“A Tale of the New Depression and a Once Lucky Man.”
A Memoir by Jake Epstine
My Eggs and Orange Juice Expire in Two Days.
I sit in the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard. I don’t want a drink, haven’t had one in nineteen years. I want to sit at a bar at 5 PM like I used to whenever things went south. Hunch over a drink. Listen to music. Smile at slack jawed faces. Look at the green caricatures on the wall.
Have I missed something? Have I not done something I should have? For weeks, I have been breaking out in a sweat at 3 AM as I watch over my patient. He sleeps quietly, smiles when I wake him to change his diaper.
I think back to the nights the bartender poured lighter fluid into the inset of the bar and dropped a lit match on it. Everyone screamed, smiled and drank. I look around for a friendly face. There isn’t one. The faces are tanked and tattered. I have not been here in almost two decades. The floor is dirty, its dull black plastic tiles covered with peanut shells, swizzle sticks, empty cigarette packs and candy bar wrappers. It couldn’t have been like this when I hung out here.
The iced Calistoga water I drink makes me want to pee, but the peanuts are good. And free. I look at the caricatures coated with dust, maybe one of them will talk to me. If she said “Hello,” I could tell the contorted face of Tallulah Bankhead that two days ago, at 10 AM, I was fourth in line at the First Presbyterian Church on Yucca Street in Hollywood.
Under a dark overcast sky, I wait for a bag of food, the breath of rain hovers in the cold air.
“Sit down here,” a man with urine stained pants says after opening the church’s locked courtyard gate for me. “Don’t trip out, they’ll give you something.”
Women with swollen ankles and heels in need of a Ped Egg speak Spanish. An elderly woman with a portable oxygen tank in her shopping cart smiles and nods her head “No” when I ask if she wants my seat. I sit and read “Tomorrow They Will Kiss,” a novel suggested to me by a Joe in my writing group.
“You should submit your stories to his agent,” he said. “Your styles are similar.”
No, don’t think so. Reading about how the gringos are the enemy doesn’t work for me, never did. I should have brought “The New York Times.”
A red faced, massively overweight woman in green stretch pants arrives to open the door and let us in. The faces around me whisper she is late. Eyes look up to heaven, feet in cheap shoes shift weight from side to side as several languages are spoken. All mouths smile when Stretch Pants picks out who she will see next. I stare at the bank of the 101 freeway across the street, trying to remember what my style is or what it was.
Stretch Pants takes me next to last.
“You make too much money to get food,” she says.
“My patient has been hospitalized and I haven’t worked in two weeks. I have no money for food.”
“Is his name Tom?”
“No, he’s a child, born prematurely eight years ago.”
“I’ll give you a bag for now. If you’re still out of work next month, come back.”
I buy a breakfast donut for a buck, taken from the five I have until…
Until I don’t know when.
I carry the heavy grocery bag home and, not wanting Stretch Pants to see my purchase, keep my head down as I walk along Franklin Avenue. She will not be hard to spot, her blonde hair is a literal bird’s nest.
My apartment is quiet and still at noon. It is cold, no sun today to stream in and warm it. I unload my goods. A dozen eggs and a large can of orange juice, both due to expire in two days. Small Crest toothpaste. Two significantly tiny sample jars of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard. Two cans of green beans. A rusted can of black eyed peas. A bag of brown rice. A box of Thai Delight loosely covered in cellophane. Three green tomatoes, determined to turn red any day now.
My mouth hurts.
I call Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s office to speak with his intern. I had asked the downtown courthouse to excuse me from jury duty due to financial hardship. No go. I do not meet their criteria for hardship. A day on jury duty means no money for food, gas and a bill or two. More than a day will eat into my rent money. Hopefully, the intern can help me. Yesterday, she was at lunch, then on a break and when I made my last call of the day, she had stepped away from her desk. Today, she’s called in sick. I used to have sick days. I went on vacations. I had a substantial savings account.
The tips of my fingers make small indentations on the bag of rice as I wait for the sun to come out and warm my hands.
Tallulah refuses to look my way.
I drink my second Calistoga water and, so as to not wake up the pain, carefully chew a few peanuts as if they held tiny cyanide capsules in their cores. My jaw holds my stress. Or did the dental student assigned to my case at UCLA mess it up?
The dental student, whose go-to line is: “You’ve let so many dentists work on your mouth, you’ve like developed serious mandibular problems.”
He repeats this whenever I say the word pain, none of his way cool babbling having anything to do with the fact that, a few months ago, he pried my mouth open for four hours to work on, as he calls them: “Your totally difficult teeth.”
My jaw has never been the same since. The pain, when not acute and nausea inducing, lies tapping at the roots of my rear molars. At my appointment this afternoon, I explained to the dental student how difficult it has been to concentrate, to care for my patient or to write and rehearse my monologues once the throbbing starts.
“I feel for you, bro. I’m on break starting tomorrow. I’ll be back in a few weeks.”
When the dental student thought a drop of my saliva had splashed in his eye, he, the supervising dentist and the clinic’s receptionist demanded I get an HIV test.
As we were waiting to have our blood drawn, the dental student said: “I’m not too worried. I’m sure you’re clean.”
“Yeah, my mouth is promiscuous. I’ve let my teeth be worked on my so many dentists.”
I should have said that. I didn’t, my twisted gut telling me it would slow the dental student down and he already works like he eats two Extra Strength Vicodins every four hours. His skin is so white any mention of a slutty mouth would not only turn it translucent, it would put a wrench in his attempts to carry out the treatment plan he had come up with for me, which called for replacing three crowns and doing five fillings. For that, my dentist on Wilshire Boulevard wanted more than three thousand dollars over what my insurance covered. UCLA charges less than half of what my dentist does. Eighteen months later, after the weekly three hour, if I’m lucky, round trip bus ride, taken to escape the $9.00 UCLA parking fee, the dental student still has to do the final filling, replace the last planned crown and get to work on a crown which cracked the week before.
“Oops,” the dental student’s blue eyes said a few hours ago as he removed the last crown, its underlying tooth suddenly beyond repair and in need of either a bridge or any number of 2K at a pop implants.
I look into his spinning eyes and ask: “Do you think if we’d looked at this tooth a year and a half ago we could have saved it?”
“Did you know that we get less patients now?” he answers. “Even with our discounted rates, they can’t afford it. I’m blessed. I can ride the recession out going to school.”
The dental student opens my mouth again and pushes my jaw to the left for three hours. I try to go over plot problems in my novel.
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.
“Hungry, darling?” the theatrical arch of Tallulah’s eyebrows snickers as I leave the Frolic Room.
In my drinking days, after closing a dump like the Frolic Room, I would come to in the AM and order a pizza, down a few liters of Diet Cherry Pepsi. Tomorrow, I will drink tap water and bite into a hopefully ripe tomato.
I head up Hollywood Boulevard to home with the same distracted gait Gena Rowlands walked it thirty-five years ago, she a woman under the influence, me a once lucky man whose jaw belts him a good one for spending his emergency money on water which allegedly sparkles in even the gloomiest of bars.
The much handled bag of brown rice Stretch Pants gave me resembling one of Pamela Anderson’s implants after a heavy date, my cold hands touch the goodies sitting on the faded white paper lining my kitchen shelves. Rusted can thrown into the trash, I take my own Extra Strength Vicodin to numb my whore of a mouth. Drifting in and out of sleep on my couch, I watch Michelle Obama walk the CNN, MSNBC and Fox red carpet. One of her J. Crew dresses could pay for groceries for a month. Her Jason Wu ensemble would cover my rent for a few months. If I could just have a month or two for myself, I could finish my novel. I put my pitchfork down and sleep through until the next day’s outing to the SOVA food pantry, recommended to me by a raspy voiced social worker at Jewish Family Services.
I awake to a Vicodin hangover, my eyelids unable to blink, my pupils, hypnotized by the emptiness in my belly, stare at the clear glass of the tiny Grey Poupon jars.
Five years ago, I worked fewer hours at one job and made twice as much as I do today working a full-time and a part-time job.
A heavy duty shot of novocaine and the dental student’s Vicodin regime can not touch that pain.
Here’s the Skinny.
I don’t know if this is a correction, a recession, a depression or a meltdown. I know that for me, it’s been bad since the spring of 2007. I was at the end of having taken two years off from nursing. I did not stop working, I entered into a new kind of work, something which came out of me, work which was mine. I wrote for eight to ten hours a day. A literary magazine had published one of my short stories. I was halfway through a film noir screenplay. I had sent out query letters with copies of my short stories to over one hundred literary agents. I was sure to get representation. My writing mentor told me I would be snapped right up. I had done the lead role in a truly awful play, in which I not only remembered, but gave subtle shades of meaning to every one of its tongue twisting lines. I was being asked to give readings of my stories, perform monologues and do stand up a few times a month, in venues where the audience paid admission.
“I felt you up there, man.” John Fante’s son told me. “I felt your insides.”
I had just walked off stage, having told the tale of the short life and pathetic death of one of my patients at San Francisco General Hospital. Fante is one of my writing Gods, meeting his son was like dark chocolate slowly dissolving in my mouth, the way the last breath of my patient had lingered on the skin of the audience in front of me, all of us wanting to hold this lonely man in our arms, stroking his hair and watching him smile with the realization that his loneliness was about to end.
I was who I had imagined myself to be before I fell asleep at night. The palm trees of the City of the Angels watched over me, the shade from their swaying green fronds telling me there was a life beyond lighting Yahrzeit candles for homeless young drug addicts. I knew who I was, my two year sabbatical from the antiseptic sterility of nursing had almost paid off.
Almost, but not quite.
That spring, a producer, the husband of a friend, asked me to write a spec script based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ “The Greek Passion.” His producing career consisted of a 70s exploitation movie, but he was a bit player in “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis,” staring my teenage crush, Helmut Berger, so I deemed him to be a good guy. This was my break. I could smell what my life was about to become.
Things went the other way.
Dreaming up dialogue to replaceKazantzakis’ stilted lines while ignoring the crawl through traffic on the 101, my bare foot floored the gas when I hit the deserted Vine Street off-ramp at the very moment the muffler fell out from under my car, followed, five minutes later, by the radiator inexplicably cracking down its center as my numb hands glided, as if by rote, my red 69 Chevy Malibu into my apartment building’s parking space.
I practice the one benefit being an adult child of an alcoholic has given me. I deny the fact that a month ago I spent the last three thousand dollars I had rebuilding my car’s engine and transmission. My fingertips pounding with fear, I call the mechanic, who informs me in an ominously deep voice that the muffler and radiator are not part of the warranty. I charge the repairs. Through an agent, I am sure to receive an advance from a publishing house. I truly believed that would happen.
While my car is being brought back to life in the outer reaches of Glendale, I write a beautifully cinematic opening sequence set in a high school swimming pool, from where terrified students watch Communist Partisans round up their teachers. In an homage to my father, I punch Kazantzakis’ anti-Semitism by setting the film in 1950s Poland, using the killing of Polish Jews by their neighbors as a major plot point.
Again employing my adult child skills, I ignore the gut pain I have begun to wake up with every morning. I drink huge cups of coffee to purge what feels like concrete encircling my intestines. I am a nurse, a practitioner of the healing arts who should know better. When the pain arrives at my house, I forget the logic and knowledge I impart to both friends and patients.
I have no money to buy food with. I charge my groceries. I charge gasoline. I charge coffee. I charge Tums. The screenplay will net me a few thousand. I truly believed that this too would happen.
“Keep working on the script, it’s great, you’re an amazing writer,” my straight boyfriend tells me with a voice as deep as my mechanic’s.
It is possible the boyfriend is doing more than humoring me. He used to be an agent with William Morris, dealing twenty-four-seven with not only the never ending meshugas of once committed actresses transformed by the City of the Angels into clavicle baring starlets, but also the demands of monosyllabic actors whose cheekbones even Larry King would swoon over.
At bedtime the boyfriend gives me his Viagra, whispering “Show me who’s boss,” in a voice turned as breathy as Chet Baker’s.
“I’m going to find you a lawyer to negotiate your deal,” the boyfriend says after I have bossed him around for a good hour.
When we wake up, we exchange stomach pills. He may be straight, but we share the same afflictions.
“Do you know what an honor it is to adapt a Kazantzakis novel?” my producer asks.
I am three unpaid months into working on the script and have just told him I need up front money to keep going. I have received eighty responses from the agents. Two want to see additional stories. Several have written notes telling me they enjoyed my work. The rest are form letters thanking me for submitting. No one is biting. I am in debt. Nothing is left in either my checking or savings accounts. I have paid the rent with credit card checks. Every time I start my car, I fear which essential part will fall off next. My gut keeps me awake throughout the night. The boyfriend and I exchange more medications. Nothing works for either of us. I charge a few hundred in co-pays and deductibles to find out I do not have the ulcer causing Helicobacter pylori bacteria brewing in my stomach. The Gastroenterologist is stumped. Do yoga, relax, take a vacation he advises me. Tough it out, I think. I truly believed I would feel better. As soon as I got some money coming in.
“Have you gotten the rights from the Kazantzakis family for this adaptation?” I answer the producer as our cell phones hiss in the quiet heat of a Los Angeles morning.
He stops his incessant yammering about creating a sequence in which Russian Soldiers smash a baby against a stone wall.
“I can go to the Golden Globe’s office right now and find someone who would be happy to write this script. Everyone is out for a buck in this town,” he says after a minute of silence.
I tell him the sound he hears in the background is his script being fed into my shredder.
Here’s the skinny. In 2005, I retired from a seven year stretch at San Francisco General Hospital and moved back to Los Angeles. I became a lucky man. With a small pension, health insurance and the proceeds from my overpriced condo, I was able to take two years off. I sat myself down to write at a table with no boundaries, clocks or rules. I have worked hard. I have found my voice. My fingers pound my stories into the keyboard, while I fly as if I was barreling at eighty miles per down the 101 at 2 AM. Time means nothing to me anymore. As long as I can write, my life makes sense.
The producer might have screwed me, but at least I didn’t give him the boyfriend’s Viagra to do the deed with. I have owed money before. I understand that now I must sit at a table with nurses, where as always, not one of them wants to be there. A few twelve hour shifts a week and I will be flush.
“Write in the small cracks of time you have,” my writing mentor tells me when I whisper my fear that my flying days are over.
It is hard to hear him. The morning pain has not yet left me. The money I owe and the money I need tighten their fingers around my neck.
I always thought I was a lucky man.
Chapter 3/ 2007
“I’m the one who’s going to make your life miserable.”
My refrigerator and bank account laid bare weeks earlier, my empty belly pounding and my straight boyfriend sent home smiling at dawn with his half full bottle of Viagra, I begin the job search.
Within a week of posting my resume, Monster.com brings me luck, I have two jobs. As an underwriting assessor for an insurance outfit whose corporate office is nestled on the flat plains of the Midwest, I sit in the well appointed living rooms of people applying for long term care insurance, asking them fifteen pages worth of questions. In less than one hour, they seal their fate in the actuarial world and I get fifty bucks. One hundred to determine if current insureds remain sufficiently disabled to continue receiving their benefits for the next calendar year. All I need is a job to cover the rent.
The rent job comes my way a few days later, thanks to a nursing agency located on a stretch of Sunset Boulevard populated by out of business storefronts. On a muggy weekday morning, I enter their office where, on a stained dull green carpet, I find young men in ties eating junk food as they troll the internet for unsuspecting prey. The one who reeled me in silently makes copies of my Social Security card, nursing license, CPR card, driver’s license and car insurance. When his more talkative colleague quotes me a salary I made fifteen years ago, I head to the door. He ups it to what I made ten years ago. I’m broke. I owe ten thousand dollars to Citibank. No one here has the smarts to ask about the two year gap in my resume.
I meet with the Nursing Supervisor in the break room, its fluorescent lights shining down on banged up wooden tables, bent out of shape metal chairs and a filthy microwave, its clock blinking “Remove and let stand covered before eating.” The black roots of the Nursing Supervisor’s blonde hair run an inch deep out of her scalp, her lined cheekbones are unevenly slathered red with rouge.
Gravity pulls the Nursing Supervisor and her un-ironed denim jacket into a chair from which she says: “I’m the one who’s going to make your life miserable.”
I look at her. Sixty silent seconds pass. My gut twists. She smiles.
“I didn’t come here for this type of stuff,” I say.
Unable to focus her eyes, she flips through my paperwork, gets up and says: “See what the type of work the staffing co-ordinator can dig up for you.”
I never see the Nursing Supervisor again.
The co-ordinator assigns me to weekend day shifts for a professor with Lou Gehrig’s disease.
On the first morning of the case, I wake up to the sensation of broken glass being scraped across my intestines. I take an anti-spasmodic and head out to the flats of West Hollywood.
“He has Lou Gehrig’s lite,” the patient’s wife says. “We’re waiting for him to turn the corner and come back.”
“Really,” I respond.
What else could I say?
The professor is over six feet tall, the hair on his chest and legs has turned white, his skin is greasy and mottled. The only muscle he can move is attached to his right eyeball, its yellowed cornea painfully moves up for “yes” and down for “no.” The ventilator at the professor’s bedside pushes air in and out of his lungs. A catheter bag collecting dark orange urine is strung by a rubber-band off the end of the bed frame. The professor is lying naked on a hospital bed a foot from his curtain deprived first floor window, from which I can see my red 69 Chevy Malibu gleaming in the sun, its ruby sheen hypnotizing Latino day laborers as they stare at my car from the open bed of the pickup truck transporting them to the job site across the street.
“His thyroid and parathyroid hormone levels do not correlate in any way to full blown Lou Gehrig’s,” the wife says. “He really doesn’t have it.”
And I don’t want to live in the Hollywood Hills with a scruffy unproduced screenwriter, who lovingly slums it as the showrunner for my edgy HBO sitcom.
An empty white wine bottle and a long stemmed glass sit on top of the professor’s ventilator. The smell of alcohol floats out of his wife’s mouth, she unfailingly emits this sour bouquet whenever she admits me into her home or barks orders at me.
“Any idiot can work this machine,” the wife says as she removes the wine bottle and glass from the top of the dust encrusted ventilator.
“I’m a little uncomfortable with him like this,” I say.
“That’s how I want him.”
“Want to cover up a bit?” I ask the professor.
The professor’s eye does not move. His wife tells me to disimpact him of stool and then bathe him. Easy for her to say, her man is over two hundred pounds of naked dead weight. The wife leaves the room when I ask for help turning him. The ventilator rhythmically cycles as I clean the professor up, my gut screaming out the same song as the muscles of my back and legs, but all I can hear is the muffler falling off of my car on the 101.
“Put him on the Hoyer lift, place the vent on the platform of the Hoyer and push him into the living room,” the wife says.
She checks the bedpan to see how much stool I have retrieved and, without washing her hands, picks my jacket and backpack up off of the couch and places them in the hall closet. It’s at least one hundred feet from the professor’s bedroom to the living room, bare hardwood floors running the entire length. Most likely, nothing will go wrong. I owe Citibank ten thousand dollars. I want to buy groceries with cash this week. My stomach punches wildly. The glass washes over my intestines. I’ll do anything.
“You’re gonna have to help me on that one,” I say. “If the Hoyer tips over, he’ll break a hip for sure.”
“The other nurse does it herself.”
“I’m not the other nurse.”
“You certainly aren’t.”
The wife walks into her bedroom to Google Lou Gehrig’s lite. The professor remains in bed.
I last three weekends, arriving promptly at seven in the morning, inhaling the wife’s foul breath and finding my patient naked, always naked, goosebumps covering his immovable body. By ten, the professor is bathed, his meds and feeding infused, his morning physical therapy performed. I cover his body with a white sheet and tune the television to a basketball game, which he watches without sound. His wife doesn’t like basketball and refuses to let her beloved husband–the man she claims she is fighting for with every cell in her body–watch it or any sports related program. The professor’s right eye aimed at the television, I sit at his bedside, holding his hand and reading “The New York Times.” The house is quiet, the professor and I can hear the refrigerator as it alternately hums and clangs in the kitchen. The house’s stillness leads me to believe this job will work out. For the first time in weeks, I think about the trajectory of the next story I want to write. At last, an idea, a line of dialogue, a character’s secret are waiting for my fingertips to type into the keyboard.
“Why the Hell are you doing that?” the wife screams, her voice bouncing off the cracks in the stucco walls of her faux Spanish Mission hacienda.
“I’m administering his scheduled respiratory treatment.”
I point to the treatment sheet in the professor’s chart.
“I don’t read those things. They’re all bull. Stop it now…and turn that television off.”
Her face is flushed, fat bounces under her dirty pink tracksuit, her red eyes watch as I look at the shaking jello of her body.
“I’m a crone, but you’ll do what I say.”
I stare at her. She is a crone, raging, mean and ugly. Her bone structure tells me she was once pretty. Her good life is over. So is mine, but I don’t quite know it yet.
“We could have been friends,” I say.
“I never saw that happening.”
I drive home throwing the weight of the wine drinking professor’s wife off of my back. I figure I can make my rent money spending afternoons in the thick walled mansions of Pasadena, San Marino and Beverly Hills, quietly interviewing millionaires for long term care insurance as they offer me water served in heavy crystal goblets, a set of which would cover my rent for a few months. The applicants are nice men and women. I am a friendly assessor. I don’t have what they have. And they can smell it on me, like the odor of sweat coming off the suits I wear to their homes which, no matter how frugally I spend my money, I can not afford to take to the cleaners. I am lucky if I am assigned four interviews a month.
If one believes my muffler falling off on the 101 was the inciting incident, then surely I have now moved into the shank of my story. The part where the protagonist holds his breath until life turns the corner and goes the other way. The part where the piles of unread books, “Interview,” “Vanity Fair” and “Entertainment Weekly” magazines and the “Calendar,” “Magazine” and “Book Review” sections of “The New York Times” stack up on my dining room table, poignantly signifying the fact that I do not read anymore, that I am no longer connected to the worlds weighing my table down. My gut lashes out at me from morning until bedtime. Instead of dreaming up character quirks and plot twists, I figure out ways to shift my 10K debt around. At eight every night, I crawl under the covers and stare at the front page of “The New York Times,” my eyes closing before I get to the obituaries or Maureen Dowd. I sleep more than I ever have, from eight at night until ten or eleven in the morning. At noon, I drink coffee to push the pain out of me.
I wait to be a lucky man again.
Chapter 4/ 2007
“We take swollen testicles very seriously here.”
The City of the Angels has been good to me, the heavy arms of its warm summer air always around my shoulders, its long fingers holding my hand as we walk the perimeter of the Hollywood Reservoir at high noon. The twigs crumble beneath my cowboy boots, my eyes hypnotized by the light being sucked into the water rhythmically caressing the shore. Like the heels of my boots pushing the whimpering pebbles beneath them into the dry trails of the Reservoir, this pale and anxious Jew from New York can breathe out everything holding me down, can sucker punch every “no” thrown my way. After my walk, or on days when the rains have flooded the Reservoir’s perimeter with mud, the Angels immerse me in the hot water of my shower and bathtub. The back of my head lying against an oblong foam pad, purchased for a discounted $2.99 at Bed Bath & Beyond, my ears swallow Billie Holiday on dark unpublished writer days or Julie London on trouble with the straight boyfriend days. I sink up to my neck in the hot water, a thin stick of pomegranate incense burns the air with its smoke. I smile with the knowledge that, contrary to the protestations of the members of my writing group, I do surrender to things, as long they cover me in a warmth as powerful as an Extra-Strength Vicodin or wrap their arms and legs around me, the way the boyfriend does after one of our Viagra enhanced workouts.
Nothing can touch me in the hot water or on my walks around the Reservoir. I have always been lucky that way.
A week after leaving the crone and the professor, I stood in the shower, my eyes smiling at the warmth of its salmon and pink tiles, my fingers washing my balls, thinking, as I sometimes do when soaping up the jewels, of the boyfriend seated at his glass topped desk a few miles away, my eyes watching his fingers press the buttons on his phone’s console with the same determination he uses to unbutton my shirt while whispering like Miss London singing “Black Coffee:” “You’re my best bud…you’re the one.”
The shower’s water hit me hard, pounding its fists into my back. My stomach churned, I hadn’t done all I wanted to do with my life. My gut twisted in upon itself, my intestines tightening and quivering as the water beat angrily against my naked body. It was too late, everything I have not yet experienced washed itself down the drain. Since the night before, my right testicle had quadrupled in size, its swollen mass as hard as a rock. I have been a nurse for thirty years. My life as I knew it was over.
Three hours later, my doctor tried to determine how extensive the hernia was by attempting to maneuver his fingers up into my scrotum. He stopped when I told him I was going to hurl on to his thick black hair and Oliver Peoples glasses.
“I can send you to the ER at Cedars and they can operate tonight,” he said. “Unless you’ve eaten earlier.”
Damn the tuna fish sandwich I had for lunch. I proceeded to the twenty-four hour CVS on Sunset and Fairfax, picked up my Vicodins and went home. Ever since my shower, the pain had become a river of red-hot iron traveling up and down the length of my lymph nodes, it’s ferociousness bringing me to tears quicker than Gena Rowlands’ mad scenes in “A Woman Under the Influence.”
I call all the surgeons on my insurance plan, but the best I can do is book an appointment two weeks away. Telling them I am a nurse seems to push the available appointments three or four weeks into the future.
“Don’t you dare work,” my doctor tells me when I inform him about the wait for surgical intervention. “You can really mess yourself up.”
In a narcotic haze, I lay in the tub reading biographies of Kim Stanley, Louise Brooks and Tuesday Weld. I do not think about money, about what all this is costing me. Lucky me, I know that when the surgeon goes in, it will be more than a hernia.
“We called your insurance company and your deductible hasn’t been met…we’ll need two hundred and fifty dollars.”
The receptionist is white, young, chubby and unable to make eye contact, in spite of her heavy green eye makeup.
“Thanks for asking me how I feel. The pain is real bad right now. How long is the wait for the doctor?”
“How will you be paying your fee today?”
“I met my deductible at my doctor’s office two weeks ago.”
The receptionist’s pupils dilate.
“Not according to the computer,” she says. “If you’re right, we’ll apply your payment to your co-pay.”
My balls are killing me. It’s like a cold hand which, when not squeezing the right one, pulls and twists the left one. No empty seats in the waiting room. I didn’t dare take a Vicodin because I had to drive to the surgeon’s office. I give the receptionist my credit card. I stand for an hour, then sit for another before I see the surgeon. The cold hand will not let up on me, not for a second.
“I don’t know what that is, but it’s not a hernia,” the surgeon says.
Tell me something I don’t know.
The surgeon sends me to a urologist a few floors below. The office takes me right away, no waiting, no requests for a credit card. I must have dome something to please the Nursing Gods.
“We take swollen testicles very seriously here,” the medical assistant tells me.
Younger than the surgeon’s receptionist, she has curly brown hair and a gleaming engagement ring on her finger. Her sweet just graduated from high school voice stills my gut.
“It’s a hydrocele,” the urologist says.
His olive hands draw two testicles on the white paper of the examining table. His lab coat must be new, it is the whitest one I have ever seen.
“Totally benign. We’ll get the swelling down with antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. If it doesn’t return to normal we can drain it across the street at Outpatient Surgery.”
I look at his teeth, glowing whiter than his lab coat.
“Don’t work until it goes down,” the urologist commands me. “We don’t want to jiggle anything around.”
It had better go down. When I had a small cyst at the base of my finger removed, my HMO, Health Net, charged Outpatient Surgery at Cedars-Sinai twelve thousand dollars. Frustrated with having to call Health Net to argue about getting every Ativan prescription and Azithromycin pack filled, I had changed my insurance to a PPO. Their two hundred and fifty dollar deductible is bad enough. I learned from the colonoscopy how scary the twenty percent co-pays are.
Lucky man that I am, I never get sick. At least not until I got an 80/20 health insurance plan.
For the next two weeks, I eat Vicodins, soak in the bathtub to reduce the swelling and read the plays of Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill and William Inge, interspersed with the autobiographies of Jane Fonda and Colleen Dewhurst. For reasons I try to ignore, the boyfriend comes over daily and, within ten minutes of his arrival, manages to look lovingly at my huge balls as his left hand searches in his pocket for a Viagra to gently place in my mouth. After I’ve shown him who’s boss, he holds me tight, asking in a suddenly deep voice how my writing is going. I do not answer. I adjust my balls, bite his ear, close my eyes and fall asleep.
The swelling goes down. The hardness softens. The boyfriend does not come around as often. He says he is consumed with work. Thing is, we know we love each other. No matter how much time we spend together or apart, we can not say the words. We both have our reasons. The surgeon’s office begrudgingly agrees that I did not have to pay them the two hundred and fifty. They want to hold on to it for when I have hernia surgery.
“After the treatment I got in your office, I wouldn’t let that guy touch me if he threw in a face lift guaranteed to make me look like Emile Hirsch.”
Time to begin the job search. Again.
I leave the credit card bills on the table by my front door for a week or two before opening them. I draw a bath. I have not written since the agency sent me to the crone’s. I boil water in shining stainless steel pots on my stove, pouring their contents into the steaming water of my bathtub, which is never sufficiently hot, leaving me unable to get enough heat into me. Billie and Julie sing their blues, but like the heat, their voices have stopped seeping into my bones. I can not seem to let go and fly. The bills, the elusive boyfriend, the pain undeterred by Vicodin, the money I have charged in the past month and the steady job I do not have keep me stalled on the runway.
There are no arms on my shoulders, no legs wrapped around me.
I can not feel any warmth, anywhere.
Chapter 5/ 2007
I am Introduced to a Valuable Nursing Skill: How to Place a Plastic Bag in a Trash Can.
Much to the displeasure of the straight boyfriend, my balls have shrunk to their normal size. The bottle of Vicodins waits on the shelf of my medicine cabinet should the balls swell up again and bring the nausea inducing pain back. I have charged the month off work to credit cards, covering their unyielding demands for minimum payments with the scratch I make doing insurance interviews. A few twelve hour shifts a week and I can start paying the principal down. The realization that–on top riding the perfect storm of having to shell out more for groceries, bills, gas, car repairs, co-pays and deductibles–my rent was just raised causes my intestines to coil into knots which only hours of sleep can unwind.
I am assigned by the agency on Sunset to weekend shifts caring for another man with Lou Gehrig’s. Driving to the case for my first shift, I get lost in Century City and use the last of my cell phone minutes to call for directions. A voice mail recorded before my patient was trached and put on the ventilator picks up, a deep languid voice with a hint of the bad boy insists I leave a message.
My patient’s exhausted wife opens the glowing yellow door to their home. She is in her early thirties, dark eyes, long stringy hair, skinny, haggard but stunning, nevertheless. Pottery Barn and Bombay Furniture have colonized the young couple’s living room, kitchen, den and bedrooms. Bits of Crate and Barrel are scattered throughout, interspersed with hints of Target and Pier One. Each room’s walls are painted a different shade of hunger inducing chocolate.
“My fear is his trach will come out when the dog jumps up on the bed,” the wife tells me as she staggers down a hallway whose darkness makes me feel like I am sliding down the descending colon of Nursing Hell. “Sometimes, the alarm doesn’t go off when the trach disconnects.”
The wife brings me into the den, turns on the miniature flat screen and hands me a notebook, between whose sea foam green covers lie her profoundly thought out and lovingly researched treatise on life amidst the chocolate walls with her hedge fund manager husband. It is like reading “The Secret” for people who can no longer manipulate the financial markets. Each laminated page is illustrated with brilliant sunsets or melancholy half-moons. The wife postulates that caring for her husband will transform his caretakers into spiritually connected human beings, glowing with a vitality whose lightness will bounce off the shadowy walls. I read about how tending to this master of the universe will teach me what love is. I knew what love was when I sat up until dawn with my own friends as they lay dying. I am fifty-five, but I still have that to give. All the love buzzing around Century City can not explain why, for the past year, the wife has been unable to fill the weekend shifts.
Like a silent submarine, the happy couple’s bone white Akita enters the room and devours my morning yogurt in one wet swallow.
“Why do you keep coming in here?” the wife asks.
She is sleeping on a small bed next to her husband, who is on a queen sized bed, propped up on two pillows. As with the professor, the only functioning muscles left in the bad boy’s mid-thirties body are attached to his eye balls. To the right is “Yes.” To the left “No.” Bad boy’s massively bloated gut is dripping a thin orange fluid onto the flannel Bed Bath & Beyond sheets, the veins beneath the stretch marks on his abdomen are swollen blue with anger. If the Akita hits the bed, I fear my patient’s body will explode. In my thirty years of nursing, I have never seen anything like this.
“I like to check every fifteen minutes to make sure the dog didn’t mess anything up,” I tell the wife. “He ate my breakfast so quickly.”
“He’ll do that. Don’t come in here for anything until we’re both awake.”
The wife does not open her eyes when she talks to me.
“Don’t ever come in here without Purelling your hands,” she says.
“Got it,” I respond.
Her husband’s yellow waxy skin is not covered with a sheet or blanket, but at least he has his tighty whities on.
A caretaker, who I’ve been told by my denim jacketed Nursing Supervisor is supposed to assist me, arrives at noon. He is late. He never once arrives on time. The still sleeping couple hired him off of Craigslist to help out before the paralysis, trach, G tube and vent came on board. Before he came into this home, the caretaker had no patient care training under his thick leather belt, no experience caring for anyone, not even a boundary challenged Akita.
“How about you and his wife orient me this weekend?” I ask the caretaker. “It’ll be great to have someone to work with…so much easier to move a man like him around.”
“It’s all about taking care of him,” the caretaker says. “It’s been so hard to find a nurse who fits in here.”
Blonde, blue eyes, tanned skin, pale pink lips. I have trouble looking at the caretaker at first. Good health, strength and defined muscles breathe through his jeans and V neck tee shirt.
Then the caretaker opens his mouth. He opens his mouth a lot.
“You Americans are so lazy,” he says after eating his breakfast at 1 PM.
He follows this statement with his afternoon nap.
“You Americans are so shallow,” he whines after discovering the wife has not TIVOd that week’s “American Idol” for him.
“You Americans are so devious,” he says, sucking on a big red strawberry.
The caretaker is as easy to read as the wife’s Oprah inspired musings, his story is that he was brought to California by an American woman he hooked up with in Europe. His plan is to move back home after he completes his studies as a Doctor of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine. The next day I suss out he is planning to skip out on both his hookup and the student loans financing his education.
The caretaker has many questions.
He starts asking them on day two: “Why do you ask him if he wants a pain med before you give it?” “Why ask if the pain med worked?” “Why do you tell him what you’re doing before you do it?” “Why do you look him in the eyes when you talk to him?” “Why do you ask him if he likes the music playing in his room or what’s on the television?”
I have my own question. On both days, I have watched the caretaker shoot, in rapid succession, two cups of hot coffee, two glasses of ice water and a nutrition shake into our patient’s G tube with a pistol syringe. The caretaker accomplishes this in less than two minutes.
“Let me understand this,” I begin. “You jam this stuff into his stomach even though he can’t taste any of it?”
“That’s the morning routine,” the caretaker answers.
My gut twists, but I do not volunteer that it is late afternoon on what had been a cobalt blue sky day in the City of the Angels.
“What do you mean he can’t taste it?” the wife asks.
“Your husband’s taste buds are in his mouth, not his stomach. All he’s getting is a feeling of fullness and the sensation of hot and cold. Could explain why he’s bloated and passing so much gas.”
“He can’t taste it, he can’t taste it,” the wife repeats.
The wife looks at the caretaker, her eyes tearing up. The caretaker Purells his hands and notes the shake on the flow sheet taped to the bedroom door. I add the coffee and water and initial that he administered all three.
I Purell my hands and announce to my audience: “This sheet is a great tool for us. Since we’re all working together, let’s each write down what goes into him. That way he won’t get something twice. I’m real old school with this type of thing.”
The wife and caretaker stare at me. Their eyes, which soon stop looking into mine, blink uncontrollably.
My gut quiets down as I continue: “I’ve noticed that his narcotics and tranquilizers are being given quite frequently…and way too close together. This sheet can help us keep on top of his meds, we wouldn’t want to overmedicate him.”
The wife grabs the half full Purell bottle.
“That’s what happens when you have a Virgo in the house,” I say to the wife as she massages the clear goo into her hands so vigorously her huge diamond engagement ring cuts into her palm.
Later that afternoon, the caretaker asks me another question: “Have you ever been to my country?”
He has tuned in yet another program on the flat screen without asking me if I want to watch it. Which is fine, I did not come into this house to watch television.
“I kind of avoid Germany when I’m in Europe,” I answer. “Most of my family was killed in Bergen-Belsen.”
The soon-to-be pin puncturing doctor catches on quick.
On the Saturday of my second weekend on board the Lou Gehrig love express, the caretaker arrives at two in the afternoon and reads the flow sheet before eating his strawberries or changing the channel on the flat screen. Without taking a break to eat fruit, watch television, drink coffee or take a nap, I have completed the entire day’s work by nine in the morning. The caretaker stops smiling, but he does not stop talking about the deficiencies he observes in every American he encounters. He rambles on and on about how “You guys” expect so much without being willing to work for it. After his nap on Sunday, the caretaker, the wife and I sit at the kitchen table perusing the Sunday papers. The caretaker Purells his hands and makes coffee. He and the wife drink from their steaming mugs without asking if I want one. I don’t.
For the next three weekends, every time I get up from the couch and move in the direction of either the kitchen or bedroom, the caretaker glides past me with the agility of Roger Federer running to lob a ball over the net, always making it to the kitchen before I do, where he proceeds to prepare the next scheduled medication or feeding.
“I’ve been assigned here to do certain nursing tasks…sit down, relax…there’s more than enough work here for the two of us,” I tell the caretaker at least once a shift.
He eyes flash light. He Purells his hands and eats any variety of fresh fruit. He never answers me.
I bypass the Nursing Supervisor and call the head of the agency to get advice on how to deal with the caretaker.
“Observe and record,” she says.
“Isn’t this against the law? Him handing out narcotics?”
“We don’t want to upset the way their household functions,” she answers.
She puts me on hold. After a ten minute loop of Nazi composer Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” I hang up.
I ask the wife what I am supposed to be doing in her home. She Purells her hands, reloads the CD player and smiles.
“You’re my right hand guy,” she answers.
I would not want to be either of her hands. Every afternoon, she and the caretaker hoist her naked husband up on the Hoyer lift. She positions herself below her husband and, with her bare unPurelled hands, disimpacts him of large amounts of stool. The wife does this every afternoon for a half-hour to an hour, as Elliott Smith and John Mayer sing heartbreaking ballads from the bedroom speakers.
I watch in silence, thinking: “Wait till the boyfriend, with his various anal issues, hears this one.”
Knowing in my gut that I am nearing the end of my run walking the intestine like hallways and tired of watching the wife’s knuckles going into her husband, I move into the den to sit on the couch. I wait to feel the breeze blow on my shoulders. The curtains covering the open sliding glass door a few feet away move gently as the air hits them, it has been weeks since the air touched my skin. The Akita slides in and eats the caretaker’s strawberries and melon slices. I should laugh, but my gut will not let me. I can not react to anything the way I did a month or two ago. I have not thought about writing since escaping the crone and becoming trapped between the pages of the wife’s sea foam green notebook. The air of the City of the Angels refuses to caress me. I want that more than the straight boyfriend’s lips on my neck.
Lucky man, the rent is getting paid, I’m buying healthy food.
On my last weekend of the bare knuckle vaudeville show, the night nurse informs the caretaker that I have been documenting on both the nurse’s notes and the medication sheets that he is giving the meds and doing the treatments. Awakening from his after lunch nap, his sensual lips ask me why.
“You’re talking to me today? Shocker. Your story is that you’re in acupuncture school? You must have some sense you’re breaking the law administering big time narcotics without a license. Bottom line is I’m not going to jail because you’re pumping this guy full of controlled substances without bothering to ask if he wants them. At least try giving them at the right time.”
“You Americans are so dramatic. What could happen?”
“He could overdose.”
“He’s on a ventilator…he can’t stop breathing.”
“Right, he’ll be a brain dead guy the vent breathes for.”
Having my own gut problems, I skip the afternoon’s bowel show to fold the laundry. In the bedroom, the wife and the caretaker perform the nursing work I was hired to do. I place folded towels, sheets and underwear on the creviced surface of the dining room’s faux antique table. I return to the den, where the breeze fondles the curtains, but not me. Uninterested in the flat screen, I watch the caretaker standing in the dining room. He shakes his head, his hair falling over his shining eyes, his long fingers picking up the wife’s red thong from the top of one of the piles of lavender smelling laundry and snapping it against her nicely curved butt. The wife turns around and looks up at his face, her fingers lightly brushing his hair away to get a better look at the deep blue pools of his peepers. The two smile and move closer to each other. They are pure white against the darkest wall in the house.
So, that’s the deal. I close the door between us.
“I need to show you the right way to put a plastic bag in the garbage can,” the caretaker tells me an hour later.
I brush the hair off of his face. I stare up at his eyes. I take a good look. I understand the wife’s attraction to him, he possesses the stuff us lesser mortals make sacrifices for.
“No way in hell,” I say.
I pack up my books and what is left of my food for the trip home. I am in a rush, tonight is the final episode of “The Sopranos,” I’m leaving early to watch the East Coast feed.
“See you next weekend,” the wife says.
“No way in hell,” I repeat.
I open the door. My car, shining pools of red light, is waiting for me at the curb. I turn around and walk to the dining room table. I Purell my hands.
“You know this stuff is totally useless against really deadly viruses,” I say.
The wife and the caretaker take a step back. I walk out.
Lucky man traffic-wise, I get home in time to catch “The Sopranos” finale, its blackout ending less elusive than my attempts at landing an upright gig, a downright ongoing job.
Chapter 6/ 2007
The Hissing of Summer Lawns.
The crack of dawn drive to the next gig takes, at tops, a half-hour, straight down Sunset Boulevard, my red 69 Chevy Malibu flying down the Strip the way my fingers once flew over the keyboard. I listen to Chet Baker and barrel over glistening black tar, past sidewalks, newspaper stands and parking meters covered in a fine mist before reaching my destination, the ominous green lushness of Bel Air. My patient is a eighty year-old movie producer, recovering at his ex-wife’s home from open heart surgery. I worked on the Cardiac Rehab floor at Cedars-Sinai in the days when coronary artery bypass grafts were the new thing. I can do this one in my sleep. The heat of summer stills my gut. This job is going to work out. I can start writing again.
At seven thirty in the AM, I stand with the producer’s wife on a thick lawn, whose grass is as green as my urologist’s teeth were white, the shimmering blue of her pool teases us from a few feet away. Our eyes are shielded from the snickering sun by the thick lenses of our sunglasses, hers Chanel, mine Ray-ban. Our bodies are hidden from the always deserted streets of Bel Air by a thick white stucco wall. We silently look at the threatening outline of her sprawling home, whose unwieldiness is given a palatable form by the clear blue sky.
“My eldest left for London the other day. I miss her already,” the wife says. “All my girls have been there before. When they studied world history in high school, I took them to Europe so they could see where it took place.”
The wife digs her bare big toe into the soft ground, the bone white of her skin against the grass making me forget the youthful figures enfolded into the chocolate walls of Century City. A pale steam rises off of the pool. The wife has not yet applied her makeup, my tabloid eyes spotting the face-lift lines behind her ears. The wife is a decade younger than her ex, a few hours with a good colorist and she would easily pass for mid-fifties, even in the harshest light offered up by the City of the Angels.
“The girls loved Washington D.C. We went there during junior high school for American history.”
“Tell me about your home,” I say. “It’s wonderful.”
