The pencil in Paula’s hand twisted and spun around her fingers like the lead twirler’s fire baton in the annual Strawberry Festival parade. The redhead’s nervousness showed only in that pencil’s activity. She hated hospitals and having to wait in her great aunt’s room while the lady was undergoing some test or other was almost unbearable. The pencil danced among her fingers, then suddenly jumped and flew across the room, clattered against turquoise-flecked linoleum and skidded under the bedside table on the other side of where the hospital bed would be when her great aunt returned.
“Damn!” Paula looked toward the open door after her expletive as though she expected a nurse to waggle a finger at her. Relieved when no one appeared, she crossed the room and knelt down to get the pencil she’d inadvertently tossed. She blew a dust bunny off the end and polished it with her shirttail before standing. Seated again, she examined the writing implement for dings and scratches. Paula still couldn’t believe that after all these years Great Aunt Leone had given her the one thing she’d coveted most since her childhood.
Paula was seven the first time she saw Auntie Leone use the fancy jeweled pencil to dial a telephone. Leone removed the metal cap from the eraser end and used that end to dial an old-fashioned rotary telephone that had a handset that Paula thought must have weighed twenty pounds when she had to talk to her mama on it. Auntie wanted the little girl to stay the night so she and her great niece could have a proper tea party and then, after cleaning up, go to an early movie and then to the ice cream parlor for club sandwiches and sundaes.
Aunt Leone held the tiny pencil encrusted with shiny blue and red stones just as if she were about to start writing except for the pencil being upside down. She spun the dial, one number at a time, the light from the desk lamp glinting on her aquamarine nail polish (the first Paula had ever seen outside of magazines) that perfectly matched the crystals on the pencil.
“Miss? Your aunt should be back in a few minutes. I’ll get her lunch tray ready. Will you be feeding her today?” One of the floor nurses looked in through the open door.
“What? Oh. Yes. If she wants me to, that is. With Auntie Leone one can never be sure.”
“Yes ma’am. She’s, as my grandpa used to say, a pistol!”
“That she is. And thanks, by the way.”
“Sure. I don’t know why they have to take people for tests just when lunch is about to be served.”
The nurse turned and left and soon Paula heard her Aunt Leone chastising the young man who was bringing her back to the room.
“Are you sure we’re on the right floor, Berto? I don’t recognize those flowers there.”
“It’s ROberto, Miss Leone, and yes, it’s the right floor. Those flowers must have been delivered after I took you downstairs.”
“Well, who are they for? Are they for me?”
“I’ll see if they’re for you after we get you settled, miss. Hang on, here’s that big turn.”
The nurse’s aide guided Leone’s hospital bed carefully through the door and slid it perfectly into place. After locking the wheels and checking to see that his patient was comfortable, he smiled at Paula.
“Your aunt was a very good girl for the x-ray techs today. She only slapped one hand while she was down there.”
“Now don’t be telling tales on me, young man!” Aunt Leone’s cheeks showed pink at the man’s teasing. “That girl’s hands were freezing and so was that table! Now go see if those flowers are for me or not.” Then Aunt Leone clicked her tongue which was something she did when impatient or embarrassed or a little of both.
“Are you hungry Aunt Leone? Your lunch will be here in a little while.”
“No point to eating it, Popeye.”
“You haven’t called me that since I was around thirteen and you said I reminded you of Olive Oyl because of my skinny arms and neck, Auntie. Why now? And don’t think you’re going to distract me from getting you to eat lunch.”
“There’s no point in eating if I’m just going to be dead in a week anyhow.”
“Who told you that? I don’t believe it. You’re in here for routine tests. If anything bad was wrong with you, Dr. Scott would be in here with a team of specialists. You know that’s true.”
“Nope. No point. I overheard them talking down in x-ray. There’s a shadow covering my lungs and heart.”
“A shadow? What does that mean? Let me call a nurse.”
“You called? I have your lunch, Miss Leone. I bet you’re hungry.”
“Not eating lunch. No point.”
Setting up the lunch tray, the nurse asked, “Now what has you all riled up, Miss Leone? You’re one of our best eaters.”
“She thinks she’s dying because she overheard something about a shadow on her x-ray covering her lungs and heart. She’s sure it means she’s about to keel over.”
“What? From a shadow? I don’t think so. Just a minute. Let me call down to x-ray. They couldn’t have gotten your films developed that quickly. I’ll be right back. Meanwhile, you start eating your lunch. It’s macaroni today and little cherry tomatoes and green beans on the side like you asked.”
Aunt Leone moved food around her plate and took a long drink of her iced tea, but she didn’t really eat much. After a few minutes she gave up, pushed the tray table away from the bed, and sighed.
“If everything were okay, she’d be back by now,” the old lady barely whispered.
“Everything’s fine, Miss Leone.” The nurse was back. “According to the x-ray tech, they had a bit of an accident with your unexposed film. One of the girls was showing another some new make-up and spilled eye shadow all over everywhere. They were talking about eye shadow on your film, not a shadow on your lungs or heart.”
“Oh. Okay then. Now go warm this up for me, please ma’am. Nothing’s worse than cold mac and cheese.”
After mouthing, “Thank you,” to the nurse, Paula said, “I’ll do it Auntie. They let me into the floor kitchen now so I can take care of it for you.”
“That’ll do. Now then, Popeye! Where’s that pencil? I want to do a puzzle while I wait.”