Archive for July, 2011
Sitting on her canopy bed, Christmas morning, Conchita Jones scribbled on a piece of ruled notebook paper. After she was finished writing out her request to God, she tore the paper out of the notebook then carefully tore around the writing on the piece of paper.
She opened her God box, folded up the jagged piece of paper, and placed the folded paper in the box.
One more week and it would be 1992, and then she’d let herself look at the contents of the box. She always waited until the end of the year. It seemed pointless to look every week: she knew God took his time answering her written prayers, and it would be useless to check the pieces of paper in the box more often than that for an answer.
She shut the box and surveyed it. It was full of memories, she thought and cupped it in her hands. The box was painted in her favorite color, hot pink. On its top, there was a battleship, gray feather with black fringes. She turned the box over and looked at the quote by Emily Dickinson written in black paint on the underside: “hope is the thing with feathers on it that perches in the soul.” She knew it was a sentimental message, but the message still made her misty reading it.
She turned the box over again and held it close to her chest. Seeking comfort, she balled up into a fetal position in bed and tightly cradled the God Box in her arms.
They nestle into my flesh,
Weaving through my palpitating heart—
Their spaghetti shaped figures worm
Constricting my innards,
Sick with secrets.
I feed their movements,
To keep inside
From all the world,
I created Thee?
Now you shall destroy me.
After the nurse closes the door behind her and leaves, I stare ahead at the wall.
Great, because of her, I’ll be back in the Health Center tomorrow.
I readjust the pillow behind me and use the remote control to ease the chair back again. I’m not sure if I’m relieved that the insanity is over or if I’m made more aware of my helplessness. I look down at my left hip and shift to my good side.
A sharp pain radiates up my leg. I wince then pop a couple Darvocets in my mouth.
Despite the physical pain, I feel nothing.
Numb, I put my head back on the headrest and stare at the ceiling fan, whirring overhead. All the arguments and threats of another lawsuit are put to rest now. I’ve got no more leverage. The director of nursing and the administrator will have their way. Ruth will be sent to the Alzheimer’s unit, and I’ll return to the Health Center.
The end is near. My steady supply of bourbon will cease. No drinking in the Health Center.
Once again, I’ll have to share a 12×12 room with some blithering idiot and will be reduced to 144 square feet of anonymity; all the achievements in my life—the million dollar cases won, country club membership, and status earned—will only remind me how painful it is to no longer exist.
All because of those damn puzzle pieces. She always had to be working on a puzzle. She’d leave me to go in the study to put the same damn puzzle together over and over.
What about me? I needed her help.
She never understood that. Nobody in this God forsaken place does. She’s finally gone and I’ve got no help. I can’t even get a drink around here . . .
. . . maybe one more drink. I can still get one more. I can make it to the liquor cabinet, I’m sure I can. I’ll get good and drunk one last time even if I have to crawl there. My hip can stand one last strain.
I ease the chair forward and slide down. The pillow behind me tumbles to the floor. From inside the pillowcase, a heavy-duty zip lock bag, containing thousands of puzzle pieces I took from their boxes, spills out.
On my hands and knees, I crawl to the liquor cabinet. I look up at the TV one last time. Tiger Woods punches the air with his fist as he drains a putt. I better be careful not to get cut on any of the pieces of glass. Those damned puzzle pieces.
For the sun rises with a scorching wind and withers the grass; and its flower falls off and the beauty of its appearance is destroyed; so too the rich man in the midst of his pursuits will fade away. (James 1:11)
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
“She’s obsessed with puzzles, O.K. She always wants to put them together. Her whole life, she’s enjoyed putting them together.”
There’s a scream from the bathroom. “Stop it! You’re hurting me!”
Just then, Bob arrives with the Nembutal. “You called?” Bob smirks.
I give him “the look” to shut up.
Bob looks away. “Where’s Dan?”
“I’m in here.” Dan is straining. “Nurse, I think we’re gonna need your help.”
“I’ve never seen her like this,” Mr. Stevens’ voice trails off.
I rush into the bathroom again. Ruth looks tired and is still bleeding from her feet. She turns to us. “Please, help me.”
“That’s what we’re here for, Ruth, but you’ve got to listen to us, dear.”
