Feather & Sel
The sun beats down on the bleached buildings and bungalows, the stucco walls and tile roofs, the chemically green lawns, the blue swimming pools, the vacant patios, and shuffleboard courts. Like a hot iron, it flattens and whitens everything it touches. It’s a weight, a slap against the forehead, a pinch in the back of the eyes. Nothing much moves. A mosquito waits in the weeds. A seagull swoops low trying to escape the heat, looking for a cool spot, a bit of shade, a little water, then disappears, swallowed by the sun. A young woman hot-foots across the parking lot, sunglasses hiding half her face.
Shady Shores, an assisted living, skilled care, retirement community, a raisin ranch emphasizing a Christian environment and rare roast beef every Saturday night, hugs the hot ground behind the strip mall and Lou’s Liquors. Shady Shores, named for the alliteration, not the reality, stretches nearly a block and squats only a tee shot from the Sweetwater nine-hole golf course. Shady, as the locals call it, sits smack dab in the middle of the Sunshine State, seventy miles from any shore, flanked by tiger palms leaning at acute angles. Four residential wings poke like the tines of a pitchfork toward Sweetwater’s water treatment plant. Tucked behind Shady, a couple dozen cars gleam glass and metal, kilns ready to bake any driver foolish enough to jump in. A motorcycle bakes beneath a gray tarp. Empty chairs wait on the patio for someone to stretch out, skin cancer in five minutes, maybe less. A shuffleboard court, an empty birdbath, and sprinklers, the only outdoor entertainment other than the occasional ambulance pulling up, lights flashing, no siren, EMTs walking past the green trash dumpster on their way to the back door.
The main entrance faces the setting sun, an appropriate metaphor for the residents. A wide ramp runs past the Visitors Welcome sign and up to the double-wide front doors. Punch 863, the area code, onto the keypad and voila! The door opens, cool air rushes out, heat pushes in. The clocks tick, the earth turns, the shadows grow shorter.
Behind a hip-high reception counter, a scrubbed-face, a cheerful smile and “How can I help you?” On the wall two photos of Shady Shores during Hurricane Andrew, proof the residents are safe, that the single story, sun-bleached white stucco building isn’t going anywhere come hurricanes, hell, or high water. Pots of plastic plants line the wall with little signs warning, Do NOT water. All blinds are pulled shut, but the sun leaks in, pushes against the walls and down the long halls to the small rooms smelling of disinfectants and bleach, sometimes flowers or microwave popcorn. Television commercials advertising the latest drug leak into the hall. If you suffer from . . .
And don’t they all suffer from?
Four wings. A, B, C, and D. The natural progression for the residents of Shady Shores is to move through the wing-alphabet until they end up in D, and from there they take the back door to the ambulance that will carry them off to the mortuary or crematorium.
A couple in the conference room behind the main desk lean forward in their leather chairs, rest their elbows on their knees. “We want to move Dad in here,” he says, “become a permanent resident.”
The director, a man with bright red hair and a neatly trimmed brown mustache wants to say no one at Shady Shores is a permanent resident. Privately, he calls it The Land of the Living Dead. He says, “Of course.”
The son wants to explain as they all do. “He’s not safe on his own anymore. We’re afraid he’s going to wander off, hurt himself. He’ll be better off close to us, someplace he can get the attention he needs. He’s eighty and has been riding a motorcycle, a big Harley, and then, during his visit, he borrowed my bicycle and crashed, broke his hip.”
The director gives them a pained expression, which he is sure they expect. He feels his pained expressions are quite good and this is confirmed. They mimic him as he purses his lips, lowers his gaze to the floor, and shakes his head.
The son continues. “He’s living, the past. We’re bringing in an attorney to . . . ”
“He wanders,” the son’s wife says.
The director nods, a signal that wandering has been established.
Her husband touches her knee, a signal to say no more, a brave move.
The son looks nothing like the father, who is dark-skinned—a gift from his Jamaican father—thin, gaunt even, tall with a prominent jaw and a hawk-like nose that suggests a stubborn streak—a gift from his Nordic mother. The son is heavy-set and going soft. Unlike his father, he has all ten fingers.
The man behind the desk nods, taps at a computer, makes a face to let them know he’s pondering the possibilities. “Seldom Wright?”
The son and wife laugh. “Well, you could say that, but his name is Seldon, not Seldom.”
