The Nurse Attending

/ /

He’d tried to read it on the plane, on the flight from LaGuardia. Paul had sent the galleys not a month earlier, in fact the very week Sam’s mother called to explain how things stood. Perhaps thoughts of her distracted Sam as he read, or perhaps it was simpler than that. Perhaps he was jealous of Paul Van Kluyt, his best friend and now, if you believed the early reviews, an acclaimed novelist. Or else it was some fundamental, some elemental difference between them. Like Paul, Sam had been born in the American West. But when Sam thought of the American West, he did not think, as Paul seemed to, of blood-red sunsets and drug cartels, or of border patrol agents and mountain steeps the color of gunmetal. When Sam thought of the West, he thought of strip malls and interstates. He thought of the ridiculous airport in Denver, from which the Rockies were not even visible.

It was from this space-aged tent of the plains that Sam took a taxi to the hospital. His mother was awake by the time he got to her room, lying back against the pillow, very still. Her skin moistly pale and yellow, her eyes dark and huge in her skull. Here comes my baby, she called when Sam entered the room. Here comes my boy. He had smiled at this, even if a piece of him had known in that instant: Something bad is coming. Or rather, it had already come, and would indeed come again. Soon, Sam knew, he would find himself in a room not unlike this one, in which sang a disjointed chorus of machines, and there his mother would die.

This was perhaps how it began. There, in the surgical oncology wing of the University Hospital, where a small-boned, thin, blondish woman of about Sam’s age served as the nurse attending. Over the nurse’s hands and thin wrists and arms wandered tattoos of a vaguely floral theme. For the space of a day and a night, while the doctors kept his mother under observation, Sam could think of little save where the inked vines ended and bare flesh began.

On the morning his mother was released, Sam left the galley copy of Border Law in her hospital room in order to have an excuse to double back when they got to the parking garage. This was unlike Sam in almost every respect. After he had fetched the book, he found the nurse attending leaned across the reception desk, and he took down her number, and together they formed vague plans to go to the art museum on the nurse’s day off. When he had at last made his way back to the car, his mother was eyeing him suspiciously. Though the doctors had prescribed Dilaudid, it had done nothing to dull her wits.

How long does it take to get a book? she wondered aloud.

Sam made up a story about a line for the elevator, and a silence fell over the car which was the silence of her knowing he had lied. They were nearly to the interstate before she asked him:

How is it, by the way?

By then, Sam had managed to choke back perhaps a dozen pages of Border Law, all of which had concerned the history and prehistory of that crooked elbow of the Rio Grande where it was set, its flora and fauna.

Descriptive, he said after a long beat.

Hmm, said his mother, who had never thought much of Paul.


In those early days, she passed hour upon hour napping on the couch, one hand resting on the Jackson Pratt drain and the other cocked over her head. As she slept, Sam downloaded a slew of dating applications onto his phone. He swiped right on every picture, on every name, a blind hunger urging him on and on. In those days, he was like some adolescent farm boy, wild to couple with anything: with livestock, with mounds of soft earth. To each match, he sent the same message: What u up to?

That night, after he had helped his mother from the couch to her bed, he met a woman of advanced middle age and rough appearance at a bowling alley in Arvada. He would have known Cherry to smoke cigarettes only from the tarry taste of her mouth on his in the parking lot, never mind the dizzying fug in that double-wide trailer where they made love. The first thing she did after Sam had finished was roll over and light a cigarette. Leaning back on the thin pillow, her lips twisting to direct the smoke elsewhere, she asked:

So what? Her voice was a croak, her laugh this sepulchral rattle in her throat. This is like your thing?

What is?

Older ladies?

You’re not old, he told her.

Aint he sweet? Her laugh rattled again. But I never said old, I said older.

No, he said. It’s not my thing.

Cherry studied him absently while the room filled with the odor of her Canadian cigarette, a smell of wet leaves and butthole. So what do you do? she wondered after what seemed a long while.

For work?

Cherry shrugged.

Sam explained that he was in town for the week, visiting his mother from New York City. I’m a novelist, he told her, which was not true, strictly speaking: he was a man who happened to have published a novel, one the world had since forgotten. It would have been slightly more honest, slightly more accurate to say that he was a college professor, that he taught two sections of introductory creative writing, one fewer than the number at which Stuyvesant College would’ve been legally required to enroll Sam in the employee health plan. It would’ve been still more honest, still more accurate to explain that he’d had to borrow money from Jenn in order to cover his half of the rent, and that Jenn had also found Sam the job at the college, just as she had found his book a publisher. But he did not mention any of this.

