By Joanne Merriam
22 February 2010
"It's time for the bloodletting," I told him. I had the needle ready in my hand.
Papa sank back in his chair. His cheeks swept away from his mouth in flabby wings, and his forehead was dotted with mushroomy liver spots, but his eyes were as wide and blank as a baby's. "You'll infect me."
He always said that. It was part of his dementia. I sighed. "Nobody is going to infect you," I said. "Hold still."
I put the needle on his arm and activated it in one continuous movement. He screamed and flailed at it, like he always did. I held him down as it sucked out a pint of his blood and sealed it off. I waited, murmuring in a low voice about how it was over now and he wouldn't have to do it for another week, and finally he calmed down enough that I could take my hands off his wrists and retrieve the needle. I opened my eyes wide and looked at the ceiling so I wouldn't cry. It upset him even more when I cried.
I went to the other room, his bedroom, around to Mama's side of the bed, and put on a new sterile tip and took my own blood without any fuss, and laid the bladders to one side to deliver later. I could hear Papa struggling to get out of his recliner, a throat-clearing and gasping sort of noise coming from both his mouth and the chair. Funny how sounds can reproach you.
"He needs a dispensation," I told the doctor when she answered my call. "Bloodletting is too upsetting for him."
She smiled at me over the phone, a professional smile that didn't reach her eyes, and said, "He's no good to the blessed ones if he's not making blood. We'd have to euthanize him, or if he was found worthy, they might take him, but either way, you'd never see him again." Her smile slipped away. "Best not to rock the boat."
"Could we at least stretch it out to every two weeks?" I asked. "He could use the extra time to recover his blood supply, at least. This is killing him."
"I'll look into it," she promised.
I stared up at the ceiling while Papa moved around in the next room. The ceiling was the exact color of dryer lint in the dark, and the bulbous peaks and valleys of its stucco mapped a landscape of such bland ugliness I could scream. In the corner, a mildew stain formed a darker structure.
I closed my eyes. It was 2 a.m. He had wakened me by knocking something over, but I wasn't going to get out of bed. I wasn't. A line of music from a popular song moved through my head, relentlessly, reminding me about how great love was. Finally the faint line of light coming from under his door was extinguished, but he was still moving around, bumping into his old belongings in the dark.
Papa was left alone all day. Before the war, he would have had a nurse or been put in a home or hospital. I was supposed to be thankful that they even let him live. I wondered if Carlina had anything to do with that; she would remember him as strong and tall and broad-shouldered. He'd used to crawl around on all fours pretending to be a horse while she sat on his back and shrieked with laughter. I didn't know if they felt any nostalgia for their old lives.
Sometimes I came home to find shit on the walls in the bathroom. Sometimes he was asleep and I thought he might be dead and didn't know what to hope for. Sometimes the kitchen was spotless and I had to check if he'd put the dishes away dirty. I brought home leftovers from the diner, and I pulled up his old photos on the computer, because that always calmed him down, and he told me stories about his youth: the time he nearly cut his foot off with a chainsaw that fell to the ground still running; the time he took Mama to Tuscany and they saw real flamingos; the time his buddy Carl filled his car with shaving cream and he got fired for being late to work. The good old days. Sometimes he mixed the stories up, but I never corrected him.
In my favorite picture, he's squinting into the sun from his perch on a canoe. His hair is sticking straight up in what he says used to be called a mohawk, and his head is tipped forward a little, making him look sly. In every picture ever taken of him, he dipped his head forward a little, because he thought his chin stuck out too much. In another, he's grimacing and clutching an oar like he's about to brain the photographer with it. He looks fierce and angry but I imagine him just afterwards, laughing and saying he was only kidding. He always says the same thing about that picture: "Damn fool. I didn't know how good I had it."
I took the bladders of blood to the blood bank. The teller was a young woman in a smart black suit with big lapels that looked like they had coathanger wire inside them to keep the points pointy. Her face was as blank and innocent as a head of lettuce, like all the rest of them. She handed me a receipt to show that Papa and I had done our civic duty. "Thank you, Rita A Positive," she said to me, and then she turned to her co-worker. "It's time for my lunch break," she said, and then she drained one of the bladders, right there in front of me. Talk about rude. Her co-worker giggled. They all giggle the same way: high-pitched, hysterical, somehow metallic, and loud enough to be inside your head. I remember when hearing that sound meant you were already dead. Now it's just irritating.
