by Brandon Sargent
“What are you going to do if I tell my daughter you’re smoking cigarettes around me?” Ethel stared into my soul, and I stared at the East River.
“What are you going to do if I tell your daughter that I found an empty Dunkin’ Donuts box under your bed?” I asked, taking a drag of my cigarette.
She looked contemptuously at me and then darted her eyes back towards the rippling East River, defeated. When her daughter first hired me to take care of her, Ethel Avery scared the shit out of me, but that was two weeks ago.
I remember smoking outside of her Upper East Side apartment building. It was during the six week grace period between scolding summers and skin-biting winters when Mother Nature decides to give New Yorkers a break. Golden October sunlight danced on East End, and the tree branches swayed as they dangled over me, showing off their palette of different colored leaves each changing hues at their own individual paces. It started to sprinkle, and I swiped through guys on Tinder until a black car stopped in front of the building. I looked up as the car door swung open revealing the whirlwind that is Ethel Avery.
She wore a pristinely bleached white blouse tucked into a pair of jet black pegged trousers, and she assessed me through dark, full circle sunglasses.
“Hi, Mrs. Avery,” I said. “My name’s Ethan. I’m your new nurse.”
“Nurse?” she spat. “What do you mean you’re my new nurse? You’re a man. This is ridiculous. Get my daughter on the phone and tell her that I did not leave that damn nursing home to be babysat by a millennial.”
“Elizabeth told me you wouldn’t be thrilled about this,” I said, “but unfortunately the only way your doctors will let you live alone is if your daughter promised to hire someone to make sure you’re doing okay.”
She sighed in frustration. “I guess this is what happens when you reach your eighties. The whole world turns against you. Get out of my way, Mr. Nurse.”
Her leg shook as she planted her stiletto onto the curb.
“Wait, Mrs. Avery, let me grab your wheelchair.” The driver popped open the trunk, and I scrambled over to it. “You’re not supposed to—”
“How old are you?” she said as I unfolded her chair. “Twenty?”
“I’m twenty-four,” I said wheeling the chair around to her.
“Well I’ve got sixty years on you. Don’t tell me how I’m supposed to get around.” “Mrs. Avery, you—”
“Jesus! The least you can do is cover my hair,” she yelled as if it were downpouring. “I don’t have an umbrella!”
“Your jacket! Your jacket! Cover me!”
I left the chair by the curb, ripped my jean jacket off, and tented it over her. In slow motion, I walked her towards the glass door that her doorman held open.
“Hold onto my arm!” I begged of her.
“I don’t need your arm! Just keep me dry!”
In that moment, I never imagined that two weeks later I’d be teasing her about her innate longing for anything her doctor banned from her diet.
“You’re not being paid to dig around my room,” she said, looking back at the river. “What the hell are you doing looking under my bed anyway?”
“I actually never found any donut boxes, but that’s good to know that you’re cheating,” I laughed.
“I don’t understand why she’s even pretending to care about what I’m eating. She’s the one who threw me in a home.”
“That nursing home was nicer than any apartment I will ever live in,” I said, flicking my cigarette. “Come on, don’t you ever get tired of complaining?”
She whipped her head to the side to look at me. “Listen. You don’t know what you’re talking about, so why don’t you just stay out of it.”
“Well what am I supposed to think when you won’t tell me your side of the story?”
The truth was that she hadn’t been completely closed off during the past two weeks. The first two days were hell, but on the third day, however, Ethel let me in on a secret.
“I need you to pick up some hair dye for me.” She sat on her sofa, looking up from a Mary Karr book. “I can’t go into a salon. I can’t be one of those ladies who still dyes their hair at this age.”
“Mrs. Avery,” I smirked, “I think you’re a little paranoid. I don’t think anyone is paying that much attention to your hair. As beautiful as it is.”
“Just go get the dye, Ethan,” she said looking back at the book. “You’d be surprised how many people like my hair. I bet you Jerry at the door will notice my new hair. You just wait and see.”
She had a serious crush on her doorman, and she was convinced he felt the same way. When I got down to the lobby, I told him what we were up to, and he promised he’d pay her a compliment.
