As before, a first draft of a short story. I hope you don’t mind taking a little while to give it a peek. Maybe you’ll like it. If you do, fabulous. If not, I hope you can find a way to express what did not work for you. Your generous comments are always appreciated. Considering it is a first draft, you can expect a few mistakes somewhere in those 4,300+ words.
Most of my ideas come to me in some form through real life, this one included, because I have been visiting a relative who has been hospitalized since about a month ago and will likely still be there another two weeks. This is something that came to me during those visits.
The picture is very general, not very specific, so don’t put too much emphasis on it. A few questions at the end, because that’s how Marie prefers it. Me too.
If it had been only the first or second time Burt Carr had rung for the nurse, he might not have been so upset. To still go unanswered after five rings was too much. He tried every possible angle of his tongue, the corners of a sugar packet, and even one of his chewed-off fingernails, yet nothing had dislodged the shred of roast beef between two of his yellowed teeth. He was nearing the end of his 79-year old rope when someone in scrubs dashed into the room.
“It’s about damn time!” he said as the nurse pulled the curtain around his bed on the window side of the room. “What the hell took you so – hey!”
His words were lost when three more people in various colors of hospital garb surrounded the bed closer to the door. Burt heard the wheels of machines rolling in, numbers called out and answered, and the word “doctor” more than once before he accepted that none of these people were there to bring the floss he had demanded almost fifteen minutes prior. He again brought his hands to his face in anguish, again the IV tube tapped at his arm, but this time he pulled the tube out and let the clear painkiller drip to the floor instead of his body. He carefully pushed his legs to the edge of the bed, leaned over sideways, and pulled himself upright.
His legs dangled like a child sitting in a grown-up’s chair. He inched forward, leaned to get his right foot on the floor first, and then winced as his left also took hold beneath him. After a deep breath, he leaned forward until all of his six-feet and 80 years were standing on their own for the first time in almost a week. Slowly, as he trusted his own balance, he pulled his arms back to his sides and shuffled around the foot of his bed.
Two men in navy blue scrubs were between him and the door. He kept his back to the wall beneath the mounted televisions above his head and side-stepped his way to the door. His eyes darted among the four medical personnel leaning over the man whose name Burt could not remember, but none of their eyes darted back. After a few more steps, he was in the hall and on his way somewhere. Faced with either going right or left, Burt followed the midnight sky and cradle of a crescent moon and went left.
Two minutes later, when his tired self reached the window, he was quite surprised to see roughly six inches of snow on every rooftop. Great, he thought. Some dumb schmuck is going to have a heart attack while shoveling tomorrow morning. Noises and footsteps behind him were a reminder that someone was in trouble in the other half of C138. He turned the corner and kept walking until he again reached a floor-to-ceiling window again at the end of a hallway. Again he stopped to watch the snow. He looked down to the street and watched as a city bus came to a stop, hissed, and opened its doors. Two women hustled from the bus shelter into the vehicle. A moment later the bus continued, its wipers helping clear the falling snow from the windshield.
Burt’s shoulders dropped and his head fell slightly forward as he thought about days long gone. He remembered how he learned the bus routes to visit the home of his first girlfriend. He remembered the aqua stripes on the sides of the old New Jersey Transit buses and how the names of the towns would scroll through the destination sign above the windshield. Those thoughts might have arrived at other memories, except that a noise to his left caught his attention. Someone was choking. Gagging. Gasping.
Burt looked back down the hall to the nurses’ station, but a combination of a midnight shift and a cardiac arrest in 138 left things a little short staffed. He looked into the room. A curtain was pulled to cover most of the bed by the window. A fluorescent glow from behind the curtain cast a silhouette of someone sitting up in bed, arms waving.
Burt entered the room but not quickly. Once in far enough, he could see an elderly woman, about his age, eyes nearly escaping her head as she waved at him. He moved around the bed and looked at her curiously, as if waiting for her to explain what it was she wanted. Pointing at her throat as saliva ran from her lower lip didn’t seem enough for him to react. She leaned forward enough to punch at the mattress as her face reached a red, then purple, that Burt had never seen before.
