The first time you saw Abigail, you knew she was something special.
She has doe eyes and thick hair the color of cigarette ashes. She knows all the patients’ names, even the ones who have gone senile—the ones who keep screaming, bucking against their wheelchairs. She’ll lift her thick curtain of hair and say, “Howdy Ray” or “Hi, Miss Ida” as they shuffle around the lobby or walk near her desk.
Mostly, she answers phones and sorts through the old book-and-magazine donations that the churches donate to the Home. She stacks some into piles, throws others away—too mildewed, too ripped. Sometimes, the Mormons from Swiss Colony send her those little Bibles. The red covers stink of new plastic but their pages are thin as rolling papers. When she looks up in the lobby and gives a hint of that smile, it’s golden.
One Sunday, she sat behind the reception desk, leafing a yellowing copy of Good Housekeeping. This cover promised an exciting interview with Betty Ford, but some of the letters were cut from its pages: an A from a tobacco advertisement, an F cut from a recipe involving chicken and mayonnaise.
“Looks like someone was making a ransom note.” You wiped your brow with a clumsy hand.
“Probably just some kids doing a school project.” She flipped a page. “I’m sure if someone kidnapped me, you guys would try to find me, wouldn’t you?”
Abigail never does anything with her hair. Sometimes she pulls it back, but that’s understandable when you work around senile people confined to one space.
One orderly told you about the time an old man bit him on the leg, teeth bared like a dog’s. The dentures clamped hard enough on his thin fibula that it shattered without breaking skin.
One woman attempted to jab the head nurse in his ear—with a knitting needle, of all things—because she thought she had been kidnapped from her home. Residents attack each other like animals, their anger brash and vicious. You’ve seen men beaten bloody in the infirmary before, but somehow the infirmary at Twin Oaks seems unnatural, all those old people moaning under cardboard-rigid hospital sheets.
At the nursing home, you hide money so that they don’t find it—the orderlies. Your wife used to do the exact same thing, in the strangest places. One morning, inside the medicine cabinet, you found a hundred dollars rolled into an empty aspirin bottle. When you’d walk to the garage to get a Mason jar of her homemade pickles, you’d find forty dollars sitting on the shelf.
You could just cram the wrinkled five-dollar bills into rolls of socks, but nowadays, that’s the first place the nurses look, so now you stick the bills flat between the thin pages of the Gideon’s Bibles or inside a half-empty tissue box.
You’d always believed in saving. In case of accidents. Your wife would agree. She’d just look up with that look on her face and say, “We’re okay, baby, aren’t we?” and you’d stroke her hair, feel rough day-laborer’s hands snagging like Velcro.
Even though the calendar in the lobby says it’s November, it still feels like September outside. You don’t even have to wear a jacket when Abigail walks home. Before she gets off her shift, you go to the smoking gazebo, outside and really notice your hands, palms are softer but knuckles clutch the air, rigid. Imagine running your fingers through hair, now uninhibited by the old working callouses.
Lately, you’d been checking yourself out of the home and taking walks. Sometimes, it’s the short bus ride over to the city cemetery. Charlotte’s buried there, and so is your mama.
But mostly, you like to go to pawn stores or swap meets. You can tell a lot about a person based on how hard they try to get a sale. Sometimes you just have to tell them you’ll find it when you find it.
Abigail doesn’t live too far away from the nursing home, right near the pawn shop. She doesn’t pay much attention with her headphones on. Her shoulders seem best fit by guiding hands, meant to steer her home. She’s a romantic, a lot like Charlotte was, especially in the way she looks off into the distance, like she’s dreaming.
At first you only walked her to the end of the street, but lately you follow her almost the rest of the way to her house. It’s a ritual, watching her walking ahead, her hair swinging behind her like a cat’s tail
The holidays were always a big deal to Charlotte. When you came back from the war, the house was frozen in a stale Christmastime. Packages sat untouched under the browning fir tree, covered in a thick layer of pine needles. The stockings were sooty from the fireplace, and the floor was dusty. What could you do but hug her, anyway, and tell her you’d never go away again, not like that?
Abigail’s living room gets darker and darker as the time ebbs. Shadows begin to sink down into the walls and underneath the furniture. The hall closet smells like her perfume and the musk of old coats. You can hear a creak if someone walks by the closet. Her footsteps are delicate, and you can hear the floorboards giving as she heads upstairs.
Her red front door easily opens up to a cheery yellow living room. Abigail is hopelessly naive. The couch has a knit quilt draped across it. The quilt is red and green and smells like her shampoo. She has already decorated for Christmas. The tree is plastic and covered in cheap ornaments. There is dust on the floor, in the corners.
The stairs won’t creak or groan under your steps since you’ve found the imperfections earlier. The door to her room opens with a soft brush of air.
Abigail lies in bed, her eyes closed. If you flick your Zippo, the light shines close enough to see the little baby hairs around her crown, downy soft like a kid’s. The sweet-smelling butane burns your nose, and when you lean over her, you can no longer smell her perfume. You just can’t help wanting to touch that hair, thick as anything, but you don’t.
Instead, your stomach lurches—leave her room—out the door and down the stairs quick—but you can’t stop thinking about her hair on that bleach-white pillow.
Shaun Turner is the author of ‘The Lawless River’ (Red Bird Chapbooks) and serves as fiction editor for Stirring: A Literary Collection, and co-editor at Fire Poetry Journal. His writing can be found in or is forthcoming from New South, Appalachian Heritage, New Madrid, and Beecher’s Magazine, among others. Shaun earned his MFA at West Virginia University.