Extreme Conditions

A short story by Ben Sumner
Dec. 24, 2002-Jan. 5, 2003


Jose Gonzalez held a Newport between his fingers as he stepped off the bus, lit it and took a drag before the door even closed behind him. He was back up to a pack a day now that he was out of prison. He would have smoked more often during his stay at the Columbus Correctional Institution, but the Cummings crew kept taking his cigarettes. Now that he was starting a new job – one that he knew would test his patience – he brought along an extra pack as a precaution. However, he figured that if he could survive Columbus, working as an aid at Milford Care Assisted Living would be a breeze.

Jose blamed no one but himself for his situation. He hadn’t dealt drugs because of poverty, or because his parents didn’t push him to succeed in school. He did it because, like other rebellious middle class teenagers, he thought it was cool. Rolling blunts, cutting and dividing cocaine, drinking until he puked, running from the cops at three in the morning, it all gave him a thrill. For five years, he wouldn’t have preferred it any other way. Sure, he had to spend an occasional night in a cell and lie to a judge, but he bragged amount those times. The hardest part, really, was putting up with his parents, who never seemed to give up on him.

Then, two days after his 21st birthday, the police caught him again, but this time made it stick: Three years for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

He only served two and a half years, but it was 30 months of sheer hell. What’s worse, he thought, was that his mother had to see what they did to him, though certainly not the ugliest of it.

Jose tried to be on his best behavior during his stay in Columbus. The guards liked him – at least, as much as they would like any inmate. He always did as he was told with a “Yes sir,” and tried his hardest never to piss anyone off, though that was often a lost cause.

Then, one day while working in the kitchen, he saw Terrance P. Cummings, a 260-pound muscle-headed black man who never shut his mouth, spit into a large pot of vegetable soup. He snorted up his snot and hawked it right in there, five or six times before serving it to the inmates.

Jose told the guards what had happened, and the next morning, Cummings was removed from kitchen duty. Though there were 20 others in the room who could have squealed on him, Cummings somehow guessed correctly that Jose was the snitch.

They cut his face. A razor down the right cheek, from the corner of the eye to the edge of the lip. That was after they broke his jaw and nose.

More beatings followed, on average of once or twice a week. Jose was transferred to another cellblock, and he even spent time in protective custody. That was before the worst of it, though, before the incident with the mop.

All of this power was coming from a man who talked so loudly that his whispers could be heard across two lunch tables. He would talk while he was eating, even as he swallowed. And he spoke of the most annoying things, subjects that should have made him an outcast if his flunkies had the balls to stand up to him. He talked about his granny – he actually called her granny – how she brought him up and cared for him, and how he wouldn’t have amounted to shit without her. Cummings was serving life for three counts of first-degree murder, but without his granny, he would’ve, in his own words, “been just anotha nigga on the block.”

Jose, who was 5’7″ and a chunky 190 pounds, believed Cummings was the main reason the parole board let him out so early. Looking at his scarred face, reading his records, they were clearly thinking, “Damn, we better let this boy out before he’s killed.” Still, he would have rather served out his term peacefully than suffered that abuse.

Just thinking about it made Jose take an extra-long drag of his cigarette. He walked past an ambulance outside the front of the two-story building. He had seen one in the same spot two days before when he interviewed for the job.

“Jose Gonzalez?” The receptionist, with the name tag Sam, asked as Jose walked through the door. He looked like another former inmate, one of those bikers. Long oily hair, tattoos up his arms, and the stench of unwashed clothes. There was a decorated Christmas tree in the lobby, lights blinking, with an angel on top.

“That’s me.”

“Ms. Tucker told me to send you upstairs.”

Jose saw the steps, but didn’t feel like walking so he took the elevator. He hadn’t been up there before. When he interviewed with Ms. Tucker, it was in the empty activity room on the first level. It wasn’t much of an interview, either. He didn’t have any experience being an aid, though he had been to the prison infirmary enough to see what they did.

“Why would you want to work here?” she had asked him apathetically.

“Because, when I was inside, the aids at the infirmary were always helping me, you know. I feel I owe my time to do the same for others.” Jose knew the reason came out sounding like complete bullshit, but that was the best he could come up with on the spot. The real reason was that no other place even wanted to grant him an interview, not even the fast food restaurants or warehouses. At the very least, he figured that doing such humanitarian work would impress his family, especially his sister, Lillian, who was in her second year of medical school.

Fortunately, Ms. Tucker didn’t seem to care very much about his ambitions or lack of experience. She was more interested in ensuring that he met the state’s minimum requirements for parolees to work there. That meant he had to be a nonviolent offender who got out early for good behavior. Also, Gary, his probation officer, gave him a four-star recommendation, but Jose was sure he would have said anything to get him the job. Maybe he was fucking Ms. Tucker, he thought, cringing at the thought that anyone hopped into bed with that 300-pound woman.

Ms. Tucker did warn Jose, however, that he would be watched carefully. She said that because of the shortage of staff at nursing homes throughout the state, she had to resort to hiring parolees and other questionable people. “No offense,” she said. “The last guy I hired from King Street got upset with a patient for having bowel movements in bed. So he used it on her as toothpaste.” Jose nodded, suppressing a gag.

As soon as Jose exited the elevator into the hallway, the smell hit him. It was worse than the prison bathroom. The odor of piss and diarrhea overtook the scent of cheap disinfectant. He wanted to clench his nose and breath through his mouth, but knew he’d just have to get used to it.

In the hallway, he saw a sign on a closed door that read “Clean Utilities.” The one next to it read “Soiled Utilities.” Other doors were opened, and he could hear the loud blare of television sets, including rap music. He peered into that room, only to see an old white woman sleeping.

As Jose rounded the corner, he saw the desk in the center, the nexus to four different hallways. Ms. Tucker sat there, surrounded by seven or eight residents, most of whom were in wheelchairs. One woman, who looked to be 100, held a porcelain doll six inches from her face. She was running her hand over its long blonde hair, over and over again.

Jose gulped when he saw another woman with strands of black hair on her upper lip and chin, thicker than the straggles he got when he went a week without shaving. She was crying silently, tears running down her face, soaking her mustache like raindrops on blades of grass.

There was only one man in the bunch, but he was standing, hunched over, his mouth moving around as if he were chewing a wad of bubble gum. He wore a Wintucket Wookies baseball hat, a team or town that Jose had never heard of.

The woman closest to the desk was staring at her lap. A string of drool formed a wet spot on the waist of her pink nightgown.

Then her head tilted toward him, and out came a high-pitched quack! Jose shuddered and stepped back.

