Chapter 26 / 2009
There are Thirty Apartments for Rent on Beachwood Drive.
The lost boy makes it home from the hospital before sundown.
My fingers, itchy to tell my tale while the boy sleeps, tap the steering wheel of my shamefully unwashed red 69 Chevy Malibu as I drive to North Hollywood at 9:30 PM.
Mother has removed the rug from her living room floor.
“It was full of germs,” she hisses. “It’s what gave him pneumonia.”
The piles of video cassettes, DVDs, neon colored toys, tabloids and dirty clothes are in their usual places.
Mother has bought a shiny black bookshelf at Ikea, in front of which she sits cross-legged on the dull hardwood floor, her chubby fingers placing video cassettes on the shelves, which look like they will crumble apart in a week or two.
I check the vent, its plastic face as grimy and sticky as it has always been. I wash it down with alcohol, using Q-tips to clean around the ports on its sides. Piled onto the base of the vent stand are opened boxes of tissues and alcohol wipes, which are jammed between small dirty pillows, their plumpness overwhelming the dented black metal base. I should wash the pillows tonight.
The G tube’s infusion machine is dirtier than I have ever seen it. I wash it with half strength bleach. A string hangs between the dirty pole the machine is attached to and a thumbtack pushed into the wall, a pistol syringe, waiting to be jammed into the bigger of the G tube’s two ports, weighs the string down at its center, forming a floating V above the lost boy’s crib. The string is beginning to unravel, which is not surprising as it has not been changed in the six months I have been caged in this room. I have string in my trunk, I will bring it in later and make a tightly pulled line in the sky for the lost boy to stare at.
For reasons never explained to me, the oxygen tank is in the hallway leading to Mother and Dad’s bedroom, its dirty green tubing running a good fifty feet to the vent. Poor Lost Boy, his oxygen will never travel that far. I should have told his parents this on day one, but I did not want to rock their boat. Someone, another nurse, the rep from the oxygen company, should have pointed this out during the past five years. The agency’s Nursing Supervisor, perhaps. That’s right, the agency has had the case for over a year and no Supervisor has yet to enter this cage.
I remind myself to watch my step when attending to the lost boy.
Wires, partially covered by soiled round throw rugs, run over the floor in the two foot space between the lost boy’s crib and the blemished chest of drawers pushed up against the opposing wall of the tiny cubbyhole off of the living room the lost boy is held hostage in. If the place does not burn down, the lost boy is sure to trip and fall. I plan to take the supplies off of the shelves next to his crib, wash them down with bleach, followed by water, check for expiration dates and utilize my Virgo skills to organize the various medical paraphernalia on the shelving, which the bleach reveals at 3 AM that morning to be a light grey.
The lost boy is awake on the mattress by the door, the one Grandma Zsa Zsa sleeps on when she has had a fight with her rotten to the core boyfriend. I sit next to the lost boy, first making sure there is no draft blowing in from the window above his head or from the open sliver of space at the bottom of the door. This is the first time the lost boy has been awake for more than a few minutes since I’ve been on the case. His deep black eyes and big smile recognize me as the tired old man who, as luck would have it, suctions his trach, unclogs his G tube, listens to his lungs and changes his diaper three times a shift.
I put my “Policewoman” disc into the miniature DVD player the lost boy balances on his tiny chest, the bright screen a few inches from his eyes. The lost boy likes Angie Dickinson from the moment he sees her, she awakens something in him, her moves making the boy throw his head back, raising his right hand to the ceiling, bringing his fingers down to eye level, where he gazes at them as if his pink fingernails possessed the truth of all he sees and hears in the middle-aged blonde Police Sergeant, who, unless her three male colleagues burst in on the scene to save her, is seconds away from being thrown off the roof of a building in Century City. The lost boy moves his hand back and forth, his eyes boring into the pores of his smooth skin before his gaze drifts back to Angie, his body becoming still, his lips smiling.
I like the lost boy.
Mother covers the outside of her Ikea bookshelf with a dirty batik print and shuffles into the kitchen searching for Coke and chips.
