Chapter 28 / 2009
Cries and Whispers.
“You’ll need to get a drug test before we can send you to a doctor,” the space cadet staffing co-ordinator tells me.
It is 8 AM, my head is bowed in reverence, not by the cadet’s newly minted authoritarian tone, but to the pain twisting around my left arm, my eyes see only floors, the wires and dirty throw rugs in the lost boy’s cubbyhole, the green fields populated by blue elephants, the thick blue veins on the top of Matt’s bare wet feet stretched out on the faded grey of my 30s Sears carpet.
“We’ve got to make sure you weren’t impaired when you fell,” a voice way too familiar with cigarettes growls into my ear.
I look up from the peanut shells, swizzle sticks, empty cigarette packs and candy bar wrappers, Tallulah’s lips, pouting downwards from years of throwing quips around the Frolic Room, smile at me.
Where in the months past, the rambling cadet could never let up on the hold button he kept my under, suddenly an array of cunning voices pour out of my phone’s earpiece. Apparently, the agency has a second floor, in whose rooms exist a cabal of nasty supervisors and manipulating managers, all ready to give the once over twice to anyone who takes the fall.
“If you’re not well enough to go back to the case…”
“We have a great job opportunity for you.”
“It’s a Worker’s Comp thing…modified duty.”
“If the doctor says you’re anything less than totally disabled, we’re here for you.”
“It doesn’t sound like he’s completely disabled.”
“If you pass the drug test.”
“We’ll arrange for you to work in the office answering the phones.”
“Nine to five. Monday through Friday.”
“We’ll pay you eight dollars an hour.”
“Worker’s Comp will make up the difference with what you were making on the case.”
“If he qualifies for Worker’s Comp.”
“We’d love to have you here in the office.”
“You’ll be part of our team.”
“We’ll make any accommodations for your doctor visits.”
“If you’re authorized for doctor’s visits.”
“Who are you people?” I ask. “Have you ever seen the child I’m taking care? Do you know how filthy that house is?”
“You’d better go downtown to get drug tested,” a voice spits into my eye.
“The test’s got to be done within eight hours of the alleged incident.”
“Anything less than temporary disability, our expectation is that you will be here at 9 AM tomorrow.”
Now I know where the worms slithered to when the roughness of their tongues stopped licking the insides of my skull.
The voices scrape against my face like sandpaper, my left arm throbs at their every word, my fingers iced into submission before I put the whining receiver down.
The only thing left to do is to lift myself off the earth, to live in the sky.
I am a writer after all. I have a story to tell.
“How can I write if my fingers are numb?” I ask my ortho doc.
His grey hair is thick and unkempt, swirling around his head like the mist floating up Beachwood Drive to the Hollywood Sign at 6 AM.
“I’ll give you one of these shots every three months,” he says.
Syringe in hand, the ortho doc shuffles towards me, his gait as halting as the lost boy’s will be if Mother does not perform his leg exercises.
“Rheumatoid arthritis,” the ortho doc says.
His gnarled fingers inject milky white Cortisone into my left shoulder. Before he can dump the syringe into the sharps container, the ice buried deep in my bones and muscles has melted away, the numbness drips out of my fingers onto the pale brown tiles I stand on, my eyes staring at the opened Velcro straps of my savior’s scuffed black orthopedic shoes.
“It’s easier to walk this way,” the ortho doc says.
The tanned muscular arms of his assistant hand me my Worker’s Comp Patient Status Form, the words she has written on it spelling out my freedom: “The patient is on total disability until further notice.”
“Go to physical therapy, do your range of motion exercises,” the ortho doc says. “A frozen shoulder can hang around for months.”
“Be patient,” the assistant says.
“Would it be OK for me to write on my computer?”
“I don’t see why not,” the ortho doc answers.
The tightness which has held my body upright for the last two years floods out of the worn-down heels of my cowboy boots, my butt hitting the room’s round examining stool the way the dental student’s did when his spinning eyes saw the jig was up.
“From what you’ve told me about your job and the characters you’re working for, you need some time off. Go home, take it easy. Relax, Jake. I’ve got your back.”
“It’s like I’m Policewoman…on the roof on a building in Century City…you saved me right before the pimps threw me over.”
“Miss Dickinson, she’s the woman,” the ortho doc says.
The worms holed up in the agency on Magnolia Boulevard do not take my diagnosis well, their voices nibbling voraciously at my ear, trying to finagle me into slapping on a headset and pushing down their flashing hold buttons.
“I get it…I get why you’ve got a sink in every room,” I purr into the phone. “You guys need a place to sleep.”
“Forget the co-pays, I’ll tell the front desk not to charge you,” the doctor says.
I forgot they grew them like this.
My new doctor stands before me. Tall, brown hair brushing her shoulders with a Patty Duke 60s flip, grey pencil skirt, crisp blue cotton blouse, white pearls pulled snug around her long neck, her trimmed unpainted fingernails lie hidden in the pockets of her white lab coat.
“Your poverty diet cured your elevated blood pressure,” the doctor tells me. “If you think about it, you’re eating real healthy stuff.”
Wisps of smoke float past the thick glass of the narrow rectangular window behind the doctor. It is July, the summer fires of the City of the Angels are beginning, the dead quiet of my nights without Matt interrupted by the wail of fire trucks floating in though my open windows at 3 AM.
My blood pressure had clocked in at 100/60, its threat of stroking me out evaporating faster than the heartless facility with which I dumped my PPO insurance during this year’s open enrollment. Days before my new Kaiser membership card dropped out of my mailbox, the demands of my twisted gut, out of whack blood pressure and the continued swelling of my balls took my cowboy boots on a stroll through Hollywood to Kaiser Hospital, whose HMO tentacles continuously drop new buildings up and down Sunset Boulevard.
The doctor pulls her hands out of her pockets, the fingers of her right hand twisting her engagement ring into place.
“We’ll take care of you,” she says, shaking my hand and patting me on the back.
I head out into the smoke with the map she has given me, its blue Xs leading me to the GI doc on Edgemont Street and the surgeon a block down Sunset.
My trio of infirmities addressed by the healers on Sunset in two hours, the worn-out soles of my cowboy boots walk me home, my eyes staring at the hills to the north, their brown faces not yet burnt black, a Pepsi One drowning the grit in my throat, born of the tiny ashes swirling in the air, my fingers yearn for the keyboard, the heat of the Angels sending beads of sweat down my back, tickling me the way Matt did whenever he tried to wake me up at 7 AM to hike with him in the Bronson Caves.
“Did Matt…did Matt disappear for days on end when you two were friends in Los Angeles?” Matt’s mother asked me a few nights ago.
Her voice has a soft twang, a perfect compliment to her son’s baby blues and square jaw. She pronounces Los Angeles the old-fashioned way, Los Angle-Ease. I like her on the spot, the way I did her son, missing that evening from both of our lives.
“Well, sometimes I couldn’t find him for a day or two…maybe a week. And there was that time he visited you for a month when you had surgery.”
“I’ve never had surgery, except for birthing him.”
“Really? I watched his dog when he went up to Sacramento to take care of you.”
My fingers tap the yellow daisy decals on my tall glass of Pepsi One, the same glass into which I poured ice water to soothe the sudden tickle in the throat of Matt’s fiancee when she knocked on my door two years ago.
“You’re happy up there,” Matt had told me after watching me perform a monologue. “You’re comfortable, so at ease.”
“I tried to be his bud,” I say to Matt’s mother. “To make him comfortable in his skin.”
“The boy has spoken about you. He seems to like you, to trust you. If he comes back, will you talk to him?”
How could I not? Matt is my friend and I love him.
The silver tips of my cowboy boots lead me into the 99¢ Only Store on Sunset near Western Avenue for low blood pressure celebration treats, a can of stainless steel pot and pan cleanser and two bottles of Fast-Acting Antacid Supreme.
“You’ve got to keep your gut coated,” my new GI doc told me a few hours ago.
I sat before him in his small office, his thick fingers pulling the intestines out of the anatomical model standing brazenly on his cluttered desk, the smoke moving like clouds past the window above the doctor’s bald head, his slow deliberate voice explaining to me how the brown plaster of paris colon I held in my hands absorbs nutrients.
“Relax, exercise,” he says. “Have you thought about taking a vacation to relieve your stress?”
I laugh. A big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh.
“The gut is a hard thing to predict, what works for one person is poison to another.”
I forgot they grew them like this.
“Next, I suppose you’ll tell me it’s a Jewish thing.”
“Remember, no chocolate, no coffee,” the doctor’s medical assistant says.
“Very hard on our tummies,” the doctor says.
I am a writer, Doc, as long as the joe pulses through my blood, I have a tale tell.
