Dave Newman: “Lilly Works the Late Shift”

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 
        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

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