We May Be Like Fish
Anna Lea Jancewicz
They bring me my lunch at 11:00, which is too goddamn early. They think
because we're old fucks we can't wait until a decent hour. Then they
bring us snacks in the afternoon, like we're toddlers. I tell that
nurse with the cornrows, I understand it's an easy
mistake to make, since we're all shitting in our pants.
She always laughs. Oh, Mrs. Novak, you a trip.
I don't let any of them call me by my first name.
I'm the feisty one Cornrows tells stories about when she goes home to
her three kids and past-due rent. I know all about her life. They talk
about themselves all the time.
I'm feisty because I'm just pleasantly senile. Not pain-in-the-ass
senile like Edna Dill, who is forever yammering at her dead husband and
shouting for meds she just took ten minutes before. I'm just the
perfect amount of crazy for Cornrows and all the rest. All you really
have to do to endear yourself is curse. Everybody loves a foulmouthed
granny. Suddenly, you're a firecracker. Suddenly, you're funny. Without
Because an old person is something cute. Dethorned and harmless. It's
like hearing a baby say fuck. Adorable.
Science isn't even sure yet if we have feelings. We may be like fish.
It's a new nurse today. She's tall and blonde. She has broad shoulders
and a heartbreaking falsetto. She's not glamorous like Caitlyn Jenner
in the magazine, and she sure as shit isn't like that RuPaul. She's got
on face powder a little too pale, smeared to her Adam's apple, and her
eyelashes are clumped with mascara. She's wearing purple scrubs with
Snoopy on them. She's nervous and she's trying to be cheerful.
She introduces herself to me and my roommate Teresa, pointing at the ID
badge on the lanyard around her neck. As you can see, this says
Charles. That is my legal name, and Betsy Ann has told me it is company
policy that my legal name appear on my name tag. If you would be so
kind as to call me Charleen instead, I would much prefer it.
She keeps her chin tilted up just a little as she speaks. Her cheeks
That Betsy Ann is a real piece of work.
Teresa makes a grunt. I know she's a bigot too. I've been sharing this
room with her for two months, ever since Jeannie Belzer went back up to
St. Joseph's with the pneumonia in her lungs again. Jeannie Belzer was
much more level-headed than this one. If Teresa can't be decent to the
black ones, she sure as shit isn't going to be decent to this Charleen.
Before Teresa can open her trap, I belt out, I'm not here to give
anybody any shit. I'm just here waiting on the Reaper, Charleen.
A big smile spreads across her face. See? Now Nurse Charleen is my
friend for life. I said shit and made a wisecrack about my looming
death. I'm a juggling poodle. I'm just too precious.
Before you know it, she'll be slipping me extra packets of strawberries
& cream instant oatmeal and wheeling me straight into bingo
while all those other dumb fucks are stuck drooling on themselves
waiting in the corridor.
Her eyes, though. Through all the mascara, they are so grateful.
you, Mrs. Novak, she says.
She's not laughing. It's no joke. This kid's got heart.
What do you know, snack time rolls around and here's Charleen,
strolling into the room with three pudding cups. Whoever could that
extra tapioca be for, my dearie?
But no. After handing over our rations, Charleen plops herself down in
the chair next to my bed and unwraps her own plastic spoon. She eats
her pudding slowly, turning each spoonful over on top of her tongue
old are you, Mrs. Novak?
eighty-five, I reply. I
wonder if she can tell I'm kind of mad about the pudding cup.
you have a lot of grandchildren?
got four. And a great-grandson.
what's his name?
I wave my hand to dismiss the question. His name is Arlo, and they
never bring him to visit. He won't remember me. They're all assholes,
the lot of them. They'll come like vultures when I'm dead.
Charleen drops her empty pudding cup into the wastebasket, standing up
and smoothing her scrubs over her low belly and slim hips. Well, It was nice talking
to you, Mrs. Novak.
the fairy, tell him to bring the chocolate pudding next time,
Teresa hollers from the other side of the privacy curtain. Charleen's
lips twitch just a little as she holds her smile.
is fine with me, I say.
I'm looking forward to lunch today. It's 10:45 and I'm holding a
plastic-covered pocket day-planner in my lap. I buy a new one every
year for my granddaughter Amy, but it's March already and she hasn't
come to visit yet. She puts everything in the cellphone now
anyway. I'm going to give the planner to Charleen.
But when our trays come, it's the fat white nurse, the one with the
tattoo on her neck. Her kid's name. They make her cover it with a
Band-Aid for her shifts.
Charleen? I ask, and Teresa
starts cackling on the other side of the curtain.
pervert won't be coming back here,
she says. Enough
of us complained. None of us want the AIDS. He should've known better
than to come prancing into a Christian facility.
She says Christian so triumphantly.
I turn to Neck Tattoo.
me the crucifix off the goddamn wall,
I want to bludgeon Teresa to death.
Oh, how she laughs.
Funny without even trying.
Novak, I'm sure you'll get along fine with whoever else gets hired.
Neck Tattoo pats my hand.
By the time I swim another lap around the bowl, I won't even remember
Charleen at all.
Anna Lea Jancewicz has stories in or coming from Necessary Fiction, Hobart, Pithead Chapel and others. She
lives in Norfolk, VA.
Detail of photo on main page courtesy
of Maria Teresa Ambrosi.
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