“Rot in Hell, you little b******s,” he yelled. But the boys were already gone, running down the street like a couple of jack rabbits, cackling like crows. Damn, he couldn’t even bean them with a rock because of the cursed arthritis in his arm. ‘I’m in Hell,’ Sam thought. ‘Glory days my eye, everyone calls them the golden years, what the Hell are they smokin’?’ There was no glory in getting old, Sam knew that much. He felt more like a rotting avocado than a respected member of society. Lonely and forgotten, constantly pushed to the back of the shelf, until he got so decomposed that he was no good to anyone, not even himself.
To add insult to injury, the State had decided that he should carry out the remainder of his decomposing years in this nightmare of a rest home. Sam had a tough time making it on his own after his wife Janice died. He got confused at times, forgotting things like paying the bills. The social worker had decided that he was unfit to live on his own. While he was appealing that decision, the bank had taken his home (a farm that he had lived on since he was a child) when he defaulted on his mortgage one time too often. He had no family to stay with, so here he was at good old BNH. ‘Brentwood Nursing Home, bahhhhhhhhh, the Big Dirt Nap would be a more appropriate name.’ Being on top of the ground rather than in it was the only discernible difference that Sam had noticed. Well, maybe one glaring exception, the real dirt nap would have to be more peaceful.
Thanks to some masochistic SOB of a planning commissioner, the powers that be had seen to it that the lovely BNH (tomb for the undead), stood right next door to the local high school. Clearly someone’s idea of a sick joke but there you had it.
Now if God had created a crueler, more hateful creature than a teenage child, Sam didn’t know what it was. Everyday, like clockwork, the kids came out for their afternoon recess. Young, agile bodies streaking around the basketball court, without a care in the world, not bothered for a minute by arthritis or fragile bones, or even the chill in the air. Thinking they’re invincible, what did they know?
Just then another high school boy ignited a strand of firecrackers and lobbed them over the chain link fence. They landed a foot behind Sam with an ear piercing rat tat tat. When his heart returned to a normal sinus rhythm Sam bellowed, “if I was 20 years younger I’d put those firecrackers where even your proctologist wouldn’t find them.” But, of course, the boy was long gone.
“Hey Sam, don’t let them get you all bent out of shape, they’re just a couple of dumb kids.”
“Yeah Burt, and we’re just a couple of dumb old geezers.”
“Well, you could bring your dumb old geezer self over here and play some checkers,” replied Burt.
Burt was almost the only other semi-sane person in this hell hole thought Sam. Semi because Burt spent half his time in an Alzheimer induced fugue where, on a good day, he remembered his name. Sam thought maybe Burt was the lucky one. Blissful ignorance - it had more than a little appeal for Sam. Sam pulled out the chair across from Burt.
“Shhhhhhhhhhh... here comes old Plutonium Underpants," hissed Burt, "hide the checkers.” Kate drifted into the room like a battleship easing into port.
“Come on you old coots. You can’t sit around playing games all day, get inside for your showers, and dinner.”
Sam detested her, but he had to admit, if there was one person in this lousy dump who he could relate to, it was Kate. Old Plutonium Underpants, or PU for short, cruised these corridors in a perpetual snit. As far as Sam could see, being pissed off was Kate’s permanent state of mind. Unhappy with herself, her job, hell- her whole life, Kate directed most of that unhappiness on the unwilling, yet captive occupants of Brentwood Nursing Home. Sam hated it, but he also had to respect it, cause oh yeah, he knew just where Kate was coming from.
You could call dinnertime a culinary experience, but not an enjoyable one. Sam wondered just how old and decrepit you had to be to appreciate a plate full of strained peas. Dinnertime did however signal the approach of Sam’s favorite time of day - his visit with Eleanor. In the five months since he had come to BNH, his time with Eleanor was the only thing that had put a smile on his face.
Eleanor sat limply in her wheelchair, tucked neatly into a corner of the solarium. What a joke, thought Sam, one window and two dying azaleas were BNH’s idea of a solarium, but Eleanor could brighten any room, even this one.
“Hello there gorgeous,” Sam cooed from across the room. Eleanor flinched involuntarily, a product of her body’s disease. She had been struck with Multiple Sclerosis and Epilepsy in her 40’s. The diseases progressed rapidly, leaving Eleanor with the barest measure of control over her body and its movements.
Eleanor grimaced in what Sam interpreted as one of the most beautiful smiles he had ever seen. For a woman who had so little to smile about, she sure did it a lot. Sam stood before her and reached down to cup her chin in his rough hand.
“There’s the face I’ve been missing all day. Have I told you before that your face is shaped just like a heart? Even when you're not here, I can see your smoky blue eyes looking at me. It’s the only thing that keeps me going.”
