Behind the fist, which slowly retracted now back to the ready stance, hung his ruddy and ugly grimace. His mouth tightened and the other fist began its slow trajectory toward me. This time I just put my palm over his knuckles and pushed. I knew I couldn't budge his tree stump body, but I had figured on pushing his arm one way or the other. But I couldn't; not one bit. No matter; I could still strip off my white smock and dress him in it before he could finish burping. "Wow, first a jab, and now an uppercut, eh?" I taunted. He just grunted. My plan was not to actually hit him; that could get me fired. I just had to tire him out.
I figured him for trouble the first time I saw him. He was walking up the hall, pushing his overloaded personal stuff cart, next to the spider-bodied RN who only worked weekends. She told me I was getting him. I got all the men. Lucky for me, most men didn't live too long.
This guy managed to survive, though. I don't know how he did it, considering how wide he was. He wasn't fat or misshapen, just big. Big and thick, with a face that was still tight with muscle, like the rest of his body. Old men were usually as skinny as dead worms, flesh hanging on their bones like cobwebs on tree branches. I was half a head taller than he was, but his upper arms were bigger than my thighs. If skinny was the key to getting old, I was going to live forever. Not that I wanted to. What, live eighty or ninety years? Your entire life still fits onto a gimpy personal stuff cart no bigger than a gravestone.
His feet and body moved toward mine like a dance instructor, perfectly efficient and elegant movements executed in slow motion. I baited him. "Hey! I can do that dance, man!" and I shuffled my feet in some bastardized version of a 1920's dance. "What's a matta? You don't recognize the jitterbug?" He almost smiled and swung at me again, only a bit faster this time. He was loosening up.
He practically cracked my finger bones after I stuck out my hand to shake his the first time we met. "Whoo wheee! How'd you get so strong? Man oh man, you could choke a horse with that grip, brother."
"I used to box," he said in a voice that was hard and cracked, like an old concrete sidewalk.
"Really? A boxer? I didn't think those guys were real. Like it was a made up for TV or something." He just grunted. No matter what people said they used to be, I always said I thought it was made up. It put them in their place right away.
He wouldn't let go of my hand; it felt as if a car was parked on it. I never gave him the satisfaction of knowing he was hurting me. I just clenched my teeth and tried to keep my eyes from watering until he let go.
You might think this is where I started to hate him, the grunting bully, but you'd be wrong. I hated him before I ever saw him. I hated him as soon as I heard his name. I hated everyone right away. It saved time.
As he advanced toward me, arms and fists in a statuesque curl, head bobbing like a homemade video, I huffed on my nails and polished them on my chest, and then dodged out of the way as soon as he got close. I leaned in close to his deaf ear. "You pussy!" He turned toward me and swung, landing a glancing blow on my shoulder. "Damn!" slipped out of my mouth.
"The most important thing to me is to give personal care to all my guests," I said after he dropped my hand and pushed his cart into the room. "I think of everyone under my care as a member of my family." I stuffed his elastic underwear and v-neck t-shirts in the top drawer and hung his pants on the hangers in the closet.
"Don't do it that way," he growled. "Put my underwear on the top shelf in the closet and fold my pants, inseams together, and put them in the second drawer." He folded his hands in prayer and looked at me over the tops of the fingers to show how inseams came together.
I gently lifted the neat pile of underwear with both hands and took it to the closet. As soon as the stack was out of his sight, I let it fall behind the door, like it was crap dropping into the toilet. Nobody tells me how to put away clothes.
His feet moved easily over the floor, leading foot always in front, stalking me, moving quite a bit faster now, faster than I had ever imagined he could move. Those fists began popping in front of me. Maybe this wasn't such a good strategy. Nah, he's gotta get tired pretty soon. Hell, at one quarter his age, I was getting tired. I was glad I only had to last fifteen minutes until I saw by the clock just three had passed.
There were framed photographs in a cardboard box on the second shelf of his personal stuff cart. I lifted one out and held it up against the wall over his bed.
"Not there. Over there." He didn't point, but only shifted his head so slightly I couldn't tell where he wanted the stupid pictures, so I just emptied the contents of the box onto the top of his dresser. Pretending I was interested, I passed my eyes over the pictures, all of which were of him wearing nothing except old time boxing shorts. Some pics were posed, some candid, but he always looked as thick and Neanderthal as he did today. I pointed to his bare chest in one of the pictures and said, "You couldn't afford shirts in them days, eh? Yeah, my grandma, too, was so poor during the Depression they all walked around naked, their boobs hanging out like it was picture day for National Geographic."
He just grunted.
There was one photo of a boxing ring in the middle of a frenzied crowd. Inside the ring, you could see one boxer crumpled on the mat, while another danced over him. His mouth was wide open and his arms were tossed in the air like a gorilla's. In the left lower corner of the picture, written over some of the heads in the crowd, was the phrase "1937 WWC. Don't ever let them get up!"
"So! That's you laying on the canvas there?"
"No. That's me, standing. Against Tony Mac. Welterweight championship."
