Irving Fisher was agitated.
“Who the hell are you?" he yelled. "And what the hell are you doing here?”
He squinted his cataract-occluded eyes, the pupils darted between the television set against the far wall and the face of the woman towering over him as he lay in his mechanical bed, the top half of which was inclined slightly. The blue cotton blanket and pillows he had thrown to the ground in a fit of frustration or pique of rage at some adversary or enemy, real or imagined. His legs were exposed, hairless and marked with thin, twisting blue veins, bulging here and there from beneath the skin, forming ridges like creeper vines on a tropical tree. His hips and pelvis were covered only by the bottom of his overly long undershirt and a clearly soggy adult diaper. On his feet he wore white tube socks, one of which was pulled tightly to the top of his shin, the other was halfway off, the material bunched over his heel and hanging from his toes. The skin hung loosely from his jowls and upper arms, hinting at the much more substantial muscle mass that he once possessed. Twisted in the elastic, waterproof bedding, he looked small.
“I’m Bernadette,” the woman stated calmly. “I’m here to take care of yuh.”
Her voice was warm and had the lilt particular to people born in the West Indies. She had a wide smile that showed in her whole face. Her deep dimples showed and the outside corners of her eyes turned up when she laughed. Her hair was straight and cut short, except for the bangs, which were slightly longer and were tucked behind her ears. She had a friendly sort of gap between her two front teeth through which you could see her tongue when she teasingly showed her disapproval with a soft clucking sound. She wore maroon scrubs and foam shoes to keep from slipping on the linoleum tile flooring. Pinned to the front of her shirt was a glossy black nametag reading “Bernadette T.”
“It good to see you ‘gain, Mista Fisha.” There was no hint of sarcasm or irony in her voice. Bernadette genuinely meant what she said.
The television was positioned on a mount in the corner of the room above his dresser, which was covered in photos of Irving as a young man – dressed in formal military uniform, carrying his young wife across the threshold of their first home in Floral Park, standing stiffly and unsmilingly with his daughter on the day of her college graduation.
Sound blared from the television's tinny speakers. Irving had managed to turn it up to top volume again. He remembered how to do that. Pick up the remote, point it at the television, push the up arrow on the right side, hold it. Turning it back down, however, was something he now found utterly perplexing.
As usual, the channel was tuned to one that played nothing but reruns of old gameshows from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Male hosts dressed in checkered sports coats and silk shirts with flared collars holding slim microphones unashamedly evaluating the curves of the female contestants to loud rounds of applause from the in-house audience. Irving had no idea what the shows were about, but he liked the colors and lights.
Bernadette picked up the remote from the bedside table. “D’ya mind, Mista Fisha?” Without waiting for an answer, she lowered the volume. “Now dat’s much better, wouldn’t yuh agree?”
Irving turned to her. “Don’t you know who I am?” he asked, he was no longer yelling, but the edge of anger remained in his voice.
“Why don’t yuh tell me now?"
Irving lifted his hand. It was trembling badly, flopping this way and that like a fish out of water. The upper side of his hand was covered with dark liver spots.
Bernadette could see that his nails needed trimming. If she didn’t do that today, he would scratch himself again. Last month, he’d managed to open a gash under his eye that required two stitches.
He extended his pointer finger toward the television. “I’m the president of the United States, you stupid cow.” He gestured wildly.
An ad was showing for reverse mortgages. The actor was in his mid-forties with thick, wavy brown hair and impeccable teeth. “There I am. That’s me. What did I tell you?”
Bernadette glanced quickly at the screen and then back at Irving. “Oh, I see now, Mista Fisha. Why didn’t yuh tell me soona?” She was still smiling. “But der’s no need for dat sort of rude language. Yuh know dat, Mista Fisha. Yuh got a good, kind heart.”
Irving didn’t respond. He lowered his hand and let his head fall back against the inclined surface of his mechanical bed. Even lifting his head exhausted him quickly these days.
Bernadette walked around his bed and parted the curtains. The mid-morning light poured into the room. Irving squinted his eyes again and turned his head away. He meekly waved his hands, as if trying to shoo away the daylight.
“It’s good for yuh, the light. Good for the skin. Not to mention yuh mood.” She chuckled. Bernadette stretched her arms out and momentarily closed her eyes, soaking in the warmth and inhaling deeply, enjoying the briefest indulgence.
Irving spoke again. “I need to get out of this place! Where am I? Where are you keeping me? I have a lot of work to do. Take me home immediately.” His voice was starting to rise again.
“I know, Mista Fisha. The White House. Is dat right?”
“What’s that? No. I’m talking about the place where the president lives. I need to go there immediately.”
Bernadette walked to the end of his bed so that she was obscuring Irving’s view of the television. From her pocket she removed a pair of latex gloves and pulled them on. She started to remove his socks, peeling back the elastic, which had made grooves in his papery skin. She began her daily routine, massaging the bottoms of his feet and his toes to encourage blood circulation and prevent bed sores.
