Someone’s shit is under my fingernails and I don’t know whose.
There are more than a few options. The nursing home went cheap on us and bought crap gloves. The way I’ve been chewing my nails ever since Rowdy was born, the ragged edges push right through the fingertips. Makes me think of that damn broken condom every time.
Of course it could be Rowdy’s shit, which is what I’d rather. I like that better than the last idea, which is that it’s my own shit, jammed up under that nail. Because just like the nursing home, the school is cheap as hell and you’ve got to spin the roll at least five times if you don’t want to touch your own cooch – or worse.
I look at the brown froth churned up by the ferry, enjoying the slow movement of the boat that’s taking me to work, a place across the river in Kentucky that’ll take a CNA who doesn’t have a high school diploma yet. I couldn’t get a job in Ohio, though without a car the only place I could really apply was the county home, where the HR guy spotted the name scrawled across the top of my application and his eyebrows shot up. I wondered if he had a kid that I went to school with, and knew the joke about me.
Taylor Havers – everybody’s had her.
It’s an old joke, one I’ve been hearing since seventh grade when I got too cozy with a freshman in the backseat of his rusted out Toyota. Not that cozy is a good word to use there, since it hurt like hell and I cried the whole time. But he said sweet things, and his hands were warm, and it had been so long since I’d been touched nice.
I’m no whore. But when you do it young everyone thinks you don’t stop, like your vag is rolling downhill, gaining speed and knocking down boys like bowling pins. Really it wouldn’t have mattered even if I wanted to keep on rolling, ‘cause the guy caught so much shit from his friends for banging a seventh grader he never talked to me again. Everybody else that came sniffing around didn’t even start out with saying sweet things or have warm hands. They just heard it was easy pickings, and were there to reap.
But it doesn’t matter that I told all them no, sometimes having to scream it so that they’d get the idea. People just remember that I said yes that once, and then another time I said it twice in one night because I’d had too much to drink and needed someone to want me, not even caring who. And that night got me Rowdy, and a big question mark hanging over his last name. I gave him mine. Because that’s what he is.
I scrape a clean nail under the dirty one and flick what comes loose into the river, adding to whatever-all is cooking in that mess. I’m so tired these days it’s more than possible I didn’t wash my hands after I went to the bathroom before leaving school straight for work, my breasts resting hot and heavy against the roll of fat that I don’t think is ever gonna go away.
The ferry lets out a blast that I’ve gotten used to, long and low, my cue to step out of the daydream and be a nurse now. But I see Rowdy’s little face same as if he were right in front of me, and I think about how he hasn’t heard that joke about me yet, and never will if I can get together enough money to get us out of here. That’s why I get out of bed early and go to it late, wake up to being a mom and then a high school senior and then a nurse, and then go home to be a mom again.
Like I ever stop being one.
I clean my hands good at work, scrubbing under the nails and washing clear up to my elbows. Massey is the RN on duty for my shift and she’ll tear me a new one if she thinks I’m anything less than sanitized. I pull my hair up into a ponytail and drop my lanyard over my head, the plastic ID swinging as I make my way to the nurse’s station.
On the card it says my name and job. CNA – Certified Nurse’s Assistant, which sounds a lot more glamorous than Resident Ass Wiper. I look happy in my picture though, if you can get past the third-trimester puffiness of my face. I’m smiling and I might be swollen as hell but I’ve got the pregnancy glow working for me. There’s a little hint of hope around the eyes, too. Like maybe I thought since I got certified and got a job before Rowdy came everything was going to be okay.
Things are not okay, not by a long shot. I make eleven bucks an hour and spend twelve getting over on the ferry every day. But a job at Twilight Hills is better than a job nowhere at all, and eleven bucks every hour is more than I had sixty minutes earlier, so whatever. I’m here.
“You look tired, kid,” Charlene says as I slip behind the desk. She’s at her computer, rearranging pictures of her grandkids since a new one is on the way and she’s got to clear a spot.
When I started a month ago I didn’t know if calling me kid was supposed to make me feel stupid or cared for. Since all her scrubs are covered in puppies or kittens I figure it’s the second one, so I let her.
“I am tired, old lady,” I say, and she barks out a laugh.
“How’s your little one?”
“Haven’t seen him since I left the house,” I sigh, torn up about the place deep inside of me that is part glad about that, part devastated.
“It’s good of your mom to keep him the way she does,” Charlene says, using the hem of her scrubs to wipe a smudge off a picture frame. “But that’s what grandmas do.”
I only shrug. Where I live, what grandmas do is bitch about being one before forty and repeat things about laying in the bed you made. But I can’t say it’s not good of her to keep Rowdy, because it is. He’s always clean, fed, and happy when I get home so I can’t badmouth my mom on that.
It’s what isn’t done that bothers me. If I look right now there’s probably three or four pics of Rowdy on my phone, the crack in the screen putting a black scar right across his whole face. Sure, she’ll send me stuff through the day, let me know my baby is okay. What’s not there is a word from her, any kind of indication that she cares for him – or me.
