Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
Chapter Ten

     {from Nightwork}



At 8:36 Stedman with a load of Johnnie coats and towels is south past Nick's room, advancing toward his next assignment.  He pushes a linen cart, white bag on tubular frame, and draws Wicky in his geriatric chair behind him.  The other aides are in various sections of the long corridor, competing their set-ups, putting their first to bed.  Bill Buteckus is nodding by 502, a room he shares with Gigliani.  It is late this night to go to sleep, and he is happy to see Stedman coming on at last, swinging Wicky in by the wall and leaving the cart in the aisle.  Just minutes before, the terrible noise from 501 cut sharply, for Nick Sandro is on his back.  All Bill Buteckus cares about at this moment is to nudge under the sheets, pushing with his good leg, at first the pivot; and then he feels Stedman gripping his chair and swinging him roughly into the room, a dizzy spiral that angles toward the bed and makes him fear for his life.  Was there going to be more of that tonight?  You could never tell about these aides, even Stedman.  The other day three of them lifted him up and dropped him just shy of the mattress, and he could have sworn he bounced.  He did the best he could in retaliation, aside from a few threats that never seemed to bend them, couldn’t bend stone.  Three nights in a row he emptied his urinal on the floor, and then they told him that one more time and they’d have him drinking it.  But that was typical.  This Stedman has his good side, Bill thinks, a mite rough perhaps and a twisted sense of humor when you considered the others.  Only one he prefers is Samantha.

     “Are you clean, old fuzzy?” Stedman intones.

     “What do you think?  Think I let it go in my pants?  When did I ever do that?  I still got my marbles more than you give me credit.  Day I do that I’ll be cashing it in like those other poor devils screaming enough to make a grown man shudder.  Yeah, go ahead and laugh, but you know damned well it’s no bargain.  But I’ll be getting out of here.  My daughter said so.  Just soon as I can get this arm working and maybe the leg.  Look how high I reach just now.  Look at this.”

     Buteckus raises the bad arm in the twilight.  Stedman strips off his shirt and slips on a Johnnie coat, unbuckles Bill’s belt, and kneels to slide off the shoe.  The old man’s legs are slender and hairless, what is left of them, like an ancient manikin’s.  Then he is up and hooking under the arms and lifting Buteckus and pivoting him onto the set-up, all in one violent motion, pivoting him and slamming him down and yanking off both shorts and tossing those on a chair and drawing the set-up over his buttocks and taping it there with the roll he has saved over from doing old Doc.  The next part he always enjoys, heaving up the rail so hard they can hear its gong all the way to the end of the north wing.  He hooks the urinal on the railing against the old man’s outcry.

     “You ain’t going to drive ME mad.  Not me.  I won’t be mad.  I still got my marbles and I’m keeping them.”

     “You just do that, old fuzzy.  Pleasant dreams.”

     He leaves Wicky by 503 and enters, flicking the light.  Sedder’s eyes are still there, bright dimes winking in the glare, glazed, deep odd manic blue—what’s the story, what’s the story?—as Stedman leaves the cart and the towels and Johnnie coats and goes back for Meisten.  The old ghoul is doubled down onto his lap-board, his hands a stink of supper that Stedman missed at the feeding, dry now, caked.  Stedman wheels him in and releases the lap-board with his pen, yanks the suddenly roaring blinking ogre upright, a shock of surprise on the grizzled hoary face, peels the sodden diaper off with one yank of the silk tape, and pivots the old man around with the other hand to check the back.  And he feels he has clear sailing, but just then Meisten lets go like a horse and is tracking it all over the floor, and he shoves him into the geri chair and grabs a towel and heaves him back out of the chair and pivots him past Jaird nodding, toward the bed.  Old Meisten is bellowing all the while and scratching at Stedman’s face, and then he has him down on the mattress and is yanking the set-ups up through the legs and taping them to his chest so that the old man lies there like a diapered hoary infant, quiet now, dead quiet with the eyes into slits and then closed.  Stedman pulls the covers up and the rail and tosses a sheet over the mess on the floor and wipes that up and is finally ready for Jaird.  Hoping for better luck with old Jaird.  Releasing the Posey, tossing it in the corner, seizing the armpits and heaving him up and across the bed in one swift wrenching movement, and—Son of a bitch, son of a biiiiiiiittttcccchhh, Jesuuuuuuuus Chriiiiiiisst—from the old man, as Stedman peels off the diaper and finds him fairly clean, clean as Meisten after dropping it, but tidies up just a little with a towel and then pulls the set-ups through the tightly gripped thighs, Jaird over on his side with the thighs crossed and hooked tightly, resisting, perhaps to protect the scrotum, which is a nightmare in itself, bloated, distended, the size of a volleyball.  And the old man’s—Son of a bitch, oh Jesuuuuuuuuuussssss—until he has him quiet at last, trussed and ready for the night.  And there is only Sedder to check over, peeling the pastel back and observing his flanks, the Op-site over a pale rose depression in the yellow skin, but otherwise all in order, all just this side of clean, not the cleanliness one might observe perhaps in a private institution where there is less of a staffing problem, but the cleanliness one can expect at Twin Oaks, old starved souls leaking their life away into vinyl sacks, screaming in their stink.

