The nurses will tell you that I didn’t put up a fight when they told me that Art Jenks was moving in because I’m an old softy, but that’s not the reason. There were two reasons. One, even though he’s nearly ten years younger, the man reminded me of my grandpa (especially there at the end, when the Alzheimer’s had stripped him of the Sheriff’s badge in a way that retirement never could). And two, with his deteriorating health, I figured having Art as a roommate might mean not having a roommate for long. However, if I had known then how much he liked to talk over my TV shows, I might have put up more of a fight.
I’ve had my own room for the better part of two years. I’ve come to think of those old gray walls as mine. The television, the shaggy beige carpet, the closet with the old Norman Rockwell calendar (still turned to last March) hanging on its door – all of it was mine. It may not seem like much to some, but to me, it was home. There were threats over the years that I’d have to share the room with others, but the one good thing about winding up in the Med Center: there’s an ever rotating roster of residents.
The Med Center was the place at the Guiding Light Retirement Center where the terminal residents go to wait for death. It was full of your dementia patients, your Alzheimer’s, your terminal cancer patients, guys like me, with end-stage renal failure who need daily dialysis. Some of us last longer than others, but this is the end of the road. When you’re discharged from the Med Center, you’re discharged for good.
Art, you could tell, was ready for discharge from the moment he was admitted. He spent his days wandering the halls. Sometimes he’d poke his head inside a room and ask if anyone had seen his wife. Folks would say no, and he’d nod, thank them, and then move on to next room, stopping occasionally to cough into a white handkerchief.
One morning, I overheard the nurses talking. Art’s wife had died years ago. On occasion, when Art gets really worked up about finding his wife, you’ll see one of the nurses take him up the hall to an examination room. Minutes later, he would return, red-eyed and somber. I try to imagine what it must be like for him, to hear that the love of his life has died. God knows going through it once is too much, but to have to do so every couple of days… Let’s just say I can understand why Art was in such a hurry to get out of the Med Center.
He spent the first evening unpacking two boxes of belongings, almost exclusively clothes. In one box, he had an old black and white photograph of he and his wife, standing in front of an old Buick, holding each other, his eyes on the camera, and hers beaming up at him. He sat the photograph on the end table next to his bed.
Later, when the night nurses came in for the final rounds of the night, he was very pleasant and slipped into bed without a complaint. But once the nurses were gone, Art rolled toward me and whispered, “Jessie –” That’s not my name. “Jessie, will you stay up and keep watch until I go to sleep?”
I didn’t say anything. I didn’t tell him that my name was Carl, not Jessie. I didn’t say that I’d stay awake, either. I just watched him, trying to imagine what it was like to have all your memories caught up in a tornado, whipping around and around, mixing together, landing here and there, scattered all over the place. He fell asleep while I tried figuring him out.
The next day, after breakfast, I asked him who Jessie was.
“Jessie? He’s my older brother. Works for Caddo Electric. He’s their purchasing agent. He’s been there for years…” Art went on, but I tuned out for most of it. The Price is Right was on, and I never miss The Price is Right.
Every night after that was the same with Art, and every night, I would sit up in bed until he fell asleep. That is, until the night he pissed me off by ruining my favorite TV show, Deal or No Deal, by babbling on about some sports car he intended to buy. When he finally climbed into bed and said, “Jessie, can you watch me until I fall asleep?” I threw my blankets up over my head and rolled over facing the far wall. I refused, and I fell asleep listening to him whimper like a child.
But then, in the night, the screaming started.
It jerked me out of my sleep the way it would when one of my own children would scream in the middle of the night many years ago. I rolled over, and there was Art, sitting up against the headboard of his bed, holding the coverlet up to his chin. He was crying big sloppy tears down his stubbly cheeks, but his eyes were wide open, staring past the foot of his bed.
“What is it?” I asked, but when Art tried to speak, he only stuttered, and began to cry harder. “What? What’s the matter?” I swung my legs out of bed.
He straightened one finger from the grip on his blanket, and pointed toward the closet. My eyes followed, and my jaw dropped.
The closet door was open, and swirling out of it was a thick, black smoke like the kind that rises from an old greasy candle, except thicker. It rolled upon itself on the floor like a thick, diaphanous worm.
Then, in the smoke, suddenly everything became perfectly clear. There was a hand. I recognized that hand immediately – even the thick layer of grease underneath the one remaining fingernail — the tips of the middle, ring, and little finger having been severed at the knuckles years ago in a scrap yard accident. That hand, with its black oily thumb and singed wrist hair, reached out, grasped the sides of the closet door.
Then, my eyes went all hazy, and the hand was gone. Just smoke again. I blinked my eyes hard. The smoke seemed to be rolling slowly toward Art’s bed.
