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Smoke


Leigh Nash

She reads the note in the physician's tray on the door to room 114. The plastic of the tray, thick, scratched, but the note written in black ink so it is legible to everyone: Patient suffers from Alzheimer's and syncope or dizziness. Dark, slanted penmanship. This time it reminds her of writing her own notes. Taping them to the cupboards, the fridge, the toilet. Flush me, she'd write.

Come on, Miss Smith. We need to keep moving.

She waves her hand, impatient with the nurse. Never enough time to look at things. The nurse and her metal clipboard, notes. Yes, that's it. The note on the door. Reminds her of teaching cursive, marking essays. Grade 6. I taught the sixth grade for 30 years. She says this out loud to the young nurse with her mauve pants and top, athletic shoes squeaking on the hospital tiles. The nurse doesn't pick up her feet when she walks, nods over her shoulder, Yes, that's right, Miss Smith. And I hear you were very good at it, too. Squeaks.

Something in the turn of the nurse's mouth she can't quite place.

She pauses to read the note often because it makes her sad. Someone so confused and unaware. What a life that would be. Shivers, hurries down the hall after the nurse. The mauve of the uniform makes her think of flowers, in a garden, somewhere. Where's Reg?

She walks down the hallways twice a day; on weekends it's three times because patients get to go outside for an hour at lunch. If it's sunny. The health centre perched on a lip of the Don Valley, surrounded by green grass and park benches and leafy canopies. People run dogs down the steep hill. If she squints, she can picture children sledding in the winter, hollering the way to the bottom, to the baseball diamonds, the parkway, the brown river.

This wing of the hospital is painted light yellow, hunter-green trim around the doors and windows. Same colours as her kitchen, once. The windows don't have bars but they don't open either. She knows this because once she swore she could smell cigarette smoke coming from the hallway and cigarette smoke makes her ill. Reg only ever smoked in the garage, one cigarette a day before coming in the mudroom door after work. I'm just saying goodnight to the car, he would say. She hated the smell of burning cigarettes, how they dried out the back of her throat, but she loved the stale smoky must that would cling to clothes after the cigarette had been extinguished, stomped out with a boot heel or flicked out a car window. Reg used to collect his cigarette butts in a can, hidden high on a shelf in their garage. So their son Toby wouldn't find them.

Reg is dead. Has been for years. How it bothers her, at moments like this, that the nurses call her Miss Smith just to be cute.

Reg, asks the nurse. Concern rimming her eyes.

No, no, that's not right, I must be thinking of someone else. Her son's name swims before her eyes but she can't quite pin it down, can't make out the right letters. Annoyed because she'd just thought of him, his name, a moment ago. Says instead: I know Reggie's been dead for years.

It's the right answer and the nurse is content to lead her through the yellow hallways. Outside, it smells like August. The nurse helps her to settle on one of the benches, not looking out over the Don Valley, facing the street instead. The breeze is coming this way and it will be nice on your face, the nurse reasons. A red streetcar zips by, then another. Children with shaggy hair hang out the windows, yell downhill. I taught the sixth grade for 30 years, she says under her breath. Repeats: I taught the sixth grade for 30 years.

There is cigarette smoke and she turns, drawn to it. Beside her, the nurse stubbing out a butt with the heel of her white shoe. Grass stains all along the sole.

She pulls at the one curl of hair that always flops into her eyes. Here at the hospital she won't let them cut her hair. This is the way Reg likes it.

Ready to go back in, Miss Smith? It's time for your lunch. They go inside arm in arm, leaving a flattened trail in the grass. Streetcar wheels shrieking and braking for the next stop.

The kids. She panics. They'll all be waiting for her at the school. Who will teach them? She doesn't have time for lunch. Pulls her elbow away from the nurse, in protest, and the corner of her eye catches the sign above the door as they move into the shade of inside. Bridgepoint. Right, she says. Shakes her head hard, wiry grey curls hit her cheeks.

Everything all right, the nurse asks.

They stop in front of room 114. Her room. The nurse, already inside, turns to face her and asks again: Miss Smith, is everything all right?

Oh, she replies. Squints at the slanted writing, so familiar. Where has she seen it before? Reg would know. The nurse's face a heartbeat.

*

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