An hour later we were in Ethel’s bathroom, the walls covered in light pink wallpaper. Before I wheeled her in, I lit some candles and put on the radio. I figured I’d try to make the bathroom seem a little less like a bathroom and a little more like a salon. I stood behind her, combing the dye through her hair, and we both looked into the mirror.
“You shouldn’t know how to do this,” she said. “Why do you know how to do this?”
“Just relax, Mrs. Avery, I’m trying to make sure this dye doesn’t get anywhere besides your hair, so hold still.”
“You’re gay aren’t you? Do you have a boyfriend?”
I paused for a second, not sure if it was appropriate to talk about my love life with her. “Yes and no. We broke up about four months ago.”
“I see,” she said.
“Yeah,” I brushed the comb through the final strands of hair. “It’s all right though. I mean, we don’t really talk anymore, but—”
“Sorry,” she interrupted. “I don’t know if I really want to hear about that. Whatever you do in your bedroom is your own business. No need to advertise it.”
Besides the radio, silence overtook the bathroom as I painted on the finishing touches.
“But anyway, remember that tomorrow we need to leave the building at one instead of noon because that’s when Jerry gets back from his lunch break. I know you probably thought I was kidding earlier, but he’s been flirting with me, and I—”
“Sorry,” I cut her off. “I don’t know if I really want to hear about that. Whatever you do in your bedroom is your business. No need to advertise it.”
In the mirror, Ethel and I both shared the same expression of shock, looking into each others’ wide eyes like we were competing in a staring contest until suddenly Ethel’s lips curled into a smile that said, “touché”, and we both burst out laughing. It was the first time I’d hear her laugh, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
An hour later, she had a new set of golden curls.
“You look like a movie star,” I said, as I pulled her chair out of the bathroom. “Now let’s get you to bed.”
“Thank you for staying later tonight to help me with this. This was nice of you.”
“It’s no problem.”
“You know,” she said, fluffing her hair. “It’s funny you say that I look like a movie star. Elizabeth’s father always used to tell me I looked like a prettier version of Marilyn Monroe. Can you believe that?”
“Oh, I believe it, Mrs. Avery.”
“Ethel,” she said. “You can call me Ethel.”
“Ethel?” I said, tossing my cigarette into the river. “You want to tell me your side of the story then?”
She sat there in silence staring at the water that now reflected the last sliver of the nearly-set sun like a fluorescent orange oil spill. I pulled out another cigarette and fumbled around for my lighter. With the sound of scratching metal the lighter ignited, and in that brief moment when the yellow glow illuminated Ethel’s face, I saw a pair of sad blue eyes nestled on a face painted with vulnerability and loneliness. She stared into the East River as if it were a crystal ball that might divine her fate if she concentrated hard enough.
“Right before I left the home,” Ethel began, “the woman who lived across the hall from me died.”
My vocal chords tightened. “Did you know her?”
“We kept our doors open there,” she continued as if I hadn’t said anything. “It was a nice place. We didn’t have to worry a whole lot about locking up at night, so this woman, her name was Jan. The first three nights I was in there, she came to my door every night asking me to play this game, King’s Corner. And you know I didn’t want to be there in the first place, so I kept making up excuses, and the last night she came and knocked, she told me she’d leave me alone, but she’s always home after six and I could come over whenever I wanted. Door’s always open.”
I listened intently to Ethel, the tip of my cigarette glowing against the blackening sky.
“So the next day, I said what the hell? What’s the worst that could happen if I play one game of cards. I waited until about six thirty and went out in the hallway, knocked on her door. Waited. Knocked on her door. I didn’t know her that well, so I figured maybe she had a hearing problem I didn’t know about, so I just opened her door, and she was sitting at her table. Dead. Dead with a game of solitaire set up in front of her.”
“Wow,” I said looking over at her, eyebrows arched. She finally met my gaze. “Holy shit.”
“I know,” she said, nodding. “And if I’m being completely honest, it scared the hell out of me. I called Elizabeth the next day and told her to get me the hell out of there. I threw a fit. I said get me out of here. This isn’t where I’m supposed to be.”
I couldn’t get the image out of my head. The poor old woman petrified in front of a game of Solitaire that would never be finished.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Just take me home.”
As we made our way back to Ethel’s, the squeaking of her wheelchair was the only thing that pierced the silence between us until she finally asked, “What about you? I told you how I got stuck with you. How did you get stuck with me?”
