by Lokke Heiss
I hadn't seen Carl Elkin for many years, but there he was, sitting on the hospital bed, staring out into the hallway. He was thinner, with an added gauntness in his face, but otherwise he just looked old, not much different than when I first met him. Carl Elkin had been an old man all his life. . .at least he'd been an old man all of my life. Elkin ran the general store in Chapin, a small town ten mites west of Elm City. I remember buying soda pop from him when I was a kid. He carried Chocolate Soldier, which tasted great if you shook it up before you opened the bottle. Elkin's store was neat and clean; everything was in its place, and in the summer, his white tin ceiling fans made a "swish-swish-swish'' sound as the blades cut through the heat of an Illinois afternoon.
I'd just been about to start my shift, when I walked by his room. The look in his eyes stopped me dead in my tracks. I'd seen a lot of expressions on people's faces while working as an orderly at Elm City Hospital: pain, boredom joy, resignation. . .this was different. His face had a sense of both distress and disbelief, like someone who had almost finished a jigsaw puzzle and had just realized there was a piece missing from it's center.
In the shift-change report, I learned it was my job to give Elkin an enema for a procedure the next day. He'd been hospitalized for anemia and the doctors were trying to find out the cause. A few hours later, I walked into his room holding a Fleet bag. Elkin was on the bed, quietly snoring. I tapped him on the shoulder, and he woke up with a small shudder.
"I need to give you an enema," I said, raising the bag.
Elkin turned his head toward the bag. "A what?" "An enema, It's for your tests tomorrow."
Elkin considered what I was holding. He shrugged, got to his feet, and paced the distance to the bathroom. Counting seven steps, he returned to the bed and sat down. "Where do you want me?" he asked.
"On your left side." I started to close the door to the room.
"Leave the door open,''Elkin said.
"Don't you want some privacy?'' I asked.
"No just leave it open."
"I'll pull the curtain."
"Do what you have to."
I pulled the curtain. He lay on his side as I connected the enema bag to the tubing. His face turned back toward the hallway as if he was studying something only he could see. It didn't matter that the screen was pulled across his view. You're expecting friends?" 00I asked.
"No. No one."
"You keep looking out the door."
His face lost a little of its concentration. "Across the hall. That was Bill's room."
"Here we go." I inserted the enema and held the bag up in the air. Most patients in this position would be silently counting the seconds. Instead, Elkin started to talk. "My other son. . .he was a heller."
"Raised hell from one side of Scott County to the other. . .got into trouble with the law. I think it killed my wife. Put her in an early grave. Then he drank himself to death."
"But what happened to him, well, those things just happen."
"But Bill, he was different. He was a good boy. . .stayed home, helped me with the store. . .helped me for more than forty years. How many boys do you know would do that?"
"Not many.", "But one day Bill started forgetting things. At first they were little things. We laughed about it. Then it got worse." The old man grimaced with an abdominal spasm. He brought his hands up to his stomach and gritted his teeth: "This hurts a little."
"Hold it as long as you can."
Elkin took a deep breath and exhaled. "One day he couldn't find the store. I watched him from my window. He just couldn't do it. . . couldn't find his way back to the store. I said to the doctors, he's too young for that. But they said, no, he's not too young for that. He got worse. That was his room, down the hall. . .that's where he passed."
"What did your son die of?" "Doctors wouldn't say at first. Finally one of them told me it was natural causes."
"So he died of old age." The moment I said it, I regretted it. But for the first time since I'd come into the room, Elkin turned his head and gave me a grim smile.
"That's it," he said. "He died of old age." Elkin closed his eyes and put his head back on the pillow.
"It ain't right . . .it just ain't right. . .my son dying of old age. What am I supposed to The bag was empty, and I pulled out the tube. "You can go now," I said.
"No, I'm all right. Let me know when the time's up."
"Time's up. You can go to the bathroom."
Elkin got up and with careful steps retraced his path to the bathroom. He did his business, flushed, and got back to bed.
"Sounds like he was a really good boy," I said, pulling the sheet over his thin, frail body.
"Okay, son, let me sleep. I just want to get some sleep now."
I turned off the light and left him in the dark.