She paused. Matthew leaned forward, but closed his mouth. After a moment, Agnes started a simple baseline: root, root, fifth, root, root, fifth, two eighths – slightly swung – and a quarter. Matthew looked around. He was the only person paying attention to Agnes. He grinned.
Then, Agnes started singing. Her voice was soft, but clear, “Everybody’s talkin’ ’bout the nuc’ler bomb/but nobody’s talkin’ ’bout when Jesus comes/When Jesus comes/he’s gonna hit ya, he’s gonna hit ya/like that nuclear bomb.”