Tag Archives: New Depression

Unexpected Clinical Outcomes.

 

Chapter 30 / 2009

Unexpected Clinical Outcomes.

After the Nurse Recruiter at St. Vincent Medical Center took responsibility for offering me a job which did not exist, I drew the curtains, muted the phone and got under the white clouds of my featherbed. 

I slept for many days.  It is possible I slept for a week or two.  I do not know.

Sunset stayed off the shelf in the kitchen, her green eyes staring at me, asking me to brush her hair, to throw her favorite crinkle ball around, to feed her and empty her litter box.  

If the breath of the City of the Angels got too hot, I put on my boxers and wife beater and lay on my bathroom tiles.

The jaws of my apartment pushed me out early one evening, my cowboy boots walking me to Trader Joe’s for tofu and rice.

Despite this exertion, my body ached terribly from the lack of exercise, my eyes were dry, the absence of the perfect light causing me to squint as I looked around for guidance.  My skin craved the sound of voices.  On a Friday morning, my Malibu drove me to the circle of my senior bros, where my throat spit out words, for the first time in I don’t know how long, as I told the tale of how my fifty-seventh year began. 

Lucky me, I forgot there were no safety nets in the gay community.

Never having been the gay man who is fastidiously clean, I was surprised to find myself washing the wood floors of my apartment with Murphy Oil Soap upon my return from the circle.  I cleaned the tiles in the bathroom and kitchen with lavender scented dish soap, scrubbing the bathtub and sinks with generic Ajax, vacuuming my Sears carpet with the upholstery nozzle I had affixed to the attachment hose of my disabled vacuum cleaner a year earlier.  

I arranged the magazines, newspapers and books I had not read in neat piles on the shining brown formica surface of my dining room table.

The senior bros must have infected me with some type of housekeeping virus because, in a few hours, my crib was organized and gleaming.

I sat on the couch and drank cool tap water from a green glass as I read the newspapers and magazines.  All of this made me hungry and I was able to eat without my stomach protesting.  

Late one night, lying on freshly washed white cotton sheets, I heard the wail of a fire truck.  Most likely, the fires were still burning in the City of the Angels.

This was when I realized things were moving slowly.  Very Slowly.

This was when I realized that Sunset had stopped watching my every move.

Perhaps, like me, Sunset did not understand how the rooms we lived in had begun to shimmer so brightly.

♦♦

As I do every morning before I head out to work, I had set out on my kitchen countertop eight green glasses, lined up in two horizontal rows of four each.

Lucky man needs to keep his twisted gut hydrated.

I find myself parking in front of a CVS drug store in Eagle Rock, my belly knowing I do not have the scratch to buy the bargain lunch from the neighboring Thai restaurant.

Too bad, I’d like a real meal today.

For the past two weeks, I have been injecting influenza vaccine into the arms of any Joe or Jane who can cough up thirty bucks.  At these New Depression prices, I do not get many takers, outside of the lucky senior citizens whose Medicare covers the fee in toto.

While the fire trucks tore up Beachwood at 3 AM, I had booked myself for five weeks of full-time work administering flu shots at chain drug stores throughout the Los Angeles basin.  I have never met anyone at the outfit I work for, never been interviewed, never been asked for a reference, never submitted a physical or TB clearance.  I followed the mantra of the New Depression, applying online like a good little out of work lucky man, faxing my nursing license to the home office in Kansas City when, after two years of feeding the internet my resume and carefully thought out cover letters, I at last received an e-mail from an employer, telling me I had made the flu shot cut.  

On the night before I am to begin my first shift, I receive my second job related e-mail.  My hours at the flu clinics are cut from eight a day to four.  No explanation as to why.  The 800 call anytime for information or support number works its hold button more fiercely than the space cadet staffing co-ordinator did when I asked for a schedule change to take my birthday off.

New World, new rules.

Passing through the out of sync self-opening glass doors, I enter this particular CVS slowly.  I smile at the security guard, his muscular youth forbidding his dark face to return my shy overture at connection.  His CVS indoctrination forces his deep black eyes to see me as either a potential thief or, if I stood under a harsher light, a thieving drug addict.

Strolling past a towering display of Pepsi One bottles, held aloft in blue plastic crates, I continue on to the clinic, located, like all the others I have worked, next to the public bathrooms.

The RN I am working with circles me cautiously.

The smell of being unlucky can be that strong.

We set up without talking, neither of us listening to the overhead speakers as they abruptly interrupt the static infused soft rock music they spew to announce sale prices of Tylenol and Snapple.  We cover our limping brown metal table with crisp white bunting and set out informational fliers, consent forms and a price list, our languor born not only from the toxic air surrounding the cars and buildings we find ourselves in, but from the knowledge all Angelenos have acquired as the fire days burn themselves out.  The sky’s suddenly acquired opaque heaviness threatens each of us, its weight leaning in on our skin, while our noses and mouths fight against breathing its poison in.  What we imagined our eyes had seen clearly in the early days of the fires is today painted with the brush of ash and destruction.  

“How long have you been a nurse,” the RN asks me.

“Thirty years.”

“This is the first real nursing job I’ve ever had.”

Like the lucky man, she has been on the gig for two weeks. 

The harsh CVS light allows me to see her.  Heavyset, late twenties, baby blues more sparkling than Matt’s, her face round and pretty, her light brown hair cut in a recherché shag, she moves with the come-hither 50s masculinity of Kim Stanley. 

“I’ve had my license for two years.  I figured I’d get a job straight out of school…that’s what they tell you when you take out these monster loans to pay for school.  But nothing…I never got a job.  When my husband got into the A.S. program at The Los Angeles Film School, we moved to Hollywood.  Everyone back in Virginia said I’d get a job out here.  You wouldn’t believe where we live…I can’t even tell you.  The only work I have now is part-time with this…this gentleman on Wilshire Boulevard.  He’s a paraplegic…his mother hired me because I like Diana Krall.”

“The guy in Westwood?  From Craigslist?  He was going to be a cinematographer?”

