Motivated by a scheduled bath, Helena drags her left arm out of bed while trying to pivot to the wheelchair, a hemiplegic body once capable of figure skating well enough to qualify as an Olympian, but not to win a medal. Across the hall, bed- bound Priscilla pulls on a stuffed dog with a string around its tail to trigger the call-light and get a nursing assistant to come and retrieve the remote control lost under the covers. At the nursing station Maureen, a thirty-six year veteran, pushes down the curling vinyl flooring, resigned to the Baylor schedule, twelve hours Saturday and twelve Sunday, while the young nurses make weekend plans.
Three doors away Norman uses a pair of arthritic hands—muscle atrophy reveals a hodgepodge of bones and vessels—to clutch the grab-bar and get up impulsively from the toilet. Maureen arrives before he flushes and marks an entry in the spiral notebook labeled ‘ Bowel Movements’ to alert Anne the nurse practitioner the laxatives worked. Maureen is wary of Anne. A new graduate, Anne understands medications but hardly considers nursing input and rarely looks up from the damn laptop, instead relying strictly on lab reports to diagnose a patient.
Maureen secures Norman, resenting the task an experienced nurse would normally delegate and curses the chronic shortage of nursing assistants at the Fresh Pond Convalescent Home—The Pond to long-time employees. A minute later Fatima arrives and wipes Norman and Maureen grins at the perverse shadows cast on the wall of the half-bath. As they help Norman to the extra-wide wheelchair it leans ominously, only the anti-tippers prevent a backward tumble.
Fatima pulls hard on the Velcro straps of black orthotic sneakers that barely fit Norman, speech garbled by a stroke, he mumbles, “Lora Doan.”
“Who is Laura Dune?” asks Fatima, a recent immigrant from Brazil.
“It’s a cookie,” says Maureen, searching pockets stuffed with a clip-alarm and a broken pair of eyeglasses belonging to Mrs. King before locating a Lorna Doone. Norman opens wide and chews, sun-damaged cheeks resemble the coagulated top of left-over gravy.
Maureen dispenses the morning meds and mulls over recurring doubts about administering medications to extend lives when they lack any life. Back at the nursing station, irritated by the subtle flickering of the fluorescent lights, Maureen grabs a sweater and steps out to the portico to have a cigarette.
The recently installed bay window provides a view of the portrait of Captain Thatcher of the whaling ship Acushnet hung over a Danish Modern table in the parlor, a picture-light over the painting highlights the cascading white mustache of the dignified man. The polished table functions as the caller’s station during bingo, the chairman’s podium during resident council, and as an altar during religious services. A half-century ago when the house was the 1950s version of a rehab center—an obscure retreat to abstain from alcohol or drugs—conversation at the table allegedly included the laugh and temper of Jackie Gleason and the sweet voice and regrets of Judy Garland. During the1880s when the retired captain built the house for a tyrannical wife and nine children, servants and a chef kept it powered. A hundred years ago the view of the pond was glorious, before the town built the ugly apartment complex that predictably overloads the local road and leads to car accidents at the traffic circle. Legend says the captain planted the magnificent oak tree the morning of the day he died to watch over the house; its branches now reach the oval window of the attic where twenty years ago a nurse overdosed on heroin. The young woman was found with a tourniquet around her arm and a needle sticking out of a vein. The attic was locked after a police investigation and remains bolted.
Maureen takes a puff and watches Gertrude examine a stack of newspaper flyers. Until last week they let Gert cut out coupons, the ragged pile yielded savings and staff were grateful, but they had to put away the scissors after the old girl threatened an assistant who requested the pair to trim a frayed blanket; the incident was accompanied by a slew of racial slurs that caused the staff to mock Gertrude as Lady Gert of the Manor because she insists the old Victorian house belongs to her Father and demands to play with the rocking horse he brought home from New Zealand and subsequently stored in the attic.
