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Cousin Esther Goes to Chicago 

Cori Baill 

Dear Miss Betty,

That sure was a nice send-off you had for your cousin Esther. There was no one there who had a bad word to say about her, but there sure was lots and lots of talking. I don’t know how you fit all them people into your place. There they all were, eating like the devil while singing praises to the Lord. Your cousin Esther would’ve had a good time, of course I mean if she could’ve made it. You did her real proud, if you don’t mind my saying so. Why, can’t you just see Esther thanking you kindly?   She’d be in a bright dress with one of her big laughing hugs and maybe some Sister Hallelujahs, and Praise The Lords, thrown in. She sure was a loud happy woman. Bless her heart.   

I almost died laughing when one of them Brown twins, of your cousin Boo’s on Jimmy’s side, put that bug into the Jones boy’s drink. Of course it turned out to be plastic, but he didn’t know it right off and spit it out. Preacher’s wife almost fainted when she saw half it on top of her hat in the hall mirror. Esther would have said, “It’s hard to be dignified, always,” and laughed and laughed even though she sure liked the preacher’s wife. Preacher, too.

Here I go all off track before I even start to tell you what I wanted to say. It’s been kind of busy since Esther’s funeral so it’s already taken me too long to sit down and write. I wanted to tell you just how it was down there at the hospital. I was there, you know, when she was so real bad sick. You’re her close kin and all, but I was there almost every day on account of my job.

The hospital’s a big place, kind of easy to get lost. That’s why I switched with Melba as soon as I found out Esther was back in there so I could kind of keep an eye on things. I was on the service elevator, the one over in the old redbrick part of the building, the part where there is chicken wire on the windows of the elevator, and the door has to be slid closed before it will start. I was in there after picking up clean linen from the laundry when Melba, who was down on Esther’s floor, told me about Esther being in a coma and all. I love those elevators because of the wood all shiny like a bowling alley half up the wall, and the creaky metal lever that points open or closed. It gives you a nice feeling to be in that old elevator and know it’s still good for something. 

I’ve been here so long that no one cared about me and Melba trading floors. We both work over in the next-to-newest part of the hospital, which is a lot like the newest part except there aren’t any carpets on the floor or color coordination. I don’t think hospital sheets should be anything but starched and white, do you?  I suspect they don’t get that carpet over there near as clean as I do my floors over here, and that new part don’t look right anyway, especially with plants all around for people to sneeze at. 

I was glad Esther was over here where it still looks like a hospital. Of course, I didn’t tell anyone my business about Esther. Esther was in a bad enough situation herself. I didn’t need everyone to have their nose in it, though I imagine Melba told plenty. 

It was the least I could do for Esther, after all she did for me and my Jimmy when we first came up to Baltimore. Lord, has it been forty years?  You probably know I met Esther at church and then she helped me find this job. All that time I’ve been working here, keeping all the little things right, mopping the floors and emptying the trash, washing down rooms, and watching the wet-behind-the-ears young pup doctors learn their business.

So Esther was there in a room all by herself, and that, I don’t have to tell you, is not a good sign. Normally they always put us by two’s and three’s and four’s. So Esther was in her own room and I kept it nice and tidy. You could’ve eaten off the floor. When I finished washing and waxing you needed sunglasses because the linoleum was so white sparkly bright. I kept the shade up on her window for some fresh sunshine, but only because it was over by her feet so there wouldn’t be any sun in her eyes. I put an extra chair in there so the church visitors would have a place to sit, but they didn’t come as steady after the first two, three weeks.

My favorite nurse was the redhead they call Freddie. She always talked real nice to Cousin Esther, cleaning her up and saying, “There now, honey. I know you like looking nice.”  She always fluffed up her pillows and all. When Freddie was done, it always seemed like Esther could just wake up. Of course she didn’t. By then she was starting to look that way when the lips are all dry and the body sort of all swollen and soaked-up like a sponge. It just killed me to see her fingers all like a pack of fat sausages. They’d always looked so dainty in those short white gloves she was fond of wearing Sundays and special occasions.

 Doctors came every day but they stayed in the hall and just talked a minute and moved on. “Terminal cancer” and “no code,” that’s what they’d say. I guess there wasn’t much else to say.

The pup taking care of Esther changed on July 1st.   I think Esther might have liked that it was a lady doctor. She always did like gossiping and sewing with the ladies at the church. Lord knows she loved church. Being she never married, I think the ladies there were like her family. 

New pup kept coming and going. She’d be in there least three, four times every day. Of course the nurse would be in just behind her changing the IV fluid or giving some medicine and then it seemed like Esther could breathe better. The tubes and bags hung around Esther like a curtain of rope. Almost seemed like if that nurse only pulled or fixed the right one, Esther would somehow be okay. 

