Alex Poppe Room 308

Sunlight streaked through the orange-red leaves, illuminating the dust motes hiding in the pale air. Bridget, the student nursing aide supervisor, was helping a chubby toddler feed the ducks in the artificial lake at the center of the grounds. Her gentle cooing skimmed over grass blades and floated up to the window, where I stood. My forehead was slick with a layer of oil. My scrub top was crusty with dried oatmeal, and my pockets were bloated with wadded Kleenex. Visitors’ Day was winding down. On Visitors’ Day, we got a lot of extended family and clergy and shiny people who came because the other people who came were shiny and felt guilty, and no one was too ashamed to cry big tears, and stay for a few hours to feel good about themselves and the time they had just put in, and they needed extra Kleenex from the student nursing aides who were always there.

I was watching Bridget skip across the soft lawn, toddler in tow, to deliver the child back to his mother. Like me, the mom stood apart, watching Bridget and her son. Beyond clarifying the intricacies of patient sponge baths, I never spoke to Bridget. We were separated by experience and by the fact that she pitied me. Bridget was twenty-four, which was four years more than my age, and we had spent every weekday of the autumn here. I did it because I was addicted to Xanax and Bridget did it because her brother was still deployed, and she believed that her helping someone over here would increase the chances of someone helping him over there. Bridget swung the toddler high before placing him at his mother’s empty side and nodded towards the window as she walked back to the main building of the VA hospital. The mother bent down to retie her son’s sneaker laces and her skirt rode up, revealing a dancer’s legs. I left the freshly-cut grass smell of the open window and entered the Clorox air of the linen closet to check my stash, pausing to grab an alibi of bleached sheets. Bridget, trailing sunshine, passed me as I exited and crooked her finger for me to follow. Over her shoulder she told me there was a Teaching Point, a new patient, still unconscious from surgery, and we needed to monitor his vitals as he had just lost both his legs from the hip down. I didn’t ask what’d happened to his in-between. She entered room 308 and led me into the stale dark. A fraction of a man lay in the bed. An endotracheal tube snaked past a faint harelip scar above his upper lip into his mouth, and even though his eyes were closed, I saw that this head and torso belonged to my ex-commanding officer. I stepped into the bedside table and knocked over a silver-framed photograph of a beautiful mini-skirted woman with ballet legs holding a baby upright against her chest for the camera.

I’m sorry, I said. I was sorry I had said sorry.

Bridget’s face wrinkled through a chain of causality. If A leads to B, and B leads to C; A results in C after which she said nothing, as if to say, Can you handle this? with an element of, You’d better handle this because he and others like him have sacrificed so much, so that you and I can stand here with our whole selves fully intact, so I said, It’s okay, to mean I’m okay, I can handle this and so much more, so please continue to instruct me.

The next day was the start of Marine Fest, a three-day bacchanal during which thousands of marines would arrive and celebrate being marines in our very stately and very gracious town. On the last night of the festival, when the marines were decked out in their best Blue Dress “A”s, sipping cocktails in the Potomac Ballroom Library to celebrate the 239 birthday of the Marine Corps, I would be cleaning bed pans of loose stool because during that day and the one before, able-bodied marines would have visited their disabled half-bodied brethren and snuck them tastes of all they had been denied. During my rounds, the visiting marines would tell me to take extra good care of their boys, and they would laugh fatly to say, You are here to service, or they would wrap their fingers around my wrist to say, I could break you; except for those marines who exhaled briskly through their teeth as soon as they stepped back into the hallway. Those marines would slip me a fifty and say thank you with their eyes glued to their shoes and I would wonder at their imprudence and give the fifty to Dr. Bob, a fourth-year resident with a gambling problem and a liberated prescription pad. Dr. Bob lived in a high rise near the marina and claimed to know what every nursing aide tasted like.

