Team Jolie in the House.
Waiting a week into the new year to replace his 2008 calendar with its 2009 equivalent appears to have brought more luck to our lucky man.
My friend Ann’s gift of eight hundred clams having turned around the brutal pounding of the ocean’s financial waves, I find myself spit out on to a becalmed shoreline, where I stagger through five insurance assessments in one day, netting me the scratch for my last UCLA School of Dentistry mandated crown.
If only the blue eyed dental student can sculpt an impression on his fourth time up at bat.
As I recline like a Chekhov heroine on a hard and oddly contoured examining chair, the student struggles mightily to mold an impression, simultaneously doing something he calls “refining the build up.” After three hours in the chair, the impatience in the student’s fingertips leads me to think he is as obsessed with these two procedures as the Three Sisters are in their yearning for Moscow, what with the number of times he insists on executing said tasks.
“You can really tell we’re in a recession,” the student says. “My parents didn’t give me the same amount of money they did last Christmas. Not as many presents either.”
Was it Christmas a few weeks ago? I forgot. Must be the bugs, born of working nights, who crawl under my skin as the cold concrete of fatigue swallows my hands and feet. I limp out of the chair and ride the bus home down Sunset Boulevard, my mouth beyond throbbing, the pain making my fellow passengers appear to have red halos hovering over their heads, the Catholicism of these images reminding me the jaw pain is my fault, attributable solely to my mandibular oversensitivity.
My first night on duty with my lost boy patient, I asked his mother a simple question: “I’ve never worked with an autistic child before. Is there anything you can tell me about his condition?”
“What makes you think he’s autistic?” the mother asks.
“It’s in his medical history and in his chart…and on his care plan.”
“He has autistic features…my son’s not autistic.”
Right. On occasion, my left ball swells up to the size of a baseball, but that does not mean I have a hydrocele.
Be quiet, I say to myself, between this case and the assessments I am working full time. My nose can smell what is happening to me, but I do not dare allow my eyes to focus or my ears to hear. Ignore the stench, leave the past two years behind and move on, get a life.
Like believing I can remain on the auctioned off cherry orchid my life has become, none of this is not fated to happen, most likely because I am using expressions like “move on” and “get a life.”
“Have you seen any of the holiday movies?” the mother asks me.
I have just received my first paycheck. I can take care of myself again.
Play this as it lays, close to the vest.
“I want to see ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,’” I tell her.
Silence. Mother must sense that I do not have the money to go to the movies. She can smell it, the way I smell the rotting garbage under her sink. The ten dollars a week spending money I allot myself every Friday vanishes by Sunday afternoon for, I believe the word is, incidentals. Toilet paper, a prescription, oil for the car, laundry room money, ink and paper for the printer, the cleaners, pens from Staples to write my nurse’s notes with, extra gas to travel to an assessment. When and if a Monday arrives on which I do have the two fins in my wallet, I do not spend them. I hold on to them for three months in case an emergency pops up, a ten dollar emergency.
“We’re team Aniston in this house,” the mother says.
“She’s the definitive Debbie Reynolds to Angelina’s Elizabeth Taylor.”
My charge’s G tube explodes. I check it out, all systems are a go.
“I love Angelina,” I say, wiping the tube feed off of my Miklis. “The pictures I’ve seen of her with her kids…she’s earth mother.”
The vent, monotonously pushing air in and out, suddenly begins to cycle a tad too fast. I check it out and drain off the offending condensation in its tubing.
“She shouldn’t be allowed to adopt,” the mother says. “They only gave them to her cause she’s a rich Hollywood bitch. Why doesn’t she adopt an American kid?”
“You can’t say she’s not a good actress.”
Silence. Mother is de-chilling.
I work a verbal ice pick: “There was a scene in ‘A Mighty Heart’ when Angelina is told her husband has been executed. She turns her body away from the camera, she acts with her back, it’s amazing, you can feel her pain without seeing her face.”
“I didn’t see that one. I don’t like depressing shit.”
