It was just before 9:00 a.m. Ryan had been sitting in his car at the curb for ten minutes after pulling up in front of the house he’d been looking for. His shoulders were still slumped. The place was about what he’d expected, a ramshackle little bungalow surrounded by a dried-out lawn and a low fence badly in need of paint that was missing pickets on each side. An empty bird bath perched in a bed of dying roses in one corner, a few late blooms wilting through their tarnished foliage. Where the front walk met the sidewalk, a crooked mailbox dangled partway open like a stifled yawn.
Ryan waited a little longer, vaguely aware of a siren winding its way across town, then forced his tall, lanky frame out of the car. He blew out a long breath and made his way up the red-brick walk and three short steps to the front door. There was no bell, so he pounded twice, rattling the outer screen door. He heard shuffling inside, accompanied by an old woman’s mumbling voice. Perhaps a minute later, a series of locks were unleashed, and she emerged behind the screen. She couldn’t have been much more than five feet tall and wore a shabby blue housedress that she clutched at her chest with one hand. In the other, she held a green plastic cup. He could see her skull through her cap of cotton-candy hair. Behind large plastic-framed glasses, her eyes danced then narrowed, uneasy and suspicious. Ryan put her in her mid-seventies.
She said, “You the young man who answered my ad?”
Her voice was low-pitched, gravelly. He nodded.
“Right.” Her frown deepened. “You Mrs. Wheeler?”
They regarded one another for a long moment while sprinklers hissed on in a neighbor’s yard. A bird called, and another answered it.
Finally, she said, “And you’re trustworthy.”
He shrugged. “Hope so.”
“You keep yourself clean, bathe regularly?”
He nodded again, then watched her lift the cup to her mouth and spit into it.
“Ever been in trouble with the law?’
“No,” he lied. “Never.”
She looked him up and down. “You appear healthy enough, all your limbs attached. Why are you available for this job?”
He gave another shrug. “Just got out of the service. Sort of between things right now. Need something to pay the rent for the time being while I figure out what’s next.”
“Where do you live?”
“I have a little studio. Over on Divinity Street.”
“Near the cemetery.”
She spat into the cup again. “Live alone?”
He gave another nod.
“Me, too. Guess that’s obvious. Health stuff and my age are why I need a bit of assistance.”
He kept nodding.
She looked past him, then back up at his eyes. “I used to have a dog. He was good company. But he died, too.” She let another moment pass. “You might consider getting a dog if it’s allowed where you’re living. Nice to have around. Another beating heart, you know?”
She took a turn nodding and spat again. “Okay, then. First, I need you to take me to a doctor’s appointment. One quick stop on the way back, and I have to pick up a few things at the pharmacy, too, before we get home. It’s just up the street. And I need the latch on my kitchen window fixed and the trash cans brought to the curb for collection tomorrow. Maybe three, four hours total. Can you do those things?”
“I can, yes.”
“Wait here, then. I’ll be out in a bit.”
The door closed slowly. Ryan blew out another sigh, then turned around and sat down on the top step. It was cold. His breath came in short cloud blasts, and he zipped his old Army issue jacket up closer to his chin. He pictured himself later going into his corner tavern and telling the big bartender, Jesse, about this. “Yeah,” he imagined himself saying, “she’s a piece of work, but I need the money.” He wouldn’t say, “Hard to find anything else on the heels of a Dishonorable Discharge.” Without wanting to, his thoughts drifted back to when he’d been escorted out of the base gates at Fort Jackson. After they closed behind him, he’d tried one more time shouting after the guards as they walked away that he’d been framed. He’d bought a few of those drugs, but had never sold any. He felt his fists clench. He folded one hand into the other between his legs and rocked a little back and forth.
Ryan stood up when he heard Mrs. Wheeler come through the front door. He watched her go through elaborate steps to relock it. She wore a brown overcoat over a tan dress and plain black shoes over black hose. She stuck out the hand that didn’t hold the green cup and said, “Here, give me your arm.”
Ryan extended the one closest to her, she gripped it, and he helped her slowly down the steps and up the red-brick walk into the passenger side of his car. After he got her snapped into the seat belt and was in himself, he started the engine. With it, the heater came on full blast. He looked over at her and said, “Where to?”
She stared straight ahead, her mouth set hard, her head barely higher than the dashboard.
“Okay,” he said and pulled away from the curb.
With the start of workday traffic finished, the streets were fairly empty. The mid-October morning continued as overcast as it had begun and tasted to Ryan as if it might even hold an early snow. They turned onto Division and passed old strip malls and businesses on both sides of the street, nearly bare trees here and there along the sidewalks, traffic lights swaying on wires in the small, cold breeze.
Mrs. Wheeler spat a longer, phlegm-filled wad into the cup, wiped her lips with a tissue, and asked, “What kind of car is this?”
He chuckled. “Yeah.”
“Parents give it to you?”
“No, they left when I was little.”
She jerked her head suddenly his way. “Who raised you then?”
“An aunt. She moved away while I was in the service.”
“So, you’re alone now.”
“I know people.” He glanced her way. “Grew up here.”
“What high school did you go to?”
From the corner of his eye, he saw her nod. “I taught elementary school a few blocks from there. Catholic school. Second grade.” She paused, spat again. “Thirty-three years.”
He glanced over at her, then back to the road. “I only went to public schools, but I know where that’s at. Big, brick building.”
He saw her nod again, more slowly this time.
They drove the rest of the way in silence. It only took ten more minutes to reach a series of buildings at the address she’d given him that formed a medical cluster. He parked in front of the one she pointed to, helped her out, and she leaned a hand again on his arm. She gestured with her chin at the office in front of them. He looked at the sign next to the door, which held several doctors’ names under the word “Oncology” and felt himself stiffen.
“Careful,” Mrs. Wheeler said, nudging him forward. “There may be ice. Might be slippery.”
After he got her inside and up to the receptionist’s window, he found a chair in the waiting area and sat down. The receptionist buzzed Mrs. Wheeler in right away, and Ryan watched her spit, then shuffle through the door that had opened a crack and disappear inside. The waiting room was empty. Except for the tap of the receptionist’s fingernails on the keyboard behind her glass screen, it was silent. Ryan found a magazine on the table next to him and began leafing quickly through it, reading nothing. He found himself biting the inside of his cheek. He wished there was some kind of smell, something to distinguish the place, but there wasn’t: just the sterile walls, the occasional tap on the keyboard, the stillness afterwards, and whatever went on through that door that Mrs. Wheeler had passed through.
She came out about a half hour later, spat once into her cup, then nodded towards the exit.
“You need a card with a reminder about your next appointment?” the receptionist called after her.
“No,” Mrs. Wheeler mumbled. “I can remember.”
Ryan opened the door for her, she took his arm, and he got her settled back in his car. After he’d started the engine, she said, “Head back the way we came. I’ll show you where to turn.”
Ryan backed out and drove onto Division again. He glanced over and saw that Mrs. Wheeler had resumed her straight-ahead stare, at what, he didn’t know. He let a few minutes pass before he asked, “Appointment go all right?”
“What kind was it? Initial, ongoing, follow-up?”
He felt his shoulders loosen. “You finished treatments then?”
He glanced over long enough to see her nod once. He waited another moment, then said, “Those go okay?”
She shrugged again. “So they told me. Won’t know for sure until they do another PET scan in a couple months.”
He nodded slowly. “If you don’t mind me asking, what kind was it?”