“Mrs. Frederickson! Behave yourself!” Ms. Tucker snapped as she looked up from a stack of papers. The quacking lady started laughing, sounding like the Penguin from that old Batman show with Adam West and Burt Ward. Jose saw a deranged smile cross her face before she stared back to her lap. She reminded him of the mechanical vampire that popped out of a casket at a haunted house, screaming once and then returning so it would be ready to scare the next unsuspecting passerby.

“Jose, just ignore Mrs. Frederickson. She always wants attention.”

“Okay,” he said, shrugging. That was kind of funny.

“Come with me,” Ms. Tucker said, walking around the desk.

As Jose followed her, he nodded nonchalantly at the aids, who were pushing carts. They all looked to be from Africa. Not another Latino in the bunch. Ms. Tucker was the only white worker up there. He had seen another at the interview, and she was fat, too. No good looking white women worked in places like this, he thought. No good looking women, period, would work here.

“Hey,” an aid named George said. Jose read his name tag. He was in his 40s with a rounded, smiling face. “I am looking forward to working with you.”

Definitely from Africa, Jose thought. It wasn’t just the accent, or the dark skin, but what he said. No American black man would say such a thing in a place like this. The man was probably from Sierra Leone, or some other war-torn country and this place was heaven by comparison. Most of the people Jose knew in prison were black. The Latinos didn’t stick together like he had thought they would – not at Columbus. Perhaps, if they did, he would have gotten some protection.

Ms. Tucker led him to a closet, where she pulled out a pair of light-blue hospital pants and a button-down shirt. “Here you are. I’ll give you one more outfit later. You’ll have to wash them at home.”

“Okay.” Jose hadn’t even lived in the halfway house long enough to use the laundry room.

“You can change in the bathroom. I’ll go print your name tag.”

Jose was sick of wearing clothes other than his own. The green in prison was bad enough. He bit his tongue and dressed.

He felt like a fool. For a moment, he even preferred the prison garb. Then again, there wasn’t anyone around who would care what he looked like. Not the old people, not the visitors, and certainly not the other aids who wore the same thing.

As Jose exited the bathroom, a young woman caught his eye. She was a hot little thing, Hispanic, wearing the same aid uniform that he wore. She had curly, shoulder-length brown hair with highlights. Had the face of Jennifer Lopez, he thought. Damn she’s fine.

“Hey,” he said.

“You the one from the halfway house?”

Jose felt like she kicked him in the balls with that question, but he shrugged it off. “Yeah, I’m Jose.”

“Maria,” she said and stuck out her hand.

Maybe she didn’t care where he was from, anyway. For all he knew, she was also fresh out of prison. They shook.

“Nice to meet you.”

“Watch yourself around here. Ms. Tucker won’t cut you any slack.”

“I hear.” Jose smiled. He noticed that she was holding something in her other hand behind her back, but couldn’t tell what it was. “What you got there?”

Maria scowled as she held it in front of her. It was a clear plastic with what appeared to be a soiled diaper in it.

“Uh…” Jose began, as Maria spun and headed for the nearest room.

Damn she’s fine, even if she’s wiping ass for a living.

Still twitching his nose as the second floor odor grew stronger – a smell that had actually disappeared when he entered the bathroom – Jose returned to the desk, where Ms. Tucker was sticking a safety pin into the back of a plastic tag. She slid in a sheet of paper that read his first name. She handed it to Jose, who pinned it to his shirt.

“George!” she hollered.

Down the hall, George came walking toward them, smiling broadly as if someone were taking his picture.

Jose’s eyes drifted toward another woman. A black woman. The only black resident he noticed. There weren’t any Spanish women there. When they got old, they lived with their families until they died.

“George,” Ms. Tucker began. “I want you to take Jose and show him what to do.”

“Yes, Ms. Tucker,” George smiled, as if the chore was some sort of honor.

Jose followed George back down the hall.

“So, man, what you working on now?” Jose asked.

“It’s ice water time!” George said, just as M.C, Hammer would have once said, “It’s Hammer Time!”

“Ice water?”

“Yes. We don’t want to scare you away on your first shift.”

Jose spent the next hour filling plastic cups with water and ice, putting on lids and inserting straws, then passing them out to the patients who didn’t have a “NO LIQUIDS” sign posted over their bed. George said that those people were on a special schedule, or could only be fed intravenously.

About half of the residents were sleeping, and even those who were awake hardly acknowledged his presence. A few of them mumbled, “thank you.” One man anxiously yelled “water!” with an accent several times, but didn’t take a sip. A foreign film played on his television, probably Russian, with the volume louder than any television in the place. Jose noticed a gold watch on his nightstand. His roommate was lying in his bed with a pillow over his ear.

About an hour later, Jose entered the last room on his route. There was only one guy in there, the only one he saw without a roommate. Jose wondered if he was paying extra to be by himself. He wished that had been an option in Columbus.

“Hello.” The man’s voice was both ragged and smoky, and he was peering at Jose’s belly. He also looked to be nearly 300 pounds.

“Hey.” Look at my eyes, old man.

“New here?”


“Halfway house, eh?”

Jose nodded. “Yeah.”

“I’m Goldman. Harry Goldman.” That’s when Harry’s eyes shifted from Jose’s belly to his face.

“Nice to meet you,” Jose muttered. He wasn’t in the mood to get into a conversation with a resident. He placed the cup on the nightstand and headed out.

“Do me a favor, will you?”

“What’s that?” Jose turned his head. Harry was sniffing the air, as if he were a police dog trying to pick up a scent.

“Grab me that magazine over there.”

Simple enough. Jose thought he was going to ask him to wipe his ass. As he picked up the Newsweek and handed it to him, Jose noticed the flatness of the sheet on the bottom part of the bed.

“My feet,” Harry said.

Jose quickly shifted his eyes. “Oh, I’m sorry. I…”

“It’s okay. Everyone stares. Doctors amputated them last year.”

“Does it hurt?” Jose looked at the sheet again.

“Painful, sure. It’s because of the diabetes. I take pain killers twice a day, but it’s still not enough.”

Pain killers, Jose thought. Maybe he could get some.

Harry swiftly pulled off the sheet like a magician performing a trick, and Jose nearly jumped back as he saw the stitched stumps beneath the chubby shaved shins.

“Let this be a lesson,” Harry said.

Jose was confused. “What’s that?”

Harry chuckled, pulled the sheet back over him, and shut his eyes just as someone began yelling in the hallway.

“Crazy people! I’m surrounded by crazy people!”