I tried to tell her so, once. I’d heard about lying in the bed I’d made for the hundredth time, Rowdy crying in the background after I got home exhausted. I said maybe if I felt some love once in a while I wouldn’t have gone chasing after it in the first place. That got me a smack across the face, which kinda proved my point.
But Mom can’t raise me no different than she was raised herself. I met my Grandma Dorris the one time and that was all I needed. So all I can do is learn, and do better. I end up pulling out my phone and showing it to Charlene, her making the right noises and saying the right words about my Rowdy, the ones my own mom can’t quite get out. I’m slipping it back into my pocket when Massey comes barreling at me.
The hallways are wide enough here so that wheelchairs can go two-by-two, Noah style. Even with all that space I swear Massey fills it, her voice coming before her.
“Phone away,” she yells at me, like I’m a dog raising my leg on the counter.
“Christ, Barbara,” Charlene says. “She’s looking at pictures of her baby.”
“Phone away,” Massey repeats, jaw set hard.
There’s not much I can do since the phone is already gone, so I raise my hands up, feeling stupid as shit but desperate to show her they’re empty. I can’t lose this job, and opening my mouth won’t let anything nice out.
The double doors at the end of the hall swing open automatically, slow and easy, and the mixed smell of the dining room hits me. It’s spaghetti night, which means there’ll be a lot of tomato-sauce stained chins to wipe, and oregano scented diapers on the menu for tomorrow. My patients file past the station, some of them on their feet, a few pushed by nurses in their chairs. Carmichael raises a hand in greeting – one of the few residents that don’t care about me being a mom without a ring on my finger. His wife, Judy, gives her wheelchair an extra spin to get in between us, mean-mugging me the whole time, like I’m making a play for her man.
Still, I’ll take a bitch face over whatever Jarold has to toss at me tonight. Last week he told me he likes girls with a little meat on their bones and pinched my ass so hard I had a bruise. Tiffany laughed when I told her. Said Jarold makes her happy she’s flat as a board on both ends.
“Hey there, Miss Angelina,” Charlene coos at everybody’s favorite, a hundred-plus-year-old-woman I could fit in my pocket. “How’s your day?”
“Shitty,” she says, her voice just as strong as her grip as she brakes, leaving a tire burn on the clean linoleum. “They said orange Jell-O tonight and it was lime. What kind of establishment has kitchen staff that don’t know their colors?”
“I’m sure it was an oversight,” Massey says, positioning herself behind Miss Angelina’s chair to get her moving again. But the old lady’s got the brakes on and isn’t going anywhere.
“Don’t oversight me, missy.” Angelina turns in her chair, loose skin around her chin jangling with anger. “When Jell-O is the best part of your day, you’ll understand.”
“We’ll all get there eventually,” Massey says, and my stomach kinda drops and I feel my mouth pulling down on the corners.
Lately a stiff breeze is all it takes to make me cry, let alone the thought of getting old, eating my dinner at four-thirty and hoping I can stay awake ‘til the end of Wheel of Fortune.
“I’ll take you to your room,” I say to Angelina, slipping out from behind the station. “I don’t mind,” I add to Massey, so she thinks I’m doing her a favor rather than trying to get her to leave the old lady alone.
And people think bullies are only on the playground.
Angelina makes one of her noises – a haughty little hmmph low in her throat. It does everything she wants it to, puts Massey down while making Angelina seem above it all. I could learn a thing or two from the old lady. Angelina’s hmmph is a lot classier than my go-to fuck you. She holds her head high as I wheel her down the hall, passing under a flickering fluorescent that maintenance hasn’t gotten to yet.
Once we’re in her room I have to help her use the toilet – something I thought I’d never get used to. But four weeks in I’ve got no problem pulling up a fresh diaper onto an adult who leans on me while I’m doing it, her skin paper smooth against mine where our arms touch.
It’s weird because she feels so much like Rowdy, but her skin is a map of the hurts life has done to her. Broken veins in her legs spiral dark blue against pale skin, and the sag of her belly where her children left their marks. Rowdy’s only got the one spot on him, a blush of red at the base of his neck where he got caught up inside of me and scraped a bit on the way out. One of the maternity nurses at the hospital told me that’s called an angel’s kiss, the last bit of heaven they get before they’re tossed into the world.
“No bath tonight, I don’t think,” Angelina says as I help her to the bed.
“Are you sure?” I glance at her chart. She’s not exactly due for one but the color of the Jell-O wasn’t the only thing she struggled with at dinner tonight. There’s a healthy glob of mashed potatoes smeared across her forearm. She notices it at the same time I do, and her mouth thins out like she’s angry or about to cry.
“I’ll get it,” I say, wetting a washcloth in the corner bathroom. I wipe her off, giving a few swipes here and there for good measure.
“Thank you child,” she says, her eyelids drooping even though the sun is still throwing light at us through the blinds, making her whole room glow a dusky red.
