Chapter 11/ 2008
“I am a very deep spiritual person.”
Like Janet Leigh hightailing it out of Phoenix in “Psycho,” I refuse to worry about which part of my car is destined to become embedded in the warm tar of the 101 as I head to Toluca Lake for my first day of work at the assisted living facility. The newly polished chrome of my red 69 Chevy Malibu rattles softly, my neck snuggles against the black leather headrest, my body sinks into the languid flow of unencumbered traffic. In my freshly Windexed rearview mirror, I see, but do not feel, the wind tousling my hair, these teasing caresses leading me to believe my new job will be a breeze for a lucky man like myself. After keeping my Holocaust patient alive until the paramedics arrived, how could it not? I smile as I pull into the cool darkness of the facility’s underground garage. My tires squeak against the smooth pavement, all four laughing with the knowledge that when the fall term begins in three months, I will be working as a substitute teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
I did not know the sentence on my lost year was not even close to being played out.
Entering the assisted living facility is like making a Stanislavski inspired entrance on to the set of a truck and bus tour of Chekhov. Tasseled pillows, flowers in pewter vases, weathered books, lush velvet throws and wicker chaise lounges abound. Residents who were supporting players in B movies or one shot singular sensations stroll the grounds of this hermetically sealed cherry orchard, their daily promenades ending in the dining hall, where they mingle with their brethren, the parents of lawyers, hedge fund managers and physicians. All are decked out in silk pajamas or billowing caftans. What is left of the men’s hair is neatly cut and recently dyed in odd shades of black or orange, the women’s intricately coiffed and shellacked at the facility’s on-site beauty shop.
Having auditioned in the bowels of Burbank the day before for the role of Ferapont in “The Three Sisters,” I intuit my surroundings to be a good omen. My nursing colleagues long for the big cities of their homelands. Los Angeles is the place where they make money to send back home when not snatching up newly foreclosed on properties in Reseda. In my assigned costume of khaki pants and fitted blue linen shirt, I walk gingerly on the facility’s faux Persian carpets while whispering the lines of the monologue I will be performing at the end of the month in a très bohemian variety show at the Fake Gallery on Melrose.
When expounding on my duties as the facility’s medication nurse, the Nursing Supervisor repeatedly uses the words “high-end,” taking in a deep breath and then lowering her voice when these words are spoken. In a Southern drawl this side of Paula Dean, she informs me that in an assisted living facility, residents do not receive nursing care from the nurses. Nothing. Rien. Nada. Not a band-aid, cold compress or help off of one of the Persian carpets after a fall. If something goes south, I can only take a blood pressure, feel for a pulse and check for breathing. If there’s life in the resident sprawled on the floor, I am to call the resident’s family or guardian, who will take it from there. The place charges a lot of scratch for this high-end service. 6K a month. That is just for the room. For meals, throw in another thou. Add eight Benjamins to have a nurse prepare and administer medications. For six more, you can have your dog walked three times a day. Another grand to have what is called a “buddy” check on you every two hours. The buddies are several rungs below the caretakers I have met over the past year. And, trust the lucky man, I am being benevolent in my assessment of their “skills.”
“Do you know of any older folks who would like to live here?” the supervisor asks me.
The facility’s census has bottomed out. No one knows why. Something about the economy. I am offered a grand for every resident I refer. The supervisor calls it community outreach. Smells like pimping to my lucky nose. Never went to that nursing school. To avoid the skull rattling braying of the supervisor’s high-pitched voice, I put on my Alain Miklis and focus on my surroundings. The furniture is from clearance sales at Ross. The plants and flowers are paper, their terra cotta pots plastic. I pick up a book. Its cover does not contain a title, but it can be opened. All the books are balsa wood boxes, their insides empty, while their embossed spines promise a long Los Angeles afternoon with Dickens, Melville, Chaucer and of course, Tolstoy. Nice challenge for the residents with Alzheimer’s.
Trying to give the Southern magnolia’s buzz saw the slip, I walk the hallways, quietly reciting my tale of meeting Gena Rowlands, whose advice got me into the Groundlings improv company when I migrated to the City of the Angels in the early 80s. Lost in a reverie of much happier days, I round a corner and nearly knock down a woman in a muumuu redder than the gleaming skin of my Chevy Malibu. I recognize her voice right away. No face lift or blonde bouffant wig, so I need a moment to figure out she has played dozens of second leads in movies, having been directed by among others, George Stevens and John Houston. A turn on Broadway netted her a Tony award for best supporting actress. She must have done someone real damage to have ended up touring in this illusionary road show.
“Isn’t he handsome?” the hot on my heels Nursing Supervisor asks her. “He’s our new nurse. ”
The supervisor is from a place in the South which neither Tennessee Williams nor Carson McCullers ever visited.
“Don’t you just want to eat him up?” the supervisor asks.
The actress smiles. She nods her head. She stopped eating gay men years ago.
The supervisor continues to talk, her voice scratching against the fake vase holding the fake flowers on the fake walnut bookcase she stands in front of.