“You know him?”

I give her the highlights of the tale of the New Depression and me, a once lucky man.

“It’s not a nursing job,” she says.  “I’m a babysitter, a maid, he’s so…it’s awful.”

Our sole customer for the day approaches.

He is seven-years-old, crying at the thought of the tiny needle going into his arm.

How is the lost boy?  Does Mother still keep him tethered to the vent so she can chill in her jammies?

I talk to our customer, his brown eyes wide open as I roll up my sleeve and shoot a half cc of saline into my arm.

“Nothing to it,” I tell the boy.  “If your mom lets you, I’ll give you the syringe to take home with you.”

“They make great water pistols,” the RN says.

“Can I, mom?  Can I?”

“All done,” the RN says.

“When are you going to give me the shot?” the boy asks.

“We already did.  I gave it to you while Jake was talking.”

My colleague’s voice is soft and dreamy, her notes drowning out Fleetwood Mac’s “Gypsy” escaping through the speakers above us with Kim Stanley’s opening monologue from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“That’s the closest I’ve come to being a nurse since I left school,” the RN says.  “That gentleman on Wilshire…”

“Gentleman?”

We laugh, a big, deep, cleverest, best joke we have ever heard laugh.

“That guy, that man, whatever, he has the other nurses…all women…he has them get in the shower with him in their bikinis…to bathe him.  He makes them get in bed with him at night…he lays his head in their laps until he falls asleep.  I won’t do it.”

“This must be the New World,” I say.

“The other night, I was cutting up cantaloupe and watermelon for his breakfast and I started crying.  I haven’t eaten fruit…had the money to buy it….”

“You’re coming over for Thanksgiving, you and your husband.  You’re a fifteen minute walk from me.”

The RN leaves at noon to take the bus to her second clinic of the day in Long Beach.

“That’s quite a haul, you want to stay here?  I’ll drive down to Long Beach.”

“No, it’s fine, I’m used to it.  I’ve got a good book to read.”

Not only is she everything you would want your nurse to be, this unlucky lady reads books.

“Have a good trip.  We’ll exchange numbers here tomorrow for Thanksgiving.”

I return home to my third e-mail in two years from an employer.

“Dear Valued Associates:  Due to the unanticipated lack of client response to our clinics nationwide, we are suspending all clinics as of tonight at 11:59 PM.  We thank you for the outstanding contribution you have made to our team and look forward to working with you next flu season.”

Unexpected clinical outcome in the New World, bro.

♦♦

“Don’t take it personally, losing the clinic assignments,” my friend Ann says.  “You were a line item which had to be eliminated.”

Gee, thanks.

If one believes the inciting incident of this tale of the New Depression began two years ago, when the muffler fell out from under my 69 Chevy Malibu on the 101, then surely the shank of this pathetic melodrama has played out, the part where the protagonist holds his breath until life turns the corner and goes the other way.  All I have accomplished in the past two years is to, in the last few slow weeks, take a crack at the unread newspapers and magazines weighing down my dining room table.  

“What are you going to do next?” Ann asks.

Outside of rethinking my friendships, I can sleep under the white clouds of my featherbed from eight at night until ten or eleven in the morning.  I can mute the phone, I can draw the curtains across the windows I look out of.

For months, the light of the City of the Angels has held me in its arms and caressed me, smiling as it took out of me everything I no longer needed.  Today, the sky is clear, the light of the New World reigns.  

I inform Ann I have an errand to run and give her dial tone.  

The breath of the Santa Anas has blown the Los Angeles basin clean.  I can see the Griffith Park Observatory, where, a half-century earlier, James Dean cried over Sal Mineo as he lay dead on the wet concrete steps at dawn.  My friends, the ones who grew me into a man, if not lying underground in heavy wooden boxes, have been flung into the ocean or thrown off of mountain tops by the lonely hands which had clung to their bodies for one last hug, their lips saying a final “I love you.”  The man I clung to has fallen in love with long distance, he sleeps without me in his parents’ garage on the days and nights he has not gone AWOL, after the walls have closed in on him and the air refused to touch his soft skin.  

I look down from the sky to my kitchen counter, its dark plum tiles bordering the light green ones, on which I have placed my green water glasses, their emptiness sitting on a rectangular white linen placemat, its edges embroidered with thick red thread.  

I stare at the deep green glass, its bumpy surface more at home in a Googie styled diner than in my boho chic digs, this new light lets my eyes see each green groove, the light touching the rectangle stitched within the placemat by the thick red thread, this echo showing me where to position my glasses.  I fill the glass with tap water and take long gulps, as if I was Dad attacking a can of brewski.  My eyes look up at the turquoise Fiestaware plates on a shelf lined with once white paper.  I look at the yellow daisy decals on the tall glass which I filled with ice water for Matt’s skinny fiancee, her knocking at my door the inciting incident of her story, the light in our eyes when we discussed our man showing us who we were, the same way the light of the City once showed me the notes my father played years after he died, the light having allowed me to see what was behind the eyes of the Angels, its clarity illuminated the depth of the sound stage this City is for me.

I stare at the intricacy of the green glass until I am still inside, until I can see who I am.

I am the one who is not seen.

It has been odd to be clocked at every first glance, at every handshake, at every opening encounter, as gay, strange to be born as a girlie boy, then move on to faygaleh, on to the gay nurse, the gay comic, odd to be fifty-seven and taken out to lunch by a friend, a senior bro, a man who threw rocks at the cops at Stonewall no less, who casually says:  “You’re such a silly queen,” the sting of his tongue hitting me harder than Absolut ever did.

I am the one who is not chosen.

I have known this since I was forty-one, when I first moved to Beachwood Drive, when I understood that I did not have what any man wanted, when I understood that no man would pick me, no man would stop his search and say: “Jake, you’re the one.”

Those were my cards, I played them for as long as I could before I left the game.

I made my home on Beachwood, I did stand-up, I was funny, I stopped waiting for a man to see me. 

I hold the green glass in my hand, the klieg light of the New World pours in on me, its insistent rays showing me what is necessary, showing me every detail of what life is in these New Depression days.  

