Of the eight people waiting in line, Don Fidencio was the one person sitting in a regular chair and dressed in clothes decent enough to be worn out in public: black orthopedic shoes, blue jeans, checkered flannel shirt, red suspenders, red-and-black Astros cap. The One With The Hole In His Back wore his usual maroon pajamas and tan moccasin slippers, but now with his beige cowboy hat that normally hung off the headboard.
He motioned for his roommate to come closer.
“WHAT DAY IS IT TODAY?”
Don Fidencio pulled away when he remembered the volume of his roommate’s voice. “Tuesday.”
“Tuesday. Today is Tuesday,” he said a little louder.
“Yes,” he answered and nodded at the same time. “Today is Tuesday.”
“ARE YOU SURE TODAY IS TUESDAY?”
Don Fidencio stared at his watch, focusing on the enlarged numbers and the date. “Yes,” he said, more confidently. “Tuesday, the third of February.”
“THEY BROUGHT ME IN ON A TUESDAY.”
“Pues, that must have been another Tuesday.”
The One With The Hole In His Back raised his cowboy hat and scratched his head, pushing the wisps of white hair to one side.
“LAST TIME I ASKED THE NURSE WHAT DAY IT WAS SHE SAID TUESDAY. EVERY TIME I ASK THEY TELL ME THE SAME THING, ‘TUESDAY, TODAY IS TUESDAY.’ YOU TELL ME, HOW MANY TUESDAYS CAN THERE BE? ARE THERE NO MORE DAYS OF THE WEEK? DID THEY CHANGE THE CALENDAR SINCE THEY PUT ME IN HERE? HOW CAN IT ALWAYS BE THE SAME? TUESDAY, TUESDAY, ‘TODAY IS TUESDAY.’ THAT’S ALL THEY EVER TELL ME.”
Don Fidencio looked blankly at him.
“Ask tomorrow and I bet you get a different answer.”
The One With The Hole In His Back shook his head and turned away.
Don Fidencio grabbed hold of the walker. If he was going to waste his morning sitting around, he preferred to do it in his own room. He had already taken his first step when The Filipina Who Looks Like A Boy came up to him and stood a couple inches from his face.
“And good morning to you, Mr. Rosales. How are you feeling today, sir?”
“Good morning,” he said as he strained to read the name stitched onto her baggy scrubs. He had never met a person named Mandy, but he guessed it must be a woman’s name. She was small, like a woman or a frail boy. The scrubs were too big on her, and he couldn’t tell if she had a pair of chiches in there somewhere.
The Filipina Who Looks Like A Boy helped him sit back down, then gave him a long rubber cord with handles on both ends. He held one of the handles in his right hand as she hooked the other handle around his right shoe.
“You remember how we do these, Mr. Rosales? These are the ones for your arms.” She demonstrated by standing in front of him and curling her skinny little arm toward her chest. “It’s easy, right? Can you do ten like that for me, sir?”
He nodded, not really sure what the girl had just asked him, but he agreed so she would stop with all her questions.
“One . . . two . . . three . . . very good, Mr. Rosales, very good . . . four . . .
He continued on when she turned to help one of the other therapists with a resident. He wasn’t quite sure how pulling a rubber cord up and down was going to help one bit; the problem was with the strength in his legs, not his arms. But this was about the only thing there was to do at this hour, unless he wanted to go back to the recreational room to watch the talk shows with their guests that didn’t interest him or take part in some silly group activity like playing volleyball with a balloon or singing and clapping with The Jesus Christ Loves Everybody Women who came around every morning, tempting people with their free doughnuts. At least here he thought he could show the therapists how much he had improved and then, God willing, they might tell the other ones to give him back his canes. And if he got his canes back, he was that much closer to leaving this place.
“So good, Mr. Rosales. Very strong,” The Filipina Who Looks Like A Boy said, leaning in close to his face. “Can you do ten more for me now, the same way?”
