He wasn’t my favorite patient. His skin had this smell, it made my stomach turn. A residue would linger, so I’d be walking the dog or going to bed — years later! — and there it’d be. Urine, vomit, sweat, toe-jam, Sweet’N Low. Couldn’t bathe it off. Nurses are not squeamish: I have seen and smelled the absolute furthest reaches of sense itself. But that kid, my god, I could retch right now.
He’d been born with it, whatever it was. The doctors were just guessing, more or less. Doctors like to look busy and certain, whether or not they know what they’re doing, but most especially when they have no idea what they’re doing.
He was a nice boy: harmless and kind to his core. Laid up half his life, something eating away at him, guileless as a slug. He smiled pleasantly at you when you turned him or changed him or sponged him. He said
“sorry” when noises and fluids escaped, as he’d been well trained to do. But he had no shame. He was simple minded. He also played with himself constantly.
“He’s doing it again,” the head nurse would say, and one day the new nurse, Eileen, snapped: “For the love of God, let him have whatever he can have while he can have it.” We heard him grunting so often we’d sort of stopped hearing it. Eileen was out of line, though, talking to the head nurse that way.
His mother came once a week, marched in like a general, nodded at us. Brought knick-knacks and sweets he couldn’t enjoy, read him the paper, repeated gossip. Relentlessly chipper, that woman. Broke my heart to hear the high-pitched spasms of her voice as she sat by his bed yam-yam-yammering away. He would just lie there, staring at the ceiling, smiling his easy, empty smile.
“You be a good boy, now, you hear? Don’t give these nice nurses one bit of trouble,” she said before she left. And his stubby little fingers would be wrapped around his Johnson within seconds.
“At it again,” Eileen said, flopping down beside me at the nurses station. “Doesn’t he get tired?”
“He’s young,” I said.
Eileen thought he was cute. I thought she was nuts, but there’s no accounting for taste. “Tall and sturdy, like a man ought to be,” she said. I’d point out that he was laid up, had been laid up half his life, and couldn’t do much for himself, couldn’t so much as hold a conversation. “You know what I mean,” she said. “In a parallel universe!” Eileen was wicked. Her boyfriend drank too much and she complained about him constantly.
One summer morning as I walked to work everything was so bright it sang. Remarkable. I felt like I was in a fairy tale, only it was my regular old route in my regular old town on a regular old day in July. But the birds were just going bonkers. I thought I might treat myself to an ice cream cone on the way home later, to celebrate. Celebrate what? A stupendous day: that was enough.
Turned out to be the boy’s birthday; wasn’t that an interesting coincidence? The mother had planned a little party. They showed up around noon with a cake and decorations and the tiniest, tremblingest dog I’ve ever seen. Four sisters, each more beautiful than the one before, as though beauty had started out stingy, doling out meager portions, then grown wildly, inexplicably generous. But the boy was the youngest, so I guess never mind that theory.
The sisters set to work with streamers and balloons, made that unfortunate little room into a carnival. They were a blur – “Hand me the scissors, Fiona!” “No, don’t do it like that, Carly!” “Over here, Janice!” “Mary, listen, the balloon has something to say to you!” “Get away from me!” “Carla, make her stop!” – and you should have seen the mother: so buoyant. She bobbed on their peals of laughter. You got the sense that this was really what their life was like all the time. I envied that poor sick smelly boy his flock of angels.
“Excuse me,” the youngest, most beautiful sister said. Eileen and I were sitting at the nurses’ station. “Would you mind taking a photograph?”
Eileen gave me the side eye and went on doing whatever she was doing.
“Of course,” I said, and followed her. “Say cheese,” I said, and the smell instantly rose up to assault me anew, as though I had summoned it.
When the mother and sisters had gone, we went in to admire the aftermath. The smell was masked by four different kinds of perfume. Some of the balloons were round, some were oblong, and all looked to me like ripe, naked, throbbing body parts. The boy was once again focused on his Johnson. We noticed that the dog had defecated in the corner. A pile of small pellets; it could have been worse.
“For the love of Christ,” Eileen said. I went to get cleaning supplies. When I came back she was leaning over him and whispering, her hand moving under his blanket. There was a new smile on his face, not the usual smile. I stood there longer than I should have, frozen in shock and disgust. She saw me, and winked, and I ran.
He finally died a few weeks later. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all,” Eileen said. “Psalms.” She wound up getting herself fired soon thereafter, for stealing muscle relaxants.
I think his name was Lewis. You’d think I’d have forgotten the smell, him so long dead and buried and disintegrated and me retired and bored and nauseous. But I could retch right now, I’m telling you. I wonder what became of the sisters. Particularly the youngest, so pretty and lively she wouldn’t even pose while I took their picture. I wonder if she can’t forget the smell.
Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Tin House, The New York Times, Post Road, The Guardian, Gulf Coast, Commentary, Salon, Tablet, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Believer, The Rumpus, Time Magazine, on NPR, and in many anthologies.
Albert grew up in Los Angeles and received her MFA from Columbia University. A recipient of the Moment magazine emerging writer award and a finalist for the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, she has received residencies and fellowships from The Virginia Center for Creative Arts, Djerassi, Vermont Studio Center, and The Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in Holland. She is an adjunct assistant professor at Columbia’s School of the Arts and was recently Visiting Writer at The College of Saint Rose.
She lives in upstate New York with her family.