     Heading south, dragging Wick toward 516, Stedman feels he has gotten off rather well thus far.  Certainly a problem with Meisten, but Sedder and Jaird were fairly clean, and old Doc was trussed and a safe bet till the change at 10.  He has the soiled linen in the cart, the sheets and towels from this last adventure and what he has earlier jammed in one of the lockers.  He is happy he hasn’t forgotten the latter.  There would be hell to pay from Burton.  Drawing Wicky behind him, pushing the cart, he passes a double room.  Inside, Sarah Jane is being readied for bed.  Samantha is taking her time, and yet he knows she is gentler than the rest.  The bed just beyond is one of the few vacancies in the house.  Old Martha Rutter expired the previous Sunday at 8:33 AM.  Incredible they haven’t yet filled it.  Stedman watches the big black lady stripping Sarah Jane’s torso with the door just ajar.  There is a quiet kindness in the fussy soft movements, the dark hands baring improbable breasts, for Sarah has the torso of a very young woman.  In the twilight of the room, there is a blue cast to that.  From the waist up she almost seems desirable.  Further down is a twist of bone and incontinence that seems better suited to the jabber or perhaps what renders it texture—Want a kiss Jehovah’s hiss yea though I walk as if I talk dub dub, Christ in a tub—a fusion of Bible and manic hook, a kind of Baptist schizophrenia that never ceases to amaze.  For she is the other poet on the ward.  They have Borzali.  They have Sarah Jane.  Only God himself could rhyme such torture, Stedman thinks, nearly half as well.  Some day he’ll try to get it down.  Only God himself could ever get it utterly utterly down.