I’m a novelist, he told Cherry, I teach creative writing.

When there was nothing left to tell, the woman spoke for a while about the last time she had been in the city, on a tour she’d taken through the Teamster’s Union. She talked about Central Park and the Met. She talked about the bare scar of earth where the Towers had been, and about the sadness that had swept over her as she stood before it. What a waste of human life, she said. When Cherry fell silent, Sam wondered aloud what she was doing on the following night. She gestured out her bedroom’s window, toward the hanger where a cherry-red semi-truck was parked.

I’ve got a haul, she said. I’ve got work, hon.


It was that next morning, thumbing through another of the dating apps, Sam found the profile. He was not sure it was Mona, at least at first. In the photograph, the woman’s face was tilted up and away from the camera, and the name above the profile read LAUREN. Apart from this, Mona lived some five-hundred miles south, in Albuquerque. And yet he seemed to recognize his stepmother’s slightly bulbous nose, just visible through the curtain of red hair. And though Mona was naturally a brunette, yet she was known to dye prolifically.

Sam remembered then, or rather he tried not to remember, the conversation with his father of a few weeks earlier. The conversation, as it happened, in which Sam explained that the man’s ex-wife was about to have a modified radical mastectomy. His father had groaned in sympathy. His father had advised Sam on the virtues of turmeric and jasmine flower, both of which had natural anti-inflammatory properties. Then his father had explained that Mona would be in Denver the week of the surgery, at the Southwest Pottery Show.

Call her up, cowboy, he’d told Sam. She’ll take you out to lunch.

Remembering this conversation, or trying not to while remembering nonetheless, Sam tapped through the profile’s remaining pictures.  Some were grainy, some were faraway. In the end, he thought he had only been imagining things: it was not Mona, after all. Or so he had decided when his mother’s sleepy voice drifted to him from the couch:

You spend, she said, an awful lot of time on your phone.

He looked up from the screen to find her arranged on the sofa in the manner of some sweatpanted Cleopatra. Slipping the phone into the back pocket of his jeans, he said, I thought you were asleep.  Some of the color had come back into her face, but the outsized eyes stared yet with their dark, post-operative intensity. It was as if the sickness they had cut from her had found its final abode there. Some kind of secret hideout.

I guess you’ve given up on Paul’s book? she said.

Sam shrugged, uncertain how to answer. The Pulitzer Prize winner was undoubtedly correct when she called Border Law a full-throttle whodunit full of compassion and violence; and yet the book bored Sam. Neither could Sam argue the two-time Booker Prize nominee’s assertion that debut novelist Paul Van Kluyt had the pen of a poet and the ear of a playwright; and yet, Sam found the writing obscurely egregious. By any metric, Border Law was a good book, and yet Sam knew in his heart that it was not even a decent one. Neither was it a bad book, exactly—no, it was something much worse than that. It was Literature. Which was to say, Paul’s book had the cringe-inducing gall to be beautiful.  Border Law was a book in which the strain of writing beautifully had seeped like a poison onto every page, every paragraph, every sentence, every word: a book not to be read, Sam realized suddenly, but to be admired.

There’s a lot to admire, he told his mother finally.

She nodded once, as though she’d expected as much: Okay then, she said. And so?

And so?

And so, what are you doing on that thing?

What thing?

What thing. Her eyes black slits now. She was not a person to whom one lied easily. What are you doing on your phone, Sam?

He told her, I’m on a dating app.

A dating app, she said.


What about Jenn?

Well. He shrugged. That’s kind of run its course.

Honey. His mother frowned, but the dark eyes watched him as though for a false move. You never said anything.

It’s kind of new, he explained. It kind of just happened.

I liked her, his mother said after a while. I liked Jenn a lot.

Yeah, he said. Me, too.

His mother was a great lover of British television, and as they spoke The Jewel in the Crown had warbled on her antediluvian TV set. After a moment, she reached to take the remote from the coffee table, turned the sound off. Then she lay regarding her son in perfect silence.

From long experience, Sam knew that one of the agonies particular to the children of psychotherapists was to be forever articulating their feelings. But he did not want to articulate anything. In some dark and unreckoned corner of himself, Sam must have wanted to be like his father: a concrete cowboy riding across experience, as it were, upon the roan mare of Time itself.

Okay, his mother said.

