• Call + Response

Repayment Plan by Michelle J. Fernandez



The heat woke him up.


The dryness, he was used to. The sticky film of spittle that collected in the corners of his

mouth and tasted like salt and skin, the sick taste that never went away, the thirst that knew no quenching. All of that came with the territory. It had been years since he had felt the sensation of water running on his skin, a feeling so vital it gave the deaf-blind language. The machines that monitored his body’s processes buzzed with insectoid purpose.


But this heat, God, what was it?


His arm stretched out in search of the call button, but found nothing and dropped to the

floor. The floor was wet and grainy below his fingers. No, it was grass.


Outside. He was outside. His eyes tried to burst open in shock, but were caked together

with the sticky muck of sleep. He picked the filth from his eyelashes and cried out.


“Pell! Hey, Pell!”


“Yes, Mr. Stafford?” A calm voice came quickly from just behind his bed.


“Fred. It’s Fred. How many times do you have to wipe my ass before you drop the

formality and call me Fred?”


Pell took a bite of her sandwich and spoke with her mouth full.


“I will never not call you Mr. Stafford. It’s how I was taught to address my elders. And

bare-assed or not, I was taught that all patients deserve respect and dignity. But probably more than anything else, Fred is a stupid name. What is that short for, Frederal?”


“What kind of name is Pell!”


“It’s short for Pelamina. My mother is Penelope and my grandmother is Wilhelmina, and

we’re Dominican, so.”


“Don’t you people normally just mash up your mother and father’s names?”


“My father was a soldier who raped my mother. We don’t know his name, otherwise it’d

probably be in there somewhere too.”


“That’s more than I needed. Do you mind telling me what I’m doing outside?”


“It would be my pleasure, Mr. Stafford. You are outside because the nursing home is

closing permanently and no arrangements have been made for your transfer to another care

facility.”


He twisted his head to look back at her.


“Closed!”


The sudden movement made him dizzy. He allowed his head to drop.


Pell slipped an ice chip into his mouth. “It all happened very quickly, Mr. Stafford. The

defunding of social security and Medicare has meant that a lot of elder care facilities have had to close.”


He waved her off. “That’s fine. Businesses close. Alternatives exist. That doesn’t explain

why I’m on the lawn and this is the first I’m hearing of it.”


“Mr. Stafford, I’m a nurse. I don’t know about your personal finances. All I know is that

your daughter has both your medical and financial powers of attorney and would have been

responsible for making arrangements for you. You should ask her.”


“So I wasn’t made aware of any of this because she’s got power of attorney? That’s

outrageous. I’m not dead yet, you know.”


He spread his fingers and pressed his palms to the ground, allowing the wet grass to

tickle where his fingers met his hand. The machines and cicadas buzzed in harmony.


“Anyway, a power of attorney is supposed to act in my best interests. I’m a sick old man.

Isn’t this neglect?”


“I’m not a lawyer, sir. I can’t—"


“—Where is everyone else? The other patients?”


“Everyone else has been transferred to another facility or picked up by family members

and brought home. I’m just out here on my lunch break.”


“So you’re gonna leave when you’re done eating? Isn’t someone required to stay with

me? Isn’t there a law?”


“No, Mr. Stafford. You’re thinking of schoolchildren.”


...


Grace sits on the sidewalk in front of her school with her feet in the grass. She lets the

ants crawl across her hands, transferring them from finger to finger, and pretends not to notice the periodic sighing of the teacher’s aide, who sits on the curb pressing buttons on a handheld device.


Grace spots a ladybug in the grass and crawls over on all fours. Perched just behind the

teacher’s aide, she is able to read the screen over her shoulder.


i know i’m sorry i’ll be there as soon as I can.


youre already late it’s the third time this month. cant you call the cops? isn’t this

neglect?


you don’t get it, i can’t be the millennial to prove what he says about millennials not being able to handle things ourselves. besides the mom thinks she can get full custody so hopefully this won’t keep hap—


The aide snatches her phone out of view.


“What do you think you’re doing! Grace! You’re not a baby! You should know better

than to snoop!” She talks quickly, is flushed.


“Are you one of those people that hates my dad?”


“We don’t hate him, Grace.”


“That’s why he’s late! People like you line up outside his office every day to yell at

him!”


“That’s part of his job, Grace. We live in a democracy and people are free to protest.

Anyway, it isn’t appropriate for me to discuss this with you.”


“But it’s ‘propriate to talk about me with your boyfriend?”


“My boyfriend?” the aide laughs. “I was messaging my boss. I leave here and work the

dinner shift at a wine bar four nights a week. Then I tutor on the weekends. I don’t have time for a boyfriend.”


“Why do you work so much?”


“To afford my student loan payments. I don’t expect you to understand, but I hope

someday you learn that the bill your father is hell-bent on killing is the best chance my

generation has to get out from under our debt.”


“You said a bad word.”


“I said a series of bad words that describe a bad situation. You’re old enough to

understand the difference too.”


A black Navigator with tinted windows rolls up and Grace is pulled in too quickly for the

aide to see inside.


...


“Mr. Stafford, I think you should call someone to pick you up. I can’t stay with you much

longer.”


“What happens if no one comes to get me?”


“We’d have to call the police.”


“And then?”


“I’m a nurse, Mr. Stafford.”


“Give me your phone.”


Pell shrugged and handed over the device.


The phone rang in one ear, and the cicadas and machines buzzed and hummed in the

other, creating an awful augmented triad.


“Hello.”


“Gracie, honey, it’s dad. How are—”


“—How much do you need, Fred.”


“Oh come on Gracie honey that’s not fair. I don’t—you make it sound like it’s always

about money—”


“When has it ever not been.”


“Gracie, they closed the nursing home.”


“I know Fred. They’re all closed. Do you know why?”


“Yes, honey, I know.”


“It’s to pay off the debt, Fred.”


“I understand. Gracie sweetie, I need you to arrange to have me moved.”


“I’ll see what I can do.”


“But I need somewhere to stay toni—"


The line went dead. The machines and cicadas buzzed.




Michelle J. Fernandez is a public librarian from New York whose writing has been published by Wordgathering, Albany Poets, Tonguas, Novella-T, in the anthology Life Plus Two Meters: Volume Two, and forthcoming in the next issue of Sisyphus.


Website: michellejfernandez.com

Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram: @meeshuggeneh


Photograph: Unsplash

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