VOLUME 1 NUMBER 2.5
In an Hour
Outside Richard’s second-story window, the crab apple trees’ stiff limbs lurched about like waving lunatics about to board a bus back to their asylum. Richard reached underneath his sweatshirt, patting for the flask, anticipating the swig that would temporarily warm him in that coarse autumn wind on the other side of the window. Oddly, he hadn’t drunk in more than thirty years not a drop. Now he couldn’t if he wanted to; Everest Nursing and Care was dry. Maybe that was why he reached again for the flask that wasn’t there, as he imagined the youthful wind flaking off his ever-dehydrated skin, the result of Everest’s thermostat set for old age. The wind. The glass. Richard peering out. Incarceration for his own protection, of course. Still: incarceration. For if anybody had paid his dues to be outside, Richard had. And he knew this. Most of the time. Sometimes. Regardless, there was always the feeling that he belonged outside. He leaned forward in his wheelchair, barely able to see down into the parking lot.
Richard was permanently bent, except when John the darkest man Richard had ever known helped him stand and shuffle to the toilet. Only John. The other aides were transients; they were full-time but just images he endured like confusing dreams before dawn. Then John would appear. The supercilious one with cropped hair was here this morning, Richard would tell his daughter. Oh, he couldn’t have been, Dad. He died in a car accident last month. Remember? No. Not important enough for him to remember, especially when every aide but John was connected to man-sized diapers. Those moments were better made inaccessible to recall, even if the price to pay was remembering only one name: John.
Richard suddenly felt pressure on his shoulders. Hands. Hands of toil, hands that had picked the cotton, hands that had been tied up above the head when the whip cracked. The movie scenes in Richard’s mind continued to roll: The hands of Kunta Kinte in Roots. Stalwart hands, Morgan Freeman’s hands in Glory, every man’s hand, if they were a man, if they’d carried something of value, a child, a protest sign, a question; now, for Richard, an old person.
“Hello,” Richard said aloud, expecting John to answer back, “Howdy, Westy.” No response, but then the sensation of his sides being braced. John had dressed him earlier, easing his bent body into his MIT sweatshirt and jeans. So it was only natural to expect John to wheel him outside by the green and white awning, unprotected from the full sun of late morning, exactly where Richard thought he should be, the elements of weather quickening the articles of aging. But when Richard looked right and left, there was no John.
Elbows on armchair-rests, fingers interlocked, chin resting on back of hands, Richard thought. Or was he thinking? It seemed more like feeling. “Why am I not outside?” he said aloud to verify that he was, indeed, thinking. “My primary prevention from the outdoors is...” A feeling again. Loneliness? Maybe. He pushed on: “My primary prevention from the outdoors is from being in a wheelchair.” A clean thought. A clean sentence. Gold star. But then a feeling associated with being outside when he used to split wood, till the garden, and mind the church cemetery. Followed by a collage memory: eating beef stew with his wife and daughter, reading a science journal after dinner, falling asleep in his seasoned chair in his antique house. But a younger man’s memory. A younger man’s life. Now he was pushed here and placed there. Out there, inside here. Out there where the trees were husky and birds fluttered and squabbled at the feeder by the flagpole as surreal as inside where nurses jetted by and pictures of perennials and annuals on the wall bloomed the same bouquet every day. The transition too evil even too evil for humans to have engineered.
A feeling now. Too much. Gulp. Why do I cry so much now? Stronger feelings. Richard stopped spooring thoughts. Slowly, slower than anything that lives should move, he clicked off his wheelchair brakes. Feet resting on the floor, no leg supports John’s idea to arrest the atrophy of Richard’s thighs and calves by making him use his legs to power his movement Richard’s body cart rolled, backing up from the window, turning, then heading forward, man-feet taking baby steps. Though proud of his wheelchair mastery, Richard wondered why he wasn’t walking, forgetting that just two years ago he’d been bed-ridden, until John masterminded his emancipation.
“Richard,” said his roommate, acknowledging Richard’s passing glance.
“Bill, how are you doing?” said Richard, trying to hurry past Bill’s television.