Jose peered out of the room. George was guiding a woman down the hall, holding onto her arm. It was the lady with the mustache.

“Oh, Mrs. Watson,” George said, laughing. “Everything will be all right.”

“Everyone here is crazy!” she cried hysterically. “Crazy crazy crazy!”


Jose spent the rest of the day doing simple tasks, like pouring juice and water, vacuuming the visitor’s lounge, and retrieving empty lunch trays. He knew it would get worse, though. He saw George and other aids lifting people out of beds and putting them into wheelchairs, then pushing them to the bathroom and waiting for them to finish. Ms. Tucker would have him doing that, giving sponge baths and wiping ass in no time.

He only saw Maria a few more times, but she was constantly on the move, usually around the Clean and Soiled Utilities.

Jose took the bus back to the halfway house that evening. His curfew was 7:00 p.m., seven days a week.

The halfway house was like a minimum-security prison. Though he was allowed to go to work, and visit home on weekends, he couldn’t go any place else, and the officers vigorously spot-checked with phone calls. Half of his $8 an hour salary would go to them, so he was really earning $4 an hour less taxes.

He was looking forward to his third month, when he would be allowed to sleep at his parents’ house on weekends. After his sixth month, he could move home permanently, though he would still have to report to the halfway house every few weeks. He would also have to put up with the random drug testing for five years, the extent of his probation. Also, Gary said that he couldn’t vote, like he ever did that before anyway.

He had three roommates, all of whom had served time at Columbus. There was one man who he swore was a woman, but turned out to be a cross-dressing hooker. Those guys also had it tough in prison, but even they had their own gang. Some of them could fight, too. Sometimes he thought he would have been better off hanging with them. That wouldn’t have stopped Cummings, though, but it would have certainly been better than nothing.

The last encounter Jose had with Cummings happened three weeks before his release. They passed each other outside the gym. Though there was a C.O. standing nearby, Cummings stuck his foot out and tried to trip Jose. It didn’t work – Jose jumped over it and ran.

He didn’t want to run. He would have rather smashed Cummings’s face with a dumbbell. He wanted Cummings to wake up in the middle of the night, screaming, sweating and vomiting. He wanted Cummings to feel every bit of pain that he inflicted. Though Jose knew that wouldn’t undo what happened in the past, he felt that having vengeance would be a more effective therapy than spending years, or even the rest of his life, trying to cope with the damage.

It wasn’t only Jose who had to suffer, but his cellmates. He kept waking them up late at night with his whimpers and screams. In 30 months, all 12 of them requested to be moved, but the unit manager refused to give him a cell to himself. He apologized profusely for the late-night outbursts, claiming it was a medical condition and the doctors weren’t giving him medication for it. In reality, he wouldn’t take medication because he didn’t want to tell anyone what the problem was. No more snitching, not even to a psychiatrist. If Cummings, or any other inmate for that matter, wanted to shit in the soup and serve it to the prisoners, Jose knew better than to say anything.

And he had witnessed other acts of mischief. An older inmate named Jamal – who had always been nice to Jose – had a picture of his late parents taped on the bars by his bunk. One evening, Jose saw another man tear it up. Jamal screamed when he found the pieces lying on his bed.

Jose wanted to tell Jamal who did it, but when he went to do it, he suddenly felt queasy. Just the thought of snitching again was enough to make him sick to his stomach. He couldn’t even bring himself to write an anonymous note.

At the halfway house, Jose took a shower until the mirror fogged up. He rarely looked into them anymore, not even while shaving. He thought he looked like Frankenstein with those stitch scars running up his cheek, and that made him nauseous. It still hurt to chew because of the crick in his jaw each time he chomped. His vision in his left eye was blurry, though he had 20/20 before Cummings punched him.

He went to sleep that night, thanking God that he was no longer in prison.

But he still woke up in a cold sweat, wildly thrusting his arms, trying to keep away the mop handle.


The next day, a Friday, Jose started his shift at 10, praying he’d only have to pass out ice water again. No such luck. Ms. Tucker said that a few aids had called in sick, including George, so he had to work the “call button.” That meant every time his pager went off, he had to go check up on the resident who pressed the button. He was instructed to respond immediately, and to call for help if there was a medical emergency. Jose felt a tad bit relieved when Ms. Tucker told him that he only had to help undress the men if they needed it. Maria was responsible for the women, and Jose realized that she had it far worse because there were eight of them there for every male resident.

Harry Goldman was the first to call that morning. As Jose entered the room, he made certain not to look at his stumps, even though they were under the sheets. He had figured out the lesson Harry was trying to teach him: Staring was rude.

“Hey there,” Harry said hazily as Jose entered.

“What’s up, man?”

“It’s pissing time, I suppose.”

There was something humorous about Harry saying the word pissing. “I just got done myself. I gotta carry you over there, right? Or push you in the chair?” Jose knew that there was no way he would be able to lift Mr. Goldman out of his bed and into his wider-than-usual wheelchair.

Harry chuckled. “Bedpan, my lad.”


Harry pointed to the metal bowl on the table.

“Whaaa? I thought that was for cooking. I was gonna stir up some chicken and beans in there.”

Harry continued laughing, but it was an unhealthy-sounding laugh, as if it were hurting him.

“You all right?”

He started coughing and gasping, and his face faded to red.

Oh shit.

One final hack came, and then Harry caught his breath. “Excuse me,” he said. “That happens sometimes.”

Jose handed him the bedpan. Harry stuck it underneath the sheet and did his business, groaning while doing so. A moment later, he handed it back to Jose, who emptied it in the toilet and washed it out in the sink.

“All right, Mr. Goldman. Gimme a call if you need anything.” Jose didn’t want to risk making any more jokes. He never thought laughing could be so dangerous, not even when he was a kid and got milk in his nose when his friends were messing around.

“How about a massage from Maria?” Harry grinned.


Jose spent the rest of the morning helping residents to the bathroom, adjusting their reclining beds, or guiding them into or out of their wheelchairs. As Jose wheeled the black lady into the lounge, she called him ‘handsome.’ At first, he thought she was being sarcastic, but she didn’t seem capable of that. Over and over again, that was the only word out of her mouth, even after he left her in front of the communal TV.

The other aids were doing various duties, like passing out medicine, giving sponge baths, feeding the residents, clothing them, and turning them to prevent bed sores. A few visitors came, mostly older men and women. Jose wondered if Ms. Tucker would trust him to pass out medication.

