Fall 2009, Volume 7

Fiction by Robert Bartlett


The large, oval sign above the main entrance announces WELCOME, but that isn't what entices people to walk inside this place.  They come here, in fact, to receive a payment for their presence and participation: twenty-five dollars each.  To this cavernous, pale-green room, its air toxic with a strain of desperation that emits from people living life one and two hours at a time.

Even so, almost everyone here is spending the nicest part of their day.  This is their respite—a moment to hide, relax, babble with each other like a community of gulls in a safely tucked-away bay.  They rest in shabby, vinyl recliners; they daydream, or invent pictures out of the stains on the faded wallpaper.  Some of them fall asleep.  A few of them silently promise to repent and never return, to change their lives forever after they leave here.

All of them so badly in need of twenty-five dollars they let themselves be seen here, the days of caring about appearances long gone.  Entering this notorious, cement-block building on North Warden Street, in the revealing brightness of early afternoon.

So destitute they let themselves be entered with that long, shining needle.  Longer than one would expect, a sharpened, hollow tube of gleaming steel.  Right up one's vein it slides, cold and smooth, like an oiled sword.  Then away one's blood flows, through the needle, down the tube, into the bag.  Like giving birth to a little bag-baby of blood that gets whisked off to the cooler, full, fat and red.

Julia is here for the twenty-five dollars—though she comes here for the girl, too.  Marisa is the girl's name, displayed clearly and evenly in white letters on her black name-tag.  "Butterfly," Julia mutters, not moving her lips, as she observes her float from one weathered arm to the next.

Marisa always offers an appropriate greeting, something soft to put the skittish at ease.  Letting one see her unwrap the needle.  Very clever, very efficient, Julia approves, so one doesn't worry about the needle, where it has been.

Julia tilts her head back and remembers the neighborhood cat she forgot to set food out for today, a lean puff of gray fur she has deliberately not named because she doesn't want to mourn the animal once it's gone.  That it will leave or die is inevitable, she knows.  The urchin perches shamelessly in her window every morning; the sun shines through its pink ears and makes them look like two tiny, brilliant flowers . . . she resists naming it 'Fleur' or 'Rosebud.'

"Butterfly," she whispers as she watches the brown-haired, olive-skinned phlebotomist.  The old woman truly doesn't realize she comes here mostly for the girl she has given the private nickname.  It's just for the money, she reminds herself.  I am old, I need the money.  Disgrace be damned, I am just like the cat.

Underneath the flickering, fluorescent tubes on the ceiling, Marisa darts from blue vein to blue vein.  To Julia, these young ones all look so sad and worn for their ages—matted, wrinkled, sorrowful street people—but Marisa pierces the crooks of their arms with a smile, and they smile back.  She draws their blood, stays with each person a few seconds, instructs them to clench and unclench their fists.  Checks the flow into the bag, smiles, flies on.  Hovers, greets, unwraps, pokes.  An angel!  Not an actual nurse, but she could be, Julia is sure.

How the French and Dutch Resistance fighters would have loved this girl, she thinks.  "Butterfly," she mouths again. The British and American soldiers would have loved Marisa, too.

She can still faintly hear their voices calling her by that name . . . .

The men spoke to Julia in a dozen different languages.  "Vlinder," "papillon" or "butterfly" she was called in another world.  She was their precious embodiment of kindness that flew silently from bed to bed, lighter than air, gently administering to the wounded—and they christened her with her special alias.

They were missing feet, or an eye, or one or both legs.  Some were mending; others were sick, dying.  She was the object of their appreciation and love, in spite of her invasive thermometers and needles.  Many of the men convalesced at the charity hospital, started in France at the end of the war, for months, years.  "No one," she proudly told a teenaged girl on the bus last week, "was ever swept to the street."

Soldiers reached out their bloody, bandaged limbs, just to touch, but sometimes to grab! Julia would jump back and laugh, holding up her forefinger, shaking it left and right.  It was necessary, unfortunately, for her to spurn them, regardless of how flattered she was by their attentions.

The soldiers adored her because she was beautiful, because she comforted them.  They dreamt about her at night; some of them confessed this to her.  Many nights, a Frenchman named DeLuc called her name in his sleep.  Some of them peered down the top of her nurse's uniform as she bent over them.  An American, Sergeant Ross, admitted on the day of his release, "I know where that little birthmark is that your bra doesn't hide, butterfly," then he winked. 

"Au revoir, monsieur," was all she replied, but she grinned, and blushed, once she turned her back.


Julia is convinced impatience has replaced charity and profit is worshipped above beauty, that money always wins the day and is more important to most than what happens to their souls. "Money, money, money," she hisses under her breath.  "Food, rent and electric.  Twenty-five damned dollars."

"We certainly never sold our blood." she moans disdainfully.  "But one must eat!"

At least the girl is here for her.  If Julia had a daughter, she would want her to be just like Marisa.  No: she would want her to be Marisa….

Julia has a sudden inspiration.  Invite Marisa to her apartment next Tuesday - her eightieth birthday.  A guest for my birthday!  Use the money from today . . . a bottle of inexpensive wine, a lemon cake . . . how many times does one turn eighty?  It is worth skipping one or two days' meals for!  She raises her hand and calls her over, that is the rule: do not leave the chair while you are still "attached."

They have never exchanged anything but simple pleasantries, thus Julia rehearses in her thoughts: Marisa, would you like to stop by my apartment?  The twelfth will be my birthday and I would like to have you over for a glass of wine, so we can toast, have some cake to celebrate, it would be very sweet of you if you could, after work; I live on East Enola Road  . . . .

