«Sorry, Kirk. I won't accept payment in peanuts. Are we going to play or not, you guys?» she said, riffling the pack of cards in her hands.
«Maybe I could talk Nurse Rush into slipping me some money for a little action. I've noticed how she's been ogling me lately.»
«Yeah, like she just stepped on a rattlesnake,» Brent said.
«It's all right, chums. You can pay me in monthly installments.»
«Wowie, the cardshark has a heart of gold,» Brent said.
«This is getting dull. Let's change the stakes. How about a little strip poker for a change?» Kirk suggested.
«Now there's the epitome of an evil mind for you,» Amy said. «Notice the way he tricks us into this friendly game for small stakes, Brent, just to lead us to this moment of depravity.»
«It's no fair anyway,» Brent said. «I only have one thing to take off, and that's already open in the back.»
«That's all right, Brent. We'll count the sheet too.»
«Well, you can forget it,» Amy said. «Who wants to play strip poker with two dirty young men? I've got my modesty to keep up, after all. No one has seen me in the altogether since Jimmy Cavarelli paid me a quarter to run down Midland Avenue stark naked when I was four. He was very progressive for kindergarten.»
«It doesn't sound like you were so backward.»
«I didn't mind. I thought of it in terms of two double Tootsie Rolls, a box of Jujubes and Hershey bar. For that it was worth it. The spanking, however, was not.»
«Besides, what would Nurse Rush say if she walked in here and the three of us were sitting around undressed, so to speak?» Brent said.
«She'd probably say, 'All right, children, you'll catch your death of cold,'» Kirk replied.
«Well, Mr.Playboy of the Youth Ward, you can count me out of this round. I play for Kleenexes or nothing,» Amy said.
«Chicken,» Kirk replied.
Just then Jewel wheeled the lunch cart through the door. Three covered trays were stacked on the cart.
«I might have known I'd find you three together. I've got all your gourmet lunches here.»
Brent swung the bedside table over the bed so he and Jenny could share it. Kirk wheeled his chair over to his table. Jewel put a tray at each spot.
«The menu reads: Iced fresh fruit cocktail; Crisp tossed salad with dressing Parisienne; Roast beef au jus; Potato surprise; Candied Harvard beets; and Angel sponge cake with whipped topping. Lovely, huh?» she said.
«Yeah, but what does it look like?» Kirk asked.
«I don't know. I couldn't tell the beets from the fruit cup or the angel cake from the roast beef,» Jewel laughed. «Dig in, kids,» she called over her shoulder as she wheeled the cart out again.
«Brace yourselves,» Kirk said, and he lifted the lid of his tray. «Good Lord, it looks like it should have been sent to the operating room.»
«Not even a surgeon could help this,» Brent said, as he peeked under his lid. «It looks malignant.»
«It looks absolutely scrumptious to me,» Amy said. «I love Alpo.»
«Does anyone ever die of food poisoning in this hospital?» Brent asked.
«If not, this could be a first,» Kirk replied.
«I liked it better when they fed me through the tube.»
«Didn't I tell you so?»
Amy ate a mouthful of fruit cocktail. «It's not so bad,» she said.
«What can you do to fruit cocktail?» Brent asked.
«Not much,» Kirk said. «Except they heated it up by mistake a few weeks ago. Hot grapefruit, ick.»
Amy ate a mouthful of roast beef. «The meat's not bad either, although it tastes like the ham we had yesterday.»
«All the meat's the same. You know that. They just call it by different names. It's actually all something called Mystery Meat.»
«What's Mystery Meat?» Brent asked.
«It depends on what's cheap that week,» Kirk said. «Either kangaroo cutlet or roast of goat. It doesn't matter much. Amy's right. It all tastes the same anyway.»
Yet Amy was the only one who didn't eat the whole lunch, Brent noticed.
«What I wouldn't give for a really good hamburger and a milk shake about now,» she said, putting her fork down by her half-finished meal.
«Send out for one. You have fourteen thousand dollars worth of Kleenex, after all.»
«Funny man, Kirk.»
«Just trying to be helpful.»
Amy began to smile. «I've got an idea. Thanks a lot, Kirk.»
«What did I say?»
«You're a genius, is all. Think you can get your bed wheeled into my room, Brent, after Nurse Rush leaves and the evening nurse comes on?»
«Yeah, I guess so.»
«Good. Gentlemen, and I use the term loosely, you are invited to my room for dinner. Semiformal. Dinner at seven sharp. Don't be late.»
«Are you kidding?» Kirk asked.
«Nope. Just be there.»