Maureen wonders how bewildering it would be to return as an elderly woman to the house you knew as a child and observe the changes—lighting fixtures, wallpaper, the view out the bay window, and the strangers—nurses, food service personnel, and bureaucrats, and whether the unique remnants of the past—the ornate maple balustrade, the stained glass windows, the high ceilings with the original hand- painted grapevines in the corners—would validate a fading memory?
A light rain turns heavy and Maureen puts out the cigarette and returns to the nursing station to get a cup of coffee, knowing Fatima usually makes a pot after the residents are served lunch. The heavily stained yellow mug waits with two sugar packets and a stirrer. Maureen blows at the steam and holding up a container of Half & Half, says to Fatima. “When Bill was a boy he used to drink out of the half & half containers whenever we went out for breakfast.”
“How many years ... ah, how old is your son now?” asks Fatima.
“Forty-five,” says Maureen, staring at a photo of Billy as a boy next to a menu for a local Chinese take-out restaurant, now a lawyer at a prestigious law firm.
Fatima leans over and whispers, “Mr. Franklin is asking for his mother.”
“In my experience,” Maureen says, “when they ask for their mother it’s time to go.”
“You know,” says Maureen, pointing up to heaven. “Last year we had a guy, what was his name? Palmetta… Mr. Palmetta. He insisted his brother was calling. I kept telling him nobody called. I mean, the phones were down, nobody called.” Maureen takes a sip of coffee, a dark roast. “Later that night Mr. Palmetta died. When I contacted the family I learned he had a twin who died three hours earlier. So who knows? Maybe his brother was ‘ calling’.”
Fatima anxiously makes the sign of the cross.
“It was strange,” says Maureen, pulling her sweater tight around her torso. “I guess you never know.”
The morning routine flows unimpeded by the outside world: trivia questions read to a somnolent group, the troupe of smokers led out to the portico for the sanctioned 11 : 00 a.m. cigarette, the stop by the mailman who delivers correspondence to a wooden mailbox built by a long deceased resident. Meanwhile, Maureen works her chewed fingernails with an emery board and considers whether or not to get acrylics.
The decibel level spikes when a shrill alarm rings throughout the house. The alarm was installed on the exits as a precaution against wanderers documented as at risk to ‘ elope’ after a resident walked out of Fresh Pond and got lost in the wildlife preserve beyond the house. He was found the next morning catatonic and dehydrated. Maureen almost vomited while cleaning the maggot larva he got behind the ears from sleeping overnight curled up against a dead tree.
The approaching visitor, a heavily wrinkled but brawny man, is a friend of the new lady, Mrs. Wetzel; he signed her admission documentation and holds her health care proxy. “Hello,” says the man, “my name is Alexander Frolov.”
“Good afternoon,” says Maureen; she recognizes an old scar visible through his open collar to be from heart bypass surgery.
He leans against the nursing station holding a bouquet of red roses. “I’m here to see Harriet Wetzel.”
“Harriet is being weighed in the room just past the fire extinguisher.” Maureen points down the hall.
“Thank you.” He hands her a box of Whitman chocolates. “This is for your staff.”
“That’s very kind of you,” she says. “By the way, the flowers are beautiful.”
“It’s our fifteenth anniversary,” says Mr. Frolov, smiling. He walks down the hall, but stops at an oval mirror to comb his strands of hair.
Maureen is startled by the crash of dishes in the kitchenette. A few supper trays stacked atop the counter have toppled over and created a sickening mass of partially chewed Salisbury steaks, cheap dining ware and pureed string beans and potatoes. Maureen starts to clean it up, but stops and calls housekeeping.
She toasts a slice of bread and cuts it diagonally, the way Billy always wanted his grilled cheese sandwiches cut as a boy, and leans against the window sill nibbling the crust. She stares at the stones covering the roof of the lower level, and is reminded of Cobble Beach in Maine where James loved to rent a cottage in the summers and take Billy out on the lake.
