Tuesday, January 21, 2014

It Comes in Threes (A short story)

   “Oh! Ah, hm,” I exclaimed quietly, despite my surprise at the grisly, bloody sight. I hadn’t wanted to alarm Mr. McGyver in the next Craftmatic bed.

   It was after two a.m., and he’d used his service-button to complain about his roommate’s excessive coughing that was keeping him awake. From the dim light of the hallway, I’d pulled the nursing home’s privacy-curtain between the two beds in the darkened room, before turning on the fluorescent light-board above Mr. Wilcox’s bed. The poor man had not died easily.

   I sighed. Our staff, here at Lake Pontchartrain Convalescent Center, had been told a week before that Mr. Wilcox was terminal, and that he'd signed a DNR form. But his death happened in a moment.

  Going through the standard motions, I pressed two fingers to his wrist. No pulse. Then I used the stethoscope and B.P. cuff to confirm he had no blood pressure.

   I knew the charge-nurse on duty would likely drag her feet if I used the service-button to summon her, so I didn't bother. Besides, I was going to need help in cleaning up all the blood Mr. Wilcox had coughed and spat all over himself when he died. I switched off the light-board, keeping the privacy-curtain in place, and left the room to head down to the nurse’s station. It turns out the charge-nurse was on the phone to Mr. Wilcox’s doctor.

   “Well, he’s been sleeping. His B.P. was one-forty-two over eighty…pulse, seventy-six...” She looked up at me from the other side of the desk with the phone-receiver to her ear, observing my ‘finger-across-the-neck’ signal that Mr. Wilcox was no longer on the earthly plane. “Hold on, Dr. Wheeler….” She covered the mouth-piece. “When?”

   “About five minutes ago.”

  She gave a light sigh before she talked into the receiver again. “I’m sorry, Dr. Wheeler, but it would seem that Mr. Wilcox has just passed away….”

                                                                          *           *            *

   Edward and I worked with a basin of warm, soapy water and washcloths on each side of Mr. Wilcox, saying little. “One, two, three,” Edward counted off quietly, before we both turned the body on its side. I cleaned the backside as Edward gently held the corpse. It was my lucky day; Mr. Wilcox had already had his bowel movement after dinner, and before my nightshift began. We’d already cleaned up the blood, and I laid down a large transferring sheet and an adult-diaper beneath him, for any post-mortem leakage. Another ‘one, two, three’, and the body was facing me, as Edward cleaned the other side.

   The point of all this is to prep the deceased for the mortuary-guys (aka ‘The Suits’) that'll be here soon. The Suits are always well-groomed, clean-shaven, and have the energy of three coffees.  They’re also quiet and discreet, which is helpful, as Mr. McGyver pretends he’s asleep when they come to take his roommate away.

   One of the Suits peered at the empty bedside cabinet’s surface, before turning to me. “Glasses? Dentures?”

   “He didn’t wear any glasses,” I answered, before turning to the cabinet and opening a drawer to retrieve Mr. Wilcox’s denture cup. The Suit put it in a plastic sack marked Personals, and set it on top of the body-bag holding Mr. Wilcox.

   I followed behind at an even pace, as the Suits guided the stretcher silently over the hallway’s old linoleum. They stopped at the nurse’s station and handed the charge-nurse a clipboard holding official documents. She whipped her Bic pen over the clipboard, then handed it back.

   I watched for a moment as the stretcher continued on its way, made a final turn down the hall, and disappeared.

   I returned to the room to strip the bed. Then I emptied out the bedside cabinet drawers of Mr. Wilcox toiletries, and packed up his clothes in the suitcase he’d come here with. Mr. McGyver had fallen asleep to my quiet movements.

   I shut off the light-board over the empty bed, and left to go answer another patient’s service-button.

                                                                           *            *            *

   “Mr. Bishop, with the congestive heart failure, and now Mr. Wilcox, with the lung cancer,” Edward said later, blowing cigarette smoke. “That’s two.”

  “Yah, I know. Who d’ya think will be number three?” I asked, rather morbidly. I learned a long time ago that death can be weird in its numbers. It always seemed to come in threes. I wouldn’t have been privy to this sort of inside information if I worked a 7-11. Sure, a dying loved one is sad. But people were always saying death is a part of life. And New Orleans celebrated its dead. With music, with dancing, with shared memories, and funny stories.