“It was designed in the shape of a yacht. I added my offices on to the stern. If you look carefully, you can see that the through line hasn’t been broken. My architect was a genius.”
The walls on the side of the house facing us are floor to ceiling glass. The morning air is hot and heavy on our backs. The housekeepers have pushed open the living room’s incredibly heavy sliding glass wall. Like the table with no boundaries I sat at when I first moved to Los Angeles, this house is opened up and free. I can breathe it into my lungs with the heavy air.
I cough. None of what my eyes have seen in the last hour has anything to do with my life.
The case runs as smoothly as the antique watches my patient collects but never wears. Routine is valued. The days are the same. The producer wakes up at eight. I bring him fresh water and the “Los Angeles Times.” I shower him, wash his hair, help him step into the freshly starched underwear and pressed slacks I have laid out for him the night before. I put his Lacoste shirt on, comb what is left of his hair, guide his gnarled toes into his UGG slippers. I hand him his ivory toothbrush and, a few moments later, a splash of mouthwash in a heavy Baccarat Crystal glass. I follow from behind as he walks. At nine, he eats a light breakfast. I give him his pills. As he brings each pill to his chapped thin lips, he asks me what it is for. He does this whenever I give him a pill. Every time. He is a lucky man to have a patient nurse. We take short walks. He sits and reads until lunch. A nap in the afternoon. I sit at his bedside in case he wakes up to pee. Dinner and then into bed at six. He watches the news until I leave.
At first, he wants me close by. He will not say why. We sit for hours in the still heavy air of the living room. I read “Tony Kushner in Conversation” and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” He reads detective novels. Every fifteen minutes, this big time Hollywood hitter looks at me. If I smile, he turns away.
“It’s good that you read books,” he says. Not many like us left.”
I smile. Nod my head. I continue reading.
“Look at my two boys,” his wife says as she walks past us to her the shimmering blue of her pool.
The producer’s seven year-old grandson arrives at noon for his swimming lesson. His instructor waits obediently for him at the pool. The instructor has no body fat. His skin is solid bronze. I’m good. I do not look at him, not even when his fingers adjust the crotch of his bathing suit whenever the producer and I walk past him. I keep my eyes on the producer. That is what I am being paid for. The family, Jewish on the producer’s side but decked out in high Presbyterian duds, takes over the living room. They talk and laugh, sing the praises of their golden boy, who dives into the pool like a dolphin. As the boy swims across the cool blue water, the instructor’s eyes watch the producer’s wife as she talks with her daughter. The instructor is never invited to sit where I sit, with the family.
Not seeing it spread out against the white carpet, I step on a towel laid out for the golden boy to stand on when he runs in from the pool.
“Watch where the fuck you’re walking, asshole,” the producer says.
“Don’t you ever talk to me that way,” I say. “Who do you think you’re talking to?”
No one moves. I am the only one in the room who is not holding his breath. All eyes stare at me. The instructor smells the tension. He waves the golden boy out of the pool.
“OK, OK. Just watch where you’re going,” the producer mumbles.
“We’re out of here,” his daughter says. “I’ve told you repeatedly not to talk like that in front of my son.”
In a moment quicker than the golden boy’s dive into the pool, it is, once again, the big macher and I in the living room. We read. Only now, the producer returns my smile every quarter-hour.
“Tony is enchanting, such a brilliant mind,” the wife whispers as she walks toward the swimming instructor.
The next week, I read “Seriously Funny, the Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s.”
“The housekeeper is off tomorrow,” the producer says. “Do you think you can make my bed?”
“No worries, I can handle it.”
“You’re sure now?”
He is not kidding.
“I’ll do my best, sir.”
Having set the water to the exact temperature he requests, I stand with the producer in the shower, the circumference of its grey tiled walls larger than my living room. And I have a large living room. Having tamed the full length of the coiled silver shower hose, I wet my patient down, soap him up, rinse him off. A bottle of Kiehl’s shampoo falls off the shelf and hits his big toe.
“What the fuck are you doing? Goddamn you,” he says.
I laugh. And laugh. I can not stop.
“What’s so fucking funny?”
“I’m cleaning out your asshole because you can’t reach it. You obviously haven’t reached it in years. That’s funny. All of this is funny.”
I towel him dry. Neither of us talks.
“You should be able to get your pants on yourself by now,” I tell him.
I make the bed. He dresses. I keep an eye on him. Just in case.
“You look sharp this morning, sir,” I say.
“Bed looks good, kid. How’d you figure out how to do that?”
“I make my bed every morning, sir.”
“Let’s go eat.”
“Please join us for lunch this afternoon,” the wife says. “We can discuss the comedians you’re reading about.”
The producer, his wife and I begin to eat lunch together every afternoon. The housekeeper, a thin Mexican man in a handed down Lacoste shirt, slides plates of chicken, pasta, fish, fresh fruit and steamed vegetables in front of us. He works silently, no one ever looks at him, the haunted expression on his face, of what could have been, never changing. We eat, while a few feet from the glass topped table we sit at, the housekeeper, whose eyes never appear to focus, washes dishes and rearranges the provisions on the shelves of the sub zero refrigerator. I talk about Mort Sahl with the wife. The producer never once talks during our lunches.
“Enough already,” the producer says when he is finished eating. “Sahl was a fucking loser.”
I am eating in a way that I have never known before. Each meal and snack is planned out as an adventure, not a necessity, there is never a thought of cost, the only concern being to delight the palate, the holiness of each movable feast always served by the invisible housekeeper. I make rent money within the first two weeks of every month. I start making monthly payments of eight hundred dollars to Citibank. Slowly, as if returning to a lover whose youth spurned me, my hands work their way over my keyboard. As long as I can write, life at the new tables I find myself sitting at is worth waking up to.
The producer’s youngest daughter arrives with her boyfriend. She is a size zero with skin whiter than her mother’s. At 3 PM on a broiling Los Angeles summer afternoon, the daughter is wearing a Prada dress and open toed sandals, her smooth arms embracing a Birkin bag and a vintage Dior clutch purse. The boyfriend is dark, sullen, stubbly. Distressed jeans and a tight Armani shirt cover his compact body. I read about Lenny Bruce. Father and daughter strategize about her job at Paramount.
Boyfriend leaves to change for the pool.
“He’s good for you,” the producer says.
“You think?” the daughter purrs.
She extends her arm out towards her right, then slowly positions it slightly behind her, the empty glass in her hand hanging in the heavy air. The housekeeper refills it with iced tea, poured from a pitcher he keeps in the fridge in case unexpected guests arrive. Not one of us can hear the housekeeper’s feet moving over the blinding white carpet.
“He’s wonderful,” the wife says. “Much more suitable than the last one.”
“He doesn’t even make sixty-thousand a year…how could I be serious about someone like that?” the daughter asks.
“I’m talking about the housekeeper,” the wife says.
I get up and move to the door.
“Stay Jake, I want you here,” the producer says.
“You guys need some alone time. I’ll sit in the next room.”
I sit on a brown corduroy couch. I watch the boyfriend as he gazes into the deep blue of the pool. My eyes move down to my book. I read a page and look back to the pool. The boyfriend stares straight at me. He smiles.
“What do you have planned for your days off?” the wife asks as she walks into the room.
My fingers mime typing.
“You’re a writer?”
“I just had my first story published.”
“I’d love to read it. We so like having you here. You’re a perfect fit. I don’t know what’s inside you, but you keep him in line.”
A half-hour later, the boyfriend enters the room though its sliding glass door. He is wet. His feet leave tiny footprints on the brown hand painted ceramic tiles. He looks down at me as I read.
“Do you need something?” I ask.
“A towel…a towel if you’ve got one.”
I bring him a white bath towel. He turns his back to me. His muscular arms spread out horizontally before me, the small of his back tightens.
“You don’t expect me to towel you dry like I do the old man?” I ask.
He turns around. We lock eyes. He hasn’t shaved in at least a week. Me either.
“You better go find that skinny girl,” I say. “If you need another towel, you come around. I’m here till seven every night.”
Toweled off and dressed, the boyfriend and the daughter say their good-byes a few minutes later.
“Nice seeing you today,” she says to me.
I look up from Lenny, my eyes moving past her to the boyfriend. I stare at him for a moment too long.
“Sorry, I was reading,” I answer. “What did you say?”
The next weekend, I walk to my car to retrieve a biography of George Cukor, a long ago friend of the producer. The father of the golden boy parks his Hummer behind me.
“Nice car. Really cool,” he says. “The old guy likes you. They’re going to ask you to work with him when he goes back to his apartment.”
I am set. A good paying job. With the speed at which I annihilate a heckler, I open the hood and show the golden boy’s father my rebuilt engine. We take our sunglasses off and talk about transmissions and tires.
“It’s a great car. Must be a bitch to maintain,” he says.
“My best friend Mark talked me into buying it before he died.”
“Old cars cost so much to keep up.”
“I could never sell it…it would be like betraying Mark.”
“So many things can break on these babies. How do you manage all the repairs? The maintenance alone must cost a fortune.”
I slam the hood shut. I look into the blue pools of his eyes. They shimmer only for the ugly daughter he married, the one he met back in the days when he was bussing it down Santa Monica Boulevard to his job as a background artiste on “General Hospital.”
“And?” I ask.
He does not answer.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I say. “They’re upset about the bombing at the airport in Glasgow. They’ve already called your sister-in-law. She’s fine.”
Golden boy’s father tells me he is here to commiserate about the tanked Friday night box office of a Will Ferrel movie he worked on.
“Guess a lot of things go wrong with those babies too,” I say.
Golden boy’s father laughs. Inspite of the always empty streets, he parks bumper to bumper behind my Malibu every weekend. He never removes his sunglasses in my presence, never mentions the cost of repairs again.
A new night nurse arrives. Overweight, sweaty, his elastic waisted jeans need a good washing. He wants in on the action. Bad. The house, the food, the housekeepers, the original paintings on the walls, the DVDs from the Academy have nothing to do with me. Lucky man that I am, I knew that from day one. The night nurse pants in the heat of the quiet Bel Air evening, his shaking hands would benefit from a twelve step meeting. The morning after the second night he works, the house reeks of garlic.
“I run a catering business on the weekends,” the nurse tells me. “I cooked a feast for him last night. You know, so he’d have something decent to eat.”
“You should finish up your nursing notes,” I respond.
“I’m also involved in marketing a health drink. I’ll bring some tonight.”
“Sign off on the med sheets before you leave.”
The wife rolls her eyes as the nurse walks sleepily to the stucco wall.
“It’s not you,” the wife says the next morning. “He doesn’t want to eat lunch with either of us anymore.”
“He’s getting better,” I tell her.
“I want you to think about taking care of him in his condo. Oh and I finally read your story.”
For the first time since I have been in her home, I hold my breath. Her father was a big time director. Gained Hollywood cred in the 70s for surviving the blacklist. The wife grew up here. She and her ex know everyone, they talk constantly about their friends: writers, actors, show runners, directors and agents, as in literary agents. I could get my book of short stories published. My life would turn the corner. I could be a truly lucky man.
“It shows such skill…and sensitivity. Your longing grabbed me in my throat.”
I don’t know how to work it, the sentiment of which grabs me forcefully in my intestines. I smile. Nod my head. Stare at the floor.
“It’s amazing that you…that you could write something like this. One day, another nurse will be sitting in my living room reading your stories.”
The wife hands me my story back. She tells me she is going for a dip before breakfast. I watch her in her pool. She holds on to a huge inflated yellow duck to keep her afloat. She splashes around. The sun hits the water and makes it shine. She puts her Chanel sunglasses on and splashes some more. Lucky her.
“Nice shirt you have on,” the producer tells the night nurse that evening.
The producer’s whimpering MO is to compliment you on your attire or point out some detail about you which only he notices. If you question him about either a few minutes later, he will have forgotten why he gave you the shout out.
“I bought this at the Goodwill,” the nurse says. “You don’t have to buy second hand clothes. You’re worth so much.”
“Am I?” the producer asks.
His wife puts the remote down. She looks at the nurse, then over to me.
“I Googled you and looked you up on IMDb. You made out real good.”
The wife walks me to my car. I know my colleague has crossed the line, but I think it is as funny as the morning the Kiehl’s shampoo assaulted her ex’s big toe.
“He knows that I live alone…how isolated I am here,” the wife says.
The fear in her voice grabs me in my throat. I smile and air kiss her cheeks good-night. She walks slowly back to the door in the stucco wall.
My cell vibrates at Sunset and La Brea.
“Bro, what happened in Bel Air?” the staffing co-ordinator asks. “The guy just told me about the nurse we sent in. He’s really mad.”
I give him the 411.
The next morning the housekeeper is off. I push open the sliding glass wall in the living room. It must weigh a few hundred pounds. I am Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill. A sharp twinge of pain like a heated knife moves from my groin to my toes, its heat bounces back and rests in my balls.
“Can I ask you something?” the producer asks.
I have just brought in his water and newspaper.
“Why the fuck did you tell your agency about that asshole nurse?”
“They called and asked me.”
“All I told them was that I didn’t want him back. You opened your fucking mouth and told them all about it. Stay the hell out of my business.”
My balls are throbbing. I feel like I’m going to hurl on to the producer’s three hundred count sheets.
The mail arrives. The bill from the agency on Sunset is due. To the tune of 40K.
“They told me Medicare would cover this shit,” the producer screams.
The pain has eased up, but I can feel the swelling in my right ball. It is early July. Open enrollment for my insurance ended in April. I am stuck for another year with the PPO, the deductibles and the co-pays. It will be, at minimum, four thousand to cover the Outpatient Surgery Center. I will need to work two jobs to cover it.
“I don’t know why they told you that,” I say to the producer.
“Fuck it, I’m not going to pay.”
“Why do you think Medicare would pay for this? It’s not like you’re following the cardiac diet or doing your daily exercises.”
“Because I need it, that’s why. Goddamn it.”
The producer screams all day. He screams as we walk past the swimming instructor. He screams as we walk around the three Mercedes SUVs in the driveway on our way to the door in the stucco wall.
In the bathroom, he screams into his cell: “My lawyer is on this…you won’t get a nickel out of me.”
The pain is throbbing again. I am afraid to go into the bathroom and pee because then I will see and feel how big my balls have grown.
After his nap, the producer takes his cell into the bathroom and slams the door.
“Don’t send this guy here anymore. Today is his last fucking day. I don’t need his help.”
I put the producer in bed after dinner. I ask the gardener, whose demeanor is as affectless as the housekeeper’s, to help me push the glass wall closed. I let him do most of the work.
“Why the fuck are you asking him to help you?” the producer shouts from the bedroom. “That’s not what he’s here for.”
“Why don’t you get some rest?” I answer.
“See you tomorrow,” he says.
“You know you’re not going to see me tomorrow. You know this is my last day.”
Finally, finally he is still.
“Did you think I couldn’t hear you screaming while your were in the bathroom?”
“Do you know that the people you work for charge more than double over what they pay you?”
I smile. Nod my head. Stare at the floor.
“Did you know that? Did you know that?” the producer yells.
I look at him. If he keeps going like this, his bridge work will crack apart and hit me in the face.
“Yes, all the agencies are like that.”
“You let yourself work for people who do that to you? You’re a fool.”
“Yes, I’m a fool. I’m a fool. You’re right. I’m a fool.”
It is the pain and the fear talking. At least, I think it is.
“I didn’t mean to upset him.” I tell the producer’s wife.
We are alone in her office. The sun is setting. We look out at the orange surface of her pool.
“When the agency called me, it sounded like he had told them everything that happened. I didn’t want the nurse harassing you two.”
She smiles. Nods her head. The producer enters.
“You can get out of here now,” he says. “Stop bothering us.”
I look at his wife. She glances at her keyboard, then up to her computer screen. I am no longer her lucky man.
“Let’s get you back to bed,” she says to her ex. “I feel like watching something silly with you tonight.”
I drive home. An hour and a half down Sunset. My balls are killing me. I stop at the boyfriend’s. I can not figure out if I want to cry or have him marvel over the sudden enormity of my balls. He is not home.
I soak in the tub to get the swelling down. I listen to Sinatra CDs. I sing along to “One for My Baby,” the first buzz of Vicodin kicking in. I think about how blue light shimmers off of the pools in Bel Air.
Must be nice to have a rubber duck to hold on to.
Chapter 7/ 2007
After Eighteen Years, the Dread Comes Back into my Life.
I lost the next year. It vanished. Slipped through my lucky fingers. I did not write. I could not read. I stopped auditioning. Seventeen years sober, my lost year was like a daily blackout, where instead of waking up in my own puke, I arose to a life I had not lived since I first became a nurse. There were new rules. I was fifty-five, too old and too wise to learn any of them. All I wanted was a job, to pay my own way and to write on my days off.
The week after the Bel Air gig ended, a woman knocked on my door at 9 AM on a Saturday morning. Thin, flawless skin, bobbed hair, huge diamond engagement ring slipping down her tan finger. Tank top and skinny jeans dipping down well past her pierced navel.
“Is your sister home?” she asks.
“Who is it you think lives here?”
She tells me she is looking for the woman her boyfriend is cheating with. For weeks, her brother has been following her boyfriend to my apartment.
Ah, lucky man the straight boyfriend has always been, he has a fiancee.
The fiancee becomes a bit wobbly when she realizes I am that woman. Pushing aside a pile of books, I sit her down at my dining room table. We drink ice water, which I serve in tall glasses with yellow daisy decals running up their sides.
Seems the boyfriend forgot to mention this pleasant young woman on the nights he fed me Viagra and rolled over on his stomach, afterward holding me tight until we fell asleep, whispering into my ear: “You’re the one.”
The fiancee and I plan to accompany each other to our HIV tests. If the boyfriend has been lying to us, what else is he lying about?
The boyfriend becomes the ex, for both of us.
I have more pressing problems. No way to pay the rent, purchase groceries or buy tires, even retreads, to replace the bald ones on my the car. I have not had a drink in seventeen years. I want one, an ice cold Vodka Cranberry. I can taste its sting on my tongue, its oblivion pulsing through my blood. I want two. I have the Vicodins, Absolut Vodka in elongated pill form. I do not take them. I should be proud of myself for touching these sorry feelings and not trying to numb them out.
The agency on Sunset has no work. Monster.com is no longer my friend. As if they knew my father was a tough Chicago bred union organizer, I am disowned by both CareerBuilder.com and MedGigs.net. The health/medical section of Craigslist hates me. The feeling is mutual.
I spend my mornings and afternoons applying online. An application takes anywhere from a half-hour to well over an hour to complete, each one having to be individualized for that particular position. At least once a day either my computer or the job site crashes when I click “submit.” I apply all over again. I hear nothing. From anyone. To let me know they had received my short story submissions, the literary agents had the courtesy to have their assistants drop my self-addressed stamped postcards into their out-boxes. Health care professionals? Nada. Rien. Nothing. I make follow-up calls to the places I have applied to. I am polite. I had the lead in a play. I did stand up at the Comedy Store. I know how to hide any traces of the desperation I am feeling.
I quickly learn the mantra: “Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”
“I have,” I say.
My voice is humble and boyish. No one would think I am in my mid-fifties.
“We’ll contact you if you’re a match for the position.”
I apply to every hospital, nursing home and medical facility in the Los Angeles basin to which I can drive, walk or crawl to. I apply to the VA Hospital in Westwood and its satellite clinic in downtown LA. I apply to the Los Angeles Department of Corrections for a job in the jails. All online. I never hear a thing. I call. I get the mantra.
I cold call agencies in the Yellow Pages, the majority of which have difficulty stringing together a coherent sentence in English. The remaining ones spit out a hybrid form of English which drips like hot wax on to my eardrums.
“What is your area of expertise?” they ask.
I pull out my experience calling card, telling them I worked on the AIDS/Oncology Unit at San Francisco General Hospital for seven years.
“Why did you do that?” they ask.
I wonder if they know what expertise means. I explain that if you can work at the General for as long as I did, you can work any place.
I get one job offer, taking care of a five year-old boy who, as the Nurse Manager says: “Wiggles like the snake until you sedate it with the drugs.”
I decline the job.
The only time my landline rings, it is the ex. Not being able to afford a phone which flashes caller ID, I hang up several times a day. When not sitting next to the phone like a lonely spinster in a William Inge play as I wait for a job callback, I look lovingly at the bottle of Vicodins. It would be easy to take one and sleep all day. I know where that leads. To stop the bottle eyeballing me from the glass shelf of my medicine cabinet, I put it in the top drawer of my writing desk. My balls ache and swell intermittently. I am used to it. It is part of my routine now. I laugh exactly once a day, thinking of how the ex smiled every time he saw the enormity of my balls heading in his direction. He has stopped calling and moved on to e-mailing me mournful emo lyrics and Sylvia Plath poems. Sylvia Plath? The balls will get fixed when I get money coming in for the co-pay. My gut hits me daily until well after noon. I try not to drive my car. Something is sure to go wrong with it.
A week has passed. Or so I think. I have been job hunting from August through November, having started when the air was warm and I slept with my windows open at night. Like coming out of a weeklong drunk, my apartment is suddenly cold and damp. I do not use the heater. Gas costs beaucoup bucks.
After four months, I land a total of four agency interviews. Before they consider hiring me, each demands I be fingerprinted, drug tested, TB tested, background investigated, credit checked and examined by a doctor.
The fingerprint clearances from the Department of Justice and the FBI take, on average, two months to be processed. To speed up getting “rolled,” as it is called in fingerprinting world, I am offered the option of traveling to facilities in sketchy parts of the Valley, but I would have to shell out the dough for that myself.
To make food money, I work flu clinics for the agency on Sunset. All my other expenses are charged to credit cards. Word is the agency gets paid seventy dollars for each injection I administer. I do a minimum of one hundred a clinic, for which I get paid eighty bucks. In addition to the various Rite Aids and Walgreens, I am assigned to clinics at Nordstrom at the Grove, the Director’s Guild on Sunset and CNN in Hollywood. The agency tells me it is a reward for working so many clinics by my lonesome. As the Obama multicultural love fest has not yet hit, their assigning me to these upscale venues reminds me that I am the only white nurse working for the agency. I tell everyone at CNN that Anderson Cooper’s shot is on me. They laugh and talk about the death of Kanye West’s mother. Anderson pokes his silver head into the room I have set up my clinic in. He gives me the same dirty look he gives me whenever I see him at Gold’s Gym in Hollywood. He does not want a shot. Hope Lou Dobbs or Larry King can refrain themselves from sneezing on him. Driving home down Sunset, I attempt a left turn on to Ivar, the street Nathanael West lived on when he wrote “The Day of the Locust.” The traffic light is green when I enter the intersection, yellow when I complete the turn. The photo surveillance cameras flash. I do not get to spend that week’s clinic money. I need it for the traffic ticket.
I receive a phone call from one of the health clinics where I was drug tested: “You are the drug user. You test positive for narcotics. You are the not right.”
“It’s got to be the Donnatal I take for my stomach,” I say.
“I will send your test results to the licensing board of nurses…you take the drugs.”
I fax this smooth talker my prescription.
“You say you take this one, this Donnatal, but maybe you possess it to cover up your addiction.”
“Busted,” I tell him.
“Busted? What is the busted? Another drug you take?”
I successfully jump through all the screening hoops. All four agencies hire me. I am offered the grand total of one shift, a two-hour case in Anaheim. Lucky man.
I ask a simple question: “Explain to me why I would drive for two hours to Anaheim and then two hours back to work for two hours.”
“You can get to Anaheim in twenty minutes.”
“You can’t get out of Hollywood in twenty minutes.”
“You have to prove to us that you’re worthy.”
“I’ve been a nurse for thirty years. I don’t have to prove anything.”
Rules. New rules.
Everything is charged to credit cards. I forget that the shortcuts on my computer screen are for my novel, one-man show and MySpace blog. The piles of unread magazines and newspapers on my dining room table have become towers, their loneliness threatening to explode in a “Day of the Locust” like denouement.
In September, the lone literary agent who liked my work asked me to submit additional stories, which she loved “…the most of anything I’ve read this season!” and went on to recommend to the head of her agency. For weeks, I think this is the paying your dues part. The day after Thanksgiving, I receive a form letter thanking me for sending in my work. No signature. No date. There is nothing left to say or do. I have no money if there were. Without even a good movie on TCM to sink into, I soak up the noir humiliation of it all by spending a pity partying hour looking out my living room window at the steady drizzle leaking from the overcast Los Angeles sky. I have no job. I am hungry. I open my writing desk drawer. I sleep for three days.
I wake up and go to the UCLA School of Dentistry for my annual check up. To avoid the high fees my dentist charges, I have crawled on my knees through UCLA’s byzantine labyrinth to care, which drags a righteous consumer through even more hoops and hurdles than an unlicensed nursing agency on the sleazy end of Santa Monica Boulevard. I think I am a lucky man when the fee for the work deemed necessary by my bug-eyed dental student amounts to only a thousand dollar co-pay, as compared to the three thousand dollars my dentist on swanky Wilshire Boulevard wants.
My gut starts to hurt worse than anything I have ever known, more painful than when my lower right leg was snapped in half in a motorcycle accident at the corner of Sunset and LaBrea. I speculate it is from the Vicodins I have been eating since receiving the literary verdict. I stop taking them. It is not. The dull twisting and throbbing of my intestines is more relentless than the take me back notes the ex is now slipping under my front door. I sleep on my couch under a heavy red blanket I bought in Mexico when I had money to go on vacation. When I am awake, I lie on the couch and watch John Cassavetes movies. The gut pain hits whenever it wants, stopping my day before it starts. I cry and wonder who I fucked with in a past life to have brought this fate upon myself.
“You’ll need a colonoscopy,” the gastroenterologist tells me to the tune of a one hundred and twenty-five dollar co-pay.
My father died of intestinal cancer at fifty-six. I am fifty-five. I thought I had dodged the bullet with the hydrocele. Every night when I try to sleep, I see what was left of my father’s body, panting with pain as he lay on the black and white op-art print of our living room couch.
For a week, with no reason, the balls return to their normal size. They do not hurt, but the rage in my gut will not let up.
The colonoscopy is negative.
“The gut is a hard thing to read or predict,” the gastroenterologist says. “We’re Jews, tummy problems are part of our heritage.”
My co-pay for the colonoscopy is a grand. In the next month, another five hundred in co-pays trickle in. Everyone who touched me during the fifteen minute procedure wants a cut. I charge the doctor’s bills. What the hell, the lucky man is alive and cancer free.
Two jobless months after being offered the Anaheim gig, the most reputable of the agencies–a religious outfit whose Nurse Manager tells me and the other lone nurse in orientation that our mission is to spread the loving ideals of Jesus–locates work for me. Which is good, because apparently Jesus does not pay for the agency’s three day orientation. I think this violates labor law. The agency thinks otherwise. I am sure the Nurse Manager regards me as a grubby Jew from New York. Still, she seems to want me to spread the ideals of Jesus.
The fist job is twelve-hour shifts on weekends with a young man who hit his head diving into a pool at age six. He lives in a room whose floor is lined wall-to-wall with mattresses. He needs help walking, eating and dressing. Occasionally, he experiences what his mother calls “outbursts.” Like when he is in a Sizzler and pisses into the salad bar.
I take the job.
Anticipating a weekly paycheck, I buy groceries the day before I am to start work. I spend hours cleaning the tiles in my bathroom. As I sit down to dinner, I get a call. Patient’s mother has decided she does not want weekend coverage. She will not say why. Maybe she can not envision a grubby Jew doing the bidding for Jesus.
The next job is three twelve-hour shifts a week with a teenager born prematurely. He is on a vent, never leaves his bed and is home schooled by a nun from the order of the Sisters of Charity. His mother works two full time jobs, his father having walked years ago. In place of wall-to-wall mattresses, this teenager’s room is covered from floor to ceiling with “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” posters.
I hate science fiction.
I take the job.
Medi-Cal cuts the funding for my hours the day before I am to start. This time, I was smart. I bought groceries, but did not clean.
The next job is twelve-hour shifts on weekends with a gentleman who hit his head diving into a pool. I decide to stop swimming in pools. Paralyzed from the neck down, my would-be patient is on a vent. He is switching from his agency, which refuses to pay its nurses overtime for twelve-hour shifts, to the spreading the ideals of Jesus agency. In place of mattresses or sci-fi posters, he has framed pictures of Marilyn Monroe everywhere. He has written poems about Marilyn, which he impulsively recites for me. They are not half bad. As lover of Marilyn, who spends the anniversary of her death re-reading Norman Mailer’s “Marilyn,” I have extensive lists of the places where Marilyn worked and lived. I tell him of these places. We are immediate buds. He becomes my MySpace friend before I return home from the interview.
I take the job.
The agency messes up the negotiations. Every week the start day is postponed, but still, the job is mine and mine only. This is the story fed to me by the staffing co-ordinator, who always calls me Mr. Jake. No matter how many times I tell her, the only thing she employs is the use of Jake as my last name, Epstine as my first. No wonder they can not negotiate. The week before the promised to me final irrevocable start date, they lose the case to a competing non-Jesus affiliated agency.
I lie on my couch and read a preventative medicine brochure sent to me by my PPO. Obviously, they are tired of paying for my gut medications. I got the hint when they began e-mailing me coupons for over the counter Prilosec. The PPO needs me to get better. Like I am enjoying this. How can I prevent what I already have? For some odd reason I deem to be fate, a listing for a home health hospice agency at Olympic and Fairfax appears below the names of the PPO’s in network Gastroenterologists.
I call. The agency is hiring.
I am interviewed by an overweight middle-aged woman, who does not seem to realize how loud the gospel music chanting from her radio is.
“Where do you see yourself professionally five years from now?” she asks me over the din of prayers offered up to Jesus.
I am hoping to be a lucky man. Get published and never again meet people who ask me this question. The gospel music sounds louder, like the hot wax dripping on to my ear drums. I smile. Nod my head.
“You worked with AIDS patients in LA at the beginning of the epidemic?” she asks me. “I have a surprise for you.”
She calls in one of the Nurse Managers, a woman I worked a few shifts with at an AIDS hospice in the early nineties. A funny lady on our first encounters, she actually talked to the patients when not making numerous medication errors, all of which seemed to involve heavy-duty narcotics. Some of her slip-ups resulted in patients sleeping for several days. Other patients claimed they received no relief from their pain meds. After a few shifts, she was given the heave-ho.
“You’re so old! You’ve gotten so old!” she screams when she sees me.
Eighteen years ago she was a zaftig punker babe with flaming red hair. Now, she has a double chin, her tattoos have elongated and stretched out on her Type 2 diabetic sized body, their faded ink corrupted into configurations not even ecstasy enhanced eyes could identify. Her hair is frizzy, the roots brown, the ends of her dreadlocks copper. She smells like she sleeps in kitty litter. I stare at her as she continues to roll around on the floor, yapping about how old I am.
“This job rocks, dude,” she says.
She has stopped moving. She is lying on the floor, looking up at the ceiling, humming along to the gospel music.
“You can do your nursing notes at Starbucks,” she says.
The fingers of her left hand become inextricably embedded in her stiff dreads.
I have never been to a Starbucks. Scruffy artiste that I am, I do my writing in Hollywood, at the Bourgeois Pig or Cafe Solar de Cahuenga. The gospel loving nurse apologizes for her colleague’s behavior.
The job pays well. I can chose the days I work. A steady paycheck might kill the ache in my gut, the pain in my balls. I will be working on my own, doing home health visits.
Believing myself to be a lucky man, I take the job.
Chapter 8/ 2007
“He is sovereign!”
My orientation at the hospice consists of tailing a Filipino nurse around the length and breadth of every inch of Los Angeles County in my 69 Chevy Malibu. Even though he has been to our cases numerous times, he manages to get lost traveling to each of them, way lost, miles away from our destination.
The price of gas goes up daily. No one I know quite understands the logic behind this. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we insert our credit and debit cards into greedy gas pumps and subtract money from our food budgets.
“Shouldn’t we be driving together?” I ask the nurse. “We can talk about the cases and you can tell me how things work.”
“I wouldn’t be getting milage money if we drove together.”
I think that is what he said.
“We could drive in your car, that would work,” I tell him.
Fingering the quarter size glass beads on his necklace, he does not answer. Or, maybe he does. He never speaks above a whisper. The patients can not hear him, I can not hear him, the low hum of his voice leaving me without a clue as to what the job entails. During my week with the whisperer, I spend seventy-five dollars on gas. After a week of an orientation I never heard, I am sent out on my own. The patient part of the gig I can do, always could, but the paperwork I can not get a handle on, being that it was never explained to me. Or, maybe it was and I just never heard it. I am working part-time and spending one hundred dollars a week on gas. Lucky.
My first patient has been transferred from a hospital in Simi Valley to a nursing home on Martin Luther King Boulevard, its location within spitting distance of the University of Southern California. In a coma, he is what we in hospice world call “actively dying.” I enter his room to find an overweight nurse’s aide in a purple midriff baring scrub outfit feeding him mashed potatoes. Nice touch, but he is lying flat in bed.
“Please stop that right now,” I tell her. “He can’t swallow. And if he could, you would need to elevate the head of his bed.”
“I was told to feed him and I am.”
I empty the food on my patient’s tray into the garbage can in the bathroom. I call his sister in Utah to tell her he has arrived safely, but that he will, at best, not last more than twenty-four hours.
“Could you do something for me?” she asks.
“Whisper in his ear that all is forgiven. Tell him I love him.”
I say the words into my patient’s ear. I cry. His unblinking eyes stare up at the cracks in the dirty ceiling. Like the sweet smelling air which floats over the pools of Bel Air, there is a fine blue mist in the room. I sit next to my patient and hold his hand. The patients on either side of us smile at me when I get up to use the bathroom.
“Where are you going for the rest of the day?” my dreadlock wearing Nurse Manager squawks over the walkie-talkie speaker of my agency issued cell.
“I’m staying here with him. He shouldn’t be alone.”
“You’ve done your job. Move on to your next patient. You’re not getting paid to see one patient a day.”
I cut off the walkie-talkie speaker.
It is President’s Day. Traffic is minimal in the City of the Angels, allowing me to visit my patient two more times before I go home for the day. He dies alone at four in the morning, surrounded on each side by sleeping roommates, their TVs blasting “Law and Order” reruns in a futile attempt to keep death out of their room.
Paperwork wise, I am not working out at the agency. I can never seem to get it straight. My inbox is stuffed to the max with forms I have spent hours conscientiously filling out, each wearing a different colored post-it note telling me to redo everything. Redo each headache inducing form. All are autographed with smiley faces by the dread or her co-conspirator, the gospel loving Nurse Manager.
To explain the clerical fiasco I find myself in, I set up a meeting with the two on a Monday morning at 9 AM.
“It’s your responsibility to ask questions if your knowledge base is lacking,” the gospel nurse says.
“I’ve asked…I asked. The guy never spoke above a whisper, I couldn’t make out a word he said.”
The dread traces the outline of the Seconal pill tattoo on her forearm with a bright blue Sharpie.
“You get too close to your patients,” the dread says. “How do you feel when you leave a patient’s home?”
“I’m not following you,” I answer.
“Do you feel like a friend? A nurse? A professional? Before you answer, center yourself and take a deep breath from your belly. Breathe out your answer.”
“What are you talking about? I just want to know how to do the paperwork.”
“You can’t be a patient’s friend and be a nurse at the same time,” the dread says.
I am lost. They must be high. It is 9:20 AM. Thankfully, the gospel nurse is not proclaiming “He is sovereign!” as she does every hour or so into our staff meetings. To address my paperwork queries, and to, as she says “Teach you how to set professional boundaries,” the gospel nurse decides to send the dread out with me on a few visits. I will say one thing about about the dread, she does not whisper. She is very loud. Gratingly so. She can barley follow a Google map printout to Koreatown, let alone explain the complicated paperwork, most likely because she has no clue how to do it.
Despite her misdirection, the dread does give me props.
We have finished our visit with a VA patient I have spent weeks working with, sitting next to him and listening to his stories as the empty air of hot Los Angeles afternoons washes over us. He does not want to die alone in his apartment. I do not blame him. Watching the bone white light crawling through his half covered windows, my eyes take in the greasy dust covering every exposed surface in his apartment. In the long afternoons we spend together, I have leveled with my patient, telling him this outfit has nothing of substance to offer him outside of daily visits. And even those are not supposed to last more than an hour. He did two tours in Viet Nam, he gets it.
“I can breathe now,” he tells the dread.
He snaps his fingers to get the dread’s attention, her glassy eyes having been transfixed for the last few minutes by the contents of a large tattered cardboard box, its guts holding huge brown VA issued bottles of Vicodin, Morphine, Dilaudid and Xanax.
“I know how it’s going to end for me. Jake told me. When the time…when I can’t get around here anymore, I’m going to the VA place, you know, the hospice.”
In the grime of his kitchenette, I make my patient eggs and toast.
“That would mean you’d have to switch your hospice benefit from our agency to the VA,” the dread tells him. “Do you really want to go there? It’s like in the Valley.”
“Try eating some breakfast,” I tell him. “I’ll take care of the details when it’s time.”
The dread and I sit in my car. I ask her about paperwork.
“You’re a light in a very dark room,” she says. “A very bright light. Let’s go eat.”
“I promised my next patient’s husband I would visit before noon and change her dressing. She’s close to the end now.”
“You’re too serious…no fun…no fun. Why are all your cases are so close together? How do you pad your miles?”
I let the dread out at the curb in front of our office building on Olympic. She stumbles over the end of her purple feather boa. I laugh as she straightens up, my back pressing against the warm leather of my car seat, my lips smiling with the realization that people who are alternative and way cool employ their hipness to camouflage their misanthropy and meanness. The dread’s boa wraps around the metal handle of the thick glass door of the building’s lobby. People walk around her to enter. They use the opposing door to exit. No one looks at her. Feathers fly in the air as the dread tries to untangle her boa. I take off for the dressing change. I will fix a light lunch for my patient. We can sit and talk about how the Santa Anas whipped up again last night.
Another Nurse Manager sits me down and explains the paperwork. She speaks clearly, what she tells me is beyond simple once it is explained and put into context. In two hours, I get it. Overnight, I am the good nurse. My rapport with our patients is admired. My colleagues ask me to help them write care plans and Medicare re-certifications. I smile beatifically. I nod my head. I never for a second consider helping them. For months, as the dread and the gospel raked me over the coals for the pettiest of reasons, my colleagues giggled and averted their eyes as I floundered, my head pounding from what I could not fit into the tiny boxes on the reams of forms jammed into my briefcase. Lucky me, not one offered to bail me out.
For the first time in months, I can pay the rent, buy groceries. Gas goes up daily. The agency reimburses the staff at forty-nine cents a mile, which does not come close to the five hundred dollars I pay monthly for gas. In a staff meeting, the head honcho, an extremely skinny woman of indeterminable age who strides the office hallways on four inch spiked heels, recites a story about how the war in Iraq is costing so much she can not up our milage rate. I fail to make the connection. Neither do any of my backstabbing colleagues.
“He is sovereign!” screams the gospel nurse.
No one else speaks. I should pad my miles, but I don’t. Instead, I look forward to seeing my patients. I like sitting with them. And they with me. We are lucky that way.
The end of my stretch with the hospice begins on a Monday, when I enter a board and care set-up in Burbank. My patient was transferred there the day before from an assisted living facility. The whispering nurse told his family he needed caretakers twenty-four seven. He did not require any such thing, but luckily for his family, several of the whispering nurse’s friends were caretakers. Imagine that. They took every shift. At top dollar, off the books, under the table. The vampires drained the family of the money they had put aside for their father’s end of life care. Now, two years later, when he truly needs caretakers and not vamps who obsessively Purell their hands, all his family can afford is a board and care, which is really just a board, with minimal care.
The place is a fortress. Iron bars and gates painted a bright white barricade every window and door. I ring the doorbell and pull out my paperwork. It takes a good ten minutes for a caretaker to make it to the front door, another five to locate the keys which unlock the door and the gate in front of it.
On that Monday, I walk in through the back door. Lucky me, somebody forgot to lock the place down. I live for unexpected entrances. A Filipino caretaker is shoveling pureed apples and pears into my patient’s mouth. Twenty years ago, my patient had a series of debilitating strokes. Eating is a slow and difficult process for him. The lumpy thick grey concoction is dribbling out of the sides of his mouth and pouring out of his nostrils on to the floor. The facility’s three caretakers are speaking Tagalog to their English speaking patients, who on a good day, when the television is not screaming Tagalog at them, are confused and disoriented.
I turn the incomprehensible saga of “Impostora” off. I sit the caretaker down.
“Let’s role play,” I tell him.
I place my hand on his forehead. My eyes on the blank television screen, I shovel food into his mouth, not giving him a chance to breathe or swallow. My acting classes have taught me well, I am the perfect mirror to reflect his actions on. He pushes my hand away after a few seconds.
“How you get in the place?” he asks.
“Ce n’est pas la question,” I say. “Laissez nous manger encore plus.”
“What you doing? Why you speaking language I do not know of?”
Pureed pears drip onto the caretaker’s lap.
“If I ever catch you pulling this crap again, I’ll have this place closed down. And I’ll put you on a plane back to Manila myself.”
That Wednesday, I tell the dread I am taking a week off at the end of the month to attend Teachers Training Academy. I have been hired by the Los Angeles Unified School District to be a substitute teacher in the fall.
“Don’t you like have to have a degree for that?” she asks.
She still smells like kitty litter.
“I have a B.A.”
“You have to be smart to be a teacher,” she says.
I’m getting out. She’s not.
“Breathe out from your belly and wish me luck,” I tell her.
An hour later, the dread and I are sequestered in a conference room for the weekly interdisciplinary meeting. No windows, fluorescent lights flash at a seizure inducing clip from above, the table we sit at is too big for the room. The overweight nurses experience great difficulty squeezing into their seats. Everyone, except me, is eating donuts. When I went in for my pre-employment physical for the school district, my blood pressure was elevated.
“Are you stressed?” my doctor asked me.
I laughed for a good five minutes, then proceeded to lose twelve pounds. Changed my diet, went to the same nutritionist Maria Bello swears by. No more soda, coffee or meat. I begin to eat unprocessed foods, fresh fruits and veggies. It’s expensive, very expensive, but in six weeks, I am thin, my blood pressure is normal. Glares are thrown my way when I push the donut box away. Two hours into a three hour meeting, I drink my protein shake and relate to my fellow captives in the strobe lit room the feeding scenario I witnessed Monday morning.
“Those workers are Third World people…mostly women. They do what they’re told,” a nurse sitting across from me says.
Her eyes flash daggers at me.
“The guy was pushing food into my patient’s mouth. He’ll probably develop aspiration pneumonia.”
The dread pulls on one of her dreads. It falls onto the table. Maybe she is on chemo.
“I promised him when he transferred there I would watch over him,” I say. “I told him nothing bad would happen to him.”
“Why do you make their lives so hard?” Dagger Eyes asks. “What pleasure does it give you?”
The mouths around the table bite into their donuts.
“What would you do if your father was treated that way?” I ask.
Trying to move her chair away from the table, Dagger Eyes does not answer. Being too heavy to accomplish it with one move, she uses both hands to push as hard as she can against the chipped formica. Unable to manage this simple maneuver, she picks up her fourth donut.
I read a flawlessly composed Medicare re-certification to my hostile audience as the lights pop intermittently, the deep spirituality of it all surely signaling to the gospel nurse to proclaim my sovereignty. Her mouth is wrapped around a cruller.
