Growths, said the old woman at the bus stop. Her daughter had growths in her stomach and had to be fed through a machine. Home from the hospital, then
right back in, but today the old woman hadn’t had much time to visit because she had to go to Vons and buy the mac and cheese and everything for her other
daughter, and it took two different buses to get to Vons from the hospital. The 155 and then the 744 at Van Nuys, if the 744 came.
Ellis, nineteen years old, with a sweet but flinching heart and ashy blond hair lopped off above her shoulders, scooted an inch closer on the bench. When the woman paused to open a box of gift shop chocolates, Ellis said, “I hope your daughter gets better soon.”
It was fifty-five degrees, and cotton clouds gathered above the outpatient phlebotomy lab, the compounding pharmacy, and the offices of Maribelle Govindarajan, D.D.S. Despite jittering hands, the woman made quick work of the chocolates’ plastic wrap and popped a truffle into her mouth. Her glassy, gray-green eyes drifted side to side as ambulances wailed past. “…sitting on the toilet,” she said. “Something’s going wrong. Forgot to ask Lizzie about those very berry protein bars.”
When the bus arrived, the woman took a priority seat, and Ellis couldn’t decide if she should sit down beside her. She stood confused in the aisle while the automated voice ordered, For your safety, watch your step. A fat man pushed past her, the bus lurched forward, and Ellis dropped into a row just behind the priority seats and leaned forward to show she was still listening.
“Chocolate Cheerios,” the woman said, and the bus turned onto Riverside.
Ellis arrived at the church Social Center, still in her scrubs. Mrs. Arneson and her son Gray stacked Chips Ahoy! on plates while Mrs. Gutierrez fetched coffee urns from the kitchen. Brian the social worker placed a poem and a meditation exercise on each metal folding chair. The Social Center doors stood open to the street, and group members arrived bundled in hats and sweaters. Bubbly Lana Chesney rubbed her arms and shivered dramatically. “Brrr!” she said. “I forget what it’s like to be cold,” and her husband Leon, who spent his youth in Michigan, said that Lana, frankly, didn’t know what cold was. A stack of blue exam books, which the group bought in bulk at Pasadena City College and used as journals, sat on a chair by the door. A homeless man hovered outside, and Mrs. Arneson said get rid of him, get rid of him, we aren’t in the business of feeding strays—but Mrs. Gutierrez, pretending to shake the tablecloth off outside, quietly slipped him a cookie. Ellis smiled politely at a new guy, who had taken a seat in the circle but had not applied a nametag. Elizabeth Means looked in wide-eyed horror at Ellis’s short sleeves and said, “You must be freezing, baby girl!”
At six o’clock, Mrs. Arneson clapped her hands for attention. “Let’s gather in the circle, everyone. Let’s get started.” But Ellis stood in the doorway, looking up and down the street for her mother. The grief support group helps, Ellis always told her. It helps to talk to people. Group was moronic, she answered; sitting around with a group of whiners did not help her deal with her sister’s death. Yet Ellis waited for her week after week, and every once in a while she showed up.
Mrs. Arneson sent Gray around the room to herd stragglers, and he touched Ellis’s elbow. Ellis returned and sat beside the new guy. Leon Chesney grunted into a chair.
The members placed their coffee cups on the floor, joined hands, and prayed: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon.”
Mrs. Arneson’s husband was a police officer, killed long ago in a gang shoot-out. Mrs. Gutierrez’s son was shot by a cop. Leon and Lana Chesney did not, at first, belong; their teenage son was a suicide, a victim, but an aggressor too. Elizabeth Means had lost her sister, a son, and a cousin, all on separate occasions, all accidental. Brian hadn’t lost anybody, but he did write his master’s thesis on survivors of gun violence, and he received death threats when he published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.
“Oh, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console.”
