Jeb made the hole in the lid bigger with a pen so that he could drink easier. Traffic light changed. His best parking spot was taken. Doors slid open. Snack machines in the break room were almost empty.
Paper said a new movie was coming out, about geek-love and nerd-culture. There were three stars under the title. Three stars out of five possible. Jeb filled in the last two. He rolled up the paper.
“Good morning Andrew.” Jeb read the chart. The overnight worker’s handwriting filled three lines.
“Jeb. My man. How are you this morning? Did you bring me anything?”
“Only my clever wit and remarkable charm.” Andrew stuck out his arm to have his pulse checked. Jeb massaged his shoulder muscles.
“Get laid last night, Jeb?”
“Wife wasn’t around.”
“Okay. Get laid last night?” Jeb slid down to Andrew’s feet and flexed his ankles. “You know what, Jeb? Last night I was thinking that I’m not going to finish high school. No big deal. People make that decision all the time.”
“Is that your decision?”
“It could have been. I could have made that decision. Well, at least I don’t have to choose a college. Where did you go for college?”
Jeb told him. “Roll over.”
“Christ, is it time for scab check?” Jeb used a pincer to check the width of the scabs. At some, he pushed into them until Andrew winced. “So, is this what you thought you would be doing, Jeb, when you grew up? Sticking needles into scabs to see if they’re infected? I’ve noticed that you’re particularly gentle with the ass scabs – as you should be, I might add. Ass scabs are highly sensitive…”
“Stop moving, funny guy. I have to get this right on the chart, or they’ll ask me to start checking every day – and I figure you wouldn’t like that.”
“Didn’t answer my question.”
“Is this what you pictured doing…”
“You know it’s not.” Jeb moved downwards, making a grid over the skin of Andrew’s back, marking off the areas where the purple splotches had grown, where they had split and bled.
“Write a script. A book. Even a story. Something, Jeb. Anything except this.” Jeb reached Andrew’s lower back. A black hill had risen there, filled with fluid that was leaking through a hole. Jeb inserted a needle and slid it deeper and deeper, watching Andrew for any reaction. When it was half-way in, he jostled it from side to side to loosen up the congealed masses that then oozed through the original hole. Jeb pushed the needle in further.
“Because you suck at this,” Andrew added, with a smile. “You really do, Jeb. Get a real job, my man. Quick as you can.”
Snack machines in the break room were full, but no one ate anything. Tomorrow they would be empty again, and still no one would have eaten anything. Jeb sat in the corner and didn’t notice.
“Emma put on perfume three times yesterday, that’s why she smelled like that,” said Al.
“I didn’t notice.”
“You never notice anything. Anyway, the hell you didn’t notice. Sheryl smelled bad too.”
“Worse than Emma,” admitted Jeb. The restaurant had been dark because half the lightbulbs were dead and the frills on the lamps hung down to eye level. When the door to the kitchen opened, it smelled like grease; a spot under Jeb’s chair was thick with it. But Sheryl overcame that with her perfume, put on again and again on the way out the door.
“Heard you’re down to one patient. That Andrew kid. What’s the story?”
The disease was six words long, and at that it was a syndrome: a combination of symptoms that had no root cause, a cocktail hoping some day for disease status. “Girlfriend left first. Couldn’t handle the discolouration or the smell. Impotence probably didn’t help.”
“Twenty two now. Dad took off after that, bills were cutting into his business. He sold re-insurance. Left his mom by herself. I’ve seen her a couple of times. Darla. Looks like a Darla, too.”
“Let me guess. Big permed blond hair and a lot of lipstick. Tidy handbag and a nice drive.”
“You like the type. She hung on for a while. But stopped knitting him sweaters because he kept getting smaller and smaller. Stopped making him cookies when he couldn’t swallow solid food anymore. The books were done when his eyes couldn’t focus, the walks when his legs went. After a while, there wasn’t anything left to do for him that mothers do.”
“Ah Darla, that’s harsh.”
“She calls him. Never says goodbye. Lots of silences. Doesn’t come here anymore.”
“You’re getting mushy, Jeb. Mushy.”
Jeb stared at him. Al was fat, so was his wife. Their kids would be fat; in time, the whole world might be fat because of them. “She’s thinking that he’s not going to graduate. Her kid is not going to get a degree. He’s not having a wedding and she’s not making a speech. She doesn’t get to be drunk and fuck her ex-husband after the party’s over. She doesn’t get grandkids. She gets nothing.” Al tried to interrupt; when Jeb kept going, he stared at the snack machines as though he could eat them whole. He shook his head, talked about what he and Jeb and Sheryl and Emma would do Friday night. But Jeb kept going. He kept going until he found himself in Andrew’s room, watching him sleep. He thought about what his kids with Sheryl would look like if they ever had any. He pulled over Andrew’s hair until it was in the sunshine and looked brighter, like Sheryl’s; he pulled up the bedsheet until the boy’s chin was longer, like his. What he didn’t notice was Andrew’s breathing: it was like a dragon’s, one that had no fire left, only smoke.