I could have pieced together a narrative of some sort from the wreckage of the kitchen. Water puddled the floor. One counter featured the forgotten, bitten half of a ham sandwich. The sink was frosted with the harmless pellets left when the new glassware shatters. On the table were scattered the remains of a torn magazine. The glossy cover's tatters recommended ten ways to please your man, how to wear animal prints, and twenty-five diet tips for thicker blood.
"Eh," Papa said when he saw me. "Where's Kate?"
I didn't say, "She's dead, Papa." I said, "What happened to the kitchen?"
He licked his finger and rubbed it on the glass of the window overlooking the garden. He stood up and then he sat down. He rubbed the window again. "Kate would know what to do," he said. He stood up again.
Mama was a real believer. "God made them for a reason," she said. It always made me mad. Papa too. I'd say, "God didn't make them, we did, in a lab somewhere, by accident," although that had never been proven, and he'd say, "God made earthquakes and tornadoes and all the deadly diseases, too" (although, come to think of it, that had never been proven either), and she'd sniff and repeat some choice piece of church propaganda back to us: "drinking blood is sacred" or "they live on the pure essence of life, not food out of the dirty ground like we have to" or "God moves in mysterious ways." I suppose it helped her to think there was some kind of reason for all this. I suppose it helped us to think there wasn't.
Life is wonderful though, isn't it? It's not the wonderful I remember being promised as a child, before the infection, before the war, before the New Deal, when everybody was supposed to grow up to become President or a pop star, but it's wonderful, in a subtle way, just to be alive. I woke up and gave my father a bath, and he smiled at me over breakfast, and then I went to work, and I cooked a lot of hot, greasy food for people who enjoyed slowly killing themselves with fat and sugar because it was such a delicious contrast to being instantly killed by somebody else's need for blood.
The restaurant's kitchen gleamed with clean metal. My nose was burnished by the scent of frying onion. I didn't have to worry about defending myself. The way the patrons applauded when Darren accidentally shattered a glass against the Mexican ceramic tiles was wonderful. The sky was free of clouds. The scent of burning oil boiled off the grill in waves. My shoulders and stomach didn't ache from tension. As I flipped burgers, the strength and agility of my wrists was wonderful. The way I found myself humming along to something on the radio, and the way Steve teased me about being out of tune, were wonderful. The sun shining through our dusty windows was wonderful.
"They'll grant the dispensation if somebody else will make up the blood loss," the doctor told me. "An extra pint every second week."
"Does it have to be the same blood type?"
"I'll do it."
She gave me some vitamins and iron supplements that she'd brought in anticipation of that answer. "Drink lots of liquids," she said. "No alcohol. And no regen. That stuff's poison."
"I thought you were supposed to give a prescription to anybody who needs it."
"I am." Her mouth tightened. "They'll take my license if you ask and I refuse. So I'm asking you not to ask, Rita. It's poison."
Papa got up in the middle of the night, like he did every night. Sundowning is pretty common amongst the elderly, and Papa had it with a vengeance. He was more confused and anxious after dusk, and he only slept for a few hours at a time. He moved around in his room, but I was half-asleep and didn't get up to see what he was doing. If I got up every time he did, I'd never sleep. After a few minutes of vague shuffling noises, he opened his door and saw me lying on the couch.
"Oh!" he said. "There's somebody here!"
Life is a constant surprise when you have Alzheimer's.
I said, "It's Rita, Papa."
He looked at me suspiciously, the darkness of the room making the lines in his face deep crevasses. "Rita is blonde," he said. I haven't been blonde since my mid-teens. He looked at me awhile longer. "If you're infected," he blurted, "I'll kill you. I'm not afraid."
Neither am I; I got rid of the gun ages ago.
"I'm not infected," I said. "Come sit down, Papa."
He sat at my feet and patted them. "You're a good girl," he said. When I woke up in the morning, he was still sitting there, his hair disheveled, his right hand curled around my toes, his mouth slack with sleep.
I was more and more tired at work. A pint a week was already too much to replace, but I couldn't get a health or work exemption, not as a short-order cook. Two pints every second week was wiping me out.
"I can get you regen," Steve said. Steve could get anybody anything. I'm not sure why he felt it necessary to do real work, too, unless it was a sort of alibi.
"Thanks," I said, "but no. I'm not that desperate yet."
"I can get you A positive blood."
"They'll be able to tell."
"Only if they have a reason to check."