Around 2 p.m., Jose ate a bag lunch that the cooks at the halfway house had made for him – a cheese sandwich and a salad. Two female aids named Lucy and Constance were eating, too, so he sat with them in the dining room and talked. They were both from Nigeria, and had come to America only a few years before. They didn’t ask him many questions, so he assumed that they also knew he was living on King Street.

Around 3, Jose’s pager went off. It read ‘221.’ That was the Russian’s room, the guy who had the volume turned up all the way on his television. The man was lying on his bed, while his roommate was sitting in his wheelchair, clutching a wooden cane.

“Which one of you called?” Jose asked.

“Not me,” the guy with the cane muttered.

The Russian began mumbling.

“You need me to turn down this TV?” Jose pressed the volume’s minus button several times. All of a sudden, the man started hollering. “Your TV is too loud!” Jose said.

The old man continued making noises. Jose noticed the gold watch was still sitting on his nightstand. He don’t need that.

Jose left the room, then heard his pager go off again. Room 221.


He went back in.

The man continued rambling as if pleading for something. Jose believed that even if he understood the language, he still wouldn’t know what he was talking about. He turned the volume back up and looked at the screen. It was another Russian video. What the hell? he thought, seeing a marching band, stripped of their shirts and pants, walking through the snow while playing brass instruments. The man fell silent again, and Jose left the room.

Then his pager went off again.


“What is it?” Jose hollered, poking his head inside.

The Russian just sat there with his finger on the call button, which was attached to a cord and plugged into the wall.

Jose turned and went looking for Ms. Tucker. A moment later, he found her in the lounge, speaking with some visitors.

Beep beep beep! 221.

Maria came walking down the hall, holding an armful of towels.

“Yo, Maria. You know that Russian man in 221?”

“He’s Ukranian.”

“He keeps pressing the button, but I don’t know what he wants.”

“Burian Zalman. He’s a pain in the ass. Move it away from his bed. That’s the only way to get him to stop.”

Jose hesitated. “But, like, what if…”

“Check on him every once in a while. And remember to move it back when your shift is over so you don’t get in trouble. And don’t do that with anyone else.”

“Okay,” Jose said. “What’s up with his roommate?”

“Mr. Tomlin absolutely hates living in there, and he leaves his room often and just walks around with that cane.”

“Gotcha. So, where you from?” Jose’s pager started beeping again. 221.

“I’ll talk to you later. Exercise class is about to start and I’ve gotta move some people.” Maria continued down the hallway.

Jose returned to 221, a room that could be identified by the noise alone.

Mr. Zalman’s bed was adjusted at an angle so he could see his television, but his eyes were closed and he was snoring. Jose walked over and moved the call button just out of his reach. Then he took another look at the gold watch on the nightstand. There wasn’t anything else expensive lying around. There was a clock radio that was blinking 12:00. A telephone. A remote control. A stack of videos with funny writing on the labels.

The curtain that divided the room was halfway closed, just enough so the two men couldn’t see each other while lying in bed. Mr. Tomlin began walking past the midway point with his cane. He moved slowly, like a turtle crossing the street.

“Mr. Tomlin, you need help with something?” Jose asked.

“Kill him,” he grumbled as he continued out of the room.

After Mr. Tomlin exited, Jose reached for the gold watch. He wouldn’t steal it just yet because he knew it could be a setup. Ms. Tucker could have planted it there, and then gave him that shift to see if he’d take it. He hid it under the nightstand, which was raised about an inch above the floor. If he didn’t hear anything about it being missing, he’d come back to get it Monday.

Mr. Zalman was still sleeping. Jose changed his mind and moved the call button back to where it was. After all, the Ukranian couldn’t abuse it if he wasn’t awake.

As Jose turned to leave the room, his heart thumped harder. He had spent the good part of his childhood swiping things from stores, and the more he did it, the easier it got. Now, he suddenly felt like an amateur again, nervous and paranoid.

Good reason, he thought. The consequences were much higher now. When he was a kid, and even a teenager, they’d give him a slap on the wrist. Now, if he were caught swiping so much as a pack of gum from a drug store, it was back to prison.

Sweat broke out on his forehead. He had placed the watch only a few inches beneath the nightstand. Maybe Mr. Zalman would notice, maybe he wouldn’t. If he did, he certainly wouldn’t be able to tell any of the staff. But if his family came to visit, he’d tell them, and they’d tell Ms. Tucker. She’d naturally suspect the new guy from the halfway house.

Then they’d find it beneath the nightstand, and he’d be safe.

So, maybe three days wasn’t long enough. Maybe he should wait a week. Or at least wait for the family to visit. Then, if he didn’t hear anything, any rumors, he’d wait for Zalman to fall asleep, take it, and pawn it.

But Ms. Tucker would still find out about it somehow. She would call the police. They’d take him away in handcuffs, back to Columbus.

Jose suddenly felt a projection from his stomach into his chest. He spun and dashed toward the bathroom, just as the cheese sandwich came shooting into his mouth, down his chin and onto the floor.

Oh Jesus.

He turned on the faucet and splashed water in his face, careful not to look into the mirror. He had gotten some on his shirt.

“Jose?” Maria yelled over the sound of the TV.

Jose just stood there by the faucet, breathing heavily. “Yeah?”

“You seen Mr. Tomlin? It’s time for his exercise class.” She came walking into the room. “Holy shit, what happened?”

I puked while trying to steal something. “Nothing. Gimme a sec.”

“What happened, Jose? There’s vomit on the floor!”

“I got sick, that’s all.”

“What?” Maria turned the volume down.

“I said I got sick,” Jose said from the bathroom.

“Aigh, aigh aigh!” Mr. Zalman started yelling.

“Mr. Zalman, you’re TV is too loud!” Maria said.

The Ukranian continued making noises, none of which resembled words in any language.


“I said I’m okay, Maria. Don’t worry about it.”

Maria hesitated. “You sure?”

“Yeah. Mr. Tomlin left the room.”

“Why’d you get sick? Did you have to change a diaper? Get me the next time you have to do that.”

“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.”

Mr. Zalman quieted as the television volume grew louder, and Jose assumed Maria exited because she didn’t ask any more questions.

When he left the bathroom, Jose saw that Mr. Zalman had shut his eyes again. He retrieved the watch and placed it back on the nightstand. Then he went to the hallway and waved to Lucy.

“Hey, where’s the mop at?”

She pointed to the closet. Jose opened the door and pulled out a mop and a bucket.

As he cleaned up, he tried not to look at the mop handle. He didn’t even like looking at the mop itself, but knew he couldn’t do much of a job cleaning with his eyes closed. The first time he used a mop after the incident, he puked, which was ironically convenient. Then he requested a new job, one that didn’t involve cleaning. His unit manager said no. Ever since, Jose held his breath, grabbed the handle, and worked as quickly as possible before running to the bathroom and splashing water into his face.