“Well, Jeb, it’s like this. I want you to write NBC and have them get the Osterman Weekend series to pilot this year instead of next, because god knows that I don’t want to miss that show. I figure I can get in at least half a season…”
Jeb pulled out the dead hair in Andrew’s scalp – it seemed to be saying something different. It seemed to say: “half a season? Are you kidding? If that were right, why am I coming out in clumps? Why do I stain the pillow every morning? Why am I changing colour?” Jeb kept brushing; Andrew kept talking: “Also, I’ll make sure to send you some future forecasts on World Series winners. The dead have super powers, Jeb. You know that, right?”
“And you’re going to use those powers to give me betting tips on baseball?”
“That’s not all. I’m going to fix earthquakes too. And tsunamis. And I’m going to fix earthquakes that make tsunamis.” Andrew caught Jeb’s arm. “I am, Jeb. I am.”
“Good motion and grip today, Andrew,” said Jeb, peeling off the boy’s fingers. “Now, what’s this secret you’re on about?”
Andrew smiled. “Examine me, nurse. Tend to my mind and my body both. Nourish my soul and drink to my health, sir.”
Jeb began his examination. Andrew’s shoulders were stronger than normal, the splotches on his chest less pronounced than they had been the day before, but his heartbeat was slow, langorous, his stomach rumbling from a lack of real food. Jeb slid lower, until his hand was at the boy’s navel. He could feel intestines roiling with gas. He put his hand under the belly button, pressing until Andrew sighed in discomfort. Then he slid the blanket down.
“Andrew,” he said, as the boy tried to laugh, “you’ve got an erection.”
“Like I didn’t know! Surprise! The doc gave me some new meds, he said there might be side effects. I didn’t hear him mention this though.”
“Does he know about it?”
“Not yet. You’re the first witness. Make sure you write this down on the chart. You can exaggerate the length if you want. In fact, that would be pretty sweet.” Jeb removed the rest of the sheet and checked the boy’s legs. “Jeb. You can tell the girl nurses if you want.”
“I don’t know how I’d bring that up.”
“Take a picture with your phone? Modern technology and all.”
“Time for a bath, Andrew.”
“Put me down as the lead in a decrepit persons’ puppet show? No hands required! Let me perform for the girls, Jeb – let me perform!”
The splotches on Andrew’s neck were purple volcanoes made of grape juice; the infection in his right eye had congealed so that Jeb had to scape it loose. His chest was so sensitive that even gentle cleaning with the sponge took off skin.
“Is your wife sour about things, too, Jeb? You should bring her in so that I can meet her. I could make her laugh. Do you make her laugh, Jeb?”
“I make her laugh,” he confirmed, cleaning the stink that had settled into the boy’s belly button.
“You’re a right comedian, sure. Have you told her much about me?”
“Haven’t had the chance.”
“How’s that possible? You’re married.”
“Sure,” said Jeb. He moved from the belly button to the boy’s hips, cleaning out the dead skin until the flesh glowed. The sponge floated over the boy’s abdomen and then down to his penis. It was still erect. Jeb sighed and rubbed the sponge over pubic hair and up the shaft. He squeezed the sponge at the top and let the water drip down the thing, until it was glistening. Jeb wrapped the sponge around Andrew’s penis and moved downwards, until his hand touched the boy’s testicles. Jeb looked up; Andrew was staring out the window, into the gardens that he couldn’t visit anymore. Jeb’s hand rose again, the sponge a little tighter this time. He squeezed the head of the boy’s penis when he reached it, then moved down again. After that, it was automatic. Andrew sighed again; a moment later, a moan escaped his teeth. Jeb’s hand moved faster, the water dripping from the sponge, the muscle caught in his hand growing stiffer in response to the agitation. “Clean,” said Jeb to himself, in his head, in his heart: “clean this skin, this yellowish blob of distended and deteriorating muscles, this latticework of overly-blue veins and dead nerves. Clean it. Make it beautiful again. That is your job. That is what you do. This is what you do.” Andrew hardly made a sound when it was over, but his body tightened as though he had died. Jeb moved to Andrew’s legs, because that was also part of his job. When he was done, he looked up. Andrew was not looking through the window anymore. Andrew’s blue eyes were staring at him, wide and sparkling, looking healthy despite the wetness that had accumulated in them, so much water that Andrew might as well have been drowning.
The AC was on high. Jeb went to the window and opened it.
“Wasting energy,” said Al, as he pushed Andrew into the room.
“Well Al,” said Andrew, “on account of my notably slight frame, I feel everything ten degrees less than you do, so I would call this proactive nursing on your part. Congratulations. You’re a credit to the health care system.”
“Punk kid,” muttered Al, waving as he left.
“He likes you,” said Jeb. The sounds of the summer carnival were still strong; the acid smell of split-open candy apples seemed to be right in the room. Wasps were buzzing about the mess in the gardens and against the mesh of the window screen.
“Do you like me, Jeb?”
