One Great Thing

All summer Phyllis has been waiting for her son to call and invite her out on his boat. It isn’t a big boat or anything, but it’s big enough for her, her son and her grandson—that is, if her son leaves his wife at home—and even with three people there’s space for fishing rods and, under the back seat, room for a cooler of beer and sandwiches. She can’t remember the last time she was asked out for an evening on her son’s boat or even over to his house. And she doesn’t dare invite herself. If she does call him up, she’s afraid there will be a long silence on his end of the line. Whenever that long silence happens she always finds some reason to hurry herself off the phone before she has to listen to him come up with some lame excuse, like he has to teach his son, Brian, how to mow the lawn or clean the grill or do any one of a number of things that Phyllis knows he could put off if he wanted to.

So instead of calling, Phyllis kicks off her white nursing shoes, takes off her white pantyhose, hikes her white uniform up over her thighs, lights a cigarette and plops down on the sofa to watch TV. Smoking her seventh cigarette of the day—it’s almost impossible for her to smoke at work—drawing the fumes deep into her lungs, coughing twice, the TV voices soft in the background, she works herself up a bit. Her oldest son, Jay—the one with the boat—has done very well for himself. He has his own plumbing shop; his wife is a pretty woman who isn’t, Phyllis thinks, exceptionally bright and can’t cook worth a fig, but then again, Phyllis thinks, knocking the ash off her cigarette, who is she to judge? She herself only got her GED after Jay was in kindergarten, and then after her second son, George, came along and her husband divorced her in order to move in with a man, she’d gone back to school on a state funded grant to become an LPN, a licensed practical nurse. Still, couldn’t her sons at least call once in a while? Then she catches herself again. What does she have to complain about? She’s happy that Jay and his wife, Patrice, and their son Brian, and her other son George and his wife, Amy, and their two little daughters Becka and Eileen, are healthy and living on their own, and that she herself has a good job and a decent place to live. After her sons grew up, married, and left Providence—Jay lives about an hour away and George moved to New Hampshire where he owns a big Subaru dealership—Phyllis had sold the ranch house and purchased a trailer, not one of those tacky ones but a trailer that has its own lot and is set right into the ground. When she’s feeling a bit sorry for herself, as she is tonight, she reminds herself that buying the trailer was a very good move.

Over the years she planted annuals and perennials and painted the mailbox red and hung a Chinese wind chime outside the front door. Inside, the trailer has a living room when you first walk in, then a small eat-in kitchen, a fair-sized front closet and, off the main hallway, two bedrooms and a full bath with a shower. The bedrooms, painted white like the rooms she sees in the magazines, all have large closets with sliding doors, and the bathroom, a cool celery green, has an all-one-piece plastic shower/tub that never mildews.

She takes another drag on her cigarette and rubs her feet. For the thirty-odd years that she’s been an LPN she’s worked in so many different places that there is just about no medical facility she couldn’t walk into and hit the ground running. Still, she thinks, what exactly do I have to show for my life? Have I ever done even one great thing?

Outside, the late afternoon sun begins to fade and Phyllis, her smoke tamped out in the full ashtray, nods on the sofa. The six o’clock news comes on and when it shifts to a war scene—another IED explosion, sirens wailing and men shouting—she jerks awake. It takes her a moment to get herself together and figure out where she is and what’s going on. She thinks that she wouldn’t mind having a drink, whiskey the best, or gin or even a beer, like the one she could imagine herself drinking out on the boat with Jay. But she pushes back this impulse just as she has pushed it back for the last twenty years. Then she sighs, pulls herself up and tells herself she’d better think about getting something to eat instead. She’s starving.