But this time, when he finished cleaning, he went back into the bathroom and knelt at the toilet.


That evening, shortly before quitting time, Jose approached Ms. Tucker, who was updating the activities calendar with a magic marker on the whiteboard with Lucy.

“Hey Ms. Tucker. Check this out. I think we should switch Mr. Tomlin out of that room to Mr. Goldman’s room. Zalman is annoying him with that TV.”

“Sorry, but no one is moving. Besides, someone new will be moving in with Mr. Goldman next week.” She didn’t even look at him as she wrote “Bingo” under the Friday, 3 p.m. slot. After that, she wrote “Christmas Party.”

“But Mr. Tomlin is suffering in there. I mean, Zalman won’t let us turn down that TV. Even in prison they moved us around when one guy was annoying the other.” Jose certainly didn’t want to say that it was always he who was annoying the other cellmates with his late-night crying.

Ms. Tucker turned toward him, her jaw wiggling like Jell-O. “Jose, I said no!”

Jose just bit his lip, nodded, and walked away.


Quitting time was at 6:30 p.m., and Jose had to hurry to the bus so he could get back to the halfway house before 7. That left him enough time to smoke one cigarette outside the Milford building.

Maria clocked out a few minutes later, and Jose was surprised to see that she was taking the same bus.

“Where you live?” he asked. They sat next to each other.

“King Street,” Maria replied, sounding reluctant to tell him.

“You in the halfway house, too?”

“No, silly. Down the street.”

“Oh,” Jose said. That was a pretty bad neighborhood. Not only were 150 or so former inmates living together on that block, but much of the other housing was subsidized. “How long you been working at Milford?”

“Two years. They’re helping to pay for my nursing school.”

“That’s cool,” Jose said. “My sister is in med school.”

Maria peered out the window.

“Hey, sorry about earlier, when I got sick, making you see that.”

She looked back at him. “What happened, anyway?”

“I guess I’m still getting used to working there, doing the things I gotta do, you know?”

“You’ve gotta become immune to that,” Maria said. “There’s some nasty shit that happens – you’ve just gotta get used to it.”

“Oh, I wanted to tell you – I asked Ms. Tucker to move Mr. Tomlin to Mr. Goldman’s room, but Ms. Tucker said no.”

“That figures,” she said. “She don’t like listening to anyone.”

Jose detected the beginning of a smile on her face. “So, what’s wrong with most of the people in there? I mean, I know they’re old and all, but, like, do they have diseases?”

“Everyone’s got something, especially Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

“What about Goldman? He’s a nice man. And he’s got a crush on you.”

Maria blushed, and a full smile finally came to her face. “He’s got diabetes.”

“A buddy of mine had that – had to keep taking insulin. One of our teachers thought he was shooting up heroin and called the police.”

“No, that’s different. There’s two types,” Maria said. “Goldman’s got the other kind.”


Jose was thinking about what to say next. He couldn’t ask her out – the halfway house had rules about going places. He was allowed to visit his parents over the weekend, but he couldn’t even leave there until he came back to King Street. They even called to check up on him.

Then again, he still wasn’t sure if Maria would be interested in him. Nice girls didn’t exactly flock to former inmates.

“You notice there aren’t any Latinos in that place?”

Maria nodded. “Yeah, not sure why.”

“There’s only that one black lady. She looks like she’s 100. I bet she’s got some stories to tell, about, you know, segregation and all that.”

“You’re talking about Mrs. Cummings,” Maria said.

Mrs. Cummings? Jose thought. No way.

“You okay? You look like I said something wrong.” Maria asked.

“Nothing,” Jose said, looking away from her. No way it’s her.

Jose and Maria chatted during the rest of the bus ride. He told her about his family. Maria told him that she was going to spend the weekend putting up Christmas decorations at her mother’s house.

“See you Monday,” she said with a smile before leaving the bus, only two blocks from the halfway house.

It was Ms. Cummings. Granny. Somehow, Jose knew it.


On Saturday morning, Jose’s father, Franco, picked him up on King Sreet. They drove 30 miles to a much nicer neighborhood, where they had lived for 23 years. Rosa, Jose’s mother, was cooking lunch, while Lillian and Carmen were watching TV. It was the first time that he had been home since the cops led him out of his room in handcuffs.

Jose was surprised to see how much it had changed. His mother had redecorated, and there wasn’t any dog hair on the furniture because Federico, a black lab, had died shortly after Jose was locked up. It was only his mother, father and Carmen living there now, and Carmen would be going to college soon.

“Jose, you lost weight!” Lillian shouted as she hugged him. He had dropped 35 pounds in prison, which he attributed to the awful food, not exercise. Lillian, who only had time to visit him once at Columbus more than a year before, had driven home from Temple University for Christmas break.

“Momma told me about your job. I’m proud of you for that!”

Jose laughed. “Oh, please, they shouldn’t have even hired me. I don’t have any experience.”

“It’s just remedial nursing. Anyone can do that.”

“Jose’s a nurse!” Carmen sneered. “Ha ha.”

“At least I got a job,” Jose said as he walked over and hugged his little sister. “I don’t see you working.”

“Papa won’t let me.”

“I will let you work if you keep your grades up,” Franco said.

“I got a 3.7 this semester!”

“You were getting a 4.0,” he replied.

Jose didn’t like listening to his family argue about such things, especially since his highest achievements didn’t even match their lowest. He had never gotten more than a C average in high school, and that happened once when he was a freshman, the semester before he smoked his first joint. His father was the chief financial officer of a law firm, and his mother was a travel agent who got free cruises.

Sometimes, he wondered why he got the short end of the stick, like the learning disability and the addictions. There was one other person in the family like that – his father’s older brother, uncle Federico, who had died when Jose was 8. Jose was so upset when that happened, his parents bought him the dog to cheer him up. Federico was a heavy drinker and smoker, spent some time in prison, and held odd jobs. He died of lung cancer when he was only 40.

As they ate lunch, Jose mentioned very little about Columbus. He talked more about Milford, though he had only been working there for two days. Even then, he didn’t say much about it.

“Momma, how old was your grandfather when he died?” When Jose was 6, the family took their first of several trips together to Puerto Rico, Rosa’s native country. That was the only time Jose and his sisters met him.

“He was 96,” Rosa said as she scooped more rice onto her son’s plate.

“He just got old, right? He didn’t need to be in one of those homes?”

“He was still living at his house, sweetie. He just died one day.”

