Make Things Quiet
What gets to me, what sticks in my throat and spins me dizzy, are the slogans they make them live by, like they’re dealing with kindergarteners or those apes they’ve been training in Ukraine. “Eat With Others,” one says. “Eat Your Colors!” like anyone who gets to 70-years-old forgets how to talk, or eat carrots. There’s a poster explaining vegetables and it’s called, I shit you not, “What Is a Vegetable?” along with pictures of things that look mostly like beets, and all the residents stop to read it like they’ve genuinely forgotten, like they retired and all that information fell out of their ears like wax. I’m not here to judge, I think, or change the way they do things, I’m just here to sanitize and mop, but there’s got to be someone who can put a little more effort into their enrichment. I decide that if the olds speak to me today I’ll do my best to speak back, and not in the bullshit voice the staff use, in my regular voice, the one I use to talk to my boss, and maybe also I’ll speak to Kira, who I think is going to let me take her out later, or is maybe thinking about it, warming up to the idea like bathwater.
They’ve brought a dog in for the day and I think two things, one being that I’m going to have to clean up after it and I should get a bonus for that, a hundred bucks for every shit, and two, that’s literally all the entertainment they’re going to get, which is really fucking sad because this isn’t a special dog, isn’t a magical dog, it doesn’t do tricks or play cards or teach them how to FaceTime, it just lies around, its back legs shivering like they’re about to melt. And when the dog’s owner (who’s just one of the fucking nurses) comes to pick it up, they all act like they’ve had the best day ever, and I want to scream at them, you were just fucking dog sitters, none of these people care about you at all, and you all used to have lives.
Kira says I can pick her up, and I ask where, work or her apartment, and she says I’m not getting her address, probably not ever, but that I can get her from work and buy her dinner.
“But you’re gonna go home and shower first.”
“What? No, I—”
“Shower first,” she says. “Go home and shower. I don’t want to hang out with someone smelling like olds.”
And I get that, I see that, I understand the logic of it, but truth is I don’t have time to shower, so what I do is wipe myself down in the staff bathroom with a couple clean rags and some 100% alcohol sanitizer, but I can tell she can tell, because she sniffs at me all night, and every so often I catch her nose wrinkle the way mine goes whenever one of the residents doesn’t leave themselves enough time to get from bed to bathroom.
At dinner I do my best to sound impressive, which is hard because of how unimpressive I feel, how unrefined, how uneducated. The only thing I remember from school is this poem about a little tree who knew it was really a big tree on the inside, and I linger on that thought a lot, until I get pissed with myself about it.
“I’m paying,” I say. “I’m paying for all of this, so you can get whatever you want.”
Kira spins blonde hair around her index finger and raises her eyebrows at me from across the table, her lips shimmying over to one side like they’re leaning on a bar cart. Her skin has a real pretty glow under the overhead lights, and the walls colored like the Mexican flag, and I’m trying to think of the kind of words I’d use to tell her that when she asks where I want to go on to after this, and I get the jawbreaker-in-the-windpipe feeling of panic I get sometimes because I hadn’t figured we’d go on anywhere, because isn’t this what a date is? Going to a place and being there and then that being it?
“Where do you want to go?” I ask.
“You didn’t plan anything?”
“Yeah,” I say, “But I just want you to have options is all, your own opinions. I want your voice to be heard.”
She flicks a mushroom off her pizza. I’ve known Kira since high school, because everyone in town has known everyone since high school, and she’s always done that. Always ordered something with vegetables and kicked those vegetables off because she didn’t really want them. There’s scores of rotten vegetables ordered in her name, dying rancid deaths. “That’s not how this works,” she says. “You asked me out, so you have things planned.”
Truth is, I don’t know where else we would go. The town of Beatrice doesn’t have a lot going on. When we were teenagers, we spent a lot of time in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven and I think about that as an option now, could claim it’s a throwback or something. There used to be a bar on Lincoln that had live music, but that burned down and now I think it’s where people go to have sex in their cars while other people watch. When I was a kid I’d sometimes go to the softball complex, but honestly I’m not good at that and also it costs a lot of money for something that wouldn’t be too impressive. “You want to see where I work?”
“Pharma house?” she asks.
“Won’t there be people there?”
