Chapter 25 / 2009
I Need Food.
At 9:30 PM, I stand before the freshly painted iron mesh door of Mother’s brother, who lives in the house attached to his scary sister’s.
Brother hears me knocking.
“Didn’t the agency tell you not to come in tonight?” he asks.
The brother and his sister share the same face. His is thinner, covered with a light beard. His eyes do not dart from the floor to the ceiling when he talks, his hands have never twisted imaginary dials. No way would this guy launch into an hour long diatribe about Obama’s fake birth certificate.
Brother invites me into his pad, my nose readies itself for the stench of wilted flowers or rotting food.
My feet do not stick to the shining hardwood floors.
Brother’s floor plan is a mirror image of his sister’s, his walls painted light brown and trimmed with ink black moldings, framed charcoal drawings, hung at eye level, are arranged with perfect symmetry above the couch. The light from the starburst 60s ceiling fixture bounces off the bare polished marble countertops in the kitchen.
Brother is not gay. He is Marine clean.
Brother tells me the lost boy has developed pneumonia. It comes on him like that, the lost boy is fine in the morning and by late afternoon he has spiked a temp, by dinnertime he is delirious with fever. Mother and Dad think he caught it from the day nurse, who, during the few hours she is on duty, has been coughing nonstop for the past two weeks.
“Little sister never sends him to school, she’s afraid of germs,” Brother says. “With the swine flu and all, I don’t think she’ll ever let him go back.”
“If he played with kids his own age, he’d be exposed to all sorts of stuff,” I tell him. “It would build up his immune system, make it much stronger. He’d certainly be a lot more socialized.”
I look at the horseshoe shaped turquoise ceramic ashtray, sitting a tad off center on the glass top of the wrought iron table in front of the couch. Neat piles of books and magazines lie beneath the crystal clear tabletop, not a tabloid in sight.
“What do you think about all this?” Brother asks me.
My eyes move from the deep sheen of the hardwood floor to a ceiling as immaculately white at the one I will be soon be sitting under at the UCLA School of Dentistry.
“He hasn’t been awake since I started working. I can’t say much.”
Brother smiles at me. He wants the real answer. I want a job.
“I think he’s a strong kid,” I say. “I think he’ll get through this.”
Brother laughs and walks me to the door.
“That’s the standard answer. Every nurse who’s been through here says it.”
I smile. Nod my head.
I send the lost boy a get well card: “I miss hearing your G tube explode at 3 AM.”
Can the lost boy read? I have not asked Mother or Dad about their son’s cognitive skills. I stopped asking medical questions on day one, when neither could answer what the game plan for their son was.
“We’ll get back to you with a temporary assignment,” the space cadet staffing co-ordinator tells me.
Those are the last words I ever hear from him. Whenever I call the agency, the dissembling cadet is either at lunch or has stepped away from his desk, his hunger and the ease with which he can satisfy it, along with the demands of his weak bladder, preventing him from finding me replacement shifts during the two weeks the lost boy is hospitalized. I pull together the rent money, but that is all I have for the month. I hold on tight to my emergency ten dollars, consoling myself with the extra scratch I will receive when I get back to work, Obama’s tax relief deal netting me a whole thirty-six bucks more a month.
Lucky man, this windfall will buy me three bottles of apple juice a week.
With all that juice flowing, the economy is sure to turn around any day now.
I need food.
I call a social worker at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, the steadiness in his sweet voice sending me to the food bank at the First Presbyterian Church on Yucca Street in Hollywood. The Church’s volunteer worker is red faced, no doubt from jamming her massively overweight body into the ratty green stretch pants she parades around in. Contemplating the nutritional value of the food she has given me makes my jaw hurt, the roots of my rear molars throbbing rhythmically as my eyes take in the dull labels on the cans of green beans, black eyed peas and orange juice I place on my empty kitchen shelves. I had planned to write when I returned home with the food bank’s goodies. My gut throbs with a hunger the cans on my shelf will never satisfy. I eat a Vicodin to numb out the jabs my body has taken and sleep for thirteen hours, waking up to sing my lullaby at 3 AM as Joe and Mika snicker at the morning’s comings and goings.
