ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

A journal for poetry, criticism, reviews, stories and essays published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"A Very Practical Nurse," by E.M. Schorb

           In a picture perfect neighborhood of a large southern city, a shiny red closed convertible pulled to the curb in front of a beautiful bungalow.  A young woman in white got out carrying a small overnight bag and approached the front door.  After a couple light, tentative taps, she opened the door and stepped inside.  Another small, matching overnight bag sat just inside the door.  Next to it was a neat stack of personal effects that looked as if they belonged in it.  The young woman sat the bag she was carrying next to it, opened it, and dumped its contents on the rug.
            “Hello!” she called.  “I’m Lorna Chandler.  Your son, Mr. Harry Freemantle, sent me.”
            From within, a voice answered.  “The nurse?  Did you lock the door behind you?  I didn’t like waiting here with the door unlocked.  There’s a bad element, you know.  I don’t know why that son of mine has to do things in such an . . . unorthodox manner.”
            “I locked the door,” Lorna Chandler said, stepping into Cora Freemantle’s bedroom.  She thought the woman propped up in bed would be older, or at least look older.  She was beautifully coifed, her silver hair upswept.  She wore a pink silk peignoir, and, around a neck gone a bit floppy, a diamond-inset platinum multiple-necklace.  Her ears, hands, and wrists, were bejeweled.
            “Yes,” Cora Freemantle said.  “Yes.  Good.  What did you say your . . .”
            “Lorna Chandler.”
            “Yes.  Lorna.  Do you mind?”
            “No, I don’t mind.  May I call you Cora?”
            “Well . . .  Yes, of course.  You are a registered nurse?”
            “A practical nurse.”
            “Isn’t that. . . I mean—you don’t have a degree or anything?”
            “I have passed all the necessary examinations.”
            “But you are quite young.  I should think you would be in a good nursing school—something to advance yourself.”
            “Ah, yes, I see.  Money.  Well, perhaps in future. . .  In any case, did my son explain my difficulties?”
            “He said you had high blood pressure, several minor and one serious heart failure.” 
            “No, no.  That’s true, but I can get around ordinarily.   But I got dizzy with the high blood-pressure and I fell.  Or perhaps I twisted my ankle.  But I fell.  But the fall wasn’t it.  The ankle was it.  I mean—I can’t get about.  I can’t put any weight at all on the ankle.  The pain is excruciating.”
            “What did the doctor . . .”
            “Sprained ankle.  Stay off it.  See the support?”   She pulled the covers back to display her bandaged leg.  “Ordinarily, bad heart and all, I can get around.  I walk my dog, Suzy Wong.  By the way, where is Suzy?   I didn’t hear her bark when you came in.  She  always barks.  You didn’t let her out when  you came in, did you?”
            “She barked.  I guess you were dozing.  She’s fine, now.  Sleeping.”
            “With her paws under her coochie-coo chinny-chin?  Yes, I must have been dozing.  You’re sure you locked the door?”
            “I locked it.  You have a lovely home.”
            “Yes, I think so.  Now, you understand that you are to stay with me for the weekend, prepare and serve my meals, help me to the bathroom—well, you understand what I require?  My son Harry told you, did he not?”
            “Yes, he told me.”
            “Sit down, won’t you?  You make me nervous just standing there.”
            “I’m sorry.”   Lorna Chandler sat down in a chair near the bed.
            “You have things?  A suitcase?”
            “I left them in the living room.”
            “Well, there’s a guest room  upstairs.  The maid uses it.  She’s black.  You don’t mind that do you?”
            “Of course not.”
            “Well, not necessarily of course not, but good; you take that.  This is not a very big house.”
            “But very nice.  I wish I owned it.”
            “Yes, I think so.  I don’t need a big house—though I can certainly afford all the house I want—but I won’t waste money.”
            “My second husband left me this house.  When he died.”
            “Do you want some coffee or something?”
            “Where’s your coat?”
            “Outside, on my suitcase.”
            “Well, why don’t you see to your things.  Take them up to your room.  Get settled.  Then come back down and make some coffee.  I’d like some.”