She balled a fist with her right hand, gripped it with her left, and moved as if punching herself in the stomach. That was enough to convince Burt to reach over and slap her on the back. Again she punched at her gut, again Burt slapped, and then a deformed slice of an apple leapt from her throat and landed on the bed a few feet in front of her. She slumped back against the bed, the force of which caused a gravely squeak to shake loose from her face as tears streamed down her cheeks. Eventually, after enough wheezing, she was able to speak. Softly.
“You,” she coughed, “are my angel.”
“Sorry, lady,” he laughed. “I ain’t no angel. I just heard you choking and came to help.” He focused briefly on her matted, short, gray hair until her eyes caught his again.
“I’m sorry,” she coughed again, “but I don’t think so. I was sleeping, and I heard nurses rushing down the hall. I tried to get back to sleep but couldn’t, so I sat up, took a bite of a granola bar, and my throat was too dry to swallow it. Then I started choking, and then you came in. A minute later, and I might have been gone.” She reached for round, frameless glasses. When she looked back at the man, he could barely tell she was wearing any glasses at all.
“Yeah, whatever.” He waved a hand as if shooing away a fly.
“What’s your name?”
“Me?” He paused in the middle of a step out of the room. “Burt.” He continued his mid-step.
“Come here, Burt.” She opened her arms. “I want to give you a hug.”
“That’s okay. I only hug nurses.” He smiled as if expecting her to smile too.
“I don’t know what that means, but give me a hug. I insist.”
“I think you have something else to worry about,” he said while glancing down at her lap where her hospital gown showed a large wet spot. As quickly as she noticed it, she immediately pulled a blanket over herself.
“Relax, lady,” he said with a chuckle. “Everybody pees. Probably happened when you were choking. Completely understandable. It’s no big deal.”
“Decency is a very big deal,” she demanded. “Please go.” She hid her face in her hands. “But please come back tomorrow so I could tell you more about God sending you to help me.”
After two steps towards the door, Burt stopped and turned back. “Lady.”
“Clara,” she said.
“Anyway, God didn’t send me to you. I have a piece of food stuck in my teeth. I was ringing the nurse.” Burt slowly raised a finger and eventually aimed it at Clara. “They finally showed up not for me calling but the guy in the bed next to me was dying. So do you think that God killed the guy next to me in order for me to come and save you?” He folded his weak arms across his chest.
“God works in – ”
“Don’t curse at me!” She pulled her hands from her face.
“Every time one of you religious nuts can’t answer a question, I get the same bullshit answer. God works in mysterious ways.” Burt raised his hands to the ceiling. “Ain’t that fucking convenient? Next you’re going to tell me it’s all part of God’s plan.”
“You just don’t understand what – ”
“No,” he interrupted, “YOU don’t understand how brainwashed you are. The only reason you go along with the religious crap is because you’re afraid you won’t get into heaven.”
“That’s not fair,” Clara said, now folding her thin arms across her thinner frame. “It’s not about heaven. It’s about faith.”
“Faith in what?”
“Faith in God being there for me because I am there for him.”
“How the fuck are YOU there for him?” Burt asked.
“By not losing my faith even when things are difficult.”
“So when things are difficult for you, that’s when YOU are there for HIM?”
“Yes,” she slapped her hands on the bed, “because I have to trust he is doing what’s right for me. That trust is my way of being there for him, even when things are difficult for me.”
Burt paced, but not very quickly.
“So that means the reason you’re here in the hospital is because God wants you here?”
“Exactly,” she said.
“Why would God want you here?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s time he wants me up with him.”
Burt eased himself into an armchair at the foot of Clara’s bed.
“You think we die when God wants us to die?”
“Of course,” she nodded.
“So then when a kid falls into a lake and drowns, it’s because God wanted him up in heaven?”
