Chapter 3/ 2007
“I’m the one who’s going to make your life miserable.”
My refrigerator and bank account laid bare weeks earlier, my empty belly pounding and my straight boyfriend sent home smiling at dawn with his half full bottle of Viagra, I begin the job search.
Within a week of posting my resume, Monster.com brings me luck, I have two jobs. As an underwriting assessor for an insurance outfit whose corporate office is nestled on the flat plains of the Midwest, I sit in the well appointed living rooms of people applying for long term care insurance, asking them fifteen pages worth of questions. In less than one hour, they seal their fate in the actuarial world and I get fifty bucks. One hundred to determine if current insureds remain sufficiently disabled to continue receiving their benefits for the next calendar year. All I need is a job to cover the rent.
The rent job comes my way a few days later, thanks to a nursing agency located on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard populated by out of business storefronts. On a muggy weekday morning, I enter their office where, on a stained dull green carpet, I find young men in ties eating junk food as they troll the internet for unsuspecting prey. The one who reeled me in silently makes copies of my Social Security card, nursing license, CPR card, driver’s license and car insurance. When his more talkative colleague quotes me a salary I made fifteen years ago, I head to the door. He ups it to what I made ten years ago. I’m broke. I owe ten thousand dollars to Citibank. No one here has the smarts to ask about the two year gap in my resume.
I meet with the Nursing Supervisor in the break room, its fluorescent lights shining down on banged up wooden tables, bent out of shape metal chairs and a filthy microwave, its clock blinking “Remove and let stand covered before eating.” The black roots of the Nursing Supervisor’s blonde hair run an inch deep out of her scalp, her lined cheekbones are unevenly slathered red with rouge.
Gravity pulls the Nursing Supervisor and her un-ironed denim jacket into a chair from which she says: “I’m the one who’s going to make your life miserable.”
I look at her. Sixty silent seconds pass. My gut twists. She smiles.
“I didn’t come here for this type of stuff,” I say.
Unable to focus her eyes, she flips through my paperwork, gets up and says: “See what the type of work the staffing co-ordinator can dig up for you.”
I never see the Nursing Supervisor again.
The co-ordinator assigns me to weekend day shifts for a professor with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
On the first morning of the case, I wake up to the sensation of broken glass being scraped across my intestines. I take an anti-spasmodic and head out to the flats of West Hollywood.
“He has Lou Gehrig’s lite,” the patient’s wife says. “We’re waiting for him to turn the corner and come back.”
“Really,” I respond.
What else could I say?
The professor is over six feet tall, the hair on his chest and legs has turned white, his skin is greasy and mottled. The only muscle he can move is attached to his right eyeball, its yellowed cornea painfully moves up for “yes” and down for “no.” The ventilator at the professor’s bedside pushes air in and out of his lungs. A catheter bag collecting dark orange urine is strung by a rubber-band off the end of the bed frame. The professor is lying naked on a hospital bed a foot from his curtain deprived first floor window, from which I can see my red 69 Chevy Malibu gleaming in the sun, its ruby sheen hypnotizing Latino day laborers as they stare at my car from the open bed of the pickup truck transporting them to the job site across the street.
“His thyroid and parathyroid hormone levels do not correlate in any way to full blown Lou Gehrig’s,” the wife says. “He really doesn’t have it.”
And I don’t want to live in the Hollywood Hills with a scruffy unproduced screenwriter, who lovingly slums it as the showrunner for my edgy HBO sitcom.
An empty white wine bottle and a long stemmed glass sit on top of the professor’s ventilator. The smell of alcohol floats out of his wife’s mouth, she unfailingly emits this sour bouquet whenever she admits me into her home or barks orders at me.
“Any idiot can work this machine,” the wife says as she removes the wine bottle and glass from the top of the dust encrusted ventilator.
“I’m a little uncomfortable with him like this,” I say.
“That’s how I want him.”
“Want to cover up a bit?” I ask the professor.