At night when she can’t sleep—which is almost every night—she wonders how much her two sons remember from their childhoods when she was working twelve hours a day and then drinking off and on over the next twelve hours until it was time for her to go back to work again. She wonders if they remember her being fired from the rest home and then fired from the hospital and then asked to leave one house after another where she was doing private duty. Each time the employer or someone in the patient’s family had said that her clinical work was acceptable, that she bathed and turned and medicated patients without a problem, but that she just didn’t seem right for the job. No one mentioned her alcohol-sharp breath or the slight tremor that developed in her hands toward the end of a shift. No one accused her of making mistakes—because even when she was hung-over she checked and checked again before giving meds or doing any procedures—or of being brusque, because she was always unfailingly polite to her patients. And no one ever said anything about the fact that her uniform was occasionally wrinkled and splotched, or that she sometimes came in with what seemed to be thick makeup over what looked to be a purple plum above an eye or a purple swelling under her chin. No one asked if someone was hitting her, and she never knew if any one guessed that she sometimes got these injuries from falling, drunk, down the stairs and other times from scuffling with her husband, Eric. He wasn’t abusive—if anything he had been too quiet and too passive to suit Phyllis—but when she was passed out and Eric tried and failed to pick her up, her body weight equal to and eventually greater than his, when he then tried instead to shake her awake, once throwing a glass of cold water in her face, she’d come around fighting, throwing herself about on the floor with such force that she’d whack her head or her face on the furniture legs. There was that one time when Eric, absolutely at the end of his rope, crashed a lamp down on her head when she was swinging at him. No wonder, her mother said to her once. No wonder he ran off with a man. You’re such a poor excuse for a wife and a mother he probably couldn’t wait to get out of the house. You scared him off women for good.

Now, wandering into the kitchen in her bare feet, she asks herself, as she has asked herself so many times before, if she really was such a bad mother. When she was sober or when she was only happily drunk, didn’t she read to her sons, hug and kiss them, play outside with them, run alongside their bikes? Her answer to herself is always the same. That might be what she remembers, but her sons don’t seem to have the same memories. Or at least they only throw the other ones in her face, the visions of her out cold on the floor like a fat, stuporous whale, or the memories of when she, drunk for sure, would scream at them and they would stand, blond and pale and trembling, until she either wore herself out or passed out or until their dad came home. Eric, whom her sons barely recall even though they’ve seen plenty of pictures and even though he tried, for a while, to keep some sort of contact with them, was the one who’d wrap them in blankets and usher them off to bed, away from her wrath or away from the horrible scene of her on the floor sleeping in her own body fluids. Knowing that this is what her sons recall makes Phyllis lie awake in the night when she should be asleep, getting some rest for the next day’s work.

Back then, after she’d wrecked too many cars and when the neighbors reported her once too often for being drunk on the front lawn while her two toddler sons stood in their diapers in the doorway, the courts had mandated AA and regular counseling. But it wasn’t until a few years later, when Eric left with his boyfriend, a quiet, pretty boy who worked in the local grocery store, that Phyllis, alone with her sons, realized, in her most deep and most sensible center, that she had to stop drinking because if she didn’t all would be lost.

She rummages in the cupboard and takes out a can of tuna, opens it with the hand-held opener, squishes out some of the oil into the sink and then forks the tuna into a bowl. She has a cat named Beijing—she got him the same week she got the Chinese wind chime—and he comes meowing and rubbing his way into the kitchen. She takes a few flakes of the fish and drops it into Beijing’s dish, and he daintily nibbles it down. Phyllis smashes the rest of the tuna with a fork, adds a lot of mayo and some salt and pepper. She opens a can of carrots, boils them in a pan, drains them and lets a chunk of butter melt over them, and then she cuts up a tomato and fans the slices out on her plate. Thinking that she’s made herself a decent enough dinner, she sits down alone at the table to eat.

 

“Morning, Phyllis,” Ray says to her the next day at 6:45 a.m. as she walks through the doors into the Sisters of Mary Home for the Aged. Ray is an old guy with pouchy cheeks and no teeth, but he’s sat at the front desk greeting employees and visitors for fifty years and the sisters aren’t about to fire him. Phyllis has worked here for the past fifteen years, all of them sober, and the sisters, she hopes, aren’t about to fire her either.