Thursday afternoon, our well-known movie star patient dies after a long illness. The dread goes to his house to pronounce him dead and dispose of any remaining narcotics, of which I am certain she flushed down the toilet. The toilet of the graffiti blemished lunchbox she uses as a pocketbook. Odd how when my VA patient died, even though he was no longer on our service, she managed to go to his apartment to dispose of his narcotics. Word is the dread told the movie star’s family she does not like taking care of entitled rich people, how turned off she is by their rudeness and insensitivity. The movie star’s body is still warm when the dread says this, his family gathered around his deathbed, crying and holding hands, their hearts supporting the star’s wife, who was married to her man for over forty years. And he was not even gay.
That same afternoon, my board and care patient develops aspiration pneumonia. He takes to his own deathbed. The caretakers sit at his bedside where, like an endless loop of the execution of Daniel Pearl, they watch repeats of “Impostora” through the night and into the morning.
Friday morning, I come into the office early to pick up supplies. The dread’s door is closed. The staff walks around slowly. No one looks anyone in the eye. I load my trunk up with diapers, bedpans and urinals and drive to Burbank. I park and check my work text messages. The dread had been fired. I do not call her and wish her well. I wish only that she takes a shower and gets with the program. Or at least calm down her overactive MySpace page. Hell, she is only sixty.
I make it through the gates and the bars to my patient’s bedside. The caretaker turned off the television when he heard my heels tapping on the hardwood hallway floor. My patient is breathing at a rate of sixty a minute. Normal is sixteen. His skin is blue. His eyes dart up to the ceiling and then back to the wall in front of him. I take the remote out of the caretaker’s hand and turn on my patient’s favorite XM music channel. Big band music beats into our heads. I place drops of morphine and Ativan on the insides of his mouth. The rate of his respirations decrease.
“I’m sorry you were placed here,” I tell him. “I didn’t know…I didn’t know.”
He closes his eyes. I hold his hand.
Her black eyes spinning in their sockets, the facility’s administrator enters, sweating under her arms like a pig desperate for a trough. She was pretty when I first met her, this morning she has become butt-ugly beyond words.
“Why are you giving him those drugs?” she screams. “You kill him.”
“Let’s have this conversation in the hall,” I answer.
“You the terrible person…the terrible nurse. I do not respect you. You trying to kill the old man.”
“Let’s take it outside.”
My patient opens his eyes. He begins to cry. I squeeze his hand tighter. I leave. The administrator follows me, chanting that I am “the killer one,” followed by her accusations of my having abused her staff after I “broke” into the facility on Monday. You can hear her screeches in the hills of Pasadena.
“He’s dying,” I say. “You do understand that?”
She rants for a good five minutes about the quality of the diapers the agency supplies.
“No matter what you think of the diapers, he’s dying. He’s dying because one of your employees forced food into his mouth when he couldn’t swallow it.”
“You can’t go in his room,” she says. “You can’t touch him.”
“At this moment, I’m the one with the license and the training. If you block me from seeing my patient, you are breaking the law.”
I arrange for continuous nursing care until my patient dies. The administrator stands in front of my patient’s door. Her arms are folded. She stares at the floor. I sit quietly in the living room until the shift nurse arrives. I explain the situation to her. The administrator leaves. I go into my patient’s room to say good-bye. Breathing at a rate of twelve morphine induced breaths a minute, he is sleeping, smiling for the first time since he arrived at this gated palace of compassion. I kiss his forehead and leave. My patient dies the next morning before dawn.
The following Monday, I tell the hospice’s manager I am going to report the board and care for elder abuse.
“Do what you think is right,” she says.
“You with me on this?” I ask. “Can you give me the number for Adult Protective Services?”
She fingers a paperweight on her desk. In its center is a goldfish, whose eyes hold the same terrified look my patient’s did when he fought to breathe.
“I don’t know the number,” she says.
We both look out her window to the traffic on Olympic.
The next day, the gospel nurse cuts my time from three days a week to one. And the one is a maybe. The agency on Sunset offers me a case. Two ten hour shifts a week. An assisted living facility in Toluca Lake, where several of my hospice patients roomed, offers me a part-time job. A fifteen minute drive from my apartment, it pays top dollar. No more one hundred and twenty-five dollars a week for gas. I quit the hospice.
For a day–an entire twenty-four hours–I am weightless and free as the air in Los Angeles teases me with its touch.
I wake up in the morning to the odor of rank kitty litter.
Chapter 9/ 2008
“When the writing grabs us in our throats, we don’t feel alone.”
Six months remain on the sentence of my lost year.
No possibility of parole.
The odds of flying free and living in my body quickly turned against me in the days after I left the hospice. The fear in the eyes of my last patient as he struggled to breathe and the muffled squeaking of his throat, fighting with hopeless machinations to keep pureed fruit from drowning his lungs, push me off of my black velvet couch and out of my apartment every day by noon. A soft wind blows down Beachwood Drive from the Hollywood sign in the hills above my apartment. I walk the streets of Hollywood for hours, watching branches sway above me, the worn down heels of my cowboy boots hitting Franklin Avenue, where my eyes are shocked by the unselfconscious abandon of umbrellas shimmying above the outdoor tables of au courant restaurants, their ashtray covered girth overtaking the sidewalk, the narrow windows of the Scientology building across the street arrogantly looking down on the smokers beneath them. I could feel the air on me the day after I left the hospice, but I never think to question its absence in the following weeks and months. It has been so long since my body has relaxed against the caressing breath of the City of the Angels, my skin has forgotten what a breeze feels like. When the lost year ends, the air persists in its refusal to touch me.
The ex drops by with the cliched “I fucked up” bowed head and sheepish eyes at 2 AM. We talk. Mostly I listen. For reasons not quite clear to either of us, his business, facilitating the placement of gift baskets and swag at high-end parties, has taken a dive. He is losing thousands of dollars a month. He is scared. Terrified. It is not the writer’s strike or high gas prices. Suddenly, Hollywood people have stopped shelling out money, even for the tackiest of Golden Globe after-parties. He tells me I am his best bud. I can not argue with him about his fiancee. He is the friend I can depend on in this airless city. The only one I have.
“Try to hang on until September,” he whispers. “You’re going to make the best teacher.”
The tip of his tongue licks my ear. I want to tell him he has taught me what it means to be strong. The mask I have worn since I was first called a faggot is early 70s sangfroid. I have not said what I feel since I was in college and watched Tuesday Weld walk the line in “Play It As It Lays.” The ex’s fingertips run along my neck. For a moment, I think his touch is a breeze from the open windows in my living room. As always, my mouth refuses to speak the thoughts I feel.
Before starting my two new nursing jobs, a private duty case and charge nurse at an assisted living facility, I spend a week learning how to be a substitute teacher at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Teacher Training Academy on Wilshire. I have not been in a room like this in a long time, not since Tuesday showed me how hauteur worked. Despite the classroom’s windows having been sealed shut for years, my skin is alive, the impermeable windows eliminating any chance of cool air stroking my face or back as it floats up from the bones of the Ambassador Hotel across the street. My balls and gut do not hurt, my blood pressure idles at a low my body has not known since I was a teenager, but this airtight room is not about me being a lucky man. No one is whispering, rolling around on the floor, listening to gospel music or proclaiming “He is sovereign!” at the drop of a hat. The Academy’s facilitators smile as they seat Los Angeles’ future substitute teachers at long formica topped tables, where we spend the week brainstorming different teaching scenarios, talking nonstop about how to handle difficult students, the best ways to discuss current events and how to present ourselves to the students. No one eats four donuts before they speak. There are no forms to fill out, no disingenuous re-certifications to be sent to Sacramento. If we were presented with such trivia, everyone sitting comfortably at these banged up tables would, without hesitation, help the others complete the migraine inducing paperwork.
The facilitators ask us to come up with a way to introduce ourselves to our classes while, at the same time, getting the students to reveal who they are and what interests them. My table picks me to lead a mock class.
“My name is Mr. Epstine,” I say to the smiling faces in front of me.
All eyes are on me, like the nights when I stood onstage, alone in the light to perform my monologues. The eyes are waiting for the story, wondering what this scruffy old man has to say. I give them a moment to drink me in, their eyes focusing on every move I make. Gut twists a bit. I want to tell my colleagues a good tale.
“I’m a writer when I’m not teaching. One of my favorite authors is John Fante. He wrote about what today would be called marginalized or dispossessed people living here in Los Angeles. That’s what I like…getting to know the people we pass by, but really never see. As we go around the room, I want you to tell me your name and who your favorite writer is and why.”
“I like sports reports on TV and online. Is that the writing you’re talking about?” a Latino man in his late twenties asks.
“Sure is,” I answer. “Concise, clean, cuts to the chase. I like it.”
Our lead teacher smiles and nods at me to continue.
Next, I call on a quiet woman, who I take to be eastern European. She has not spoken in any of our exercises. I have to know who her author is. When I ask her, she looks out to the impossible to open window.
“You must like someone,” I say. “A play? A movie? A song?”
She smiles and says: “Romeo and Juliet.”
My plan was to work the room, like when I do stand up. The deep sadness in her eyes and the tentativeness of her voice stops me. The lead teacher straightens his back and steps forward.
“You look like a Juliet,” I tell her. “Can you tell us why she enchants you?”
“I know what that feels like,” she says “…what families can do.”
As a class, we are quiet. We breathe together with the same rhythm. This is a room to work in, not a room to be worked.
“When the writing grabs us in our throats, we don’t feel alone,” I tell her.
The lead teacher leans back against the wall. I walk between the room’s tables, listening to the dreams and fears of the people sitting at them, their voices touching my skin the way the air once did.
My gut is still. This is something I can do. I like it.
Maybe I will not need to get my balls fixed. Their throbbing pain has stopped, as has the swelling. April, the open enrollment month for my health insurance, has long since come and gone. I am a Virgo. How I could have let that slip by? Was it the thought of someone cutting into me? I do not want the knife on me. I want to know what is in the heads of the people in this room, who sit attentively with still hands and trusting eyes at scratched up tables, people I have passed by and passed over since the day I returned to this city.
“Good luck in the fall. The kids are going to love you,” the lead teacher tells me at the potluck on our last day. “They respond to adults who convey authority and are interested in them.”
That is why this room is different. The people at my table and the ones around me want to be right where they are sitting, our guts ache only to teach the young angels of our city.
I drive home down Wilshire singing along to “Spirit in the Sky,” tears coming out of the sealed windows of my eyes. When I get home, I will watch the usurper Obama debate Hillary, then dream up a lesson plan on how to discuss this with the kids.
Lucky man. Just hold on until September.
Feeling very much a teacher in my heart, I begin the first of my nursing jobs. My plan is to hold on to the more palatable of the two gigs when I begin teaching in September. For now, I will attend to the straight boyfriend. He has lost so much business his eyes sigh whenever his former heroine Oprah babbles about being your true best self. I should learn how to cook. My man needs sustenance.
The agency on Sunset has assigned me to relief shifts for a ninety-three year old Holocaust survivor. His caretaker is short, overweight, in his late twenties. This kid has literally lived at the patient’s bedside for the past year, sleeping next to him on a lumpy futon at night. He attends to our patient twenty-four seven. Kid chants the rosary every morning when I enter the room. I can recite the Sh’ma, but I choose not to, even though it would earn me cred with my patient. Within five minutes of meeting the kid, he informs me he was a nurse in the Philippines. Right. I am about to be signed as the star of an edgy HBO sitcom.
I have been hired to work Wednesdays and Thursdays, the days the kid goes to school. When I ask the kid what he is studying, he stares at the white carpeted floor. He is unable to tell me the location of the school. I divine it to be quite an eclectic affair, as every Tuesday evening the agency calls and informs me the kid needs to change my days. I rarely work a consecutive Wednesday and Thursday after my orientation. You do not play a Virgo from New York that way. The kid needs to learn this.
I was on to the kid from the get-go. The ambiguous schooling was the tip-off, so transparent, so easy to blow a hole through. Kid never once washes his hands. He is always barefoot. The syringe and needle he uses to draw up respiratory medications have been reused so often the lettering on the plastic shaft has worn off. I do not know if the kid thinks he is suctioning the trachea and bronchi, but you need to get the catheter in way deeper if you want to reach either. He is able to mimic back medical terminology, but he never once answers a question. He dissembles until I want to slug him and put him out of his obvious misery.
“Do we really want to give that medication?” I ask him on the first morning of orientation.
He proceeds to place the pill in the pill crusher. I remove it.
“His pressure is extremely low,” I tell the kid. “We don’t want to give him an antihypertensive. He shouldn’t get the other BP meds either.”
The kid breaks into a sweat. I pour the rest of the medications, shaking my head “no” when I touch the bottles containing blood pressure pills. I throw around the words orthostatic hypotension to keep the kid quiet as I pulverize the pills with a stone mallet.
Cancer ignited our patient’s decline. He graduated to a stroke, which knocked out all movement in his arms and legs. The ensuing respiratory failure moved him into the room he now lives in. He is trached and on a ventilator. A G tube sticks out of his round white belly. Three inches away, a J tube protrudes from deep in his small intestine. Neither work well. The J tube was once clear plastic. Small black spores have attached themselves to its insides. Both these puppies need to be flushed as routinely as one would say the rosary. My patient needs to be bathed daily, his hair combed, hygiene maintained, linens and bed clothes changed. To prevent bed sores, the bony areas of his skin must be massaged with lotion frequently. His tube feed is run every four hours. His trach is cleaned daily and changed weekly. I watch it closely as he is prone to mucous plugs, which can block off his airway in a matter of seconds. I suction him almost every hour. The administration of his medications is critical. He is a diabetic and has high blood pressure. He must be turned every two hours. He is over six feet tall. Two hundred plus pounds of dead weight. I watch his vent closely. It alarms frequently, signaling that its tubing has accumulated moisture, which must be siphoned off. I check his blood sugar three times a shift, his blood pressure every hour, as it bounces from low to high in a matter of minutes, requiring close attention to the meds which control it. His respiratory treatments are performed every four hours. He receives twenty-four medications during my shift, their names scrawled out in an indecipherable script on coffee stained medication sheets. I administer meds every hour, grinding them into a fine powder before heating them to make their instillation into the G tube easier. Medications tend to clog up an old G tube, which if blocked will require hours of repositioning my patient’s immobile body, along with constantly flushing the tube with Coca-Cola, whose obstruction dissolving powers can only be described as magical.
My patient’s daughters have billeted him in a room so narrow his hospital bed barely has room to stretch out, leaving a few feet in width around its frame. The room’s two windows look out on to a poorly paved alley in Westwood. His wife is in the next room, attended to by her caretaker, a woman who claims she was a nurse in Cuba. Again, I am the star of an edgy HBO sitcom. I was told by the agency the wife is wheeled into her husband’s room every afternoon for a short visit. I never once see this happen. The only face my patient has seen on a continual basis for the past year is the kid’s. The keeper of the flame has erected a shrine at the foot of our patient’s bed. Held captive under the glass of a cheap black metal frame is a nausea inducing poem the kid penned about his love for our charge. Surrounding this cheap sentiment are cell phones, rosary beads, remote controls and takeout menus. Our patient is suspicious when anyone unfamiliar enters his room. His eyes follow everything I do. He closes them whenever I touch him. If I make the slightest unscripted gesture, if he reads a trace of uncertainty or hesitation on my face, I will lose him.
He is a what we in the medical field, who have training and possess a license, call a nursing challenge. I like to work. I dig in.
Game plan is to wean him off of the vent and close his trach, allowing his family to hear his voice again. I will never hear this patient speak. The numbers on his arms tell me all I need to know. The days go by quickly. He settles into bed baths, foot massages, a dimly lit room and open windows on hot afternoons. When the kid leaves, I switch off the screaming Filipino soap operas and tune in TCM. My patient spends most of the day sleeping as I go about my work. He opens his eyes to stare at Rita Hayworth or Jane Russell before winking at me and falling back to sleep.
I do not foresee him getting out of this room any time soon.
My first day on my own, the kid calls me an hour before my shift ends. Can I stay late, he asks. In broken English, he whispers a mind numbing monologue about school, an RN he knows, a bus route and a bookstore. I can not leave the patient alone. The extra money won’t hurt. I stay. The second night, I get the same request an hour before I am to leave.
“Sure, but we can’t do this every night. I have things to do after work.”
The kid opens the front door ten minutes later. Guess the undisclosed location of the school is around the block. Trailing behind him is a thin white man in his mid-thirties. The kid holds a large bag from a Chinese restaurant. He refuses to look me in the eye.
“This the nurse who took care of her in the hospital,” the kid says.
The kid, like many of his Filipino brethren, has great difficulty getting her, I mean his, pronouns straight.
I give the kid report on the day’s events, peppering it with medical jargon I know he can not follow. Now, the kid wants me to leave early.
“I got hired for ten hour shifts. I’m working ten hours.”
I go into the kitchen to fold the day’s laundry. Dinner is laid out for two. Kid works fast. What I do not get, what I have never understood, is why dreamy RNs from Iowa like chubby Filipinos so much.
My fourth week in, the Cuban caretaker sees fit to talk to me, her opening salvo expressing her admiration for the way I fold sheets, washcloths and towels. I am only averaging a day a week at this gig, as the kid keeps changing my days. But I do seem to have a way with laundry. I do insurance interviews to make up the money I lose when the kid cancels my shifts. I make enough to pay rent and buy groceries. Sometimes, I have extra money, allowing me to take the boyfriend to a bargain matinee in Los Feliz. We sneak in bottles of Pepsi One and split a box of Milk Duds. What lucky men we are.
My new ally fixes us Cuban coffee. I tell her my blood pressure diet forbids it. Her eyes insist I drink. I sip. It is beyond wonderful. Its bitterness, darker than my soul at 3 AM, churns straight through my twisted Jewish gut. I have discovered the ultimate Master Cleanse. The Cuban looks like she herself has not shit in a week, but the coffee sure opens her up, she can not stop talking. In addition to my folding skills, she likes the way I suction my patient. Employing histrionics this side of Faye Dunaway in “Mommie Dearest,” the Cuban voices her disapproval of the kid’s supposed medical skills. The Cuban likes the stillness which comes over my patient’s face after I bathe him and massage his feet. The caffeine will not let her stop wailing on the kid. Seems the family led him to believe they would not only sponsor his citizenship when his visa expired, but claimed they would pay him off the books. No to both. The kid is going to school in order to stay in the country on a student visa while trying to figure out how to pay off his back taxes. The way the kid processes information, this will most likely take the rest of his rosary bead chanting life.
“Must me some school,” I say. “Different days and locations every week.”
The Cuban laughs. After a month of maneuvering my patient’s dead weight by myself, she offers to help me when I turn him.
That afternoon, my patient spikes a temp. I can not wake him up. Chest X-rays are taken in his room. Blood is drawn. The doctor makes a home visit and stays for over an hour.
These people are rich.
“He’s developed another infection,” the doctor says. “Most likely double pneumonia. Your thoughts?”
“Seems to me if I teach the kid about hygiene, show him how to clean equipment, suggest that he wash his hands, maybe things like this wouldn’t happen.”
“He’s hypnotized this family. I wouldn’t attempt to get between them.”
With death blowing in through the screen of my patient’s open window, his three daughters put in their first appearance, their tight lips smiling down at their father as their French manicured nails beat into their cell phones, their eyes gazing at their keyboards as they manage their businesses and talk over each other, telling their father how good he looks.
“How did that spot get on my rug?” the oldest sister asks me.
“The one before you did it,” she says. “I wouldn’t pay him for that day. Now, he’s suing me.”
“A white rug in a sick room isn’t ideal,” I say.
The youngest daughter looks up from her iPhone as her thumbs pound out orders to her employees in sweat shops throughout the Pacific Rim. She hates me. Every time I see her, she stares at me with such contempt in her oddly slanted eyes I feel like I am Ferapont in the all Botox version of “The Three Sisters.”
“Have you thought of bypassing the agency and working for us as an independent contractor?” the middle sister asks.
“The IRS would never know,” the oldest says. “It would be our secret.”
“I don’t think so…the kid changes my days every week.”
Silence. The wind coming through the window makes their preternaturally shining hair twitch. There is not one grey strand between the three of them.
“Besides, I’m going to be working as a substitute teacher in September.”
They stare at me. They never once blink or smile, all three are over sixty and are attired in skinny jeans and low cut cotton blouses. Their eyes are the same deep shade of green. Must be contacts.
“You have to be smart to be a teacher,” the youngest says, her eyes on the keyboard.
“You’re not flexible with your time?” the middle sister asks.
“I’m not a whore sitting in my apartment ready to be sent out on a call,” I tell her.
Their father laughs. It is the only time I ever see his pale lips form a smile.
It is hot outside, over ninety degrees. The air conditioning is off. The room is freezing.
The sisters are not lucky. White help can be so difficult, n’est-ce pas?
Chapter 10/ 2008
A Holocaust Survivor Survives.
The day before I am to begin orientation for my second part time job, charge nurse at the assisted living facility, the kid is all giggles, babbling about antibiotics and the G tube between snorts of laughter. I ignore him, as he could not possibly be giving antibiotics intravenously. Maybe his spacey RN boyfriend is. Maybe the Cuban is. I know I’m not.
“What’s so funny?” I ask.
“I wanted to see what would happen if I took her off the vent. She become the blue and her saturation crash,” he says.
“Why would you take a a ninety-three year old man with double pneumonia off the vent?” I ask.
More giggles. The kid fingers his rosary and leaves for school.
“He’s saying something is wrong,” the Cuban tells me a half hour later.
I am in the kitchen, thinking of the kid’s double chin as I crush my patient’s pills into a fine dust.
“He can’t talk, he’s trached,” I say.
My carotids vibrate. A drop of pee stains my white Hanes boxers. The man can not talk unless his trach is occluded.
I run into my patient’s room. His oxygen saturation is seventy. Normal is ninety-five. Lips are blue. Skin is cool. Pulse is rapid and thready. He is sweating. The vent refuses to alarm, its screen flashing ominous warnings of a danger more severe than the threat the e-book phenom poses to the publishing world. Blood pressure is 200/110. I have been out of the room for five minutes.
It will go that way sometimes.
I try to suction him through his trach. I can not get in deep enough. It is blocked. I lift him up into a sitting position. I pound on the bone white skin of his back to break the blockage up. I still can not get in. His fingertips and toenails are blue. His pupils are dilated. His blank eyes plead for me to get air into his lungs. My hands have left frantic indentations on his back.
“Pound the chest,” the Cuban says.
“He has a pulse.”
“Pound the chest.”
“There’s no reason to.”
I attach the ambu bag to his trach. His chest does not rise or fall. Saturation is sixty-five. I turn the oxygen up to ten liters. The only way to get air into his lungs is via the trach. He is going to eat it. I try to suction him again. Nothing. I pound his back again. I suction. Nothing. His fingers and toes are ice cold.
“If you don’t pound his chest I will,” the Cuban says.
At least, she is employing the right pronoun.
“If you pound his chest you’re only going to make it worse BECAUSE HE HAS A PULSE!”
I call 911. His sweat has saturated the mattress with fear. His eyes are closed. I open them. Pupils fixed and dilated. I shine a flashlight into them. Nothing. Pressure the same. Saturation drops to sixty. I ambu bag his face. Maybe I can get some air in this way. Nothing. He is going to die. I keep bagging. His chest does not move.
“If you don’t pound his chest, I will,” the Cuban says again.
I run around the bed to where she is standing. I pick her up and carry her into the hall.
“Stay there and let the firemen in,” I say in a remarkably calm voice.
His pulse is one hundred and twenty. Pressure remains elevated. His heart is going to blow. Great. On top of everything else, I am sure he has had a stroke. I can not get the suction catheter in any further. I still can not bag his trach. His saturation has dropped to fifty-five. All I did was leave his room, as I do every morning when I prepare his meds. I have killed him.
The paramedics enter. The Cuban opens her yap to tell them what is going on. Two sentences in, they ask her to leave. She will not budge.
A paramedic, with deep blue eyes and biceps the size of her neck, stares the Cuban down. She retreats to the doorway.
I bag my patient’s face as all three paramedics shoot me the same “What the fuck?” stare. Each is straight out of Central Casting, acting immigrants who have crossed any manner of sexual and ethical borders to reach the City of the Angels, their dreamy eyes and wet lips signaling their willingness to do whatever it takes to crawl out of the vortex of the day player roles their chiseled faces and bodies have sucked their dreams into.
“His trach is blocked. I can’t get anything out,” I say. “I didn’t know what else to do.”
I give the musclebound trio report. The one with the blue eyes tries to ambu bag the trach. If my patient can not dive into the deep healing pools of the Aryan eyes gazing down at him, he is surely lost. Nothing. The blonde scruffy one, his bangs falling over the unlined glow of his tan forehead, pushes Blue Eyes aside and tries to suction through the trach. Nothing. Saturation fifty-three. Pulse races, blood pressure pounds.
The third paramedic, a dark Latino with a shaved head and a red snake tattoo circling his lower neck, reviews my patient’s meds with me. We go over his medical history. I show all three the document spelling out, in no uncertain terms, the full code status of the ice cold man on the sweat dampened bed jammed into this tiny room. The three shoot me the stare again. My inadequacy has made me wet under my arms and between my legs. I stare into the blue eyes. He has to bring my patient back. What is the point of having all those muscles and angular cheekbones if you can not resuscitate a sweet old man who smiles when Debbie Reynolds dances?
My patient is on the gurney. Without breaking a sweat, the three sets of pumped up arms have tilted the gurney to an angle perpendicular to the buffed hardwood floor. We are in the elevator. I hold my patient’s cold hand. He should not be up so late. It must be two in the morning. The bright light of 10 AM hits my eyes, momentarily allowing me to see the veins and capillaries running across my corneas, as the blue sky beats down on the wailing ambulance before us. The trio lifts my patient into the ambulance with the grace of Cher’s Vegas backup dancers. Branches sway in the wind. I do not feel anything.
Except the cold fear telling me I have killed my patient.
“You don’t see many of these anymore,” the Latino says.
We are both looking at the numbers on my patient’s arm. The hairless hands and neatly manicured fingernails of the paramedics hold on to leather straps as the sirens roar from somewhere deep inside the speeding vehicle. Cars move to the right to let us pass. The weight of killing my patient is so heavy on me I do not sway to the left when we round the corner to the emergency room. We reach the hospital in three minutes.
They will never revive him. I have let a Holocaust survivor die.
Everyone in the ER knows my patient. He has coded here many times before. The ER nurse gives him an aerosol treatment. Suctions out a huge mucous plug. Moving him around and the swerving of the ambulance have dislodged it. His saturation begins to rise. His airway is open. His chest rises and falls again.
I call the kid. He is at school. He shows up in ten minutes. I assume today’s class was held at an undisclosed location in the bowels of the hospital. The kid performs another of his mad woman Tennessee Williams flavored monologues for the ER doc. Elizabeth Taylor can flawlessly deliver these heartfelt musings of desperation and loss with a sense of truth, not a kid who can not get his pronouns straight. Doc looks at the kid without blinking and instructs me to call the family. Even though our patient is breathing again, this morning has been a terrible blow to his frail body. Most likely, he has stroked out. There is nothing else the doctor can do. My patient is going to die, probably in the next few hours.
“Jake did what she can…everything is good…the ER will bring her back,” the kid tells the family.
The doctor shakes his head. He pats my shoulder. I can not talk.
“Take your time…not to do the worry,” the kid says.
The kid turns his dead black eyes on me.
“I’m hungry,” he says. “Have you had the lunch yet?”
An hour later, my patient opens his eyes. Drugs have lowered his blood pressure and slowed his pulse. Saturation is ninety-five on three liters of oxygen. The faintest hue of pink has returned to his lips and nail beds. He is transferred to the Coronary Care Unit. A parade of doctors enters and leaves. The kid dissembles to anyone who will listen. No one does. They know the kid. When they are not snickering, the eyes of the nurses and respiratory staff shoot arrows at me. I sit at my patient’s bedside. I have sweat through to my bones. The skin on the bottom of feet feels like it has been peeled off by the Gods of Nursing, who passed their morning sitting in judgement as I scurried and stumbled to save the sleeping man whose head now rests on two plastic pillows encased in cheap linen pillowcases. I write my nurse’s notes. I review the paramedics’ documentation. They arrived four minutes after I called. I thought it was, at minimum, a half hour.
The family enters. They do not ask me what happened. The kid holds court. The eyes of the family shine. Their heads move slowly up and down. They cup their chins with the palms of their hands. They think they are getting their money’s worth. The head doc comes in. I ask him about Troponin levels. A kindred spirit, he tells me about atelectasis and white blood cell counts. He ignores the kid. The doc looked out the window when the kid told him he took our patient off the vent to, you know, see what would happen. The doc squeezes my cheeks with his chubby white fingers. The teenage granddaughters and their mothers stop texting.
“Good job,” the doc says. “You’ve done all your mitzvahs for the month.”
“We’ll keep him here a few weeks, until he’s stable,” the doc tells the family. “You’re lucky a good nurse was with him today.”
The family stares at me for a moment before they resume texting.
I work for them for a few more weeks. They never thank me.
“You’re a nurse?” the respiratory therapist asks me the next week.
“Slave to the sick for thirty years.”
“Did you start as a teenager? How old are you?”
“Fifty-six in a few months.”
“No way. You’ve had work done? It’s very subtle. I’m loving that your grey hair matches your glasses.”
“I bought these when I had money. They’re the last Alain Mikliframes I’ll ever own. I can barely buy groceries.”
“This is my second job, dawg. I work it to pay my bills down.”
We smile and nod our heads. He is short, dark, his guns as rounded and hard as the paramedics’. The kid could look like him if he laid off the potato chips and ice cream. The therapist has a tattoo, one of those tribal chains wrapped around the arm deals. I never had a thing for tattoos. I like his. He asks me about the kid. I tell him about the babbling, the mimicking, the nurse lover, the fake school. The therapist grimaces, rolls his eyes and crosses himself.
“I’m from a real different island than that one,” the therapist says. “Last year, we couldn’t figure out why your patient had so many infections. We cultured his trach…there was stool in it.”
My stomach wakes up and growls. A sliver of pain flashes through my balls. I look at the chain slinking around his dark skin. I tell him about the no gloves, not washing hands, not cleaning equipment, the bare feet, the medication faux pas.
“Stool in his fucking trach, dawg…stool in his trach,” he says.
“I bet his daughters have to take an Xanax before they wipe their asses,” I tell him.
The kid calls an hour later. He has lost his wallet. He will not be in on time.
“I’m not staying late tonight…I have something to do.”
“I lost my wallet in the bad place.”
“I’m not staying late tonight.”
“It was in the dirty place.”
“Did you shove it up your ass?”
The kid does not answer.
“I’ll give report to the staff and you can read my nurse’s notes,” I tell him.
“It was in the bar on the Santa Monica Street.”
“I’m not staying late tonight.”
“Don’t tell her wife’s caretaker I was in that place.”
“I’m not staying late tonight.”
During the three weeks my patient is in this hospital, the kid is never in his room when I arrive on duty or leave for home. I do not miss him. The family thinks he is sleeping at the bedside, on a green vinyl chair which folds out into a cot. I keep our patient clean, hydrated and comfortable. He smiles at me when he wakes up, then quickly drifts off to sleep. He closes his eyes whenever the doctor discusses sending him home. The staff put their bows and arrows down. They ask me to work on their unit. The respiratory therapist has sung my praises. A real job. A steady income. For ten minutes, I breathe in a new life.
Word around the hospital is that it is about to go bankrupt.
“I don’t use the air conditioning in my car, dawg,” the therapist tells me on the last shift we work together. “I’m trying to save on gas, but it’s weird, I drive with my windows open and I can’t feel the air.”
“I haven’t felt the air for months,” I tell him.
The next morning, the hospital goes bust. It shuts its doors that afternoon. The staff loses every cent in their 401Ks and their accumulated sick and vacation time. They are not paid for their last two weeks.
The airless days are hotter than I ever remember. The nights are chilly. Is it summer? I do not know.
My patient is transfered to another hospital. Every Monday, the kid calls the agency to change my days. And every Tuesday. My orientation days at the assisted living facility are set in stone. I can not change my schedule to accommodate the kid’s bullshit.
“I don’t want you taking care of that old man anymore, even in the hospital,” the boyfriend says.
“It’s between rent or food if I don’t go in,” I tell him.
“That punk is playing you like you’re from an enemy village.”
The boyfriend is funny since his fiancee hocked her engagement ring and gave him the heave-ho. We joke about him dropping in on the kid at the hospital. We will dress him up in tight jeans and a shirt, unbuttoned just so. He will fix his baby blues on the kid and tell him he is looking for me, then make with his sexy squint and inform the kid to stop messing with my schedule. The kid will lose a lot more than his wallet.
“My New York attitude is rubbing off on you,” I tell him.
“You can wait around for me to call, but only me.”
The boyfriend gives me a check for the rent.
“You’re my call boy,” he says. “You’re not to work for that man. You can’t see what it’s doing to you.”
I do not know why the boyfriend is so nice to me. Nor how he plows through his days, calling people and taking them out to lunch, trying to find work. He has not booked an event in months. He let his administrative assistant go the month before. His savings are close to zero. He has tapped into his 401K. Not that it is worth much anymore. He says things will turn around soon.
“I’ll come in and answer phones for you,” I tell him. “Do some computer stuff.”
“No one is calling me,” he answers.
At night, my cat and his dog sleep side by side on the chair at the foot of my bed. The boyfriend and I hold each other tight under the heavy down covers.
The City of the Angels is colder than either of us ever remembers.
Chapter 11/ 2008
“I am a very deep spiritual person.”
Like Janet Leigh hightailing it out of Phoenix in “Psycho,” I refuse to worry about which part of my car is destined to become embedded in the warm tar of the 101 as I head to Toluca Lake for my first day of work at the assisted living facility. The newly polished chrome of my red 69 Chevy Malibu rattles softly, my neck snuggles against the black leather headrest, my body sinks into the languid flow of unencumbered traffic. In my freshly Windexed rearview mirror, I see, but do not feel, the wind tousling my hair, these teasing caresses leading me to believe my new job will be a breeze for a lucky man like myself. After keeping my Holocaust patient alive until the paramedics arrived, how could it not? I smile as I pull into the cool darkness of the facility’s underground garage. My tires squeak against the smooth pavement, all four laughing with the knowledge that when the fall term begins in three months, I will be working as a substitute teacher for the Los Angeles Unified School District.
I did not know the sentence on my lost year was not even close to being played out.
Entering the assisted living facility is like making a Stanislavski inspired entrance on to the set of a truck and bus tour of Chekhov. Tasseled pillows, flowers in pewter vases, weathered books, lush velvet throws and wicker chaise lounges abound. Residents who were supporting players in B movies or one shot singular sensations stroll the grounds of this hermetically sealed cherry orchard, their daily promenades ending in the dining hall, where they mingle with their brethren, the parents of lawyers, hedge fund managers and physicians. All are decked out in silk pajamas or billowing caftans. What is left of the men’s hair is neatly cut and recently dyed in odd shades of black or orange, the women’s intricately coiffed and shellacked at the facility’s on-site beauty shop.
Having auditioned in the bowels of Burbank the day before for the role of Ferapont in “The Three Sisters,” I intuit my surroundings to be a good omen. My nursing colleagues long for the big cities of their homelands. Los Angeles is the place where they make money to send back home when not snatching up newly foreclosed on properties in Reseda. In my assigned costume of khaki pants and fitted blue linen shirt, I walk gingerly on the facility’s faux Persian carpets while whispering the lines of the monologue I will be performing at the end of the month in a très bohemian variety show at the Fake Gallery on Melrose.
When expounding on my duties as the facility’s medication nurse, the Nursing Supervisor repeatedly uses the words “high-end,” taking in a deep breath and then lowering her voice when these words are spoken. In a Southern drawl this side of Paula Dean, she informs me that in an assisted living facility, residents do not receive nursing care from the nurses. Nothing. Rien. Nada. Not a band-aid, cold compress or help off of one of the Persian carpets after a fall. If something goes south, I can only take a blood pressure, feel for a pulse and check for breathing. If there’s life in the resident sprawled on the floor, I am to call the resident’s family or guardian, who will take it from there. The place charges a lot of scratch for this high-end service. 6K a month. That is just for the room. For meals, throw in another thou. Add eight Benjamins to have a nurse prepare and administer medications. For six more, you can have your dog walked three times a day. Another grand to have what is called a “buddy” check on you every two hours. The buddies are several rungs below the caretakers I have met over the past year. And, trust the lucky man, I am being benevolent in my assessment of their “skills.”
“Do you know of any older folks who would like to live here?” the supervisor asks me.
The facility’s census has bottomed out. No one knows why. Something about the economy. I am offered a grand for every resident I refer. The supervisor calls it community outreach. Smells like pimping to my lucky nose. Never went to that nursing school. To avoid the skull rattling braying of the supervisor’s high-pitched voice, I put on my Alain Miklis and focus on my surroundings. The furniture is from clearance sales at Ross. The plants and flowers are paper, their terra cotta pots plastic. I pick up a book. Its cover does not contain a title, but it can be opened. All the books are balsa wood boxes, their insides empty, while their embossed spines promise a long Los Angeles afternoon with Dickens, Melville, Chaucer and of course, Tolstoy. Nice challenge for the residents with Alzheimer’s.
Trying to give the Southern magnolia’s buzz saw the slip, I walk the hallways, quietly reciting my tale of meeting Gena Rowlands, whose advice got me into the Groundlings improv company when I migrated to the City of the Angels in the early 80s. Lost in a reverie of much happier days, I round a corner and nearly knock down a woman in a muumuu redder than the gleaming skin of my Chevy Malibu. I recognize her voice right away. No face lift or blonde bouffant wig, so I need a moment to figure out she has played dozens of second leads in movies, having been directed by among others, George Stevens and John Houston. A turn on Broadway netted her a Tony award for best supporting actress. She must have done someone real damage to have ended up touring in this illusionary road show.
“Isn’t he handsome?” the hot on my heels Nursing Supervisor asks her. “He’s our new nurse. ”
The supervisor is from a place in the South which neither Tennessee Williams nor Carson McCullers ever visited.
“Don’t you just want to eat him up?” the supervisor asks.
The actress smiles. She nods her head. She stopped eating gay men years ago.
The supervisor continues to talk, her voice scratching against the fake vase holding the fake flowers on the fake walnut bookcase she stands in front of.
After two days of orientation, I have already asked too many questions.
This being the first nursing job for each of my young colleagues, not one has experienced the soul defining trials of working in a hospital where, if you can survive the sheer heat of it, you are molded into a damn good nurse. For that matter, these puppies have not worked anywhere else. It shows. Lips tremble when I ask why they do not follow basic nursing procedures when performing the simplest of tasks. They have no idea what diet the residents are on. Not a clue as to whether to give medications before or after meals. The facility has eighty residents. The report each nurse gives at shift change lasts, at tops, two minutes. When I inquire as to where we wash our hands, their eyes stare at the intricate patterns woven into the Persian carpets as their fingers tighten around their thumbs. Their tongue tied mouths spit out noise about how I will have to spend at least an hour a shift with a particular patient who obsesses over his blood sugar and eye drops. I counter with decades old nursing theories about boundaries and setting limits. They talk about getting tips at Christmas and how to clock out early.
“You need to chill, handsome,” the Nursing Supervisor says to me as I pass an uncle Vanya type on my way to lunch in an outdoor courtyard, its spotted terra cotta walls encircled by swaying palm trees.
I find myself sitting at a concrete table, waves of Los Angeles heat beating down on me and my fellow nurses: an Armenian, a Russian and a Latina. Accosted by the spotlight of an utterly merciless noon sun, I sweat under my arms and down the middle of my back. Not a drop of perspiration materializes on anyone else at the table.
The activities director, a gay man of a certain age, talks for ten unbroken minutes about a television program called “Project Runway.” He tells us a man named Tim Gunn is his role model. The pronounced marionette lines around the activities director’s mouth hold the same contempt I see in the eyes of the daughters of my Holocaust patient. I will never see any of their foreheads move.
“How come a high-end place like this can’t get more residents?” I ask.
They stop babbling. Finally. They look at the nuts and fruit I have brought from home. I do not have the three dollars to buy lunch, which the kitchen workers have given my colleagues for free. I have not yet been accepted into the gratis meal circle. I never am.
“What’s wrong?” the Latina asks the Russian.
“Do you like my hair?” she answers.
“It’s beautiful…it’s always beautiful.”
“My husband didn’t notice it…the kids did…but he hasn’t said anything.”
“You’re too stunning for his Ukrainian ass,” the activities director says.
Streaked blonde hair, unblemished creamy skin, long legs and deep blue eyes, the Russian moves like a cat approaching an unguarded bowl of milk. She is truly beautiful. The activities director could be. If he shut his mouth. He talks for a few more minutes about this Tim Gunn person until the heat steals his breath, leaving him with only the strength to take a bite out of his hamburger.
“The regional director cut me back to thirty-two hours yesterday,” the Latina says.
“I knew something was up…I could smell it,” the Russian says.
“The census is dropping. They have to cut back somewhere,” the Armenian says.
“Two residents tried to Jew their rates down,” the activities director says. “The boss said no. They’re leaving September first.”
At our next luncheon, I will sprinkle crushed glass on his hamburger. His marionette lines will really sing then.
“What about your benefits? Your health insurance?” I ask the Latina.
All eyes focus on the hole in the center of the table, out of which the pole of a bright orange umbrella sprouted a few weeks ago. A recent swirl of the Santa Anas ripped straight through its tough cloth. The umbrella has not been replaced. Maybe when the census picks up.
“It’s so fucking hot today,” the Latina says.
“I feel bad being hired like this,” I tell her. “They must have brought me in to take over your hours.”
She lowers her Dolce Gabbana sunglasses to mid nose and stares at me.
“You know…to get out of paying for your benefits,” I tell her.
“It’s all good,” she says.
“That’s why I liked John Edwards,” I say. “He really got it.”
“Edwards is a hunk,” the activities director says. “I’d hit it.”
“Have you checked out COBRA?” I ask the Latina.
“My son doesn’t have that game yet. I can’t keep up with all the new ones.”
“It’s a way to continue your insurance if you lose it,” I tell her.
“No worries…my kids never get sick.”
“It’s happening all over,” I tell them. “My boyfriend’s job is tanking. We can’t figure out why. I thought everyone in LA liked a good party.”
“What’s he look like?” the activities director asks. “Got a picture of him on your cell?”
“I only use my cell for my insurance job…in case I get lost going to a client’s house.”
Blank eyes and open mouths pivot on unlined necks in my direction. To save money, I gave Verizon the heave-ho and bought a GoPhone months ago, but still look around for a pay phone before I dare use it. iPhones and BlackBerries come out of pockets and purses. I look at pictures of boyfriends, children, pets, ranch style homes in Reseda and husbands.
“Obama gets it,” I say. “I just hope he doesn’t get killed before November.”
“McCain was hot when he was younger,” the activities director says.
“Being locked in a box for a few years does brings the hotness to the surface,” I respond.
I maneuver the progressive lenses of my Miklis to a point at which I can not see the faces surrounding me. The conversation dips into the swamp of “The Hills,” “Gossip Girl” and “America’s Next Top Model.” I think about the reality show I watched when I was their age: “AIDS: the Killer Years.” The activities director and the Latina talk about their sex lives. Everyone laughs. Their lame sex jokes hit my neck harder than the heat hammering on it. I eat my unsalted almonds and pear slices.
“I am a very deep spiritual person,” I say to the blurred faces at the table. “I only go out with men with big dicks.”
The table is silent. That is a good joke. Audiences love it.
“You should call Villaraigosa’s office,” I tell the Latina. “Tell him you’re a single mom losing your insurance and benefits.”