Ellis was thirteen, in bed asleep, when her aunt Holly was shot in the face outside AM/PM. She had not recovered from the shock, never would, had for all practical purposes lost her own life that night. She’d watched from a distant shore as her high school classmates got driver’s licenses, applied to college, labored under crushes. She wore her hair as Holly had and worked, like Holly, as a food service technician at the hospital. With Mrs. Arneson and Elizabeth Means and Brian, she was a founding member of the group and had helped compose the list of Understandings that hung from the edge of the table each meeting: We are all human. There are no “good guys” and no “bad guys.” We are here to learn and to heal. We will try to ease each other’s pain.
She wore a picture of Holly in a locket around her neck. She watched Dateline every Friday night, which she and Holly had always done together. She put herself into the show, imagined the brilliant detective who would dust off the cold case and at last provide a motive and a name.
She attended group. Why did this happen, she would ask. Why? The will of God, Mrs. Arneson answered, but Ellis never quite believed that Gray Arneson’s dad, Mrs. Gutierrez’s son, and Holly were all together in the many rooms of Heaven. Terrible luck, Brian said. Wrong place, wrong time. Human nature, said Elizabeth Means. Ellis arrived at group each week hoping for a better answer, or at least a better way to ask the question.
Ellis’s mom entered the Social Center, disrupting prayer as she pulled a new chair into the circle. Late, but better late than chain smoking and staring dead-eyed at the TV.
“For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”
When the prayer ended, Ellis detached her hand from the new guy’s and quietly shook it out. He’d squeezed hard, as if he wanted to press her knuckles down into one solid lump. He was the only other group member in short sleeves, and he shivered visibly, rattling his legs up and down on the wood floor, clenching and releasing the folds of his pants. His bulging, flickering muscles were out of place in the clean, spare Social Center. His lower lip hung slack with the shock and heartache of a recent loss.
Ellis smiled miserably in his direction. Time passes, she wanted to tell him. It does.
Mrs. Arneson invited the members to share their thoughts and experiences from the week, and everyone sat quietly, pretending they were not waiting for the new guy to tell his story and explain his presence.
“Well, I’ll go,” Elizabeth Means said at last, and she opened her journal. “This was after work last Friday. I was waiting in the express lane at Trader Joe’s when this snooty white lady with her daughter on a leash and a big full cart—in the express lane she had this big full cart—started arguing over prices and sending the cashier back out in the store to look. Everybody’s rolling their eyes but nobody’s saying anything, and finally I just walked up to this lady and said, ‘Who do you think you are, making everybody wait? You think the rules don’t apply to you?’ And she just started sobbing and pulled her little girl out of the store, and the cashier pushed her big cart off to the side. And then everybody in line starts clapping.”
“You were feeling impatient?” Brian said.
“Not a bit. I was feeling like I wished I could still get upset about a price or a line. And everybody in line is clapping like we’re friends.”
The members nodded. “You feel alone,” Lana said.
“You feel numb,” said Mrs. Arneson.
They waited again, and the new guy wrapped his arms around his stomach. Ellis’s mom, scowling, slumped in her chair. In their apartment nearby in North Hollywood, Ellis’s mom slept in the bedroom, Ellis on the couch. They used to argue frequently, but now there was a television in each room, and they lived quietly.
When Holly was alive, she slept on a mattress on the living room floor, and they all enjoyed each other’s company. They waited until night cooled the city, then walked up Lankershim and bought burritos from a stand. They huddled together on the couch, telling stories about school and work, laughing until tears leaked from their eyes, laughing until long after Ellis should have been in bed.
“I guess I’ll go next,” said Lana, who went through blue books like toilet paper and needed a new one every week. “I was a bad mother. I’ve been told not to blame myself, but I do. I know I was a bad mother the way I know the sky is blue and the sun shines. I never stop knowing it. It’s with me every minute of every day, and I see bad mother in the dust on the windowsill and the dandelions on the lawn. And then this last Sunday I was doing laundry.”
Lana washed her husband’s shirt, and for a moment she thought she was washing her son’s shirt because her son used to have one just like it, blue like that with a patch pocket over each breast. She removed it from the washer and found three buttons hanging by threads, and the buttons said bad mother, bad mother, bad mother.
