The pounding on the door continued, like Thor’s hammer against the mountain. Jon thought his flimsy door might come clear of its hinges or a fist might crash through the thin wood.
“What do you want?” Jon yelled at the closed door as he held his arms protectively against his chest.
“There’s been another one. Crazy Greta. No sneaking around with this one. Done in the light of the bloody day. Get off the can,” Karl demanded.
The urgency of it hastened Jon’s wiping and pulling up of his trousers. He wondered if he had time to wash his hands, but decided he just couldn’t skip that. He hurried as quickly as his bones allowed and when he finally flung his bathroom door open to join Karl, who pointed out that his fly had been left undone and the end of a shirt tail was protruding through the opening, waving like a small white flag at his groin.
“Just mind your own business,” Jon snarled at Karl. He tugged at the zipper. It was stuck. Karl offered to help but Jon slapped his hand away.
They made their way toward the stairwell at the far end of the opposite wing of the third floor. Their progress was slowed behind several other residents making their way towards the same destination. Slow moving, like a herd of turtles blocking the way. Jon threw his hands in the air exasperated at the pace.
“What the hell,” Jon complained.
The residents were drawn like moths to a flame.
“This is like watching the march of the zombies with walkers for Christ sakes,” Karl grumbled. “Get out of the way.”
“Stuck behind a herd of geezers,” Jon said.
”I’d call them a murder,” Karl said. “Like a murder of crows, strutting and cawing to each other without a care for anything around them. All they need is to be covered in black. Get out of the way,” Karl yelled. “We’re in a hurry.”
None of the slow moving residents complied or even turned to look at the complainers. They shuffled and scraped along at their own pace. Some grunted and huffed and moaned. A pair of elderly ladies took occasion to visit, as if they hadn’t just spent the last year together.
Karl pulled Jon by the sleeve and shimmied along the wall. Jon poked his walking stick out at the annoying ‘slow-goers’ as they passed.
The stairwell door at the far end of the hallway was open. It had never been open, always closed tight like a bank vault door that had been shut for a hundred years, covered in dust and spider webs. It was meant to be used only as an emergency hatch, a fire escape or perhaps a concrete bunker to shelter them in case of a hurricane, or tornado or maybe a nuclear war.
Karl and Jon pushed their way to the landing. There she was at the bottom of twenty stairs. This one was different. She was in the stairwell, not laying peaceful and cold in her own bed. No pretense of passing away serene during a night of sweet dreaming, snuffed by a secret undetectable scheme. This one was brutal and unsettling, there was a violence about her body, disjointed, dislocated. Jon tried to absorb the death scene but it filled his brain with surreal images, like a Salvador Dali painting. A leg bent the wrong way, an arm slung sideways behind her head, she looked melted, like a stone angel made of wax. Blood seeped from a rent on the side of Greta’s head forming a sticky pool of dark red on the cold concrete of the stairwell. The light was dim, from a single forty watt bulb screwed above the exit sign. Stark and alone.
Greta Lundberg was dead in the stairwell by the second floor, barefoot. It wasn’t clear how she got into the stairwell without the door alarm going off. Residents had been known to wander off in the past so an alarm system had been installed throughout the facility, as much to keep residents in as to keep intruders out. It should have rung out, signaling an escape attempt.
The crowd gathered at the top of the stairwell. Bruce the giant black orderly, blocked the way down the stairs from the third to second floor landing where the body lay. For Jon, it made no difference that Bruce was a colored man or a giant, easily six feet nine inches tall, a virtual monster, and even though as friendly as a puppy, one would never want to cross, he was big in the middle, like a Santa Claus. ‘He will never be an old man, never reach a hundred, with a gut like that,’ Jon thought. Karl kept Jon between he and Bruce.
Nurse Shirley knelt beside Greta’s body. Dr. Hauptman had made his way up from the meat locker and had a finger on Greta’s cold dead neck, checking for a pulse which he knew he would not find.
The white haired zombie walkers gasped as they looked upon the scene. ‘Poor thing,’ some said. ‘I can’t look at that,’ some said, though continued looking at poor Greta for only a minute or two, maybe longer. She was sideways, her right side against the concrete, her left side turned upward, toward the light bulb. Her eye, though glossed, unmoving, covered by the film of death, appeared to be looking straight up towards Jon, as if entreating him to uncover the answer to her mysterious fall.
‘Don’t let him get away with it,’ the eye said.
“I saw her begging for a piggyback ride,” Mrs. Krantz whispered to Mrs. Remple, then pointing at Big Bruce.