Bob prepares the shot behind me. “Yeah, Ruth we just need you to cooperate.” He approaches with the needle.
At the sight of the needle, Ruth screams. “Nooo! I don’t want it. Take it away. Help me!” She draws her arms and hands to her body, stiffens, and closes her eyes. “Robert, Robert, Robert, Robert.”
Bob steps closer. “Is she calling me by my Christian name?” Bob asks.
“No,” I say. “That was her first husband’s name.”
Bob shrugs. “Geez. I feel like I’m about to stick my own mother.”
Dan and I try to turn her over. “Robert!” she interrupts her chanting with one loud call for help. She pulls away and begins to bloody my arms with her hands. Finally, we turn her over, and I feel something pull in my back. Bob approaches and sticks her in the buttocks with the needle and releases the Nembutal.
She screams again; we release her, and back away. “O.K., it won’t be long now. I give her 2 minutes, and she’ll be out cold,” Bob says.
As we watch, Ruth wobbles unsteadily, and her eyes begin to close. As she fades, I kneel beside her and support her head to keep it from banging against the tub.
Dan turns over her hands, still gripping the pieces of glass tightly as if treasuring diamonds. He wraps them in gauze. “Bob, push the stretcher over here, will ya?” Dan finishes weaving the blue gauze around her feet and hands, now resembling blue stumps. Both men lift her, place her on the stretcher, and strap her down, securing her in case she awakens. The stretcher’s wheels screech as the three of us begin to leave.
I stop at the door.
Dan turns his head, “something wrong?”
“Go ahead without me. I’ve got to get some answers.”
He turns off the TV, fiddles with the remote control to his easy chair, and slowly raises his chair up. “Look, she dropped a glass and picked it up and . . . Geez, I don’t know.” He shrugs and frowns then shakes his head. “All I could hear was her talking about her pieces.”
Mrs. Townsend screams from the bathroom. “All right,” I say. “We’ll come back to that.” I hold up my hand. I know I need to get back to Mrs. Townsend. “Give me a minute.”
I make my way back into the bathroom. Mrs. Townsend is beginning to hyperventilate again.
“Help me,” she says. She pries her hands apart, holds them up to her face, and studies them. “What happened to my pieces?” She turns to me. “Why are they hurting me?”
“Mrs. Townsend, those aren’t your pieces, honey.” I kneel beside the tub and pat her on the back. “That’s glass.”
She frowns. “I don’t understand.” She begins to cry.
I keep rubbing her back. Geez. What’s taking the EMTs so long? I wonder. She needs to get to a hospital.
The Corral Reef Operator always dispatches an ambulance for community calls, and the EMTs usually take about 10 minutes after the call has been placed. I check my watch. It’s been 15 minutes already. I lower my head and make eye contact with Mrs. Townsend. “Honey, I’m gonna need your cooperation.”
“What do you want?” She rocks back and forth, her hands still cupped.
“I just need you to open your hands so I can see your cuts. We need to stop the bleeding.” I put the black towel on her lap and reach to pull her hands apart.
She shrugs me off. “I’ve got to keep my pieces.”
“The pieces will be fine. We’ve got to stop the bleeding, honey.” I reach for her wrist.
“Stop.” She pulls away again. She’s surprisingly strong. I use a little more force. “Nooo,” she screams. Then, I hear the EMTs in the other room, talking to Mr. Stevens. “Guys, we’re in here,” I scream. Two male EMTs quickly rush in.
A squat, young man smiles. “Did somebody call?”
“O.K., gents.” I pull them aside and take them into the hallway to discuss Mrs. Townsend’s condition without alarming her. “She’s got abrasions on her feet and hands and is resisting aid. She’s delusional and is exhibiting signs of shock. I think we need to give her an injection of Nembutal. She’s not gonna go anywhere unless we can get her sedated.”
“O.K., Bob, it’s your turn,” the squat EMT says. “Run and get the stuff.”
Bob looks at the squat EMT with some animosity. Bob puts his hands on his hips.
“It’s your turn, man,” the squat EMT says again. “You know it is. Go on, get going.”
Bob rushes off in a huff.
Then, I remember Jack Stevens. “Can you attend to her while I talk to her husband?” I ask the squat EMT.
“Sure,” he shrugs. “No problem. I can handle her.” He snaps on his latex gloves.