Bridget knew about Dr. Bob but couldn’t do much. She was small and Christian and dyed her hair blond and kept two extra pairs of ironed scrubs in her work locker so she could change if a guest had an unfortunate accident. She called the patients “guests” because she felt it added an element of optimism to the VA. The VA was very clean and very cold. Bridget led seminars on Turning and Positioning, and kept an eye on us. Most nights after her shift ended, she headed to the hospital chapel to log in a half-hour of prayer for the worst-offs. I overheard her tell an unconscious “guest” she did it to stock up brownie points with the Man Upstairs, and would be happy to put a word in for the mummified man in the bed before her. She couldn’t control the nursing aides in their free time, but she could make them clean bed pans on her time. All of the nursing aides did yoga and were blond and had Botox. Once a month, they pitched in and bought some black market syringes of filler and bribed a cosmetology technician to smooth their foreheads or plump out their lips and hands. Afterwards they’d hit Chihuahua’s to sip frozen margaritas through extra-wide straws.

Dr. Bob rolled five marijuana cigarettes for a twenty in the dry-goods storage room behind the cafeteria in the basement, which is where Bridget would find us on the night of the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, and she would be in an uncharitable mood that evening because some of the marines who celebrated the Corps’ birthday every year, a group of dog trainers for the Corps and not actual combat soldiers, husky, and raucous and braggadocio drunk, had cornered her by the hospital gift shop and sung her the Marines’ Hymn with altered lyrics and Bridget had to smile like a girl unwrapping an expensive present she knew she was getting and shuffle over in her regulation shoes and thin cotton scrubs to shake each enormous calloused palm and gush You are our heroes! You are our heroes! and let the handshakes turn into full body hugs while each marine took his turn feeling her up. When Bridget found Dr. Bob and me lying across plastic-wrapped cartons of adult diapers smoking a joint, she would have some things to say about my blackened soul and some more things to say about my degenerate character, which was worse than a gutter-tramp’s, and only one thing to say about the prospects of my future training as one of Her Certified Nursing Assistants.

But this shift was winding down. I’d spent the last bit of it sitting with the patients who hadn’t had any visitors, watching reruns of The Price is Right and betting on the over or under. Lance Corporal William Philips won a new car and my Caribbean cruise vacation in the Showcase Showdown, which made him happy because an ambush in the Anbar Province had taken his sight, so he didn’t drive anymore. I fluffed his pillows during the commercial break and folded his fingers around a chocolate truffle because I remembered when I was a kid how excited I was when someone paid me a bit of special attention just because. The truffle was wrapped in fancy foil with a famous quote printed on the inside. When we were little, my sister had a desktop calendar with a fresh aphorism printed on each page of the year. Lying shoulder to shoulder on our stomachs with our bare feet dangling off the edge of her twin bed, we’d look for meaning in the convoluted words. We’d look for significance in anything, we wishers upon eyelashes.

The truffles came from a store-within-a-store inside the hospital gift shop. They were sold by Sonny who’d spent four years in a federal penitentiary for drug smuggling, following seven years on the lam. A DEA officer spotted him in the background of a Bud Light commercial, which is how he got caught; and then a local church organization led by a former New Orleans Saints’ cheerleader thirty years past her prime organized a petition drive, which is how he got out early, two years ago at age seventy. Sonny often asked me how I could eat so much chocolate and still be as skinny as dripping water. He’d ask, Where do you put it? In my pocket, I’d say, and this much was true, so I didn’t say anything else. He’d tsk his tongue against the roof of his mouth, but put a few extra pieces in my bag. People who knew about Sonny’s past compared him to Gene Hackman, and I think he liked that.

*

I righted the silver-framed photo which still had its worn price tag stuck on the back. My ex-commanding officer was my ex-adjudicator and had signed off on my discharge without benefits. He was once a strong and beautiful man. His wife, probably his wife, entered as I was recording his pulse and respiration rate. I say probably his wife because, although he wore no ring and had never had at the School of Infantry, Camp Geiger, she did. The two-carat solitaire caught the last rays of sunlight streaming around the edges of the blinds covering the window. I figured this ring to be a neon announcement of worth, a quantification of how much she was loved, to the world, and I felt sorry for her, and for myself, to be caring for my ex-commanding officer here, in this place of broken people, and for her to see that her handsome husband was now a half-man, and no amount of prayer or medical miracles or stored up good deeds was going to restore the other half. She was in a lose-lose situation because if she stayed with him, she would grow to hate him and if she left him, she would hate herself, at least for a little while, and if she stayed and had an affair, then all his comrades-in -arms would hate her, unless the affair was with a fellow marine that her husband had pre-approved. In the right now, she’d need a robust mental Blu-ray collection because he would never again be with her in that way a man is with a woman, similar to but not the same as the way he was with me, which was why I was no longer part of the Marine Corps. I was an excellent misjudge of character; this ability was, in part, why a year ago I was nursing broken ribs and a bruised back at the Camp Geiger infirmary.

