DEGENERATIVE DISEASES OF THE BRAIN
by Juniper Green
When I walk into her room Mrs. Goldberg does not recognize me. Every morning I help her out of bed, clean her up, and dress her. Every morning we meet for the first time. Some days she is thankful for my help. She calls me love, sweetheart, darling. Some days she curses me under her breath, scratches my arm when I try to steady her and cries out for a husband long deceased to come and chase the stranger out of their house.
“Did she give you any grief today,” Sam says as we meet by the bin in the hall.
“Nope,” I throw away a dirty nappy. “Sweet as a kitten.”
“That kitten has claws,” he lifts his forearm.
Three thin scars protrude from the skin. They’re smooth and translucent, catching the light as Sam flexes his arm. I want to reach out and touch them but Sam moves his arm away as he stuffs dirty sheets into the hamper next to the bin.
“Are you almost done with her?” he says.
“Almost, I’ve just got to get her down to breakfast.”
“Just put her on the settee,” Sam points to a worn sofa by the elevator. “I’ll get Suneeta to take her downstairs.”
“Thanks,” I smile a weak smile.
Looking forward to an extended coffee break, my shoulders straighten a little.
“You can help me on the two,” Sam says as he goes back into the room he’s been cleaning.
Of course, I think, and my shoulders slump back down.
After I have placed Mrs. Goldberg on the sofa where she will wait for Suneeta, however long it takes, I head over to the part of the house where Sam is helping the residents out of bed, waiting for me to come and join him.
“Sam?” I call through the corridor.
I cringe at the echo of my own voice. Most of the residents are still asleep and in room B12 Mr. Hauser is dying.
I take a step.
I don’t believe this. I shake my head but can’t fight the smile spreading on my lips.
I take another step, eavesdropping on doors that harbor snoring residents.
Another step, I push my ear up against a likely door. I snicker, I bet he’s in there.
I grin and rip open the door to room A17.
“Got whom?” says Mr. Powell, the resident of A17.
He is standing in the open door to the bathroom with Sam behind him washing a bedsore on his buttock. Before Mr. Powell can fetch his glasses I shut the door. My cheeks are burning, Sam again.
“Since you’re taking care of Mr. Powell, I’m going to get started on Mrs. Wolff across the hall.”
I walk off to B14, and this time I knock before I enter.
When I get down to the breakfast room with Mrs. Callander on my arm, most residents are seated. The more agile ones move around the room, making small talk about sleeping patterns and the current night nurse, giving shoulders a rub here and there. As I sit Mrs. Callander down I spot Sam at the far end of the room. I try to put my annoyance at him disappearing with Mr. Powell and leaving me on my own to get the rest of the residents ready into a single gesture. He smiles at me like a cheeky schoolboy and walks over. I have a feeling once he’s standing in front of me I won’t get a word out.
“Good morning Mrs. Callander,” Sam bends down to peer into her eyes.
Mrs. Callander smiles and blushes a little.
“Well, good morning to you, too.”
“Did you get another visit from your Johnny last night?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Callander chuckles. “He came through the window. We talked all night.”
I have to bite back a grin.
“I’m sure it was a lovely night,” Sam says.
“Oh, it was. Whenever my Johnny comes to visit it is very lovely.”
As I walk over to the kitchen counter to fetch Mrs. Callander’s breakfast, my stomach aches with the effort to hold back a laugh. I let out a choked thanks as I take the breakfast tray from the kitchen aid.
“Sam flirting with the old ladies again?” the aid says.
“They’re talking about her Johnny.”
“Hell, you make it to eighty and the president comes for a visit,” the aid mumbles and goes back into the kitchen.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. When I walk back to the table, the bubbles in my throat have settled.
“Here you go, Mrs. Callander,” I put down her tray. “Enjoy your meal.”
“Thank you dear.”
Sam winks at her before he follows me through the room.
He wiggles his eyebrows.
“Is Jenny here yet?”
“Dunno. Why don’t we get Suneeta to watch ’em?”
“Suneeta is not your personal slave, you know.”
“She’s not? I thought that’s why they sent those candy stripers in the first place.”
I bite my tongue before I say the things I can’t take back. He shrugs and grins but then he turns away. I look at my feet.
“There’s Jenny,” Sam says.
I look around the room but all I can see are residents chewing on stages of mushed breakfast.
“Over there,” Sam points across the room. “Hey Jenny.”
And then I see her too, straightening Mrs. Cowan’s wig, waving a distracted hand at Sam.
“Let’s get out of here before she comes over to talk to us.”
Sam grabs me by the elbow. As he drags me from the room, I spot Mr. Coleman, who is feeding his wife a slice of honey-buttered toast, and I think, Sam’s right, I need a break.
Outside I am rubbing at the goose bumps on my arms while Sam lights our cigarettes. The morning sun just isn’t enough when I’m standing here in a T-shirt.
