It’s My Job, Edith

            The corner store is raided. I am stealing candy bars by the handful, licorice by the roll. The clerk offers a plastic bag. “No thanks,” I say to her.

            Layne gave me a twenty to, in her words, “Get her through the next round of liquid food, and maybe to have some normal-looking poop for once.” I spend the whole thing and march into the sunshine.

            Back at the house, she’s got her legs bent upwards. “By God, if you didn’t get me rosebuds, I’m going to get up and go over there myself.”

            I give her a bar of white chocolate. She nibbles on it. Her teeth look smaller than they used to, although that’s not possible; it’s just that her gums have shrunk, making the teeth seem longer.

            “What are you looking at?” she asks, as though she doesn’t know. A machine is beeping next to her. A button on the headboard is bright red, with a big white exclamation mark through it. Makes me laugh. “Tell me about your dumb-ass new job. Sounds really stupid.”

            “I don’t want to bore you to death…” I tell her.

            She smiles, “I can’t imagine a more painful way to go.”

            “Here, have a rosebud. I didn’t forget. Job’s simple. I get paid to cuddle people. Go to their houses and sit with them for a while and just cuddle. Ninety bucks an hour!” She closes her eyes for a moment and everything stops. I look at the machine. It’s still making noises. It’s still chugging along. I close my eyes too, and when I open them, she’s looking at me, trying to laugh. “There’s no sex or anything like that. Clients are heavily screened. I went through three weeks of training.”

            “You cuddle for a living?” she says. “And you had to have training for it? That sounds about right… Do mom and dad know?”

            “No, and don’t tell them. Money’s good. Best job I’ve had in ages, all right?”

            For a second, her eyes widen so much that I remember her back then, before, when she had hair and there weren’t wrinkles of skin hanging from her jawbones. “Well, I’m glad I held on this long. Doc said I wouldn’t see the spring, but showed him. Next time he’s over, I’m going to tell him it had nothing to do with wanting winter to end. I’m gonna tell him that I stuck around to hear that my brother is a professional cuddler.”

            I get up and head to the door. “Got an appointment soon.”

            “Can’t stay a bit longer?”

            “Have to be on time.”

            I left the candy within reach, yellow and red wrappers everywhere. She’s been taking bites out of different pieces, never finishing anything. Even when Layne was okay, back in the before, she never finished anything. “Can you open the window for me?” she asks. I do that. “Slide me that book over there?” I do it. “Maybe untangle my colostomy bag? It feels a little backed up.” And she laughs. She finally manages it.

            At the door, she inhales. She has to draw a big breath whenever she wants to say something. “Maybe you could cuddle with me?” There’s no smile this time. “For a while. That would be nice. I could pay you. Be your client.”

            The room has that smell. The window is flushing it over me. “Later,” I tell her. And she nods.

            Downstairs, Becky is scribbling on paper. “She dead yet?”

            “Becky…” I kneel next to her. She is drawing the winter, big flakes and roofs gathering snow. There are markers next to her suggesting that she is going to finish it off with Christmas. “I left some candy upstairs with her.”

            “She’s not supposed to eat that. Neither am I.”

            “I know. I’m sorry. I’ll see you later, Becky,” I tell her, rising.

            She looks up. “I’m pretty sure you said she’d be fine. You were going to find some good people to fix her up. That’s what you said. Now you’re giving her candy. I don’t think that’s going to do it.”

            “She wanted some…”

            “I want some too.” Becky is scratching away at the drawing. It’s not Christmas on the paper, it’s a time before that. It’s summer, and it’s two years ago, and it’s further back than even that. It’s a mess, I think to myself. It’s just a mess of scribbles and snowflakes, and it doesn’t mean anything at all. “Sugar will make her worse. But it doesn’t matter now, does it?”

            “Becky, you need to talk to your dad…”

            “Sure, Uncle Jim, I’ll do that. Just as soon as he gets home. Should be in a few minutes.”

            “I have to go now. See you, Becky. I’ll be back for dinner.” She puts her head down. Shrugs. Keeps scribbling.

            Outside, it’s spring. Makes me laugh. The bus driver gives me a transfer. I put my knees as high as I can on the seat in front of me. There’s an old man sitting there. Keeps nodding his head as though he’s listening to music. On the street, on the sidewalks, there’s a few snowbanks left. But not many.

