His wife was in a wheelchair. Her legs lay, in a ladylike fashion, to her right side with her ankles crossed. The flesh of her calves drooped and wrinkled, a soft and spotted testament to her ruined youth. Like dough that had been left to rise too long and fell, without fanfare, but a sort of stern disappointment.
His hands were like seaweed.
They shook when he handled the wheelchair, and undulated like fronds when he let his tight grip go on the plastic handlebars. They shook when he gently took her shoulder with one hand, and pointed with the other one up to the menu. His lips were thin and creased vertically, and looked like stitches. A horizontal gash, a wet pink wound that opened and then stitched itself shut with every word.
I stood behind the sandwich line and watched the patients of the hospital wander past with empty, glazed expressions. My hands braced against the counter as I leaned against my wrists to take some of the pressure off my aching knees. I knew that this would take a while.
One piece of his gray comb-over had flopped out of it’s jelled shell and lay like a broken antennae.
Good morning, I said. How can I help you.
We’re still deciding, he told me.
Well, I had said. You just take your time. Let me know when you’re ready to order.
He stood, hunched over, whispering quietly in his wife’s ear. Her head was down, demurely. The younger customers and middle-aged doctors swirled around them in a fast-paced current of loud and quickly moving bodies. Still they waited, and debated each sandwich choice quietly. Finally, he stepped up to the counter.
We will take the oven-roasted chicken breast sandwich, he told me, enunciating every word very carefully in his wet-wound mouth. His seaweed hands shuddered and quavered, as he pointed resolutely at the menu as if to remind me, that one.
I pulled the shiny silver cover off the hotwell holding the chicken.
It was empty. Only chicken water was left, hot and boiling in it’s plastic container. Chicken scented steam rose. I closed the lid again.
I’m afraid we’re out of chicken, I said, waiting for the inevitable blow-up. People hated when unavoidable things happened, though they loved to yell at me for it.
Instead, he grew quiet. He put his head down and a little self-depreciating smile turned his lips.
I’m sorry, I said, gesturing at the sandwich line. Can I help you to anything else?
No, he said. No, you cannot help us.
He took his seaweed hands and gripped the handles to his frail wife’s wheelchair. Her head bobbled and dipped as he rolled her back out into the hallway, slowly plodding while frantic nurses and bossy doctors rushed around him, pulling him away and under with his wife.
I thought back to what he had told me.
No. No, you cannot help us.
I realized that was true.