Stones in the Stomach
Fiction - Second Place
This morning they come for her shirt. No one's gonna get my shirt. Doris sets her mouth into a tight noiseless line, curling up on the bed, waving away the Laundry Assistant, then the Laundry Administrator, then the nurse. She refuses to change out of the XXL Tasmanian Devil T-shirt she has lately grown so attached to. Mebbe two weeks, mebbe more. She nods, agreeing with their collective assessment of how long she has been wearing the shirt. But no wash. Wash later.
"Later when, Miss Doris?" the Laundry Administrator shrieks in frustration.
Doris grins back, toothless. Tuesday. You can take and wash it Tuesday.
They show her other shirts--cream-colored T-shirts with neatly embroidered pastel flowers ringing the hems, knit shirts bothered by tiny applique alligators or other bewildering animals, all shirts her daughter sends up in bright tissue paper, but Doris shakes her head. She traces the outline of the Devil's tongue on her stomach, the smooth shiny lacquer of its black lines. Doris shakes her head and laughs. Tazzzzzzzz. Taz. They leave her alone.
Bingo is every Sunday. Bingo and the volunteers. The volunteers are a good thing--all too young and uncomfortable and obliging. Doris knows that they don't know all the rules yet. They will escort her as she roams through the halls, snatches an extra ice cream sandwich from the back room of the cafeteria. The volunteers just think she is confused. Let them think. I's knows all about this place. Doris begins humming happily to herself.
She scrambles out of bed, steps into her slippers. She carefully, slowly ties the drawstring of her sweatpants into a drooping figure-eight. She even puts on lipstick, an obscenely bright cherry-red. She sees in the mirror that she's smudged the edges again, but she hasn't overrun the lines of her lips. Her mouth is the darkest thing on her face--shiny and slick and new. Everything else is white, fading--papery cheeks, limp hair, even the blue of her eyes, washed out from not having seen an early-morning sky in so long.
Now Doris steps out into the hall. First to Mrs. Fitzpatrick, shrunken and small, who snoops and pokes through things. Doris has caught Mrs. Fitzpatrick in her stuff before. Mrs. Fitzpatrick is draped in rosaries today, on account of it being Sunday, sitting stiffly on her bed staring into the crescendo of the TV preacher's voice. When Doris tries to finger the glittering rosary beads--orange, pink, lavender--Mrs. Fitzpatrick's hand creeps out from under the blanket on her lap. Her fingers are thin and long with pointed red nails, and she pinches Doris hard on the fat of her upper arm. Doris retreats. It's not such a good day for Mrs. Fitzpatrick to come to bingo.
Mr. Opie is playing checkers against himself. He darts back and forth from one side of the board to the other, shushing Doris, helping his plastic leg along with his hands, like a package.
Bingo starts soon. Starts in a half-hour. I'm gonna beat Almira today. Doris settles on Mr. Opie's bed.
"You aren't never gonna beat Almira. She's too good. You's good and all, but she's better," Mr. Opie snorts back, scurrying over to jump the black checker with the red one.
Am too. Gonna beat her today. And you're gonna miss it.
"Go on, Doris," Mr. Opie replies. "I'll be along."
She gets up from his bed and decides to go on herself to bingo without anyone. Go and wait for Almira. Find a good volunteer.
She walks down the hall, past the Lounge and the Breakfast Room and the Rehab Room, where they are doing exercises with big squishy red balls, writhing like pink worms stuck out in the sun. She goes into the Community Activities Room, the biggest and the brightest room, the one that catches all of the morning sun and throws it onto the big oak table.
Doris shuffles to a seat right in the middle of the table, dead set center. The volunteers are already here, sorting Bingo cards and markers, walking around the table, asking nicely how many cards you think you can handle. The prizes--a deck of extra-large playing cards, mint-colored hand lotion in a frosted-glass container, new yellow terry slippers-- sit in the middle of the table, right in front of Doris.