Moving faster than I have in years, I jumped to my feet, wishing I had my old Louisville Slugger. I ran over and slammed the closet door shut, cutting the rolling smoke in half. The half inside the room, twisting on the floor, spasmed and then evaporated.
Art wailed. I went over and sat beside him on his bed. He reached out and wrapped his boney arms around my neck. “Thank you, Jessie. It almost got me that time.”
“It’s okay,” I said, and ruffled his hair.
We sat that way for a while, him hugging my neck, and me letting him. I couldn’t get the image of that hand out of my head. Old Pete Doogin’s hand. In 1918, before I was born, my grandpa arrested Pete Doogin for the disappearance of Emily Shoate. By 1932, when I was ten years-old, Doogin was back in town, working at the same old scrap yard where a massive sewer pipe fell on his hand, cutting the tips of his fingers off. When I was kid, we used to tell each other stories about crazy old, Pete Doogin, about how he used to sit there at the old scrap yard and shoot at the rats, eating them raw for supper.
My friends and I cut through the scrap yard on our way home from school one day, and Pete Doogin started screaming and chasing after us. Knowing what he did to that little girl, we ran. There were five of us all together, and we were all pretty fast runners, except for Gary Stufflebeam on account he had asthma. Pete Doogin grabbed Gary and pushed him down into the dirt, holding him there with that mangled hand of his. The other kids ran on, jumping the fence, but I ran back, pushing him off Gary. He was probably drunk, cause he didn’t just stumble backward, but fell all the way over, rolling in the dust. By the time he was back on his feet, though, I was helping Gary over the fence. Pete Doogin ran full speed into that fence, grabbing it with his mangled hands and shouting at me that he knew who I was. He said I’d better stay the hell out or he’d crack us up – me and my fool grandpa. I looked back, looking straight into the black hole of his mouth, at the rotting teeth and blackish tongue. I had never been more scared before or since.
I remember running straight to the Sheriff’s station, where I found Grandpa staring out the window. “Grandpa, it was Pete Doogin!” He spun around and looked down at me, and I can still remember that blank expression on his face. That evening, he went out to the scrap yard and had a talk with Pete Doogin, telling him to stay away from us kids. Pete Doogin never said anything to me after that, but any time I saw him in town, he’d sneer at me with those nasty black teeth.
I think even then, my grandpa was showing some of the signs of the Alzheimer’s that would slowly eat up his brain. In those days, it wasn’t much. He lost things, forgot names, sometimes got upset with us for asking so many questions. Eventually though, it got so bad he didn’t know any of us. When grandma sat him down for supper, he’d apologize for not having the money to pay her, as though he was eating at some diner rather than his own home. At the end, he was stuck in a bed, and when we visited, he would stare at us, and ask who we were. By that time, he was barely even a shell of the man who wore the Sheriff’s uniform. Maybe that was why Art reminded me so much of the old man. Maybe I saw a lot in him that I saw in grandpa.
When Art was finally settled down enough to sleep, I stood up and walked back to bed. On my way, I caught my reflection in the mirror, and stopped. I had expected to see my old baseball cap, but instead, there was just my pink scalp. Instead of the bright eyes of a twelve year-old, there were the bloodshot, weary eyes of an old man.
The next day, Art didn’t seem too concerned about the black smoke that rolled out of the closet. When I asked him about the hand, he acted like I was the crazy one. The lucky bastard had forgotten all about the night before. He forgot that evil smoke drifting out of the closet in the same way he forgot that his wife had passed away. I, however, could not forget, and I fretted about what I had seen the next day during dialysis.
The next night, when Art rolled over and asked if I’d watch over him until he had fallen asleep, I nodded my head, and sat up in bed so I wouldn’t be tempted to drift off. I watched until I could hear his labored snores, and then I slipped out of bed, and pushed the uncomfortable, orange chair in front of the closet, right underneath the Norman Rockwell calendar. Then I slipped back into bed, and slept fitfully, waking up occasionally to stare at the closet.
And that was our new routine until the day my blood pressure bottomed out after my dialysis appointment. Normally, I’m hypertensive, so when my blood pressure dropped, my doctor admitted me to the hospital for observation. I protested. I told them I was fine, that I could go back to the Med Center, but they admitted me anyway. As my blood pressure began to come back up, I told them “See, nothing to worry about!” But still, they refused to release me. They told me it was for my own good, that it was dangerous for end-stage renal failure patients to suffer such a dip in their blood pressure.
After dinner, in a desperate attempt to make some difference, I called Guiding Light and asked to be rang through to my room. Without me there to irritate, there was a good chance Art would be out wandering the halls, looking for his wife. But he was there. He answered on the third ring.