Okay what?

Okay, I guess you’re not ready to tell me about what happened with Jenn.

Sam shrugged, knowing his mother would not be put off so easily. Nor was she: And I guess that’s where you were last night?  Outside, as if on cue, the neighbor’s laying hens began to squabble. She went on, smiling, I heard you come in. Were you out on one of those dates?

I guess.

You guess?

Yes, he said. I was out on a date.

Okay, she told him. Then there’s no need to sneak around anymore.


But that night too Sam would wait until his mother lay abed with the Dilaudid kicking in her veins before driving out to meet a woman named Keira. At the appointed bar and hour, Sam ordered a beer and settled into a corner booth. He tried to sit upright, to appear like somebody unashamed of what he was doing. But this was hard going, for Sam was ashamed. At length, a man who had been standing over at the bar settled into the seat opposite his own.

Are you Sam? he said.

Sam studied the man. He was built, with a careful growth of stubble along his cheeks and jaw, streaks of silver in his gelled hair. Under the red glow of a neon Budweiser sign hanging in the nearest window, the tendons in his muscled neck bucked and writhed. He reminded Sam, Sam would later decide, of a model in an L.L. Bean catalogue.

I’m Steve, said the man at last. I’m Keira’s husband.

Sam made to rise from the booth, but Steve raised his oddly small, delicate hands. Take it easy, he told Sam. Hear me out. Sam sat, turning his head this way and that as he made a rapid count of potential witnesses. Thirteen. Fourteen, including the bartender. In the end, he settled once more into the booth and listened as Steve explained his arrangement with Keira.

When the telling was over, they made their way out to the parking lot. The day had been warm and mild but now something cold sifted under Sam’s collar. He was glad to climb back into the Subaru Impreza that smelled of burnt sage and of the clandestine cigarettes his mother smoked when nervous or afraid. He followed Steve’s silver Silverado out to a nice house in a nice neighborhood in Castle Rock. When he pulled into the driveway, Sam wondered whether Steve and his wife had many houseguests and, if so, what their neighbors made of this fact. There had been something in Steve’s way at the bar suggesting he had done all this before, perhaps many times.

Keira was standing in the brightly lit den when Sam followed her husband through the front door and inside, a woman neither less or more attractive than she had been in her profile picture. But this was perhaps the problem. Keira was the image itself made manifest, an automaton of some clever reprobate’s imagining. And though she smiled to shake Sam’s hand, there was a queer stillness to her eyes when she did it.

In the den before a gratuitous fire, Sam and Keira perspired under the glassy gaze of no fewer than three GoPro cameras. Steve had concealed sound equipment under the throw pillows of the couch and with equal care had modulated the brightness of the track lights. As Sam and Keira made love first on the sofa, then on the divan, Steve scampered among his cameras, sometimes adjusting this angle or that, sometimes calling out directions to Sam or to his wife.

In hindsight, it would seem to Sam that Keira and her husband were the beginning of the end. Though his vision was partly occluded by the leather mask he wore, yet Sam could see a bleak and hungry destiny playing out in Keira’s eyes. When finally the thing was through, Steve stood balling up the sheet with which he had covered the couch, grinning at Sam and his wife by turns. Slapping high fives.


The next morning it was as though Sam’s mother had traced the twisted trajectory of his thoughts. What do you hear from your father? she asked him. They were eating a breakfast of singed scrambled eggs, unevenly toasted toast, blueberries upon which a faint yellow fuzz had grown.

He’s all right, Sam shrugged.

Just all right? she wondered hopefully.

He said he was going to call you.

Oh. His mother nodded, then after a while: I’m sure he will.

They were silent then, picking through the blueberries.

How’s Mona doing?

Sam shrugged, shifting his gaze, pretending to study his mother’s frost-mangled vegetable garden. Yet he sensed her eyes watching him from the other side of the breakfast nook.

The three of us had lunch a few months ago, his mother went on, is why I ask. When I went down to Santa Fe for the opera, they drove up from Albuquerque. Your father’s way of saying we ought to let bygones be bygones, I guess.

Sam shrugged agreement, still staring at the rainbow kale where it lay like the fallen standard of some decimated regiment. She had planted too early again.

I liked her, his mother went on. Mona, I mean.

