Fans of Twenty-Five at the Lip will recognize Sunset Villa as similar to Saint Agnes of the Blessed Virgin.
There are two kinds of nursing homes. Those that smell, and those that do not smell. The latter of the two, are more often than not, decent ones. The decent nursing homes have clean floors, are temperature appropriate, edible food, and an overall sense of competency with the staff.
This was a smelly nursing home. The walls were yellow and had not seen a fresh coat of paint in many a bygone year. The air was permeated with the acrid smell of urine and feces. Most of the walls and doors were still covered in Christmas decorations, and across the wall beside them scurried a cockroach…
Twenty-Five at the Lip
Sunset Villa is where Ashley Barnes is getting her first taste of what a nursing home should not be. For many years nursing facilities were places where the elderly and sick simply went to die. Now they often serve more of a rehabilitative purpose, but the stigma has stuck in many cases.
Just Say Maybe is the story of Ashley Barnes, the RN from the Union Hospital Emergency Department in Twenty-Five at the Lip. I loved her character so much, but had to cut most of her from the book because her sideline didn’t flow with the rest of the story. I’m beginning to salvage her with this short novel.
If you haven’t read the first part of Just Say Maybe, Click Here before proceeding.
Just Say Maybe, Part II
Sunset Villa was not what I might have expected in a nursing facility. It had a brick facade and there were several disheveled looking people sitting outside in wheelchairs smoking cigarettes. There were weeds in the unkept garden outside and as I walked inside the building all I could smell was a combination of industrial cleaner and poop. The walls were green like avocado and the floor was peeling with old linoleum. I tried to breathe through my mouth, but found that it caused me to taste the foulness there.
I walked down the hall hearing the squeak of my sneakers on the floor and the ringing of a phone at the nurses desk up ahead. I came to the desk and found it to be graced by brown wood paneling, chipped at the base on the floor with worn paths in the linoleum. There was a nurse behind the desk and she was flipping through a copy of Cosmo. Beside her a light board was on with several bulbs illuminated. She was skinny and white, with purple hoochie lipstick on and white foundation and makeup. She cracked her gum and sighed as another light went on at the switchboard. She reached for a microphone and spoke into it, pushing the button down with some difficulty, her long fake fingernail purple with studs on it.
“Laci, can you get some of these lights?” she asked in a raspy voice. She then scratched the bottom of her chin and coughed a smokers cough.
“I’m right here!” Laci replied stepping out of a room with a messy diaper open in her hand. She was short and fat with stubble peppering the jowls of her face. “It’s almost time for a cigarette, you know.”
“Yea, I know,” the nurse said as she opened a perfume sample page and sniffed at it. “Do you like this?” she asked holding her Cosmo up. Laci waddled out of the room, the diaper still clutched in her hand and stepped up to the station. She took a big whiff of the perfume sample page and nodded grinning.
“Excuse me?” I said. They turned to me with expressions of confusion, just a hint of irritation on their faces.
“Can I help you?” the nurse behind he station asked. She closed her Cosmo and tucked it under a chart in a faint attempt at making herself look busy despite the obvious circumstances.
“I’m sorry,” I said believing for a moment that I had interrupted them doing something more important. “I’m looking for Robert Szczepanik?”
The nurse blinked at me, as if not understanding what it was that I wanted. She ran her finger around the edge of her mouth as if trying to reign in her outrageous lipstick.
“Uh, down that way the third or fourth door on your right,” she said pointing to the hall on my right. I offered a small wave of thanks and turned down the hall glad to be away from them. There had been something about their demeanor that was unsettling, as if they didn’t fully understand what they were doing there. Even with them gone though I was left with a strange sensation over myself. There was a kind of sadness about this place that made me want to cry. There was the smell, which was bad enough without the overall sense of neglect, as if the souls of those who had passed on in this place were lingering there, reaching out for some sort of denied dignity.
