David Swartz "RELIGION WITH AN EDGE"
biblicalfictions.com
Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
NIGHTWORK

A Novel

 

 

THE VACATION (((((((((((((

 

          (A PREFACE)

 

 

When 6239 awoke at 9:52 AM he was indescribably happy.  There was little to do for now but lie there on the padding and try to imagine there was pain in the world.  He often tried that mornings.  It was a lovely way to begin the day.  From the reflection in the ceiling mirror he could tell she was already awake and puttering around in the other room.  Just like her, his sweet one, 3962.  The early bird catches?  But then his mind went utterly blank, and he could feel rushes of liquid sweet warmth up his spine, and he knew it was time to get up.

     The slightest motion of his head disconnected the recording panels.  He stood and stretched.  The mirrors which surrounded him displayed the image of a handsome young man, arrested in his mid-thirties, nondescript perhaps, medium skin tone, medium hair, medium genitals in the solitary clothing, a skin-tight scarlet loin cloth.  Without further ado he crossed to the exit, thumbed the panel aside, and stepped out into the living room.

     It was such a joy to see her through the glass of her cubicle, she with her matching loin cloth, she with her mid-thirties look, the medium skin tone, the medium hair, the medium breasts.  Already up and at it.  Had anything come through during the night?  6239 always looked forward to the day's work even when it took only a minute or two.  It was good to know you were earning your keep.  Should he sneak up on her?  It would be fun to pretend she couldn't see him in the mirrors and just creep softly over the padding and give her a quick hug from behind.  Would she experience surprise?  There were so many pleasures in life, even those which they chose to fabricate.  And how had "Charlie" slept?  What turns WOULD their conversation take?  Today, after all, was the big one.  He had waited 75 years for it, 3962 over a hundred.  Today was their first vacation.  Oh yes, it had finally come.  They were going pre-sedative.   

     "39?" he said.

     "Yes dear?"

     "Good morning.  I just wanted to say good morning."

     "And what a morning!  Would you like to see my dreams?" 

     "I'm afraid there just isn't time."

     "Oh yes.  I had totally forgotten.  Have you had breakfast?  Silly me.  Of course you haven't.  Let's do it together.  What do you say to that?  You do me and I'll do you.  Race you to the pumper."

     She darted from the cubicle.  As usual, he let her beat him to the kitchen, some twelve strides across the padding.  As with all apartments in Beta Systems, the source of their nourishment was recessed in a black section of polished tile.  There were antiseptic swabs and, of course, the pumper.  It was such a joy to watch her handle the latter even after all these years.  Within seconds she had shot him up and was waiting for his steady grip, the swab, the mechanical injection.  There on her medium right cheek he could at last see the welt.  It was always like that, gone in an hour, such a small price to pay for a lifetime of tranquility, joy beyond measure, a satisfaction which knew no bounds.

     Even the monitor above their heads seemed to sense that there was no discord in the known universe from breakfast to lunch to dinner, welt by welt, world without end.  The few times any of them longed for it were always met with the supreme knowledge that such a day as this would eventually arrive, a day when certain chosen couples would take their long deserved vacation from eternal bliss.  6239 could almost taste it.  It was an unknown quantity, a sweetness he had only heard described by those few he knew who had been there, that sensation they defined as pain.  But even then with the rushes of delight coursing through his viscera, he knew there was work to finish, even "Charlie" to attend to before there was any vacation for the two of them.

     Had she turned him off?  It was always a problem with children.  If you left them running when you weren't there, reel after reel of their experiences would pass you by un-sensed, unknown.  Perhaps that was what they meant by sadness.  It was a speculation that would bear no real fruit.  He knew that as well as he knew that even if they turned their son off forever they would never really miss him.  Life was too full to miss anything, even a vacation.  Oh yes, even for the latter he could wait another century, a thousand years.  The point was that you missed nothing.  There was only this immense delight, crossing the padding to his cubicle and thumbing on the screen with a full imprint of his given name, 6239B2231C8851X31321Z5.

     No work for today?  Curious.  The screen was totally blank.  But then there was no such thing as the unexpected.  Even the totally random had a symmetry so lovely as to melt the world toward bliss.  His wife there behind him, waiting for their first sex of the day.  His wife on the padding, writhing with the warm juice of her breakfast.  3962J1214K9922V32314V2 just waiting for it.  Did even the Senior Systems Analyst know such pleasure?  Maybe 6239 would program that some day and feed it in just to get the reaction.

 

ONE ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

It was edging toward 3 PM, the start of the evening shift.  Two figures sat alone in the dining room.  Buteckus, the male, was attempting to raise his left hand.  His partner, Edna, seemed listless, out of focus.  Both occupied wheelchairs.  Bill Buteckus had his arm several inches over his head at one point and would have liked a word of encouragement, but there was no one there to notice beyond Edna, and at 88 she was unlikely to see much more than the yellow mesh garden table or perhaps the urinal on its surface, and then likely neither item would truly register.  She would see them in a blur of vision, mind.  There was nothing inherently startling in Bill's progress with his left hand.  In nearly three months on Ward 6-5 he had succeeded in elevating the hand only a trifle beyond the level achieved in therapy over on Rehabilitation before his time ran out.  Perhaps there would be a miracle.  He would recover from the stroke.  There was always that hope.  Then he could go home.  Every day his daughter had held that out to him.  It was becoming more difficult to believe, but he knew that if he lost his grip on that small vestigial affirmation there would be nothing much left to live for.  As for Edna, there was nothing to live for beyond the promise of a cigarette.  A cigarette would register.  For some ten or twelve minutes it would pry open the vague ache in her heart, and then heart, mind, spirit, would close like a cold dry trap, leaving only the strangest sense of being minimally alive.  At 3 PM she might have that cigarette if Barry were on duty.  She tried not to think too much about it because she had learned that the best thing was not to anticipate a pleasure, no matter how large, how insignificant.  Just as well there had been occasions when Barry hadn't come across.  While Bill Buteckus hoped to go home, permitted himself that small ambivalence of pain and warmth, Edna was, of design, beyond emotion.  The evening they covered the fourth of her roommates with a plastic shroud and wheeled her out on a litter she had made up her mind that ambition was the only incurable infection.  These days she was immune.  It was the best thing she had.  It was her ace in the hole.  Perhaps in this sense she was the superior to Buteckus.  It may have been the fault of his youth.  At 71 one was still open to folly.  At 88 one was permitted a small draught of wisdom.