At this, they laugh.
“Who’s that?” she answers.
“The guy who fucks TV reporters,” the activities director says.
My entire shirt is damp. I feel like my table mates have peeled my skin off the same way they flayed their freebie chickens.
“What shows do you watch?” the Russian says.
“I used to watch a lot of TV, until I saw a reality show that changed my life. It was called Hurricane Katrina.”
Silence. I can see them again. Not so lucky.
I leave the rotisserie of the courtyard and walk down the stairs to the garage, in whose friendly darkness I retrieve from the trunk of my car a fresh linen shirt to change into.
The next day, as usual, the kid cancels my shift. I work the day after. Good deal not using my cell, the boyfriend can not find me. I spend the morning bathing my patient, the afternoon packing his belongings for the trip home from the hospital in Culver City he was transferred to. The ambulance crew eases him on to a gurney. His immune system is beyond shot. They put a thin green surgical mask over his face.
I squeeze his hand and say: “I’ll see you at home.”
I drive to his condo. I make his bed, lay out his flannel Burberry pajamas and put flowers in crystal vases. The kid is on the phone ordering medications and supplies. The tasks should be reversed, but I am tired of pushing the kid an inch forward, only to be knocked a mile back the next day. Because I need to buy something besides peanut butter and jelly, nuts, pasta and tofu, I happily work the one day out of the two I was hired for.
“He should have been here by now,” I tell the kid.
The kid’s eyes follow the coming and goings of a Filipino soap opera on the flat screen.
“Ever watch this program called ‘Project Runway’?” I ask.
No answer. Kid works the remote. He moves from one screaming soap to another.
“It’s been forty-five minutes,” I say. “He should be here.”
Kid watches the soap. I call the hospital. On the land line, my GoPhone still the virgin. Our patient coded on the way home. His ambulance did not even make it off of the hospital’s exit ramp. He is back in the ER. I tell the kid I will drop him off at the hospital on my way home. He wants to finish the soap opera. I leave.
I should have signed up to sub for summer school.
The Armenian nurse taps her French manicured fingernails against the dull metal top of the medication cart, their clacking sound as skull shattering as the howls emitted from the Nursing Supervisor’s fuchsia painted lips.
I continue to check that I am removing the correct pills from the colored cassettes they are packaged in.
“Let me do it, you’re taking too long,” the Armenian says.
“I’ve never poured meds before without checking them out against the med book,” I tell her. “How do you know they’re the right ones?”
“All you have to know is that the pills in the orange cassettes are for dinnertime. The grey ones are for bedtime.”
“Shouldn’t we put the residents’ names on the med cups?” I ask.
“You can look at the pills and tell who gets what.”
She speaks very slowly. I get it. I do not like it. I label the med cups. She taps harder.
“My fingers are killing me…my hands don’t like this.” I tell her.
“You won’t have time to check the pills. Just put them in the cups and hand them out. Orange for dinner. Grey for bedtime.”
Her accent sounds like my grandmother’s. Except, I loved my grandmother. Before I place each medication in its labeled cup, the tips of my fingers touch the corresponding name of the pill on the med sheets.
“What’s this about?” I ask. “Boniva is supposed to be given monthly…you guys have been giving it daily.”
“We’ll fix it later,” the Armenian answers. “What shifts are you going to work?”
“Every other weekend. And during the week if anyone calls in sick.”
She stops tapping. My brain still rattles against my skull.
“Those are my shifts,” she says.
“It’s got to be a mistake. I just want to work four shifts a month here. Maybe fill in on sick days. I’ve got my teaching job lined up for the fall.”
She resumes tapping. My brain rattles harder against my skull.
“I’ll let the supervisor know that I don’t want to take your shifts,” I tell her. “We can work something out.”
She removes the sweater from around her waist. She drapes it over her shoulders.
“Have you noticed how cold it gets at night?” I ask.
“Let’s go eat dinner,” she answers.
“I’m not really hungry…I’ll go over the charts for a while. You go eat.”
I sit in the walk-in closet the Nursing Supervisor calls the nurse’s station. I eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I Google Boniva. The emptiness of my stomach bites into my second sandwich. These conned residents–the wrong pills in their guts, their Food 4 Less chicken and hamburger meat heated beyond endurance to kill their promise of salmonella, their skin touched by unwashed hands, their dogs’ rhinestone collars yanked by leashes pulled down the street by compassionate buddies–are going to have some strong bones holding in their messed up livers.
The lucky man will be off the road in September.
Chapter 12/ 2008
What would Ferapont do?
Like the bitter whine of my 69 Chevy Malibu’s worn down brake shoes screeching to a halt when the 101 backs up, my orientation at the assisted living facility grinds to its conclusion on a humid June evening in the City of the Angels. Eight more hours of placating my Armenian colleague and I am on my own.
It’s all good.
“I’ll shadow you tonight,” the Armenian says as our shift begins. “You’ll dig yourself into a hole if you try doing things your way.”
In under an hour, I pour the medications for the entire shift, placing the labeled med cups in separate trays, one for each floor. Each tray is divided up into sections for the afternoon, mealtime and bedtime med passes. The Armenian rolls her eyes. The muffled buzz of our actress resident’s call light hits us both, its staccato wail tearing through the chilled silence in the air-conditioned nurse’s station.
“I have to take this call,” the Armenian says.
Her forefinger caresses the Bluetooth jammed into her ear. Her eyes focus on a cracked plastic push pin on the bulletin board as her heavily accented words fall into the space between our chairs. She looks like one of the residents in the Alzheimer’s unit, its windowless rooms hidden in the building’s basement.
Her daughter is freaking out about something. She freaks out every afternoon at this time. I go into the actress’ room alone. She is on the floor, a yellow muumuu spread out around her like the broken wings of a butterfly who has seen better days. I check her out. Nothing broken. No bruises. Liquor on her breath, its rancid stench sweating out of her pores, hitting my nose like the furious waves breaking on the beach of the noir thriller she starred in years ago. The Nursing Supervisor enters and we lift the actress on to her bed.
“Would you feel better if he was on top of you?” the supervisor asks.
Actress sobers up on the spot. I adjust my Alain Miklis and scan the room. A half empty bottle of Absolut stands next to her Tony award and a book full of clippings on the shining marble top of her coffee table, muumuus of every color imaginable are piled up on her French Provincial couch. Two bottles of Extra Strength Vicodins on the stained lace covering her gold leaf vanity table. Shades of Marilyn Monroe’s last night.
“I’ll check on you throughout the evening,” I tell the actress.
“Why would you do that?” the supervisor asks me in the hall.
We stand in front of yet another fake walnut bookcase holding yet more fake books and fake flowers.
“Are you kissing up to her to advance your career?”
“If I had a career, I wouldn’t be here,” I answer. “I’m checking on her because she could have hit her head.”
“You’re not supposed to do any nursing interventions…”
“No one’s going out on a brain injury during my shift.”
The supervisor opens her mouth to launch into her high-pitched whine.
I wave my forefinger in her face and leave her on the fake Persian carpet.
The residents are set in their ways. The slightest change in routine rubs their brake shoes the wrong way. The med pass after dinner has to start exactly at seven. I am in my first resident’s room at six fifty-nine. He smiles. 8K a month plus his caretaker’s fee and he gets a room with a window looking out to a brick wall. Nice. As I lift his med cup off of the tray, I am called on my walkie-talkie to the nurse’s station.
“You’ve got eight pills here and two inhalers,” I tell the resident. “I can give them to you now or come back in a few minutes and we can go over them together.”
“A few minutes is fine.”
His caretaker, an overweight Filipino man in his early twenties, taps into his laptop. He logs on to Adam4Adam as I leave the room.
I approach the walk-in closet sized nurse’s station, my eyes hypnotized by the waves of heat rising up from the sections of the floor not covered by Persian carpets.
“MY MOTHER’S PRESSURE WENT UP DRIVING BACK HERE,” a resident’s daughter screams at me.
“Can she make it up here?”
“WHAT DO YOU THINK?”
“I’m asking you if she can get to her room. If not, I’ll send a buddy downstairs with a wheelchair to bring her back.”
“My sugar is in the toilet,” the obsessive resident tells me.
The obsessive stands in front of the daughter. An hour ago, he registered a mere one point over the lowest parameter for his evening blood sugar reading. I told him he would bottom out if I gave him an injection of Insulin to cover this insignificant reading.
He cried. He pleaded. He begged.
“I’ve never administered Insulin for a such a low reading,” I tell him.
Beads of sweat trickle down his bone white forehead.
I pinch his greasy skin between my fingers, my right hand a second away from injecting him with the unneeded Insulin when he laughs and asks me: “Aren’t you supposed to put my eye drops in first?”
I proceed to spend twenty minutes instilling one eye drop into each of his eyes. To accomplish this, he has to roll his eyes back just so. His lower eyes lids must be slowly pulled down, his head has to be at a certain angle for the drops to absorb on to his sclera, their whiteness violated long ago by the anger of broken capillaries. His shining bald head can not be positioned too far back or his neck will hurt for hours, maybe the rest of the night. Not too far forward, or he will get dizzy. He instructs me to change gloves between eyes. I do not want to know why. To his amazement, on my first go at it, I perform each of these mind numbing rituals correctly.
“You’re new. You don’t look like you know what you’re doing,” he says.
“I’ve been a nurse for thirty years.”
“Have you taken blood sugars every day of those thirty years?”
I push my heels so deep into my shoes my feet are sure to smash through his floor above the nurse’s station and take out the babbling Armenian. I listen to the obsessive’s five minute rant about blood sugars and intraocular pressure. He insists I retake his sugar. Twice. Both are the dreaded one point over. I smile as I inject Insulin into one of the rolls of his flabby stomach. I nod and tell him to be sure to eat some dinner. He smirks. I have been in his room for forty-five minutes. I could have done him some real damage with the insulin needle. Strangely enough, I do not want to. Men who end up alone in rooms like this have enough problems.
One rant free hour later, the obsessive is in front of me, tears welling up in his bloodshot eyes. I take his sugar. Really low. He needs orange juice.
“I’ll go downstairs and get you some OJ.”
“Don’t leave me, I’m going to die.”
He grabs onto my arm with the force of an incubus. I call the Armenian on the walkie-talkie. No response. I call the buddies. They do not know who I am talking about because I have not identified the obsessive by his room number. I was trained to refer to patients by their names. Obsessive claims he does not know his room number. The buddies do not know who I am talking about because they do not know the names of the residents. Not one single name.
“Forget the name…could you please bring me up some OJ?”
No human sounds from the walkie-talkie. Only the crackle of static.
OJ does not arrive.
“I’m going to die…I’m going to die,” the obsessive tells me.
The daughter’s mother gets off the elevator. I sit her down and ask her how she is feeling. I wrap the blood pressure cuff around her arm.
“What in God’s name are you doing?” the daughter asks.
“Taking her pressure.”
“You should have done that when I asked you.”
“You never asked me.”
“I’m going to die if I don’t get juice,” the obsessive says.
“Want a candy bar?” the mother asks, pulling a Snickers out of her purse.
“I WANT ORANGE JUICE…NOT CANDY.”
“If you don’t want me to leave the floor and the other nurse and the buddies won’t answer me, why don’t you eat the candy? Sugar is sugar.”
“No, it’s fucking not.”
I take the blood pressure.
“I don’t want to know what it is, not ten minutes after I asked you.”
“Her pressure is…”
“I said I don’t want to know,” daughter answers.
The daughter waves her forefinger at me. She pulls a pad out of her Hermes bag. She looks at my ID badge. Long fingers encircled with diamond studded bands of gold and topped by black lacquered fingernails write my name down.
“Where’s my friend’s oxygen?” a man asks me.
“It was delivered at noon. For a reason no one can explain to me, the receptionist sent it back to the vendor. I’ve called and asked them to deliver it tonight.”
“You fucking faggot,” the man screams.
He is a faggot himself. The blood pressure resident tears up. Her daughter sighs. The obsessive laughs.
“Sir, if you continue to talk to me like that, I’m going to ask you to leave the facility.”
“I understand how upset you are. I’ll do everything I can to get the oxygen delivered tonight. One more outburst like that and I’m calling the police.”
“Fucking fag…fucking jerk.”
Having lost the part in “The Three Sisters,” to an actor who looks like he will be roaming these hallways when the show closes, I can finally show my acting colors.
What would Ferapont do?
I speak my line with a weary, life ravaged Russian accent: “Say good bye to your friend. You’re out of here.”
I mime calling 911.
The caretaker from the room in which I began the med run at six fifty-nine ambles down the hall. I call for the Armenian on the walkie-talkie. I call for OJ. I call the buddies. The crackling of static bounces off the imitation Hudson River Valley landscapes suspended from the ceiling’s mauve moldings by red velvet ropes.
“He’s out of control,” the caretaker tells me. “You’re the unprofessional nurse.”
“I’m going to die. Take my sugar again.”
“Take her blood pressure when she’s standing and then take it when she’s sitting.”
“What’s wrong with your patient?” I ask the caretaker as I take a standing and sitting pressure, stick a finger for a sugar level, ask for OJ and stare down a faggot.
“He’s the crazy…you left the room,” the caretaker screams.
“Can’t you see that I’m a bit busy here?”
“You’re the unprofessional. He’s the crazy now.”
“Your job is to take care of your patient. Go in and tell him I got tied up and will be in within ten minutes.”
The walkie-talkie tells me the oxygen has arrived. I ask someone to sign for it. Crackle of static.
Pressures are fine. Daughter licks her lips. Mother looks sleepy. Faggot is gone. Obsessive is crying. He is going to die. Now he wants his pressure taken. I run into an empty room and retrieve an OJ from its fridge. I hand it to the obsessive.
“It’s spoiled,” he whimpers.
I show him the expiration date. It has a shelf way longer than I do at this gig.
“You are the bad one…the bad one,” the caretaker screams.
“Stop screaming,” I tell him. “And stop undermining me. You are to go into that room and calm your patient down.”
Caretaker stares at me. Obviously, he does not know what undermining means. He moves in closer. I spot two long thin black hairs growing out of his left nostril. His pores are huge. Daughter grabs her mother’s hands. Obsessive relocates to a chair ten feet from us.
“You are the bad one…the bad one,” the caretaker screams.
“If you don’t get out of my face, I’ll call his family and tell them they’re paying you ten bucks an hour to read your e-mails and troll for tricks on Adam4Adam.”
“You’re the most bad nurse ever.”
The caretaker shrieks this mantra as he walks back to his patient’s room. A young man in possession of his jiggling heft and bouncing girth should not wear skintight scrub pants. Fear illuminates the call lights of each room he passes. No one answers them, not a buddy, not the Armenian. I walk into the rooms closest to me. I touch hands and foreheads. I say that the noise bellowing into their rooms is that of a narcissistic actor rehearsing his lines for the road show of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
My feet back on a faux Persian remnant, undoubtedly purchased at a Ross clearance sale, I hand the daughter the pills to give her mom.
“These are the wrong ones. Jesus, you’re dumb.”
I check the med sheet. They are the right pills.
“Where’s the sleeping pill?”
“That one has to be requested. It’s not on the recurring med sheet.”
“You’re getting paid for this?” the daughter asks me.
“If she wants a sleeping pill, I’ll give her one. Ma’am, do you want a sleeping pill?”
“No, I want to watch the action.”
I laugh. A big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh.
“Either you drink this perfectly good OJ or you sit by yourself for five minutes while I go downstairs and get a fresh one,” I say to the obsessive.
His shaking hand waves me to hit the bricks. I bypass the elevator. Run down the stairs. Sign for the oxygen. Push it to the elevator. Pour OJ into a tall glass in the kitchen.
“You can’t take that,” the cook says. “It’ll be a dollar.”
“It’s for a resident. Haven’t you heard me calling for it?”
“I didn’t hear nothing.”
His walkie-talkie crackles. Loudly. I give him a buck. In the dining room, I find the Armenian talking on her cell.
“Would you mind coming upstairs and helping me?” I scream into my walkie-talkie.
She silences the echo of my voice on her walkie-talkie.
I move in front of her and stand Zen still until she follows me into the elevator, where I ask her about the blood pressure resident’s sleeping pill.
“Did I forget to tell you to pour that one? My bad.”
“Any other surprises I should know about?”
The Armenian sighs. She picks at the diamond ring on her finger. Her lips are pale and thin.
I give the obsessive his OJ. The Armenian refuses to sit with him. The blood pressure resident tells me she will keep an eye on him. I shoot her a wink and a smile.
A resident gets off the elevator and staggers down the hall. The smell of liquor hits me a minute before he reaches the med cart.
“I need my two Vicodins,” he tells the Armenian.
“The new nurse is giving out the medications this evening.”
“Where’s your pain, sir?” I ask.
“I take them around this time every night.”
“Where does it hurt?”
“I paid for them…and I’m taking them…right now.”
“You kind of need to give me a reason for taking pain medications. Not to be rude, but I think you’ve had a few cocktails.”
“I don’t drink.”
I have been in his room. A bed. A chair. A small folding table, sagging in the middle. A flat screen on the wall. Empty liquor bottles on the counter of his kitchenette. Half full ones in the cabinets above the sink.
“I can’t give you narcotics when you’ve been drinking. How about I run you a hot bath? I’ll come in later and massage your neck if you’re still uncomfortable.”
“Those pills are mine, give them to me, you asshole.”
“Sir, can you speak to me without the name calling?”
He looks at the Armenian. She shrugs her shoulders.
“The night nurse will give me what I fucking paid for.”
He flips me the bird.
“Why didn’t you give him the pills?” the Armenian asks.
“You can’t give an obviously drunk patient narcotics. You know that don’t you?”
Lips tremble, eyes fade into a blank stare, walkie-talkie crackles.
“You’ve got a real attitude,” she answers. “That resident’s friend told me you called the police on him.”
“I didn’t go to the nursing school where people talked to nurses the way he did. I was taught to respect myself.”
“The residents pay a lot of money to be here. You have to accept how they act…and their friends. It’s part of what they pay for.”
I look straight into the freezing green pools of her eyes. She is for real.
I take the obsessive’s sugar. It is rising. He will make it through to another miserable rant filled day.
I set up the oxygen tank in the room of our chemo resident. His faggot friend watches TV. The tumor eating this resident’s brain has done a number on both of them. I will swallow their anger for now. No biggie. They have enough to deal with.
The resident can not get a handle on the timing of his chemo pills.
“These babies have to be given at precise times,” I tell him.
His short-term memory loss is so acute he does not remember having taken a pill a few seconds earlier. Or who I, the Armenian or his friend are.
I am sweating. Have been for over an hour. My mouth is dry. I have to pee. No time. I look into the stillness of the blue wall to my left and try to find my center.
The Armenian is fascinated by the oxygen set-up. Even without the focus of my Alain Miklis, I can see she has never set up a tank before. It takes the resident twenty minutes to swallow four pills. I explain to the faggot friend and the Armenian how to adjust the oxygen flow meter, the calm blue of the wall telling me that this too will be turned against me.
Obsessive’s sugar is back to normal. No thanks from him. Not that getting the words out of his mouth would be heartfelt. The resident whose blood pressure was never a clinical issue has fallen asleep on the couch. Daughter is long gone. I am sure she is contacting her lawyer or the media. Maybe both. In a room whose walls are covered with pictures of a smiling husband and well behaved grandchildren, but not one of the daughter, I tuck her mother under a peach colored satin blanket.
I check on the actress. Snoring loudly, wakes up easily. No untoward effects from her fall.
I return–at long last–to my first resident. I explain what happened. He smiles and nods his head. He is a nice man.
“He’s the bad one…the unprofessional one,” the caretaker says.
“Can we take this outside?” I ask.
“You’re bad…you’re the bad.”
The resident starts to cry.
“Pal, if you don’t quiet down and step outside with me, I will have you removed from the building.”
“You’re the most bad nurse ever.”
I look at the naked men on his computer screen and stare at him until he follows me out into the hall.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” I ask him.
He smiles. A big yellow teeth smile. The darkness in his eyes glows.
“You’re the bad one…”
“I’ve heard it, honey. We’ve established who I am…and I know who you are. What I don’t get is that you would act like this in front your patient and the other residents. What’s your deal?”
“You think you’re the big guy…the smart one…with the smart glasses…you’ll be the fired one.”
“Do whatever you want. But understand, we never talk about other staff in front of residents. It’s…it’s…”
I laugh. A big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh.
“It’s unprofessional,” I tell him.
I go back into the room. The resident has stopped crying. I give him his pills.
“How could you talk like that to such a sweet young man?” the Armenian asks when I return to the nurse’s station.
“What…you think his behavior is acceptable?”
“The family pays a lot for him to be here.”
I have pills to give. I leave the Armenian to listen to the crackle on her walkie-talkie in her ice cold walk-in closet. I am on to her deal real quick. Seems she added the nonscheduled pills to the ones I already poured. When the residents ask me what is in their med cups, I am stumped.
“You’re so slow…I put the sleeping pills and tranquilizers in the cups…you know, to help out,” the Armenian says after I have finished the med run.
“I bet you think your life is real,” I tell her.
“I need to leave early,” she says. “My daughter’s hosting a sleepover for her girlfriends. I’ve got to get back to Glendale before the boys arrive. Can you punch me out when the shift ends?”
“Why ask? If I needed you to stay, you’d leave anyway. You’ve got that team player thing really down.”
She tugs on her diamond earring and taps her French manicured fingernails against the dull metal top of the medication cart. She opens her new painted bright red lips. No words come out.
I punch the Armenian out.
Chapter 13/ 2008
Walking After Midnight.
As the buffed whitewall tires of the Armenian’s black Mercedes screech out of the parking garage, the Persian carpet under my feet melts into grass cooled by early morning dew, cozy dachas wink at me from the Hudson River Valley paintings, the wooden benches in their cherry orchards offering relief from the tightness in my back. The residents have all been given their pills on time. Blood pressures are normal. Sugars are within acceptable parameters. Oxygen is flowing. When he asked for it, I made sure the faggot friend had the correct spelling of my last name before he left for the night. The Armenian managed to put extra pills in almost every med cup I had prepared for the last med run of my shift. By the time her ruse is revealed, the damage had been done. Bringing the med books with me to explain to the residents which pill was which only made me look like the bumbling Ferapont, a half deaf old man trying desperately to answer the questions thrown at him. As if I was sitting spellbound before “The Seagull’s” shattered Nina, I can see what life has done to the residents I minister to. Having shattered their routines and rituals, I am the bad nurse. It takes weeks to repair that kind of damage. I will try to make it better.
Doesn’t every nurse say that as his ship is sucked into the Bermuda Triangle?
The med trays empty of their potions and washed down with rubbing alcohol, I have a minute to pee. Locked in a bathroom overwhelmed by lavender potpourri trapped in pink satin sachets, I squirt out what I have been holding in for the past seven hours. I think about pissing on the caregiver. Problem is, he would like it. He would like it a lot. I zip up the fly of my khakis and carefully tuck in my blue linen shirt. I could say I have been through worse. I have not. Not even my seven year stretch at San Francisco General Hospital comes close to this muggy evening amongst the fake paintings, the MIA co-workers, the plastic plants in plastic terra cotta pots hanging from the ceiling of every room by plastic chains, the withholding kitchen staff and the books, whose promising titles possess no pages in their guts.
I check on the actress. She is awake, lying languidly against the white lace covering her thick pillows, her yellow muumuu making her tiny body look like a mangled grapefruit.
“How’d your monologue go?” she asks.
The sound of saws biting into the trees in the Hudson River Valley paintings leaks through the walls from the hallway, its thudding anger seeping in through the door’s half open transom window: “He’s the unprofessional…THE WORST NURSE!”
The caregiver is going home. Call lights flash and buzz in the wake of his hip swinging waddle to the elevator.
“I’ll have the bad one fired!”
I have a half-hour left on duty. I look out into the hall. The buddies walk as slowly as they possibly can to answer the call lights. I do not say a word. I am the bad one. Even the faux Persian carpets know I am evil, I can feel it as I trip over their fringed borders.
“I was flying when I finished,” I say, shutting the actress’s door. “But, I can’t remember performing it.”
I sit in the lotus position on a leopard skin pillow at the foot of her bed.
“It was like I was on stage for a few seconds. The words came out of my mouth from another place, like someone…or something else…some other power was channeling through me.”
“I knew you didn’t belong here the moment I met you,” the actress says. “Your heart is beating. I can feel it.”
Having forgotten, accidently on purpose, to sign the Armenian out early, I punch myself out and return to the actress’s room. She talks until the streets become damp with middle of the night tears, her voice, deep and husky, pulling the tightness out of my muscles.
“You stand in front of your audience and lose the weight of your body. Use everything, my sweet boy, fuel your performance with your demons and fears. The only freedom we have is to plant our feet on the stage and make the connection. Take care of yourself…get out of this place. Our job is to walk into the mystery of the stage…serve it above anything else. It’s all people like us can do.”
The actress falls asleep without taking her nightly Vicodin. I kiss her forehead good-night, thinking she would make a luminous Arkadina to my heartfelt Konstantin.
I smile as I drive home, my solid black tires floating on the soft clouds of her voice.
If I open my heart, if I plant my feet in the right place and tell the truth, I can make it through any nightmare.
In an attempt to brush off the gut twisting charge of six hundred dollars for weight training DVDs I never ordered on my American Express bill, which hit my mailbox at approximately the same time the caretaker first spotted his prey, I stare at the week’s accumulation of unwashed dishes in what was, until a few months ago, a gleaming white porcelain sink, now stained with tea bags reused until their innards have disintegrated. I try to remember the provenance of the peanut butter crusted spoons marinating in glasses of brown water, cobalt blue plates pock-mocked with crumbs of hardened tofu and stainless steel pans shellacked with dried out rice, bits of celery and Persian cucumbers. Gut hangs over my boxers. I have nine dollars for the next two weeks’s groceries. My mission, should I choose to accept it, is to figure out where the three hundred and fifty dollars in minimum credit card payments will come from. I will read this week’s “New York Times” over the weekend. I say that every weekend. I say it whenever I pass my dining room table, piled to the point of sagging beneath unread books, “Interview,” “Vanity Fair” and “Entertainment Weekly” magazines and the “Calendar,” “Magazine” and “Book Review” sections of “The New York Times.” The heel of my right foot has become welded to a sticky section on the black and white linoleum of my kitchen floor. Guess I should break out the mop.
The clouds of the actress’s voice have floated away, hovering over a man luckier than I.
I have been home from work for an hour.
My neighbor glides his car into the parking space facing my kitchen window. Unlike the light I melted into onstage, the glare from his halogens tightens the muscles in my back, sending a cold numbness down my legs, where it finds safe harbor in my toes. I used to make the bed as soon as I got out of it, write out my morning pages to center myself for my writing day, proceeding on to do five hundred sit-ups, taking short breaks to put away my dried dishes. All of this accomplished by 9 AM, all now forgotten, like the ritual of drinking coffee and reading the morning paper, saving Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman for last before taking an hour long walk in the Bronson caves.
I look at the film coating the glasses in my sink, my only coherent thought being that I can drive to the assisted living facility in under fifteen minutes.
I never want to go there again.
“I don’t know why you keep working in that place,” the straight boyfriend says the night before I am scheduled to go back on the road and get on with the show. “How do you put up with their BS?”
“It’s a job. I’ve got a New York work ethic.”
“It’s something different, guy. I don’t like what it does to you.”
“I just have to plant my feet there and make it through until September. I like the patients. By the time I learn to hate the teaching, I’ll be old enough to retire.”
“You’ll be a big time writer by then, with your famous blue raincoat and your smart glasses.”
I give him the undiscovered-writer-working-the-nurse-day-job Viagra fueled pounding.
As always, he feeds me from his limitless supply of blue diamonds.
Where two weeks before, I had seen waves of heat rise up from the sections of the floor not covered by Persian carpets, now icicles drip from the perforated ceiling tiles. The Prada boots I bought for ten bucks from a stubbly out of work actor at a garage sale walk quietly over the fake threads beneath their red striped soles. All eyes avoid mine. No one talks as I pass by, phones ring without being answered, my punch card is missing from the dented green metal rack in the nurse’s station.
“Why didn’t you come into work yesterday?” the Nursing Supervisor spits out in her braying Southern drawl.
“I wasn’t scheduled to.”
“You were scheduled to be here. You’re a no call, no show. That’s grounds for termination.”
The cook who charged me a buck for the OJ enters the supervisor’s office.
“I was hired to work every other weekend. Why would I be here on a Friday?”
No whining from the fuchsia lips before me. The cook stares at me.
“Is there some reason he’s here?” I ask.
“Whenever a manager disciplines an employee, our policy states that another manager be present.”
“That’s rich,” I say. “Let’s hope no one needs any orange juice.”
“That’s what nobody likes about you, your mouth. I have letters here from three residents, all complaining about you.”
She hands me the letters. I am unprofessional. I am arrogant. I mixed up the residents’ pills.
“Strange,” I say. “Odd actually, that a person who’s had a stroke can be so articulate. And shocker, all three say exactly…I mean word for word, the same thing.”
“Do you deny any of it?”
“I’m not saying anything. I already know what’s happening to me.”
“Will you sign these papers?”
She pushes papers across her desk at me.
“Will you look at them?”
“We can’t have someone like you working with our clients. We’re a high-end facility. This is nursing for the rich.”
“I didn’t go to that nursing school. I went to the one where you checked on a patient after she fell. Minus the suggestion of an ulterior motive. The school where you’re taught to prioritize and take care of the sickest patient first.”
“You need to get your priorities straight.”
“You mean when all these crises are erupting and the staff, including this bozo, mysteriously disappears, you want me to cater to the least acute patient? You think it’s appropriate for a caregiver to strut down the hall screaming so all the residents can hear…hear about how awful their charge nurse is?”
The supervisor smiles.
“You’re smiling because you know I’m speaking the truth,” I tell her.
“Do you have anything else to say?”
“A cynical person could say that you want me out of here because you suggested I…what was it you said? Right…yeah, that I get on top of one of the female patients?”
The cook cracks up.
The supervisor’s shaking hands push my final check at me. Her nails are painted pink, they glitter with the fierceness of the diamond ring on her finger. The cook’s dead eyes look like they are ready to deck me. Maybe he has been on top of her. I bet he liked it.
“A cynical handsome person could say that,” I say to the two as I open the door. “But, I’m about making the connection.”
I walk past the Armenian on my way out.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I liked working with you.”
I give her the look, the few seconds too long stare which for years has told nurses like her that one more word out of her red lips and I will not only slash her tires, but pour sugar into her gas tank.
New Yorkers are like that.
In the lobby, the residents sit in a circle for Karaoke Saturday. With a heavy Filipino accent and the worst enunciation this side of the pre-Oscar Penélope Cruz, the caregiver is singing “Feelings.” Apparently, we all possess the need to make the connection. The caregiver tears up as he launches into his final crescendo. As if my stomach was burping out the trapped gas of cheese laden lasagna, I let out a big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh. The room follows my lead, breaking out in laughter so pants wetting and heartfelt one would think the residents are at a matinee of Neil Simon’s “The Good Doctor.” The eyes of the actress, who won a Tony for singing in a Broadway musical, dance with kinship as smiles and blows me a kiss.
I enter the elevator to the parking garage, tipping my imaginary hat to the actress and shooting a quick wink at the caregiver.
Given the heave-ho from my truck and bus tour, I am a lucky man once again.
Like a good Chekhov heroine, I spend the first twenty-four hours after getting the boot reclining on the jet black velvet of my couch, TCM hypnotizing me with Barbara Stanwyck and Greta Garbo movies. I do not understand any of it. When Stanwyck goes off and gets tough, people listen. When I do it, I am shown the door.
The boyfriend switches the channel from “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” to the Democratic Convention.
Obama chants: “Enough. Enough.”
It is enough, for all of us. Even the kid and the karaoke caregiver must be feeling the burn of the last eight years.
The crowd in Invesco Field screams out the Triumph of the Democratic Party’s will.
“He’s a charismatic jerk,” the boyfriend says. “Wait till they discover the man behind the curtain.”
Having grown up in an Evangelical family, I should believe my blue eyed, square jawed boyfriend, but I do not catch on to his logic. I get it a few months after the election.
In the morning, the boyfriend and I lie next to each other, floating in a silence so deep and endless I am sure no one else is in my building or even on my street. In the drawn blinds blue of my bedroom, the boyfriend’s head sinks into a pillow, mine resting on his thigh. He is in trouble, big time, major trouble. The boyfriend funds his product placement business at high-end parties on lines of credit, his profit being the difference between the money spent up front and the money paid to him when the party is over. Within the last month, all of his lines of credit have been cut off, the limits on his personal credit cards topped off to the nearest thousand dollars.
“I have twenty credit cards,” I tell him. “You can use them to cover a job or two.” “Twenty credit cards, guy?”
“When AIDS happened, I applied for as many as I could, in case I got it and needed money to live on. I figured I’d be dead before the first payment came due.”
“No way would I risk that,” he says. “I’d end up doing a party and the client would bail on me.”
He laughs and squeezes my earlobe. For a moment, I can feel the air on my skin.
The clouds of the first twenty-four hours have passed, the glow of the boyfriend’s skin has left to hunt up work. I have never been fired before, never been pummeled by such hostility at a job. I can not get off the couch. I jerk off and sleep for a day or two, until American Express gets me moving at three in the morning, when I find myself walking the length of Franklin Avenue from Beachwood Drive to Western Avenue. I can only assume I am walking after midnight because I do not want anyone to see me. I do know that, while my skin can not feel the air, I do not worry about what I can feel, the stinging needles in my fingertips or the constant churning in my gut. The demons I was to use to fuel my performances and writing slither about in my brain like worms, the roughness of their tongues licking the insides of my skull, each sandpaper like stroke telling me that a lucky guy like myself deserves every bad break he gets.
After my walk, I hit the couch and call American Express to dispute the weight training DVDs charge.
“If you look at what I’d been charging for the past year, it’s only cat food and groceries. I would never buy anything like this.”
“Are you sure you didn’t purchase these DVDs?”
“I’ve stopped charging anything to my cards months ago.”
“Except for your ‘New York Times’ subscription. Mr. Epstine, you are in fact charging on your card.”
“Don’t do this to me….you’ve got to remove this charge. I can’t…I can’t…”
“I sympathize with your obvious frustration. We’ll start an investigation into this charge. You’ll hear from us in six to eight weeks.”
The next week, the credit limits on the three cards I have balances on are topped off to the nearest thousand dollars. As well they should be. Not only did I once live on what I made, I had a savings account. The worms speak the truth: even if I made that type of scratch now, the job would fall apart in a few months, if not after a week or two.
All I can afford is one meal a day. I will not be hungry once my stomach shrinks. To kill the hunger pains, I tap three drops of peppermint essential oil on to my tongue. Maybe a smaller stomach will stop the churning and twisting in my gut.
Gold’s Gym in Hollywood is at its least crowded after 10 PM, which is the time I choose to go, knowing, as all lucky men do, there will be a lower percentage of successful and preternaturally muscled gay men to work out amongst, men who will ignore a man whose water bottle is perennially half empty. My fingers wrapped around the vertical rubber handles above my head, my feet sink down on a bar affixed to eighty pounds of black rectangular weights as I do fifty pull-ups on my favorite machine. In that moment, I am weightless and free, the iron below my feet pushing me up to fly, the blood pumping through my veins no longer caring who sees me walk home to save on gas. Not the least bit winded, I rest before doing another fifty.
My balls pulse with slivers of pain. Of course, that has returned.
Plan A is to teach in September. Plan B is to sleep, but the boyfriend will not let me. He comes by at nine in the morning, opening windows and pulling back curtains, the round muscles of his biceps making the drawn blinds blue disappear.
“At least take a walk before it’s dark out,” he says, as his thin fingers mute Garbo.
“I don’t get what you see in her.”
Me either anymore. A lucky woman, Garbo is a sleepwalker who the world can never quite reach. The unrelenting fingers of the same Los Angeles light Garbo walked and lived in scratch against my skin as the worms hammer into my skull, the sockets cradling my eyeballs screaming for respite.
“Do you think there’s something wrong with me?” I ask the boyfriend.
He draws open the living room curtains, the light illuminating the dust floating in the air. What a joke. I will never feel the air on my skin again. I am afraid to ask the boyfriend if he still can.
“Do you think I’m too in your face?” I ask. “Do you think my mouth gets me in trouble?”
“What is all this? I love your mouth.”
He laughs. I lick my lips. Our mouths have been good to each other. Very good.
“You’re your own man. You write what’s real. Guy, you wail on stage.”
I look at his clean shaven face, his pores appear to have tightened. We have both stopped buying Bobbi Brown astringent,replacing it with witch hazel from the 99¢ Only Store at the bargain price of two bottles for ninety-nine cents.
“You’ve worked parties for me. You’re the only guy I trust not to lose it in totally stressful situations. You’re fine.”
He appears to be telling the truth.
“I could’ve been nicer at work…more agreeable, more politic.”
“You were too civilized for what went on there. Ge’ez guy, for all intents and purposes, you were working in a third world country. You’ve been doing your insurance job for two years. They love you. Look at how much work they give you.”
I close my eyes.
“You can’t keep putting yourself in these arenas,” he says. “It’s like those old nightshirts you keep sewing together. Can’t you see they’re torn to shreds?”
Sleep will calm my gut, silence my balls, relax the sockets of my eyes, maybe kill the worms. Up since dawn, the boyfriend has already hiked the Bronson caves. He takes a shower while I measure out two cups of coffee from the on sale at $2.99 can of Café Bustelo. I watch his Adam’s apple bob up and down as he drinks his black joe. My lips want to lick the thick blue veins on the top of his bare wet feet as he stretches them out on my grey 30s Sears carpet. This man has seen me on stage and liked me, listened to my stories and wanted to hear more. He puts his cup down and holds his arms out for me.
Unlucky man, he can not see who I am behind the curtain.
Chapter 14/ 2008
Once I was.
For reasons I do not understand, I get up off of the couch a week later. Maybe the worms beating against my skull need to get out of the house for the afternoon.
I attend once again to my Holocaust patient. Twenty-five years ago, I worked in the hospital he has been transferred to. I know the place well, he will be a lucky man if he gets out alive.
The flat screen in the corner of his room screams out the new mantras: “Times are tough,” “You’re blessed if you have a job,” “We’re all in this together.”
And my favorite, repeated several times a day: “One of the only sectors of the economy not shedding jobs is healthcare.”
Really? I am making a few dollars more than I did when I last worked in this hospital, in the shoulder pads and big hair days of “Dynasty” and “Knots Landing.” The pimps running the agency on Sunset claim they are not reimbursed enough by Medicare, Medical or private insurance companies to pay their nursing staff a decent wage. Interesting, in that they all drive Mercedes, wear Prada, sport Rolex or Raymond Weil watches on their well-fed wrists, go out to lunch every day and scream into one of their two or three iPhones.
We’re all in this together.
My patient’s youngest daughter and her husband enter the room, the savagery of their unblinking eyes slapping my face on both cheeks. I guide their balled up fists into the sleeves of bright yellow isolation gowns, mandated by my patient’s tanked white blood cell counts.
“Why didn’t you ride home in the ambulance with him?” the husband asks.
“I wouldn’t have had a way to get home from his condo.”
“You could’ve taken a cab.”
“I don’t have the money for a cab.”
“GET ON A BUS. If you’d gone with him this wouldn’t have happened.”
“I’m taking off,” I spit out with the venom of Brooklyn born Barbara Stanwyck. “I’m sure you can find someone else to take care of him.”
I chose not to continue the scene as Stanwyck would have, employing instead the humble voice of a little boy lost, lovingly slipping my copy of “The House of Mirth” into my 1950s medical bag, its cracked black leather skin in need of a few shots of Restylane filler.
“No,” the daughter says. “Daddy’s comfortable with you. Why wasn’t his caregiver here? Shouldn’t you have coordinated the trip home with him?”
“He didn’t answer his cell when I called. Actually, he never answers his cell when I call.”
“None of this would’ve happened if you’d done your job,” the husband says.
The bone white scleras of their eyes hurt my skin. My balls are killing me, the groan in my stomach is waking up for the day, as are the worms. The straight boyfriend is right, this is like sewing together a sleeve that is ripped open at the elbow, only to split apart when my fingers point the remote at the curved glass screen of my television.
The daughter and husband smile at the man in the hospital bed. I sit a few feet away, reading the tale of Lily Bart, a woman whose cup is most definitely half empty. The man I have bathed, massaged and groomed that morning closes his eyes the moment his daughter approaches, all ears unable to hear the new mantras being mouthed on the flat screen by a meshugge Ali Velshi, my fingers having muted his song when the husband and his wife entered the room.
“Their botox is fierce,” the charge nurse, whose Louise Brooks bob reveals an unlined neck, says after the daughter and her husband leave.
How did I not spot that?
The nurse mimics the way the daughter’s fingers pound into her BlackBerry as her lonely green eyes and immobile face stare down anyone in her way.
Time for the lucky man to lay off Garbo and Stanwyck and start watching “America’s Next Top Model.”
At 6 AM a week later, the pimps on Sunset call to tell me my patient is back home. I arrive at his condo in Westwood early, a surprised sounding kid buzzing open the garage’s black iron gate. The car behind me, piloted by a young man, follows my unwashed 69 Chevy Malibu into the dark hole I find myself once again descending into. As I listen to Chet Baker’s breathy “My Funny Valentine,” I try to imagine having the energy to hose my car down when I get home. The young man, turned out in well tailored new brown scrubs, exits his Honda. This building sure seems to have its share of sick tenants. I watch as the young man’s feet tap dance over the smooth grey concrete floor, his body bouncing to the lobby door, white teeth and blonde hair gleaming in the underground darkness. He appears to be, at tops, twenty-one, the skin on his thin body no doubt feeling every soothing caress breathed out by the heavy air seeping in from the street.
He is a sweet, funny valentine, alive in the City of the Angels.
Did I move like that when I started nursing thirty years ago? Did my eyes look without fear at what was in front of me? Was my smile welcoming? My stomach woke me up this morning an hour before my alarm was set to. Balls swell in pain beneath my years old green scrubs. I have an apple and an avocado sandwich for my daily meal. Maybe the Cuban will fix me a coffee after I have folded my patient’s freshly washed bed linens.
The condo is quieter than my apartment is at noon. The Cuban spots me from her perch at the kitchen table and walks into the dining room, leaving me unable to see her from where I stand. I walk down the hallway to my patient’s room. The young man from the garage is at my patient’s bedside, the kid is demonstrating how to suction the trach. Neither wears gloves, neither gets the catheter in deep enough or pulls it out fast enough.
“This is rich,” I say.
“It’s not me…the daughter…he make the decision” the kid says, his dirty bare feet leaving long grey streaks on the white carpet. “He say you cost the too much.”
I fix the kid with the look I gave the Armenian. He fingers his rosary. It will not save him.
I look at the young man.
I did move like that.
While executing a flawless turn on to Beverly Boulevard, I use my cell for the first time in over a month to call my iPhone wielding procurers. Much to my cynical surprise, they are clueless about the young man, offering to pay me two hours show-up time. It amounts to groceries for two weeks, but if I stretch it, I can also buy GoPhone minutes.
I call the boyfriend.
“How do you feel?” he asks.
“Real light. Whatever was pressing down on me is gone.”
The boyfriend is vacating his office to work out of his condo in West Hollywood until things as he somberly states: “…pick the fuck up.”
I offer to help, but as usual, he wants to do it alone. I head to the his office with a plan. Now, it will be my turn to keep the boyfriend off the zebra skin of his Crate & Barrel couch. I will pound on his chest like Stanwyck does whenever she wants a man to do things her way.