She coughed and hacked up another longer, mucus-filled stream into the cup. When she pulled it away, a string of phlegm stayed attached to it from her lips like a dangling spiderweb. Her swipe with a tissue to remove it seemed almost angry.
Ryan waited another moment before saying, “I think you were going to tell me the type of cancer you had.”
She looked out her side window and shook her head. “Base of tongue and lymph nodes,” she said. “I never smoked.”
“Shucks,” Ryan gave a low whistle. “That really sucks.”
“Yeah,” Mrs. Wheeler muttered. She spat again. Afterwards, she appeared to try to swallow, then grimaced in a way that made Ryan wince. She slapped her hand hard across her thigh and said, “These damn excess secretions have been going on since chemo and radiation ended a month ago. They never stop. 24/7. I’m sick and tired of it. Can’t sleep worth a shit.”
Ryan stiffened again. He cocked his head and said, “That’s awful. Can’t they do anything about it?”
Mrs. Wheeler took a slip of paper out of her coat pocket and shook it. “Gave me another new scrip,” she said. “Potassium iodine this time. Said it might help dry them up.”
Ryan glanced once more her way, then back at the road, and said, “Sure hope it does.”
A few blocks later, she said suddenly, “Turn right at the next light.”
“That’s my street.”
She nodded. Ryan turned on Divinity, and as he slowed through the neighborhood, Mrs. Wheeler said, “Show me where you live.”
He passed another few cross streets, then pointed to a ranch-style house on a little berm with two garages at the end. He said, “I live in that last one.”
“The last garage?”
“Has everything I need.”
“It’s a damn garage.”
He shrugged and attempted a sheepish grin. Disbelief filled her face, and he watched her lips draw into a tight line. They drove in silence for several more blocks until Mrs. Wheeler said, “Go in here.”
They’d come to the cemetery. Ryan crept along its central gravel lane towards the back while Mrs. Wheeler unlocked her seat belt and pulled her purse onto her lap. She held up her hand just before the lane ended. “This will do,” she said. “And I can walk myself. It’s just a few steps.”
Ryan watched her heave open the door and carry her purse and cup across a short stretch of grass. The frost had burned off, but she still stepped haltingly. She came to two gravestones ten feet or so from the car and stopped in front of them. One was tall and the other short; moss had grown over both, though the smaller one was almost covered with it. Ryan could only make out the “D” of a first name on the larger gravestone. Mrs. Wheeler stood very still, her back to him, a cirrus cloud inching slowly above the treetops beyond her. He couldn’t tell if she was praying or crying, though she made no gestures like the Sign of the Cross and her shoulders weren’t shaking.
He’d turned off the engine and hunched his jacket up against the cold. Ryan didn’t know if his parents were still alive or buried somewhere themselves; if his aunt knew, she hadn’t told him and he’d never thought to ask. As he gazed across the long slopes of gravestones in each direction standing grim and silent, he wondered what he’d do when his aunt died. He realized he’d truly be on his own then, although he’d always felt rejected and resentful. Even when he’d finally happened upon those few equally ostracized guys to hang out with in high school that he’d loosely called friends. They’d first introduced him to drugs. But not one of them was there for him after he’d been arrested while making a buy for the group, and he’d seen none of them since returning from his stint in the service.
A plane flew off above the cloud as silent as the gravestones and disappeared into the distance. He watched Mrs. Wheeler raise her cup slowly and spit into it. Occasionally, the cold breeze turned up the collar on her coat. Eventually, she opened her purse and took out two tired rose blooms, the stems cut at about three inches each. Ryan recognized the white-pink blossoms curled with brown from the front of her house and thought she must have taken time to find the best two remaining. She bent down and set one against each gravestone, not having bothered with any sort of container or even wrapping the stems in damp tissue and foil. Then she kissed her fingertips, extended them towards the gravestones, turned, and made her careful way back to the car. Ryan got it started and the heater blowing again before she arranged herself inside. He reached over and helped her clasp her seatbelt, then they left the cemetery and drove without speaking until she directed him the last few streets to the pharmacy.
They went through the same basic routine at the pharmacy as they had at the doctor’s office. Mrs. Wheeler asked him to get more Kleenex while she waited for the prescription to be filled. He came up beside her with three boxes as the pharmacist was explaining how to administer the new med. She nodded when he finished and said, “I should also have a couple more waiting. Clotrimazole lozenges and Hydrocodone. Oh, and some two-by-two gauzes and 60 mL syringes, too.”
Ryan felt his pulse quicken at the mention of the second med; it wasn’t the strongest opioid he knew of, but it would do. The pharmacist retrieved the additional meds and supplies, rang her up, and they were back in the car and heading home a few minutes later. He helped her up to the front step with one hand and carried her bag from the pharmacy in the other. After she finished with the locks, she had him follow her inside into a dim living room with the curtains pulled at all the windows, through a small, similarly darkened dining room, and into a kitchen with an L-shaped counter that was full of light from two windows over the sink. Mrs. Wheeler put her purse on the counter and motioned for him to set the bag there, too. Then she pointed to a toolbox next to the sink.
“That used to be my husband’s,” she said. “You should be able to find what you need in it. The window that needs fixing is the left one. Won’t latch right anymore.”
Ryan tried the window’s locking mechanism, which caught at the tip of the groove it was supposed to slide into. “Probably just needs adjusting,” he said. “These old windows settle funny after a while.”
He jiggled the bottom half of the window, slid it up and down, then selected a screw driver from the toolbox. While he worked, he heard her spit again, then empty the contents of the bag from the pharmacy.
“What are those meds for?” he asked as casually as he could while he unscrewed one portion of the latch.
“Told you about the new one,” she said. He heard her fold the bag and slide it into a lower cupboard. “The lozenges are for a delightful thrush fungus I’ve developed in my mouth from the accumulation of all the secretions. Slimy, tenacious, nasty stuff. The Hydrocodone is for the pain in my throat from all the radiation treatments. Still hurts like hell in there, but I don’t use it much. Scares me.”
He nodded as he adjusted the placement of the latch slightly, tried the slide, then reset it with a screw. While he did, she carried the items from the counter into her bedroom. He swore to himself because he’d hoped to see where she stored the Hydrocodone. When she came back, he’d already replaced the screwdriver in the toolbox and was sliding the latch back and forth.
“See,” he told her. “Good as new.”
She nodded but didn’t smile. Instead, she tried to swallow again, grimaced, and dropped her head, shaking it hard. A short groan escaped her. With her head still lowered, she pointed to the back door. “Trash cans are out there.” Her voice seemed rougher. “Bring those to the end of the driveway and you’re done for today.”
When he came back inside, he found her in the darkened dining room sitting at the table. She still wore her coat but held her head cradled in one hand, her elbow propped on the table. Her eyes were closed; she looked exhausted. She extended an envelope his way with her free hand. He took it from her and saw money inside.
“That should cover today,” she mumbled. “Can you come at the same time tomorrow?”
“Sure,” he told her. “You bet.”
“Okay, then. Thanks. You can go.”
He hesitated, watching her sitting there perfectly still. He said, “You going to be all right?”
The head in her hand gave a slight nod.
She made the same gesture. He reached out, gave her shoulder a small squeeze, then walked through the living room, and let himself out through the front door.
