Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
From Chapter Four

     {from Nightwork}

It is 3:15.  Burton Randolph sits hunched with the BM list, checking it against the flow sheets.  He is particularly interested in the slashes, the nulls, the F’s, the L’s, stretching back over the months.  Today it is Jaird.  Tomorrow perhaps Harry Meisten.  As an aide, Burton has very little charting beyond a few notations in the treatment sheets and the necessity to monitor his patients’ evacuations, but he likes the feel, particularly of the latter.  Sometimes he is almost an LPN.  There are occasions he even tastes it.  Here in the kitchen he is quite alone.  He runs a flushed hand back through a thatch of tidy red hair and adjusts his glasses, thrusts out his elbows as if to free them of a bind  in the sleeves of an operating gown, notes on a separate sheet of paper a pattern which has emerged from careful study.  Jaird is guilty of loose bowels in a ratio of one movement for every seven.  This requires close attention, perhaps an administration of Maalox, Kaopectate.  Burton’s conversation is focused for the most part on the configuration, size, texture, dispensation, regularity, of stool.  The rest is taken up by the Society of the Acquaintances of Jesus, of which he is a member.  For the latter he has given up sex, drugs, alcohol and Coca-Cola.  He is very taken by these deprivations and has difficulty comprehending why recounting them to his peer group exerts no greater solicitation of awe and respect.  Even his mother seems to slight, perhaps no more than by a bit of reticence which he finds more objectionable than an all out frontal asssault, his sanctity.  A third topic, concerning which he remains nearly entirely mute, is his sideline, the construction of various sophisticated forms of electronic surveillance equipment which he markets at near cost in the interest of world peace and tranquility.  Burton knows beyond question that the only solution to a crisis of rampant paranoia in both the public and private sector is an easy access to the enthusiasms and schemings of one’s friends.  There are few enemies.  Of that he possesses a marked certainty, having recorded so many conversations in the interest of promoting his clandestine operation.  In fact, it is always a matter of enormous satisfaction to discover that people rarely are plotting subversions on a major scale and that most of that pulsing fear out there is suspect.  All man really needs is a good soaking in the Society of Acquaintances of Jesus.  Man is basically stupid but certainly not evil.  It is too bad that so many millions of loving, basically decent men, women and children will burn in the fires of eternal damnation for simple idiocy, the failure to join his Church, the lapse in proper sense that would consign them to a life of excess in matters so fundamental as the selection of carbonated beverages.  Perhaps this knowledge is the paramount source of Burton’s madness.  It is also the very real stimulation for attacks of manic glee.  To be saved, ah, to be saved, and to spend an eternity in the company of one’s ancestors, all one has managed to trace down through lifelong forays among parish records, tombstones, deeds of sale, to become, in fact, a God oneself—such tastes of ultimate triumph.  Whosoever, knowing this, would forge ahead heedless of tomorrow?  Sadly enough, the whole staff of Ward 6-5, for there has yet to have been a convert in over twelve years.  Here and then a close call, but never a convert, not one.  For the cringing sake of all Mystery, there was even a Buddhist on this ward.  Just the thought of it made Burton Randolph turn back to December 1972 and Eric Potter’s column.  The best thing about a Jew, as far as he could tell, was the regularity of his elimination.  Probably even came through in the gas chambers, just like clockwork.  But a Buddhist?  Some day he would ask that son of a bitch Stedman about his BM’s.  Just a matter of phrasing it correctly, ease it into the conversation with tact to avoid that sicky clamming up.  For the longest time Burton Randolph had heard that there were people out there who didn’t really believe in Christ, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, but he never quite took it seriously—they’d fry all right, just about all of them, but turn down Christ?  There was a limit to illness, he had thought.  And then he had run into Stedman, and from that moment on, that first confrontation, he knew that there was a sacrilege far greater than anything that would merit an eternity on the cosmic hibachi, and that was to wrap one’s arms around a big fat glossy brass statue some ten thousand miles down the road and over God knows how many rivers, forests, oceans, happy as a pig in shit and believing it, believing it, mouthing it, laughing at the decent people who were never going to fry, mocking the chosen few who had a real handle on things, great big hearty guffaws of delight over the sacred rites of the grandest largest faith of all, the only correct religion since the dawn of  Creation, the Society itself?  The chills were like earth worms crawling up and down his spine—and to think that sucker had offered to PRAY for Burton’s salvation!