I was standing with the patient clipboard against my chest. The wife slid into the spouse-spot on the window side of the bed. Bridget was watching to make sure I didn’t upset her or anything else in the room, and I thought about excusing myself so I would not have to watch the wife’s fragile shoulders move up and down like creased wings, but marines are taught to suck it up and move forward, and if I left now, Bridget would think I was delicate, and she had little regard for me as it was.

Bridget offered to check on the wife’s toddler, who was probably being fed chocolate fudge brownies from the Get Well Soon! baskets that piled up in the nurses station, to give her some moments alone with her husband. Because Bridget regarded me as an extension of herself when she was teaching, I returned the clipboard to its naked tack and prepared to leave. But the wife blinked with incomprehension so I doubted she equated the still bundle in bed with her understanding of husband. She introduced herself as Ashley and said that we should stay, she didn’t wish to inconvenience us, and we should go about our business as if she weren’t there. Then she told us what good people we were to be doing what we were doing, and because I don’t like to talk, Bridget said thank you and regifted her praise to all the men and women in uniform who serve this great nation and to God, who always got praised by Bridget in case he was listening. I don’t think Ashley was on speaking terms with God because that’s when she interrupted Bridget with a snorting cough and turned her eyes on me, looking at me for a long moment. Bridget followed Ashley’s stare-trail to the dried oatmeal dotting my shirt and suggested I excuse myself to change my scrub top.

I nodded at Bridget’s advice and exited. I didn’t want to feel sympathy for Ashley. I didn’t want to fold her jeweled fingers around truffles wrapped in inspirational foil because she had been loved and cherished by my ex-commanding officer and he had broken me. I walked past the nurses station where their son was sitting on a desktop boxing with a Tweety Bird balloon tied to a gift basket handle. He cried Duck! every time he hit the bird’s face, and it arced low to the floor before coming back for more, and the little boy would laugh a sound like splashing water.

Bridget probably knew I didn’t keep an extra scrub top in my locker. No abandoned shirts lay on the changing room floor. I rubbed at the dried oatmeal with some wet paper towels, which shed a layer of soapy paper dandruff along the institutional green-colored cloth. Standing in my bra to wash my shirt in the sink, I imagined how Bridget and Ashley’s patient-care conversation would go:

New trainee?

Yes.

Any good?

No.

Think she’ll improve?

Probably not, bless. But God never gives us more than we can bear.

*

I visited Lefty, an artillery gunner who liked when I read to him. We were working our way through Something Wicked This Way Comes when Bridget stopped by his open door and beckoned me. Bookmarking our place with a truffle, I laid the paperback beside his pillow and told Lefty I would see him later. When I stood, Bridget pursed her lips at the wet patches on my uniform top.

I thought I told you to always have an extra uniform at work.

I forgot.

Do you know the new patient?

I bent down to pick up some invisible lint so I would need to wash my hands. My scrub pants were too long, and where the hem dragged on the ground was outlined in a gray. I straightened and crossed to the sink. Over the sound of running water, Bridget recycled her question.

Do you know him?

No.

Bridget checked Lefty’s chart and exited. I followed about half a pace behind.

I’ll need to pray for him tonight.

Yeah.

After you do a bed pan check on the floor, you can go.

Okay. Great.

Are you going out tonight?

I don’t know.

You’ve still got slop on your shirt. Since you’re not going out, you’ll have plenty of time to launder and press two fresh shirts for your next shift. I want to see them before you go on the floor. Am I understood?