     Even in 516 Stedman has found his way to a certain unalterable routine.  Jarwalenski is always the first on the program.  It is a mindless repetition, perhaps a dozen minor variations.  First the lap-board and the reaching for the belt and that’s free, and kneeling for the slippers.  Peeling off the Johnnie coat and pulling the old man erect and sliding down the trousers and the diaper, which is only loosely taped, and old Jarwalenski is wholly naked in a semi-crouched position, muttering in his native tongue.  Stedman spins him to check out the back, which is clean, walks him toward the bed.  He edges him onto the set-ups and lets the old man take his time, arrange himself in a hooked supine, the old coarse face, the olive eyes seemingly lucid, staring toward the ceiling as Stedman fits a fresh Johnnie coat over his arms and ties it in the rear.  He slides up the rail and stands aside.  There is never any point in giving him the urinal.  He will not use it.  On the wheelchair are the extra set-ups.  Stedman pulls out a sheet and waits for the old man to empty his bladder.  Predictable as a quartz watch, Jarwalenski is making his move, a pivot toward the railing, a fumble with one hand downward toward his groin, freeing his penis to piss out through the upright bars, a loud spatter on the floor that seems to go on forever until Stedman can drop the sheet over it and soak up the urine.  He shoves the damp sheet into the cart and leans down and pulls the covers up to the old man’s chin and polices up the trousers, and Jarwalenski is ready for the night.  Not Stanton, not yet Stanton, though the latter is less of a problem.  There is just the Johnnie coat and a sheet over the thighs and a pair of mismatched socks, all of which are taken care of swiftly, angling the little man toward the bed, just a clutter of bone so light he can grab him by a bend in the bad leg and an arm under the neck and lift him up and set him down lightly, avoiding the little man’s eyes, taping the set-up between his legs, and pulling up the spread.  Standing there resting.  Crossing toward Blackston.  Sheer will power at this point, but just two left. Blackston is muttering, gurgling, pinching at his hands with the room otherwise quiet.  Why they ever dress a man like that, Stedman cannot fathom.  Again the struggle, freeing the shirt, the old man’s—Fuck fuck fuck fuuuuuucccccck—and then kneeling for the shoes, and he is kicking, lashing out, and Stedman’s head is groin level, alive to the seep of moisture through the trousers.  Then up with his hands under the hooked arms, heaving the clawing form on the mattress and beating back the lunging torso, fingers going for his eyes, gripping the fetid trousers and pivoting the body to free the doubled diapers, careful to avoid soiling the set-ups, going at the buttocks with a towel and then another and another, and then the Johnnie coat and yanking the rail and then the Posey, strapping him to the bed-frame.  Peculiar to Blackston, drawing the upper linen tight and shoving it under the mattress to keep him from pulling it free during the night with his churning and balling it finally in his hands to chew and suck on.  Just Wick.  Just Wick.  He can hear the old man gurgling out in the corridor.

     “I love yoooooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.”

     Stedman takes an armchair and pulls it toward the window.  There is nothing out there in the night sky.  With his face close there is the blur of his eyes and the long hair parted in the middle, a ghost of it and the sky beyond, blacker than he cares to realize.

     “I hope I’m nice to yoooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuu.”

     Just Wick and then perhaps a quatrain.  And yet he is chilled beyond exhaustion, and maybe just now he can’t face that old wreck of a banker out there, awaiting another sleep.  Maybe work a little kindness into the trussing, polite conversation.  And Stedman gathers to his feet and crosses the tile and has his hands on the geriatric chair and is wheeling old Wicky inside, carefully at last, gently, toward the final bed.

     “I hope I’m nice to you.”

     Wick’s eyes could be made of Styrofoam, and yet there is a glaze.  His eyes are like synthetic balls of insensate fear, depthless, small buttons gleaming in the harsh light.  The lips are moving, phrasing unuttered words.

     “You’re always nice to me, Andrew.”

     “My mother.  She said by nice to everybodddddyyyy.”

     “That makes me so happy to hear,” Stedman answers, forcing gentle into his voice.  It is like communicating with a pull string doll.  Just yank and one hears the voice again, mechanical, flat as death.

     “Where IS your mother, my pretty one?”

     “My mother.  My mother passed away.  She died of cancerrrrrr.  She brought us up right, she did.”

     He has the lap-board free and is working on the isolation gown with the knotted cords that Randolph has managed, beads of snarled cotton, joined at the neck.

     “Yes, my pretty one, but where IS your mother?”

     “She died of cancerrrrrrrrrrr.”

     “Is your mother dead?  Is she truly dead?”

     “She died of cancerrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

     “Is she in paradise?”

     “Oh yes.  Oh my yes.  She’s in paradise.”

     “That makes me so happy to hear.”

     “My mother.  She said be nice to everybodddddddyyyyy.”

     When he pulls Wick off the geri chair it is like a dream walk, slow motion over the tile, just the touch of a squeal, Wick’s mild surprise to be standing.  The torso is a hairless sag, the head covered by long strands of gray, slicked back, nearly to his shoulders.  There is a white stubble on the long face.  The lips are thin, quivering again with unvoiced syllables.  Perhaps he is praying.  Stedman strips the diaper with two quick tugs, and Andrew Wick is totally naked, a flushed smooth body weaving back and forth over the dark tile.

     “Where’s your father, Andrew?  Is your father in paradise?”

