Sunday, February 22, 2009

Our Lady of Mercy

Jim Dody awoke to the sound of beeps, then laughter. The cold weighed heavy on the thin sheets framing his body. He pulled them up to his neck and snuck his hand outside the pocket of warmth, jamming his thumb on the call nurse button.

The TV Jim and his neighbor shared hung from the ceiling in the middle of room. Lights danced on the walls as it flickered from channel to channel at a nauseating speed.

"Grandpa Bert, what channel is Nickelodeon?" rang a high sweet voice from the other side of the curtain.

"I don't know sweetheart. Debby, can you hand me that channel list? No, it's the laminated scrap over there. That's it."

"Yes, Mr. Dody? Can I get you something?" said the Nurse as she entered the room. She walked over to the bed and tucked the sheets taut underneath Jim's mattress, every angle of his body exposed under the taut fabric.

The nurse noticed an ill-placed bump in the middle of the bed. Jim noticed her noticing.

"Don't turn all red girl, it's a sign of good health."

The nurse turned away. "Can I help you with something, or have I seen what I was meant to see?" She hadn't stopped moving since she came in the room, stuffing things in drawers, checking machines, fondling I.V. bags.

"Now wait a minute, you're not Nancy."

"No I'm not" she replied, "Did you need something?"

Jim crossed his arms, "They don't put these call nurse buttons on the beds just so we have something to push you know."

"You'd be surprised how many people make that mistake. Is there something you need Mr. Dody?" Her body hung halfway in the hall.

"Do you mind getting me another blanket?"

The nurse left and the sound of the television filled the room with a song about hamburgers. A yellow sponge was whopping an octopus over the head with a spatula. Jim wondered what had happened to the days when kids watched Popeye.

The nurse returned with a quilt and shook it out over Jim's bed. She raised her arms over her head, and they hung suspended in the air. The quilt floated down to meet Jim's body.

"What's your name 'Not Nancy'?"

"Peggy." She shoved the corners of the quilt deep under the bed. "How's that Mr. Dody? All better?"

"Call me Jim."

"Alright, Jim. Did you need anything else?"

"Peggy, could you come here for a second?" He waved her over with his thick hand.

"Are you in pain?"

"Only a bit, it's that TV." Jim nodded across the room toward his neighbor and whispered, "And those damn kids -- they're louder than hell. Can't you kick 'em out?"

"Why would you want to do that? How would you feel if you had family come all the way out here to visit you, and some mean nurse made them leave?"

"No one's gonna come for me."

A loud fart noise came from the television. The girls giggled.

"I can ask them to keep it down, but that's about it," she said, making her way to the other side of the room.

"How 'bout you turn on the ball game while you're at it?" he yelled after her.

Peggy disappeared behind the curtain. The volume of the television went down. Peggy smiled at Jim when she left the room. Jim winked back.

It was lunchtime. The warm scent of food collided with the smell of medicine as it wafted down the hospital halls.

Peggy came into the room holding Jim's lunch. She placed it on the table and rolled it in front of him. He was lying back, eyes fixed on the television. The yellow sponge from before was long gone, replaced by a Jap animation toon. Figures with big eyes screamed words Jim couldn't understand from wide gaping mouths.
Peggy smiled, "Not hungry Mr. Dody?"

"Not for that slop. What is it today, watered down soup and yellow jell-o?" He grimaced at the tray, lifting up the lid with one finger.

"How about some meatloaf, mash potatoes and chocolate pudding?"

Jim looked up at Peggy. They smiled.

"Who'd you have to kill to sneak this in?"

"Don't you worry about that." She removed the lids from his plate, leaning back to avoid the billowing steam. "Just don't go bragging to anyone or you'll get me in trouble."

Jim unwrapped the silverware and placed the small fork in his left hand. He took a moment to survey the plate before sweeping his hand down and digging deep into the meatloaf. He stabbed the bite into the mashed potatoes and brought the food to his mouth. His lips wrapped around the fork and he mushed the food around his mouth before swallowing. A pair of dentures sat suspended in a cup by the bed.

"Don't you want to put your teeth in Mr. Dody?"

"The food tastes better without 'em," he grumbled." A clump of mashed potatoes escaped his mouth and tumbled down the front of his gown. Peggy got up and tucked a napkin under his chin. Jim waited, holding his arms out to the side until she was done.

Peggy sat back down and smoothed out her skirt, "So when is your family coming to visit?"

"They aren't."

"What about your wife?" Peggy said, nodding at the band on Jim's left hand. A dull gold band peaked out from beneath a layer of mashed potatoes and ketchup. "Don't you have a wife?"

"I had three," he responded before swallowing.

"Three wives," she repeated.

"That's right," he answered.

"Not at the same time I hope."

"Ha!" Jim cackled and bits of meatloaf sprayed out of his mouth, "As if such a torture were possible." He took the bottom of his bib and wiped his chin.
Peggy fingered the strings of her apron, "None of them going to visit you?"

"That'd be kind of hard."


Jim took a sip of water and looked at Peg. Her eyes studyed the stitching on her apron. Jim finished his pudding and pushed the tray away. He went on, "One's dead. One's living in Florida and the last one hates my guts."

Peggy was looking at Jim now. He continued, "Betty, my first wife, died forty years ago. We met in college. All the guys at school were crazy about her. She had blonde curly hair, like a doll's. Big brown eyes, heart-shaped mouth," Jim smiled. He folded his hands on top of his stomach and pretended to be interested in the cartoons on the television.

"She sounds beautiful."

"She was beautiful." Jim's eyes couldn't make out the characters on the screen. The television glazed over into a blue blur.

"How did you meet?"

"We had a class together."

"And all the guys were crazy about her?"

Jim smiled, "That's right."

"Including you?"

"Sure," he answered.

"So what made you so special?"

Jim took the napkin out of his gown and wiped his mouth. "I ignored her."

"What do you mean, you ignored her?"

Jim took his eyes off the T.V. and looked at Peggy. "All the other guys followed her around like lap dogs, you see, telling her how beautiful she was, how much they liked her. She wasn't stupid, she knew she was a catch." He continued, "My friend Bill was the worst, 'I'm going to marry that girl Jim' he'd told me." Jim huffed, "I told him he was going about it the wrong way. No woman likes an obvious man."

"So?" Peggy prodded.

"So, there was this dance at the end of the year that gets all the girls in a tizzy. Bill asked her of course, and she told him no," he answered. "Bill was pretty upset about it, so I said I'd talk to her. I asked her why she didn't want to go to the dance with Bill." He wiped the corners of his mouth with a napkin, crumpled it and threw it on the tray. "Bill was a pretty big deal on campus. Captain of the baseball team, class president, the type of corn-fed all-American kid that girls go for if you know what I mean."

"What'd she say?"

Jim smiled and leaned over his elbow towards Peggy. "She said, 'A girl can't go saying yes to every guy just because he asks her.' I said, 'Well that's fine I guess, but why not Bill? He's likeable enough.'"

"He's 'likeable' enough?'" interrupted Peggy, "What kind of thing is that to say about your friend?"

"Well what's a guy supposed to do? You're talking to a beautiful girl, sometimes you forget why you're there in the first place."

"So what'd she say?"

"She said, 'Why didn't you ask me?'" He smiled, "Do you know what I said?"

Peggy shook her head.

"I said, 'Just because everyone else asked you doesn't mean I have to.' So she said, 'Well, don't you want to go with me?' I said 'Sure I do. But that's not the point.' See, this is where I started to remember Bill. But then she said, 'It's settled then. We'll go to the dance together.'"
Jim's body fell back on the bed, his eyes moved to the ceiling, "And we did."

Peggy was sitting at the edge of her seat now. "Well?" she asked.

"Well what?"

"What did you say to Bill?"

"I told him I was taking her to the dance."

"Wasn't he upset?"

"Oh sure, he was sore for a while. But he's a good sport. He was best man at our wedding."

Peggy got up and cleared Jim's tray. Her voice dropped, "How'd she die?"

"Childbirth. Took the baby girl with her."

Peggy sat back down and placed her hand on Jims arm.

"God has a way of working things out. Betty was too good to be in the world."

Her hand returned to her side, "What about the baby?" she asked.

"I don't know. I wouldn't have been able to take care of a little girl by myself. Maybe God did her a favor. Maybe he knew I'd be a bad father." Jim refocused his eyes on the television.

"Why would you say something like that?"

"Because I was," Jim winced. Peggy rushed over and took down the sheets.

"Where does it hurt?" she asked, her hands hovering over Jim. He shook his head. She hurried to the edge of the bed and picked up Jim's chart.

Jim shot upright, "Now don't you go sticking your big nose in my chart. That's between me and my doctor."

Peggy froze. She was eye level with Jim. His arms began to shake from holding his weight. "How am I supposed to help you, if I don't know what's wrong with you?"

"I'm fine, damn it. Don't think just because you come in here bringing me mashed potatoes and meatloaf that we're friends. I didn't ask you to, why do you keep bothering me anyway? Nancy was never so much trouble." Jim's voice dropped off, his anger gone before the end of his speech.

