Small But Significant Things

Author’s Note: I wrote this one in college. I’m not sure what turned my thoughts in this direction, but I think I did decent job capturing a small defiance in service of reclaimed dignity.

            As the young nurse twisted the doorknob and began to open the door, she turned back one last time.

            “Are you sure you don’t have to go, Charley? It’s been almost four hours since the last time.”

            Charley smiled his most charming smile.

            “I’m sure Adele. Now stop worrying about me and go tend to all your other geezers. I’m just fine.”

            Adele smiled faintly but lingered a moment longer. The soft, silky skin of her forehead furrowed into curious, worried wrinkles. He’d been acting so strange today.

            “I’ll buzz you if I need you,” he said, “okay?”

            “Okay,” she returned as her smile spread into her eyes and her worry wrinkles smoothed away.

            She was an angel. If he looked hard enough, Charley thought, he’d be able to see her halo.

            Then, finally, she turned and left — and Charley’s charming smile faded quickly away.

            As soon as the door latch clicked home, the hydraulic arm above the door having pulled it securely closed, Charley sat up — at least, he started to. It actually took about a minute’s worth of pulling, grunting, and straining to do it, but sit up he did.

            Having achieved this more dignified pose, he instinctively looked over at the bed next to his own. It was empty. Two nights ago, old Ben had died in his sleep. Apparently, he’d just stopped breathing. The doctors had called it “death by natural circumstance.” Looking around the room — at the television mounted high up on the wall, the sterile linoleum floor, the artificial potted plants, the window that couldn’t open — Charley struggled to find what exactly there was about these circumstances that might be considered natural. Finding, instead, the round white clock above the bathless-room door in the far corner of the room, he decided he didn’t have time to complete his search. He really had to go by then, and Adele would be back in about . . . eighteen minutes. He had to hurry.

            With this in mind Charley pushed his legs over the side of the bed. Fortunately, this required considerably less effort than sitting up had. His legs, after all, were anything but heavy. And though much of him refused to, or fought desperately not to, it seemed gravity still worked.

            Sitting there on the side of the bed, Charley hesitated for a moment to reconsider his plan — but only for a moment. His bladder argued convincingly for going ahead as planned, and the last thing in the world he wanted was for Adele to have to clean up an extra puddle today. It had, after all, been almost four hours, he thought, his limp, wrinkled cheeks reddening fully with the blush he’d tried so hard to hide from Adele only moments before. Twenty years old was far too young to know so precisely how long it had been since another adult had relieved himself.

            As embarrassed now as he could possibly be outside of Adele’s company, Charley reached for the roll-away dinner tray that resided against the wall between his and old Ben’s beds. No matter how determined he was, he’d never make it all the way to the bathless-room without something to lean on. The tray would be his walker. Positioning it in front of him, Charley gently leaned more and more of his weight forward, splitting it, more unevenly than he’d expected to have to, between the roll-away tray and his frail legs.

            Then, suddenly, he was standing — at least, he was doing his best impression of it. And he was doing it with no one around to help him. Fearing it might throw his delicately balanced frame off-balance and topple him to the floor, Charley tried to suppress a smile, but to no avail.

            So, smiling with pride for the first time in many months, Charley took his first step, without Adele’s assistance, that he’d taken in at least as long. The linoleum floor was frigid against his bare feet. He found this fact exhilarating. When Adele helped him to the bathless-room she always made sure he had slippers on first. The icy floor against his slipper-less souls felt, Charley thought, like the first time he’d had sex in the back of his car as a young man. Risky. Rebellious. Liberating.

            Charley sighed, his smile faded and he took another step. According to the plain white clock, he had only fourteen minutes left. The food tray’s wheels squeaked as he slowly made his way across the floor.

            Then the door was no more than five or six feet away, the toilet only a few feet beyond that. Given the small size of the steps that he was able to muster, however, it looked much further to Charley. Still he pushed on, acutely aware of the rising urgency of his situation. He couldn’t hold it much longer. And to make matters worse, his bowels had just announced, by means of a rapidly worsening throb, their alliance with his bladder. Apparently, his body felt that wet pants and a puddle wouldn’t be punishment enough for failure to comply with its demands. Looking up at the clock, he saw that he now only had about ten minutes before Adele would be back. He had to kick it into high gear. Despite this realization, though, Charley paused some five feet and fifteen steps later in his quest, just as he was about to reach out for the bathless-room door.

            Cocking his head slightly, Charley heard the familiar sound of alarm bells, tramping feet and cackling voices from just down the hall. Someone was busy dying. As his mind instinctively turned to the task of guessing who it might be, Charley felt the result of turning his concentration away from his bladder. For a second — for less than a second — he lost control. Looking down at his blue cotton hospital-issue slip-on pants, he saw a dark wet-spot bloom just above the crotch. All of the sudden, he had considerably less than … eight minutes to get where he was going.

            Grasping the doorframe of the bathless-room with bony, liver-spotted fingers, he turned all his attention and effort to making it to the toilet before he lost control again. Only three more feet now. Above him the clock ticked on.

            Shuffling past the sink, still shifting the majority of his feathery weight off of his skinny legs, Charley looked in the mirror at a ghost that had, as of late, become all too familiar. Two piercing and, for the moment, lucid eyes stared out of the glass, ranging over his features –sunken cheeks, pale skin, the wispy remains of what had once been a full head of auburn hair. Then the ghost looked into his own eyes. Though it showed nowhere else, all the life that he’d lived was there — flashing and sparkling in spite of the specter. Glancing down, Charley saw that his arms, which now supported almost all of his weight, were shaking uncontrollably with the effort. As he looked into the mirror again, the ghost slipped out of sight as Charley let his exhausted body fall sideways onto the toilet. Thankfully, the lid was up.

            By this time his bowels and bladder were screaming for relief to the rhythm of the ticking clock. All that remained to do before he could provide that relief was slip his spotted blue pants from beneath him. Though barely able to lift his arms, he hooked his thumbs beneath the elastic waistband of his pants, leaned his back against the toilet tank and lifted his cheeks off the horseshoe shaped toilet seat. Then, executing a maneuver that he was sure would be impossible, he threw his upper body forward, slipping his pants quickly past his bony hips and across his drooping thighs. Then, finally, he let go.

            Tremors of relief rattled his frame. And as his heart welled up with pride for the successful completion of this small but significant feat, his eyes welled up with bitter, sorrowful tears.

            And he wept.

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