No amount of pleading or pain meds could stop Mr. Villanueva from yowling like a depressed cat at night. After his roommate threatened to sue the hospital for emotional distress, the nurses decided that Mr. Villanueva deserved a private room. From that came my first candy striper assignment to convert Room 128, which stored pumps, IVs, and lots of other fancy get-well equipment. When the novelty of my tasks wore off, I made a game out of seeing how close the pump stands could get to the service elevator after one good shove down the empty hall, and whistled while hauling the empty shelving to the basement. I didn’t think annoying the nurses a little was that big a deal, until one of them pulled me aside.
Her badge said Maya, a name that complemented her doughy body and velvet-black eyes while underscoring the sharpness of her words. “How would you feel, Haylee, about having to spend your sick days alone in a closet?”
“But how will he know it’s a closet after I convert it?” I countered.
“Normal rooms have windows.”
“Yeah, but there’s nothing to see besides a parking lot and a cornfield.”
“You’ve got a lot to learn, child. How do you know if the sun’s up or down without a window?”
I hesitated, unsure if she wanted an answer or an apology for something I didn’t think was my fault. “Why are we moving him then?”
“Construction of the long-term care wing has been postponed ‘til the state thaws the funding or the Browns win the Super Bowl, whichever comes first.” Maya frowned. “Paying patients get priority.”
“Is that legal?”
Maya shushed me. “That’s not the kind of thing you yell out in a hospital.”
“I wasn’t yelling—”
“All the same. Just work a lot quieter, child. Please.”
After I finished cleaning out Room 128, I stood in there for a long while, imagining myself bedridden. The room felt smaller than before, like an empty shoebox. The longer I stared, the more I saw the shelves I just removed; faint smoky lines striped the white walls like an old prison uniform. I wondered if all the studying needed to become a doctor would be worth all the money my father seemed to think I’d want.
Over dinner that night, I told my father about Mr. Villanueva’s new room and asked what I should do.
“Damn straight that ain’t fair,” he said. “Being the only hospital in town don’t give them the right to do whatever. That man’s family should file a complaint.”
“He doesn’t seem to have a family. Or, at least, no one visits him.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Yeah, I know. The nurses say Mr. Villanueva doesn’t have any insurance either.”
“Aha, now I see the crook in the river.” My father’s face hardened with a sudden fierceness. “Don’t you waste your mind worrying about him. You just worry about you. I’ll bet the closet he’s getting is cleaner than any hospital room back where he snuck over from.”
I flinched, still not used to the anger that often engulfed him since the factory shutdown. My father wasn’t good at being idle, not even after six months of practice.
You’d better listen to me, Haylee, and soak up as much Spanish as you can before you graduate and get the hell out of here.
“You’d better listen to me, Haylee, and soak up as much Spanish as you can before you graduate and get the hell out of here. Everything’s cheaper in Costa Rica, so that’s where the world’s moving to. ’Cause the quality inspection’s always better when it’s cheaper.” He snorted and took a swig of his beer. “Guess you can go there if you’re still dead set on being a starving artist. Live off the coconuts or bananas or whatever grows free on the trees.”
I started to point out that my portrait of him won first prize at the last county fair, but he whooped at the television. The Browns had scored a winning touchdown against the Steelers, and a rare smile from my father filled the kitchen. He didn’t need to hear any more about my problems when he’d momentarily forgotten his own.
* * *
A few days later, the hospital pronounced Room 128 inhabitable and Mr. Villanueva disappeared inside it. The nurses kept saying how he was much more manageable during the night shift, and I gathered that they liked his new distance from their station. During the evenings I volunteered, whenever his room number lit up on the switchboard, they took their time answering him. Although he called them all the time, he rarely asked for anything other than ice cream, something they allowed him only once a day. It didn’t surprise me when he finally went on a hunger strike about a week after his move. But I couldn’t believe what Maya wanted to do about it.
“Haylee’s nice and young enough to be his daughter,” she said to the other nurses, “and he hasn’t had a chance to not like her yet. Let her try to feed him tomorrow.”
I didn’t want to do it. Taking water and Jell-O to cooperative patients was one thing, while trying to stick a spoonful of mashed potatoes in Mr. Villanueva’s mouth was another. How could I deal with a stranger’s anger when I wanted to hide from my father’s? Still, I couldn’t say no when it seemed that everyone else had already given up on him.
That Saturday, I brought Mr. Villanueva his breakfast. His room was dim except for the bright glare of the local news on the television, the only decoration on the otherwise naked white walls. While I set up his food tray and a chair for myself near his bed, he glanced at me with disinterest before shifting his gaze back to the nothingness on his right. Where a window might normally be.
“The sky’s so cloudy, it looks like evening already,” I said. “It’s supposed to rain all day.”
He looked at me fully and—though he appeared doubtful of my weather report—I felt encouraged. I realized then that he wasn’t as old as I originally thought. His brown face carried heavy bags under his eyes but no wrinkles, and gray dusted the black hair above his ears. Almost every part of him, from his nose to his shoulders, sloped down as though burdened by a weight I couldn’t see. Ignoring his gauntness, I put him in his late thirties or early forties, around my father’s age.
