Comments on this story can be sent to Dana Austin Marsh.
Elizabeth Parker got out of her car and locked it. She stood beside it for a moment, taking deep, calming breaths. After a few moments, she approached the double glass doors, jumping slightly when they slid aside silently. This was her first day of a job she had been damned lucky to get. The Responsibility for the Aged Act passed last year, coupled with the continuing demise of most of the baby boomer generation, meant that jobs in the field of institutional geriatric nursing were becoming few and far between. The RFTA Act required most blood relatives to care for their own aging grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles. Soon there would be no nursing home institutions, only private homecare.
Elizabeth checked in with the security guard posted just inside the glass doors and received an identity badge and directions for circumventing the security precautions on doors and elevators. She rode the elevator to the second floor as directed and stepped out onto a ward that was just beginning to come alive with the sounds of broken slumber.
"Can I help you?" asked a pleasant-faced, middle aged woman from behind a long charge counter.
"I'm Elizabeth Parker," the brand new nurse introduced herself. She firmly resisted the urge to look around, although she desperately wanted to take in as many details as she could.
"Ah, reinforcements at last! I'm Cathy Grant. Welcome to Shadyside." As she spoke, Cathy climbed to her feet and came around the long counter. "Come on, I'll give you the cook's tour, then you can help me start getting them out of bed."
Fifteen whirlwind minutes later, Elizabeth was certain she was going to be a dismal failure here. She could hardly remember where the dining room was, let alone any of the names of residents she had seen beside the two dozen rooms they had passed. She felt a hand on her arm and looked up into Cathy's understanding face.
"Don't worry, dear. You'll take it all in eventually," Cathy reassured her. She released Elizabeth and reached for the medi-lift, pushing it ahead of her as they moved down the corridor.
Elizabeth followed, mentally reviewing the procedures for operating the medi-lift device designed to gently and safely lift a recumbent patient. Satisfied that she recalled the proper use of this mainstay in geriatric care, Elizabeth then reminded herself to smile as she stepped into the first room. She stopped short at the threshold, however, when she saw the entwined figures on the bed. This was supposed to be a private room, and yet there were two men lying together on the standard-sized hospital bed. As her surprise faded, however, she noticed that one of the men was fully dressed right down to his sneakers and that he lay on top of the covers.
"Good morning, Ken," Cathy greeted as she positioned the lifting mechanism beside the bed. "Good morning, Dave. You're here bright and early this morning."
The head of white curls lifted itself from the shoulder it rested upon, revealing a grinning, wrinkled face and lively, deep blue eyes.
"I'm always here bright and early," Dave scolded. Slowly he sat up and swung his legs over the side of the bed.
"Dave, this is Elizabeth. Today is her first day, so you be nice. No chasing her around the bed," Cathy admonished.
Dave flashed an even saucier grin as he turned his attention to Elizabeth. "Don't you listen to her. I ain't chased anybody but the blintz here in better than forty-five years. Ain't that right, Hutch?" he asked the man who still lay on the bed while gently patting his friend's thin chest.
"Yeam, yeam. 'S ri'."
The mumble from the other man was incomprehensible to Elizabeth, but Dave and Cathy both seemed to understand.
"You hadta give him something for his back last night, didn't ya? He's dopey as hell this mornin'." Another scapegrace grin and another gentle pat. "Dopier than normal."
"'Fraid so, Dave," Cathy confirmed, letting down the guard rail on her side of the bed as David eased off the other, catching up a cane as his feet took his weight.
"Starsk!" The one word was a cry of fright and desolation that Dave was quick to comfort.
"Easy does it, Hutch," Dave admonished, squeezing the trembling hand that reached out uncertainly. "I gotta go make sure Ellie gets that gawdawful tonic of yours right. I'll meet ya at breakfast, okay? Let Cathy help ya up and no flirtin' with this pretty new nurse. You're mine, blintz, and don't you forget it."
Completely charmed by Dave's open manner, Elizabeth found her first day jitters fading a bit as she joined Cathy at the bedside.
Ellie Shepherd poured the last drop of liquid out of the can of Ensure into the food processor and then disposed of the can. She carefully pushed it down into the garbage and covered it with a few paper towels and wrappers so it could not be seen before pressing the control on the processor.
"Mornin', Ellie. See you're already workin' on that disgusting concoction of Hutch's," Dave greeted as he made his way into the dining room.
The cook stopped the processor and turned to smile a greeting. "All ready."
"Did you remember the desiccated liver?" Dave asked suspiciously.
"One time I forget the liver and you don't ever let me forget it," Ellie complained, white teeth flashing in her ebony face. She poured the frothy liquid into a glass and handed it over.
