Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
A Total

     {from Nightwork}



Howard had said that the best thing you could do with John Ricco was feed him ground glass and then push him down the back ramp a good shove and listen to him bounce and then close the door and let him die there slowly.  For Tommy, the situation really wasn’t that different.  John Ricco represented to him a few things he didn’t want to think about.  It wasn’t so much that he was a SOB.  It went a little further.  Ricco was the only person Tom King had ever met that gave him a very good idea of what so-called straight people thought about when they used the term queer, that ugly terrible term they had invented for a whole class of people, a word pretty much like kike or Polack or even spic, and yet a worse word because any of those named could use it with a lot of conviction and never need to feel they were doing wrong.  After all, there was such a thing as queers in the world and they had never had good press.  Ricco reminded King of essentially what the word queer was good for, and he reminded him of what it meant to be one.

     It all started the first day Tom went in to give the guy’s bed bath.  That part was bad enough, took well over four times as long as it should, just putting up with the guy’s cheek and resistance, but then when King was sitting on the edge of the bed to slide on one of Ricco’s black orthopedic shoes, the fat little guy with the rash over most of his body and the eyes that were lively enough but sunk dark in and the strangest toothy grin from the very nature of his personality and the bad fit of his dentures, with the long scar down his chest and the ugliest genitals Tom King had ever seen on a man, the fat little guy reached up and began to fondle King’s neck, and Tommy King just left him there and went out and stayed with other patients the rest of the morning till he was called out about why the man wasn’t done, and then they filled out the Incident Report, and there was the strangest sort of comic indignity of having a young straight security man interview big strapping King about how a little fat guy had molested him and only because it had to be gone through with so that they could take Ricco off King’s assignment until the male census dropped so far he ended up doing him anyway, facing the same kind of treatment from a guy who had never completed grammar school but was a genius for all that, a master of just simply making himself unlikable, just simply a miserable vicious character, so antisocial that finally he got you laughing, the utter extreme of it, its enormous perversity perhaps, perhaps its fearlessness.

     But John Ricco reminded King that first morning of something else, something he had tried very hard to forget about for about seven years.  It had to do with the time he visited his sister after he had gone semi-public, and the whole family was there, and someone suggested a trip to the shopping center, and the little nephew, Bret, about seven, didn’t want to go, and Tom said he would look after him, seeing that they got along so well, but then his sister nearly got hysterical, and they fitted the little tyke just barely into the back seat of the Pinto with four others, and after they had pulled out it sank into him that his sister had been afraid to leave her only son with her flaming faggot brother, and he had the mixed feeling of not wanting to forgive her but knowing that if he had had a son perhaps, not just perhaps, and that was the hardest thing to face, he would have acted the same way.  When he had felt Ricco’s ugly fat hand on his neck it all flashed back to him, and it came home what it meant to be queer in the very strongest manner, and greasy that way to the good people who hadn’t ever sunk to that kind of level.  But then Ricco brought that out of everyone, he assumed, a sort of ugly familiarity with what was slimy and deviant about life, that aspect you wanted to forget, especially if people saw it very clearly in YOUR face.

