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 even trying.

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 pink.

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.

Thank 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 thoughtfully.

How old are you, Mrs. Novak?

I'm eighty-five, I reply. I wonder if she can tell I'm kind of mad about the pudding cup.

Do you have a lot of grandchildren?

I've got four. And a great-grandson.

And 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.

Tell 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.

'Mary' 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.

Where's Charleen? I ask, and Teresa starts cackling on the other side of the curtain.

That 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.

Give me the crucifix off the goddamn wall, I say. I want to bludgeon Teresa to death.

Oh, how she laughs.

Funny without even trying.

Mrs. 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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