“Anything else you need?” I ask, but she’s already gone, her head tilted to the side. Everybody always says sleeping like a baby to say they went down deep, but I spend my days with both and I’m here to say that old people know more about dropping off in a second than any baby. Thing is they spring back awake just as fast, ready for another round of nothing more than checkers and mashed peas.
Tiffany walks past, knocking her bony knuckles against Angelina’s open door to get my attention. “Can you make sure Agnes gets her meds after Jeopardy? She’s all cranked off at Judy about something and wouldn’t take them for me.”
“Yeah, sure,” I say, clipping Angelina’s chart to the end of her bed.
“Thanks,” Tiffany says, hovering a second longer than she needs to. “Jarold give you any trouble today?”
I roll my eyes. “No. Maybe I’m getting too fat even for him.”
“Awwww,” Tiffany says, but she doesn’t tell me I’m being silly or even that I look great, and I’m glad. I don’t look great, but it’s got nothing to do with my belly. My face is saggy, and when I glance in Angelina’s mirror all I can see is two dark circles staring back at me. Out in the hall I hear the bell go off at the nurse’s station, followed by a yell from Emmett’s room.
“I’ll get it,” Tiffany says. “He’s all pissy because he has to go to the clinic for a colonoscopy tomorrow.”
“Don’t you mean shitty?” I ask and she giggles, putting her hand over her mouth as she backs out into the hallway. I hear her voice, high and friendly again, as she says, “Hey there Emmett, what do you need from me?”
I get a hitch in my chest, tears wanting to run somewhere but I got to keep ‘em tight trapped in my throat or risk getting Massey pissed at me for upsetting patients. Hearing Tiffany switch from dead-on-her-feet to how-can-I-help-you? and make it sound like she actually wants to has got me remembering last night when Rowdy was screaming at three in the morning. I banged my hip on the crib and all he got from me was breathless goddammit and a whiff of pit stench when I picked him up because I keep him cleaner than I do myself.
Or maybe it’s what she said that got to me more than how she said it – what do you need from me? I don’t know if anybody’s ever asked me that once in my life. Couple years ago I woulda said a new phone or a pair of shoes, but now if somebody asked I’d say five minutes. Five minutes in a chair alone with my feet up.
But that’s all wishful thinking, ‘cause nobody’s going to ask. Angelina’s breathing is easy, the light rasp of it filling the room as I turn off the lights, leaving her to the dying rays of the sun.
I take a hard pull of the last breath of fresh air I’m likely to get for a while before I open our front door. My face is pinched red and tight from the coolness of the night biting at me on the ferry, my feet complaining from being on them most of the night and then dragging my ass back home. But I’m outside, and everything is fresh here in the early morning hours, not heavy with the smell of sick like at work, or rank with smoke like what I’m about to walk into.
I try real hard not to let my keys jangle, but my hip hits the door as I’m coming in and it bounces back at me, my lanyard still hanging from the knob. Everything’s ringing like Santa’s sleigh and I know Mom’s gonna be pissed at me before I’ve even put a foot inside. Rowdy’s cry reaches me first though, cutting through the paper-thin walls and doubled by the baby monitor on the end table.
“He was asleep,” Mom says, rising up from the couch for a cigarette.
Her anger is like that, hiding in her tone and not coming right out to fight. That way she can shrug and say she didn’t mean anything by it.
I don’t even take off my shoes, I go right for Rowdy’s room. It’s a corner of the house that probably was supposed to be something like a pantry or maybe even a closet but it sure as hell wasn’t meant to be no nursery. His crib takes up the whole wall and one leg of his changing table hangs out over into the hallway, so that I have to slide past it to get in his room. My stomach brushes against the spindles and for once I couldn’t care less about holding my breath to see if I can suck it in enough to get by.
I’m so tired I might just keep holding my breath until I go over, right there in Rowdy’s room.
I don’t realize I’m half-considering it until there’s a burn in my throat and I take a gasp, matching Rowdy’s once he knows I’m there. I don’t know if it’s smell or hearing or what, but that boy can tell if it’s me or if it’s his grandma. And when it’s me he knows just what to do.
His pealing scream dies out with a little whimper, like he knows that I’m going to come to him anyway so everything’s okay now, even if I haven’t done it just yet. There’s so much trust and love inside of him I’m ashamed of what I was thinking a second ago, not breathing ‘til I crashed down, probably shaking the whole house and scaring the living daylights out of my baby.
The words still throw me, like when I haven’t had a boyfriend for a bit and then I do again, so I get to say that word–boyfriend, which always taste like candy at first, before they go all bitter and sour in my mouth. But baby never comes out sounding nasty like in Mom’s voice, or even the one checkout lady down at the dollar store who always says “your baby” like I should be ashamed of him nestled up against me in his sling when I make a run for diapers.
No, my baby always feels different when I say it. It used to come out shocked and confused, then all doomed like Rowdy was a brick wall already in sight, and me with no brakes. But then he came, all covered in my blood and there was sweat running down my face and my hair in such a knot from me thrashing it had to all be cut off, and the nurse handed this screaming armful of flesh to me and laid him against my skin and she said, “Taylor, here’s your baby.”