Ryan stopped at a fast-food drive-thru on the way home for a hamburger, fries, and a soda. When he got to his studio, he hung his jacket inside the door, turned on the space heater, and ate standing at the counter with the TV turned low to news for the background noise it provided. The owner had converted the space himself to build the studio, and he’d made a rough go at it. Ryan had spread an old area rug on the concrete floor, found a second-hand pull-out couch, television, and a stand-up lamp along with some linens and basic kitchen supplies at a thrift store, and made it home. There wasn’t really a kitchen; just a mini-fridge, small microwave, and two-burner hot plate built into the counter the owner had thrown together in the space where a washer and dryer had been as well as an industrial-basin sink that he used for sponge baths. The only window was the small one in the side door that served as his entrance. A tiny utility bathroom with no tub or shower was across from the door, and none of the wiring was up to code. The owner lived in the house attached to the garages and was a retired vet who gave him a discount on the rent when he heard that Ryan had been in the Army; Ryan didn’t tell him about his discharge.
After he ate, he sat on the couch and booted up his laptop; the owner let him hook into his Wi-Fi and cable for free. He smoked half a joint, answered a few emails, then played warfare video games for a couple of hours alternating between membership sites he belonged to. He fell asleep about three, his chin in his chest, the games he was playing still active. His head twitched with an occasional dream as he slept.
Ryan awoke with a startle to a room that had already grown murky in the gloaming. As they often did, his thoughts went immediately to the fellow plebe who’d sold him the dope and then convinced the authorities that Ryan had been the distributor, and he stopped himself from grinding his teeth. He chased those memories away and thought instead of Mrs. Wheeler. He wondered what she was doing alone in that house with her green plastic cup as the late afternoon crept towards evening. He rubbed his chin, shook his head to try to clear it, grabbed his jacket, and walked down the street to his corner tavern.
The place was long and narrow with a pool table in back and a few booths to one side; it was about half full and as dimly lit as Mrs. Wheeler’s house. Ryan found his customary stool at the near end of the bar and exchanged nods with Jesse. The big bartender finished with the customers he was serving, then brought over a draft beer and set it on a coaster in front of Ryan. They exchanged fist bumps, and Jesse watched Ryan take a long sip through the foam. They’d gone to the same high school, but Jesse was a few years older, so they’d been more acquaintances than real friends.
“So.” Jesse slung the towel he carried over his shoulder. “How goes the battle?”
Ryan tipped his head from side to side. “Not bad.”
“You start that new job?”
“And.” Ryan paused. “And, it’s okay. Easy.” He took another swallow of beer. “Old lady’s recovering from cancer, which I knew nothing about beforehand.”
“Yeah,” Ryan said. “Lives alone. Kind of sad.”
“Why don’t you bring her in, buy her a beer?”
Ryan snorted a laugh. “Don’t think so. She can hardly walk from me to you.”
“Remind you of your aunt?”
Ryan frowned and considered the woman, his dead grandmother’s sister, who had basically raised him. She’d wanted a warmer, year-round climate after he enlisted, so she had sold her place quickly and moved into a mobile home park down south. She’d always been kind and patient, much more so than he deserved.
“Maybe a little,” he said. “Hadn’t thought of that.”
Jesse left to take an order from the other end of the bar, and the place gradually filled with its usual after-work crowd. Ryan drank in fits and starts, nursing three beers until just after seven, then walked home along the empty street. The neighborhood had seen better days and wasn’t much different than Mrs. Wheeler’s or the one he’d grown up in. A few wispy snowflakes blew sideways in and out of the streetlamps’ glare.
At home, he finished the other half of the joint he’d started, then stretched out on the couch and channel surfed on the television. He fell asleep a little before ten. He awoke briefly fifteen minutes or so later but didn’t bother turning off the TV or pulling out the couch; instead, he just yanked the afghan his aunt had knitted him off the couch’s back, wrapped himself in it, turned over, and fell asleep again.
About that same time, Mrs. Wheeler finished her last feed and meds for the day, flushed the extension leading to the G-tube they’d inserted in her stomach before treatments began, threw away the formula cartons, and washed out the syringes and extension at the kitchen sink. She tore off a piece of paper towel and left them on it on the counter to dry. She’d skipped the Hydrocodone against her doctor’s bedtime recommendations and had given herself a liquid pain reliever instead. The lozenge she’d been sucking on had finally dissolved, so she spat secretions, phlegm, and thrush into the sink, rinsed it, broke the string dangling from her lips with the back of her hand, swore once, and flipped off the ceiling light.
Mrs. Wheeler went into her bedroom. She’d already changed into her flannel nightgown and arranged the cup, Kleenex box, and washcloths on her nightstand, as well as the pile of prop pillows against the bed’s headboard. She’d also turned on the humidifier at the foot of her bed earlier so that it had time to fill the room before she tried to sleep. She gave a hopeful sigh, turned off the lamp on the nightstand, climbed under the covers, and settled herself so that she was almost sitting upright against the stack of pillows, the position she found most comfortable given her circumstances. She reached over, clutched the cup in one hand and a washcloth in the other, and sighed again into the darkness. Instinctively, she slid the hand in which she held the washcloth over to the side of the bed where Dale had always slept until his accident ten years earlier. She tried to swallow, grimaced against the pain, then closed her eyes and willed sleep to come.
It was quiet: just the faint sound of the nightstand clock and the occasional passing car in the street. She tried to concentrate on her breathing, keeping her inhales short and her exhales long and extended. The first ten minutes passed without event, but then she felt the first tickle in the center of her chest. She tried to breathe up to and not over it, but the cough came anyway, and with it, she raised the cup to her lips and spent twenty seconds emptying her lungs, stomach, and mouth of phlegm, mucus, and secretions that were the consistency of Cream of Wheat. That spot in her chest where the tickle began, as well as the lining of her airway above it, had grown raw and tender over the past month, but she tried to reassure herself again with the oncologists’ assurance that her excessive secretions were a normal side effect for a patient in her stage of recovery from the particular treatment she’d endured, as was the constant nasal drainage and drip that she wiped away with the washcloth from the tip of her nose. When she’d asked how long they’d last, she was told it was impossible to say for certain; they might begin their transition to permanent dry mouth any day, or they might persist another month or more. Her salivary glands had basically been attacked and burnt during treatment with daily radiation, and this was their natural reaction to the end of that onslaught.
She spat again, secretions only, into her cup and tried to settle back into the pile of pillows. She’d given up trying to figure out how many hours of sleep she got during a typical night; she guessed perhaps a few total, but it only came in brief, odd snatches of fifteen or twenty minutes at a time before she’d need to clear secretions again and reposition herself. She allowed for two more coughing fits, the second including retching, gagging, and vomiting a little stomach acid into her cup, before climbing out of bed, rinsing the cup and her mouth at the bathroom sink, then scattering the pile of prop pillows to the floor and lying flat on the mattress on her stomach, taking care to be sure the G-tube button wasn’t twisted beneath her. It was a position that she found almost untenable, but the only one that slowed the nasal drainage a bit so she could claim those brief snatches of sleep. She awoke sore and stiff after each and changing sides did little to mitigate her discomfort. She cursed at the irritation the bile in the vomit caused to the many mouth and throat sores she’d developed during radiation.
Lying there, she tried, like always, to ignore her discomfort and force herself instead to think of pleasant memories of time spent with Dale, and many years before that, the brief period they had together with their son, Paul. But those thoughts were episodic at best, like short stints of calm and repose between another stroke of lightning and tumble of thunder in a storm preceded by the haunting tickle in her chest.
The next morning, Mrs. Wheeler was waiting in the open front doorway as Ryan came up the walk. She wore the same housecoat and gripped the same cup as the day before and appeared a little more bent to him as she let him inside. She pulled out two chairs at the dining room table, and they sat down; it was even dimmer than the previous day.