“I feel for you, bro. I’m on break starting tomorrow. I’ll be back in a few weeks,” the dental student whispers.
I stare at the endless heaven of pristine white tiles above me and continue to recite my tale to the dental student: “The pain is so bad…it’s hard for me to concentrate…especially at night when I’m on duty with my patient…forget about trying to write or rehearse.”
The dental student pulls my jaw to the left, to the right, up, down, his hairless hands pushing my the bottom of my chin up towards the top of my head.
“You’ll be like this for at least a year,” he says. “It’ll work itself out, think of it as a muscle strain.”
The novocaine melts into my gums, its cold fingers giving me a momentary high as the dental student pushes my jaw to the left again, my buzzed blood thinking that before I beat it back to Hollywood, I should visit the house on 5th Helena Drive where Marilyn Monroe died.
“We’re missing Marilyn…where are the Marilyn references?” a Joe in my writing group asked at our last session.
He asks this whenever I read from my memoir of the New Depression, whenever he hears the words I am forced to pound into the keyboard, my fingers flying at work as I sit next to the lost boy, flying before I go into work, even in the mornings after the concrete has wrapped itself around my hands.
I look around at the writers’ faces after I finish reading each new episode, every one a no-go, my tale too depressing, too bleak, too sad.
“It’s not writing really, it’s reportage, there’s just no let up,” another Joe says. “Give your audience a break.”
“I have a story to tell..,” I say. “…and this is the way I’m going to tell it…this is how it happened.”
“Oops,” the dental student’s blue eyes say as his double gloved fingers remove my defective crown.
Looking at this ceiling only brings me bad news.
“Mr. Epstine, your bridge is in trouble,” the deep voiced doctor says.
My eyes concentrate on the craters pock mocking the tiles, their faces as clean as they have been for the past few years, not even a spec of dust on their cheeks.
“You have options,” the doctor’s voice whispers.
“Options, it’s about the options,” the dental student chants.
I am so screwed.
“We must replace the bridge, which means three new crowns. We could place three implants, which is another way to go, the way I’d go.”
“Implants are the way to go,” the dental student repeats, sounding like a second grader reciting a multiplication table.
“Or we can place one implant and hang a bridge on it. That is, of course, after we deep clean all four quadrants.”
Proceeding to checkout, the options in my cart total out to co-pays of $720, 6K and $2480 respectively, plus $400 for the cleanings.
“I started getting food at a food bank two days ago…what you’re talking about…that amount of money is way out of my league.”
I look at the billowy yellow isolation gowns, then up to the eyes beneath the goggles, which, as always, refuse to meet my gaze.
Oops, I forgot. Too depressing, too bleak, too sad.
The dental student babbles something about the recession and then proceeds to open my mouth and push my jaw to the left for three hours.
I try to go over plot problems in my novel, the one with the killer Marilyn Monroe references.
Lucky Man that I have always been, the novocaine kills the pain of the money I owe and the money I need until I get off the bus for home at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street. My cowboy boots’ silver tips having seen me through better days, their worn down soles take over, pulling me to the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard, where I foolishly spend half of my ten dollar emergency money on carbonated water.
Three days after receiving the pain inducing bag of food from Stretch Pants, I stand in a line at the SOVA food pantry on Beverly Boulevard, where I find myself surrounded by round Russian women and their short creamy skinned men, our ranks interspersed with tired Latinas and downcast young black women. I smiled and nodded my head when the social worker at Jewish Family Services referred me here, her raspy voice telling me I sounded much younger than fifty-six. Whatever. I am hungry. A half hour after I joined this sagging line of empty bellies, the SOVA security guard tells all approaching newcomers there is only enough food for the people already in line. The man with the urine stained pants I met at the First Presbyterian Church stands ten people ahead of me. We smile. We nod our heads. He has five, maybe six teeth, his lips are chapped and scabbed over, his smile is one of the friendliest I have ever encountered in the City of the Angels.