A half-eaten chicken from Whole Foods is on the stove, potato salad and coleslaw its lonely companions. I check out the price tags on the goodies’ plastic containers, they total out to thirty-five bucks. I place my dinner, courtesy of the food banks, in the fridge. A roll, a red tomato and a small jar of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard.
“You can tell he’s been sick,” I tell Mother. “Poor boy, he looks sad. Now that’s he’s home with you guys, he’ll be his old self in no time.”
Mother stuffs a handful of Pringles into her mouth.
“He’s developed foot drop,” I tell her. “I’ll start working on his feet tonight. I’ll show you the exercises so we can get them back in shape.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“If we don’t correct foot drop right away, it’s kind of irreversible.”
“It’s OK. Don’t worry about it.”
“It’s easy to remedy. It’ll give me something to do at night. It’s no big deal.”
“He’s going to the ortho doctor in a few months. Let the doctor deal with it. He’s supposed to wear these braces on his legs during the day. I always forget to put them on.”
Mother’s voice is soft tonight. She is heavier than usual, must be the candy bars and potato chips. The light from the bulb in the uncovered ceiling fixture beams down on Mother, making her face appear as if it is going to crack apart and crash onto the floor. Mother does not resemble her brother in any way.
Like her son, who sits transfixed by Angie’s every move, my eyes switch to high beam, I cannot stop looking at Mother.
“My bad,” Mother says.
Mother looks at the floor, she pushes her big toe into a groove in the linoleum.
“I’ll show you his exercises before he goes to sleep,” I say.
“No. I DON’T want you to do anything.”
I force Mother’s eyes to look into mine. Her big toe stops grooving, the G tube is quiet, the vent devours the dead air Mother and I breathe out.
I do not smile.
I do not nod my head.
Mother’s eyes are locked into mine, the razors shooting out of my pupils cutting the last remaining strand of the unraveling string between us. I want the lost boy to stand up straight, walk without a limp, stare up at the clouds flying above him, breathe without a vent, use the toilet, tell me what he sees in the ceiling tiles and in the pores on the skin of his small hands, I want him to sing to me the sounds his tiny caramel ears hear.
I get it.
Mother does not want anything for her son. Nothing. Rien. Nada. Not even to walk barefoot on the grass in the park down the street.
“Leave him on the vent so I can get an extra hour or two of sleep,” Mother says in the mornings when I leave. “He doesn’t move around so much when he’s attached to it.”
Mother will keep the string pulled tight between her son and the vent for as long as she can.
Let’s get real, Dad’s not shipping out to Iraq any time soon. Major disability bucks are needed to keep this cage stocked in Whole Paycheck food.
I walk into the living room. I wipe down the folding table and move the wastepaper basket. Mother washes downs a Milky Way with a long belt of Coke before trudging sideways down the hall to her bedroom. I put the lost boy in his crib, leaving Angie on the DVD screen until his smiling face falls asleep.
I sit in the chair, its hostility digging into my back. I do not want to hear people talking tonight, not even Angie. I look at the silent television screen, a woman is hanging new curtains, whose bright yellow color would throw the lost boy into a head rocking swoon, the woman smiles as she straightens the thin material, her delicate hands arranging them until their hems gently tap the floor. This woman would exercise her kid’s feet, put his braces on, clean his room, keep him away from drafty windows. She would adjust the horizontal control on her television so the picture would stop bouncing around the way it has been for the six months I have sat in this chair, whose bony arms push into me every night.
I have finally seen behind Mother’s curtain.
I want to go home.
My night is spent listening to air being pushed in and out of the vent. My skin cannot feel the air blowing in through the missing pane in the bathroom. Every hour, I listen with my stethoscope to lungs breathing without obstruction or distress and to an abdomen alive with active bowels sounds. I touch veins pounding over bony prominences, feeling the regular rhythm of an eight-year-old pulse. I press lightly on nail beds observing rapid blood return, look at lips for the slightest hint of blue, check for irritation around the G tube and trach sites.
I close my eyes, my ears alert for the over-amped whirling that comes on when the vent cycles madly, as it tries to override any offending water in its tubing, tries to rectify any manner of disconnection, be it of the tube from the trach, of the tubing from the vent or of the tubing from a rebellious section of itself.