Ryan watched her spit into the cup, then asked, “How was your night?”
The old woman gave a dismissive shrug. “Not great.”
“Sorry about that. The new med didn’t help?”
“Not so I could tell.” She reached suddenly for her right ear, cupped it, and grimaced.
She shrugged again. She lowered her hand slowly, and when she glanced up at him next, Ryan could see that her eyes had gone watery against the pain.
“That’s something new. You call your doctor about it?”
Mrs. Wheeler shook her head. “Not yet. Took a little Hydrocodone. Hoping that will help.”
Ryan raised himself from his chair. “Should I get you some more?”
“Nah.” She made a gesture with her hand like she was shooing away a fly, then slid a blank check across the table to him. He settled back in his chair and saw that it was dated and signed with the merchant filled in, but it had no amount inserted. “Want you to concentrate on that front fence today,” she told him. “It needs painting and some pickets have to be replaced. Check first in the garage to see what Dale left there that you can still use. Then go to the hardware store on the corner of Sprague and South Pine and buy the rest.”
“My husband. Before he died.” She paused. “He was pretty handy.”
“Okay,” Ryan said. “I can do that.” He picked up the check and looked at it. “Won’t I need some kind of identification to use this?”
She shook her head and spat again. “No, Dale worked there after he retired. There won’t be a problem. The staff all know me.”
“What kind of job did he have before retiring?”
“Librarian.” The gaze she gave him looked almost challenging. “He worked at the central library downtown. You ever been there?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“You ought to go sometime. Extensive collections. They sponsor events, readings and such.”
“No kidding,” Ryan said. “Maybe I will.”
In a swift motion, she grabbed at her ear again and her jaw set hard.
“You sure you don’t want me to run you to that doctor?”
She made the same dismissive gesture with her hand. “No. Time for my morning feed.” She pointed. “You passed the garage yesterday when you took out the trash. Bring those cans back in again, too, when they’ve been emptied.”
Ryan nodded, slipped the check into his jacket pocket, and stood up. “That ear hurt on the side you had cancer?”
“You’ll let me know if it gets worse?
Mrs. Wheeler made a last dismissive wave with her hand, less vigorous this time. “Go on with you,” she said. “Get to work.”
Mrs. Wheeler finished her morning feed and flush quickly, then went into her bedroom where she sat on the edge of her bed. She clenched her teeth against the pain in her ear and forehead; it had begun near her eardrum during the middle of the night but had gradually spread outward and higher in each of its successive waves. It came on first as a dull ache, then grew into stabbing spikes so intense she felt blinding flashes behind her eye and thought several times that she was going to pass out. The top of her head on that side had grown too sensitive to touch, and she only put on her glasses when she had to because even those felt heavy on her face. She’d waited until after dawn to try the Hydrocodone, but it had done little to mitigate her discomfort, nor had the other over-the-counter meds she’d tried earlier.
She felt another wave beginning and lowered herself to her side. She attempted to breathe evenly against it, but her gasps came more quickly in spite of those efforts, each accompanied by a short moan that she could not control. She raised her knees up towards her chest until she was almost in a fetal position. As it had more and more recently, the familiar realization of how utterly alone she was crept through her like a shadow. Mrs. Wheeler began to weep silently as she suffered and waited. The first episode had lasted only a few minutes, but this one took almost a half hour before it began to pass.
Ryan was pleased to find Dale’s former garage workshop meticulously organized under the yellow light of a tin-shaded bulb with a drop-down cord: tools arranged by size on a peg board on its back wall with screws, nuts, and bolts mounted there, too, in old jars. Pieces of wood-working projects were cordoned off in sections and labeled at the back of the bench itself: birdhouse, coat rack, Lazy Susan. It looked like they were all in the process of being built, but there wasn’t a speck of dust anywhere. Mrs. Wheeler had replaced Dale’s toolbox on one side of the bench and the other held shelves with various paints, stains, and varnishes along with brushes sandpaper, and such organized by type and grade. Ryan quickly found a nearly full gallon of exterior white paint and primer combo, as well as the brushes, drop cloths, and other supplies he’d need for painting the fence. He also selected an assortment of potential wood screws from the jars on the peg board, pocketed them, and carried those things along with the toolbox out front. He quickly counted the number of missing pickets, unscrewed and discarded a couple more that were on their last legs, found the correct length wood screw to use for reattaching, and pulled all the weeds along the bottom of the fence line. Then he got started with the sanding. There had been no rain for several weeks, so the fence’s wood was good and dry. The morning was still cold, but the haze burned off and gave way to sun; by the time, Ryan had finished sanding the first side, he’d unzipped his jacket all the way, and he’d taken it off altogether before he’d finished sanding the rest of the fence a couple of hours later. Occasionally, he’d seen Mrs. Wheeler peeking at his progress through the living room curtains.
As he was storing the paints and various supplies he’d need next under the sycamore tree in the yard, Mrs. Wheeler opened the front door and called to him. “I made some lunch. Come eat it. Use the back door. There’s a bathroom through my bedroom to clean up.”
Ryan went around to the back of the house, sliding the emptied trash cans into their original spots as he did, and dropped in his bag of weeds. He went inside, locked the door to the bathroom, used the toilet and washed up at the sink, then let the water from both faucets continue to run. Mrs. Wheeler’s meds and other supplies were stacked neatly where the sink counter met her bedroom wall. The Hydrocodone was in the largest bottle at the back. He shook it and found it nearly full. Ryan had only tried opioids a few times, but liked the way they made him feel. He liked it a lot. He knew he’d have to take at least a few long belts for any sort of lasting buzz, and figured he could refill the bottle with water to approximate the present amount in it. She’d probably never notice the difference, but then its strength wouldn’t cover whatever pain she was feeling, especially the new one in her ear. He opened the bottle’s cap, sniffed the contents, then rescrewed it, replaced it where it had been, and looked up. A plain young man with a crooked nose and troubled eyes stared back at him in the mirror. He shook his head, turned off the faucets, and left the bathroom.
Ryan hurried into the dining room where she’d set a place for him at the table with a bowl of tomato soup, some Saltines, and a glass of milk. She’d changed into sweatpants and a long-sleeved T-shirt advertising a habitat reclamation project.
“Looks good,” Ryan said. “Thanks. Aren’t you going to have some?”
“Can’t eat by mouth again yet,” she told him. “Have to take everything through this.”
She lifted the T-shirt up to the bottom of her bra, and Ryan could see the capped G-tube button wrapped in a single gauze just to the left of the bottom of her breastbone. “You get started while it’s hot,” she said. “I’ll join you in a minute.”
She went through the kitchen into her bedroom while Ryan sat down at the table, broke the crackers into his soup, stirred it, and began eating. He looked around the room as he did. The wall that joined the kitchen had glass cupboards with a buffet beneath it. Two framed photographs anchored either end of the buffet, both in frames tarnished by age. In the first, a happy-looking young couple posed arm in arm in front of a waterfall, their smiles squinting against the sun. The second was of a boy around six years of age standing behind the house wearing an oversized baseball uniform and holding a wooden bat with one hand and a fielder’s glove in the other; his grin held missing teeth and his eyes were hidden by a too big cap that covered the tops of his ears.
Mrs. Wheeler came back into the room carrying her feed supplies and sat down in the chair next to Ryan in front of the buffet. She arranged two cartons of formula, a measuring bowl, an extension tube, a large plastic bottle of water, several syringes, a handful of napkins, and her green cup in front of her. Ryan watched her click the extension into place at her G-tube, twist it so it pointed up at her chin, and pour formula into the measuring bowl. Next, she twisted an empty syringe into the top of the extension, filled it with water, released the extension’s clamp, and watched gravity empty the water into her stomach, the skin there fish-belly white and wrinkled. She followed this by filling another syringe with formula from the measuring bowl, wiping its tip with a napkin, then using its plunger to slowly empty it into her stomach.