“Morning, Ray,” she says and, carrying her purse and her canvas tote bag that contains her lunch, her knitting and a few magazines, takes the elevator to 3 East, the dementia ward, where she is one of three LPNs and two aides who will, for the next eight hours, watch over, bathe, medicate, and chase after forty-five old, senile, crazy and cantankerous patients. Lindy, who has been an LPN for longer than Phyllis has, is charge nurse on the floor, and Phyllis and the other LPN are team leaders. Everyone knows that 3 East is the most challenging floor in the whole place. Sometimes Phyllis wishes that her sons would realize this too—that her hard and consistent work with these difficult patients might not be spectacular but at the same time it might, in some way, make her shine a bit more brightly in their eyes. But their response to her stories, to her tales of what she does and how she does it, is always the same: Gawd, wouldn’t it be kinder to put those poor old geeks out of their misery? Phyllis thinks that her sons are too young yet to know about real misery. Then again, what they remember might just be misery enough.

Phyllis isn’t a plus-size woman anymore. She was when she was boozing—because, unlike a lot of drunks, when she was drinking she ate all the time, whole pizzas and quarts of ice cream—but when she quit she went from fat to chunky to plump and along the way down to slender and then to skinny. She doesn’t eat much now that she’s dry, and the work, the pure physical labor of her day, also helps keep her thin. Her hair is still what she calls “dishwater blonde” and frizzy, especially when it needs a trim, as it does now, and her face, since the weight loss, sags in places she didn’t know a face could sag. Deep cigarette-smoker’s lines define her mouth and fine crinkly smoker’s lines break up the rest of her face so it looks patched together like an old mosaic. The lines don’t much show except in direct sunlight. But her eyes are still something, the spectacular color of a green glass bottle. She outlines her lids, upper and lower, in black pencil to make the green appear even more dramatic.

It isn’t just her being sober or her eating less or her work that keeps her thin. It’s also the regrets, the middle-of-the-night “if onlys” that she lists again and again, each time coming up with a few new ones to tack on. She usually regrets in chronological order. She regrets how, as a teenager, she was always fighting with her mother, a woman not unlike herself who lost a husband and drank herself flat out—but unlike Phyllis, only on weekends—and who ended up dying right in the dementia unit where her daughter now works. Phyllis regrets dropping out of high school and not getting a good education, but she also remembers how awful high school was, how dumb she felt and how different from the other girls. She regrets that the first man she had sex with was Eric and not someone she loved. It happened at a party she and her friend Irene had crashed when they were fifteen, a party at the fine house of one of the girls whose parents were out of town. Phyllis was already drunk when she got there and Eric, who was in her math class, was pretty drunk too. She was drunk because of her miserable dead-end life and he was drunk because he’d recently realized that he was attracted to men and not women and he didn’t know what to do about this or if there even was anything that could be done. Somehow they had latched onto each other and stumbled out onto the lawn, the biggest lawn either of them had ever seen, and after talking for hours about their mothers (neither had fathers at home), about how they hated school, about how they knew that they didn’t fit in with any of the kids around them, about how they knew they were more sensitive and more loving than the shallow upper class girls and their button-down boyfriends, and about how they knew that if they could only get away they too could be rich and maybe famous and, Eric added, good and pure. Soon they were sharing a cigarette, and then they were taking turns drinking from the gin bottle that Eric snuck into the house and stole, and then they were having sex, something neither of them had done before. Phyllis was amazed that someone actually desired her, and Eric was focused only on the fact that he was turned on by a woman.

She regrets that all she and Eric did that night was screw—a word she hates and told her sons never to use—instead of making love, and she regrets that it was on that drunken night that she conceived her son, Jay. This is where she remembers to insert the fact that she regrets the drinking itself, a habit that had already been well-established in junior high school. She also hastily inserts here that she doesn’t for a moment regret Jay himself—her children were the only thing that ever made her life worthwhile—she just hated the circumstances surrounding his entrance into the world.

She regrets marrying Eric, even though he had willingly taken her hand when her belly began to grow, and even though he’d willingly had terrible sex with her once a month just to make her believe that she was still desirable, although soon enough he was using their marriage to cover up his other life and soon enough the neighbors were whispering behind both their backs about what Eric did at night in the bars on the edge of town. She regrets getting pregnant with George—again, not the fact of George himself—although at the time she didn’t know about Eric’s homosexuality and she still thought that maybe, maybe if they had a second child they could create a good life together. She gets confused at this point about whether or not it was right after George was born or if it wasn’t until after George was about two years old that she discovered the truth about Eric. One day, when she’d come home from work early due to a terrible migraine, which was really a terrible hangover, she’d walked in on Eric and his young boyfriend. The two of them were on the rug, half-undressed, and her two sons were locked in their room, crying. She unlocked their door, went in and sat down and cried with them.

