He lay on the silver gurney, in the dark of the nuclear medicine department, snoring like a tin-pot orchestra. I entered the chilly room, wondering if I would soon glow in its blue light, the childhood nicks on my bones, the metal stays from surgeries, and whatever stealthy, insidious growths of which I was cheerfully unaware – all would be revealed in a new kind of CT/MRI/X-ray nakedness.
My father, sensing my presence, opened his eyes. They were once hazel; now the colour was nondescript. “How did you find me?”
“They told me you were here.”
“Oh, I see.” He looked around the empty square room. “Where am I?”
“Don’t you know where you are?” I had asked a stupid question. Any idiot could look at my father’s face and divine that he had no idea.
A sly, triumphant expression slid over his mouth. “I’m in the red barn.”
“In Longwood,” he said with mild impatience. “But it’s a hotel.” Momentarily, my father was satisfied with this explanation.
He frowned at my ignorance and then searched for a more exact description, but the geography eluded him. With less conviction, he said, “It’s a hotel, but not like the one I was in before.” He rotated his head to observe me better. The sinews on his neck were like the roots of an ancient banyan tree. My powerful father. He was still a big man. His hands stiff from years of holding hammers and beer steins. When I was a child, I was sure he could bend steel like Superman, but for all his strength, he had always been gentle. Even now, lost in mental pea soup, he was his usual placid Type-D-Behaviour self.
“You’re in Bellavista Hospital,” I explained.
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “At Bellavista?”
“Yes, by the river,” I prompted.
“Yeah. Remember? You used to go iceboating near here.”
His eyes glazed over as if ice skim were actually forming. “I never did that.”
“You did. And sometimes you went eeling…cutting a hole in the ice.”
He tucked his chin and frowned. “I never did that either!”
“Yes, you did. When you were a kid.”
The memory unrecalled, he pulled at the neck of his gown as if it were slowly marching on his throat. His fingernails were long—uncared for by the nursing home—and grooved from years of rough use. “Where am I?” he asked, “and why am I wearing a dress?”
“You’re in the basement of the hospital. Your room is upstairs.”
His eyes swung wildly around. “I need my car! This is not a good hotel!”
“Don’t worry, I’m here,” I replied in a reassuring voice that sounded insincere.
“In a hotel?”
“No, at Bellavista.”
Dreamily, he scanned the ceiling, searching for answers. “I thought we were by the river?”
Sighing, I pulled up a metal stool and sat so he could see me. Had I been someone else’s daughter, I would have hugged or kissed him. I didn’t and couldn’t. My family had no physical vocabulary.
“Richard…,” I never called him “dad” or “father”. It was part of the divisions inherent in our triangular family, a family with one angle already sawed off: my mother.
“I’ve been in this room before,” he announced, his eyes narrowing with suspicion.
“Well, yes, several years ago,” I agreed, trying to balance between the exact truth and the information his mind could absorb.
“I’ve been in this hotel? No! They’re mixed up?”
A little displacement, I wondered? “Who is mixed up?”
“The nuclear medicine staff?”
He gave me a subtly dismissive gesture, as if wool had gathered in my head. For him, the “who” had already fallen off the edge of the world. After a few minutes collecting his runaway thoughts, he turned back to me, an expression of conspiratorial mischief on his face. “Did you see Brenda?”
He opened his eyes wide with pleasure. “She’s the biggest blonde I ever saw!”
The confusion had sandpapered the veneer off his propriety. The sexual innuendo sprang from the depths unchecked.
“Do you mean your nurse? Is that her name?”
He focused on the concrete block wall, thinking about the buxom Brenda. Once this vision collapsed, he turned back to me. “I didn’t think you’d have the patience….”
Oh, there was treachery afoot, I thought. Is this his way of telling me he’s angry at what I’d done to him? A disguised rebuke for placing him in the nursing home after my mother died? Guilt washed over me. “I’m always here when you’re in the hospital.”
“I thought I was in a hotel?”
“Richard, do you know where you are?”
He was quiet, struggling with brain miscues and synaptic gaps.
Just then, an aide in a navy blue polo shirt and khaki pants backed into the room. He pulled a gurney with a very tiny, very old woman on board. The man wheeled her in a position parallel to my father, on the other side of the room. She was covered with an orange open-weave blanket, her head resting on a meager hospital pillow. The orderly left without a word.
“Oh, ohh, oh!” she cried, trying to roll on her side. A claw-like hand gripped the gurney’s metal rails. “Is there anyone here?”
My father gazed at me, half-amused and half-confused, sharing our mutual shyness.
“Can’t you get me an ambulance?” the woman asked.
She was not addressing us.
“An ambulance! You imbecile!” she shouted, waving a fragile fist in the air.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
Rotating a gaunt, aristocratic head towards me, she replied, “I’m 97 years old! And I have been waiting for over two hours for my ambulance!”
Unsure whether this was true, I said, “I’m sure someone will be here soon.”
“Soon!” she gave a little snort. “This will cost me two thousand dollars!”
I looked at my father. The woman’s confusion seemed to clarify his senses. He gave me an ironic smile, the one he reserved for times when my mother behaved in a fashion neither of us liked. Our private alliance.