“Why?” Burt leaned forward. “And don’t tell me God’s mysterious plan bullshit! Speculate. Give me a reason. Make up what you think might be God’s reason. And if you can’t, then shut up.”
Clara pulled her legs up against her chest. “Maybe that child was in an abusive situation, and if God wanted to take him before he was taken more painfully.”
“And,” Burt leaned forward, resting his right elbow on his right knee, “how does God know that’s going to happen? Don’t give me bullshit.”
She leaned her head sideways on her knees and pulled her legs closer, tighter to her chest. “He – he just knows. It’s all part of his plan for us.”
“So then you’re telling me that God planned for the kid to have abusive parents?” Burt leaned his left elbow on his left knee.
“I don’t know.”
“Guess,” Burt ordered. “What’s the best reason you can think of for God to plan for a kid to have abusive parents who are going to kill him?” His head turned a little when he heard a sniffle.
“To teach other parents not to abuse their kids,” she said softly. “And for kids to learn that they don’t have to take being abused.”
“So God expects other parents and kids to see it on the news and learn from it?”
“I guess so.”
“And what about years ago when there was no television? No news?” Burt challenged. “How were people supposed to learn back then when God chose to kill someone just to teach others a lesson? Were they supposed to read it in the newspapers? What if they couldn’t afford the paper? What if it scares a kid so bad he runs away from home?”
“Maybe that kid was meant to run away from home.”
“Meant to?” Burt stood. “So why doesn’t God make it so the kid runs away to a safe place? An aunt’s house or a grandparent? Why can’t kids learn from THAT? Why do they have to die?”
Burt stood. He focused a little closer on her short, very short hair and the veins in her neck that stood out more than they should. He took in the IV bag hanging next to her and turned his back on her to look out her window into the middle of the night.
“See that roof out there?” he asked.
“No.” Her weak head lay on her knees still.
“There’s a big-ass flat roof covered with snow. What if God’s plan was for you to dance naked through that snow and spell out my name with your bare feet? You think that’s what you would do?”
“Of course,” she said.
“Really?” Burt turned back to face her.
“But that’s absurd,” she looked up, eyes pleading. “God would never make that his plan.”
“But if he did?” Burt pushed a step closer. “Then what?”
She released her arms from her knees and slowly eased backwards until feeling the support of the inclined bed. Her arms fell to her sides, and her eyes stayed closed.
“Then that’s what I would do,” she said softly.
“And you would just trust that God had a good reason for you to dance on a snowy roof and spell out my name?”
“Why does it bother you that I say yes?”
Burt sat again. “It bothers me that people just sign their lives over to someone or something they don’t really know exists. That people take orders from a book written thousands of years ago without knowing for sure if it’s right or where it came from.”
“That’s not what bothers you.” Clara’s eyes opened. She angled her neck to find his eyes. “No. What bothers you is that I’m at peace with where I’m going. And you are freaked out because you have no clue where you are going.”
“In the ground,” he said. “We are both going in the ground. Worm food. That’s where we all go.”
“That’s where you hope we go,” she answered. “Because the way you lived your life, with such disregard for God, you hope it’s just worm food. Otherwise, you will have a tough time explaining yourself.”
Burt stood, tried to stand, but didn’t get far out of the chair. “I lived my life my way, nobody else’s way.” He pointed at Clara as he had earlier. “I enjoyed my free will and the comfort of my free choices without following any crappy religious rules.” He scratched at his nose. “I made my own choices. I make no apologies. And I don’t carry any guilt.”
“Not guilt,” she said. “Fear. You lived your life with your comfort of free will. You loved the unknown of doing what you wanted, when you wanted, how you wanted. But now that you’re facing death, the unknown scares the shit out of you.” It was Clara’s turn to point at him.
“You didn’t live your life at all,” he growled. “You lived a scripted life spelled out for you in the Bible. You were just a robot following God’s orders. You barely had a life at all. Was it worth it?”
