Volume 41 ~ 2018

 

                  

Hallie Prickett

 

The Bed on the West Wall

 

     I stand in the doorway, and when I look to the bed on the west wall, I want to gag.

I’m dressed head to toe in blue scrubs, save for the new patches of who-knows-what that would be sure to stain later. I turn the knob to the last door down the left hallway. The badge on my shirt reads my name, right above the name of the nursing home I’m standing in.

     In my past year of working here, I’ve seen a lot. Not many highschoolers get to say they’ve seen anyone on their deathbed, let alone see it regularly. My parents tell me it’s a hard job, but someone has to do it. I don’t do it out of a sense of duty—everyone talks about my job like I’m doing something noble. I just needed the money--at least, it started that way. I never thought I could get attached to the people I cared for. It seems ironic to say, but isn’t that how you care for people?

     That’s what I do. I dress people who can’t move their bodies. I feed people who can’t pick up a spoon. And yes, I wipe people who can’t even go to the bathroom by themselves. At least I can say that I’m not grossed out by anything anymore—when I describe my job to my friends, they pretend to gag, saying, “Ugh! I could never do that!” It’s funny, though. I never thought I would get to the point where my brain doesn’t even register if I’m looking at someone naked, or my nose doesn’t smell whatever mess is leaking out of a diaper. Working here has desensitized me. I’m used to it. I’m trained for it. Sometimes I worry about that, as if somehow being around death will lessen its impact on me. Is that even a good thing? Do I want to shield myself from that pain?

     If I’m being honest, most of the people here aren’t really here. They aren’t present. Age is an awful thing; if your body goes, your brain goes. There are those who don’t remember their own name, but remember every cuss word they’d ever been taught. Some just wander around. Some ask to go home. These are the people that are easy to let go. It’s easy to say goodbye to someone who couldn’t recognize you in the first place.

     The door I’m leaning against opens up to the room of one of the lucky ones. He’s one of the kindest men here: he asks me how I’m doing, he doesn’t beg me to touch him, he doesn’t reach out and grab my shirt or my butt as I’m helping him go to the bathroom. He always speaks in a kind, soft voice when he asks me about college. He apologizes for ‘bothering me,’ when he presses his call light for help. We even joke together, and he’s really funny—that is, when he can talk.

     It’s hard to notice it at first—the brain damage, I mean. It just creeps up on him sometimes: he’ll be telling me a story, and then he’ll just pause for a steady minute or two, and finally mumble another soft apology. He’s suffering; he can feel himself forgetting things. He knows that he’s losing himself, his past, his thoughts, and I’m losing a friend. That’s when it hurts the most: I can see that he’s in pain—he isn’t so far gone to let that pain numb him, but too damaged for me to help.

     I stand in the doorway, and when I look to the bed on the west wall, I want to gag.

     I had peeked in to see how he was doing. I had wanted to be sure someone had already helped him get to bed on time. But now, as I lean against the doorframe, I wish that I hadn’t come.

     He’s sucking on his thumb. He doesn’t see me, and somehow, that makes it worse. Every second I watch, the more I want to run, the more I want to erase the image from my memory. I can feel bile rising in my throat. It wasn’t what I was witnessing that makes my stomach churn—I’m sick with myself. I can’t tear my eyes away from the man in front of me; the man who was always kind, the man who made an effort to memorize my face and name, the man who deserved so much better. He doesn’t belong in a three-hallway prison where life never lasts. He doesn’t deserve the strokes that stole his brain away, piece by piece. He doesn’t deserve to have regressed into the mind of a child, left without an ounce of dignity in his last years.

     He turns over in his bed, his bare back now facing me, and his mouth releases his hand with a sickening wet pop. I cringe at the sound. Another moment passes, and another, and I finally retreat from the shadow of the door, tears in my eyes and hands shaking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fox and a Rabbit

 

He whispers.

The hairs on the back

of my neck rise.

He breathes sweet words

against my exposed skin.

He turns me scarlet

and leaves satisfied.

I tremble in the cold.

Body Language

 

I’d always thought that my body

alone knows how it needs

to be wanted. But here you are:

each kiss pulls secrets out of me,

picks me apart, and leaves me

unraveled—your fingers trail

down my arms and settle

on my hips. You inch closer

and hold me, your hands molding

to my valleys and curves.

Lips meet lips, confident

and sure, as if my body language

was your native tongue.

It’s the Little Things

 

It sounds almost like a children’s book, right?