His mother seemed genuine, but no doubt the injustice of it had occurred to her, too. That her ex had packed his things into the bed of his pickup and gone south on interstate twenty-five with naught but the vaguest plans of starting over in New Mexico, that barely six months later he’d met fay, fine-boned Mona at the farmer’s market where she was selling her pottery, and married her six months after that,  and all by the grace of whatever insane, Old Testament god governs such things.

Sure, said Sam. I like Mona, too.

He’s lucky to have found her.

Sam sat thinking of the way his father’s jeans were wont to sag past the pale line of his hips, of the carpenter’s jacket smeared with roofing tar. He thought of the particular shade of red his father’s nose turned after three drinks. He said, Dad always punched above his weight, didn’t he? He had not meant this as a kindness, but his mother smiled at him.

Aint he sweet? she said. And when Sam only shuddered: I’m glad she’s in your life.

Yeah, he said. Me, too.

The garden blurred briefly before his eyes, and he turned again to the singed eggs and damp toast and began to eat. He said: I guess she’s in town. Some pottery thing. He was not sure why he’d told his mother this, or why it should feel like a confession.

You two ought to grab lunch, his mother said, without hesitation.

He glanced up at her, but she would not meet his eyes. She was looking out the window. With her index and pointer fingers, she turned a strand of her black-silk hair. She had beautiful hair, always had. It would be not quite six months, not until the recurrence and chemo, before it fell out.

I’m serious, his mother said that morning, now in the absent tone that meant she had formed firm opinions.

You’re sick of me, he observed.

She smiled at him. She said that wasn’t it, at all. But the house never seemed quite so small as it did when he came home for a visit.

But what about you? he asked.

What about me? she asked.

What if you need something?

His mother only lifted her arm, flexing the bicep.

I don’t know, Sam told her. It’s early for you to be alone.

She made her exasperated noise then. Sam had left her alone for two nights running, she observed aloud. Besides, it was silly for them both to be cooped up in the house all day. She said she wanted Sam to get out, to see his friends from high school, though she knew as well as he did that his high school friends, not including Paul Van Kluyt, were scattered far and wide, that he hardly spoke to them anymore.

You know what? his mother said, smiling mysteriously. It’s too bad we left the hospital before you had a chance to connect with that nurse.

He played dumb without exactly knowing why. Who? he said.

The nurse, she said. The one with the tattoos. The one you spent two days flirting with.

What do you mean? he said. What do you mean, connect with her?

I don’t know. His mother shrugged. Get her number, ask her out. Do people still do that, or is it all online these days?


Not long after breakfast, the gray smear of a raincloud crested the foothills to west of Golden and edged across the city, over the plains. Under such a sky, the art museum lay sprawled like the abandoned origami project of a demented giant. The nurse attending was waiting for him at the south entrance, sheltering under an enormous umbrella. She wore cutoff jeans and a blood-red tank top and both of these clothing items suggested that the sprawling green vines found their terminus or perhaps their root in the general vicinity of her womb.

She only smirked when Sam offered the soaked windbreaker he wore, he could not think why. It was as though in offering he had broken some accord they had formed in the hospital, some treaty over which a grim-faced Cupid had presided. By the time Sam flew back to New York, the nurse’s name and her face would have nearly faded from his memory. But always he would recall the contempt in her blue or green or perhaps brown eyes when he held open the museum’s door, her sneer when he offered to carry the umbrella.

I’ll check it, she told him.

How slowly they seemed to pass among the beveled hallways of that museum’s collection of Native American art. Past totem poles whereupon bears and hawks squatted in attitudes of fond embrace. Past ceremonial robes embroidered with snow-white and sky-blue and blood-red beads that marked the skeletons and organs and arteries of those animals from which they had come. Past pipes carved from the bones of elk and antelope, past the hide satchels wherein such pipes were carried by chiefs long since betrayed by blue-eyed men in blue uniforms.

At last, they arrived at the Aztec exhibit. And here stood Mona in a scarf, in one of her gypsy dresses, her face pressed against a glass display containing the jade and onyx relics of empire. Beside her, a man. The man wore tapered corduroys and Chelsea boots, a belt of braided leather, and a blue collared shirt under a brown wool cardigan that flattered his robust torso. A fawnskin trench coat was folded neatly over his left arm. But even without these items, it would have been impossible to ignore his more than passing resemblance to Keira’s husband. Was he wearing the exact pair of Warbie Parker spectacles favored by Steve, or was this some invention of Sam’s memory? Sam would never know.

Already it was too late to run away. Before Sam could break for the elevator bay, his stepmother was turning to him, gasping, Sam! And though Mona herself smiled enormously to behold her stepson, there was yet something fearful and uncertain in her gaze.