Those were good years with family; the natural scent of pine still transports her back to those days. Now the residents of Fresh Pond are family, invariably together at birthdays and holidays, and funerals. It hurts Maureen to watch the way the younger staff treat patients. It makes her anxious about growing old, and when assistants handle residents as if they were just frail patients awaiting death, forgetting they have a histories as young and vital individuals, it makes her want to scream. Maureen felt wounded last Sunday when the nursing assistants laughed as Elizabeth McNeil, once a maternity nurse who probably swaddled half the residents of New Bedford, tried to use her peanut butter &jelly sandwich to catch a fly.
Then there’s Norman, he once owned a general store. He will remember it if you give him a chance. Yesterday he enjoyed a laugh while telling Maureen and Fatima about how he always invited the local Boy Scout troop to shop at a discount, but only allowed two boys in the store at a time lest the shelves clear, while the cash register remained empty, explaining, “I was a boy once.”
And the younger staff has no way of understanding the private hell of widows. It is pure torture for Maureen to watch Viola King relive the loss of her husband every day as if it were that very day—not eleven years ago—and grieve inconsolably.
Maureen refused to place James in a nursing home when he was dying of cancer, and handled all the responsibilities herself—dispensing medication, toileting, bathing. It became truly excruciating as he grew confused.
James was a decorated WWII veteran who survived Iwo Jima while back home his sweetheart was killed in a car accident. As he grew demented he would mutter, “Evelyn.” Maureen knew it was why he insisted on ‘ James’ throughout their marriage—not Jim or Jimmy, those names of endearment belonged to Evelyn. It contributed to a formality in their relationship that lasted to the very end as she seemed to play the part of dutiful nurse more than grieving wife.
Another shift, another death. The coroner already contacted, and expected within the hour, Maureen completes a death certificate for Fred Carter. Death is so persistent at the nursing home that it makes her obsess about her own way. Will it be slow and painful, or sudden without warning?
Fred is lying in bed while rigor mortis casts its spell. Maureen curses the involuntary thought that Fred was never so ‘ hard’, and remembers when Eleanor Carter came running down the hall to say her husband was injured. Maureen arrived to find Fred with his pants down around his ankles and holding his crotch, moaning in agony. Those were the days before Viagra and he had inserted a Q-Tip into his urethra trying to resurrect an erection. A horrible guilt takes hold as Maureen recalls routinely mumbling ‘ ED’ after the incident, as in erectile dysfunction, instead of ‘ Fred’. And there is the terrible suggestion of karma as seventy approaches and her juices have dried.
Alexander Frolov arrives in a suit and tie, holding a weekly program from St. Catherine’s Russian Orthodox Church and a small pastry box; Maureen smiles noticing his thick, meaty fingers holding it by the pink and white bakery string.
“Hey!” Gertrude LeDrew rushes over, frantically pushing her walker. “What are you doing in my house?”
Maureen comes around from the nursing station to impede her path. “Now, now, Gert, Mr.Frolov is our guest,” she says, guiding her towards the dining room. “Sorry, Mr. Frolov,” says Maureen, “she means no harm.”
“No problem,” he says, smiling. “Please call me Alex.”
“Okay, Alex,” she says. “Harriet is in her room.”
In a few minutes Alex returns to nursing station without his jacket and tie; rolled-up sleeves reveal tattoos on his forearms. “When you have a chance,” he says, “I … I …”
“What’s the matter?” asks Maureen.
“It’s Harriet … her hair is parted on the wrong side.”
I’ll remedy that right away.” Maureen walks down the hall, ranting inwardly at the administrator Karen for sacrificing quality of care by hiring undependable per-diem staff to reduce costs associated with full-time staff, such as health insurance.
Maureen finds the hairbrush under the bed and rinses it in the sink. As she combs Mrs. Wetzel’s thick gray hair she notices for the first time how smooth her skin is, and that her eyes are as blue the Wedgewood teapot atop her bureau.
“Thank you, dear,” says Mrs. Wetzel.
“You’re welcome.” Maureen is pleasantly surprised; Mrs. Wetzel has not spoken during her two weeks at Fresh Pond. It must be Alex. He is stroking her hand.
