How To Work Twenty Hours a Week And Get Paid For Forty.

   Chapter 22 / 2009

How To Work Twenty Hours a Week And Get Paid For Forty.

The dinky layout of my patient’s kitchen has been consecrated with a smell so hauntingly foul it makes my skin itch, the malignant odor sucker punching me as I walk in the front door.  Last week’s flowers, tonight wilted and drooping, are still on the kitchen table, a black scum breathing at the bottom of their streaked vase.  Mother begins talking before I take my coat off.  Tonight, her aria is about the day nurse: her constant smoke breaks, her grandkids the state pays her to foster, her daughter who, devoid of her own maternal instincts, is making noises about getting a cut of the foster money.  The nurse’s unmarried teenage granddaughter is pregnant, which translates to more money coming in.  

Question is, who will get it?  

“There’s a lot of that going around,” I say.  “Bristol and Levi.”

No way Mother can hear me.  She is singing full out, flying high without a net, the way my fingers used to dance over the keyboard, the way they will tonight when Mother shuts up and falls asleep.  

The stench of rotting week old stems causes my nostrils to contract with defiance.  I try to will myself into the delicate shades of green in the “Le Jardin” print hanging askew on the wall, moving my head as far back as I can, my eyes squinting in disbelief as Mother continues babbling.  I will never find respite in this cage, everything is so filthy and now “Les Arbres” are talking to me with the smiling maliciousness of Sarah Palin.  Sitting on a kitchen table as overwhelmed as I am are four large white paper bags, their guts holding giant bottles of the lost boy’s liquid medications.  Tabloids lie under both the bags and the styrofoam boxes teetering at the edge of the table, their indestructible bellies full to bursting with this afternoon’s uneaten lunch.  

If I do not speak now, I never will again, I will be as lost in the green of le jardin as my patient is when his black eyes stare into the over saturated blue and red of the television screen.  

“Shouldn’t these bottles be in the fridge?” I ask.

I watch Mother, she is good, the totality of her being lost in her monologue about the day nurse.  

When I perform my monologue at the Fake Gallery in a few weeks will I get so deep into my story that I too will forget who I am? 

I touch the bottles in the white paper bags, their brown plastic bodies room temperature.  When I walk into the bright light onstage, no matter how frightening I imagine the audience to be, I have always been able to remember the particulars of where the tale was going, always able to make the connection.  

“How long have they been here?” I ask.

“My bad.  Since this afternoon.  Think they’re spoiled?”

Ah, Mother is listening.

I do not answer.  Maintaining my silence onstage for a beat too long is one of my favorite tools.

Maybe the smell is coming from the top of the stove, where remnants of last night’s sausages sleep in a huge frying pan, the pot next to it half full with beans which have solidified into a bumpy brown brick.  

No, it is the flowers. 

Mother sips a warm Coke.  She is diabetic, but does not like going to doctors.  You know, they tell you what to do.  Scary.  They tell you what to eat.  Even more scary.  Whenever Mother says “scary,” she alternately moves her hands as if she were tightening and then opening two dials in front of her.  Claiming to be a single mother who is the primary caretaker of a disabled child, Mother receives MediCal, completely free, as in she could get her balls fixed, her gut taken care of, her blood pressure treated.  But why go to the doctor if she has to wait for an entire hour at the clinic?  And sit next to black people?  Scary.  Silently, without even the hint of a headache, I am sure my blood pressure is thickening the myocardium of my heart’s left ventricle.  Maybe I will stroke out tonight and become Mother’s second nurse to die on the job.  My gut hits me, my balls throb, my jaw throws me a few jabs.  What is this country coming to?  I know that I myself would never wait an entire hour to receive free medical care.  And sit next to black people? And people speaking Spanish? 


Mother is off and running again, her libretto more complicated than anything Maria Callas ever attempted.

