I am a Mean Teacher.

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 bull.”

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 screwed up…so…”

“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 jagoff…you frigging 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.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

You Gotta Have Friends.


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.”

“Mr. Epstine…”

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.”

Too true.

Our lucky man has a tale to tell.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

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

   Chapter 22 / 2009

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

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

Question is, who will get it?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, Mother is listening.

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

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

No, it is the flowers. 

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

Scary.

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

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

♦♦

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lucky man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His pale pink lips are laughing at me.

I have been working shit jobs for two years now. 

My man is gone.  

My belly is empty.  

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

This is my life on the mainland?

♦♦

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I smile.  Nod my head.  

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

♦♦

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

“The day?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

♦♦

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

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

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

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

“Mr. Epstine…we never…”

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

“Can you work this morning?”

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

“This is real bad.”  

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

“We really need you, Mr. Epstine.”

Damn.  

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

We believe it.  

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

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

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

I have frightened her.

“You still there?” I ask.

“Yes, Mr. Epstine.”

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

“Oh, a Bronx boy?”

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

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

Will our lucky man get lucky?

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

Could Jenny Craig Shed the Weight of this Sad Time?

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 do.

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.  

Without planning to, the lucky man has purified his body.  

The price of the free grub is listening to dad.  

“Do you live alone?” he asks.

“Yeah.”

“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

“What?”

“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.”

“Like me?”

“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.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

Team Jolie in the House.

Chapter 20/2009

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. 

Very chill.

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.

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Apparently, The Postman Does Ring Twice.


 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.

“By four.”

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 gestures would 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.  


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The Beat Goes On.


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?”  

Indeed.

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.”

Got it.

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?’

“Huh?”

“Saturday…1…PM…I…will…be…at…the…patient’s…house…for…the…meet…and…greet.”

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?”

Silence.  

“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.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay