Scale of Comfort by J. Livingston
2018 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist
J. Livingston made the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize shortlist for Scale of Comfort.
You can read Scale of Comfort below.
Warning: This story contains mature language and subject matter.
"You are what you do," said the whore to the whore in the house of dying…
I started volunteering in hospice after Ed imploded on lung cancer. Two things I swore after he got sick; I will get on the nicotine gum, and I will try to do somebody some good. One day, after nearly giving myself a heart attack with a smoke-chew combo, I threw out the butts and decided the gum would have to do.
Ed was happy I'd quit. At 53 and after 30 years of tending bar, you probably could have wrung out a full cup of tobacco resin from his lung tissue. Near the end he started talking about his life as a waste. I kept visiting him for two reasons: to convince him that a life spent mopping sticky tables and breathing blue air was not wasted, and because the hospice was a nice place to be.
There was a patio with bird feeders, overflowing planters, and fake rock fountains burbling. Ed and I would sit and play cribbage, him puffing, me chewing. We'd met at work where he was the permanent barkeep and I was the occasional server. He'd never once hit on me. I suspected he was gay, but in hospice he only ever had one other visitor that I saw; a sister who seemed annoyed about how long it took him to die.
The hospice kitchen had stainless steel appliances, jillions of crocheted cloths, and a heavy wood table with about 20 chairs around it, presumably for big families gathered during a long vigil. There was china for tea service and some volunteer was always baking cookies or brewing coffee.
One day when Ed was close to death, I watched a volunteer take a sponge-tipped stick, spray some liquid on it and moisten Ed's cracked lips, carefully loosening black crust that had formed there. She glanced at me and explained what she was doing, then handed me the stick, "Just keep his lips a little wet so they don't crack," She gave my shoulder a squeeze as she left. I took over lip moistening duties on Ed, happy to have something to do other than stroke his deflating hand.
I was glad he could finally lay down. For months Ed had slept sitting up, laying his head on his crossed arms. He said lying flat felt like being slowly steamrolled. Every day he would wait for his nebulizer and once it had pushed open his lungs a crack, he'd head out to the patio for a smoke. "One of my last pleasures," he'd say as he lit up. I told myself that maybe reclining fully was one more last pleasure.
One day there was no Ed. Instead, his name was written on a card labelled "In Memory" on the table near the elevator. I'd forgotten to give the staff my phone number. His sister didn't have my number either so I never heard about the funeral. The last time I saw Ed was simply that.
I volunteered at the hospice soon after. The day Lorna arrived on the ward, I was late. I hustled in hoping the nurses on shift were not any of the ones who hated me. Some nurses don't like volunteers. I have several theories on why, but mostly I think it's because they are hyper-protective. They distrust spectators. I can't say I blame them. One time I got shit for asking a patient who'd said they were hurting if they had a "sit-with-me" type of pain, or a "breakthrough-painkiller-dose" type of pain.
You don't ask people if they are in pain… Many of these people will manipulate for drugs…and you don't know their history. As a volunteer, you do NOT assess pain.
I bee-lined from the elevator to the volunteer's office, thankful the other volunteer had left without waiting. Ten minutes late. I would stay an extra thirty minutes to make up for it. I signed in and opened the patient information notebook. New in room 508 was Lorna Cardinal, 62, late-stage AIDS. No friends noted, her family tree diagram empty, only her name scribbled at the top: Lorna Lynn Cardinal.
Her PPS was at 40% meaning she was no longer independently mobile, but still able to talk and eat unassisted. Even in death you get scored. The PPS, or Palliative Performance Scale, tracks your progress in dying. For volunteers, it tells you whether to offer a walk to the patio, or a half-remembered prayer.
I knew that Lorna was going to be trouble. Women who call you "Honey" and "Sweetie" are usually bitches… But she laughed with the whole of her tiny body. She may not have been still able to toilet herself, but damned if she would go quietly. She loved BINGO and having been raised mostly by my own BINGO-loving Kokum, I was down. Although Lorna had the brownish-orange stained nails of a life-long butt-hound, she'd lost her taste for smoke months ago. Something about the AIDS medication messed with her dedication to cigarettes, she said, and one day she'd simply stopped. I mentioned my newly cultivated addiction to nicotine gum. She raised her eyebrows conspiratorially, "Well, hit me girl, what you waiting for!" We chewed with focus both managing four cards, the BINGO app on my phone calling for us. I knew without asking that she was from the strip, with her toothless grin and East Hastings speech volume. Still, she was old enough to have earned some grand-motherliness. No one came to visit. Her family tree stayed empty.