     "What do you think the weather's like?" Bill asked.

     "I don't know.  I really don't know."

     "If there was just a way to know."

     "Maybe we'll have to wait for Barry."

     It was difficult to converse.  In a very real sense they were not alone.  The wide doors led to the corridor, and directly across, the TV room.  From both quarters came a virtual barnyard of sounds, the wails, shrieks, howls, of patients possibly less fortunate than Bill and Edna.  Nor were the latter inured to the interminable clamor.  Every interchange between them had to contend with it, a shifting, unpredictable assault from perhaps twenty creatures confined for the most part in geriatric chairs, cushioned seats and backrests on rollers, heavy composition lap-boards that locked into place to grip each individual against a predictable churning, lolling motion, confusion, rage, hysteria.  Few were silent.  Few were silent for long.  No one could know if the greatest turmoil was a matter of the general outcry or the inner distress it seemed to mirror.  All was speculation on Ward 6-5.  One hoped that the small vestige of human intelligence remaining in each ravaged brain was non-reflective.  A casual observer would certainly reach such a conclusion.  Bill and Edna were locked in their OWN madness.  Each was cursed with a small lucidity.  The desperate task was to maintain it.

     "They said it was going to rain," Bill said.

     "Who said it was going to rain?"

     "I'm not sure.  Someone."

     "Barry?"

     "No.  I think it was Molly.  She said it last night."

     A particularly strong and virulent shriek rose above the general clamor.  It seemed almost like a prayer.  It might have come from the low slung litter across the corridor at the entrance to the TV room.  For a moment they could hear nothing else.  They knew Nick was in there.  They could see his bulge on the litter, the gloss of his skull.  Perhaps he had tired of the program, what little he could see of it with his head angled over to the side, glimpsing it past his contracted legs, his hands like fins.  Neither Edna nor Bill cared much for Nick.  He was of the worst sort.  The worst sort were semi-lucid, semi-reflective.  Types like Nick were for the most part silent, but when they erupted there was this terrible bellow that they were hearing now, half appeal, half curse, a type of demented assault on the basic decency of existence.

     "God.  God.  God.  God.  Gaaaaaaahhhhhddd.   Kill.  Kill.  Want to die.  Want to die God God.  Oh God.  Me.  Kill me."

     "I hope it doesn't rain," Bill said.

     "Don't worry.  It won't rain."

     "Are you certain?"

     "You said yourself Molly said it would rain."

     "So?"

     "Molly gets it wrong, even the weather."

     As for Nicky, the weather was not foremost.  It would have been sufficient to predict the evening's meal.  The most difficult element in his predicament was the given fact that he had only three meals a day, and this time of the afternoon, two were already past.  Time twitched that way, a lurch between a rather scant variety of purees, a shudder from spoonful to cupful, long draughts of instant coffee, a mash of peas, margarine and bread, and then, click—he was condemned to his fins, the tube in his belly, the blur of the TV image, soundproofing aloft, a will so fevered that he might melt the sun with it, to take up that litter and walk, somewhere, anywhere, just out of there, possibly even past God himself.  Right now he had an itch at the base of his spine, just above and to the right of the scar from last year's bedsore.  There was no way to even touch it.  For a time he had been able to at least wriggle on his buttocks.  That was before the last thirty pounds.  And in the gaps between Wick's gurgle somewhere remotely to his rear, an advertisement for Purex beyond his feet, the general bleat and ruckus down the hall, he could hear those two old fools discussing the possibility of rain.  When did it ever rain on Ward 6-5?  With his luck there would just BE rain, white-hot rain, a flood of it, short chance to shield his eyes.  Maybe he would just order it up.  Wouldn't that be a laugh?  Night was coming.  With night would come twelve hours.  And then, just when the thought of those twelve hours entered his consciousness, burning like that white-hot rain, like something he could never swallow, he let out another shriek of lamentation, half fury, half curse, perhaps to see if he could tremble some of the sound away, certainly the ceiling.  He had been condemned to the ceiling.  Maybe God had willed it.  Whenever his neck gave and he could no longer hold his grip on whatever was just beyond his feet, to the left, to the right, however they had placed him, he had the ceiling.  Nick let the shriek go with his eyes and brain a blur, and then the ceiling was back again and Wick's gurgle, and the possibility of rain.  Oh yes, Barry would let them know in the end.  Good old Barry.  Best drive he could manage was 230 yards.

     "Barry.  Barrrrrrrrrryy.  Gaaaahhhdd.  God.  Kill God."

     "Look in your side pocket," Bill said.  "Maybe you left it in there.  See if it's down underneath that other stuff.  You can't have lost a whole brownie.  Have a look see."

     Edna rummaged in the pocket laced to her wheelchair.

     "No use."

     "Maybe one of the aides ate it."

     "Maybe it was never there."

     "You can't tell.  It might have been there."

     "Maybe I never had a brownie."

     "Maybe you're right.  Maybe you never had one."