“But, like, no diseases, right?”

“He just got old. They say he died in his sleep.”

“So, like, I’m wondering if there’s a history of Alzheimer’s, cancer, or stuff like that in the family.”

“Since when are you concerned about that?” Lillian asked.

“Cause I want to know, okay?” Jose snapped.

“No one that I know of in our family has gotten Alzheimer’s,” Franco said.

“What about cancer?”

Franco answered again. “Only Federico, but he brought that on himself.”

“Can we talk about something else, please? I have to listen to this enough when I’m at school.” Lillian slammed down her fork.

“Then why don’t you tell me if you know so much?” Jose made a face at her.

Lillian got up and left the room.

“What’s her problem?” Jose asked.

“Her monthly,” Carmen said.

“Carmen!” Rosa glared at her daughter.

“Oh, but Jose can talk about people dying?” Carmen started laughing.

Lillian came back into the dining room with a thick hardback book, then dropped it on Jose’s lap. “Here, read.”

“Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine? Lillian, I want to know our family’s medical history, not this.” Jose put it on the table and took another bite of chicken.

“Maybe you should learn what the diseases actually are before you ask about them.”

“You know, I’m glad the judge didn’t sentence me to living with you again.”

Lillian scowled and stuck out her tongue.

“You’ve gotta be patient with women, Jose, even your sisters,” Franco said.

“Did you have any relationships in prison?” Carmen asked.

Jose laughed. “Yeah, I had me a new girl every night.”

“Who said anything about girls?” Carmen chuckled.

“If the judge wants to kill me, he’d make me live with both of you,” Jose said, smiling. He didn’t realize how much he missed his family.

After lunch, Rosa cleaned the table, while Franco, Lillian and Carmen went into the living room to watch TV. Jose didn’t join them immediately. He was busy looking up ‘Diabetes’ in Lillian’s book.


The entire family drove back to King Street that evening to drop off Jose. He wanted to visit again on Sunday, but Rosa and Lillian were going to church and the mall, and Franco was going to attend Carmen’s indoor soccer game, the final one before school let out for vacation. Instead, Jose stayed at the halfway house all day.

He had actually slept through the entire night, a rarity, but he figured that being with his family had relaxed him. He did dream, though. It was about Mrs. Cummings, a woman he had only seen two or three times.

She was a sweet little lady, even though a stroke probably impaired half of her brain. Jose could understand how Terrance loved her so much. Now, Jose had to push this woman around in her chair and help her to the bathroom, the same woman who raised the bastard who tortured him in prison. Sweet or not, she was partially responsible for what had happened to him.

No, Jose thought. Even if she wasn’t at all responsible, Terrance’s love for her was the only thing that kept him as a human being. He didn’t care about anything, anyone, but her. She was the only one he had left.

Jose knew that he was more fortunate than Cummings. He didn’t take for granted that he had a caring family who supported him, and he would soon have his freedom again. But he would never be free. Not as long as he had nightmares, not as long as he couldn’t mop a floor without getting sick. Not as long as he couldn’t look into a fucking mirror.

There was only one way to make it right, one way to permanently remove that pain. Killing, or even hurting Cummings would have done it, but that was no longer an option. Taking away the only person that mattered to him would be even better.

Cummings would be screaming like a caged animal if anything happened to his granny, screaming for the extent of his life term. After all, he deserved it, because he would never repent or apologize for the pain that he inflicted. Then again, Jose wasn’t sure that he could ever forgive him, especially while those nightmares continued. He would do anything to get rid of them. Anything.


Jose didn’t sleep well Sunday night. He woke up at 3 a.m., huffing and perspiring. The cross-dressing hooker even sat by his side and patted his arm, saying “Easy, easy.” Jose didn’t like the guy touching him, but he didn’t have the energy to tell him off. In fact, he was glad the guy cared at all. It was better than being told, “Shut the fuck up, Gonzalez!” for the 500th time.

After sleeping on and off for the next couple of hours, he finally woke up craving a cigarette. He skipped breakfast and smoked, then got on the bus and went to work. He looked at his watch, hoping he’d have time to smoke two before he clocked in. He didn’t.

As he walked down the sidewalk to Milford Care Assisted Living, he saw another ambulance parked outside the building. This time, the lights were spinning. Someone was being loaded inside. After taking only two drags, he smashed out his smoke and hurried over.


Mrs. Cummings was on the Gurney.

Jose could feel his temperature rise, even in the 32-degree weather.

Ms. Tucker was standing at the door.

“What happened?” Jose asked as the paramedics closed the ambulance door.

“She fell out of her wheelchair.”

“How bad is it?”

“I don’t know,” Ms. Tucker said casually and went back inside.

Jose waited for the ambulance to leave.

His heartbeat quickened. He wasn’t sure if that would cut it. Even if Mrs. Cummings died, he wasn’t sure if that would be enough.

As the ambulance sped down the parking lot, Jose wondered if anything could rid the nightmares. An old lady dies, whether of natural causes or murdered, Cummings would get upset. Nightmares over? Doubtful.

Then, of course, there was the possibility that he would get caught doing any of the things that he had contemplated. Maybe he’d get sick again, like when he tried to steal that watch. After all, he’d go to prison a lot longer for abusing the elderly than for swiping something.

Maybe that wasn’t even Terrance’s grandmother. Chances were she was a completely different black lady with the same last name. The name Cummings wasn’t exactly as rare as Zalman. The last thing Jose wanted to do was mess with the wrong person. He supposed there was some way of finding out for sure. Maybe he could check her file when Ms. Tucker wasn’t looking, or steal her mail. Hell, maybe he could even ask the old lady if she had a grandchild in Columbus. But that was only if she came back from the hospital. If she didn’t, and if she just died, Jose wasn’t sure where that would leave him. Worst-case scenario, he would have nightmares for the rest of his fucking life.

“Hey Sam,” Jose said to the receptionist, the guy who looked like he should have been riding a Harley Davidson and wreaking havoc in a redneck town.

“What’s up, dude?”

“Not much, man. Just looking forward til Friday, you know?”

“Hell with Friday, I’m looking forward to Christmas Day.” Christmas was on Sunday.

“I hear ya.” Jose walked upstairs, realizing there was no point in taking the elevator only one floor.

Ms. Tucker was sitting at the desk, and the usual gang of wheelchair-bound residents sat around her.

“Boo!” Jose said to Mrs. Frederickson, careful to make it subtle so she didn’t have a heart attack. He really wasn’t in the mood to play games, but knew he had to do anything to keep his mind off of Mrs. Cummings.

