“I Just Tell ‘Em” by Wynne Hungerford

Categories:

Almost midnight. I sneak cigarettes by the back door and magnolia blossoms glow in the dark. I’m not tired, even though I worked an eight-hour shift at the janitor supply store. My second summer at the register, ringing up tampon dispensers and antimicrobial mop heads, and I still feel filthy remembering how the delivery man, Bruce, asked if I’d like to fool around on top of a baby changing station. “We can role-play,” he said, flexing his biceps. “Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm.” My parents want me to start at the bottom and develop character, but I don’t like the bot-tom and I don’t like the top, so through a cloud of lazy smoke I look at Saturn. Raccoons paw Tanqueray bottles in the recycling bin.

In the screened porch next-door, lamplight falls over my neighbor’s wrinkled face and when the ceiling fan chops the air, big ferns tremble in their baskets. She waters her own plants, while everybody else relies on a Mexican service called Mr. Handsome Lawn. I walk across the yard to see if everything’s okay because she grips a fork.

She says, “I don’t have time for a visit, dear. I’ve got a date with death.” She points the fork toward an electrical outlet on the wall. “Don’t try and convince me otherwise. I might be ninety-nine, but I can still make my own decisions.”

Her name is Verona Putt. She looks like a Putt, too, with her small body, long feet nor-mally hidden by blue Keds, and toenails thick enough to shave ice. Her white bob glistens like sugar and sturdy shoulders hold up a cable-knit sweater. I could let someone more pathetic die, but not Verona Putt. She’s nothing like those wheelchair figures on the handicap accessible signs we sell at work. I reach out as if to touch her free hand, then grab the fork and try to pull it away. Her forearm muscle bulges and she yanks it from me, stabbing my thigh and shouting, “The de-cision’s been made, sweetie. Don’t monkey with fate.” In the scramble my cigarette falls into her lap, burns a hole through her denim pants, and sizzles against the balmy skin. She doesn’t yelp, only brushes off the cigarette butt.

I sit in a wicker chair, looking at my leg. Blood dribbles from four holes and the pain burns purple. “That was uncalled for.”

She says, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that everybody wants to be a hero but most of us end up the villain. That what happened to me, dear.” She slips into the house for a moment, leaving the door cracked, and in some distant room I see ducks mounted on the wall and chande-lier crystals and rose-colored wallpaper. Verona returns with a first aid kit, saying, “You’ll be my last patient.” She scoots her chair closer to mine, wipes the punctures with a damp cloth, and ap-plies antibiotic lotion. Her voice rides soft air. “Make sure it’s clean before putting on a bandage. You remember that.”

She pats a Band-Aid on my leg and says, “If I could do it over again, I’d learn to make a fierce margarita.”

“You can still learn.”

“Honey, quit trying to save me. You should listen when I’m telling you about my first margarita. It was at a mental health convention in Miami, and I wore white the whole time and spun on the beach. Forget whatever dreams you’ve got now and look to margaritas.”

Her clothes smell fresh out of the washer. I wonder if I could’ve helped her somehow. A dog barks far off. Margaritas would be better than a future with dry-foam carpet deodorizers, crystalline odor eliminators, blood cleanup kits, trashcans, automatic hand dryers, medical waste bags, hydrosprayers, toilet seat covers, feather dusters, plungers, burnishers, bathroom tissue, carpet bonnets, and cherry-scented urinal blocks.

She says, “People always wanted to know how a girl like me ended up here. Understand, it wasn’t easy getting myself through nursing school. At my very first hospital, I met sweet For-est. He was a neurologist, called me his baby grand. We hadn’t been married a week when he bought this house. He’s been gone over thirty years, bless him, and now people want to know how I’ve lived this long. If I had a nickel.”

“What do you say?”

Her eyes are overripe blueberries. She stares at me, unblinking, and leans forward. The first aid kit slides out of her lap and lands on the floor. She picks it up, running her thumb over the white metal surface. “I just tell ‘em.”

Part of her job was holding down patients for electroshock treatment. Sometimes there would be ten patients in a room. One by one, she went down the row. Applying electrodes, re-straining, overseeing convulsions, restoring respiration. The last person would have to wait, lis-ten. It helped some patients and others were made back into babies. “I took the life out of them and kept it for myself,” Verona tells me. “There’s no telling how many memories we stole.”

She picks up the fork and says, “Run along, sweetie. I’ve got business.”

I walk to the doorway.

“One more thing. Don’t call an ambulance when you get home.”

I move across the yard, away from Verona and her sterling fork and the ferns with trem-bling fronds. I don’t look when Verona Putt kneels on the ground, holding the metal table leg in one hand and sticking the fork into the outlet with the other. She completes the circuit but I’m not looking when her body shudders and collapses. For a split-second, I imagine her bladder los-ing control and how one of my shaggy mops and metal side-press wringers would clean it up easily. That’s wrong, I know. A bad job can ruin a person. That’s why I’ve got to leave. First, I’ll throw my navy janitorial supply shirt in the trash. If anybody asks where I’ve been or where I’m going, I won’t tell them anything.

——

Wynne Hungerford has published work in The Whitefish Review, The South Carolina Review,, Aerie International, edible Upcountry, the anthology What We Remember, What We Forget, and Montana Public Radio’s program Reflections West. She was a poetry finalist for both the NFAA YoungArts contest and the Norman Mailer College Poetry Prize. Wynne is a native of in Greenville, South Carolina, and attends the University of Montana.