     The world was a curious place from where Wick sat.  The world was inward, lodged in the hash of tissue which comprised his brain.  And yet world, hash, brain very likely matched his general appearance, the forehead reaching midway back his skull, the long straight hair nearly to his shoulders, the white isolation gown tied in the rear, the knotted bare calves, a ridge of leg bone down to the wide glossy feet in powder blue slippers.  Wick was the mad professor, locked in vision, a world of murky shapes, sentence fragments, odors, wriggling fingers.  The thesis was gurgle, a liquid rattle in his throat.  For 35 years he had been a banker.  The banker was at last fright, a stink of bewilderment.  The tragedy of Wick was not his pain, for one could never derive a notion of pain from the vague bright eyes.  It was rather the reduction of a basic human dignity.  Catching at figures within his brain, the spinning reel of image, color, form fingering his confusion, poor Wick was further toward bestiality than any mother could have ever predicted, and yet his life had been for the most part honorable, upright.  Even the fleshy fingers couldn't piece it out, the weight of his confusion, his predicament. There was only one isolated clarity his mind could summon, and it let him think in sentences—someone did not love him.  Of that much he was certain.

     Perhaps it was Nick on the litter.  It might have been Sally or even Eve in the corner.  Perhaps that pair hated him collectively.  There was something about their appearance he couldn't fathom, Sally's long wrinkled face, her continuous nodding while the expressionless eyes took in a patch of wall, a mottle of image, color.  Or Eve, her worried sunken glance under a mass of lines hatching the forehead, the bloated nose she dabbed with the back of her hand.  Somehow they seemed his sisters.  He had heard them called the twins.  Perhaps one was his mother.  His mother had died of cancer.  She was very old now.  Perhaps both were his mother.  There was more of his mother than even cancer could ever be.  How old were they?  Oh yes, perhaps older than the virgin God.  He hoped they loved him.  He hoped they would not escape their padded chairs and consign him to the sandbox.  He always hated the brown sand.  He always hated that.  At times like this, when he could almost think, when he tried very desperately to understand, he often let out the most pathetic of wails, as if he could master even the twins, Nick, the world itself, Clairborne just now pacing by with his curious wife—with the ultimate interrogation.

     "Am I nice to yoooooooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuu?"

     Only Barry ever answered.  He loved Barry.

     "I hope I'm nice to yooooooouu.  I hope I'm . . . "

     When they put him into the brown sand the world would scream.  He would have to eat it.  Even if they tied his hands down there was a way to free them, and they knew that.  It was certainly diabolical.  He would free his hands at last and eat the sand, and then they would scold him for being a naughty child, and some would slap him or pull his hair, and the world would be a brown haze, awful, choking, and no one would love him.  Oh yes, not even his mother.  Eating sand at 63?  Wasn't that what she really liked?  God, mother, God, deliver me from the coming night, from fingers, appetite, the sand, down dirty in the sand, my . . . fright.

     "Am I nice to yooooooooooouuuuuuuuu?"

     "Maybe they'll have brownies for supper," Bill Buteckus said.

     "God I hope so.  I really hope so."

     "Did you look in your drawer?"

     "There's never something in my drawer.  Never a thing.  There hasn't been anything in my drawer for years."

     "Not even a brownie?"

     "Not even a brownie."

     In the corridor, a larger contradiction.  At one pole Clairborne, handsome, well-turned, 53, athletic, tall, groomed for combat in industry, rather the tail end of an accountant, holding on, barely holding on, in much the same way he presently grips the elbow that belongs to the other pole, Millie, his wife.  Shapes in the hallway, noisy pathetic forms reaching to clutch at his sleeve, a mute appeal, lolling hashed heads, tormented eyes, and the greater torment, the shape he directs, aims toward the distant orange door, something that cannot bear too much examination, Millie, his lover, helpmate, the waste that is left of her, Alzheimer consciousness, a party dress above bare stubbled legs in pink slippers, a blue restraint which will secure her in her wheel-chair, in her bed when he has gone for the evening after spooning her puree, has returned to an empty split level, has escaped this scene, this scent, this lurch, Millie, bent, intent, diapered, puzzled old eyes, dove's eyes, mouth working toward syllables he'd take for gossip, address in fact, as if it all were a Sunday's outing on the best of streets, past tasteful store fronts, pausing to window shop, to catch a bit of leisure, at last to the park to lie in the shade of an eternally youthful, viable, affirmative world, and not this reality, erect above her devastation, attempting somehow to piece it out, every Sunday at 2:45 PM to the orange door and back and on to the orange door, hoping it isn't life, this repetition, shuddering toward Sarah Jane, dangling the last increment, the last notch before the turn and back through yowling fright, altered light, a white sky leaking, beyond, beneath, the parking lot, the oaks, this autumn where the doctors drive Toyotas and the only real need addressed is blind appetite and elimination, Arthur Clairborne with the best of a bad time, what an aide and nurse may have made of his Millie, here the blue bow holding her hair hank, the bib, the sash, knees buckling till he has to pull her semi-erect to continue, wipe the mouth that he has the latent objectivity not to kiss, to forgo kissing—for Millie too loves, hates the brown sand—pausing at grief and torment, Sarah Jane.

     "I wish I could wish I could wish I love you.  Jehovah said hello you.  And here's my bread.  My bread is dead.  I eat the bread and kisses.  I eat.  Hello hello."

     "Good afternoon, Sarah," he says.  "Millie, say good afternoon to Sarah.  Millie, Sarah said hello."

     "Millie's silly.  You silly thing.  Millie Billy basket bread.  The blood is dead, you silly silly thing."

     "Say hello.  She's talking to you."

     Nick's shriek down the corridor, down a long damp tunnel, down mouth.  Clairborne jerks as if bitten.

     "I'm headed north while you are headed south."