Dave accepted the glass, sniffed at it and pulled a face. "God Almighty, I don't know how he drinks this stuff."
Ellie laughed. She had heard the same complaint every morning for the past year.
"Ain't like it's done him any good," Dave grumbled as he carefully carried the glass over to one of the tables set for four and sat it at one of the places.
"How's Ken this morning?" Ellie asked, watching Dave check the silverware for spots.
"Little cranky this morning. They hadta give him something for his back. He'll get better as the day goes on," Dave replied, shuffling back over to watch Ellie continue her work.
"How did the tests go yesterday?" she asked.
"His heart's . . . still beatin'," Dave replied with studied casualness, and Ellie chided herself for asking. She could just as easily have obtained the information from one of the nurses and avoided bringing this terrible, haunted expression to the face she had grown so fond of.
"Was that damned plague, you know," Dave insisted crossly. "Damaged his heart then and nobody knew it."
Ellie wondered if he referred to the Ebola plague that had swept through most of North America in 2004, but held her peace. She had already upset Dave enough for one morning.
"Hutch said then that he wanted to live to be 140." The deep blue gaze was completely unseeing now, totally turned inward. "Don't think he wants that anymore."
A sad silence fell between them for long moments until, as if someone had thrown a switch, Dave came back to himself and the animation returned to his face. "What you servin' for breakfast this morning, Ellie?"
Ellie lifted the top off one of the long trays to reveal about a yard of scrambled eggs.
Dave eyed the yellow mass unhappily. "Bet the other one's got oatmeal in it, doesn't it?"
"You win the prize again, Dave," Ellie agreed.
"If it's oatmeal, I'd just as soon pass."
Ellie stooped down, bringing out a brown paper bag from where it had been hidden under the counter. "Gotta better prize for you this mornin'," she said, offering the bag.
Looking into the eyes lit from within by delight, it would be hard for anyone to say whether Dave was eight or eighty. He accepted the bag and slowly opened it, an expression of bliss stealing over his face as he peered inside.
"Jelly?" he asked hopefully.
"Of course," Ellie confirmed.
Dave brought the open top of the bag up to his face and inhaled deeply, then gave a satisfied sigh. "Thank you, Ellie. You didn't have to do this."
Ellie watched the old man with his small gift and let the warmth of his enjoyment fill up her spirit. She had been bringing him a jelly donut every morning for nearly a year now and every morning it was as if she had never done it before. It wasn't that he forgot, simply that he never expected it. Perhaps that was why the small side trip on her way into work never seemed like a burden.
"If only I coulda got Hutch to eat right for the past fifty years," Dave said.
Ellie loosed her deep, rich laughter. "Some folks just never learn, do they, Dave?"
"Not even for their own good," Dave agreed as he went back to the table he would soon share with his partner and carefully laid his treat on his plate.
Carrie Graves smiled at her assistant, Pam Smith, as they finished setting up the word game they would soon play with their charges. Carrie was the recreation director at Shadyside and she loved her job. Some people said she was too soft-hearted for this type of work, and it was true that the inevitable passing of each of her charges touched her deeply. The way Carrie saw it, however, was that the pain was more than worth the joy she gained from knowing these people, however short or long that knowing might be.
"Do you think they'll join us today?" Pam asked Carrie, indicating the two men who sat at a table on the very edge of the activity area. "I mean, aren't we supposed to encourage the residents to join in as much as possible?"
"Dave isn't a resident," Carrie reminded her as nursing aids began to arrive with a parade of wheelchairs and the circle of residents began to form.
"Ken is, and he never joins in anything," Pam complained.
"They play in here, don't they," Carrie pointed out. "They could just as easily stay in Ken's room all the time. And look at the games Dave gets him playing. Chess, for pity's sake, Pam. You really think our little word games can stimulate his mind better than that? I haven't had a chance to get over there yet. What are they playing today?"
"Monopoly," Pam conceded the point.
Despite the fact that she already knew the answer, Carrie raised her voice and asked, "Ken, Dave, are you going to join us today?"
Two pairs of blue eyes looked at her and Carrie was pleased to see that the lighter pair were brighter and more alert than they had been at breakfast. It was a damned shame that none of the alternative methods they had tried had eased the pain of Ken's deteriorating spine and the only recourse open to them was to dope him to the eyeballs whenever it got to be too much for him.
"What's the letter today?" Dave asked.
"B," Pam replied.
The two heads bent together over the board for a moment, then the blue gazes, sparkling with shared laughter, returned to the women.
"Beethoven," Ken supplied.
"Beatles," Dave added.
The two women shook their heads as the partners returned to their game.