The third door on my right had a pair of women in it. They were in beds that faced one another and would have been forced to stared at one another if it weren’t for the presence of an orange curtain that had been drawn between them. One of them lay there with her mouth hung open, snoring, her hands in a sorted position around her chest as if she were frozen in a position of fright. The woman in the bed across from her was laying still until she suddenly cried out
“MARIIIIIIA! AYE JEZUZ!”
The sudden noise caused me to jump back and I shrieked a little, my backpack nearly rolling off my shoulder, the single strap holding on for dear life. The two nurses cackled at the desk behind me. I fixed my bag and tried the next room. The name on the door read Robert Scezepanik.
I stuck my head in the room, the first bed which was on the left, was empty. The door opened inward and I pushed it open farther, my stomach doing somersaults. It creaked open the rest of the way, nudging the wall behind it.
There was a vase of flowers by the windowsill, and a pair of picture frames by the bedside. A television was on near the foot of his bed and there was mostly static coming from it, the antenna on the floor behind the it. There was tin foil wrapped around the tops of the metal rods in a lame attempt to help draw the signal better.
In the bed lay what you might have called an actual person. There was a form there and it seemed as though at one time he had been a thriving person. He lay in his bed under a blanket that looked suspiciously like one I had seen in a picture in my grandmother’s photo album, draped over an old couch in a living room that still technically existed but in a much remodeled form. He was breathing, laying with his head slightly elevated and his respirations gurgled.
I knocked on the door quietly, still not sure precisely what I was doing there. He didn’t stir and my arm dropped to my side. I looked down the hall back to the nursing station. They were no longer there, most likely off on their smoking break they had been talking about taking. I turned and was about to leave the room when he spoke.
I didn’t say anything, just stood there with my jaw feeling wired shut. I held my breath wondering if he’d really heard me at all, or if he could convince himself that he hadn’t. My sneaker betrayed me, squeaking along the floor as I turned to leave.
“Hello,” he said. I stopped in the doorway and looked back at him. He was awake now and looking at me with slightly sunken eyes and dark sickly looking skin. It looked like he was struggling to hold his head up and he coughed before speaking again.
“Are you lost?” he asked.
“I might be,” I said. I pulled my shoulder strap over so that my backpack was centered. I watched him breathing, his boney chest raising a and lowering. The artery in his neck bulged each time his heart beat. He was looking at me expectantly, his dry mouth open around his slack jaw.
“Well who are you looking for? Grandma? Grandpa?” he asked.
I shook my head and bit my lip stepping in the room. I caught the smell of something that has stayed with me my entire life. It was the smell of dying. I looked for a chair and found a small one in the corner was a tacky orange vinyl covering over it. I pulled it over beside his bed and placed my backpack on my lap. He looked at me curiously, as if more alive than he had been just a moment before. He pushed himself up in the bed with a pair of weak arms.
“Are you a volunteer or something?” he asked. I shook my head.
“Not exactly,” I said. I opened my backpack and found the two Dr. Peppers that Daniel had given me and took one out. It was warm already, but still damp from the condensation. I placed it on the tray table for him on the opposite side of the bed and he looked at me and and can curiously.
“Do I know you?” he asked. “You look very familiar to me.”
I smiled and looked at the floor. “You do,” he said. “And you know I like Dr. Pepper.”
“Well I like it too,” I said. “It’s my favorite.”
“So you just wandered into my, ah,” he gestured about himself and the palace about him. “My grand estate here, bringing me Dr. Pepper? What’s your name?”
“Ashley,” I said. “Ashley Barnes,” wondering if the last name might give me away. It didn’t seem to ring a bell to him. I fidgeted in my seat and seemed to think my awkwardness was cute because he folded his hands over his stomach and asked
“Well Ashley Barnes, what is it I can do for you?”
“I’m not sure,”I said. “I’ll explain it the best way I can. I’m a littler nervous…”
“Don’t be,” he said. “I’m not one to judge.”