     Sarah Jane herself has watched them come and go, the twelve apostles, Cain, even the virgin.  And yet it would seem she is content to weave her afghans, patch by patch, with what is left of her hands.  At seventy she seems much younger.  There is still color in her hair, and the face is without lines.  She once prided herself on her eyes, and they are still her most striking feature.  Even on the days when they are wild, agonized, contorted, they speak with large soft clarity, so wide and open on the narrow bird face.  She saw those eyes change long ago, the day she was born again in her brother's church; and even the occasion she slipped, the autumn evening coming home from prayer meeting she had carnal knowledge of a visiting reverend, they still shone brightly, even the following morning and the coming weeks of the scandal, when her brother found them out.  Imperfect today perhaps in vision, she can see inwardly enough, well enough to know that all these pilgrims are so dependent on her contracted feet, the bent bone in her lower legs, the shag of hair through the nylons, the doubled feet in foam rubber shower shoes, those feet like claws above the tile, doubled back and up so that she is always fetal, even here on the geriatric chair with the afghan flashing a bright cascade over the lap-board and her fingers working with the needles, working past pain and the mutter.  Oh yes, they would have had her marry the Reverend Thomas, but she had known better.  There was so much to do with her little nieces, Ruth and Bessie, and the nephew, Jason, with the cooking and the washing and the Scripture she set herself to memorize at seventeen.  Even now these pilgrims are in need of what little guidance she can provide in her state of lapse, and much of the day she can give them even the chapter and verse of their perdition, a running commentary, so to speak, for she knows that their souls are on fire, a fire that melts her heart, the hideous flames that raze even the nearly pure, hell-fire agony that claimed so much of her the day she lost her honor in the back of Mildred's buggy when the moonlight was so clear it cut through all her resistance, and the air was a hand on her thighs, and the sky was a rude laceration, condemning her maidenhood to decay and filth, even while she was thanking God for that pain, for the shadowed trees and the scent on the wind that came through his lips, Aaron, so noble, so seemingly pure, so lovely to take her filth in his arms and bend it, seemingly bend it, toward greater and greater damnation.  It is, after all, all filth, all pure.  So few have known.  Even her brother has not known.  Even the Savior has not known.  Yea though I walk.  Oh yea though I must always walk.  So silly.  Silly as this silly man who shudders through to make his message known in the form of Magdalene, Millie, Billy, yea walking, walking, down down down into the darkness, closer than an embryo, infant son, infant daughter, laughter and tears these years when the sun itself is leaking.  Knit one, purl three, Christ so sweet on Calvary.  Ache, ache, the mothers break, break through the calm, sweet Jesus, sweet loving Father.  Oh bother, the Father.  In time she will take upon herself the whole of it, oh yes, the whole of this terrible inferno.  Even poor Eric grinning with his stub-like hands and his cookies.  Looking at her now.  Always staring.  There is no place for a Jew in God's Creation.  Not unless you have him strung high on boards with his little thing dangling.  Eric Potter, DDS, upper partial slipping, clotted with cookie mulch, striped Johnnie coat, the thick white stockings, hands that would try to grip her breasts were he closer.  Nudging his nose of snot.  Such an ugly word.  That awful grin.  They say his mind's all right.  Scabs on his bald crown.  Maybe the thorns were there.  Oh God, I'm burning.  Hello hello hello hello . . . . . . .

     " . . . . helllo.  Road him out of town on a rail," she continues.  "Black tar aching.  Hello.  Hello.  They say it's going to snow."

     "See Sarah's afghan?" Clairborne anwers.  "Isn't it lovely, my Millie?"

     Millie is mute.  Eric Potter claws at his face, attempts to speak.  Sound erupts from a remoteness, terrible, breaking:

     "Mooooooooooooeeeeeehhhhhhhrrrrrr."

     It is coming from Potter.

     Sarah descending Christian chasms.  Edna's blur.  Nick shrieking, hands like fins.  Face a clot—Wick gurgling.  Potter:

     "Mooooooooooooeeeeeehhhhhhhrrrrrr."

     "Hello hello hello."

     Sarah's contractions, spasms.  Puddle on the tile, Sarah Jane's smile, Eric Potter, DDS, cookies on his chest.  For the space of several seconds, there was utter silence.  Bill Buteckus tried to read the black stain on his palm, a trace of the rubber rim where he gripped his chair.

 

THE KISS ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

He was safe from her till 2 PM, when they called him off his break to wheel her over to GYN.  She would be going home tomorrow, his day off, and he knew now he would have to invent a kind of goodbye, the best he could manage under the circumstances.  And so he took her chart and charge slip off the counter and handed them to her, and she slid them down into the chair beside her right thigh with the brown polyester slacks, and he checked her restraint and thumbed the down on the elevator, all the time averted from her eyes, those huge sad eyes in the large framed glasses, from her boyish hair, Gracie Mock, what was left of her.

     It was hard enough descending one flight to the tunnel.  There was just too much time for her to speak.  He knew there was pain in her, being that close, and he didn't want any part of it, not now.  But he got through that safely, and then they were at the bottom of the ramp, and there was the long ribbon of concrete under insulated pipes, the dingy yellow walls, and his pushing her ahead and no one in sight and suddenly, just thirty feet on, her hand reaching back to take his on the grip of her chair, and she was asking him to stop just a minute in a voice that mirrored his own desperation.

     "Promise me it's not over," she said.  "You'll give me your number.  You'll do that.  You'll let me call you.  When my mother has me set up you'll visit."

     "I can't visit you.  You know I would."

     "Don't say that.  I don't want your good intentions.  I just want to see you again.  That's not much.  It's nothing for you.  It's a lot for me.  It's everything for me, Tommy.  There just ain't anything else."