The doctor’s medical assistant hands me a thick stack of printouts addressing diet and stress, the pharmacy supplementing this trove of useless information with yet more paper detailing the workings of the antispasmodic medications I have been prescribed.
Hands are shaken, backs are patted.
Down the street, Kaiser’s Outpatient Surgery Clinic schedules my ball surgery for six weeks out, their twenty dollar co-pay sucker punching the five grand Cedar-Sinai’s Outpatient Surgery Center demanded in an upfront, pre-surgery payment in full, their shameless demand for Benjamins leading me to believe that my own people are a tad, just a tad, money obsessed.
My balls are to be drained by a twenty-nine-year-old doctor from Pakistan.
At last, I have something of interest to talk about in tomorrow’s Gay Senior support group.
Last week, I spent my first hour in their circle trying not to cry, wanting to tell my older bros the tale of my medical tsuris, my eyes seeing the cool brown tiles my father lay on during a broiling Long Island summer, the cancer eating out past his intestines, latching onto more organs than the malignancy of Kaiser’s tentacles, who have greedily devoured the east end of Hollywood. My father was fifty-six when he lay on the tiles on his last Saturday afternoon in the ring, what remained of his body seeking cool comfort in our un-air-conditioned house. I am fifty-six, my insides eaten up with the fear pounding and twisting in my gut that my body has given up on me, that I am an old man, like the men who surround me every Friday morning to vent their spleens.
“I don’t understand why my house hasn’t sold yet,” a bro says.
As are many of these men, he was married in his younger days, the wives long discarded or recently dead, my bros, with fingers as arthritic as mine, logging on to SilverDaddies.com in the hope of making the connection.
“It’s been on the market for weeks, not one offer.”
I tell him about the New Depression.
Nothing, not a smile, not the blink of an eye, instead a long explanation about how his PSA reading remains low.
Odd, in that his prostate has been removed. Not a lucky man.
“I finally made out my will,” the next bro says.
A retired schoolteacher, as are many in the circle, he has taken out a second, or is it a third mortgage, to remodel his kitchen, buy a few flat screens and a leather couch, on which he plans to wait out what is left of his life.
“I left my house to my son.”
Odd, in that he has a reverse mortgage. Not a lucky man. Not a lucky son.
“I’m letting my nephew stay with me, he has no place else to go,” my rotund and furtive bro says.
Before we circled our chairs this morning, he stood in front of the brown wall of this tiny meeting room, an iPhone snapping wistful pics for his online profile.
“The boy is kind of a fuckup, but family is family.”
Odd, the boy is in his mid-thirties. Odder yet, the pursing of my bro’s lips, the sudden dullness of his eyes whenever he mentions said nephew.
“My husband is jealous of my lover,” the tattooed love bro says. “I was going to bring him to a party with us, but the hubby says he won’t go if I do.”
He and the hub stopped having sex years ago, right around the time the love bro started taking Klonopin to calm his Frances Farmer afflicted nerves.
Gotta watch the Klonies, the numbness they send through your blood is not anyone’s friend.
I have done stand-up in rooms more hostile than this one, I can speak to these men, they’re my bros after all.
“I was up all night thinking about my uncle Jack…he had a stroke when I was a little boy…I’m gonna end up like him…”
The twisting of my gut tells me not to mention my father, not to speak his name in this circle.
“I’m afraid…with my shoulder…all these things are wrong with me, I don’t know…”
Like the night I stood on the stage of the Comedy Store on Sunset, the room is quiet, the disinterested stare of the eight sets of eyes licking my face with the rough tongues of the worms slithering about in the sinks of my former employer.
“I don’t know how I’m going to make it when I start looking for work,” I say. “Going through all that crap to find a job again…I don’t know.”
The lead facilitator breaks the silence: “You’ve held up really well for your age. Why don’t you get a sugar daddy?”
“Are you for real?” I ask.
The coyness of his seventy-five-year-old smirk tells me he thinks I can earn some scratch off of what is left of my once pretty face and slender build.
“You’re an odd one for our group,” the co-facilitator says.
Odd, gay men always think I am odd.
The slight quiver of the co-facilitator’s brown eyes betrays his truth, that he will be planted in my seat in thirty years, the flutter of his fingers at his throat tells him that the sharp features of his handsome face will dull, the sweet smile of his thin lips will be history once life punches him in the gut a few times.
Best for the boy to sock me in the jaw before what has happened to the unlucky man infects him, infects all of the bros in the circle.
“You’re still viable, still out there,” his tense lips say. “I’ve seen it happen before. A guy your age loses a job or gets sick and the bottom drops out. I don’t know where guys like you go. There are no safety nets to catch you in the gay community.”
I smile. I nod my head.
I am a lonely writer, alive when my fingers tap out the tales, nothing touching my skin but the wail of the fire trucks in the dead quiet of 3 AM.
And the cries and whispers of the men who encircle me in this room, their Nikes and Gucci loafers firmly planted on earth, never once to fly above the red carpet below our feet, never once to get into the ring.
Lucky man, wherever my maladies take me, I will never get that old.
I might not be able to lift my left arm above my shoulder, but I know how to hit the keys to make the words fly.
I just know.
I have not been on earth for months. I sleep from 3 AM until noon, waking up to do my range of motion exercises before my fingers, no longer beating with the threat of icy numbness, blast out the notes Satchmo taught my father deep into the Hollywood night from the ring I have stepped into, sitting in front of the white screen of my computer at the Cafe Solar de Cahuenga, down the block from William Holden’s “Sunset Boulevard” crib, the Alto-Nido Apartments.
I hold my hands outwards, positioned over the keys at less than ninety degree angles, never for a second leaning my arms on the dark shiny wood of the table. I sit straight up in my seat, my feet on the red concrete floor, my soles touching the earth beneath me, my body feeling the heat baked into it from the City of the Angel’s cloudless summer sky, the dirt still warm from the days when it was walked on by the heavy boots of real cowboys, who made extra dough taking the fall for actors and actresses unable to tumble convincingly down a staircase or out of a gangster’s speeding getaway car.
My fingers tremble before the words come, before they run across the blank pages staring at me, their emptiness waiting impatiently for me to fill them up, the way I once sat at the Frolic Room’s bar, everything in me empty until the Absolut flew me to the sky.
I lean against my seat, it wooden slats welcoming my back, caressing this child of the New Depression, my eyes discreetly checking out the Highway Patrol cruiser on Cahuenga Boulevard, where it waits in the dark to hustle up some bucks for the City, the dark eyes of its movie star handsome Latino officers watching cars exit the 101, the unlucky Joes who miss the barely visible stop sign welcomed to Hollywood by the booming notes of money hungry sirens and the blinding flash of amber and blue lights.
The dry brown dirt below my feet was paved over by a restaurant in the 20s, the children of the Great Depression smoothing out the linen covering the tables, at which studio stars ate early dinners, before sleep and waking up at 5 AM to make their 6 AM calls, a waiter with an empty belly scraping the uneaten food off the bone white plates for a late night meal with the missus in their courtyard apartment off of La Brea. In the 30s, the flicker of neon painted the restaurant’s facade blue and yellow, the room’s long wooden bar once again allowed to serve drinks to the chosen ones, on who the City of the Angels smiled, allowing them to tell the tales once their hung over bodies were safely hidden from the bright morning light in huge stucco sound stages on Gower Street, under whose flattering light a hardscrabble dame from Brooklyn would be transformed with rouge, eyeliner and a lace dress into a Southern belle. A genuine mid-Western monosyllabic cowboy became, through the perfectly tailored fit of his tuxedo, a Master of the Universe, decades before any background artiste could suss out that the damage these Masters cause is more lethal than any black and white heart they ever broke. Audiences all over the globe waited in the dark to fly above the earth as our hero’s secretary melted the steel of her Master’s remote smirk down to his shy core. To tower over his woman, the cowboy stood on offscreen phone books, his eyes gazing at a secretary who had worked for him for years, a real peach he had, for some contrived reason, never noticed before. She was played with a sense of sass by a tall and elegant actress from Mexico, her name changed as she moved out of the shadows to supporting and starring roles, her dream inducing accent snatched from her vocal cords by a sad and nervous elocution teacher, who had escaped the Nazis a few months earlier.
If you are lucky, you can tell your stories.
With a few adjustments, anyone can.
I know my city, the City of the Angels, it is the place where the stories are told, where the pounding of fingers tells the tales, where an effeminate boy from East Meadow grows into a man who flies above Hollywood on the notes of his words. Since the night I took the fall, I have floated on the warmth of my City’s breath, my gut stilled by the swaying of the palm trees above me, my words making the connection, the caffeine flowing though my blood pushing me onward to tell my tale, a tale of the New Depression and a once lucky man.