"As different as night and day," Pam muttered.
"And where would day be without night, Pam?" Carrie observed rather wisely. "Okay everybody. Ken and Dave have given us a good start. Let's see what else we can come up with."
Twenty-five minutes later, Carrie turned her charges over to Anna Briggs, the physical therapist, for the exercise class and wandered over to see how things were progressing in the game of high finance.
"Are you losing again, Dave?" she asked after she had sized up the men's respective monetary value.
"Always," Ken agreed.
Dave gave a resigned shrug and began gathering up the deeds and play money. "Hutch's been beatin' me at this game for fifty years. That ain't about to change now."
"What's your secret, Ken?" Carrie asked, then forgot the question as she got a good look at Ken's face. His gaze was resting on Dave and the expression of love he wore was . . . transcendental. With the glow of his feelings lighting his worn features, it was suddenly easy for Carrie to see something of the young man he had been. The man who had inspired equal devotion for what he gave.
"He's predictable," Ken murmured, reaching out to lay a gnarled hand on Dave's arm. "Thank God."
Feeling the intruder, Carrie slipped away.
Benito Marin was doing what he loved best, tending the gardens that surrounded Shadyside Nursing Home. At sixty years old, he spent more time kneeling by the beds now than bending over them, but the hard work he left to his young nephews who worked with him. This tender nurturing he reserved for himself, especially on such a fine day as this.
"Afternoon, Benny. How does your garden grow?"
Benito shuffled around on his knees, already smiling as he recognized the voice that hailed him.
"Very well, as you can see, my friend, Ken. Good afternoon to you and to you, Dave," he greeted as Dave pushed the wheelchair along the path. "I was hoping you would come out today. Will you join me for a while?"
"Sure thing," Dave agreed.
Benito climbed laboriously to his feet as Dave retrieved the cane Ken held for him. Dave could manage on the path, but to push the heavy burden of both the chair and Ken over the uneven surface of the grass was too much for his failing strength. Benito grasped the handles of the chair and carefully moved it off the path and over to the bed where he had been working.
"Why don't you have one of those motorized chairs, Ken?" he asked as he set the brakes.
"Then what would he need me for?" Dave asked as he eased his way down to the ground. "Hutch, leave your hat on," he scolded.
"To nag me," Ken countered mock fiercely.
"I ain't nagging you," Dave shot back just as quickly. "The sun reflecting off that bald head of yours was blinding me and I forgot my shades. That's all."
Benito laughed at the partners' usual banter and moved over to his wheelbarrow. He returned bearing a small but flourishing potted plant that he handed to Ken.
"It's ready!" Ken exclaimed, accepting the pot and cradling it between both hands so he would not drop it.
"Oh great," Dave groused. "Another addition to the jungle. It gets much bigger and we'll have to move the bed out into the hall."
Ken ignored the complaining the way, Benito had come to learn, he had been doing for fifty years.
"Let me know if you need another shelf. Manny can put it up for you any time," Benito offered. He sank down onto the grass beside Dave.
"It isn't anything I ain't used to," Dave conceded. "He ever tell you about the gardens he put in at our place? We had a yard about the size of a postage stamp."
"Because you insisted on the great big pool," Ken interrupted.
"And he had about a million plants in it," Dave concluded.
"Tell me about your gardens, my friend," Benito invited as he did every time the two friends joined him.
The three men spent a pleasant hour of mild sun, gentle breezes and leafy reminiscence. When Ken's deep voice began to waver, however, Dave immediately began the struggle to get to his feet. Benito helped him up and then grasped the handles of the chair to steer it back onto the path.
"Don wanna go," Ken protested even though his hands, that still cradled the plant pot, had sunk into his lap and his chin was getting closer to his chest every moment.
"It's all right, babe. We'll come out again tomorrow," Dave reassured him gently, leaning over the other man and calming him with gentle pats.
"How many tomorrows, Starsk?" Ken mumbled.
"As many as we get, babe," Dave replied softly.
Benito watched them go, telling himself that the tightness in his throat was just thirst and the tears in his eyes were from the sun.
Jenny Slater had saved the hardest room for last. It wasn't the bed. She had been making hospital beds for so long that she had it down to a three-minute, fine science. Nor was the bathroom a problem. She could clean and sanitize the simple arrangement of toilet and sink in little more time than it took to make the bed. It was the dusting that seemed to take forever. Ken was the only resident at Shadyside who seemed to have so many things.
Of course, it might not take her so long were her own curiosity not aroused by so many of the things that graced the tables and shelves of the small, private room. One whole tabletop was crowded with a collection of at least two dozen photographs. Jenny tackled these first.