As she repeated the formula process, Ryan tried to only glance at her and to keep eating his soup as naturally as possible, but she met his gaze on one glance and said, “One and a half cartons of this four times a day, plus three liters of water. Hydration, the doctors call it. Some of it after the feed and some at other times. Means I basically have to do this eight times between waking up and going to bed, leaving a few hour intervals between each. Then there are meds that I also have to take periodically through the tube, too, a half-dozen or so at various set times throughout the day. Another handful of swallowing exercises I’m supposed to do daily, as well, so I don’t lose that ability and the muscles involved don’t atrophy. It’s basically around the clock...more damn things to keep track of than when I was teaching.”
“Sounds like.” Ryan held his empty spoon still in front of him. “Keeps you busy, I guess.”
Mrs. Wheeler gave a small grunt that approximated a derisive chuckle and shook her head. “Suppose so,” she mumbled. He watched her spit into her green cup, finger her ear gingerly, then fill another syringe with formula.
They ate together in silence for the next few minutes, Ryan being careful not to slurp the soup. By the time he’d finished and pushed away the bowl, the sun had grown high enough and the curtains at the window were sheer enough that the dim room had brightened some. He cleared his throat and decided to take a chance.
“I like those photographs on the buffet.” She watched him point. “That one there you and Dale?”
She glanced quickly at the first photograph and nodded. “On our honeymoon. Little falls we liked to hike to at the cabin we rented at Priest Lake. We went back every summer after that until the end. Picked huckleberries near those falls in season. Swam in the pool underneath.” For the first time, Ryan saw the hint of a smile crease Mrs. Wheeler’s lips. “Even skinny-dipped there at night a couple times.”
“No kidding.” Ryan smiled, too.
She nodded and filled a new syringe with formula, but didn’t look his way. He waited another long moment, then said, “And that other one. Who’s the little boy?”
A kind of cloud passed over Mrs. Wheeler’s face, and her hand paused on the plunger of the syringe. She kept her eyes averted and said, “Our son. His name was Paul.”
Her words came out in almost a whisper. Ryan watched her resume using the plunger to insert and suck up more formula. To be doing something, he took a sip of milk. A street sweeper passed outside the dining room beyond the ivy-covered fence that separated the deck there from the sidewalk. It made slow, scratching rotations past the house up towards the corner. When the sound of it had all but faded away, Mrs. Wheeler said, “You can just leave those dishes if you’re done. Go ahead and get started on that fence again.”
Although she wasn’t looking, Ryan nodded. He got up from the table. “Thanks again. That was good,” he told her. “So, I’ll run to that hardware store now. Should be back shortly. Need me to pick you up anything else while I’m gone?”
She shook her head, her eyes studying the syringe as she filled it with new formula.
“Might get a few more things for the front yard while I’m there. That okay?”
She nodded, but seemed distracted. When the syringe was full, she spat phlegm into her cup, rubbed her ear again, then seemed to struggle to secure the syringe’s tip into the extension. Ryan left her there with her thoughts and preoccupations and went out the back door into the sun-splashed afternoon.
He’d finished securing the new pickets and painting two sides of the fence shortly before five with the sun lingering just above the roofs of houses across the street. Ryan stored away the supplies neatly in the garage, estimated again the number of old red bricks stacked beneath the workbench, washed out the brushes at a sink like the one in his studio, and set them on rags on the workbench to dry. He went up to the back door and knocked on it. There was no answer.
He knocked again, waited another minute, then pushed the door open and called, “Mrs. Wheeler, I’m done for today.”
There was no response that he could hear. He frowned, entered the house, closed the door, and called her name again. He was greeted again by silence, so he went through the kitchen into her bedroom where he found her lying on her stomach partly on the bed with her legs dangling off of it. One of her hands still clutched the green cup extended above her head as if in offering, but there was a large pool of secretions on the bedspread that had drained and spread from her mouth, and her eyes were squeezed shut. When he got close enough, he could hear her constant and almost inaudible moans; they came with each short breath, and her free hand was cupped partly over her bad ear and partly over her forehead.
Ryan touched her shoulder and asked, “What’s wrong? Tell me.”
She grimaced, shook her head, and whispered, “It hurts so bad.”
“Come on,” Ryan said, gripping her under the arm and lifting. “Let’s get you to the ER.”
In less than a minute, he had her to her feet with her overcoat draped over her shoulders, and several minutes later, he was speeding down the street with her towards Providence Holy Family Hospital. It wasn’t much more than a five-minute drive, and when he shouted for help after he pulled up in front of the entrance, two orderlies were there within seconds getting Mrs. Wheeler into a wheelchair. She was whimpering by then, slumped towards her bad side, her hand still cupped in the same manner. Ryan watched them whisk her through automatic doors, then found a place to park, went inside, explained things to the receptionist, and sat down on a hard plastic chair. There was only one other person waiting there, a thin, middle-aged woman who appeared to be sleeping. A television up in the corner played a children’s animated movie on mute. Ryan glanced at his watch, and the thought crossed his mind that he’d normally be getting his second beer from Jesse around then; since it was a Friday night, he’d usually also be there for several more, hopeful with the larger crowd of women, but he always went home alone.
A doctor in scrubs finally came into the empty ER waiting room a little before nine. He regarded Ryan for a moment, then came over and sat down next to him. “You the guy who brought Mrs. Wheeler in? Ryan?”
“She authorized you as the person we could speak to about what’s going on with her. Said she had no one else. Called you her caretaker.”
Ryan felt his eyebrows raise. “Okay,” he heard himself say. “Sure.”
“Well, we did a CT scan and then an MRI on her, and she has a sizable cavity where her largest cancerous tumor had been. It appears some nerves there are interacting in a very problematic way, nerves in her throat and to her ear, which can cause a lot of pain, excruciating sometimes. That cavity still has not healed completely and needs to before this can be resolved. In the meantime, we’ll experiment with a combination of nerve and pain meds until we find the right cocktail that can successfully manage her pain for the interim. That might take a little while, so we’ve already admitted her upstairs.”
“For the night.”
“Can I see her?”
“No point. We’ve given her IV meds that will basically knock her out until morning, so she can get some sleep. Told us she’s hardly slept for weeks.” He reached over and patted Ryan’s hand. “Come back tomorrow.”
Ryan pursed his lips and nodded.
“She’s a tough old nut.” The doctor gave his hand a last pat. “That’s for sure.”
Ryan drove home in a kind of daze. When he got there, he made himself a bowl of cereal and ate it in front of a soccer match on television he hardly knew was on. The worst pain Ryan had ever felt was a broken arm when he’d fallen out of a tree as a boy, and that had lasted less than an hour until it had been set at the hospital. Next to that, he’d had strep throat once and an eye infection another time that both hurt a lot. But he could only imagine what Mrs. Wheeler was going through. And that on top of the problems with her secretions and swallowing, the cancer treatment and prolonged recovery. At her age and by herself. He set the cereal bowl on the arm of the couch, put his head back, and was asleep in a matter of minutes.