Bill stared at his TV, impervious to Richard’s question. His TV was too loud, his ears too deaf, and his hearing aid, never taken out of the box in his night stand, too much of a reminder that he was old.
Richard increased his speed by one, while increasing his effort by two, micro-stepping his white sneakers along the tile floor and turning the wheels with his hands at the same time. Finally he broke the threshold into the hallway, then paused to rest. Nurses zipped by. People in suits and dresses ambled purposefully, as if in a little town where no one passed by without a handshake or a hearty nod hello.
Dupont Chemical minions. That was the thought before the feeling overwhelmed him. For somehowthough he wasn’t exactly sure how this came to be he had remained Richard, calm, steady Richard, trampled by a throng of work contemporaries who he eventually had to call mister and missus. Then the memory of a FOR SALE sign in front of his house. But no recollection that his daughter had sold his house in order to pay for his medical care, precisely because he had remained calm, steady Richard.
A man in a black suit with a blue tie nearly bowed greeting Richard. Sunday, Richard thought. Families visiting the sick after church. But then again every day seemed like a religious day at Everest. It was the oddest “hospital,” he thought. Liturgy in the lounge next to the dining room one day a pastor, then later a priest. Another day, a snow-white-haired lady, leader of hymn singing, mercilessly pounding a piano, stumbling into her falsetto voice for the high notes. The rest of the days, people with wide smiles, attractive faces, and Bibles pressed against their breasts or held tightly to their trim waists peered into his room, knocked on his open door, awakening him from his nap. Always a religious collar, a religious look, a religious saunter somewhere. But Richard could never remember if it was a pastor who’d visited him or if it had been one of those attractive people with broad smiles. They were dreams before dawn, like the transients who insisted on his compliance with man-sized diapers all selectively forgettable.
The well-dressed people became Dupont Chemical minions again, followed by the thought 12.01, the atomic mass for carbon, and 16.00, the atomic mass for oxygen what was left of the periodic table in his chemical engineer’s mind.
“Westy!” It was John. Only he had permission to use Richard’s fraternity name.
“Westy!” Louder. Deeper. A black man in a chain gang. Richard looked around for Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones. “Westy, goin’ out for a stroll?”
“Gone out for a stroll?” said John, louder and with more enthusiasm.
“Oh,” Richard mumbled, lowering his eyebrows, realizing John wasn’t accountable for the labyrinth of people in the hallway who seemed to hold purpose in his life but none that he could determine. “I was thinking about going outside.” Richard stopped in mid-thought. “There is supposed to be some type of hymn recital in this building,” he said, not quite sure how that recollection fit in with going outside and carbon and oxygen. One of the beautiful people, an alluring lady in a pink dress, smiled at Richard, that smile from elsewhere, not of this reality, that tried to pass as a mother’s bosom or a father’s lap.
“Oh, okay. That sounds ” started John.
“I said, that sounds good!” John yelled, but with a smile.
Richard chuckled, “Yes, yes it does.” Then back into the abyss. “But no one seems to know where it is.”
“Where what is?”
Incredulous, Richard’s only exposed eye glared.
John casually stepped closer, tilting in to get a better hear.
“Where am I supposed to go?” Richard demanded.
“Where’dya wanna go?”
Richard shook his head. “Someone told me there was a meeting, a gathering, where some residents like myself are placed around a pianist, or an instrumentalist... and we sing hymns... I don’t know. Do you know of any such activity taking place here?”
“Noooo. Well, now, wait a minute... the sing-along today.”
“The sing-along,” repeated John.
Richard’s eye, large and brown, glinted at the realization that something about the place in which he awoke every morning was making sense to him. “Yes, that’s what she called it. The...”
“Sing-along. Hymn sing-along,” John said proudly.
