Alight

Stephanie Whetstone

     
   

            "Tilt your head a little to the left," the photographer said. "Good, good. Now look down just slightly. Hold still. Don't move till I tell you. You got great eye light." He clearly wanted something more glamorous from life than taking portraits of nurse's aides, pimpled high school seniors, and made up brides–to-be. Leah did as he said, but there was such effort in holding her face this way, her neck was stiffening. It had to look unnatural, unkind. A muscle was knotting up, right in the middle of her back, rising in a low ridge between her shoulder blades, a little to the left of her spine. The man under the wide dark cloth talked on and on about the light. His camera was as old as the patients confined to their beds, waiting for forever.

            "Beautiful!" he said. "That's our money shot." Leah slid off the stool and rolled her shoulders, blinking from the glare of the flash. She walked away from the woodland backdrop, back into the white tiled hallway. "Next," he said.

            Mr. Sparks, the owner, thought it was a good idea to have portraits of all the nurse's aides posted on the wall, with their names below, so those patients who were still lucid enough to read would know who they were talking to. Really, it was for Mr. Sparks and the families paying the bills, so they could call the girls like waitresses and place blame where they thought it was due, even when there was no one to blame.

            What did it matter? Leah had been called nothing but Honey or Sweetie in the three years she had worked at Pinewood Manor. No one really looked at her face. The children, the grown kids of the patients who were now grandparents themselves, but still very much children, called her Miss, or Nurse, or just stuck their heads out into the hallway and said, "We need you in here. Now!" To be needed was at least something.

            A light blinked at the station and Leah went to help Mrs. Sackett in 212, who was confined to her bed but always wanted to be turned and adjusted, maybe so she could pretend she wasn't stuck to one spot.

            "Is that you, Sweetie?" she said. Leah laid a hand on the wasted, speckled arm.

            "Yes, Ma'am," Leah said. Mrs. Sackett could only see as if through fog, little glimpses of light—macular degeneration. Without her noticing at first, her view had become narrower and narrower, until only flashes of images were left in her periphery. She squinted all the time. "Can you turn me to the left a little?" she said.

            Leah put one arm under Mrs. Sackett’s shoulders, the other under her legs, and bent at the knees to lift the bony woman to the left. Mrs. Sackett’s right side reluctantly dragged over. She should not have weighed much, but she did, dead weight they called it, like a rock sinking to the bottom of the sea, obedient to gravity.

            "Now I can see the TV. Thanks, Honey," Mrs. Sackett said.

            Leah covered her with blankets until she was mounded like an ancient mummy, tilted up slightly at her girlish waist.  Only Mrs. Sackett’s dried apple doll face with its white tuft of hair poked out. She kept the TV sound turned to a whispery haze. There was no way she could actually watch. Leah thought, she just wanted to see light move, to have the feeling that something was changing. 

            Leah slipped out of the room and out the heavy glass door into the barren courtyard, which most of the patients had never seen. Behind a camellia bush, next to a wrought iron bench, she had hidden a plastic flask of vodka and a pack of menthol cigarettes. This was the advantage of the late shift. Bedtime came early, so unless somebody called out in the night, it was quiet. Once she was out of the building, she could see in, but no one could see out. The light blinded them to the darkness. For all anyone knew, she was in the bathroom, dousing some naked, withered body with tepid water, then raising it out of the tub. There were only so many brittle old ladies Leah could wash and move and feed until she needed a break. Their frail frames weighed on her.

            This time of night, other people her age were at clubs dancing, or on dates, touching firm smooth skin, or at least stoned and watching their own TVs. Most of them had never seen rigor mortis set in, or even inertia. Leah would die in this place. She could almost feel it beginning in the pit of her stomach. She had to live while she could, or find her own way out, because she knew how it all ended. It wasn't the grand finale everybody led you to believe. There was nothing like glory or grace to it, no matter what you prayed for.

            The metal bench was radiating warmth from the heat of the day. She ran her hand along it, then reached down for the flask. No one could smell the vodka, not if she covered it with the menthols, which were still allowed in designated outside areas. The grass around the benches was unkempt and day lilies sprouted in crowded clumps of neon orange and deep green around the pebbled patio. On the other side of the patio, there was a butterfly bush, stretching its cones of purple flowers in every direction, like a woman waking up and stretching her arms. A monarch grazed each flower. Bees circled around the courtyard, pulling nectar at each landing. Leah wondered if people still told the bees when someone died. Around here, they had a lot of news to spread.

            Leah breathed deeply. How could breath just stop? The smoke, the camellias' perfume, and the smell of the greasy exhaust fan from the cafeteria trapped together in the heavy air was still better than the unmistakable stench of rot that pervaded the inside of the building. No matter how much bleach and pine scented cleaner they used, the body gave notice of impending departure. It kept no secrets in the end. Death smelled just like you'd think it would.