The man fakes a chuckle. “Yes, well, let’s see… Can you come back this afternoon and we’ll make the arrangements.” He says arrangements like a funeral director. He usually has a spiel, what Shady Shores can offer the independent residents, several meal plans to choose from, someone on call twenty-four hours a day should they need emergency assistance, golfing down the street, shuffleboard, once-a-week cleaning service, even a place in the garage for a car if the resident is still driving. This time, however, the spiel isn’t necessary, and he’s disappointed.
Sel, in his Wing B room, peeks outside, squints, winces, his head slammed by the damn sun. It’s the end of August, hurricane season and hotter than a rattlesnake’s ass in a wagon rut. A nursing assistant in her green uniform rushes across the parking lot past his motorcycle, and he wonders if she’ll make it to the door before the sun slaps her to the black asphalt, dries her out, a husk of her former self. EMTs push a stretcher into the back of an ambulance, then drive off beneath the bright sky. Sel starts to turn away, stops, looks one more time. Just checking, making sure the motorcycle is still there.
A tropical depression in the Atlantic. No big deal, his son said. Happens all the time. Beneath a gray tarp, Sel’s Harley waits, rearing to go. Two helmets on the shelf. A backpack tucked below the bed holds everything he needs for a quick getaway.
He hobbles to the bed, puts the walker aside, picks up the atlas, and waits for the young girl who wants to trim his toenails, his excitement for the day. He thumbs through the maps, stops at Florida, taps the middle of the page with his finger. This is where he is, the middle of hot and humid. Florida, flanked by pages and pages of maps, places he’s been and places he’d go if he could ride, if his fucking hip wasn’t replaced, if he didn’t have pins in his clavicle, if they didn’t think he’d damaged his head, if the Harley’s battery isn’t dead from baking in the sun. Sel, with a Finnish mother and Jamaican father, should have been able to tolerate extreme cold or heat, but in that department he got only the Finnish genes. Despite three tours in Vietnam, he never learned to tolerate the heat. He turns the pages. Ohio, a place he’s headed when the hip, head, and shoulder heal.
Restless, he pushes the walker down the hall. The story of his life: a propensity for motion, always searching for home. He stops at the activity room, leans against the wall, watches a Bingo game, the ambulance’s passenger the topic of conversation and speculation. Questions of who and how. Heart attack? Just stopped breathing? They don’t know? Hazel. Hazel Green. Too bad. Oh dear. She was such a sweet lady. Comparisons are made, Hazel’s condition, age, and medication to theirs, then quick calculations of their own risk. The Bingo caller, a volunteer not a resident, a man in his 60s and considered a youngster by those hunched over their Bingo cards, shouts, “B-9.”
A blue-haired woman wearing a red scarf around her neck and whose Bingo card is surrounded by photos of her four great-grandchildren throws up her arms and yells, “Bingo.” The others either groan or applaud, depending on how well they know the blue-haired lady. Hazel’s death is momentarily forgotten.
Sel doesn’t play bingo, bridge, checkers, or chess. Poker years ago. Texas hold-em. Seven-card stud. He reads historical books. That’s one thing. And looks at maps, that’s another. He swears like a Marine, which he was. Shit! Damn! Fuck! He’s been warned by his son and the priest visiting the guy on the other side of the brown curtain, but the fucks and shits and damns slip out, bounce against the walls, the hot windows.
Thelma has made a mistake on her card. She has not won, much to the joy and annoyance of the others sitting at their tables hunched over their own cards. The aide pats her gently on the shoulder, points out the mistake, which Thelma pretends not to see. As the game resumes the conversation at the back tables momentarily returns to Hazel and her sudden departure. An aide, a heavy-set woman going prematurely bald, moves to the wall, glances up at the clock, maybe counting the minutes until the game or her shift ends at five. The silent television screen on the wall is tuned to the weather channel, but Sel can’t read the closed caption from where he’s standing. It doesn’t matter. He knows the forecast: hot and humid.