“Here you go,” Sam hands me one of the cigarettes.
The filter is soggy with his spit but I don’t say anything.
“Such a nice morning,” Sam says. “They should build a conservatory, so the residents can eat outside.”
I look at Sam and raise an eyebrow.
“The board might take you up on that if you pitch it right.”
“You think so?”
“Sure,” I laugh. “If you build it yourself that is.”
Sam snorts and takes a drag from his cigarette.
“You’re a DIY-man?”
“No, but I’m a builder,” and that surprises me.
We stand there for a moment without saying anything until I can’t hold it in anymore.
“You are a builder? I thought you were a nurse.”
“Both,” he looks at me as if he can’t believe that I can’t believe that. “I used to lay brick.”
“Huh,” I exhale, the smoke stings my eyes. “Who would have thought?”
And as I look across the half-empty parking lot I can’t help but imagine Sam’s lean frame in a hard-hat, sweating the working man’s sweat, and when he touches my arm, I jump.
“Relax,” he says. “Where did you just go?”
“Just thinking about what to put in my notes after the shift,” I stare at his yellow fingers on my skin.
“Long time until then,” he sighs.
“Look there’s Mr. Coleman,” I hope Sam is distracted enough to move his hand away. “Good morning, Mr. Coleman.”
Mr. Coleman lifts a hand from the handles of his wife’s wheelchair and waves.
“I hope he’s put sunscreen on her,” Sam says and waves, and I hope that too.
I watch them as he wheels her off into the garden.
“So you fancy a lift after work?” Sam says, and I wish he hadn’t.
Mr. Coleman is gone and there is nothing to distract him with. I nod and when he smiles and leans in, his chest brushing my shoulder, I regret that I did. The heat radiating off him makes me go back to daydreaming about hard-hats and bricks and all these things I don’t know about him.
Since Jenny is in a mood, I am feeding Mrs. Coleman at lunch. Sam is on bathroom-duty. Mr. Coleman has gone home for the day, I wonder if she knows. I crush the potatoes and vegetables before I navigate the mush into Mrs. Coleman’s toothless mouth, gaping at me like a wet, pink cave.
“You know you don’t have to do that,” Sam nods to the mush on the plate, as he returns Mrs. Callander to her seat. “She’s never had dentures.”
“So?” I try not to look at him.
Jenny is watching us from the door.
“Here it comes, Mrs. Coleman,” I smile at her. “Open up wide.”
“Her gums are so callous. She could chew steak.”
I doubt that but I don’t argue. Mrs. Coleman chews and smiles, humming like a small, wrinkled refrigerator.
“Someone likes her meals,” Sam says in that exaggerated voice he uses with the residents.
Mrs. Coleman doesn’t look at him. She doesn’t look at me either. She looks at the spoon before it goes into her mouth.
“If only you were that content,” I say.
“Maybe when I’m old and have no more teeth,” Sam grins. “For now I’ll have to settle on being young and restless.”
I shake my head and concentrate on shoveling more lunch goo into Mrs. Coleman’s gaping mouth. Sam watches me, until Mrs. Callander starts tugging at his sleeve.
“Excuse me young man. But would you mind fetching the nurse?”
“Mrs. Callander. I am the nurse.”
“Oh, well then would you mind accompanying me to the bathroom.”
Sam bends down and puts an arm on her sleeve.
“Mrs. Callander, we just went. Five minutes ago.”
Mrs. Callander studies Sam’s face, pursing her lips but he just smiles at her.
“Did we? Well then I guess it can wait a while.”
I am mesmerized by Sam’s patience, which he appears to have reserved for the residents only. As he strokes Mrs. Callander’s arm, smiling at her, I feel acid bubbling up my throat. I can’t wait for my shift to end and for Sam to quit his job and return to working in construction and then I wave Suneeta over before I end up smothering Mrs. Coleman in her mashed potatoes.
After lunch I scribble down some notes for the late shift, an eye on the door of the break room. Sam is still helping residents go to the bathroom, since Mrs. Callander ended up soiling herself.
I can see him entering the break room as I round the corner, heading for the exit. I should change before I leave but that would take another ten minutes. Time I don’t have if I want to catch the bus and I want to catch the bus because if I don’t I’ll end up catching a ride with Sam and as much as I want to, I have a feeling I shouldn’t. So I run across the street where the bus is approaching my stop and as I get on I see Sam exit the building. he’s looking around, looking at me, turning a gesture into a question. And I want to turn back, get off the bus, walk over but there’s a line behind me pushing me forward, so I just shrug at him, pay my fare, and find a seat.
Juniper Green is a writer at the very beginning of her career. After long periods of aimless wandering she has settled in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she is working on her portfolio as well as editing her first novel. Previously her work has appeared online in Foliate Oak and The Dying Goose.
Image credit: Ulrich Joho on Flickr