            The appointment’s on the east end. It takes an hour to get there. The house is huge, all glass at the front, holding up a mass of red brick. A driveway of stone curls towards the wooden doors. I ring the doorbell and practice Layne’s eulogy. She works on it with me all the time. Makes me promise that I have to get people to laugh. That I have to end it off crying, if I can, because unless I laugh – she says – I am the type of person that never cries.

            “Hi Mrs. Doyle,” I tell the old woman. “Great to see you again!”

            “Jim, Jim, Jim,” she says. Puts her hands on her head, as though I’m doing her a favour by being here, as though she wasn’t expecting me to show up. I call the service and tell them that I’ve started the appointment. She leads me through the house to the back room. There’s more glass here, overlooking a garden and a pond. A big fish sloshes around in the water. A squirrel bumps around in the trees overhead. We sit on a red round chair.

            “Edith,” she whispers, as she leans closer to me. It’s like she’s going to kiss me. Her chin rests on my shoulder. “Please call me that.”

            “Yes, okay. How are you today?”

            “I enjoyed the last time so much,” she says. She must be eighty, living in a house this big. Makes me laugh. From the smell of her, it seems like she just showered. That she got ready for me. A narrow, bony arm crosses my chest and takes my other shoulder. She is hugging me now, from the side. I stare at the pond, and at the big fish that keeps cresting the surface as though it is trying to jump into the sky. “Thank you so much for coming.”

            “Is this position okay?” I ask her. “Do you want to sit like this for a while?”

            “I think so. You don’t need to speak.”

            Her nose is nuzzling my neck. It’s cold and sharp, feels like it might cut me. She’s whispering, but it’s not my name, and it’s not to me. Her hand is on my cheek. One second, I feel that I might be her son; the next, her husband. After that, a friend. An old lover. A mother. A sister.

            I sit straight up. I don’t move. Edith is not exactly crying, but she is not laughing either. I sit there, staring out the window. Under a tree, there’s a hint of snow. Maybe if the shadows are just right, I think, maybe if everything goes well and it gets lucky, maybe it will get all the way through the spring. Maybe even the summer. By October, I think – if it can make it that far – it will be all right for another whole year. Edith’s arms tighten. She whispers. It makes me laugh. It just does.

126 thoughts on “It’s My Job, Edith

  1. How heartbreaking to think that there are people who need to pay to be embraced. Even though I have wonderful friends and family, I harbour an irrational fear that this could one day be me.

    • I think we may all have that fear… unfortunately, I think it’s inevitable that we come to this. I just read Paul’s note in this comment thread, and he has an interesting point. If we pay for human touch of this nature, one day it becomes part of the beauracracy and becomes overseen – seems like a crazy outcome, but why not? It could happen. I hope it doesn’t.

  2. This is a topic that has concerned me for many years Trent. We, as a society – in fact most first world nations – have been busy monetizing everything. We have been putting dollar evaluations on things that should not be valued that way. When we do that we create emotional paradoxes that are insoluble. The trouble is that you can’t blame the customer and you can’t blame the vendor for filling a need that would other wise go unfilled. The trouble starts way before we get to the point of service delivery – way back at why the service was required in the first place. And interfering with the deivery, once the product or service is monetized does not help in any way at all – it simply detracts from the value of life. It is a wicked problem for sure.

    This is a good example of how convoluted the biblical quote “money is a root of evil” becomes. Surely paying for a hug could never be termed evil and I don’t think in anyone’s religion it would be so. For the hugger has costs associated with providing the service and has to make a living too – so it is a fair trade. And yet, once the service is monetized – indeed, once it is relegated to “service” status.- it then becomes fair to say that such a service should only be available to those who have the financial means to pay for it. And, as it is now a service offered, it comes under the purview of government regulations to establish safety and moral operating condititons. And like all services it becomes taxable. Now the government gets a part of every hug and you are requred to pay them for the priviledge of being hugged. And it goes on, getting worse from there (imagine a law suit for not providing services living up to advertizing). And yet it seems not only inevitable but, as you pointed out, happening right now.

    Awesome choice of topic and the writing was excellent too Trent. Hey, congrats on your new look. I’ll miss the Klingon thinking but I must say this is much more upbeat.