They were both insufferable, Ellis thought. Lana couldn’t shut up; Leon was always annoyed. But everybody’s parents were bad. Poor Lewis Chesney—who was the only man Ellis had ever found attractive, whom she never met in life but who attended group in the form of an 8 x 10 photograph that Lana set up on a little easel—didn’t die because of that.
Tears coursed down the new guy’s face. Ellis reached for his hand, and her bones crunched in his grip.
Mrs. Gutierrez shared a prayer she wrote. Mrs. Arneson talked about visiting her husband’s grave on the afternoon when he should have turned fifty. Ellis tried to explain the bus stop woman with empty eyes and two daughters, one who had cancer and the other who needed groceries.
Lana smiled and nodded. Elizabeth Means furrowed her brow and tilted her head to the left in polite interest.
“But what’s the point, Ellis?” her mom said. “Is there a point?”
“It sounds like it’s not very fair. For one person to get so sick and the other to just have mundane concerns,” Brian suggested.
“She had on a yellow sweat suit. She seemed like she needed someone to talk to,” Ellis mumbled.
Her blue book described a dead bee clinging to the curb on a chilly morning; a tiny poodle wearing sneakers; GET DRUNK FUCK SLUTS graffitied across a stop sign. Each week she offered these things. She wanted the group to see what she saw, feel what she felt when, yawning wide, she walked the bleary sidewalks to the bus stop, served breakfast at the hospital. But the members only scratched their heads, called her sweet.
Brian was the only one who understood, or tried to. Often the point he suggested was not quite right, was too obvious, was not what she was trying to say. But he also brought poems that made the hairs rise on her arms. They never entirely made sense, couldn’t be explained, yet didn’t need to be explained. They were words, but they were beyond words. Ellis read them and remembered the first days of long-gone summers, when she drank Mountain Dew and rode her bike in endless loops around the park. She read them and believed for a moment in impossible things. She looked forward to the weekend. Her aunt’s ghost whispered warmly in her ear.
Thick blue evening air pressed into the crack below the Social Center doors. A wayward fly drifted lost beneath the high ceiling. A stack of folding tables leaned against the wall. No saints here, no stations of the cross. Just a lonely, closed piano in the far corner of this room that stood ready for fundraising dinners and dance lessons. The members sipped coffee that chilled by the second and tried to eat cookies without spilling crumbs onto the shiny floor. They lifted their papers, and Brian read the week’s poem.
“To live in this world,” he read, and Ellis squeezed the stranger’s hand. “To love what is mortal—”
The new guy shuddered and nearly yanked Ellis from her chair. “I loved her so much!”
Brian lowered the poem. “You’re welcome to share. We’re all here for you.”
The members leaned in. The new guy rocked back and forth. He wiped his soaked cheek with Ellis’s hand. “She was the most beautiful woman in the world. You don’t even know. I was on the inside for twenty years, but now I’m out and I see her everywhere.”
Lana reached for her coffee but forgot what she was doing and left the cup on the ground, her hand hovering several inches above it. Ellis’s mom frowned and rested her elbows on her knees.
“She was drunk,” the new guy said. “We were drunk. We were fighting. When she’s drunk she just wouldn’t shut up, right? It’s, ‘I ask you one simple thing and there’s the dishes still on the counter, how come I’m fixing dinner for you every goddamn day and there you are sitting there’—as if I’m not working my ass off as it is—talk talk talk talk talk, and finally I just popped her in the gut with my .22.”
Elizabeth stared icily at the Understandings, and Lana sucked back a sob. Ellis lost feeling in her hand.
“She didn’t even look mad at me. She just sat back on the couch and jerked around like an animal, and she made these awful sounds like an animal that couldn’t breathe. She looked so scared, and she was suffering, and so I finished her off. Right between the eyes.”
