Final Curtain Call
I hated my job. The halls reeked of urine and feces. Nurses reeked of stale cigarettes and regrets. Unidentifiable stains spotted the carpets.
Along the halls, the “residents” were lined in their wheelchairs—shells of former humans. Drool spilled from an old man’s mouth onto his lap. A relic of a woman wailed a long, mournful cry. These pitiful souls didn’t notice me or anyone, and I shuddered, knowing their essence was trapped in there, in the prison of a body that didn’t function anymore. A lucky few were mobile, hobbling on their walkers or canes. Some were just temporary guests, here to recover after major illnesses or hip replacements. I glided silently past those more fortunate ones as well—I wasn’t here for them.
C-Hall, Room 42, Bed 1. Hazel Brown and Isabel Dawson. I drifted past Bed 2, where Mrs. Dawson lay in a stupor, tremors racking her feeble body, and made my way to Bed 1. The old girl was sleeping peacefully, her complexion peachy under the dim fluorescent light on the wall over her bed. She didn’t look as if she’d earned her ninety-four years. I shook my head. Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to these assignments.
The old bat could see me. It was rare, but not impossible. Not with the lucid ones. I leaned closer to her. “It’s your time, Mrs. Brown.”
“No, it’s not.”
I almost laughed. The feisty ones are the best. “You and I don’t decide these things. It just is.”
“Well, I’m not going.”
I sat back in the chair, its springs poking me through the torn vinyl. For a moment, I thought Hazel Brown might actually win this one. I looked at my watch. There was still time. I figured I might relax a while. She held to the bed rail and pulled herself up. After she threw a smirk in my direction, she reached for an album on her bedside table.
She handed it to me. “Look at this.”
I stared at her and then at the album she held in her steady, wrinkled hand. Shrugging, I took it and laid it on my lap.
“Open it,” Hazel insisted.
The first page showcased a young Hazel in a wedding veil and a young man with slicked-back hair in a tie and jacket.
“That was my first husband, Richard.” Hazel said, “We had two beautiful children. He died with cancer when they were little. I worked my fingers to the bone to take care of them on my own.”
I flipped through the next pages. Babies turned to toddlers, then to school kids with knock-knees, then to teenagers leaning against ’57 Chevys. A few random pictures later, and an older Hazel appeared, this time wearing a pretty hat with a small veil covering her face. Another man stood beside her in a tie and jacket, with a flat-top haircut, big ears, and a broad smile.
“That’s my John,” Hazel said. “He came to us at just the right time. Our hero. He loved my kids like they were his own. We did everything together. See? And we’ve been married fifty years this spring.”
A defiant gleam lit her hooded eyes. I turned back to the album, flipping past trips to the lake, her children’s weddings, grandchildren’s births, she and John on a tropical cruise. Hazel’s hair got shorter and grayer as the photos progressed. John’s hairline retreated and his earlobes drooped farther on every page. I didn’t understand why the Boss put people through this mortal life, and why they were so fearful at the end of it. What waited for them was a far cry better than this. I closed the album and put it back on her table.
“Hazel, we have to go now.”
She clenched her sheet and blanket under white, arthritic knuckles. “I told you, I’m not ready yet.”
I lowered my head and studied the peeling paint on the concrete wall. The cold wind pushing on the drafty window permeated the air and homogenized with the dry heat of the radiator below. I’d lost count of my quota. How many thousands more did I have to escort to the other side before I got my wings? I knew I could whisk her away without any further conflict, but I always liked to prepare them first—the ones who still had a mind left to understand. But this one, she had a determination like I’d never seen before. She showed no fear and no real anger toward me like some did, yelling and cursing, and fighting until I took their last breath. She seemed to be waiting for me to fix my mistake, as if I’d placed her in the wrong slot on my calendar.
There was still a little time. “So, what do we do?” I asked. “What makes you so special that you ignore the final curtain call that everyone must answer to?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. I’m just not ready yet.”
Her lips stretched into a wide smile, revealing yellowed teeth with a receding gum line. Still her own, though. I had to give her that. She perked up when a male voice laughed in the hall. I looked across her bed and around the curtain separating Hazel from her comatose roommate. One of my colleagues passed by the doorway, with one of her quota floating alongside her. He wore blue cotton pajamas, brown slippers, drooping ears, and a broad smile. He waggled his fingers at us, and they went on their way.
Hazel turned back to me, her thin eyebrows raised in peaceful resignation. “I’m ready now. I told you, John and I always did everything together.”