The humid air probably isn’t good for his computer, but Bruce keeps the window open anyway. The smoke probably isn’t good for the machine either, but he lights another cigarette and drinks more coffee. The stereotype is something he tries not to think about.
The apartment is cheap but relatively quiet. Bruce sees nothing but trees, hears nothing but tree frogs whenever an obnoxious neighbor isn’t driving by. Luckily the obnoxious neighbors seem to work the same long shifts he does, so shitty pop-rap is only an occasional irritation.
The window is a cheap pinewood frame set in discolored drywall. The glass is foggy and streaked no matter how often it’s cleaned. The Georgia summer heat is the kind that finds you through a million particles of steam. Every few minutes something bulky and jointed thumps into the window screen, its bristled legs tangling for a moment before helicopter wings beat it free. A feral cat walks by, stops, and looks back at Bruce. Then it snarls at rustling monkey grass, and chases a possum through the buzzing southern twilight.
It’s a quarter to ten. Bruce needs to go to sleep. He has work in the morning.
He saves the poem and shuts the computer down.
Bruce washes Mr. Price first thing, wiping the old man down with a dry lather so he won’t get chilled. Chills become invisible monsters in retirement homes. They creep upon prey despite the summer heat.
“Didn’t you say your granddaughter just had a baby?”
“Fresh out the college, too. Time gets away.”
He cleans him a section at a time, drying and dressing him as he works his way down. He cleans his legs after removing the trousers and setting them aside for laundry. The soiled adult diaper is removed and sealed, to be thrown out in a biohazard bin. He cleans the man’s feet, then his legs, his perineum and groin.
Mr. Price grimaces. “Oh Lord, I can’t hold it.”
Fast and practiced, Bruce has the jug in place as soon as the urine flows. The old man’s face relaxes, then contracts again in embarrassment. Bruce holds steady until he’s done, then quickly moves the jug out of sight and cleans the groin again.
“You get any pictures yet from your granddaughter’s graduation?”
“A couple. She a doctor now, ya know. Not like the ones give you shots, but you know. The kind just really knows what she’s talkin’ about.”
Another adult diaper, then a fresh pair of trousers. Bruce strips away the tee shirt with the stained shirttail and wipes Mr. Price’s waist and armpits. He applies unscented, hypoallergenic deodorant, then puts on a fresh shirt. He combs and smooths Price’s whitening hair, grooms his mustache. The old man’s ninety but could pass for sixty. He could’ve passed for less if his beard and hair hadn’t gone white.
“She’s a psychologist, right?”
“Gon’ be. The kind tells kids where they oughtta go to college.”
Price takes each pill as soon as Bruce has them on the counter. He takes big swallows of water, like he’s never had a drink in his life. Almost every medication he’s on gives him dry mouth. His diaper will be finished in another thirty minutes.
Bruce strips off his gloves, throws them away, puts on another pair, and grabs the removal bags. Yellow for laundry, orange for disposal. “Mr. Price, I’ll be back in an hour to check on you.”
Price laughs. “I’ll be here.” Even in the chair, his legs shake from the diabetic nerve damage that’s plagued him since he was seventy. Bruce’s lifetime ago.
Bruce is filing care information when Stevie comes by for lunch. “You wanna get out of here and go to Mel’s?”
“Can’t. Only got a half-lunch today. Maybe we can run to the Subway next door and eat here?”
Stevie shrugs. “You registered for classes yet?”
“Still waiting on word for the second half of the internship. You?”
“I got the exploratory literature program going on. Basically a bunch of advanced lit students collaborating on that poetry collection the school wants to sponsor.”
“Oh, yeah.” The insurance company demands three copies of everything to prove Ms. Wallace is alive. They seem to resent the facility’s denying her demise. They’re awfully eager to see paying clients dead. What’s worse is Ms. Wallace keeps insisting the company shouldn’t have to pay for her care, though that’s all they exist to do. She loves everyone at the home as family. She tells Bruce he’s old enough to think about getting a job. It’s possible she thinks he works out of a kind of familial obligation.
Stevie shrugs, a lie. “It’s kind of a pain. You’re expected to stay until the group unanimously decides to leave. I hardly have any time for my own material.”
Stevie is rich by college standards and well-off by those of the rest of the world. Writing about a straight man’s affair with his uncle has eased his worries about money considerably. Stevie and Bruce shared Applied Poetic Theory together.
“You given any thought to the collection?”
