Title: Life Care
Rating: PG - Gen - Outside POV
Spoilers: General (for all aired episodes)
Disclaimers: SPN & characters are owned by their various creators.
Summary: Outside POV - An elderly man in a hospice home notices a strange new addition to the nursing staff.
Everyone always made a big deal about mornings but he could live without them.
A full night’s rest allowed all his muscles and joints to settle down with the pain he’d spent an entire day medicating back into compliancy. The sharp shine of yellow sunlight that his curtains would never close tight enough to keep out felt like a chisel hammering right through his brain. It wasn’t as if he could have slept in if he wanted to anyway. The nurse always came in shortly after dawn to make sure he could get in and out of the bathroom without screwing it up. After that a doctor would come through to check the stitches they’d left on his hip. Check his eyes and heart. Make a few jokes about having new stainless steel fixtures like the Million Dollar Man. He laughed when he should and even made a few jokes back.
The plastic flowers on the bedside table were unnaturally bright to reinforce the cheer. Every detail added to make the room more like home just reminded him that he was far from it.
He missed the peaceful silence of his one story house and the backyard that ran into some woods. The garage had all his tools and that brand new hand sander his grandkids had bought him for his birthday. He even missed the big old cast iron tub he’d spent almost two days in before a neighbor wandered in to borrow a step ladder. That was what happened when you ignored your bones. After seven decades your structural integrity became as unreliable as the evening paper.
He pushed his wheelchair a little closer up to the table to better arrange the plastic chess pieces. A breeze blew in hot and sluggish through the screens and made him want the smooth wooden bench of his back porch. Louisiana summers were meant for a tall glass of iced tea with a splash of bourbon. You came inside after the lamplight was all you could see, and the crooning racket of the crickets and frogs were all you could hear.
The recreation room was usually avoided at all costs but it was the only place in the joint that had a decent table to set up a game. It was also the only place where he could likely find someone bored enough to take a seat opposite him and start playing. Pushing all the pawns into position he glanced up in annoyance at the loud television bolted to the ceiling in the corner. The volume was always twisted as loud as it could go because nobody around here could hear worth a damn.
His belief was that assembled elderly were supposed to enjoy polka concerts on PBS and evangelists with bleached smiles. Afternoons meant for blessed silence were instead filled to the brim with reality dating shows, Dr. Phil and VH1’s countdown to best celebrity meltdowns. He’d never subscribed to the self-importance of mass media. If he’d had the time to pay attention to a commercial selling condoms right in broad daylight than he had time to be doing something else. He steadied his hands to make sure each piece was in the dead center of their mismatched squares on the board.
A tanned and empty eyed beauty queen smiled for the cameras and stumbled in the direction of a waiting limousine.
There was something that lingered in a pretty lost face that he begrudgingly could appreciate. The fascination with the doomed beauties of the cinematic screen was the same no matter what president was currently residing in the White House.
“Mornin’ Mr. Goldstein!”
One of the few things he liked about the human warehouse that his son had assured him was a ‘hospice for the golden years’ was the fact that half their staff weren’t professional nurses. In his experience low salary, nursing assistants who were there to make sure their rent was paid and their patients kept breathing were of little to no good at all. The third and lowest tier of the staff weren’t so bad. Half the time they were volunteers or college kids not bright enough for a decent internship elsewhere. They were useless if you wanted a rush on the pain meds or quick change of the sheets but they were just the thing for a glass of water or a blanket. He eyed the young man that was waiting with a tray of whatever the kitchen deemed lunch. Some low sodium, tasteless crap that he choked down every day just so no one got any ideas about giving him a feeding tube.
“Come on, don’t be like that.” The kid with the buzz cut insisted. “They made tater tots today.”
His last name wasn’t Goldstein but he’d never bothered to correct the mistake. To his knowledge there wasn’t even anyone by such name living on the floor. There weren’t a large variety of private amusements to be had in his day to day so he’d let this one slide just to see how long it would go on. Besides, he wondered how many 75 year old black men this genius had seen lighting a menorah.
The pile of tater tots did look pretty good though.
“Nice watch.” The boy commented.
“Thanks.” He checked the green eyes for signs of mockery and found none. “It does the job.”
Beside the soggy pasta with steamed vegetables, there was a heap of deep fried potato and one tray compartment completely filled with ketchup. He waited until the kid left before he took one of the things and popped it into his mouth. Damn if the thing wasn’t still about 350 degrees from the oven.