“I hope so,” I said. “See my grandmother has these photo albums and I was looking through them a few weeks ago and there were all the pictures missing. I asked about them and she sort of blew me off, and so did my mom…” His head turned in a manner that suggested confusion and he looked at the can of Dr. Pepper I had placed on his side table. I was starting to shake and my knees jostled around, bouncing my book bag all over my lap. He reached out his boney hand and touched my knee, giving me a look of concern not specifically for what I had to say but how it was making me act. “Well then we went to visit my grandfather… you know me and my sister, mom and grandma. Well my sister, her name is Bonnie, she was being a real pain in the butt and my mom and grandma were sort of giving her a ration of crap about becoming a dirty hippie and stuff.”
“Sounds like you have an interesting family,” he said.
“Yea,” I said. “Well my grandfather… See, he’s got dementia and lives in a nursing home so sometimes he gets a confused. I guess whatever was going on made him tune out a little and he looked at me, because I was sitting next to him and he asked me…”
I cleared my throat and he seemed to be looking through me, the same exact way my grandpa would look at me when he still had his marbles. Their resemblance was uncanny and I was starting to think that Bobby, my Uncle Bobby, was starting to piece together that my story was about to take a turn in his direction.
“He asked me if I was one of Bobby’s friends.” His eyes popped open wide and he seemed to lose that fixated expression. “I told him that I didn’t know any Bobby, but he said that Bobby was his son…”
“Jesus Christ, you’re Stephanie’s daughter,” he said.
There was a pause, as if he was waiting for me to say something. I wasn’t able to tell if he was angry or hurt by my presence there. He sniffed his nose and looked to his bedside table, fumbled around there for something and came up with a pair of glasses. He put them on, his hands shaking, and looked at me. His face carrying an expression of wonder and puzzlement.
“Are you mad?” I asked.
He blinked and adjusted the frames on his glasses. “M-mad?” he asked. There must have been a thousand things running through his head. Questions were formulating there the way they had with me when I had initially discovered he existed.
“No, I’m not mad,” he said finally. “A little confused, but not mad.”
“You’re my uncle then?” I asked. “For sure?”
“If you are Stephanie Scezepanik’s daughter, then yes I’m your uncle.”
I smiled in satisfaction and he smiled back, which pleased me. It was an awkward but not unpleasant moment we were sharing. His hands seemed to shake as he fixed the hair on his head. “If I had known you were coming I would have made myself a bit more presentable,” he said. I shook my head.
“I didn’t really know I was coming,” I said. “I found your address by calling Information and I rode my bike to your house in Merrimack. I met Daniel.”
He smiled and laid back against the pillow.
“I talked to him this morning,” he said. “He didn’t say anything about you.”
“Well I just left,” I said. “Sort of. He might have wanted it to be a surprise.”
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Fourteen,” I said.
“So you were born…” I could see him figuring the numbers in his head, going back in time along two memory lines, one his own and the other a blank slate. The two converged some time before my birth and I could see a tinge of regret in his eyes as he figured it out. “1982,” he said finally.
“Yea,” I said smiling. I looked at the floor and reached into my bag finding the other Dr. Pepper. I took it out and opened it, the cracking sound echoing in the quiet room. It seemed like a good idea to him and he reached for his on the table, trying to grip it with his weakened hands. He brought it onto his lap and struggled to pop the top of it. I took it from him, his hands feeling cold and clammy, and I opened it. Suds billowed out of the top of it and I smiled appologetically.
“Sorry,” I said. “I rode my bike and it got a little shook up.”
“That’s fine, thank you ,” he said.
“Can I asked you something?” I said as I sat down. He looked at me expectantly, as if he already knew what I was going to ask. I needed to know though, and he seemed to want to tell me. He could see that I posed him no threat, that curiosity was my only aim.
“Go ahead,” he said sipping from the can.
“Why have I never met you?”
He put the can back on his tray table and considered his answer. His expression was the same as my mother’s and they must have inherited it from my grandparents. It was the look the Scezepaniks gave when they knew that the answer to a question was not an easy one, and needed to be handled delicately.