“But Mista Fisha, yuh live here now. This is your home. Like I say to yuh every day. Yuh need to let go of all dat. All dat old stuff. Stop worrying yuhself 'bout the White House and dat business.”
Irving mumbled something unintelligible under his breath. Bernadette lifted one leg and then the other, examining the underside of each, running her hand along his calves, bending the knee and pressing it towards his chest, rotating the leg slightly to loosen the hip, and then placing his legs gently back where they had been.
“Yuh need to try to move a bit more, Mista Fisha. Yuh startin’ to get bruises. Dat’s no good when dat happens. Yuh can still walk. I know yuh can. I seen yuh just last week.”
Irving grunted noncommittally. Bernadette moved from the foot of his bed around to the side and placed her hands under his hip. “I’m goin' tuh roll yuh over now, Mista Fisha.”
“Get your hands off of me! This is no way to treat the president. Have some respect. For God’s sake, can’t you see what’s happened here?”
Bernadette stopped what she was doing and gave him an inquiring look.
“Can’t you see that I’ve shit myself? Where’s my valet? He’ll get this sorted out. Get me back to my house. He’ll set this whole thing straight.”
Bernadette gave him a knowing nod.
“I have a very important meeting today. You wouldn’t know the first thing about it. Meeting with the Prime Minister. I can’t remember his name now, but you would recognize his face. He’s the one with the…”
Irving’s voice trailed off. His thinking had become like rowing in a small boat through a dense fog. He tended to get lost. Once he could no longer see land, the situation quickly became hopeless. He searched Bernadette's face for some clue as to how to proceed, the shine of some distant lighthouse to guide him back to land, but none was offered.
"... from the shop on the corner," he grasped. That sounded right. That would do it.
“Well, dat does sound very important, Mista Fisha. I’ll be sure to look into it. But I don’t think yuh’re in any shape for dat right now. Why don’t yuh just leave dat for someone else?”
With a fluid lift, Bernadette rolled Irving onto his side and held him there with one strong arm while she undid the Velcro straps of his diaper.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” There was fear in his voice. It was shaking.
“Nuttin’ I haven’t done a hundred times before, Mista Fisha,” Bernadette said, her voice still cheery, even as she pulled the diaper back and began to wipe the smeared feces from his buttocks and the back of his thighs, making sure to get into the creases. “I’m gonna fix yuh right up. Yuh’re gonna feel a lot betta after dis.”
She began to hum something soft and sweet while she worked. The sounds of a past life. When she had discarded the last wipe in the sanitary bin, she gently slid a fresh diaper between his legs. Irving reached down and grabbed her hand and began to pull it to toward his flaccid penis. With a twist of her wrist, Bernadette freed her hand. She fastened the Velcro of the diaper. Then, with one hand still firmly on his waist, she stripped the sheets from the bed and skillfully fitted a new set onto the mattress.
“What'd I tell yuh?” she asked once she was done. “Much betta, right?” There was no need to mention anything else. No need to make him feel bad about something he couldn't control.
Irving didn’t speak. He was no longer angry. His body was relaxed, his jaw unclenched. Bernadette knew that he was appreciative, even if he never said, “thank you.”
She smiled at him. Then she went to his dresser and picked out a fresh pair of socks and a pair of loose-fitting cotton pants with a drawstring. With practiced hands, she put them on Irving, making sure that he would suffer no further indignity, letting him do the final tug of the waistband over his crotch.
“Is there anything else I can do for yuh, Mista Fisha. Yuh comfortable?”
Irving gestured toward the plastic cup on his bedside stand. Bernadette picked it up. It was still a quarter full of apple juice from breakfast.
“I’m tired of juice,” he said, a mischievous grin creeping across his face, a semblance of a personality that used to be, a little inside joke that may have passed between Irving and his wife, perhaps. “Do you think you could bring me…” They finished the sentence together, as they did every day, “a double whiskey on the rocks?” Irving laughed and so did Bernadette. Then she clucked in feigned disapproval, her tongue appearing briefly between her two front teeth.
“Of course, Mista President.”
“Oh, there’s no need for that. That’s done. Time to move on. Like you said."
Bernadette took Irving’s hand in hers and patted it gently, taking the extra few seconds to rub the top of his hand with the pad of her thumb. "I be right back, Mista Fisha." Then, carrying the plastic cup in her gloved hand, she left the room.
Once again, Irving was alone.
When she returned with a fresh cup of apple juice, the television was blaring. A young, handsome Bob Barker hosting The Price is Right.
With frantic eyes, Irving turned toward her.
“Who the hell are you?" he yelled. "And what the hell are you doing here?”
“I’m Bernadette.” She said calmly. “I’m here to take care of yuh.”