Getting the right combination of meds to manage Mrs. Wheeler’s pain proved to be tricky. But she had the nurse’s call button she could use at any time when she could tell a bad episode was starting, and then they’d administer a quick-acting, high-potency opioid through her IV that usually began helping within minutes and promptly put her to sleep. They also administered all of her feeds, hydration, and regular meds for her, so she spent most of her time in grateful slumber.
That’s where Ryan found her the next morning when he arrived just after visiting hours began at eight. He pulled a chair to her bedside, watched her sleep for a while, then looked around her room. He regarded the numbers and squiggly lines as they changed on the sat monitor suspended from a pole next to her bed, as well as the wires and probes that led from it under her covers. He reached out and reinserted one of the prongs that had come loose from the nasal cannula fitted in her nose; the tubing there stretched around her ears to a cannister on the wall providing oxygen that the nurse had told him Mrs. Wheeler didn’t really need, but was being kept on for comfort. There was no one in the room’s second bed, the curtain between them pulled back all the way. Sun crept low through the window in the wall beyond that bed, and through it, Ryan could see an exterior stairwell against another part of the hospital. There was a quiet murmur of voices from the hallway and at the nurse’s station just down it; otherwise, besides Mrs. Wheeler’s soft snores, the muffled quiet seemed almost soothing.
Ryan sat there watching her sleep for nearly an hour until her face began to contort and her exhales became exaggerated. He frowned watching her shoulders start to twitch; her movements reminded him of an agitated racehorse he’d seen led into the starting gate. When she started to moan, Ryan searched for the nurse’s call button and struggled with it until he got it pushed correctly. The same nurse who had showed him into the room, a young woman in scrubs adorned with Disney characters, appeared in the doorway a minute or so later, just as Mrs. Wheeler had opened her eyes partway, her face contorted further, and used her gravelly, low voice to plead for help.
The nurse went quickly to the bedside, sorted through a set of labeled syringes on a long lap table there, and inserted one into the port in the IV on the back of the hand closest to where Ryan sat. Mrs. Wheeler’s moans grew louder.
After the nurse had finished, she flushed the line, then rubbed Mrs. Wheeler’s wrist and said, “That should take care of the pain.” She glanced at the clock on the wall. “And, look, that’s getting better, lasting longer, closer to when you get your next time-release OxyContin. The doctor has upped that dosage, too, so you may not need many more of these boosts.”
The nurse typed something into a computer on a stand next to the sat monitor. Mrs. Wheeler’s eyes remained only partly open, but her moans grew gradually softer and further apart. He watched her fiddle with the wand tucked under the pillows by her side, flip a button on it that exposed its tip, suck the secretions from her mouth with it, flip the button again to recover the tip, and slide it back beneath her pillows. Finally, she blinked several times, turned her head Ryan’s way and gave a startle; she looked almost frightened to Ryan without her glasses. Then the lines in her forehead eased and she said, “You came.” She smiled. “You’re here.”
The old woman extended the hand in which the IV was inserted, and Ryan took its fingertips in his own. He smiled, too. Then, just as suddenly, her eyes closed and her soft snores resumed. He waited a moment before putting her hand back into the bed under the covers. The nurse had turned from the computer stand and had placed the empty syringe away from the others. She looked down at Ryan with kind eyes and said, “You must be her grandson.”
He shook his head. “Just a friend.”
“That’s nice.” Her eyes grew softer. “Really nice.”
Ryan nodded, a heat rising behind his ears, and they both looked at Mrs. Wheeler. Someone pushing a cart passed in the hall, and laughter came from the nurse’s station. When it was quiet again, Ryan asked, “What happens with her now?”
The nurse shrugged. “She’ll sleep. That’s mostly what she’ll be doing until we get this balance of pain and nerve meds right.” She straightened the covers across Mrs. Wheeler’s chest. “But that’s fine. She needs it. I wouldn’t wish what she’s going through on my worst enemy.”
Ryan nodded and stole a glance at her identification badge. Her name was Vicki, and if he’d seen her in his corner bar, he would have looked twice. They were quiet together for another long moment, before she said, “Well then.” She gave him a small smile and his eyes followed her as she left the room. He sat blinking, waited another ten minutes, watching Mrs. Wheeler’s sleep seem to grow more restful as he did, before leaving himself.
When he got to Mrs. Wheeler’s house after leaving the hospital, he first finished painting the front fence, which only took another couple of hours. He cleaned the brushes, left them to dry, and filled a wheelbarrow to bring a load of the red bricks from under the workbench along with a spade out front. He used a pair of bricks to measure the entire length of the fence by taking turns placing them along its bottom as he crawled along next to it. He made sure he had enough bricks, used one as a guide under a portion of the fence where the gap was particularly high, then began spading out a continuous gulley in the grass that was the depth of a brick under the fence’s pickets so that they could be placed short end to short end under it to keep weeds from inhibiting it again. He used a putty knife and a flat-head screwdriver, as well as his hands, to break the sections of turf away and to even the gulley so it would have a consistent depth. Then he began carefully placing the bricks end to end under the fence as intended until they resembled a lawn-high pathway of their own mirroring the front walk. It took some time and detailed digging here and there to get them all to line up completely flat.
When he’d finished, he stood off on the sidewalk, put his hands on his hips, and admired his work. The sun had already reached the roofs across the street; he’d completely forgotten about lunch. He heard a rustle from the house next door and glanced over to see a man in the nearest upstairs window slide a window closed there. He was staring down at Ryan with what looked like a faint smile in his close-cropped beard. When Ryan felt his forehead knit, the man gave him a thumbs up then disappeared into the house.
Very early the next morning, Mrs. Wheeler lay on her back looking out the window of her hospital room. A pale pink line mingled with the gray of dawn over the stairwell there. Late the afternoon before, the attending physician had told her that they’d settled on a medication combination that had about the best results they could expect to achieve. Mrs. Wheeler would have a regular course of nerve, steroid, and time-release OxyContin that would form her base coverage, as well Percocet, a faster-acting opioid than the OxyContin, that she could crush and administer through her G-tube every four hours for breakthrough pain; in an emergency, two tabs could be given if one wasn’t sufficient.
“But, when an episode like that begins, you won’t be capable of administering the med yourself. You’ll be in too much pain.” The attending physician paused then, her arms folded across her chest. “There will be other times, too, when managing your feeds and such will be too much for you right now. Is there someone that can stay with you to help with those things? That young man perhaps, your caretaker.”
“Well, I don’t know,” Mrs. Wheeler said. “I suppose he could. If he’ll do that.”
The attending physician gave her a smile meant to be reassuring. “We’ll ask him.”
Mrs. Wheeler slept then, as she did most of the night. But she was awake now in the perfect stillness of the early morning thinking about things. She suctioned her mouth and let the wand lower to her side. She didn’t know what the alternatives would be should Ryan not be willing to stay with her. She didn’t want to think about them.
She was asleep again when Ryan came again a few hours later. He resumed his spot in the chair at her bedside and watched her snore softly. She was still alone in the room, and it was quiet, almost peaceful. One of her feet, in hospital slipper-socks and not nearly reaching the end of the bed, had come loose from the covers; Ryan reached over and covered it, straightening the bottom of her gown as he did. In the pertinent information section of the wall’s white board across from the foot of the bed, he was pleased to see that Vicki’s name had been written in as Mrs. Wheeler’s day nurse again. His own name was written there, too, as “Family/POC” along with his cell phone number.
The same attending physician as the previous night came into the room on rounds a little before nine. She greeted Ryan warmly and quickly summarized Mrs. Wheeler’s circumstances in terms of discharge home. When she asked if he could stay with her, he didn’t answer right away. Instead, he stared over her shoulder at the open doorway.
