Lee Memorial Care Center wasn’t a fancy senior home by any means. It was small and homey, with just enough staff to keep it running. It didn’t pay as well as some places, but it was just the kind of gig Daryl could tolerate: minimal patient contact, varied tasks, manual labor. Washing dishes and bussing tables for a regular paycheck wasn’t half bad, considering he had spent the last ten years drifting. Now that his brother Merle was doing 10-15 hard time, he had a chance to make a home for himself.
He was living with a kid named Felix, a queer artist who rented out his couch for cash. They would often share meals, and Felix was never stingy with his booze. Daryl agreed to six months, so he could save up a deposit for his own place. The goal was to get as far away from Merle’s buddies and the lifestyle his brother lived, and while Daryl didn’t bat an eye at Felix’s obvious penchant for the dramatic and his adoring eye, he knew this was far, far outside his brother’s comfort zone. When he would pick up his mail from the PO box he kept, he would find a short letter every few weeks from Merle, and they always started with, “Where you been baby brother?” Daryl always wrote back, put a few dollars credit on his brother’s account, but never answered where he had been.
Daryl’s life was finding a rhythm. Up at dawn, down to the gym on the same block as Felix’s studio, home to shower and eat, work from 7-3 (most days), then to the library or the nearby State Park for a few hours, then back home to sleep and eat. On his days off he would drive farther out to hunt or he would find a movie theater to pass the time. Every once in a blue moon he would go into Atlanta to play pool. He found himself a gig at a bar on his weekends off from the nursing home as a bouncer and occasional drummer for the house cover band.
He was finding a routine… until he met Paul Rovia.
The first time he laid eyes on him, Paul was in a three piece suit, tweed in a shade of brown that complemented his honey-colored locks and a silk tie that matched his eyes – a shimmering blue-green. He wore expensive-looking pair of brown shoes with a square toe, and carrier a leather satchel that matched. He heard a deep, hearty laugh from in the kitchen, and had come out to see who it belonged to. Two other kitchen staff watched the man in the lobby with appreciative curiosity. Daryl snorted, “Prick.” He walked back into the kitchen without a second glance.
Two weeks later, Daryl barely recognized the man who walked into the lobby in scrubs, hair in a bun. Paul Rovia was to be the new day shift charge nurse. To Daryl, the man seemed jovial and overly eager to please, introducing himself to all the residents, despite the fact that many of them wouldn’t remember him tomorrow. That first day, Daryl stuck to the dish room. He just scoffed at the servers and some of the other nurses talking about how pretty the new guy was.
By the third day, however, Paul Rovia was ushering residents to the dining room and helping to remove trays. Daryl often had the radio on and turned up so he wouldn’t have to make small talk with all the staff and residents who came by with dirty dishes. This day was no exception. Paul, on the other hand, had different ideas. Daryl had the radio tuned to a hard rock station, which was blaring Iron Maiden during the noon hour. As Paul walked a tray over to the dish room window, he heard the strains of Run to the Hills over the din of noise in the dining room.
“Aw man! I love Maiden!” Paul began scraping dishes into the garbage. Daryl watched as Paul deftly sang along with the song. Paul set down the dish and began playing a little air guitar, before reaching for another dish to scrape. Daryl watched with a confusing mix of amusement and annoyance, before taking the dish from Paul’s hands and scraping it into the garbage on his side of the window. Paul startled and stopped singing. “What? You don’t like Iron Maiden?” He almost pouted.
Daryl smirked then, at the depth of feeling Paul conveyed with his impossibly blue eyes. “Love Maiden, man. But your air guitar’s out of tune.”
Paul let out a hearty laugh, throwing his head back. Daryl smiled and watched tendrils of loose hair skim across that long neck. Shaking himself, Daryl just smiled as Paul turned away, singing softly, and he turned up the radio.
And so it went like that, as Paul got acclimated to his new job, and Daryl’s life kept rolling along with routine and normality. They spoke only through the dish room window, about music, concerts, radio stations. Neither man would admit it, but lunch was something they each grew to look forward to. Daryl could watch Paul smile and geek out about music, which turned his own smile on more and more often; Paul could watch Daryl as he emptied the steam washer, arms and face glistening from the heat. Talking about something other than work made Daryl’s day go faster, and even though he figured Paul was more into someone like his roommate Felix, he still enjoyed the company.
They never seemed to meet up other than during meals. They didn’t have the same schedule, nor the same breaks. It changed the day Daryl came in to work to find an ambulance in the parking lot. It was early morning, before the breakfast meal and while an ambulance at a nursing home was not unusual, it was rare to see them at 600am. As he entered the back door of the building, he was nearly bowled over by three burly EMTs and a gurney, stepping out of their way to hold the door. Atop the gurney, a very red-faced Paul Rovia was straddling someone Daryl could not identify, giving chest compressions. Daryl watched as one EMT gave breaths with a bag, and another maneuvered an IV around the gurney. A third EMT flung open the doors of the ambulance.
