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What’s Left of Destiny

Fiction & Poetry Blog Nosh Magazine{Original Post in The Master’s Artist}

Editor’s Note: This short story was written for a competition run jointly by the literary journal, Relief Journal, and Baker’s acquisitions editor, Dave Long. Jeanne says of writing this story, “I poured a bit of my soul into this story. I can honestly say writing it changed me, so if it accomplishes nothing else, that’s a good thing.”

What’s Left of Destiny

“Where’s Jack?”

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Calhoun. Jack is close by.” He maneuvers her wheelchair around a pale amber puddle in the middle of the linoleum floor, shooting a sympathetic smile at Sam, the mop-wielding janitor.

Sam returns the smile and the sympathy, then nods at the wisp of a woman in the chair. “Evenin’, Mrs. Calhoun.”

Everyone around here knows better than to call her by her first name. That privilege belongs to Jack alone, and it’s been almost three years since she’s heard him use it.

“You’re a good man, Sam,” he says over his shoulder as he continues down the hall. And he means it.

Folks say Sam was a local baseball legend in his youth. Could have made it in the majors, if only he hadn’t suffered that shoulder injury. If only. Now there’s a dead-end road he’s traveled more times than he can count. No. There is no if only. For whatever reason, Sam’s path landed him mopping up unidentified bodily fluids in a place where most peoples’ minds exited stage left long ago. And he does it with cheerful dignity. You gotta respect someone like that.

As for his own path, for the moment it leads to the door at the end of this hallway. These days he tries to take things one at a time.

He taps lightly on the door. When no one responds he opens it and pulls the wheelchair inside. An oversized tub dominates the room. He twists the stainless steel knobs, adjusts the temperature, then squats in front of the shrunken form seated in the chair. “Ready for your bath, Mrs. Calhoun?”She raises her head from its usual lolled position. He knows that look. Fear mixed with defiance. She darts her eyes as though looking for a way to escape. “Who are you? Where’s Jack?”

“Don’t worry. Jack is close by. He knows you’re with me.” He says a silent prayer that her terror won’t escalate into hysterics again. Last Wednesday she tried to fight him and he barely managed to keep her from
falling. After the last hip surgery, doctors warned the staff that her bones have become so brittle, her forearm could snap as easily as a dried branch.

“Who are you?” She growls the words through clenched teeth, her eyes narrow and suspicious.

He’s never quite sure how to answer that question, because, no matter what he says, it upsets her. “It’s okay. I’m going to help you with your bath.”

She raises a bony finger. “Jack’s not gonna like this. You’ll be sorry when he gets back.”

“Jack knows, Mrs. Calhoun. He asked me to help you.”

Her expression softens a little then goes blank. Her head drifts back to its rut–tilted to the right, chin low. He takes advantage of the lull and gently unsnaps the front of her cotton house coat. A thin stream of drool trickles onto his hand. “Where’s Jack?” Her voice is little more than a whisper now.

“Don’t worry. Jack is close by.” He hates to lie, but it’s the only way to keep her calm. He rolls a reclining bath gurney beside her chair and locks the wheels on both. “Okay, now. I’m going to help you move to
this gurney for your bath. Let’s place your arms around my neck. There you go.”

He positions her feet on the floor, then leans forward and slides his hands behind her back, gathering the fabric of her house coat into his fists before gently lifting her. She weighs no more than eighty-five pounds, but he can’t be sure she won’t panic mid-transfer, so he acts with the adept confidence of experience. In one motion he shifts her to the gurney and slips her house coat over her head.

She giggles, her breath warm on his neck. “I’m not paralyzed, ya know. I can take off my own nightie.”

“Shh. You don’t want to wake the kids.” He tosses her gown on the rug. “I just thought I’d be helpful.” He plants a kiss behind her ear. Her hair smells like a garden.

“You always were the altruistic one.” She laughs with abandon now, and he buries his smile in her thick brown hair. The first time he heard her musical laughter–the irrepressible soundtrack of her life–he knew he wanted to hear it every day for the rest of his life.