“It wouldn’t have to be all day and all night,” the attending physician said. “But certainly overnight to start with and close enough to respond in, say, ten minutes otherwise. And it won’t be forever.” She paused. “Or it shouldn’t be.”
Ryan heard himself mumble, “I don’t know.”
“We’ll train you on everything you need to know, how to administer the meds and the rest. There’s not all that much to it.”
Vicki came in the room then. She carried a handful of syringes, and Ryan saw that her new scrubs had balloons on them. She blew a stray hair away from her face, tucked it behind an ear, and when their eyes met, hers softened.
Ryan looked from Vicki to the attending physician and nodded once. “I guess I can do that.” He shrugged. “I mean, why not?”
“Great,” the attending physician said. “Vicki here will teach you all you need to know. Vicki, this young man is going to take care of Mrs. Wheeler after she’s discharged. Can you show him how to measure meds and so forth?”
“I’ll be happy to.” She held up the syringes in her hand. “In fact, I can do that right now.”
“Good,” the attending physician said. She turned back to Ryan. “So, we’ll want to observe her throughout most of today, be sure the med regimen we have her on is maintaining well, that there are no setbacks. And we want to be sure to send you home with adequate meds and supplies from our pharmacy. That always takes a while. I’d say discharge should be around four o’clock or thereabouts. There will be paperwork and instructions we’ll give you that will tell you just what to do, and you can always call us if there are any problems.”
Ryan’s nod was hesitant. He wasn’t sure he would have agreed to things if Vicki hadn’t walked in the room when she did. But he had, so that was it. He nodded again with a bit more vigor, they did the same, and the attending physician left the room. Vicki set the syringes on the lap table, smiled at him, and said, “Well, let’s get started. First, I guess I’ll show you how to crush and mix the tab meds with water.”
She did that. Each time she prepped and administered a med, Ryan mimicked her actions with the next one. Vicki showed him how to measure out Mrs. Wheeler’s formula and flush the tube, as well as the schedule for all that was needed to be done throughout the day; they’d intentionally arranged that so no meds or feeds needed to be given overnight in order to keep Mrs. Wheeler’s sleep as uninterrupted as possible. She showed him how to reposition her in bed and how to shampoo her hair with a special prepackaged cloth; Mrs. Wheeler slept through both. She demonstrated how to keep a pillow under one side of Mrs. Wheeler’s bottom to prevent pressure sores from forming, as well as how to use a bedpan, should that become necessary. By the time they finished, the sun was beaming sideways through the room’s window and the hallway outside was bustling with activity.
“You should be set to go now,” Vicki said. “You could do my job.”
“Well, I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing.” She paused, smiled. “It’s uncommon.”
Ryan felt the same kind of warmth crawl up his neck as when he’d first met her. He said, “Uncommon. I don’t know about that.”
“It is. Believe me.”
He did his best to give a dismissive shrug. “So, what happens until discharge?”
“Nothing new really. She’ll mostly sleep. We’ll take good care of her until then.”
“Maybe I’ll go grab some clothes and stuff from my place then. Bring them over to Mrs. Wheeler’s. Take care of a few things there.”
“Sure.” She smiled again. “Come back around four, and she should be ready to leave.”
Ryan nodded, though he didn’t really want to go. “You’ll still be on shift then?”
“Good.” He nodded a few times. “Okay, then. See you later.”
It only took Ryan a few minutes at his place to pack some toiletries, his laptop, and a few clothes in a small duffel bag, tuck it behind his car seat, and drive over to Mrs. Wheeler’s. He stopped at a deli on the way and brought a sandwich and bottle of lemonade over for lunch. From the garage, he brought out the rest of the things he needed for the front yard, then ate his lunch on the front step, considering the order he wanted to follow to complete his projects. When he finished, he threw away his trash and started on the roses. After graduating from high school, he’d enrolled briefly in community college and had taken a horticulture class along with general science and novice carpentry. He’d dropped out after his arrest and enlisted in the Army not long after having his charges dropped in lieu of community service.
From the horticulture class, he remembered well enough the steps for seasonal pruning of roses and carefully made those diagonal cuts, dropping the excess foliage in a bucket, and leaving the few remaining blooms that seemed salvageable in case Mrs. Wheeler wanted them. Next, he dug around their roots, replacing old earth with new fertilizer and potting soil, then soaked them well with a garden hose he found on the side of the house, scrubbed out the bird bath, and filled that. As he worked, he thought about Mrs. Wheeler and what lay ahead. He thought about his life as he’d led it so far. He thought about Vicki.
After he finished with the roses and bird bath, Ryan adjusted all the sprinklers so they covered the lawn and roses, then raked up old, dry lawn and spread new rye grass seed for the winter, using the back of a rake to mix it with topsoil. Although he knew it wouldn’t present much of a barrier, he surrounded the new lawn with stakes and string about a foot high, and gave it a good soak with the sprinklers. Last, he reset the mailbox post so that it was straight, packed earth tight around its base, and oiled its hinges so it opened and closed easily. As he was taking the mail from inside it, he heard the window close again upstairs at the house next door. When he looked up, the same man was staring down at him, nodding slowly. He had gentle eyes and wore a maroon chamois shirt untucked over jeans. Like before, he raised a thumb towards Ryan and smiled. Ryan wasn’t sure what to do, so he did the same in return. Then the man was gone, and a breeze scraped the tip of a tree branch across the window where he’d been.
Ryan checked his watch. It was just after three-thirty, the afternoon’s light already falling. He quickly stored the supplies and Mrs. Wheeler’s mail in the garage and drove back to the hospital. She was sitting in a portable wheelchair when he came into the room, wearing the clothes he’d brought her in, free of wires and probes, her glasses a little crooked and one side of her hair flatter than the other. Their eyes met, and Mrs. Wheeler’s filled with something that looked to Ryan like hope.
“So,” she said to him quietly. “You sure you’re up for this?”
He nodded, kept his own voice low. “Sure. If you are.”
Vicki came into the room then carrying two large plastic sacks. She looked back and forth between Ryan and Mrs. Wheeler and smiled. “So, everything you need is in these,” she said. “Meds in this one.” She lifted a sack. “Other supplies along with the discharge paperwork in the other. I’ll go over the meds first, then the supplies and paperwork, you’ll both sign, and then you’re on your way.”
She reviewed the meds carefully, showing them each bottle and its instruction label before replacing it in the sack. Ryan noted the flexibility given with the OxyContin and Percocet, and that there was a month’s supply with several refills available for each. He’d generally be the one administering them, so Mrs. Wheeler would have virtually no idea how much was left in either one. Ryan could easily poach off both and refill them when needed. It was as if an unexpected gift had plopped down suddenly into his lap, but he puzzled over why he didn’t feel the exhilaration he thought he would.
When Vicki finished with the meds, she moved on to the supplies and discharge paperwork, then asked if they had any questions. Neither did, so they each signed where indicated, and she handed the bags to Ryan. “All right, then. Why don’t you take those sacks and drive your car around to the front entrance? One of our CNA’s will take Mrs. Wheeler down in the wheelchair and meet you there.”
“That’s it?” Ryan asked.
“Pretty much, yes.”
“We just leave?” Mrs. Wheeler said. “Head home?”
“You’ll be fine.” Vicki paused. “I hope I see you again.”
Her eyes moved first to Mrs. Wheeler then to Ryan. He swallowed, took the bags from her, and heard himself say, “I’ll go get the car.”