     “My father died.  My father died a very long time ago.  It was in the winter.  My mother bought me a sled for Christmas.  It was a lovely red sled with yellow trimmings.  There was flame down the center.  Oh Gaaaahhhhhhdddddd.”

     “Was it fun with the sled?”

     “I hope I’m nice to you.”

     “Was it fun with the sled, Andrew?”

     “We lived in Boston in a big white house.”

     “Were there nice hills to sled down?”

     “Oh Gaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhddddddd.”

     Barry Stedman circles the weaving wreckage of humanity.  Clean as a whistle.  The first real luck of the evening.  He pulls a Johnnie coat from the back of a chair, sliding a towel off onto the floor and kicking that toward the cart.  So quietly into the Johnnie, looping it through the arms, around the neck, steering the old man toward the bed as he ties it, trembling pace at a time, shudder of old man Wick toward the mattress.

     “What’s my name, Wicky?”

     “Oh Gaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhddddddd.”

     “What’s my name?  Is it Howard?”

     “Oh Gaaaahhhhdddddd.”

     “Is it Christopher?”

     “Oh Gaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhdddddddddd.”

     “Sue?  Is it Sue?”

     “Oh Gaahd.  I hope I’m nice to you.”

     “Is it Barry?”


     Tilts him back and hears the slightest squeal of consternation.  Wick has him around the throat with the hairless flushed hands.  If only he wouldn’t hold on like that.  He releases Wick’s hands as gently as possible and rotates the old man’s body down and against the linen.  He pulls the set-ups through his legs and tapes them to the chest.  There is an old incision under the ribcage.  There is a bulge just above the left nipple, the square protrusion of an implanted pace-maker.  Andrew Wick’s lips are quivering, moist, constantly moving.  Stedman covers him with the spread and slides up the railing.  The lips work like penitence and fear.  He stands there looking down into old Wick’s eyes.

     “Is it Barry?  Say Barry, Andrew?”

     “Oh Gaaaaaahhhhhhddddd.”

     “Say Barry.”


     “Yes, Andrew.  My name is Barry.”

     “I hope I’m nice to you.”

     He leans his face down so close he can feel the old man’s breath.  Such a horror to kiss him.  He has found him nights digging and eating it.  Maybe that’s why they lock them up in here, these old monsters, the slightest scratching suspicion that they may be about to eat it.  Such a horror.  And he whispers into the old man’s mouth.

     “I love you, Andrew.  I love you.”

     “I love yooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuu.”

     “You’re just about my only friend.”

     “Oh Gaaaaaahhhhhhhhddd.”

     “You’re my only friend on this whole ward.  In fact, I brag about you.  I brag about you all the time.”

     “I brag about yooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuu.”

     “And I say Andrew is my friend.”

     “Oh Gaaaaaaaahhhhhhhdddddd.”

     This time he whispers so low that he himself cannot hear it.  He is looking directly into the button eyes.  There is no depth.  There is nothing behind them.  And yet perhaps there is everything behind them, something so large and unremitting that even God would run in fright.  He whispers just a touch louder.  Still nothing in the eyes.  He whispers into the mouth.

     “Say my name, Andrew.”

     “Clara.  Is it Clara?”

     “Try again.  You are very close.”

     “Is it Melissa?  Is it Frederick?  Is it Harry?”

     “No, Andrew.  You must try again.”

     “Is it Mervin?  Is it Mary Beth?”

     “My name is Wick.  Andrew C. Wick.”

     “Oh Gaaaaaaahhhhhhhhdddddd.”

     “My name is Barry.  But it is also Andrew Wick.”

     “Oh Gaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhddddddd.”

     “What’s my name, Andrew?”

     “You’re Andrew.  You’re Andrew Wick.”

     “Guess again.”

     “Oh Gaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhddddddd.”

     “I’m you and I’m me and I’m someone very special.”

     “Oh Gaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhdddddddddddd.”

     “I am the Son of Man.  I am Jesus Christ.”

     In the other room Tongue explodes.  He has never heard her that loud.  He has never heard anything that loud.  There is the slightest flicker in an old man’s eyes, and then they go dead.  He crosses to the window and looks out.  The sky is without wrinkle, a sea of absolute black.