The new guy cried, but no one heard him. In their past lives, the phone rang. A dog barked at boots in the hall, raps on the apartment door. A pop in the garage made them roll over in their sleep but wasn’t loud enough to wake them. A letter arrived: Better watch your back, fucking asshole. A convenience store clerk, who had worked night shifts for half a year, immediately recognized the sound and was on the phone reporting shots fired before Holly hit the ground.
Ellis reached behind her and retrieved a blue book. She placed it on the new guy’s lap and said, “We write in these, and then in meetings we share.”
Ellis’s mom kicked over Lana’s coffee as Brian, half the new guy’s size, pulled the new guy to his feet, extracted Ellis’s hand, and said, “Hey man, let’s go talk outside.”
Ellis’s mom screamed. “No! No! You cannot be here! Jesus!”
As Brian hauled him out, the new guy cranked his gaze back over his shoulder, eyebrows arched as if pleading for forgiveness, or a beating. He vanished into the night with Brian, and Ellis’s mom clenched her fists and jaw, spoke through her teeth. “What the hell is wrong with you people? How can you let a guy like that in?”
Mrs. Gutierrez climbed down to her tired old knees. Mrs. Arneson lamely clapped her hands and suggested they take a break to refocus. The homeless man, who smelled like a horse in the evening air, peered in. Ellis said, “You don’t get to decide, Mom. You’re never here.”
Ellis’s mom dropped her head back and laughed, as she did whenever Ellis left blankets in a tangled mess on the couch, whenever the rent climbed, whenever her ankle buckled and left her in pain for weeks. With her narrow, severe lips and snarled gray hair, she seemed wasted and fragile, despite all the weight she’d gained in the months after Holly’s death and carried ever since. “I am stating the obvious. Am I the only one who can be bothered to do that?”
“He lost somebody too,” Ellis said.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Everyone suffers,” Ellis insisted, and for a moment she understood the whole world and all the lives within it. She raised her eyes pleadingly to her mother and said, “Maybe the person who hurt Aunt Holly has been suffering all this time too.”
Ellis’s mom gripped the back of her chair. She seemed ready to throw it across the room but instead stamped her foot like a child. “You know what Ellis, fuck you. Don’t even come home tonight. I don’t want to see your face.”
Brian returned alone, and Ellis’s mom nearly knocked him over on her way out the door. Mrs. Arneson reached for her son’s hand, but he kept it clenched in his lap. Perhaps they should read the closing prayer and end early this week, she suggested. Lana yanked on her coat. No one else moved. Elizabeth, at last, touched Ellis’s knee and offered to put her up for the night. Ellis declined. She walked home, pausing to vomit into a trashcan in the parking lot of Pizza Hut.
Six years ago, in the North Hollywood Community Police Station, Ellis and her mom told detectives that Holly had no enemies, no boyfriends even. The cashier at AM/PM saw nothing. A long-faced blond woman bought a Pepsi and walked outside. Seconds later, shots fired. The police showed security camera footage to Ellis’s mom but made Ellis wait alone in an office, as if Ellis, a thirteen-year-old girl, needed anything more than her own imagination to see it all. A human shape stepped out of the store and was approached by another human shape. Both shapes stood still, as if the tape had frozen, and one shape crumpled to the ground as the other ran off screen. You can barely tell if it’s a man or a lady, Ellis’s mom said, except of course it’s a man. The tape froze again, and the shape of Aunt Holly lay alone in her scrubs until police shapes and paramedic shapes swooped down on her.
Some local hood, was the best the police ever managed. Probably coming to rob the store, got spooked and fired when Holly saw him. Any boy from Ellis’s high school could have done it. The bed-bound patients she saw at work—six years ago, they could walk. They could run. Everybody could have done it, except Gray Arneson, who was nine years old when Holly died, and the new guy, who was in prison.
Ellis climbed the ragged stairs of their building and slowly pushed open the apartment door. Her mom hunched on the couch, wrapped in a blanket, no light on except the glow of the TV. She whispered, “How am I supposed to live like this?”