“Oh Sam,” Eleanor managed. Her diseases had not affected her power to blush.The pink flush spread quickly across her cheeks. “Hooooow ws ur dayyyyy hndsmme?” Speaking was a challenge for Eleanor, but she would not have missed these exchanges with Sam. He was, in many ways, all that she had left. She had come to BNH at the age of 43, when her family had decided that they could not deal with her rapid degeneration. Since that time, her husband and two sons’ regular visits had dwindled to special occasions and birthdays, and then to just Christmas. Thhen finally, nothing. Eleanor had not seen her family in ten years. It almost made Sam wish that he had been here 10 years ago. He would have liked to meet Eleanor’s husband. He would only need about 20 minutes with him in a locked room. Just enough time to introduce the jerk to the twins, Righty and Lefty.
“How’s my best girl today,” Sam asked?
Eleanor shakily reached for Sam’s hand. “Betr now." Eleanor said as her grimace widened. "Hoooooow wzzz ur day Smmm?”
“The same...., you know I hate those rotten kids. I sure wish you didn’t have to spend most of your day in physical therapy. Was it hard?”
“Eleanor, I know you well enough to know that you wouldn’t tell me even if it was. No matter how many lemons life gives you, you just keep makin’ lemonade.”
Eleanor laughed, her disease had not affected that. To Sam it sounded as light and lilting as music. Sam lived to hear that laugh, it made him quite the clown at times.
“Do you want to play chess,” Sam asked?
“Szrrrr Bgg Boooy, if u feeel lk loooosing,” giggled Eleanor.
As much damage as the MS and seizures had done to Eleanor’s brain and her motor coordination, miraculously her cognitive powers remained unscathed. Eleanor could beat the pants off of anyone in a game of chess. She needed Sam’s help to complete her moves, but she never failed to trounce him and Sam never failed to enjoy it.
“Well my dear, that’s five games you’ve creamed me on," Sam said with a laugh. "Are you tired?”
“A lttle,” Eleanor mumbled. Sam got up and rang a silent bell for the nurse. The two sat quietly until Kate stormed in.
“What do you want now,” she almost shouted?
“Eleanor is tired.”
Kate’s face immediately softened. Sam considered it one of the great mysteries of life. For some unknown reason, Old Plutonium Underpants had a real soft spot for Eleanor; always kind and gentle with her, and even with Sam when he was with her. To Sam, this mystery was much more intriguing than crop circles or the great pyramids.
Sam and Eleanor said their good nights. Kate wheeled Eleanor back to her room while Sam shuffled back to the tiny cell he shared with Burt.
“Hey Burt, I’m back,” he announced.
Burt was already in bed with the rails raised. This was a good indication that Burt’s Alzheimers had made an appearance, leaving him a babbling, incoherent mess. No problem Sam thought, I’m ready for bed anyways.
“Sam jolted awake, momentarily startled by his surroundings. He switched the light on his nightstand on. He peered over at Burt’s bed but it was empty. Blankets and sheets trailed over the bed rail. Sam heard a tortured groan. He buzzed for a nurse and glanced at the clock, that read 2:15 am, before bolting out of bed. Burt lay in a puddle of bedclothes, as limp and lifeless as the sheet that entwined his ankles.
A nurse, whom Sam had only seen once before, came charging into the room. She knelt by Burt, feeling for a pulse. She ran back out of the room without a word. Sam looked at the bright patch of blood on the corner of Burt’s night stand. He was paralyzed. The paramedics came within minutes. They rolled Burt onto a back board, working to staunch the flow of blood from Burt’s forehead. Then they were gone, gurney wheels squeaking down the quiet halls.
“Eleanor, they wrote 'expired' on his chart," Sam raged. "Library cards expire, not people.” It had been three weeks since the EMTs had wheeled Burt down the hall and away from his life. “They won’t tell me much, but apparently the concussion to his head was worse than it looked - and it looked pretty bad. Burt never woke up.”
A tear rolled down Eleanor’s cheek. She hadn’t known Burt all that well - between his Alzheimers and her stilted speech, it made conversation between them a difficult and uncommon event but Burt was a nice man and Sam liked him. Eleanor didn’t need any other endorsement. When you got right down to it, Eleanor liked everyone and she was always touched by the tragedy of death. “Caaan I hlp Saaammm?”
Sam smoothed a tear from her cheek. “You always help. You’re here. That helps.” Eleanor reached out to Sam, but her hand fluttered helplessly into her lap like an injured bird. Sam captured the hand up in his own huge paw. Just one of the wonderful things about Sam, Eleanor thought. He never made an issue of her physical shortcomings. He always took up the slack created by her disability, quietly, without even seeming to do so. Eleanor could almost forget her illness when she was with Sam.
