A tough-looking woman watched Louise step to the coffee urn to draw a mug of strong midnight brew. It was Louise’s first night at the rest home. The woman wore the same prim uniform as Louise, but she wore it differently, unbuttoned to the top of her brassiere.
“Sit down, kid,” said the woman. “I’ll bet those dogs are barkin’.”
Louise smiled as she settled at the breakroom table, the mug warm in her hands. The woman wore bright lipstick. She crushed her cigarette into a glass ashtray, the end gone pink. Another waited over her ear, her brown hair pinned up into a pile on her head.
“How old are you?” asked the woman.
“Eighteen,” said Louise.
“Jesus. You new girls are gettin’ younger all the time.”
“Don’t matter to me, kid. Graveyard’s easy duty. You’ll like it. Five cents more an hour, too. Quiet as death until some old guy wants to drain his snake.” The woman winked at Louise.
Louise felt her heart skip. The idea of touching strangers, of helping them to relieve themselves, still gave her pause. It was rough work, but she’d have to learn.
“This is my first job,” she said.
“Welcome to the world,” said the woman. “I’m Billie. You’re a nice-lookin’ kid with those soft blonde curls. How come you aren’t married? Or on your way to college? You could work in some office, a cute kid like you.”
Louise moved her ringless finger to her lap, then looked down at it. The man wouldn’t marry her. In two months, she’d start to show, and then she’d have to find another job. Her mother had told her never to come home again.
“I can guess the score,” said Billie. “How far along are you?”
“Couple of months.”
“Mama throw ya out?”
Louise nodded. Her eyes prickled as the tears threatened to come again.
“Where ya livin’?”
“That rooming house on First. The Crest.”
“That’s a shit hole,” said Billie.
The woman had a dirty mouth. Louise was constantly surprised by the way the girls at the rest home talked when the residents couldn’t hear them. Like magpies on a compost pile.
“I been here three years,” said Billie. “Night shift is where the money is, if ya know what I mean.” She made a little hand gesture, her fingers closed around an invisible object, like a can of condensed milk she was shaking.
Louise swallowed. She needed money. The wages barely paid for her room and she sometimes boiled ketchup and water together to make soup. The baby would mean more expense, and she had no idea where the money would come from.
Billie laid out four crumpled dollar bills next to her coffee mug. She smoothed them with her hand.
“That’s only two jobs,” she said. “Most of the girls charge a dollar for their handiwork, but I like to stop when a guy’s just about ready to boil over. Then I hold my hand out for another dollar, see. Never fails. After that, I put my heart into it, talking them old gents through it like the angel that I am.”
Louise felt her face go hot and red in front of Billie. Two dollars? For that? She took a swallow of coffee. Her break was almost over.
“There’s fifty men on the second floor. Half of ‘em couldn’t get it up if Rita Hayworth had a grip on it.” Billie took the cigarette from over her ear, picked up the lighter, flipped open the top, then brought the flame to life. “That’s twenty-five guys who can’t get to sleep after I bend over to fluff their pillow.”
“I could never do that,” said Louise.
“Twenty-five old guys with nothin’ else to do with their money.”
“No thank you.”
“You’ll figure it out, Sister,” said Billie with a shrug. “Men get all the breaks in this fuckin’ world. I take back what I can.”
“You can borrow my lipstick,” said Billie. “Give yourself a little class.”
“Okay, then. Back to work, kid. I’ll take the second floor. You’re welcome to the young guys in rehab.”
“I trained in rehab.”
“Good for you,” said Billie.
Rehab was a ward for the vets who couldn’t live on their own. Louise had trembled with tension as the dayshift nurse taught her to bathe and toilet the broken men, to help them in and out of their pajamas.
Now she stood over a man in the dim light from his bedside lamp. The nurse had explained that he’d lost both his arms on Okinawa. He glanced up at her with sleepy eyes as she smiled and pulled his pajama bottoms down to arrange the bedpan under his genitals. When he’d finished, she cleaned him up with a warm washcloth. As she’d feared, he became hard. It was like jumping into a cold lake at night, but she jumped, holding him with the washcloth, looking away into the darkness while she pulled. The reflection of the lamp off wet eyes told her that other men were watching. Once the man grunted, tears of frustration began to flow. How could he pay her? He had no arms.
“Do you have a dollar?” she whispered. “Somewhere?”
“For what?” he said.
Louise turned to her cart as the men in the shadows began to laugh.
“I’m in pain, nurse!” one of them squealed. “But I swear I’ve got a dollar for the cure.”
Her head turned to search out the voice, angel that she was.
Russell Thayer’s work will soon appear in Evening Street Review, The Ignatian Literary Magazine, The Phoenix, and Close to the Bone. It has appeared in Hawaii Pacific Review, Pulp Modern, and Tough. He received his BA in English from the University of Washington and worked for decades at large printing companies. He has cooked a lot of meals, watched a lot of French films, and currently lives in Missoula, Montana, with his wife of thirty-five years.