«Hot damn,» Kirk said. «My mouth is watering already. What do you have in mind?»
«It's a surprise. I've got to go plan. See you later.»
Amy left the room. Kirk looked at Brent and shrugged his shoulders. «Crazy broad,» he said.
Jewel returned and took the trays out.
«Do you mind if I take a stroll, Brent?» Kirk asked.
«No. Fine. I just wish I could get out of this room myself. I'll be fine. I don't mind being alone.»
«Okay. I'll see you later.»
«Don't peek in on Amy. You wouldn't want to ruin her surprise. What are up to?»
«Nothing. Just a little wandering. Maybe I'll pay a visit to the maternity nursery, and when the new fathers look through the glass, I'll say, 'That one's not yours. I just saw them switch the tags all around.'»
Brent laughed. «See you later.»
«Right. Take care.» Kirk struggled with his crutches for a few moments and left the room.
Brent lay back and looked at the ceiling.
I almost don't mind being here now that I feel better, he thought. If I were home I would be just kicking around at the pool until the family left for Maine.
Brent picked up the book he was reading and found his place. He was halfway through the second volume of The Lord of the Rings for the second time. He loved the world of Middle Earth. It seemed so real to him. He always wished it were a place that he could visit.
He had gotten so absorbed in Frodo's plight that he didn't hear his
mother come in.
«Hi, Brent. How are you feeling?» she said when she had reached the foot of his bed.
Brent looked up from his book and smiled, «Fine, I guess. I'm getting awful tired of not sitting up, though.»
«I know. It must be hard. I've got some good news. I just saw Dr.Matthias on the way up here and he said yesterday's X ray shows you're healing just fine.»
«Yeah. I know. He told me this morning.»
«I'm so pleased. He said you would be ready to go home in two or three more weeks.»
«The brace guy is supposed to come and measure me tomorrow.»
«We'll be so pleased when you come home. It's not the same without you, as I'm sure you can imagine. Betsy just mopes around all day. She doesn't have anyone to fight with.» Brent's mother smiled.
«No Maine in August?» Brent asked.
«Maybe. We'll have to see what the doctor says. Anyway, you should be pleased that you'll be as good as new in the long run. No football this fall, but Dr.Matthias said by winter, when the brace comes off, there should be no restrictions. If we can't get to Maine in August, perhaps you and Betsy would like a week of skiing in January or February.»
«Sounds great,» Brent said. «I guess I don't mind lying here day after day as long as I know the end is in sight.»
«Betsy wanted to come too, but she had swimming practice this afternoon.»
«Fine. How's Dad?»
«He's fine. He said to tell you he'd try to get by on the way back from a settlement he has tomorrow morning. He'll be so glad to hear how well Dr.Matthias says you're doing.»
«Yeah, well, tell him 'Hi' for me.»
«I sure will. Have any of your friends been by for a visit?»
«Not even Jimmy or Tom? I'm surprised. I saw Tom on the street yesterday and he was so sorry to hear that you were laid up.»
«No, he hasn't been by. You know how things are in the summer. Everybody's off doing their things, at the shore or somewhere. I've gotten cards from a couple of the kids at school. One from cousin John too.»
«Well, it would be nice to have a visit from somebody else but family. Cards aren't much of a substitute.»
«Oh, it's okay. Amy and Kirk and I spend a lot of time together. We have a good time. They're really great.»
«I'm glad. Amy's a lovely girl. It's good to hear you aren't holed up all by yourself anyway. How's the food? Still as bad?»
«You'd think, at the prices you have to pay, that they would at least serve a decent meal.»
«The only thing they serve are indecent ones.»
«The night you get home, I'll make sure I have all your favorite things fo dinner. Where's Kirk?»
«That's nice. I brought a surprise for you.»
«What is it?» Brent asked.
«Your watercolors. I thought you might like to do a little painting while you have all this time on your hands. The doctor thought you could manage without hurting your back.»
«That's great. Thanks.»
Brent's mother took the paints, a few brushes and a small pad of watercolor paper out of her pocket-book.
«I'll leave them here on your table in case you want them. I hate to see you here without anything to keep you busy.»
«I don't mind. But thanks.»
«Well, I think I'll be on my way and let you get back to that book you were so buried in when I arrived.»
«Right. Thanks for stopping, Mom.»
«Take care now. Don't do anything foolish like sitting up.»
«We're all so happy with your progress. You were a lucky boy.»
«Okay, then, I'll see you tomorrow. Sorry I've got to run, but I've got a million things to do today.»
«Right. 'Bye, Mom.»