Almira is already here, sitting at the head of the table. She takes six cards and smiles nicely when the volunteers exclaim, "That's such an awful lot of cards!" Almira is small and fluffy, always wrapped up in layers of frothy cashmere sweaters and cardigans, even in summer. She wears makeup, the works--foundation and blush and eyeliner and docile peach lipstick. Her hair is always precision rows of tight curls marching across her skull. She gets her hair done twice a week at the Beauty Salon, a luxury only afforded her because she has her late husband's inheritance to live off of. Almira gets all the amenities--down pillows, the bright young nurses, a whole suite with a private sitting room, days out with her grandsons.
And Almira almost always wins Bingo. Every game, every Sunday, like clockwork. Sees her sitting there, too important to even nod to me, to show me she knows I'm there. Doris leans in and twists her head to stare down directly at Almira. She sticks her tongue out, slowly, so all Almira will see is a pink snake crawling up through the dark slick hole. Almira's narrow dark eyes widen. They look like they might crack at the corners.
Suddenly there is a volunteer at Doris' shoulder, patting her senselessly. "That isn't nice," the young girl says sternly.
Doris looks at her--skinny and too much makeup, straggly blond-dyed hair. She is wearing a lace-collared Sunday dress, come straight from church to get her service hours for graduation. Her parents probably dropped her off. Doris grins, appealingly. Don't like Almira. Gonna beat her today.
"Are you?" the girl asks, pressing her lips tightly together. Her eyes are trying not to laugh. "So you probably want a bunch of cards?"
Nope. I'm Doris. Don't need but one card. Beat her with just one.
"Not even two?" the girl wheedles. "I'll help with one card, if you like."
Nope. I'm Doris. Don't need but one card. Beat her with just one.
"OK, one card. What color chips do you want--red or blue?"
RRRRred, Doris vrooms like an engine, laughing. The girl laughs too. The chips slip through her fingers, clattering on the table. She moves away.
Doris likes to arrange her chips while she waits for everyone to get ready. This time she lines all the chips up to make one long undulating line. Ocean wave. When Doris lived with her parents near the ocean, in Cape May, they had a cat and lived in a tall, wooden, creaking house with extra staircases that went nowhere. They were for show, her mother had explained, but Doris still wasn't sure why this was. What did extra staircases show? The big fluffy black cat always got confused, climbing the stairs and mewing at a false door, begging to get out the door that went nowhere.
Mr. Opie shuffles up to sit beside her. He lifts his false leg with his hands, settling it into the chair with him, patting it reassuringly. He nods his way down the row of ladies. "Afternoon, Gertie, Beatrice, Virginia, Gattie, Doris."
Mr. Opie asks for three cards and blue chips. Doris' volunteer hands them over to him. Gattie, on his other side, begins, to the group, "My brother is ill. They may send him home on leave. We're all terribly worried."
Gattie tires Doris--she wants everyone to agree and tell her their prayers are with her, even though her brother got sick during the War, more than 60 years ago, got sick and died.
"You's bound to be worried, with him so far away and probably in a foreign hospital. Not the the best doctors there," Beatrice rattles off helpfully.
Mr. Opie jumps in. "Gattie, he'll be home in no time--them Army doctors fix him right up. You just see. Army doctors are the best."
Army doctor chop off your leg, not save your leg, Doris notes. Gattie's eyes get bigger.
Mr. Opie is annoyed. "There was no leg to save, Doris. No leg to save. Did his best. Army doctors are the best."
Still. Army doctor chop off your leg.
Gattie absently asks, "It's time for dinner, isn't it? Should I go check on dinner?"
Nots dinner time. Bingo time.
Mr. Opie stubbornly repeats himself. "Army doctors are the best."
Once the game starts, everyone grows quiet, concentrating on the small squares on the grid. The volunteers spin the calls in something very much like a hamster wheel, and Doris likes the jangling sound all the wooden die make as they tumble against the plastic.
B-22. Doris feels herself springing forward as soon as the call is made, trailing the plump spheres of the B and the drooping swan-necks of the 2s, scrambling with her fingers and eyes to pin the number down and shut it out with a perfectly round red chip. Doris presses the chips in hard with her thumb, wishing she could grind them into her card, permanent. G-17. She is able to find G-17, to erase it from existence with the finality of her chip.