As I turn to leave, Ruth’s eyebrows furrow; she frowns and begins to sob again.
I come back to her side. “Ruth, I’ve got somebody who’s going to help you. This is . . . “ I turn to look at the EMT.
“Dan,” he says.
“This is Dan. He’ll take care of you.”
“O.K.,” Ruth sniffles.
I walk into the living room to talk to Jack. He’s turned the TV back on. “What’s going on Jack? Why isn’t your wife cooperating?”
“I don’t like your tone.” Jack puffs up his chest up in defiance. “What? Do you think I’ve done something?”
“Mrs. Townsend, are you in there?”
“Is that you, Kathy?” Jack shouts from inside.
“Yes, can you let me in?” I scream back then cup my ear to the door to listen for a response.
Mr. Stevens shouts at Ruth. “Ruth, it’s the nurse. Get the door.”
Mrs. Townsend is screaming. “I can’t. I need to get the rest of my pieces.”
“Damn it, Ruth, get the door!”
I shake my head and grit my teeth. Typical, Jack Stevens. The lock jiggles, and I turn the knob again. Turning the knob, the door opens on its own and thuds against the stopper. Ruth stands before me with flushed cheeks, smeared with tears. My eyes are drawn to her hands. Both are cupped together. Blood drips from where she joins them. She looks down at her hands as if she’s holding something.
“Who are you?” She asks with eyes wide open. Her pupils are dilated. She’s in shock.
“I’m Kathy Connelly, the charge nurse, Mrs. Townsend.” I put my arm around her.
As I turn her, I can see Mr. Stevens sitting in his lazy boy, tilted back.
“Is that the nurse, Ruth?” Jack turns his head and nods at me.
I nod back and curtly bow. “Yes, Mr. Stevens, it’s me.”
“I don’t know,” Ruth softly speaks over my voice.
“Let’s get to the bathroom, honey. We’ve got to stop this bleeding.” I drag the first aid kit behind me—my good ole’ first aid suitcase with wheels—with my left hand. With my other hand, I turn Ruth’s shoulder away from the entrance.
“Can I bring my pieces?” Ruth asks.
I don’t know what she’s talking about so I just nod. “Sure, honey, you can bring whatever you like.” I’m more concerned about the blood flow at this point. I look down at her bare feet. They are covered with blood. Some of it is fresh and some has dried. Between her toes, the blood has crusted. Their blue carpet is smeared with red and footprints, dragged from print to print. I look up once I have turned her and see Mr. Stevens more clearly. He is watching a golf tournament.
“Where’s your bathroom?” I ask.
He turns and points behind him down the hallway beyond his forest green recliner. “Go down the hall then make your first left.” The animation on his face betrays his reclined position. He nervously fiddles with the remote to his chair as I pass.
I walk Ruth to the bathroom. She holds her hands together in front of her, while I rub her back with my hand. “It’s gonna be O.K., honey. We’re just gonna get you cleaned up.” Her hyperventilating begins to slow. I walk into the bathroom and pull back the blue and yellow plaid shower curtain. “O.K., Ruth, I want you to climb in the tub.” She gets in, and I ease her down on her back. She is still cupping her hands together in front of her. “Lift your feet, Mrs. Townsend.” I leave her for a moment and jog into the living room. “Where’re your clean towels, Mr. Stevens?”
He turns his torso and points to the hall on the opposite side of the apartment. “Second door on your right” He eases his seat into an upright position. “Is she going to be all right?”
I ignore his comment and pick through the towels and pull out a set of black towels. “How’d she get so bloodied, Mr. Townsend?”
“No, I’m not going over there,” I said to the nurse supervisor, Sharon Kimberly. “Jack Stevens is a tyrant!”
“Kathy, listen to me.” Sharon put her hand on my shoulder. “Everyone deserves a chance. This isn’t about Jack anyway.” Sharon drew me close and whispered in my ear. “It’s about Ruth Townsend.” Sharon drew me back to arms length, and as if to seal the argument, looked at me under raised eyebrows—as if to say, “we have an understanding”—and walked away.
