He smelled stale. Like––I don’t know what. An old paper bag maybe. Or I could be recalling the lunch sacks he used to hand me, full of odd gifts like a ceramic grinning cat, or a bar of Dove soap. I do remember that the smell of him left a taste stuck in the back of my throat, a chemical taste, like the one you get when you walk by an ethanol plant, and the taste sat there well into the evening, every single time after I left Paul. Things like that stay with a person.
I went to the nursing home twice a week to complete my community service. I had imagined myself picking up trash along the sides of highways, but I found out they reserve that job for a different sort of felon. Me, I was allocated to the old people.
“Harmless,” they called me, pitying me I guess. Maybe they thought I’d like talking with old people. I don’t. Not usually.
The first time I saw him, Paul was sitting in a wheel chair next to the front desk. There was a swinging door right there that opened and closed according to when the nurse pushed a button from inside the office. Very One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest. I signed in.
“This is a nursing home right?”
The nurse thought I was joking; she thought it was a bad joke.
I turned the clipboard back around for her. “So what now?”
She slumped onto her left hipbone and looked at me with silent distain. When I didn’t speak, she did, “This is your first day?”
“Is that a problem?”
“No one said you were coming. Not a new guy.”
“I’d be more than happy to go if you want to sign my paper,” I said, smiling politely.
“Fat chance. Here,” she pressed a big red button and the double doors started opening real slow. “You can take Paul back to the rec room.”
I looked at Paul looking at me and nothing registered on his face. Not even a blink. “Just roll him?” I asked the nurse.
“He won’t bite.”
I told her to fuck off––hypothetically.