The room was not ready.
Odd sat across from Karl in the third floor dining hall, his duffle bag propped on the chair beside them, like a restaurant customer waiting to be served. A long blue bib hung from Odd’s neck to his lap. He was still able to feed himself, but was prone to spilling because of his shaky hands. A bowl of tomato soup was placed in front of him.
“We’ll get something to eat while we wait,” Odd said.
“You can get medicine for that, nowadays,” Karl said. “I know. I was a veterinarian, back in the day and I still keep up with the new stuff. They’re coming out with new stuff all the time. Maybe they’ll come out with something that will make us young again or something that will make you not so ugly to look at. I’ll keep an eye open. Sometimes Weppler, that pharmacist guy, lets me help in the dispensary down in the basement, making up the med packs for the codgers. Because I was a Vet, like I said, back in the day, so he trusts me to do a good job.”
“Good job,” Odd said. His foot tapped anxiously over and over.
“He still checks my work though. Guess he has to, you know, for insurance. But I know what I’m doing, know more than him I bet.”
After considerable annoying hounding, Dr. Weppler allowed Karl to put extra aspirin and ibuprofen into bubble packs, which were then discarded after Karl left the dispensary. All other medications were kept under lock and key when Karl was in the room.
Odd grinned, nodded and made great effort to navigate the soup spoon to his mouth.
The daylight from the long summer days confused the routine for many of the residents. Several had assembled for the evening meal an hour or two before the time, waiting. The ceiling fans whipped slowly, in thick flapping whispers overhead like the wings of a great dark bird. The four ladies came together as they always did, chatting over top of each other, Mrs. Chin inserting herself into the conversation now and then speaking Chinese, her companions nodding as if they understood what she was saying.
Even though he was not a third floor resident, Karl came to the dining hall at most mealtimes. At first he was sent back, told his meals were on the second floor, with the other clients there. He insisted that he should be on the third, with the other old people, not on two, with the criminals and nut jobs. They sent him away just the same.
But Karl found a way to return time after time. Waiting for the elevator door to open, slip inside and ride it up or down and remain there until it came to the third floor and the coast was clear. It became a monotonous game until Nurse Clara decided he was harmless and he could take meals with the third floor residents as long as he didn’t cause trouble. At first he sat quietly not bothering anybody, other than his disheveled appearance.
“Were you always a veterinarian,” Odd asked.
“I had a little practice on main street, in my town. I got it for a song when the old man that ran it before me died. I worked for him when I got out of Vet school. More like I was his slave, unpacking boxes , picking up dog shit, and wiping up cat puke. I worked there a year before I got to treat the animals. Then only because he got sick and couldn’t be there. I knew more than him anyway; he was from the old school, probably never took a class in his life, just doled out pills, stuck the creatures with his big needles and guessed at what might work. I was the one that got to do all the fun jobs, the PTS, you know, put to sleep, euthanasia. Then sit and mope with the heartbroken owners. Fun eh? Some of these codgers could do with the big needle.”
“I fished the big lake,” Odd said between slurps of soup.
“Fishing. Yeah, well that job sounds like more of a holiday than real work,” Karl said.
“No, it was hard. Dangerous too, you could be swept overboard in a squall. Disappear into the dark water, drowned.”
“I bet there’s a ton of sad old geezers feeding the fishes down there.”
“None of us ever bothered to learn to swim. Was better that you sunk quick rather than suffer and choke, flailing and splashing around, thinking the boat could turn around quick enough to save you. I lost a few friends down there, but I never went over the side myself.”
Karl sneered, rolled his eyes. “If you’re too stupid or clumsy to keep yourself in the boat in rough weather then you deserve to drowned.”
Odd continued with his soup, quite pleased to be taking his first meal on his new floor.
“Do you have to be so loud with that. You sound like a bloody waterfall. Look at the mess you’re making, half your soup is on the table or on that bib. Like a bloody infant.” Karl brushed the front of his lab coat as if some of Odd’s soup had splashed on him.
“Japanese people say it’s good to slurp when you eat. It’s a compliment to the cook. Ask her, I bet she’ll tell you.”
“For crying out loud, that old lady is Chinese, not Japanese. Don’t you know anything.”
Mrs. Chin smiled at them, her head nodding, as if she understood.