Back at the nursing station, Maureen picks up the tall vase and pours the water in the sink and tosses the flowers in the garbage.
“What are you doing?” asks Fatima.
“Karen told me I had to throw these away because some of the residents are allergic, I should have done it yesterday.”
“But they’re so beautiful.” Fatima peers down in the trash at the collage of purple and white petals.
“Are they lilies?”
“Bearded irises,” says Maureen, leaving out how much she hates lilies because of their association with floral arrangements for funerals; inevitably the house receives leftovers from grieving families, well meaning, but the scent always makes Maureen sad.
Maureen hesitates before confiding in Fatima. “Elizabeth MacNeil says they remind her of growing up in Nova Scotia. You know, the real reason I have to get rid of them is because it makes Karen jealous that the residents like me.”
She shakes her head. “Do you remember when I gave Norman a gin and tonic?”
“Yes,” says Fatima.
“He told me he would love a drink, and asked if he could have a cocktail. I checked the chart and it said he’s allowed alcohol ‘ sparingly’. I paged the doctor, you know, just to be careful. He said it was fine. So I went downstairs to the kitchen and made the drink and brought it up to him. Fatima, I swear he took a sip and his whole face lit up.”
“It made him smile,” explains Maureen. “He talked about the old store, and about how much fun he and wife had running it all those years. I left that night feeling really good about myself.” She rinses the vase, and stores it in the cabinet under the sink.
“When I came in the next morning Karen calls to tell me how angry she is for what I did. At first I didn’t know what she was talking about, I thought maybe it was about leaving cigarette butts on the portico. Then she says, ‘ We have to have a care plan meeting before giving a resident alcohol.’ For God sakes, I’ ve been a nurse for over thirty years!” Maureen takes a breath, trying not to raise her blood pressure.
“But, I guess I shouldn’t say anything, Karen is always nice to you. I noticed she joked about how you forget to document the bi-weekly check of the fire extinguishers. If that was me, I would’ve been in big trouble.”
Fatima laughs and shakes her head. “Karen is nice to me because she doesn’t respect me.”
“I don’t understand,” says Maureen; Fatima is considered the most reliable nursing assistant in the facility.
“Don’t you see, in her eyes I’m just a girl from a poor country. I drive an old car, and live in a poor neighborhood. It’s easy for her to be nice to me.” Fatima smiles, and kisses the cross around her neck.
“I haven’t always been a nursing assistant,” she says, tucking the necklace back under her blouse. “I was a legal secretary in Brazil.” She pulls up a chair and begins recording the percentage of the meal each resident has consumed during lunch.
Maureen nods, suddenly aware of underestimating Fatima.
Two elderly ladies from nearby Christ the King Church arrive to give communion; they remove their coats and take the list of names of the Catholic residents and go upstairs to start with Father Laughlin, a retired Jesuit.
Maureen remembers Fatima and her husband have recently bought a house. “How’s the new house?” she asks, eager to change the subject.
“It needs a lot of work,” says Fatima. “I’ m wondering if we did the right thing buying.”
“We just learned the town is bankrupt.”
Maureen sits back in her seat, relieved not to be raising her son nowadays when it seems that everything is so hard for families. “What will happen?” she asks, taking a Tums.
“I don’t know, probably our taxes will go up. We already have trouble with our bills.” Fatima sips water from a thermos. “I think maybe the real estate agent tricked us a little.”
Maureen shivers from the cold, and stands to adjust the thermostat.
“My husband says we should have gotten a woman agent, they’ re more honest than men.”
“I don’t know about that,” says Maureen. She excuses herself and responds to Mrs. King’s call through the intercom for pain medication. The med cart is parked outside her room, and as Maureen retrieves Extra-Strength Tylenol the recognizable sounds of exertion cause her to push open the neighboring door, fearful Harriet Wetzel may have fallen; Fresh Pond was recently cited by the State after an audit revealed they lacked a plan to reduce the risks of falls.