“You know I do.”
“Then get me some bacon.”
“You can’t digest bacon. But I did get you something.” Jeb sat on the bed and opened a paper towel. In it were three pieces of bread.
“Bread? Jesus. My treat in life is now bread. Used to be I drank hard and finished off with some coke or crystal. Now I die for bread.”
“I can toss it if you want…”
Andrew smirked but accepted the bread. It had been two weeks since last Jeb had helped Andrew. In that time, the doctor had changed his meds again, and now he was back to his decrepit self, hardly able to lift his hand to bring the bread to his mouth. “Chew slowly,” said Jeb, helping. “Easy. Have a bit of water.”
When Andrew was finished, he leaned against the pillow. “You called my mother. How come?”
“How’d you know?”
“Al blabbed. So did Janie. And Marie. Is she coming?”
“But she knows what’s happening?”
“What’s happening, Andrew?”
“I’m not going to get to watch the pilot for the Osterman Weekend.”
There was a breeze at the window; it curled around the TV and hid in the bowl of plastic fruit on the writing table. “The doc told you?”
Andrew nodded. “Want to help me with my bucket list? Don’t worry. Won’t need to be a big bucket. Got a pencil?” Jeb nodded and started writing. It took five minutes to come up with the first thing. Andrew laughed the whole time. It took fifteen more minutes to come up with items two and three.
“Ah Jeb,” said the boy. “It’s been interesting. You and me. And now Al. The fact that I made it through summer impresses me. I figured a mosquito would get in here and drink what’s left of my blood.”
“I’m sorry Andrew.”
“You’re not allowed to say that, Jeb.”
“I’m sorry Andrew.”
“Now you’re being obstinate. And yes, I know what that word means. Jeb. Would Sheryl like to visit now? Might be her last chance.”
“She doesn’t come here, Andrew.”
“What kind of wife is that? I’m your friend, aren’t I? Why wouldn’t she want to see me?”
“Is there anything else you want?”
“A kiss. Can you kiss me, Jeb?”
“Can you hug me, Jeb?”
“How about this, then. How about two strips of bacon. Down from my original offer of six. I’ve taken four out of the equation, Jeb. Surely you can do that.”
“I can call your girlfriend.”
“She’s not my girlfriend anymore.”
“I can call your dad.”
“He’s not my dad anymore.”
“I can call some friends from school…”
“Sure. As long as they bring bacon.”
Jeb stood up. “I’ll try. Anything else?”
“Yes,” said the boy. He managed enough strength to smile. “A movie marathon. Any type will do. Turn on the TV for me, Jeb. Then you can go.” The TV flickered on and Jeb ran through the channels until Andrew told him to stop. “This is good. A sea monster movie marathon. I have something in common with those guys.”
But Andrew was watching the movie. It was black and white. Something awkward and unlikely was clawing its way through the hard shelf at the bottom of the ocean, only to emerge into a watery environment that it didn’t know how to properly survive. Up it swam. Legs kicking, arms flailing, it reached for a lit sky that seemed to be an eternity in the distance.
“You’re early,” said Sheryl from the kitchen. “But not early enough.”
“Anything. You can handle dinner? Good. Was it a decent day? I said, was it a decent day?”
Jeb went to the couch. The sun was bouncing off the glass of the coffee table. There were prisms stains on the wallpaper.
“I’m off for a few days.”
Sheryl poked her head into the hallway. “Oh? What about your patients? I made lemonade. Put it in scotch glasses to be fancy.” She brought him a glass. He watched it sweat in the sunlight, the drops on their way to making a ring on the table.
“It’s taken care of.”
“What?” she called from the kitchen.
“It’s taken care of. The patients.”
“That’s good, isn’t it.”
On the radio, a woman was talking about a flood. The water had destroyed houses, but one story was about a boat that had floated to a tree where a young couple had been trapped. Jeb listened to their voices in the interview, how they talked over each other, what they were prepared to do to make sure the boat got back to its rightful owner. They had no house, no clothes, no food, no money; all they had was someone else’s boat, the boat that had saved them, the boat that they were going to work hard to give back.
The lemonade was good. The sun got a little closer to his feet on the table.
Sheryl rummaged about in a closet.
“It was a great day.”
“What’s that?” she asked.
“You wanted to know what kind of day it was. I said it was great. It started. It ended. I’m home. I’ll stay home tomorrow too. Monday, I’ll go back. That’s when.” He considered the lemonade, beside a bowl full of sunlight; and his reflection in a television set, the arrangement of eyes buried under hair, chin too long, skin too white. Jeb’s breaths were strong and under-used, his dreams rent long ago and sold as scrap in a market made of shit, or so he thought. “So I thought,” he repeated to Sheryl, as she put on her jacket. “Goodbye Andrew,” he said, finally, as the sun caught him and asked him why he’d bother with such words, if they would have come at all if the boy hadn’t looked a bit like him and Sheryl, a bit like what their kids might have been.
“Okay, bye,” she returned, as she closed the door on the way to a night shift.