“Oh, ohh, oh! Can somebody help me?” she began again.
From an adjacent room, a technician appeared, his white coat glowing in the bluish light. “What can I do for you?” he asked the woman.
“I’m 98 years old!” she trumpeted, “and I have been waiting for my ambulance for three hours!”
“Do you know where you’re going?’ he asked, not really listening.
“My dear young man! Of course I know where I’m going! Back to Hawthorn House.”
“I see,” he replied. “What service brought you?”
She tossed him an imperious glance. “I don’t know and I don’t care, but I can’t lie here any longer.”
“I’ll call Hawthorn House and see what I can do.”
“This will cost me three thousand dollars!”
The technician stopped dead in his Nikes, surprised.
This delighted the old woman. She fixed a small, sharp eye on his. “Yes, young man, it will. I’ve had three ambulance rides today, and that’s exactly what it will cost! Three thousand dollars!”
The man tried to hide his amusement. His efforts were unbecoming. “I’ll find out if one is on the way.”
A half hour passed. Everyone slept except for me. I envied my father’s incapacity to fear the test scheduled, the one that probably would show another softball-sized cancerous tumor on the colon or some nearby location. Despite colonoscopies, he grew them with Miracle-Gro productivity. Like all the times in the past, I wondered if this time would be one too many for him. He was, after all, 81 years old.
As if hearing my thoughts, he snapped his jaws shut and jolted awake, though the room was silent. I thought at first the we would wend our way through the same cloudy remnants of conversation, but he surprised me.
“So, how’s Cagney?” he asked.
My beagle. An adored and spoiled dog.
“Up to no good?”
I laughed. “He snatched a wedge of brie cheese on Sunday night.”
Any Cagney story amused my father. He relished the cheese theft in silence, approving of the larceny, and then asked, “Did you finish the job you were doing?”
“The book from Princeton?” I was still suspicious of his state of mind.
“Yes, I did. Yesterday.”
The woman across the room awoke. “Oh, ohh, oh!”
I stood and walked over to her. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
I wasn’t surprised. She probably weighed fewer pounds than her 97 (or eight) years. I pulled the flimsy blanket around her shoulders.
With a surprisingly sweet smile composed of perfect dentures, she thanked me. I went in search of another covering and returned with a sheet. I folded it in half and placed it over her.
“Bless you,” she said in a demure voice, one that probably charmed the lads out of their knickerbockers 80 years ago.
“You’re welcome.” I retreated to my stool and raised an eyebrow at my father, who returned the signal.
The door opened. The three of us stared expectantly because a new player was entering the room. A heavyset African American woman with tight white sprockets of hair and billowy arms that protruded over the blanket. The orderly ditched her perpendicular to the old woman and to my father, and slim as a noonday shadow, slipped out the door.
Wasting no time, the elderly lady to my left began to reprise her aria. “Oh, ooh, oh! I’m 100 years old! I’ve been here for four hours!” Aging in super-fast time.
This tune was greeted with silence, although the black woman rolled round brown eyes in her direction.
“Where’s my ambulance? It’s costing me four thousand dollars!” the old woman cried.
A deep chuckle came from my father. His sense of humour, nay, his clarity had returned.
The woman’s rewound tape was just beginning in earnest when a female technician entered, flipped on violently bright overhead lights, and walked over to my father.
“And how are we today?” she asked.
After blinking a few times to adjust his eyes, my father replied, “Fine,” as if he were having a normal chat on a Tuesday afternoon.
“Good. We’re just going to take pictures of your tummy,” she said in the voice she reserved for children and the elderly. “It won’t hurt.”
My father, who had never uttered the undignified word “tummy” in his life, was unperturbed. With a wry smile, he raised his hand in jaunty farewell, as if he were dashing off for a fast nine holes of golf. With precise and practiced movements, the technician wheeled his out of the room and down the windowless corridor.
I sat on the stool to wait.
A brief hiatus ensued before the old woman hauled herself up, her skinny arm quivering with the effort. She stared at me and at the black woman, to whom she spoke. “You must help me! Please! Help me!” Her eyes were desperately blue. “Please….”
Across the room came a rumbling laugh, then the honeyed voice of a fine church contralto: “Sister, I would jus’ love to help you, I would, but I can’t do nothin’, neither! You’s got to calm yo’self. We’s stuck and that’s that.”
This sagacious pronouncement was a pebble under truck tired. Aiming toward the wall, the near-centenarian continued: “Oh, ooh, oh…I’ve been here for five hours….”
Laury A. Egan is the author of the novel, The Outcast Oracle; a collection, Fog and Other Stories; a psychological suspense, Jenny Kidd; a comedy, Fabulous! An Opera Buffa (September 2018); and a literary suspense, Wave in D Minor (forthcoming, 2019). Three of her stories have been selected by Short Story America as “Story of the Week;” over 35 stories have appeared in literary journals and anthologies. Two poetry volumes, Snow, Shadows, a Stranger and Beneath the Lion’s Paw, as well as a chapbook, The Sea & Beyond, were published in limited edition. She lives on the coast of New Jersey. Website: www.lauryaegan.com