Seven Years of Cups

Natanya Ann Pulley


After my wife had the third baby in the same hospital room we've been in for seven years, the nurses pulled out the baby clothes we used for the first two kids. Not all of the items kept together well. The thin blue cloth of hospital gowns cinched and manipulated into onesies and dresses and those pants with the snaps all along the bottom were spread out on top of my father's comatose body. It's not unusual anymore for us to use that space as a surface. It all started when we covered him in Christmas lights and stuffed the presents underneath his adjustable bed. Sometimes the world under my father is just storage.

This third baby is now eighteen months old and 21.5 pounds and 30.1 inches. Her audiologist is around often. Almost daily, he pokes his head in and asks what's for lunch while pointing to one of our discarded lunch trays. Tacos. Grilled Chicken. Veggie Lasagna. Today I say, "Roast beef." My cheery wife offers, "Chicken Makhani and a cup of Pepper Rasam," and his smile broadens. We know none of us have had anything other than hospital food, let alone Indian, for at least seven years now. Nurse Maris brushes by him and he straightens up, walks his long body entirely into the room and stops pretend-itching his ear. He winks at my wife.

I think they fuck down in the morgue. I've almost caught them twice in the large handicap bathroom on the 4th floor, Tower B.

"How's he doing today, Maris?" He asks. Now folding his arms and pretending not to see my wife shift what little weight she has to her right side as she uncrosses and crosses her legs.

"He's wonderful," Nurse Maris answers. She pushes the middle child's Legos off of father. A council of blue towers fall. She kicks them under the bed. The middle child doesn't cry anymore when his work tumbles off my father. He doesn't ask if Granpop moved either. Once: Was that him? The child's eyes the size of petri dishes. But no more of that. No more Uh-oh when he rips out the IV. He just sticks it back in.

We have a third kid. The big one. 7 years old, 56 pounds, 47.7 inches. I don't know if they are a girl or boy. They tuck the hospital gown here and there to make pants sometimes. Sometimes they drape it. At first, I worried father would wake up and see the kid and demand to know which he or she was. I played around with many answers. It is what it is, dad, which is something I said a lot year three of living here. New people coming in and out of the room to check on us and me always answering "It is what it is" and taking a razor to father's gruff. But calling the child "it" never felt secure in me. They are what they are, dad, I'd say.

Actually I haven't seen the kid in a few months. But I know they are around. The nurses say they are very helpful around here. Likes to help with the filing and running down doctors and administrators with forms to sign. The kid needs some experiences outside this room. There's only our home and father's shell to keep us busy in here. I used to impose some order on the room. I made a kitchen by the sink and even brought in a contractor friend. He measured up the place and wrote a bid. Then muttered about building codes and red tape. He was just trying to help out, but by the time the staff caught up with us, I'd already dug a needle through to his bone. They don't let those things sit around anymore. And I've stopped worrying about building onto this home.

Eventually we just piled in here and let it be what it was. The kids learning what they could in other towers and from other patients and various aides and technicians. The cafeteria always open even if the lights weren't on. They'd shown us how to get through the locks. Whatever we needed. Whatever you need, everyone said. Whatever you need. I thought we could maintain this life pretty well, but soon my wife was down at the gift shop everyday and talking about the garden between Towers A and B. I could see her down there from father's room. At first she met our friends and neighbors there, then other visitors, and then her lovers. Too many to count now.

Though I haven't actually caught her yet with the audiologist. I assume she thinks the morgue is the only part of this place I haven't seen yet. She couldn't be more wrong. I go down there everyday when she takes her shower. It's cold like you'd imagine. Steel things like you'd imagine. But also it's just a room. I lie on the tables and pull a sheet over me. Wait and wait. Wonder what waiting is to those that can't wait anymore. Does my father wait?

You won't believe the amount of fucking that happens in that room. The positions alone are ridiculous. I think it must be that no one wants to look very long at any one thing in a morgue, so there's all sorts of adjusting and flipping and balancing and always the closing of eyes. But the mouths clenched. You'd think they'd be open the way mouths and things want to be open and merge or open to release when touched. But really everything is tightly drawn up. No one wants the stale air of that place in them. They all want to feel alive. Once while hiding in a small nook near the lockers, I saw twelve people in there. All up inside one another. All tongues and hands and genitals. The smell of recently sterilized utensils still in the air.

I have yet to find my wife there, though I'm sure she's soon to arrive. Everyone has been there at one point or another. Even the other coma patients are wheeled in, usually around holidays and when there was that heat wave a few summers back. I've been measuring the space between the wheel marks on the floor of my father's room and the wall to see if someone has carted him anywhere while I slept. Yesterday I put a few chalk lines on the wheels just to see if they moved at all.

I'm very watchful in year seven, which wasn't always the case.

