The nurses called Bob Halpin "Fish" because he was an ex-alcoholic.
John Blakely sat at the window of his room thinking about Bob, the Home, and what was to come. John had laughed when he first discovered every resident in his wing had a nickname, but now he no longer thought it funny. Ms. Riley at the end of the hall was known as "Crazy Legs," lovingly named for the Alzheimer's disease destroying her mind. James Wilton, next door, was known as "James Brown"; John hoped this was not because James was the only black man in the wing. If true, it was certainly a sad state of affairs.
John knew he had earned his own nickname name from the permanent bulldog frown his expression assumed. The frown, which had been etched in his pale face since his wife's death, was composed of deep lines and heavily folded wrinkles. He felt like an exposed core of some old redwood. He suspected the grimace to be the reason nurses referred to him as "King Crotch," and the wing of Lauckland Nursing Home in which he resided as "Crotchety Hall."
He, Bob, and James knew Lauckland Nursing Home by another name: "The Land of Forgotten Old Souls." It was a place where old folks, with no family and no money, came to die. This made the Home feel as though it were a mild hell of isolation and repetition. Loneliness and death.
It had been bearable before Bob passed, because they had created a bubble of close friendship against the loneliness. The three men would conspire in their rooms, play like kittens in the hall, and give each nurse a crooked old middle finger when she passed. Now John did not have the energy for such high jinks. They had beaten the loneliness, but death caught up to them, as it always would. The Fish was dead and John was now lost.
His thoughts were interrupted by a pair of stiff heels, pounding the floor, as the heavy-set nurse patrolled the hall. Rolling his chair toward the table beside the bed, he reached for the pill cup and dumped the pale capsules on his tongue.
The nurse appeared stony in the doorway and her voice shrilled, "Pills Mr. Blakely?" He swallowed the dry packages and lifted the empty cup for her to see.
She pounded a path to his chair and seized his cheeks with her strangely muscular right hand. He thought his jaw would snap like a wishbone, but it held. Peering into his mouth she said, "Tongue!" He lifted his tongue. Satisfied, she let go of his face but lingered a moment. Perhaps she noticed the change in expression. After Bob's death, new lines had cropped up on his cheeks and around his mouth.
He stared into her eyes, which seemed too small for her large face, and knew it was one thing she could not withstand. The nurses of the Home never made eye-contact with the residents they berated and tormented, but if she happened to look into his silvery blue eyes this afternoon, she would indeed see the suffering.
Her heels pounded to the doorway and back down the hall. Relaxing, he rolled to the window once again and gazed out at the open stretch of land. At the far boundary of the grounds was the line of brittle pines stalking and looming over the majestic iron gate.
The beautiful pine, surrounding the entire estate, makes one feel at ease in the luxurious Lauckland Nursing Home, he remembered the brochure saying so many years ago. They never mentioned the desperation with which one views the pine forest. Today, he was not worried about the trees, but the inclement weather.
He rubbed his hands over one another in angst. The cold rain insisted on preventing his afternoon walk with James.
John raised his palm to the window, checking the temperature. The remarkably prominent veins on his right hand startled him. He turned the hand over and over, as if seeing it for the first time. Tugging at the loose skin, he remembered Bob once saying, "Getting old is just like deflating." Indeed, he knew he was deflating fast. He felt like a skin-balloon. The mid-forties gut he once brandished had faded down to the loose flab now under his shirt.
He wanted to leave the Home and deflate somewhere else. Many nights he dreamt of rolling down the driveway and onto the road beyond. He would push the chair until his arms grew tired, and perhaps a nice family would find him and take him into their home. He would crack jokes at dinner and play chess with the teenage son. He would break wind and blame it on the dog. They would come to love him, and when his time came to pass on, they would wail and say, "Papa, you blessed us with your love, and we hope we blessed you with the same."
He snapped out of the daydream, shook his head and chuckled. He was amazed how the fantasies would set in and sometimes hours would fly by. But he had no better way to occupy his time. He suspected he could write a memoir, as some older folks did, but knew it would be a forced remembrance of minute details he cared not to dredge up. Not to mention the dull chore of reading about a simple young man turning into a simple old man in three hundred pages. There was a wife, a child, a dog, and no great sum of money: the daughter left home and developed a debilitating pill addiction, the dog took her last breath on the back porch, and the wife did the same in a hospital bed. The little money went to hospital bills and the exorbitant cost of dying. One day he fell, then soon arrived at the Lauckland Nursing Home where he could be assisted in living.
It was a feeble story at best, he thought. The keywords were osteoporosis, hip, break, wife, dead, daughter, drugs, forgotten, help, friend, and dead. He realized he had drifted off again, and reigned himself back in.
John's ear twitched at another sound wafting down the hall. The origin of this noise was always much more pleasant than the plump nurse. The familiar squeak of a wheelchair, in serious need of lubrication, grew closer to his door. It was James.
John did not turn around when he said to James, "Looks like we won't get a tan today."
James rolled into the room and looked out at the rain, "Nope."
A few minutes passed until they spoke again. John was thinking about Bob, and he suspected James was doing the same. John was comforted by the silence, and the sound of James' voice startled him. "Say, do you think those bastards are screening calls here?"
James was not thinking of Bob, but John knew where the line of questioning would lead and meant to stop James before he went any further. "When was the last time you spoke to Janie?" he said.