“It’s a long story,” he said. “The last thing I want to do is destroy your opinion of your grandparents or your mother. The short version of it is obvious; I’m gay. Back then, and even today, some people had an issue with that.”
“Was it because…” I began. “Well, you have AIDS.”
He shook his head. “No. Back then not many people knew about AIDS or HIV. In fact it didn’t have a name until the year after you were born…” He took a deep breath and scratched the scruff on his face. He looked as though he hadn’t had a shave in several days and it seemed to bother him based on the redness around his chin and cheeks. I decided he must have been like Grandpa, liking a close, smooth shave.
“I always knew what, or who I was,” he said. “There was no reason to bring it up because I knew that it was unacceptable. When I was seventeen I met a boy and I felt that he and I had a… kinship if you will. We became friends, and then more than friends. When I was eighteen and about to finish high school my friend and I got caught by the police. We were parked out by the river and they thought we were just a boy and girl messing around.”
It seemed to upset him a little and I was sorry I asked. I wished I hadn’t in that moment and was afraid that I was ruining the first encounter that I had with him.
“Don’t continue if you don’t want to,” I said. He shook his head.
“You have a right to know this,” he said. “They cuffed us and brought us to the police station where they stuck us in separate cells. They made us call our parents and they were so embarrassed that they begged the police not to press charges. They didn’t. They just sent us home and warned us never to do it again.”
He looked at me, my expression changing from innocent curiosity to one of abject horror. It wasn’t just the fact that I had an uncle I had known nothing about, but the fact that my family had lied to me my entire life about his very existence. Even my own mother had been silent about him, and all because he’d fallen in love with another boy in town before it was socially acceptable.
“It was April 9th, 1978,” he said. “I can remember the exact moment. There was a light rain hitting the windows of the dining room at the house. I sat at one end of the table, my mother at the opposite end, crying into a handkerchief. Dad was standing behind her, pacing back and forth and when he wasn’t doing that he was trying to console her. I had been the boy in the family, the little man. I was supposed to carry on the family name, the legacy. I had brought them nothing but shame.”
I tried my best to envision the scene. I had sat at that table on a number of holidays and events. Family dinners, Christmas’, Thanksgivings’, Easters’. Warm and happy occasions were everyone was feeling warm and wonderful. I had believed that nothing bad could have ever happened under that roof.
“I sat there for what felt like a day, but it was only about an hour or so. I can still feel the way my body was then. My muscles were tense and my knees were bouncing uncontrollably under the table. I was scared, but I wasn’t sorry for what I had done. I felt sick to my stomach, and I knew that my friend was across town getting the hell beaten out of him. My father just frowned at me and told me to go to my room.”
I knew the room he was talking about. My mother’s bedroom was on the second floor of the house and sat at the top of the stairs to the left. On the right was another room that I had always known to be Grandma’s sewing room. That was the only other room in the house that would have served as a bedroom.
“I did as I was told. I went to my room and sat on my bed, wanting to vomit. I found myself staring at my Boston poster, fixated on the way in which they made a guitar look like a spaceship. It’s funny how when you are really scared and you don’t know what else to do you become fixated on something. I started to wonder what such a ship might sound like flying around the Earth like that.”
I knew the poster he was talking about. I’d found it rolled up and stuffed into he back of the closet in the very room he was talking about. There had been a veritable treasure trove of seventies artifacts in there and Bonnie and I had had a fun rainy day playing music and trying on clothes that seemed ridiculous by our standards. It had never occurred to me that these items didn’t belong to my mother.
“You mean Grandpa?” I asked. He shook his head and held his hand out to me. He gestured to me to put my hand in his and I did. He closed his hand, a similar spot like Daniel’s on the back of his hand.
“We are talking about two different people residing in the same person. I’m telling you these things, but I want you to promise me something, can you do that?” I nodded and he continued. “No matter what I tell you, I want you to always remember him in the best way possible. Don’t judge him based on what he did to me, that isn’t him, do you understand?”
I didn’t, but I nodded anyway. I wanted to hear the rest of the story.
