Diane mostly saw Nurse Miriam, Miriam Shea. Miriam brought the meals (awful food), brought pills and a paper cup of water, occasionally pricked her with a needle containing something unpronounceable. Every day Nurse Miriam sat Diane up in bed for stretching exercises and she would sometimes linger after they were done and talk but Diane wasn’t much of a talker. She would answer the basic questions about herself and how she was feeling, about whether her parents had visited, about what Diane wanted to do when she finally left the hospital.

“Boyfriend?

“Oh no.”

“Too young for that, huh?” Nurse Miriam said and lightly patted her shoulder, two quick affectionate pats. Embarrassed, Diane giggled.

She told Nurse Miriam Shea about her correspondence with an 18-year-old soldier named Douglas.

“And where is he now, this soldier?”

She mentioned something about General Patton and the Rangers but that he was currently home on leave. Nurse Miriam listened.

“I’ll say a prayer for him,” she said, “but you may not want to get too close. He may not come back, you know.”

“I have a strong feeling he’ll make it home okay,” Diane said, staring past Nurse Miriam at the empty wall. Diane then produced a picture of Douglas that she kept near her bedside.

“Oh, he’s a handsome fella,” Nurse Miriam said.

The days were often interminable. She avoided looking at clocks, imagining the hands had stopped or slowed to the point of appearing stopped. The nurses and orderlies moved as though they were submerged in a giant tank of water, their snatches of conversation sibilant and mysterious, another language spoken in a country opaque as molasses as they traveled the dim corridors like mimes playing doctors and nurses. There were activities (swimming, dance, art, etc.). The staff did their best but they could only do so much. She spent time waiting to be released . . . to be free.

This must be what it’s like to be old or sick and waiting to die. Endless boredom. You can’t do anything; you can’t go anywhere. But what if this happens to you when you’re young? This endless waiting to go somewhere, to do something, anything at all. I’m beginning to understand why people stuck in these situations kill themselves, or have a friend or relative kill them. It’s called a mercy killing (and something else) especially when you know that this is how it’s going to be for the rest of your life—years, decades, a half century or more, of nothing.

***

The kid as usual was playing alone in his cowboy hat and outfit, but then Doug heard the mother calling him, her voice shrill and imperious.  After a second shriek she rushed into the yard, her legs too frail to support her misshapen torso, her thinly sparsely spun hair an unrecognizable shade, her whey arms mottled with greenish-yellow bruises, the color of the sky before an electric storm. Her big angry face was flushed and florid as she teetered. White-grey eyes burned like rivets in the redness of her face.

“Get in here!”

The mother swore at the kid, something about his breaking a rear bedroom window and the kid knew a vicious punishment was coming so he evaded and pretended to ignore his mother. The mother shrieked louder, yanking the kid’s arm, and as he screwed up his face in pain and almost successfully resisted being dragged, he cursed at her and in the dark band of the open doorway she slapped and beat him over the head with her fists.

It was the only time Doug had ever seen the mother outdoors. She’d never bothered with her kid before, but now she was suddenly paying attention to him. Most likely she had not yet started on her afternoon binge drinking, and the broken window had briefly subverted and altered the course of the afternoon so first she would need to deal with disciplining her son. The mother soul had disturbed Doug for weeks now because he feared that her shut-in prisoner state mirrored his own. He’d been haunted by the pale globe of her head in the sunless window as she raised the cheap port or sherry to her lips. Once or twice he’d seen his own reflection watching her and ducked away from the eerie superimposition of his face partially over hers and behind, a grotesque eidetic freak show display.  And he’d ducked away from the window so she would never see him, no matter how drunk she was, and he resolved never to look across the alley at that window again.

***

Something dense and foreboding in the air this afternoon. His time in the Rangers has given him an added sense to tease out dark patterns and disturbances in the shifting arrangement of things, even one as dull and static as the parcel of landscape outside his window . . .  the kid . . .  the kid would normally be outside around this time, jumping and hobbling, a toy six-shooter holstered on his hip, talking to imaginary playmates, acting out games and fantasies that were borderline neurotic in their insistence on his dominance, on his commanding obedience and loyalty of the non-existent playmates. Doug briefly wonders if Patton hadn’t started out this way, as some ignored and neglected kid with no friends. Or Hitler. Or Mussolini. Who knows.

A shadow or a piece of a shadow is out of place.

He recalled the day he’d seen the kid with the wounded bird, a sparrow. The kid had been poking the injured sparrow with a long sharp stick and ordering it to fly. The kid had then lifted a stone to crush the sparrow and in a panic Doug had quickly forced Gil to run over to the other yard and stop the murder. Afterwards Gil had phoned the local ASPCA and they’d come and taken the bird away. Doug figured that even if the bird, the sparrow, had ended up dying it would have certainly been a more humane and dignified death in the care of the ASPCA than the one the sadistic kid had planned for it.

The light shifts again, a larger shadow in the still Sycamore leaves. Small cowboy boots . . . swinging . . . turning.

Gil walks in the door and Doug says: “I think something bad has happened.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Do me a favor. I need you to go back outside and look in the yard across the alley.”

“Why?”

“Just do it for me, please. I need you to go over there.”

Gil shrugs, does an about-face, and steps back outside. He returns quickly, too quickly, his sneakers smacking hard on the slates of the alley walkway, crashes through the kitchen door and pukes on the cracked linoleum.  His face is drained of color.

“Dead! Hung himself! Dead!” he pukes again, pacing now like a madman.

“On the tree! Right?”

But Gil still paces. Doug half hugs and half shakes his younger brother.