"Oh, it might be a month or so," James said.
James had dashed into Bob's room, glowing with excitement, on the last occasion he spoke to his estranged daughter. The conversation had not gone well, but James had been delighted to hear his daughter's voice. John knew it had been more than three months since that incident, but he would not correct James. "Strange," John said.
"Very. Days just get stranger around here, especially without the old Fish."
More silence. A distant thunder echoed in the trees, but by the time it reached the Home, it had fizzled into nothing more than a low groan. This sound soothed John. He reached to his ear and turned up the volume on the ancient hearing aid. The thunder was no longer a groan but the growl of an angry god. The rain tapped on the glass in violent sporadic waves, and sloshed down the metal drains from the roof. James' breathing was noticeably irregular, but John could not say if it had always been so. His own heart palpitated and he grew anxious at the mess of sound. When a nurse began to bark at an orderly, John reached to his ear and turned the volume to its previous level.
"I sure wish Janie would call. I need her to call here," James said.
John nodded and turned to face James. The beads of shadowed water droplets formed on his friend's face as dark shifting splotches. "Why so worried all of a sudden?" John said.
James had not taken his gaze off of the soaked landscape until now. "Well Johnny, I came here to tell you they're moving me. Yeah. Gotta do some pretty major surgery on my ticker, so I'm going to a specialist in New York."
John's heart sank to the floor.
He looked away from the somber face, "I'm sure the nurses are better-looking up there. Hell, maybe they won't even slap you around." John laughed at his own joke but his heart sank deeper into the ground.
He knew with some certainty that James would not be back to the Home and he would never see his friend again. He might be relocated to a new place after the surgery, might not survive the surgery at all, or might suffer a severe heart attack in transit to the hospital. He knew his friend was saying goodbye.
"Hell, I'm sorry about this John, but I found out soon after Bob passed away. I just didn't want to stink up the situation anymore," James said.
John agreed, "I sure am going to miss you around here."
"Me too bud," James said.
"I'd sooner light myself on fire and roll into the oxygen tanks than stay here a day longer," John said.
"I hear that," James said with a slight smile. "I suppose that's what I'm doing." He paused. "They say my health isn't as good as they'd like for the surgery. I told them I wasn't getting any healthier sitting in this place."
John pressed his palm against the glass again, feeling the temperature. "So, when are you leaving?"
"Bright and early tomorrow morning," James said.
John's temper grew hot. He thought he would have another week or month before James left. He wanted to lash out at James, but he did not want to ruin the parting of his good friend. His only friend.
He had learned how to control his anger a long time ago, so he changed the subject. "You know, I was thinking about something last night." James perked up and finally turned to look at John. "Remember when Bob called that prostitute to come over on his birthday?"
James reeled back in the chair and his hoarse throat sputtered with laughter, "At first I thought it was his niece!"
"That's what he told everyone," John said. "But I'll tell you one thing, it sounded like Bob had a good old time in there!"
"Man I miss him," James said, and his smile broke.
"Me too. It's a shame we couldn't have met on the outside."
"Yeah, but thirty years ago, you might've gotten your old crotchety white butt kicked for having a dark friend like me," James said, his smile returning.
John laughed, reached his arm out to James and patted him on the shoulder.
They spent the rest of the afternoon together and talked about the past, but mostly about Bob Halpin. At the end of the evening, James said goodbye and John did the same. They agreed to keep in touch by mail or phone and John hoped the promise would be kept. His own arthritis would not allow him to scribble, much less write a letter.
John rolled to his room, looking over his shoulder, and James did the same. They gave one another a nod, and the last sound he heard of James "Brown" Wilton was the high squeak of the poorly lubricated wheelchair making its way down the hall.
The door closed with a hydraulic hiss and the room grew dark. John maneuvered to the lamp at his bedside and clicked the switch, the light burst on and the window became opaque. He gazed at his reflection for a moment and clicked the light off. The window became translucent once again.
John hoisted himself, with much difficulty, into bed. He would never press the red call button on the wall to ask the orderlies for help. He would sooner have risked another broken hip.
Lying in bed, he thought of James and of the day's events. Despite the loss of two friends, he felt better than he had in a long time. He had decided not to bid James farewell, the next morning, because it would only make things harder for both men.
John woke in the night, sweating from a terrible dream. His whole body was soaked, and a flurry of thoughts rushed through his head. He was surprised to find himself in his room at the Home.
The last memory of the dream was beginning to fade, but he remembered sitting at the foot of Bob's bed. James was weeping wildly behind him, but John's head would not turn. A painful spasm had just swept over Bob's body and he was tightly curled on the bed. Bob reached a deflated old hand to John and said, "Don't die in here."
Bob's hand fell and his body went limp. The dream crept away.
John rolled on his side and the stench of ammonia filled his nose. Urine had soaked through his navy blue pants to the mattress below. The warm sensation covered his backside and legs like a blanket.
Using the back of his hand, he wiped at the sweat above his brow. This only forced the sweat down around his eyes. Tears collided with the sweat and both plummeted toward his rounded chin. He did not wipe these away. Instead, he turned to the window, his eyes following the beautiful silhouette of pines lining the perimeter of the luxurious Lauckland Nursing Home.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Paul J. Breaux. All rights reserved.