“You bet it was worth it.” She smiled through tears. “And it is even more worth it because I have no fear where I’m going. I know who has loved me all these years. And I know who is waiting for me so He can love me through all eternity.” She sat up further, leaning slightly towards Burt, who was now leaning slightly back from her. “God can take me right now because I’m at peace with myself. You can believe I wish I could say the word and have Him take me right this second. Not just to be with him but to get away from you.” She pulled up the bed sheet to wipe at her eyes.
“But as much as your words are hurting me right now, I would gladly hold your hand and take you with me to see him. To show you what you can’t see, and to fill a place in your heart that I’m sure has been empty for many, many years.”
“You don’t know shit about my heart,” he stood, “and you have no right to make any assumptions.” He pointed again with a shaky hand and a few of his own tears. “You keep your blind faith. You go ahead and smile on your way out. Not me. I’ll be kicking and screaming. I’m not giving up that easily. I want to stay right here, the only place where life is anything. Not some imaginary floating clouds and golden gates.”
“Pearly gates!” she laughed. “Pearly gates, you fool. And I’ll be standing there waiting for you. For your sake, I hope they let you in.” She clapped and smiled. “I’ll even pray that they let you in. Right now, as soon as you leave, I’ll pray they let you in, and I’ll be the first one to greet you.”
“If I had let you choke, I wouldn’t have had to listen to any of this crap.” Burt lifted both hands and waved as if pushing her away, then he turned one last time towards the door and got himself moving. “Oh,” he laughed, “I forgot. This was God’s plan, so I didn’t really have a choice but to save you. Lucky me.” He continued to the door. “Room 205. Better write that down to make sure I never come back here again.” He turned down the hall and did not stop until he was back at his room.
He peeked in at the bed closer to the door where the nurses were trying to save a man’s life roughly an hour ago. All lights were off. The bed was made. Almost every trace of anyone else having stayed there had been erased except a young woman in a chair similar to the one that Burt had sat in while in Clara’s room.
He tried to avoid eye contact with the woman as he shuffled hesitantly into the room, but his curiosity pulled his eyes towards her just when hers did with his. He felt old enough to be her grandfather, not that he had any clue what it actually felt like to be a grandfather. The eye contact caused him to slow, as if he might say something to her. His mouth even moved, but only a little drool came out. It landed on his hospital gown and would never matter to anyone for anything.
He thought about Clara’s comment about an emptiness he had, and he realized she was more right than she imagined. He continued past the woman in the chair, continued around his bed, and fell into it more easily than he had climbed out of it. He fidgeted with the blankets, thought about using the bathroom, but decided to wait until the woman left the room.
But she didn’t leave. Instead, she approached Burt’s bed.
“Excuse me, Sir,” she strained. “My name is Ellen. My husband was in the other bed.” She wiped at her nose with a ball of tissues. “You probably know he died just a little while ago. I had gone to get myself some dinner and then come right back.” Tears and sniffles. “But before I got back, he was gone.” The words barely escaped her sad lips. “So I was just wondering if maybe you were here when it happened. Maybe he said something, some last words that you might have heard. I wanted to ask, just in case.”
“Sorry, Miss.” Burt played with his pillow and blankets, pretending she was not there, and gained a sleeping position. “I wasn’t here. I left the room, so I don’t know anything.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to bother you. I guess I was just hoping I would be here. He was probably so scared, being all alone. Nobody here to hold his hand or anything.”
“Nurses were here,” Burt said. “They were probably holding his hand.”
“One of those things, once in a lifetime things, when you wish you had a chance to say one more thing to someone before they are gone. And if you don’t say that one more thing, you’re going to regret it the rest of your life. An apology, or a thank you. Or an I love you. You just wish for one more moment to say something nice, because it feels like maybe they will take that with them to wherever they are going. You know?”
“A little bit,” he said.
“Thanks,” she nodded. “Thanks, and I hope you feel better soon.” She stepped back to the other side of the room, leaving him facing the window, and then she was gone. After only five minutes lying still, Burt was gone too.