“Having a prepared collection would really impress the internship committee.”
“I know. I’m thinking about it.”
“Well, it’s a week from tomorrow before you’d have to meet with them.”
Bruce fishes out eight bucks and offers it to Stevie. “Turkey sub. Half sweet tea, half unsweet.”
Stevie waves his hand. “Hey, no man, I got it. Don’t worry about it.”
Stevie’s novel was a bestseller. Stevie was paid two hundred thousand over the course of two years.
“But seriously, get those poems together. I’ll even help you arrange them. I mean, not to be a hardass, but you really need to have a collection or something.”
Bruce looks to Stevie for a moment, his hand still hanging, still holding the cash in the air. After a moment he tucks it in Stevie’s pocket, his friend unconsciously alarmed even though Bruce’s fingers don’t come a mile within his dick.
“Turkey sub, no chips. Sweet/unsweet.”
“Read your poem in the paper,” Mr. Price tells him after lunch. Bruce sweeps his own straw hair off his face and blots his forearm with the sleeve of his thermal shirt. The sleeve of his attendant’s scrub top is dotted with perspiration absorbed from his temples. He wheels the lift swing out of the room, wheels the lunch tray to Mr. Price’s bedside. The empty wheelchair is rolled into a corner.
“Good enough.” The old man has a hearty laugh, tempered from the days when there was more belly to pump with. “Yeah, yeah, it was real good. You write a lot of ‘em?”
“When I can find the time.”
“Uh oh.” A grin, well-cleaned dentures. “We ain’t eatin’ into your schedule, are we?”
Bruce grins. “Mr. Price, you are my schedule.”
Mr. Price is a man who slaps his things when he laughs.
Stevie’s back when Bruce’s shift ends. Stevie is so burdened by his one extended class he doesn’t even go today.
“You wanna get some coffee? We can get your laptop and you can show me what you’ve been working on.”
They walk down the hall leading to the employee exit. They pass a room with an RN stripping a bed, wiping the rubber mattress with a rag and spraying every fifth swipe with cleaner. A man white as bone sits in a chair outside, watched by an orderly. The orderly nods as the two men pass. The old man lays his head flat on his shoulder, and snores whether he inhales or exhales. He isn’t asleep.
“Jesus.” Stevie looks to the woman cleaning the poly mattress. “I can’t imagine being stuck here.”
Stevie pities the nurse who never fell into her job. She doesn’t make two-hundred thousand in a single year but will make a steady pay until she retires. Her art is in daily absolutes. Stevie scratches at the shoulder of a blind animal.
They step outside, and both light cigarettes as soon as the door closes. They smoke beside Bruce’s old Honda. Stevie almost matches the snow. Bruce’s hide is yellowed from his summertime habit of opening windows.
“So be honest…how much work have you done?” Stevie asks him.
“A lot. It’s an intensive internship.”
Stevie rolls his eyes. “I meant your writing.”
“So how much?”
Bruce shrugs. “Maybe thirty pages total.”
Stevie smokes, considers, slowly nods. “Alright. Yeah, we can work with that. With poetry, anyway. You working under any kind of theme?”
“There’s kind of just the one.”
Stevie sighs. “You want to be precise as possible if you’re asked. They’re impressed with precision of intent.”
“I don’t think I’m gonna try for it anyway.”
Stevie gives him a sharp look. “Why? The profs who run this thing have direct connections to publishing houses.”
Bruce shrugs, grinds his smoke into a sandy ashtray. He cocks his head to the hospice. “I already have the one internship. I’m not sure I can fit another.”
“But this is one that matters.”
“They all are. Who works for free?”
“Bruce: you can finally get your work out there with this. I’ve told Dr. Hunt about you. He said he’d keep you in mind if you contacted him.”
Bruce shrugs again. “But I don’t really need to. This ties directly into my major…”
“Dude, don’t let life hamstring you. This might not happen again.”
“I took the opportunity.”
“You’re already in the program?”
Stevie smiles. “Oh, shit, I didn’t even know! That’s awesome! Are you gonna use the writing lab they have on weekends? Because…”
“I’m not taking the writing internship.”
No smile now. “But you said…”
Bruce climbs into his car, starts it. “Yeah.”
“You’re seriously going to let this happen?”
“No.” Bruce checks his blind spots, backs out. “Didn’t just happen. Had to petition for it and everything.” He looks to Stevie before he puts the car in drive. “See you in twenty?”
Bruce puts the car in gear.