Even a two-bit casting director in the Valley can sniff out the two men I am today.

The lucky man who can tell the tales of those the world does not see.

The unlucky nurse who cannot get a gig.

Whatever I have done, whoever I have hurt, as mean a drunk as I have been, I have always dropped my comic’s mask when I was a nurse, performing my art with both hands and heart, tapping out notes the way my father did on his trumpet.  I have gotten right in there with my patients, where I wanted to be to do my work. Me, with my New York City big mouth, I shut up and listened.  By listening, by being present in the room with my patients, by breathing the same air they did, I took them into me.  I could feel them.  None of us was alone. 

It was all I could do. 

That is who I am, this is what I can give.

Chosen by the Angels or not, I have believed for thirty years that I was a good nurse.  I thought myself to be a professional person, a bit rough around the edges, in need of a shave and some fancy threads perhaps, but nonetheless, I believed myself to be an upright Joe, a man who could take care of himself.

I am none of those things.  

No one wants what I have.

These are the cards the New Depression has dealt me and all the others blanched invisible by its mean light.

♦♦

I head out to the Los Feliz Post Office to mail in my unemployment paperwork.

Check it, the two weeks I worked the flu clinics qualifies me for another year on the dole.  

Lucky.

I have the stage tonight, whose bright lights will try to shoot me down when I stare defiantly into them.  For the last seventy-two hours, all day and night, the coarseness in the air has attacked my throat, clawing at it, my mucous membranes begging for relief, the way my muscles, aching from  fear and desire, demanded the fix of pills and alcohol to soothe them in my days and nights in the Frolic Room.  

I drive down Franklin Avenue and go over the evening’s monologue, a tale about encountering a facially altered Joan Van Ark on a walk around the Hollywood Reservoir, the sky pulls me up Beachwood Drive, the way it once led me to Matt’s office or condo.  The clouds, no longer heavy with ashes, move slowly past the Hollywood sign, their softness covers my City like a quilt, stitched in the year of my birth by the day players who lived in the bungalows behind the Craftsman homes lining Beachwood.  Each meticulously cut piece of material, every labored over stitch tells me that the City is not going to burn down or rumble beneath my feet any time soon.  Safe under my blanket, the sky drives my car home, where I live alone with the only thing I have of any value, my voice.  

I want the bright light to come knocking for me onstage tonight.  

Eye to eye.  

In my face.  

I am ready to talk.

I have waited two years to once again be a lucky man.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

There are Thirty Apartments for Rent on Beachwood Drive.

Chapter 26 / 2009 

There are Thirty Apartments for Rent on Beachwood Drive. 

The lost boy makes it home from the hospital before sundown.  

My fingers, itchy to tell my tale while the boy sleeps, tap the steering wheel of my shamefully unwashed red 69 Chevy Malibu as I drive to North Hollywood at 9:30 PM.

Mother has removed the rug from her living room floor.  

“It was full of germs,” she hisses.  “It’s what gave him pneumonia.”  

The piles of video cassettes, DVDs, neon colored toys, tabloids and dirty clothes are in their usual places.  

Mother has bought a shiny black bookshelf at Ikea, in front of which she sits cross-legged on the dull hardwood floor, her chubby fingers placing video cassettes on the shelves, which look like they will crumble apart in a week or two.  

I check the vent, its plastic face as grimy and sticky as it has always been.  I wash it down with alcohol, using Q-tips to clean around the ports on its sides.  Piled onto the base of the vent stand are opened boxes of tissues and alcohol wipes, which are jammed between small dirty pillows, their plumpness overwhelming the dented black metal base.  I should wash the pillows tonight.  

The G tube’s infusion machine is dirtier than I have ever seen it.  I wash it with half strength bleach.  A string hangs between the dirty pole the machine is attached to and a thumbtack pushed into the wall, a pistol syringe, waiting to be jammed into the bigger of the G tube’s two ports, weighs the string down at its center, forming a floating V above the lost boy’s crib.  The string is beginning to unravel, which is not surprising as it has not been changed in the six months I have been caged in this room.  I have string in my trunk, I will bring it in later and make a tightly pulled line in the sky for the lost boy to stare at.  

For reasons never explained to me, the oxygen tank is in the hallway leading to Mother and Dad’s bedroom, its dirty green tubing running a good fifty feet to the vent.  Poor Lost Boy, his oxygen will never travel that far.  I should have told his parents this on day one, but I did not want to rock their boat.  Someone, another nurse, the rep from the oxygen company, should have pointed this out during the past five years. The agency’s Nursing Supervisor, perhaps.  That’s right, the agency has had the case for over a year and no Supervisor has yet to enter this cage.  

I remind myself to watch my step when attending to the lost boy.  

Wires, partially covered by soiled round throw rugs, run over the floor in the two foot space between the lost boy’s crib and the blemished chest of drawers pushed up against the opposing wall of the tiny cubbyhole off of the living room the lost boy is held hostage in.  If the place does not burn down, the lost boy is sure to trip and fall. I plan to take the supplies off of the shelves next to his crib, wash them down with bleach, followed by water, check for expiration dates and utilize my Virgo skills to organize the various medical paraphernalia on the shelving, which the bleach reveals at 3 AM that morning to be a light grey. 

The lost boy is awake on the mattress by the door, the one Grandma Zsa Zsa sleeps on when she has had a fight with her rotten to the core boyfriend.  I sit next to the lost boy, first making sure there is no draft blowing in from the window above his head or from the open sliver of space at the bottom of the door.  This is the first time the lost boy has been awake for more than a few minutes since I’ve been on the case.  His deep black eyes and big smile recognize me as the tired old man who, as luck would have it, suctions his trach, unclogs his G tube, listens to his lungs and changes his diaper three times a shift.  