“My baby,” I repeat, sliding my hands down into the blankets and around Rowdy’s body, loving how his tiny little butt fits into my hand, how one of my palms against his shoulder blades holds him right in place and then he’s against me, nuzzling for food and making little noises that he saves special for his momma.
I drop into the rocking chair that I can’t rock because the rails will scrape against the wall, but Rowdy never seems to mind. He gets to work eating and I feel all the tightness flow out of me. Right now I don’t care that I’m in the smallest room in the world, with a wall pressing against the back of my skull and my knees hitting his crib. I don’t need a big room because it’s just me and Rowdy in it.
And I think I could stay here, and be good.
“Taylor! Wake up, you’re late.”
It’s not my name that cuts down into sleep and gets me moving, but the word late. I jerk awake in the rocking chair, Rowdy protesting with a bawl that sets my nerves on edge before I’ve even rubbed the crusted sleep out of my eyes.
“Christ, Taylor,” Mom says from the hallway. “You fall asleep with him in the chair?”
“Guess so,” I say, looking down at my baby boy, who looks as confused as me. I put him in his crib and he wails as I leave, sliding out the door and past Mom who follows me to the bathroom.
“You can’t be doing that,” she says as I splash water on my face. “This girl I went to school with smothered her baby one time. Kid slid down in between her arm and the chair and died while she was dreaming.”
I feel a gag threaten in my throat, tasting all dense and slimy since I haven’t had nothing to eat since a handful of animal crackers Charlene snuck me from the kitchen around one in the morning.
“I didn’t mean to,” I say, slipping past Mom again and down the hall to my room, her still hot on my heels and Rowdy yelling for me to come back.
“She didn’t mean to either,” Mom goes on. “Kid’s still dead. It only takes once.”
I’m stripping down right in front of her when she says this, my scrubs stinking of my own drool up top and Rowdy’s leaky diaper down below. I lose it, all the hot of the vomit I feel down in my stomach forcing up words that feel good coming out, just like a real upchuck.
“You think you gotta tell me that, huh?” I scream at her, my belly jiggling over the edge of my underwear with the force of my voice. “You think I don’t fucking know it only takes once?”
Her finger comes up, pointing at me, long and accusing. Thin as hell, which somehow makes me even more pissed. “Don’t you take that tone with me in my house, young lady,” she says.
“Fuck your house,” I yell back, jerking on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt off the floor that hopefully doesn’t smell too bad. She likes to work little jabs into fights, her house, her time, her money spent getting my certification. Only thing she never says is that Rowdy is her grandson. She only lays claim to what she can bitch about.
I’m trying to jam my shirt down into my pants, but it’s a losing battle because this shirt came along way before Rowdy and my tits are like water balloons right now. Mom crosses her arms in the doorway.
“You can’t leave before you feed him,” she says, more quiet than before.
“Fuck,” I say again, my voice like hers, drained out and done now that the fighting is over.
She’s right. I’m late and that’s the way it is and I’ve got to feed Rowdy before I do anything else.
Because I’m the only one who can.
On days I catch the bus to school I feel more like a loser than usual. All the other kids my age drive or hitch a ride, but I don’t have a car and my friends lost interest in me somewhere around thirty-two weeks when I had to go on bed rest. So I usually haul my ass to the corner, walk past the kids sitting in the front where Rowdy will be in five years and make my way to the back where I slouch down low in the seat.
The little ones up front usually sing, their voices high and sweet. Towards the middle seats the faces start to slide toward sullen and guarded, and then there’s me in the back, too tired to wear any emotion at all. It’s like the emergency exit is a black hole that sucks away all your happiness, but the littles don’t know that yet. They’ll figure it out about six rows back, I guess.
The bus might be depressing as hell but I’d give anything for it this morning, my swollen feet slapping against the ground as I walk as fast as I can to school. I’m not desperate enough to break into a jog; I did that once and had all sorts of things yelled at me as I went, my boobs bouncing and my belly flopping every which way.
It didn’t used to. I never had a flat stomach or anything, but I could bare a few inches between my shirt and my jeans, and like the whistles and long looks that came with it. But Rowdy ended all that, the shirts and the looks both. Even if I do lose the weight I’m different now my skin all stretched and torn from being a place where someone lived, once.
I feel a stab down in my gut and stop walking for a second, not sure if it’s from walking too fast, or if it’s my conscience taking a cut at me. I love Rowdy, deep down in my gut, I love him. But what Mom said this morning about him maybe dying ‘cause I could suffocate him in the chair made me want to vomit at first because it was horrible, and then I wanted to vomit because—before I could stop it—I felt a tiny breath of relief at the thought.
No more diapers, no more baby shit. No more waking up every three hours to feed an always-hungry mouth. I could let my breasts go dry and they’d go back to normal size. I could sleep. I could dream. I could rest.
I could not be a mom anymore.