Marisa's eyes meet hers; the young woman waves back and starts across the room.  Julia smoothes out her frayed, ankle-length skirt and adjusts her blouse; she feels her heart pumping high in her chest.  My birthday!  It will be the nicest day I have had since France, she revels silently.

After three steps, however, Marisa stops.  An unshaven, sun-baked man in his thirties that could pass for fifty has begun swatting at the air, speaking loudly to no one in particular, something about "They're here," and, "I can see them, but you can't!"  Things like this happen, albeit rarely, when a troubled donor succumbs to an invisible affliction.  These times have the potential to become very bad, even dangerous, if someone becomes violent or starts flailing about, unfastening tubes, knocking over chairs, blood raining everywhere.

Julia is more offended than frightened.  She regards what he does as an inexcusable trespass.  Marisa was on her way to see me, she broods.  Not you, insolent man.  Me!

Marisa changes directions and walks toward him, an alcohol wipe ready in her gloved hand.  She'll attempt to remove the needle, disengage him as quickly as possible, before he jerks it out, but it's too late—he leaps from his seat.  Only the needle remains in his arm; it becomes a vent, allowing blood to pump out of his excited heart, down his arm and off the tips of his fingers. The tube hooked to the plastic bladder dangles and bleeds like a freshly-cut umbilical cord onto the beige linoleum floor.  Drips, drips the darkest, purest crimson until the bag is empty.

"Stay away, all of ya'!" the man yells.  Drops of sweat fall freely off his forehead, landing on the floor in his estranged blood.

Marisa approaches him, extending both of her hands.  "Easy, Allen.  Just take it easy and we'll get you a doctor, alright?"  She glances at a male attendant behind the counter.  The attendant opens a cell-phone and steps into a back room.

"My guts are gonna' explode," Allen shouts, folding his arms, shuddering like a wet child in a freezing wind.

Everyone that is not asleep sits an inch higher than normal in their squeaky, vinyl chairs, their muscles tightened.  All eyes follow Marisa and the agitated man with the messy, bent hair.

The western sun fills the cold room with stripes of yellow light and thin, flat shadows of telephone poles.  An ambulance's siren screams, then grows distant, until it recedes completely into the infinite drone of traffic on North Warden Street.

"Allen," someone says..  "Allen," repeats the scratchy, old voice, thick with an accent.  "You are afraid, but you must not be.  You will be fine, believe me."

Allen looks to his left and sees Julia clip off her bag and remove her needle.  She presses a lace handkerchief to the red dot on her left arm. "You see?  We are all fine."  She leaves her chair and steps toward him.  "There is no reason to be afraid.  Let Marisa help you."

Marisa's focus alternates between Julia and Allen.  The other employees have stopped working and watch; the old woman exerts a calm on the man, on the entire room.  Julia steps closer to him.  "If I may," she says quietly, and reaches out to stroke the hair from his eyes, then rests her hand on the back of his neck.  She massages him like she'd pet a scared puppy and he melts into a sitting position on the floor.  "There, there, everything will begin to make sense in a moment.  Breathe.  You are doing very well.  That's it . . . you are so brave.  Breathe, now." Continuing to hold the handkerchief over the bend in her arm, she sits next to Allen and moves her free hand down to his.  "We will hold hands until you feel better," she says with a nod, "until your sickness passes."

Marisa squats next to Allen and slips the needle from his vein.  Frenetic splashes of maroon surround them.  She rests the alcohol wipe on his arm and bandages it, but he doesn't acknowledge her.

Allen sits motionless and stares at the dignified, violet-eyed woman holding his hand, whose slender, sympathetic face is framed by straight, silver hair.


Later, Allen is given medication by a doctor in the back room.  Julia rests in a chair by the sign-in desk and sips orange juice from a small paper cup.  Several people have stopped to speak to her, telling her how she settled the man was "amazing," "wonderful," "really something."  As she rolls down the sleeve on her bandaged arm, Marisa sits next to her and says, "Don't you have a way.  I'd be envious if I wasn't so grateful."

"Oh!" she laughs, patting the young woman's wrist.  She breaks Julia's heart.  "You would have done just as well."  She begins to tell her that she was once a nurse, that Marisa reminds her of herself at that age, how she came to America after the war, but stops her story when the young woman abruptly holds out a piece of paper.

"The manager wants you to have your money this afternoon, all of it."  Marisa hands Julia a check.  "I'll draw a little extra blood next time, to make up for today," she jokes.  "And let us pay for a cab to take you home.  Is there anything else we can do for you?" she asks distractedly, already scanning the room for new walk-ins, arms not entered, half-filled bags to monitor.

Julia leans forward and pulls her sweater over her shoulders, buttoning it at the top.  "No, my dear.  It is late."  She inhales deeply and clears her throat, but abandons the notion of the invitation.  She takes the check from Marisa, who is no longer looking at her.

On her way home, the wine and cake no longer seem very important to Julia.  She sees the reflection of a young nurse in the in the taxi's rear-view mirror.  "Butterfly!" she proclaims delightedly and feels nowhere near eighty.

Smiling, Julia marvels at the strange mechanics of nature, how she has been given an early birthday present.  She cannot wait to get home, to tell the gray cat about the nervous, young man who, for a few minutes, was a young soldier.  She will inform the cat that its name, on her premises, is Fleur.  She will tell Fleur how it felt, once again, to float—and that there is no shame standing in a sunlit window or taking twenty-five dollars.


BIO:  Robert Louis Bartlett's writing has been published in print and online in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. His short fiction was recently featured in 34th Parallel, currently appears in Cantaraville 6, and is forthcoming in SER Magazine. His short-film script "A Sort Of Delivery" is scheduled to be filmed in New York later this year.