Mrs. Frederickson looked up from her frozen position and started cackling.

“Don’t encourage her, Jose,” Ms. Tucker said, placing the pager on the desk. “You’re on call duty again.”

“Okay,” he said, clipping it to the corner of his pocket. He wondered how soon Mr. Zalman would start pressing the button. On Friday, he didn’t do it until the afternoon. Maybe he really did want something that day, Jose thought, but was unable to communicate.

As Jose went down the hall, he saw George, who stopped to shake hands.

“You seen Maria?” Jose asked.

“No, not yet,” George said.

Where is she? he wondered, knowing that Maria was just about the only person who could have cheered him up.

While Jose waited for his pager to ring, he helped George pour ice water, which he was passing out along with medication.

“So, man, how long you been working here?” Jose asked.

“Five years,” George said. “Every since I came to America.”

“Where you from?”

“Castries, St. Lucia.”

Jose felt stupid. He thought George was from Africa. I’ve gotta stop guessing where people are from.

“I brought my wife and three sons here.”

Jose nodded.

“How do you like the job so far?” George asked, smiling as usual.

“It’s all right,” Jose replied, just as his pager went off. 220.

He went around the corner and down the hall, keeping an eye out for Maria.

“Yo Ms. Tucker, who’s changing the ladies today?”

“Constance,” she said, not losing site of her files.

Jose entered room 220. There were two women in there. “Which one of you called?”

The lady whose bed was on the far end of the room raised her hand. Jose walked toward her. She was holding a remote control.

“What can I do for you today?”

“I can’t turn on the television,” she said.

Jose took the remote, pressed the power button, and it came on. A courtroom show was on.

“There you go,” he said, handing it back to her and pointing at the buttons. “Press these here to change the channels. When you want to turn it off, press this one.”

“How do I turn it louder?”

“These,” Jose said, wondering if a relative had recently brought her the set, or if she had just forgotten how to use it.

As Jose left the room, he could hear the volume going up. Then he stopped, looking straight ahead, listening.

There was no sound in the room next door, in 221.

He hurried in.


Mr. Tomlin had his cane raised over Mr. Zalman’s bleeding head.

Jose dashed for him, grabbing the cane before he could swing it down again. Jose tore it from his hand and pushed him to the side. Mr. Tomlin stumbled to the floor, landing on his hip, moaning.

“Ms. Tucker!” Jose yelled, going back to the door. “Ms. Tucker!”

Down the long hallway, he could see Ms. Tucker’s head perk up. “It’s an emergency!”

Jose looked back into the room. Mr. Zalman’s face was bleeding, and he didn’t appear to be breathing.

Dammit!” Jose screamed, dropping the cane. The television plug had been removed from the socket. Jose also looked at the nightstand. The gold watch was gone, and the call button was unplugged.

George and Constance beat Ms. Tucker to the door. They peered inside.

“Dude, call an ambulance,” Jose said, and George rushed away.

Ms. Tucker finally made it to the door, out of breath. “What happened?”

“Tomlin hit Zalman with the cane,” Jose said, hoping to God that she believed him. He could suddenly picture her telling the police that he was responsible for it all.

She looked at him skeptically, then hurried over to Mr. Zalman. She stuck her chubby fingers underneath his neck.

“Mr. Tomlin, are you okay?” she asked, reaching for him. He was on the floor, groaning. “Mr. Tomlin, how did this happen?”

God damn it! Jose thought as sweat dripped down his face. She was going to do it. The bitch was going to blame him for this.

One of the medics entered the room.

“James, Mr. Zalman is dead and I think Mr. Tomlin broke his hip.” Ms. Tucker was squatting, looking over Tomlin.

Just as Ms. Tucker already did, the doctor felt for Mr. Zalman’s pulse. “He’s dead.”

“Ms. Tucker, I swear to God, I just came in here and saw Tomlin swinging the cane over Zalman’s head. I had to push him away.”

“Jose, not now!” Her portly face had turned bright red.

George shoved his way through several other aids and poked his head into the room. “The ambulance is on the way.”

Jose just stood there, watching, sweating. He felt lightheaded. He didn’t notice that his pager had fallen off.


An hour later, after Bert Tomlin was sent to the hospital and Burian Zalman was taken to the morgue, Jose was in the visitor’s lounge with the police. He told them everything, not just what he saw that day, but what he had seen the previous week. Still worrying about Ms. Tucker’s testimony, he said that he warned her about those two. He even told them that the weekend staff had probably unplugged the call button. About 15 minutes into the interview, he noticed that his pager was missing.

Maria arrived at noon, and found Jose just as the police finished questioning him.

“What happened?” she asked.

He filled her in as quickly as he could, choking back tears. Maria, too, appeared to be struggling with her emotions as he spoke.

“Ms. Tucker is gonna blame me,” Jose said. “The police are talking to her right now.”

George came walking into the lounge, a somber expression on his normally cheerful face.

“Hi George,” Maria said.

“I have more bad news,” he began. “Harry Goldman died.”

Jose’s heart suddenly sank further and his jaw dropped. “When?”

“I found him a half hour ago,” George said. “He wasn’t breathing. He must have died while we were in Mr. Zalman’s room.”

George then turned away and went back to his duties.

Tears began streaming down Jose’s eyes and his lips were quivering. Maria threw her arms around him.

“Jose, it’ll be all right. People die all the time around here. You’ve just gotta get used to it.”

But he didn’t hear her. He was too busy wondering if Ms. Tucker was blaming him, and that he’d be sent back to prison. He was too busy wondering if Mr. Goldman was pressing the call button in his final moments.


Jose returned to 221 to look for the pager, but the room had been taped off with yellow police ribbon. Maybe they found it in there, and they would see Harry’s room number on the small screen. Then they would realize Harry had died, and that Jose was to blame because he was on call.

That was ridiculous, he thought. Even though Harry’s room was on the far end of the rear hallway, there was no excuse for other aids not to have been nearby. There were seven or eight on duty at any given time on the second floor alone. That didn’t include the doctors and physical therapists.

Ms. Tucker was still speaking to the police, so Jose went from room to room, asking each resident if they needed anything. A few of them did, even though they hadn’t pressed the call button. He didn’t mind doing anything they needed, taking them to the bathroom, removing their clothes. It no longer mattered.

He skipped lunch, though he knew the half hour would be subtracted from his check, anyway.

Around 1 p.m., the police left, and Ms. Tucker was walking around the hall, looking for him. There were guests in the visitor’s lounge, and some of the residents were eating in the dining room, so they went into the activities room on the first floor.