“There was a knock at my bedroom door and it opened. I can remember my focus on the spaceship breaking and being shocked to see my father standing in the doorway to my room. He had an arm against the doorframe and he was looking at the floor. It was dark in the room and cold. He looked up at me with firm but decided expression and reached down from around the corner of the door and picked up a suitcase. He placed it in the middle of the floor and told me I had ten minutes to pack whatever I could fit into that suitcase and then I had to leave. I asked him where I was to go, and he said he didn’t care so long as I was out of his house.”
Bobby was crying now, and he reached for the can of soda taking a long drink from it to gather his composure. I allowed myself a tear and wiped my face with my free hand. I had known my grandfather had been a particular man and set in his ways, but I’d had no idea it went that far.
“So I did,” he said. “I put a few changes of clothes, a book or two, and some pictures into that little suitcase and walked out into the cold rain. I walked to the top of the street and looked back at the house I’d grown up in, my mother watching from the window. My father appeared there and shut the curtain before her and she never saw me again. It’s been almost twenty years.”
He took a final sip from the can and his expression changed to one of surprise. He shook it and the only sound to be heard from it was a quiet sloshing of soda that lingered at the bottom of it. He looked at me and smiled, then burped, trying his best to cover his mouth.
“I feel great,” he said. “That’s the first thing I’ve put into my system in a couple days.”
I smiled and noticed that he seemed more animated, his blood sugar surging. He looked at the TV and pointed to it.
“That stupid thing has been showing static since the antenna fell off. Would you mind putting it back on top for me?”
I nodded and got up from my chair and crossed in front of his bed. I picked up the rabbit ears and put them on top, the picture starting to come into focus a little. There was little picture to be seen and even then the voices of the people on the screen were muffled by static. I looked over at the empty bed as I returned to my chair and said.
“Well at least you have this room to your self,” I said. Bobby smiled and rolled his eyes.
“That’s what happens when families get involved. The last man who shared the room with me found out that I had AIDS and was gay so his family raised hell and had him placed into a different room.”
“That’s awful,” I said. “Do you get lonely?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “But remember, sometimes you’re better off being alone than in the company of people who hate you. Enough about me though, I want to know about you.”
I blushed and fixed my hair behind my ear. “You look like her, you know. Your mom.”
“People say that,” I said.
“You’re both strawberry blonde,” he said. “So who is Ashley Barnes?”
Who was I? It was a question that seemed strange coming from a person that I was related to. It seemed like a question that a character in some TV special might ask if they were trying to inspire someone. Who are you? What does this mean? Why are you here?
“Well I’m starting high school in the fall, and I just got a job working at a nursery. We’re going to be planting mums and putting them out into a big field. They’re going to let me drive a golf cart too.”
“Amaral’s,” he said.
“You know it?” I asked happily.
“I love that place. Daniel and I used to get out Christmas trees there. He always wanted a big one and one year we had to cut the top of it off so that it would fit in the living room.” He started to laugh and it quickly turned into a coughing fit. I handed him a box of tissues form the night stand and he pulled a pair of them out, covering his mouth with them.
“You said you have a sister?” he said.
“Yea, Bonnie. She’s a couple of years older than me. She’s going through this hippy phase right now. She listens to a lot of Phish and Grateful Dead.”
“Does she look like you?” he asked. I nodded and said that sometimes people confused us, but not since she started wearing earth tones and tried turning her hair into dreadlocks.
“And your dad? What’s his name?”
“His name is Walter. Walter Barnes and he is an accountant. You never met him?”
“No,” he said. “Once I was out of the house I was off and on my own. I had to get my GED because my parents pulled my records from the school. I was only a few weeks shy of graduation.”
“That’s awful,” I said. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to just ignore my grandparent’s behavior, but I felt a certain respect for Bobby’s candor when it came to the difference between his parents and my grandparents, who just happened to be the same people.
“I need to use the bathroom,” he said. “That soda did me in I think.”