"Oh yeah?" I picked up the photo and pretended to study it. "Hey, that is you! Wow, that's great." I smiled and I saw he couldn't decide if I was stupid or rude. I hung the pictures low, at his eye level, where he wanted them, and every day for a half-hour he leaned against the wall and stared into them. His expression never changed, so I don't know if he was sad or mad about the pictures. One day I caught him mumbling, "I could still take ya." I thought at first he was talking to me, but he was staring into one of the pictures, and had his fists up as if he was shadow boxing.
He was really loosening up now and almost keeping up with me as I danced around him. I couldn't get behind him anymore, which might have been because he was moving faster, but more likely was because I was moving slower. Doughnuts and beer isn't the breakfast of champions. When I slipped my hand in to tickle under his chin, a jab glanced off my ribs. I was really breathing hard. Nine minutes to go.
Over the next few months, I kept sticking it to him as much as I could, and he began to stick it to me.
He always started out with, "What are ya, some sorta fag?"
"No, not at all." I was glad that I saved time by hating him right away.
"You get excited when you wash my balls?"
"No. Do you?"
"You ever gonna do anything with your life?"
"I do plenty. I work here."
"In them white panties and shirt? This is women's work. When are you going to do some man's work?"
"Ah, I get it, you want one of the girl aides to wash your balls and wipe your ass, huh? The missus ain't doing it for ya, huh?"
"At twenty-three, I was welterweight champion."
"Listen, nobody gives a fish's fart about what happened sixty freaking years ago, all right?"
"At your age, I was already a contender."
"Yeah, you were. But you still ended up here, didn't ya?"
One thing that I was really glad for was his bad memory, because that meant we could have this conversation every day. After a few weeks, I could see that I hadn't started hating him soon enough or hard enough. Truth was, I was closer to dying here than he was. Being a nursing home aide was the most disgusting job I'd ever had, literally. We were constantly wiping and cleaning and reaching into every type of goo and mucus produced by the human body. Once a female patient sneezed a pile of snot the size and consistency of a cantaloupe seed mass on to the back of my hand, and that was the nicest thing that ever happened to me here. I always told myself I was just working here temporarily while going to school. Classes started in September and all I had to do was register. But it was already November. Of the next year.
I didn't mind knowing all this about myself, not too much, but I didn't like that he knew it too. Somebody had to do this job. If not me, who? All grunting senile seniors judging my life with their pre-Industrial Revolution values need to shut up.
But he wouldn't. And I took his crap for the next month. I laughed at him behind his back, the arthritic old shit trying to act like he was twenty-three again; trying to dress himself, feed himself, shave himself. The only things he did without my help were: Piss the bed. Shadow box into his pictures. And call me a fag. He wasn't so well off, for all of his man's work.
Finally, today, I'd had it. When he was in the bathroom, trying to steady his hands enough to shave, I stepped in behind him, grabbed the razor, and squeezed it against his throat. I whispered thickly into his good ear. "You call me a fag again, and I will kick the shit outta you, Gramps." This reasoned and diplomatic approach worked with old lady Scheutte. I dropped the razor and it clattered into the sink.
His eyes caught mine, in the mirror. "You skinny little fag. I can pound your ass into oatmeal," he said.
"Let's go, old man, you just say the freaking word. Fifteen rounds, fifteen minutes. You either kick my ass or you shut the hell up."
I walked out of the bathroom, shaking. I turned back toward him and said, "Dining room, now." He was still in his open back gown, but I didn't care. Breakfast was served in the rooms, so we could be alone in the dining room.
I walked down there easily and laughed at him shuffling in behind me. This was going to be so easy. I pushed the table against the wall and put my fists up.
Five minutes to go and I was breathing like a sputtering pressure cooker. He closed in on me when I stopped to rest on one of the chairs, and he grabbed my hair with one hand and swung his other fist forward. Desperately, I thought about sliding off the front of the chair down between his legs, but his fist was coming too fast. I twisted my head wildly to free it from his grip and felt a tuft of hair pop as he plucked it out of my head. I stood up and tried to catch my breath and face him square at the same time. I never hated anyone as much as I hated him right at that moment.
His fists again came toward my face. Before I knew what was happening, my own clenched hands bounced off his granite body and statue face. I knew I was hurting myself more than I was hurting him, but that was nothing new. I couldn't stop.
Then one of his blows landed, square on my chin. I bit my tongue and felt the pain all the way down my throat and I saw the floor rushing up toward my face and then him standing over me, like in the photograph. My fingers hurt and my arms ached and I couldn't breathe. But I couldn't just lie there.
So I reached up and yanked hard on the shriveled cock and balls between his legs, under his gown. It was the only thing I had. When he howled like a cow, I pulled myself up on his thigh and got to my feet. I didn't worry about the pain in his eyes when I reared back and sent a fist flying right into his ugly mug. The punch staggered him and nearly broke my hand. When his eyes opened after the blow, I pointed at the clock. Fifteen minutes.
He looked at me, not with hate, not with anger, not with fear, but with serenity, contentment, almost joy. I grinned, though it hurt my chin. And he grinned back.
I turned toward the door, and walked out of the dining room and out of the building. I know I won't be back.
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