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I’m taking off the sheets where Paul died in his sleep at Oak Grand Living. I toss the new sheet across the bed like a bait net, and I get blasted with a puff of air, and I smooth it out, and there’s a new bed for someone else.
I go fishing in the pond on my lunch break. The line slices through the water as I drag the sinker back. I don’t think there are any fish in the pond.
My mother tells me I should have married Terrence. Then I wouldn’t be such a lonely woman.
Usually I eat lunch in the Oak Grand cafeteria. Salisbury steak is the most popular meal. It’s actually good.
Millie died a few months ago of cancer, and she used to give me all kinds of advice. She said it wasn’t a big deal that I didn’t marry Terrence. He drank too much, she said, and that’s not something you want to get mixed up in. Of course, she never met him.
George has been in bed for years, and when I’m done fishing, I come back in and tell him all the details. He says even if I don’t catch anything I should lie one day and say I did just because he wants to imagine it. He says he’ll believe any fish story.
I touch the lump in my throat. It’s on the right side, a small lump. It might be growing, or it might be my imagination because my grandfather died of thyroid cancer. I have a tendency to imagine I have serious illnesses.
There’s a new manager. His name is Mr. Bullocks. His hair is jet black, and it’s always styled with something shiny, so it looks like a dress shoe.
Frank dies, so I go to his room and start cleaning out his bathroom. Toothpaste, toilet paper, shampoo. They’re all mostly unused, but I throw them all away.
I go in to check on Lizzie, and I think maybe she has just died, too. But she is sleeping. She wakes up, and I change the channel on the TV for her. That would’ve been a bad day: two of them.
In the cafeteria, I get another Salisbury steak, and Keith the Cook asks me how old I think Mr. Bullocks is. I say maybe in his mid-forties, and Keith the Cook agrees. He says he was thinking forty-five. When I sit down to eat, I realize that forty-five was my guess also, but I didn’t say forty-five because that’s how old I am. You almost never guess that someone else is exactly your age.
I save a piece of the steak in a napkin and use it for bait. But I don’t catch anything.
My mother thinks it’s strange that I like to go fishing. She says it’s a masculine pastime. Knitting, sewing, cooking: those are things she likes to do. Those are the things the ladies do at Oak Grand. She says I’ll never get married if I spend all my time fishing by myself. She says I should’ve married Terrence when I had the chance.
I tell George that I didn’t catch anything again. He doesn’t respond about that, but he asks me about the lump on the side of my throat. And, immediately, my hand rushes up and touches the lump, as if I just got stung. I didn’t think anyone had noticed it. Maybe it’s getting bigger. I bring George a glass of water.
There’s a new man living in the room where Paul died. He looks just like Paul.
Mr. Bullocks calls a staff meeting and announces that he’s changing the menu. He posts the list, and there’s not going to be Salisbury steak. Everything is healthy now. I keep thinking about that last bite that I used as bait.
One of the new residents on the opposite wing is named Terry. And one day I see Terrence walk down the corridor to the exit to visit Terry, whom I learn is Terrence’s father. Terrence doesn’t see me.
I tell my mother on our next call, and she says I should’ve married him when I had the chance. But that chance was a decade ago, and he’s probably happily married to someone else by now. Maybe we can be friends now, I tell her, but she sighs and changes the subject.
Terrence comes about once a week to visit his father. My mother says maybe Terrence chose Oak Grand because he hoped I would still be working there.
Mr. Bullocks startles me while I’m fishing. I scream, and then I realize it’s him, and he starts to laugh, and he puts his hand on my shoulder, as if to steady himself. I laugh, too. I tell him I never knew that I could jump that high. He keeps apologizing, and I tell him not to worry about it.
It’s been a month, and Terrence still hasn’t come to talk to me. Maybe he doesn’t know I still work here. But we have a change in assignments, and now I check on Terry a few times a day. So it’s bound to happen.
Mr. Bullocks called me into his office. He invites me to sit down. He stretches out his arms over his head, and I think the next natural movement would be to run his hands through his hair, but it’s too shiny to touch. He asks me whether the residents like the new menu, but he already knows the answer.
He tells me he wants to promote me to be his assistant. I will supervise the other nurses.
I blush. And I start standing at a particular angle to make sure he won’t see the lump on my neck.
The next day, Terry tells me Terrence has been asking about me. I look up at Terry, and I don’t say anything for a moment. I’m not sure what to say.
The worst new meal at the cafeteria is the tofu. I’ve never been much of a daydreamer, but I’m eating tofu, and I’m thinking about Terrence one minute and Mr. Bullocks the next. I imagine the same conversation between each of them individually, what I might say if one of them asked me to dinner. I take another bite of tofu and imagine it’s Salisbury steak.
Sometimes I think about how Mr. Bullocks steadied himself against my shoulder.
My mother tells me I should go shopping. I should wear a new outfit for the next time Terrence comes to visit. I tell her that I have to wear my uniform. Maybe earrings, then, she says.