“They’re all the same to me, slanty eyes and rice hair,” Odd said. He placed his spoon on the table, lifted his bowl and drank down the rest of his soup. “The food is good here.”
Karl rolled his eyes again. “It’s the same as downstairs. It’s all made in the same kitchen.”
Karl’s mother used to make the same noise when she was still able to feed herself. After that, he was the one spooning soup to her mouth. He was the one making the special meals of soft food because she couldn’t chew anything tougher than mashed potatoes. How many years had he devoted to her care, wasting years of his own life. Wasted, guilty if he spent too long at the clinic working. Wasted, so he had no time for his own life, no time to have friends of his own. Wasted, criticized and blamed when he had thoughts of meeting a woman, perhaps marrying and having a family. Wouldn’t it be nice if she had some little grandchildren. ‘No,’ she bellowed at him. ‘You only think about yourself. All those years of my life I gave up to raise you, take care of you, send you to school so you could have a good job. You owe me for that.’ And when that wore thin, she cursed him, blamed him for her wretched existence, becoming an invalid. She whined and wept and pleaded until he gave in. “I gave you life from my own body”.
‘How could anyone have ever loved her,’ Karl thought. ‘Made love to her to make a child’. He could only remember her as shriveled, bent and old, a mean spiteful hag of a woman. ‘She got what she had coming’.
He couldn’t remember exactly how long he had been in this place. Ten years? Longer? Always on the second floor, until now, when it should be his turn. Instead this wimp of a stick man was getting Blount’s room, when it should be his.
‘Never mind, don’t dwell,’ Karl thought. ‘There’ll be another soon enough’.
Karl had been at The Lodge so long he could not remember if he was ever in the North Wing, locked in the cage like a zoo animal. He feared he had but it didn’t matter now, he nearly had run of the place, could come and go, even onto the third floor, where the light was better.
“I tried trapping once,” Odd said. “Out in the bush, by myself. I liked it at first except for the horse flies. I liked it until one day I was fetching a martin, thought it was dead, had the snare wrapped tight around its neck. Reached down and the thing nearly bit my finger off. I was hopping about, pain shooting all up and down and out my ass, yelling bloody murder when this gigantic brown bear comes charging out of the brush. Stuff was really coming out of my ass then I tell you. I took off like a shot, the bear didn’t follow. I think it stopped to eat the martin. I think they found me hiding under a bush. Crying like a baby they told me. Now I’m here.”
Bitterness showed on Karl Homesman’s face plain as day. He resented being confined to The Lodge on the 2nd as if he had become a useless human being, shuffled off out of sight when his mother passed away, imprisoned like a zoo animal, as though he was tried and convicted of letting his elderly mother succumb to the circumstance of her death bed, despite his care and attention. He hadn’t neglected her, had he? He imagined ‘they’ blamed him, talked behind his back, told each other that he might just as well been the one stopping her heart, probably gave her no respite with his dismal thoughts and dank words.
More than that was a fear that lingered in his belly, boiling like a cyst ready to burst open and spew its poison into him. ‘They don’t know how it really was’. He feared that his mind wasn’t right, since the old lady died, that her death bent him in some way. He couldn’t think straight, couldn’t remember things, lost track of where he was, what day it was. It was like a heavy curtain being pulled, closing out all light from his brain. He couldn’t remember if he had been there, with his mother, at her end, though he must have been. The last thing he recalled was giving her the night meds, holding the glass to her mouth so she could sip the water, and then he was in this place. Did he give her more medication than he should have? Did he substitute her regular pills for something toxic, that might not be detected in an autopsy? There was a whole chunk of lost time and though he strained to remember, there was nothing there.
Karl was desperate to depart the second floor, the crazy floor, and take his place with the normal old folks so he could have rest as well. ‘Bad enough to be in this place at all, let alone the crazy floor. Whatever it takes,‘ he thought.
He was afraid. His thoughts were scrambled, disconnected, lost. ‘Perhaps,’ he thought, ‘I’m getting the dementia, or Alzheimer’s, because I’ve let myself grow old without paying attention and now my mind is shot. I’ll be trapped inside my brain unless,’ he took a gulp of air, he had been holding his breath. ‘unless I can get to the third floor. That old guy knows the secret, the magic. But he got my room. And Gunnerson got my room. What more do I need to do to escape? Maybe I did something really bad and that’s why they won’t let me go.’
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