This room is kept at eighty degrees, but she shivers against the vinyl padding. He covers her with a thick towel, then positions the gurney over the tub and presses a lever that lowers it into the water. When it reaches the water’s surface he removes the towel. She visibly relaxes as her body submerges in the warm water.

This time she asks the question with closed eyes and a half smile. “Where’s Jack?”

Soaking in a hot bath is one of her few remaining pleasures, so he doesn’t rush the process. He scoots a chair beside the tub and studies her face, wondering what’s going through her mind. “I suppose Jack went to get coffee. You know how much he loves coffee.”

A thin smile presses against furrows of unyielding skin. “Hm. He sure does love his coffee.”

He dips a washcloth in the water and rubs it with a bar of soap. “You just lay back and relax, Mrs. Calhoun. I’m going to wash your legs and feet first.” He eases a withered leg above the surface, massaging the gnarled
foot, dabbing at the cracked, yellow toenails. He works his way up her leg, gently scrubbing splotchy skin that sags off her bones like soggy crepe paper.

“You’ll get sunburn if you lay there much longer.”

She hands him the lotion without looking up from her book. “Fine then.”

He squeezes a white glob into his palm, rubs his hands together, then smooths it on her leg. How could something as ordinary as a leg be so beautiful? The contour of her muscles beneath his touch. The delicate ankle and curve of her heel. And those tiny brown freckles on her skin.

He’s completely undone by those freckles.

He washes one leg, then the other. Then her arms. She submits without resistance. Most evenings she doesn’t protest until he lifts her torso out of the warm water, so he puts that off as long as possible. He sets
the washcloth aside and reaches for the shampoo.

Her white hair is smashed and matted in back from her pillow. The top looks like she hired Albert Einstein as a stylist. Using a hand-held shower head, he directs a soothing stream over her scalp. The wild hair collapses into thin clumps against pink skin. He lathers her hair with shampoo, patiently unknotting the mats with his fingers, careful not to pull too hard. If he hurts her, she’ll let him know.

“Ouch! Geez, do you have to yank so hard?” She rubs the back of her head.

“Sorry! Next time you’re wearing a hat.”

They’d rented a convertible to drive the perimeter of the island. Half the fun for him had been watching her waist-length hair whip around her face and listening to her laugh.

Now they’re both paying for the pleasure. She sits Indian-style on the hotel deck in front of a small stool where he’s been perched for a good twenty minutes, detangling her mane. So far he’s conquered only about a third of it–easing the brush through by inches, stopping when it snags to work out the snarl.

He pauses to stretch his back and survey his handiwork. The setting sun seduces her copper highlights,
and they yield to its touch with a flash of fiery desire. Everything about this woman intoxicates him.

She leans her head back and pouts at him upside down. “I’m sorry I complained. Do I really have to wear a hat next time?”

He gathers the mass of hair pooling around her hips and raises it to his lips like a chalice of fine wine. She owns him. “What do you think?”

She dozed off while he washed her hair. The snoring was a dead give away. But as much as he hates to wake her, the time has come. He raises the gurney until her chest rises above the water.

She startles and opens her eyes, her pupils contracting to pinpoints as she tries to focus. “Where’s Jack?” The fear has returned.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Calhoun. Jack is close by.”

“Who are you? Why are you touching me?” She clutches his wrist.

He dips the washcloth in the water with his free hand. “I’m giving you a bath. You were so comfortable, you fell asleep.”

Her grip is amazingly strong for such a frail person. “Jack’s not gonna like this. You’ll be sorry when he gets back.”

“Jack knows. You’ll feel better when you’re nice and clean.”

“I don’t like you. I want Jack.”

It’s much harder when she gets obstinate. He takes a deep breath. “I understand you want Jack. I wish . . . let’s just finish your bath and we’ll go look for him, okay? Now, will you let go of my wrist?”

