… Winkle in Time

Updated: November 8, 2015


“Are you Brad?” the old man asked as the orderly pushed him and the gurney he rode on up the long hallway of the hospital.

“What? Me? No no, I could never … I mean, he’s … well, magister minus. I’m sort of like a Not-Brad, you know what I mean?”


“Hmm, well,” and with that the orderly put on a very strange voice. It sounded to the old man like nothing so much as an aged and scratch vinyl recording of an actor affecting a character’s voice.

“My dear fellow,” the orderly continued in his new—yet very old sounding—voice, “life is infinitely stranger than anything the mind of man could invent. Don’t you agree?”

The orderly looked at the old man as if he expected an answer.

“Well, yes, I suppose so,” said the old man, “but—”

“We would not dare to conceive the things which are mere commonplaces of existence.”

“Maybe, but aren’t we capable of imagining things that never—”

“Here we are!” the orderly interrupted and gave the gurney a big push into the kitchen. The old man thought for a moment he was going to have another gurney accident—

Another one? Have I had one before? Do I remember it now? But the memory was as fleeting as the sensation that the gurney was going to crash. The rolling bed slowed and stopped, with a gentle bump, against one of the freezers. The unlocked one. The old man reached out to open the freezer and show the orderly what he had discovered earlier that day.

“Tsk tsk,” the orderly clicked his teeth. “Corpus delicti non tangere, which is as much to say, don’t spoil the goods, man.”

“How do you propose solving this mystery without opening the freezers?”

“Through logic, my good man, pure deductive reasoning. How do you think I knew about your stash of baseball cards?”

“I figured you, or the other orderlies—”

“Searched your room? Do you really think I would stoop to such low brow tactics? Come, come, we’re friends here. You’ve helped me many times before.”

“I have?” the old man had no idea what the orderly was talking about.

“You don’t remember?”

“No, but that’s not—”

“You can say that again. Your memory! Exempli gratia: how long you’ve been here, how you got here, what you’ve been doing during your stay here. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera,” the orderly concluded in a very exaggerated tone of voice, sounding every syllable like he was the King of Siam.

“The King of Siam?” the old man muttered. Then thought, silently, Where’d I come up with the King of Siam?

“Say what, old fellow? Speak up. If you’ve got evidence to present, speak now or forever hold your pieces.”

“Huh, what? Oh, no, nothing,” the old man stuttered. “But them,” he gestured toward the several freezers. “How can we tell what’s in them unless we open them?”

The orderly smiled. “Observe, Watson, observe and learn. The power of deduction can open locks that have no key.”


“No key, man, no—oh, never mind. Just watch.” And with that, the orderly surveyed the unlocked freezer, looking behind it and bending down on one knee to look beneath it.

“Wish I could do that,” the old man said. Just the sight of the orderly rising from his kneeling position made the old man’s knees ache. “I thought if—”

The orderly held up his hand. The old man stopped speaking. The orderly proceeded to study each of the freezers in turn: tops, sides, a peek down the back, and a quick drop to one knee to look beneath each. He hemmed and hawed and muttered to himself as he surveyed each freezer. He stroked his chin and then reached out and placed his right hand on top of the last of the freezers.

With an agility that dazzled the old man, the orderly did a little jump and spin and landed his bottom right in the middle of the freezer lid. He sat there, pleased with himself, while the old man’s memory was flooded with images and sensations of a youth when he too could bounce up on top of tables like that. Envy filled the old man—envy and a sense of loss.

“You’re drooling ,” said the orderly, and gestured to his chin.

“What?” the old man said.

“Drool,” the orderly said and repeated the gesture to his chin.

Imitating him, the old man raised his own hand toward his chin and discovered saliva leaking down it. He’d had no sensation of drooling, but there it was. Proof positive. Old age was making him leak.

“Take note, Watson,” the orderly said from atop his freezer.

“I don’t have a pencil or any paper,” the old man said.

“Mental note,” the orderly said tapping his head.

“Not sure how reliable that is,” the old man muttered. He was about to explain to the orderly that it would be much better if he could write things down, but the other man had closed his eyes and begun to speak.

“Freezer one,” the orderly said, pointing to the one he was sitting on. “Meat.” He pointed at the next freezer, “Number two: potatoes.” Then without opening his eyes he pointed at each in turn and said, “ Three: veggies. Four: drinks. Five: ice cream. Six you know.”

The old man nodded and looked at the one freezer without a lock. He remembered alright. The neat stacks of plastic containers and bags, each with a name attached by tape. He remembered the interior of that particular freezer very well. Staff food, that’s what he’d found in freezer number six. But as for the others …

“How do you know, I mean, how’d you figure it out?” the old man asked the orderly.

“Look for yourself. Beneath the freezer I’m sitting on, you’ll find a scrap of white butcher paper someone carelessly dropped while adding fresh meat to the freezer.”