            “You’d like some?”
            “Yes, I would.  After just waking up.  What time is it, anyway?”
            They checked their watches.
            “Nearly noon, Friday.”
            “Yes.  My son was here this morning.  I dozed, and here you are—Lorna.  Chandler—that name rings a bell.  That’s an old family.”
            “Yes, an old family.”
            “Yes, I recall.  Substance.  Are you a cousin?  Oh, forgive me, dear.  I didn’t mean—”
            “Distant.  Yes, a distant cousin.”
            “No offense.  An old lady gets used to speaking her mind.  We get tactless, I’m afraid.  Compensates for losing our other faculties.  Can’t see too well—can’t walk, etc.—but at least you can say what you think.”
            “Yes, that’s good.  Say what you think.”
            “Yes.  Well, why don’t you go on and put your things away.”
            “Yes.  Up in the black maid’s room.”
            “Yes, at the head of the stairs.”
            “Yes.  And then you want some coffee.”
            “I’d like coffee—yes.”
            “Very well.”
            “Very well?  You sound like an English butler in an old movie.”
            “I’m sorry.  I’ll go now.”  Lorna Chandler rose and left the room.
            Cora picked up her bedside phone and dialed.
            “Oh, I’m so glad I caught you, Iris.  It’s about this nurse your husband has sent over here to take care of me—what?  What do you mean, you have to run, Mother Freemantle?  I’m talking to you.  And why do you, after fifteen years of marriage to my son, insist on calling me ‘Mother Freemantle?’  My name is Cora.  What?  Wait a minute, I want to speak to you.  I don’t care about the children—”
            Cora looked up to see Lorna standing in the doorway.  “Oh, never mind, Iris.  Iris?  IRIS?  She hung up.  My own daughter-in-law hung up on me.  Rude!  Rude!  Rude!”  She banged down the receiver.  “What is it, Lorna?  Where’s my coffee?”
            “Would you like anything with your coffee?”
            “Perhaps a little wine?”
            “Wine?  What are you talking about?  Coffee, that’s all.  Just coffee.  I don’t drink.”
            “Oh.  Because there’s wine in the kitchen.  Several bottles of wine.”
            “It must be the maid’s.”
            “Oh.  She has very good taste.  Very expensive.  You must pay her well.”
            “What business is that of yours?  I pay her what maids get.”
            “Black maids?  Black domestics?”
            “Yes. I don’t know where she gets the wine.  Oh, bother, of course it’s my wine.  I have a right to have wine if I want it, don’t I?  This is my house, isn’t it?  What am I sparring with you about?”
            “I’m your nurse, Mrs. Freemantle.  You have high blood pressure.  You should not drink wine.  You were drinking wine when you became faint, and that led to your sprained ankle.  I’m merely trying to do my job.”
            “Of course.  But I will have my wine if I wish it, doctors, nurses or no.” 
            “A glass with your coffee?”
            “No coffee.  A glass of wine.”
            “As you wish.”
            “There you go again—Lorna—sounding like an English butler.  Are you deliberately trying to make me uncomfortable in my own house?”
            “No, Mrs. Freemantle.”
            “Cora!  Cora!  My name is Cora!”
            “Yes—Cora.  You mustn’t excite yourself.  It could lead to a seizure.”
            “You are trying to make me see that I should not have the wine, is that it?”
            “I’ll get it.”
            “Don’t ignore me!”
            “No.”  Lorna Chandler waited.
            “Bother!  Go on, then!”
            Cora fidgeted in irritation while Lorna went to kitchen and returned almost immediately with two glasses of red wine on a silver tray.
            “What is that?  Are you having a glass of wine, too?  Aren’t you on duty, or something?”
            “I didn’t think you’d like to drink alone.”
            “That was thoughtful of you,” Cora said, sarcastically, “I must say.”  She sipped her wine.  “Is Suzy Wong still sleeping?”
            “Yes.  Quite peacefully.”
            She’s a Pekinese, you know.  No mixed blood.  Highly nervous.  That’s why I was surprised that I didn’t hear her barking when you came in.  You must get on with dogs.”
