Cuckoo’s Nest by Zoe Messinger


“I feel like I’m in a cuckoo’s nest with a bunch of old farts!” I shouted. I was hoping someone could hear me. Everyone was talking over one another, or to themselves. I could hardly hear myself think. I usually preferred spending time with old folks. I felt more like them than a 26-year-old. This time I was thankful I could still hear, see, and take a shit every day. 

My 93-year-old grandmother sat there naked with her robe on backward, giant sunglasses, and a white sweatband just beneath her hairline, covering the marks on her forehead from all of her face-lifts back in the 80s. She normally masked them behind her high-fashion wigs. She was 4’10”, 80 pounds, and shrinking fast—I was scared one day she might disappear. Her skin was white and glowing, hardly a wrinkle on her face, bloated from the IV pumped into her at the hospital. The only woman who looked incredible bloated.

My bubby was playing word scrambles on her iPhone—yes, a 93-year-old playing games on her iPhone. “Beep, beep, beep!” It would sound every time she’d get a word right. She was quick. She was good with words. She was a tough woman, hiding her chronic leukemia for twenty years. She didn’t let things get to her, and she didn’t let people get in her way. I admired that in her.

She had gotten home from the hospital five minutes earlier, and was already back to her routine of wine and weed. “It’s happy hour somewhere,” she’d always mutter to no one in particular. She refused to go to a rehab center because they wouldn’t administer a joint, and she refused to take painkillers—they made her hallucinate. How ironic. Edibles are the geriatric drug of the future. 

Her right arm was wrapped in so much gauze, she looked mummified—the stoned expression only pleaded the case. Her skin was so delicate that it all ripped off when she broke the fall, so her left hand was precariously balancing the wineglass, ready to topple over at any moment—swaying between sips, spritzing around. 

Her voice was so hoarse, almost gone. “This hospital’s a desert!” she rasped. “You go to hospitals to shrivel up and die… I’m the only kid in this joint!” She’d shout that to all the nurses, the doctors, and anyone else who would listen to her when she was still at the hospital. So her voice was almost gone, but it didn’t stop her. Nothing stopped her. Now she was still screaming. This time because she thought it was the only way her voice would come back—things like, “Sally sells seashells by the seashore,” “red leather, yellow leather,” “cuckoo clock.” 

* * *

We were all sitting around the small breakfast table in her kitchen in La Costa, a quiet town because everyone was dead or deaf. The table was filled with salad and cheese. There was a dead ladybug on the Drunken Goat—fromage filling the air. My grandmother looked disappointed as she searched the table for a hot dog. She hadn’t eaten in four days, but that was normal for her. Hot dogs were her favorite food group. She couldn’t cook, so she ate them right out of the bag sometimes. Most people didn’t know, but she hated anything healthy. I knew. I could read her. We had a subconscious bond that only we shared. 

One time we were walking down her street, along the golf course, and she pointed out all the beautiful houses along the way. “Ah, Jeffrey, what a guy,” she said. “He played piano at Carnegie Hall. He’s dead. That’s Jackie’s house; we went to the races together. She’s dead. Ah, the Argentinean diplomat. Plane crash. He’s dead.”

Finally I said, “Grandma, what is this, death row?” 

We laughed so hard she shit her pants. Then she said, “You’re good, baby. You’re mine. You’re everything.” 

With her broken hip, we wouldn’t be walking for a while. But I knew we’d still be texting our secrets. We were more similar than I’d like to admit. It scared me. 

I looked around at the table, everyone in their own daydream. My grandmother looked worried, like something was eating her alive. “I hope the nurses have a sense of humor,” she said in her raspy voice. She rolled her eyes and began to do her neck exercises, swinging her head left and right so fast I worried it would fly off. 

“It doesn’t matter, Mom,” my Aunt Flo vibrato’d. “What matters is that you get better.” Flo was a tiny little thing and a chardonnay addict. Oaky, buttery California chard only. Quelle horreur.

“Flo! You should do a chardonnay enema,” I said to her.

“I don’t do enemas, babe,” she said. “I do pills.”


Zoe Messinger’s writing has been published in ONTHEBUS, HOBART, LITBREAK, and she also published a cookbook, Foodie Two Shoes: 46 Taste Tips from a Traveling Teenager (Small Batch Books, 2011).  Zoe has a Bachelor of Science degree from the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. As a chef she has cooked in two award-winning LA restaurants, and for two years ran a food truck in both Milan and Amsterdam. Zoe is a graduate of the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) and has performed stand-up in venues from LA to New York City to Paris. One day she hope’s to eat caviar while taking a long, hot bath. Today is not that day.

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3 thoughts on “Cuckoo’s Nest by Zoe Messinger”

  1. Pingback: Short Story Sunday – Coffee and Paneer

  2. Coco says:

    Oh, Zoe! What an amazing relationship you got to have with an incredible woman. She was lucky to have such a bad ass granddaughter, too. Thanks for sharing this story. ❤️❤️❤️


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