Gertrude has never seen the young man before. He's wearing an apron, so she assumes he is a cook; though it's hard to discern, here in the Walnut Acres Municipal Nursing Home of Lynn, who does what and where: RNs, LPNs, CNAs, an unfathomable hierarchy of nurses, every level of which residents are at the mercy of. And then the doctors, rarely seen, and the handymen, and the food service workers appear, new ones replacing ones who have disappeared, and as a resident, you never know why or for how long any of them will be around. He is outside her room, flirting with Jessie, speaking loudly enough for anyone to hear them, not that many can.
"What time you get off today?" He asks. They are talking across the cart that Jessie pushes from room to room with cleaning products, linens, and a big black trash bag hanging from the side. He puts his forearms on top of the cart, leans toward her.
"One o'clock." She steps away from his nearing face but keeps one hand on the cart.
"Will you wait for me? I finish at four-thirty but I can probably get off a little early." He looks like Sylvester Stallone, but not so pinched-looking in the face. And the arms are more sinewy than bulky. Gertrude is surprised at how nice it is to be looking at him. She is a twig on a mattress, watching them over the National Geographic that she has let fall to her lap. The man looks over, catches her eye. And he winks. He winks! They hold each other's gaze for a moment—the man grinning with one eye wider open than the other, elflike, as though in a permanent half-wink, and Gertrude, stunned into temporary paralysis. Jessie turns her severe head to see what the man is looking at. Gertrude snaps the National Geographic in front of her face and angles it into the lower field of her bifocals.
"What am I going to do waiting around this shithole for three hours?" Jessie says.
"Go home and come back," he suggests. Gertrude drops the magazine below the level of one eye so she can keep watching them; without depth perception they look flat, like TV characters.
"Maybe I'll come back or maybe I won't. I live pretty close. You'll just have to wait and see."
And he calls after her, "Come back," as he straightens up and she pulls her cart down the hall. He turns and walks away, rubbing his palms together and starting to hum, and Gertrude is left with nothing to look at but yolk yellow walls and the left edge of a framed blood orange sunset.
Funny feeling this, thinks Gertrude. A little....gregarious, a little bold. She's ninety-four and it's been a long time since she's looked at a man as somebody to be embarrassed in front of, somebody to feel especially appreciative of, for his man-ness. She remembers this feeling of being in a moment, of being alive and aware, instead of going through the motions, but it’s been a long time. She wishes the man would come back, and simultaneously hopes to never see him again. She pushes the soft pads of her fingertips together. Her hands are flaccid and pale and splattered with brown spots like fish scales flung onto a cutting board. She remembers her daughter’s little hands as they made the shape of a church steeple. And her fingers would wiggle: open the doors, here are the people.
She is tired of fighting to stay in the present and welcomes the quiet trance of memory, so long as it keeps its flavor of contentedness. So long as the arrows of regret don’t pierce it. She weaves her bony fingers into a steeple. Opens the doors, there are the people. They’ve all got osteoporosis now, she thinks, and arthritis that keeps them from wiggling. She chuckles, sighs, picks up her National Geographic and runs her eyes over the paragraphs, waiting for sleep to overtake her.
Later, after she’s dozed, Jessie comes into her room carrying a plastic box by a handle in its middle.
"Hello. Jessie." Gertrude pushes herself up against her pillows as much as she can. Jessie picks up the clipboard from the plastic slot near the door and makes some marks on it.
"I'm almost outta here for the day. Good news, huh?"
"Yes. Good news." Jessie stands next to Gertrude's bed and takes her pulse.
"How are you today?” She asks, but without real concern.
"I'm a little tired."
"Tell me about it. I'm on my feet ten hours now." She writes Gertrude's pulse on the chart, wipes down the sink in the corner of the room. Jessie is one of those nurses who do everything: cleaning the people, the rooms, checking vitals, keeping company. She’s not one of the bigwigs who saunter in sometimes full of purpose to administer special medicines and expertise. Gertrude watches her, curious. They are living beings inhabiting the same room. Moreover, they are females inhabiting the same room. Gertrude is surprised at her awareness of the fact and feels guilty for all of the moments throughout her life that she’s taken for granted. Her fingers fiddle at the glossy corner of her magazine and Jessie twists a stick to angle the blinds.
"You'll be tired for your date tonight," Gertrude says. Jessie turns to face her.
"Date? Huh? My boyfriend is in Iraq."
"Oh. You didn't tell me." Their conversations are sometimes friendly, sometimes distant. Gertrude is grateful for the friendliness, and relieved (Jessie could as easily have pretended not to hear her, which she often does). She is wary, but hopes Jessie will continue to speak to her, to offer her the semblance of an adult conversation.
"You know something, Missus Littlefield?" Jessie sits on the edge of the bed, which makes Gertrude tip to the side. "It's terrible; I want him to come home. But I'm kinda, like, I guess I don’t really mind him being gone. Not that so much, I guess it’s more that, well, I’m more…myself, you know, when he’s gone. I feel bad about it."