It’s an ugly thought, but shiny at the same time.
I jam it down, past all the worry and the hurts and all the other bad things in me and walk to school like I didn’t think about my baby dying and maybe it not being the worst thing in the world. Because it would be, and I know it, and when I see my face reflected back at me in the front doors I tell myself to fuck off.
Office staff at the school must’ve gone through some kind of sensitivity training or something since last year, because they hardly bat an eye at me when I show up late again. That or maybe it’s easier for them to pretend I’m like all the other kids when my belly brushing up against the counter isn’t all tight and full of baby anymore. In any case I get my late slip without too many dirty looks and slide into my seat a few minutes after second period starts.
Government is one of the classes I couldn’t get out of in order to graduate. The online course was already full and the option class at the satellite campus is only offered while I’m over the river at work. So I sit in here and learn about how a bill becomes a law and try to ignore all the side stares whenever public assistance comes up.
After my couple of classes I run home to give mom the milk I pumped at school, and squeeze out a little extra so that I don’t feel like I’ve got cement in my bra by the time I get back from work. Mom’s quiet and careful with me, like she always is after we blow at each other. I keep my mouth shut too. Neither one of us is big on apologizing. We just try to make it better by pretending it didn’t happen. Until it happens again.
Rowdy is asleep and Mom makes a dark noise at me when I slip into his room, but I’ve got the guilt of the morning hanging over my head and I want to see him. He’s deep asleep, mouth open, his tummy going up and down in a rhythm I could watch forever. His arms are above his head, which Charlene told me once means he’s a happy baby. Sometimes, when he’s red in the face and screaming and I’m trying to get my boob free quick enough to hush him up so Mom doesn’t yell at me too, I have to remember the moments like this. Watching him sleep is one of the better things I have so I hold onto it as I close the door softly, leaving him behind again.
My scrubs feel like heaven after the jeans I squeezed into this morning. They’re nice and loose on my hips – maybe even a little looser than last week. So I’m feeling decent when I swipe my monthly pass at the dock, stepping onto the ferry for my few moments of freedom.
It takes five minutes to cross, and I swear my blood pressure goes down every second. From the time I open my eyes in the morning to when I collapse in my bed at night I’ve got something to do, something to worry about, something to drag down me down while my aching feet carry me to whatever duty I’m headed to next. But on the boat, I’m floating: no work, no responsibilities. I don’t even have to walk. It’s someone else’s job to get me where I’m going and nobody is the boss of me here.
Even though my feet hurt I usually don’t sit down. I like to lean over the side, watching the river water bubble up as we head over to Kentucky. Thing about water is that it’s not actually blue. Not here, anyway. River water is brown as shit, and even the kids know better than to color the curly strip on their drawings blue. I remember the hallways when I was in elementary, the bright yellow paint of the cinderblock walls dulled by the pictures our chubby fingers had made. Brown buildings with dead grass in the front lawns, a muddy snake crawling through the middle of every picture, the green and blue crayons in our boxes keeping their sharp points well into the school year.
I’m staring at the dirty froth when the ferry gives its deep bellow, knocking me out of wherever I was and right back into the real world. The one where I gotta go to work. When I get to the home there’s a squad out front, but the lights aren’t going. And an emergency vehicle in no particular hurry in front of Twilight Hills is not a good sign.
I try to ignore the empty stretcher in the hallway, my eyes bouncing off it real quick like they don’t want to look too close. Charlene is at the desk, clicking through a spreadsheet. She glances at me when I come around the counter.
“Emmett passed,” she says, all matter of fact.
“Oh.” I don’t know what else to say. I’ve never even been to a funeral because mom said going to Grandma Dorris’ was half an hour more than we had to give, and everybody else in my life who’s dead split long before they got to the dying part.
Charlene’s fingers stop tapping across her keyboard. “Your first one?”
“Huh?” My brain is slow. Too little sleep the night before and too much activity down the hall has me all distracted as the medics move something draped in a sheet over to the gurney.
“First time around a dead body?” Charlene clarifies.
“Yeah.” The medics are gentle with Emmett, laying him all careful and keeping his arms and legs tucked under the sheet, like there’s a danger he’s going to get cold or something. Even for all that, it feels wrong. There’s a dead person under there, a person who was yelling for Tiffany last night, trying to make it sound like he was all grumpy about something but really he just wanted her attention.
Tiffany was his girl, for sure.
“She come in yet?” I ask Charlene. She knows who I mean without me saying.
“Shift starts in half an hour,” she says, checking her watch. “Won’t go well, I’m afraid. Emmett liked to give her some hell, but I don’t think she minded taking it too much.”
“Nope,” I agree as the gurney slides past us, Emmett leaving the nursing home without anybody saying goodbye, the medics negotiating who is going to get the door, same as if they were carrying groceries.
“You get used to it,” Charlene says as the doors slide shut behind them, the wind pulling the sheet edge out from under Emmett. It whips around as they load him and I get a glimpse of a foot.