“Phyllis, you gonna stand there all day with your mind in the clouds?” Lindy, the LPN in charge of the floor, is standing, hands on hips, head wagging, looking at Phyllis who has come off the elevator and stopped, mid-thought (which was: if she hadn’t been a drunk, could she have changed Eric and made him really love her?). “Come on, girl,” Lindy says, “we got work to do.”

Phyllis says hello Lindy, and puts her things in her locker. She straightens herself—all the LPNs wear white uniforms and white stockings and shoes, and some of them even wear their old nursing caps, while the RN director wears patterned scrubs, tennis shoes and has scraggly hair down her back—and puts her locker key around her wrist. When Phyllis comes out of the back room, Lindy hands her a piece of paper with her day’s assignment written on it. There are twelve names there, twelve demented men and women, most of them with advanced Alzheimer’s or strokes but some of them with alcohol dementia and a few with Parkinson’s. There’s also a new name on the list.

“Who’s Evelyn Paquin?” she asks Lindy. “And what happened to Edmund?”

“Edmund died last night. Evelyn is new, just came in yesterday evening after you left. We juggled some beds around so Evelyn is in 302.”

“How come she’s in a single?”

“They said she’s a screamer. Well, we’ll see. Since you got her, I assigned Kaye to do meds today so don’t have to worry about them. You’re gonna have your hands full with this new one, would be my guess.”

Phyllis folds up her paper and decides to go take a glance at this new patient, Evelyn the screamer, before she moves on to the others. She takes one of the metal rolling carts and loads it with all the supplies she’ll need to bathe and lotion her patients. She puts an extra restraint on the cart in case Evelyn really is a problem. As she rolls her cart down the hall toward room 302, Lindy calls after her, “If you need a hand, let me know. You got Etta for an aide today.”

Room 302 is a small, one-bed unit with pale yellow walls, a blond pine dresser, a rocking chair that Evelyn’s family must have brought in, and a blackboard on the wall on which the staff, every morning, writes the patient’s name, the day and date and the weather to help orient the patient to “reality.” It’s a corner room, so there are two windows, one looking out at the parking lot and the other looking out at the back of the building where, on the lawn, there’s a statue of Mary holding the infant Jesus. The room is dark, the shades still at half-mast from last night, and so Phyllis springs them up and turns on the overhead light. Mary and Jesus seem to be looking right in the window, watching over Evelyn. Phyllis thinks that it’s a good thing they’re outside because inside, filling the room and making it hard to breathe, is the overpowering and acrid smell of urine and feces. This smell, which would probably make anyone else cover their face and gag, doesn’t really bother Phyllis. It never bothered her when her boys filled their diapers, and it never bothers her when patients bleed or spit up or soak their sheets. She doesn’t know why this is. Maybe, she thinks, she’s just used to it. Or maybe it’s because she’s done her own share of bleeding and throwing up and even, when she was passed out, peeing her pants.

“Hello there, Evelyn,” Phyllis shouts—she can’t seem to break the habit of shouting at anyone over eighty—”and how are you today? I’m Phyllis, your nurse.”

The patient is rolled over on her side, facing away from Phyllis, and propped with pillows so she couldn’t roll back even if she wanted to. She’s so close to the bed rail, leaning against it in fact, that her one arm is dangling through the metal railing and her body is hidden under two lime green blankets. The patient’s head, which is large, pink and bald, is sunk so far forward that it, too, seems to rest against the rail. Phyllis thinks that if the railing gives way, Evelyn will land on the floor, face-first, and it wouldn’t be so easy to get her back into bed again.

“Well, Evelyn, first thing we got to do is get you cleaned up a bit. How does that sound?”

There’s no reply from Evelyn, but Phyllis sees and hears her breathing so she goes ahead and fills a basin with water, unwraps a bar of soap, grabs a handful of washcloths and puts on a pair of gloves. She puts the basin on the over-bed tray and picks up the corner of the blankets and sheets covering Evelyn. At once the sharp smell of fresh feces and old urine storms out. If this were a cartoon, Phyllis thinks, it would be a big black cloud of stink.