What do you do? I’ll tell you what – you walk your buns right over there and help Ruth. When Sharon tells you to do something, you do it, and you do it to the best of your ability. She never loses her head. She’s always professional, even when they found Mrs. DeCamp in Mr. Hodges room, “Consoling him,” Sharon called it. I saw something completely different, but Sharon sees the good in everyone and in everything, so that’s the only reason I’m in this godforsaken diesel golf cart puttering my way over to see the most hated man at Coral Reef Retirement Community.
I remembered Mrs. Townsend from a previous trip to her apartment. She was showing early signs of dementia, and we knew it was just a matter of time before she would need to be admitted to the Health Center and the restrictive Alzheimer’s Unit. But because Mr. Stevens had used every resource at his disposal, he’d been able to keep his wife of one year in their apartment.
I prepared myself for the worst. You never know what you’re going to come across on these visits. One night it might be a victim of a stroke or diabetic shock, another it might be someone who is lonesome and wants company.
Last week, I got a call from a woman who was anxious because she wasn’t having her usual bowel movement for the day. I love these people but leave it to them to try your patience.
Tonight, it took much longer to check on Mrs. Townsend than necessary. “This really shouldn’t be happening,” I said to Sharon and anyone else who would listen, but they don’t because I’m known for my rants. Anyway, after that, I left without a word. What kind of people are they hiring here anyway? It took me 15 minutes to find Mrs. Townsend’s chart because apparently activity coordinators don’t know where to put charts back when they’re done writing in them. Then, the security guard, Fred Deans, god bless him, took the community vehicle off property, and no one could reach him. So here I am in a diesel powered golf cart responding to a call from the most disliked resident at Corral Reef. And I went to Phillips Andover Academy! Don’t they know who I am! Two Presidents went to my high school!
After I calm myself down, the drive from the Health Center isn’t so bad, but I know I don’t have much time. It’s usually a relief to leave the Health Center because Coral Reef Retirement Community’s complete care unit can be so depressing. Everyday, you see elderly men and women, mostly women, who die slow, painful deaths, all while their minds go. Their children go on about their business while we do all the hard work, changing diapers, ADLs, and provide any and every need. They aren’t your flesh and blood (which is probably good the way people treat their families these days), but they start to grow on you after a while. With a twinkle in their eye, they might pat you on the head and call you sweetie, mistake you for their child, or just tell you how much they appreciate all you do. That’s the only reason I do it. I absolutely love them. Sure some get under your skin, but there are always rotten apples, you just can’t let them spoil your day or the rest of the bunch.
I promise myself Mr. Stevens won’t get under my skin tonight. He is infamous for raising Cain. Before he came here, he was a trial attorney from Empire City, and he knew what levers of power to move to get his way. A couple years ago, he sued Corral Reef and won a small settlement as well as some concessions. He found a tooth in his food and sued for the whole plantation. Everybody thought the tooth was his, but he provided his dental records and the tooth. No one could touch him. He’d been fighting management’s efforts to move him into the Health Center.
Shortly after the case, all talk of him moving to the Health Center was dropped.
In response to management’s efforts to move him, he claimed he was only temporarily immobilized and that his new wife, Ruth, was capable of assisting him with his ADL’s. So, here I am pounding on their door. I hope Ruth is OK.
“Ruth.” I hear a man’s voice from the other room.
The bottle slips from my hands and shatters on the floor.
“Who is it?” I turn my head from side to side as my eyes flutter.
“What was that?” A man screams over a commercial on Titleist golf balls.
“It fell out of my hand.” I look down. Look at all the pieces. “I found the pieces!”
“Aw, geez, Ruth,” the man says.
“I found my pieces! I found them.” I stomp my feet. I feel a cool pain on the bottoms of my feet. Then they burn. I keep stomping my feet ‘til my feet slide away. I reach for the counter but can’t grab hold. My feet sweep out from underneath me, and I pound the floor with my backside. I try to lift myself up and grab at the pieces. But I only slip and my hands begin to burn. “Help me. Please. Help.” The floor turns pink as my blood mixes with the brown liquid on the floor. My hands and feet continue to burn as I crawl with clenched fists into the living room.
The man looks at me with raised eyebrows. I can see the whites of his eyes. “Ruth. Are you all right?” He turns the sound down on the TV.
“Help me,” is all I can say. “I don’t understand: the pieces hurt me.”