I don’t know if I will get used to it, honestly. Seems like there should be something more to moving a body than just actually doing it, same as getting a truck on moving day and having a neighbor help with the sectional. But no, in the end Emmett was like anything else, a weight to be lifted and loaded, and somebody’s job to do it.
But a month ago I couldn’t stand the smell of shit and now I can give a sponge bath all the time looking forward to what I packed in my snack bag, so I guess a person can get used to just about anything.
Massey comes out of Emmett’s room and her eyes lock on me like I done something wrong the second I walked in the door, even though I did that ten minutes early.
“Did Emmett get his meds last night? I can’t read the handwriting of whoever wrote in his chart,” she says.
I take it from her and glance at Tiffany’s writing. “Looks like it,” I tell Massey, relieved that I’m able to say the right thing.
“Alright,” she says. “Send Tiffany in to my office when she gets here. I’ve got to sign off on a pile of paperwork as high as my knee.”
Through the front doors, I see Tiffany’s car pull into the parking lot, her mouth wide open as she sings along with her music, not knowing she’s about to have all the song knocked out of her the second she walks in.
I run my finger along Emmett’s chart. This folder has been touched and turned, written in and on, stacked and reshuffled. Its edges are soft like the down on Rowdy’s head. Emmett had been here a long time, and he’d left with less notice than the mail coming in.
The doors swing open and Tiffany breezes through, spinning her lanyard at her side like a lasso, letting it loop tight around her finger before she unwinds it the other way. She hits the brakes as soon as she sees our faces.
“What? What happened?”
“Tiffany, honey,” Charlene doesn’t have to finish her sentence. Tiffany already spotted the chart in my hand, the typed label, long-yellowed, with Emmett’s name on it.
“We lost him, didn’t we?”
“This afternoon,” Charlene says.
Tiffany nods once, hard, like she’s taking a punch on the chin. “Shit,” she says quietly and ducks into the nurse’s bathroom, a tear already smudging her eyeliner.
We watch the door swing shut behind her, the sound of running water almost covering a half choked cry as she gets whatever she needs out of her system before clocking in.
“You get used to it,” Charlene says again. “But that doesn’t mean it gets easier.”
It’s a dumbass question, but I’m not good with words and don’t know how else to ask Tiffany how she’s doing as we tidy up what used to be Emmett’s room. All his clothes went into a box, the picture of his grandkids resting on top along with a couple of detective novels from the eighties. All it takes is one box, thirty minutes, and two people to make Emmett’s room not his anymore. Tiffany and I have stripped it down, sterilized it, and made it into just another room, waiting for the next person whose stuff we’ll be boxing up a few years down the road.
“I will be,” Tiffany says, her voice still hoarse from the good cry she got out of her system in the bathroom. She’s jerking the sheets off the bed, the last thing in the room that’s still got a little bit of Emmett about it, even if that is only a few gray hairs on the pillow and a shit stain.
“Damn,” Tiffany says, rubbing the end of the sheet between her fingers.
“I forgot to knot it,” she says, quiet like and mostly to herself.
“You probably don’t know that one yet, do you? If there’s a patient close to passing, tie a knot in the end of their bed sheet and they won’t die on your shift.”
I lean against the wall, resting for a few seconds here where Massey won’t spot me. “Seriously?”
Tiffany shrugs and gives the sheets an expert tug, stripping the bed with one rip. “I’ve been doing this five years, Tay. All I know is, I tie a knot and they don’t die. Not on my watch, anyway.”
“But what if the next shift ties a knot too? And then you come back on and tie it again. Nobody’d ever die.”
She shakes her head and rolls the sheet in her arms. “Doesn’t work that way. Somebody always forgets.”
I don’t want to upset Tiffany any more than she already is, but this kind of stuff has never sat well with me. I was the kid who didn’t worry about the monster under the bed because I could hear a real one yelling at my mom through the wall. But my thoughts must be right on my big stupid face because she just kinda smiles at me like she knows something I don’t know.
“There’s more to this job than what they teach you in the classes,” she says. “I call it off-the-charts stuff.”
I’m so worn out that even the cold hard wall behind my back feels good because it means not all my weight is on my feet. I could talk to Tiffany about stuff I don’t believe in for hours if it means I’m pushing back on something, taking a little pressure off of me.
“Off-the-charts?” I ask, hoping she’ll say more.
“Yeah, you been here long enough. Surely Charlene has gotten after you for saying the Q word, right?”
I know a lot of bad words, but none of them start with Q. The only thing that I can come up with on short notice is queeve, which I’m not sure Charlene would know and I got no business saying to her in the first place. Tiffany sees how blank I am and smiles.
“The Q word,” she repeats, dropping her voice low and whispery. “Quiet. You don’t ever say that the ward is… that. It’s asking for it.”
“Got it,” I nod, and pick up the box from the floor. I spot Emmett’s slippers tucked under his bed, one pushed further than the other. “Missed something,” I tell Tiffany.