Doris also has I-4 and a bonus free box in the O column at the bottom. She stares at the broken diagonal, beginning at the top of the B--two chips, none, two chips, free space. Alls I need's an N, she tells Mr. Opie.
"That's all anyone says they need," he shoots back.
Gertie shrieks. "Bingo! Bingo! . . . Oh, wait . . . never mind."
Doris' hunched back relaxes. Gots to win today. Gotta gotta win, win today, this win's mines.
"Doris . . . ," Mr. Opie warns.
She stops humming. She imagines what the mint-colored lotion smells like. The yellow bottle Virginia won smelled of vanilla. Doris guesses the green bottle smells like wood or food. If it's green for woods, then it smell like pine and juniper. If it's green for food . . . then . . . green apples, lime pie. Lime pie is a nice thought, tangy and sweet on the back of her tongue, something she can taste without needing too. Doris knows she ate lime pie on a red-checker tablecloth on a picnic table in friend's backyard when she was young. Davis, Clarinda Davis. Doris remembers the name of the dark-haired girl she caught fireflies with. Doris can't remember if she liked her or not, or what color her eyes were.
Almira's eyes are brown, dingy floor-brown, shit-brown. Doris giggles. She cranes her neck to get an idea of the configuration on all of Almira's six cards. She can't see.
Need that one N. N-53. N-53. If you say something enough, can you make it happen? She traces the incomplete line sadly with her finger.
How's yous doing down there, Almira? Nice lotion they got for a prize.
Mr. Opie pokes her under the table. But Almira looks Doris straight on, turning her head to do it properly. "Keeping busy, Doris, keeping busy," she chirps back sweetly.
I'm Doris. Don't need but one card. Beat her with just one. N-53. N-53.
N-32. No good, no good.
B-2. Doris remembers another game, one where you cry, "I sunk your battleship." B-2. I sunk your battleship. Boom boom. But she has B-2 too and another pattern emerges on the card, all of the red chips concentrated at the edges, looking to escape. No you don't, no you don't.
G-45. "Bingo!" Almira calls. A volunteer, a boy in khakis, scoots over, bending over one of the cards. Almira calls it back. Free Space. I-89. N-32. G-45. O-77.
Almira gets up and moves up to the prize, directly across from Doris. "I think I'll take . . . hmm . . ." She makes a game of choosing. "Doris, don't you think I should get the lotion?"
No. I have bingo too. Doris lies, feeling warm and hungry, hungry for lime pie.
"You don't have bingo. Why didn't you call it?" Almira demands.
Do so, do so, Doris taunts Almira back. The girl volunteer moves to come check her card.
If there a tie, you don't win. No winner with a tie. Start over. New game.
"Doris, everyone knows you don't have bingo," Almira begins patiently, leaning in over the table.
Bingo! Bingo bingo bingo! Doris taunts. Mr. Opie is kicking her under the table.
But she plunges forward and appeals to the girl volunteer. No winner with a tie. Start over. New game. Start over.
"Well . . . ," The girl flounders.
"Give me that!" Almira snaps, her hands descending on the table.
If you don't never see, you can't be sure. Doris grins thickly, hiding her card from Almira with her forearm.
Shaking hands skid up to Doris, reach for her card.
If you don't never see, you can't be sure.
"Miss Doris, Miss Doris, no, no, no!" the volunteers shriek in unison, as Doris leans back, bends her bingo card into a U, and tips it up to her mouth. The chips slither on her tongue and slip down her throat like frozen banana slices--cool and perfectly circular. No taste. She giggles as they fall into her stomach--stomach full of bingo chips, stomach full of stones.
Shelley Puhak is a Baltimore-based writer and poet and a writing teacher at Essex Community College. Her work has appeared in The Antietam Review, The Baltimore Review, and City Paper. She placed third in CP's 1999 poetry contest.
And the winners are... (12/2/2009)
City Paper's 11th annual Fiction and 10th annual Poetry Contest
An Airline Ticket to Romantic Places (12/2/2009)
What Was Janie Looking At? (12/2/2009)
Retreat Into Blue (3/22/2000)
A cat's whiskers are designedto be as wide as her haunches.
To Ward Off Loss (10/20/1999)
Poetry - Third Place
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