The old man couldn’t bend over far enough to see beneath the freezer. “I’ll take your word for it,” he said to the orderly.

“Look behind freezer six. What do you see stuck in the wiring against the wall?”

The old man stretched himself over the top of the freezer and looked down behind it. There, tangled in the power cables along the wall, was a desiccated potato skin.

“I see it,” the old man said. “Just like Sherlock Holmes.”

“We’ll see,” the orderly said. “Scope out the electric cord at the back of freezer five.”

The old man looked.

“I don’t see anything—”

“You don’t see, you don’t see, of course you don’t see, Watson, you don’t know how to look. Note just where the cord exits the freezer. What do you notice there?”

The old man looked. “Nothing much.”

“Describe this ‘nothing much.’”

“Well, just the cord and the hole where it enters the freezer and a little ice that—”

“Aha! Ice, you say. What kind of ice?”

“Whatta you mean what kind? It’s ice.”

“What color ice is it?”

“Sort of, uh, creamy, I guess.”

“Creamy ice?” the orderly said. The old man nodded. “Creamy … ice?” the orderly repeated, slowly, exaggerating the syllables.

“Yes, creamy ice. Ice that is cream …” The light went on deep within the freezer of the old man’s brain. “Ice … creamy, as in … ice cream. That’s what’s in this freezer, huh? Wow, that was good.”

“Check the spill on the floor beneath the fourth freezer. What do you think that is, Watson?”

The old man wondered why they were skipping the fifth freezer, but he moved down two more and saw a bright red stain on the floor surrounding one of the legs of the freezer.

“I don’t know, it’s sorta red.”

“And what kind of food stuffs are ‘sorta red’?”

“Tomatoes, maybe, only they’re not just sorta red, they’re really red.”

“And they don’t leave a stain like that one. Look again.”

The old man did. “Liquid,” he said. “Some sort of red liquid.”

“From which we can conclude … what?”

“Huh?” the old man said, staring at the red stain as if it might speak.

In situ, man, in situ! Where is the stain? Where?” The orderly was nearly shouting. The old man got confused.

“I don’t know, whadda you mean ‘Where?’”

The orderly jumped down from the freezer, marched over to where the old man was standing, and slammed his foot against the floor right next to the red stain.

“WHERE … IS … IT?”

“Don’t shout, don’t shout,” the old man cried out and collapsed into a shaking, quivering ball on the floor next to the stain. The orderly recognized trauma when he saw it and even though he wanted to continue pretending to be a heartless machine of ratiocination, like Sherlock Holmes, the sight of the old man trembling on the floor turned the younger man from detective to orderly in the flip of a switch.

He knelt down next to the old man, put a comforting hand on his arm, and said, “Sorry, I shouldn’t have yelled. It’s okay. I won’t yell again. You’re okay.”

“What’s going on here?” a loud voice said.

The orderly and the old man both looked up to see the woman in white leaning over them.

Pace, pace,” the orderly said to the woman. “No lo contender.”

“Don’t give me your legal mumbo jumbo. Is he okay?”

Nota bene, which is to say—”

“I know what it means. Just get him out of my kitchen, I gotta lunch to prepare. He’s been snooping around here all morning.” She turned on the heels of her white shoes and marched off.

“That, my good friend,” the orderly said the moment the woman in white disappeared into the hallway, “is what we call una mala fida. A bad woman.”

“But she feeds us all.”

“Not all of us. Why do you think there’s so many food containers in that freezer there?” the orderly said, pointing at the sixth freezer, the one with no lock, the one the old man had spied the contents of.

“You mean …?” the old man couldn’t quite put it into words.

“You patients have no choice, but the staff, well, a sandwich from home is worth two made here, if you catch my drift. ’Tis a far far better thing we eat … But heh, are you really okay? I just told her that to get rid of her, but if you’re hurt or if you need some help …”

“Screaming hurts, sometimes, like … like the voice is in my head or like when the, uh, the … you know, the whatchamacallit, that thing the emcee speaks into?”

“The microphone?”

“Yeah, like when the mike screeches, you know, real loud?”

“Ah, feedback from the sound system.”

“It hurts … you know?”

“I do. My hearing’s not so good ‘cause I went to too many rock concerts and stood right up front, right next to those monstrous speakers, and I loved every minute of it, loved the sound, the vibe, the way you could feel the sound if you got close enough, but it damaged my ear drum or something. At least that’s what the doctors said. Most times I don’t notice it, but sometimes, when it’s real quiet, I hear a ringing in my ear, like a tiny phone in my head is ringing non-stop. ‘Bout drives me crazy. Mens rea, that’s what that is. The ringing. Mens rea.”

The old man looked the orderly in the eyes, studied his face, like Sherlock Holmes might study a client’s shoes and fingernails, for clues. What makes this guy tick, the old man wondered.

