I massage my temples. Bingo Friday.
The recreation room is next door to mine. The racket wouldn’t be so bad if Hilda didn’t use that damn microphone to call the numbers. There’s no escaping it. I turn up the volume of my television, but it’s no use. I can’t concentrate. The only thing I can do is hope someone gets lucky soon. These games can go on for hours.
I’m supposed to go for my shower this morning and I’m not looking forward to it. They hose you down like a farm animal and the chemicals in the cheap soap turn my skin to crackled mud. They don’t even take the time to blow-dry my hair. No wonder Ruth came down with pneumonia. That’s what one of the nurses told me yesterday. I think her name is Mary. Or Marjorie.
“Apparently, she’s had it for some time,” she said under her breath. “It’s lucky they caught it in time.”
“She’ll pull through?” I asked, incredulous. I almost felt myself rise out of my wheelchair.
“I suspect so,” Mary/Marjorie said. “If all goes well, she’ll be back in a week.”
“For god’s sake,” I mutter as I press the volume button on my remote control. “Somebody win already.”
There isn’t much television worth watching at this time of the day, but I settle for my soap opera, even though I don’t have a clue what’s going on most of the time. The dialogue is so fast and I can’t remember who did what to whom or which twin sister ran off with the other one’s husband or who robbed the bank to pay for the kidney transplant. So much life packed into a single hour. I wheel myself closer to the television, squinting at the screen. Two young men are talking in an office setting. One of them is wearing a tie and seems agitated.
“Now who are they?” I wonder.
The other man is wearing one of those hats. What do they call them again? Visors. He looks like he’s just come in from the tennis court. He grabs the arm of the man in the suit.
I reach for the ginger ale sitting beside the television. It’ll be warm and flat by now, just the way I like it. Just as my fingers touch the plastic ridges of the glass, the two men on the television step towards one another and kiss.
My fingers stop. Have I got my channels mixed up? Is this one of those hidden camera shows? I wait for studio-audience laughter, but nothing comes other than the sweeping strains of an orchestra. This doesn’t appear to be a joke. But surely it must be. It’s the middle of the afternoon.
“Ready for your shower, Mrs. Sparks?”
A hand touches my shoulder, startling me. I turn my head and see it’s one of the nurses. The fat one with the bright red hair and orange streaks. When did women decide it was attractive to have fire on their heads?
“Now what is going on here?” she asks, bending towards the television.
Shame sweeps over me. I fumble for the remote control. “I don’t know what show this is. I turned on the TV and this came on.”
“The one in the suit is a real looker,” the nurse says. “Just look at those two go at it. There’s nothing they won’t put on TV these days.”
“Take me to the showers,” I say, louder than necessary. We’re halfway down the hall when I hear a “Bingo!” but the victory comes too late.
“Let me know if the water’s too cold.”
A cool explosion on my calf. Lilac soap. A drain in the floor like an armored mouth.
I keep my head down while the water spills over me. I won’t come clean. Fire-woman can ram the showerhead down my throat, but this guilt will never wash away. It’s impenetrable. A stain under a crust of ice.
“Can you lift your arm for me, Mrs. Sparks?”
My tears, at least, go undetected.
My eyes open. I lift my head. The back of my neck throbs.
It’s him. Timothy. Standing in the doorway, a cautious expression on his face. He’s wearing a yellow sweater. It looks soft and I imagine how nice it would be to have his arms around me, taking me in. I don’t remember the last time I was hugged.
“I’m sorry to bother you,” he says. “But Maureen in 405 is worried about Ruth. She asked if I’d check with you.”
“Pneumonia,” I say. “They say she had it for quite some time. God knows who has what around this place. How is Maureen doing herself? I haven’t seen her in the dining room for the past couple of days.”
“She’s been having dizzy spells,” Timothy says. “She fell out of bed a few days ago. Her arm is all bruised.” He takes a step back. “Thanks for the information about Ruth. I’ll pass it along. Sorry to have bothered you.” He turns to go.
“I’ve always been a private person, you see.”
He pauses. Turns back. Takes one step into the room. My eyes dart down.
“I gathered that.”
“That photo you commented on,” I say. “The one of my son. It was taken the day he graduated from chef school.”
He walks over to it, picks it up. My heart quickens. “I can see the resemblance,” he says.
“We had the same nose.”
I watch him sit down in the chair opposite me and stare at John’s picture.
“He was a good cook. I couldn’t boil an egg to save my life. My husband wasn’t much good in the kitchen, either. I don’t know where John got his talent. Strange, isn’t it? How people can be so different, even in families.”
I never knew my son. Not in the way I should have known him.
“He made a big birthday cake for me, once. An apple cake, sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. And writing on the top. Happy Birthday, Mom in white icing. I’d never seen anything so—”
I press my eyes shut to block the tears. I won’t cry. There’s no dignity in grief.
“That’s all in the past, now. No point bringing it up.”
Timothy looks from the picture back at me. I feel as though my clothes are suddenly made from Saran Wrap.
“He was thirty-one,” I say. “If that’s what you’re wondering.”