She was in the bed beside the door, supine, her face in fixed repose. A black eye-patch was covering her left eye. Alice pulled up a chair and sat beside her. When Claude opened her right eye she showed no surprise. She let Alice squeeze her hand. Alice bent and kissed it, she looked up and saw that Claude was wearing new, too white, false teeth.
“You must speak up, chérie, I don’t hear well on this side.”
“Is the food good?”
“I detest it.”
“They’re not patient.”
A tray of pureed food was rolled in. Claude was indifferent to it. She searched for the button to raise herself up, could not find it. Alice looked, found it and raised her to semi-sitting position. She went into the bathroom, got a white washcloth, ran it under hot water, soaped it, and came back to wash Claude’s hands and face. She sat down on the chair and watched as she unwrapped her birthday gifts. It took her 30 minutes to remove eight pieces of scotch tape from one package that was wrapped in velvety yellow paper. It took her another half hour to unwrap the rest. When she had removed the last piece of tape, she folded all the wrapping paper and put it under the bed cover, just as John rushed in.
He was bony, unshaven, shaky. He kissed Claude.
“Don’t tell The Lady how old I am.”
“It’s on your chart, Claude. It’s too hard to keep a secret.”
She was 88 years old. She made wiggling motions with her hand and he laughed again.
“Oh sorry. I forgot.”
He looked toward Alice.
“She wants me to bring in her snake. It’s a toy… don’t worry. She wants the snake so she can scare the old people here.”
Claude brought John’s hand to her lips, kissed it repeatedly, making little pt-pt-pt sounds with her lips, left smudges of tomato-red lipstick on his knuckles. John lowered the bed to its original position while he told Claude about a new painting of his new black friend he had begun. Alice touched his back with her free arm. He was a sack of bones.
“Claude said you have a new ‘friend’ in your life. Is that who you’re drawing?”
He turned his back on Claude, spoke so Claude could not hear.
“Yes, if you must know. I don’t talk about my sex life in front of Claude.”
He turned back to Claude, handed her his gift that was wrapped with aluminum foil. She shook her head.
“You open it, chéri.”
John unwrapped a framed print then hung it over a monitor meant for oxygen on the wall where she could see it. It was a reproductionof a painting of Christ by Rouault. Claude made the sign of the cross, then shut her good eye.