When we’re alone in his room, Mr. Mahoney offers me a paper cup of water that tastes like SeaWorld. I pour it onto his orchid, and make the place dark and squat to turn on the white noise machine I smuggled in my purse. I’ve tried to explain its purpose before, but it ain’t catching, so I’ve been telling the guys it oxygenates the room, easing an asthma I don’t have—an asthma that might level me—and that it stimulates a part of their brain which used to be responsible for erection.
He likes my bush. If I close my legs in my chair near the door, or do a spin to display my bottom, his face will drop. Like a game of peekaboo, I have to reveal it again, razzle-dazzle, reassuring him we both still exist. I take my pubes in my two fingers. I twist them like cilantro for a salad. I hold still for as long as I can before shifting weight onto my relaxed hip. With my other hand, I take my gut and smush it all about, raising its bits up and down, the flaps of a pop-up book.
“Oh!” Mahoney says, never blushing. They all act kind of casual. Like they expected this type of thing when they were dropped off, and I think—really? I guess for these guys, the game has always been, play it like goodies are headed their way, naturally. Only the fool blinks in the face of his Kingdom Come.
“Have you spent time in London?” he asks me when I’m tired and putting on my clothes.
“No, I haven’t,” I say.
“You’d be a goddess in London if you knew what I know.”
Mr. Mahoney isn’t my favorite, but I have a special place in my heart for his wife, Golde—a woman ten years his senior, who breaks apart other folks’ puzzles in the dementia wing. When we call out her name during morning roll—an exercise to remind them of who they are—we say, “Golde Mahoney.” To confirm she’s here, she’ll say back, “Golduh Mahoney . . .” and something about it always sounds like a drowning woman gulping promises through the bubbles, Gunna mmmHold . . . Gonna mmmm Hold’em . . . Gotta help me, Golde my honey.
“You’d oughta cut all that hair it’s in my face,” she says when I bend low to get her strawberry milkshake order. We don’t offer food service outside the D-Hall, so I buy it at Wendy’s and leave it on her bedside after they brush her teeth. I know she’ll still be awake, the old night mouse, the dodger.
“Pretty Golde,” she’ll say, stroking my hair where I sit at her desk, texting my relatives. She doesn’t tell me about her grandkids’ school. She doesn’t recount her sweet home. She lies about her age, rounding way up, 100, 108 sometimes. She turns off the football in the lounge while others are watching and demands treats.
“That’s all for now, honey,” I’ll say. “I’m going to visit Mr. Mahoney in Active. Any messages for him?” Man, when I say that, she’ll just laugh and laugh. And motion for me to pull out the keyboard drawer, and pick out one of the Hershey’s kisses I’d brought her a year back.
“I don’t know if Mr. Mahoney can eat this, sweetie,” I say, and she’ll shake her head like, it’s not his, it’s yours, which I knew already. She’s preparing for her Bat Mitzvah.
Happy had been my first.
He runs the figure drawing club here at camp, but Ursula wasn’t arranging any real models. Week after week, I’d escort the poor flotsam down the elevator in the boat shoes he’d put on for the occasion. He’d even plucked his trembling chin, all to scratch out one of the resident nurse’s dogs. Or an arrangement of ferns from the lobby. Or, on lucky afternoons, one of the girls would stand in her scrubs, making a jumping-jack star, or hand on hip, smiling too big. I could see that he was about to give up. No good reason, some might say, for Happy to bitch and moan, and of course he didn’t—with a full load of fish oil crushed into smoothies, and a bowl of kiwis, a team of granddaughters who brought him Halloween decorations for his dresser, and a big Haitian male nurse who took Happy on as a buddy, and on strolls, divulged secrets from his sexcapades, and they’d wink at each other, and Happy even had a signed Howard Finster Coke bottle.
But I knew. Life was not life without a nude.
“Urusula scheduled me in for a private session,” I told him one afternoon while I cleared his dinner sandwich. “Just don’t mention it. She can’t afford to pay us to do special requests for all the residents.”
“Honey,” he said in a whisper-scream, trying to come up with a crack to keep me charmed. But he could hardly process this new hope, a déjà vu in the form of an angel, waking his memories from where they ogled brand-new tits in an ancient Manhattan. That certain randiness that could only be felt at the age of eleven, when the prospect of sex was impossible, but seemed to be everywhere. He told me his room number and put his paper napkin ball in my hands.
I chatted with my husband on the phone, waiting for Nurse Horseface to get lost and find some fruit loops somewhere.
When it was clear enough, I popped inside Happy’s for our quick goodnight. I shimmied off my stuff, businesslike. I helped myself to a bolo tie, which I pinched between my breasts where they brushed practically at my belly button. I pointed my foot onto a petite antique chair painted Chinese, too small for anyone to sit on. A prop all along.
He began to sketch me immediately, feeling out my body from across the linoleum. The parrots in the hall died down, the Coltrane CD he’d put on skipped in parts, the nurses laughed less outside while they settled into their Gatorades, anticipating midnight when they would spark their engines in the lot, and ease home to their snacks. Happy’s charcoal tired after about ten minutes of my posing, but when he put it down, I kept standing there, wiggling slightly in a dance between heart and lung. I figured I’d let him watch me and take mental notes for the next round.