“Art! It’s me! You’ve got to get the orange chair in front of the closet!” I shouted into the phone. It was the first time I’d said anything about it out loud, and I knew how crazy the words sounded as they left my lips.
“Who is this?” Art said. I could picture him in my mind – his brow creased, confused, maybe on the verge of getting angry.
I almost told him it was Carl, but I knew he wouldn’t know who I was. So in a moment of inspiration, I said, “It’s Jessie. It’s your brother, Jessie.”
The line went very quiet long enough for me to think that maybe Art had hung up on me. Then he said, “Who is this?”
“It’s Jessie,” I said again.
“This isn’t Jessie,” Art said. “Jessie’s been dead more than ten years. What kind of joke is this – ”
“No Art, listen – it’s Carl! It’s your roommate – ”
“This isn’t funny!” Art shouted into the phone. “What kind of sick person would think this is funny?” Art began babbling, but I could only make out fragments of words. He was angry. And I couldn’t blame him, and when the phone clicked loudly in my ear, I sighed into my chest feeling like I had just betrayed my best friend.
I thought about calling back later; that perhaps he would forget about this phone call, and believe me when I tell him who I am later. But there were no guarantees in that. So I decided to make a break for it.
I slipped out of bed. I tore the blood pressure cuff off my arm and dropped it on the bed, then pulled the wires that led to the little white circles on my chest. I grabbed my shirt off the chair next to the bed, but couldn’t find my shoes (they were in a plastic bag in the closet, I later discovered). I threw the shirt over my shoulders and was buttoning it as fast as I could as I sneaked out of my room and down the hall.
I followed the “Exit” signs that hung from the ceiling. All I had to do was get outside, I thought. Once I got outside, barefoot or not, I could hitch a ride, or if I had to, walk all the way to Guiding Light. I walked as fast as I could. I made it around one corner and was heading around another when I heard over the intercom, “We have a Code Yellow. Code Yellow – male, 89 years, gray hair, five-foot eleven.”
I stopped buttoning my shirt, and tried to move my feet faster than they’d moved in decades. I tried to bring them up into a jog, to just move myself faster, but my body would not cooperate. And when I did get around the corner and could see the doors leading out to the parking lot, there were two women in white coats, a number of nurses in multi-colored scrubs, and a security guard waiting there. “That’s him!” they said, and I tried to turn and outrun them, but I knew there was no point.
When they grabbed me, I said, “But I’ve got to get back! It’ll get him if I don’t get back to help!”
“You gotta get back in bed,” the large, broad-chested security guard said.
“No, I’ve got to go back! He needs me!”
As they put me back in my bed, wrapping the blood pressure cuff around my arm again, the nurse smiled and lied to me. She told me everything would be okay. It was what we said when telling the truth would make things worse.
My blood pressure climbed back to normal sometime in the middle of the night – normal for me, which meant a little high, but nothing to fret about. Being after midnight (though the clock in the room was slow; showing ten minutes till), they had me stay the whole night. I was discharged the next morning, and taken by ambulance back to Med Center. By the time the nurse wheeled me back to my room, Art had been dead for several hours.
People in nursing homes die every day. It happens in the Med Center two or three times a month. It’s upsetting, sure, but it’s not surprising. By the time I got there that morning, the nurses had already removed Art’s body, made his bed, and boxed up most of his belongings, including the photo of him and his wife. I asked the nurse whether the closet door had been open that morning or not. She couldn’t remember, but I know that it was open.
So that was it for Art. He had finally caught up with his wife.
But even though he’s gone, some things haven’t changed. At night, after the nurses have come in and given me my evening pills, I still push the old orange chair in front of the closet door. Except now, I add a stack of books for more weight. I sleep a bit more during the day, and at night, alone in my room, I watch the closet. I lie there in my bed, and when the closet door begins to open, and the disfigured hand of Pete Doogin reaches out, I reach down beside my bed for my shoe. So far, the chair’s holding, but every night, Pete Doogin pushes the door open a little further, telling me the whole time that he is going to crack me up when he gets out of there. In the middle of the night, I find myself wanting to call out for Art, or for my grandpa, or for my own long gone wife. But none of them are here anymore. It’s just me. And I think Pete Doogin knows that. Once I grew up, I thought I’d left Pete Doogin behind, but the real boogeyman never goes away. It waits. Some things can wait. It’s been waiting for this for seventy-five years. It’s very patient. It can wait a lifetime, but eventually, it’ll be time, and no orange chair pushed up against the closet is going to stop it.
Bio: When not writing, Winkler splits his time between working for the U.S. government, teaching composition at a number of colleges in Northeastern Oklahoma, playing funky riffs on the bass guitar, and squeezing in some quality time with his beautiful wife and two sons.