If she wanted him to do twenty, he didn’t know why she didn’t say this from the beginning. She needed to make up her mind, instead of expecting him to follow her commands like a trained animal.
“Eight, nine, and . . . ten! Very good, sir!”
Next she wanted him to keep his arm curled and extend his leg, stretching the rubber cord in the other direction. This didn’t feel any more strenuous than the first exercise.
“. . . three . . . four . . . way to go, Mr. Rosales . . . five . . . six . . .” She patted him on the arm. “You’re doing very good, sir.”
After a while he lost himself in the singsong way she counted off the repetitions and then counted them off again when he did the extra 10 she asked for. He could have been up to 15 repetitions or he could have been up to 78, he only knew to stop because she told him to and took away the cord and replaced it with something else, like the big yellow ball that he was supposed to hold between his legs and squeeze, over and over, as if he were a chicken laying an enormous yellow egg. None of it made any sense to him, the squeezing, the curling, the extending. All he knew was there was a time when his arms and legs were so strong that he could walk the whole day, sunup to sundown, even if he had to deliver the mail while carrying this skinny Filipina on his back. And now here he was doing these exercises so he could hold on to what little of him was left and maybe someday take this with him when he left.
“Last exercise, Mr. Rosales,” she said suddenly. “Over here, sir, on the table.”
Her voice had startled him. He looked up when she took away the big yellow ball and gently grabbed ahold of his hands to help him stand.
“Don’t forget your walker, Mr. Rosales. Remember, no walking without the walker.”
He shuffled across the room, toward the matted table. He parked the walker to one side and sat on the edge of the table, waiting for the girl to help him lift his feet so he could lie flat.
“I’m going to take your baseball cap and put it right over here, so you don’t forget it, Mr. Rosales.”
He lay still as she hung the cap on one of the handles of the walker. The mat felt just as firm as his mattress back in the room.
“Almost done, sir,” she said a little louder. “Don’t fall asleep on me, okay?”
She lifted his left leg off the mat, then gently bent the leg in the direction of his chest, stopping when he moaned, then extended it a ways and lifted it up a few inches.
“Can you move your leg down, sir? Pushing against my hand?”
He tried to nod but found it difficult with his head on the mat. After struggling for a moment he managed to push his leg down an inch or two. He could feel the tendons stretching and coming to life with every little bit that she moved his leg back up.
With all the bending and extending, his jeans had risen and The Filipina Who Looks Like A Boy was now touching his bare skin. Her little hands felt soft from the lotion she must have rubbed on them that morning. He tried to remember the last time a woman had touched him. The showers and sponge baths he didn’t count as touching since the aides were wearing gloves and working so routinely that at times it felt as though he were going through a car wash with half a dozen other old men waiting in their wheelchairs behind him.
“Very good, Mr. Rosales. Getting stronger every day.”
The Filipina Who Looks Like A Boy moved his bent leg slowly forward, stopping when she saw him straining, then extended it a ways and bent it back only slightly. He liked the way she smelled, the scent of her hair, even if it was cut so short, like a boy. After a while he relaxed a little more and allowed her to move his body through the exercises.
It wasn’t Petra who had touched him last, that he knew. She barely got next to him and didn’t so much as sleep in the same bed those last few years she was in the house. He couldn’t say exactly when this had started, though he had an idea it had something to do with one woman or other he’d been seeing so long ago that it shouldn’t have mattered anymore. She never actually caught him, only suspected or heard talk of him here or there. He wanted to remember being with a woman who lived near the highway, on the 78520 side. Earlier he’d had her up on the kitchen counter, until this wasn’t working for him and he had carried her that way, his work pants still caught down by his ankles, until they reached the carpet on the living room floor where after a few minutes he finished with a furious thrust that made her scream out and then laugh loud enough to be heard in the next trailer.
“And that?” Petra asked later that night.
“I fell walking up some steps.” He had just taken off his pants and tossed them on the chair.
“Did you get hurt?” She came to take a closer look, but he turned as if he needed some privacy to pull up his pajamas. Even after washing himself off again in the restroom at the post office, he knew he couldn’t be too careful around her.