After two days of orientation, I have already asked too many questions.
This being the first nursing job for each of my young colleagues, not one has experienced the soul defining trials of working in a hospital where, if you can survive the sheer heat of it, you are molded into a damn good nurse. For that matter, these puppies have not worked anywhere else. It shows. Lips tremble when I ask why they do not follow basic nursing procedures when performing the simplest of tasks. They have no idea what diet the residents are on. Not a clue as to whether to give medications before or after meals. The facility has eighty residents. The report each nurse gives at shift change lasts, at tops, two minutes. When I inquire as to where we wash our hands, their eyes stare at the intricate patterns woven into the Persian carpets as their fingers tighten around their thumbs. Their tongue tied mouths spit out noise about how I will have to spend at least an hour a shift with a particular patient who obsesses over his blood sugar and eye drops. I counter with decades old nursing theories about boundaries and setting limits. They talk about getting tips at Christmas and how to clock out early.
“You need to chill, handsome,” the nursing supervisor says to me as I pass an uncle Vanya type on my way to lunch in an outdoor courtyard, its spotted terra cotta walls encircled by swaying palm trees.
I find myself sitting at a concrete table, waves of Los Angeles heat beating down on me and my fellow nurses: an Armenian, a Russian and a Latina. Accosted by the spotlight of an utterly merciless noon sun, I sweat under my arms and down the middle of my back. Not a drop of perspiration materializes on anyone else at the table.
The activities director, a gay man of a certain age, talks for ten unbroken minutes about a television program called “Project Runway.” He tells us a man named Tim Gunn is his role model. The pronounced marionette lines around the activities director’s mouth hold the same contempt I see in the eyes of the daughters of my Holocaust patient. I will never see any of their foreheads move.
“How come a high-end place like this can’t get more residents?” I ask.
They stop babbling. Finally. They look at the nuts and fruit I have brought from home. I do not have the three dollars to buy lunch, which the kitchen workers have given my colleagues for free. I have not yet been accepted into the gratis meal circle. I never am.
“What’s wrong?” the Latina asks the Russian.
“Do you like my hair?” she answers.
“It’s beautiful…it’s always beautiful.”
“My husband didn’t notice it…the kids did…but he hasn’t said anything.”
“You’re too stunning for his Ukrainian ass,” the activities director says.
Streaked blonde hair, unblemished creamy skin, long legs and deep blue eyes, the Russian moves like a cat approaching an unguarded bowl of milk. She is truly beautiful. The activities director could be. If he shut his mouth. He talks for a few more minutes about this Tim Gunn person until the heat steals his breath, leaving him with only the strength to take a bite out of his hamburger.
“The regional director cut me back to thirty-two hours yesterday,” the Latina says.
“I knew something was up…I could smell it,” the Russian says.
“The census is dropping. They have to cut back somewhere,” the Armenian says.
“Two residents tried to Jew their rates down,” the activities director says. “The boss said no. They’re leaving September first.”
At our next luncheon, I will sprinkle crushed glass on his hamburger. His marionette lines will really sing then.
“What about your benefits? Your health insurance?” I ask the Latina.
All eyes focus on the hole in the center of the table, out of which the pole of a bright orange umbrella sprouted a few weeks ago. A recent swirl of the Santa Anas ripped straight through its tough cloth. The umbrella has not been replaced. Maybe when the census picks up.
“It’s so fucking hot today,” the Latina says.
“I feel bad being hired like this,” I tell her. “They must have brought me in to take over your hours.”
She lowers her Dolce Gabbana sunglasses to mid nose and stares at me.
“You know…to get out of paying for your benefits,” I tell her.
“It’s all good,” she says.
“That’s why I liked John Edwards,” I say. “He really got it.”
“Edwards is a hunk,” the activities director says. “I’d hit it.”
“Have you checked out COBRA?” I ask the Latina.
“My son doesn’t have that game yet. I can’t keep up with all the new ones.”
“It’s a way to continue your insurance if you lose it,” I tell her.
“No worries…my kids never get sick.”
“It’s happening all over,” I tell them. “My boyfriend’s job is tanking. We can’t figure out why. I thought everyone in LA liked a good party.”
“What’s he look like?” the activities director asks. “Got a picture of him on your cell?”
“I only use my cell for my insurance job…in case I get lost going to a client’s house.”
Blank eyes and open mouths pivot on unlined necks in my direction. To save money, I gave Verizon the heave-ho and bought a GoPhone months ago, but still look around for a pay phone before I dare use it. iPhones and BlackBerries come out of pockets and purses. I look at pictures of boyfriends, children, pets, ranch style homes in Reseda and husbands.
“Obama gets it,” I say. “I just hope he doesn’t get killed before November.”
“McCain was hot when he was younger,” the activities director says.
“Being locked in a box for a few years does brings the hotness to the surface,” I respond.