These are the only connections I can make anymore.
At 3 AM, Joe and Mika send their dim light into the dark room I sit in. Their silent lips mouth their outrage. Is it Joe and Mika who throw debris into the street in the middle of the night? I look out through the iron mesh door, the street is empty.
At 6 AM, Mother signs my time sheet, as she wearily does every morning. She asks me how the night went, but does not listen to my answer. She washes her hands, eyeballs the dishes I washed at 2 AM, looks down at the sealed bags of garbage I have left by the backdoor, glances over to the lid on the rectangular basin on the floor by her feet. I remove my leftovers from the fridge, button up my coat and open the front door to leave, my ears hearing the usual thanks for taking care of her son.
I smile. Nod my head.
This morning Mother adds a new tag: “It’s cold outside, cold. I’m gonna’ spend the day in my jammies.”
I cannot sleep when I get home, there are calls to be made. I watch three episodes of “Policewoman” until the City of the Angels opens her doors at 9 AM. I call Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s office, his intern is back at work and, feeing rested and chipper after having taken three days off, she connects us to a conference call with the civil servant in charge of jury duty.
“You’ve failed to prove that jury duty would be a financial hardship,” the civil servant babbles to us in a hoarse whisper. “I can’t excuse you.”
“He’s taking care of a disabled child,” the intern tells him.
“The kid’s got parents if Epstine can’t come in,” the civil servant answers.
“Where’s the hardship?” he asks me. “You’re working.”
“If I miss work, even for a day, it really cuts into my finances. One day is food money. Two days cut into the rent. I can’t afford to be on a jury.”
“You have an income, Epstine. Have you tried saving some money for the proverbial rainy day?”
“SAVING MONEY? SAVING MONEY? WHAT WORLD ARE YOU LIVING IN?”
The civil servant is silent, the intern breathes deeply.
“I want to be on a jury. It’s not that I don’t want to do it. I can’t take a week off without pay. Can’t you understand that?”
“I’ll postpone you until February of next year,” the civil servant says, clearing his throat to reveal a nice baritone. “I’ll postpone it again if your circumstances are the same. Hopefully, things will improve for you by then.”
“Thank you. I appreciate it.”
“I know where you are,” the intern tells me after the civil servant hangs up. “I was so broke a few years ago…when I walked past restaurants and saw the people inside eating, I couldn’t imagine how they could afford it.”
I thank her, tell her she is a good woman. She repeats over and over that things will get better, they have to. Right. I watch another “Policewoman” episode, then hit the mail box, where an envelope from LAUSD tumbles out, its thick black letters informing me I have been “Separated for continued non-availability.” I could call LAUSD or go into their office on South Beaudry Avenue, tell them I would still like to sub, explain how they did not offer me work for five months.
I could do a lot of things, but the concrete blocks knock me down, as does the Ativan, which promises a few hours respite from the phone calls, the mail box, the whining vent and the burping G tube.
I sing my lullaby until I fall asleep on the worn-out cushions of my couch, given to me by my friend Mark’s family when he died, Mark’s voice whispering through les arbres into my ear: “There are no second acts.”
I wake up in the late afternoon. I am not in my jammies. I take the Thai Delight Stretch Pants gave me off the shelf. I read the instructions on the side of the box, my eyes spotting that it expired two years ago. I throw it into the thrash. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner tonight.
I turn the television on. Rachel Maddow is getting snarky. Again.
I change the channel, Michelle Obama is in Europe. She tears up as she tells a group of young women that if you work hard, believe in yourself and push with all you’ve got against the forces opposing you, your dreams will come true.
Time for a walk.
Balls throb, gut churns, jaw screams. Putting one foot in front of the other will quiet my infirmities. Better still, walking is free. Like the lost boy watching his beloved Policewoman, I gaze rapturously through open curtains into windows I have walked past for years. Do the people I see in their living rooms and kitchens feel the air on their skin?
In my one mile walk along Beachwood Drive, I clock thirty for rent signs.
Lucky folks, they must have left to follow their dreams.