I put my “Policewoman” disc into the miniature DVD player the lost boy balances on his tiny chest, the bright screen a few inches from his eyes.  The lost boy likes Angie Dickinson from the moment he sees her, she awakens something in him, her moves making the boy throw his head back, raising his right hand to the ceiling, bringing his fingers down to eye level, where he gazes at them as if his pink fingernails possessed the truth of all he sees and hears in the middle-aged blonde Police Sergeant, who, unless her three male colleagues burst in on the scene to save her, is seconds away from being thrown off the roof of a building in Century City.  The lost boy moves his hand back and forth, his eyes boring into the pores of his smooth skin before his gaze drifts back to Angie, his body becoming still, his lips smiling.  

I like the lost boy.

Mother covers the outside of her Ikea bookshelf with a dirty batik print and shuffles into the kitchen searching for Coke and chips.

  ♦♦

A half-eaten chicken from Whole Foods is on the stove, potato salad and coleslaw its lonely companions.  I check out the price tags on the goodies’ plastic containers, they total out to thirty-five bucks.  I place my dinner, courtesy of the food banks, in the fridge.  A roll, a red tomato and a small jar of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard.

“You can tell he’s been sick,” I tell Mother.  “Poor boy, he looks sad.  Now that’s he’s home with you guys, he’ll be his old self in no time.”

Mother stuffs a handful of Pringles into her mouth.

“He’s developed foot drop,” I tell her.  “I’ll start working on his feet tonight.  I’ll show you the exercises so we can get them back in shape.”

“You don’t have to do that.”

“If we don’t correct foot drop right away, it’s kind of irreversible.”

“It’s OK.  Don’t worry about it.”

“It’s easy to remedy.  It’ll give me something to do at night.  It’s no big deal.”

“He’s going to the ortho doctor in a few months.  Let the doctor deal with it.  He’s supposed to wear these braces on his legs during the day.  I always forget to put them on.”

Mother’s voice is soft tonight.   She is heavier than usual, must be the candy bars and potato chips.  The light from the bulb in the uncovered ceiling fixture beams down on Mother, making her face appear as if it is going to crack apart and crash onto the floor.  Mother does not resemble her brother in any way.

Like her son, who sits transfixed by Angie’s every move, my eyes switch to high beam, I cannot stop looking at Mother.

“My bad,” Mother says.

Mother looks at the floor, she pushes her big toe into a groove in the linoleum. 

“I’ll show you his exercises before he goes to sleep,” I say.

“No.  I DON’T want you to do anything.”

I force Mother’s eyes to look into mine.  Her big toe stops grooving, the G tube is quiet, the vent devours the dead air Mother and I breathe out.  

I do not smile.

I do not nod my head.

Mother’s eyes are locked into mine, the razors shooting out of my pupils cutting the last remaining strand of the unraveling string between us.  I want the lost boy to stand up straight, walk without a limp, stare up at the clouds flying above him, breathe without a vent, use the toilet, tell me what he sees in the ceiling tiles and in the pores on the skin of his small hands, I want him to sing to me the sounds his tiny caramel ears hear.  

I get it.

Mother does not want anything for her son.  Nothing.  Rien.  Nada.  Not even to walk barefoot on the grass in the park down the street.  

“Leave him on the vent so I can get an extra hour or two of sleep,” Mother says in the mornings when I leave.  “He doesn’t move around so much when he’s attached to it.”

Mother will keep the string pulled tight between her son and the vent for as long as she can.  

Let’s get real, Dad’s not shipping out to Iraq any time soon.  Major disability bucks are needed to keep this cage stocked in Whole Paycheck food. 

I walk into the living room. I wipe down the folding table and move the wastepaper basket.  Mother washes downs a Milky Way with a long belt of Coke before trudging sideways down the hall to her bedroom.  I put the lost boy in his crib, leaving Angie on the DVD screen until his smiling face falls asleep.

  ♦♦

I sit in the chair, its hostility digging into my back.  I do not want to hear people talking tonight, not even Angie.  I look at the silent television screen, a woman is hanging new curtains, whose bright yellow color would throw the lost boy into a head rocking swoon, the woman smiles as she straightens the thin material, her delicate hands arranging them until their hems gently tap the floor.  This woman would exercise her kid’s feet, put his braces on, clean his room, keep him away from drafty windows.  She would adjust the horizontal control on her television so the picture would stop bouncing around the way it has been for the six months I have sat in this chair, whose bony arms push into me every night.

I have finally seen behind Mother’s curtain.  

I want to go home.

  ♦♦

My night is spent listening to air being pushed in and out of the vent.  My skin cannot feel the air blowing in through the missing pane in the bathroom.  Every hour, I listen with my stethoscope to lungs breathing without obstruction or distress and to an abdomen alive with active bowels sounds.  I touch veins pounding over bony prominences, feeling the regular rhythm of an eight-year-old pulse.  I press lightly on nail beds observing rapid blood return, look at lips for the slightest hint of blue, check for irritation around the G tube and trach sites.  

I close my eyes, my ears alert for the over-amped whirling that comes on when the vent cycles madly, as it tries to override any offending water in its tubing, tries to rectify any manner of disconnection, be it of the tube from the trach, of the tubing from the vent or of the tubing from a rebellious section of itself.  

These are the only connections I can make anymore. 

At 3 AM, Joe and Mika send their dim light into the dark room I sit in.  Their silent lips mouth their outrage.  Is it Joe and Mika who throw debris into the street in the middle of the night?  I look out through the iron mesh door, the street is empty. 

At 6 AM, Mother signs my time sheet, as she wearily does every morning.  She asks me how the night went, but does not listen to my answer.  She washes her hands, eyeballs the dishes I washed at 2 AM, looks down at the sealed bags of garbage I have left by the backdoor, glances over to the lid on the rectangular basin on the floor by her feet.  I remove my leftovers from the fridge, button up my coat and open the front door to leave, my ears hearing the usual thanks for taking care of her son. 

I smile.  Nod my head.

This morning Mother adds a new tag:  “It’s cold outside, cold.  I’m gonna’ spend the day in my jammies.”

Lucky lady.