Peggy dropped the chart back into its holder. Metal hit metal, a large ting echoed against the walls.

"Fine," she said, making her way to the door."If there isn't anything else you need."

"Could you get me some water?" he asked.

She handed him a small cup, which he brought slowly to his lips. Water traveled down his chin and left a small wet spot on his chest.

"Where'd you get that big nose of yours Peggy?" he asked.

She stopped halfway to the door, her eyebrows raised. "My father is Polish," she responded.

"Peggy the Po-lack, eh?" Jim looked up and attempted a smile, "It's a cute nose, Peg."

Peggy brought her hand to her nose, and behind the hand was a small smile. She left the room. Jim fell asleep to the sounds of sirens wailing.

When Peggy returned a few hours later she had a cup of pills in her hand.

"Here to poison me are you?" said Jim, sitting up in his bed.

"Just take them and quit your bitchin'." Peggy handed Jim the small paper cup and fixed the pillows behind his back.

"You always this cruel to invalids?"

She made a gesture with her hand that meant 'get on with it.'

He brought the cup to his lips and threw his head back. Peggy handed him a carton of orange juice which he sucked down with a straw.

It was nearing dusk. The sunset painted the curtain orange. Jim's neighbor was snoring; the vinyl curtain separating them trembled.

"Why do they always give window beds to schmucks like him who don't appreciate it?" said Jim shaking his finger at the curtain.

"I could get you a window bed if you'd like."

"Naw." Jim responded, scratching the stubble growing on his chin. "What's the point of looking out there if I'm stuck in here?"

"Alright then," said Peggy, heading for the door.

"Peg, will you sit down for a second?" Her eyes considered the chair then the door. After a second she sat down.

"Peggy listen, I'm sorry for being such an ornery bastard earlier. You've been real sweet to me. I don't know why and I know I don't deserve it, but you've been real sweet to me and you don't deserve to be treated that way. I'm sorry."

Peggy stayed and they watched the room fade from orange to pink. Lights across the hospital switched on, the florescent bulbs flickered and hummed to life. Peggy went out and returned with the day's paper from the hospital waiting room. Jim read the front page, Peggy did the crossword.

"You always want to be a nurse Peg?" asked Jim, scanning the headlines.

"Yea I guess so. You always want to be a crotchety old fart?" replied Peg. She penciled in 'Rhine' for 42 down.

Jim let the paper rest on his lap, "It took years of hard work to become the man I am today." He said, finger pointing at his chest.

"What did you do, Mr. Dody?"

"I was a professor of history at the university" he responded.

"Oh excuse me," Peggy fanned herself, "Should I call you Professor Dody?"

"You do and I'll call you Nurse Ratched," said Jim, eyes peering over his glasses.

"What made you want to become a professor?"

"What made you want to become a nurse?" he teased. "Come on now, I'm serious." He folded the paper in half and tucked it away at his side.

"I guess I like helping people," she answered.

"Well isn't that noble."

"And you?" she asked.

"Now, wait a minute I want you to explain. Did you always want to be a nurse? When you were little, did you wear a little cap and pretend to be Florence Nightingale?

"Well, no. My parents died when I was eight."

"I'm so sorry, Peg."

"No, it's okay. I went to go live with my grandparents, but they were already pretty old. My grandmother, Louise, developed Alzheimer's when I was 13. My grandpa was 82 by then, and could barely take care of himself so I started helping out a little here and there. By the time I graduated I was practically a live-in nurse so I figured, might as well go to nursing school. I didn't mind helping them, I like being useful."

"I bet they're really proud of you."

"They were."

Jim's eyes searched Peggy's face. It was pale and soft. She wasn't a pretty girl, but everything about her was kind and warm. "Are you married, Peg?" he asked.

"No," she responded.

"Ever been married?"

"Never really wanted to be, I mean, I never found anyone worth marrying."

"I can see that. He'd have to be pretty special to deserve someone like you."

Peggy shifted in her seat as if the cushion was uncomfortable, "So what about you? You never told me why you wanted to be a professor. Did you give lectures to your stuffed animals as a kid, or what?"

"Naw, college was a way to stay out of the war. I wasn't cut out to be a military man like my father, so I just stayed in school until the war was over. By then I had enough degrees to be a teacher."

"That's a load of crap," Peggy responded.

"How do you know it's a load of crap?"

"Because teaching is like nursing, you don't just fall into it. There has to be a reason."