He walks over to me and says through his grey teeth: “They’re much nicer here. They give you what you need. You have a cat? A dog?”
I show him Sunset’s pensive face on the screen of my cell.
“They’ll give you cat food. Don’t forget to ask for it.”
He returns to his place in line. His pants are two sizes too big, spotted with stains and drenched in urine which, despite the crisp air blowing through Beverly Boulevard, I can not smell. I look across the street to Pan Pacific Park, which I first discovered in 1981 when I drove my orange GTO to work at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, all jazzed because I remembered Barbra Streisand running out of its green and white deco Auditorium doors in “Funny Lady.” My first LA boyfriend, more devil than angel, lived around the block on Stanley. On New Year’s Day of 1982, we crawled through an opening in the Auditorium’s boarded up windows, walking our hangovers off, talking and laughing, running nausea inducing laps on the moldy rotting floor.
“Are you a Holocaust survivor?” the SOVA intake worker asks me.
I laugh, the big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh.
“Sorry, it’s just a question we have to ask all the applicants.”
Unprotected by thick plastic goggles, the intake worker’s light green eyes look straight at me, the way the lost boy gazes at the television screen.
My tears come, staining my pants until my crotch is nearly as damp as that of the man with the friendly smile. My nose smells the salty tears mixed with a trace of snot before they swim up to my eyes, the tears beat out of me, my body shakes like I am having a petite mal seizure, words are punching out of my mouth, my vocal cords afraid to stop and let my ears hear the silence of this room, the silence of my apartment at noon.
“Do you know the Pan Pacific Auditorium used to be across the street, where the park is? There was a movie theater in front of it. It was falling apart, but I always went there. I think it was a brick building…it was, it was brick, with a big plate glass window in the front…ugh, the dirtiest curtain covering it. They showed double bills…for two dollars. It must have been ripped down years ago. I don’t know what happened to my boyfriend on Stanley. We drank a lot…a lot…mass amounts…he was a mean drunk…not that I was that nice myself. I had quite the rep in those days. I hung out at all the underground clubs. I saw Lily Tomlin do her punk rock character for the first time at some club on Melrose. I got up and went to work the next day…I never missed a shift…never. Every hospital the agencies sent me to tried to recruit me to work for them. That’s how I got my job at Cedars. They wanted me to work for them exclusively, they thought I was a good nurse. That’s what they told me…it must have been true. I could take care of myself…I could pay my own way…I could…I could…”
The intake worker gets up and closes the door.
“Tell me what happened,” she says.
I tell her about the lucky man.
The man with the amazing smile was right, a dozen cans of cat food sit on my kitchen table.
I lie on the black velvet of my couch, the sun streaming in, Sunset spread out on the rug soaking up the smiling rays of the City of the Angels. Having spent the morning crying out my tale to the intake worker appears to have drained the pain out of my jaw, balls and gut, to have cooled the humiliating sting of being near the end of today’s line and wondering if there would be enough bread left for me to take home. The emptiness in my belly has been sated by the cheese danish given to me with the cat food and other staples I need to keep myself fueled for the days ahead, all of which I have carefully placed on the faded white paper lining my kitchen shelves.
Tuna fish, bread, pasta, rice, dried beans, peanut butter, jelly, canned fruit, powdered milk and cereal, none of which will expire any time soon.
The lost boy is returning home this afternoon, I have a job again.
The phone rings. My landline, I only use the GoPhone for emergencies.
The bad luck of UCLA’s tiles has somehow wormed its way into my apartment, this must be the space cadet calling to tell me the case is not back on track.
“You’re a wonderful writer,” JoAnne tells me.
I move off the couch, in an instant, the sweat on my back has dampened my tee shirt.
“I had to make sure you were for real before I start asking agents to rep you.”
I am a writer after all.
I have a story to tell.