  ♦♦

I cannot sleep when I get home, there are calls to be made.  I watch three episodes of “Policewoman” until the City of the Angels opens her doors at 9 AM.  I call Supervisor Yaroslavsky’s office, his intern is back at work and, feeing rested and chipper after having taken three days off, she connects us to a conference call with the civil servant in charge of jury duty.  

“You’ve failed to prove that jury duty would be a financial hardship,” the civil servant babbles to us in a hoarse whisper.  “I can’t excuse you.”

“He’s taking care of a disabled child,” the intern tells him.

“The kid’s got parents if Epstine can’t come in,” the civil servant answers. 

“Where’s the hardship?” he asks me.  “You’re working.”

“If I miss work, even for a day, it really cuts into my finances.  One day is food money.  Two days cut into the rent.  I can’t afford to be on a jury.”

“You have an income, Epstine.  Have you tried saving some money for the proverbial rainy day?”

“SAVING MONEY? SAVING MONEY? WHAT WORLD ARE YOU LIVING IN?”

The civil servant is silent, the intern breathes deeply.

“I want to be on a jury.  It’s not that I don’t want to do it.  I can’t take a week off without pay.  Can’t you understand that?”

“I’ll postpone you until February of next year,” the civil servant says, clearing his throat to reveal a nice baritone.   “I’ll postpone it again if your circumstances are the same. Hopefully, things will improve for you by then.”

“Thank you.  I appreciate it.”

“I know where you are,” the intern tells me after the civil servant hangs up.  “I was so broke a few years ago…when I walked past restaurants and saw the people inside eating, I couldn’t imagine how they could afford it.”

I thank her, tell her she is a good woman.  She repeats over and over that things will get better, they have to.  Right.  I watch another “Policewoman” episode, then hit the mail box, where an envelope from LAUSD tumbles out, its thick black letters informing me I have been “Separated for continued non-availability.”  I could call LAUSD or go into their office on South Beaudry Avenue, tell them I would still like to sub, explain how they did not offer me work for five months. 

I could do a lot of things, but the concrete blocks knock me down, as does the Ativan, which promises a few hours respite from the phone calls, the mail box, the whining vent and the burping G tube.  

I sing my lullaby until I fall asleep on the worn-out cushions of my couch, given to me by my friend Mark’s family when he died, Mark’s voice whispering through les arbres into my ear: “There are no second acts.”

  ♦♦

I wake up in the late afternoon.  I am not in my jammies.  I take the Thai Delight Stretch Pants gave me off the shelf.  I read the instructions on the side of the box, my eyes spotting that it expired two years ago.  I throw it into the thrash.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner tonight.

I turn the television on.  Rachel Maddow is getting snarky.  Again.  

I change the channel, Michelle Obama is in Europe.  She tears up as she tells a group of young women that if you work hard, believe in yourself and push with all you’ve got against the forces opposing you, your dreams will come true. 

Time for a walk.  

Balls throb, gut churns, jaw screams.  Putting one foot in front of the other will quiet my infirmities.  Better still, walking is free.  Like the lost boy watching his beloved Policewoman, I gaze rapturously through open curtains into windows I have walked past for years.  Do the people I see in their living rooms and kitchens feel the air on their skin?  

In my one mile walk along Beachwood Drive, I clock thirty for rent signs.  

Lucky folks, they must have left to follow their dreams.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay

I Need Food.

Chapter 25 / 2009

I Need Food.

At 9:30 PM, I stand before the freshly painted iron mesh door of Mother’s brother, who lives in the house attached to his scary sister’s.

Brother hears me knocking.  

“Didn’t the agency tell you not to come in tonight?” he asks.  

The brother and his sister share the same face.  His is thinner, covered with a light beard.  His eyes do not dart from the floor to the ceiling when he talks, his hands have never twisted imaginary dials.  No way would this guy launch into an hour long diatribe about Obama’s fake birth certificate.  

Brother invites me into his pad, my nose readies itself for the stench of wilted flowers or rotting food.

I enter.

My feet do not stick to the shining hardwood floors.

Brother’s floor plan is a mirror image of his sister’s, his walls painted light brown and trimmed with ink black moldings, framed charcoal drawings, hung at eye level, are arranged with perfect symmetry above the couch.  The light from the starburst 60s ceiling fixture bounces off the bare polished marble countertops in the kitchen.

Brother is not gay.  He is Marine clean.

Brother tells me the lost boy has developed pneumonia.  It comes on him like that, the lost boy is fine in the morning and by late afternoon he has spiked a temp, by dinnertime he is delirious with fever.  Mother and Dad think he caught it from the day nurse, who, during the few hours she is on duty, has been coughing nonstop for the past two weeks. 

“Little sister never sends him to school, she’s afraid of germs,” Brother says.    “With the swine flu and all, I don’t think she’ll ever let him go back.”

“If he played with kids his own age, he’d be exposed to all sorts of stuff,” I tell him.  “It would build up his immune system, make it much stronger.  He’d certainly be a lot more socialized.”

I look at the horseshoe shaped turquoise ceramic ashtray, sitting a tad off center on the glass top of the wrought iron table in front of the couch.  Neat piles of books and magazines lie beneath the crystal clear tabletop, not a tabloid in sight.  

“What do you think about all this?”  Brother asks me.

My eyes move from the deep sheen of the hardwood floor to a ceiling as immaculately white at the one I will be soon be sitting under at the UCLA School of Dentistry.  

“He hasn’t been awake since I started working.  I can’t say much.”

Brother smiles at me.  He wants the real answer.  I want a job.

“I think he’s a strong kid,” I say.  “I think he’ll get through this.” 

Brother laughs and walks me to the door.

“That’s the standard answer.  Every nurse who’s been through here says it.”

I smile.  Nod my head.

  ♦♦

I send the lost boy a get well card:  “I miss hearing your G tube explode at 3 AM.” 

Can the lost boy read?  I have not asked Mother or Dad about their son’s cognitive skills.  I stopped asking medical questions on day one, when neither could answer what the game plan for their son was.  

Scary. 