    • Paul, I think you’ve just taken my Sunday morning amusement and made me actually think about it. Once the service is monetized… even for so simple a thing as a hug, it does seem like a horrendous possible outcome. So many other things it raises. We change our behaviour all the time, obviously, and unfortunately those changes become the norm without thinking about it. I used to write letters – in my own handwriting, but no more. I used to pick up and call people to hear their voice – but texting and e-mail is easier, quicker. We seem to be getting further from what makes us human, and closer and closer to some point of being like our devices. Maybe that’s just evolution – but what are we evolving into?

      Yeah, felt like a new look, something a little brighter.

  3. I also heard about the service and found it a bit unsettling. The radio crew was making fun of it. I love this piece. I hope you enjoy hugging your kids on this snowy Sunday.

  4. I have to agree with all who claimed this as their new favorite. It is certainly up there for me too. Love the story and how it’s written. Such a range of emotion in such a short story. Just brilliant. And I read what Paul said also…and it’s true. But if you think about it, this has been happening for a long time…under the guises of home health care services and even prostitution. I know…quite a gap between the two…but there are those that pay for these services JUST for the chance at human touch. Not medical in the one case, not sexual in the other….just human touch. I would hate a life where I could not hug and be hugged…and would likely pay for the privilege.

    • For the chance at human touch… yes. I think that’s unfortunately coming more and more true. It’s a shame. Glad you liked the story, SB, I’m trying to concentrate on shorter pieces. I figure I give myself an hour window, sip the coffee, watch the sun come up, and write as quickly as I can. If it’s not limited for me, I just keep going and going and going…

  5. Paul is so right. We have exchanged convenience for love and family and responsibility. I hadn’t heard of this service — but it is such a sad statement on where we’ve come as a society.

    And the death of a sister kills me every time. I’ve lost both of them — one I was able to be with, the other was sudden and unexpected. Saying good-bye in person with a hug makes all the difference in acceptance, I think.

  6. I read this piece and it definitely struck a raw nerve. It was beautifully written and brought tears to my eyes so I went for a walk to think about it before I commented.
    This one is definitely near the top of the list of my favourites as well. Although, it seems impossible to pick an actual favourite because you have often touched me with your writing.
    Hugs and snuggles are one of our most valuable assets as human beings. Not in the monetary way – even though it is now apparent that they can be bought. Human touch, warmth and comfort is something we all crave and can thrive on. They feed our souls. To remove that from someone’s life seems cruel but there are many that don’t get enough…if any. These are things that should be given freely but if they aren’t I would have to think that being able to buy them is a blessing. Is a snuggle still a snuggle if it is paid for? It really is a dichotomy isn’t it?

    • Thanks Michelle. I treasure human contact, and it’s seemingly all around me. It must have been for everyone, no? Or maybe not. But for those who grew up with it, what must it feel like to move into a phase of life devoid of it? Seems so sad. And worse (or not?), people have moved in to fill that gap…. the $90/hour price is accurate, actually, that’s what the folks on the radio were saying. That’s the price attached to humanity these days, if you can’t find it anywhere else.

      • Like you, I grew up with it. That is, until my Mom passed. These are the things we take for granted. While in foster care my little sister and I got very little of it. It’s hard to say if I longed for it or just for my Mom. It was some time before it came back into my life. Now I know the value, the true value, not the $90 value, and cherish every touch because of that. I do witness people though that have problems with human contact. They don’t like to be touched. They can’t give or receive a hug with out being stiff and feeling uncomfortable. You and I are very lucky we have this human contact in our lives and that we appreciate it.

  7. Hi Trent. This takes the phrase, “You can’t just walk into a room and start touching things,” to a whole new level. Did see this service recently in the local news, and it is indeed sad. I liked your references to the seasons and the reoccurring line, “Makes me laugh.” Which one should I read next?

  8. I read somewhere about this cuddle service. It is too bad that people have to engage a professional cuddler in order to feel the presence of another human being, but I suppose, as we live longer and see those around us, those to whom we are close, leave this life, perhaps it’s the only way to experience closeness with another human being.

    As usual, Trent, a fascinating tale well told.

    • Yup, it’s everywhere, Doobster. The going rate in the story is accurate, at least per one service. Seems like a surefire way to make money, taking off on the need for warmth. Thanks much, Doobster, I had fun with this story.