Sel’s had enough excitement, and he’s looking forward to seeing the aide who is going to trim his toenails. He grabs the damn walker and pushes his way back to his damn room, where he squints out the fucking window. He should have scratched lines on the wall behind the fucking bed, markers for how long he’s been here. Four days? Seems longer. How many hours? He’s not up to the math although at one time he could have had an answer faster than the command to lock and load. The doctor is vague on how much longer he needs to stay. These things—he says, meaning the new hip, the pins in the clavicle, the bump on the head—are difficult to predict. He pauses. At your age hangs in the air, unspoken. Sel’s son and daughter-in-law insist he takes up residence here. They say he’ll be close to them, that it isn’t good to live alone, look what could happen, they say, pointing to his hip, his shoulder, glancing quickly at his head, like the doctor, always careful to avoid saying at your age. Sel looks for ulterior motives, why they are so desperate for him to stay close to them when they never came to visit him, not once in twenty-five years. He feels guilty for suspecting sinister motives. His hip aches. His shoulder is sore. His head, he thinks, he hopes, is fine. Only a dozen stitches.
Laughter comes from his roommate’s television on the other side of the curtain. The roommate he’s not seen, the invisible man, just a lump in the bed when Sel peeks around the curtain on his way to the bathroom. He feels the laughter is directed at him, at the damn ache in his hip. If he had a beer . . .
A soft knock on the door and before he can answer, the door swings open. “Mr. Wright?”
He told her to call him Sel, that mister should be saved for old people, and he was only sixty-five although he’s actually fifteen years older. She pretends to buy the lie. Although his eyelids droop, his hair is a memory, and his large ears stick out like radar dishes, he’s not yet become a human prune, which he credits to his dark skin. He walks erect, with a purpose, like he’s actually going someplace, credit the Marines for that. She’s been in his room several times, but he’s forgotten her name, and he begins to run through the alphabet. A . . . B . . . C . . . D . . . E Emily? He always stops at Emily. But this is taking too long. “Yes. Come in, Emily,” he says, although she already is.
“Feather,” she says.
Feather. He was one letter short.
“You’re dressed!” she says, apparently surprised he wasn’t going to wear those goddamned pajamas forever. But yes, he’s dressed, baggy pants for sure but dressed. Act like you’re okay and maybe the body will believe it.
She holds up a small, black nylon bag.
Sel’s not sure if he supposed to guess what’s inside or if she expects him to know that it holds nail trimmers and a bundle of bandages should things go wrong. She smiles, a small gap between the two front teeth, teeth the color of teeth, not artificially whitened to look like elephant tusks or headlights on high beam. No makeup, blond hair pulled into a ponytail. Dark brown eyes. She’s tall and thin, skinny but strong, practically launched him off the floor when she helped him to his feet the previous day. Looks like maybe she’s fourteen but claims she’s twenty-four. Ah, but we’re all entitled to our little lies.
Very pretty, although that’s not something he’ll tell her. He’s too old to be thinking like that. And there goes another lie.
“It’s time,” she says.
It’s time? A greeting Sel imagines the person carted away in the ambulance may have had when death arrived.
“It’s time,” she repeats. “If you’re ready.”
Sel doesn’t know what it means to be ready to have his toenails trimmed. Socks off? Toes pointed at the ceiling? He’d have a smart comment were it anyone but the young woman standing in front of him, biting her bottom lip, grinning. Her name tag says Feather, CNA, but she doesn’t look like a Feather, so Sel says again, “Emily?”
She takes another step forward. “Feather.”
He doesn’t buy it. Feather? She’d have caught hell in school with a name like that. “Sure you want to do this?” he asks. He looks down at his feet, the green compression socks that are supposed to keep the blood from pooling in his ankles.
“It’s my job.”
It’s my job is not the answer he’s looking for. “Well,” he says, “if you’d prefer not to do it, I won’t tell.”
For reasons he doesn’t understand this Feather laughs. “No. I’m good,” she says.
He wonders if she means she’s good at trimming toenails, which he hopes, or if she is agreeable to doing it. “Okay,” he says, sitting on the bed. “Trim away.” He tries flexing his toes, but they don’t flex much. If she noticed any movement, she doesn’t mention it. She sees his left hand with the three missing fingers resting on his knee, but she doesn’t mention that either.
She slides a white towel beneath his right foot, holds the large nail clippers up to the fluorescent light. “I sanitize these after every . . .” She looks for the right word. Patient? Customer? Old fart? She laughs. “After every resident. Thought you might want to know.
