Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

The Guest

Jeremy Lane


“Young man?”

The words floated into the back of his mind, barely registering, as he trudged down the cold hallway of the hospital. The second time it stopped him. “Young man?” Clark, in his exhaustion, peered up at the clock on the wall; now thirty-two hours without sleep. His scalp tingled, and his mind came and went like the beam from a lighthouse. He turned, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup, and walked slowly toward an open room on his right.

In the exact center of the room sat a silver haired woman, covered to the waist with a quilt, and her hands resting primly on her lap. “Oh, young man,” she said, waving to him with one arm. “I’d like to order some room service. I was hopin’ you might save me from botherin’ with the phone. Do you mind?” Clark stood silent, and then stammered in his response. “Uh, well, I…”

“A sandwich, ham on wheat, if you could. Oh, and some lemonade. Gosh, lemonade sounds good, doesn’t it?”

Clark turned in time to see a young nurse, blonde and dressed in blue scrubs, exiting a few doors down. “One moment,” he said, and then went after the nurse. He did his best to explain the request to her as she smiled knowingly. “I’ll get the sandwich,” she said when he was done.

“And the lemonade?”

“Yes, and the lemonade.”

He reappeared in the doorway, and with a smile said “Your order is in, ma’am. Your food should be here shortly.” Before he could turn to leave, she waved to him again. “Why don’t you come in? Have a seat.” Clark bought time with another sip of coffee, and then stepped in hesitantly. He sat gently in a brown vinyl chair just inside the door, and crossed one leg over the other.

“How long have you worked at this inn?” she asked, a frown forming in anticipation of the answer.

“Well, actually, I...”

“It’s not bad, this one. A bit plain, a little cold, but nice enough,” she said, interrupting him. Clark nodded and took another sip.

Not the nicest I’ve seen, though,” she continued. “When I was a girl my father took me to New Orleans. I was only five, but I can still see it like it was yesterday.” She clutched her chest with one hand, gave a half-smile, and shook her head gently. “What a place; giant white columns all along the front and the most amazing chandeliers all over. Every bellhop dressed for a ball.” She narrowed her eyes at him and learned forward. “More than I can say for you, mister.”

“I’m off duty,” Clark replied with a grin. “My wife just had a baby.”

Her eyes widened with delight as she took a long breath. “Congratulations, sir. How incredibly exciting. The name?”

“A girl,” he said proudly, “Daisy.”

She became visibly excited; her motions more animated.

“I love the name Daisy. My best friend growin’ up-her name was Daisy. I was always envious of her name. I tried to buy it, trade for it, all kinds a’ nonsense. Never worked.”

“And what’s the name you were in such a hurry to get rid of?” Clark asked.

“Emelia,” she responded, offering her hand.

He leaned forward and shook her hand gently. “Nice to meet you, Emelia. I’m Clark. And I don’t think you should have been trying to trade that name away. It’s lovely.” Her cheeks flushed red, and she looked away.

“Clark, before you go, could you do me one more favor?”

He nodded, and sat his cup down on the floor next to him. “Of course.”

“Could you put some fresh water in these flowers?” she asked, pointing toward a narrow wooden table beside the hospital bed, where sat a clear, hourglass shaped vase with bright yellow tulips. “I always leave them for the next guests. Somethin’ I’ve done all my life.”

Clark rose, filled a cup with water from the sink, and walked over to fill the vase. He noticed a five by seven picture frame propped against the wall; it held a photo, black and white, of a young girl leaning into a middle aged man; they looked at each other rather than the camera.
“My father and me,” she said, noticing his stare.

She was young, six or seven he guessed, wearing a cotton dress to the ankles and no shoes. Her father, squatting next to her, appeared tall and thin, suspenders draped over a button shirt. His hair was dark, healthy and manicured. They shared the same nose.

“Great picture,” Clark said after a few seconds.

She sighed. “To think, I was once someone’s little girl. Amazing, isn’t it. It all goes away so fast. People, time, life. So fast.”

He turned to look at her. Her hair, long and healthy in the photo, was now white and brittle. Her skin was thin, like a water balloon, the blood coursing just below the surface. Her eyes, he thought to himself, her eyes were the same; perfectly white around a blue center. “Great picture,” he said again. “I better be going.”

“Thank you for your help,” she said, nodding.

“Enjoy your stay, Emelia.”

“I will. I have. Thank you, Clark.” He turned a headed for the door. “Make sure the next guest gets my flowers,” she said as he left the room.

On his way to the elevator Clark passed a nurse pushing a food cart, and spotted a sandwich, made with wheat bread, resting next to a glass of lemonade. He rode to the second floor, where in the last room of a long corridor, he found his wife awake. “There you are,” she said with a tilt of her head. He walked over to his new daughter and careful not to wake her, touched one finger to the top of her head.

The closing of a door woke Clark from an awkwardly positioned sleep. He sat forward, rubbed his eyes, and was surprised to find the clock showing three hours had past since he sat down. A nurse peeked at the baby, and then walked over to tend his wife.

“Looks like we’re gonna get you a more comfortable room,” she whispered. “Maybe your husband can get some rest.”

Clark followed as his wife and baby were wheeled to the elevator, down to a different floor, and into a new room. He was the last to enter, and after sitting down his bags, he walked over to have another look at his new daughter. Just before he reached her something caught the corner of his eye. There, on a table next to the bed, sat a clear vase filled with yellow tulips; one wilted petal having fallen to the ground.

___

Jeremy Lane is a Texas native and is currently writing a novel and compiling a book of short stories, both based in his home state.


© Jeremy Lane

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2011