Noma Gentry leaned on her walker and stared out the picture window overlooking the lawn that circled Shannondale like a moat. She squinted her eyes, hunched her shoulders, and bent her knees a little, as if she was searching a half century of horizons back to the gray morning when she watched Hiram back the hay wagon into the barn for the last time.
She had never understood why he continued to work so hard, even after they couldn’t pretend to own the farm. The week prior, they’d stood on the sidewalk in front of the First National Bank of Oak Grove and watched little clouds form where their warm breath collided with the cold December air. Hiram picked at imaginary flaws in the floppy brim of the straw hat he’d worn for years to protect him from the relentless glare of the sun. At the last minute, he’d shrugged a brown dress coat over his bib overalls, all that was left of the suit he’d worn to marry Noma. She wore her apron over her work dress. The laces wrapped twice around her waist and ended in a large, looping bowknot on her stomach. Their two boys, too young to understand grinding poverty but old enough to sense the gravity of this situation, stood in the seat of the truck, and watched.
Sweat glistened on Hiram’s upper lip.
“He’s just a man,” Noma said.
“I’ll just talk to him,” Hiram said, like it was an idea that had just occurred to him.
They’d sat in the dark that last morning and drank scalding black coffee. She savored their early morning ruminations, sometimes because of the things they left unsaid, not talking about Russian missiles inCubaor the Mark of the Beast or on that morning, the impending foreclosure on the farm that had been in his family since before the Civil War.
His voice split the silence. “I love you,” he said.
The words hung in the air over the kitchen table as if they had just appeared, unconnected to a human thought. Hiram rationed his words, as if the supply was limited and he feared he’d use his allotment before he ran out of things to say. He never said “I love you” to Noma in the daylight. He never failed to say it at bedtime. Noma always answered, reassured that the last thing that either of them heard before they slept every evening was a private, renewal of their wedding vows, to love each other forever, for better or worse. She looked out the kitchen window, sipping the coffee he always made too strong. A sense of impending doom settled over her like a shawl.
“I love you, too,” she said.
She waited for Hiram to finish loading hay bales out of the loft, then pull the wagon into the pasture to feed the few cows they had left. She’d seen him step off the wagon bed a thousand other times, letting his knees and hips absorb the impact of the drop without jarring, the way she imagined he did when he was a paratrooper in WWII. The wind puffed again, cold, straight from the north, moaning a little around the corner of the house. His body seemed to float, then turn slowly, almost gracefully toward her. His head bowed at an awkward angle. His arms hung limp at his side. She realized that what he meant to say that morning was “good bye.”
The nurse appeared out of nowhere. “Need to rest?” she asked. She moved a chair behind Noma to where it just touched the back of her legs.
“Poor little thing,” Noma answered, using half of her working vocabulary. Until a few months ago, she could still say her birthday, but just like the ignition on Hiram’s pick-up truck that had to grind and grind until the starter caught and the motor roared into life, she had to peck her fingertips on the table-top and say “twenty-two” over and over until finally “Twenty-two October nineteen-oh-nine” erupted. She said it in a distinctive rhythm, as if the cadence was as much a part of the memory as the date.
Noma rocked back and forth slightly, as if her body, like her mind, teetered between the things she couldn’t remember and the ones she couldn’t forget. The walker slipped. Noma plunked down hard on the chair.
“Are you OK?” asked the nurse.
“Bless its heart,” Noma answered.
The nurse adjusted Noma’s robe and said something else that Noma didn’t hear because she was already engrossed in a Blue Jay that flew on and off the bird bath outside the window while a well fed tabby cat lashed its tail and skulked nearby.
“Bless its heart,” she said as if she felt sorry for the bird. “Poor little thing.”
There were a half dozen other Shannondale patients in the day room. They had paid no attention to Noma and her leaning, squatting and muttering over her walker. They wandered in their own forests. Like Noma, they had skirted around the edges for years, going through the motions of normalcy, breathing, eating, working, sleeping, thinking that Truman was president and not Clinton or that it was May instead of September or fall instead of spring.
Noma had walked deep into her personal forest never to return the night she called the Oak Grove police to report that dope addicts had taken residence in the crawl space under her house. The young officer had walked with her from room to room, clicked on lights, checked in closets, and looked under furniture. He went outside and aimed his flashlight into the trees, at the shrubbery, between the steps, under the porch.
“I’m not finding anything Mrs. Gentry,” he said.
Each person in the dayroom had their unique travel log chronicling a journey from independence to dependence, from insight to oblivion, from hiding around the edges of the deep dark woods to becoming eternally lost inside it. Every patient had a child who finally shrugged in defeat, then moved their mother or father to a place where an imaginary world could expand safely in a semi-private room, where marriages that had spanned half a century ended as a stranger’s face in a black and white photograph on a cheap bedside table.
The day nurse turned to the other patients.
“Good afternoon,” she said.
Rheumy eyes looked toward her. No one answered.
She turned the radio on and adjusted the volume. A preacher at WOAK finished his Sunday afternoon sermon about escaping the wrath to come. Organ music played the melody to “Farther Along” while the disc jockey read the weekly obituary and extolled the virtues of a pre-paid funeral plan from Tauscher’s mortuary.
A quiet and aloof former schoolteacher pursed her lips like an axterix, extended her gnarled index finger and marked out the rhythm for a classroom full of unruly students that still lived in her mind. The other residents leaned over their wheel-chair armrests or tilted forward against their chest restraints, frozen in waxy postures, gazing with empty eyes into a future they no longer feared.
