We were the summer kids. Temporary replacements for the vacationing nursing staff at the one-of-a-kind state-run nursing home. Six-hundred-ten acres of repurposed Army hospital. Thirty-five minutes to race walk the fenced periphery. Twenty-six wards, twenty patients per ward. The independents in twenty-four separate rooms.

It was the summer of ‘Lookin’ Out My Backdoor,’ and ‘Ball of Confusion.’ The year the Beatles called it quits. Preacher Bob, Liz and I were swing-shift barracks-bunkers, paying near nothing to spend nights in our hot little cubicles and eat Salisbury steak, chipped beef, and stale lemon bars in the cafeteria. At eighteen, I was the youngest, Preacher Bob, the oldest at twenty-one.

On workdays we navigated the maze of windowless tunnels to our respective wards. Half-a-mile devoid of outside light. Liz, stomping the linoleum in her nurse’s Footpods, as if to alert any soldier ghosts still AWOL in the floorboards. Preacher Bob, a graduate of ORU, slated to join his father at the pulpit, sliding along like a soft shoe dancer. I walked upright and straight-backed like a normal person, my stride still intact.

Bob wore a giant cross to invite patient confidence, which irritated Liz, a declared atheist. Liz whispered that Bob suffered from booze-breath-hypocrisy syndrome, when he said he took the job to gain humility, even before he showed us his silver flask in the park outside the grounds on our first day off. At some point he asked if we were saved and declared he was saving himself for marriage, but that oral stuff didn’t count. Liz said she understood. A good blow job was a little like taking communion although actual therapeutic fucks were far more effectively accomplished before tying the knot, as evidenced by her Catholic parents. She laughed at me when I asked her later why they called it a blow job.


Each workday, Liz and I would drop Bob at men’s corridor. When he pushed for group dinner-break plans, we blamed our ward chiefs for keeping us on site. Liz and I would do anything to avoid Bob’s clammy paw hold during grace, where his fingers crept up our wrists as if he was taking our pulse for the lord.

After leaving Bob, Liz and I would enter women’s and run into Ruthie. Or more precisely, she’d run into us with her cart. Ruthie delivered and collected meal trays and seemed to enjoy bashing summer girls’ ankles or feet, especially mine. Sorry, she’d mutter, next time get out of my way. She’d proceed down the walkway while Liz smiled behind her hand. Ruthie was born at Bachelerton State School for the Feeble Minded and lived her entire life there along with her mother, an original resident. When her mother turned sixty-nine and Ruthie fifty-five, they were transferred to the nursing home where her mother was a patient on my ward.

Ruthie visited Ward 8 at all hours, carrying a red stool. She would sit at the beside and pet her mother’s head. Although she was in her late fifties, you could see Ruthie’s little girl longing as she stroked her mother’s hair. They would make throat sounds in a language known only to the two of them as her mother had never acquired more than a five-word vocabulary. Liz, ever the caustic cynic, agreed that Ruthie’s conception wasn’t a therapeutic fuck. When she talked this way, I worried that other staff might overhear us and think less of me.


People didn’t mess with Liz the way they did with me though. I had to make peace with certain full-time barracks dwellers who slept on identical iron cots but were allowed TVs and record players in their rooms. Folks like Trixie who worked the cafeteria line, all smiles, until I said no to watching loud Bonanza reruns in her room. Liz saw her spit in the pudding and insisted the curly hair in my chipped beef was pubic.

People said Trixie’s mom threw her in a swimming pool as a baby which was why she hated showers and liked Tabu perfume. Her mother was head of housekeeping and accused me of throwing sanitary pads in the toilet. I told her I was Tampax-trained since age fifteen. Liz told her it was probably Trixie. But neither of us stopped going to the cafeteria despite its unique character smells: Lysol, mold, chipped beef, old spaghetti, and pee, mixed with Trixie’s Tabu, the perfect blend of rose, orange blossom, jasmine, vetiver, oakmoss, amber and musk.


The beat went on.

Early July, Liz got Maui-wowie from her dope dealer friend and made me try it. She got laughy. I got paranoid. Bob got horny and put the moves on me, but I threw up before anything happened. I left when Liz started pulling off her clothes to jump in the swimming pool.

Mid-July. Liz got sick of the routine and volunteered as a floater for the men’s wards. She liked floating, especially to independent where you could have real conversations. The older female aides wanted to protect us from men’s “down-theres,” but Liz said she had seen so many “down-theres” the geography offered no more surprises. Unfortunately.


Early August. Who’s to say what happened? It was a full moon night and staff swore residents always acted crazier. What are you looking at, Ruthie said when I passed her mother’s bed with the linen cart: Her name’s Rose.

Sorry, I didn’t know, I said and placed a change pad at the foot of the bed just as her mother uncurled a single fist and started to shake. Ruthie cussed words I also didn’t know.

It took three to dead-lift Ruthie’s mother, Rose, onto a gurney after charge nurse shoved in a suppository. Poor Ruthie blubbering beside us on our failed race walk to sick ward while charge nurse yelled, faster; faster because she didn’t like dead bodies on her shift.

That same night, a man on independent had a vivid dream in which his late wife of seventy-years again lay next to him. She held him close, his perfect angel, her touch sweet as blue morning glories. He awoke smiling. But others said a summer girl entered his room, sneaking away after midnight.

When administration interviewed me, they asked if I believed Liz was capable of such a horrific act. I told them I didn’t know a thing and signed the new ethics pledge without reading it.

I wanted to escape—from administration, from Ruthie, from Trixie’s sardonic midnight laughter, from BM charts: physohex, larded lemon bars, flat-roofed airless buildings where people or what remained of them were stuffed with suppositories, pumped with Thorazine and milk-of-magnesia. But most of all, from doubts and questions without end or answer.

As I wandered back to barracks, I wondered how I really felt about what administration condemned as an illegal and immoral breach of trust. I wasn’t good at murky. But I couldn’t ignore the bravery and guts it had taken to be an instrument of mercy for a depressed old man who might now die content.


For the remainder of August, Preacher Bob and I walked the tunnel. Liz hung in the air unnamed between us. I stomped the linoleum, but it wasn’t my style. Although neither was straight-backed and upright. Bob was introspective, devoid of both flask and can-do conversion sales pitches. If he wore a cross it wasn’t visible. I was surprised how much I missed Liz, a woman who had felt like an inhabitant of a no-thought chaotic universe.

On his last day, Bob and I sat in the park. When I came here, I was the prefab man with all the answers, he said. I leave an ordinary fool. He gifted me his flask and said he was joining the Peace Corps. I hugged him and shook his hand. I never saw Liz after that full-moon night. She had already cleared out when I returned to the barracks. I found an unopened pack of Trojans taped to my door.

Kate is a freelance writer living in Boulder, Colorado. Her work has appeared in Iowa Writes-The Daily Palette, Mused Online Literary Journal, 50GS and The Selkie.