“It was nothing, just a little scrape.” He yanked back the covers and climbed into bed.
“To both knees, and it was nothing?”
“Leave it already.”
“Why won’t you show me?”
“I need to go to sleep.”
“You’re acting like you do when you want to hide something.” She was still standing at the foot of the bed.
“Yes, Petra, I am always hiding something from you. That’s why I get up at six o’clock every morning, to hide things from you.”
“Then tell me how you could fall and not get hurt.”
“Turn the light off and come on to bed.”
“And not just one knee.”
“You try walking around all day carrying the bag, see if you don’t fall down sometimes. I wish you could, just so you would know. Maybe one of these days I’ll pull you away from the sofa so you can come see what I do all day, what I like to hide from you.”
“You never fell before.”
“And how do you know?”
“You never said anything.”
“Y qué, I have to report this to you? ‘Petra, today I fell because a big dog was chasing me and I couldn’t run with the bag.’ ‘Petra, today I fell because they sent out the Sears catalogs.’ Like that, is that what you want?” He shook his head at her ideas.
She turned off the light and climbed into bed on her side. He rolled onto his side, away from where she was fluffing up her pillow. Finally some peace, he thought. He reached down under the covers and felt where he had scraped the skin off his knees. Tomorrow morning, while she was still asleep, he would rub some ointment on the burns and in a few days they would heal up like new. By then she would let it go. He rolled back over, squinting, when the light came on again. Petra was standing next to the chair holding up his uniform, as if presenting a piece of evidence to the jury.
“He falls, scrapes both knees, but somehow he doesn’t tear his pants,” she said and turned off the light.
Never mind that he had walked mile after mile, year after year, and always come home with his paycheck, for her, nobody else. And after paying the bills to spend however she wanted. With nobody looking over her shoulder, asking so many questions as she did to him. She chose to forget that part when she finally went to live with their daughter. Afterward he wondered if she had ever been happy, maybe at least for the first few years. He would have asked her, but he was afraid of what she might say, and then the next time he saw her was years later at her funeral.
“I said, ‘This far is very good for a man your age, Mr. Rosales.’ ” The girl was moving his leg up and down, up and down, like she was changing a flat with a tire jack. “These exercises are going to help your flexibility.”
Maybe it was one of the young waitresses at the cafes he used to go to after he retired. They were tricky, that he remembered. It wasn’t so easy knowing which of them might be interested and which ones were only talking to him, patting him on the shoulder, letting her hand linger a bit, as a way of getting a more generous tip. He wanted to recall being parked to one side of a cafe, around from the grease disposal, and she still being in her uniform and scooting over next to him. He’d gone to the flea market to buy a gold-plated bracelet and have her name engraved on it, as a way of getting her to come outside during her break. What her name was, what she looked like, what she smelled like, what her mouth tasted like, how she kissed him or undid his pants or what might have happened after that, or if anything did, was lost to him now. He must have still been in his sixties, before women started treating him as if he were a harmless old creature and what he had once carried between his legs had now shriveled up and fallen off, which was only slightly better than those who avoided him altogether, as if his advanced age were contagious.
Don Fidencio closed his eyes and tried to think of what he could do to fill the rest of the day. It was still another two hours until lunch, which was long enough that he could easily fall asleep for a nap. He didn’t like wasting his day in bed, though. Maybe he could go sit on one of the sofas near the nurses’ station. If he dozed off there at least he wasn’t in bed. There were some days that the mail came in before ten-thirty, the time when everyone started moving toward the mess hall for lunch. He was waiting for the day they would switch mail carriers and get one with a more pleasant nature who wasn’t always rushing off and didn’t mind sitting for a while to talk.
“How does that feel, Mr. Rosales?”
He opened his eyes and the girl was gently lowering his leg, cradling his calf in her little hand.
“Good, it feels good,” the old man said, straining to make out the tag on her scrubs.