“Hmm...” Richard pondered aloud, “hymn sing-along is not the term I would use to describe a gathering of people singing hymns... Probably what resembles something that I am more acquainted with at my church was not a sing-along... it was a hymn recital on special events, but was more often a standard part of the church service... The choir members, my choir colleagues, and not so much the other parishioners who couldn’t, or didn’t, for reasons of... well, melody retardation, or inability to carry a tune, did not call hymn singing, whether it be by choir members or parishioners, a sing-along...” Richard folded his large hands in front of his mouth, his monstrous thumbs supporting his chin. He stared at the “Lavender,” the first of fifteen cheaply framed floral prints that created a dashed-line effect, terminating at the Exit sign.
“Is that right?” John had counted the rests perfectly, then played his notes like a seasoned cellist.
“Yes, there were requirements for being accepted into our choir en-sem-ble...” Richard stopped. Something had tightened around his immense rib cage his shirt. He was sitting up straighter. He chortled, self-conscious for momentarily feeling significant. Still he continued. “Though some were by nature of his or her position admitted without regards. Namely, the church pastor and his wife, no matter if they couldn’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow... which wasn’t necessarily the case with John... John McNeil and his wife... Jean... Jean McNeil... Jean Dalton before they were married... no, he had a steady voice, not poignant... from what I remember, she had the voice of the family...”
“Hmm, is that right?” the cellist played, then rested again.
“Yes, from what I remember, she had a vibrant tone. Do you know Jean... Jean Dalton?”
“Hmm. Nooo, no, Westy, can’t say that I do.”
“No,” grinned Richard, “I wouldn’t expect you to. You never were a member of Coventry Presbyterian, were you?”
“No, Westy. Can’t say that I was.”
Richard returned to staring at the wall in front of him while his film projector rewound, stopped, and started, again and again.
“Did ya say ya wanted to git to that sing-along?”
The trance, a good trance, one that he felt almost in control of, broke. But it was John. and Richard smiled. “Yes, I guess I better get ready to go.”
“Do ya know where to go?”
Richard’s eye rolled to the top of his head. “That’s what I’m trying to find out. A young girl this morning, today, came into my room to give me a pill. She mentioned something about hymns, a recital of some sort, though she didn’t know all the details. Do you know the young girl I’m talking about?”
“Who?” John asked, his face pure innocence.
That was all John had the eyes of a million holy men and the smile of a million holy women, the mind always having to catch up and Richard knew this, most of the time. At least he would realize this in the beginning of most conversations, but toward the end, he was often left doubting his own thinking.
“I don’t know,” Richard said, starting to waver early. “The young girl who gave me the little red pill this morning and who seemed more concerned that I didn’t choke, or spit it out, or do whatever she didn’t want me to do with it, rather than what the properties of the pill were going to do for me.”
“Belinda. She’s got ya before me.”
Richard cocked his head, positioning his good ear with its little white hairs toward John.
“Belinda,” repeated John. “She was ya nurse this morning. Belinda.”
“Be limber. What?”
“Oh, Belinda,” Richard snorted. “Why didn’t you say so?”
John smiled; his eyes twinkled.
“Well, then BE-linda is the one who gave me my medicine this morning. Is she new? I haven’t seen her before.”
“No, she’s been ’round, but she usually works first floor.”
“Well, this was the first time I’ve seen her.”
“Nooo, Westy. Ya seen ‘er before. Maybe this is the first time ya seen ‘er on day shift.”
Richard unfolded his hands, pressed his palms together, and rested his chin on his fingertips. He again gazed at the “Lavender” print.
“Well, Westy, do ya wanna git to that sing-along?”
“That’s where I’m going,” said a young lady about the age of Richard’s daughter. Was it his daughter? For a second. Then the broad smile. “Do you want me to take you?” she asked Richard.
“No. He’s gotta find his own way or he be buggin’ me to do everything for him,” said John, tapping out the syllables on Richard’s shoulder.
Richard nodded in agreement, though he was only able to make out one word of John’s response: No.
“See you at the sing-along,” tweeted the young woman.
John leaned over into Richard’s view, so there would be no mistakes about hearing what he said. “Do ya wanna git to that sing-along?”
“Yes, I think I would.” Then, out of nowhere, words for one of those momentous and mysterious feelings: “I have nowhere else to go.”