Hi, he told her.

Wow, she said, coming forward. Wow!

A brief scuffle over a hug ensued. The nurse attending had stood off to one side of the glass display, examining or pretending to examine a twelve-year calendar the size of a manhole cover. It was through her eyes, the nurse’s, that Sam seemed to perceive the strangeness that came next. First, a pretty, middle-aged woman with purple hair stepped forward, her hand outheld:

I’m Mona, she said to the nurse.

Next, a man dressed like a model in an L.L. Bean catalogue came forward to take first the nurse’s hand, then Sam’s:

Carl, he said.

Carl’s a friend of mine from the pottery show, said Mona.

Carl’s eyes swung briefly over to Sam’s stepmother. He cleared his throat, smiling with none of his teeth.

Nice meeting you both, said Carl.

See you later, said Sam, taking the nurse’s hand and walking quickly toward the Yaqui deer dance display. A thin, cold finger was slowly tracing the length of his spine when he heard Mona calling after him, her voice pleading:


He half-turned to where she stood next to Carl.

Give Ava my best, she called.

Sam nodded, then he and the nurse walked quickly past the deer dance display, out into the hallway. They waited for the elevator in silence. When it came at last, they rode alone to the ground floor, listening to the clean whir of the cables. Neither spoke until they came to the coat check, where the nurse handed her red token to a black-vested volunteer standing on the far side of the saloon door.

Who was that? asked the nurse. Upstairs, I mean.

My stepmom, Sam replied. But he could see from the way the nurse avoided his eyes that she had guessed as much.

Outside, they huddled under the enormous umbrella, shivering like the passengers of a life raft. Sam wondered aloud did the nurse feel like getting dinner someplace. He could not think what had compelled him to ask, since by now he was ready for the ride to be over. But then the nurse said:

I have food at my place. We could eat there.

The nurse lived in a condominium due west of Coors Field, and her bed sat directly beneath an east-facing window. When it was over, Sam played a game of shutting each eye in turn, thereby making the green lip of the stadium disappear beneath the cut of the windowsill. This was what he was doing when the nurse asked, Who do you think that guy was?


The guy with your stepmom.

The nurse had lain her faceless head against his chest. When he glanced down at her, she smoothed away from him.

I don’t know, he said. I’ve never met him before.

The nurse began slowly, carefully, I thought at first. At first, anyway. It sort of looked like they were on a date, didn’t it, at least at first?

The afternoon game against Cincinnati had been rained out, but the floodlights shone white against the purpling sky.

Maybe they were, he said. And for the first time that afternoon, the nurse laughed.

But Sam had not meant it as a joke. Sam had been thinking of Keira, and of Steve. In retrospect, there was something perhaps tender about the thing. Something sweet. Sam thought of Steve running here and there among his cameras like a little boy at the controls of a train set. Sam thought of Keira patiently enduring, pretending to like it, even. What did he know, after all, of love’s obscure and lonely offices?


For the next two days, as The Jewel in the Crown slowdanced to its conclusion, Sam hardly left his mother’s side. When she slept, he’d take out Paul’s book and read. It was easy enough reading, he discovered, when he managed to put from his mind who’d written it. The last hundred-or-so pages he gulped back in a single sitting. Outside, the last rainclouds burned off and the sun painted the dusty yard a mustard-yellow. He’s such a good writer, Sam thought almost proudly, almost miserably, when all that remained to read was half a page of acknowledgements.

The day his mother drove him to the airport, he left the galley copy of Border Law on the nightstand in the guestroom: keepsake, memento, mummy’s claw. It was nearly ninety degrees outside, and as they drove east on the interstate they had the windows up and the air conditioning blasting. On Colorado Public Radio, a professor from the university in Boulder was talking about the unprecedentedly dry winter, about forest fires in the summer. It seemed to Sam that the whole world had reached an unspoken agreement. It was time to die, the whole world had decided. But Sam did not feel like dying yet. He was relieved when they came to the Peña Boulevard exit and his mother reached to turn the radio off.

She began in her lightest tone: I’ll miss having someone waiting on me hand and foot—

But the words shriveled in her throat. Though she was a woman whose stock in trade was emotion, she was uncomfortable when people became emotional. She laid her hand briefly on Sam’s, then jerked her thumb toward the Impreza’s backseat:

There should be a box of tissues back there, she said.