            Pinewood Manor was Leah's own TV show. The huge rectangular windows displayed what passed for life in the hallways. Fragments of sound came through. Mr. James in 227 was on his way out, by the looks of things. Aides came in and out. Family bunched outside his door, held each other close. Everybody touched. A man paced back and forth from the door to the nurses' station, unsure where to stop. "Has anybody seen his hearing aid?" the man yelled. "He'll want that!" As if the dead really listened. A woman in a wrinkled gray pantsuit was bent over at the waist in some kind of pain, already grieving the loss to come. By four o'clock tomorrow, Sanitation would have Mr. James’s room boxed up and cleaned, disinfected, ready for some other patient. Once the body was gone, people acted like nothing lingered—a door to this side simply slammed shut.

            The vodka burned as it slid down, just enough to make Leah's eyes squint, her mouth pucker. Then it warmed her from the inside out. Once she felt her skin start to glow, she hid the flask behind the bush again and went to the cafeteria for a cup of coffee. She believed in coffee’s powers, even when it was weak and watery.

            The room was mostly empty except for Irene, who ran the cash register at night, and Pete, who was cleaning the floors with a dingy mop head, trailing a pool of dark water, then soaking in back up in the next horizontal pass. Pete’s cheeks were flushed from the work, almost as red as his hair.

            "What you know, Pete?" Leah said.

            "Less than yesterday. I'm still here, ain't I?" His smile lit his whole face.

            "What's up with Mr. James?" she said.

            "Hasn't eaten in days. Hasn't even had water since Tuesday. Fading in and out is what I heard. Tina's pissed about it. She was trying to leave early and now she thinks they'll put her on cleaning the room. She had plans. Who knows, I told her, sometimes they hang on for days. Me? I don't think I'd fight it. Once you're in this place, you might as well slip out the back door, you know? Bow out quietly."

            "Nice, Pete. Keep your voice down."

            "What? I'm just saying." He focused on his mopping again, the back and forth motion that did little to clean.

            "I better get this coffee to Mrs. Sackett," Leah said. Pete mopped the same spot, still trailing the dark water.

            The door to Mrs. Sackett’s room was open a crack, enough to let the blue light of the TV and the canned laughter of the show escape.

            "Hello?" Leah called. "You awake?" She wasn't, of course. Mrs. Sackett had never asked for coffee—tore her stomach up she said-- but it was a good cover in case the supervisor came through. The flurry of the evening was still centered on Mr. James. Tamara was in charge of him. She was ushering the family in and out, telling them it would be all right. Until medicine hour, Leah wouldn't be missed.

            Mrs. Sackett was fitful tonight. Her hand crept up every now and then to brush an invisible pest off of her face. Leah put the hand back by her side, tucked the covers in around it tightly, as if bundling a newborn. Ms. Sackett had shrunk until she looked like a white haired, wrinkled elementary school child. She began to snore.

            Pete stuck his head in the door. "Busted!" he said.

            "Get in here before you get me in trouble," Leah said. She grabbed his thick forearm and pulled him into the room. Mrs. Sackett always slept hard.

            Leah had slept with Pete once, on a long slow evening last summer. It was a rare night Pinewood Manor had an empty bed—the new patient kept changing her mind, telling her children she wouldn't be caught dead here. That night, Pete and Leah pretended, out of boredom maybe, that they needed each other. It had started with the vodka, sure, but Pete was surprisingly tender. He had touched her face like a little boy caressing a prized snakeskin, full of reverence. His bulk had protected her, surrounded her. He held his body slightly above hers in an eternal push up the whole time he was on top of her, so she wouldn't feel trapped by his weight. She had not known that sort of kindness before.

            Back then men she usually chose were wiry and worn, not much to hold onto, so she wouldn't miss them much when they went away. They didn't waste time. They were wasted and usually on the way somewhere. She wanted them to go, didn't want to get stuck with the wrong choice, like every woman she knew. She had watched Pete's face redden and sweat bead on his forehead as he pushed toward her. His eyes were closed, but he still looked determined. Leah could tell he was trying his best to make this work. She could almost love a man who tried so hard.

            Who knew where Leah's father had gone? She could remember the smoke of his cigarettes and the way he had hugged her and rubbed his five o'clock shadow on her face until she squealed. She was sick of making the rest of him up. Her mother, Carolyn, would get drunk, for as long as Leah could remember, pining for anything but what she had. Leah watched her mother slip past grasping, dying some every day, rather than all at once, lit up like a firecracker. Carolyn never sparkled. When Leah brought this up, Carolyn said, "Oh no, I'm fine."

            Leah bleached her hair and made up her face with bright makeup to look different, unrelated. She bought the groceries and paid the bills. Still, Leah knew that she would eventually let her own hair go to brown, then to gray, and she would spend every day at Pinewoods watching the half-living world slip away. Carolyn, the patients—maybe this was the way everybody died, by fading. Leah didn’t want to go that way; she wanted the world to feel the hole she left.