  9. Professional cuddling…I think you’re on to something, Trent. This should be an occupation, sadly. People need this in their life, especially older folks who are sick and alone. I get the feeling that Jim needs a little cuddling, too. Intriguing story, Trent. I really enjoyed it.

  10. Really enjoyed this one, Trent. Human touch is so necessary to feel a connection. I remember seeing something on the news about this being an actual job. Of course, it’s really not that much of a stretch considering we hire people to be a companion of the elderly and the lonely, we pay people to listen to them, read them books, cook them dinner etc. Might as well pay to cuddle too.

    • Glad you liked. I would expire without human connection. Sadly, that may put me in the camp of those who purchase something as simple as a hug… But no. My kids have no choice but to be hug machines forever.

  11. truly sad, can’t imagine ever having to pay for a hug. it’s weird here, in WA, when I first moved here I couldn’t believe how many fellow employees were hugging, randomly, like hello and bye, but after living here 24 years now, its so normal… everyone does it. handshakes have been reduced to only a first meeting, but after that, its the old shoulder half hug, two sightings later, full hugs… I kid you not, WA must be the most huggable state in the US. and to be honest, I love it!!! I’d never charge for it tho. I have thought about hitting the old folks homes and making the rounds, but I’m ashamed to say, I haven’t ever found the time. Now that you got me thinking about it, tho, what a wonderful way to warm up the world…. maybe I’ll give it a go!! and awesome writing as always my friend!!! always!!!! 🙂 ps.. like the new header too, not so harsh!!

    • Yup, had it in mind since we chatted about it. This is what came out. Not sure how that happened… wasn’t going for sad but I guess that’s where it went. Funny how that happens.

  12. Sadly, I can empathize with Jim. In college, one of my best friends lost her dad unexpectedly. It was a horrible shock for all of us, and because I couldn’t, and can’t, ever imagine losing my father, I separated myself rather than being a better friend and holding her and crying with her. I told myself I did what I did because I wanted to let her have “space” to grieve, but that was just me being selfish. It’s always easier to run away, isn’t it?

    This story inspires me to be a better person. I like that.

  13. *doffs hat* Well done, sir. Well done.
    Your stories are like ogres, or onions, they have layers and sometimes they make people cry. And sometimes I steal lines from movies and use them as comments.

    • Ogres eat people, you know Matticus. Please – steal away. I love a good movie line. And thank you for doffing your hat. I imagine you wearing a bowtie and a top hat.

      Onions always make me cry. Unless I plug my nose with a clothespin – then I don’t cry at all when I’m chopping. True story.

  14. As long as there are poets and writers..there is hope for humanity. A little secret. ..I have a private mission like this in hopes that karma paves a path to those I live in a far distance.
    (Like the new look)

  15. Above and beyond dying messily, dying young, dying after a long, brutal disease, or a horrible winding down of my mental gears — above and beyond all of that… I fear dying alone. I fear being old, and alone, and without the chance for human touch.

    I’ve had dark days, wherein I would have gladly died, if it were easy to do so, without having to do it myself, because I was still afraid of that last moment, of the actual act of it — but I feel like, if there were no touch in my life, no way for me to be embraced, to hold hands, if I could not have the need for physical interaction met, because I was alone enough that I could not be hugged without the sale of an embrace, I’d find that last bit of desperation necessary, and kill myself as quickly as possible.

    Bleak, Lewin, and unafraid. Well done.

    • I never feared being alone. I do fear leaving a bad world behind, one I didn’t touch or try to do anything with. You would think that writing words can’t accomplish anything all that good… I would say otherwise. I live in and amidst human touch all the time, and this is where I think I want to be. But I feel like I live in an abstraction at times, between worlds as Cezanne says in here.

      You are so fearless, Jones. Fearless.

  16. This was quite a good job done. I wonder if what I saw was what you were going for, but please don’t tell me you wrote this without thinking. It would be cruel to us who think hard before writing. It’s actually fascinating considering all the dynamics involved in that drama. The best part was suddenly realizing the full picture of the man who does such jobs, and how that actually plays out in reality, with people just needing a hug from a stranger who finds that his job is as complicated as is simple.
    And thanks for bringing home the point not too early or late.

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