He kept eating them until they were all gone.
When the nurse on duty came by to make sure he had consumed his required caloric intake, she congratulated him like a child for cleaning his plate. When he went back to his room that night to listen to the AM radio news, he thought about the new nurse’s aide that had delivered the contraband. It was sort of nice to see a new face around here for a change.
It was even better to see one that was smiling.
There had been many jobs of various difficulties over the years but he’d never cashed a paycheck for minding a bunch of someones that couldn’t mind themselves.
It didn’t look like a great job no matter what anyone wanted to claim. However, it also didn’t appear all that particularly difficult. With a frown, he watched the young man with the tray start handing out cups of ice cream regardless of what anyone’s paperwork might happen to say about the delicate matter of diet. The new kid never managed to clock in on time in the mornings and he never left when the clock hit five. A stern voice would rise hourly to remind, demand or reprimand the fool for something or other.
A small round of applause rose amongst the television viewers as the line of static running across the monitor was corrected.
The staff had been meeting complaints about the irritating glitch with an insistence that the thing was simply broken beyond repair. The new aide took the old-fashioned antennae and bent it further into a new bowed shape that allowed almost perfect reception. Watching the calloused hands work reminded him of a long ago stint in an auto garage. He could still remember the ache on his knuckles and fingers from banging around the insides of a transmission all day long. This was no youth fulfilling a church errand or a man with bills to pay. His frown deepened when fresh air was provided with a few open windows despite the flow of sacred and expensive air conditioning.
It became a minor preoccupation to speculate what the hell this boy and his smile were doing here at all. He groaned and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
He had to go the bathroom.
The need was so bad he actually felt his back teeth swimming. All his life he’d heard people use that expression and not once did it make a lick of sense until his molars were doing a backstroke of their own.
“How are ya doin’ Mr. Goldstein?”
The kid looked him up and down and noted the pained fidget he was performing in his chair.
“What’s it look like?” He snapped back.
The puzzle came together as the kid’s eyebrows rose in understanding. He started to lean forward to take hold of the wheelchair.
“I can wait.”
“What?” The boy’s confusion was genuine. “Look man, when a guy has gotta go, a guy has got to go.”
“I’ll wait for a nurse.” He said. “She’ll be ‘round any minute now.”
Another thing about sitting in a chair with wheels was that anyone could up and start moving a body around whether they wanted to or not. He gritted his teeth as they rolled into the hallway but gnawed his lip in relief when he saw the restroom doors. There was some ungraceful maneuvering as the door was opened and the chair pulled inside. The convenient location and decorative bowls of soap indicated this wasn’t a facility for resident use but that didn’t seem to bother the aide much.
Salvation was right before his eyes.
He allowed the assistant to help him to his feet and get to a solid stand over the urinal.
While the pressure in his bladder was blissfully relieved, he shut his eyes for a second to thank the powers above that he hadn’t gone and wet his own trousers. There was plenty of time for those indignities down the road when he wouldn’t be able to stand up himself to take a leak. For now however, he could at least accomplish this small task. The simplicity of the critical undertaking brought back a memory from much more carefree days.
In a gesture of thanks, he offered some of his past to the young man waiting behind him.
“Was out fishin’ one time.” He made his way to the white porcelain sinks. “Got drunk and fell overboard with my pants around my knees.”
The kid immediately laughed.
“Hey, once I got so wasted I didn’t even bother taking them off.”
Drying his hands in a scratchy paper towel, he returned the laugh before he could stop himself. Taking a seat back in his chair, he observed the clumsy procedure of door propping and the unfortunate random passing of the nurse on duty. Cringing at the start of a tongue-lashing he’d hadn’t witnessed since his mama was alive, he edged past them and headed back to the rec room under his own power.
There was enough time before supper to get in at least one game even if it lacked an adversary.
There were certain things he missed sharing with someone that was always at his side.
His wife was gone ten years but he always thought of her first whenever something caught his eye that deserved notice. It was never the big news on the front of the paper or any of the regular noise everyone could hear. What he missed pointing out was the play of the weather, the addition of a corner cobweb or a child’s face that resembled someone from the past. It was strange to keep all his discoveries, no matter how incidental or meaningless to himself. They felt wasted like fruit left to rot on branches. He would have told his wife about the newest addition to the assistant nursing staff.