     They were under a lot of steam overhead and stalled now with her hand curiously damp and cold over his wrist, massaging him with a sensation that was strangely erotic, a sexuality so terrible it seemed to breathe death up his arm, the very decay of femininity, and he was sucking in death, just over her, watching her try to find his eyes.  It was the worst thing he had ever done, making her love him.  It was so terrible he couldn't withdraw his hand without taking her death with it.  And yet she was lovely.  The worst part about it was her awful beauty, the plain face, the useless legs, the tremors, Christ face hooked back at him, searching for a trace of hope and getting none.

     "I'd like to love you, but I can't," he said, so softly he hoped she couldn't hear him.

     "I'd like to love you," he said.  His voice broke.

     She turned away, and he pushed off again, the long incline toward Building 6.  He knew she was crying, and the hardest part was that he was suddenly starting to hate her.  No, she wouldn't make him cry.  She would make him hate the day he made her love him, hate her for being just that shallow.  When you tricked these ladies into loving you, you always paid for it with guilt, and you paid in full measure because you knew you were never worth it, and you hated because they were such poor specimens for taking you in, especially when it was stacked against them like Gracie here, this creature with the tube in her groin down to the sack above the floor.

     But at last they were nearing the elevator, and there was a crowd of porters drifting past, and she had no chance for further intimacy, especially now, not even ascending, for there was an EKG technician on with her cart, and then they were headed down the tile toward the clinics, and he had her safely parked and was at the desk with her chair and was over on one of the vinyl seats with a fat palsied lady between them and Gracie drying her tears and not even daring to look his direction.

     On the way back she told him that she had never done that before, come on to a man.  That I hope you think better of me and I'm not a tramp, you know, and it's just that I love you, that's all, and please don't think badly of me, and somehow all he could notice was her grammar, as if the occasional ain't had its idiosyncratic charm, its incontinence, its spasms, up the shaft to the desk to leave off her chart and park her in the dining room in front of a soap opera with the plastic bag dangling from the bottom of her chair, a loop of yellow fluid angling up to enter a slit in the trousers.

     "Just stay a minute.  Just a minute, Tommy."

     "It's time for report."

     "I want to see you again.  That's not much."

     "Gracie, I'll call you.  You leave your number with Williams, and I'll call you."

     "You say you will."

     "I'll call you.  I'll call you once a week."

     "And you'll come."

     "I'll call you and we'll talk it out."

     "You'll come."

     "All right.  I'll even do that.  I'll do that.  Just leave your number."

     "I'll give it to you.  You'll write it down."

     "You give it to Williams."

     "I love you, Tommy."

     "I'll call you."

     "All right."

     He gave her his hand to kiss, and she tried to kiss it, but he pulled it away from her disease, and then he saw the ruin in her face, and he bent down and kissed her on the lips.  The worst part about it was that she was a woman.  It wasn't so much that it disgusted him but he knew she desired him.  It wasn't so much that she desired him but that she ached like the very hole in Eve just to have him fill her up, even with her MS, and he wasn't about to fill anyone up, with the exception of Barry, who was probably waiting out there right now in his yellow Datsun, no one beyond his wife ever holding him up that long, piece that he was.  Hating looking down at what he had just kissed.  Yet there was an awful fascination in the sounds of it, what was coming deep within, just a blur of her there and turning away from it to the zombies crowding the room and a few amputees still with it and the lady that only said Good Morning and the man that said Yeah for either yes or no, the extent of his vocabulary, a puddle of urine under Ma Kenney, the lot of them creeping Jesus down toward agony and fear and Gracie going home to a mother who hated her.

     Report was well over.  He signed out on the pink sheet.  Just a minute to go, but even now his District Leader would watch the door.  Just a minute.

     "Night, Tommy.  Night.  You take care, hear?"

     Strangest thing.  They seemed to love him.  Even Barry.  Nothing he hated more than how his whole world seemed to eat from the same dish.

     On the television someone was describing for Gracie Mock the sort of man she should love.  Somehow he seemed like Tommy.  There was still a chance.  Oh yes, even her first grade teacher knew she didn't give up that quickly.  One thing about television.  It was always like life. There was never anything in the whole world that didn't end right if you prayed for it.  You prayed hard, and then it wasn't sad anymore.

 

TWO ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

On his third trip up the shaft Barry Stedman wasn't certain he really wanted the ailing elevator to pause at 5, for beyond were the psychiatric floors, and perhaps he would better get off there and turn himself in, so to speak, as a cripple.  He had the choice of Forensics on 9, where he would consort with such types as might have torched their children, raped their grandmothers; the Closed Ward on 8, where the company would be certainly milder, but none the less, severely out of touch, psychopathic in some striking fashion that had not included the fiercely antisocial; or, finally, the Open Ward on 7, where everyone would seem like old friends, perhaps even a few depressives like himself.  They could converse about the various means of suicide.  They could wax enthusiastic on how the world was bitched.  Perhaps he would be permitted to sleep.  Anything but those numbers flickering 2, 3, 4, and at last 5, with the Negro porter holding the button in with a glossy long-boned hand, a pair of rubber gloves draping from his belt.  Ah God, the miracle had occurred.  After several shudders the doors had opened on a dull yellow wall and the inescapable scent he had come to know as death, a combination of Staphene, urine and faecal matter, an odor that he had even smelled on his clothes the first weeks he had worked on Ward 6-5, coming home to shower and eat, until he had become less sensitized perhaps, less acutely aware, even his wife, of this latest means of earning a living.  Stepping off, he was on the tile, having not completed his prayer, ready enough, however, for the four red vinyl chairs, and click—left toward the nurse's station and old Frau Backer, 93, with the drape of Johnnie coat over her ample sag, the veined hand steadying her neck in folds, the spotted face under a translucent green visor clamped to her stringy hair.  He was nearly ready for the first increment, leaning down to pull visor and face into his chest, a Guten Tag, meine Dame, and her titter, glancing up through the plastic shade, her eyes like some obscene yet kindly marine life in a madman's aquarium.  The barnyard cries all the way down beyond in the further corridor, and to his right, Helen Sterngod, the head nurse, Days, broad, creased, over her December schedule through the half-closed door.  And at last the medicine carts, the Merck Manual, a thousand details all blur, even several greetings, blur, signing in on the pink sheet for aides and hanging the clipboard back on the wall, knowing that the best way to negotiate the next eight hours was to hold it all down, to hold it down and out, to distance, and yet, sadly, it seldom worked.  It was always his curse to take in far more than he could safely tolerate, even Bad John approaching, an angry scrabble of two bad legs on the dark tile, the darkest tile imaginable.