            Tonight, she just wanted to sit with Pete and Mrs. Sackett. She didn't want to talk. Or, maybe she did, but not about the things she usually talked about with men. She didn't care what anyone wanted from her right now. Pete wouldn't mind. He knew when to be quiet. Other people in a room meant you weren't alone, even if they didn't belong to you. They focused on the colored lights of the TV.

            "You think this place is haunted, Pete?" Leah said. "I mean, somebody dies here every week. It's got to be full of ghosts."

            "You believe in that bullshit? I thought you went to college."

            "Well, you know, just because the light's gone out don’t mean nobody's home."

            "Dead is dead, Leah. Gone."

            "How do you know? Don't you believe when people say somebody's going to a better place? Seeing the light?

            "Nothing's better than this. This is it," he said.

            "This can't be it," she said. "No fucking way."

            Mrs. Sackett moaned in her sleep, writhed as much as her bundled body would allow. Pete reached out to touch her on the shoulder, as if he could calm her. She kept moving and he withdrew his hand.

            "What's got her all riled up?"

            "Who knows?" Leah said.

            "Maybe she's saying you should go out with me. We had a good time, didn't we? You know it was good. Come on, live a little. There'll be an empty room tonight when Mr. James passes."

            "That was a onetime thing. I told you. It's better to be friends. You know that. It lasts longer."

            Pete stood up, walked toward the door. "Forget it. Hope you and Mrs. Sackett have a wild time together."

            "Pete," she said. He closed the door silently behind him. Leah watched Mrs. Sackett breathe for a while, then changed the channel to a baseball game. Two strikes, bottom of the eighth. That wasn't too long to wait. She watched the batter twirl his bat in the air in anticipation of the hit. She'd stay here until the end of the game. The hum of the crowd soothed her.

            What woke Leah up was Tamara, shaking her gently by the shoulder. "Pssst!" she said. "Hey, Leah." Leah opened her eyes to Tamara's calm dark face surrounded by the bleached glow of the TV. Tamara had worked at Pinewoods for years. She barely noticed death anymore.

            Leah sat up to clear her head.

            "You have to come sit with Mr. James. My shift's over in an hour and I have to do paperwork. He got the rattle already. Won't be too long," Tamara said.

            How was everybody so sure how long Mr. James had in the world, when no one was supposed to know the day or the hour? Leah had gone to church with her mother enough to know that one, even if she did quietly draw nudes on the bulletins while the preacher droned on about the light of God. She left these bulletins carefully folded in the backs of the pews, but she always said Hallelujah the loudest at the dismissal. That made people think she was saved.

            "Sure, I'll sit with Mr. James," Leah said. "Guess I fell asleep while me and Mrs. Sackett were talking."

            "Whatever. I won't tell. Just get in there so I can go home on time," Tamara said. "I got a life."

            The glow of the vodka had dimmed, and all that was left was a heaviness in Leah's head. It was difficult to carry around. It spread steadily into her chest. The cigarettes had parched her throat. Mrs. Sackett snored quietly. Leah reached for the coffee on the night table, but it had gone cold.

            In the hallway, Leah saw the proofs on the new photo board. She almost had to read her name to find herself. Her brown eyes looked dull and dark, her skin too pale. A strand of bleached hair hung too close to her eye. The contrast was glaring. Maybe the photographer shouldn't have used so much flash. She looked better in a little shadow. The photo showed all her imperfections, but didn't capture her. This meant they still couldn't call her by name. There's no way any stranger would recognize her. Even she was unclear who the girl in the photo was.

            Leah knocked on Mr. James's door before she entered, even though she didn't really expect an answer. The family had been sent home to rest, but one aging daughter slept on a couch in the lounge. Leah heard his ragged breath as she walked into the darkened room. It sounded as if something was caught in the vacuum of his windpipe and he was trying to force it back out with a phlegmy gasp. Did the lungs seal themselves up with their own cement? Did the heart just shut off, like flipping a switch?  She stared at him, even though she didn't want to watch this-- active dying, they called it. This was how it looked when someone wanted to stay, or didn't want to let go. Mr. James was fighting something in his haze, judging from his face. He was losing claim to his body and Leah envied that. The body seemed more of a cage than anything. A smell of waste surrounded him, sweet and rancid in the stagnant air. Leah wanted to open a window to let in a breeze, get something flowing, but the windows were all nailed shut. Too many patients were thought to be a danger to themselves, but Leah did not know how that was possible. Few of them could leave their beds. It's the ones who could get around and mess up their lives that were dangerous.