I lie on the floor to reach the one, my scrubs popping up over my fat roll so that my belly is against the tiles, their coldness sucking the heat right off me. It takes my breath away and I can’t help but think of Emmett’s foot on the gurney, pale and naked in the cold wind, and how he had no idea when he went to bed last night he wasn’t gonna need these slippers no more.
I wanted to ask Tiffany more about off the charts stuff, but Agnes and Judy got into it because Carmichael gave Agnes his cookie at dinner and his wife went off on him same as if Agnes had crawled under the table and undid his fly. Judy went to sulk in the room she shared with Carmichael as Agnes ate the cookie – a little more slowly than necessary, like each bite tasted better than normal because Judy was so hacked off over it.
Carmichael shuffles over to a window table to sit by himself as we prepare med trays, and Tiffany nods toward him, eyes on me. I wave to let her know I see him, taking the paper cup with his name on it over to where he sits.
“Hey there, Carmichael,” I say, keeping my voice light and cheery like we’re supposed to. “Time for your meds.”
His own mixture is a pretty kind of one: light blues and white, a bright red shiny pill like a cherry on top of his medicinal ice cream sundae. He takes them all with a sharp jerk of his neck, dry-swallowing them without a blink. I offer the other cup, cool in my hands with newly poured water, but he waves it away.
“Only talent I got left,” he says. “I can get a mouthful of pills down without a drink. Always impresses the ladies.”
“I don’t think that’s what does it,” I tell him.
It’s funny how once you’re around old people enough you start to see what’s below the wrinkles and the age spots. I don’t need his sepia colored senior picture by his bedside to tell me Carmichael was a good-looking guy once. He still is, really. There might be a broken blood vessel on his temple but his eyes are an ice blue that stop you, and the laugh lines are deep in a way that isn’t a bad thing.
He chuckles now, creasing them more. “You see Judy have her fit, did you?”
“Guess you’re still a prize,” I tell him.
“And she won me a long time ago. Still thinks she’s got to fight over me though.” The smile fades out, his eyes going a little off focus as he stares out the window.
“You okay?” I ask for the second time today, knowing well enough the person I’m saying it to is nowhere near okay.
“Oh well,” Carmichael waves it off like it’s no big deal, but his words fall flat and his eyes are still searching for something that ain’t there. “You get to be my age, kid, and you got to look for things to do, stuff to keep you busy.”
I think about my day, every second scheduled up and thought out ahead of time, none of them but the ones on the ferry meant for me and me alone. “Doesn’t sound so bad,” I tell him, and he snorts.
“Maybe not, but when your wife looks for trouble over dessert to keep her own life interesting it sours the deal a bit. God love the woman, the sound of her voice has been with me for sixty years, and most of the time I like it. But when she’s on a nag the only thing that stops me from hearing about whatever I done wrong this time was setting up to play checkers with Emmett. And now he’s dead.”
It falls out, loud and stiff here in the dining room. Charlene and Tiffany were real careful to use other words – gone and passed – things that made it sound like maybe Emmett was off visiting, seemed to say he still had movement inside him. But it ain’t true and Carmichael is calling it like it is, using the word that covers it all, just like the sheet that went out with the body.
He sees me tense up and pats my wrist. “Don’t worry about it, honey,” he says. “You get to the point where we are and you know it’s coming. Some of us are ready, some don’t want to go, but we don’t have a lot of say in the matter, in the end.”
I sip Carmichael’s water, my throat suddenly dry. “Was Emmett ready?”
“I think Emmett would’ve liked a few more days with your pretty friend,” Carmichael says.
“I’m not all that pretty,” Tiffany argues, passing behind us to give Jarold his meds.
“Sweetheart, you got color in your hair and your eyes shine bright. You’re all pretty to us, every last one of you.” Carmichael calls to her as she rouses Jarold from his post-dinner nap. He pats my hand again. “Once you’ve been around awhile you learn there’s only so many types of faces in the world. Doctors like to call it dementia, and I guess that’s one way to look at it.
“But you’ve got a face reminds me of a girl I knew back in school, and I’ll probably call you by her name once or twice. That doesn’t mean I’ve lost my head, or even that I think you’re her. I believe we’re finding our own types of medicine when that happens, and it’s not something you can put in a cup.”
“What was her name?” I ask.
“Becky,” he says, glances over his shoulder like Judy might come wheeling in any second. “She had a nice face, just like yours.”
There’s a tweak of pain in my backside and I yelp, turning to find Jarold behind me with a shit-eating grin. “I like her ass, myself.”
One in the morning is a dark time, and cold. I can’t say I like it, but it does keep the other ferry riders jumbled together inside the covered part in the middle of the deck, hunkered low in their coats so that I’ve got most of the space to myself.
It’s a Friday night so pretty much everybody crossing the river this late is either sauced or on the way to getting there. A couple of the guys sneak glances at me but my scrubs are poking out from under my coat so they must get the idea that I’m not the kind of working girl they’re looking for right now.
