Lilly Works The Late Shift at the VA hospital as a janitor what they call housekeeping in the hospice wing with veterans who cannot afford to die anywhere else. She went to a two-year college to become a baker and a chef but the degree was useless. At her first job the other chef chewed oxycodone pills and had an 8th grade education. Now she touches the shoulder of a nurse from the Vietnam era with ovarian cancer. They talk about the Pirates who are as terrible as ever after a couple decent seasons. Lilly says “It’s the owners. They won’t pay for a pitcher” and the woman says “I always thought I’d live to see the Pirates make another World Series” and Lilly says “You may” and the woman says “The doctor said six weeks not one hundred years” and they both laugh but small tiny slivers of ice to help cool death. Most of the soldiers she cleans for never saw any combat or even speak of their service. It surprised Lilly but not anymore. Now she puts on her gloves and finishes the trash then takes off her plastic gloves and says “Good night” and the woman says “Good night” because it is, somehow. Lilly loves her work, loves hospice. She never thought she could love death but maybe she does because someone should. She knows when each person will die because she breathes their smells and hears the rasps in their lungs. She puts more hours in the wing than any doctor any surgeon or shrink. She knows the names of the patients’ kids. She knows the names of their grandkids. She brings Hershey’s Kiss and for the ones who can’t have chocolate she says “You get a real one” and places her lips on their foreheads. After Lilly punches out, she drives home to her small house in Penn Hills where she lives with: her husband who lost his job when Carbide shut down her son who lost his job when he slid on wet shingles and cracked his spine her brother who lays cable and is going through a divorce and trying not to be bitter. The men in her life are warm rocks: they know how to love but seldom speak. Lilly doesn’t mind: she talks all day and is happy for the silence. She will nudge her husband until he starts to look for a job again. The settlement will arrive and the doctors will fix her son’s back. Her brother will quit swearing into flowers and find romance. She thinks she should get some food maybe a pizza and a salad because the men do not cook or do not cook well but she is too tired to stop and is fine with eating cereal or some nuts. From the driveway the house is darker than the night but that’s January. The men have either turned in early or moved to the basement to watch sports. When she steps into the house and flips the living room light switch the men appear from the darkness in party hats because it is her half birthday something she did not even know. Her son hands her a glass of wine. Her husband gumbands a hat to her head. Her brother tells her to make a wish and holds out a cake burning with candles. She blows out the fire then everyone sings “For she’s a jolly good fella” and they take her in their arms and she is so happy to be with those who love her in the most unexpected ways. On the dining room table sits 5 bottles of wine and what appears to be a plate of burnt grilled cheeses.
About the Author: Dave Newman is the author of seven books, including the novel East Pittsburgh Downlow (J.New Books, 2019) and The Same Dead Songs: a memoir of working-class addictions (J.New Books, 2023). He lives in Trafford, PA, the last town in the Electric Valley, with his wife, the writer Lori Jakiela, and their two children. He spent the last decade working in medical research at the VA in Pittsburgh and currently teaches writing.
Image Credit: Carol M. Highsmith “Hospital operating or image examination room” Public domain image courtesy of The Library of Congress