It goes like this:  the day nurse’s son is sick and even though he might die any day now, she continues to come in to work, refusing to take a day off, saying she needs the money.  Still, the day nurse has to leave early sometimes.  Mother tells me the day nurse rarely, if ever, works her full eight hour shift.  It is always something, her grandchild is sick, her daughter is in trouble, her son is sick, her son is in trouble or he is sick and in trouble.  The day nurse needs to go shopping, get the car fixed, bail out someone who has gotten yet another DUI.  Despite all these insurmountable obstacles, the day nurse does manage to fill out her timecard for a full eight hours.  She has been with the lost boy for five years, “working” five days a week.  For half a decade, she has been getting paid for working eight hours a day.  According to Mother, it took her and her husband four and a half years to suss out the day nurse’s con.  I must have been absent from nursing school the day this sleight of hand was taught.  Mother and Dad have been signing her time cards at the end of every shift, every day for five years.  To block out the smell of what Mother has told me, I think about the concrete which will swallow up my arms and legs in the morning, when I drive home after a sleepless EIGHT hours on duty.


The lost boy’s dad can not sleep, his bloated fingers tremble against the sweating blue can of lager whose pop-top he struggles to open.  Dad does not notice the spray of his  lager dripping off my Mikli glasses.  

Understandable.  He has his forty-eight ounces of brew to work on.

“She shouldn’t have told you our business,” Dad says between gulps.  “We really like you…that’s why she did it.”

I wipe down my Mikli’s progressive lenses.  Dad’s Adam’s apple moves up and down the way Matt’s did when I gave him ice cold water to drink as his bone white skin lay motionless in the steaming peach bubble bathes I ran for him in my tub. 

“Fuck what happens to me…but my son..what would happen if the state found out?”

“Your boy is disabled.  He’ll always get his disability checks.  Most likely, they won’t be handed over to you guys anymore, I mean to your wife.  I’d imagine a conservator would handle his money.”

Dad stares at me, the back of his hand wiping off the lager dripping down his chin.  

“She tricked us…that fucking nurse tricked my son.”

“Turn her in.  I don’t know how you’d explain that you never read what you were signing…but I’d turn her in before you get popped.  Tell them you got wise to her scam.  It’s our…it’s my tax money paying her salary.”

“What can I tell her?” Dad asks as his fingers tap against the cold blue of the can.  “What can I say?”

“Why don’t you try telling her that if she’s going to get paid for eight hours, she has to work eight hours?”

Mumbling something about Haoles always fucking things up, Dad walks barefoot out the back door.  My friend Kathi and I went to Hawaii for ten days when we graduated from nursing school.  No money, we slept in a tent on a different beach every night, ate fruit we picked off of trees, walked for hours on white beaches solving the world’s problems and imagining what lay beyond the doors we would be walking through when we returned to the mainland. 

We were called Haoles everywhere we went, but it was the best vacation I ever went on.  

Lucky man.

The smell wafting through le jardin rocks my gut.  I am going to hurl.  I will sit in the living room for the remainder of the shift and write, the kitchen table is a mess, full up with Mother and Dad’s purchases.  They shop constantly, mostly at Walmart and Target, occasionally Ikea.  The Target bags have proven to be an excellent fit for lining the wastepaper basket, their overblown size providing me with just enough extra plastic to tie a tight bow when sealing up the day’s waste. 

The deep voice of the German caretaker whispers to me, his words snaking around the thick trunks of les arbres.   

“I need to show you the right way to put a plastic bag in the garbage can.”

“I need to show you the right way to put a plastic bag in the garbage can.”

“I need to show you the right way to put a plastic bag in the garbage can.”

I look deep into le jardin, my eyes peering past the branches of les arbres for the caretaker’s blonde hair, the deep pools of his blue eyes, the velvet of his tanned skin, 

His pale pink lips are laughing at me.

I have been working shit jobs for two years now. 

My man is gone.  

My belly is empty.  

My fingers crash and burn whenever they get near my keyboard.

This is my life on the mainland?


Now Mother is up, wandering around the kitchen saying she can not sleep.  She is not her usual talkative and nosy self, her eyes do not clock that I have thrown the flowers out and filled the vase with half strength bleach.  Mother looks at the large bags of Fritos and Wise Potato Chips, her fingers unwrap candy bars, she chugs warm Coke from a two liter bottle sitting on the stove. Mother is coming back to life slowly, repeating the word “scary” over and over as she works the dials in front of her, which only she can see.