Jim noticed Peggy rolling the eraser of her pencil between her teeth. She noticed him noticing and put her pencil down in her lap, focusing her attention on Jim.

"I liked being around undergrads. It kept me young. Being around all those kids made it hard for me to think of Betty."

"Is that where you met your second wife?"

"Barbara taught philosophy. She was older. A divorcee but I didn't care. We were both in a bad way, and you know what they say about misery."
Peggy got up and readjusted Jim's sheets, "Why didn't it work out?"

Jim watched Peggy move around the room, "I met my third wife about six months after I married Barbara."

"Oh?" she asked pausing, to look at the monitors.

"She was a student of mine. I was flattered that a young girl wanted my attention, and she desperately wanted someone to make her feel special. I should've seen it for what it was then."

Peggy began re-folding the blanket at the end of Jim's bed, "What happened to Barbara?"

"She got a teaching job in Florida and told me she didn't want me coming with her. I got the divorce papers in the mail after she left. Susan, my third wife, gave birth to my son Jeff six months later. So, we got married."

"You have a son."

"Haven't seen him since he was six, but yes, I have a son."

"Is he going to visit you?"

Jim didn't respond. The curtain shook. A grunt came from the other side of the curtain.

"Does he know you're here?" she whispered.

"He's listed as my next of kin. He knows I'm here."

Peggy walked over to the door and dimmed the lights.

"What's wrong Peg? Don't you want to talk anymore?"

"I think you should get some rest."

When Peggy came back at 10 p.m., Jim was wide awake. The TV was playing the news. There was a high speed chase travelling down the interstate. Jim and his neighbor were taking bets on how it would end.

"Don't encourage him Mr. Simmons," Peggy said, smiling at Jim.

Jim readjusted himself on the bed to face Peggy. "Hello Peg. I thought you'd given up on me."

"I can't stop caring for you just because you're a heartless old bastard."

"There are too many good people in the world. Someone's got to be responsible for evening things out," he responded.

The lights flickered on. A large nurse and three orderlies entered the room and disappeared to the other side of the curtain."Ready Mr. Simmons?"

"Suppose I have to be."

Bert Simmons appeared seconds later, travelling by gurney across the room. "See you on the other side Jim."

"Stay away from bright lights Bert," he replied. Jim watched Bert leave the room. The nurse switched the lights off on her way out.

"Making friends, Professor?"

Jim switched off the T.V., "I gave up on friends a while ago 'Ratched.'"

"Thought you didn't like him?"

"Just because a man has a family that loves him, doesn't mean you have to hold it against him." Jim reached over his body and placed the remote control on the night stand next to Peg. "Besides, he has a brain tumor. I'm banking on him forgetting me by the time they wheel him back here."

Mr. Simmons didn't come back.

Peggy delivered the news. She'd returned to the room in her street clothes, and sat next to Jim's bed.

"Don't you have better things to do than keep an old man like me company?"

"I like to torture myself. Torture is good for the soul from time to time."

Jim sat up on his bed and wrestled to free his glasses from his face. "I am not some charity case, girl. If I wanted charity, I'd request a Nun!"

"You said you weren't going to have any visitors, so I'm here to prove you wrong. Just shut up and enjoy the company of a pretty girl, will you?"

Jim fell back on the bed. He crossed his arms in front of his chest like a young boy who's been refused ice cream. "I think you abuse the word pretty," he spat out.

"Just shut up and listen," she responded.

Peggy read Jim the paper until they both fell asleep.

She woke up the next morning to Jim's wheezing. He was pale. She shot up out of her chair.

"Jim are you okay?" She leaned over him and felt his forehead. It was wet.

"I'm fine, woman, don't go fussing over me," Jim slapped her hand and turned his face away.

Peggy looked up at the monitors, "I'm getting the doctor."

"Damn it, woman! Sit your ass back in that chair." Jim pointed. His hand shook.

Light peaked through the window and made its way across the room. The vinyl curtain glowed a pale blue.

"Will you at least let me look at your chart to see if I can give you something to make you feel better?"

"It won't do any good Peg." He wiped the back of his hand across his face.

Peggy walked to the edge of the bed, looked at Jim and picked up the chart. "What's wrong with your liver?" she asked.

Jim watched Peggy. Her eyes didn't leave the chart. "I've been drinking myself to death."

"For how long?" she asked.

"Forty years," he answered.

She put the chart down and returned to the side of the bed. "The medicine we've been giving you should've treated this."

"Maybe it's God's way of saying I don't deserve to live."

"You haven't been taking your meds," she stated.

"Nope," he replied.