   Edward flicked his cigarette in an ashtray, before taking a thoughtful drag. The break-room’s snack vending machine hummed in the corner, behaving as if it worked fine, despite having cheated my co-worker of the packet of Ding-Dongs he’d tried to buy. It was why he'd bummed a Menthol from me.

   “Mmm...tough call. Either it’ll be Mrs. Morgan with the diabetes...or, Mr. Fiske with the dementia. He’s been on a feeding tube for a week. And the dude’s, like, ninety-eight years old now.”

    I sipped my Diet Coke. The soda vending machine had been more giving tonight. “Care to wager?”

   His cigarette hung from the corner of his lips as he reached into his back-pocket for his wallet. He thumbed the remnants of his last paycheck. “I got twenty on Mr. Fiske.”

   “I'll raise you thirty it’s Mrs. Morgan.”

   “Deal.” He re-pocketed his wallet, before stubbing out his smoke.

    I glanced at my wristwatch. Break over, and two hours left on the shift. We headed back down to our assigned floors. I almost felt bad for Edward that I had the inside track on Mrs. Morgan; I failed to mention that she had a hidden box of Russell Stover chocolate truffles in the bottom drawer of her closet. She knew the sweets would likely complicate her health, but she no longer cared.

   “I'm practically at th’ end of th’ line, Puddin’,” she’d said to me between her last weigh-in of two-hundred-and-fifteen pounds, and my finding her hidden stash. “I’m ninety-five, wheelchair-bound, with nothin’ left to look forward to but my chocolates, my Justin Wilson cooking show, and that Ed guy’s tight little butt.” 

   I’d snerked at her comment. A couple years earlier, and I would’ve thought Ew!  But she was one of many who taught me that the older a woman got, the saltier she tended to be. Though, you’d think she'd back off the Russell Stovers. She lost her right leg below the knee, due to the diabetes, seven months earlier. Her family members were trying to be her diet cops, though it hardly did any good. She paid her roommate’s nephew to add a few items to the ‘wish-list’ he shopped for, anyway.    

   So, I'm fairly sure Edward will have to pony up before the end of the month.
                                                                             *             *            *

   A brass funeral band headed down Chartres, in the French Quarter, while my best friend, Josephine, and I feasted on beignets and café au lait. The traffic on Decatur Street rarely drowned out the horns and tubas playing ‘Second Line’. Even the Yo-Yo Ma wanna-be playing for tips outside Café du Monde had stopped out of respect, before beginning his rendition of Bach’s Suite number one.

  I drank from my water-glass before the ski alp mound of powdered sugar covering my beignet could choke me. Josephine swiped at the sugar that had settled on her black t-shirt. “Never fails.” She sighed.

  “Anyway, get back to what you were sayin` before,” I prompted her.  

   “What was I sayin`?”

   “About your freaked-out cousin, up east.”

   “Oh, yah. Mon Dieu! You’d think death was something he only saw in a horror movie. Whatta pussy.”

    “Just because your great-aunt’s funeral was open-casket?”

     She shrugged. “You know them Yankees. Passing on is something they acknowledge with a mournful nod, delivered flowers, and a mailed sympathy card. They never actually want to talk about it, or about lost relatives. They think verbally reminiscing is disrespectful and depressing.”

    “But they have no problem watching Schwarzenegger machine-gun bad guys,” I smirked. “So, your cousin lost it over your mentioning the crypts here?”

    “With his hands over his ears, singing ‘la-la-la-la’.” She laughed.  “So, you were sayin` about your Mrs. Morgan?”

    “Oh, yah,” I began to laugh. “She asked me if I would fetch her a Grim Reaper costume, for the home’s Halloween party next week.”

    Josephine choked on her café au lait. “Quoi? You’re kidding?”

    I could barely get out the explanation. “She joked about tempting fate. That if she’s gonna go, she wants to give the angels something to laugh about.”

    “Wow, that’s...” Josephine began to snicker. “...kinda cool.”

                                                                               *             *            *

    “Didja get it? Didja get it?”

    “I got it.” I smiled at Mrs. Morgan as I took the requested item out of the Party City shopping bag, and held it up for her visual approval. “But I wonder if this is a good idea.”