Pup was real quiet and serious all the time, which is how all the new ones are at first, but she didn’t seem to have much potential to be livelier, if you get what I mean. Pup liked to read Esther’s chart. Not just the regular every-day one in the rack by the nurse’s station, but all the past volumes sent up from the old supermarket warehouse where they’re stored.  There were four of them charts. They took up a whole drawer, just by themselves, in the big cabinet in that back room. Esther was born and raised here, right here at this hospital. She did all her doctoring here. 

Freddie once asked pup if there was anything interesting in there. Pup kind of looked funny and said, “It seems she raised her sister’s boy after her sister drowned.”

Freddie shrugged. I think she meant medical-like. She said she thought that was a funny thing to be in the chart. But you know it happens like that sometimes.   

Remember when that happened?   Esther told me that Louise got all drunk up once at a picnic and fell in the water and drowned in the lake not three feet deep. It seemed Louise’s boy never was right to start with and some said he was slow because Louise drank all through her being pregnant. Esther took him in, no mind. It’s probably why she never got married, raising up that boy. 

Esther must have had a boyfriend because one day I heard pup tell Freddie that your cousin Esther had once been pregnant. There was something wrong so she ended it. I think that might explain why Esther never went to the church rallies at the abortion clinic. I thought you might have wondered about that. You remember that time when Louise’s boy came and made everyone at church promise that even if they had a sick baby they wouldn’t end it?  He said he wasn’t right but your Cousin Esther wanted him?  I guess it’s good that he’s dead too. 

Then one day the chief, he comes in the nursing station. He’s a real tall thin one. First time I met him, four years ago when he was starting out, he had his head down on his arms atop of the filing cabinet moaning – how could his wife be pregnant again?  All the other pups just laughed at him for months because his wife got pregnant with a fourth and him being a doctor should’ve known better. I even told him once to come see me if he wants to know where babies come from. He took all that ribbing real well, with a little thin smile on that long face.

Well, I was polishing the floor out back of the nurses’ station where the doctors sit. Chief looked down on Esther’s pup and says, “I have to talk to you about #18.”   She just looked up, like she knew that a ‘talking to’ was coming sure as the evening bus home. 

So he takes her to the medicine room. It’s a long thin white room. All the red medicine bins are lined up on the wall like closed mouths. Of course I move to polish the floor over there. Chief threw me a sorrowful look like a basset hound. I just shook my head and looked down at my polisher. Chief was at the doorway and pup was just inside the room. 

“Christ’s sake Jones,” he says to the pup, “what are you doing to that poor woman?”  

“Well,” says the pup, “I’m just fixing up her fluids and helping her to pee.”  She starts backing up toward the far wall.

“Christ’s sake,” he says. “It’s not like her beans aren’t shot.”  (Doctors call kidneys beans). “They aren’t ever going to get any better, and neither is her cancer, so let her die.”  He was pacing down the room at her and she just stood there at the far end like a train was coming and she was on the tracks. “You got a problem with that?” he says to her. 

Pup got all red in the face. “I’m having a problem,” she says, all quiet-like. “I sure am.”  She was just looking at the floor. She tells him she once won a reward for some paper on people dying. She kind of straightened up and looked at Chief. “And guess what?”  Now she was building up steam like those old radiators in Esther’s house.  “The first time I have a patient like that, I’m all knotted up trying to keep her going. How’s that for a goddamn problem?” 

Chief plays it real cool. He’s leaning on the counter and looking steady at pup. “Just let go,” he says. “You’re a doctor,” 

Now the pup is yelling. “I can’t let go. I told you that. I want to. I know to. I thought I’d be the first to. And I goddamn can’t.”  Then she stops. Takes a breath and says, all quiet-like again, “I didn’t know it would be like this.”

“Like what?” asks Chief, none too patient. 

“Like playing fucking God.”

I almost fell over my polisher at that. I never thought that sweet quiet little pup had a mouth of swear like that. Chief just looked at her real steady and he tells her, “Sometimes it is.”  

Pup started looking kind of pale on her end of the room. Chief just looked at her harder, and he got as close to pup as he could. “Sometimes you do play God,” he says. “Leave her alone,” he says. “That poor woman should have already gone to Chicago.” 

Pup still came by to see your cousin Esther at the beginning and the end of every day, but it looked like something was trying to drag her down the hall the other way. She sure didn’t stay as long as before. 

One morning I came to work and found out Esther had passed on in the night. Melba, she was on the night shift, told me it was real peaceful. I saw pup come down the hall and Freddie told her Esther had gone to Chicago. That kind of always makes me wonder if in Chicago they say someone goes to Baltimore? 

Pup said, “Thank you,” to Freddie. She stood there at the door, looking in at room 18 – it was all cleaned up ready. Pup looked almost prayerful, then quick shook her head and went off down the hall.

Well that’s it. I am sure sorry your Cousin Esther has passed on, but she’s in a better place now. See you in church.



P.S. Who you think got Esther knocked up?  Jimmy couldn’t figure either.