‘He’s like a scavenger, a carrion, like a vulture ravaging rotting flesh. That bastard Karl taking over Mable Bleakhouse’s room before her bedsheets are even cold.’ Jon leaned his head around the open door; Karl wasn’t home but his things were there. The smell had already stolen away from Mrs. Bleakhouse’s delicate rosewater aerosol to the dank odor of an unwashed body and unclean socks.
‘Undeserving Bastard’, Jon took one quiet step across the threshold of the room. ‘Look at all his bastardish things strewn about like a pigsty.’
It was not a fair thing, that Karl Homesman had finally manipulated his way onto their floor. But here he was now, taking over poor Mable Bleakhouse’s place. Jon thought of all the people that might have occupied this room and were now gone, not a single one of them left alive, gone to dust. He imagined them standing ghost like, filling the room like guests at a cocktail party.
‘Bloody criminal for Karl to be stealing our last days. Why not just leave us in peace. Who knows, maybe there would be a meaningful connection, profound last words we might share with a loved one; words that now will never be spoken. At least that bastard didn’t get Rudy’s room. He tried, making poor Rudy eat those pills for his gout toe. He knew they would make him bleed inside, probably kill him, because none of us are spring chickens here. Old, like this, has to be managed with such great care. Such an achievement to survive so long, what are the odds? Scarce, bleak, unfair to have such little time before falling out of the sky of life. At least Rudy Wernbacher survived, at least I have made a friend in this place so I don’t have to go without some genuine human contact, without someone with a voice and a brain that I can converse with.’
Rudy wasn’t as strong witted as poor Mrs. Chin, but at least he was a good listener, and he had his own interesting life story.
‘Yes, good thing that Karl wasn’t able to do him in. Braggadocios Karl who doesn’t need a wheelchair and isn’t burdened by a walker. Karl who thought he might get Rudy’s room when Rudy nearly bled to death from that gout medicine.’
“You have to keep eating enough of the right food,” Karl had said. “Otherwise you sap yourself of strength and you grow old too quickly, your brain starts to do tricks on you, you can’t think straight, can’t remember things you should remember, you get maudlin and weepy and can’t make yourself do things that will keep you interested, keep you going. You need to eat enough meat and you need vegetables too. You can’t survive on potato soup and yogurt.”
“Rage against the dying of the light,” it made Jon say without thinking.
“Except for those Krauts, those Nazis,” Karl looked at Rudy.
Jon had to point out that Karl himself was of German heritage so he should be mindful of what he was saying or people might accuse him of the same thing. Besides if anyone had the look of a concentration camp commandant it was Karl, not Rudy. Rudy Wernbacher, with his casual way, helpful, harmless, always good intentioned, like most of the people at The Lodge, those that still had enough spirit in them to be intentioned in any way.
Jon looked down the long empty hallway toward Mrs. Chin’s vacant room. He was compelled to make his way there, to look inside and conjure some memories of his mysteriously departed friend. The smell down the hallway was different, sweet and sickly, thick with a brain numbing stink that reminded him of the formaldehyde soaked specimens in the Bio lab at his old university. And then, in the flash of an instant, it was gone and there was no smell at all, not even the death odor of the disinfectant. Jon leaned against the hallway wall, dizzy and weak.
“You look tired,” Karl said as he came from Mrs. Chin’s room. “And scared. You gonna faint? Better not, you might crack your head open.”
The face Jon saw was different. It was that man Karl Homesman but it was someone else, an old Viking or maybe that Olafr Thordarson, a face he had imagined when he told that story to his students. White hair tied back, streaked with piss yellow threads that hadn’t yet lost all color, eyebrows, and beard still nearly black, still thick. Jon felt insects on his legs, tingling pokes, as the pointy tips of their sharp little feet creeped slowly over his limbs turning to a thousand needles pricking him incessantly then disappearing . His legs wobbled, rubbery and soft.
“For Christ sakes old man,” Karl grabbed Jon under the armpits as Jon began to tilt and fall. Karl dragged Jon into Mrs. Chin’s room and managed him onto the bed. He pressed the call button on the wall beside the bed. It did not activate, there was no annoying intermittent buzz, no flashing light above the door in the hallway. It was turned off, the room was vacant, there was no need.
“It’s dead,” Karl said. “They’ve turned the bloody thing off, who knows why they would do that. I’ll have to go to the nurse station and get someone. Try not to die while I’m gone.”
“What are you doing in her room? Don’t stab me with your broken needle,” Jon gurgled.
“What? What the hell.”
“What did you do with Mrs. Chin, the Chinese lady?”
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