“Damn it, Ruth.” He reaches for the phone beside him. “Now I’ve gotta call for a nurse.”
“Ruth!” I hear a man screaming from the other room. “You’re missin’ it, hon.”
“I can’t hear you right now.” I scrabble through the chocolate-colored drawers in the kitchen then pull on the gold handles to the matching, shiny cabinets. “I’m looking for my pieces.” Where are they? They’re always so hard to find. I walk into the hallway over a neatly trimmed, blue putting green. Or is it carpeting? It doesn’t matter. I’ve got to find the pieces. I pull on the closet door. A string dangles in front of me from the ceiling. I pull on it. A yellow light shines in front of me illuminating the shadows inside. Oh, my gosh! What was that! “Have you seen this thing? A light just came on when I pulled this string!”
The man says nothing so I hunt with my hands through the hanging clothes. They’re in here somewhere. My hands part the clothes. The hangers squeak like rats. The rats are in my head.
Those pieces, where are they? The pieces are hard to find, not like putting the puzzle’s border together. I can do that easily. I bet I could find them then. I look beneath the sweaters stacked on the shelf above the hangers. They aren’t there. The pieces are always so hard to find.
“Ruth. Come’ ere a second.”
Maybe he knows where the pieces are. I move to the other room as fast as I can.
“Hi.” I greet the stranger. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, Ruth.” He inhales, and raising his eyebrows, closes his eyes. He opens his eyes, looks at me, and shakes his head.
I study his face. He looks like he was once handsome, but now he has a red nose and thin red lines on his cheeks under the surface of the skin. His hair is silver and parted to the side.
He looks at the TV again.
“How did you know my name? And how did you get in here?”
“It’s me, Jack, your husband,” he says.
“Oh.” I stop. “Do you know where my pieces are?”
“Ruth, we’ve been over this a hundred times. That puzzle is finished and framed. It’s with your daughter in Stockbridge. Remember we gave them to her after we got married last year. Does that ring a bell? Us married, puzzle pieces in Massachusetts.” The lines on his forehead bunch.
“No.” I’m not married. I’ve just lost my pieces.
“We are.” He says and looks at the TV. “All the puzzles are finished and framed. Your daughter, she, has them all.” His body is stiff as he talks. He closes his eyes again, and he sighs.
“Are you tired?” I ask him. He opens his eyes again, and he looks back at me.
“No, I’m fine, Ruth.” He exhales through his teeth. “Why don’t you sit down and watch some golf with me?” He points to a green leather couch across the room.
I walk around his footstool and have a seat. It’s a golf tournament. A man with a red sweater and black pants takes a big swing at his golf ball. A memory shoots through me of Robert playing golf. Wait! I sit up straight. “Where’s Robert? I think we have a tee time today.”
The man tries to smile.
“You play golf? My husband, Robert, is really good. He is a scratch golfer. We play everyday. He is so good that when the pros come to town they call him up to play.” The man doesn’t say anything, just looks at the TV.
“Yes. I played golf with your husband while he was here.” He looks at me then turns again.
“He is a scratch golfer,” I say.
“Yes. He was.” The man doesn’t look at me. He finishes his drink, looks down at his glass, and shakes it; the ice rattles inside. “Would you be my girl and get me another drink?”
“Sure.” I get up as quickly as I can. “Comin’ up.” I take the cool, wet glass from him.
“Bourbon with just a splash of water, on the rocks.” He turns up the sound on the TV.
I walk into the kitchen. “Where do you keep the poison?”
“The bourbon is in the pantry to the left of the refrigerator.” He yells above the TV “It says Jim Beam on it.”
I walk barefooted. The tile is cool. The kitchen is dark and haunted. The finish on the chocolate cabinets shines in the lighting. I reach the cabinet, open it, and look inside. Jim Beam. I grab the half full bottle and slam the cabinet shut.
“Remember to put a little ice in there, too, will ya, babe.” He says louder than the TV.
I reach inside the freezer . . .
It’s February. The snowball stings in my hands. Robert is calling. I can’t hear him so I just smile, feeling the cold on my face. He tells me in his scratchy New England accent, “I love yuh smile, Rutie.” I throw snow at him as he whispers it again. “I love yuh, Rutie.” I never took compliments well but he knows that . . .
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