I’ve begun insinuating myself to the others. Case by case, I’m finding my way, carrying the torch from the temple prostitutes of Old Delhi, priestesses of the flesh, who moved from prophet’s bed to prophet’s bed, and moved between their own shells with infinite generosity, like air, the power of sight on their shoulders.
I take tiny costumes in my backpack. Tiaras and chokers. I evoke eras gone by and yet to come. I keep my routine clinical as possible.
Here’s how I do it. First, I let them pull my socks off. I back away from the edge of the bed where they promise to sit, stay, holding their side rail, fiddling with their one and only key. I work off my jeans which tends to be a process. I stand with just my V-neck and brazier on, reaching my arms to the ceiling, like I did as a little girl waiting for my mother to lift my shirt. I swing my hips with only my shirt on, building suspense. Suspense only takes a couple of seconds, because at this stage, time is relative.
Donaldo likes my big puffy areolas.
Rudy says my cesarean scar reminds him of his own mother’s.
Aaron tries to touch. So I let him hold one of my calves like we’re dance partners, and he holds on for dear life. He stares longingly upstream past my open thigh, to where the spirit meets its hideout.
Bill wears a wedding band and it’s weird to me that once, one day, he was the special wedding boy.
“Did he ring for one of us?” Nurse Horseface asks when I creep out of Mahoney’s place. Her clipboard is clenched between her thighs and her hands are rubbing her eyes. It’s possible she’s on to me.
“No,” I say. “I was just checking in because I heard fumbling.”
“Fumbling?” she says. She’s known around here for having an easy time with death, but a hard time feeling like she can give enough. She acts frustrated with me when I forget to do something necessary because I’m doing something important. Really, I think she’s just nervous she’s not making a dent. Last month Ed was ready to go, and instead of letting him go, she arranged for him to start on antidepressants. He would wake up exasperated that his death hadn’t happened, checking his watch. His eyes would open suddenly, like still being alive startled him awake.
I wish I could tell her—Ruth, you can’t really give much of anything around here, not if you’re thinking about it too hard, and paying too close attention.
Her shift ends in twenty, and I’ll be able to go my way. Since Borus refuses to wear a watch, I’ll win the argument when he scolds me for being late.
I go to kill some time in Golde’s room.
I’m surprised to find her weeping into a paper napkin. It’s very unlike her to dwell.
Spread on her desk are different DVDs, romantic comedies donated by the middle school. It appears she’s digesting their plotlines through the plastic cases. A million times she’s seen it, a million times to go. “Baby,” I say, “what’s the matter?”
She looks up dramatically, but isn’t startled. The cry fades into an evil grin.
“Made you look!” she says.
Were there ever tears? Was it a game this whole time? Did she swerve on herself?
She starts snapping the discs in two, provoking my intervention, and it’s true I don’t want her to cut her fingers but she’s having the time of her life.
Borus waits till I’m entirely naked to uncross his arms and kvetch that I’m late.
“I’m right on time!” I say. There are crumbs all over his sheets, where he must’ve been munching nervously.
I turn the radio on so he can hear sports. I put my hair into a bun and think, now I’m a Russian. I help myself to some muffin.
“You’re late,” he says. “I’m gonna miss—”
“—I’m here now,” I float my hands, “what’s the problem?”
“You’re late and I’m bound to miss—,” he says.
“Sshh,” I turn and spread my cheeks a bit, still chewing. He leans back onto the reading pillow behind him, pensive, dreaming. It’s like he’s the only one who remembers me from a life long ago.
Horseface barges in after knocking once. Three knocks is protocol. This gives me barely enough time to conceal my asshole. “What is going on in here?” she says from outside, but shows her allegiance to those of us inside when she steps in and closes the door. Got her!
You act fast with bitches like this. They mean well and I’m nothing to be ashamed of. “Listen,” I get real close, gentle as the healer I am and say, “I’m keeping my damn job.” She starts to address him, checking in to make sure he’s OK, and that’s right. I squeeze my clothes back on fast, hopping and jiggling to fit. I head straight to the D-Hall to fix a pot of coffee. I don’t expect to be hearing anything from her, and if I do, who needs it! There are other places.
My husband’s armpit is appreciated. I find it quickly and with certainty that night. He’s a big and tall, which affords us a big and tall bed. He doesn’t ask me questions about my day and prides himself on keeping me warm. I loved getting married to him. I’ll never have an affair as long as I live, and I can say the same for him. He stores pork in our icebox and cooks outside when he can. Before I even wake up from sleeping so late, he’s out in his man-apron, waving at the bees, congratulating our children on everything they do. They don’t mind when he explains things for them because he explains things with curiosity. He digs me because I’m tough as blocks. I used to be a beauty and I know where he needs his rubs. When he’s gone someday, I’ll keep his big and tall bed. I’ll have given my all to the world, every bit of my all, on behalf of us both.
In the morning, in case this is my last shift, I head to pay my respects.
Golde’s group is locked into some chair yoga. She holds her arms all the way above her head, then out to both sides, tapping her black Velcro sneakers, like an attempt at takeoff.
She’s swiped someone’s veteran’s cap. Her gray bob and bangs poke out of it in three solid sections. She looks proud to have served.
“Hey lady!” I chide. “You’re no veteran!” She likes it when I play with her.
“Hey lady,” she says, rising at once from her chair, outraged. “I got a lot to show for!” And laughs and laughs.