John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

At a little after four on Sunday afternoon, Tucker Loomis got up from his nap on the maroon leather couch in his study, took a bottle of dark Pauli Girl out of his office refrigerator, uncapped it, took several swallows and then strolled through the long living room to the bedroom wing and down to the last bedroom on the right, the one that looked out over the flower gardens.

Maria, the nurse on duty, was watching television, the volume turned low. She saw him out of the corner of her eye,

and sprang to her feet, smiling. Of the three private nurses, she was the only one who wore the traditional white, cap and all. The other two, and the spare who filled in, all came to work looking like ball girls at a tennis tournament. But they were good. All of them.

He winked at Maria and went over to the hospital bed. The head and the knees were cranked up. Thelma Casswell Loomis wore a quilted pink bed jacket and she had a pink ribbon fastened to her sparse white curls. It was the second stroke a year ago which had done most of the damage, paralyzing her right side and killing the language and comprehension centers in the left brain. The right side of her face sagged, distorting the eye and the mouth.

He pulled the chair close to the side of the bed and took her left hand. When he squeezed it, it squeezed back. She always looked at him with a strange earnest expression in her eyes, and tried to talk to him, but made strange sounds. “Gaa nah gaan.” Limited sounds, the ah sound plus the hard g and the n.

“Hey, Mother,” he said. “I talked to both boys this morning and I came in to tell you and you were having a nap. Everything is fine with the boys, and their ladies, and our grandkids. I talked to everybody. They all send their love. Cass told me Kathie is pregnant again, and when she has the third, they’ll be two up on Brent and Jessie.”

He talked on, holding her hand, talking into that anxious and earnest and appealing expression, knowing full well she understood not one word of it. She could understand gestures of command turn the head, squeeze the hand, raise the foot, close the eyes. But those same commands, spoken, meant nothing to her. Her anxiety was an anxiety to communicate. He really could not tell whether it helped or hurt to keep coming in and talking to her whether it made it better or worse but it seemed to be the only thing to do. At least it made him feel as if he were part of a family. He wished the kids were closer. It might ease the burden some. But the little ones wouldn’t understand at all. He told her all the news he could remember.

Sometimes in the middle of the night he would think about her in the nearby bedroom and wonder how it would be if you could not label the things that happened in your head. If you were cold, you would have no word for it, only a sensation you could not name. There would be no words for lonely, hungry, fear, pain, sorrow, hate, nausea, politics, money or Chicago. Words triggered concepts. It must be a strange place inside her head, with blurred and drifting things that had no names.

He leaned and kissed her forehead, released her hand and stood up. “Well, Mother, I’m going to wander on down to Warner’s place because this time of day he’ll be wallowing around in the pool with that nutty dog of his, and we’ve got a little bit of business to take care of. You be good now, hear?”

Maria followed him out into the hall. “How’s it going, chi ca he asked.

“Okay. I think she likes the ribbon. I held the mirror and she reached up and touched it and the left side of her mouth went up, which is as close as she can come to smiling. Okay, she had her massage and she ate all the soup and Jell-O and she had a good bowel movement.”

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Categories: John D MacDonald