They sat silently, holding hands for a few moments, before Sam erupted. “D****t, I hate this place. Everyone running around trying to look busy but never doing any more than is absolutely necessary. They knew that when Burt got confused he would get out of bed and wander the halls. That’s why they had the bed rails up. Thank heavens the night shift didn’t have to chase him around the halls," he added sarcastically. "I should have done more, I should have complained. I should have heard him.”
“Don’t Saaammmm, not ur fault,” insisted Eleanor.
“Maybe not, but it shouldn’t have happened this way. Everyone deserves to die with a little bit of dignity. Not like this. I’m going to miss him. You and Burt were the only ones keeping me from going crazy in this looney bin.”
It was days later. Sam could still not shake the feelings of anger and guilt over Burt’s death. They had not even let him attend the funeral - too short staffed they said. Funny, there always seemed to be plenty of staff hanging out in the break room or hiding in the supply closets. Sam could not believe the void left by Burt’s absence. With Eleanor in physical therapy all day and Burt gone, the days dragged by at a snail’s pace. Sam wondered just how much solitaire a person could play before their head simply exploded. He was at serious risk of finding out firsthand. Meanwhile, he was already exploding in other ways. Never possessed of an even disposition like Eleanor, he was now like an Ouzi with a hair trigger - ready to go off at the slightest provocation. At times like these, Sam especially missed Burt’s calm, quiet voice of reason.
Thank God for Eleanor but Sam wondered how long it would be before even she tired of his continuing litany of anger and frustration. He wouldn’t worry about that now, it was almost dinnertime. That meant he would soon be seeing Eleanor. Sam started back to his room to run a comb through his few remaining hairs and slap on some cologne.
A sharp buzzing started at the nurses’ station. Sam knew that indicated some kind of medical emergency. Some poor schmuck - probably having a heart attack. Three nurses charged past Sam and then came old PU, moving faster than Sam had ever seen her move. He turned to catch a glimpse of the unlucky, or lucky (depending on your perspective) resident. The nurses were all headed for the stairwell. Sam couldn’t imagine why. The lower floor was devoted to offices and the cafeteria. There would be no residents downstairs - except in physical therapy! Sam froze in place while his heart stopped, momentarily, before resuming at a gallop. 'Oh God, not Eleanor!'
Sam raced for the stairs, adrenaline making him forget the pain in his joints. More staff rushed past him. ‘It’s not Eleanor, Eleanor is fine,’ Sam chanted over and over in his head, as he made his way down the stairs on unsteady legs. Sam started down the hall toward physical therapy but it felt like wading through hip deep molasses. Time slowed and Sam’s vision narrowed to include only the entrance to the physical therapy room. The frenzied activity continued but Sam could only see the doorway. ‘It’s not Eleanor, Eleanor is fine,’ he chanted on, faster and faster.
Sam stood in the doorway, transfixed by the bustle of activity in the corner of the room. He caught brief glimpses of a lemon yellow jogging suit, Eleanor’s favorite. One of the nurses rushed to the doorway.
“You can’t stay here, go back upstairs.”
“But she’s my friend. What’s the matter with her? I need to know.”
“What you need to do is leave, now,” the nurse said, blocking Sam's path.
Kate came over and excused the other nurse. “I’ll take care of this. Sam, come over here with me.” They walked down the hall to several chairs that lined the wall.
“That’s Eleanor in there. What happened, is she alright?” Sam asked frantically.
“Sam, you need to calm down. Take a deep breath and sit down while I get you a glass of water.”
“I don’t want any water d****t. I want to know how Eleanor is.”
“Okay Sam. She had a really bad seizure. You know that is part of her disease.”
“I know. She has them all the time, so why all the commotion?”
“Well Sam, this time the seizure brought on a stroke but I think we caught it early enough. There are a lot of people here to help her. Eleanor will be alright.”
Sam wondered if Kate was trying to convince him or herself.
Eleanor was not alright. Six days later, she lay as still and inert as a marble statue, not moving a muscle nor blinking an eye. Kate and Sam stood together at the foot of her bed.
“You said she would be fine. You told me yourself that she would be alright,” Sam said angrily.
“Let’s go outside to talk,” responded Kate.
“Tell me what’s happening. I can’t lose Eleanor. I just can’t”
“Sam, I’m really sorry, it seems that the combination of seizure and stroke left Eleanor in a coma. She came out of the coma yesterday, but it seems that there has been significant brain damage. The EEG shows extensive damage to the speech center and almost total deterioration of the side of her brain that controls her cognitive functions. Eleanor may never get out of that bed or speak again.”