“Hey, you can let us take over.” Paul was told by an EMT. They were about to load the unconscious person into the ambulance. Daryl noted the taut muscles of forearms and biceps working to keep a heart circulating blood and the way lithe legs kept Paul’s body weight off his patient, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, to provide even compressions without tiring himself out.
“3…4….5…get her…7…. Inside….9….” The nurse kept at CPR, not pausing to speak. His face was red, a line of sweat stuck his shirt against his spine, his scrubs a darker shade of blue there. Daryl watched with fascination as they loaded the gurney into the ambulance.
Daryl waited a few breaths before turning to go into the building, catching the thump of shoes on cement as he heard Paul jump from the vehicle, slamming the doors closed. His last look over to the ambulance caught the nurse leaning over, hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Another nurse in scrubs, who had followed the gurney out the door put an affectionate hand on Paul’s back as they both watched the ambulance.
As Daryl entered the kitchen, the quiet of the place was loud in his ears. Most of the staff from the kitchen and a dozen or so residents watched the ambulance outside. They all expected the ambulance to drive away fairly quickly. He clocked in and put his jacket, phone and keys in his locker, donned a hair net and started the coffeemaker just like he did every day. Clean trays went out to the serving line, dry pans from the night before were put back in their place and he loaded the few dishes left from the evening snack into a dishwasher tray. Walking from the dish room back into the kitchen, he was still alone. Around another corner, he could see staff and residents still watching the ambulance.
“They still here?” Daryl mumbled mostly to himself.
“Yeah… not a good sign.” One of the nursing assistants answered. “God, I hope she’s OK….”
Daryl was caught off guard. “Who was it?” He asked. There seemed to be far more interest in this ambulance call than any he could really remember.
“Carrie, one of the first floor aides.”
Daryl flinched. “That little tiny thing – real young?”
The nursing assistant, whose nametag said ‘Shannon’ nodded gravely. “She just collapsed. Couldn’t get a pulse, so Jesus just yelled for help and started CPR.”
“Sad.” Daryl shook his head, truly feeling sorry for his co-worker. “Who the hell is Jesus?”
Shannon snorted at Daryl’s look of confusion. “Paul. The nurse. Some of the residents think he looks like Jesus, so they started calling him that.”
Daryl just rolled his eyes, lip curling as if he smelled something off. “Well, I ain’t.” He said to no one in particular, before going back into the kitchen to get breakfast started.
Lunch was a quiet, somewhat somber affair. The staff were tense, and the residents missed the bubbly aide helping them in the tray line and feeding those that needed the help.
Daryl kept the radio low, and Paul didn’t seem to notice. The nurse appeared distracted as he pulled residents out of the dining room to take blood sugars and give insulin. He gave Daryl a half smile through the dish room window, when Daryl offered a half-hearted wave in passing. Like the steam from the dishwasher made Daryl’s skin flush, he could see stress painting Paul’s face into a pale mask.
When the lunch rush was over, Daryl stood outside the dumpsters, as per usual, and lit a cigarette. He still wore his apron and hairnet, taking a breather before prepping for dinner and clocking out.
“Got another one of those?” Paul’s voice and proximity gave Daryl a start, but feeling the stress rolling off his co-worker, he simply handed over the lit cigarette. “Thanks.” Paul crouched down and took a long drag.
Daryl pulled out the pack and lit another cigarette for himself, studying the nurse.
“She’s gonna be ok.” Daryl said softly. “She’s young. Healthy.”
Paul took another long drag off the cigarette. “They stayed, though. When an ambulance doesn’t leave right away, it’s usually a bad sign.”
Daryl didn’t respond for several minutes. He weighed what the nurse had said, whether it had any merit. It seemed as though Paul truly cared for Carrie.
“That’s bullshit.” Daryl crushed his cigarette out with the toe of his boot and crossed his arms. “You care about her?”
Paul stood, also crushing out the borrowed cigarette. “Of course. She’s an awesome aide.”
“That girls needs you to believe she’ll be OK. It’s like you’ve already written her off. Quit planning her funeral.”
Paul considered Daryl’s words. Finally nodding, he replied, “Yeah. You’re totally right.” Paul flashed his 100 watt smile. “Thanks man. I’m just… we’re all just stressed, you know?”
“I get it. It’s one of your own.” Daryl began to walk back toward the kitchen door. He turned back after a few steps. “If you need to let off some steam, you should come by Bertie’s sometime. Buy you a beer?”
Paul’s expression could only be called a confused frown. The offer surprised him, and he wasn’t sure if Daryl was asking for a date or a wingman. “Sure? What’s Bertie’s?”
“Bar I work at – second job. I’m the bouncer from nine to close, unless I’m filling in for the drummer.” Daryl was nervous as hell, and Paul could tell.
“You play the drums? Learn something new every day!” Paul’s look was fond. It was clear that Daryl’s words had made an impression – something that didn’t happen often for Paul.
“Hits from the nineties, man!” Daryl grinned lopsidedly, before turning to enter the building. Paul watched him go, his heart doing a little flip.