Jon looked at that steely eye. It reminded him of the dead eye of a butchered deer he saw when he was a youth. Reminded him of Lady’s eye as she passed from life to death. Reminded him of Marta as she bled her life away. Reminded him of Harriet, cold and alone on the kitchen floor.
In those moments of stony stare at Greta’s carcass, Jon thought, ‘Why have I never had a sense of loss with any human in my life that has passed away. Not even Harriet, as if she wasn’t really gone from me, just moved from one place to another. But yet I have always felt hollow and grieved at the death of a pet. Poor Lady. Such a bewildering thing. It must be from the loss of a personality rather than a person themselves.’
“It will pass,” Harriet whispered into his ear.
Jon felt a wave of grief wash over him at the thought of his dear Harriet, the sound of her voice. Wet came to his eyes clouding his vision. As he looked down at Greta’s eye, he saw Greta become Harriet and then Greta again. He wiped at his eyes before anyone could see.
“I loved her,” Jon said.
“Loved her? Are you crying?” Karl leaned in, asking in a low voice. “Loved her? Crying for Crazy Greta?”
“No, of course not.”
“Don’t let the old ladies hear you. They’ll think you have feelings and that will be the end of it, they’ll never let you alone.”
“Did she fall?” Jon called down the stairwell at Dr. Hauptman and Nurse Shirley.
Nurse Shirley turned sharply, startled and annoyed.
“You people must return to your rooms. Nothing to see here.”
“What does she mean by that,” Karl said. “We can all see that Crazy Greta is down there cold as a dead fish.”
“Don’t talk like that,” Jon said. “You’ll panic the old ladies.”
Nurse Shirley pushed herself quickly to her short legs and sprung up the stairs.
“You people never mind this. Go back to your rooms or go watch TV or play cards,” Nurse Shirley admonished. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“Bingo,” an old woman cried out. “Let’s play bingo.”
There was a ruckus at the back of the crowd. A policeman had arrived and pushed his way through the throng of onlookers.
“Go,” Nurse Shirley commanded again. “Let this man through.” She looked at her watch.
Dr Hauptman pronounced Greta deceased. The crowd parted like the Red Sea as an older loose jowled police detective slipped through and down into the stairwell, passing Nurse Shirley.
“I told you to go back to your rooms. There is nothing to see here,” Nurse Shirley repeated.
That of course was not true, Greta Lundberg was there to see, at least her body was there.
“She fell,” Mrs. Remple said. “She was always dancing around, probably tripped over her own feet.”
Those that could see Greta’s body through the door opening and down the stairwell looked at Greta’s bare feet.
“I saw her in the Sunroom this morning. All by herself,” Mrs. Krantz said.
“Don’t be a bunch of rubberneckers,” Nurse Shirley commanded. “Move on.”
“I bet she was pushed,” Oddur Gunnerson said.
“Go,” Nurse Shirley ordered again.
“Shouldn’t you already be gone?” Rudy asked, pointing at Nurse Shirley’s watch. “Night shift aren’t you?”
“Never mind, I’m covering for Clara, just move along.”
They did move on, turning and slowly meandering away, visiting, speculating, being in the moment and recalling times in their past when they encountered something dead or bloody. But poor Greta was not really one of them, not really part of them, because her mind had left her some time ago. ‘Why did she get like that,’ some wondered. Others said nothing with a fear inside that any mention of the teetering of the mind might bring it onto themselves. Some said it would be better not to have your facilities at the end, then you wouldn’t have to suffer with your decrepitude. Others said that without your ability to reason you were no longer yourself, that you had already passed to that other place, if there was another place, and it was just your body taking up space that was left. Most had religion, some quite devout, some had come to it only later in their life when the certainty of death had become real and there was nothing to lose by coming to faith, even if it was late.
Jon had a different idea. He was certain that an eternal existence was waiting, but crossing the hundred year threshold was mandatory. But where did this idea come from? He wasn’t religious, he dismissed any idea of heaven, an afterlife or any such thing. When he had doubt, when he thought ’A hundred is just a number, it is an arbitrary thing,’ he quickly dismissed the thought, flushed it from his mind like flushing his toilet. ‘Had he flushed his toilet before answering Karl’s pounding on his door and forcing him to join him on his expedition to Greta’s death scene? Poor Greta. She was annoying, but harmless. Now her story was gone forever, she would not have her eternal existence, no hundredth birthday party for her. Nothing left but her split open head and her dead eye staring up. If they had put her on two, like they should have, maybe she wouldn’t be dead.’
He didn’t like being told to leave. Who did she think she was anyhow, Nurse Shirley. Treating them like they were children gawking at a dead bird, looking at something they were too innocent to see. She was always overbearing, crabby and she always smelled like perspiration mixed with cheap perfume, masking a faint alcohol-like odor. He wasn’t certain she even liked old people.