The first thing he would have mentioned was that the name tag read: James
He studied the kid as a hand hovered uncertainly over the chessboard. He sure didn’t look like a James. He wondered if people who knew him called him Jim, or Jimmy. It seemed fitting for that name to be changed to something softer and kinder. An informal moniker would better suit the easy posture and firm support that readily touched hunched shoulders and gripped frail hands. The boy didn’t know that he’d been secretly granted access to the table and allowed finally to pick up the pawns, but it was a graduation nonetheless.
It was the kid’s uncomplicated smile that eventually made him give in. That and the uncanny ability to swipe all the kitchen’s forbidden deep fried delicacies and somehow never catch the vigilant floor nurse’s attention.
“It’s still your turn.” He reminded after the five-minute mark came and went.
“Yeah, yeah.” The kid sat forward and stared harder at the pieces like it would help. “Gimme a second here.”
Some of the masters took a while before they decided to make a move but this guy wasn’t trying to win a tournament. He was still trying to figure out the logistics of how he could properly operate within the set of rules. Settling back into his chair he reset the egg timer for another five minutes. They had plenty of time for strategy; even the rudimentary sorts.
Abandoning a doomed knight, James reached for the queen instead. There was a bit of pleasure in a pupil’s quick education as much as there was dread for a potentially better adversary. The tenuous pride shifted completely to dismay when a precious rook was triumphantly knocked over. The last time he’d seen a pleased look like that was in a photograph sent from Paris near the end of the war. This boy didn’t look much like his long gone sibling but the quality of the effortless joy appeared exactly the same.
So was the little bastard’s complete lack of ability to hide his own tomfoolery.
“It ain’t worth nothin’.”
He anticipated theft in this place. The collection of spare dimes in his trouser pockets and even the god awful sugarless chocolates his daughter-in-law sent from time to time, but he didn’t own anything that would catch any professional’s eye. Crossing his arms over his chest he regarded his opponent with a wry grin of his own.
“My watch.” He said. “I seen you looking at it all week.”
There was a guilty silence he hadn’t been expecting.
“You lookin’ at it like it’s gonna make you money.” He rotated the laced nickel plate on his knobby wrist. “It won’t even break change for the bus.”
He hadn’t been expecting that either.
“My dad had a watch just like that.”
“That’s quite a coincidence.”
“Yeah.” The kid sighed in agreement. “It sure is.”
“You got a nice one already.” He glanced at the hefty nylon strap on James’s wrist. “I bet it works and everything.”
“Doesn’t work like yours does.” James mumbled.
The strange way the boy said the words made him pause over his next move on the board.
“Anything ever happen to you when you have it on?” James asked. “Anything bad?”
Sitting back, he studied the curious expression on the kid's face and realized the question was being asked in all seriousness. His shoulders hitched in a small laugh of disbelief. This boy was more touched than he thought.
“I’ll tell you what.” He undid the clasp and let the heavy weight fold onto the gold flecked formica table. “You win yourself self a game and its all yours.”
The suggestion made the worried look on James’s face fade. In fact, the boy looked down right relieved, like he’d been told he wouldn’t have to take a jump off a high place and down into some cold water.
“You got a deal.” James started digging into the pockets of his white uniform pants. “I’ll bet ya my Betty.”
He studied the proffered Zippo doubtfully. It didn’t look worth much with the faded decal of the infamous pinup smirking on one side, but it was well used.
“That looks like something you’d mind missin’.” He felt like he was talking to his son when they still had spoken at all. “Don’t bet something like that.”
“It’s cool.” James assured him. He flipped it open and rolled the wheel under a thumb with not even a hint of a spark. “She’s busted.”
The dented lighter was probably as valuable as the third hand watch from a pawnshop. However, he found a willingness to rig the game and set pride aside. The kid’s question about the watch had got him thinking for no good reason. Truth be told, he had bought the thing one day before he’d cracked his bones trying to get out of the bathtub, and ever since then all he’d seen was a lot of pain in other people’s eyes.
The thought of parting with it suddenly brought a sense of respite that he couldn’t explain.
It was a simple thing to ignore the five future moves that would take the king.
It was a little harder to swallow James’s bliss in the win.
“You take care of that now.” He felt like joking as he slid the cheap timepiece across the table for inspection. “Been in my family for weeks. Hate to think of anything happening to it.”
There was another curious look on the boy’s face as he flipped the watch over and studied it like it wasn’t a piece of junk that could barely keep the hours in a row.
“Yes, sir.” He answered before he pocketed it. “You got it.”