"Yes?" Gertrude is leaning on one arm very heavily. "Can you...just...help," and she tries to push herself up straighter. Jessie puts her hands on each of Gertrude's upper arms and yanks her into a sitting position. Gertrude makes a tiny squealing noise because of Jessie's strong grip.
"Anyway, you know the way relationships are. Hard," Jessie stands up and moves about the room slowly, not doing anything in particular. "I guess I'm not surprised you never heard me talk about him. We were together two years before he shipped out. Long time…"
But Gertrude is exhausted and suddenly disinterested in Jessie’s life, Jessie’s soldier in Iraq. She thinks about her own soldier, Clive, her vision blurring Jessie into a human-colored blob moving about the room. She remembers when Clive left her on the station platform. The tears that pooled in the corners of his eyes and the way he wiped them away as he stepped onto the train with the other soldiers. The pain in her gut as the train pulled away. The thought that she was about to collapse had brought her sharply into her body and she realized later that the physical pain had saved her somehow—she’d had to forget about him and focus on herself, finding a bench, folding over, the top of her head dropping onto her knees.
Jessie stops talking, unaware that Gertrude hasn’t been listening, and sits on the end of the bed, startling her.
"What about the cook?"
"What do you mean?"
"The one you were talking with this morning."
"Oh, that guy? Naw. Helio. He knows I have a boyfriend."
"Yeah, he's okay."
"Nice arms," Gertrude goes on, looking past Jessie's head to the open door where she'd seem them flirting with each other earlier in the day.
Jessie laughs. "Nice arms, yeah. He's got nice arms." She looks at Gertrude, whose attention is brought back to the younger woman's face. "Funny you'd notice that. That's what you got those glasses for, huh? Checkin’ out the guys?"
Gertrude smiles with thin lips and puts her hand to the rim of her glasses. If she could still blush—if she hadn't outlived her blood's ability to rush to the skin of her cheeks—she'd blush now. "Well, you were there. Outside my door. I could hardly have helped watching," she says, thin chin pushed out.
"You know what? You're a lot more with it than most of the old ladies in here. Didn't think you'd've been able to hear what goes on in the hallway. Sure I know you could see us, since you could see his arms. You should be watching TV instead of paying attention to what goes on in the hall."
"Well," Gertrude says, "I saw."
Jessie launches a stray wisp of hair into the sky with an exaggerated puff and goes into the hallway for a moment. When she comes back in with a folded towel, she says, "We weren't doing anything."
"Oh it doesn’t matter," Gertrude says. "This has grown out of proportion." She waves her hand in front of her face, as if there were a fruit fly there. "Forget it. Just making conversation."
Jessie puts the towel next to the sink and takes the dirty one. Gertrude picks up the remote and turns on the TV. Jessie looks at the clipboard. "Time for pills."
"Do you miss him?"
Jessie puts the clipboard on the counter by the sink and starts to arrange the cleaning supplies into the plastic box. “Do I miss who?"
"The one in Iraq."
"Of course I miss him."
"Men can be so difficult." Gertrude has the staccato throat of someone with stage fright and she looks away, her voice trailing. Jessie has the spray bottle of orange liquid in her hand and she holds it carelessly pointed in Gertrude's direction.
"We're really happy together," she says. Her face seems to have changed in the last thirty seconds. Gertrude can see it in her eyebrows. They're straight across now, almost dipping towards each other in the middle, giving her a strict look, whereas before they'd been softly curved, making her face look open. "I'm going home after I get you your pills. Do you want me to bring you to the community room before I go?"
"No," Gertrude says. "Well, yes, okay." Jessie nears the bed, clutches the blanket as if it were a weed that needed pulling. "No. I'm too tired, and you have to go. Never mind."
Jessie blows exasperation from between her lips. "Make up your mind."
"I'm too tired," Gertrude says again, and Jessie picks up the box of cleaning supplies. She slides the clipboard into its holder on her way out. "I'll be back with your pills."
Gertrude picks up her National Geographic. It is from December of last year, the last one she received before she let her subscription expire. She has read it already. On the cover are galloping zebras. She finds the article about pygmies fascinating and likes to look at the pictures of them. She wonders if their lives are less complicated because they've been less involved with the outside world, and she imagines that their social contracts hold more weight than those between people in modern society. Husbands and wives separating, parents leaving their children for others to raise, children moving to other states, other countries. Strangers caring for senior citizens. Her own daughter disappeared years ago and now here she is, interacting more regularly with a nurse than with anyone in her own family. It's not so bad. At least she doesn't have to worry about upsetting anyone if she's not feeling well. And the nurses know what they're doing….
She lets her eyes close and the magazine drop to her lap. Minutes later, Jessie picks it up and puts it on the table. Gertrude can feel her glasses being taken from her face. "Come on and take your pills before you fall asleep," Jessie says. She holds a paper cup while Gertrude fumbles in it with her fingers, taking one out at a time and sipping the water that Jessie hands to her. The bed thumps and whines flat as Jessie pulls the lever on its side.