     Burton Randolph drums his fingers on the flow sheets, snaps his head left.  There, just past the nurse’s station, is the evening male aide, Stedman.  Stedman pushes ahead, heedless of Randolph’s enlightened presence, and parks his wheelchair at the entrance to 501.  Pulls a set-up off the chair and enters, as Randolph jerks erect and pockets the results of his research into Jaird’s pattern of evacuation.  Randolph is silently across the tile now, watching Stedman from the doorway, eyeing the way the older man slides back the spread and lays pads, sheets smoothly over the center of the mattress.  There are a number of garish religious prints above Nick’s bed.  There is a plastic replica, neon-lit, of Dürer’s Praying Hands.  A crucifix dangles from the dresser.  Altogether to Burton’s refined sensibility, there is a stink of religious mania and idiocy in 501, an overpowering odor of superstition and cant.  And this tall bent figure, patting the set-up smooth against decubitus, is beyond Burton Randolph’s wildest fancies of evil and degradation.  Randolph is consumed by a heady mixture of dread and pity.  The compulsive fingers, long, spindly, edging the set-up smooth—soon they would be eaten by maggots, the astral body locked in an eternity of hideous searing pain.  Burton will strike up a conversation, draw the odd man out, render Stedman solace in his hour of need.

     “In there ahead of time,” Burton says.  “Getting it done.”

     Stedman jukes.  He has not heard Randolph enter the room.  The hardest part will be to endure his suggestions.

     “They tried to get me down there to clean up old Barrow, but I was hiding in 511.  They all think I’m hard of hearing.  You should develop a problem like that.”

     “I am hard of hearing.  I’m deaf in one ear.”

     “Sorry to HEAR that.  Haaah.  Haaaaaaaah.”

     Stedman makes his way past Gigliani, addled in a geri chair, past 517 and Dottie Walkerson’s slight hump beneath a pale green spread.  There are others in the hallway, listing, mouthing garbled fragments of some huge metaphor that could link up all of a sudden and startle even Newton, Pascal.  Burton Randolph has pulled a rubber glove out of his pocket and is dancing ahead, pausing at Harry Meisten.  Stedman is in and out of 502 with his set-ups, half hearing Randolph’s manic chatter.

     “The problem with Barrow’s he’s so unpredictable,” Burton says.  “The most of them I can control with this little number here.”  He pulls up Meisten’s isolation gown to a wad of linen between the spotted thighs.  “Just ball up a sheet and shove it in the crotch, and then when they piss it soaks into the sheet, and no one’s the wiser.”

     Meisten has failed to raise his head.  The heavy lips leak phlegm onto the lap-board.  The face would scare a martyr, shadowed there, fleshy, lined, pitted.  The legs are hairless, wriggle of varicose veins, mismatched socks with one plump gray large toe poking, nail like a claw over the ribbed footrest.

     “Let me let you in on a little secret,” Randolph continues.  “Something to make your job a little easier.  Now listen close.  You just give them all a dose of Milk of Magnesia and a cup of prune juice on the sly, about ten o’clock, and they’ll shit their brains out on the night shift, and you won’t have a problem in the world.  This is just between us, hear?  You prime them up, and no one’s the wiser.  How’s that sound?”

     “It certainly sounds like you know your stuff.”

