That girl broke down. Back humped up like a kitten, breaths jerky, crouched in the leatherette chair.
“You okay?” I say. Loud, to carry over her inward grieving.
Head flips up. Scared her. Black hair curtain parts. Looks all around, for someone else. I been here so long, never speak. A big brown statue. Other chairs in the waiting room empty.
“You okay?” Yeah, me, I tell her eyes. Black as the hair.
She don’t talk. Maybe don’t understand. She smile and nod at the doctor. Vietnam, the nurse said. Like the war. I seen her father, in the next bed to my sister. Today the doctor brought a mini-man, another Vietnam, to talk to her. No smile today.
Her father gonna die. He as yellow as bad pee, skin tight like a Voodoo doll. Worse than Gloria, and she set out to kill herself. They in ICU. Eye See You. Rooms with three walls. In front, everybody watching.
Vietnam eyes on me. Who knows what them eyes seen? I seen Vietnam on the news, years ago. Mud, jungle. Rice and bodies growing out of the ground. Maybe she ain’t been inside a hospital. I spent years in this hospital, between Mama’s heart and Glo. I bet Vietnam scared of the machines. They sigh and creak and buzz, like spirits inside.
“Don’t be scared.” I smile.
She sit up then, drop her arms beside her. No smile, no frown. She dressed in black pajamas, seem like, with a tiny black purse, nothing else.
Mistake. This here’s a waiting room. I got my blanket over me, a ham sandwich and lemon drops in the bag. I got Oprah magazine and a crochet hook stuck in a ball of pink yarn. I dig out the lemon drops, fresh from Walgreen’s.
“You want one?” I reach out and lean over. Knees too bad to be jumping up.
She uncurls and stands. She take one, I take one. Sits back down and smiles. Everyone like lemon drops. I show her Gloria’s framed graduation picture, her deep smile.
She point to me. “Mama?” I nod yes. It ain’t true, but it is.
Vietnam’s mama must be dead, like mine. She ain’t been here. Vietnam come and go. I stay. The nurses need me. When Glo wake up, she curse them out and pull the tubes. They tie her down and call me.
I talk her through the bath and the treatment for her leg. She my baby sister, twelve years younger. I close my eyes. She got smooth skin, shiny. Good Glo, Honey girl. I open my eyes. She got scarred up tracks from needles. The leg she lay on, until they found her, look like rat bites. Every day they soak off the dead skin. After they finish, I oil and braid that fried wool hair. I grease her from head to toe.
Nurses say her skin flake off because she don’t eat no vitamins. It’s the truth. McDonald’s, Dunkin Donut. I fixed up a pot of greens, half collards, half mustards, with a ham hock. She can’t eat them. They feed her through a tube in her nose. Smells sweet, like condensed milk.
The social worker come for Vietnam this time. She heavy and black like me, but in a suit every day. Clink gold earrings and bracelets. Perfume. She talk to phone, give phone to Vietnam. Vietnam talk to the phone, give it back. They talk about the end. Nothing they can do. Vietnam don’t understand. She see all those machines. Some machine must save him.
I believe them. They ain’t done nothin for Glo. Each time, she wake up, she go home, she shoot again. Social worker want me to take her home. She ain’t no puppy I can housetrain.
“Code Blue, ICU 3.” Social worker hush up, touch Vietnam’s shoulder. Vietnam face in hands. We wait.
A stranger doctor comes in, looks blank at me, like my table’s ready. “I’m sorry…”
Lord God. I push off to stand up. The blanket falls. The social worker moves toward me. “NO, Lord, NO.” My voice push her back.
Inside, Glo laid out, no tube, no IV. Clean and cut off . The machine still be pumping that man alive next door. Damn lucky Vietnam.
I lay my head down on Glo’s hard chest. Through the gown, I feel her shrunk up titty on her ribs No heart beat, or human smell. Washing powder in the cloth.
Time pass. I fall asleep? The nurse come in, say my name.
Papers to sign. Wait. Need my bag.
Just in time. Vietnam bent over my chair.
“Get away, girl!”
She slide sideways, head down. I see the blanket folded on the chair, next to my bag. On the table, a white handkerchief sits over the package of lemon drops set on Oprah. Glo’s picture propped up against the white. Fancy like a funeral.
Vietnam bent over next to me, silent. I bow my head, too. Me and Vietnam, we be standing there, together.
Printed with permission from Toni Martin, copyrighted by Toni Martin @ 2013. This piece originally appeared in Issue No. 15 of the Los Angeles Review.