Copyright is held by the author.
THERE WAS a sale on padded coat hangers at Kroger’s that normally would have interested her. It was at the front of the advertising supplement to the paper that the nurse brought in. Apparently students were protesting the Vietnam War in Washington, DC. What was the point? She didn’t even look to see what else might be on sale, not even to check the price of kitty litter. She just didn’t care.
From where she lay, Jean could see that the willows were covered in the pale green of early spring and the azaleas that flanked the entrance to the hospital were in full bloom. The nurse had opened the window a crack — it was unusually warm for April — and a damp breeze smelling of turned earth made the blinds at the window swing backwards and forwards, clanking slightly every time they hit the sill.
The door to the room swung open silently and the nurse came in chirping about taking her blood pressure. Tiredly Jean lifted her arm to allow the nurse to wrap the black pressure cuff around her. The nurse’s fingers were cold and very white. Her nails were coated with frosted pink polish. There were raised blue veins on the backs of her hands that were slightly repellent looking. Jean looked at her own arm in the blood pressure cuff. The skin was mottled and hung slack from her upper arm.
“Now smile, Mrs. Gordon, you should be going home in a day or two.”
Jean stared past the nurse, looking at the smooth, white sheets on the empty bed next to hers. Let her smile, she thought. The hospital had lost Jean’s upper dental plate in the cardiac unit and she was still waiting for it to be found.
“It’s too bad Mrs. Mikopolis had to go home,” the nurse said brightly, shaking down the thermometer. “I’m sure you miss her company.”
She stuck the thermometer in Jean’s mouth so Jean was saved from telling her exactly what a fool Mrs. Mikopolis had been. The woman had not shut up for two days. She was one of those sticky, sweet people who seem obliged to spread good cheer. She was plump and wore heavy sweet perfume and her gums showed when she talked. Since Jean wouldn’t talk without her dental plate, Mrs. Mikopolis proceeded to share every last detail of her life, including her current bowel habits, her daughter’s six beautiful children, and her taste in decorating — early tacky, Jean was sure.
At last the nurse removed the thermometer from where it had rested uncomfortably against Jean’s gum, barely looked at it, and shook it down.
“Would you like me to ask one of our aides to wash your hair, Mrs. Gordon?” the nurse asked, as she patted her own mousy locks.
Jean shook her head. Sighing, the nurse departed.
Jean’s permanent wave had grown out and her short gray hair lay lank and dull against her scalp. She spread her fingers on the cheap cotton blanket and looked at her broken and yellowing nails. A small remnant of red polish clung tenaciously to the edge of her right thumb from where she had painted them two weeks ago.
She and her husband, Arthur, had been driving home from the movies when they had the accident. A re-release of Young Frankenstein, at a senior discount. As they drove down state highway 72, a car came out of nowhere, crossing the median strip, headlights shining directly into their bewildered faces. Arthur had yanked the wheel sharply to the left, sending them over the embankment into a streambed. And then, unbelievably, they had both had heart attacks. Sort of like simultaneous orgasms, she thought, but deadly in Arthur’s case. Unfortunately not in Jean’s. She should have died. Not only did she have a mild heart attack, she had broken two ribs and had been running a slight fever. She ended up in cardiac unit briefly until the previous two days when she had been moved into a semi-private with the verbose Mrs. Mikopolis.
It was three a.m. on Jean’s clock radio when the door to her room opened and an orderly wheeled in a gurney with a young woman wrapped in a blanket, moaning quietly. A man followed closely and pulled a chair up to the gurney murmuring to the young woman, as the nurse, thankfully not Miss Mousy Locks, arrived to check her in. Jean half closed her eyes, to give them privacy, but it didn’t matter as the nurse efficiently swept closed the curtain separating the room. Jean tried to listen to what they were saying. The woman looked so young, her skin so pale and her hair so dark. The young man buried his face in the woman’s neck as he half hugged, half leaned into her. The nurse urged him to let his wife sleep and told him he could return first thing in the morning.
Jean awoke to the comforting sound of a warm spring rain. She could hear it running down the gutter outside her window and let the sound soothe her before she opened her eyes.
“Good morning,” said the young woman from the night before. She was sitting up in bed applying pale pink lipstick. “I’m Rose.”
“Rose. I’m Jean. How are you feeling today? You seemed pretty sick last night.” Jean pulled on Arthur’s cotton robe over her hospital gown and awkwardly got out of bed to use the bathroom.
“Yes, so much better now. I was having abdominal pains in the middle of the night and so my husband brought me to the ER. They’re doing tests later today. I wanted to fix up before he brings my girls over. I can just imagine how scared they’ll be to wake up without their mama there.”
Jean hovered, one hand poised to open the bathroom door. “Excuse me.”
Another talker, great, but Jean was taken with this girl for some reason.
Jean closed the bathroom door and washed her face. Her upper plate had been found and delivered early this morning, thank God. She felt more human again.
A phlebotomist was drawing blood from Rose when Jean emerged.
“They’re doing a pregnancy test,” she told Jean, “but I have a six-month old baby and I’m still nursing so I doubt I could be pregnant.”
“I don’t know if it’s possible,” said Jean, “but I guess you’ll find out soon enough.”