Mr. Bullocks says he’d like to have a daily briefing with me at the end of each day, so we can talk about any issues that come up with the nurses and the residents. I decide I’ll need to start taking my breaks right before those meetings, so I can freshen up. Usually, I look like I just got hit by a truck by the end of the day. That’s what my mother says.
Mike is the newest resident. He is a military veteran, and he has a collection of baseball caps. He doesn’t say anything when I try to talk to him, but I think he’ll come around.
There’s also a salad bar at the cafeteria, but no one eats anything from it. The greens get thrown away after dinner, Keith the Cook tells me. I start to notice a few pieces of lettuce in the pond.
Terrence is in Terry’s room when I walk in, and I stop, and our eyes meet. He smiles and stands up and walks over and gives me a hug. I smile up at him, having forgotten how tall he really is. And I see a woman behind him, who I assume at first is his daughter, but it’s his wife.
My mother tells me I should’ve married him when I had the chance.
It would have been a crushing blow, but it was softened by one thing: at least I still had Mr. Bullocks.
At our briefings, we talk about the nurses and the residents. I read things from my clipboard, and he nods and sometimes he responds. I realize that I don’t know whether he is married.
Lilly gets sick all over her bed, and I calm her down as I clean her up. I sing her a song. She loves Sinatra.
Terry needs his meal taken to him, so I bring in a tray, and he tells me about how he used to work for an ad agency in New York, and he worked such long hours and had an affair and ended up getting divorced. I wasn’t expecting all that.
I go in to talk to George, and I tell him I caught a fish. He smiles, and he closes his eyes. For a moment, I think he has just died. But he is only imagining.
My grandfather who died of thyroid cancer is the one who taught me how to fish. He used to say they didn’t mind getting caught: they knew they were helping keep our minds off our troubles.
A woman comes to Oak Grand to give a class about natural pain treatments. Keith the Cook buys one of her vials; he says he gets headaches. Then he asks me if I want to go grab lunch with him.
We each pay for our own. It’s just fast food. Keith is wearing cologne. He’s about thirty years old, maybe, and has light brown eyes. He asks me what’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to me on the job. The only thing I can think of is how Terry is Terrence’s father. He gets quiet, and I realize he doesn’t like that I’m talking about an old boyfriend. Then I realize he thinks this is a date, and I wish I would have thought of that before.
That afternoon a bird flies in through the front doors. All the residents who can wheel themselves around go out into the hallway to watch it, and everyone is cackling and laughing as Mr. Bullocks tries to shoo the bird back out the door. Finally he gives up. Someone says we should keep it as a pet.
I tell my mother about the lump. She asks me what the doctor said, and I say I haven’t gone. She says her father died of thyroid cancer, which I already know, and she says I need to get it checked out. That’s probably why I told her: I want her to tell me to go to the doctor. She says if I don’t I’ll regret it.
I go in to tell Mr. Bullocks I’ll need a day off, but before I can say anything, he tells me he’s leaving. He feels terrible considering he practically just got here, but he has to resign for personal reasons.
I’m quiet for a second. Then, before I can think my way out of it, I step close to him, and I kiss him on the lips, just a peck, and I tell him I’m sad to see him go.
My face is red by the time I turn around and walk out of his office. I can feel it.
I don’t tell my mother about the kiss. But I do tell George. He grins and asks me if I’m lying.
Keith buys a bag of bird seed and makes a little pile in the corner of the cafeteria, but the bird seems to have disappeared. It doesn’t come to eat the seeds.
Mr. Bullocks is gone. I wonder if he ever thinks about that kiss? If he was glad to escape me before, then he’s even more glad after. It’s a story he can tell to friends, for laughs.
I remember when Millie was alive she used to keep me updated on the soap operas. She tried to get me to watch them on my own because otherwise, she said, I was living vicariously through her as she lived vicariously through them. It was better to only have one layer, she said. But the soaps were on when I was at work.
One day Keith joins me while I’m fishing during lunch. He says he’s thinking about quitting. He wants to do something more meaningful with his life, and not waste it making tofu. I’m not sure what to say, so I just cast again, plunking the sinker a ways out in the pond, and he takes it the wrong way and turns and walks away, and I feel terrible.
So I call back to him and ask him to fish with me for a bit. He stands there, and we watch the line come back, and I let him cast next. There’s no bait on the line because there are no fish anyway. I wish I could think of something to say. He looks worried, and I remember what it was like to be his age and worry that my life wasn’t going anywhere.
All I can think to say is that I have a lump on the side of my throat. He takes a look, and he tells me I should get it checked out. I say I will, and I ask him to come with me for moral support, and he says he will, and he says he feels a lot better already.
Brian McMillan earned his MFA in creative nonfiction from Northern Michigan University. He is the author of a poetry chapbook called Winter Walking Home (2010), and his fiction and poetry have appeared in several literary magazines, including New Orleans Review. He is the editor of two weekly newspapers in Florida, where he lives with his wife and their five children. He was the Local Media Association's national Journalist of the Year in 2012 and has won many awards from the Florida Press Association.