The professor’s eye does not move. His wife tells me to disimpact him of stool and then bathe him. Easy for her to say, her man is over two hundred pounds of naked dead weight. The wife leaves the room when I ask for help turning him. The ventilator rhythmically cycles as I clean the professor up, my gut screaming out the same song as the muscles of my back and legs, but all I can hear is the muffler falling off of my car on the 101.
“Put him on the Hoyer lift, place the vent on the platform of the Hoyer and push him into the living room,” the wife says.
She checks the bedpan to see how much stool I have retrieved and, without washing her hands, picks my jacket and backpack up off of the couch and places them in the hall closet. It’s at least one hundred feet from the professor’s bedroom to the living room, bare hardwood floors running the entire length. Most likely, nothing will go wrong. I owe Citibank ten thousand dollars. I want to buy groceries with cash this week. My stomach punches wildly. The glass washes over my intestines. I’ll do anything.
“You’re gonna have to help me on that one,” I say. “If the Hoyer tips over, he’ll break a hip for sure.”
“The other nurse does it herself.”
“I’m not the other nurse.”
“You certainly aren’t.”
The wife walks into her bedroom to Google Lou Gehrig’s lite. The professor remains in bed.
I last three weekends, arriving promptly at seven in the morning, inhaling the wife’s foul breath and finding my patient naked, always naked, goosebumps covering his immovable body. By ten, the professor is bathed, his meds and feeding infused, his morning physical therapy performed. I cover his body with a white sheet and tune the television to a basketball game, which he watches without sound. His wife doesn’t like basketball and refuses to let her beloved husband–the man she claims she is fighting for with every cell in her body–watch it or any sports related program. The professor’s right eye aimed at the television, I sit at his bedside, holding his hand and reading “The New York Times.” The house is quiet, the professor and I can hear the refrigerator as it alternately hums and clangs in the kitchen. The house’s stillness leads me to believe this job will work out. For the first time in weeks, I think about the trajectory of the next story I want to write. At last, an idea, a line of dialogue, a character’s secret are waiting for my fingertips to type into the keyboard.
“Why the Hell are you doing that?” the wife screams, her voice bouncing off the cracks in the stucco walls of her faux Spanish Mission hacienda.
“I’m administering his scheduled respiratory treatment.”
I point to the treatment sheet in the professor’s chart.
“I don’t read those things. They’re all bull. Stop it now…and turn that television off.”
Her face is flushed, fat bounces under her dirty pink tracksuit, her red eyes watch as I look at the shaking jello of her body.
“I’m a crone, but you’ll do what I say.”
I stare at her. She is a crone, raging, mean and ugly. Her bone structure tells me she was once pretty. Her good life is over. So is mine, but I don’t quite know it yet.
“We could have been friends,” I say.
“I never saw that happening.”
I drive home throwing the weight of the wine drinking professor’s wife off of my back. I figure I can make my rent money spending afternoons in the thick walled mansions of Pasadena, San Marino and Beverly Hills, quietly interviewing millionaires for long term care insurance as they offer me water served in heavy crystal goblets, a set of which would cover my rent for a few months. The applicants are nice men and women. I am a friendly assessor. I don’t have what they have. And they can smell it on me, like the odor of sweat coming off the suits I wear to their homes which, no matter how frugally I spend my money, I can not afford to take to the cleaners. I am lucky if I am assigned four interviews a month.
If one believes my muffler falling off on the 101 was the inciting incident, then surely I have now moved into the shank of my story. The part where the protagonist holds his breath until life turns the corner and goes the other way. The part where the piles of unread books, “Interview,” “Vanity Fair” and “Entertainment Weekly” magazines and the “Calendar,” “Magazine” and “Book Review” sections of “The New York Times” stack up on my dining room table, poignantly signifying the fact that I do not read anymore, that I am no longer connected to the worlds weighing my table down. My gut lashes out at me from morning until bedtime. Instead of dreaming up character quirks and plot twists, I figure out ways to shift my 10K debt around. At eight every night, I crawl under the covers and stare at the front page of “The New York Times,” my eyes closing before I get to the obituaries or Maureen Dowd. I sleep more than I ever have, from eight at night until ten or eleven in the morning. At noon, I drink coffee to push the pain out of me.
I wait to be a lucky man again.