   She clapped her hands once and giggled as she took in the long, black robe. “Oh, chil’, don't you worry nothin’. I won’t out you. It’s all on me.”

    I handed her a plastic scythe that came with the packaged costume. “You don’t think you’ll make a few people angry or upset?”

    “Sure. Th’ condescendin' an' oversensitive bastards that run this place.”

    “Okay…” I bit my tongue to keep from snickering. “Though, a Grim Reaper in a wheelchair? Won’t that kill the effect?”

   “Excuse me?” She lifted a single eyebrow, and smirked at my choice of words.

     I hung my head at the realization. “Sorry, no pun intended.”

    She held the costume to herself, gauging its fit. “Did you get a mask? Or costume make-up?”

    “Make-up. Is that alright?” I dipped back into the bag.

    “Oui. So, chil’, which is your favorite holiday? Halloween? Or Mardi Gras?”

    “Both. I wouldn’t be able to choose one over the other. Et toi?”

    “Halloween. I always loved Halloween as a chil’. I grew up on rue Toulouse, and me and my friends would slip away from th’ adults Halloween parties to run over to St. Louis cemetery.”

     “Why’d you do that? To scare one another by popping out from behind tombs?”

     “Oh, heavens, no. Somethin’ far more important. We’d go and leave our requests at Madame Laveau’s crypt.”

     “Ah. My grandma used to tell me stories about her. About how folks all over town would swear they saw her in two different places at once.”

     “Oui, but that’s only because they couldn’t tell th’ difference between her, and her eldest daughter. They was th’ spittin’ image of one another.”

     I laughed. “I’d heard of that. But, Grandma never told me anything about requests. What’s that all about?”

    “Well, if you reach into my closet fo’ me, and get out my chocolates, I’ll tell you about it.”

    I hesitated a moment, but only because I feared getting canned for adding to an ongoing problem. What would my supervisor say if she got hip to Mrs. Morgan’s high blood-sugar test, after I’d been in her room?

    ‘Aw hell, she’s an old woman. She should be allowed her pleasures, after all,’ I thought, before reaching into her closet. I handed her her Reeboks shoebox with the Union Jack flag cover that camouflaged her contraband. She smiled just like a kid receiving sweets before dinner as she opened the box. She took a chocolate truffle before offering some to me.

    “So?” I prompted, taking one, and sinking my teeth into it.

    She gave a small hum of pleasure as she savored her truffle. “Mm…well, if you want something, something important, you go to Madame Marie Laveau, and mark three X’s on her tomb with brickstone. Then, you knock on her door three times while you’re thinkin’ about your request. Next, you kick th’ ground three times, and then you turn your back on her, accepting that she heard you. You don’t do nothin’ else, but walk away and leave her be.”

     I was so enrapt with all she said, I failed to notice that the truffle started to melt between my fingers. “That’s it?”

   “Well, no. Not entirely. You see, after she helps you get what you wanted, it’s important to go back to her, and circle your X’s. It reveals that your request was granted, so others will always believe in her.”

   I sucked the melted chocolate from my fingers. “But, what if she doesn’t grant you your request?”

   Her lips spread into a sage smile. “Oh, she does. I’m proof of that. I left my X’s on the rear, left top of her crypt. I was eleven years old.”

   “What, you mean you asked her for something?”

    “I certainly did. I asked her to let me live a good, long time. I never would’ve expected to be around so long. I’ve outlived my three brothers, my sister, two husbands…and my two boys.”

     I didn’t know how to respond, as she silently chewed on her chocolate. I looked over at her bedside cabinet. There were three picture frames on its surface, containing dated photos; two professionally-posed photos with each of her husbands at different eras, and a third that had to be her two sons. The brothers had their arms slung over one another’s shoulders as they mugged for the camera. I guessed them to be in their early, and mid-twenties, when the picture was taken. Both were sporting army fatigues and helmets, and looked to be at a field station with trees and muddy ground. I surmised that Mrs. Morgan had lost her sons in Vietnam.