“No,” I say. “I mean, not a lot. All the residents get put to bed at 8. Night staff mostly just watches TV. One time I caught the doctor on staff jerking off in one of the patient’s bedrooms, and the next day he talked to me about it like it was a super normal thing to do. Like I was going to tell him I do it all the time too. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t think anyone’s going to mind us being there.”
Kira shrugs. She’s wearing this strapless yellow thing that I’ve seen her in before, and when her shoulders go up it rides down a little, and a drop of melted mozzarella falls and lands in the middle of her collarbone like a necklace. “I could do that,” she says.
I try to do the thing where I pay the bill without even looking at how much it is, like I just hand the server my credit card, but it’s ruined a little because I have to give him two, in case the first doesn’t work. Kira doesn’t comment on that when we’re in my car, and I think about maybe putting my hand on her leg, or finding some excuse to touch her hand, but nothing comes up at all, and instead I’m apologizing for everything being a mess. I tried to clean it after work but I didn’t have a ton of time, and I know there’s a chicken nugget in the gap between her seat and the door, and I think I’d do anything at all to have her not find it. I swerve a little a couple times to encourage it to fall down further, but she tells me she gets carsick, so I stop.
“So is there anything there you’d like to see?” I ask.
“What do you mean?”
“Anything at Pharma. Like any of the areas.”
“What is there to see?”
“Well, I mean, it’s mostly just sort of like a big depressing dorm. You know? Like how I imagine college is like.”
I’ve a second to think about how college was so never a thing on my radar that even that sentence, innocuous as it was, was totally meaningless. I haven’t imagined what college is like. You might as well imagine Neptune.
“You know,” she says, “I’d like to go to college.”
“You would?” I ask.
“Yeah,” she says. “I wanted to study books. I read a lot. I like those books, I don’t know if they’re really college books, but the kind you get a lot at Walgreens, like above the magazines?”
I don’t know what she means at all. The only things I read are manuals, safety warnings, like how we’re not meant to use the bleach on the toilet seats because it stains them yellow and can burn the old people’s legs. But next time I’m in a Walgreens I’ll try and check. Maybe if I read one or two of them she’ll think I’m smarter, and that’s the kind of thing I think will help, like I think she’ll like that. We head into the home and I nod at the night guard on the desk. I don’t know him but he’s definitely a pro, because he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t worry at all about me coming in. I show Kira the communal room, the tables all tidied off, chairs stacked up, dominoes in boxes, a couple empty pill cups crushed up and turned over on top of the old TV.
“But what do they do all day?”
“Whatever,” I say. “I mean whatever they feel up to. I don’t interact with them a lot, I just clean up.”
“Are there any really sad ones?”
“Like in this one book I read, there was an old woman who wouldn’t ever speak to anyone. And it turned out she wouldn’t speak to anyone because she lost her kids, and she’d convinced herself that somehow it was like her fault, as if she’d talked them to death, so she wouldn’t talk to anyone anymore in case she killed them.”
“I don’t think so,” I say. “I mean a lot of them are pretty lonely. Mostly it just feels like they’re waiting to die. Like we’re in a waiting room for it. No one ever comes and visits them.”
I take her into the kitchen and she asks if I’ll fix her a peanut butter sandwich, and I think that’s fair because I rushed her pretty quick out of the pizza place. She opens the medication fridge and asks what’s all in there.
“Everything. There’s medications for everything. The pharmacist just labels it and leaves a week’s worth in there.”
“You ever take any?”
“What? No. I’m not on anything.”
“No, I mean, take any and sell it?”
I get the peanut butter from the cabinet labelled forbidden which means it’s where we keep the good tasting shit the old people aren’t allowed. “No,” I say. “Who’d want to buy meds?”
“People will get high on anything. My dad used to crush up his mom’s back medicine and rub it in all over his gums.”
“Oh. I mean, shit, you take whatever you want.”
She looks like she’s thinking about it. I finish making her sandwich, put the peanut butter away and lick the knife. She takes the sandwich, takes this huge bite. I notice one of her middle teeth is a little crooked, and wonder how I never noticed that before. For some reason I guess she finds me attractive all of a sudden, because she turns around and kisses me, kisses me kind of hard, on the mouth, and it leaves a little peanut butter on my bottom lip. She apologizes and kisses me again, and then her hand is on the crotch of my jeans and we’re sidling up onto the metal table they prepare tacos on for Tuesday nights.