If there was one thing Jenny could tell by just one glance at the array of framed pictures, it was that Kenneth Hutchinson was no racist. An assortment of black and cinnamon faces smiled at her among the tow-headed ones as she carefully lifted each frame and dusted the dark wood beneath. As well, several pictures were of serious young men wearing those little caps that Jewish men donned for special occasions.
The one that fascinated her the most, however, she saved for last. This one she picked up and gazed at intently, searching to find the men she had seen in this room in the laughing young men in leather that lived within the frame. It was easier to see Dave in the dark imp that looked out at her than it was to see Ken in the blond angel, but time had not worked such ravages upon either man as to render them unrecognizable. Carefully, she returned the frame to its place amid the others and moved on to the shelf.
There was an assortment of items here and although she was ignorant of their significance, Jenny handled each one with care. They had value to the man who was spending his last days in this room and, therefore, deserved her respect. Although she was as curious as a cat, Jenny had never asked about the items, and never would. Loss of privacy was inevitable when institutional care became necessary, and Jenny firmly believed each person deserved to retain as much of that rare commodity as possible, even if that meant only sharing memories with those one chose to.
The shells, a lone rock, various souvenirs of places both near and far, and the red and white model of some long out-dated car were tended and returned to their places in due course. Jenny had just picked up the second model, this one a faded looking squash color and even larger than its flashy partner, when the door to the room swung back. Jenny jumped in surprise and the model slipped through her fingers.
The two men in the doorway and the startled woman stared at each other in stunned silence for a moment before Jenny dropped to her knees and began searching out the small bits that had broken off in the fall.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. You surprised me and I just dropped it. I'll fix it," Jenny mixed apologies with promises.
Dave left Ken in the doorway and shuffled over to Jenny, bending slightly to lift the battered toy from her fingers. He held it up for his friend to see, a delighted smile spreading over his face.
"Look, Hutch. Now it really does look like your car."
Kiko parked the car in the visitor's parking, turned off the lights and shut down the engine. He rubbed at his tired eyes and waited a few minutes, hoping Dave would appear. When no white-haired imp came through the double doors, he quelled his annoyance and climbed from the car. He reminded himself that the few minutes it cost him to fetch his friend was really no great hardship to him despite the fullness of his own day.
He was a familiar sight to the security guard on duty and was passed along with a wave and an absent-minded smile. He entered the elevator and rode up to the second floor, unsurprised to find the lights dimmed and the ward nearly silent when he stepped through the parting doors.
"Kiko," Helen Wells, the night charge nurse, greeted him softly. "Has he forgotten again?"
"I guess so, Helen. Probably gone off to sleep," Kiko surmised.
"I'll get you a chair," the nurse offered, coming out from behind the counter. "If he has gone to sleep, he won't be able to make the walk to the car."
Kiko waited for Helen to return, his impatience gone now, soothed away by the peace of this place. He took charge of the wheelchair when Helen appeared and moved down the hall to Ken's room as quietly as possible. He left the chair out in the hall and moved silently into the room.
As expected, he found the two men who had been his friends, mentors and the closest thing to a father he had ever known asleep on Ken's small bed. It was a sight he had seen nearly every night for the past year, but the familiarity of it never seemed to take away the poignancy. The way Dave lay so protectively curled around Ken's thin frame made Kiko's throat ache with unshed tears. It was several moments before Kiko could move forward and grasp his friend's shoulder, gently shaking it while softly calling his name.
"Dave. Dave. It's time to go home now."
"Huh? What? Home?" Dave asked, lifting his head from Ken's shoulder and squinting at the younger man.
"Oh, I'm sorry, Kiko," he said when he recognized the intruder. With obvious reluctance he released his partner and eased away.
Kiko helped Dave to sit up on the side of the bed. "Wait here. I'll get the chair."
When he returned to the bedside, Kiko lifted the spare frame, feeling the frail arms wrap around his neck trustingly.
"I'm sorry," Dave repeated. "I don't do it on purpose. I forget, you know, Kiko, that I have to go."
"It's okay, Dave. I don't mind," Kiko whispered and whatever lingering traces of annoyance might have remained disappeared as he held one of the most important men in his life in his arms and looked down into the sleeping face of the other. "I'll bring you back on my way to work in the morning."
Dave stirred in Kiko's arms. "Before he wakes up, okay, Kiko? We been waking up together for forty-five years. I don't want him waking up alone now."
Kiko winced. Typically, Dave made no mention of the fact that he himself woke alone day after day in the big bed that he and Ken used to share.
Despite the boulders that blocked his throat and the mist that blurred his eyes, Kiko managed a reply. "I will, Dave. I promise."