It wasn’t something Sel had considered but now he does. He wonders if the resident that’s just been hauled off was Feather’s previous patient . . . customer, resident. Maybe Feather nicked an artery and the resident bled to death. “That’s good,” he says, leaning forward so he can watch, direct her away from the blood vessels that run like blue tubes beneath the brown skin of his foot.
“You’re my third one,” she says.
Again, Sel is confused. “Third what?”
“Third . . . ” she holds up the nail trimmers and clicks the cutting edges together.
“Third today or third ever?”
“Today,” she says. “I’m getting good at it.”
“A professional,” he says.
Feather makes a face. Unlike the nurses and other caregivers, she is very pale except for the bruises on her arms. He wonders if she’s recently moved to Florida or if she never goes outside. He also wonders if her parents raised chickens or loved birds, maybe ostriches or peacocks.
Her hand touches his foot and he jumps. “Sorry,” she says.
“No, no. It tickled.” He feels something has changed, something difficult to pinpoint. He’s said several sentences without swearing, a record for the day. Maybe that’s it.
She takes a firmer grip on his foot, glances up at him, and begins to peel off his sock, which he finds erotic, which surprises him as it has been months, maybe years since he’s had a sexy thought. A memory comes back, one more than sixty years old. A girl, a porch roof, a starry night. He grins, looks at this girl trimming his toes who is the spitting image of that long-ago girl. Then he puts the memory back on the shelf. His foot is boney, his toes crooked, the knuckles huge. It’s an ugly foot, not that he cares, but he thinks Feather might.
She takes his big toe in her hand. “Here it goes.”
Sixty years ago his feet looked better despite the blisters. Riding his bike over a hundred miles in the rain, his socks bunched up inside his shoes. Blisters on the big toe and the long-necked one next to it. Both feet. He limped down the hall, following Em into the bedroom. Em’s bedroom. The shower had revived him but not his toes. Em in her pink pajamas and wet hair sitting on the edge of the bed. Sel thinking things were going to happen and worried they would and worried they wouldn’t. No protection. Worried her parents might show up, too.
“You’re walking funny,” she said.
Sel laughed. The only thing he was wearing was a bath towel, and she noticed that he was walking funny. “My toes,” he said. “Blisters.”
Em knelt down to look, unaware the top of her pajamas gaped open. Maybe she didn’t care. Maybe she wanted him to see her breasts. That’s what he thought, what he hoped.
“They need punctured,” she said. “Your blisters. Here, sit on the bed while I get a needle and gauze.”
Maybe she was nervous and not sure how to proceed. He was nervous and he didn’t have a clue as to what he should or could do next. He considered the circumstances. His clothes, wet from riding his bike in the rain, were in the dryer, so he wore nothing except the towel wrapped around his waist. She was in her pajamas, and he was sitting on her bed. But he was hungry too. Starved more like it. She’d said they would make pancakes later. If she wanted to make pancakes later, she must think doing something now would be okay. He was confused and before he could analyze further she returned to the bedroom holding a needle, the white thread still dangling from the eye.
“I sterilized it,” she said.
She sat at his feet. The pajama top gaped open even more than before. Did she unbutton another button? She took his left foot in her hand and he jumped. “Sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay. It just tickled.”
She grasped his foot more firmly, squeezed his arch, pulled on his big toe. “Here it goes,” she said.
The pain was sharp but brief. The pressure relieved, almost pleasure.
She dabbed at his toe with the gauze. “Better?”
He nodded. Her warm hand on his foot.
She held the second toe, the long one with the skinny neck. This time there was no warning. She plunged the needle in, and again, momentary pain followed by relief, even pleasure. She dabbed, held the foot, pretended not to notice him looking down the top of her pajamas. “Now the other foot,” she said, and the process was repeated, poke, pain, pleasure, poke, pain, pleasure.
She inspected his feet for other blisters and finding none, returned the needle and gauze to the bathroom, washed her hands and then climbed into bed.
Roger Hart has had stories and essays published in more than thirty journals and magazines. His story collection Erratics won the George Garrett Fiction Prize and was published by the Texas Review Press. His stories have also won the Ohio Writer Fiction Contest, the Third Coast Fiction Contest, the Marguerite McGlinn fiction contest, and been included in multiple anthologies. His story collection Mysteries of the Universe is forthcoming from Kallisto Gaia Press. He lives with his wife and two very large dogs in northern Montana where he is working on a second novel.