The door opened and Rose’s husband walked in carrying a baby in one arm, with a little girl clutching his other hand.
Rose made the introductions. Mark was her husband and the children were Lily, the baby, and Daisy, the three-year old. Mark was tall, with a receding hairline, and one of the sweetest smiles Jean had ever seen. He looked at Rose with such loving eyes, Jean had to turn away.
Mark placed the baby in Rose’s arms and Daisy climbed into bed with her mother and nestled in her arms. They all looked like Disney versions of Snow White to Jean, with pale, flawless skin and that dark, dark hair.
The three-year old stared at Jean solemnly. “Why are you here with my mommy?”
“I was in an accident,” Jean said. “I hurt my ribs.”
“Can I see your ribs?”
“Well, no, they’re under my skin, under my stomach,” Jean said.
“Daisy,” the father interjected. “Leave Mrs. Jean alone, please.”
Jean was rather enjoying the attention of this little doll-like girl and obligingly showed her where Daisy’s own ribs would be under her tee shirt. Daisy was fascinated and sucked in her tummy to accentuate her skinny little ribs.
While the rib demonstration was ongoing, Rose had been feeding her baby, switching the child from one breast to the other. The baby had fallen asleep on Rose’s chest.
“Mark, can you take her? I’m feeling kind of crampy.”
As if on cue, the nurse appeared with a wheelchair to take Rose for a sonogram. Mark and the children left with promises to return the next morning.
“The Easter Bunny is coming to our house tomorrow, Mrs. Jean,” said Daisy. “I’ll bring you an Easter egg.”
Easter. Jean always made a special dinner for herself and Arthur. They weren’t particularly fond of ham so they celebrated with Thanksgiving food instead—lovely roast turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green bean casserole, and a pecan pie with real whipped cream for dessert. Maybe they had been too involved with each other. Maybe they should have made more friends or had the children they decided not to have. But had they decided or was it Arthur? Arthur liked to have a good time, liked to be free to do what he wanted, to travel at the drop of a hat, to not be tied down. The only responsibility they shared was a cat, Alvin, aloofly self-sufficient, but willing to be fed by the teenager down the street.
Jean dozed a little, thinking of the things she had to do before the hospital let her go home the following day.
“You’re going home in tomorrow?” asked Rose. “We need to get you ready to go Jean.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you need a hair wash and a manicure. Mark brought me my manicure kit. Only chance I have to pamper myself without a little girl on my arm is in the hospital.” Rose opened the drawer of her hospital nightstand and demonstrated, holding her manicure kit like a game show hostess.
“Why don’t you take a shower and wash your hair and I’ll give you a manicure, ok?”
Jean protested. “But you’re sick.”
“No, I feel fine. I insist. I know what I’m doing; I went to Beauty School before I had my babies.”
Jean emerged from the bathroom, hair wrapped in a towel. She did feel better. Rose combed her hair out and put a becoming part in Jean’s hair. Jean decided she looked a little younger without the perm. Rose sat in one of the room’s chairs and Jean sat in the other, the bedside table lowered to manicurist height. Rose trimmed cuticles, and filed and painted Jean’s nails pale pink. Jean felt herself relaxing into the chair. It felt so good to have Rose’s warm little hands working on her own hands. Rose was a bit of a chatterbox, Jean thought, but she told the funniest stories of her former clients, and Jean found herself actually laughing for the first time in a long while. They talked into the night and Jean fell asleep feeling a slight sense of well-being returning to her.
Jean awoke in the dark to suppressed moans coming from the next bed. Rose appeared to be sleeping though. Should Jean press the call button? As she worried about what to do, Rose turned over and seemed to fall more soundly asleep. Jean lay awake thinking, but soon succumbed to sleep as well.
It was a beautiful morning, perfect for an Easter Sunday. Jean turned over to say good morning to Rose, but she was not there and neither was her bed. She heard noises in the hallway and the door swung open revealing Daisy with an enormous white basket filled with eggs, chocolate, and a stuffed yellow duck.
“Mrs. Jean, look what I got,” she said, presenting her basket proudly. “Where’s mommy?”
Jean looked over at Mark carrying the baby in an infant seat. He looked puzzled, too.
“Do you know where she is?” He set the baby on the chair. “Can you watch them for a minute? I’m going to find the nurse.”
As he opened the door to the hallway, a nurse and a woman Jean assumed was the doctor entered.
They asked Mark to join them in a consultation room. As he started to leave with his daughters, Daisy slipped away from him and presented Jean with a chocolate bunny with a bright red bowtie.
“Here Mrs. Jean, this is for you,” she said proudly. “I don’t really like chocolate anyway.”
Jean did not see them again that day. Ms. Mousy Locks, tears slipping down her sallow face, told Jean that Rose had died in the night from an ectopic pregnancy that had burst. She simply bled to death while she was sleeping. She was barely pregnant, but the fertilized egg had implanted in the fallopian tube, which was causing her cramping. And then it burst.
Alone, Jean stared at the chocolate bunny. She would find out where Mark lived and see Daisy and Lily again. She straightened her shoulders, looked at her Easter pink nails, packed her bag, and prepared to go home.