            Mr. James's eyes opened to stare into space, then closed as if weary from the effort. His hands clawed and pulled at his thin throat and cracked mouth. His fingernails had thickened and yellowed, his skin had dried to scales and was pocked with liver spots. Cataracts filmed his once brown eyes, so that they appeared navy blue. Leah wanted to get him water--that looked like what he wanted--but she had gotten in trouble for that before. He might choke, her supervisor said.  Leah couldn't understand how choking could be worse than dying of thirst, but he had signed a DNR, so all anyone could do was sit and watch. That was impossible. Leah turned her head to the wall. It all took too long—life and death. What was the difference in being dead and floating halfway out of your body for days? She thought about leaving the room. Death seemed too private a thing to share with anyone, more private than letting them clean the crevices of your body, more intimate than baring your sins to near strangers—a different kind of shame. Leah was embarrassed to be here.

            Wouldn't it be better to die quickly, something stopping the flow of oxygen to the brain, so you'd go out kind of high? That's what she would want, she'd thought about it--take a bottle of valium from her mother's stash, wash it down with vodka, maybe an oxy or two for good measure so she wouldn't end up only halfway gone, floating into the ether where no one could hold onto her, or would want to.

            She knew she was at least allowed to wet Mr. James's mouth with a damp rag, so she did. His dry lips were vaguely tinted pink. She wanted to touch him to let him know that she was there, that he was protected in some way. She reached to pat his spindly arm, but it flew out and hit her in the shoulder, then fell across his body. He tried to raise his head, as if to get out of bed. She pushed him gently back to the mattress. Maybe he was laboring to go back to the world he had come from.

            Leah backed away and sat in the chair next to the narrow bed. "Are you hurting?" she said. She smoothed Mr. James’s hair down, and his eyes followed her hand. I love you. That was what you had to say to the dying because there was nothing else to say. Wasn't that supposed to be the goal—to find someone to love you before you die? Leah didn't think this was actually possible. Now she needed another drink, something to dim Mr. James's bright pain. She didn't believe the people who said he wasn't hurting, that his moans were involuntary and had no meaning. She closed the heavy door to the fluorescent hallway, so she would be the only one to witness in the darkness. Her mouth was arid, almost cool inside. She sat down in the chair beside the bed, wet her own lips with the same washcloth she had used on Mr. James, then tilted her head back and lay the cloth over her forehead. Mr. James continued to rattle and jerk for a few minutes. She really just wanted him to be quiet.

            The sounds that came from him were animal, the movements from some long forgotten trigger, buried deep in the brain. He let out a dull deep moan. She wanted to move everything along. His eyes rolled her way. She took the washcloth from her face, covered his instead, so she couldn't see his panicked eyes. She could not put her hands on him. Please be still, she whispered. The washcloth barely puffed above his mouth. She stepped away from him and heard the too loud scrape of his breath against the inside of his chest. It got fainter until it was almost a whistle.

            The room was dark and though Leah had seen nothing giving proof of another world, she wondered if Mr. James saw the movie of his life, or the famous blinding white light that everyone was said to walk toward. She couldn't tell. Only that the washcloth was still. She slipped into the hallway and closed the door behind her.

            In the courtyard, day was just breaking in a neon orange stripe. The black sky began to fade to lavender, creeping toward what would be a bright, burning blue. The flask was still behind the camellia, half gone. She drank a long warm shot and then another, trying to shake the chill that had settled into her bones in Mr. James's room. Her skin warmed, but at the core, Leah still felt cold. She took one more shot, even though this might lead to slurring, which could end up with her getting fired. This was the only job in town she was qualified for, but she didn't care. She sat on the bench with her eyes closed, a freshly lit menthol perched between her fingers. She blew out a cloud of smoke.

            Something startled her, brushing her chin like eyelashes. She sat up and stared at the bee hovering close to her face. It was flying from flower to flower, circling and inspecting her to see if she was worth touching. She tried not to move suddenly; she was allergic. Still, she wasn't afraid. It lit on her arm. She was surrounded by flowers in the courtyard, but the bee chose her. It was fat and fuzzy, like it was made from pipe cleaners by some child, but its legs were thin wires, precise surgical instruments plucking at her skin, digging to see what was inside. The bee flew to Leah's ear and in response, her ear flushed. Leah imagined it whispered something that sounded like be still. She stood as quietly as she could. She held her breath, anticipating the sting. Her cigarette continued to burn, almost to the filter now. She would let it singe her fingers before she would let the bee go.

     
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Stephanie Whetstone is a Kentucky native. She earned a B.A. from Duke University and an MFA from UNC-Greensboro. Her fiction has been featured as Narrative Magazine's "Story of the Week" and was included in the 2011 Anthology of Appalachian Writers. She received the 2010 Rose Post Creative Non-fiction award and was a finalist for the 2011 Ron Rash Award in fiction. Her work is forthcoming in the 2012 Anthology of Appalachian Writers.