“Listen to me! You’re going to have to cut him down or get a neighbor to do it! Do not call the police!”

Gil pushes him away, head shaking, pacing, “No way! No way! Can’t you see if I get a neighbor, they’re going to call the cops?”

He lunges and his hands are clamped on Gil’s throat and he starts to squeeze but instantly has a flashback . . . a German soldier, a boy younger than himself, barely adolescent, wounded but not dead. Doug has removed the gun and ammo and combat camp knife and is strangling the boy soldier thinking it will be the cleanest way to finish him, but it’s taking too long, longer than in detective movies, so he finally slices the boy’s throat with his own knife.

Doug rears back against the kitchen counter, clutching and clawing his chest for air.

Gil says, “What’s wrong? Are you having a heart attack?”

“No.”

“You’re not faking. . .”

“NO! Go ahead and call the cops,” he says, defeated.

“I can’t do that.”

“Get his mother then.”

“I can’t do that either.”

“Jesus Gil! Do something!”

Gil has stopped pacing. He is weirdly calm and talking as if he’s addressing a stranger.

“The cops will want to talk to an adult, someone 18 or older,

not me.”

“That kid is dangling from the end of a rope!”

As if in a trance: “Yes, he’s dead.”

“I know but you can’t leave him there.”

“It’s not up to me. I’m afraid you’ll have to do it.”

“Then I’ll leave him swinging there for someone else to find. ”

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*see “Michael and Walt” and “The Wicks”

Lorraine needed a pack of cigarettes. She was down to her last half a pack and didn’t have the money to buy any more. Her check was not due in until Wednesday and today was only Monday. She could maybe borrow half a pack from Cokie. Lorraine still had some food in the house, a few groceries in the fridge and cabinet, and anyway it was too hot to eat much more than a salad. Lorraine had discovered like a soldier in battle that she could go without food easier than she could go without cigarettes. As long as she had some Ritz crackers to nibble on, and maybe a can or two of tuna fish and some Lipton tea she’d be alright. She should give up smoking anyway.

The problem started when Lorraine had to purchase cable, which hurt her budget. Basic cable had been more than Lorraine could afford, but when all analog service ended, she’d been forced to buy a cheap cable service package. She could not afford to buy cigarettes but she had cable. Lorraine watched a lot of QVC and believed she was engaging in a personal dialogue with the ladies who were selling clocks and tiaras. They were her friends. Lorraine didn’t have any place else to go except for driving to the beach and staring at the ocean, and that activity was more enjoyable in the off season than during the crazy summer. She could watch QVC instead of enjoying the beach from her car, or sitting at a picnic table in a small park on the bay, along with families and other seniors near the playground.

Lorraine decided she would visit Cokie and ask for some cigarettes.

“Five OK?” Cokie asked her.

“Yes,” Lorraine said, thinking she would need to spread the five cigarettes out, maybe one every three hours not counting sleep of course.

Cokie was wearing fuzzy slippers and a terry cloth bathrobe, a cigarette burning in her tanned fingers which looked like two cinnamon sticks. Cokie supposedly drank in the evenings and sometimes wandered out of doors, staggering along the street in her robe and slippers. But Lorraine had never seen Cokie drunk or outdoors at night.

“Are you broke?”

“Sort of . . . just waiting for the check to come.”

“I know what you mean. Harry, God bless his soul, left me a small pension, but I’m often strapped early in the month.”

“Walter didn’t have a pension,” Lorraine said. “And I don’t have a pension, and I’ve only worked two years in my entire life, and that isn’t long enough for any decent government social security payment. I live off Walter’s social security and a little savings.”

“I know what you mean,” said Cokie, nodding, flicking an ash with a tap of her index finger. “Why don’t you work now?”

Lorraine had been expecting more sympathy, more commiseration, not this. Cokie’s question caught her off guard.

“You’re kidding,” she said, with a small sardonic laugh. “No one wants to hire an old lady with no experience.”

Cokie shrugged. “Walmart’s is always looking for greeters. Minimum wage but it would keep you in cigarettes and maybe a pizza every now and then. And the stores will need help for Christmas.”

“Now? It’s early September!”

“I know, can you believe it? But they’ll be taking applications within a month. Mark my words.”

Later, as she was sitting home and watching QVC, Lorraine realized that Cokie had struck a nerve. The thought of working terrified her. She felt that trying to find any type of job at the lowest pay imaginable—but possibly enough pay to at least buy her cigarettes and maybe an ice cream at the ice stand when the mood struck—was beyond her ability and experience. Lorraine had never volunteered, especially not as a retiree, when there was perfect opportunity to meet other people, to socialize, to “network” as they called it these days. What had she done? What was she doing now? Why was she afraid to make any kind of change? Or was it simply inertia? Lorraine admitted to herself that she was maybe a little agoraphobic, but not seriously. She enjoyed going out and shopping (when she had the money to shop) and talking to people while shopping. Was she so averse to risk or change that she would rather suffer stoically than attempt to improve the essentials of her circumscribed life? Improve things just a little?

Lorraine thought it would be fine to have a job like one of the ladies on QVC, something elegant and tasteful as opposed to a demeaning low-paying retail job, like working as a greeter at Walmart. After the check came and she was able to buy cigarettes, she took a drive over to Walmart’s to buy them instead of the drugstore. She was trying to kill two birds with one stone. She’d heard that cigarettes were cheaper at Walmart’s anyway and she wanted to get a feeling for the store and possibly ask a manager or assistant manager if they’d begun to hire greeters for the upcoming holiday season.