“Well, git up there and check the schedule,” John said as if Richard had asked, Where do I go? Another reality check failed. Or did he fail? John smiled.
Richard rubbed his chin. “It’s not on this floor?”
“Now, I told ya, I’m not sure. Ya gotta check.”
“By the nurses’ station. Ya know, where the bulletin board is.”
Finally, a mental crag to hold onto. Richard’s mind slowly but doggedly climbed. “If you mean the dry e-ra-sure board,” he explained, “where someone draws a cloud with a dry e-ra-sure marker when it’s going to be cloudy or a sun with a smile in it when it’s going to be sunny, I know what you’re talking about, but that’s not what I would consider a bulletin board. To me, a bulletin board has ”
“That’s the one, Westy.” John smiled warmly.
“Okay. Just checking. I wouldn’t want to disappoint you if I went to the wrong board.”
“Aww, ya don’t disappoint me none, Westy. It just takes awhile sometimes. But we git there.”
A good body chill, like when Richard sang in church. Who is this man? he thought. John. But who is John? And how come I never knew him before now? Clean thoughts. Too clean. No answers.
Clicking his brakes off, Richard started his promenade. His right foot turned in so that the side of it rested on the floor, giving him half the proficiency of his left. Left heel, side of right heel, left heel, side of right heel Richard’s wheelchair moved. His black eye patch taped tightly over his left eye protected him from the piercing photons after his cataract surgery. Elbows on armrests, hands folded in front of his chin, Richard journeyed down this familiar, unfamiliar corridor under emotional control, comforted by the steadiness of John’s bedrock voice talking to work associates, bouncing off the flat flowers on the wall. Richard often humored himself by disparaging the corridor flowers, noting their daily distinctive and malleable scents. Today, it was eggs and coffee, the residual redolence of morning. That made sense. He saw the breakfast cart ahead, next to the nurses’ station. But the olfactory assault of raw sewage in the streets randomly, throughout the day, an unknown. Hospitals had never smelled that bad to him before.
A growing crowd at the nurses’ station. The adult baby-steps slowed.
“Ya still not there.” John whisked by.
John stopped, turned, and faced Richard, a few wheelchair lengths ahead. Richard observed he was holding something in plastic, the shape of dirty clothes rolled in a towel, far away from his chest. “I said, What’s takin’ ya so long? I know those legs ya got can move faster.”
John’s smile was different from the broad-smilers. In fact, it mesmerized Richard almost like how the feet of the black tap dancer on “The Lawrence Welk Show” or the trumpet virtuosity of Louie Armstrong did. More complex than that. John transfixed him. There was something in John, something he never saw, or rather experienced, in anyone else before. Not even Pastor McNeil. Richard didn’t say it. He couldn’t say it. Because he only felt it: the greater presence. Changing water into wine? No. The feeling seemed right, but the image was different: John changing Richard’s urinal without injuring his scrotum. Raising people from the dead? More like John helping Richard rise from bed every weekday morning.
“Well,” smiled Richard, “I guess I’m not as fast as I was yesterday.”
“Ya doin’ good.”
“Fine,” said Richard, but it wasn’t. A tear. Then from the activity room: Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord...
“One-two-three. Come on, Westy. Stand up. I ain’t gonna do it for ya.” The first time John helped Richard stand: another misplaced memory.
Richard started to roll his chair. Now, next to the nurses’ station, John whipped by again, going in the opposite direction. His truth is marching on... Richard joined in. He felt his mouth move, but didn’t hear his voice. More people next to him. Then: profound self-consciousness. Was his pants zipper undone? On the weekends, when John was not on duty, the man-diaper ballooned out his pants so that his zipper would not close. And every Saturday around one p.m., Richard would be waiting for John to dispose of the man-diaper and to take him, in John’s words, “to the pot.” At dinner, Richard would squeeze, his intestines gurgling, knowing the next expulsion of gas would bring with it feces. Still, he would wait for John. By Sunday, if he hadn’t already eliminated while sleeping, he would do so after the first wipe of his buttock during the morning sponge bath. Then the scolding, always above the level of his hearing impairment. Sometimes he would eliminate between shifts or when the “hospital” was as it always was understaffed with nurses aides. Then he would stew in his diaper. Still, patiently, he would feel for “his” presence; somewhere in this “hospital” was his savior, and someday he would return. And always one morning, John entered with an enthusiastic, “Howdy, Westy!”