   ♦♦

“We’ll get back to you with a temporary assignment,” the space cadet staffing co-ordinator tells me.

Those are the last words I ever hear from him.  Whenever I call the agency, the dissembling cadet is either at lunch or has stepped away from his desk, his hunger and the ease with which he can satisfy it, along with the demands of his weak bladder, preventing him from finding me replacement shifts during the two weeks the lost boy is hospitalized.  I pull together the rent money, but that is all I have for the month.  I hold on tight to my emergency ten dollars, consoling myself with the extra scratch I will receive when I get back to work, Obama’s tax relief deal netting me a whole thirty-six bucks more a month.  

Lucky man, this windfall will buy me three bottles of apple juice a week.

With all that juice flowing, the economy is sure to turn around any day now. 

  ♦♦

I need food.

I call a social worker at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, the steadiness in his sweet voice sending me to the food bank at the First Presbyterian Church on Yucca Street in Hollywood.  The Church’s volunteer worker is red faced, no doubt from jamming her massively overweight body into the ratty green stretch pants she parades around in.  Contemplating the nutritional value of the food she has given me makes my jaw hurt, the roots of my rear molars throbbing rhythmically as my eyes take in the dull labels on the cans of green beans, black eyed peas and orange juice I place on my empty kitchen shelves.  I had planned to write when I returned home with the food bank’s goodies.  My gut throbs with a hunger the cans on my shelf will never satisfy.  I eat a Vicodin to numb out the jabs my body has taken and sleep for thirteen hours, waking up to sing my lullaby at 3 AM as Joe and Mika snicker at the morning’s comings and goings.

  ♦♦

“I feel for you, bro.  I’m on break starting tomorrow.  I’ll be back in a few weeks,” the dental student whispers.

Figures.

I stare at the endless heaven of pristine white tiles above me and continue to recite my tale to the dental student:  “The pain is so bad…it’s hard for me to concentrate…especially at night when I’m on duty with my patient…forget about trying to write or rehearse.”

The dental student pulls my jaw to the left, to the right, up, down, his hairless hands pushing my the bottom of my chin up towards the top of my head.

“You’ll be like this for at least a year,” he says.  “It’ll work itself out, think of it as a muscle strain.”

The novocaine melts into my gums, its cold fingers giving me a momentary high as the dental student pushes my jaw to the left again, my buzzed blood thinking that before I beat it back to Hollywood, I should visit the house on 5th Helena Drive where Marilyn Monroe died.

“We’re missing Marilyn…where are the Marilyn references?” a Joe in my writing group asked at our last session.

He asks this whenever I read from my memoir of the New Depression, whenever he hears the words I am forced to pound into the keyboard, my fingers flying at work as I sit next to the lost boy, flying before I go into work, even in the mornings after the concrete has wrapped itself around my hands.  

I look around at the writers’ faces after I finish reading each new episode, every one a no-go, my tale too depressing, too bleak, too sad.

“It’s not writing really, it’s reportage, there’s just no let up,” another Joe says.  “Give your audience a break.”

“I have a story to tell..,” I say.  “…and this is the way I’m going to tell it…this is how it happened.”

“Oops,” the dental student’s blue eyes say as his double gloved fingers remove my defective crown. 

Looking at this ceiling only brings me bad news. 

“Mr. Epstine, your bridge is in trouble,” the deep voiced doctor says.

My eyes concentrate on the craters pock mocking the tiles, their faces as clean as they have been for the past few years, not even a spec of dust on their cheeks.

“You have options,” the doctor’s voice whispers.

“Options, it’s about the options,” the dental student chants.

I am so screwed.

“We must replace the bridge, which means three new crowns.  We could place three implants, which is another way to go, the way I’d go.”

“Implants are the way to go,” the dental student repeats, sounding like a second grader reciting a multiplication table.

“Or we can place one implant and hang a bridge on it.  That is, of course, after we deep clean all four quadrants.”

Proceeding to checkout, the options in my cart total out to co-pays of $720, 6K and $2480 respectively, plus $400 for the cleanings.

“I started getting food at a food bank two days ago…what you’re talking about…that amount of money is way out of my league.”

I look at the billowy yellow isolation gowns, then up to the eyes beneath the goggles, which, as always, refuse to meet my gaze.

Oops, I forgot.  Too depressing, too bleak, too sad. 

The dental student babbles something about the recession and then proceeds to open my mouth and push my jaw to the left for three hours. 

I try to go over plot problems in my novel, the one with the killer Marilyn Monroe references.

Lucky Man that I have always been, the novocaine kills the pain of the money I owe and the money I need until I get off the bus for home at the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street.  My cowboy boots’ silver tips having seen me through better days, their worn down soles take over, pulling me to the Frolic Room on Hollywood Boulevard, where I foolishly spend half of my ten dollar emergency money on carbonated water.

  ♦♦

Three days after receiving the pain inducing bag of food from Stretch Pants, I stand in a line at the SOVA food pantry on Beverly Boulevard, where I find myself surrounded by round Russian women and their short creamy skinned men, our ranks interspersed with tired Latinas and downcast young black women.  I smiled and nodded my head when the social worker at Jewish Family Services referred me here, her raspy voice telling me I sounded much younger than fifty-six.  Whatever.  I am hungry.  A half hour after I joined this sagging line of empty bellies, the SOVA security guard tells all approaching newcomers there is only enough food for the people already in line.  The man with the urine stained pants I met at the First Presbyterian Church stands ten people ahead of me.  We smile.  We nod our heads.  He has five, maybe six teeth, his lips are chapped and scabbed over, his smile is one of the friendliest I have ever encountered in the City of the Angels.

He walks over to me and says through his grey teeth:  “They’re much nicer here.  They give you what you need.  You have a cat?  A dog?”

I show him Sunset’s pensive face on the screen of my cell.

“They’ll give you cat food.  Don’t forget to ask for it.”