     Maybe it was the way he always parked his wheelchair in the middle of the hallway, or at the intersection where the nurses had to push their carts toward the dining room, parked it wherever he was most in the way, and then took his sweet time about moving, and the grin that came on his face, breaking the deadpan, when one of the aphasics tried to get a curse out at him, ending with maybe just, “Yes, yes” or “yeah” or “good morning.”  And then how he’d ape them and move off to torture someone mentally not with it like Herr Doktor Schleper, the lawyer in his eighties who escaped from Nazi Germany and could remember stretches of Eliot from heart but couldn’t make a sensible conversation for more than three minutes without spiraling in toward fog and senility, Ricco egging him on, backing just out of reach, and then caging another cigarette from a visitor and firing that up and smoking it with protruding lips as if in imitation of what was too disgusting.  Yet funny at times.  It had to be funny.  Especially when he finished the cigarette and headed for Brucie, who could just manage a "Sommabbeeetch" for him and ward him off with his quad cane and upset the ashtray stand on him on one occasion when Ricco didn’t back off fast enough, when even the Deadhead thought the guy was possessed by Satan for begging butts off a paraplegic who had to smoke them through a tube, or a pack, a whole carton on one occasion, from the priest that came in for the Sacraments and not for John Ricco, whose only religion was between cigarettes, simply adding to the general misery, sitting there in his Bermuda shorts with the bad arm curled palm upward on his lap, smoking a generic brand cigarette with protruding lips, blocking just by a fraction Elsa Mutter’s progress toward the dining room, deadpanning at Brucie’s offer to kill the creep, put him out of his misery once and for all, as if he wasn’t close to it at that, as they all discovered, even Ricco, five weeks to the day after they had shipped him into the ward from somewhere blessed to be rid of him, Ricco, who had run an old man down with his wheelchair, Ricco, who had made a point to feel up every aide or nurse that had him, male OR female, Ricco whom nobody missed, with the possible exception of Tommy King, who watched the end of it, the last strange details.

     He remembered the Friday morning all too well.  It was also the day he had found out they were going to be sitting on him.  About his job performance just not up to par as they read it.  That awful Friday morning.  He was taking Ricco’s pulse and he couldn’t quite get it.  The beat was jumping all over the place, fast, slow, faint, pronounced, missing here and there, and he reported it to the nurse.  And then they spent some time with the stethoscope, and then there was a specialist, or maybe just one of the interns, an unfamiliar face, and then on Tuesday, he had to wheel Ricco over to the Cardiology Lab, Ricco who hadn’t pulled back at all just yet till he emerged an hour later, wheeled out by the young black piece of tail, the male that did their errands, and Ricco’s face was just a trace subdued, a cut more somber with the battery pack and the terminals, for they had him on a portable monitor for 24 hours, and even Ricco seemed to sense that that meant doom.  And all the way back there was more of the fresh bite in the guy, but it wasn’t quite the same sort of honest nasty self coming through but a bit of, just a touch of, perhaps a whole lot, if you could get inside, of an emotion Tommy King had lived for some dozen years.  It was fear, but in Ricco’s case it was the biggest kind of fear, the very awful notion he wouldn’t get rid of, the certainty in fact, as it must have seemed to him just then, even five years after open heart surgery, that John Ricco, big-bad-John-Ricco was on his way out.

     The gesture was that he would take the sling from around his neck and drape the monitor on his lap.  That was as far as it got.  The log he seemed to respect, eyed that almost with despair.  Ricco sat the next day out, waiting for every moment he got a twinge to push the little toggle and to watch them fill out the time, to record his bowel movements, his meals, his naps, his cigarettes caged from Brucie, whomever, but mostly in the lounge very quiet, waiting perhaps only for the worst.  And then the monitor came off and they shipped it over and Thursday Tom was there to hear the report, whatever he could understand of it, its implications, and Ricco, understanding better perhaps than the Cardiologist who was watching him, knew all too well where he was going when the clearance came through and they were headed across the clear open bright lovely blaze of grass and sun and nearly quitting time with the next day off but Ricco toward ICU, the whole nasty sack of juice depleted, so scared Tom feared to endure his eyes, that last look he got, backing out with the empty chair, looking up at the TV screens, over at the wired patients wriggling their history for those watchful eyes, wriggling the end of it, and then at the door Tom King held up and took a very long HARD look at what he didn’t want to see, hoping for just a trace of the old viciousness, the old nasty, miserable Ricco that he alone would miss, and then, miraculously, the last of Ricco reached up a fat broad scabrous hand and blew a kiss at him and grinned and winked and turned toward the wall, and fourteen hours later the man was where, as Tommy’s father used to put it, the dogs wouldn’t bark at him.  John Ricco was strangely, curiously dead.  For Tom King perhaps not dead enough.  That last defiant look, that deadpan, that wink would always somehow remain.  For the next ten weeks Tom King would even taste it.  And yet he was dead.  Nasty dead.  A total.