Yes, I said. I wondered if Bridget was going out after her all-inclusive chapel stop and if she had any friends either. Even though she meant well, in her own way, the other nursing aides kept their distance. Bridget was pretty in that conventional style that women found reassuring and men found non-threatening, so she’d probably never had a locked and loaded .45 held at the base of her skull as someone older and of a higher rank than she pulled down her pants against her will and made her cry. I could imagine Bridget marrying one of the charity cases in wheelchairs, an officer candidate friend of her brother’s, someone with a short life expectancy and a generous pension payout, someone who told blond jokes and could not fuck his wife but actually liked women.

I went into the supply closet where I kept my stash. With the door shut, it was colorless and quiet inside, and I like it because then I was just a person in a supply closet in a hospital. My fingertips grazed the stacks of starched, clean sheets, some of which were rough and some of which smelled like a Chinese dry cleaner’s. From my stockpile of Xanax, I slid an orally disintegrating tablet under my tongue and waited for my blood to stop crackling and for my conscious mind to settle into that zone between drunkenness and consequence. I took only half the dosage, in case I ran into Bridget again, and stored the other half inside my bra cup.

*

To the bed pans. In Staff Sergeant Mohammad Aksari’s room, a lively poker game was in full swing when I came in. Staff Sergeant Mohammad Aksari was a career officer with seven tours of duty split between Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt. Many of the marines who cycled in and out of the VA had served with or under him, and he was popular because of his knowledge of Arabic and his commitment to the Corps. He sat in bed with his knobby potato toes sticking out from under the blanket. Sometimes when I gave him a sponge bath, he’d tell to do my duty and suck him off. I’d say, Habir, which I thought meant “dick” in Arabic but which I later learned meant “expert”. The poker game cloaked me in invisibility so I left his bed pan where it lay before marking zero output on his chart and slipping away.

Dusk had shifted to stars. From room 308’s doorway, I saw that Ashley had gone, maybe to take her son home or to get something to eat, so I entered. The room felt womblike. In its soft opacity my ex-commanding officer looked as dignified as he had on that first day of School of Infantry training. In the corridor, footsteps were ushering the full-bodied outside, back among the living. The headlights on their cars were guiding the drivers away from the VA hospital, probably towards the marina. At midnight, there would be amateur fireworks you could watch from the promenade. This was in anticipation of the Corps’ birthday. It was part of the town’s effort to make the visiting servicemen and women feel appreciated in a world grown weary of war. Since my discharge, I had been living in a nearby beach town, renting a room from a medicated bipolar heiress who dabbled in interior design and was a devotee of face yoga. When her parents divorced early the next year, and her father’s new girlfriends began refurnishing his many residences, she would find herself out of a decorating job and move to Los Feliz to try to break into stunt work. She’d try for movies, and then for television, and then for commercials, and finally for computer games. I’m still waiting to see her Claymation head being decapitated from her anatomically-enhanced body when I play Assassin’s Creed on my PlayStation. I would like for something big to happen for her because she never said a word when I sampled from her bathroom’s well-stocked medicine cabinet, and particularly because on the evening of the Corps Birthday Ball, when Bridget discovered my prone body across boxes of adult incontinence products, a Dr. Bob at my side and his joint in my hand, and after clearing out my locker and being escorted off the premises, I would arrive home to an empty apartment with full pill bottles which I’d empty, and because the emergency medical technicians would smell marijuana on me, they’d call the police who’d search the house and find my roommate’s hidden cache which I hadn’t known she had, which would make this the last autumn she lived in this beach town.

I settled into a chair in the corner of the room and marveled at where my ex-commanding officer’s legs used to be. He had practiced martial arts and used to deliver a mean roundhouse kick. This man, my former commanding officer whom I would have risked my life for one upon a time ago, was so still, so motionless that I felt a certain grief. Because he was no longer the Man In Charge, he no longer owned the truth.