He returns to his place in line.  His pants are two sizes too big, spotted with stains and drenched in urine which, despite the crisp air blowing through Beverly Boulevard, I can not smell.  I look across the street to Pan Pacific Park, which I first discovered in 1981 when I drove my orange GTO to work at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, all jazzed because I remembered Barbra Streisand running out of its green and white deco Auditorium doors in “Funny Lady.”  My first LA boyfriend, more devil than angel, lived around the block on Stanley.  On New Year’s Day of 1982, we crawled through an opening in the Auditorium’s boarded up windows, walking our hangovers off, talking and laughing, running nausea inducing laps on the moldy rotting floor.  

“Are you a Holocaust survivor?” the SOVA intake worker asks me. 

I laugh, the big, deep, cleverest, best joke I have ever heard laugh.

“Sorry, it’s just a question we have to ask all the applicants.”

Unprotected by thick plastic goggles, the intake worker’s light green eyes look straight at me, the way the lost boy gazes at the television screen.

My tears come, staining my pants until my crotch is nearly as damp as that of the man with the friendly smile.  My nose smells the salty tears mixed with a trace of snot before they swim up to my eyes, the tears beat out of me, my body shakes like I am having a petite mal seizure, words are punching out of my mouth, my vocal cords afraid to stop and let my ears hear the silence of this room, the silence of my apartment at noon.

“Do you know the Pan Pacific Auditorium used to be across the street, where the park is?  There was a movie theater in front of it.  It was falling apart, but I always went there.  I think it was a brick building…it was, it was brick, with a big plate glass window in the front…ugh, the dirtiest curtain covering it.  They showed double bills…for two dollars.  It must have been ripped down years ago.  I don’t know what happened to my boyfriend on Stanley.  We drank a lot…a lot…mass amounts…he was a mean drunk…not that I was that nice myself.  I had quite the rep in those days.  I hung out at all the underground clubs.  I saw Lily Tomlin do her punk rock character for the first time at some club on Melrose.  I got up and went to work the next day…I never missed a shift…never.  Every hospital the agencies sent me to tried to recruit me to work for them. That’s how I got my job at Cedars.  They wanted me to work for them exclusively, they thought I was a good nurse.  That’s what they told me…it must have been true.  I could take care of myself…I could pay my own way…I could…I could…”

The intake worker gets up and closes the door.

“Tell me what happened,” she says.

I tell her about the lucky man.

  ♦♦

The man with the amazing smile was right, a dozen cans of cat food sit on my kitchen table.  

I lie on the black velvet of my couch, the sun streaming in, Sunset spread out on the rug soaking up the smiling rays of the City of the Angels.  Having spent the morning crying out my tale to the intake worker appears to have drained the pain out of my jaw, balls and gut, to have cooled the humiliating sting of being near the end of today’s line and wondering if there would be enough bread left for me to take home.  The emptiness in my belly has been sated by the cheese danish given to me with the cat food and other staples I need to keep myself fueled for the days ahead, all of which I have carefully placed on the faded white paper lining my kitchen shelves.

Tuna fish, bread, pasta, rice, dried beans, peanut butter, jelly, canned fruit, powdered milk and cereal, none of which will expire any time soon.

The lost boy is returning home this afternoon, I have a job again. 

The phone rings.  My landline, I only use the GoPhone for emergencies.

The bad luck of UCLA’s tiles has somehow wormed its way into my apartment, this must be the space cadet calling to tell me the case is not back on track.

“You’re a wonderful writer,” JoAnne tells me.

I move off the couch, in an instant, the sweat on my back has dampened my tee shirt.

“I had to make sure you were for real before I start asking agents to rep you.”

I am a writer after all.  

I have a story to tell.


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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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“I’m the one who’s going to make your life miserable.”

Chapter 3/ 2007

I’m the one who’s going to make your life miserable.

 

My refrigerator and bank account laid bare weeks earlier, my empty belly pounding and my straight boyfriend sent home smiling at dawn with his half full bottle of Viagra, I begin the job search.

Within a week of posting my resume, Monster.com brings me luck, I have two jobs.  As an underwriting assessor for an insurance outfit whose corporate office is nestled on the flat plains of the Midwest, I sit in the well appointed living rooms of people applying for long term care insurance, asking them fifteen pages worth of questions.  In less than one hour, they seal their fate in the actuarial world and I get fifty bucks.  One hundred to determine if current insureds remain sufficiently disabled to continue receiving their benefits for the next calendar year.  All I need is a job to cover the rent.

The rent job comes my way a few days later, thanks to a nursing agency located on a  stretch of Sunset Boulevard populated by out of business storefronts.  On a muggy weekday morning, I enter their office where, on a stained dull green carpet, I find young men in ties eating junk food as they troll the internet for unsuspecting prey.  The one who reeled me in silently makes copies of my Social Security card, nursing license, CPR card, driver’s license and car insurance.  When his more talkative colleague quotes me a salary I made fifteen years ago, I head to the door.  He ups it to what I made ten years ago.  I’m broke.  I owe ten thousand dollars to Citibank.  No one here has the smarts to ask about the two year gap in my resume.

I stay.

I meet with the Nursing Supervisor in the break room, its fluorescent lights shining down on banged up wooden tables, bent out of shape metal chairs and a filthy microwave, its clock blinking “Remove and let stand covered before eating.”  The black roots of the Nursing Supervisor’s blonde hair run an inch deep out of her scalp, her lined cheekbones are unevenly slathered red with rouge.

Gravity pulls the Nursing Supervisor and her un-ironed denim jacket into a chair from which she says:  “I’m the one who’s going to make your life miserable.”

I look at her. Sixty silent seconds pass.  My gut twists.  She smiles.

“I didn’t come here for this type of stuff,” I say.

Unable to focus her eyes, she flips through my paperwork, gets up and says:  “See what the type of work the staffing co-ordinator can dig up for you.”

I never see the Nursing Supervisor again.

The co-ordinator assigns me to weekend day shifts for a professor with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

♦♦

On the first morning of the case, I wake up to the sensation of broken glass being scraped across my intestines.  I take an anti-spasmodic and head out to the flats of West Hollywood.