She could, she knows, call Etta, her aide, and have her clean up this mess. But she knows that Etta hates it whenever she’s faced with something of this magnitude, and so Phyllis goes on, removing the stained and soaked Chux pads and covering the wet sheet with new Chux pads. Then, chatting to Evelyn, she begins the laborious job of washing the woman’s buttocks, cleaning off the dark, pasty stool that is, by now, stuck all over. She separates her patient’s buttock cheeks and wipes the narrow, hairy channel between them, and then lifts the dead-weight thigh and cleans every crevice and cranny like she cleaned her sons when they were babies, like she did when they were toddlers and didn’t make it in time, like she did when they wet their beds when they had nightmares. Phyllis rinses and wrings out her washcloth, changing to a new one whenever the old one gets dirty and changing her gloves whenever they get soiled. All the while, she talks and talks. She asks Evelyn about her life and her family, and talks about her own two sons and their kids and their wives, the one who can’t cook but is pretty and about the other one who won’t give her the time of day. Was it her, she wonders aloud, who made her younger son move his family all the way to New Hampshire?

Phyllis tells Evelyn about her trailer, about her cat, Beijing, about how now that the summer is waning the annuals are getting pretty ragged and how she’s way, way overdue in deadheading the perennials. The clean-up complete, only the sheets left to change, she decides she’ll walk around and say hello to Evelyn since all she’s seen of her so far is her humped back and her fleshy, incontinent behind. Taking off her gloves, washing and drying her hands at the sink and then cupping one hand in the other as if to keep them clean, bending her head a bit in curiosity, feeling herself small and almost delicate in Evelyn’s presence, she walks around the bed, regretting that she didn’t do this when she first came into the room. It would have been the more professional thing to do.

When she rounds the end of the bed, when she gets herself to the other side, when she tilts her head down to get a good look at Evelyn’s face and sees it full on, she quickly draws back. She doesn’t gasp or give a cry. Instead she leans her head down once again, right away so as not to offend, puts her face right in front of Evelyn’s and smiles. But inside, her heart is pounding and her stomach gives a small roll.

“So, hello again. I’m Phyllis, your nurse. I’ve almost got you all cleaned up. Don’t you feel fresher now? I thought it was about time I came around to meet you.” She almost says “meet you face to face” but decides, in that split second, not to. She doesn’t know how Phyllis feels about her face, a contorted, red-ridged mask, one eye sealed shut by scars, the other eye now blinked open, looking at Phyllis, an eye that is as blue and clear as Phyllis’s eyes are green. Evelyn’s lips are scarred too, but not sealed shut, and her throat is also scarred, thin red puckers running up and down the short neck, and the head is, as Phyllis saw before, pink and bald, all the hair follicles destroyed. There are no eyebrows either, although the one eye, the open eye, has a scraggly rim of short brown lashes. Evelyn moves her mouth as if to say something, and Phyllis sees that her tongue is big and dry.

“Wait a minute. Let me get you a drink, for heaven’s sake. You’re parched.”

She finds a glass in the bedside stand. She’s pleased to find that the night shift aides have filled the bedside carafe with ice and water as they are supposed to do but sometimes don’t. She pours cold water into the glass, puts in a long straw, and offers the straw to Evelyn.

“Suck in real hard and the water’ll come up to you.”

This doesn’t work so well, the water making it only halfway up the straw and Evelyn, her cheeks and lips tight and constrained by the scarring, unable to pull hard enough to raise the water to her mouth.

“Hold on a second,” Phyllis says. “We need to try something else.”

She goes around to the other side of the bed, takes away the pillows, and hurries back again to unhook Evelyn’s arm from the railing and ease her down flat on the mattress. She cranks up the head of the bed so that Evelyn is sitting up. The patient looks around, although her rigid neck doesn’t give her much leeway. Phyllis can see that she has, at the hollow of her neck, a wide scar that must have come from a tracheotomy tube, probably one that was, at some time in the past, attached to a respirator.