He waits for her to release her claw-like grip, then re-lathers the washcloth and begins to soap her sunken chest. She has no breasts. They were removed by mastectomy twelve years ago. During this part of the process he avoids looking into her eyes and focuses on the task at hand.

When he rinses off the soap, her thin scars glisten white like swords barring the way to the woman she once was.

She stood before him today with the surrender of a bride. So trusting. So perfect.

“In the name of God, I take thee to be my wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”

He slipped a gold band on her slender finger. “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow; in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; Amen.”

He’d saved himself for marriage. So had she. Sometimes he’d wondered if they’d make it to the honeymoon, but somehow, with God’s help, they did. And now the time has come.

She’s in the bathroom “getting ready.” He feels . . . nervous, yes. But mostly excited. And happy. Unbelievably happy.

She enters the room wearing a pale blue gauzy gown. He’s never seen her look more beautiful. Or
more shy.

“Turn off the light.”

He obeys.

She steps close to him and unties the satin string at her neckline. The gown drops to the floor.

Her skin is striped by moonlight slanting through the blinds. His heart pounds against his chest as he
slips his arms around her waist and pulls her close.

With my body I thee worship.

She kisses him. Then she laughs.

As usual the bath took almost an hour. He wheels her through the dim hallway back to her room, helps her into a fresh nightgown, and transfers her to the bed.

“Where’s Jack?” Her voice is sleepy.

“Jack is close by.”

This is my solemn vow.

He fluffs her pillow and makes sure her nightgown isn’t bunched beneath her. Then he adjusts her covers and turns off the light.

He sits in the chair across the room. Moonlight slants through the blinds.

From this day forward.
Until we are parted by death.

She’s asleep. Her snoring has always been a dead give away. Still he waits. She often talks in the early stages of sleep, giving him brief glimpses into happy dreams. Dreams where she finally finds Jack again.

But tonight she’s silent. He rises and tiptoes to the door. “Good-night, Destiny,” he whispers. “Sweet dreams.”

He steps into the hallway and eases the door to a crack.

“Jack!”

In one giant step he’s back in the room, holding his breath, silencing the pain for the sake of the joy. He strains to hear, but these sounds are not words. Something’s wrong. He reaches for the light switch, then
stops.

For one eternal moment the stone is rolled away, beautifying his scars, freeing his heart from its tomb.

She’s laughing.

Editor’s pick by Heather at L’Chaim. This story touched me because it took an ordinary act of love and tenderness and infused it with the sacred. It unveils the infinity of beauty. It was originally posted here in The Master’s Artist.

Jeanne Damoff is a writer who chases laughter and willingly shares it when she finds it. She transforms everyday conversations to glimpses of joy (as evidenced here, here, and especially here–you must read the latter one if no others!). And you can’t forget this one. (I’ve changed my mind. That last one is definitely the must read of them all. No, no. Maybe the one before. Oh, I can’t make up my mind. Just read them all and laugh. Laugh heartily.) She has an ear for music, an eye for photography, an imagination for writing, and a joy for life. Jeanne blogs regularly at her personal blog, The View from Here, and a group blog of writers, The Master’s Artist. You can subscribe to her here.

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Jeanne Damoff10:13 September 22, 2008

Ah, Heather! You’ve made me sound so fascinating, now I’m excited about spending the rest of the day hanging out with myself.

Thanks so much for wanting to publish this story (which made me cry again when I read it just now, proving my Dweeb-a-thon skills are still as sharp as ever), and thanks for pointing your readers to my blog posts. Your enthusiasm and friendship are treasures to me.

Love, Jeanne

MommyTime20:30 September 22, 2008

This is beautiful and haunting. What a powerfully evocative story. Thank you for sharing it.

[...] our first week in our new home with the launch of our Fiction & Poetry channel, featuring a short story by The View from Here.  The response was better than we expected, so spread the word to your writer friends that we are [...]

[...] 22 09 2008 Heather Goodman, fiction editor for BlogNosh online magazine, posted my short story “What’s Left of Destiny” today. (Thanks, Heather! And congrats again for winning the ACFW Genesis [...]

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