Brent watched her leave the room. He reached over and swung the table closer to him. He opened the pad of watercolor paper and poured a glass of water from the Styrofoam pitcher. He dipped a small brush into the water and opened the tin of watercolors. He rolled onto his left side and propped his head up on his left hand. The pad was almost touching his nose as it lay open on the bed. It was awkward, but it would have to do, he thought.
What can I paint? he wondered.
He always painted landscapes in Maine. He had become very good at trees and rocks. Rocks weren't easy.
The view out the window beside his bed was only the brick wall of another wing of the hospital.
Not much of a landscape there, he thought.
He dipped the brush in the water again and swirled the tip in the small cake of brown.
I'll paint a picture of Amy, he thought; but it scared him in a way. He had never tried to paint a picture of a person before, only landscapes.
He swung the brush in a smooth curve down the right side of the paper. The sweep of brown caught the exact flow of Amy's hair.
He wanted to make it a good picture.
They'll probably laugh at it, he thought.
He continued to paint.
Kirk wrapped a rubber hose around his neck. He didn't
have a tie.
«A tie would look stupid with pajamas,» he said to Brent. «But a rubber hose has class. Amy did say semiformal, after all.»
Brent brushed his teeth twice and tried to straighten out his sheets.
At five of seven, Nurse Schultz arrived. She was much more pleasant than Nurse Rush. Brent always felt an almost physical relief when the day shift ended and the evening nurse arrived.
«I understand there's some visiting to be done. If you don't tell the nurse on duty, I won't tell either.»
«Wagons, ho!» Kirk shouted. «Move'em out.» He clomped toward the door on his crutches. Brent followed behind, Nurse Schultz pushing the bed.
Down the hall they paraded and across to Amy's room. Her door was closed.
Kirk knocked. «Avon calling,» he said.
«Come in,» Amy shouted back through the closed door.
Kirk pushed it open and walked inside. Nurse Schultz wheeled Brent's bed in. «Have a lovely evening,» she said, and left, closing the door behind her.
Brent couldn't believe his eyes. He hadn't been to Amy's room before. He was amazed to see the jungle of plants hanging everywhere, the stands of plants, the tables of plants, the cascading ferns and spider plants.
All lit by candlelight. Seven burning candles had been placed around the room. The only electric light was the constantly lit night-light by Amy's bed. The warm candle glow filtered through the profusion of greenery. The vacant white of the walls disappeared in the dimness of the candlelight.
Amy was smiling.
«Welcome, gentlemen. You're right on time. I admire promptness in my dinner guests.»
«So glad we could make it,» Kirk said. He crossed the room and kissed Amy's hand.
«I'd stand up for a proper greeting,» Brent said, «but I seem to have this standing problem at the moment.»
«That's all right. I'm glad you've made yourself right at home.»
Kirk sat in an easy chair and propped his crutches against the wall. Amy sat in the other chair.
She had pushed her bed against the far wall. In the center of the room, she had set the bedside table with a white cloth.
Brent noticed it and asked, «Where'd you get a tablecloth in a place like this?»
«It's a pillow case. Jewel stole it for me from the linen closet. I'm glad you like it.»
«Lovely,» said Kirk. «The table looks divine. I particularly like the Dixie cups.»
«We must make do with what we have,» Amy said. «Would either of you like a cocktail?»
«You've got to be kidding,» said Brent.
«Make mine a double,» replied Kirk.
Amy went to the Styrofoam pitcher that had been placed on the table. She poured the contents into three Dixie cups and handed one to Brent and one to Kirk. She took her own and returned to her chair.
«I propose a toast,» said Kirk. «No matter what other crap goes on in this screwed-up world, to friends.»
«How nicely put,» said Amy. «You've got such a way with words.»
They each took a sip.
«My God, what is this stuff? Aged scotch it's not,» Kirk said.
«Due to the fact that I am underage and unable to get to the liquor store even if I were forty-seven, I improvised with what was on hand.»
«Obviously,» Kirk said.
«You don't like my little punch?» Amy asked. «It's brewed by Benedictine monks in a monastery just outside Perth Amboy, New Jersey.»
«Great. What is it?»
«Coke and Welchade. It's all I could get my hands on. Has a certain unique pizzazz, wouldn't you say?»
«Unique is right,» said Brent, drinking from his cup sideways, trying not to spill on his pillow. He didn't want to use one of those dumb bendable straws for a cocktail, even if it did taste like sludge.
«Dinner will be arriving presently, I believe. I gave instructions to the cook to have the first course ready just after seven.»