     From beneath her visor, Frau Backer was watching this scene, Barry having signed in, accosted by John, aphasic, communicating all the way to his tongue where some mishap of his youth, fifty years before the clot in his verbal side, came out all garbled, hashed, communicating nothing beyond hysteria, a clench of knuckles, gesticulation—oh Boy, I'll tell you, Boy—as the kind man, the man who should have studied his German a bit better, the only one there willing to pause for such painful inarticulation, to smile like a suffering otter at the poor dead man there, paused and took his time.  John, bad John, the brandished fists, the scuttle back and forth in trembling Johnnie coat, wielding his chair with vinyl shoes, bone shank up to the spotted hem, Barry held there for as long as he could possibly tolerate the madness pouring from an old man, who in no way could ever hear his own voice for the disparity with what was so seemingly clear in his own brain.  Frau Backer watching, somehow content, for all of them—of this she was quite certain—would be under the earth before she passed.  There was sufficient reason to believe this, longer than even the two black aides standing over against the wall with their processed hair and their smiles.  Such smiles would rot toward white teeth yawning while Emma Backer went on watching with the eyes that hurt in the light, a geriatric card sharp; for they all had gone to rot, all of them, and she was the oldest on this ward, had been there by far the longest, longer than even Miss Sterngod, bless her tormented soul.  And while it was often said that some of the staff had been transferred, had retired, had moved to another job, another state, Frau Backer knew, deep in her pulsing irregular heart, that they were all eaten up by the stuff that sluggishly but inexorably sucks its way through the earth to make a meal of even the best, the loveliest, the wisest, all meat, simply meat to rot toward filth and putrefaction, all but Emma Backer, who would live forever.  Barry knew this.  She had told him the one day he had spent nearly an hour with her, and hadn't he agreed, even in his fear?  Oh yes, they said Barry was a genius, a bit queer perhaps, loosely wrapped, but a genius, and Barry had just managed that strange broken grin and nodded, and then his face went bad, and he turned away.  Watching him there, trying to escape John Masters.

     "And then this went like," bad John hollered.  "Oh Boy, I'll tell you.  And then it twisted.  Oh Boy.  Back in there with the arm, and then it was done, oh Boy, I'll tell you sure enough.  They paid for that one.  Oh Jesus Christ, did they.  Oh God, when it went it was terrible.  Oh Boy."

     If only they would cut the lights she could sit there in total darkness, sit there waiting forever.

     Unknown to the twitching tall man in the olive topcoat, Helen Sterngod was perfectly aware of his entrance onto the ward.  Certainly there was the sense of someone watching him, but then he always had the suspicion, warranted or not, he was under surveillance.  The progress from Bad John Masters toward the coat closet, hand gripping a thermal brown bag, was only a few yards, but all that time a stout, martial pigeon of a woman was peering from the doorframe to her office over half lenses at the olive back, the white trousers draping beneath, the battered dress shoes.  Barry Stedman leaning into the closet, setting his lunch bag down beside two or three roaches, peeling off the coat, fishing for a hanger, emerging, aimed back for the intersecting corridors and the linen truck, and Sterngod watching, noting the hour on her digital Timex, Stedman nine minutes early and beginning his assignment.  In her tight moist heart there was the smallest working of a palpitation, a shudder of warmth at the thought of it, the big man, personally not to her taste, eccentric perhaps, an edge toward swish, ragged at the seams, but pushing a canted wheelchair up to the great blue flap on the linen truck, set for the task ahead, knowing as did Sterngod herself that they were always short and that he would make damned sure he had his no matter.  Oh God, she liked that, and she liked the hint of the erect in his posture.  That had to be military training, so much she knew, and Helen Sterngod had seen a lot of boys like Barry blown away for good in W W 2 those awful months she, as an RN major, had directed the field hospital seven miles behind the thrust through Belgium.  Yes, there he was, pulling out the first thick pad, a sheet, a pad, a sheet, a draw-sheet, his first set-up, loading it all neatly on the seat of the wheelchair, pads, sheets, draw-sheets, at last towels, in a tidy stack up over the backrest, her milky eyes still sharp enough to detect a lack of fluidity in the movements, almost as if someone had the man on wires, jerking him, so to speak, an angular twitch of limbs, fussing the linen ready.  They had patched up the bodies where shrapnel had taken out hands, legs, arms, fragments of torso, at times a slice of skull, but the worst, always the worst for her, were the sad sick lads that had their nerves ripped out or jammed up, the ones she knew, they all knew, weren't faking it.  Many of them were still God knew where, babbling like schizoid ducks, peeing themselves at just past fifty.  Some day she'd ask young Barry Stedman where the nerves went.  And yet she wouldn't.  It was no way to run a tight ship.  Word was he had been a college professor.  Standing there gripping the chair as if he wished he were high up on a windy hill with his hands and feet spiked into heavy boards and some obscene message for the curious—oh the thought of it, that these terrible wounded on her ward were up there with Him—the message that never did any good as far as she could tell, young Barry, good old Barry Stedman, headed out at last where she knew he'd hide his cache from their torment and mischief, those big black darkies on 3 till 11 that waddled on in with their massive shopping bags, ready to rest up for some disco in the nearest city later on, loading up with whatever common sense couldn't nail down, soap, juice, milk, lotion, aspirin, Maalox, toilet paper, 4 by 4's, all crammed into the big bags, home to a mess of shiftless jigaboos sucking flavored wine and waiting for the next government check.  And paid the same for the hour, paid more.  At that, Sterngod, an old maid that lived with her quadriplegic brother in a white frame over on Elmount, fished in her white smock for a pack of Camels and shook one loose and drew it out with her teeth and fired it with a disposable lighter and managed her first expression of the day.  Strangely, it was a smile.  It was a hell of a lot of fun, after all, to see it clear.  Maybe when the Republicans got back in all the way she would have more like her.  All the wounded.  The world was going to hell in a basket.  Even that great big company commander in the sky would put his money on the hell it paid to run this operation.  The only ones you could depend on were the nurses and maybe some of the cripples.  There was a time it might have seemed appropriate to hold them all in her arms.