I was tempted, but I shook my head. That blood had to come from somebody, who needed it as badly as we all did. "It's too much to risk."
Dizzy and distracted, I burned myself a few times on the stove that night, and Mr. Wright yelled at me, but he didn't put much energy into it. His black skin was a foggy gray, and I figured he had his own problems. There weren't enough of us left to both keep them fed and us healthy, even with the breeding programs they'd set up. Something was going to break one of these years.
"There's Kate," Papa said. He waved at the window, smiling.
"In the curtain," he said. There was a round shadow on the window where the clouds were passing overhead, which he pointed at.
The doctor had said to distract him when he saw things. "Come in the kitchen, Papa. I brought pie from work."
"I hate pumpkin."
"Pumpkin is your favorite."
"I hate pumpkin!"
"Okay," I said. I closed the refrigerator door on the pie. He moved the curtain and frowned at the window.
I came home from work to find Papa had tried to dust the knick-knacks shelf, and hadn't removed the knick-knacks first. Each of the five dusty shelves had fallen onto the one below. Mama's china cups with the yellow roses pattern; a tealight votive; a hummingbird carousel in pink-colored glass; a spun glass schooner which had taken up half a shelf all by itself, Mama's nod to Papa's masculinity: crushed. Also a porcelain screaming eagle with the original American flag paint carefully stripped off its base, as though that would be enough to avoid accusations of treason if the wrong person saw it; and a child's tooth, I didn't know whose. A splinter of bone, supposedly from the Holy Virgin's finger. A thumb-sized statue of a grinning red tiger. A glass cross with an ugly clay Jesus, painted blood leaking from his mouth, that had been one of the first issued by the blessed's church, or as Papa had called it before his mind went, their human domestication program; Mama had received it when she converted and submitted to the bloodletting, which had still been voluntary in those early days. A stoppered vial of Mama's treasured pre-infection perfume, priceless and irreplaceable. A terracotta pot that Mama's Mama had gotten in Tuscany. A jar of fragrant bayberry potpourri.
Every year at Christmas the grandchildren had been told the stories behind these treasures, whether they wanted to hear them or not. Alessandra had disappeared in the first days of the outbreak and never been found; Paul had disappeared some weeks later and been identified by his dental records; Ricky and Enzo had died in the war, Sal shortly after; Neko had survived the war and the guerrilla resistance and a bout of testicular cancer only to die in a skiing accident; Phoebe lived in California now, bloodslave to some infected who preferred to drink directly from their vassals, and reportedly a leukoregen addict; and my own daughter Carlina had, to use the modern parlance, been blessed, and worked some sort of public relations job in New York.
Somehow Papa hadn't cut himself. He stared at the mess in a sort of dazed dismay until I led him away.
Papa was sitting by the door when I came home from work, in his bathrobe, stained underwear and an old wifebeater, dusted with lint. He was fumbling with his shoes. "How do these go on?" he said.
"Here," I said, and I connected the velcro strips. "Do you want to go for a walk?"
"I want to go home."
"You are home, Papa. This is your home."
"No," he said, but when I showed him the photos on the wall and his coats hanging in the closet by the door, he said, "These are my things."
I closed my eyes. I could feel my pulse beating against my temple.
"How are we going to get home?"
"This is home, Papa." I said. "I'm sorry, but it's the only home we have."
"You need to be ready," Steve said. He splashed soapy water over some dishes.
"Ready for what?"
He looked through the window in the door to make sure nobody was coming. "For war," he said. "It's starting tonight."
"Jesus, what do they think they can do?"
"Look, Rita, I've kept you out of this because I know you have enough on your plate. But you have to trust me. We're organized. We're going to win."
"You're going to get slaughtered."
"Well, either way, they're losing."
I just looked at him.
"Just be ready," he said.
I left work early (Mr. Wright didn't even ask why), and I stopped for supplies on the way home. Papa was asleep in his recliner when I got there. I filled the cupboards with canned and dried foods, the sort of thing you didn't need electricity to prepare, and I put down all the blinds, so the outside of the house would pass casual scrutiny. Then I boarded up all the windows and doors. With any luck the whole thing would just pass us by.
Of course the hammering noises woke Papa.
"What's going on?" he said. "Where are we? Are we under attack?"
"Yes, Papa," I said. He relaxed; it was what he'd been expecting all along. I patted his arm. "There's pie in the refrigerator."
"I love pumpkin," he said, and he ate the whole thing.