The two of them didn’t say much on the drive home. Ryan asked Mrs. Wheeler if she was sure she’d gotten all her personal belongings from the hospital, and she said she was. Mrs. Wheeler buttoned up her overcoat and said it seemed like it had gotten colder. Ryan mentioned that he’d already packed a few clothes and things from his place.
They sat in complete silence at a long train crossing until Mrs. Wheeler spat twice into her cup, then said, “Our dog was named Jake. He was a yellow lab, a stray that Dale found poking around our trash cans one morning.” Ryan glanced over at her when she sniffed a little laugh at the memory. “Part of his right ear had been bitten off, we assumed, in a fight with another dog, and he had a limp that went away after we’d cared for him a few weeks. He liked to sit up on Dale’s lap at night while we watched television; Dale would scratch the top of his head. After Dale died, Jake didn’t understand what had happened, where he’d gone...he kept nosing around, whining at me, you know. Eventually, he began crawling up in my lap while I watched television alone. I know I shouldn’t have, but I let him sleep at the end of our bed, on Dale’s side.” She smiled as the last of the train passed and the crossing bar slowly raised. “I spoiled him,” she said. “I did. But he was a good companion. I really missed him when he was gone. The house was so quiet afterwards, it seemed to scream.”
Ryan nodded when she glanced over at him. The cars in front of them started moving again. They drove the rest of the way to the house without speaking. The streetlights blinked on as Ryan helped her out of the car at the curb and collected the sacks and his duffel bag. While he did, she studied the front of the house: the repaired fence, the bricks under it, the lawn, the roses, and the rest. When Ryan came over next to her grasping the sacks and his duffel bag in one hand, she shook her head with a pleased frown, looked up at him and asked, “When on earth did you do all this?”
“While you were admitted.” He extended his free arm. “Here.”
She shook her head, then grasped his arm, and they made their slow way up the walk, the steps, and inside. The thermostat must have been preset because the house was warm. He turned on the lamp next to the living room couch that also lit part of the dining room and came back for her.
“No,” she said. “This way.”
She took his arm again, led him behind the couch, and opened a door there. When she flipped on the room’s ceiling light, the first few strains of a familiar circus song accompanied it.
“Dale did that somehow,” Mrs. Wheeler said. “Paul loved it. This was his bedroom. You’ll sleep here.”
Ryan gazed round the room. It looked as if the boy could have slept in it the previous night. Books lined the shelves, airplane models perched on top of the bureau, and a solar system mobile dangled from fishing line at various spots from the ceiling. The twin bedspread was adorned with logos of Major League baseball teams, a small bathrobe still hung from the back of the closet door, and two red sneakers were just visible under the bed, one dry mud-caked and tipped on its side. Her hand was still on his arm, but its grip had tightened. He set his duffel bag on the bed.
“How old was he...” Ryan paused, then started again. “When he...”
“Nine,” Mrs. Wheeler said quietly. “He was nine.”
She led him through the rest of the room and the bathroom that adjoined it into her own bedroom. She turned on her bedside lamp, took off her coat and laid it on the far side of the bed. Ryan regarded the stack of washcloths on her nightstand along with the box of Kleenex and the carefully stacked pillows against the headboard.
“Well,” she said. “Since we just got home, I suppose I should play it safe and get up in bed. Rest a bit.” She looked at the clock on the nightstand. “But I’m not getting in my nightgown yet. Too early for that. I plan to get up for my next feed and to make you dinner. I plan to start living again.”
“Good for you,” Ryan said. He set the sack with the supplies and discharge paperwork next to her coat.
“Listen.” She seemed to hesitate. “There’s some room in those top two bureau drawers in Paul’s room for your things. I finally cleared them out not long ago.”
Ryan nodded slowly. “Okay. Guess I’ll just go unload my stuff then.” He lifted the sack he still held. “And these meds, too, if that’s all right.”
“Sounds good. And I’ll get myself up on the bed.” She took a step in that direction, then stopped suddenly. “Oh, say, I forgot to tell you something. My next-door neighbor called me on my cell at the hospital while you were coming to get me. His name is Hugh, and we’ve been neighbors a long time. He’s a good guy. Took Dale on after retirement to work at the hardware store you went to. He owns that and runs his own home repair business out of it, too. Says he watched you work in the front yard and wants to hire you on his crew. Liked your work, I guess.”
Ryan felt his eyes widen and shifted the sack at his side. He said, “No kidding.”
“Yes. And he pays a good, competitive wage. Dale was surprised by that. I explained what you were doing for me, and he’s happy to have you start whenever I’m on my feet again and then work around whatever jobs I may have for you afterwards. Like I said, he’s a good guy. He says just stop by whenever you have the chance, and you can work out the details together.”
Ryan tried to hide his excitement. “That right?”
“It is. Apparently, one of the young men on his crew is leaving soon to start chef school. Can you imagine going from home repair to becoming a chef?” She shook her head. “I guess life has a way of sorting itself out.”
Ryan nodded again. “I guess so.”
“Well, go unload that stuff and I’ll get up in bed. Take a little rest.”
Ryan left her there and went through the bathroom, closing her door behind him, and into Paul’s bedroom. But he didn’t open the bureau drawers. Instead, he looked over the room more closely. Sports posters adorned the walls and a carefully labeled rock collection was propped up on the bookcase in boxes behind glass. What looked like the same baseball bat and mitt from the photograph in the dining room leaned against the side of a desk which was spread with dusty baseball cards, their wrappers still ripped partially around a few as if they hadn’t all been completely viewed. Through the window behind the desk and a sparse hedge dividing the houses, Ryan could see Hugh next door in his living room. He sat between a woman and a young girl on a couch, and they were all hunched over the coffee table in front of them. At first, Ryan couldn’t figure out what they were doing, and then he realized they were working on a jigsaw puzzle together, something he’d often done with his aunt when he was young. Ryan watched the girl fit a piece into the puzzle and Hugh clap.
He whispered to himself, “You could go over now and introduce yourself, see about those work details.” Watching the three of them together, he found himself blinking. “But that can wait. No hurry there. They’re not going anywhere.”
Ryan stepped back into the bathroom and turned on the light. He stood completely still in the room’s white glare gazing down at a crack that meandered through several of the tiles. The crack ran back behind the toilet where it disappeared, and he immediately began considering the options involved in fixing it. Finally, he roused himself and unloaded the remaining sack, arranging the new meds on the opposite side of the sink. He paused when he came to the large OxyContin and Percocet bottles, shaking them, then opening each. He thought, I could take a handful of both right now and no one would know. What the hell, he thought, I could have some Hydrocodone for dessert, too. Then he looked in the mirror again and found the same familiar, troubled eyes staring back at him, but ones that held something like Mrs. Wheeler’s had when he’d come to get her at the hospital.
He heard the old woman cough and spit in her bedroom. “Or you could bring in her mail,” he whispered quietly. “Maybe read to her whatever is difficult without her glasses. See if she might have a jigsaw puzzle we could work on together.” He paused again. “But that would disturb her rest. That can wait, too.”
He went back into Paul’s bedroom and sat in the desk chair, its small surface hard and worn smooth. His thoughts shifted suddenly to Vicki, and he whispered to himself, “Or maybe you could find out when her shifts end and wait one night by the hospital exit for her. You don’t want to startle her, though. Just say you were in the area and wondered how she was doing. Wanted to say hello, see if she might want to go for coffee or something, maybe take a walk.”
Ryan shook his head and thought, it’s not impossible. Unlikely perhaps, but not impossible. You don’t know. Anything might happen...anything at all.