I make a left to get off of the always slow moving Beverly Boulevard and take Melrose Avenue to the boyfriend’s office, my fingers touching the steering wheel’s warm plastic, as I smile with the realization that when I start teaching in two weeks my lost year will finally be over.
Such a lucky man, with so much more to lose.
I do not have to pound on the boyfriend’s chest. Our eyes looking out on to Highland Avenue, he smiles and surrenders the duct tape to me. I work on my list of what is going where, then line up rows of sealed numbered boxes in front of his live/work space’s floor to ceiling wall of windows. The street is quiet, the sun so bright it blanches out the gummy grey layer of film hugging the windows’ exteriors. In the still air, a man pushes a fully loaded shopping cart up Highland toward an empty donut shop across the street, the baker behind its counter waving the man and his cart away before it reaches his door. The gas station at the corner gets a customer every few minutes, each purchasing gasoline in odd denominations, seven, twelve or three dollars worth. I have been feeding my Malibu like that for the last year.
The boyfriend and I stand at the parking spaces in the back of his building, its burgundy wall deflowered by graffiti, whose elongated lettering and huge terrified faces have never been painted over by the landlords, despite their promise to do so over a year ago.
“Remember the party you helped me with at the Chateau Marmont?” the boyfriend asks. “It was so totally your style, guy. You’ll be living there when your book sells.”
“We slept here because you were afraid someone would break in and steal the gift baskets.”
“Stupid office…I always had to up the volume on the phones when the cars raced by to Wilshire.”
The sliver of red paper I have attached to the floor lamp sticking out of his trunk waves at us as a transitory breeze blows through the alleyway. The boyfriend’s tears come and go as quickly as the breeze, his head rests on my shoulder a bit longer before he pulls out for the last time from the parking space, his company’s name stenciled defiantly over the nervous colors splashed on to the brick wall.
The boyfriend and I drive the empty streets of the City of the Angels to homes we suddenly can not afford to own or rent. I head up Gower, watching in the rearview mirror as my lab coat blows in the breeze, its collar secured to a hook above the back seat’s passenger window. Whenever I have left empty rooms with labeled boxes, irreplaceable yard sale bought tchotchkes and beloved pieces of furniture, I was moving to somewhere better, to a place I wanted to be. I am lucky the streets are empty. All four of my tires are bald, causing my car to do a wicked shimmy whenever I drive up the ramp out of my garage or make a sudden turn on to Santa Monica Boulevard. I have noticed many tires like mine lately, SUVs, BMWs, pickup trucks and even school buses, all with their bottoms bulging out on the insides. I stick my arm out the window, my palm facing ongoing traffic, my fingers splayed open.
I still can not feel the air.
Like the indifference hovering behind the placid faces of my patient’s daughters, I never once tried to open myself up to him, to take him in, to imagine what was going on in his head after watching hours of Filipino soap operas or to have our days together give him some degree of refuge from the diseases slithering through his body. Lucky man, I was able to forget the kid and the unthankful daughters by the time the magnet of the boyfriend’s round delts pulled my car on to Beverly Boulevard. My eyes stare at the blank wall in front of me as my tires slide nervously into my parking space, the dead stillness of my lab coat making me realize that for the first time in my thirty years of nursing, I never once entertained the thought of getting close to this patient.
Everything ends so quickly.
What’s the point?
My abandoned lab coat hanging in the closet next to the restless vintage suits I plan to wear when I teach, my jaw drops as I watch the Republican convention. This Sarah Palin is going to throw a wrench into it.
I have covered the rent for September, leaving me to choose between paying the minimum payments on my credit cards or buying food. With two full bags of rice in the cupboard, I make the payments. I eat rice sprinkled with cumin, dill or basil for my one daily meal. It tastes lousy, like I am eating rice every day. To keep hydrated and without money to buy fruits or vegetables, I fill up empty three gallon Arrowhead containers with water from the sink, my newly shrunk stomach unable to tell the difference between tap and bottled water.
Gazing straight ahead at the Republican gladiators before them, Levi Johnston holds his pregnant girlfriend’s hand. I say let McCain win the fucker. Things will fall apart quicker, maybe then people will hit the streets to change all of this.
I apply for unemployment. First week is a waiting period. No payment. They will be in touch for a phone interview to determine if I am eligible. When I call to speed up the interview date, I am bounced around in a voice mail labyrinth whose final destination is hold. I press the phone to my ear as I wash the dishes and look for my cat, only to have the line disconnect after a few minutes. I hit redial and rearrange glasses and dishes on shelves lined with faded white paper, its smiling sheen having faded months ago. I call Monday through Friday and, when not being disconnected after fifteen minutes, wait on hold for an hour or two, never managing to get through, not even at 6 AM.
Thinking it will be easier to write in a tidy apartment during the two weeks before school starts, I decide to organize the piles of books, newspapers and magazines I have not read in the past year. Instead, I begin with the movies I have recorded but never watched. What can they tell me that the worms slithering around in my brain have not? Forget it, I will clean. Not having the money to buy paper towels from even the 99¢ Only Store, I use old dish towels and rags I have made from torn nightshirts to wipe down table and counter tops, before moving on to the soiled areas around the knobs of once industrial white doors. Two minutes into running the vacuum cleaner over my carpet, the floor rollers snap after eating up the lone black nylon sock my cat has been playing with when I am not around. Lacking the skills required to resuscitate this machine, I affix an upholstery nozzle to the long black flexible attachment hose. Vacuuming takes a bit longer, as I have to run over everything twice, still it sucks up dirt pretty well. I have the time, but the exertion makes me hungry, leaving me to wonder if I am cheating by eating two bowls of rice.
I sit down to write, stomach churning in protest, balls laughing in defiance, my neck tightening to stone. The truth of my life remains stuck in my fingertips, their refusal to tap out what is real on to the keyboard seducing me, along with the silence of my building, to lie down on couch to read the “New York Times.”
I fall asleep pages before reaching Paul Krugman.
To save on gas, I walk to the Staples on Sunset to buy the mandatory supplies my instructors at the Teacher Training Academy told me I will need as a substitute. I show the checker my LAUSD ID and ask for the ten percent discount on supplies the always smiling instructors told me teachers receive.
“No such thing,” the checker says.
I ask to speak with the manager, the customers in line shifting their weight and letting out loud deep breaths. As the man behind me sighs painfully, the manager tells me there is no discount for teachers, never was. I charge one hundred dollars for pens, pencils, transparencies, felt tip markers, rubber bands, reams of paper, post-it notes, clip boards, paper clips, manila folders, index cards, chalk and crayons.
The Beachwood shuttle to home, leaving from the Pantages Theater, next to the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard, costs twenty-five cents.
The afternoon is quiet, my cat sleeping on the couch, stretched out and dreaming.
I can see, but not feel, the warm air and caressing heat of the City of the Angels, its arms refusing to hold me as they run their fingers over the hedges in my courtyard. I wear a wife beater and boxers, sit at my writing table and pour hot water over the orange mango tea bag I used this morning. My fingers scroll through pages of my novel, my eyes smiling as they take in my words, which are not half bad, they are good words, strung together by the invisible chains encircling and pressing in on my heart. When was it that I last sat and wrote until my fingers were numb? When the hot air of an afternoon like this held me to my desk straight through to the cool stillness of early morning?
My fingers rest on the keyboard, forgetting that my way into writing is to edit the words I last worked on.
Where will I pull the hundred dollars for the school supplies from?
My eyes move to the chipped yellow paint of my desk.
I should be able to recoup the money my first week teaching.
My back pushes into the wood of the chair I sit on, my feet wrapping around its legs. I have been fired for the first time from a job. Replaced on the other by what appeared to be a teenager. Everyone can see who the lucky man is behind his curtain. The students I will be standing before in two weeks will not listen to anything I say, my co-workers will roll their eyes when I walk past, they will smirk and tell me about my attitude when I sit with them in the teacher’s break room.
I turn the computer off and sleep for a day, which is a good thing.
Lucky men do not eat when they sleep.
For the next two weeks, I give up Garbo and Stanwyck to review teaching strategies and rehearse lesson plans. During my worm imposed naps, I dream I am in front of a classroom taking roll. I wake up to peruse the passages I have highlighted in “The Substitute Teacher Handbook” and re-read “The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher.” To prepare myself for my new hours, I go to bed every night at ten and wake up at five in the morning.
To avoid the drama of my computer’s five to ten minute boot up time and the ten to twenty minutes to get online, I set my silver Sony Viao to hibernate, Mozilla opened to Google Maps on the Sunday night before my first on call day. I will shower while the printer takes its customary five to fifteen minutes to eject the one page of directions to the school I am assigned to. It is my belief my computer was crippled early last year by the berserk machinations of MySpace’s out of control graphics.
To compensate for the fact I can not sleep with my phone, its battery so old it will be dead by morning if I remove it from its base, I go to sleep with the ringers of both my landline and fax machine set to loud. At 5 AM, I turn the television on to something called “Morning Joe,” my ears waiting for the ringers, who have not uttered a word for weeks, to break their silence. This Joe guy is a serious loser, the bitterness of his smiling cynicism putting to shame the best of my stand up routine. The ringers have not yet spoken when Joe signs off at 6 AM. My stomach heaves, my balls tighten and push against my upper thigh in the stillness of the next hour as the light blue of early morning fades into a grey mist. It is my first day on call. Tomorrow, I will be working.
I will write today.
I switch the channel to CNN, where the red shoes, pencil skirt and tight blouse of Sarah Palin whip her crowds into a frenzy, their cheers screaming for Obama’s blood.
Tomorrow, LAUSD will call, I think as I check IMDb to see when Leni Riefenstahl died. I take a nap, eat rice and look at the one can of cat food I have left before falling back to sleep.
For the rest of the week, I float in the blue silence of 5 AM, watching Joe and his sidekick, the off the hook and beyond controlling Mika, my only thought being: what retraining camp did MSNBC find this woman in?
On Tuesday, I feed my resume into the void of Monster.com, CareerBuilder.com and Craigslist.
No response from anyone.
On Wednesday, I call the agency on Sunset.
On Thursday, I call the 800 number for my insurance assessor gig.
“People have stopped buying insurance,” the voice whispers to me. “It must have something to do with the economy.”
On Friday, I call LAUSD.
“It’s the beginning of the term,” the voice says. “Give it another week or two.”
I do not tell any of the voices my bag of rice is getting low or that the cat food can is half empty.
The worms put me to sleep on the couch, chanting into my ear: “It’s going to go like this now.”
I wait to be lucky.
The Postman Only Rings Once.
I wake up at 2 AM and hightail it to the Ralphs on Western Avenue and Hollywood Boulevard. As sad young Latino men stock the shelves I can not buy anything from, I empty the glass jug of pennies I keep in my kitchen closet into the coin redemption machine, my haul of fifteen dollars and sixty-five cents leaving me with a choice, my first in weeks. Cat food versus apples and pears, a roll of toilet paper, a book of stamps and some veggies to mix into my daily rice. In the morning, I will go to the pet store and ask if I can work in exchange for cat food. I can direct thin yoga moms and muscular out of work actors in and out of the too small parking spaces of the strip mall’s lot for a few hours.
I return home to the silenced phone ringers and the nasty pontificating of Joe and Mika, their arrogance the only light in my living room. These two should do the deed and get it over with. An instant message, sent by a man I have been chatting with on Adam4Adam, usurps the fun couple’s bantering. The man wants to know what my plans are for the morning. Like I have plans outside of sleeping. The man suggests meeting for coffee. I type out words about cat food and maneuvering big cars between white lines. At 10 AM, he picks me up on the corner of Beachwood and Franklin and drives me to the pet store. The man possesses an unworldly calm, he is handsome, smart and quick witted. He feels the wind blowing through his thick hair. Lucky him, my days revolve around watching the sheer curtains dance in my living room and my upcoming purchase of stamps and apples with my fifteen dollar windfall.
The man buys me fifty dollars worth of cat food. My lips want to kiss his cheeks, the way my neighbors kissed mine when I was a teenager and mowed their lawns every Saturday for free, the vibration of the mower’s handles rattling my hands, making me feel for the first time I had a man’s body, my nose breathing in the Long Island mixture of gasoline and cut grass.
“This is very kind of you,” I tell my chat buddy.
The Hollywood Sign, pure white hope on this clear morning in the City of the Angels, watches us as we sit in the man’s freshly washed car in front of the drawn blinds of my building, the occasional emaciated runway model walking her dog languidly up Beachwood Drive.
“I’ve been where you are. Try to remember you’re only looking for a job for yourself, not the whole country. Write every day. You’ll make it.”
I stare at him, at the deep blackness of his hair, my lips can not tell him my fingers have stopped flying over the keyboard, that they are numb now for all the wrong reasons.
I smile. Nod my head. Whisper good-bye.
My body holds none of the stamina of the Hollywood Sign in the hills above us, the bones beneath my pure white cheeks tingle, I am certain that when I open my front door, they will shatter like cracked glass.
The boyfriend offers to pay October’s rent. I push the check back across the table.
“I’m so broke now, what difference does it make?” he asks.
“I lied to you about working for the old man. I promised you I wouldn’t go back there.”
“After all I didn’t tell you about myself? Guy, what you did wasn’t lying. Promise me you’ll stop watching the news. We know the economy is tanking. Do you have to have it pounded into your head from the minute you get up?”
“Can I still read Paul Krugman?”
A month ago this would have made us both laugh.
I take the check.
The boyfriend and I used to talk all night and into the morning, our foreheads touching, greedy fingers running up and down backs, legs, arms and butts. Now when he visits, we sleep in my bed for twenty hours a day, only waking up to eat or walk his dog. The boyfriend came to like our new diet of rice and tofu very quickly. He eats way more than I do. He brings the tofu, I can only afford the rice. He has admitted to no longer feeling the air on his skin.
Exhausted by noon from our attempts to feel the air, we eat Vicodins in the late afternoons and hold on to each other until the night comes on.
October is cold and dark. No more drawn blinds blue in my bedroom. I wake up every morning at 3 AM and stare at Joe and Mika from the couch. They are like “Moonlighting” without the jokes, chase scenes or the fucking. LAUSD does not call. At 7 AM, I yank the silver curtain grommets along the wrought iron curtain rod and open the windows. I am unable to feel the air as it quietly seduces the curtains into undulating before me. I drink the first of my eight daily glasses of water. Pour out the day’s cup of rice. Check my voicemail. Not like anyone would call. I walk past my writing desk. Stare at the post-it notes climbing up the wall. Orange are characters. Blue, plot points. Green, lines of dialogue. Who lined them up so perfectly?
The thought of calling LAUSD pushes me back on the couch for a nap. When I wake up, their office has closed. I continue to play this game for two weeks.
I mute Joe and Mika and lie on the couch until the stillness and endless quite of my living room laugh at me.
I call LAUSD.
“This has never happened before,” the voice says. “No one is calling in sick. And for the few that do, we’re using subs from the top of the list. Do this for now, take yourself off call. There’s no point in waiting around if we’re not going to use you. If things pick up, our department will be in touch. But, don’t expect much.”
I do not expect a thing.
I wear my nightshirts all day and into the evening, ignoring their ripped sleeves, torn collars and frayed hems when they catch on doorknobs, the arms of chairs or the assorted kitsch tchotchkes I have acquired over the years. I shower at ten or eleven at night. The whispers of air blowing against the sheer curtains in my living room still can not touch me. I keep the TV volume low and shut off the ringers of my landline and fax machine. Sound hurts my skin. There are two dollars left from my fifteen dollar windfall. After holding on to it for two weeks, I buy a jar of peanut butter from Trader Joe’s. From the forty cents change, I put a quarter with the other quarters for the laundry, the nickel and dime with the money I have alloted for bus fare.
Lucky man, I eat from the plastic jar with my fingers when I am hungry.
My cat has left me. She is afraid. She only eats and uses the litter box when I am asleep. When I am awake, she positions herself on the floor of the hall closet, watching me from under the shelves which hold the videos I have taped over the past twenty years. If I walk towards the closet, she retreats to the upper shelf of the kitchen cabinet, her whiskers alert under the silverware drawer as she lies where I used to store rolls of toilet paper, which I no longer have the money to buy, not even at the 99¢ Only Store. I shower to clean up after using the toilet. My family is French. It’s no biggie. My cat never once closes her eyes when I am awake or lying on the couch.
She knows what I am going to do. She watches for it.
In the mornings, I apply online.
In the afternoons, I cold call hospitals, whose voices scream into my ear: “Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”
I cold call agencies and listen to their song: “We’d love for you to come in and apply.”
I cut to the chase and ask if they have work. They don’t, haven’t for months.
The red ink circling phone numbers in the “Yellow Pages” tells me I have gone this route before.
I sleep for a few hours, then wake up and call the agency on Sunset. No work. My peanut butter jar is empty. Did it last a week? Two weeks?
I get up off the couch and head out to UCLA, where I find myself reclining once again for three hours at a clip on a hard and oddly contoured examining chair. In his attempt to replace the crown on my lower last tooth, the UCLA dental student pulls my jaw as far to my right as he can. Having been a wrestler in high school, he is strong and, in spite of the novocaine, it hurts, it feels like a hot spike being hammered into the tip of my tongue. My blood pressure readies itself to stroke me out as the student adjusts the examining chair to a position where my head is below the level of my heart. Not such a lucky man, the pounding in my head reminds me I can no longer pretend my pressure is low. Props to the Armenian, the kid, the karaoke caretaker and the worms. I have not met my deductible this year, a visit to my doctor would be, at minimum, one hundred and fifty dollars. Eat right, lose ten pounds, exercise daily. I will see a doc next July when I switch from my PPO’s money sucking deductibles and co-pays to Kaiser, whose doctors extort ten bucks for a visit and fifty for the ball surgery. The student readjusts his goggles. I stare up at the tiny black holes in the ceiling above me.
I moan, remembering that in November of 2007 the student presented me with a simple treatment plan. Now, nearly a year later, he is no where close to being finished. I squeeze my hands together, my knuckles turning white, my feet kicking in the air.
“You can’t be hurting,” the student says.
“It really does, can I have more novocaine?”
“You’re weirdly sensitive to dental work. There’s no way this could be bothering you.”
“Humor me. Give me the novocaine.”
Thinking I would cover everything on the treatment plan by doing insurance assessments, I am saving money I do not have getting care at UCLA. I hold my tongue, force it to the left side of my mouth, my eyes tearing with the knowledge that I do not have the two hundred fifty co-pay for the crown.
The next day, my jaw is literally floating in my mouth, its pain throbbing more intensely than the relentless snark attack Joe and Mika dish out at dawn. The ball pain is a blessing compared to what my mouth is doing. I try to drive down Sunset, but after two blocks, I pull into a Rite Aid parking lot and cradle my jaw in my hands.
I want to see my cat again. I want the air to touch me.
I cry for ten minutes, making sure my jaw does not move, trying not to shake with fear as my balls vibrate with their own grief.
“You’re drug seeking,” the student tells me when I ask for pain meds.
“People in pain do seek drugs,” I tell him. “What’s your plan to fix this?”
“You need to understand that this has nothing to do with me. You react so inappropriately to dental care. I have no issue with your going back to your own dentist.”
“I don’t have the money to see you, let alone another dentist.”
“The pain will go away. Your jaw has to reacquaint itself with your mouth.”
And Sarah Palin will learn to read the “New York Times” and understand it. Hell, she and Todd will do the crossword puzzle in ink every morning.
Over the phone, my doctor, understanding I do not have the money for an office visit, prescribes me Vicodin, whose dosage of two every six hours does not come close to touching the pain.
Lucky man, I can use them for my out.
I answer a post on Yahoo’s Big Cheap Theatre group and am brought in to interview for a job as weekend house manger at a theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard. The full time manager is a friendly actor, one of the surplus of radically handsome young men who populate the City of the Angels, all waiting for their break.
“Do you have any objections to cleaning up the bathrooms after the house closes?”
He is standing on a ladder screwing in a lightbulb. I look up at him, glowing skin, shining green eyes, hair falling over his thick black eyelashes.
I have absolutely no objections to anything he asks of me.
The theater owner is a tough cookie from the East Coast, blonde hair, black roots, ten pounds over the skinny actress limit, oddly smooth face of undeterminable age. As deep as our laughter is about the Joan Didion disconnectedness of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciúncula, we live for the days when la Reina’s warm air kisses our middle aged skin. I tell her of my hope to be teaching soon, my stand up days, my monologues, my novel. She talks about her plans for this season’s plays and her early gigs in New York City. The traffic glides along Santa Monica Boulevard as the three of us sit for an hour, drinking coffee, talking about our performing anxieties, going up on lines, auditions that put us in bed for a weekend and the few onstage seconds when we have each lost the weight of our bodies and made the connection.
I can almost feel the air.
Driving home, it occurs to me this is the first job interview I have ever been on during which I have not been asked the inevitable: “Where do you see yourself professionally in five years?”
I receive an e mail the next week telling me the theater is unable to hire anyone, seems they are hemorrhaging money, no one has the scratch to book a show, not even for a weeknight. Nice dream while it lasted, still I try to hold on to that hour when my body did not hurt. If the worms would free me from the couch, if I could break the spell Joe and Mika have over me, I could volunteer and help my fellow dreamers out.
I eat two Vicodins. I have to. I do not want to feel the stiffness of my body when I lie on the couch or the ache in my balls, the throbbing of my jaw, the twisting of my gut. I have not been high like this in years. Just for today, I will be part of the light Joe and Mika splash into the room. Tomorrow, the Vicodin bottle goes into its hiding place, next to two full bottles of Ativan. I walk past the apartment of my neighbors, a sweet married couple in their early thirties. She is willowy and cornfed pretty. He is overweight, smokes cigarettes down to the filter and chats on his cell in the courtyard in front of my living room window. His puffy face is familiar, undoubtedly a child actor now scrounging for extra work. Even though they are cooking with their windows closed, the smells of garlic, paprika, thyme, onions, curry and meat being grilled until blood drips red from its insides spill into the courtyard. My nose breathes in my old life. Punching in protest over not being fed like it once was, my stomach pumps out digestive juices as if I had devoured the smells seeping into the empty courtyard. I do not want to eat rice today. My knuckles are one inch from the couple’s door. I will knock, tell them I will wash their dishes, polish their hardwood floors, do their laundry. I will knock just once. If they open, I will ask for a plate of what they are cooking.
The postman only rings once in this stretch of Hollywood, the loose skin of his dehydrated arms carrying the afternoon mail, its bounty of bills always making my stomach churn. The Vicodins are not afraid of the mailbox today. I will open it, then knock on the door. A lone letter from American Express falls into my shaking hands, its blue tinted paper informing me their investigation has concluded. My nostrils tingle, the sting of cilantro pushes its way into my apartment. I lick my lips. The black words tell me AMEX intends to reinstate the six hundred dollar charge for the weight training DVDs.
Lucky man, now my eyelashes hurt.
I call AMEX, there is no hold time. Is it a holiday? I get India.
“I don’t have this type of money, I can’t cover a mistake like this. I don’t charge anything anymore.”
“You recently charged over one hundred dollars at Staples.”
“That was for teaching supplies.”
“You don’t get paid as a teacher? You must have some money coming in.”
“I DON’T HAVE A FUCKING CENT COMING IN. The teaching job fell through. My other two jobs fell apart in August. I don’t have…I eat God damned rice every day. I walk…ride my bike to save on gas. DO YOU THINK I FUCKING BOUGHT A SIX HUNDRED DOLLAR WORKOUT DVD?”
“I sympathize with your obvious frustration.”
“No you FUCKING don’t. Bush gave you guys the bailout money. The way I get it, that was to cover the money you weren’t getting from people like me.”
“Can I put you on hold?”
“This is the most unprofessional…the worst…I’m going to get you fired.”
“I won’t be gone for more than five minutes.”
Having used up the last of my Trader Joe’s multipurpose cleaner weeks ago, I clean the top of my formica dining room table with a nearly empty bottle of Windex.
“Sir, we’re going to go ahead and take off the disputed charge.”
“Thank you…thank you so much…I’m sorry I…”
“Many of our customers find themselves in your position. We appreciate that you continue to make your minimum payments on time. You have a nice afternoon.”
I open the fridge, the tofu the boyfriend left on the bottom shelf is growing two green spores, both black in their centers. I have not acted like this since my father died, when I was an unworldly longhaired twenty year-old, smashing a white metal garbage can against the polished green tiles of the bathroom wall in a Long Island funeral home. Daddy’s friends came in, telling me to scream and hit out until the pain went away. I wailed until my throat became as numb as the day’s Vicodins refuse to make me, their seductive tickle licking my ear, whispering that I am a man who can not pay off credit card debt, can not make the rent, can not buy food. A man who shrieks like the karaoke caretaker at an AMEX woman in India named Harriet.
And now, even my eyelashes hurt.
I didn’t sign up for this.
Not any of it.
The worms, having no shelves to hide on, slither out of my brain, their fear spitting out one last sentence: “It’s either this or the out.”
I never hear them again.
Chapter 16/ 2008
“It’s happening to a lot of people.”
The straight boyfriend closes his business. Having sold his black BMW to an Armenian arriviste from Glendale and auctioning off his Prada and Dolce & Gabbana business threads on eBay, all he has left is a few Benjamins.
“It was all show, guy…all show,” the boyfriend’s tight throat spits out.
The passive innocence of the Hollywood Sign looks down on the boyfriend’s newly acquired clunker pushing its way up Beachwood Drive, his right wrist weightless and free with the sale of his Rolex, my boyfriend’s hand shakes as he parallel parks in front of my building.
It is high noon in Hollywood. We are going to sleep.
I do not tell the boyfriend about the out I have come up with. He knows. When he wakes up in the afternoons and shuffles to the bathroom, never once having entertained the thought of spending his morning running the hills of Bronson Canyon, I know he is thinking the same thing. We talk around the outs. They sleep with us at night. In the few hours we are awake, he asks me to read him my stories.
“Your voice hypnotizes me,” he whispers. “You’re the hardest worker I’ve ever met.”
“Where has it gotten me?”
I have done what is easy. He is the one who has made a business out of nothing, from an idea people thought was frivolous at best. For me, going onstage to fly, to make people laugh or tell them a story is as natural as breathing in the hopeful air of the City of the Angels. He is the brave one, the man who goes out every day into a world which never once frightened him, a world he is comfortable in. He is the one whose baby blues put people at ease, who does not hide behind jokes, who listens more than he talks.
I am the one in tattered nightshirts.
I wake up at 6 AM. The boyfriend and I have been sleeping for days, two, three, four, I do not know. My pillows and sheets smell of our sweat. I am too tired to change them. I walk the dog, put food out for the cat, empty the litter box, my feet shuffling back to the bedroom to watch the boyfriend as he sleeps. He is the one man on whose square jaw stubble does not work, scruffy makes him look like a crystal freak. It was a great joke to say he gave me his Viagra so I could pound him good. People laughed until they gasped for air when I told that tale, it was one of my best.
His name is Matt and the fact is Matt wanted me in him.
That is not funny. What have I put in him? My sadness, self pity, my doubts, the fear I hide behind my stubble and dreamy eyes.
It is time to pull out.
I draw Matt a bath, hot as he can take it, peach scented bubbles and foam courtesy of a sale at Rite Aid. There is enough left in the bottle for one more bath, then no more. I wash Matt’s hair, shave his face, scrub his feet, trim his fingernails.
“We’re not going to sleep all day anymore,” I tell him.
“No? Not anymore?”
“I’m going to work the phone banks for Obama and No on 8. I don’t know what will happen after that. I can’t think that far.”
I brush back his wet hair. He looks good.
“What are you going to do?” I ask.
The water is still. He moves his big toe, a small ripple hits the side of the tub and bounces back.
“I’m going to live with my parents…it’s come apart so fast…I want to go home, guy… I want to go home.”
I wipe away tears with a warm wash cloth. From his eyes or mine? What difference does it make? Tears are tears. I take a sip of cool tap water and put the glass to Matt’s lips. He takes a large gulp, his Adam’s apple moves up and down.
“That’s good…you’re smart, you’ve always been smart,” I tell him. “You’re doing the right thing. After I dry you off, we’re going out for breakfast.”
“You don’t…you can’t…”
“I’ve got a few bucks left on my American Express card. We’re going.”
It has been a while since either of us has eaten something besides rice. My tattered nightshirts thrown into the trash, I listen to Matt for hours after we eat. His voice reaches behind my eyes, we lie in each other’s arms, afraid that if we let go we will no longer feel the air of our City stroking our skin.
Unemployment sets up a phone interview to determine if I qualify for benefits. It seems the pimps on Sunset told them I refused to work with Medicare patients.
“Those are cases with infants on ventilators,” I tell the unemployment worker. “I’m not trained to do that.”
“Why would they even suggest you take that type of work?”
“The scary thing is they’d orient me on a case like that for two or three hours and then assign me to it. If something goes south, they’d say I never told them I had no experience with infants.”
A month after applying, I get unemployment. $177.00 a week. $159.00 after taxes. The total of $636.00 a month covers credit card payments, a few bills, a week’s worth of groceries, but not the rent. My New York work ethic stops me from defaulting on the credit cards. I will pay them down.
Lucky man is more of a dreamer than people think.
I have to make the call.
Jerk off three times, then clean the living room windows with watered-down Windex and unread editions of “The New York Times.” When the daylight comes, I pound the pavement from Franklin Avenue to Western Avenue, walking back very slowly, not wanting to go home, to the emptiness of high noon in Hollywood. I check my car’s oil and transmission fluid, my eyes ignoring the bald tires. I locate my cat Sunset on the shelf in the kitchen, tell her today is not the day. My Ajax used up weeks ago, I scrub out the toilet using bleach and stainless steel pot and pan cleanser.
Every porcelain surface in my apartment gleaming, there is nothing left to say or do.
I call Bank of America. They are happy to hear from me, overjoyed. They are not in India, sounds like they are in Ohio or Indiana. They would love to advance me one thousand dollars, love to. They are so glad they can help me in these tough times. The rent for November covered, I fall asleep for five hours during which Sunset vacates the shelf to eat the wet food I left out for her a few hours before.
The No on 8 people are flat out dumb, not because they are young, their passion and outrage are in the right place. More totalitarian than “Morning Joe’s” Mika, their playbook of encouraging the No on 8 voters to get out and vote is flawed. A few calls in, it is obvious the voters do not need me or anyone else to tell them how to do anything. The phone bankers and I prefer trying to persuade the yes voters to change their minds.
“Don’t waste your time trying to change anyone’s mind. It’s too late for that.”
No, it was not.
A week in, I quit my brothers and sisters and start working the Obama phone bank on the sound stage of “From Here to Eternity” at the former Columbia Studios in Hollywood. These people have it down. Skipping the coasts, we call undecided, independent and Republican voters, concentrating on states where Barack might not make it, Wyoming, Missouri, North and South Dakota, Tennessee, Kentucky. We spend as much time as we need chatting voters up, telling them Barack is not a Muslim, he is a citizen, Michelle is not a racist.
We call him Barack, never Obama.
Plates of food wait for us on our breaks: pasta, pizza, veggies, bread, salad, chicken, sushi, pastries, candy bars, potato chips, fruit, juice, sandwiches of all varieties. My shrunken stomach expands in delight. I make a plate to take home for dinner, covering it with Saran wrap and slipping it into a paper bag. Matt and I can eat a real meal tonight.
One of the phone bank staffers shoots me a look.
“I shouldn’t have,” I say. “I’m sorry. I’ll put it…”
“It’s happening to a lot of people,” the staffer says, handing me a six-pack of apple juice. “Take what you need. We want you here.”
On election day the phone bank is packed, a line of volunteers five people deep threads a half block down Gower Street. We call all day, until the polls close on the West Coast. Over and over, we make the connection.
Enough. Enough. Enough.
Barack is going to win, he has to.
My grateful belly stuffed with pizza, I call a man in Florida.
“I’m not voting for him. No way. No how.”
“Do you know where your polling place is sir?”
“Yes…I’m not really sure.”
I tell him.
“Why you telling me that if I’m not voting for your guy?”
“Everyone needs to get out and vote today. If you’re not voting for Barack, please vote for whoever your choice is.”
My throat tightens whenever I say Barack, growing hoarse by mid-afternoon, having chanted it all morning.
“Thank you,” the voter says.
His throat tightens as hangs up to go vote for his guy.
After watching Barack claim our victory, I wake up to my lucky life.
In the mornings, I apply online.
In the afternoons, I cold call hospitals.
“Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”
I cold call agencies.
“We’d love for you to come in and apply.”
An actor friend calls, crying, screaming he has no money for food, his cell phone has been cut off, gas next, then his lights. Unable to pay his car insurance, he no longer drives. Funny, he has never been able to cry onstage, now he has something to draw on. I mail him a fin and give him the address for the SOVA food pantry. I have not been there yet. I wake up early on the Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays the pantry is open. I am the nurse, the one who helps people, I do not need anyone’s help. Rice, pasta, peanut butter and jelly. I will be OK.
Thinking about my out, I go back to sleep.
I get an insurance assessment, my first in a month, fifty bucks, food for two or three weeks. Before he gets a chance to change his mind, I set the appointment up with the applicant, a nice gentleman in Century City. I park next to his Mercedes, my eyes staring at mauve cinderblocks, my skin yearning to feel the air again. I spot a first edition of “The Day of the Locust” on the bookshelf as I walk into his living room, where we are swallowed up by the silence of glass tables, leather couches, Persian rugs and the intricate patterns of family silver billeted in dark antique cabinets. He is impressed that I know Nathanael West lived on Ivar Avenue in Hollywood. We talk about West and John Fante before the assessment begins. If I met guys like this in my other work worlds, I might get someplace.
“Are you having more difficulty balancing your check book or managing your finances?” I ask.
This is a sneaky assessment question to see if early onset Alzheimer’s has kicked in. My neck hurts, fingers throb, jaw aches.
“I let my accountant do that.”
“Could you do it on your own if you had to?”
“Sure, couldn’t anybody?”
I stare at the wall facing me in parking garage, then look at the assessment’s signature page to make sure the gentleman signed in the right place. I turn on the ignition, the mauve concrete shouting at me that I have not reconciled my checkbook against my monthly bank statements in over six months, not since the morning my hands went numb and sweat seeped through my wife beater with the realization my check register was ten dollars off. I go over the numbers, go over the numbers again, do it until two hours have vanished and I can not find the ten bucks. I can pull it from the week’s gas money, buy five dollars worth instead of fifteen. I drive with the gas gauge on empty for two days, my gut screaming that calling AAA to fill my empty gas tank would eat into my GoPhone minutes. The signature’s good, my foot presses down heavy on the gas peddle.
The engine will not start. I am a dead man.
I want to get home, sleep on my featherbed, eat toast and jam. My ice cold fingers slowly turning the pages, I go over the gentleman’s paperwork for twenty minutes. Which card can I use to fix the car? I could sell it, the money for its intact body and interior would net me beaucoup bucks. Taking the bus is not too bad, the Metro Rail is a bit lame for this New Yorker. With a world-weariness I can only associate with Marlene Dietrich, the engine turns over, my bald tires crawl down Olympic Boulevard in the mind numbingly slow traffic of a Friday afternoon as bone white smoke billows out of my muffler. I light Shabbat candles, my stomach punching at me as I wait for what my balls and jaw have in store for me over the weekend. I will figure out the repair money Monday morning. I lose the next two days to a sleep so deep my gut does not demand food, my soul refuses to dream.
Monday morning, my car starts up without a hitch.
The receptionist from the hospice agency on Olympic and Fairfax calls. I always liked her. She asks how I am doing. I tell her.
“I’ll pray on that. You should pray on it too, like when you’re in temple.”
I look at Sunset, wide awake on the closet floor, never taking her frightened eyes off me. I want to tell the receptionist to go fuck herself. Sunset closes her eyes for a few moments.
I say a polite and final good-bye to the receptionist.
Enzina, a college friend who now lives in Kentucky, calls. She asks how I am doing. I tell her. Why not? After graduating for college, we lived for two months on a hippie farm in Arkansas, swam naked with the locals, got the shits the same week after eating veggies for a month, stumbling over each other at 2 AM running to the outhouse. I could not keep my eyes off the boys swimming. Enzina was the first girl I loved, but once the naked boys kicked in, it was time to sing her a sad good-bye song. We are still in each other’s hearts.
Enzina is not big on prayer. Her photography business is starting to get shaky around the edges. She is holding on for now. Turning it over to Jesus would only help if Jesus and his buds wanted to pay cash to have their pictures taken. When she says she will send me five hundred dollars, I tell her I do not need it, I was not asking for it, I will make out OK. She knows I won’t. I know I won’t. I hang up and cry for an hour, smash my blue plastic wastebasket against the shining salmon and pink tiles of the bathroom wall. I never take anything from anybody. Except their crap and their bullshit.
Is it possible the receptionist’s prayers worked?
I need stamps to mail bills and birthday cards, but at $8.40 for twenty, they have become a problem. Eight bucks is gas on a slow week. My literally starving actor friend tells me about paying bills online and how to insert quirky pictures into e-mails for birthday, thank-you and holiday cards.
The lucky man will use his stamp money to buy two cans of oil to lubricate his Chevy’s dried out bowels.
Thanks to Enzina, I only need to credit card part of December’s rent. This time, I do not get too weird before the call. I take a short walk, do a bit of vacuuming, save my sperm for Matt. I call Bank of America. They are happy to hear from me, overjoyed. They are not in India, sounds like they are in Ohio or Indiana. They would love to advance me seven hundred and fifty dollars, love to. They are so glad they can help me in these tough times. With the rent for December covered, I fall asleep for a mere hour after the call.
Getting the 411 off of Craigslist, I interview with a paraplegic in his high-rise condo on Wilshire in Westwood. He is a quiet guy in his early thirties, our tortured stubble and dreamy eyes like each other right away. After being hit by a car while riding his bicycle, he moved from Connecticut to Hollywood to study cinematography. Wanting to hang out in coffee shops and art galleries, he smiles when I Google map the ones I go to for him. He is a sweet kid, brave to take all of this on. The nursing tasks are minimal, basically he needs someone to watch his broken back, someone to tell him when to slow down, to conserve his energy for the real battles.
His mother asks me what kind of music I like and before I answer, she tells me the money for her son’s care comes from a trust. She informs me I can work off the books, actually, she prefers it that way. I quote her my rate, smiling as I explain to her that working as an independent contractor involves paying more taxes than what an agency would pull out of my pay.
Mother pulls up her pink tube socks, tightens the laces on her green Nikes and proceeds to escort me to the door as I tell her I was listening to Billie Holiday that morning.
I e-mail the son a few times, telling him I would love to do the job.
I never hear from him.
I stay up nightly until four or five in the morning. Jaw aches, balls throb, gut lurches. No bills are due in the middle of the night, no resumes to send into the black hole of the internet.
Who needs sleep? Not the lucky man.
There are more garage sales on Beachwood than ever, folks selling everything before moving back home. Should I start peddling my stuff? The 30s Sears rug in my living room was my friend Don’s. Back in my San Francisco days, Don’s life got too hard, at forty-five he thought himself too old, his hair too grey, his belly too fat, his out was to kill himself. My living room couch and chairs were my friend Mark’s. His sister Diane and I sat at his bedside at 3 AM as he lay dying in a Culver City nursing home, our hands on him like the caressing air of the City of the Angels, his once strong voice pleading with us not to pray for him. Don, Mark and my dad touch my skin every day. I should be able to let go of the things they willed me. Everything else I have is junk, “Northern Exposure-esque” Boho chic, none of it could net me much. Sleep takes me down at eight-thirty at night, knocking me out way past noon the next day.
I can not sell their stuff. Not yet.
One hundred dollars arrives from my nursing school friend, Kathi.
The memo line on check reads: “Hope this makes it easier.”
Despite what Obama preaches, hope can not do a thing, only cash does. I wait a few days to deposit her check, signing it says I need it, that I can not make it on my own, can not take care of myself.
“It means you have friends who love you,” Matt says as we eat our rice. “You have to let people touch you…get inside you.”
I might never feel the air on my skin again, but I can feel the beating of my friends’ hearts.
I am a lucky man.
Chapter 17/ 2008
I Learned the Truth at Seventeen.
“It’s not the goddamned stocking anymore. Forget it.”
Gloria, Jane Fonda’s character in “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” spoke her newly acquired truth when her last decent stocking tore apart as she packed up her belongings, the tight marcel waves of her hair calmed with the thought of finally leaving the marathon.
I learned the truth at seventeen.
I saw it in Gloria’s tears. Having danced in circles for weeks in one of the marathons endemic to the first Depression, life punches Gloria for the last time in the instant her partner hands her her missing silk stocking, the excruciating hiss of its gapping wound making a sound fiercer than the siren blasts summoning the dancers back into the ring. Gloria bows her head down in surrender, the salt of her tears the first nourishing thing she has tasted since running the maze her life has become.
I pulled out of the theater’s parking lot on my first night driving after dark, my friend Corinne sitting next to me in my mother’s shaky green Rambler, our high school eyes staring silently into the darkness of the quiet Long Island streets, our souls waiting for the instant our heads would bow down, the moment when our bodies would shake with the truth, as Obama’s did when he chanted “Enough” in Invesco Field.
The truth hits everyone. Just wait.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, floating in a dream more seductive than any promised by the bone white steel of the Hollywood Sign, the pacifying reverie in which Obama changes everything when he is inaugurated in January, I return to a writing group I had left a year ago when I was cast in a play. No one in the circle of intense, confident and sure to be published screenwriters and novelists asks how I am doing. Works for me, as I would not have told them, or anyone else for that matter. I have learned not to speak of my life in rooms where success hovers outside the door, in rooms in which people can smile. That and my stories are all I have to bring to the table these days.
I listen to great work, original and compelling. I read the last pages of my novel, telling the tale of a nurse watched over by the City of the Angels’ palm trees as he tries to make it as a comic, the silence of my fellow writers telling me they like it. The room is warm, the people in it smart, all able to feel the cool night’s air on their skin. It has been so long, but I make the connection.
I am sure something will fuck this up. And soon.
Matt and I feast on Thanksgiving. Always the lucky man, but never the gay man who cooks or is big on cleaning, I manage to pull it off, despite the numbness in my fingers, born at high noon when standing in various check out aisles, my sore jaw tapping into my brain that this is too much money to spend in one afternoon for one meal. I have bought barbeque chicken from Ralphs, green and black grapes, two yams, Progresso soup, broccoli, a day old bunt cake, Häagen-Dazs, a bottle of wine for Matt and goddamned rice I have flavored with dill, which tastes like the rice I eat every day.
Matt needs food in his gut, his heart needs someone to listen to him. He eyes the setup: a tablecloth of red, blue, yellow and green stripes, turquoise Fiestaware plates, orange bowls, heavy clear glasses with bright blue running around their rims, my mother’s monogrammed linen napkins and her silverware, polished to a bright gleam with toothpaste from the 99¢ Only Store. Maria Callas sings her sorrow and ecstasy to Matt and I, long black candles providing our only light. My man smiles, his first in weeks.
Our bellies full, our demons sleep when the worms knock at my front door.
“We’re not home!” Matt screams.
I forgot. The man is funny when he is drunk.
“If you’re not gonna’ drink, at least take a Vicodin. Meet me half way here, guy,” Matt says.
“I want every pore to be open, mister,” I tell him. “I want to feel you clean, without any…”
The insistence of his wet tongue stops me from finishing my sentence.