It was impossible. Impossible to fall asleep at night and go to work the next morning. Impossible to watch old DVDs of The Gilmore Girls while fire trucks blared by in the street. Impossible to eat cold chicken wings with her mother, but her blighted stomach insisted.
The next morning, in the hospital kitchen, Ellis scribbled room numbers on menu cards and placed plastic forks on trays. She enjoyed work, to the extent that she enjoyed anything. Her coworkers took calls from the floors, heated oatmeal portions in the microwave, and blended fruit into mush. Her manager, who used to be Holly’s manager and had come to the funeral, called out production orders.
“Ellis!” The manager made a spiral motion with her hand, a gesture Holly had once mimicked and explained: get the service cart, hustle. “Breakfast to 6 Northeast. Go go go.”
Most Telemetry patients were too sick to talk. Ellis quietly left trays for those who weren’t too sick to eat, and she wished she could be the one to wake them, feel their pulses, spoon oatmeal into their mouths. Holly would have gone to nursing school someday, when there was time and money. Holly had stood in this room, watched a crow drift over the studio lots, looked forward to learning the functions of the buttons and the meaning of the wires.
“Hello sweetheart.” The man in bed grinned up at her. Dark clots of blood clung to his gums and filled the spaces between his teeth. “You joining me for breakfast?”
“Hey you. Girl. Ellen.” Artesia, the petite RN who really ought to be able to get other people’s names right, stood in the doorway, motioning to Ellis with her finger. “What the hell are you doing? Room 6108 is NPO.” Artesia waved the menu card in Ellis’s face. “She has holes in her stomach! Get that tray out of there and figure out where it’s supposed to go.”
On returning to 6108, Ellis recognized the occupant. She had expected the tumor-ridden daughter of the woman at the bus stop to be more like herself. Pale, thin, young. The eyes, clenched shut when Ellis brought the tray, were open now; the mossy gray irises that were clear and vacant in the mother floated on a bed of tiny burst blood vessels in the daughter. The rest was the same, heavy brow and bulbous nose and shocked white curly hair. Ellis was not supposed to sit on patients’ beds, but she did it anyway, and she stroked the tube in the daughter’s left wrist. The daughter responded with a long, disembodied syllable, more than a groan and less than a word. Uuuuuhhh. Dark blue moons rose beneath her eyes. Her skin bunched and sagged, a trapped creature trying to haul itself free.
She had aged early, and she suffered. But she lived. She lived. She had not been blown from the world with no chance to think, no chance to say goodbye. She lived long enough to suspect a problem, long enough to destroy herself slowly from the inside, long enough for nurses to tap her veins and insert the needles that kept her here, hour after bright hour.
Ellis ran her finger up and down the tube. It was heavy and warm, resting like a living creature along the daughter’s pale blue forearm. “It feels funny,” Ellis whispered. “Does it hurt?”
She stroked the tube, lifted it, squeezed it between thumb and index finger. She gripped low on the tube and tugged it side to side. Blood pooled gently beneath the dressing and seeped along the wrinkles in the daughter’s wrist. Ellis blinked, fascinated. She wanted to release the daughter from the pain. She wanted to punish her for living the years that Holly lost. She wanted to tear skin open and see what was underneath.
Soon the machines cried, and Artesia ran in. Artesia was strong like an ant, strong like Brian. She yanked Ellis clear of the bed, swinging her into the breakfast tray as she wrestled her to the floor. She pinned Ellis down with one knee while she reached for the phone and called the code.
Under her scrub top, Artesia had no breasts to speak of, but she wore a bra even so. A scar plunged across her stomach. Her chin bounced, her nostrils flared, her arms waved beneath the tiled ceiling. Ellis’s breath hung shallow, barely lifting her locket, and pain rode her ribs in great curves to her spine. Yet her heart rose to meet Artesia’s knee. Look at the living body, how the limbs dress and the mind races. It learns its skills and performs its tasks, waits for the bus, writes numbers on the menu cards and pushes service carts onto elevators until something, finally, makes it stop.