We have sex, kind of awkward but mostly good, for what can only be four or five minutes, but I’m feeling pretty pleased about it. When we’re done, Kira looks unsure, like she doesn’t know if she’s done the right thing or is kind of skeeved out, but then she finishes off her sandwich and gives me a little kiss on the cheek, and after I drive her home she tells me I could take her out again.
One of the old women is looking at “Eat With Others, Eat Your Colors,” and I’m trying to mop around her feet, but I’m terrified she’ll slip in the water so mostly I’m just kind of rubbing a dry mop around and making sounds that hopefully suggest both “move” and “be careful.” I start wondering if she’s had some kind of stroke or something because she hasn’t moved in a minute, and I don’t think I’ve seen her blink. She’s wearing this brown cardigan that feels like maybe it’s some kind of jerkin, with a huge collar that ends at her shoulders, and this super long denim skirt that hides her feet down to the toes.
“Are you okay?” I ask.
She turns her head a couple inches, enough that I know she’s alive, and opens her mouth like she’s waiting for someone to spoon in mashed potatoes. Someone’s dyed her hair red, and her lips are a high pink, like raspberry candy. Blue veins run in little oxbow lakes above her eye that look about ready to overflow.
“Ma’am? Can I get you anything?” I ask.
“You’re the cleaner boy,” she says, and I feel relieved because apparently she isn’t dying, not right now at least, maybe later, but not this second when it’d be my problem.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m Kurt.”
“Well that’s a dumb fucking name,” she says. “Are you a cunt, Kurt?”
“You heard me, Kurt.”
“Jesus,” I say. She goes back to ignoring me, so I take my mop and bucket back to the storage closet, stalking along the little back corridor to the kitchen. I think about me and Kira up on the counter, and the image of that old woman comes unbidden to my head, like she might have been watching us. Fuck, maybe she did, came wandering downstairs to look at her posters and caught sight of us going at it right there on the chrome. I get this resentment, a feeling like I’ve knocked the inside of my head against a stone ceiling. It’s not like I wanted to be in this place, I didn’t dream of this kind of job when I was growing up; honestly I didn’t dream of any kind of job at all, just had the vague idea I might end up as a firefighter or a coder, or something cool like you see in movies.
It’s Millicent Paw, I think, the woman’s name, which is something that sounds like it belongs to a cat. I knew a Paw in high school, this girl with super colorful tattoos along her arm, and a piercing in the gums at her front teeth. Maybe this is her grandma, and I think I could track down that girl I kind-of-but-not-really remember and ask what made her grandma such an asshole that she’d cuss out some guy who’s just trying to clean the floor around her goddamn feet. The thing is, some people are just like that by nature, like maybe some people are just born bitter. She’s cold-blooded like the whole of Nebraska in February.
So I swipe her medication from the meds fridge, pour them loose into my pocket, and slide the tray they came from back where it was. I don’t know what any of these are, if any of them are worth anything, but I’m trying to think as little as necessary. I pull a jar of pickles out of the cupboard and bite into one, leaning up against the counter super casually like I’m just hanging here, like I belong, but nobody cares I’m there at all, and eventually I feel stupid and just go back to work.
That evening I call Kira up and I tell her I swiped Millicent Paw’s pills. She asks what they are, and I have to admit I don’t know. She tells me to describe them.
“There’s a couple that are red capsules. Almost a little bullet shaped. There’s some yellow capsules too, that are rounder, that smell a little funny? Like kind of salty?”
“Those are barbiturates,” she says.
“Is that good?”
“What else is there?”
“There’s some yellow ones with like, heart-shaped cut outs in the middle?”
“Right,” I say. “Right. There’s like, a ton of these blue and white ones. Say ‘Avinza’ on them. I mean there’s like, I don’t know, thirty of them, like this lady must take a ton of these.”
“Are there any others?”
“Just these other capsules. They’re like see-through, with little orange balls? Like a little tiny baby rattle.”
“How do you know so much about pills?”
I picture where she might be at the moment, know she has an old-time phone with a cord, figure she might be wrapping it around her finger, maybe walking as far away from the wall-unit as she can go, letting the cable tug her back, like a tether, a ship’s anchor to stop her floating off through the kitchen window. “I dated a guy that used to sell them. Is that what you’re trying to do?”