“Should I get the nurse?” I asked. He shook his head and dismissed the idea of the women down the hall with a wave of his hand.
“They can’t be bothered, and I hate the way they gown up when they come in here. You’d think they were dealing with some massively contagious disease. I have AIDS not Ebola or Smallpox.” He began to climb out of the bed, pushing the blanket aside. For the first time I saw how skinny he was, his pajama pants wound up over his boney knees. He braced himself against the bed rail and struggled into a sitting position.
“Do you need some help?” I asked. He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“I’m not going to say no,” he said. “Usually they just come in to stuff pills down my throat, and then they are gone for the rest of the shift.” He tried to stand on his own and managed to come to a half erect position, his boney back making him look like a stegosaurus. He was breathing heavily, a gurgling sound that he caused him to clear his throat. The bathroom was only a few feet away from his bed but his feet looked unsteady. He seemed to think better of it and looked to me saying, “Would you mind just giving me a hand to the toilet? I can manage from there if I sit down but getting there is the trouble.”
I offered him my hand, not sure just how to not hurt him. He took it and stumbled a little as he started off. I quickly put my arm around his back and noticed how he smelled. I might have gagged the way I did when I came into the building, but I had pity that was quickly turning to something more like anger over the way he was being forced to care for himself. He put his arm around my shoulder and I led him into the bathroom, he took hold of the bath rail and insisted that he was fine from that point on and I left him be.
I noticed that the window was shut and I opened it. The trash can was full so I pulled the liner out and tied it off, leaving it out in the hallway for someone to pick up. The bed sheets were smelly so I found some latex gloves on a cart beside the door and stripped the bed, leaving the sheets on the other side of the curtain, not sure yet what to do with them. Out in the hall I found a linen cart with clean sheets and I remade his bed for him, trying to recall just how it had been set up in the first place. I took the pillow from the unused bed across from him and gave it to him as an extra. The bathroom door swung open and I saw him standing there bracing himself between the door frame and the sink. I went to him and he smiled as I helped him back to his bed.
“Something’s different in here,” he said.
“I opened the window and changed your sheets for you,” I said. “I also gave you the pillow from the other bed because nobody was using it.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” he said.
“I wanted to,” I said. I helped him back into bed and he laid back, the breeze against his face and he smell of the New Hampshire pines outside his window cutting through the stifling smell of the room. I noticed the flowers in the vase, unwatered and dry. They might have looked nice if someone had dried them deliberately.
“Are those from Daniel?” I asked. He nodded.
I checked my watch and was surprised to see the time. Mom would be home in an hour and she would be expecting me for dinner.
“I have to go now,” I said. He smiled understandingly.
“Well I’m glad to have met you Ashley,” he said. I picked up my backpack and was about to zip it up when I remembered my walkman inside.
“Daniel said that I should ask you about a band called The Marked? Billy Corgan was in it.”
“Oh wow,” Bobby said. “He plays in the Smashing Pumpkins now, have you heard of them?”
“Yea they’re my favorite band,” I said. “Daniel told me I should ask you about when he was in The Marked.”
“Janus Landing in Saint Pete,” Bobby said. “That guy can play. Jesus Christ. You better get going though, I don’t want you to get in trouble.”
I nodded and went to the door, turning before I walked through it.
“I have to work this week,” I said. “Tomorrow, Wednesday, and Thursday, but I’m off on Friday. Would it be all right if I came to visit you again?”
He smiled and nodded, “I would really like that, Ashely. Don’t put yourself out though.”
“It’s no trouble, Bobby,” I said as I turned away. I stopped again, feeling strange for calling him just by his name. He was related to me and I didn’t refer to Auntie Carol as just Carol.
“Would it be all right…” I began, not sure of what he would say. “…if I called you Uncle Bobby?”
He did his best to hide his expression, his face turning down to his chest as his face turned red and he began to cry. He put his hands to his face and wiped the tears away. He nodded and said, “I would love that.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll see you on Friday, Uncle Bobby.”
Just Say Maybe Copyright © 2015, James Windale
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