I pour Matt more wine and tell him we are going to watch five John Cassavetes movies in the next few days. He retrieves another bottle from his clunker. He is hooked on Gena Rowlands immediately, a good hour before she goes onstage drunk in “Opening Night.” Watching Gena stagger through her scenes, Matt smiles again and laughs. I do the same, our faces not familiar with the contortions Gena has visited upon them.
For four days, my body remembers truly better days, nothing in me hurts.
It’s all good.
It will be even better in January.
The Monday after Thanksgiving, I need to make three copies of my resume. I am going to storm every hospital I know of to get work. It will be like crashing a casting agency to get the part I was born to play. Hell, I have smiled and laughed for four days running, a cliched movie scenario might work. The store on Franklin Avenue I always use for copying and mailing packages is shuttered closed. When did that happen? A nice Latino guy, efficient, fast and funny, ran the place. The store next to his closed too. I forgot what they sold, maybe a cleaners?
My stand-by shop on La Brea Avenue has also gone out of business, the stores on each side empty. The condo complex going up a half block away stopped construction last month, its investors pulling out after the buyers got cold feet. It was a huge project, a few blocks long, a few blocks wide.
I hit a copy store on Hillhurst Avenue, run by a friendly Armenian, his handsome face as sad as Callas’ funereal laments, his shop as quiet as my apartment at noon.
“How you doing?” I ask.
“You’re the first customer of the day.”
“It’s after a holiday, not a big time for a copy center.”
“It’s been like this for weeks. None of my customers are shipping anything, not anywhere.”
When I tell him I need a total of six copied pages, his face looks like mine did on the first morning LAUSD did not call. It is three forty in the afternoon, the traffic on Hillhurst is heavy. I leave two bucks on the counter and walk out fast.
The weekly offers from Discover Card, of a four hundred dollar a month payment plan stretching over five years, lead me to believe Discover wants my business. I can consolidate all my debt into this note, the four Benjamins being lower than what I pay monthly on minimum payments. Finally, a way out of my credit card mess. I would be a lucky man again. I call. They are happy to hear from me, overjoyed. They are not in India, sounds like they are in Ohio or Indiana. They would love to finance this loan, love to. They are so glad they can help me in these tough times. After holding for a few minutes, the love is gone. My credit rating is bad, I earn too little to qualify. My jaw throbs, my stomach twists as I explain how I can easily make the monthly payment. The agent sympathizes with my obvious frustration, but it is a no go. Time for a bowl of rice and a nap.
Next week, Discover lowers my credit limit to five hundred bucks from the 15K it had been for the past twenty years.
Like a siren blast to hit the dance floor, the startled sound of heavy cotton tearing against itself wakes me up as I turn on my side on the couch, the seam running down the side of my lone intact nightshirt ripping apart from the armpit to the hemline.
I do not need my marathon partner to hand me anything. The tears hit my tongue with the tease of the fizzle of the Pepsi I drank sitting next to Corinne in a movie theater forty years ago.
Lucky man, the salt of my truth is sure to spice up my rice bowl.
The piping on my couch is frayed, shredded more maliciously than my discarded nightshirts. Rejuvenation is needed for the cushions worn beyond boho chic, maybe black velvet trimmed with blue piping. Right, like that is going to happen. I have fallen asleep on my couch at high noon once again. More often than not, my days go this way. I wake up to stare at the frayed and faded piping, gaze at the framed Bauhaus posters on the wall, the dust covering them reminding me of the scary cleanliness of Berlin, where I vacationed in the days I made money. Most likely, there will be no more vacations. Could I get any money for the posters? I bought my 20s iron bed frame for five hundred dollars. Sell it for three hundred? And when that money is gone, then what?
I get up and look out the window, a clear blue sky intersected by palm trees, but all my eyes see is the darkness of the street I grew up when I first drove a car at night. I put cat food in the bowl I lifted from Canter’s twenty-five years ago. I listen to the silence held hostage by the thick walls of my apartment. I get it, I remember, I was going to be a stand up comic when I first discovered Canter’s. No calls on the phone, the ringers are off. Or did I leave them on? Who cares. I eat generic Naprosyn to quiet the jaw. No go, nothing can touch this pain. I take a Hyoscyamine to kill the throbbing in the gut that does not want to live in my body anymore.
I do not want to be in my body anymore.
My apartment is a trickster, quiet, welcoming and warm, the light lunging through its sheer curtains a shimmering blue, the wood floors cradling my bare feet, the once industrial white walls hold me in their arms while their silent jaws eat my body alive, chew me down to the bone as I lay on Don’s grey carpet, my flesh devoured like Sebastian Venable’s was on a blazing white hot hilltop in Cabeza de Lobo as his cousin Elizabeth Taylor fell back against a boulder, her melons bobbing with each of her terrified screams. I stare up at a long vertical crack in the ceiling. My home is expensive, I can not afford it anymore. Where else would I go? The other Hollywood apartments I did time in were mean and hostile, screaming neighbors beating each other up, dogs barking and howling to be walked, the proverbial boy next door banging on his drums at 6 AM and skipping rope at midnight, my car broken into weekly, its engine set on fire, the other cars rumbling like earthquakes as their engines turn over at dawn, always waking me up, never to fall back to sleep.
I can sleep when I have to.
I have my own lullaby to get me there, when the walls close in on me as the silence of the night comes on, a song to be sung without benefit of an intro on the day my gut gives out and shoots its pain to my feet and toes, the day I stand in my own Invesco Field and shout “Enough,” the day I can feel the air again as it stabs its daggers into me. A torch song to be belted out on the day I wake up and accept that no matter what I say or do, no matter how smart I am, how funny I am, I am not going to find another job. All that remains is an illusion of a real life, staged in a quiet blue room on a sunny afternoon in the City of the Angels.
I have my out. Without admitting it to myself, it has lived in my gut for months, it has beat in my blood since the kid and the karaoke caretaker had their way with me, the pulsing of my veins whispering to me that when sleeping twenty hours a day no longer works, my out will.
I will grind the Vicodins and Ativans into a fine dust, refusing to sneeze as the powder of their mist floats up into my nostrils. I will spring three bucks for a pint of chocolate Häagen-Dazs, always my favorite, once a monthly treat, now sketched on to the long list of things I will never be able to buy again. Its cold darkness will blunt the acid taste of the crushed pills. I will eat it slowly, let it melt in my mouth and slide down my throat. There will be no more mornings with nothing to do, no job to go to, no more feeding the internet, listening to the mantras, spending hours with a calculator trying to squeeze out five dollars for gas. I will not have to walk to my mail box and turn the key in the lock, freeing the bills and minimum payments to tumble out into my shaking hands.
Sunset knows the deal, still I do not want her to be alone after the marathon ends. I will take the crushed pills in a room at the Chateau Marmont. My friend Graham will take Sunset into his home, giving her a life in which she does not have to hide on a shelf in the kitchen. Sunset has seen me cry at the stupidest of movies, Kate Hudson movies, crying for hours, about everything that is gone, disappeared so quickly. Crying can not do anything except use up toilet paper I do not have. Understanding the intricacies of the faltering economy does not make the slightest difference. Just because I have fallen into a world unlike anything I have known or experienced before, a world which has no place for me, does not mean Sunset has to live there too.
Matt said the Chateau fit me like a glove, I will let the warmth of its hands hold me as I fall asleep. The day I check in, I will put a do not disturb sign on the doorknob and mail a letter to the manager. I do not want the housekeeper to find me. I know what that is, to find someone dead. Before I retired from San Francisco General Hospital, I was asked to check on a friend who had not shown up for work, a nurse I worked with who could not make the connection to himself or to his patients.
“There’s someone passed out on the floor,” I said when I walked into his apartment.
My eyes move to a yellow formica table on whose scratched surface my friend had laid out his wallet, key, pens and watch in a perfectly straight line.
“Where are you? Where are you?” I ask, believing my friend to be just around the corner.
My eyes push themselves away from the dull sheen of the table, looking down at my friend’s beefy body, hunched over as if in prayer on the dark wood floor, his face purple, eyes bulging out of their sockets. A needle sticks out of his mottled blue arm, his heart stopped the night before in a lonely second, its muscles unable to fight off the Fentanyl he shot into a vein tied off by his brown leather belt, his soul screaming “Enough” as it waited for the narcotic to take him out of this windowless room I find the two of us in at seven-thirty in the morning. Knowing what damage that did to me, my letter will tell the Chateau’s manager to call the police.
I will write notes to my friends. I do not have many, but the few I have, I hold deep in my heart, they live in my bones and muscles. They have seen behind my curtain and stuck around. My ears would rather hear the siren’s agonizing call to dance than listen to the stagnant pauses in my friends’ voices when they listen to how small, how shabby my life has become. Whenever my friends and I talk, we look down on to the man who lives in my rambling one bedroom apartment on Beachwood Drive. He looks pretty good for his age as he tools around the City of the Angels in a shiny red 69 Chevy Malibu. Between our words, my friends and I know I am a rat in a maze, a man who no longer fits in the world, a man who can not fix what his life has become, a man who can not make it right. I do not want anyone I know to have a friend like me, the man who is the bit player I have become. After my out became the air I could feel on my skin, I learned it was easier to joke and rant than to tell the truth of my days, that I am fifty-six years old and do not want to start over. I haven’t the slightest clue how. The notes to my friends are simple, all I ever wanted was to make the connection, but in the end there is nothing left to say or do. I write to Matt, my steady hands printing the unspoken in clear simple letters. I love him.
I’m living for nothing now, Matt and I both know it.
This is my out. It is mine. It belongs to me. The jumping through job hoops, the minimum payments, the bills, the rice, the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the mantras, the no calls in the morning from LAUSD, the dislodged muffler, the bald tires and every other car problem I encounter, the rent, the co-pays, the deductibles, the empty kitchen cabinets, the hunger pains, the crappy water from the tap, the five dollars for gas when twenty are needed, the caretakers, the nurses who don’t give a shit, the void of the internet, the waking up at 6 AM to a day which will again pass me by–not one of them can take my out away from me. The first push of the Vicodins will knock out the pain. I will have at best an hour without feeling the throbbing in my jaw, the twisting in my balls, the tickle in my gut before it turns into a howl. The air will break through the walls and windows, caressing me the way it did when I could take care of myself, it will bathe me with its warmth as I fall asleep, the dead body in a patched together nightshirt leaving the New Depression’s marathon to others, to the people who keep “The Secret” to themselves, the people who manifest wealth, to the lucky ones who can reinvent themselves.
It will be over.
The morning comes on. I stare at the frayed piping and the dusty posters.
The morning, whose siren tells me the only things I can be sure of, the only things I can count on are the bills and the minimum payments in the mailbox. And the fact that I should apply online. And that every fucking agency in this city of supposed angels would love for me to come in and apply.
This is the lullaby I sing when I can not sleep.
If you think it’s about the goddamned nightshirt, forget it.
Chapter 18/ 2008
The Beat Goes On.
December’s rent is covered, I need to come up with January’s. Having abandoned my out of downing a bottle of Extra Strength Vicodins for the time being, the beat obviously goes on. I allow myself ten minutes a day to think about pending money matters. When the eleventh minute hits, the tips of my fingers go numb for the remainder of the day.
I wake up in the silence of my Beachwood digs with the unsettling idea that I need to be around people my own age. Maybe they can teach me how to once again feel the air on my skin. The Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center is hosting an evening for seniors at Cafe Solar De Cahuenga in Hollywood. I am a senior now? Is the grey at my temples stopping the lucky old man from getting a job? The Solar is fifteen minutes from my house. Why not? No money for gas, I hoof it down Franklin Avenue, passing the Alto-Nido Apartments, in whose noir rooms “Sunset Boulevard’s” William Holden hid from the bill collectors, his windows looking out to Parva Sed Apartments, where Nathanael West pounded out “The Day of the Locust.”
The Solar is empty, save for the seniors sitting at a long wooden table. Realizing I am the youngest at this unevenly shellacked brown table, I find myself throwing serious attitude. Mostly, I am afraid someone will ask me how I’m doing. Like the abandoned building across the street, in which a down at his heels Ed Wood once lived, no one is the least bit interested in how what is left of my body and soul is holding up in these tough times. The man next to me has a face even more immobile than that of the Holocaust patient’s daughter. He claims he was an actor, which I translate into meaning he was a background artiste, an extra straight out of West’s Central Casting. The man proceeds to tell me in breathless squeals that he recently had back surgery at Cedars, his upper lip an unbroken straight line as he tells me he sucked off his nurse every night. Great, on top of the nightly head, that nurse has a steady gig. The guy across from us tells me he has been on SSI for fifteen years. As he walks, talks and most certainly eats without the slightest hint of any observable difficulty, I ask why. He giggles and babbles something about his doctor doing him a favor back in the day. Wonder if it involved a blow job. A quiet man on my left talks about taking a friend to his first AA meeting over the weekend.
“My friend didn’t like it, he said he’s not an alcoholic.”
“I wasn’t either, until I was,” I answer.
The Solar slowly fills up with people who seem to have lives outside of the one I find myself crawling through, their fingers tap into computers, they smile while chatting with Facebook friends, their backs sway to the music chanting into their headphones. I listen to the woosh of traffic floating in through the backdoor, its reassuring hum generated by people who can fill up their tanks.
My eyes are hypnotized by the fingers flying over keyboards.
When did I stop punching at the keys?
The lone woman in our group talks about her children: “They’re both so ungrateful and selfish. What’s a mom to do?”
Another man tells me he lives a few blocks away on Ivar Avenue, in the Knickerbocker Hotel, from whose rooms not only was Frances Farmer dragged kicking and screaming in the 40s, but from whose eleventh story window the costume designer Irene took her out, jumping to the pavement in 1962. I would love to see the inside of this place, stand beneath the lobby’s chandelier, under which D.W. Griffith died of a stroke. The man says he likes to walk. I do too. He is up for being a walking buddy. I tell him I will walk with him next week. I remember now, I used to plan things for next week, I used to be able to think about next week, used to do silly things like check out faded Hollywood landmarks. My ears refuse to listen to one more minute of the noise bouncing off the table’s shiny surface, I lie and tell my fellow seniors I have to leave early, that I am going home to write.
The Knickerbocker man’s e-mail waits for me the next morning: “I have few vido tap to look at and we can get off Next you call let me no. I have puss one all the other are gay I do wnat to fine a person to walk with I do not have one now love to h ave sex to”
I draw the curtains. I mute the phone. I get under the white clouds of my featherbed. I reread “The Day of the Locust.”
I am up early and out the door for an insurance assessment, meeting an applicant before he leaves for work. He lives alone in a huge house hanging off the side of a hill in Laurel Canyon. Three bedrooms, Chagall prints, comfy grey linen couches, a pool shimmering with a blue light which meanders serenely through the polished glass of antique French doors. The applicant pours us tea, his deep voice asking if I like it. I do. He asks me if I would like a croissant. I would. The peppermint drops I splash on my tongue throughout the day can no longer kill my hunger. He asks if I am comfortable. Very.
“Do you need anything before we get started?” he asks.
The back of head sinks into the soft linen, my breakfast deprived stomach quiet as it devours the croissant.
“I need a lot,” I answer.
I laugh, the big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh.
The applicant moves from his place next to me on the couch to a chair on the other side of the room, putting his cup of tea down and unlocking the French doors before I begin my questions.
A healthy guy in his early forties, the interview is over in a half-hour, his pale white fingers tapping the keypad on the home security system as I walk out the door.
Must be nice to have a cup of tea, a croissant and a pool to offer someone.
Crashing hospitals in the hope of getting an interview did not work.
The beat went like this: “Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”
Got it. After the insurance assessment, I hit an agency on Magnolia Boulevard in Valley Village, whose Craigslist post proclaimed: “We hire for all shifts.”
Their beat went like this: “We’d love for you to come in and apply.”
Got it. The agency’s office is freezing, my skin at last feeling something, gales of air pour out of the ceiling, causing the ends of the staff’s hair to move slowly back and forth while their dull eyes stare at computer screens. The administrative assistant walks me to an ice locker in the back of their first floor suite. Every room we pass has a sink in it. I have no idea what this is about, nor do I ask. I finish the required nursing tests in a half-hour, receiving dirty looks when I return to the front office with my paperwork.
“Every agency gives pretty much the same test,” I say, my head bowed down by the cold. “I could take them blindfolded. I could…”
The receptionist is not listening. Got it. I stop talking.
“People think it’s gonna’ change now that he got it,” the administrative assistant says as she walks another applicant down the hall.
“Nothing’s going to change,” my fellow jobseeker answers. “This is just the beginning.”
Sitting in the wind tunnel of the waiting area, I read the agency’s brochure. Their mission statement is interesting: “To maintain good health in their home.” How do they accomplish this? “Give us the opportunity to provide you” followed by a blank space. My jaw pounds against the cold hitting me from all directions, but that is my fault, what with my mandibular oversensitivity. My stomach punches away, balls thankfully quiet, they like the cold air. Goose bumps come and go on my hands, the air moves the receptionist’s long hair, the sink in the corner drips, a homeless man looks in the window, pivots on his bare heels and runs down Magnolia Boulevard.
“He got ninety percent on his test,” the receptionist says to the staffing co-ordinator.
She pushes my paperwork to him, he stares at the solitaire game on his computer screen. The phones ring, no one answers them.
These jokers have five more minutes before I bail.
The agency director grabs me on my way out. I follow her tight pencil skirt into her office, its corner housing a double sink. Her eyes looking at the framed Anderson Cooper poster behind me, she quotes me a laughable salary. I get up to leave, she ups it a dollar. I sit down. The director’s beat goes like this: she pays five dollars an hour less than the assisted living facility, two dollars an hour less than the agency on Sunset. Totals out to be between sixty-four and a hundred and sixty dollars less a week. All the agencies are quoting this rate. I keep forgetting, we are all in this together. I stare at the director’s diamond necklace and earrings as she glances at my paperwork. Nice jade rings, her diamond tennis bracelet rocks. Wonder if she took a pay cut to work here.
The staffing co-ordinator talks about work. He sounds real, his bone white face claims to have several open cases. A kid rooming at Cedars, building his strength up before cancer surgery. A few open shifts with a woman with Lou Gehrig’s. 3 PM to 11 PM in Eagle Rock.
“I’ll take it.”
“We’d like you to do a meet and greet first,” the co-ordinator says.
“No problem. When?”
“I’ll call her and get back to you.”
He does not call. I call him. I can meet with the patient any day, any time.
“Tomorrow is her bath day. She’ll be tired after that. She doesn’t want to meet with anyone on the weekends. On Monday, she goes shopping with the day nurse. She’ll be tired after that. On Tuesdays, her brother visits.”
“Let me guess. She’ll be tired after that.”
I was kind of hoping the staffing co-ordinator would put the rubber on before he fucked me.
The dental student at UCLA is on week three of trying to make an impression for my crown. I was kind of hoping that he too would put the rubber on before he fucked me. I have given him my Tuesday afternoons for over a year now, leaving Tuesdays lost to me after the three to four hour appointment time and the two to three hour travel time. He tells me UCLA will need money before he cements the crown in.
“Think you’ll get it done anytime this year?” I ask.
His baby blues stare at the floor. He wants me to pay today.
“I left my cell at home,” I tell him. “I’m going to use the phone at the desk.”
I call the Magnolia Boulevard agency. Do they have anything? Does the woman in Eagle Rock have any time this week to do the meet and greet? She has moved on to another agency, but it just so happens a night nurse on another case died this morning in the patient’s home when his shift ended at 6 AM. The staffing co-ordinator says he feels very strongly about me, has what he calls “A positive vibe” about me. A vibe? The dead nurse’s patient is an eight year old boy on a vent, trached, with G tube feedings throughout the night. I have never done Peds. Eight is not an infant. At least he can write out what he is thinking, most likely he sleeps through the night. Both parents are in the house, in case it goes south.
“I’ll take it.”
“Tomorrow, he’ll be in school,”the staffing co-ordinator tells me.
He is very Russell Brand, a dissembling space cadet without the accent.
“After school, he’ll be at the doctor’s. The day after, the family is taking him to Hawaiian Gardens. Then he’ll be back in school, after that he’s getting his hair cut. Fridays are never good. He has physical therapy after school and then he’s really tired. Going into next week…”
“ENOUGH! Do you want me to do this or not?”
Poor little staffing co-ordinator, I have stopped him in mid monologue. He needs to learn to how to deal with hecklers.
“Tell them I’ll be there Saturday at 1 PM. Capiche?’
He tries to talk. Nothing.
“E-mail me the address. Try to include his diagnosis and a care plan. Can you tell me why he’s on a vent?”
“Call the family. Tell them I’ll be there Saturday. Can you do that?”
“Yeah…sure. I get a really good feeling about this. I think they’ll like you.”
It is a fifteen minute drive to the case. Not the best part of North Hollywood, abandoned bookcases, chairs and tables are scattered on the grass strip between the sidewalk and the street. All of the buildings have bars on their first floor windows, some lawns are green and freshly cut, others are dry dirt, there is no perceivable reason for this discrepancy. Debris is piled up on the sides of all the buildings.
My engine off, I sit outside of the patient’s house. I do not want to be too early. No surprises from me. When I do a show, I savor the minutes before I walk onstage, going into myself one last time, touching all the heaviness in my body, pushing it out, dropping everything that hurts, everything that gets in my way. I walk into the blinding light and fly free, making the connection, always making the connection.
“You’re happy up there,” Matt says when he watches me perform. “You’re comfortable, so at ease.”
On earth, I hold the cards close to my vest. If I show people who I am, I lose. To get this job, I can not show the darkness, the anger, the weight of the last few months, the last year and a half. I roll up my car window. I walk around the lonely furniture. Shaking the fear out of my hands, I step on to the cracked concrete sidewalk. I am a good nurse, that is the only thing I have to be for the next two hours. At twelve fifty-five, I stand on the steps of the house and knock on the iron mesh door. The day nurse does not recognize the name of the mother whom I have been asked to meet and greet. Interesting. I ignore my first red flag. The nurse smirks, then clears her throat and begins to push the door closed.
“I’m here for an interview. To work with the little boy on the vent.”
The nurse lets me in. She looks like she has spent most of her life drinking, probably a lesbian. She has, she’s not. Like the morning I found my friend hunched over dead in his windowless room, my eyes spot the child on a mattress on the floor. The second red flag waves at me. I would never leave anyone so close to a dirty floor or a drafty front door. The vent I can do, I have worked this model before. The G tube is not a problem, I have been doing them thirty years. My fear is suctioning a child. He is way tinier than I thought he would be, still, he is big enough.
I can do it. I know I can.
The child is sleeping. I do not know anything about kids, but he seems awfully small. Not fragile, nor petite. His head is not proportionate to his body, a body he has not grown into. His skin is caramel brown, thick straight shining black hair, long black lashes which twitch as his eyes move under their lids. His pink mouth mimics silent words which the trach prevents him from speaking. He laughs, his eyes suddenly still. What is this lost boy dreaming about?
I am a dreamer too, a dreamer whose body has turned against him, like the body of the lost boy. I am a dreamer who will keep him safe.
Enough, I have a job.
“He looks great. You’ve done such a good job with him,” I tell the nurse. “It must be such a comfort for him to have you here with him, you know, after what happened with the night nurse.”
She has not a clue what to say. I do.
I speak with the parents, émigrés from Hawaii, stranded on the mainland since the premature birth of their son while vacationing in Southern California. The mother is obese, possibly Latina. If you melt away the fat on her face, I bet she was a pretty woman a decade ago. On second thought, maybe fifteen years ago. She talks a lot, very disconnected, like Sarah Palin, but no where near as mean. The dad is barefoot on a pretty cold afternoon, the blue bow and arrow tattoo, on the pale white skin of his left calf, appears to be aiming straight at me when he walks. He wears a baseball cap turned backwards, a goatee with no grey in it. He is a quiet man, but fire is definitely burning in his overweight belly.
The parents need to talk about the dead nurse. I let them. After all, I was a hospice nurse for years, back when I made enough money to pay rent and buy groceries. They talk about the nurse as if he was a piece of furniture whose leg broke off, which they then placed on the strip of grass in front of their house. Red flags wave at me, but I say to myself they have not absorbed his death yet. The nurse had been with them for eight years, practically part of the family. The dad talked to his piece of furniture late at night when it was not working on its computer or watching movies until dawn with the patient’s grandmother. I do not say much. I am playing it as the mature even-tempered nurse, seen it all, tons of experience. You can sleep through the night without worry as I watch over your son.
The parent’s child wakes up, stands in front of the television and reaches up with his right hand, hitting a button on the VCR. The color smashing through the streaks on the screen is jarringly over saturated, the reds brighter than the flags trying to hustle me out the door. I want to dive into the blues, sink into the greens, to be anyplace but in this filthy living room. Does the lost boy in front of the television want the same thing? The cartoon on the screen stops for a few seconds, then whizzes in reverse in front of his eyes. Smiling, the lost boy is yoga still for a moment, his fingers holding the rewind button down. The television’s sound is off, but he hears something, sounds no one else in the room can hear. Without fear or the slightest hesitation, he moves his head back and forth, so fast at first that all I see is a blur of black hair. His forehead comes within a centimeter of hitting the screen, then his head flies back, his eyes looking up at the ceiling in ecstasy, his smile floating above the adults in the room. The day nurse pulls out a cigarette as the blur of the head slows down, still a centimeter away from slamming into the screen. The head speeds up to a blur when the nurse goes out for a smoke. Dad straightens up the twenty or so video cassettes on the floor as the head slows down, its lost eyes staring down the reds, blues and greens.
The mother can not stop the river of words flowing out of her mouth. She begins her sentences with “We’re very chill here,” ends them with “It’s chill.” I am a captive audience, I will listen to whatever she, her husband or the nurse have to say. The mother tells me her mother sleeps over sometimes, calls her the Filipino Zsa Zsa Gabor. There you are, most likely Zsa Zsa is a caretaker when she is not here, probably at the assisted living facility or with the Holocaust patient.
I find my in. The patient’s original agency went bust a year ago, leaving them to hook up with the agency on Sunset, which lasted all of two months before the chill émigrés switched to the Magnolia agency. We share war stories. Mother tells me the dead nurse never complained to Sunset when they cut his salary by four dollars an hour. He was “chill with it,” she says. Most likely he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, I think. I use all my stand up skills to lacerate the Sunset pimps, the incompetent staffing co-ordinators, their lying to the unemployment office, the pay checks which were never in the mail, their habit of changing my pay rate every other week. Mother and father laugh, the nurse finally cracks a smile. On top of the fridge, I spot an elaborately chintzy clock covered in dust, its hands frozen at ten after six.
“No way, I’ve got the same clock in my house,” I say.
No lie, I do. I bought it at the Goodwill on Hollywood Boulevard, when I had money, money meaning I had twenty bucks a week for myself, when I thought shopping at the Goodwill was a boho chic thing to do.
I have reeled them in, they squirm helplessly in my net. I will leave before I say something to mess it up.
“Say good-bye to your new nurse,” mother says to her son.
The lost boy is moving fast now, listening to the sounds only he can hear. I tell the parents he will get to know me once I start working. I get out fast, before the boy’s head crashes into the screen and all that blue moving in reverse swallows us up.
I drive home on the 101, the staffing co-ordinator whispering into my cell that I have been assigned to work with the lost boy Fridays through Monday nights.
That night, I walk past the Alto-Nido on my way to the Solar, my numb fingers hoping to punch my life back into the writing ring.
Lucky man cracks a smile, he will not be downing his bottle of Extra Strength Vicodins quite yet.
Chapter 19/ 2008 & 2009
Apparently, The Postman Does Ring Twice.
In the silence of high noon on Beachwood Drive, I pull my nursing books off of my Billy bookcase, purchased at Ikea in the days when I read the books lining its walnut veneer shelves. Having orphaned the biographies of my fav method actresses to my sagging dining room table to live amongst the unread magazines and newspapers, I lie in the drawn blinds blue of my bedroom, spending hours perusing various theories of childhood development. I Google autism and Asperger syndrome, the first for a definition of my patient, the later his chill mother. I forgo walking after midnight to reread my ventilator workbooks.
Working nights is brutal. After staying up four nights in a row, the nastiest of bugs crawl under your skin, much like the worms who once licked my brain. Everything, from your eyelashes to your toenails, hurts, your feet and hands are submerged in concrete blocks. Having never been able to sleep through the day after working all night, I will lose time, that is a given. It takes a full day to recover after a four night stretch, what with shaking off the concrete wrapped around my fingers and toes, while simultaneously relearning how to walk and work my universal remote at the same time. The UCLA School of Dentistry devours another day, the insurance assessments have picked up, I will spend a day or two working those.
I will have to write in the small cracks of time.
Lucky man will learn to live in them.
I break it down money-wise. After rent, I have $389.00 for the month. $97.00 a week. $50.00 for food. $25.00 for gas. $12.00 to buy cat food one week, litter the next. $10.00 spending money. The insurance assessments will cover the minimum credit card payments, my retirement pension, the bills.
I can pretty much go back to the low blood pressure diet my nutritionist put me on. I am earning food money again. Break it down. No surprises. Plan it out. Stick to the list. Deny temptations. Shop with blinders on. Weekly cost for fruit $10.00. Peanut butter $4.00. Jelly $2.00. Bread $3.00. Avocados $4.00. Four cans tuna fish $8.00. Pasta $2.00. A dozen eggs $3.00. Bag of veggies $2.00. Can of chicken $3.00. Muffins $5.00. Two bags of nuts $5.00. Apple juice is on my wish list, I can buy it if I do not need one of my weekly staples. My food budget totals out to $51.00. Not $50.00. I have learned to be exact with money. I will think something is a dollar less than it is and pretty soon–a dollar here, a dollar there–my budget is way off. A missing $5.00 can be hard to make up when it is this close to the bone.
I tape my food list to my fridge door. The kitchen window is open, but I do not feel the air on my skin.
Who cares? I have a job.
January’s rent remains unaccounted for. The money from the lost boy case will kick in for a full month’s rent and food starting in February. Instead of making the call, I jerk off three times. The Windex long gone and running low on dish soap, I clean my living room windows with laundry detergent and newspapers. I walk in the daylight down Franklin Avenue to Western Avenue very slowly, my feet not wanting to return home, I check my car’s oil and transmission fluid, my eyes ignoring the bald tires.
“Today’s not the day,” I tell Sunset when I locate her on the shelf in kitchen.
Having run out of both bleach and stainless steel pot and pan cleanser weeks ago, I scrub out the toilet with the generic Ajax I bought for .49¢ at the 99¢ Only Store.
My apartment is clean, I can not come one more time even with Viagra, Sunset is safe for the day.
There’s nothing left to say or do.
Numb with dread since the day before and unable to punch the keyboard to make the words fly, my fingers reluctantly tap the phone keys.
“Can you lend me eight hundred dollars?” I ask my friend Ann in Oregon. “No, forget it, it’s so much money.”
I am dizzy, I have become the dizzy queen everyone says I am.
“I’ve known for awhile this day would come,” her soft voice says “Of course, I’ll give you the money.”
“I’ll pay you back, as soon as I get the money.”
“It’s a gift. I want you to have it. I wish I could do more.”
I can not feel the air making the curtains dance in my living room. I can not speak.
“Have you considered moving to a cheaper apartment?” Ann asks. “Maybe to a different city to find a job?”
“It would cost so much money to move…first month’s rent…last month’s rent, security deposit. My credit rating’s shot. Who’d rent to me?”
“I’ll ask the hubby, I’m sure he’ll OK it.”
The steadiness, the sweetness in her voice steadies me, always has.
“It’s wonderful to see you doing what you like, doing what feeds your spirit,” Ann said after seeing me in the terrible play I had the lead in a few years before.
After the tedious first act, I sat in a chair onstage during intermission, centering myself for the logic impaired second act. The stage manager has pulled the curtain a bit too far to the right, allowing me to look out into the audience, where Ann smiles at me, her head nodding in approval. She likes me, the actor me, likes what I am showing the audience, the curtain I pull over my face in real life having been left backstage when places were called. The heaviness leaves my body in a second, her smile making me feel I can do anything. I remember that smile whenever I wait in the darkness before going on.
“LA’s home,” I tell Ann. “I know where everything is. I’ve moved before, to start over. All that really accomplished was losing time…getting a job, finding a place to live, learning a new city. I can’t lose any more time. You don’t get time back.”
Having lived here for years before moving to Oregon, Ann hates the City of the Angels, despises it.
“Hunker down,” she tells me. “This storm has got to pass.”
The next day, Ann’s husband agrees to send the lucky man eight hundred smackers.
I begin working Fridays through Mondays with the lost boy in mid-December. He is asleep when I arrive on duty at 10 PM and asleep when I leave at 6 AM. The excitement of the night occurs every few hours, when his G tube belches gas, starting out as a loud gurgle and peeking in a deep gut wrenching explosion. More often than not, when I check his flatulent tube, his gastric fluids, mixed with tube feed, rain down on my face. Lucky man, my Alain Mikli glasses protect my eyes, reminding me of the days when I could afford progressive lenses nestled in expensive frames. Regardless of my level of consciousness, whenever I hear the tube belching, I check the lost boy out.
The mother talks for the first hour of my shift. She is chill, very chill. By 11 PM, I am a bit tired, if not hypnotized, from the waving of her delusional red flag. I make jokes to prevent her air from touching my skin. She bakes me Christmas cookies, goodies to share with Matt, which are so loaded with sugar, I have to double up on the Hyoscyamine to prevent me from belching through the night like the lost boy’s G tube.
The dad makes perennial 1 AM trips to the fridge for more lager.
“I totally like the way you watch over my boy…you’re on it, everything that happens with him…” the dad says between gulps of the cold brew.
“That’s the gig, sir.”
Around 2 AM every night, my body is taken over by the bugs of fatigue, they crawl under my skin, tickling my veins and hammering at my fingernails, telling me I am way too old to stay up in the filth of a dark room in North Hollywood. The bugs are nice to me at first. Their tentacles leave my stomach and balls alone, they never touch my jaw. Once the bugs realize I am on this assignment for the duration, they turn on me with everything they’ve got.
When I leave the lost boy in the mornings, the bookcases, chairs and tables that were on the grass strip when I parked the night before have been ripped apart, their guts shredded to pieces, as if wild dogs from a 70s horror movie have had at them. But it wasn’t dogs, mere dogs could not have thrown the torn up furniture or the smashed up sinks and toilets into the middle of the street. Truly believing I am a lucky man, I refuse to see what is in front of my eyes, instead maneuvering around everything that is broken as my 69 Chevy Malibu high-tails it out of North Hollywood.
Ann and her husband send the eight hundred dollars via registered mail on 23 December, her poor husband trudging out in a snowstorm to get it to the post office, chains on his tires, the whole backwoods Oregon thing. I take a deep breath, trying not to cry after reading Ann’s e-mail describing his trek.
Six days later, no letter, no check. I track it on the United States Post Office’s internet site, noting the letter’s arrival in the City of the Angels on 26 December. Believing my letter to be on route to the Hollywood Post Office, I call with the hope of picking it up pronto.
They do not have it, do not know where it is.
“On route means it’s on route,” a voice deep within the bowels of the Post Office informs me.
The voice tells me to check back on 30 December, which I do, a new voice can not find it either, explaining that “on route” means it could be anywhere in the state of California, anywhere except at its final destination, my mailbox.
“Guy, I’ll deposit the eight hundred in my checking account and you can sign Ann’s check over to me when it gets here,” Matt tells me.
“I’ll make sure your rent check isn’t deposited until the second week of January,” my building manager tells me. “Just in case…”
I have an insurance assessment at 2 PM in West Hollywood on 31 December. I leave a note on my mailbox asking the mailman to have the building manager sign for Ann’s letter. Halfway down Beachwood Drive, I spot the mailman. I stop, jump out of my car, the man behind me honking and screaming. Apparently, I stopped dead smack in the middle of Beachwood, in the very middle, in the spot where people in North Hollywood dump their garbage. The man behind me has come within inches of rear ending me. I give him the stare, which pushes his trembling body out of his car.
“Why’d you do that, bro?”
I look into his eyes, falling into their deep green pools and remembering all the people trying to help me, all the people who love me. I want things to be simple, to go right just one fucking time.
He is right, I am wrong, I did not need his eyes to tell me that.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I can’t believe I stopped like that.”
“Why’d you do that, bro?”
“I’ve been waiting for money to cover my rent. It’s somewhere in the mail…I lost it…lost it, when I saw the mailman.”
The water drains out of pools of the man’s eyes, he walks back to his car and shoots his own stare out of his empty but still beautiful eyes.
“Got it, bro. I’m being evicted next month. Happy New Year!”
The mailman does not have Ann’s letter.
“The building manager can’t sign for the letter,” the mailman says. “Only you can.”
I tell him the deal.
“Here’s the direct number for the manager of the Hollywood Post Office,” he says as he smiles and clears his throat. “Happy New Year…oh…and don’t tell anyone how you got this number.”
I arrive at the assessment early and call the manager, who does not know where the letter is.
“It will show up soon,” he says. “Most likely by the end of next week or the beginning of the week after that.
I look at the apartment building I am scheduled to interview the applicant in, the blue water of the pool reflecting up off of its glass like surface on to the two story townhouses wrapping around it, the numbness of my fingers wanting to soak in the water’s warmth.
“My rent money is in that envelope,” my throbbing jaw tells the manager.
My fingers curl around the black plastic of my steering wheel. I am crying, my body shaking, my heels unable to burrow into the softness of the floorboard’s black carpet beneath them.
“I’m sorry,” I say to the manager.
A middle-aged woman, following the staccato yaps of her leashed dog walks past my car, the woman’s hair streaked several shades of blonde, the thick de rigueur black sunglasses unable to stop her cold gaze as she aims her peppers at my skin. The dog’s nose up against my bald left front tire, the mutt, like Sunset, sniffs out that I can not feel the air, let alone the warmth floating off of the pool.
“I don’t know what’s happening to me. I’m sitting here shaking like it’s twenty below,” I tell the manager and quite possibly the woman and her dog. “I’ve never not paid my rent on time. I’ll have to get it covered another way. It’s a nice day. A nice day. I don’t know why I’m shaking…”
“When will you be home?” the manager asks.
The manager will look around and call me back. A moment after arriving home at three forty-five, there is a knock on door. A woman from the Post Office, her blonde hair streaked the same shades as the woman I saw earlier, hands Ann’s letter to me. My lips tremble, my face flushes, the insides of my eyes want to cry again, but I am too tired, my cracked lips can barely move.
“It’s OK,” the woman says. “Take it easy, breathe. I can’t tell you how many people on my route are waiting for letters from friends to cover their rent with. They stay home all day until the mail comes.”
I ignore the pain embedded in my jaw and give her a fancy bag of peanuts Ann sent me for Christmas. She refuses. I insist.
The phone rings as I close the door. The deep accented voice of the manager from the Post Office tells me they found the letter, it will be delivered today. I tell him I have it in my hand and thank him so profusely, one would think he has outthought Paul Krugman and discovered the way out of the new depression.
“Make a New Year’s resolution for me,” the manager says. “Slow down and take it easy.”
Surprisingly and without thanking him for the third time, I promise to do what he requests.
“It’s like you turned the ocean around,” I tell Ann. “I can breathe. Thank you. I love you.”
Without hesitation, without thinking or strategizing, I have started to tell my friends I love them. Pushing aside the meanness drilling into my jaw, the L word pours out of me, my lips and tongue knowing it is not the money my friends have given me, but the dullness they lift out of my body, the torn up shards of psyche, bone and muscle their words put back together whenever their voices break though the pain clanging against my eardrums.
To save on gas, I walk to the ATM on Sunset Boulevard to deposit the elusive and tear inducing check. Back home, my eyes have run out of tears as they contemplate the 2008 wall calendar, hooked by a tiny nail to the inside of the broom closet door in my kitchen, the cold fear of my hands refusing to hang its replacement, a free pint-sized one from Amoeba Records I picked up after going to the ATM. Being a Virgo, I know in my bones this most minor of tasks needs to be carried out before midnight.
Like the destitute and lonely daughter Amanda Wingfield is afraid her daughter Laura will become, I live in my apartment like a relative welcome only until things go south. I no longer touch anything in the five rooms I exist in, as if every object I own in my glass menagerie would shatter immediately upon the slightest caress from my fingertips. My hands do not replace the worn out mat in front of the kitchen sink, they refuse to rearrange the stacks of magazines and books on the dining room table or consider placing a different chair at a small table in the kitchen. The simplest change, the least inoffensive of gestureswould tell my impotent hands this is actually my apartment, this is the cage where I sing myself to sleep with a song about eating a bottle of Extra Strength Vicodins, these are the walls whose unblinking eyes will soon witness the exit of my Gentleman Caller Matt to Sacramento. If I derive the slightest shred of joy in repotting a plant, experience a moment of pleasure in rehanging a picture on the bathroom wall, every piece of polished glass in my home will crash to the floor.
In total silence at 6 AM on 5 January 2009, with Sunset watching from the shelf in the kitchen, I belatedly hang the new year’s calendar.
It is still dark outside, only Sunset will know we have crossed over into a new year.
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.
Chapter 21/ 2009
Could Jenny Craig Shed the Weight of this Sad Time?
The lucky man’s fingers are ready.
As soon as mom and dad go to bed, he will start writing out the last two years.
I have cleaned the folding table, moved and covered the wastepaper basket. I open the kitchen cabinet to retrieve the night’s supplies, a thin film of grime covers the shelves, no shocker, nothing on this case would surprise me. The once white areas encircling the knobs of the cabinet doors are stained black with who knows what. No point in cleaning it, the dirt will be back tomorrow. I wash my hands a lot. I do not want the filth of this case to cause me to fall ill again.
I look at the bowl of rice and tofu I have brought for dinner. On top of the stove are two pizza boxes, they are not from Domino’s or Papa John’s. This is the good stuff, from a fancy Italian restaurant on Lankershim Boulevard. Taped to the box is the receipt, totaling out to over forty bucks. That is what I spend on groceries for a week. Fresh flowers sprout out of a streaked vase on the kitchen table. I used to buy flowers, .99¢ for a spray of daffodils at Trader Joe’s.
The dad walks into the kitchen. I am reading Frank Rich.
“Help yourself to dinner,” he says.
I eat three slices during the night. My stomach has surely shrunk, I am full after two. I eat the last one at 4 AM, so as not to be hungry when I get home. My lips pulse and my eyelids tickle as the garlic and onions work their way out through my skin. For months, I have eaten only rice, mixing in tofu or a veggie if I have the coin.
The price of the free grub is listening to dad.
“Do you live alone?” he asks.
“Would it be cool if I had my unemployment checks mailed to your house?”
“Can’t you get them here?”
“I don’t officially live here. If I did, she couldn’t get as much money…you know, being a single mom with a disabled child.”
“Wouldn’t it seem strange…you living in the house of your son’s nurse? You know, officially living at my place.”
“Nobody would figure it out.”
The lucky man laughs.
Dad is frightened, his fingers wrap tightly around a cold can of lager.
“Mister, with the luck I’ve had, I’d get popped on day one. You’d end up with a reality show…and I’d be in the big house.”
“You don’t understand. I don’t want the unemployment money…that’s chump change to me. I want to go to the retraining programs they have. You know…learn how to do something different.”
“What are you planning on studying?”
Dad pops open the lager. Vent is quiet, as is dad.
I walk to the sink to wash the respiratory equipment, my eyes glancing at the Pier One prints hanging on the walls, the words “Le Jardin” and “Les Arbres” artfully scripted on their lower left corners. They are hung too high for the lost boy to gaze at, positioned so far up the wall adults have to strain their necks at dizzying angles to view them. Maybe the lost boy would want to swing his head back and forth if he saw their tranquil green foliage. Would mom and dad do the same if the sleeping trees were at their eye level? A thick glass, coated with the same film that dulls the shelves, suffocates le jardin and les arbres as they hang captive in dented yellow metal frames.