I filled his fork with scrambled eggs. “Can I help you eat?”
He turned away before I could even lift the fork.
“You’ll get sicker if you don’t eat something besides ice cream.”
His cracked lips thinned into a tight line of resistance.
“Mr. Villanueva? Please eat.”
Without meeting my eyes, he shook his head. I offered the melon slices and toast from his plate, but he refused all of it. He even snubbed the apple juice I brought him because he rebuffed the milk that came with his meal. After an hour of gridlock, I trudged back to the nurses’ station thinking that was the end of it. I didn’t like failing, but I disliked rejection even more.
“Least he didn’t splatter the walls,” Maya said, laughing. The others agreed and decided that I should try to feed Mr. Villanueva again, in spite of my open dismay. Frustrated, I took twice as long of a morning break, but no one seemed to notice.
When I failed to persuade Mr. Villanueva to eat lunch, the nurses punished us both by sending me to Room 128 with his dinner. By then I decided that my time in there shouldn’t be a total letdown. I found the television remote and began channel surfing for something decent to watch while he ignored me.
“Por favor, stop!”
I dropped the remote, shocked by the weak rasp of his voice.
“Go back, miss. Two channels, I think.”
I did as he asked, and landed on a Spanish-speaking game show. He sat up straighter, and my father’s warning came back to me.
“Me llamo, Haylee.” I paused, internally slamming my accent and translating a plea for him to eat. “Puedas comer, por favor?”
He studied me for a moment, the corners of his mouth twitching indecisively. “You learning Spanish in school?”
“Yes—I mean, sí. At least until it gets cancelled at the end of the year.”
“You are lucky. I did not learn English until I came here for work. These”—he held out calloused, trembling hands—“were stronger then. On my father’s farm in Nicaragua, I could hold many, many sugarcane stalks together and then break them with my hands. But three weeks ago, I am trying to break a wall in a house much, much older than me, and the hammer falls from my hand. Then I fall to the floor in pain.” He caressed the plain, gold band on his ring finger. “My wife fell in love with my strength. I am happy she is too far away to see me like this.”
“Doesn’t she know you’re sick?”
“Not yet. I will tell her if I cannot send her money next month.”
“But what if you’re dead before then? And she never finds out what happened to you?” I blinked hard, horrified at how my thoughts escaped so easily. His face didn’t reflect my discomfort though, so after a moment I tried to explain myself. “My dad didn’t let me visit my mother in the hospital because he thought seeing her sick would give me nightmares. But I wouldn’t have cared what she looked like. I just hate that I had less time with her.”
“I have not seen my wife or sons in five years. It would be better for them to stay there than to waste money coming here.”
“Well, maybe you could go visit them when you’re better. Just one plane ticket can’t be that bad if you buy it on sale.”
His eyes dropped, and suddenly I realized the unspoken truth; he couldn’t fly home, not unless he never wanted to work here again. Before I could think of a way to apologize, he plucked the rye bread and the milk from his tray.
“Just this today,” he said. “Please take everything else away.”
I shuffled back to the nurses’ station, uncertain of whether I had made things better or worse. I told Maya what Mr. Villanueva took from the tray, and started to confess how I offended him, but she cut me off.
“Hey ladies,” she sang out, drawing the attention of the other nurses nearby, “Room 128 is eating! And we owe it all to our sweet Haylee!”
They rewarded me with a standing ovation, and then bombarded me with questions about how I did it. Their enthusiasm convinced me I had done good, so I announced a confident diagnosis of loneliness. By the time I finished my shift, I floated on pride.
That night, my father rolled his eyes when I bragged about my success.
“When you were little, Haylee, you’d eat black-eyed peas like there was no tomorrow when your mama fixed them. All the time, you’d clean your plate of those peas. But after she died, you wouldn’t touch them and I couldn’t figure out why. I kept scratching my head, thinking there must’ve been some secret ingredient I was missing. Then I noticed the dug up dirt in your mama’s snake plant pot.” He tapped his fingers on the kitchen table with a bittersweet expression. “You’d been squirreling those peas in your cheeks and then burying them.”
I crossed my arms in defiance. “So, you don’t believe he really ate.”
“You see him put any of it in his mouth?”
“But why would he lie?”
“Why’d you lie to your mama?”
I saw where my father was going and I hated that pessimistic place. “Why would a sick man care what a 16-year-old candy striper thinks of him?”
“He probably doesn’t. But you had to report to the nurses, didn’t you?”
“Of course. That’s my job. So what?”
“So maybe he thinks good behavior will get him what he really wants.”
“And what would that be?”
“Just wait and see, Haylee.”
* * *
It twisted me to think he possibly fooled me, that I might need to accept any part of the worldview thrown in my face at home.
The next morning while my father attended church, I went to the hospital, praying on the drive over that my patient would prove him wrong. I knew I wasn’t a doctor, but my mind carried a similar burden of responsibility. It twisted me to think he possibly fooled me, that I might need to accept any part of the worldview thrown in my face at home.
I hurried to Room 128, but stopped short in the doorway. My patient moaned and twisted in bed as Maya loomed over him. Her clenched fist crinkled a clear plastic bag with a tube coiled inside.
“Come now, Mr. V, nobody’s hurting you,” she said. “Least, not yet. That’s why you and I are having this little discussion, to remind you that you agreed to let us do what’s best for you when you checked yourself in here.”
“But I eat,” he cried.
“Your protein levels say otherwise. And what good do you think that’s gonna do your ailing kidneys?”
“I eat bread. Ask Señorita Haylee.”
“Then where’d the bread in your pillowcase come from?”
“I eat different bread just yesterday. Pregúntale! Go ask Señorita Haylee.”
“Mr. V, don’t you go pulling that child into this mess with any more lies. Lying won’t get you out of this room any more than refusing to eat. And like I already told you, if you don’t start putting food in your mouth with your own two hands, you’re going to force us—for your own good—to put this tube up your nose—”
“—down your throat—”
“—and into your belly.”
I ran out of the hospital, gagging and clutching my own gut. A few feet from the bus stop, I lost the cereal I ate for breakfast. Like a ringing in my ears, his wails trailed after me, pleading for mercy.
* * *
That night, the crickets kept me awake and worrying about poor Mr. Villanueva. Because I failed him, he would fail his wife. A feeling of uselessness overcame me as I sank deeper and deeper into my bed, until the mattress towered like a wall around my body and then engulfed me like a monstrous marshmallow. I woke shivering but sweaty.
With the nightmare raw on my nerves, I climbed out of bed and used the glow of my laptop screen to drive away the darkness in my bedroom. I searched the Internet for pictures of Nicaraguan sugarcane farms, wanting a glimpse of what Mr. Villanueva left behind. What I found opened my eyes to what he must really want, something inadvertently taken away from him. I grabbed my sketchbook and pencils, overwhelmed by the urge to draw a landscape both foreign and surprisingly familiar.
Before dawn broke, I headed down to the basement, where my easel and oil paints waited near the window, and began translating my graphite picture into one full of color. Reds, browns, and blacks formed the fertile earth; sugarcane stalks grew tall in greens, olives, and yellows. I cast the sun in a pool of oranges, pinks, purples, and my own shade of crimson. As the field sprouted to life beneath my brushes and fingers, so did my sense of purpose. I didn’t stop painting until the basement stairs creaked under my father’s feet.
“You better get ready for school,” he said. “Your alarm’s been ringing for a good twenty minutes. Do you realize there’s green paint all in your—Haylee, what’s this?” He stood behind me, peering at the wet canvas.
“What’s it look like?” I asked.
“The cornfield behind the hospital.” His brow wrinkled as he studied it more. “I take that back. Everything looks wilder, more alive. Like the leaves are trying to eat that path you put in the middle. It ain’t corn, is it?”
“What is it then?”
“My imagination, mostly.”
“Do you want to hang it in the living room?”
“Thanks, Dad, but…” I hesitated, afraid to spoil his opinion of my work if I told him the whole story. “Somebody at the hospital asked me to paint this for them.”
“That’s too bad. I would’ve liked to keep this one.”
“I could make another for you.”
He nodded slowly. “I’ll let you borrow it back for the county fair then.”
* * *
I hung the painting where a window should be, and then waited for Mr. Villanueva to return from his tests. At first I sat in the only chair in Room 128, working off my anxiousness with bobbing knees. A while later, I moved to a spot at the nurses’ station where I could both keep busy and discretely peer down the hallway at all the elevator traffic.
By the time my shift ended, so had the heady anticipation I brought with me to the hospital that morning. Instead, I worried that all the time I spent painting and planning the best way to sneak my gift into the hospital would be for nothing. Someone would take down the picture before Mr. Villanueva could see it.
As I trudged down the hall to leave, I noticed a low whine, like the slow stroking of a violin string that needed tuning, coming from Room 128. The sound became more melodious as I drew closer. Peering inside the room, I saw Mr. Villanueva propped up in his bed and singing to my painting. His face shone wet in the lamplight. Embarrassed that I interrupted such a private moment, I started to walk away but he locked eyes with me.
“You make this?”
“Yes,” I whispered, stepping just inside the doorway. “It’s supposed to be your father’s sugarcane farm.”
“So it is. I can see the sun setting with the same beautiful colors I remember. I miss walking in the field with my wife while she laughs at my singing. In the other room, I could pretend the corn outside was sugarcane and that my wife can hear me sing. I wanted to tell the nurses, but…how could they understand?” His gaze stretched past me, possibly returning to the home he missed, before coming back to me with a nostalgic smile. “Gracias, for my window.”
I nodded, unable to speak around the lump in my throat.
“You look too sad, Señorita Haylee. Please sit, and let me sing for you.”
Although I didn’t understand any of the words, I loved the way his voice trembled like a leaf rustling in the wind. I remember it every time I see a cornfield. Or taste something sweet.