     Even now Barry, having signed in, collected his linen.  He is nearly free to talk to William Buteckus.  All that remains is to hide the laden wheelchair, but this hopping stuttering bird-like creature emerging from 506 is a major obstacle.  Teresa, gums and one gold tooth, gaunt in the spotted dress, mouthing insanity, protruding eyes, negotiating the tile in short choppy leaps, hands raised and stabbing, trembling forward, blocking his way at the end of a semicircle, treading in place, gray hair awry, chinless, saliva on the neck, utterly out of synch, greeting her savior.

     "I'm afraid.  I'm I'm I'm I'm so so so afraid afraid."

     "Go back to your room, Tessie.  I haven't time."

     "But but but but I'm fright frightened."

     "You go back and sleep.  Go back to your room."

     "I'm afraid in in in my my room room."

     "What's wrong?"

     "The big ugly yellow one.  She'll she'll pinch me."

     "She's not going to pinch anyone.  Come on."

     He steers her back in, a shudder of leaps against his gait.  There is a large dark stain on the back of her dress, on the pale green spread.  She lies back trembling.  He covers her with a bath blanket and rounds the second bed to crack the window.  He tries not to see what is in the second bed, what is left of it, the IV's, the catheter bag, and now he is out again with the chair toward 507.  Inside, Hans Barrow in a gray isolation gown and stained white socks, hair a short buzz, earphones clamped to the large flushed head, great nose protruding, tufts of dark  hair in the nostrils, on the chin, the pocked skin, great hands at a copy of the Star—spots Stedman's dress shoes, glances up.  Stedman is parking the wheelchair behind one of the wall lockers.  He is taking out the towels and stuffing them into the top drawer of an adjacent bureau.  He is nervous, taut, turning at last to take in the room, spotting the woman on Barrow's bed, the diamonds on the fingers stroking Hans Barrow's ill shorn head, all of that woman nearly sixty but somehow sexual, certainly sexual, thick black hair in natural wavelets, the deep décolleté revealing a swell of breasts miraculously preserved, the full lips, a touch of rouge, stroking Barrow's head as the old man with the great crippled body stares up through cataract lenses and a smile that goes wrong on the left side to leak a salivation.  She is, was, Barrow's lover.  Forty years have passed.  The mind is still there, but for an awful moment Stedman imagines the two of them groping toward each other on the pastel spread, the stink of Barrow, the lovely carnal scent of the former mistress, and the world has gone awry.  It is not necessary to glance further, on toward the bed against the window over left where Wendell is dying of cancer of the tongue, black sack of bone with a scarlet X on each cheek to direct the radiation treatments.  Nor window right where Chambers stares through the glossy bed-rail, face as blank as Stilton cheese, a great wedge of it, the vinyl tube down to the bag that drapes above the floor, the scent of his latest accident still pervading the room, or closer, to the empty bed, knowing its occupant will soon be Bad John, for the night, the morning, the afternoon, the evening, night, night, interminably locked in, collecting his Johnnie coats, towels, squirreled away in his bed-stand with the extra basins, cakes of soap, paper wash rags, Guide Posts in large print he tries to fathom on the quiet days when he is not at work trying to recount some obscurity of his past, somewhere back there in darkness, all this present darkness obscuring it.

     "Barrrrrryyyyyyyyy," old Barrow cries.  "Noldi, Barry's here."

     Hans is struggling the earphones off.  There is the faintest crackle of a voice and then music, almost under water, ghosts of communication through the head set.

     "Hello, Barry."  The well-preserved lady accents her bosom.

     "Barry, you have to read this," Hans says.  "There is a lady in Denmark that has three legs, and one of them is out the back of her spine.  There was supposed to be a photograph on page 23, but somehow I don't have 23.  I can't find it.  There's a tear in the page.  I think maybe somebody else has the photograph of the three legs, especially the one coming out of the back.  They say here it's not as long as the other two, but it's very shapely."  

     Barry tries to answer.  He wants to get away.

     "And there was another virgin birth in Saudi Arabia."

     That face.  The eyes unnaturally large through the lenses.  The old man has sat in the same place for the last three months.  He is too large to fit into one of the wheelchairs.  He is enthroned there on yellow vinyl.  There is a urinal on the bed-stand, a tin of imported cookies.  The head set crackles.  Wendell, X on the coal black cheeks, begins to groan, tucks himself fetal, and rolls back and over on the bed, striped gown splitting, revealing his genitals.  Barry hears the softest hoarse whisper of a greeting from Chambers peering through the chromium bed-rail.  There is scarcely enough light in the room.  A terrible scream erupts from down the corridor.  Perhaps it is the unfortunate lady they call Tongue.  At this point it could be any of them.  Noldi, the former mistress, is smoothing her black skirt over legs he could imagine stroking.  Suddenly there is desire.

     "I'm sorry," he says.  "But there isn't time."