We’d met on the first day of School of Infantry classroom instruction. He epitomized the ideal marine: courageous, honorable, committed. He told me what to expect during the twenty-nine day Marine Combat Training Course and promised to impart the knowledge and ability necessary to operate in a combat environment. He made me feel at home and said he’d show me the ropes to get me qualified. Later, he spoke to me privately about not wearing makeup around the other recruits or running in jogging shorts because some marines viewed the women on the base as walking mattresses who were there only to be fucked, and I would be asking for it if I did either of those things because who doesn’t capitalize on an opportunity that’s presented to him, and I didn’t want to be charged with conduct unbecoming did I, and to remember that boys and girls and alcohol just don’t mix and from that point on only he would be able to sign off on my qualifications and I should come to his barracks for those signatures. I might have sneered a little, I don’t know because I can’t control it, and in times of great tension or danger I sneer. That’s when he started sleeping in my bed. I’d come in from training to find him sprawled across my mattress, and then I’d have to wait inside my car, which was the only place he didn’t have a key to, until he woke up and went away. When I finally reported him to the higher-ups, I was asked if I had a boyfriend and was told that I was weak to complain about him just because I didn’t like him. One of them suggested I was a hot little mess who was trying to destroy the Corps, and maybe I should be tested for a personality disorder.

The door to the room opened. I should have jumped up and pretended that I was doing something other than sitting in the semi-darkness with a rehearsal corpse, but that Xanax had kicked in so I didn’t. It was Miss Patty the Tex-Mex floor nurse who was on husband number five and therefore impossible to surprise. It’s bath time, was all she said, and then, Give me a hand. I filled a small bowl with warm, soapy water and gathered some supplies. Miss Patty leaned over the bed and pulled my ex-commanding officer towards her. Get the tie, she said.

I didn’t want to get the tie because then I might touch him, and I didn’t want to see a spread of flesh that was both strong and weak at the same time, and I didn’t want to be close enough to smell his dead-weather smell, but I got the tie because that is what student nursing aides do, and more important, that is what marines do, and it wasn’t as bad as bringing him his coffee after he kicked my legs out from underneath me when I had gone to his office to retrieve the supply closet keys so I could feed the station dogs as part of my nightly cleanup duty at Camp Geiger. Miss Patty gently laid my ex-commanding officer back against his pillows, then drew the gown up past his shoulders and chest. There wasn’t much left of the area below his belly button. The part that wasn’t covered in plaster and bandages looked like it had been through a shark attack. Tiny beads of perspiration formed above my upper lip and I used my lower lip to wipe them away. Ok, Miss Patty said, but she was looking at me, then Ok Handsome, and she was looking at him, We’re going to give you a little spa treatment so you can rest more comfortably during the night, even though he wasn’t conscious to hear her, and then she sponged at his face, neck, chest, and arms as one would a newborn. I took away the damp used cloths and gave Miss Patty clean ones before I rolled my ex-commanding officer onto his side so Miss Patty could clean his back. I was surprised he seemed as heavy now as he had then, when he had used his body to pin me down on the barracks’ floor, because there was so little left of him. Is there anything else you need me to do? I asked and when Miss Patty shook her head I exited into the mall-lit hallway.

Ashley had just stepped off the elevator and was walking towards my ex-commanding officer’s room. Oh, you’re still here, she said but she didn’t sound surprised, to which I said, Yes, and then we stared at each other like two people who don’t know each other and therefore have nothing to say. The whites of her eyes were hacked by tiny broken blood vessels. Well, I said and took a step around her, which she countered with, Wait, and then, I am so sad, which was said so quietly that I wasn’t sure if it had come from her or me. I took a truffle from my pocket and held it out to her. This might help, I said. When she didn’t respond, I explained, There’s an inspirational message on the inside. Ashely didn’t take the candy so I added, It tastes good too, and then lifted her left hand from where it hung at the side of her body and formed her fingers into a tiny cup. It might help with the sadness, I said as I dropped the chocolate into her palm and closed her fingers around it. I turned and walked away because I had just lied to her. Nothing eased the sadness.

Thank you, she said as she caught up to me. You must be tired after such a long day. Would you like to have some coffee? I told her I didn’t drink coffee and needed to get going, which was another lie because there was no one and nothing waiting for me anywhere. She opened her mouth to say something but her words got caught in her throat, which made her face look like a fish’s. I smiled at this, and she must have taken my smile as reconsideration because she closed her mouth and swallowed and looked at me the way a pretty child looks at the new kid before she invites her to play. Then she said she would like, if it wasn’t too much trouble, for me to sit with her in the hospital cafeteria while she worked up the nerve to enter her husband’s room. She said she had asked me because she could see that I was a kind person, a good person, a person her husband would like, and my giving her the truffle had confirmed this. I kept my face very still, and tried not to think, as I followed her into the elevator and we stood side by side silently watching the floor numbers light up in descending succession, about what her husband might say if he knew his wife had decided to confide in me, or if he’d worry that I might share a few secrets too, or if any of what he’d done to me had affected his life at all.