“Jose, I want to apologize,” she said, placing her hand on his.

He looked at her. She appeared genuinely upset, even guilty. “I should have listened to you.”

Jose didn’t respond. It had been years since anyone apologized to him for anything. Sometimes, he wondered what he would do if Cummings apologized. He had always figured that he wouldn’t accept it, and that he wouldn’t feel a sense of relief until he got revenge. Then again, Cummings would never apologize, ever.

Looking at Ms. Tucker, Jose couldn’t help but think that she meant it. She could have easily told the police anything, maybe even mentioned that he was from the halfway house.

Jose finally spoke. “My pager fell from my belt. It’s still in room 221.”

“That’s okay, lets go get another one.” She stood, then went back to the desk. Jose followed her.

The usual gang sat around, oblivious to everything that had happened that day. All of a sudden, Jose felt that they were the lucky ones.


That afternoon, Jose approached Dr. James Williams, one of the medics who had been working with Harry Goldman. He said that Harry had been extremely sick and in a lot of pain. He was a lifelong smoker, unhealthy eater, never exercised, and had diabetes for several years without treatment. Jose wasn’t surprised to hear all of that, but the more he listened, the more he realized that it wasn’t his fault. Even if Mr. Goldman pressed the call button and the page came through, Harry probably still would have died.

Two hours later, a police officer returned the pager to the front desk. Jose asked Ms. Tucker to see it. He went through the call history, but didn’t see room 256 listed. A few people did call after he had dropped it, but he supposed someone else eventually tended to them.

Maria had to work late, so Jose sat on the bus by himself. When he arrived at the halfway house, he got a phone call from Gary. He said that Ms. Tucker had called and praised Jose for his work.

When he went back in the morning, Ms. Tucker asked him which job he wanted. He shrugged.

“Anything you want,” she said. “Laundry, pass out medication, just let me know.”

“I’ll do call duty again, if that’s okay,” he said.

The first thing he did was go to each room to make sure that the buttons were within an arm’s reach of each resident.


Friday was the day of the Milford Christmas party. Ms. Tucker asked Jose to be on the decorating committee with Maria and Lucy, but he said he just wanted to work with the residents.

“Will they let you home for Christmas?” George asked Jose as they folded sheets and pillowcases in the laundry room.

“Yeah, my mom is making a nice dinner, my cousins are coming into town, and my probation officer worked it so I could sleep over the house Saturday night.”

“Very good,” George said.

Jose’s pager went off. 211. He didn’t remember whose room that was.

When he walked in, he remembered. It was Aretha Cummings. She lay upright in her bed. Her roommate wasn’t there.


“Back from the hospital?” Jose asked.

“This morning,” she nodded.

“So, what can I do for you today, Ms. Cummings?”

“Christmas party.”

“You want to go to the Christmas party now?”

She nodded.

Jose lifted her – she was probably older than her weight – and placed her gently into the wheelchair.

In the downstairs activity room, several residents sat around, listening to a visiting piano player sing Christmas carols. Some of them were singing along. There was a tree in the corner, decorated with lights and ornaments. An angel stood on the tip. Maria was walking around with a Polaroid camera, taking pictures.

“Any requests?” the piano player asked.

White Christmas,” Maria said.

“Okay, White Christmas it is.”

The residents were crowded all around the piano, so Jose parked Ms. Cummings behind them.

“Can you hear?” he asked.

She nodded several times.

“Mrs. Cummings, do you have a grandson named Terrance?”

She looked up at him, stone-faced. “Terrance?”

“Yeah, Terrance. Do you have a grandson named Terrance? Is he in prison?”

Mrs. Cummings looked away from him and made a noise that was a combination of clearing her throat, and disgust. “Terrance,” she whined. “Terrance is bad. Real bad.” She made the noise again, and her eyes drooped.

“Mrs. Cummings, don’t get upset.”

“Terrance is bad. Baaaaad.” She shook her head ruefully. “Baaaaad.”

“Don’t get upset.”

“Oh, I’ll be all right. Twenty years. Twenty years since I’ve seen him.” She looked back into his eyes. “Broke my heart, he did.”

Jose patted her on the shoulder. Then he excused himself.


“Hey Maria, do me a favor and take a picture of me with Mrs. Cummings.”

“Sure,” she said. The entertainer was now singing “Jingle Bells,” and now many of the residents were singing along.

Jose put his arm around Mrs. Cummings.

“Jose, why you holding that mop?” Maria asked.

“Smile, Mrs. Cummings,” Jose said.

A broad grin crossed her face, and Jose smiled as well. The mop handle was visible in the corner of the frame.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Cummings.” Jose gave her a kiss on the cheek. This woman was too sweet. He’d look after her as much as he could.

“Merry Christmas, handsome.”

That evening, Jose mailed the picture to the Columbus Correctional Institution to inmate Terrance P. Cummings.


Saturday night, Christmas Eve, Jose sat on the front porch, bundled up in his coat, scarf and gloves, watching the snowflakes hover to the ground. His family was inside, sitting on the sofa, drinking eggnog.

He had just gotten off the phone with Maria. She had called to wish him a merry Christmas, and to thank him for inviting her to dinner at his house. She couldn’t make it because she had to stay with her family. As much as Jose liked Christmas, especially now that he was back at home, he was looking forward to Monday, when he would punch the clock at Milford Care Assisted Living.

The previous night, Jose slept peacefully. He wasn’t sure if that was an indication that the nightmares were over, because an uninterrupted sleep happened on occasion, anyway. As much as he wanted to credit his prank on Cummings, he had a strong feeling that didn’t do much. That morning, while looking in the mirror, shaving, he decided to write a follow-up letter to assure Cummings that his granny was safe. But first, he did some sit-ups and jumping jacks.

The snow had only been falling for an hour, but it had already covered the lawn. Jose had heard a weather report saying it was only the second time in 20 years that it snowed on Christmas Eve in that area. He wished Harry Goldman had lived another week to see it.

Jose pulled a pack of cigarettes from his coat pocket. Perhaps Goldman was still hanging around. There was only one way to find out.

He held the pack in his palm, staring at it. He had been smoking since he was 14, the same age Uncle Federico said he started.

His throat quivered as he swallowed. He could feel it coming again, the lightheadedness, the upset stomach. A bead of sweat dripped down his forehead. He clenched the pack in his hand and dropped it on the porch. Then he scurried for the yard, opening his mouth widely and belching bile and disgust into the fresh snow.

Thanks, Harry, he thought, smiling with a mess of saliva dripping from his mouth. He went inside to join his family.