Noma nodded her head slightly as if a memory of the music was trying to wriggle free from the plaques and tangles that held it submerged. Before her last stroke cauterized the speech area of her brain, she shuffled the halls and sang, “Some glad morning, when this life is ov-er, I’ll… fly away.” Sometimes, a burley man with a phlegmy cough echoed the bass refrain from down the hall, “in the morning.” After he died, she lowered her voice and sang it herself.
Noma rocked, gathering momentum to stand again.
The nurse put her hand on the cross bar to steady the walker. “Tired of sittin’ already?” she asked. For a moment, their hands were side by side, Noma’s with fingers that twisted at each joint and translucent skin that showed her veins like a relief map, and the nurse’s smooth, symmetric and tan.
“Bless… its… heart,” Noma said, punctuating each rocking motion with a word to add momentum. “Poor… lit…tle… thing,” she continued.
She bent over with her elbows on her walker and rested for a minute. Then she stood and leaned a little to the left so her right foot could scoot on the tile, a gait she’d acquired gradually after a stroke weakened the right half of her body.
Years earlier, before the doors to D-wing were set with alarms and before Noma needed assistance, she had wandered off the campus and ambled down the one mile stretch of highway into town. The nurses and aides searched all over Shannodale until someone called from Bill’s Meat Market where she had loaded a grocery cart and was chatting with the cashier at the register about her growing boy’s appetite and how she enjoyed her new job at the hosiery mill. She couldn’t remember either of her boys’ names by then. Her mind held a composite of the two, one generic son that she inserted into whatever distorted recollection she might have.
Noma turned in a series of fragmented steps to follow the nurse. She winced when either foot accepted her full weight. She shuffled a few steps, scooting her walker in front of her, then rested and watched as the nurse stopped beside a man with a string of drool that stretched from his sagging lower lip to a moist spot on his plaid flannel shirt. He bore little resemblance to the boy who’d hitch-hiked to the Navy Recruiting station in Knoxville the day after he graduated from Oak Grove High school in 1943, anxious that the war would stop without him. The nurse wiped his mouth with a paper towel. She uncapped the tube that entered through his abdominal wall and ended in his stomach. She poured an elixir of medicines that were as pointless as his mind was blank.
They moved to the next patient, a former deacon at the First Baptist Church. His daughter brought him to live at Shannondale when she found him living in squalid conditions in the home where she grew up. He rarely spoke, except to pray long prayers, using flowery lines and beautiful words when called upon to deliver the blessing for the evening meal.
“Take your time,” the nurse said as she took colored pills of different sizes and shapes and placed them in his mouth. “Now, take a sip of water.” She waited for him to swallow. “Now stick out your tongue,” she said. She peered inside to make sure all the pills were gone.
They moved from one patient to the next. The nurse placed pills and sips of water onto the desiccated tongues of people whose personalities had disappeared with their memories and left no distinctive features other than the typewritten name and birthdates on their plastic wristbands. Noma scooted along behind like an acolyte.
“Poor little thing,” she said.
May you swallow and not get choked.
May the good Lord bless and keep you….
“Bless its heart.”
They stopped before a cadaverous old man who sat propped in his Geri-chair. His back was curved so that his neck had to be buttressed on pillows. People joked that he had developed his deformity from years of hunching over, counting his money. An oil painting, commissioned by his mother when he was young and his body was arrow straight, still hung on the wall in First National Bank lobby.
The nurse fluffed a pillow under the banker’s neck. She adjusted his hands on his belly, one over the other, to look like he meant them to be there. The broad blue veins glistened like ribbons through his cadaver white skin. She placed a pill on his tongue. A weak, wet cough interrupted his shallow breathing.
“Poor little thing,” Noma said.
“He’s pitiful, ain’t he?” the nurse said. “They say he used to be rich.”
Noma gently ran the tip of her arthritic finger along the bones of the banker’s forehead where the fat had melted away and the skin stretched tight over his skull. A blind person might have performed the same gentle gesture in an effort to recognize a loved one they couldn’t see.
The nurse put a thick yellow slurry of medicine into a little plastic cup and dribbled it into his mouth. She watched him swallow, then helped him settle back on his pillow. She penciled her note, then pushed her cart toward the door and disappeared down the hall.
Noma frowned again, as if she had recognized the outline of the man from that morning decades past when he hunched over his mahogany desk and wrote on a sheet of paper the dollar amount that Hiram would need to pay just to postpone losing the farm for another year. He had pushed it toward them with the eraser end of his pencil, as if by not touching it, he somehow absolved himself of his part in the destruction of the hopes and dreams they’d planted there.
The banker sputtered and coughed. His mouth opened and closed like a baby bird. His eyes bulged, watered and gave a reflexive frantic unseeing look around the room, then rolled back under his wispy white eyebrows and closed like he was asleep. A white froth gathered in the corner of his mouth. His lips turned as blue as the veins in the back of his hands. The room filled with a feculent odor as his sphincter muscles relaxed.
Noma turned to the window. The winter sun had just kissed the mountain top goodbye, leaving only the frowning silhouette of the ridgeline on the horizon. A red light blinked, slower than a heartbeat, warning the occasional low flying aircraft to stay clear of the WOAK radio antenna perched high on the top of the fire tower. She leaned on her walker unencumbered by the fading wake of painful memories or the fear of eternity.
“Poor little thing,” she said. “Bless its heart.”
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the journal “Floyd County Moonshine.”
About the Author
Ron Lands is enjoying a second career in academic medicine at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. His short stories have been published or are forthcoming in several literary journals. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He has published several reflective vignettes in the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Annals of Internal Medicine. His work appears in literary anthologies published by both of these professional journals.