Cheryl picks me up at the corner of Queen and Duke on Saturdays at three. It just makes sense, she said not long after we met. I’m going right by there anyway. It was my bus stop to Freeport, only now I lean out of the Plexiglas shelter and give a little wave, so the bus doesn’t stop. Today he pulls in to drop someone off. My face is red. It’s stupid how ashamed I feel about that dismissive wave.
Cheryl, she’s the brave one. She pulls up to the stop in her orange Corolla like she owns the place. She looks chill, not in a bitchy way some women have, but in that laid-back, it’s-all-good way that regular pot-smokers have. Cheryl and I each grew up around pot. We’re like sisters in that way too.
“What ya got today?” Cheryl asks as I shove the big Walmart bag into the back seat. We never say “hello, how are you?” Real friends, we pick right up and cut to the chase.
“Dad’s toothpaste and beige sweater,” I say. “And a seat cushion off my balcony chair. I just can’t stand sitting in those crappy visitor chairs all afternoon. What are you bringing?”
“Nothing but what the cat dragged in.”
She laughs over Country 105.3 and spins the wheel into traffic. Cheryl’s quoting her dad there – she thinks it’s hilarious to talk like the old man, now that he can’t.
The first time I saw Cheryl she was lounging in a dirty plastic chair outside of Room 2B at Freeport Health Centre. I had stepped out of 2C to take a short break while my step-dad napped. Cheryl looked up like she was expecting me, but also like she was totally fine if I wanted to ignore her. Her chill. There was something about her that seemed familiar. Did we go to the same high school? You never knew who you’d run into at Freeport, it was the only place most families could afford.
“You get kicked out here too.” She laughed. “He hates if I stay and watch when the nurse comes. Hates when they ask him questions he can’t answer. Wiggles those squirrelly brows at me: Get the hell out.”
It’s easy to find common ground in the hall at Freeport. Like how we both made Saturdays our usual day (Cheryl goes up on Wednesdays too, but I can’t stand the thought of two trips a week). And how neither one of us really gave two-shits about the old men in those beds.
By the time the frazzled nurse rushed to the next patient, Cheryl was offering to drive me home and stop for a Timmy’s on the way. So, that’s our Saturday routine – pick up, visit the dads, go for coffee and compare notes, drop off. I have to say that I’m glad. I don’t really like to talk about my personal life at work.
Today was a bigger surprise than discovering our shared plight had been. All the stories Cheryl’s been telling me dropped from my head to my gut. I don’t feel embarrassed about it, I mean I didn’t have a clue until we were sitting in Tim Horton’s.
“How’s your step-dad doing?”
Cheryl always asks me that first, as we slide into the booth furthest from the busy counter.
“Same old, same old. How about Eddie?”
“Well, I don’t think I’ll be coming next Saturday,” she said gravely. “I might not even have to come on Wednesday.”
My face felt frozen. Should I have known?
“Oh, sorry, I mean if you need a ride I can bring you anyway….but I figured you’d go back to taking the bus?”
“Yeah, course, I don’t care about that. What’s up with Ed?”
We know a few days can make a huge difference at Freeport. And with Ed more than my dad, since he’s had two strokes already.
“Nothing I can really put my finger on. He just seems, I don’t know, weaker. I couldn’t even make out what he was trying to say. I think he’s giving up…about time I’d say.”
Yeah, Cheryl can sound harsh sometimes when she talks about Ed. It’s shocking when you first hear it, but anyone listening who’s been chained to a patient, especially an ass like Ed, ignores the tone. Respects it, even.
Cheryl wasn’t just a talker. She was a good listener too. The second time we went to Tim’s I got up the nerve to ask why she called her dad Ed. I know it’s cool now for kids to be like friends with their parents, but no one I grew up with did. I’d have got smacked if I’d tried.
“Well that’s his name, and that’s all he’s getting from me. Drank like a fish, worked mom into her grave. Never beat the shit out of us but took a few swipes. Dumbass was too drunk to be really dangerous. I wouldn’t come at all, but I wanna make sure what he’s got is coming to me…” She’d rolled up the rim on her cup as she spilled.
“Heh, look, a free donut! Don’t let me throw this out.”
She took a sip right on top of the mushed lip. “He hates when I call him Ed. Can’t say a damn thing about it though.”
The cheating heart thing came up a few weeks ago. We’d taken to picking up magazines on our way through the gift shop. I’d get People and she’d get Us, and then we’d switch in the hall during our break. Both covers were splashed full of a famous actor who’d been caught red-handed with a butt-ugly prostitute.
“See? His wife’s a freaking supermodel! It doesn’t matter how beautiful or successful you are. You’re still going to get cheated on.” That was Cheryl’s take.
“Did Ed cheat?”
“Oh, yeah. He’d be trying to fuck the nurses here if he could move his ass. Heh , maybe that’s what he’s moaning about! How about you, your step-dad ever do anything like that?”
I hesitated. “Depends how you look at it. Him and my mom worked together. Then Dad got offered a transfer to Calgary, and Mom said we weren’t going. So sis and me stayed with her. Couple years later, he’s our new dad.”
“But he was okay, right? Or why’d you be here every week.”
“Adequate. Paid for my college. Didn’t bother with us kids…or not much. I think he liked Connie more than me. When Mom died she asked us to look out for him.”
“Hey, where’s your sister? She come on Sundays? Love to meet her.”
“Cons doesn’t come. She hates him. Hated that dad left us. Typical step-kid stuff.”
“Well if I had a sister, I’d be telling her to get her ass down here and do her duty.”
Cheryl picked at a cold sore at the edge of her mouth. “You’re a trooper.”
I’m pretty sure that’s an Eddie expression, though I can’t tell you how he’d sound saying it. He wasn’t talking the only time I saw him, just drooling phlegm from the side of his limp mouth. Cheryl invited me in after I’d introduced her to my step-dad. Ed’s bulbous nose and heavy jowls made me think of W.C. Fields. Funny, but he hated kids too.
So now here we are, Ed on his last legs and Cheryl letting me know we won’t be sharing coffee at Tim’s anymore. I don’t know what to say. We’ve never talked outside of Saturdays. I don’t think I know her last name.
“You’ll have a funeral, right?” Even I can hear Ed saying you’re grasping at straws.
“Nope, I’m not throwing good money after bad. The city will take care of that. Once he’s gone, I’m outta here.”
I nodded. Who could blame her? I didn’t buy for a minute that he’d only swiped at her. Nobody hated somebody that much without good reason.
Wednesday passed, and before Saturday came I got a call from Freeport. Some listeria virus was on the move, and no visitors were allowed. I’d go see Connie then. Take a Greyhound to Orangeville and spend the night with her and Rick.
Rick’s pickup was at the station. I didn’t expect Cons to come out. She’s had that fibromyalgia thing for years. Puts her in constant pain, makes it hard to climb into the truck. I smelled the skunky-weed smell coming up from the basement as soon as I walked in.
“Self-medicating,” she grinned with a hug.
“Yeah, sure, since you were fifteen!”
We caught up at the kitchen table while Rick fixed us Hamburger Helper sloppy joes. He added chopped onions like Mom used to and it made me salivate. They take good care of me, these two.
“Aren’t you going to ask about him?”
“Okay, but only because of you. Just tell me about how stressed the nurses are and whether the food is getting any better.”
“I met a woman whose dad is in the next room. It’s great to have someone to chat with. She’s got a sad story though – her dad was abusive to her mom and her.”
Connie shrugs. She’s fiddling with a pencil – up to her mouth, down again to tap the table. Poor Cons. I know she’s wanting another joint and is waiting till I go to the bathroom, so she can sneak downstairs.
“Living with him was no picnic either.”
“Yah, but come on…”
I stop when Rick turns from the stove to look at us. Connie rolls the pencil on the table.
“You don’t have to go. Rick and I don’t care if you stop.”
“We promised Mom, Cons. You and me. She said to us, take care of him, girls. You nodded too…”
“Well sure, but that was then. What did she know?”
I grab her hand and get my foot out of my mouth.
“I’m not saying I think you should travel down to Kitchener. I know how much it hurts in the truck.”
Rick has stopped stirring. Connie looks up at him. She’s chewing on the eraser. He shakes his head no.
“Anyways,” she says, “Mom’s in heaven now. And when you get to heaven you know everything, see everything that ever happened. She’d say you don’t have to go see him anymore.”
I don’t know what to say. I think of the pain Connie is in. I think how much she missed our dad when he left us. We both miss our mom, but I’m not all seized up about it.
“Thanks, Cons. But I’ll keep going for now. Make sure what he’s got is coming to us, eh?”
By the following Saturday, the outbreak is over, and I catch the bus up to Freeport. I almost wave the bus away, hoping Cheryl’s Corolla’s going to pull up.
No country music on the bus. She’d said we were like sisters from another mister, both of us products of a cheating heart. I thought I heard owners of a lonely heart and the echo of that ‘80s song attached itself to Cheryl forever in my mind. Either one is accurate.
When I get to 2C my cushion has a note taped on it.
“I hope you don’t mind I used this. Take care of your dad. C.”
I wander into the hall, expecting to see her there. A janitor is sweeping out of room 2B. I peer past his shoulder and see a woman curled up like a featherless bird in a nest. She sees me and opens her mouth wordlessly.
When the nurse comes in at four with Dad’s pills, I ask what happened to the guy next door.
“Just stopped breathing – last Wednesday I think it was. Lucky his daughter was here to sign him out and take his stuff. There’s a long waiting list. Bed didn’t even get cold.”
I miss Cheryl’s matter-of-factness.
Dad’s asleep, it’s getting dark and I’m thinking about Connie. And the coffee I’m not going to have on the way home. Have to make instant, I guess. It’s when I grab my coat off the back of the chair that I see the white stain on my cushion. Smack dab in the middle. Must’ve been under the note. I use my fingernail to pick at it, and a small piece flakes off. Looks like dried salt. Weird.
I re-tape Cheryl’s note over it, tuck it under my arm. I’ll take it home and throw in the wash. Then I can think about if I need it in this room.