“He has Lou Gehrig’s lite,” the patient’s wife says.  “We’re waiting for him to turn the corner and come back.”

“Really,” I respond.

What else could I say?

The professor is over six feet tall, the hair on his chest and legs has turned white, his skin is greasy and mottled.  The only muscle he can move is attached to his right eyeball, its yellowed cornea painfully moves up for “yes” and down for “no.”  The ventilator at the professor’s bedside pushes air in and out of his lungs.  A catheter bag collecting dark orange urine is strung by a rubber-band off the end of the bed frame.  The professor is lying naked on a hospital bed a foot from his curtain deprived first floor window, from which I can see my red 69 Chevy Malibu gleaming in the sun, its ruby sheen hypnotizing Latino day laborers as they stare at my car from the open bed of the pickup truck transporting them to the job site across the street.

“His thyroid and parathyroid hormone levels do not correlate in any way to full blown Lou Gehrig’s,” the wife says.  “He really doesn’t have it.”

And I don’t want to live in the Hollywood Hills with a scruffy unproduced screenwriter, who lovingly slums it as the showrunner for my edgy HBO sitcom.

An empty white wine bottle and a long stemmed glass sit on top of the professor’s ventilator. The smell of alcohol floats out of his wife’s mouth, she unfailingly emits this sour bouquet whenever she admits me into her home or barks orders at me.

“Any idiot can work this machine,”  the wife says as she removes the wine bottle and glass from the top of the dust encrusted ventilator.

“I’m a little uncomfortable with him like this,” I say.

“That’s how I want him.”

“Want to cover up a bit?” I ask the professor.

The professor’s eye does not move.  His wife tells me to disimpact him of stool and then bathe him.  Easy for her to say, her man is over two hundred pounds of naked dead weight.  The wife leaves the room when I ask for help turning him.  The ventilator rhythmically cycles as I clean the professor up, my gut screaming out the same song as the muscles of my back and legs, but all I can hear is the muffler falling off of my car on the 101.

♦♦

“Put him on the Hoyer lift, place the vent on the platform of the Hoyer and push him into the living room,” the wife says.

She checks the bedpan to see how much stool I have retrieved and, without washing her hands, picks my jacket and backpack up off of the couch and places them in the hall closet. It’s at least one hundred feet from the professor’s bedroom to the living room, bare hardwood floors running the entire length.  Most likely, nothing will go wrong.  I owe Citibank ten thousand dollars.  I want to buy groceries with cash this week.  My stomach punches wildly.  The glass washes over my intestines.  I’ll do anything.

“You’re gonna have to help me on that one,” I say.  “If the Hoyer tips over, he’ll break a hip for sure.”

“The other nurse does it herself.”

“I’m not the other nurse.”

“You certainly aren’t.”

The wife walks into her bedroom to Google Lou Gehrig’s lite.  The professor remains in bed.

♦♦

I last three weekends, arriving promptly at seven in the morning, inhaling the wife’s foul breath and finding my patient naked, always naked, goosebumps covering his immovable body.  By ten, the professor is bathed, his meds and feeding infused, his morning physical therapy performed.  I cover his body with a white sheet and tune the television to a basketball game, which he watches without sound.  His wife doesn’t like basketball and refuses to let her beloved husband–the man she claims she is fighting for with every cell in her body–watch it or any sports related program.  The professor’s right eye aimed at the television, I sit at his bedside, holding his hand and reading “The New York Times.”  The house is quiet, the professor and I can hear the refrigerator as it alternately hums and clangs in the kitchen.  The house’s stillness leads me to believe this job will work out.  For the first time in weeks, I think about the trajectory of the next story I want to write.  At last, an idea, a line of dialogue, a character’s secret are waiting for my fingertips to type into the keyboard.

♦♦

“Why the Hell are you doing that?” the wife screams, her voice bouncing off the cracks in the stucco walls of her faux Spanish Mission hacienda.

“I’m administering his scheduled respiratory treatment.”

I point to the treatment sheet in the professor’s chart.

“I don’t read those things.  They’re all bull.  Stop it now…and turn that television off.”

Her face is flushed, fat bounces under her dirty pink tracksuit, her red eyes watch as  I look at the shaking jello of her body.

“I’m a crone, but you’ll do what I say.”

I stare at her.  She is a crone, raging, mean and ugly.  Her bone structure tells me she was once pretty.  Her good life is over.  So is mine, but I don’t quite know it yet.

“We could have been friends,” I say.

“I never saw that happening.”

I drive home throwing the weight of the wine drinking professor’s wife off of my back.  I figure I can make my rent money spending afternoons in the thick walled mansions of Pasadena, San Marino and Beverly Hills, quietly interviewing millionaires for long term care insurance as they offer me water served in heavy crystal goblets, a set of which would cover my rent for a few months.  The applicants are nice men and women.  I am a friendly assessor.  I don’t have what they have.  And they can smell it on me, like the odor of sweat coming off the suits I wear to their homes which, no matter how frugally I spend my money, I can not afford to take to the cleaners.  I am lucky if I am assigned four interviews a month.

♦♦

If one believes my muffler falling off on the 101 was the inciting incident, then surely I have now moved into the shank of my story.  The part where the protagonist holds his breath until life turns the corner and goes the other way.  The part where the piles of unread books, “Interview,” “Vanity Fair” and “Entertainment Weekly” magazines and the “Calendar,” “Magazine” and “Book Review” sections of  “The New York Times” stack up on my dining room table, poignantly signifying the fact that I do not read anymore, that I am no longer connected to the worlds weighing my table down.  My gut lashes out at me from morning until bedtime.  Instead of dreaming up character quirks and plot twists, I figure out ways to shift my 10K debt around.  At eight every night, I crawl under the covers and stare at the front page of “The New York Times,” my eyes closing before I get to the obituaries or Maureen Dowd.  I sleep more than I ever have, from eight at night until ten or eleven in the morning.   At noon, I drink coffee to push the pain out of me.

I wait to be a lucky man again.

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Filed under Memoir, Personal Essay