“Here,” she says, putting her arm around Evelyn, cradling her face in one hand and bringing the rim of the glass to her patient’s lips with the other hand. “I’m just going to tip a bit of the water into your mouth and you just let it slide down, okay?”

Evelyn gives what might be a nod, and Phyllis tips the glass, watching the water dribble into the woman’s mouth. Inside, her mouth is pink, her teeth—her own teeth, Phyllis notices—are white and small. Evelyn swallows, and Phyllis can see her scarred neck working up and down. She watches Evelyn’s face, and the more she watches it the more she becomes accustomed to it. She realizes that Evelyn, before whatever happened to her face, might once have been beautiful.

Evelyn drinks the entire glass of water. How long has it been, Phyllis wonders, since anyone offered her a drink? How long has it been since she’d been bathed, turned, gotten out of bed into a chair? Why is she here and why is she what Lindy called a screamer? Does she scream out of anger or terror? Did her family abandon her? Why is it, Phyllis thinks, her eyes filling up, that people can’t just be kind to one another? As she says this she wishes that she had been kinder to her kids, even wishes that she had been kinder to Eric. Maybe if he had not found her so repulsive—

“How’s that,” she says. “Better?”

Evelyn says, “Yes,” although it comes out a bit more like a garbled yeth.

“Can you talk okay?” Phyllis asks. “If you can’t, just shake your head at me or something. We don’t need to talk to get along, do we?”

“Talk okay but hard,” Evelyn says. Then she adds, “Thorry—”

Phyllis cuts her off. “Now don’t you go and apologize for anything, you hear me? I don’t know why you’re here or anything about what your life’s been like, but you’re here now and we’re going to take good care of you. So you don’t ever need to say sorry for anything. We’re only human, you and me. We got our stories, isn’t that right?”

“Yeth,” Evelyn says again. “Right.” Then, looking a bit embarrassed about the stiff way she talks, adds, “Thank you. Thank you.”

“Well, of course,” Phyllis says, running her hand over Evelyn’s smooth skull. It feels velvety and soft, like a newborn’s head. Jay was bald like this, she thinks, and George too. Neither of them had any hair to speak of until they were more than a year old. “I’ll take a thank you anytime but not an I’m sorry.”

Evelyn gives what Phyllis guesses is a little chuckle. Then she seems to fade a bit, as if this much exertion is more than she can handle. She dozes off and on while Phyllis finishes bathing her. Her breasts are also scarred, and the front of her thighs and the shank of her legs. Phyllis lotions her skin anyway, soothing the thick, discolored patches. She cleans up the room, pulls up the bed rails and leaves Evelyn, still sleeping, to go on to care for her other patients. As she passes Lindy at the nurse’s station she says, “Why’d you say that new woman was a screamer? She’s as nice as could be.”

Lindy looks up from where she’s been transcribing doctors’ orders from the patients’ charts onto the computer. “Family said now that she’s old she screams at night. They think she’s reliving the fire.”

“Fire,” Phyllis says. “I guessed it was fire. Then again I’d wondered if it could have been chemicals, you know, some guy throwing acid at her or something.”

“Her daughter said that when her mother was real young their house caught fire and she saved the daughter and two other kids, but her husband and one kid didn’t make it. Evelyn had a little stroke last year and has been living with the daughter since. I guess it got to be too much for her, you know?”

“Un-huh,” Phyllis says. “I know.” She thinks to herself that she sure does know about life being too much, but she wonders if, in this case, life was too much for the daughter or too much for Evelyn? Imagine, she adds to herself. She lost a husband and a child and got burned and lived her whole life looking like this. I’d scream at night too. Then a little thought flits through her mind, real quick. She wonders if Evelyn was a drunk too; if it was Evelyn’s own cigarette or a neglected boiling-over pot that lit the fire. This thought feels a bit like wishful thinking—like she’d sort of be happy to have Evelyn as a friend, someone who shared the same regrets she did just so she would know that she wasn’t the only ex-drunk who went over the if-onlys in the middle of the night. After all, how many times had Eric or one of the boys caught Phyllis’s burning cigarette just in time, or turned off the stove before a frying pan, black and smoking, forgotten on the burner, burst into flames? But this kind of wishful thinking also feels selfish and cruel, so Phyllis hurries to chase the thought away.