            “I don’t care for them.”
            “How can you say that?  Everyone likes dogs.”
            “Not everyone.  When I was a little girl, I was walking with my mother and father—walking ahead of them and somewhat behind a stray dog who, for no reason that I have ever been able to discover, turned around suddenly and mauled me.  He bit my hand—there, you can still see the teeth marks.  The little ones bark and the big ones bite—like people.”
            “It’s very unfair of you to base your opinion of dogs on an isolated incident.”
            “It wasn’t isolated to me.  I was five and it was my hand.”
            “That doesn’t make sense.”
            “It does to me.”
            “It’s a perverse attitude.”
            “I guess we are all perverse, each in his own way.  The word means nothing.”
            “I know what perverse means.  I was a school teacher.”
            “That must have been many years ago, in better times.  Were there better times?”
            “Yes, I think so.  I think those were better times in some ways.  But these are my better times.”
            “You mean because you have money now.”
            “Yes.  Money and security.  But you weren’t alive during the Depression.  You wouldn’t know.”
            “Then why do you say they were better times?”
            “Not the Depression.  I meant the times before, the Twenties.  When I was young and starting out.  They were better times—for the world.  But these are my better times.”
            “You married wealthy men.”
            “I assume that you don’t intend to insult me.  Yes.  During the Depression, when I saw what could be, I decided to marry well, if I could.”
            “And you could, because you were good-looking and you knew it.”
            “Yes, I think so.  Yes.  And I did.  I married well, and—”
            “And now you are a wealthy woman.  You have a black domestic and a practical nurse and, if you wanted, you could have more.  Much more.”
            “I don’t like to waste money.  I don’t need more than I have.”
            “You could give some away—to your family, say—and make their lives easier.  You have it just as you want it.”
            “Yes, I think so.”  Cora felt uneasy; it made her heart pound hollowly. 
            “But you don’t care for your children.”
            “Of course I do, in my own way.  What made you think that?”
            “Because you didn’t marry for love.  You married for money.”
            “I didn’t say that I didn’t marry for love.”
            “But you suggested it.”
            “Give me a cigarette.”
            Lorna Chandler gave Cora Freemantle a cigarette and lit it.  “You shouldn’t smoke.  It raises your blood pressure.”
            Cora puffed.  “Good!  Now that you’ve said that, I hope you’ll allow me to enjoy this in peace.”
            “Of course.”
            Cora thought for a few moments.  “No, I don’t care much for my children.  You have insight, I’ll say that for you.”
            “And less for your grandchildren.”
            “I can’t stand the little demons.”
            “I could tell by the way you referred to them when you were talking to your daughter-in-law.  I didn’t mean to overhear—”
            “But you did.  In fact, I was trying to get hold of my son to ask him about you.”
            “Oh.  Why?”
            “Because you seemed—I don’t know—I wanted to know something about you.”
            “But he wouldn’t know anything about me.  I come from an agency.  You’d  have to call them.”
            “What agency?”
            “Guess?  What are you talking about?”
            “No, I mean you’d never guess.”
            “I’m not in the habit of playing guessing games, young lady.”
            “The Nightingale Nursing Service.”
            “Yes, isn’t it cute?  Do you want to call them?”
            “Of course not.  I was just curious.  Old women are curious, you know.”
            “Yes, I know.”
            “You know, Lorna, there’s something in the way you speak—I can’t put my finger on it—”
            “I’m sorry.  I’m doing my best to make conversation, to keep you company.”
            “No, no.  I’m sorry, dear.  Just an old woman’s frustration at not being able to do for herself.  Will you get me another glass of wine, dear?”
            “You shouldn’t have another, should you?”
            “I suppose not, but—”
            “But you want one anyway.”
            “You want what you want when you want it.”
            “Don’t be impertinent.  But yes, I want what I want when I want it—and I pay a good deal to have it that way.”
            “You know, Mrs. Freemantle—Cora—you remind me of my mother.”
            “I suppose that’s a compliment.”
            “Well, in a way.  I envy people who can just shut everything else out but what they want, themselves.  It’s godlike.”