“I told you because I totally trust you,” Mother says.  “I never talk behind people’s backs.”

She has been talking crap about the day nurse and the other night nurse since day one. What does she say about me?  All I have revealed about myself is that money is tight.  I bring it up about an hour into Mother’s nightly monologue, if I am lucky it will send her into her bedroom pronto. 

“I need that money to take care of my son.  What would the state say if they found out?”

“They’d tell you something along the line that the day nurse is here so you can go to work during the day.  I’m here so you can sleep at night, you know, before you go to work in the morning.  With you and your husband here twenty-four seven, why do you even need  a nurse?”

Mother looks a bit queasy.  Maybe the bleach marinating in the vase is getting to her, making her gut twist like mine does when I try to figure out how to pay the gas bill.  Mother has not said “scary” or twisted her dials for a good ten minutes.  Scary thing is, this is the precise moment she should be applying the word to her situation.

“She tricked us,” Mother says.  “Promise you won’t tell anyone she tricked my son.”

I smile.  Nod my head.  

Their secret is safe with me.  Who would I tell? 


“Today’s the day,” I tell Mother after her night of true confessions.

“The day?”

“The inauguration.  Our first black president.  I wish my dad was alive to see this.”

Mother looks at me as if I have told her I am living with Jason Statham.  I stare her down.

I am a writer, a monologist, my subtext is simple: “I know all about the scams you and your husband are pulling.  In better days, I would have reported both of you.  Today, I only want to pay the rent and eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”

Mother can not locate a pen to sign my time sheet with.  I hand her her Dolce Gabbana purse.  Lots of single moms with disabled sons have these, just like they all have three BlackBerries, a laptop for each room and three hundred dollar running shoes.

Mother is quiet.  She thanks me for not telling anyone about the day nurse. 

Give me time, I haven’t left the house yet.


I turn on CNN when I get home, Aretha will be singing soon.  I listen to ten voice mails, all from LAUSD teachers, each explaining today’s lesson plan.  I am being offered my pick of schools to sub at and, from the sound of things, it appears every black schoolteacher in Los Angeles has called in sick today.

“I haven’t been available for months,” I tell the sub desk.  “You guys said you’d let me know if things picked up.”

“We never said any such thing.  You’ve been on call since September.”

“I’m pretty sure I took myself off call on the voice mail service, you know, for daily availabilities.  That’s what you told me to do.”

“Mr. Epstine…we never…”

“OK.  OK.  I get it.  Let’s just forget it.”

“Can you work this morning?”

“Can’t.  I’ve worked 10 PM to 6 AM the last four nights.”

“This is real bad.”  

“Let’s say I was on call since September.  It’s the end of January.  Do you really think I got up at 5 AM every morning for the last four months and waited for you guys to call?”

“We really need you, Mr. Epstine.”


Do not say “We really need you” to the adult child of an alcoholic.  

We believe it.  

Should I teach this morning?  I have not had rapid eye movement sleep in weeks, let alone deep sleep.  Since Matt left, my bed has become a dark cloud which refuses to let me sleep more than three hours at a stretch.  My muscles ache, arms numb, throat sore, eyes seeing double, ears fearing the plastic bag mantra coming out of les arbres again.  I stagger around my apartment like Dad after a few lagers.  

Maybe I should start drinking again, I already have the hangover.

“I really want to do it, I do.  My arms feel like they’re stuck in buckets of concrete.  I don’t think they could hold the roll book open.”

I have frightened her.

“You still there?” I ask.

“Yes, Mr. Epstine.”

“How about this, you mark me off call and I’ll check in with the sub desk every month to see if things have changed.  If they do, I’ll quit this gig and work for you guys in a New York minute.”

“Oh, a Bronx boy?”

“Long Island, but Grandma and Zaydeh lived on the Grand Concourse.”

“Fair enough, Yankle.  New York attitude goes a long way at L.A. Unified.”

Will our lucky man get lucky?


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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

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