As Maureen leans in to check Harriet, she is stunned to find her in bed under the covers with Alex in an intimate embrace, their clothes resting on the chair beside the bed.
Is Alex taking advantage of Mrs. Wetzel? Her heart races, unsure what to do, but after a moment of hesitation, Maureen pulls the door closed and holds the knob to prevent it from clicking shut. Standing out in the hall, she takes a deep breath. Keep the rendezvous secret, her heart tells her. Maureen understands loneliness, and knows how hard it is to make a new friend, let alone find romance. She replays a flirtatious exchange she had last week at the post office when a man commented about the American flag pin on her lapel and unmistakably glanced down at her cleavage, and remembers how excited she felt.
She brings Mrs. King her medicine and returns to restock the nursing cart with plastic spoons, straws, and paper cups, resisting an urge to share what she witnessed with Fatima—so young and traditional, Fatima believed Tom from maintenance was ‘ dirty’ for placing an ad in the personals. It would be too awkward to explain to her how the desire for affection remains as a person ages, it just gets harder with incontinence, painful joints, and gastric reflux.
Across the hall, Raul hooks up the harness of the Hoyer to lift a dependent Walter Kiley from the bed to the wheelchair. When Walter is hoisted and dangling over the bed he yells, “You’ re hurting me!”
“Careful, Raul,” says Maureen, running into the room. “Please call if you need assistance.”
Raul ignores her, and carefully lowers Walter into the wheelchair and places a blanket over his legs.
“He was asking about a haircut,” says Raul; his dark narrow eyes and serious manner intimidate Maureen.
“The barber will be here tomorrow, Walter,” she says.
Fatima walks in and collects the laundry on the floor; Raul starts to make the bed.
Walter searches the pocket of his shirt; it looks to Maureen as though he finished mowing his lawn one afternoon wearing that faded short-sleeve shirt and sat down and grew old. “How much for the haircut?” he asks.
“It’s free,” says Maureen.
“How can it be free?” asks Walter. “He needs to replace a broken Frank Sinatra tape.”
“The haircut is no charge, Mr. Kiley,” says Fatima, leaning down and speaking directly into his good ear.
He looks up at Maureen. “What did she say?”
“You already paid for it! ”
Walter nods, and when he appears satisfied they return to the nursing station. Maureen reviews the interaction with Raul in her mind; she has a nagging feeling she somehow offended him. “What do you think of the new assistant?” she asks, trying to gauge whether Fatima knows Raul.
“Raul?” Fatima puts her pen down, and begins to unbraid her long black hair. “I like him. We speak Portuguese to each other.”
Maureen feels embarrassed; having always assumed Fatima was speaking Spanish to her co- workers.
Raul is very proud,” she says. “He had his own clothing business in Rio de Janeiro. He told me it was very successful. He had to carry a gun when he made bank deposits.”
“Why did he come to the United States?” asks Maureen.
“The government took his building.” “How could they just take it?”
“They wanted to build a road.”
“Didn’t they pay him for it?
“No,” says Fatima, with a knowing smile. “There’s a lot of corruption.”
“That’s not fair.”
Fatima goes to the bathroom as Alex Frolov steps up to the nursing station. “I’ m leaving now,” he says, grabbing a pen to sign out.
“By the way,” says Maureen, “I would suggest on future visits you and Harriet draw the curtain for a little privacy. Fresh Pond is a small place.”
Alex blushes and looks down at his feet. “You know,” he says, clearing his throat, “it means a lot to me to know Harriet is in a home where people really care about her.” He buttons his overcoat.
“When my wife died twenty-one years ago, I never thought I would ”
“It’s alright,” says Maureen, smiling. “Happy anniversary.”
“Thank you,” he says, and steps over to the door and presses the four-digit code Maureen provided to deactivate the alarm.
After the front door shuts, Maureen calls Raul and Fatima over to the desk, and tells them it’s time to explore the attic, kick down the door if that’s what it takes, and find out if the rocking horse Gert talks about is up there gathering dust.