Not like Nurse Clara, whose hair was always tidy, coiffed, and tucked beneath her doily like hat. She smelled like strawberry and watermelon and Jon always stood as straight up as he could when he saw her, so that he wouldn’t be shorter than her. She was very tall, for a woman. ‘Maybe the second tallest woman I’ve ever known personally,’ he thought. The tallest was Jonsey, six foot five, who died young from a brain tumor. ‘What a way to go,’ he thought. ‘Killed by a migraine.’ He was glad he didn’t have to encounter Nurse Shirley on a regular basis, since she was the night nurse, boss of the dim lights and dark hallways and generally didn’t come on shift until after he was in bed and usually left as the residents begun gathering for breakfast. He imagined her waddling the spooky hallways like a lost penguin, a silhouette always only visible from the backside.
They were a line of elderly, obediently returning to their places, rumors exchanged amongst them. It was common of course, that residents would pass away, The Lodge being the last stopping place before making their final journey, but most went in their sleep or if they took a turn in their health they would spend their last days at the Sisters of Mercy Hospital, transferred four blocks away to end their life on a ventilator connected by tubes and wires to sustain them in their final time until their body could be sustained no longer. Some, knowing their time was near, chose to spend the last of their days at The Lodge in their own bed, door open so their friends could drop by for a visit. No violence about it, not like poor Greta.
Karl resented Greta Lundberg. She should have lived on two, with the Alzheimer’s and dementia people, the crazies that he had been confined with all those years. It wasn’t fair that she got a room on three while he was still a prisoner held against his will, fully aware of where he was, not like the others on two, with their loose minds, incoherent babbling, catatonia, and indifference to life. Clearly he was more sane than she. He complained and often stood in Greta’s doorway looking at the room that should have been his. What did it matter, now he finally had his place on three, a very nice room that got the morning sun and stayed cool later in the day. The envy he had for Greta Lundberg’s room was gone, his room was even better. Served her right.
“All good things come to those that wait,” Karl said.
“Poor Greta,” Jon said as he and Karl turned to leave the stairwell.
“Do you think she was good looking when she was young?” Karl said. “Before she got nuts.”
“We all looked better when we were young,” Jon said. “Even you.”
“Not possible,” Karl replied. “Look at this handsome mug. I’m surprised these old ladies aren’t all over me.”
“I’m not,” Jon said.
Nurse Shirley did not excuse herself from Detective Klugman. Her shift was long done and the policeman could get his information from Dr Hauptman and Big Bruce. She tucked her head and made her way at the rear of the departing crowd.
Nurse Clara came running, though her stride was without athletic form, little more than a brisk walk. Her height and robust frame juxtaposed itself beside the squat body of Nurse Shirley. The two nurses passed, one arriving, one departing.
“What happened?” Nurse Clara asked. “I heard something happened to Greta Lundberg.”
“She had an accident,” Nurse Shirley said, her head still tucked, her eyes not meeting Nurse Clara’s inquiring gaze.
“I heard it’s serious.”
“She had a fall, looks like she hit her head. Dead. Dr Hauptman is there; he can fill you in. I’ve got to go.”
“Dead. Oh no. Poor thing.” Nurse Clara was taken aback by the sudden and surprising news. “Yes of course. Thank you for covering for me.”
“I’ll leave you to finish up, write in her chart, I’m already overtime and I don’t get paid extra for being here past eight.”
“Yes, of course, you’ve done enough. You’re very dedicated and I appreciate your help. Thank you again for covering.”
It was clear that Nurse Shirley was annoyed. She frowned, turning quickly to continue to leave. An odor came off her as she turned away. Nurse Clara thought she smelled something like paint thinner or perhaps alcohol.
Jon and Karl parked themselves against the wall, in earshot of Detective Klugman.
“He’ll want a statement from me,” Karl said to Jon.
“Why would he want a statement from you? You don’t know anything more than any of us. You saw Greta down there, just like the rest of us.”
“I see things that others don’t,” Karl said. “I get around, keep an eye out. I see things people don’t know I see.”
Jon’s legs had started to tingle and turn rubbery, from standing around too long.
“You can hang around if you want,” Jon said. “I have to go and sit down. What do you mean you see things? Do you know something about all this? How did you even know there was something going on down here?”
“I see things, I know things.”
“I have to go.”
“Wait, I’ll at least tell the policeman where he can find me when he wants my statement. Then I’ll go with you.”
“I can’t wait, I have to pee.” Jon swung his walking stick at Karl’s knee to force him out of the way.
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