Covered as it is with piles of magazines, I look down at what I believe is the kitchen table. “People.” “Star.” “National Enquirer.” “Globe.” “US.” “Life & Style.” “In Touch.” “OK!” All are subscriptions, the mother’s last name on the mailing labels is different from the one which the agency gave me, both different from the name she signs my time sheets with. Like the magazines, my nurse’s notes are involuntarily glued to the table, giving it the appearance of a low rent découpage. I have not yet learned that whenever I put something on this table it is pretty much stuck there for good. Every night I am on duty, after the mother and her husband have gone into their bedroom, I stare down at the table before me, Charlie Rose and his guests talking big-time issues on the TV as I try to figure out how to remove the Octomom’s face from the table’s stained brown veneer.
“‘Pretty Woman,’ I loved that one,” the mother says.
Julia Roberts? My ladies are Geraldine Page, Lee Grant, Gena Rowlands and Kim Stanley. I can not look the mother in the eye. Julia Roberts? Not going there.
Now I am saying “not going there?”
“I never got how women liked that movie,” I say. “She was supposed to be a hooker, but come on, she looked like she never wore the same bra two days running. In the original script, she was a drug addict, the guy pays her for the week, gets what he wants, then dumps her and drives off.”
The mother glares at me. I forgot. One can not have discussions about movies with chill people. The chilled ones like what they like.
I avoid mother’s eyes, looking past her wispy black hair to the floor to ceiling wall of metal shelving stuffed to the gills with respiratory equipment. A dark film of grime coated with dust covers all of it, so thick and gooey it is almost impossible to wash its filth off of my hands. Cardboard boxes filled with cans of tube feed are stacked up against the side of the oven, which is left on most nights, heating up God knows what in it crusty bowels. Who knows what weeks of warming the feed does to it.
Mother’s glare evaporated, her bare feet push around a rag which she seems to be using to clean the linoleum with. It is about time. My lucky feet are welded to the floor nightly. The first time I sat at the sticky table, I thought the heat from the oven had fused together everything within its reach. M&M’s, licorice sticks, miniature Hershey and Snickers bars erupt out of cracked bowls, their dissolved lava calcifying over the clutter within its wake: unpaid bills, BlackBerries, cans of peas, corn and beans, tiny bottles of spices, bags of candy from the Philippines, the tabloid magazines, boxes of tissues, half full two liter bottles of Coke and mom’s Dolce Gabbana purse. These frozen in mid drip masterpieces sit atop slimy countertops. Above them, huge bags of Doritos, Fritos and Wise Potato Chips stick out of cabinets and shelves.
The mother’s feet clean around a rectangular basin filled with disinfecting solution, into which she drops the vent tubing. According to mother, this twice weekly task not only cleanses, it purifies the tubing. Would be nice if she washed the tubing first, but then again, I am a Virgo. Nightly, the mother tells me she hates germs, they will make her son sick, give him a respiratory infection. She never covers the rectangular basin, which sits next to the recycling bin, its grimy plastic top always open. I need to keep this job, I do not tell mother and the dad you have to separate the uneaten food from its styrofoam container before discarding it. I save my uneaten food, all of it, I bring it to work or eat it the next day. When did I even have uneaten food to save? The stench of the moldy food in the recycling bin hits my stomach, killing any hunger pangs I have, saving me food money for the week.
Lucky man that I am, I have come to depend on life’s unanticipated gifts.
The mother is still talking, she has been going on for at least ten minutes, babbling something about how women, even the hookers on Hollywood Boulevard, want to believe a man like Richard Gere will save them. Gere would not last ten minutes in this filth, funkier than any indie film squalor. The smell of the open garbage can under the sink grabs my throat, my nostrils try to push out the stench of both it and the recycling bin. No go. The mother and dad do not empty either very often. They do not have time for chores, what with both not working and staying home all day. They must be exhausted after supervising the day nurse from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon. Even I could clean this place up. Easily. Mother and dad are lucky, they have a working vacuum cleaner, full bottles of Windex, bleach and spray cleanser and dozens of rolls of paper towels.