I imagine many would say floating through the first months of our new home wasn't the best move on my part, and maybe it has led to my wife's adventures with the hospital staff. We came in either to have the first baby or to watch my father die. I can't remember which it was. I just remember one day there was a baby in her and my father was awake and the next, the baby was out and father was what he is now. I wanted to name the child after my grandfather, but my wife said the baby will "make its name known" within a few hours of holding and cooing and kissing it. But the baby never did or I wasn't there when it happened or maybe we were all back in my father's room at the same time and my father moved not a bit and the baby's name fell to the floor to be swept up with the candy and sandwich wrappers that littered this room for the next seven years. The middle child came with a burst of excitement that ended in another room while I held my father's hand and explained to him that things were going to change, that we'd need more room, that we didn't have enough money to keep things as they were, that letting go—letting go—there needed to be some letting go like letting the poisoned blood out and into plates and vials. Dark, slow, and misguided, but the best option for what we knew in that moment. But father never said a word and this was his worst sort of disapproval and the third baby came and suddenly it had been many years since we left this place.

All the while there were kids dying around my kids and volunteer teachers carving out ten minutes here and there to teach them a thing or two and there were always still holidays. An Easter egg hunt that led to my father's bed and underneath were his unopened gifts from all the years before and the children's hand-me-down clothes and the names of my children and every recycled paper cup I used because I was too embarrassed to let anyone know I urinated in my coffee travel mug when I couldn't leave my father's side after I thought I saw his spirit escape into a heating vent only to roll back out with each new winter as soon as the cold bite hit.

While buying another coffee-plain-coffee with a nod to Lula, this week's barista, I watched her try to force more discarded cups into one of those super thin and cheap garbage bags that we have started to use as strainers in our make-shift kitchen. From just one day there seemed to be a hell of a lot of cups. So many so that seven years worth shoved under the bed of my father seems to be a possible un-truth that has floated around inside me for so very many days.

In fact, the recycled paper cup can't be squished down so far as to allow for seven years of cups (8-10 a day) to go unnoticed. And it might be that my father's bed could soon be stirred by this growing pile, which would then throw off the measurements of the bed's position in the room, which would then lead to a false reading of whether or not my father's body was being used in the morgue orgy like all the other forever un-peopled. And it's not that I want to deny the rights of my father to experience the last thrusts and gyrations of what we call life; he was a man that would do whatever it was he wanted to do, of course. But what feels so wrong is that my wife could easily be in the mix and wouldn't my children and I one day notice that both Granpop and wife were gone for long periods of time and returned to us a bit lighter in step or with some sort of new happiness that comes from not being just shell people and wouldn't that be something awful to face? That sort of betrayal of having a life even if it was shoved into less than an hour of fluids and worming?

The walls of Tower B no longer look coated in beige ants, but I can see there is an expensive-for-us embossed wallpaper along it that has grown its way from the oncology and baby care unit towards the un-lifed Tower B floor where everything is wheeled in to be forgotten. The wallpaper runs out before my father's floor. And what it looks like to me is that someone in this building, some administrator who doesn't have to live here, wants to make use of extra building expenditures and there's always that push to make each tower and the entire conclave of these buildings and structures, this municipality of blue arrows on the ground and pink baby feet footprints along the walls into a thing of itself—a whole thing of itself. A nation. A country. As if we all are here under one banner and with one goal, which should be to get better and get the fuck out, I guess.

This isn't the first time I've been told this place no longer wants to house us or my father. This isn't the first time the space of my father has been called many things other than a man. And it's not the first time I've demanded we continue sustaining in this room, with this weight, with these items, and with the uncanny reassurance of Nurse Maris and that sleazy audiologist robbing our kid of his own language and culture and the hospital gown clothing and the terrible half-smiles of the volunteer staff.

By the time I pass the no-longer-weeping partner next to his husband's bed in room 1053A, I can hear my father's bed rustling behind the closed door. Something tremor-like or a silence just itched at by sound and I look about to see if anyone else notices it but there is only the sound of one of my children running through another hall and throwing paper planes and that no-longer-weeping partner breathing and the carnival-voices of the all the televisions interrupted by a toilet flushing here and there. There's no one in this hall but me and my hand on the hospital room door and the ruckus is louder and even a little rhythmic like he's trying to ready his body to sit up and I half expect to hear my father yell "Where the hell am I?" or "Keep it down" or maybe just those angry grunts he made watching his team lose over and over again by bigger margins every season.

But instead the room seems empty of anything at first, even his body is just part of this emptiness and this home is no longer a home but suddenly a regular old room of lost everything. Until the sound picks up again and there's a sigh and a moan and a sucking of skins and someone biting a lip and I reach for the sheet over my father, which someone has draped inexpertly over him. And there under his bed are Nurse Maris and my wife, a tangle of body, and even as the nurse thrusts her hands and self into my wife, she is still so thorough, so deliberate—made of careful hands that changed my father's bedpan and dutifully rolled him from one side to the other and always friendly despite being overworked. This very keeper of us all, determined and warm and all-knowing. And the audiologist peeks his head under the bed from the other side and smiles and says, "How's he doing today, Maris?"

My wife cums like there's no tomorrow, the nurse's hand never skipping its beats, and Nurse Maris says, "He's wonderful. Just wonderful."