Jerry had a hard time believing the images still in his mind. The bright morning light chased them away until they were just fragments, routed and running through his brain as he lay under the tightly tucked covers of his nursing home bed. The night. Last night, in the dark. His roommate Will’s wrinkled and droopy cheeks, reflecting the fluorescent light from the open-door, twitching in the darkness. The crumpled white socks on the bed. The needle-nose pliers, digging deep under the white flaky skin, tearing out the big toenail and tugging on the whole leg. The socks pulled back on in a blotting, staining trail of red, pointing to the crime like an arrow.
What kind of outfit was this? The mold in the shower stalls and the microwaved food was bad enough, but psychotic nursing staff was a different level altogether. Propping himself on the steel pole attached to the oxygen stand, Jerry strapped the rubber mask on his face and scuffled his way past the still sleeping Will out into the hall, the squeaky wheels of the stand echoing down the hall with his footsteps. His father never would have put up with this.
“Good morning, Mister Bryson.”
“Oh is it, is it a good morning?” Jerry said, facetiously looking to his sides in surprise as if waiting for an imaginary audience to answer.
The bored eyes of the bubble-gum chewing clerk looked up at him, then down at the bright flashing colors on her phone.
He pulled down the mask for added emphasis, “…because in my world, Casey, in my world ‘good mornings’ don’t involve your friend’s toenails getting ripped out.”
She stopped chewing and picked up the phone, still bored eyes now looking at Jerry’s own. She pressed a single button and began speaking to the voice on the other end in a lilting, disbelieving voice.
Think Jerry, think! Who could have done this? He was just slightly younger than the majority of patients at Swaying Oaks; due almost as much to his poor memory as his frequent, recurring bouts of emphysema. A silhouette lurked in his mind. Insubstantial, puffy, like it was wearing a too big jacket. Maybe a dress. Jerry’s eyes tightened black as he thought harder. The face, could he see the face? No. Maybe. A smile? Yes, a lipstick smile on a white face. White on white and surrounded by black. The face was eyeless and noseless, shaped like an isosceles pointing towards the ceiling. No, no Jerry that’s not right. How can a face be shaped like a triangle?
Two women in business clothes, one the manager of Swaying Oaks and the other the acting supervisor, made their way to Jerry.
“Gerald, what is going on here?” God, how he hated that name. So did his father. His father had always wanted a girl to baby, he had trusted them more.
A curt conversation followed the trio back down the hall amid Jerry’s squeaking and scuffling and the two women’s clacking feet and popping eyes. Will was still knocked out. It turned out that he had been given heavy doses of a sedative. Jerry’s description was unhelpful, but they assured him the culprit would be caught soon. Sure, Jerry thought. These broads had a vested interest in making sure nobody got caught, in making sure no one knew this ever happened. That’s OK. He was up to the challenge of giving them the proof they needed.
The next morning Jerry was startled awake. Sato, the Japanese nurse, had been staring at him in the sunrise. She was unflinching, remote. Suddenly a glued on smile leapt to her face. She tidied up his bedstand and then was on her away. Neither spoke a word. Her lips were red. Things started to click into place. Sato’s hair was black and fell down on her forehead in such a way that it created a triangle. In fact, Jerry thought, the only other nurse with black hair was Guadalupe, and her skin certainly wasn’t white. Even in his panicked state, Jerry thought of how beautiful and long her hair was. How much he wished he’d had hair like that.
He reached over to the freshly organized bedstand, and opened the drawer to pull out his notebook where he kept his ephemeral thoughts. There, on top of the notebook, was a pair of pliers and two big toenails. Small. Almost feminine. But then, Will always did have a woman’s feet. Even the toenails were smooth and translucent. This settled it. Sato staring at him while he slept, the red lipstick and matching hair, her fooling around with the bedstand right before he found the evidence. Was she trying to frame him? Maybe drug him like she did Will? He pocketed the pliers.
Sato was following him, he was sure of it. Earlier in the day she had approached him in the lunchroom, after lurking along the wall. She asked to refill his pills, since his usual nurse was out sick. He told her to go ahead. Lure her into a false sense of security. He wasn’t going to be taking any medication until this thing was resolved anyway. Now, she conveniently was giving one of the patients a walk along the river, just as he himself was going for a walk. How transparent. These Japs could get crazy, Jerry thought; if there was one thing he learned from his pop’s experiences in the Pacific is was that. That’s OK; you’ve got to be crazy right back. He could do crazy. Pops had taught him crazy. With a smirk, he pulled out the pliers and knelt down by a boulder placed there by some landscaper. He started sharpening the needlenose’s dull point, making sure Sato could see. She did.