I sat at an out-of-the-way table as Ashley stood in line. At this late hour the cafeteria was almost empty, and most of the kitchen staff were smoking cigarettes in the alley beside the delivery dock as they played Frisbee with their hair nets. The place stank of tater tots. The chime of china shattering against ceramic tiles pierced the chicken-fried air. A litany of Spanish swear words rang out from the dishwasher. Across the fluorescent bulb dining room, Miss Patty momentarily lifted her head from the romance novel she was reading, and then sipped discreetly from a black chrome flask she kept tucked away within her ample bosom. She flexed and pointed her toes, which were propped up on the chair across from her. My stomach growled. I unwrapped a chocolate. An eye for an eye leaves the world blind, is what the wrapper read, which was said by Gandhi, which figured. I crumpled it into a ball and shot it across the table at the bottoms of Miss Patty’s feet as Ashley returned with a coffee and a bottle of water. In case you change your mind, she said as she placed the water in front of me and slid into the adjacent seat. Thanks, I said but I didn’t mean it.

I don’t know why but I’m afraid to see him, she blurted.

Because you don’t want to face what your life has become, but I didn’t say that. Instead I said that it had to be hard.

You must see patients like him all the time. Does it get to you?

No, I said and for the first time I told her something true.

How not?

I lay the bottle of water on its side and spun it on the table.

Why do you work here? Do you have family in the military?

My father was a Chief Petty Officer and my grandfather retired as a Sergeant Major. Where was your husband deployed? I didn’t tell her that the last time I had seen him was at Camp Geiger.

He went to Afghanistan seven months ago, she said, twisting her diamond ring along her delicate finger, as if to say, You made me a promise, but not very forcefully so as to say, You betrayed me; obviously you can’t be trusted; obviously you failed me and your country.

C’mon, I said as I stood, Let’s go. It won’t get any easier.

*

We stopped shoulder to shoulder outside room 308. Do you want to go in alone? I asked to show her she couldn’t back down.

No, she said, Could we enter together?

Ok, I said as I opened the door and gave her a little hard shove forward. I hung back as she approached my ex-commanding officer. His body added contour to the upper two-thirds of the bed, while the lower third of the bed was flat.

Ashley stood in the spouse-spot shaking her head.

What, I asked, but I did not go to her.

He doesn’t look like himself, she said.

I wanted to laugh a little, but I didn’t.

It’s the facial hair. He would never let himself go like that.

This much was true. I had never seen him look less than recruitment poster-ready, not even when he grabbed his loaded .45 and chambered the round inches from my ear.

Do you think we could shave him?

I imagined holding a sharp blade next to his jugular.

Do you think you could show me how? Are you trained to do that? The wife asked.

I’m trained to do that, I said. I raised the head of the bed so my ex-commanding officer was in a seated position. Imagine if he had awoken right then. Imagine his surprise. I could not look directly at his face, but I thought about holding the skin under his jaw firmly and tightly as I ran a razor along it. I need to get some supplies, I said as I turned toward the doorway.

I exited.

I walked down the hall past the supply closet to the stairs.

Once inside the stairwell, I sat down on a step and pressed my sticky forehead to the metal railing. Then I extracted the other half of the Xanax from my bra and placed it under my tongue. I waited for a while, during which I am sure, Ashley found another nurse’s aide to gather shaving cream and towels and a razor, and show her how to shave her half-husband.

I took the stairs to the garage park and headed for my car. As I was fumbling for my keys among truffle wrappers and used Kleenexes, I heard a familiar God praising voice. I ducked down between my car and the next, just as Dr. Bob strolled by, ruffling Bridget’s hair and then cupping her behind.

You did good today, he said.


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