 

About two hours later, after Phyllis has bathed and turned most of her other patients and written the day and weather on their blackboards, she decides to go back to room 302 and see if Evelyn might be done with her nap and ready to sit awhile in her rocking chair. She’ll get Etta to help her hoist Evelyn up, swinging her body around, getting her to her feet and then aiming her into the chair. But when she gets to the door she sees right away that there is something terrible wrong with Evelyn.

Her one open eye is rolling about as if she wants to shout for help but can’t, and there is foam coming out of her mouth, like the bubbles her sons used to blow on each other when they took their bath. Evelyn’s face is red and her neck, what little of it isn’t scarred, is swollen up like it is about to burst. Phyllis sees a breakfast tray on the over-bed table. Etta must have set Evelyn up and then left her to eat alone. There are hunks of buttery toast all over her stone-still chest and the ample bosom which should be moving in and out with her breathing, but isn’t, and a Styrofoam cup of tea has spilled all over the tray, and it looks like Evelyn was flailing her arms about because her plastic fork and spoon are on the floor. Now she has one hand clasped to her throat and Phyllis knows at once that her patient is choking.

Phyllis hurries into the room as fast as she can, and yet it feels to her as if she is only crawling. At the same time her brain is going a million miles a minute, thoughts and ideas all jammed up and rolling around like logs in a raging river. She hears herself shout I’m coming Evelyn but doesn’t quite recognize her own voice. And she’s not at all sure where these other voices in her head are coming from, the ones she hears as she grabs the pillow from behind Evelyn’s head and flings it to the floor, as she cranks down the head of the bed and crawls up onto it, as she straddles Evelyn, facing her, and prepares to give abdominal thrusts, like she learned in CPR class, because she knows there is no way she can get this woman out of bed and do anything like a decent Heimlich. The voices in her brain are having a debate while Phyllis balls her fists together, ready to shove them into her patient’s soft belly in an attempt to push enough air up through her throat to pop out whatever is stuck there. But wait a minute, the voices say, should you save her? Aren’t your kids really right? Wouldn’t it be kinder to let her die? What kind of life could she possibly have, all burned up like this? If you were her, wouldn’t you want to die rather than go on living like this? And don’t you, even though you’re perfectly healthy, sometimes feel so sad and alone and neglected that you wish that you were dead?

Phyllis looks wildly about, searching the room for help, and her heart thumps so hard she’s afraid she might pass out right on top of Evelyn, and then if someone does come to help that someone will find the both of them dead. She looks out the door into the hallway and sees nothing and nobody, and even if she does shout, she knows it will take a long time for Lindy or Etta to hear and tear themselves away from whatever they’re doing. From the corner of her eye, she glimpses the statue of Mary, now in the bright sun, still in its place on the back lawn. In the next second—one that feels like another eternity—Phyllis sees herself, flat out drunk and worthless on the floor, her two sons staring at her. She sees herself, humiliated, at all those AA meetings, and she sees Eric walking away down the front steps, hauling his suitcase while the boys, once again, cry their eyes out. She sees herself, all those nights alone when yes, she sometimes does wonder why exactly she should want to live. But she also sees herself, sober, coming to work day in and day out. She remembers all the baths she’s given, all the hands she’s held, all the dying old men and women she’s sat with, even staying past her quitting time just so they don’t die alone. She sees herself as she was with Evelyn this very morning, stoking the soft velvet of her poor, pink skull.

Well, damn. If Evelyn isn’t worth saving, she thinks, then nobody is.

Phyllis jams her fists into Evelyn’s stomach, shoving in and up at the same time. Nothing happens. Wham, wham, Phyllis gives two more thrusts. Still, the patient’s open eye is wide and terrified, her lungs still as stones. Phyllis gives one more good wham. This last one slams a big bolus of air and pressure up into Evelyn’s windpipe and a huge hunk of toast comes flying out of her mouth, sails over the bed and splats on the floor. Still clutching her hand to her neck, Evelyn hauls in a long, loud, wheezy gasp. Then she hacks and sputters and her face pinks up; she is breathing.