“Well,” I said. “I haven’t really told anyone this before, but here it goes. When I was a resident at Mt. Sinai, the doctor in charge of me made a pass at me or whatever, and when I denied him, he got kind of aggressive, and I didn’t feel comfortable showing up for a couple days. While I was gone, I guess he talked to people about how I was supposedly underperforming, and next thing I knew my residency was terminated. So it hasn’t been easy for me to get a job in a hospital, so here I am.”
“That kind of stuff happens to men, too?” she asked.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Where I’m at right now isn’t a bad place to be.”
Later, in the middle of the night, I woke up to my phone buzzing on the nightstand next to my bed. It was four in the morning, and Ethel’s doorman, Jerry, asked me to get there as quickly as I could. After hailing a cab on York Avenue, I made it to Ethel’s in five minutes. Jerry was waiting in the lobby, and opened the door. He followed me onto the elevator and explained that Ethel had fallen in her bathroom. He had the super open her apartment door, but Ethel refused to unlock the bathroom door for anyone. The elevator door opened and I ran over to her apartment.
“Ethel?” I called, hurrying down the hallway and banging on the bathroom door. “Ethel? It’s Ethan. Are you okay?”
“It’s my leg,” she said, sounding defeated.
“Why won’t you open the door?” I shook the door knob. “We need to get you to the hospital!” Jerry stood at the end of the hallway, useless and leaning against the wall. I told him to go back downstairs and call an ambulance. “Ethel, do you still have feeling in your leg?”
“Please don’t call anyone,” she said. She sounded frantic, like a scared child. “I have no clothes in here.”
“I can get you clothes, Ethel. Please. Open the door.”
“It hurts too bad,” she said, her voice shaky. “I won’t be able to get them on.”
I walked down to the other end of the hallway and opened the linen closet. I ripped a big blue blanket out of the linen closet and carried it in my arms back to the bathroom.
“Ethel,” I said, “I have one of your blankets. I can help you wrap it around you and cover you up before the paramedics get here if you let me in. I’m sorry, but they’re going to come, and they’re going to have to open this door.”
She stayed silent.
“Ethel, you have to trust me,” I said through the door. “Just let me help you.”
I heard movement for the first time on the other side of the door, and then I heard the lock click. I opened the door slowly, keeping my eyes on the ceiling. In my peripherals I could see the outline of her body, pale and cold on the bathroom floor.
“Don’t look at me,” she said.
“I’m not.” I unfolded the blanket in and let it fall open. “If you can hold onto the bathtub and lean forward a bit, I can try to drape this around your shoulders, okay?”
Her arms shook as she tried her best to lift herself up a bit. I lowered the blanket so it covered her back, and I kneeled down behind her. She let go of the bathtub and let me wrap the blanket over her chest and around the rest of her body.
“I’m going to pick you up now, okay?” I said.
“Don’t drop me.”
I slid one arm under her knees and one arm supported her back. I scooped her up into my arms, and she kept the blanket pulled tightly around her shoulders. Ethel felt so much lighter than I imagined. It was like carrying a sleeping child to their bed. Ethel remained silent as I carried her down to the ambulance, embarrassed and exhausted. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing at a natural rhythm.
The ambulance took off, and I marveled at how you spend the beginning and end of your life being carried around and taken care of by someone, and there’s just a whole lot of bullshit in between.
Early the following morning, I was woken up in the waiting room by a doctor telling me I could go in to see her.
When I walked into her room, the curtains were open, and I was happy to see that she had a view of the sun rising over the East River.
“Hi, Ethel,” I said after I plopped into the comfy armchair next to her bed.
She turned her head to look at me, and for a few seconds she didn’t say anything, but I stared into the pair of blue eyes that had witnessed over eighty years of life, and they said thank you. Elizabeth may not have shown up for her, but I did.
She lifted up a deck of playing cards and said, “I had the nurse grab me these. How about a game of King’s Corner?”
“Sure,” I said.
Brandon Sargent is a non-binary writer living in East Harlem. His work was recently published in Narratively and is forthcoming in The Rumpus. He is currently working on a memoir about family and queer identity. You can find him on Instagram, @brandonsargentt, and all of his previous work can be found on www.brandontylersargent.com