Lucky me, I can not see dad’s reflection in the glass as he talks.
I turn around. Dad is slurring his words, talking about how the unions keep all the high-paying jobs for their members. Next, he will start in on the immigrants undercutting the salaries on whatever job he fantasizes himself working at this week.
“You can get a job at the Arclight in Hollywood,” I tell him. “Pays ten dollars an hour, I think. You can see movies for free.”
Dad pops open another lager and moves on to the immigrants.
An hour later, Dad waddles into the bedroom.
Too bad, he will miss the black helicopters landing amidst the broken furniture thrown into the street.
My lips throbbing and my eyelids giggling from the pizza break in my poverty pay master cleanse, my tingling fingers fly over the keyboard for the first time in months.
Matt sits at my dining room table.
He has not spoken for a few minutes, not since telling me how he unloaded his condo: “I asked the bank to produce the deed…those fuckers sold my mortgage so many times they couldn’t find it…since they can’t prove ownership…they can’t make me pay any more money. I gave them the keys this morning…I’m free and clear.”
I want to bathe Matt clean, hold him in my arms in the drawn blinds blue of my bedroom.
“Whatever, that place’s worth a third less than it was a year ago,” he says.
I am cooking tomato sauce, peppered with meat and sausage. The spaghetti was .69¢ at Trader Joe’s, the meat, one pound for $1.99, sausage $3.99, Cento Italian styled peeled tomatoes $1.50 a can at Gelson’s, of which I bought two. I have not been to Gelson’s for over a year, even its sales items are way too expensive. The cans’ bright yellow labels feature tomatoes so deeply red as to be garish, the very sight of which would cause the lost boy to rock his head until it became a dark blur. I use the empty cans to hold pens and magic markers in, each can on the periphery of the chipped yellow wood of my writing desk. I cooked the sauce last night, tonight it is perfect, well worth the money to keep Matt’s belly full.
Lucky man, I still have my emergency ten bucks.
Matt walks to the stove and takes a last taste of my earlobe. We look out to the building next to mine, six attached two-story townhouses surrounding a courtyard centered by a fountain whose water was turned off when the complex went condo last year. Matt was interested in buying one. The tenants–actors too handsome to look at, actresses still flawless when they stumble in at 6 AM, nervous screenwriters with beaucoup back hair and the way butcher than Samantha Ronson lesbian headshot photographer–moved out, but the owners have been unable to obtain the scratch for the remodel. They live behind stark white curtains in empty rooms on the second floor.
I stir the pot as Matt walks into the living room to e-mail his mom. He is driving home to Sacramento after we eat an early supper.
There’s nothing left to say or do.
The lucky man and his unlucky straight boyfriend eat.
“Would’ve been nice,” Matt says
“To live next door. In the canyon. Would’ve been nice.”
“You’re going to come back. You’ll be living here again.”
“I’m done. I’m not like you.”
“You keep going. I can’t…I can’t keep doing this.”
“You’re doing the right thing. You’ll find another way to make a living.”
Matt stares into the dampness of the melted butter sinking into the brown garlic bread sitting between us. His hands are still. He clenches his jaw, the way he does in the moments before he starts grinding his teeth in his sleep. Has he eaten anything tonight? I can not say, I have not been man enough to take a last look at him.
“What I did for a living…,” Matt says. “My work…it doesn’t translate into anything. I’m so fucked.”
Matt moves his hand across the table towards mine. My gut knows I will never feel his hands again, never see his ringless fingers, fingers which ran up my back like a warm breeze. When Matt realized he would no longer be shaking hands with clients, he sold his fancy suits on eBay, then pawned his Rolex to hold him over until he went home. I grab Matt’s hand and we sit in silence. The food turns cold. Are we praying? For what? Matt is not closing a door so that another will open. He is not walking into a room full of opportunity and promise. All the doors have been slammed in his face.
He cries. I cry. We do not finish our the tear soaked food. I store it in the freezer, but it is the one meal I never think about eating. I do not throw it out for months.
My arm around Matt, we sit on the soft cushions of my couch for an hour, maybe an hour and a half, my voice whispering over and over into his ear: “You are my friend and I love you.”
Matt buries his face against my chest. We could float like this forever.
Matt’s dog has to be walked. We take our last stroll up Beachwood Drive. I kiss Matt good-bye, tongues slide down lonely throats, backs arch, fingers probe, the whole thing. We are outside, Matt does not care. My hand waves as he drives off. My lips smile. This is how we wanted to leave it between us, it could not have been any other way. I wash the dishes. I throw away the plastic bowls Matt’s dog ate and drank out of.
I hit the sheets, my muscles and bones sinking into the 8 PM silence of Beachwood Drive.
Sunset lays on the floor of the hall closet, her eyes never close.
In the morning, I turn on my computer, its insides booting up surprisingly fast. Matt has changed the streaming quote on my screensaver. Bright silver comic sans font crawls slowly across the black screen: “The weight of this sad time we must obey/Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”
We knew each other, this man and I, in front of and behind the curtain.
My heart can not jump anymore.
I walk into the kitchen, my tears falling everywhere, on my bare feet, on my clean floor, my tears shine without smiling as the light hits them where they sit on the green tiles of my empty countertops. I ease Sunset off of the shelf, her eyes widening in fear, her claws tearing through the white paper lining her perch. My body shakes, my tears hit Sunset’s black and orange fur. I can not feel my jaw or my balls, can not feel Matt’s fingers running up my back. I take Sunset into the bedroom and hold her in my arms as tight as she can take it. She has lost her doggie friend. I have lost too much. We lie together for hours. When I get up to pee, Sunset stays on the bed, her all fours stretched out in cat surrender. Sunset never returns to the closet or the cabinet in the kitchen, instead she silently follows me to any spot in my apartment where I spent more than five minutes, situating herself within a few feet of me. Her eyes are on me, always on me, maybe the only eyes left in the City of the Angels which watch as the lucky man paces his cage.
Looking for incense to purify my kitchen after my tears have evaporated from the floor and the tiles of my countertops, I open my writing desk drawer, laughing, as if the karaoke caretaker was singing in front of me, when my eyes spot the bottle of extra strength Vicodins. My fingers push aside ACT/UP stickers, freeway maps and postcards, finding a twenty dollar bill buried beneath them. Michael Sadler gave it to me last year to cover my gas money when I was in his play. I chose to think of it as the first money I made acting. The tears come again, this time followed by deep breaths and the throbbing of my fingertips as they imagine touching not only a movie ticket at the Arclight Cinema, but boxes of popcorn and Milk Duds. Twenty dollars is a lot of money. Peanut butter, jelly, bread, two bottles of apple juice, a dozen eggs, a bag of peeled carrots. I will light the incense later. If I spend any more time debating between a movie and food, the worms will crawl out of the walls.
Before I leave, I pet Sunset who, after realizing I will be out for a few hours, has retreated to the bed. She closes her eyes for a well deserved sleep. My feet rebel as they walk toward Sunset and Vine, their heaviness insisting I push down on my car’s gas pedal and drive to Trader Joe’s, while my heart escorts my cowboy boots to the noon show at the Arclight, in whose empty lobby the ticket seller informs me my matinee admission earns me five dollars worth of snack bar goodies.
“Happy Holidays,” his pink unlined face says to me.
I am pretty sure the holidays are over, but I do not say anything.
I smile. Nod my head.
A small popcorn and a huge box of Milk Duds cost me a buck. I cry through the last forty-five minutes of “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” I am in awe of Cate Blanchett, the movie is sad, but this is not what earns my tears. My belly is full, my body does not hurt, I have forgotten for a few minutes that Matt is no longer at my table. No matter what world Cate takes me to, when the worn down heels of my cowboy boots hit Sunset Boulevard, I can not go backwards, no one can. Living in the City of the Angels teaches some Joes that right quick, most never get it.
The tears come again.
The lucky man, seven extra bucks lining his wallet, walks home, thinking not of his extraordinary windfall, but of the breeze his back will never feel again.
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.
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 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?
Chapter 23 / 2009
You Gotta Have Friends.
The Filipino Zsa Zsa opens the door when I arrive at work.
Wonderful, just great.
Before I can take my coat off, Zsa Zsa, appearing as unhinged as her scary daughter, is singing about the fight she had with her boyfriend, leaving her to as she says: “Sleep on the mattress on the floor like a beggar man.”
This tears it, I get to sit on the chair in the living room, my fingers frozen on the keyboard as I listen to Zsa Zsa snoring in Tagalog.
If Zsa Zsa calls me “My dear” once, my fifteen year-old Doc Martens are hitting the bricks.
If you take good care of your stuff, it will last forever.
Except your soul.
Overlooking the smoothness and definition of his huge delts and biceps, I fell hard for my Chinese boyfriend, a surgeon I met when I worked at San Francisco General Hospital, when he asked me on our first date: “Do you know how to say ‘Fuck you’ in Tagalog? You smile and say: ‘My dear.’”
That was almost a decade ago, in the years when I made a living, when I had enough food to eat.
How long has it been since I laughed like that?
Has to be since Matt whispered into my ear that, even though we slept together and had sex on every piece of furniture in my apartment, his office and his condo, we were: “Bros, guy…bros who hang together.”
I will fake a seizure and go home sick if Zsa Zsa tries to take her grandson off the vent. You know, just to see what happens, like the kid caretaker was want to do before he chanted the rosary and left for his imaginary school. Absent the nauseating smells of the dead flowers, it will nonetheless be a long night, as the kitchen table has been colonized by Target bags. I sit in the perpetually dark living room, which is kept that way at Mother’s insistence. She intones that direct light upsets her son, not because he has autistic features, it is simply that any bright light at night makes him want to bang his head into the wall.
Mother read this on the internet.
And, naturally, when her son tries to bite or hit me as I change his diaper, he is simply behaving like any other eight year-old would.
What is happening with the carpet? I have looked at it nightly for months, the video cassettes, DVDs, neon colored toys, magazines and dirty clothes covering its brown stains and frayed tasseled borders obscuring its true nature from me. Has the carpet been vacuumed? Is that possible in this house? Since day one on this gig, I have never been successful in my attempts to avoid the carpet’s filthiness. My Docs are sitting on a green as dark as the foliage in le jardin, the delicate lushness covering the floor populated with blue elephants, a herd of which are running across the floor.
Unfortunately, the chair I sit on is as uncomfortable as it has been since day one. Mother is wedged into it every night when I open the iron mesh door, her dark eyes watching a reality or a home makeover show. The chair’s body is covered with a stained sheet and a threadbare blanket, the meat of its hidden arms worn down to a warped wooden skeleton. What remains of the chair’s upholstery is ripped apart, the bottom leg broken off, a phone book in its place. I can not sit on the chair for more than five minutes without sharp pains shooting into my lower back and down my legs. Putting my feet up on one of the lost boy’s tiny plastic chairs does not bring a whiff of relief. At 3 AM every night–or is it every morning?–I put my head down and surrender to the snarky whining of Joe and Mika. No matter what I put under my head to cushion it from the arm’s sagging bones, the chair’s fingers let me know I am not welcome on it.
The elephants beneath my feet are getting restless. Maybe their plan is to spirit the lost boy out of the cold darkness of his cage, a narrow cubbyhole off of the living room. To make room for the swaying elephant snouts, I relocate to the kitchen table, loaded up with more junk than I have ever seen. My body twists, contorting itself on to a chair so ill fitted to the crap covered table that once seated it is impossible to move my legs. I can not write my nurse’s notes, my fingers distracted by the brotherhood I feel for the lost boy, his tiny body and disproportionately sized head tethered to this house by respiratory tubing, my soul held in limbo by the mean spiritedness of small furniture, leashed to this table, this kitchen, to the stench of this house by the monthly demands of rent money and $51.00 a week for groceries.
“Do you have any children?” Zsa Zsa asks me, her voice yanking the leash around my neck.
If I tell her I am gay she will fire me.
I smile. Nod my head.
I could tell Zsa Zsa about walking Fifth Avenue in one of New York City’s first Gay Pride Marches in 1973 with my best bud Danny, the clogs on our feet taking us to Washington Square Park, where, to calm the escalating meshugas between the drag queens who started the Stonewall Riots and the, shall we say, more male-identified gay men, Bette Midler hit the stage and wailed out “Friends.”
If you take good care of your memories, they will last forever, they will show you the lucky man you once were.
I choose to tell Zsa Zsa about my nieces and nephews.
“The other nurse ordered pizza, we’d have a party,” Zsa Zsa tells me. “We watched movies all night. He knew I love movies.”
I could tell Zsa Zsa about conducting an insurance interview with the head honcho of the Screen Actors Guild in his office on Wilshire or the interview I did a few days ago with the founder of the American Cinematheque in her Beverly Hills office, where the shining eyes of the skinny Prada clad receptionist could not see who I was, a writer, a teller of tales.
“You’re so direct…” JoAnne told me as I asked her the questions scripted for me by the insurance company. “…I was nervous about this and you’ve put me at ease.”
“Us New Yorkers are like that.”
“It’s not that. Your voice is relaxing. What do you when you’re not interviewing people?”
“I’ve been a nurse since I was twenty-five, that’s what my hands know to do. But, they take me flying when I write my stories.”
Our business finished, JoAnne walked me to the elevator, her arm around me, the receptionist’s eyes tearing straight through the black and cream plaid weave of my wool jacket, her knife landing a few inches above my left kidney.
“If you ever need anything, call me,” JoAnne said. “I’d like to help you.”
“I’m not the other nurse…you don’t know anything about me,” I tell Zsa Zsa. “I didn’t come here to watch TV.”
I wipe down the countertop and arrange my supplies for the night. Before Zsa Zsa can say anything else, I retreat to the living room to work on my nurse’s notes. When I walk through the kitchen to the bathroom, my eyes are pulled to the shining surface of the kitchen table, I squint with the realization that the table is wood, a deep brown wood. If I wanted to, I could move my hand across its smooth surface without immediately running to the sink to wash it off.
“I fixed it up so you could do your writing,” Zsa Zsa says. “There’s a plate in the oven. I cooked it for you this afternoon.”
Her brown eyes look into mine. They are warm, smiling, welcoming, they would never put pills into medicine cups when I’m not looking or take my patient off the vent to, you know, see what happens. The softness of her eyes gaze at me the way Matt did after I read him a story.
Zsa Zsa places a plate of pork chops, potatoes and carrots in front of me, a glass of ice water next to it.
“Thank you, this looks SO good. You really didn’t have to.”
“You’re like the nurse who comes in on your nights off,” she says.
“I am? Isn’t he twenty-five?”
“You’re both so hungry. Such skinny men. You clean off the counter the same way he does.”
The pork chop melts in my mouth the way Matt once did, the potatoes as warm and soft as Zsa Zsa’s eyes, the carrots are fresh, juicy, a bit sweet, the water fresh and clean.
“When I was twenty-five, I was finishing up nursing school,” I tell Zsa Zsa. “I lived in a one room apartment with a bed that rolled out of the wall. Seventy-five dollars a month. The bathroom was in the hall. I shared it with this crazy alcoholic guy. The thing was…the thing was I could eat then…I ate three meals a day. I went to school all week and worked as a nurse’s aide on the weekends. It wasn’t like…”
“Like what?” she asks.
“Am I as tired at the other nurse?”
Zsa Zsa laughs. Her eyes watch as I gulp down the cool water and dig into my second chop.
“He can’t keep his eyes open past midnight.”
“I have some ‘Policewoman’ DVDs in my bag,” I tell Zsa Zsa. “We could watch them later.”
“The nurse, the man who died here, he didn’t like being alone at night. I watched television with him, but I never wanted to.”
“You sure? It would be fun.”
“I don’t have fun here. I can see you care about my little boy. I need you to watch over him.”
“Of course I will, that’s what I’m here for.”
“What do you do at night to stay awake?”
“I read. Try to write.”
I finish the first real meal I have eaten in weeks. I put the dish and glass in the sink and run the water to wash them. Zsa Zsa gently nudges me away from the sink.
“Sit down and write. You don’t have to clean tonight.”
Looking at this ceiling only brings me bad news.
Held in place by thin white strips of metal, the drop ceiling above me is an endless heaven of rectangular white tiles, their faces spotted with superficial craters, none of which appear possessed of either dirt or dust.
The UCLA dental student, outfitted for today’s scene in lime green scrubs shielded from contagion by a billowy yellow isolation gown, has walked offstage for no apparent reason.
Hopefully, he is doing a line or two of pharmaceutical coke, anything to speed up his game, to get him to finish refining what his annoyingly dreamy voice calls the “build-up.”
The provenance of the tiles dates to the early 60s, my eyes first spotting their celestial powers when I saw their brethren floating above the blonde Swedish Modern furniture in my father’s office, located a few blocks from Washington Square. Maybe if I stare at the tiles above me long enough, Don Draper will hire me to write copy with Peggy Olson at Sterling Cooper.
I am a writer after all. I have a story to tell.
“Such deep thoughts,” Zsa Zsa whispered to me last night from her berth on the mattress. “Write good stories, sell them to the movies.”
A deep voice, purring with the plush softness of an Eastern European accent, covers Zsa Zsa’s smiling eyes with a ratty blanket.
“…my student thinks a drop of your saliva hit his eye…you’ll need to get an HIV test.”
My eyes leave heaven and look at the thick plastic goggles which not only cover the student’s deep blue eyes, but create an impermeable seal encircling his lower forehead and upper cheekbones, the ceiling lights above his pale skin dimmer than they were when he first pried my mouth open to work on, as he calls them: “Your totally difficult teeth.”
“What’s the drill?” I ask.
“YOU BOTH HAVE TO GET HIV TESTED,” the bright red lips of the clinic’s chubby receptionist scream at me. “FILL OUT THESE FORMS AND TAKE THEM TO OUTPATIENT CARE IN THE RONALD REAGAN CENTER.”
One thing about the bang-up powers of tiles above us, any sound that hits the hollowness camouflaged by the drop ceiling bounces back ten times louder to the mortals below.
So much for patient confidentiality at one of California’s shining jewels of higher education.
“Are you off your feed?” I ask the receptionist. “You’re telling me to get HIV tested in a building named after Ronald Reagan?”
Yet another tale begging to be told.
“Those boots on your feet,” the deep voiced doctor whispers as I fill out my forms. “They were invented by a German doctor during World War II.”
My eyes hit the ceiling, my soul flooded with remembrances of things past, like the fact that to cut back on expenses, the fluorescent bulbs illuminating the yanked opened mouthes of the dental students’ prey have been reduced from four per fixture to three.
“I’m not too worried,” the dental student says as we wait to have our blood drawn for rapid result HIV test. “I’m sure you’re clean.”
“I wonder how they keep the ceiling so clean in the dental clinic,” I respond.
It is the pristine condition of the forty year old tiles, the fact that despite all they have looked down on, all the quiet moaning they have heard as the sharpened tips of drills dig into decayed enamel, the tiles remain unsullied, their cleanliness carrying me through the two hour ride home along Sunset Boulevard, my jaw throbbing with such maliciousness I can not read my “New York Times,” my gut twisting against itself as I pass the Comedy Store’s round black and white billboard, my bones and muscles punching me with knockout blows only my Extra Strength Vicodins can kill, my eyes preferring the darkness of a Hydrocodone induced sleep to the blinding safety of the spotlight filling up the stage across the street, the stage I once stood on.
I had stories to tell. I made the connection. On the keyboard, my fingers banged out stories, whispered to me by the air caressing my body. Was that a year ago? A few months ago? These days, I sit up until dawn on a viciously lumpy chair, trying to type into my laptop, my fingers fighting against the prison of wet cement.
I have seroconverted.
I have infected the blood flowing through the blue veins running up and down the muscular arms of the dental student.
This is my new, unlucky tale.
Two hours after my Docs staggered up Gower toward home and the inevitable bad luck bestowed by the immaculate tiles, I sit next to my friend Steven, his plus one for a play he is reviewing, a hopefully Broadway bound musical about Louis Prima and Keely Smith. In homage to the wacky duo’s Vegas act, I am wearing my purple crushed velvet 60s jacket, a 50s tuxedo shirt featuring beaucoup black trimmed ruffles and my Zebra skin shoes. In the air conditioned theater, we watch Louis and Keely sing, joke, fight and love, the back and forth ribbing of their stage act sitting me next to my father on hot Long Island summer evenings as we watched “The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour,” my father mesmerized by Cher, me by Sonny.
The cool air pouring out of vents from a ceiling bereft of life changing tiles beats down on my skin. Let my balls ache, my gut twist, my jaw pound, I am done fighting. My back sinks into the soft cushion of my chair, the air has its way with me, I will do whatever it wants.
My fingertips run over the raised veins on my right hand, the blood pulsing through my body warming my skin with the realization it is not the air caressing me, but the hands of the dead, my friends who grew me into a man, Kerry, Ross and Marco, their hands around me in life, in death, pushing me forward, always forward, the heat of my fingers wrapped around the bones of my friend’s Mark’s hand, all through the night in Culver City as he lay dying, his scratchy voice saying to me: “Remember who you are, you’re a special guy,” his touch as kind as JoAnne’s when we stood at the elevator.
Spittle flies out of the mouth of the wildly gesticulating Louis, its benign drops falling on to the edge of the stage as laughter tears through my body, the jaw, the gut, the balls afraid to attack a man as lucky as I am, a man who has friends. The onstage couple’s knock-down, drag-out fights grab me in my throat, the concrete melts off my feet and hands, my eyes drip with tears at the life I am watching, the life still beating in my heart, the life racing to my fingertips, who promise to keep me up until dawn typing out my tale.
The show over, my Docs push down heavy on my gas pedal, my cocksucker red 69 Chevy Malibu flying me to the keyboard. I turn up Gower from Melrose, all thoughts of reporting the chubby receptionist to her supervisors forgotten, instead I run the lines I will speak to JoAnne when I ask her if she can help me find a literary agent, my fingertips steering me to the 101 as my ears listen one more time to the words whispered to me by the deep voiced doctor five minutes after I walked into my apartment earlier this evening: “You are negative.”
Our lucky man has a tale to tell.
Chapter 24 / 2009
I am a Mean Teacher.
I arrive at work a half hour early to find Mother and Dad dressed like the overgrown Easter bunnies who frantically wave signs in front of car washes on the low end of Santa Monica Boulevard, the rhythmic swaying of their dirty paws trying to drum up business.
I thought Louis Prima was pushing the color co-ordination envelope.
The bunnies are encased in orange satin shorts, purple lycra tee shirts stretched over their distended bellies, bone white sox with blue rings running around their tops, bright red Nikes and green fanny packs bouncing on lumpy butts.
Natch, Mom and Dad are going to the gym.
Neither ask why I am wearing the tuxedo shirt or the Zebra skin shoes. I speculate that the reason Mother and Dad have not asked me why I have shown up early is because their clocks are still set back an hour, Pacific Standard Time being Obama’s latest attempt at mind control.
Mother and Dad are back from the gym in forty-five minutes, each carrying a Burger King bag. I must admit, I am not familiar with this particular workout regimen.
In the living room, a soft spoken Charlie Rose talks with my man Paul Krugman about the economy. Mother and Dad listen between bites of their juicy burgers, smirks curling their lips as their eyes open wide with the heresy of it all. Mother and Dad place their grease stained bags on a magazine cover featuring Kate Hudson and offer me a small bag of French fries.
“Aren’t French fires verboten here?” I ask.
Mother and Dad stare into the green lushness of le jardin.
“It’s a joke,” I say.
Their chillness is chilling.
I smile. Nod my head.
“It’s cool,” I say. “I’m glad you’re back. It gets lonely here…I’ll change the channel.”
“Who are these guys?” Mother asks.
“Don’t you recognize them? They’ve been on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’”
Mother stares at Charlie as if she knew him, Dad launches into his Jimmy Stewart aw-shucks mumbling bit about how Obama is a socialist.
The stench of the grease eating away Kate’s face makes my gut churn.
“Why is Obama a socialist?” I ask.
Lager cans are popped open, Burger King bags are turned upside down and emptied out, their contents obliterating what remains of Kate’s tabloid face. Mother can recite, in elaborate and intricate detail, the comings and goings of every reality show ever broadcast, with Dad picking up anything his beloved has missed before endlessly pontificating on the least consequential of backstories or dissecting a complicated coupling or breakup.
“It’s like…you know…he who must be obeyed doesn’t look out for the working guy, wasting money on all these government programs,” Mother says.
“Pretty soon it’ll be time to get our guns out,” Dad says. “We’ll…we’ll have to shoot up the Ralphs for groceries.”
I could tell Mother and Dad that Schwarzenegger wants to cut home health funding for disabled children like their son, but then they would be up all night babbling about the internet site proclaiming the end of world in 2012 or explaining some Lucy and Ethel technique they have come up with to flush out the lost boy’s G tube.
It is their house, it is their fast food, it is my tax money padding their cage. Until LAUSD hooks me up with some steady substitute shifts, I’ll swing from a shower rod and whistle “Maytime” to keep this gig.
Turning the volume up on my guys, I decline Mother’s repeated offers of French fries, telling her my stomach is très upset.
I have become the mean LAUSD schoolteacher.
Five hours later, Dad staggers into the kitchen, his arm pits sweating lager, his satin gym shorts giving off the scent of urine when he gets too close. Dad is more animated than Joe and Mika, I will give him that. In the pitch-black living room, the lost boy sleeps with a smile on his face, I sit in the small kitchen and listen to Dad, adjusting my psychic bulletproof vest to deflect his well aimed bullets. Dad starts off with the usual rants about Obama, he is a Muslim, he is not a citizen, Michelle is a racist.
The black helicopters are sure to be circling above us before dawn breaks over the garbage filled street.
“Look at what he did with the banks,” Dad says. “Look at what he’s letting them get away with.”
“The guy’s only been in office a few months. Bush is the one who started all this.”
“Those bank guys should be hunted down..round ’em up…shoot ’em between the eyes.”
“Shooting bankers isn’t going to change the economy.”
“What? What, guy? You’re not man enough to pull the trigger?”
“Like you’re going to go out to shoot a banker. You can barely open the refrigerator door.”
“Time to man up…pull the trigger.”
At least when my dad got drunk he only talked about fixing up his boat or what college he wanted me to go to. My mother was real nasty when she got in her cups, but she was not about to go Ma Kettle on anyone.
Dad takes a lager out of the freezer.
“Want to know the best thing that Bush did?” Dad asks. “Want to know? Want to know?”
“There’re so many to choose from.”
“Iraq…he brought democracy to Iraq…and those fools don’t want it.”
“They’re pretty much a tribal culture, maybe they don’t want what we have.”
“BUSH WAS ALL ABOUT SPREADING DEMOCRACY! DON’T YOU GET THAT? DEMOCRACY?”
“Iraq wouldn’t have gone down if we had a draft. Yoga moms at Trader Joe’s would never let their kids die for this bullshit.”
Dad’s lager can hits the dirty floor, I cover the collateral damage with a paper towel.
“You’d change your tune if you were number sixteen in the draft lottery, like I was,” I tell him.
Not wanting Dad to fall and break a hip, I wipe the lager up. Then again, if he did go down, he could finagle his injury into SSI.
“Kind of changes your take on things when the government wants to ship you out to die when you’re nineteen years old,” I say to Dad as his shaking fingers hunt for a fresh lager.
“You didn’t go?” Dad asks. “You didn’t serve?”
“Do you even know what Vietnam was about?”
Dad pops open another lager, his eyes look at the Burger King bags.
“If you feel that way about it, why don’t you join up?” I ask him. “They’d love to have you.”
“I’ve got a sick kid….”
“You think there aren’t other guys in the service with sick kids ?”
“You know my situation…you know how it is here.”
“I know how it is here.”
Taking a long swig, Dad throws his head back, arching his neck the way his son does when the swirling colors of the television screen mesmerize his unblinking eyes.
“Why is it that all you gung-ho guys never want to do the fighting?” I ask. “How do you sleep at night, leaving it to these young kids to give it up for you?”
“You’re so fucked…so fucking fucked.”
“Man up, guy. Go to Iraq, there’s plenty of rifles to pick up there.”
Dad downs more brewski, his eyes stare at a crack in the ceiling, the bite of the ammonia smell sweating out of his skin masking the strong whiffs of urine.
“Join up with Blackwater,” I tell him. “Think of all the scratch you’ll make driving trucks around Iraq. Your wife and kid would have plenty of money then.”
“You fucking jagoff…jagoff.”
Dad slinks to the bathroom at the end of the hallway, its width so narrow Mother can barely squeeze sideways between its faded brown paneled walls, the filthy passage lined on one side with, at minimum, one hundred plastic boxes, packed full with CDs, DVDs, clothes, toys, purses and bills. Whenever I pass these benign boxes, I ask myself why are they the only ones in the house sealed up tight with fitted tops?
In the inky blackness of the living room, the lost boy’s G tube erupts with gas.
Sounding like the slashing blades of a black helicopter, Dad pukes into the toilet.
Please, let him avoid the floor.
For reasons I do not understand, the bathroom floor is the only clean place in this house. The missing pane in the bathroom window lets in a cold breeze, which will most likely hit Dad with a strong one-two punch and wake him up before he chokes on his vomit. As the bathroom sink’s only functioning faucet spews cold water, my gut holds no anxiety about Dad scalding his bloated face with hot water. Good luck to him if he tries to raise himself up off of the shining white floor tiles by holding on to the wicker cabinet on the side of the toilet. Jammed with bars of soap, bottles of shampoo and conditioner, rolls of toilet paper, boxes of Kotex and giant-sized dispensers of scented hand lotions, a black mildew has eaten into the cabinet’s sides and shelves, its rotted out teeth splintering them apart.
If he has not passed out, Dad can always knock a hole in the bathroom wall to compliment the one in the bedroom, his wobbly body landing a punch in the blank space above the irregularly aligned towel racks, his lager cold fists imagining the emptiness to be me, the jagoff.
Thinking myself a lucky man to have twelve stepped my way out of the life at the end of this cramped hallway in North Hollywood, I stop drinking water for the remainder of my shift.
Wouldn’t want to have to pee with Dad passed out on the bathroom floor.
The next night, the dissembling staffing co-ordinator calls an hour before shift time, his space cadet rambling revealing, after five tedious minutes, that the lost boy is sick, Mother and Dad have taken him to the hospital.
Dad was snoring on the bathroom floor when I left, a beatific smile on his face. My patient was fine, sleeping quietly, tethered to his ventilator, his G tube feed running without a hitch.
Should I drive past the house to see if the family is home?
Did I piss Dad off?
I talked back to my parents when they were drunk, but by the time I was a Bar Mitzvah man, I had learned it was best not to. Forty years later, I am in the City of the Angels with yet another self-righteous drunk passed out on the floor.
There is no call from the agency the next night, the cadet has not answered the messages I left during the day. I drive in to work, practicing my apologies to Dad. He has a sick child and a disconnected wife. I would probably drink too if my kid saw and heard things no one else did, if he smiled and giggled while staring at his hand for two solid hours without blinking.
No, I would tell my boy to write out the sounds and pictures in his head, sing his smiles out, tell me what he sees in his hand.
I will tell Dad we are chill, I should not have talked politics or George Bush with him.
I can fix this, easy.
Isn’t that why I became a nurse, to fix people?
I knock on the lost boy’s door. No answer, the lights are off inside.
Up and down the block, broken furniture is piled high on the grass strip between the sidewalk and the street, waiting, as it does every shift I work, to be thrown into in the street in the middle of the night.
How could the lost boy have gotten sick so quickly? Did I miss something? Could I have prevented this? I can spot changes immediately in an adult. But in a child? I am not a peds nurse, I should never have taken this case on. I am tired, exhausted, my feet and hands heavy with concrete. I have stayed up for months caring for the lost boy, only to have him become sick on my watch. What was the point of all this, of stepping into the filth of these tiny rooms, listening to the obscenities of these overfed bunnies?
The lucky man needs money to pay rent and buy food with.
I forgot. Sometimes, when it’s late and everybody is talking, I forget.
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.
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.
Chapter 27 / 2009
I Take the Fall.
My jaw stops throbbing on a Friday afternoon in late April.
Once again, I lounge like a Chekhov heroine on a hard and oddly contoured examining chair in the Orofacial Pain Clinic at UCLA.
“He had my mouth pried open for four hours, my jaw has never been the same,” I say to the three sets of goggle covered eyes looking down on me.
“That’s not true,” the dental student whispers. “That never happened.”
I open my “Frans Lanting Taschen Diary” to Thursday 9 October 2008.
“Four hour appointment at UCLA,” I read to the eyes.
The dental student tightens the straps of his goggles, where they meet at the back of his head.
“Why would I write this if it wasn’t true?” I ask the doctor.
Doc is tan, not the spray on routine, his is the real deal, his skin darkened from playing early morning tennis on the dew covered courts of Brentwood, his middle-aged muscles toned from laps swum in shimmering blue pools, his close cropped silver hair receding a bit at his temples.
“Why do you write all these details down?” Doc asks.
“I’m a writer, it’s about the details…they tell the tale.”
A literary fellow, Doc and I proceed to discuss “Shantaram.”
The dental student’s eyelids flutter like a silent movie heroine tied to the railroad tracks. Unlucky man, his deep blue eyes could not possibly read Gregory David Roberts’ words with this action going on.
“We’ve repeatedly told you not to keep your patients in the chair that long,” Doc says to the quivering dental student.
“I’ve been telling him all along how bad it is,” I say. “He left me hanging like this for the last six weeks.”
“I scheduled an appointment as soon as I heard,” the deep voice of the student’s supervising doctor says.
“That is a lie,” I say.
The three flourescent bulbs in the fixture above me wink their approval.
“I talked to you about this weeks ago,” I tell the supervising doctor. “You told me that no one could work on me until the pain stopped. And you expect me to pay for this appointment? It’s over three hundred dollars.”
The heaviness in the supervising doctor’s Eastern European shoulders pulls her down the way the concrete does when I drive home from work.
“Two hours in the chair tops,” Doc says to the dental student. “But four…four hours? What were you thinking?”
Odd, the dental student cannot open his mouth and flash his pearly whites.
Doc shoots lidocaine beneath both sides of my jaw, his strong hands milking my neck and massaging the masseter muscles on the sides of my face as the cold anesthetic eats through the pain.
Doc walks slowly around the examining chair, stopping to stare down at the dental student where he has planted his ass on the green vinyl of a round examining stool.
The dental student stands up, the yellow legal pad, on whose pages he has written down every word I spoke, falling to the floor. For a second, his carotids throb against his pale white skin, he moves to the other side of the cubicle, the unsteadiness of his body making me think he is about to crash head first onto the shining blue tiles of the floor.
At last. The dental student knows what pain is.
Doc hands me a can of Gebauer’s Ethyl Chloride, his clipped voice saying: “Do the mouth exercises I showed you. Use this spray at the slightest twinge of pain.”
“You the man,” I respond.
“You’ll be sure to take care of Mr. Epstine’s bill?” Doc asks his colleague.
My jaw never hurts after that spring afternoon.
I had forgotten about mandibular pain in a day, until three weeks later, when I find myself sitting in the circle of Gay Seniors at our weekly Friday support group meeting at the Gay & Lesbian Center.
That’s right, I am a senior now, my seen it all brown eyes looking unblinkingly at hitting fifty-seven with a wealth of senior maladies, twisted gut, swollen balls, roller coaster blood pressure and a twenty-three-year-old fuck buddy who smiles deviously when he calls me his “Go-to mouth.”
Don’t knock it lucky man, these are the only liquid assets you’ve got.
The fuck bud is gay, which limits our dialogue to his endless interrogations about why I have not dyed my greying temples, interrupted occasionally by his Blanche DuBois like reveries about the enormity of my balls.
“How’s your week been?” our group facilitator asks me.
I pull out my can of Ethyl Chloride and massage its cold comfort into my neck.
My pain free jaw wants to move, I want to talk about the pain running through my balls, the rebellion of my gut, about the fear eating into my skin whenever the sun of the City of the Angels hits it, about the terror pinching my fingertips as they long to curl around a drink for the first time in nineteen years.
I had told these old men my tale the day I entered their circle.
They smiled. They nodded their heads.
“Things will turn around,” their mouths said. “It will get better.”
They then launched into monologues about reverse mortgages, trips to Machu Picchu and the hot waiters at the new restaurant on Vermont Avenue in Los Feliz.
Who can I tell my troubles to?
My man is gone, my friends are dead.
The odor of Ethyl Chloride hovers over the red carpeted room.
“I was late this morning because I was having sex with my buddy,” I tell the group.
The seniors lap it up the way Sunset’s pink tongue devours her hairball medication when I sprinkle catnip on it.
That evening, my masseters no longer fearful of the tsuris chewing a salted peanut can visit upon my jaw, I sit ten feet from a stage on which Alan Turing stutters and stammers through his life in “Breaking the Code,” the spastic jerking of Turing’s body hitting me like the notes my father blew out of his trumpet on Saturday afternoons in the den of our Long Island tract house.
I am as lost as my patient is when his tiny body stands in front of his sixty inch television screen, his black eyes mesmerized by the over saturated blues and reds swirling before them. The stage which holds my gaze is situated in the back of a narrow store converted into a theater, located in the dead center of, of all places, a strip mall in North Hollywood. The lucky plus one of my play reviewing bud Steven, my senior and his middle-aged eyes cannot break free of the web actor Sam R. Ross has spun, his lungs gobbling up the air of English refinement, his blood beating with the intricacies of Turning’s heart, Ross’s awkward moves pulling us into this tormented soul.
“That’s what artists do,” my father whispers into my ear.
Ross’s fingers curl into the palms of the man he has become, a English mathematician who cracked the Nazi’s Enigma Machine before life turned a 180 and shattered him to the bone. Ross’s feet leave earth the moment he hits the stage, his cracking voice expounding on mathematical theories, his skin feeling forever the loss of his teenage love, his throat unable to understand the impact his words have as he spits his truth out of a body so consumed by science and mathematics that only the presence of a lover can steady him, can allow him to be happy when his feet stand on earth.
I breathe in and out with the audience in the tiny room giving witness to this tale, my hands move to my mouth with the audience’s fear when Turing holds up an apple laced with cyanide, tears fall from our eyes as we applaud the cast, everyone in the room knowing that, even in a Valley strip mall, whose tenants are a Karate school and a donut shop, saying the wrong thing to the wrong person can bring any one of us to the moment when we must gladly take the poison.
For the first time since I sat in the Frolic Room weeks ago, my fingertips do not want to embrace a drink, instead they curl in toward my palms, patiently waiting for 1 AM, when the lost boy sleeps and I can pound my tale into the keyboard.
I am a writer after all, a lucky man whose father taught him about flying.
Every Saturday afternoon, Father practiced his trumpet, first polishing its golden body for ten minutes before his thick fingers dropped the needle on a Louis Armstrong record, Father’s lips breathing into the horn, he and Armstrong pushing the same notes into the air. Father could play every one of his idol’s songs, his face puffed up and as red as my 69 Chevy Malibu, the notes bouncing against the brown wood paneling of our den, wailing up along the stairs, floating into the tiny attic above the living room, as the record spun at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute.
“That’s what artists do,” Father said. “They make you feel like you’re flying. That’s their gift.”
“This Armstrong guy, he’s like singing ‘Hello Dolly’ with Barbra Streisand…that’s your hero?”
Father laughed, his brown eyes watching as I carefully slipped the shiny black discs into their white paper sleeves, Satchmo’s eyes looked up to the sky from the discs’ cardboard covers, his trumpet pointing its yellow metal fingers at me.
“People aren’t always what they seem,” Father said. “You have to look behind their eyes to see what’s there. Your real friends are going to do that with you.”
“Did you ever fly?” I asked.
Father sat next to me, tapping my head with his fist, touching me so softly I could barely feel the strength of his hands on me.
“You know I can never hit you,” Father said. “I was a boxer, my fists are lethal weapons.”
“Yeah…that’s when you were Little Izzy…when you boxed so you and Grandma could have a place to live.”
“Sometimes you have to, you have to hit back. I flew every time I was in the ring. I knew it was wrong to beat on men, but I could see where they were weak. I got to them, I knew where to hit them. I just knew. The crowd screamed for me to go after them, that’s how I flew. My feet weren’t in the ring. Not ever. Listening to Satchmo is like flying, but it’s not the same. I’ve been lifted off the earth, I know what it is to live in the sky.”
Father laid his trumpet on the thick purple velvet lining of its dull black case, his fingers gently securing the case’s leather straps around his flying machine.
“You’ll find what makes you fly. But your time in the sky never lasts long. No one’s does.”
The lost boy sleeps a few feet from me, his Grandma Zsa Zsa snores on a mattress on the floor. Mother and Dad stagger into the kitchen every hour or so for a belt of Coke or a handful of Doritos. The vent rhythmically pushes air in and out of its guts, the G tube belches when it feels the need to let off steam.
Everyone sleeps but me.
The notes Ross blew out over my skin a few hours earlier fall off of my fingertips onto the blue elephants running across the green carpet which has miraculously reappeared beneath my feet.
It is time to pick up the horn and blow my way out of this cage.
I take the fall ten days later.
I arrive at work to discover Mother has taken a powder and hit the sheets early.
I wipe down the Ikea folding table and, after placing a Target plastic bag in the wastepaper basket with the world-weary expertise of the German caretaker, I move it as far away from my nose as possible. I clean off the crust clinging to the top of the stove, wash the dishes abandoned in the sink, cover the rectangular basin on the floor and stack the tabloids on the kitchen table in neat piles. Like Dad’s head after a few brewskis, the picture on the television screen bounces spastically. Having checked to make sure Mother is asleep, I exercise the lost boy’s legs as he smiles and stares into the emptiness of his palms. He watches two episodes of “Policewoman” before his thick eyelashes pull his upper lids down for the night.
As I have for my last eight shifts, I breathe in Ross’s notes and watch my words run across the white pages in the center of my computer screen, my fingers punching my tale into the keyboard.
“I’m going to the airport to pick up a friend,” Dad says at 4 AM.
The lost boy’s eyes move beneath his closed eyelids. The infusion machine whines as it pushes the thick brown feed into the G tube, the red LED lights of the vent flash a thumbs-up.
“Who changed that string?” Dad asks.
“I did two weeks ago…it was coming apart.”
“And the oxygen tank? You moved it by his crib?”
“You know how I am…I like to rearrange.”
“You should clear it with the missus before you do that kind of shit.”
Gotcha, Big Boy.
This explains Mother’s recent pained silences, her going to bed early, before the evening’s reality shows break the silence of their tawdry tales.
Dad’s eyes glance at the table next to the inhospitable chair I sit on, my nursing notes, complete except for my last entry, stare back at him, wanting only Mother’s John Hancock before I head out through the morning mist to Beachwood Canyon. My supplies for the last respiratory treatment of the shift laid are out on a white paper towel, five alcohol wipes wait for my fingers to clean the G tube after it has forced the last of the gooey nutrients into the boy’s belly.
Mika babbles silently on the ever moving screen a few feet away, the elephants, who watch over the boy and I, never once daring to get within spitting distance of her wrath, which this morning opened the show with a full-out wail about the nuclear tests North Korea has allegedly carried out. My flying fingers silenced Mika, leaving my eyes to alternate between the words tearing across the screen and the lost boy’s chest as the breathing of the vent moves it up and down.
“Quite the setup you have here,” Dad says. “You write all night, rehearse your plays, you…”
“What time will you be back?” I ask Dad.