            “I’m not sure I understand.”
            “Let me get your wine.”   Lorna went and returned with more wine.  It was as if she took no time at all to do anything—so smooth.
            “What did you mean by—”
            “Oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about, I admit it.  Most people don’t admit it, but I do.  Tell me about your first husband, girl to girl.”
            Cora shrugged.  “There’s not much to tell.”
            “But you had children by him.”
            “Yes, that’s true.  Two.  A boy—my son, Harry—and a daughter, Carol.”
            “Where’s your daughter?”
            “She lives in California.  I’ve cut her out for leaving me—old and ill.  Harry is the only one I can count on.  Besides, Carol has twins.”
            “You don’t care for them?”
            “The truth is, I don’t care for children.  In vino veritas.”  Cora giggled.
            “They have to be tended, watched over, looked after, and loved.”
            “They’re a nuisance.”
            “They steal your thunder.”
            “I don’t know what that means.”
            “Children must come first.”
            “That’s a strange attitude for a young woman.”
            “No, not at all.  Yours is strange.”
            “There’s nothing strange about it.  What do you know about children?  I’ve had them, and grandchildren.” 
            “I almost had one.”
            “When I was sixteen.  My mother made me have an abortion.  I wasn’t married.  The boy was gone.  Not at all an unusual story.”
            “Your mother did the right thing.”
            “Why do you think that?  She never loved me.  She loved herself.  Now I would have had a child to love and be loved by.”
            “You would have been alone in the world with a child to support.  You’re young, now, and free.  You can have another child when you wish.”
            “How can you say that?  Another child!  As if children were inter­changeable, like pet dogs, to be replaced!”
            “Oh, but you can’t replace a dog.  Dogs are—almost human.”
            “Humans are human!”
            “Now, now.  I understand how you feel, but—”
            “But you obviously don’t understand how I feel, anymore than my mother did.”
            “Well, now, calm yourself.  I’m the patient here.  You should be taking care of me.”
            “You!  You!  How can you think of nothing else but yourself?  You’re a selfish old woman, don’t you know that?  Don’t you realize what you are?”
            Cora’s face turned red.  She struggled to rise, but Lorna pushed her back against the mound of pillows.  “Don’t try to get up.  You’ll fall, and it’ll be my fault for letting you.  You wouldn’t take the blame yourself, would you?”
            “Are you crazy, young woman?  What are trying to do?”
            “Take care of you and your hateful little peke.”
            “Suzy?  Where is Suzy?  What have you done with Suzy?”
            “I’ll get her for you.  You’d like to have her in bed with you, wouldn’t you?”
            “Yes.  Please get me Suzy.”  Cora Freemantle began to whimper.  “Please bring me my little Suzy Wong.”
            Lorna Chandler left the room and returned, Suzy Wong hanging from her leash.  She swung the dog onto the bed, where it lay, silent.  Cora Freemantle screamed.
            “She must have got tangled in the leash,” said Lorna Chandler, “poor dear.  But you can keep her in bed with you, if you wish.”
            Cora Freemantle could not breathe.  “Help. . . I can’t. . .  She fell back onto the pillows, where she lay, silent as Suzy Wong.
            “There’s plenty of time,” Lorna Chandler said, dialing the phone.  “Hello.  Can you come over now and pick up Suzy Wong?  Yes, Iris, everything is fine.   Before I call the hospital, I want this damned little dead beast in your care, where I hope it won’t take you very long to discover that it’s had such a coochie-coo sad accident. Tell Harry everything went as planned.  And, I warn you, don’t either of you forget for one minute that this house is mine!


E.M. Schorb's stories have appeared in The Carolina Quarterly, Roanoke Review, Quick Fiction, The Chattahoochee Review, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, The Wascana Review (Canada), and Camera Obscura, among others.  

His first novel, Paradise Square, a mystery, was the winner of the International eBook Award Foundation’s grand prize for fiction at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2000, and later, A Portable Chaos won the Eric Hoffer Award for Fiction in 2004. His most recent novel is Fortune Island.

This is his first appearance in Offcourse.

Return to Offcourse Index.