“I don’t know. Honestly I don’t have any idea, it wasn’t like I planned it.”
“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” she says. “Do you want to come pick me up?”
“What do you want to do? I don’t have anything planned—”
“Just hang out.”
“Like in my car?”
That’s the kind of question that somehow feels super loaded, but I don’t have time to figure out why before she says that that’d be great, and somehow for some reason I want to ask if she’s doing okay because it feels like she changed a lot, but maybe that’s not the right thing to do because, fuck, she wants to see me so okay.
“Okay,” I say. “Sure. All right.”
It’s a ten-minute drive over there, during which I have time to feel the rattle of the pills in my pocket. I suppose that’s always been my problem. I feel like it is anyway. I’ve always just had time, too much of it, just to do nothing, and think way too much, but think all the wrong ways. I want to know what everyone else does but that feels like a secret, the kind of fucking secret I’d pay billions for. What does Millicent Paw do? What did she spend her whole life doing before she ended up in Pharma House looking at posters and drooling like a garden-hose waterfall?
When Kira climbs into my car she smells all kinds of good. She’s got that athleisure look going on that I feel like was imported from L.A. a while ago, and you can see the skin over her ribs through cut-outs in her shirt. She leans over and kisses me on the neck, and it makes me shiver like a ghost as I pull away from her building.
I ask what she wants to do.
“I told you,” she says. “We don’t have to do anything. People just hang out. I was just reading a book before.”
“What kind of book?”
“I didn’t know girls read a lot of that.”
“Girls read whatever they like,” she says. “Do you read?”
“No. But I’m going to start though.”
“Do you know how to tell stories?” she asks.
“I don’t think so.”
“Try telling me one.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Just while you’re driving. Pull out onto the highway so you don’t have to concentrate too hard on the road. And then tell me a story.”
I do it, hitting the next exit that comes up, grimacing because I take the turn too hard, apologizing for the pills that slide out of my pocket and end up on the little divider between us. I don’t know what it means that I took them, but I’m not good at thinking of consequences. She picks a bunch of them up, examines them in the light like a jeweler.
“You can have them,” I say.
“You know you’ve got a few hundred dollars’ worth.”
“That’s okay,” I say. “I wouldn’t know where to sell them. I don’t even know why I took them. That old lady just got to me. Do you ever have that? Someone just getting to you?”
She laughs. High-pitched, staccato like the strings in one of those creepy film scores. A driver behind me leans on his horn and I realize I’ve slowed down way too far, and now I’m that guy who looks like he doesn’t know how to drive. I speed up.
“I just meant,” I say, “does it ever happen to you that someone gets under your skin without you understanding why? That’s all.”
She closes her eyes and shakes her head like I’ve said the dumbest thing in the world, and when they open again she throws a handful of the pills into her mouth. “Is it okay to do that?” I ask.
She ignores me. Eventually, when I guess maybe the pills are kicking in, she talks again. “What is it with men?”
“What do you mean?”
“They all think they think so much. Like everything they think is unique. Like what you just said. You know how many people have thought that? How many men have asked me that?”
“I don’t know.” I feel myself going red, the kind of flush I haven’t had since I was in high school, and even then it didn’t happen a lot because it was the kind of place you couldn’t show a lot of embarrassment, no matter what, or you’d get picked off out of the herd like one of those gazelles with the weak legs.
“It’s not your fault,” she says. “I think you were just born that way. I think basically every boy was born that way.”
She closes her eyes and gets the seat to recline, hauling the lever like she’s on the deck of a spaceship, and all of a sudden she feels so much better than I am that I feel ashamed to have my own skin. I realize this is a feeling I always have, a low-simmering pathetic energy that’s just boiling over now, coming to the fore, spilling onto the stove.
“Tell me a story,” Kira says. “Tell me a story, Kurt, that’ll just blow my mind. That’s what we agreed, isn’t it? Get to it.”
Except I can’t think of anything. Her eyes stay closed and I hope, pray to God, that maybe she’s just fallen asleep and I won’t have to prove myself, be anything. I don’t know any stories. Not a single one; couldn’t write one with a gun to my head. I look at her, pale skin, blonde hair. Turn the heat down, make things quiet.