“I’m going down to LAX, who knows?”
The lost boy sleeps.
I change the boy’s diaper, straighten his sheets, put a soft pillow under his head, my ears ignoring the false alarm of the vent as I clean his trach. I sit yoga still on one of the filthy round throw rugs, not wanting to stand up and feel the walls of the lost boy’s cubbyhole closing in on me, imagining every morning at 4:30 AM that if there is an earthquake, the chest of drawers next to me will explode out onto his crib.
My eyes look out through the iron mesh door, as they have done every early morning for the past eight months, searching for the shadows who throw the broken furniture into the street. A chair, sliced straight in half, lies beside the blue handicapped painted curb, which Dad has peeled away from a mere fifteen minutes ago.
How does this happen?
Same way I sat for years in my spot at the Frolic Room, on a wobbly barstool toward the back, where my eyes watched the comings and goings of the only people in the City of the Angels I have ever been truly comfortable with, my throat hungering for the sting of an Absolut Cranberry to soak into me.
And then another to lift me up off the bar stool.
Another to take me to the sky.
I am flying, but down, down fast towards the eyes of the elephants, to the snicker on Joe Scarborough’s lips.
My body cannot find its center, my left foot is wedged beneath the base of the vent, the LED lights smile at me to grab hold, but if I do the vent will crash to the floor, yanking the trach out of the lost boy’s throat, the vent breaking in half and shattering, the G tube crashing down on me, ripping out the tube sewn into the boy’s gut.
There is no backup vent. I will hurt the boy if I grab on to the smile an inch from my left hand.
I take the fall.
My arms spread out, my opened palms hit the floor with a dull crack, shards of ice cold pain pulse through my body, I shiver against it, my gut heaving to vomit out the bowl of rice I ate for dinner, banging inside me with the tingle of misshapen ice cubes.
I am damp with sweat. My back lies on the carpet. My eyes look up to the ceiling, it is surprisingly clean, but then again the only light in the room is that of “Morning Joe’s” nastiness. The cold stabs into my shoulders, hustling its way down to my fingertips, so cold with the ice beating beneath my fingernails I cannot breathe, my left calf throbbing with blasts of razor edged pain so intense, my kneecap will pop out if I try to stand.
The vent rhythmically pushes air in and out of its guts, the G tube belches angrily, the lost boy sleeps beneath the string pulled to a tight straight line above him, Mika and Joe jerk against the television screen. I look out through the iron mesh door, the dirt in front of the house is wet and grey.
A white plastic toilet seat is in the middle of the street.
“Have you been sitting in that chair the whole time?” Dad asks.
In his right hand is a small brown paper bag, sans the grease stains all of the other bags he carries into this cage have.
“I fell and hurt my leg. I tripped over the wires under the rug.”
“How did that happen?”
“There’s no backup vent, that was all I had to break my fall.”
“Maybe He Who Must Be Obeyed will give us one when he forces his healthcare plan down our throats.”
Dad opens the fridge and pops a lager.
Back and forth to LAX in under an hour?
As per jammies clad Mother, her sleeping son is left tethered to the vent as I limp out the door, my Docs snake around the bathroom accoutrements scattered about on the pock mocked street.
The icy numbness in my fingers telling my body this gig is finito, I have left my “Policewoman” DVDs on the nightstand next to the crib.
I hightail it back to Hollywood, knowing that with Angie to guide him, the lost boy is bound to get lucky.
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.
Chapter 29 / 2009
This is Supposed to be the New World?
Blood pressure low, balls sliced open to remove the ever growing hydrocele, the gut getting an antispasmodic reprieve, fingers flying without fear, has our lucky man gotten lucky?
“Something’s happening to the industry, the economy’s changed everything,” JoAnne says into my GoPhone.
I sit in the parking lot of the Silver Lake Trader Joe’s.
Worker’s Comp has allowed me to buy groceries again. Nothing fancy, but it sure beats the rusted cans, the bags of rice, the outdated Thai Delight boxes, beats hiding a dollar donut from Stretch Pants.
“I chatted you up to several agents,” JoAnne says. “Five years ago, they would have snapped you up, given you an advance to finish your novel. With the internet and the economy, they won’t take a chance on a new writer.”
My fingers pulse with a numbness only the keyboard can cure.
“You’re a good writer. I wish I could do more.”
“Thank you…saying that means a lot to me.”
I am a writer after all. I have a story to tell.
The only thing left to do is to lift myself off the earth, to live in the sky.
Waiting for my companionship, the sky gazes down at me, the light I remembered from my first days in the City of the Angels has returned, born of the debris from the fires burning throughout the City, the ashes moving quickly up into air, after which the Santa Anas pushed this unnamed soup not over the Pacific, but instead east, hitting the inner beach cities and the San Fernando Valley first, before resting over Hollywood and parts eastward.
Once infected, the sky became a dull grey, bordered at its edges with a faint orange, its solidity not a threatening mix of ash, carbon dioxide, burnt cars and melted tires, but instead the backdrop of the movie, the place where my fingers make the words fly, the sky’s diffused light filtering out what is not necessary, showing me the life I see in my dreams, where the empty spaces are filled in, the lines of separation which have kept me alone and apart erased, where I can find answers to all the “Whys” I bug the people on earth with.
I stare at the parking lot’s soft and yielding black asphalt, the ashes launched into the air a hovering mist, driven miles from home, searching for a place to land, to dissolve into.
The heat of the asphalt eating up the mist at my feet in a New York Minute, I walk into Trader Joe’s, the breath of the Angels unfreezing my shoulder a bit more every day.
I can lift a bottle of apple juice off of the top shelf.
The Worker’s Comp checks will stop dropping any day now.
X, my fave 80s band, chants “This is supposed to be the new world” out of my speakers as I head home, the smoke and ash coming at me with the intensity of Exene and John Doe’s vocals, making me think for a moment that my engine has cracked wide open. My Raybans cannot stop the squinting of my eyes, nor my tears as the grit, which made its way from a sitcom star’s burning house of love on the Pacific Coast Highway, lands on my reddened irises.
Time to get a gig, the light tells me.
I reacquaint myself with the looking for a gig mantra: “Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”
“I have,” I whisper.
My voice is humble and boyish. No one would think I am in my late fifties.
“We’ll contact you if you’re a match for the position.”
As I did two years ago, I apply to every hospital, nursing home and medical facility in the Los Angeles basin to which I can drive, walk or crawl to. I apply to the VA Hospital in Westwood and its satellite clinic in downtown LA. I apply to the Los Angeles Department of Corrections for a job in the jails. All online. I never hear a thing. I call. I get the mantra.
I cold call agencies in the “Yellow Pages,” the majority of which have difficulty stringing together a coherent sentence in English. The remaining ones spit out a hybrid form of English which drips like hot wax onto my eardrums.
A child of the 60s, I storm the barricades.
I stand before a young woman in the basement of St. Vincent Medical Center, my feet on the shining white tiles of the Human Resources Department.
“I saw a job listing on Monster.com for a Med/Surg position. I’d like to fill out an application.”
Her brown eyes stare at me from beneath eyelids weighted down by heavy black mascara.
I am clean shaven, my gold pinstriped Rat Pack styled suit and matching slacks fresh from the cleaners, my white shirt ironed that AM, my skinny black tie tightening itself around my neck with the mean fingers of the money I owe and the money I need to survive.
The fingers have been on me for two years now.
Let it go, lucky man. The light is back.
“Do you have a computer?” she asks.
Her hair is teased high, not in homage to the Ronettes, but to Snooki Polizzi, hanging from her earlobes are a cheap version of the gold hoop earrings Angie Dickinson featured when she went undercover as a go-go dancer at a “Gentleman’s club” in the Valley.
“The protocol is for jobseekers to apply online.”
The young woman’s lips are red and engorged to the point I fear they will spew the wrath of her collagen filler onto my vintage threads.
“Any way I can fill out an application here?”
“Yes, a paper application.”
“Go down the hall and use our computer in the library. Life would have been a lot easier if you told me you don’t have a computer.”
Next thing you know, she’ll be popping her gum.
She pops. I bail.
Even though I know this young woman will have forgotten an unlucky old man after a few rounds of playing solitaire on her cell, I wait two days before I surrender three hours of my morning to apply online.
For the next eight weeks, I call the Nurse Recruiter every Monday through Friday, leaving a very professional message stating my interest in the job and politely asking for a callback.
Nada. Rien. Nothing.
On week nine, the Nurse Recruiter’s voicemail informs me she has gone on vacation. Lucky her. I am forwarded to the Nursing Office. The Nursing Supervisor sounds impressed by my thirty years of nursing experience.
Ten minutes later, my landline breaks the silence of my apartment at noon.
“This is the Nurse Recruiter from St. Vincent. I’ve been told, I mean I understand you’ve been trying to reach me. I’m sorry, I’ve been so busy, I couldn’t find time to get back to you. I’m on vacation, but the Nursing Sup wanted me to touch base with you and set up an interview.”
My shoulder is rapidly unfreezing, this better fly.
I roar down Beachwood toward Franklin Avenue, X screaming “Los Angeles” as I push away from the Hollywood Sign to my first interview in years for an upright gig, a downright ongoing job. I do not have to press hard on the gas peddle, do not have to lean my head and upper body forward to move down Beachwood. The sky is holding its hand out to me and I cannot stop, not the car, not my fingers pounding the keyboard, not my daily writer’s mantra of asking of “Why?” I gaze out through the windshield, its curved glass dusted with the ash and grit which has made my breathing slow and heavy, my eyes eating up the revelations the light is showing me.
This job is mine. All I have to do is let my inquisitors see behind my eyes.
The Nurse Recruiter extends her hand, her French cut nails rest softly inside my palm. Her eyes blink with the mania of Tourette’s, her tall body hesitant as she leads me to her cubicle for our interview.
Obviously, she has been told to behave.
“It’s one thing after another here, Jake, I just have to tell you, I’m doing the job of, I can’t remember anymore, so many people, so many.”
My eyes watch as the light from the overhead fluorescents sinks into the flat yellow stones of her necklace and bracelet.
“And then, of course, last night, my car wouldn’t start. Try getting Triple A here during rush hour, I was so hungry, I’m on a diet, I so wanted to eat.”
“No worries,” I say. “In all honesty, I’ve waited so long, if you want to take a break, I can come back in an hour.”
“I had to get the kids off to school, I was in at eight and here until after seven, you mean it?”
This must be the New World.
“Really, it’s OK, we can meet at a more convenient time for you.”
“Let’s go ahead, guy, let’s do this.”
One down, one more to go.
The Nurse Manager of the unit I am applying on moves like an constipated pit bull, her makeup unable to conceal the winding trails of the acne scars running across her face, her hair a Farrah Fawcett do, possibly a remembrance of the Angel who died at the end of June or a touchstone to happier days when patients were people with names, people you could see and touch.
“Why are you a nurse Jake? Give it to me in a sentence.”
This is a job I can do. Med/Surg. Twelve-hour day shifts. It’s mine if I play my cards right.
“It’s about making the connection with my patients, listening to them and being of service…watching over them.”
“How do you keep yourself awake when you work nights?” Farrah asks.
“I’m sorry, I thought this position was for days.”
“No. No, it’s most definitely a night position.”
“I must have misunderstood when I met with the Nurse Recruiter. I was looking for a day position. I like your style, I’d enjoy working for you. If a day position opens up, please call me.”
Lucky man is up and hitting the elevator’s down button when Farrah’s bloated body catches up with him.
“You’re good,” Farrah says. “Very sharp.”
“The Nurse Recruiter really impressed me. I have to be honest, I never realized what an opportunity it would be to work here.”
“You are good. I have a day position, let’s discuss it.”
For the next two hours, I sit on a padded folding chair jammed into the corner of Farrah’s tiny peach colored office. I answer questions about the new big thing in this New World, unexpected clinical outcomes, a term which comes out of nowhere to accost me. I was a stand-up. I kill it. I talk about difficult patients I have tamed and bullshit my way out of any number of hypothetical conflicts which seem to inevitably arise between nurses.
I watch as the chewed to the quick nails of Farrah’s right hand brush the feathered layers of hair off of her face, there is nothing behind her green eyes, the only life I can see is that of the smoke floating over the City of the Angels, the light coming in through the window telling me this will be one of those gigs at which I sit beneath a loudly ticking clock at a table surrounded by nurses who cannot see what the sound stages of our City has to offer them, who cannot see beyond the boundaries of their outdated hairdos, who call their patients clients, who believe that the practice of their art is providing good customer service.
My body, frozen against the orange vinyl skin of the chair I have sat on for two hours, wakes up as I shoot Farrah my closer: “The way I advocate for myself is the way I’ll advocate for your patients.”
Hands are shaken, backs are patted.
This is indeed the New World.
I am up early the next morning, my fingers sending the words across the white screen at my new hangout, the Bourgeois Pig Cafe on Franklin Avenue, where I sit daily at a wobbly table, its dull brown wooden surface freeing me of boundaries, clocks and outcomes. I drink coffee and large glasses of water as I pound out my tale, sitting on a mismatched chair next to my true bros, the unemployed screenwriters of Beachwood Canyon and Los Feliz, all of us trying to take flight, to be chosen, to be smiled upon by the Angels as we look into the light of our computer screens.
My GoPhone vibrates, I hit out to the corner of Franklin and Tamarind Avenue, breathless with flight as Farrah yaps: “Jake, I’d like you to join our team here at St. Vincent.”
The fingers of debt squeezing down on my carotids let up.
The smoke swirls in the hills behind me, the sidewalk concrete beneath my feet stands me six inches above the asphalt’s heat, the light showing me how my life will go.
Despite the strong joe I drink to keep my fingers limber, my gut will stop punching me.
The jaws of my apartment will spit me out into rooms whose wood floors keep me safe, my body falling into the embrace of the white walls on whose emptiness I have hung pictures of palm trees and kitsch 40s vases, out of which sprays of flowers explode.
Tomorrow is my fifty-seventh birthday, the Angels have chosen me.
Out-of-town calls come in from the friends who have seen behind my eyes, who have kept me standing when my ass wanted to hit the ground and crawl as far away from the sky as I could, their caressing voices cautiously wishing me a happy birthday, followed by slight sighs and a big, deep, cleverest, best joke they have ever heard laugh at my good news.
The light of the City streaming into my living room, I lie on the black velvet of my couch, Sunset is stretched out on the carpet where Matt’s feet once lay, my questioning writer’s eyes desiring not the clear bottles of Absolut, but the clarity the light brings.
“Happy, happy,” Matt says. “What you gonna do today, guy?”
“You know me….Gena Rowlands movies…all day, all night.”
We laugh into our phones, our skin remembering last Thanksgiving, Matt’s leg over mine as we sat on the couch, his arm around my shoulders.
“Gena Rowlands…she’s the butch actress who was in that weird Kate Hudson movie?” he asked me.
Our bellies full from our holiday meal, Matt watched as I slipped the shiny silver discs out of their brown jackets.
“People aren’t always what they seem,” I told him. “Kind of like you and me. You have to look behind their eyes to see what’s there.”
Matt got Gena ten minutes into “Opening Night,” his eyes watched her the way my ears absorbed the wonder of Satchmo, my father smiling from his seat on our worn rattan couch in East Meadow, his boxer’s eyes sizing up the only boyfriend who has seen behind my eyes.
“So, what’s up with the disappearing act?” I ask Matt.
“Don’t question me. Don’t you ever question me. I’m forty-years-old, guy, I live in my parent’s garage. I get to check out when I want.”
I lie alone on my couch.
Like the notes which gave my father another chance at flight, the words of Gena and John Cassavetes blow out of my television screen, sinking into my fingers, the tremors of life flickering through their bodies showing me the tales can be told.
Before walking home from the Pig the next afternoon for a well deserved writing break, I check my messages.
I stand at the corner of Franklin and Tamarind when the voice licks its rough tongue over my face.
“Mr. Epstine, I have some bad news.”
It is the Nurse Recruiter.
My eyes cannot see the light of day, only the yellow stones wrapped around her neck.
“I just this morning realized, it was pointed out to me that the position we offered you isn’t budgeted. I thought it was, I believed it was, it was when I posted it. I take full responsibility for this, for this misunderstanding. I’m sorry, there’s no position on that unit.”
The money I owe and the money I need tighten their fingers around my neck.
“I’m thinking we can offer you a position on the unit as a fill-in, you know, when someone calls in sick. The night position was filled without my knowledge by a nurse from another unit. It could open up again, but I’d need to clear your paperwork, without a budgeted position, I don’t know if that’s possible. I don’t want you to think this is how St. Vincent operates. I take full responsibility for this, for this…”
My back sweats against the worn cushions of my couch, my eyes stare at the frayed piping, I notice my fingertips are moving in and out of its torn open brown velvet.
My belly wakes up. Gives me a good one-two punch.
Sunset bathes herself with languid moves, her paws ready to take her to refuge on the upper shelf of the kitchen cabinet.
My couch cannot catch me as my body tumbles backward, out of the sky onto the burning asphalt of the New World, down past the scarily nonexistent safety net of the gay community.
I will stay in my apartment until the sheriffs evict me.
When I stop paying rent, I’ll have three months before I’m out.
Sell the Malibu? The raspy voice of my friend Mark convinced me to buy it three years before I held his hand as he lay dying in a Culver City nursing home. Seventeen years ago, a car I feared would be too expensive to maintain is all I have left of the friends who grew me into a man.
Those friends are dead, but, when it is quiet, their voices move over my skin.
I will sell it.
I will sell my clothes, sell my furniture and assorted boho tchotchkes, sell the paintings on the white walls who no longer wrap their arms around me.
When I can speak, when I can turn the phone’s ringer back on, I will call Graham and ask him to take Sunset.
No address, no bills, no job, no tales to tell, I will buy a van and drive the same highways I did when I moved West from Long Island thirty-four years ago, I will sleep on side streets and eat tofu where I can find it.
Things are going be slow from now on. Very slow.
I am not a writer after all.
I am certainly not a nurse.
I am a once lucky man, a man who will be driving the burning asphalt of the New World.
After an hour, or is it two or three, I move off the heat of the couch. I lie on the cool pink and salmon tiles of my bathroom, my hands open and ready for what’s next, my eyes staring up a the shining white ceiling.
This is not a story anyone wants to hear.
The jaws of my apartment open wide and eat me up.
Chapter 30 / 2009
Unexpected Clinical Outcomes.
After the Nurse Recruiter at St. Vincent Medical Center took responsibility for offering me a job which did not exist, I drew the curtains, muted the phone and got under the white clouds of my featherbed.
I slept for many days. It is possible I slept for a week or two. I do not know.
Sunset stayed off the shelf in the kitchen, her green eyes staring at me, asking me to brush her hair, to throw her favorite crinkle ball around, to feed her and empty her litter box.
If the breath of the City of the Angels got too hot, I put on my boxers and wife beater and lay on my bathroom tiles.
The jaws of my apartment pushed me out early one evening, my cowboy boots walking me to Trader Joe’s for tofu and rice.
Despite this exertion, my body ached terribly from the lack of exercise, my eyes were dry, the absence of the perfect light causing me to squint as I looked around for guidance. My skin craved the sound of voices. On a Friday morning, my Malibu drove me to the circle of my senior bros, where my throat spit out words, for the first time in I don’t know how long, as I told the tale of how my fifty-seventh year began.
Lucky me, I forgot there were no safety nets in the gay community.
Never having been the gay man who is fastidiously clean, I was surprised to find myself washing the wood floors of my apartment with Murphy Oil Soap upon my return from the circle. I cleaned the tiles in the bathroom and kitchen with lavender scented dish soap, scrubbing the bathtub and sinks with generic Ajax, vacuuming my Sears carpet with the upholstery nozzle I had affixed to the attachment hose of my disabled vacuum cleaner a year earlier.
I arranged the magazines, newspapers and books I had not read in neat piles on the shining brown formica surface of my dining room table.
The senior bros must have infected me with some type of housekeeping virus because, in a few hours, my crib was organized and gleaming.
I sat on the couch and drank cool tap water from a green glass as I read the newspapers and magazines. All of this made me hungry and I was able to eat without my stomach protesting.
Late one night, lying on freshly washed white cotton sheets, I heard the wail of a fire truck. Most likely, the fires were still burning in the City of the Angels.
This was when I realized things were moving slowly. Very Slowly.
This was when I realized that Sunset had stopped watching my every move.
Perhaps, like me, Sunset did not understand how the rooms we lived in had begun to shimmer so brightly.
As I do every morning before I head out to work, I had set out on my kitchen countertop eight green glasses, lined up in two horizontal rows of four each.
Lucky man needs to keep his twisted gut hydrated.
I find myself parking in front of a CVS drug store in Eagle Rock, my belly knowing I do not have the scratch to buy the bargain lunch from the neighboring Thai restaurant.
Too bad, I’d like a real meal today.
For the past two weeks, I have been injecting influenza vaccine into the arms of any Joe or Jane who can cough up thirty bucks. At these New Depression prices, I do not get many takers, outside of the lucky senior citizens whose Medicare covers the fee in toto.
While the fire trucks tore up Beachwood at 3 AM, I had booked myself for five weeks of full-time work administering flu shots at chain drug stores throughout the Los Angeles basin. I have never met anyone at the outfit I work for, never been interviewed, never been asked for a reference, never submitted a physical or TB clearance. I followed the mantra of the New Depression, applying online like a good little out of work lucky man, faxing my nursing license to the home office in Kansas City when, after two years of feeding the internet my resume and carefully thought out cover letters, I at last received an e-mail from an employer, telling me I had made the flu shot cut.
On the night before I am to begin my first shift, I receive my second job related e-mail. My hours at the flu clinics are cut from eight a day to four. No explanation as to why. The 800 call anytime for information or support number works its hold button more fiercely than the space cadet staffing co-ordinator did when I asked for a schedule change to take my birthday off.
New World, new rules.
Passing through the out of sync self-opening glass doors, I enter this particular CVS slowly. I smile at the security guard, his muscular youth forbidding his dark face to return my shy overture at connection. His CVS indoctrination forces his deep black eyes to see me as either a potential thief or, if I stood under a harsher light, a thieving drug addict.
Strolling past a towering display of Pepsi One bottles, held aloft in blue plastic crates, I continue on to the clinic, located, like all the others I have worked, next to the public bathrooms.
The RN I am working with circles me cautiously.
The smell of being unlucky can be that strong.
We set up without talking, neither of us listening to the overhead speakers as they abruptly interrupt the static infused soft rock music they spew to announce sale prices of Tylenol and Snapple. We cover our limping brown metal table with crisp white bunting and set out informational fliers, consent forms and a price list, our languor born not only from the toxic air surrounding the cars and buildings we find ourselves in, but from the knowledge all Angelenos have acquired as the fire days burn themselves out. The sky’s suddenly acquired opaque heaviness threatens each of us, its weight leaning in on our skin, while our noses and mouths fight against breathing its poison in. What we imagined our eyes had seen clearly in the early days of the fires is today painted with the brush of ash and destruction.
“How long have you been a nurse,” the RN asks me.
“This is the first real nursing job I’ve ever had.”
Like the lucky man, she has been on the gig for two weeks.
The harsh CVS light allows me to see her. Heavyset, late twenties, baby blues more sparkling than Matt’s, her face round and pretty, her light brown hair cut in a recherché shag, she moves with the come-hither 50s masculinity of Kim Stanley.
“I’ve had my license for two years. I figured I’d get a job straight out of school…that’s what they tell you when you take out these monster loans to pay for school. But nothing…I never got a job. When my husband got into the A.S. program at The Los Angeles Film School, we moved to Hollywood. Everyone back in Virginia said I’d get a job out here. You wouldn’t believe where we live…I can’t even tell you. The only work I have now is part-time with this…this gentleman on Wilshire Boulevard. He’s a paraplegic…his mother hired me because I like Diana Krall.”
“The guy in Westwood? From Craigslist? He was going to be a cinematographer?”
“You know him?”
I give her the highlights of the tale of the New Depression and me, a once lucky man.
“It’s not a nursing job,” she says. “I’m a babysitter, a maid, he’s so…it’s awful.”
Our sole customer for the day approaches.
He is seven-years-old, crying at the thought of the tiny needle going into his arm.
How is the lost boy? Does Mother still keep him tethered to the vent so she can chill in her jammies?
I talk to our customer, his brown eyes wide open as I roll up my sleeve and shoot a half cc of saline into my arm.
“Nothing to it,” I tell the boy. “If your mom lets you, I’ll give you the syringe to take home with you.”
“They make great water pistols,” the RN says.
“Can I, mom? Can I?”
“All done,” the RN says.
“When are you going to give me the shot?” the boy asks.
“We already did. I gave it to you while Jake was talking.”
My colleague’s voice is soft and dreamy, her notes drowning out Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy” escaping through the speakers above us with Kim Stanley’s opening monologue from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“That’s the closest I’ve come to being a nurse since I left school,” the RN says. “That gentleman on Wilshire…”
We laugh, a big, deep, cleverest, best joke we have ever heard laugh.
“That guy, that man, whatever, he has the other nurses…all women…he has them get in the shower with him in their bikinis…to bathe him. He makes them get in bed with him at night…he lays his head in their laps until he falls asleep. I won’t do it.”
“This must be the New World,” I say.
“The other night, I was cutting up cantaloupe and watermelon for his breakfast and I started crying. I haven’t eaten fruit…had the money to buy it….”
“You’re coming over for Thanksgiving, you and your husband. You’re a fifteen minute walk from me.”
The RN leaves at noon to take the bus to her second clinic of the day in Long Beach.
“That’s quite a haul, you want to stay here? I’ll drive down to Long Beach.”
“No, it’s fine, I’m used to it. I’ve got a good book to read.”
Not only is she everything you would want your nurse to be, this unlucky lady reads books.
“Have a good trip. We’ll exchange numbers here tomorrow for Thanksgiving.”
I return home to my third e-mail in two years from an employer.
“Dear Valued Associates: Due to the unanticipated lack of client response to our clinics nationwide, we are suspending all clinics as of tonight at 11:59 PM. We thank you for the outstanding contribution you have made to our team and look forward to working with you next flu season.”
Unexpected clinical outcome in the New World, bro.
“Don’t take it personally, losing the clinic assignments,” my friend Ann says. “You were a line item which had to be eliminated.”
If one believes the inciting incident of this tale of the New Depression began two years ago, when the muffler fell out from under my 69 Chevy Malibu on the 101, then surely the shank of this pathetic melodrama has played out, the part where the protagonist holds his breath until life turns the corner and goes the other way. All I have accomplished in the past two years is to, in the last few slow weeks, take a crack at the unread newspapers and magazines weighing down my dining room table.
“What are you going to do next?” Ann asks.
Outside of rethinking my friendships, I can sleep under the white clouds of my featherbed from eight at night until ten or eleven in the morning. I can mute the phone, I can draw the curtains across the windows I look out of.
For months, the light of the City of the Angels has held me in its arms and caressed me, smiling as it took out of me everything I no longer needed. Today, the sky is clear, the light of the New World reigns.
I inform Ann I have an errand to run and give her dial tone.
The breath of the Santa Anas has blown the Los Angeles basin clean. I can see the Griffith Park Observatory, where, a half-century earlier, James Dean cried over Sal Mineo as he lay dead on the wet concrete steps at dawn. My friends, the ones who grew me into a man, if not lying underground in heavy wooden boxes, have been flung into the ocean or thrown off of mountain tops by the lonely hands which had clung to their bodies for one last hug, their lips saying a final “I love you.” The man I clung to has fallen in love with long distance, he sleeps without me in his parents’ garage on the days and nights he has not gone AWOL, after the walls have closed in on him and the air refused to touch his soft skin.
I look down from the sky to my kitchen counter, its dark plum tiles bordering the light green ones, on which I have placed my green water glasses, their emptiness sitting on a rectangular white linen placemat, its edges embroidered with thick red thread.
I stare at the deep green glass, its bumpy surface more at home in a Googie styled diner than in my boho chic digs, this new light lets my eyes see each green groove, the light touching the rectangle stitched within the placemat by the thick red thread, this echo showing me where to position my glasses. I fill the glass with tap water and take long gulps, as if I was Dad attacking a can of brewski. My eyes look up at the turquoise Fiestaware plates on a shelf lined with once white paper. I look at the yellow daisy decals on the tall glass which I filled with ice water for Matt’s skinny fiancee, her knocking at my door the inciting incident of her story, the light in our eyes when we discussed our man showing us who we were, the same way the light of the City once showed me the notes my father played years after he died, the light having allowed me to see what was behind the eyes of the Angels, its clarity illuminated the depth of the sound stage this City is for me.
I stare at the intricacy of the green glass until I am still inside, until I can see who I am.
I am the one who is not seen.
It has been odd to be clocked at every first glance, at every handshake, at every opening encounter, as gay, strange to be born as a girlie boy, then move on to faygaleh, on to the gay nurse, the gay comic, odd to be fifty-seven and taken out to lunch by a friend, a senior bro, a man who threw rocks at the cops at Stonewall no less, who casually says: “You’re such a silly queen,” the sting of his tongue hitting me harder than Absolut ever did.
I am the one who is not chosen.
I have known this since I was forty-one, when I first moved to Beachwood Drive, when I understood that I did not have what any man wanted, when I understood that no man would pick me, no man would stop his search and say: “Jake, you’re the one.”
Those were my cards, I played them for as long as I could before I left the game.
I made my home on Beachwood, I did stand-up, I was funny, I stopped waiting for a man to see me.
I hold the green glass in my hand, the klieg light of the New World pours in on me, its insistent rays showing me what is necessary, showing me every detail of what life is in these New Depression days.
Even a two-bit casting director in the Valley can sniff out the two men I am today.
The lucky man who can tell the tales of those the world does not see.
The unlucky nurse who cannot get a gig.
Whatever I have done, whoever I have hurt, as mean a drunk as I have been, I have always dropped my comic’s mask when I was a nurse, performing my art with both hands and heart, tapping out notes the way my father did on his trumpet. I have gotten right in there with my patients, where I wanted to be to do my work. Me, with my New York City big mouth, I shut up and listened. By listening, by being present in the room with my patients, by breathing the same air they did, I took them into me. I could feel them. None of us was alone.
It was all I could do.
That is who I am, this is what I can give.
Chosen by the Angels or not, I have believed for thirty years that I was a good nurse. I thought myself to be a professional person, a bit rough around the edges, in need of a shave and some fancy threads perhaps, but nonetheless, I believed myself to be an upright Joe, a man who could take care of himself.
I am none of those things.
No one wants what I have.
These are the cards the New Depression has dealt me and all the others blanched invisible by its mean light.
I head out to the Los Feliz Post Office to mail in my unemployment paperwork.
Check it, the two weeks I worked the flu clinics qualifies me for another year on the dole.
I have the stage tonight, whose bright lights will try to shoot me down when I stare defiantly into them. For the last seventy-two hours, all day and night, the coarseness in the air has attacked my throat, clawing at it, my mucous membranes begging for relief, the way my muscles, aching from fear and desire, demanded the fix of pills and alcohol to soothe them in my days and nights in the Frolic Room.
I drive down Franklin Avenue and go over the evening’s monologue, a tale about encountering a facially altered Joan Van Ark on a walk around the Hollywood Reservoir, the sky pulls me up Beachwood Drive, the way it once led me to Matt’s office or condo. The clouds, no longer heavy with ashes, move slowly past the Hollywood sign, their softness covers my City like a quilt, stitched in the year of my birth by the day players who lived in the bungalows behind the Craftsman homes lining Beachwood. Each meticulously cut piece of material, every labored over stitch tells me that the City is not going to burn down or rumble beneath my feet any time soon. Safe under my blanket, the sky drives my car home, where I live alone with the only thing I have of any value, my voice.
I want the bright light to come knocking for me onstage tonight.
Eye to eye.
In my face.
I am ready to talk.
I have waited two years to once again be a lucky man.
Chapter 31 / 2010 – 2011
My Heart Belongs to Daddy.
I hit fifty-eight when I entered the third year of the New Depression, arising each morning to a life I had never lived before, never imagined living.
I have survived by listening to my father’s notes.
I pay my rent with Unemployment Insurance and the settlement I received from Worker’s Comp.
I haven’t been to a movie in years.
I don’t eat much, but I have moved on from tofu to spaghetti.
There are new rules, but I cannot say I lost the past year and a half. I cannot say it slipped through my lucky fingers when the flu clinics went south. I finished the tale my bud Steven encouraged me to tell, pounding out a hard-boiled memoir I titled “I Didn’t Sign Up For This,” its staccato notes playing out our lucky man’s free fall into the belly of the New Depression. I am well into my novel about a wannabe be comic, whose day job is working as an AIDS nurse in the days when nursing jobs were not only plentiful, but paid a living wage.
In the quiet of the still afternoons on Beachwood Drive, I have read through the piles of books, magazines and newspapers on my dining room table.
I was in two plays, I performed a few monologues.
I spend my mornings applying for work online, my afternoons writing the tales. Like the nauseating dread that comes of waking up to a room spinning hangover, every morning I stagger through the application process, each one taking anywhere from a half-hour to well over an hour to complete, all having to be individualized to fit the specifics of the particular position. At least once a day, either my computer or the job site crashes when I click “Submit.” I apply all over again. I hear nothing. From anyone. To let me know they had received my memoir submission, literary agents have the innate courtesy to instruct their assistants to e-mail me or drop my self-addressed stamped postcards into their out-boxes. Health care professionals? Nada. Rien. Nothing. I make follow-up calls to the places I have applied to. I am polite. I got beaucoup laughs in the plays, pensive stillness followed by applause at the end of my monologues. I know how to hide any traces of the anger I am feeling.
I relearned the looking for work mantra faster than my Malibu guzzles through a $3.10 gallon of gas: “Our protocol is for applicants to apply online.”
“I have,” I say.
My voice is humble and boyish. No one would think I am almost sixty.
“We’ll contact you if you’re a match for the position.”
I have reapplied to every hospital, nursing home and medical facility in the Los Angeles basin to which I can drive, walk or crawl to. I have reapplied to the VA Hospital in Westwood and its satellite clinic in downtown LA. I have reapplied to the Los Angeles Department of Corrections for a job in the jails. All online. I never hear a thing. I call. I get the mantra.
Yet again, I cold call agencies in the “Yellow Pages,” the majority of which still have difficulty stringing together a coherent sentence in English. The remaining ones continue to spit out a hybrid form of English which drips like hot wax onto my eardrums.
“What is your area of expertise?” they ask.
I pull out my experience calling card, telling them I worked on the AIDS/Oncology Unit at San Francisco General Hospital for seven years.
“Why did you do that?” they ask.
In the New World, expertise means you’re old.
The fruit eating paraplegic gentleman on Wilshire emerges as the only constant in my job search, his pleas for a new nurse, on whose mothering lap he can lay his head, appearing monthly on Craigslist.
The New World is not all bad.
A few months into my hunt for a gig, I received a call ten minutes after I faxed my resume to a home health agency on Wilshire.
“You’re a perfect fit for us,” the agency’s owner says. “We have home health visits in Hollywood and a couple of hospice cases throughout LA. Come on in and apply.”
“The woman you spoke to on the phone just stepped away from her desk,” the puffy red lips of the young woman before me say. “Can we have a Nursing Supervisor interview you?”
I am escorted into a tiny office, whose windows are dressed with Venetian blinds, through which the light of the City casts thin stabbing shadows onto the stained yellow carpet.
I sit on a metal folding chair across from a woman in her mid-thirties.
“I envision you doing home health visits for us,” she barks. “What are your salary expectations per visit?”
“You know, I never thought about that,” I answer.
The woman stares at me, my fingertips pulse, the slightest tinge of yellow haunts her eyes.
“Whenever I did visits before, I was paid by the hour.”
“How much do you want?”
My opponent is approaching obesity, her double chin wiggles as she speaks, her body encased in a dull brown pants suit, its inseams straining against the weight she has taken on.
“Twenty-five dollars a visit.”
“In a few weeks, we’ll have an opening for a case manager here in the office,” she hisses. “I can offer that to you. What are your salary expectations?”
Unlike the young woman in the front office, the woman across from me wears no makeup, her skin is pale, the Marilyn Monroe mole on her left cheek appears suspiciously raised and dark.
“Thirty thousand a year.”
“Thank you for coming in. I’ve enjoyed meeting you. We’ll be in touch.”
I look at my reflection in the elevator’s silver door as I descend to Wilshire.
I am clean shaven, my gold pinstriped Rat Pack styled suit and matching slacks fresh from the cleaners, my white shirt ironed that AM.
My pants are not pee stained, my zipper is up, my shirt tucked in, my hair is slicked back Don Draper style.
I sniff my pits.
I cup my right hand and inhale my breath.
I walk down Wilshire. No one can see me.
My skinny black tie tightens itself around my neck with the mean fingers of the money I owe and the money I need to survive.
The fingers have been on me for years now.
This is the only interview I was called in for during the next year, a year in which I received not one response to the over five hundred applications I fed into the internet.
No matter who refuses to see behind my eyes in these New Depression days, I will never stop telling the tales.
The light of the City of the Angels has taken so much out of me since the year of the fires that the jabs and left hooks of the New World barely touch me these days, my hands waving them away with the absentmindedness of a William Inge leading lady shooing an insistent fly away from her disappointed face on a hot summer afternoon.
I left the Friday morning circle when the furtive senior bro informed us that, in addition to having sex with his nephew when the man was a teenager, my bro was seduced by not one, but two thirteen-year-old boys when he was in his early thirties.
It will go like that. Two young boys will up and work their sexual magic on a defenseless adult.
“I can’t sit in a room with a child molester,” I say. “That’s something I will not do.”
The circle’s silence stiffens my spine.
“I’m not in the world you guys live in,” I tell the bros. “I have to make a living. I’m writing a novel.”
“You swim in a different pond than we do,” is the one response my anomie earns.
The line is a keeper, I immediately write it down, it will fit nicely into one of my tales.
I have gone out on the occasional insurance assessment, asking the fifteen pages of qualifying questions, while sitting at antique dining room tables covered with hand stitched lace or at granite kitchen countertops, the emptiness of their shining surfaces reminding me that I get my nutrients from bananas, spaghetti and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches washed down by cool tap water.
As if they were swatting at the insistent fly, the applicants list their leisure activities as taking a vacation at least once a year, going weekly to a movie or a play, hiking in Joshua Tree and, what with the traffic and all, reluctantly honoring their season tickets at the Hollywood Bowl.
I smile. I nod my head.
I remember that world.
Each punch curated in alphabetical order, I have neatly filed, in a blue accordion folder I found in the recycling bin next to my building’s laundry room, the eighty rejection letters I received for my memoir.
Several agents liked my tale, in fact they loved it, but in the end the notes I played were too depressing, too real, too dark.
And where, they all asked, was the happy ending?
“It only takes one agent to say yes,” Matt said from his garage in Sacramento.
The smoothness of his voice has vanished, in its place is a scratchy whisper, his words choking against the rawness of a throat kept awake by the clouds of his crystal pipe.
“I know…I know. I never wrote anything like this before baby, it felt so real, it’s me…how I really am.”
“No one is interested in what happens to people like us, guy.”
I don’t hear much from Matt anymore.
With the stillness I gain in lighting Yartzeit candles for the friends who grew me into a man, I find myself lighting a candle at bedtime, which sits in the blue glass holder Matt placed on my dresser when he said he couldn’t sleep in a dark room.
Where is that happy ending?
When I accepted that the New World did not want me, I opened the dull black case my father had left for me on the cool brown tiles of his last summer, my fingers loosening the leather straps securing his flying machine to the case’s thick purple velvet lining.
Like my father, I have gotten into the ring, my fists hitting out onto the keyboard every afternoon, after having spent the morning searching for a gig. I can see where people are weak, but, already knowing what taking a sucker punch feels like, in my ring I do not hit anyone, leaving that to the senior bros and the undermining friends to move in for the crowd pleasing kill. I observe the slick and not so savvy moves made on the sound stages I live on, I listen to the false stories, I fly with the understanding that the most insignificant detail holds the key to the souls of the actors I gaze at. In the tiny Marble Memo notebooks I buy at three for 99¢, I take notes on how the light hits the sidewalk at high noon, I write down the words I hear, I study the way the palm trees sway above the action, I watch as the anger beneath the actors’ skin punches into the air of the City I live in.
This is what artists do, this is my gift to the world I have woken up in.
Within an hour or two at the keyboard, I am under the influence, the cries and whispers I have witnessed, the names I have been called, the resentment that tingles beneath my fingertips, the hands of my dead friends on my shoulders, the stories I have seen while sitting in dark living rooms, the first touch of Matt’s tongue on my skin, all of it pulses through my bare feet, up into my bones and muscles as I type into the keyboard until I am lifted off the earth, until I live in the sky.
After over a year of cold calling, I was asked to apply for what appeared to be an upright gig, a downright ongoing job at a home health agency.
Despite having to pump a half-tank of gas at $3.40 a gallon, I hightail the thirty miles out to Tarzana. I am placed in a six foot by ten foot windowless room, out of whose ceiling cold air blasts onto the table I sit at.
For three hours, my fingers fill in answers to questions on the same nursing tests I have taken for years, both online and in light deprived offices like this one, my captivity interrupted by a Filipino caretaker sitting across from me, the monotony of his voice asking me the answer to the classic Old World question: “Where do you see yourself in the next five years?”
“This is the New World, bub,” I answer.
Leaving the Old World gent in the dust, I bring my paperwork to the front desk.
“We don’t hire people who are unemployed.”
The receptionist has blonde hair, long and and a bit wavy, her nails are bright pink, her white linen blouse cut low, what with the air blasting out of the ceiling.
“Couldn’t you have told me that before I spent three hours taking tests and filling out forms?”
“I was called away from my desk. I didn’t have time to go over your resume.”
The snarkiness of her answer and the deadpan gaze of her green eyes, coupled with the stomach quivering tuna fish sandwich sitting on butcher paper next to her cell, bring me to ask: “Are you a Christian?”
“I accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior.”
“Wouldn’t the Christian thing to do in this situation be to hire a guy who’s out of work?”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
“I’m asking you to be a Christian and help a person who’s out of work.”
Her fingers make a grab for her sandwich’s sliced in half pickle.
“I bet you live with your parents, what are you twenty-three?”
“Twenty-five, but why…how do you know I live with my parents?”
“There’s no way you can make it on your own working this job.”
Her too white to be real teeth clamp down on her defenseless pickle.
“When I was your age, I was already a nurse. I’d been supporting myself for years.”
“What do you want?”
“I want a job. I have thirty years experience…”
Her eyes look away from me, her fingers pick up her sandwich, put it down, then pick it up again.
Like watching Bette Davis agonizing over whether or not to chomp down a bonbon in “All About Eve,” the receptionist at last takes a healthy bite, washing it down with a Diet Coke.
“Your experience is not relevant. You don’t have a job. We don’t hire…”
“I’m asking you to be a Christian and see me, I’m right in front of you…all I’m asking is for you to see who I am.”
“You’re scaring me.”
“You need to be scared. People who tell people they can’t work need to be scared.”
Her fingers, slippery from pickle juice, tap onto the screen of her cell phone.
“Don’t worry, I’m not coming back. I can’t afford the gas.”
I have heard “No” for so many years now, in so many rings.
Sometimes, you have to hit back.
For reasons too complicated to explain, I am not going to post my last chapter online.
If you would like to read it, e-mail me at email@example.com and I will forward it to you.
Many, many, many thanks for all the kind words and encouragement I have received over the past year and a half. You will never know how much it has meant to me.
It’s been a blast!
Over and out for now from the City of the Angels.