Phyllis, saying you’re okay now, everything’s gonna be okay now, moves off Evelyn and slides off the bed. She is shaking all over, and her knees buckle, and she grabs onto the metal rail to keep from oozing to the floor in a faint. She’s shaking so bad she’s afraid she’ll never stop shaking. Just then Etta walks by, waves and looks in.

“Hon, you all done with your breakfast?” she calls to Evelyn.

 

That night, after she takes off her shoes and strips off her stockings, Phyllis sits for a very long time on the sofa, smoking one cigarette after another. She smokes through the six o’clock news and, even when it’s growing dark outside and even when her stomach rumbles and complains, she doesn’t get up and walk into the kitchen to fix herself dinner. She just sits and thinks about Evelyn—about how she cried and wanted to hug Phyllis, about how she said “Thank you” so many times Phyllis finally had to tell her to stop. She thinks about how Evelyn’s daughter, the one who put her in the home, came rushing in after Lindy called to tell her what had happened. She thinks about how the daughter held her mother and rocked her, soothing her head and covering her ugly-beautiful face with kisses. The daughter hugged Phyllis too, again and again, and wanted to pay her something or to give her some sort of reward, but Phyllis told her that she was just doing her job, that anyone would have done the same.

She pictures how all the LPNs and the aides congratulated her too, the news of her saving Evelyn rushing through the nursing home faster than the flu in winter. The sisters in their black habits had gathered around her and the RN director showed up too and promised Phyllis that she’d be the employee of the month next month and so get to park in the special close-up parking space reserved for the winners. Even Ray, when Phyllis left at the end of her shift, had gotten up from behind the desk and come around to shake her hand.

Phyllis smashes out her cigarette and stands up, stretches and pushes her hands into the small of her back, rubbing the sore spot there. She stands for a moment, waiting to feel as special or as wonderful or as brave as everyone at work made her out to be, but instead she simply feels—well, like herself. She wouldn’t say this to anyone, but she’d never done anything like that before and, truth to tell, she’s not sure she’d ever be able to do anything like that again.

She stretches once more, walks across to the other side of the living room where the phone is, picks it up and dials Jay’s number. She figures he’ll be home by now; probably they’re all sitting down to dinner. The phone rings three times and she hears her son pick up.

“Hi Mom,” he says.

“How’d you know it was me?”

“Caller ID. Got it on our new phone. Hey, are you okay? Haven’t heard from you in a long while.”

She almost says and I haven’t heard from you either but decides not to.

“I’m fine,” she says. “I’m just fine. I’m off this weekend. Maybe you and Patrice and Brian want to get together for dinner tomorrow night? My treat. I haven’t seen you in a month of Sundays.”

There’s the slightest pause, the one that Phyllis dreads. But this time she doesn’t rush herself off the phone or say anything to fill up the gap. She just breathes deep, and waits.

Cortney Davis, a Nurse Practitioner, is the author of Taking Care of Time (MSU Press, 2018), winner of the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize from Michigan State University; of Leopold’s Maneuvers (University of Nebraska Press, 2004), winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry; and of Details of Flesh (Calyx Books, 1997). Her memoirs include When the Nurse Becomes a Patient: A Story in Words and Images, The Heart’s Truth: Essays on the Art of Nursing (both from The Kent State University Press, 2015 and 2009), and I Knew a Woman: The Experience of the Female Body (Random House, 2001). Her poems, essays and fiction have appeared in journals including Poetry, The Hudson Review, Superstition Review, Descant, Sun, Bellevue Literary Review, Crazyhorse, Poetry East, Sentence, Underground Voices, Witness, Rattle, The Antigonish Review, and others. She is the recipient of an NEA Poetry Fellowship, three CT Commission on the Arts Poetry Grants, the CT Center for the Book Award and an Independent Publisher’s Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal. Cortney is the poet laureate of Bethel, CT.

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2 Responses to One Great Thing

  1. H.R. Kemp says:

    A terrific story with a complex character and a wonderful sense of human frailty. I really enjoyed it

  2. Sacred Bull says:

    A wonderful, wonderful story of courage and heroism — with an “ending that hovers,” as writer Nelly Reifler would describe it.

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