One day, she asked: "What you do for real work honey?"
I have a low tolerance for lying to the dying, but out of habit said "server" instead of "cam-whore."
"You mean like waitressing?"
"I mean exactly like that," I paused the app.
"Beautiful girl like you? Christ." She pointed her dauber at me. "You going to school?"
"Nope." Then, seeing her concern added, "I'm still trying to figure out what to do."
"Tell you honey, I just figured something out," she shifted with difficulty and narrowed her eyes. "I could have done anything. Just needed to work on something other than scoring," she paused, thinking. "Got pretty good at scoring though…" she chuckled.
She took my blue gloved hand with her tiny, cool fingers. "I figured it out: you are what you do," she pointed at my chest with a finger she could no longer fully straighten. "And you got to do that. Otherwise spend your whole goddamn life not being yourself. You need to understand…"
You need to understand: people don't care about a pretty face and a nice body. The planet's crawling with that. Who gives a fuck? People don't pay for pretty. People pay for pretty humiliated.
She let go of my hand and I started stacking BINGO cards. "You know what?" she looked fierce. "I gave myself the bug. On purpose. Bit of extra money from it. I just said 'fuck it'…"
"What do you mean?" Pretending to not understand.
She smiled and clucked. "Pogey's shit. Guy I knew got hundreds extra every month on his cheque after he came down with the bug. So I shared his gear for a while."
I think: I am not a social worker.
(You are what you do.)
(You do NOT assess…)
"Ok. How do you feel about that?"
She threw back her head, crowed: "I feel like I fuckin' got AIDS!"
She calmed, giggled and breathed. "It got easier to stay clean when they moved that needle exchange in and started handing out rubbers. But, hooking gets old. You get old. A few hundred extra every month is a lot of blowing you don't have to do." She winked, then looked down at the backs of her scarred hands.
"Sweetie you don't know what that's like…" she said peeking shyly at me.
I'd spent the last decade knocking down an initially long list: I will never meet in person, I will never strip, I will never do meth, I will never do video, I will never work clubs, I will never do parties. On Whoring Performance Scale, I guess I was at 50%... maybe 40%. What was 30%…the strip? Maybe 10% WPS was knowingly infecting yourself with HIV.
"But now, I don't know," said Lorna. "Was it worth it? Little extra money…"
I gently squeezed her hand. "You lived life as yourself … your whole life. That's something."
Most people in hospice don't ask you about your life. Like the fake rock fountains and cookies, it's something I love about being there. But Lorna wasn't most people.
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-seven." At 50% WPS.
She tapped a finger on the top of my hand. "What do you want to do?"
"Fly to Aruba?" My smile is convincing on a Web cam. Let's see how it plays in a hospice.
Lorna's cheeks grew pink under her thin yellow skin, "You can do anything you want. Don't forget that…"
Don't forget to choke, ya gotta fake choking. Gag a little. If you don't, they'll make sure you actually do. Fake it and it goes a lot quicker…
I stacked the BINGO cards, being the busy volunteer.
She sighed, "You are what you do."
"Well I am laundry and cookies because I need to do a batch of both." I pat her gnarled hand with my gloved one. "We all do what we need to."
"Ah sweetie…anything… do it." She lay back, closed her eyes, and inhaled through her nose. I walked to the nurse's station, waited until one came out of the drug room and gave her my phone number.
"Please call me when Lorna starts to go." She nods and writes my number on a sticky note and places it inside the cover of Lorna's patient binder.
I will be there when she dies six weeks later. I will hold her still fingers, keep her lips moistened, and listen to her changing breath, rattling, gurgling. I will empty the tissue box next to her bed. I will whisper my Kokum's favourite prayer for Lorna, surprised to remember:
Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.
Softly softly softly. Softly she lets go.
The night Lorna dies, I do not open my computer when I get home from the hospice. Instead, I open the junk drawer and find a pen and pad occasionally used for grocery lists. Test the pen, surprised it works, I write:
"You are what you do," said the whore to the whore in the house of dying…
Read the other finalists:
- Lipstick Day by Leah Mol
- Strawberries by Terri Monture
- Fifteen Lakota Visitors by Taqralik Partridge
- Green by Ayelet Tsabari
About J. Livingston:
J. Livingston was born in Edmonton, Alta., and now lives in British Columbia. Livingston's fiction is about people, stuff they do and say, and sometimes, stuff they don't do and won't say.