Let them live in their dirt, I need this gig. Breathing in the smells that foul the kitchen air keeps me alert, on edge, awake and angry. Even if I can not feel the air on my skin, it is time to open my eyes again, to hear the sounds around me.
The mother continues her monologue. I smile. Nod my head. Of course, women want what you are talking about, all my women friends want that. I wash the respiratory equipment the day nurse used earlier in the day. The mother left it to soak in an uncovered basin in the sink next to the dirty dishes, directly under the faucet. Wanting to stay lucky, I do not ask.
After three weeks on duty, I catch a cold. I have never experienced anything like this, my head is molten liquid, my nose a fountain of thick green snot, my lungs burning up at dawn, my throat coughing until my ribs feel like they are cracking apart. I sit on the toilet for hours a day, emptying out whatever it is that has wormed its way into me. I am off the case for a week, food money will be tight. I still have the ten bucks in my wallet, but this is not the emergency. Rice, peanut butter and jelly, a bag of pasta. Luckily, I am not the least bit hungry.
The mother and dad interrogate me when I return to work.
“Do you catch colds often?”
“Why did you get so sick?”
“Will my son catch what you had?”
I smile. Nod my head. I tell them I am not used to staying up all night. I am fifty-six, after all. They tell me I look forty. I will not after a few more months of this mishegas. I could tell them I have not had a cold in two years. I look around at the sticky table, the open recycling bin, the filthy shelves, the perpetually heated up oven. I smile. Nod my head. I use rubbing alcohol to wipe down the Ikea folding table which stands next to the chair I sit on during the captivity of my eight hour shift, this chair being the only adult sized piece of furniture in the living room. Who knows what is living and breathing on the chair and table, but it is a bitch to scrub the table clean. For fifteen minutes every night, I work that table, only to find it filthy again the next night, filthy every night I work.
I pick up the wastepaper basket next to the table, extending my neck to keep my head as far away from it as I can. This basket has a different stench than that of the kitchen, filled to its brim with soiled diapers, used suctioned catheters and dirty baby wipes. The lost boy is eight years old and still in diapers. Unlucky kid. I move the basket to the other side of the room, covering its exposed contents with a newspaper. I empty it as soon as the chill parents fall asleep.
Whenever I mess with the living room’s feng shui, the parents look at me as if I have rejected not only Julia Roberts, but her more talented in his pinky finger brother Eric.
“It’s just me,” I say. I smile. Nod my head. “I’m a total clean freak. No worries. It’s just something I do.”
With bleach followed by water, I wipe down an area the size of an envelope on the kitchen counter top, on which I set out the night’s medications. Beneath a leaking faucet, the respiratory equipment soaks in the sink, the disinfecting solution working its magic in the basin on floor. I cover both nightly when the parents sleep.
“You don’t have to wash the dishes at night,” the mother says.
“You have enough on your plate,” I tell her. “No biggie if I wash a few dishes. I live to clean.”
Like I would actually wash the respiratory equipment with the spore breathing dishes and cruddy glasses in the sink. Let them think I am a prissy queen, a queen who could only be saved by Eric Roberts, I will wash the dishes.
“Us team Jolie guys are like that,” I tell the chilled couple.
On my day off, my friend Steven takes me as his plus one to see a play he is reviewing in a theatre on La Brea.
Using my emergency ten bucks, we feast on double portions of Chinese food before the show. I treat myself to a can of ice cold Coke.
“You’re a writer,” Steven says. “Write out what is happening to you.”
The air of the City of the Angels touches my skin.
If you are lucky, a few words can wash you clean.
A fan of the play’s lead, Robin Thomas, since his days on my fav soap “Another World,” I try to concentrate on the Chekhovian inspired machinations being played out before me. On a late Sunday afternoon in Hollywood, the traffic sails along La Brea as my ears drink in Robin’s words, my eyes seeing who I once was, the bugs falling from beneath my fingernails, the concrete melting off of my hands and feet, the pounding of my blood telling me the only way I can turn the ocean around is to pick the gun I have pointed at myself up off of the table and write out the last two years.
Tears running down his stubbly face, the lucky man knows what he has to do.