     Inside Meisten’s room is a small gnome of a woman the staff call Sleepy.  Her brother is the gaunt tiny figure in the corner, a hose descending to a bag over the tile, his hands in blue mittens tied by strings to the bed-frame.  Mort Sedder’s eyes are without focus, bright as new dimes, his mouth the silliest scare of a grin, teeth a row of uneven brown stumps.  Sleepy stands like one of the Seven Dwarfs, hands clasped, shifting her weight from side to side, the dress a bad fit, the forehead large and crowding out the eyes.  There is the slightest hint of a smile, and then she turns back to her brother and lifts the spread and peeks underneath and then sits back on a yellow vinyl chair and licks at her nose, almost reaching the nostrils.  Randolph is still at it, lowered voice now in Sleepy’s presence, as Stedman moves from bed to bed, skirting Jaird by the window, formerly a broker, hair jutting out in all directions, long face like a senile basset hound’s, arms crossed at his chest, eyes dark, aching, flicker of nerves across one cheek, just the barest suggestion of life, hash of gray cells, hand suddenly in motion, just a twitch, ascending, taking forever to poke at an ear.  Randolph is filling the rubber glove with water.  He follows Stedman out to the wheelchair and sticks his face closer, eyes bright, feverish, waving the rubber glove.

     “Get a load of this.  Come on, little Harry.”

     Meisten grunts.  Randolph has stuck the bloated glove and fingers under his drooling chin.  There is more grunting, and the  eyes flicker open.

     “Num nums, Harry.  Come on.  Mommie has your little num nums.  Wootsie, wootsie.  Take your little tittie.”

     Meisten raises up and begins to reach for the glove with his mouth, to grunt and bellow, to suck on the fingers.  Suddenly his head falls, as if the neck has gone totally rubber, and the forehead slams down on the lap-board.  There are sucking sounds and then silence.  Randolph grins horribly and then dances away, off down the corridor past Gigliani, 517, a sudden wail from Walkerson.  Stedman knows that all she needs is a rotation of one heel to relieve the smallest quantity of torment in the total mass she feels, an agony he senses now within as Sleepy emerges from the twilight of 515 and her vigil by her brother.  Toward the wheelchair, toward Stedman trying to hold it down.

     “Can I speak to you just a sec?  Just a minute?”

     “Certainly, Miss Sedder.  How do you feel?”

     “Can’t complain about me more than just feeling kind of stretched out and weary, but I’ll tell you right now I don’t like that little fag that was just in here.”

     Randolph?  He’s not such a bad guy.”

     “You come in here and take a look at my Mort.”

     He follows her to Sedder’s bed.  She raises the spread and bares her brother’s genitals, the Texas catheter.  Stedman looks away.  He stares over at Jaird pawing again at his ear, the legs hooked, the bony feet bare, nails curling out and around like yellow bird beaks, gripping the mottled toes.  He can never look at a Texas without disgust.  There are days he has to fit them on.  What does this horrible woman want from him?

     “It’s all right now, but when that sorry screw put him to bed, Mort’s little thing was standing up the wrong way.  I catch him doing that again there’s going to be a whole lot of trouble.  I try to get through to him, but you can’t get a word in edgewise.  Never saw a man run at the throat like that one.  I just don’t want to see poor Mort suffer, and a thing like that ain’t proper, standing up like be-Jesus.”

     She lowers her voice and bends closer, a scent of garlic powder, eyes past his neck at the open door.

     “Maybe that’s how he gets his chuckles, but it ain’t going to be my Mort.  Let him play with old Jaird there.”

     “I don’t think he’s doing anything like that.”

     “I just hope he ain’t.  Thing like that ain’t natural.  It’s against God, you know.  You know that.”

     Burton knows that too, Miss Sedder.”

     “I hope so.  I really hope so.”

     She reaches in a frayed pocket and stuffs a wadded dollar bill in his tunic, pats him on the shoulder, and wades toward Sedder’s wall locker to retrieve her coat.  Fishes it out and struggles it over her shoulders.  Somehow she seems fungal, reaching to get inside him.

     “You buy yourself a pack of smokes with that.  And keep an eye peeled.  Just between the two of us, I think that boy on Days is shaping up to be ready for the psych ward.  You keep an eye.  And God bless you.”

     She is bending down and peeking under the spread again.  He is out in the corridor.  There is the last burst of laughter and conversation of the Day shift down by the nurse’s station, signing out, gathering coats, parcels.  At last, muffled shrieks.  Ahead, Jarwelenski is spinning his geriatric chair with one brown foot, reaching to claw at Stedman’s tunic, and he slips past toward the final room.