‘Oh God!’ Sam doubled over as if he had been punched in the gut. "I don’t believe it, this can’t be happening. I can’t lose her, I just can’t,”
“I’m so sorry Sam. I’ll miss her too.”
“Why," Sam asked with venom. "Why do you care so much about Eleanor?”
Kate seemed to turn to liquid as she lowered herself into a nearby chair. “I had a younger sister, Karen.. Karen got cerebral palsy when she was six. I watched my parents struggle to take care or her, watched them fight over the bills. Secretly I wished Karen would just go away. I was just a kid. I didn’t really understand. I resented all the attention she was getting. I was jealous. I treated her horribly and then she was gone. She died at the age of twelve. I live with the guilt of how I treated Karen every day of my life. Eleanor was like a second chance for me to do the right thing. I was doing everything for Eleanor that I should have done for Karen.”
“I’m sorry about your sister.”
“Thank you but it is not something that I am proud of, or that I tell to many people. I just wanted you to understand.”
“Well, I need you to understand that without Eleanor I’m as good as dead. She’s all that’s been keeping me going.”
“What can I do to help? I know that I can’t help Eleanor anymore, but if I can help you, that would be like helping Eleanor. I know that’s what she would have wanted.”
“I can’t stay here, there is nothing here for me anymore. I just want to go home.”
“Do you know what you are asking me to do Sam?”
“Yes, I am asking you to help me, for Eleanor’s sake. I am old and tired, I just want to go back to my home, the farm where I grew up. Is that so much to ask?”
“It sounds like a simple request but I could lose my job for taking you off the premises.”
“I promise, I won’t tell if you won’t,” he said.
“I need to think about it.”
“That is all I can ask. In the meantime, maybe there will be a miracle for Eleanor but I’m not much of a believer in miracles,” Sam said.
There was no miracle. Day after day, Sam prayed as he sat by Eleanor’s bed, holding her hand, trying to will her to open her smoky blue eyes for him. But she just lay there unmoving, sometimes not even seeming to breathe. Sam talked to her. He told her of his plans and how he would find her on the other side. He told her jokes and made faces hoping to illicit her wonderful laughter. He read to her, sang her songs and even brought in the chess board - all to no avail. The Eleanor he had known and loved was gone.
“I will take you Sam but just for the afternoon," said Kate. "I am working a split shift next Tuesday. I will be leaving here at 12 pm. I’ll give you the keys to my car and you can hide in the back seat. I’ll drop you off at the farm. You can do what you have to do, and I will pick you up at 4:30pm. No later! I have to have you back here by five for dinner.”
“Thank you Kate. This means a lot to me.” A book of matches dropped out of his pocket.
“Sam, did you start smoking again?”
“Uh... yeah, just one or two a day... to relieve the stress” he said as he quickly pocketed the matches.
The ride to the farm was uneventful. Just as Sam had said, the farm was only 20 minutes away from BNH. No one would miss him - not until it was too late. Sam felt a little guilty for using Kate this way but it was his only chance. Kate dropped him off, making him promise to be ready to leave by 4:30pm. He would be gone by 4:30, that was a certainty, Sam thought. Sam only regretted that he could not take Eleanor with him. He skirted the old farmhouse (he was not really here for the memories), and headed straight for the barn. It was dank and musty from lack of use. The smell of moldy hay permeated the air. Light filtered in through the uneven slats, throwing beacons on dancing dust motes.
Sam stood at the foot of the ladder leading to the hayloft. ‘Here goes nothing,’ he thought to himself, as he placed his foot on the first rung. Fifteen minutes later, sweaty and out of breath, he stepped off the ladder. He moved slowly around the hayloft. Who knew that his body would betray him this way? Everything hurt. He remembered the days of swinging from a rope in this loft and jumping into a pile of hay below. The memory made him wince. Now his only concern was with getting warm. The chill in his bones had grown exponentially since Burt’s death and Eleanor’s stroke. The heavy wool coat and the warmth of the July sun did nothing to assuage the freezing ache in his joints. Every cell in his body called out for warmth, except for his brain cells, they were just crying out ‘please let us forget.’ Why couldn’t he have been as lucky as Burt, or Eleanor?
Methodically, he cleared a circle of floor in the loft and spread an old blanket. He pushed piles of hay into mounds around the perimeter. God he felt old. Slowly he eased himself to the floor, taking out the book of matches. This would be a challenge. Why couldn’t he have thought to take a butane lighter instead? His fingers betrayed him time and again as he struggled to light the match. Finally! Success! Cupped in his hand so as not to lose the flame, he slowly lowered the match to the dry hay. Then he lay down for one last time. Finally, warm - finally able to forget.