“You’re not Brad,” the old man said.

“Nope. Not-Brad, that’s me.”

“So what’s your name?”

Nomen est omen, eh? We’re true to our names, right? Isn’t that why you want to know mine?”

“I just wanna know what to call you.”

“I can call you Betty,” the orderly crooned, “and, Betty, when you call me, you can call me Al.”

The old man shook his head. “You’re hiding something.”

The orderly smiled. “Elementary, my dear Watson. We’re all hiding something.” He jumped up on the lid of the third freezer and sat there grinning. “Life is a game of hide and seek. You got baseball cards in your pillow. Me? Well, I got the answer to what’s in these freezers. Still wanna know?”

The old man realized the orderly wasn’t going to tell him his name, so he said, “Sure. But don’t yell when I don’t get it.”

No vociferationitus. Gotcha. Mum’s the word.”

The old man nodded. Then, pointing at the furthest two freezers, he said, “Meat and potatoes.”

The orderly nodded. The old man then pointed at the red stain on the floor near where he was sitting on the floor and said, “Red stain. Uh …liquid spill! So this freezer holds … the drinks?”

The orderly applauded. “Well done, Watson. Four down, since you already knew about the staff food. Three to go.”

The old man looked at the three remaining freezers, but they looked alike to him. Numbers three, five and seven. Odd numbers, odd freezers? Only there was nothing odd about them. They looked identical.

Out of the cold storage of his memory a warm image floated to the surface, like a piece of ice broken off a glacier wall, and on the cold clean surface of the ice he could read the letters MISC hand printed in dark ink. He knew the answer was at hand, he just had to look. Look at what was right in front of his eyes.

He looked at the freezers. He imagined the tops of the freezers. Then he remembered what the tops looked like.

“You knew all along!” he said to the orderly.

“Knew what?” the younger man said, suppressing a smile.

“The labels! I forgot about the labels. Look.” The old man grabbed the edge of the fourth freezer and pulled himself up until he was standing. From above he could see it clearly: the label he’d noticed the first time he was in the kitchen, but which he’d forgotten. Damn memory, he thought. But there it was, as clear as any clue Sherlock Holmes ever found: LIQUID written on a piece of paper and taped to the top of the freezer. He looked at the fifth freezer and found a similar label: DESSERT. He couldn’t see it, but he remembered seeing the label on the last freezer: MISC. He wasn’t sure what it meant then, but now it was obvious.

The old man looked back at the orderly, perched on the third freezer like a prospector who’d staked his claim. “Meat, potatoes,” the old man said, pointing at the first two freezers, “then down here we got liquids and desert. What’re the odds the label you’re sitting on says ‘veggies,’ or something like that?”

“Right you are, Watson,” the orderly said, hopping down from his freezer and revealing the label he’d covered with his butt. It read “Vegetables.”

“Your sleuthing brain isn’t frozen anymore.”

“Never was much of a mystery, was it? I mean, you knew the whole time what the labels said, didn’t you?”

The orderly shrugged, “Selbstverständlich. How not? I mean, I come here to get my lunch every day. But you were having such a good time.”

“You mean this whole … whole whatchamacallit, this, uh, this escapade! That’s the word. This whole escapade was just another therapy session?”

The orderly shrugged. “Better than the memory machine, eh?”

The old man nodded, “Much.”

“Good. But we better get outa here before Miss White Shoes returns or we’ll be personas non gratis.”

“But what’s in the sixth freezer? The one with Miscellaneous on the label?”

“Don’t know,” the orderly said. “Mystery for another day. C’mon.”

He grabbed the gurney and invited the old man to slide up on it for the ride back to his room. But the old man resisted. He wanted to know what was in that last freezer. With meat and potatoes and vegetables and drinks and dessert all taken care of, along with the staff food, what was left? What was begin hidden under the generic title MISC?

“When can we come back?” the old man asked.

The orderly took a long look at the old man. “You really care?”

“What else is there to amuse an old man in a hospital but gossip, games and … mysteries?”

“Okay. Tomorrow after breakfast has been cleared. I’ll bring a wheel chair this time.”

“I like the gurney. More dangerous.”

“You got it. Anything else?”

The old man thought for a moment. “Yes,” he said, “a name.”

“A name?” the orderly said.

“For you. I need a name for you. Bring one tomorrow.”

The orderly smiled. “A name. Good idea. And a disguise. Can’t solve a mystery without a good disguise, right, Sherlock?”

The old man laughed. “I thought you were Sherlock and I was the bumbling but practical Dr Watson.”

“Don’t believe everything you hear. Or anything, for that matter. We’re all non campus minties around here.”

The old man slid up on top the gurney and the orderly pushed him into the long, sloping hallway.

“Besides,” Not-Brad said, “Watson might prove to be a better Sherlock than Holmes himself!”