“On a lonely red planet,

Far far away,

A little robot named Curiosity

Is programmed to sing Happy Birthday to itself

With no one around to listen.”

 

Humans, as a whole,

have overcome

the impossible:

cured disease,

scaled every mountain

and sailed every sea.

Empires have risen and fallen

Civilizations have blossomed and burned.

Now, as we look to the stars

and aim to conquer the final frontier,

the best minds on our humble planet

have come together—

And yet,

as humans do,

we discover new significant ways

to fall in love with the most insignificant things.

Spending billions of dollars

and countless hours upon

countless hours;

a collaboration

of calculations

only to give a lonely robot

a million miles away

a little love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taco

 

     My dad comes into the kitchen. Oblivious to my vigilant efforts of to keep the bugs out, he immediately walks over to open the window above the sink. He has already swapped out his crisp bank slacks in favor of his true uniform: a pair of beige work pants torn at the cuff, a dirty baseball cap, and a stained shirt that once advertised a team he used to coach. He dunks his hands into the sudsy sink and washes the grease off his arms.

     I join him at the sink, tipping our holy grails into the stream of running water: bell peppers. We both grin. We’re the only ones in the family that like them. I carry my treasure back over to the counter, admiring how the water beads on the skin. I chop them—the way he taught me—as my teacher stirs the meat already browning in the pan. Soon the dull silence of the once-empty kitchen is drowned out; now, we raise our voices so our simple, but amicable chatter can be heard over the sizzling of oil. A handful of bugs buzz over our heads. I tell him about something funny that happened to me that day, he chops an onion. He tells me about something he saw on his way to work, I slide the tortillas in the oven. We can just barely hear our neighbor mowing his lawn.

      There’s a certain magic that happens about now. The hot summer sun streams in through the open window, looming outside but not yet forgotten. As it fills our kitchen with a warm yellow light, and finally, finally, the best part of cooking manifests and makes itself known to us: the smell. There isn’t anything better than the smell of sauteed peppers and onions—the scent wafts down our open hallways and throughout the house, mingling with the spices of the taco meat and the freshness of soap.

     I check on the tortillas, a lovely shade of brown dotting their undersides. My dad wanders through the halls and stairwells, hollering for the rest of my family to come down for supper. I smile down at my plate.  Perfect.

 

     Years later, I stand in a kitchen: different cabinets, different home, a different state. A wide array of cooked vegetables are spread across the counter. I plop down into the seat across from my daughter’s high chair. Excitedly, I tear off a bite-sized piece of my taco and hold it up to her mouth. I wait patiently, anticipating her reaction. She considers it, reaches out with one chubby hand, and eats it. I beam at her, only to see the food drop to her plastic tray, and she grabs a handful of Cheerios instead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Horrible

 

If it’s best to take the bad

with the good, then I want

your Horrible.

I’ll fight for your sleepless nights,

battle for scraps

of your hostility.

I’d take the distrust

in your eyes any day

if only it meant I could keep

the disgusted look on your face.

I want every ounce

of your hurt to be drowned

in a gallon in mine.

I want your terrible,

your wasted and rotten,

your insensitive—your brutal.

So that when the mounting wave

of pain finally crashes

down into a slow

low tide and is nothing

more than a hollow echo,

I can have your Good all to myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only the Good Die Young

 

I’ve felt the earth under my feet

for eighteen years.

I’ve been taught to fear many things,

But I was blind to the truly horrible.

 

This isn’t just the goosebumps fear

It’s the makes-you-sweat fear,

It’s the sick-to-your-stomach fear.

It comes without warning,

settles into your skin,

And only resurfaces when it’s too late.

 

I was never taught to fear

someone helping me—

but then again,

I had never feared helplessness:

of being too weak to

move my legs,

turn my head,

or lacking the strength to

  1. Get up

  2. Walk to the bathroom

  3. And wipe my own ass.

 

I was never taught to fear

forgetfulness—

forgetting my name

the face in the mirror, or worse,

being forgotten.

 

I had never been taught to fear

being tormented out of love.

I had always imagined Torture

as an act of hate.

Instead, the goodness of modern medicine

can be an act of human cruelty:

an aftereffect of a loving daughter

who can’t bear to let go

when her mother is suffering.

 

I learned how to be afraid,

What to fear,

And with this earthly knowledge

I have found the answer as to

Why nursing homes

Are sometimes feared more than Hell.

 

So now,
when the cold air

burns my lungs on a morning run,

or when I try to memorize the details

of my growing daughter’s face,

I thank my fears

for giving me a reason to hold on

that much tighter than the present.