When Burt woke up the following morning, he could tell by the angle of the sun that he had slept longer than usual. The curtain was pulled between the beds, and he knew what that meant. He had another roommate already. That’s how fast they work around here, he thought. As fast as you die, they bring in someone else who might be gone before you even get to know their name.
It would not take long before Burt thought about the woman, now a widow, and what she had said about one last chance to say something before someone was gone. Just like the previous night, he sat up with effort, reached for his walker, and hopped off the bed. Just like the previous night, he shuffled out of the room, turned the corner, and another, and approached room 205.
Unlike the previous night, there was now a patient in the bed closer to the door. He shuffled on by until reaching the window side of the room. Unlike the previous night, the bed by the window was empty. His knees became weak, unstable, and he would have hit the floor had he not had his walker. After a few deep breaths, Burt turned and left the room.
Not far down the hall, a small crowd had grown at one of the floor-to-ceiling windows. He moved slowly even more than with a walker. He might have continued to the window where the crowd had gathered, but the nurse at the desk caused him to wonder what she was doing that was more compelling than what everyone else was staring at.
“Miss,” Burt said, “can you tell me where the woman is from room 205? Clara, I think that’s her name.” He looked down at her hospital identification card that spelled out “Marlene.”
“Room 205,” the nurse said. She held her pen steady for a brief moment, then put it down and looked up at Burt. “I’m sorry, but I’m filling out her paperwork now. She did not make it through the night.”
“Sorry to hear that,” he said. With his head slightly lower, eyes cast down, he continued back towards his room. He moved past the nurses gathered at the window and focused on remaining upright.
“Marlene,” said one of the nurses at the window to the nurse at the desk, “you must come look at this.”
“There anyone here by that name?” another nurse asked.
“Nobody I’m working with,” answered another.
“Ladies,” called Marlene at the desk, “let’s start making rounds please. After that snow last night, we’re all a little behind schedule. Let’s make up for it.”
Snow, thought Burt. Why does that sound important?
Just as the nurses moved away from the window, Burt stopped, turned, and walked towards it. He did not move fast, but it was as fast as he could go. He slowed as he reached the glass. There in the snow across the rooftop, someone had danced. Someone had run around and stomped the snow until it spelled something out.
“Who the hell is Burt?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said another, “but there’s a special woman somewhere out there who misses him. Sure hope he sees that.”
“How could he not? Asked another nurse.
Burt’s first reaction to looking out the window was pain. The sun was low enough in the sky that its rays reflected off the snow-covered roof and right into his eyes. His second reaction was to raise a hand and shield his eyes until his pupils adjusted enough to see more than a blinding glare. His third reaction was a kept smile. The sun did shine down on the while, snowy roof, but it did not shine everywhere. In the middle of nature’s white, someone had taken a shovel or something and dug out a path of four simple letters. B-U-R-T.
He stood for nearly ten minutes before the nurse at the desk called to him.
“Sir,” she said. “Sir, we should get you back to bed. You shouldn’t be on your feet this long. Which room are you supposed to be in?”
“Me? Which room?” Burt moved nothing other than his mouth, his eyes still reading his own name on the rooftop. “Room 205.”
She walked slowly from behind the desk. “You sure? Room 205?”
He nodded. “Yup. That’s where I want to go. Room 205.”
“Let me help with – ” the nurse began.
“I don’t need no help,” he said. “Not from anyone here.”
He shuffled his way back to 205. He parked his walker next to the bed, turned to get his butt up on the side, and swung his legs up to the mattress. Then he adjusted the blankets until he was completely covered by something.
It would be nearly an hour before a nurse just coming on shift would realize that the man in 205 belonged in 138. However, by the time she went to speak to him, it was too late.
Question 1: As usual, I did not spend a lot of time on physical descriptions. Was it enough, or would more description have helped?
Question 2: At the very end of the story, Burt goes into Clara’s bed and stays there until he dies. Did that come across clearly enough, or was it too vague?
Question 3: I usually bank a lot of my stories on dialogue. Did the dialogue do enough to separate Burt and Clara and give you a good enough “feel” for their attitudes?