I maneuver the progressive lenses of my Miklis to a point at which I can not see the faces surrounding me. The conversation dips into the swamp of “The Hills,” “Gossip Girl” and “America’s Next Top Model.” I think about the reality show I watched when I was their age: “AIDS: the Killer Years.” The activities director and the Latina talk about their sex lives. Everyone laughs. Their lame sex jokes hit my neck harder than the heat hammering on it. I eat my unsalted almonds and pear slices.
“I am a very deep spiritual person,” I say to the blurred faces at the table. “I only go out with men with big dicks.”
The table is silent. That is a good joke. Audiences love it.
“You should call Villaraigosa’s office,” I tell the Latina. “Tell him you’re a single mom losing your insurance and benefits.”
At this, they laugh.
“Who’s that?” she answers.
“The guy who fucks TV reporters,” the activities director says.
My entire shirt is damp. I feel like my table mates have peeled my skin off the same way they flayed their freebie chickens.
“What shows do you watch?” the Russian says.
“I used to watch a lot of TV, until I saw a reality show that changed my life. It was called Hurricane Katrina.”
Silence. I can see them again. Not so lucky.
I leave the rotisserie of the courtyard and walk down the stairs to the garage, in whose friendly darkness I retrieve from the trunk of my car a fresh linen shirt to change into.
The next day, as usual, the kid cancels my shift. I work the day after. Good deal not using my cell, the boyfriend can not find me. I spend the morning bathing my patient, the afternoon packing his belongings for the trip home from the hospital in Culver City he was transferred to. The ambulance crew eases him on to a gurney. His immune system is beyond shot. They put a thin green surgical mask over his face.
I squeeze his hand and say: “I’ll see you at home.”
I drive to his condo. I make his bed, lay out his flannel Burberry pajamas and put flowers in crystal vases. The kid is on the phone ordering medications and supplies. The tasks should be reversed, but I am tired of pushing the kid an inch forward, only to be knocked a mile back the next day. Because I need to buy something besides peanut butter and jelly, nuts, pasta and tofu, I happily work the one day out of the two I was hired for.
“He should have been here by now,” I tell the kid.
The kid’s eyes follow the coming and goings of a Filipino soap opera on the flat screen.
“Ever watch this program called ‘Project Runway’?” I ask.
No answer. Kid works the remote. He moves from one screaming soap to another.
“It’s been forty-five minutes,” I say. “He should be here.”
Kid watches the soap. I call the hospital. On the land line, my GoPhone still the virgin. Our patient coded on the way home. His ambulance did not even make it off of the hospital’s exit ramp. He is back in the ER. I tell the kid I will drop him off at the hospital on my way home. He wants to finish the soap opera. I leave.
I should have signed up to sub for summer school.
The Armenian nurse taps her French manicured fingernails against the dull metal top of the medication cart, their clacking sound as skull shattering as the howls emitted from the Nursing Supervisor’s fuchsia painted lips.
I continue to check that I am removing the correct pills from the colored cassettes they are packaged in.
“Let me do it, you’re taking too long,” the Armenian says.
“I’ve never poured meds before without checking them out against the med book,” I tell her. “How do you know they’re the right ones?”
“All you have to know is that the pills in the orange cassettes are for dinnertime. The grey ones are for bedtime.”
“Shouldn’t we put the residents’ names on the med cups?” I ask.
“You can look at the pills and tell who gets what.”
She speaks very slowly. I get it. I do not like it. I label the med cups. She taps harder.
“My fingers are killing me…my hands don’t like this.” I tell her.
“You won’t have time to check the pills. Just put them in the cups and hand them out. Orange for dinner. Grey for bedtime.”
Her accent sounds like my grandmother’s. Except, I loved my grandmother. Before I place each medication in its labeled cup, the tips of my fingers touch the corresponding name of the pill on the med sheets.
“What’s this about?” I ask. “Boniva is supposed to be given monthly…you guys have been giving it daily.”
“We’ll fix it later,” the Armenian answers. “What shifts are you going to work?”
“Every other weekend. And during the week if anyone calls in sick.”
She stops tapping. My brain still rattles against my skull.
“Those are my shifts,” she says.
“It’s got to be a mistake. I just want to work four shifts a month here. Maybe fill in on sick days. I’ve got my teaching job lined up for the fall.”
She resumes tapping. My brain rattles harder against my skull.
“I’ll let the supervisor know that I don’t want to take your shifts,” I tell her. “We can work something out.”
She removes the sweater from around her waist. She drapes it over her shoulders.
“Have you noticed how cold it gets at night?” I ask.
“Let’s go eat dinner,” she answers.
“I’m not really hungry…I’ll go over the charts for a while. You go eat.”
I sit in the walk-in closet the nursing supervisor calls the nurse’s station. I eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I Google Boniva. The emptiness of my stomach bites into my second sandwich. These conned residents–the wrong pills in their guts, their Food 4 Less chicken and hamburger meat heated beyond endurance to kill their promise of salmonella, their skin touched by unwashed hands, their dogs’ rhinestone collars yanked by leashes pulled down the street by compassionate buddies–are going to have some strong bones holding in their messed up livers.
The lucky man will be off the road in September.