"You're not God Jim. You don't get to decide whether or not you deserve to live."

Jim looked at Peggy. She had dark circles around her eyes and she was grinding her teeth.

"Neither do you."

Peggy disappeared. When she came back she had a cup of pills in her hand.

"Jim you need to take this medication. You have two days until your transplant and you can't get sick" Jim's breath slowed. "Think of all the things you can do when you're healthy. You could find your son."

He closed his eyes.

"What makes you think I'd want to do that?"

"Are you going to tell me you don't want to see him? You'd prefer to die here in this hospital alone, is that what you're telling me?"

"I'm not alone Peg, I've got you."

"I'm not your blood."

"What do you want me to say Peg? He doesn't want to know me."

"Do you talk to him?"

Jim didn't respond.

"How can you know? What if he's been waiting all these years for you to reach out to him?"

"Why would he want to talk to me? I've never been a father to him. Sure, I was there for his first step, I was there at his first birthday. I was too drunk to remember any of it, but I have pictures to prove I was there."

"So, what? You deserve to die because you were a bad father?"

"That's not what this is about."

"What is it about?"

Even with his eyes closed he could see her pacing. Her strong arms tucked into themselves, her eyes lit with disapproval, anxiety.

"Every day for the past twenty years of my life I get up and walk down to the corner market. I get the paper, two eggs and a banana, and I walk home to my apartment, which isn't much bigger than this room, and I make myself breakfast. After breakfast I sit there, alone, listening to my neighbors fight about the electric bill or the gas bill or their rotten kids. I just sit there and listen and eat the same eggs until it's time for lunch. Then I walk down to the university and eat in the teacher's lounge. After lunch I come home and check the mail, then I read a book or finish the paper and wait for dinner. At dinner I walk to the diner down the street and I have the turkey blue plate special.

"My days are a pattern of waking, waiting for meals and sleep. It used to be I'd spend my time in between meals with whiskey to keep me company, but since I've quit it's been even worse. Every moment of quiet, every minute alone, I spend thinking about all the horrible things I've done." A hard dry cough racked his lungs. He continued.

"I've been living my life like this, alone, for twenty years, and I'm tired. I tried, but I'm too tired to do it anymore. I don't have anyone. I don't deserve anyone. I'm just…I'm just done trying to live like this."

Jim's chest was heaving, and he was having difficulty keeping his head from shaking. Peggy sat down on the bed next to him, her hand pressed lightly on the covers, "Jim you have to get over feeling sorry for yourself. So you live a boring life. That's no one's fault but your own. You've been punishing yourself, living this…limited existence because you don't think you deserve any better. Okay, you were a bad father, but you were in pain. I think you punished yourself and your family long enough. You don't need to kill yourself too."

"Don't be so dramatic Peg. I'm not killing myself; I'm just…letting go."

Peggy walked over to the curtain in the middle of the room. She tore the vinyl fabric back. Metal clips unhinged from their tracks and screeched.

"I will not let you die without talking to your son. I stayed up with you all night listening to the messed up things you did. I'm not saying that you owe me anything, but you owe it to yourself to at least try. You need to get out of this hospital and go see him. Go to his house, stand on his doorstep and make him face you. If you meet him and ask him to forgive you and he tells you that he hates you, or turns you away, then that's on him. He will have to live the rest of his life knowing that he had an opportunity to have a relationship with his father, and he's the one that ruined it. He will live the rest of his life with regret. But if you decide to let yourself die without really trying, then you are a failure as a father."

"Jesus, Peg."

"Jim, take your God damn medicine."

Peggy shoved a cup of pills in Jim's face. He pushed them away.

"I chose drinking over having a family a long time ago. I've lost my right to be a father."

The light coming in through the window cast a spotlight on Jim's corner of the room.

"It's time you forgive yourself Jim. You got sober. You know what you did was wrong. You need to ask for forgiveness. You can't control what they do, but you need to do everything you can first. Once you do that, you can forgive yourself and move on."

Jim brought his hands up to cover his face. Peggy moved in front of Jim to block the light in his eyes.

"I don't blame him for not wanting to know me."

"I don't either. But if you were my dad, I'd want to know you."

Peggy sat down on the bed next to Jim and shook the small cup of pills next to his ear.

Jim removed his hand from his face and took the cup from Peggy. He threw his head back. The pills traveled slowly down Jim's dry throat.
Peggy poured him a glass of water. Jim accepted it; he took two large gulps pushing the pills down into his stomach. Peggy smiled.

"You know what Peg? I was right. You aren't pretty, you're beautiful."

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