The nursing home left me tense and I roll my neck as I lean against the side of the ferry, the rumbling of the engine sending a thrum through my knees that feels sorta good. One of the drunks lights up and a cloud of smoke wafts over to me, a reminder that even here in the only time I have alone, nothing is ever mine.
I cough pointedly and he laughs.
I lean out further over the edge, reaching for the fresh air. I can barely see the froth bubbling, brown against the black of water at night. I hear steps behind me and close my eyes, ready to say whatever rude thing it takes to get him to leave me alone in the precious four minutes left to me before we dock.
The voice is nice, low but sweet, and definitely doesn’t reek like a cigarette. Still, I’m not in a talking mood, and especially not to answer the same question my dumb mouth kept asking all day to people who weren’t.
“Fine,” I say, in a way that shows I don’t want to share it. “Enjoying the quiet.”
“All right,” he answers, and there’s so much surrender in it, it’s like I can hear his hands up in the air right along with his words.
I open my eyes. “Sorry.”
I take a minute to look at him, my tired brain telling me I might not know this guy but I definitely recognize him. It’s the logo on his jacket that makes the leap for me. He works on the ferry, pulling up the ramp behind the last car on and letting it back down for the first one off. I’ve watched him work on my trips, taking more notice of his hands than his face. It’s not a remarkable one, but it’s kind, like Carmichael says mine is. This guy wears glasses and his breath steams against the lenses as he leans beside me.
“Wanted to make sure those guys weren’t bothering you,” he says, nodding back towards the drunks, who are tipping the ashes of their cigarettes into the river, adding dirt to the froth.
“Nothing I can’t handle,” I say, but in a nice way that lets him know I don’t mind him watching out for me.
We study each other for a second, two people that see each other every day but never really looked.
“You ride a lot,” he says. “What takes you over the river?”
“Work.” I pull on the side of my scrubs to illustrate what I do, glad that it’s the sort of job that doesn’t need explaining. At the same time thinking it’s the first conversation I’ve had with a boy since second trimester and I’m wearing the dorkiest thing I own.
“Me too,” he says, pointing to the picture of the ferry embroidered on his fleece.
I start laughing, I don’t know why. Like here we are, a boy and a girl, me pointing at my pants and him at his shirt like that’s the only way we know to talk to each other.
“Fuuuuuck,” I say, drawing it out as long as I feel tired. “It’s been a long day.”
“Tell me,” he says, as the ferry scrapes up against the dock. “I gotta go, but… I guess I’ll see you Monday, right?”
“Yep,” I nod. “Monday.”
And I don’t feel the cold, or think about the dark while I’m walking back home.
God, or whoever, must have decided I’ve had enough today because Mom’s asleep when I walk in the door, stained fingertips resting just short of the ashtray, a burned out butt dead in her hands. She coulda dropped it, right there on the living room carpet. Lord knows there’s enough black rings there to say it’s happened before. But Rowdy wasn’t sleeping in the same house when those burnt spots were made, and my heart jumps straight up into my throat at the sight of Mom like that.
I run down the hall to his room, though I know well enough there’s nothing on fire except my lungs because I’ve never been no athlete, but I get to his room quick as spit. He’s up, hands exploring his own face, quiet in the night.
“Hey there, little man,” I whisper, leaving the light off so we can share a bit of the darkness, keep it for ourselves and not invite others in. He kicks his legs at the sound of my voice and I reach for him, his wet diaper hanging nearly down to his knees. I get him changed, then we settle into our spot in the rocking chair that don’t rock.
I expect him to go right for me, but Mom must have given him a full bottle before she hit her own, because he’s happy just to look. So I look back, amazed at this body that came out of my own, these eyes that I can see myself in as we stare and stare, in awe of each other.
He gets sleepy after a bit, curling into my chest with his fist in his mouth. I lean back, shocked as hell when the rails of the chair bust through the drywall, enough hours of pushing finally making something give, just like the day Rowdy came. I can rock now. Small, jerky movements, but I’m rocking.
I’m rocking my baby.
He gives a little sigh and I feel his body get a touch warmer, like it always does right before he goes off to sleep. I cup Rowdy’s little foot in my own, the thread of life that had left Emmett pulsing strong through my boy. I’m going now, the chair easing us both into a lull not much different from the way the ferry feels under my feet.
Rowdy shifts against me, the top of his head brushing my chin. He’s easing off, and I glance at the clock to see it’s nearly two in the morning. Tiffany says Angelina usually wakes up about now, wanders around in the hallway until somebody puts her back to bed. I think of Angelina, up and walking just as Rowdy goes all the way down into the deepest sleep.
Maybe one day Rowdy will need someone in the night too. Maybe he’ll come to me in a house that doesn’t smell of smoke and maybe I won’t be alone in my bed. I think of the boy from the ferry, and picture him sleeping next to me as Rowdy tiptoes into our room. Maybe I pull him up with us and we lie together in a room with no holes in the wall, our bodies warm and alive and trusting.
I rest my head against my son, breathing in the smell of him.
by Mindy McGinnis
Overall First Place, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature