"Priorities"

Written By

Edward Turner

Amy made their bed while Ed took his shower. Then she poured coffee in a mug at the kitchen table. Tina jumped onto Ed's chair and purred. Outside, rain clouds blocked the sun. The shower spray stopped. Tina stopped purring and stared at the bathroom door.

 

She filled a bowl with cereal and put some milk in a plastic cover and placed it on the table near the edge. While Amy ate, Tina put her black paws on the table, stretched her neck and lapped the milk.

 

The bathroom door opened. Ed stood naked at the mirror over the sink. He parted his hair in the middle.

 

"Coffee ready?"

 

"It's on your coaster."

 

"Je-sus, I'm tired."

 

"I know."

 

He dressed, came to the table and sipped his coffee. "Is it gonna rain today?"

 

"This afternoon."

 

"You'll get wet coming home on the bus."

 

"Yes, I will." She placed Ed's sneakers beside his chair. The kitchen clock on the wall read 5:30 a.m. She checked the watch on her wrist and glanced at him.

 

"Okay, I'll hurry."

 

"I'll do dishes."

 

Ed snapped his fingers at Tina and she jumped down. He dressed his feet, listened as the tenants below banged their apartment door shut. Tina got on Amy’s chair and began cleaning her butt. He waved at her in disgust. She bared her fangs and hissed.

 

“You’re wasting time.”

 

His coffee had cooled. He drank it down, handed the mug to Amy. “I’ll start the car,”

 

She finished the dishes and patted Tina on the way out.

 

"Be a good kitty." Tina jumped down and headed for the litter box.

 

In the car Ed changed the radio station from Classical to Classic Rock.

 

"My pound of flesh," he murmured.

 

Ed drove through one red light and two yellow ones. He dropped Amy off at the hospital at 6:00 a.m. She waved as he headed for his job as an auto parts delivery person. A nurse waited at the entrance. Amy sighed.

 

"Where have you been?" the nurse asked.

 

"I don't begin till 6:30."

 

“I’ve been waiting for you. I need help.”

 

“Let me put my lunch away.”

 

“Please hurry.”

 

Amy signed in early. She followed the nurse to a room on the second level. An obese woman with uncombed brown hair reclined in a bed covered by a white sheet. The nurse raised the sheet and a heavy stench gusted upward.

 

“I can’t move,” the woman pleaded.

 

“The night shift didn’t do anything and we’re shorthanded today. Do you mind?”

 

“Can she stand?” Amy asked.

 

“Yes. I’ll do the bed.”

 

Amy checked the chart at the foot of the bed. “Time for a warm shower, Alice. Let’s get up.”

 

“Thank god. You’re an angel.”

 

After that Amy filled her lab tray for taking blood and put it on a pushcart. In the CCU a nurse’s aide passed her pulling a canvas laundry cart filled with soiled linen.

 

“Hi, Odette. Busy morning?”

 

“Hey, Amy. Same stuff, different day. The man you’re doing has a pretty

nasty mouth.”

 

“Thanks for the warning. What’s his name?”

 

“Paul.”

 

Amy did a thumbs-up and entered the patient’s screened cubicle. The elderly man wore a grim expression.

 

“For Christ’s sake, another one?” Eyes red, his face was ashen.

 

“We need a sample of your blood, Paul.” She parked the pushcart beside his bed. “And please watch your language.”

 

“I may be dying, dammit.” Paul grimaced, coughed in Amy’s direction.

 

Amy tapped his forehead. “Watch where you cough.” She pulled his right sleeve up and wrapped a rubber tube around his upper arm and cleaned a spot with alcohol. “This will feel like a pinch.”

 

The man turned his face away and shuddered as the needle went in. She attached a clear plastic vial and watched it fill with blood.

 

“That hurt me, you bitch.”

 

“It usually does.” She finished taking blood and taped gauze to the wound. “We’ll do a blood culture and see what you have.”

 

“I may be dying and need to see the doctor.”

 

“You have an infection. He told you that. It’s why you have a fever.”

 

“What if I died?”

 

Amy finished labeling the phial of blood. “We’d notify your next of kin.”

 

He opened his mouth to retort but closed it.

 

“What?”Amy asked

 

“No one’s home.”

 

“I’m sorry to hear that, Paul.”

 

“My son died. He lived with me.”

 

She shook her head.

 

“I left him everything in my will.”

 

The background noise seemed to fade.

 

“Do you miss him?”

 

He nodded.

She brushed the gray hair off his forehead.

 

“You don’t have to be completely alone, Paul. Join a club.”

 

“Me? I’d rather croak by myself.”

 

“I know a club with assholes like you. And women who are real bitches.”

 

“Whaat…?”

 

“A group in town called Fifty-Plus. You’re not the only crusty bastard going it alone. There are widows too. The widows are looking for men, Paul. Virile men.” She winked.

 

Paul blushed.

 

“A patient I know can tell you all about it. No dues either.”

 

“Good. I owe back taxes anyway.”

 

She pulled his nose. “I’ll send her right over.”

~

 

Amy’s egg salad sandwich had too much salt. The lunches were mixed up. Ed loved his food salty. She couldn’t stomach it and re-wrapped it. Laughter erupted from the table behind her. Fifteen minutes for lunch-break and back to work. The two Ibuprofen and Tylenol helped reduce the throbbing at her temples.

 

Amy had cleaned and helped move five patients plus done her blood work. Now she would do EKG tests. She made twenty cents more an hour as a technical nurse’s aide. That meant two new jobs plus short-handed days. The afternoon stretched before her like a never-ending line of mirrors reflecting each to infinity. She raised her head and saw a nurse.

 

The nurse stood to one side of the cafeteria’s door, keeping an eye on Amy.

 

~

 

The aide at the front desk watched a patient’s call-light blink. The front of her white uniform had brown and green stains. Another call-light began blinking. A nurse talked on a phone. Another typed at a computer.

 

One blond nurse looked up from a chart. “You have to answer them, Carrie. I’m busy.”

 

“But I have to get back and sit with Doris. You know that.”

 

“Forget Doris for now. Answer the call-lights.”

 

The nurse’s aide scowled and flounced off. She entered the first patient’s room, a semi-private with two beds, and saw a plump young girl in a white Johnny freeze, the call button in her hand. Amy stood beside another girl in bed who had her arm in a sling. She talked as she coiled the leads to an EKG machine.

 

“What is it?” Carrie asked the girl with the call button.

 

“Is my mother coming this afternoon?”

 

“I’ll check at the front desk. Anything else?”

 

“Some ice water?”

 

“Anything else?”

 

“I don’t think so.”

 

“Mother and ice water for the little lady.”

 

“Carrie,” Amy said. “I’ll walk out with you.”

 

“I don’t mind. You can get the water.”

 

The girls giggled. In the hall Carrie turned to Amy. “Jesus but I’m falling behind.”

 

“Maybe I can help,” Amy offered.

 

“You got EKGs to do.”

 

“Everything’s done that needs to be done.”

 

“Could you sit with Doris? We’re short-handed. She’s the one in 222. I can’t be doing both,” Carrie said.

 

Their eyes met. “Sure.”

 

“Thanks,” Carrie whispered. She hurried down the hall.

 

Amy stopped at the front desk. “I’m sitting with Doris. My work is done.”

 

All three nurses glanced up at Amy, and at the blinking lights.

 

“If you want,” the blond one said. “She shouldn’t be alone.”

 

Amy put the EKG machine away. At this time she normally would have slipped into the cafeteria for a cup of chicken soup. Her wristwatch read three-fifteen. And Doris was alone.

 

The door to Room 222 was closed. Amy opened it and left it open. The floor-length beige curtains were parted. Outside the window clouds hung low and purple. In the distance a glassed-in walkway of the hospital complex connected two buildings like a transparent umbilical cord. Below was a rest area with budding poplars growing out of white stones. Paths of faded red tiles led to smokers sitting on granite benches.

 

Amy stood at the foot of the bed nearest the wall. The first was empty and tidily made. A heart monitor pulsed 70 beats per minute in soft computer blips. An IV line hung down, its end affixed to a blotchy arm. The arm was neatly tucked beside Doris.

 

She lay unmoving except for the slow rise and fall of her chest. Her hair was frizzy gray and white. Her eyes were half-closed. Her flesh sagged. She had no relatives who cared to visit. A burst of laughter echoed in the hall. Doris was alone.

 

“Hi, Doris. It’s Amy.”

 

The heart pulsed 70 beats per minute.

 

Amy sat in a visitor’s chair close to the bed. “It’s going to rain before too long.”

 

The heart pulsed 70 beats per minute.

 

“I brought my umbrella.”

 

Amy took Doris’s hand. It was cool to the touch.

 

The story was printed beneath the fold on the third page of Metro North.

 

The heart pulsed 70 beats per minute.

 

Doris had lived on Social Security Survivor’s Benefits. By being frugal, that was enough to stay in her home. Her one-story house sat on the city line of a three-way intersection a mile from a variety drugstore. She had an indoor cat for company.

 

“I have a cat. Her name is Tina,” Amy said.

 

The city re-appraised property values. Doris’s taxes doubled. She tried to catch up.

 

“She was six months old when we got her from the shelter,” Amy said.

 

The heart pulsed 68 beats per minute.

 

Doris had long distance taken off her phone. She stopped having toast in the morning. She unplugged the washer and dryer and shut off the water heater. She watched only the local evening news. The lights stayed off.

 

The heart pulsed 66 beats per minute.

 

“Had to have her declawed. Ed wanted it.”

 

Doris had then unplugged the TV.

 

“She’s used to it now. She bites Ed a lot.”

 

She had her telephone disconnected.

 

The heart pulsed 60 beats per minute.

 

“She is so timid, usually.”

 

The government reported three percent inflation. Her monthly Social Security check was cut by a third. Doris hoped it was a mistake.

 

The heart pulsed 55 beats per minute.

 

“We love her.”

 

The heart pulsed 47 beats per minute.

 

“We’d do anything for Tina. At least I would.”

The heart pulsed 40 beats per minute.

 

Boston dropped her bus route. Not enough riders.

 

The heart pulsed 32 beats per minute.

 

She skipped her taxes. She stopped her meds. She turned off the space heater.

 

“You’re going to a much better place, Doris. Your Alfred will be there, your mother and father. Your still-born son. And Jesus.”

 

The post office notified the police. They came at dusk and found the front door unlocked. Inside it was bitterly cold. Two cans of cat food and a bowl of water were on the kitchen table. In the fading light of the living room, Doris sat in her rocking chair, wrapped in an old raggedy quilt. A large black cat lay curled in her lap. The rocker faced a grimy window. The view outside consisted of changing traffic signals, the multicolored twinkling lights of two cities, and beyond all that a crimson glow on the horizon.

 

She turned her head when her name was spoken. Her expression held infinite sadness.

 

“They don’t allow pets in a nursing home.”

 

She breathed in, and out. In, and out.

 

“Your cat Anna was adopted by a woman in the Fifty-Plus Club,” Amy whispered. “She has a loving home and misses you.”

She leaned down and put her lips to Doris’s ear. “You can let go, Doris. All is well. God bless you.”

 

She breathed in, and out. In, and out… and quietly sighed. Her pupils contracted. The heart monitor began a rapid beeping.​

 

“Doctor Brookes, please dial 2284. Doctor Brookes, please dial 2284.”

Amy got to her feet, moved away from the bed and waited. Soon the blond nurse entered, followed by a petite woman doctor.

“Doctor, this is Doris Bartlett,” the nurse intoned. “She’s a DNR. She has a flatline.”

 

The doctor donned the stethoscope. She placed a stethoscope on the patient’s chest. The nurse stared at the patient.

A soft pinging caught Amy’s attention. She turned to the window and saw raindrops drumming against the glass panes.

“She’s gone.”

Tears for Doris.

 

~

 

Ed cussed at the rain as he backed into his parking spot. He cussed again as his new sneakers got soaked jogging through the spring grass. He never carried an umbrella but wished for one now.

 

He keyed the front entrance and inside recognized Amy’s dripping umbrella, propped in a corner on the first floor hallway. She knew it drove the first floor tenants nuts. On the second floor he hung his sodden jacket on a coat tree and put his sneakers neatly on a plastic mat beside Amy’s nursing shoes. Her shoes had formed a puddle. He sadly shook his head.

 

On the kitchen counter a coffee maker held half a decanter. Ed put his thermos and silver lunch bucket on the table. Amy was in the living room playing with Tina on the rug. He poured himself a mug of coffee, came in and flopped down in his recliner.

 

“Man am I tired. I drove all day, ate my sandwiches on the Interstate, and drank my coffee at stop lights. The radio didn’t work half the time….” He took a sip of coffee and reached for the newspaper. “How was your day?”

 

“Pretty busy. I had fifteen minutes for lunch.”

 

“At least I wasn’t alone.” He turned to the sport section. “Boston lost again.”

 

“Figures. Tina, go bite Daddy.”

 

“What’s for supper?”

 

“Meatloaf.”

 

“That’s good. Any ketchup?”

Edward M. Turner lives and writes in Biddeford, Maine with his wife Amy, and her black cat, Tina. His stories and essays have appeared in Dred, Down In The Cellar, Maine Sunday Telegram, Fortean Bureau, Spring Hill Review, and a number of times in The North Shore Sunday, Flying Horse, and Sun Journal, to name a few. His novel, Rogues Together, won the Eppie Award for best in Action/Adventure.