    I thanked her for the chocolate break, and made an excuse about catching up on my rounds.  She sighed and gave a contented nod, before inspecting the Party City bag for other merchandise I’d snuck in to her.
                                                                        *              *              *

   I’d requested Halloween night off the month before. I wanted to celebrate it with the rest of the city, enjoying the imaginative costumes and drunken antics within the Quarter. Families and tourists visited the dead at St. Louis, or Lafayette Cemetery. The curio shops expected profits never disappointed, selling their share of both prayer candles, and souvenir voodoo dolls.

    Josephine and I hit a couple of cabaret clubs on crowded Bourbon Street, before heading to Johnny’s for dressed-n-pressed shrimp po-boys. We secured a small table in the corner, and between hungry bites, we laughed over the images we’d already spied before Halloween turned into All Saints Day; the guy painted head-to-toe like a tiger; the sexy nurse in platform high-heels, the bearded transvestite hooker sporting a beer-gut and red fishnet stockings; the ten-year-old triplets, all dressed as Harry Potter.

   We left Johnny’s, and headed down the still buzzing Bourbon Street, when I spotted a Grim Reaper costume. Its wearer had chosen to add a skull mask.

   “Wow, look at that. That’s kind of eerie,” Josephine commented, and laughed. “Wouldn’t it be funny if it was your Mrs. Morgan?”

   “I’d only recognize her if that Reaper was wheeling down the banquette. She’s missing half a leg, remember?”

   “Oh, yah.”

    The Grim Reaper seemed to turn its masked gaze upon us, before diverting his direction toward us. Okay, so now maybe I was starting to freak out a little myself. I didn’t believe that putting my hands over my ears and singing ‘la-la-la’ would help. So I just gulped, and screwed up the courage to face down the weirdo behind the mask. But before I could start wishing for a mace-can, the Reaper pulled back his hood, and lifted off his mask.


   “Hey, girl! Didn’t think I’d see you tonight.”

   “Hey! Ed!” I breathed a sigh of relief. “Didn’t think I’d be seein’ you, either. You havin’ fun?”

   “I haven’t hit any bars just yet, but Halloween always promises fun.” He shrugged. “Say, look…would you mind very much waiting til next payday. I don’t have the whole amount on me right now.”

   “Well, I…wait, what?”

   “You know. I really did think I had the winner.”

    I felt dense at his words. “What’re you talkin’ about?”

   “I owe you thirty bucks. Remember? The bet?”

    A sick feeling grew in my stomach as I absorbed what he meant. “When?” I asked quietly.

    A mildly surprised look came over him, as he digested that I hadn’t heard the news. “Uh, well, this morning. Just before the end of my shift. Sorry, I thought you knew.”

  “I was off, last night....” My mind turned foggy, so I couldn’t be sure I spoke the words.

  “Well, you know, it happens. Just like that. So…I guess that’s three.”

  His comment left me cold, and I started to give him a dirty look. But then it hit me that I was no different. I tried to swallow the feeling of disgust with myself at having placed a bet on another’s life.

  I was familiar with death. I’d seen it often at the nursing home. It came with the job. But until that point, I realized, I never really let it affect me. I never let it in.

   “Well, I guess Mr. Fiske can rest easy for a time,” Edward replaced his mask, and slipped his hood back on. “I’m gonna go get shit-faced. See ya around.”

   He walked past me and Josephine. She turned to me. “That sounds like a good idea. You wanna do the same?”

  The noise and revelry from the street broke through my consciousness. “Yeah. Yeah…let’s get drunk.”

                                                                             *            *              *

   By the cool, gray hour of dawn, despite my hangover, and the fog that settled in among the crypts, I made my way through the labyrinth of St. Louis #1 cemetery. The tomb I was looking for wasn’t difficult to find; its front was laden with lit prayer candles and beads. All Saints Day was already in full force, as a few Goths went through the motions of their requests. One woman, dressed like a vampire wanna-be, had just marked her three X’s near the bottom of the crypt. She dropped the piece of brickstone she’d just used, and glanced at me with costumed contact lenses resembling cats-eyes, before moving to the front of the crypt to knock and kick three times. After she left, I searched for another set of X’s. They were around the back, and up high in the corner.

   With the brickstone the Goth-girl had dropped, I reached up and etched circles around Mrs. Morgan’s X’s.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely written, plot has good flow and it keeps attention. There are several minor grammar issues but it is a theme. Thank you, hugs.