An hour passed, his sharpening now was done more out of principle than anything, the pliers as sharp as they’d ever get. The inactivity said volumes. Surely, Sato would have reported his behavior to the cinnamon breath of Casey the clerk if she hadn’t planted them herself in his drawer. The sun beat down and he started to close his eyes. Suddenly it was night; there was that eyeless woman again, black hair and red lips and white skin—running, smiling like a lunatic. By the riverside, by the bronze statue of an oak tree, she reached down and dug a hole, placing a steel key into the dirt. Waking up, he made his way frantically towards the statue. The oxygen stand he carted rattled recklessly on the brick path as he hurried along. Dropping to his knees he dug, dug all over until his fingers gripped metal.
Jerry wasn’t sure what it all meant. Why he’d had the vision. He’d never especially believed in a God until that moment. People were living longer only to die slower, and nursing homes like Swaying Oaks were the kind of places people went to do it. Maybe, near the end of his life, he had finally found some sort of salvation. He thought of his father, jumpy and fidgety until his early death. Scars on his legs and scars inside his head from being a POW. He hoped his father had found it, too.
Carrying the tank in his arms to avoid the squeaky cart, never before in his seventy years of life had he felt more like his father. He was sure he knew which room the key opened. The old coal room, locked-off with caution tape. It was the only likely place Sato could hide anything, far away in the closed wing. His hands shook in the dark as he stuck the key in. It turned. He flicked the light on.
There, on top of a large metal cabinet in the cramped room, was a wig. A black wig of shoulder-length hair. Stepping closer, Jerry examined it with big eyes. Was this—was this skin? Human skin? He pulled open the door—it was silent, recently greased. A gust of formaldehyde blew past him like a liberated animal. Inside the cabinet were strings. Strings hanging down from the top of the cabinet, drilled into the top with screws, looking like dozens of sinews and tendons. Jerry paused for a moment; maybe they were sinews and tendons. Attached at the end of each and rattling like bamboo windchimes were pieces, pieces of humans. Toes, fingers, four ears, and a single nose.
On the shelf underneath, there was a face. The face looked familiar. The hair looked familiar. Cathy. Cathy, with black hair. Cathy, who had disappeared and was last seen by the river. Cathy, whose death went down in the newspaper as a suicide, body unfound. Two wrinkled circles—a woman’s breasts—were fashioned to bra straps with clear plastic sewing line. The nipples looked like hunting arrowpoints. Beneath the face and arranged in a perfect line were toenails and fingernails. Forty of them, at least. It wasn’t just Cathy. Translucent, feminine, elegant. On the underside, little pieces of putty were stuck. Red lipstick and a pair of clip-on earrings rested next to them along with a billowy, folded dress. Jerry had seen enough. He unscrewed the lightbulb, pulled out the pliers, took off the oxygen mask; his father never needed one of those. He sat down and waited for Sato to come to the scene of the crime.
Sato clutched a camera in her hand, inching down the hall to the coal room. The door was unlocked. She hit the light. Nothing happened. Tense, she used the back of the camera’s dull electric glow to navigate. She saw a cabinet, and hit the button on the camera. Programmed to shoot 10 photos in quick succession, the room lit up with the flashes. So did Jerry. Completely naked, except for a black wig, flesh mask, and a woman’s breasts strapped across his chest.
“You dirty Jap! Thought I was your bitch!”
Sato ran. He pounded after her.
“You lost the war as soon as you started it!”
Grabbing her shoulder he plunged the pliers into her back—the dead fingernails that had been stuck to his own living ones with putty scattered across the floor.
“Treat me like an animal, treat Jerry Beth Bryson like a dirty bitch dog, HUH?!”
Sato’s screams rang through the halls, eclipsed only by Jerry’s laughs. The earrings kept snagging on the dried, leathery skin on his face. He stabbed again. He grabbed her hair and pulled, smashing her head against the tile. She had such beautiful, feminine hair.
By Mike Joyce