Now, next to the nurses’ station, Richard looked down at his lap. His zipper was up. Of course. John was on duty.
Richard parked himself under the bulletin board, setting his brakes carefully as if he were unsure if what he was touching would burn him. New hymn: We are one in the spirit. We are one in the Lord... Richard sang too, a little behind, a little off key, quite aware he was singing a song from the sing-along currently happening in the activity room. But John had told him to stop and find out the time and place of the sing-along by examining the schedule. So Richard did.
Then, to his right and from behind: “What did ya find out, Westy?”
“I don’t know. Can you make out that second word? What’s the ink? Red? Pink? Why do they ”
“It looks ” John interrupted, but Richard continued, “Why do they use colors of the color wheel that weren’t made for legibility. Those colors were made to color with, not write with! Black is the only ”
“Don’ know, Westy, don’ know,” John said, elongating his words so Richard didn’t have an opening. “Let’s see,” he continued, “it’s on this floor at 11:00 a.m.” He looked at his watch. “It’s already started, Westy. And it’s in the activity room.” We are one in the spirit. We are one in the Lord...
Richard nodded. “Thank you...”
“Ya better git in there.” John’s eyes spangled.
“Yes,” Richard said, but he didn’t move.
“Well, git goin’.”
“Is that John McNeil in there singing?”
“He’s the minister at our church, Coventry ”
“We already went through that, Westy.”
Then a barrage of recent events: the window, the wind, the framed flowers, morning’s eggs and coffee soon to be suffocated. “What should I do?” asked Richard.
“What ya wanna do?”
“I don’t know.” Tears. Jesus loves you, this I know, for the Bible tells me so... “Can you bring the wind inside for me?” Richard kidded.
“Shoot, Westy, if I open that door, it’ll blow all these pictures off the wall. And I’d git in lots of trouble.” The smile. “I’ll take ya outside if ya want, but we gotta git warmer clothes.”
Looking up, Richard saw Cinca, the recaptured African from the slave ship Amistad, pleading to the judge: “Give... us... free. Give... us... free!” Richard tried to blink a tear out his uncovered eye.
“Come on now, Westy, ya leakin’ all over the place.” John handed Richard a napkin from his pocket and rubbed his shoulder. “Those are happy tears, ain’t they?”
A white glare expanded around John and his face fell in and out of focus. A sharp brightness, then a fading, a steadying: the light pained Richard’s good eye, but he wouldn’t look away from the man who seemed to be standing in front of a star. “I’ll just sit here and listen,” Richard said deferentially, knowing it was John, not knowing it was John, not being able to look away, ready to believe that the flowers on the wall could grow, would grow in this man’s luminance. As he had done ever since he’d set foot in this “hospital” three years ago, Richard waited for the epiphany that would somehow explain his condition, his situation, at the very least, finish off his intellect and numb his heart.
John turned to leave and the light shifted. Then he turned back to Richard and the light flared even more brilliantly, and Richard knew this was the time, this was the time, and he waited for the words yes, the holy words that would clarify his flummoxed mind and release his tormented soul; that is if he could think straight enough to formulate the right question. Richard focused. Carbon: 12.01. Oxygen: 16.00. Let it go, he thought. Jesus loves you... Not today. Give... us... free. Give... us... free! That’s it; work with it. How long have I been in this hospital? On the right track. When do I leave? Almost there. Why am I here? Keep going. Yes, why am I here? Why am I here, right now, talking to you? A clean thought.
But before he could speak, a rumbling from the piano, the strident angel in falsetto, then a baritone voice bellowing out from the light: “Westy.”
“Do ya have to use the pot?”
“Okay, then. I’ll check up on ya in an hour.”
“In an hour,” repeated Richard. “In an hour...”