     Noldi sets the earphones back on Barrow's head.  She hooks his urinal on the bed-rail.  She bends down and kisses him on the forehead and straightens up and exits.  Barry follows suit.  They meet in the corridor.  Several aides from the day shift are leaning against the wall.  One, strawberry hair, nods.  The other stares impassively.  This older woman, Barrow's, has the scent of ripeness about her, cunt-scent and yet subtly virgin.

     "Thank you for helping him.  Thank you for being kind.  Thank you."  Her breath is clean, like a child's.

     Barry is alone.  Even the flick of her buttocks cannot help him.  He will try to make it all the way to Bill Buteckus, all the way past their eyes, past stench, shriek, mutter, the dark tile, always the tile, the faded walls, Francine, the charge nurse, evenings, just now signing in on the clipboard, her black page boy threaded gray, the bulk of her, and there "the big ugly yellow one,"  Mattie Porter, game in both legs yet working, putting in time as an LPN on his shift, eyeing him just now, the faintest smile of an impenetrable emotion on her lips as he jerks left toward the dining room past the coat closet and Samantha Judd, broad ass protruding, hooking a great polyester coat over the skimpiest hanger, bending its arms, a shopping bag at her feet, shoes, the broad lumps of them masked by Totes, somehow like fright toys under the white expanse, the dark arms, the chocolate run up the great left calf.

 

HOWARD ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

That afternoon Howard Stinley spent the longest time thinking about what young Tommy King had said about the Bomb.  He thought about what a megaton meant, how it meant that some of those bombs had a million tons of dynamite and more, that that in itself amounted to some billions of pounds of dynamite, and that just one stick would level the parking lot out there in front of their building where the witch that ran their ward had her Skylark.  Jesus, it was terrible to think about.  It boggled the mind.  King had said that if just one of them hit Manhattan they'd all be leveled, even out here in Jersey, and Tommy King knew what he was talking about because he had worked on them the three years he spent in the Army.  It was the first time Howard Stinley had given the whole thing a thought let alone his full concentration, and it was giving him a headache, but then it was easier than thinking about his son.  Jesus knew, nothing could bother his son, not even a billion of those megatons, where he was, that is if Jaimie Stinley was anywhere, anywhere at all, and then for a few minutes he couldn't see the cars in the parking lot across the street, and the trees were blurred, and he remembered that yesterday was Father's Day.

     He always had trouble with Father's Day, but this one was the worst.  The Recreation lady, nice enough as she was and a good piano player and maybe a good lay, was discussing the meaning the day had for each of them, and how she knew it, he didn't know, she might have been reading his chart, but all of a sudden she started in on how Howard Stinley had lost his only son the year after that son had come home from the Marines and was a New Jersey trooper, about how Howard would be spending his Father's Day with a lot of memories, about how he kept Jaimie Stinley's photo in the trooper uniform over his bed, as if they all didn't know that much, and about this and that until he could feel the tears coming despite himself just when he thought he had it all contained, most of it anyway, behind him.

     Then he started thinking about the Bomb again, and then Tommy King stepped out on the porch, big strapping man that he was, and saw him sitting there and came over and faked with the left and shot a good right cross just past his chin the way he said he'd been a boxer, and Howard was feeling just a touch better, a whole lot better when young Tom in whites sat down and leaned back and told him about how they were fixing to cut the witch's tires if she kept on riding them but to keep that totally silent.

     It was hard enough to lose a wife to cancer, one you loved so much you never went out and cheated on, lost her first day of the spring after twelve years of marriage, and you went on anyway and raised your son like a fragile jewel and minded your first wife's wishes not to put him into boxing though he grew up strong as a bull and fast, God was he fast, so gentle really, never hurt a fly, but not taking any nonsense from the tough guys he ran with or chose to avoid when he had better sense.  And you raised him, and just when you were proudest, he stops to help a motorist on the Parkway and they plow into the back of the parked car going maybe eighty, and stone dead, all he lived for vanished, just like that.

     Hell, it was his own fault.  He had told everyone on the ward the story, so it was no news for the Recreation lady.  He had told Timmy King here about the way he got in the Buick and drove all night and then all the way back and climbed out and sold his business and dropped the second wife and everything else but a suitcase of clothes and took his first boat to the Far East and kept on going for three years, just juicing it up to kill the pain and traveling and not really knowing what it was all about anymore, and waking up in the night and cursing Jesus and the Virgin and all the Saints and the Catholic Church for letting his little boy die.  It was his own fault.  He should have learned to keep his mouth shut, should have learned it years ago, and he couldn't curse anybody for what the Recreation lady brought up on Father's Day.

     "You know what you look like in profile?"

     Howard hadn't quite heard what the young man was saying.  He leaned closer and asked for a repeat.

     "You look like a god damn penguin."

     "There it is.  I'm out here minding my own business, and you come out here and insult me.  You hate me, don't you?"

     "I don't hate you.  I despise you."

     They sat there a while in silence.  What he had never told anyone was how he came back from Shanghai three years later and was eating dinner at his sister's and halfway through Jaimie was suddenly there on the wall above his sister's head in a gray suit and smiling in a way he'd only seen on statues of Jesus, and how the picture was there for over three minutes.  He had never told anyone about that until just now, just now telling Tommy King who for some reason didn't laugh or make light of it, surprising guy he was.

     "I just think he was trying to tell you he was all right.  He just wanted you to know he was alive somewhere and that he was all right.  Probably he wanted you to get on with living, that's all.  Start up your world again."

     Somebody called him to lift a patient, Tommy, just as he was starting to make some sense, and then Howard was all alone on the porch until Helen Redmond came scuttling up in her chair with the legs gone but a nice figure for her age, over seventy.  He liked the way she had her hair just then, the short bangs, and he often wondered what it might be like to make love to a woman missing her two legs below the knees, if it'd be macabre or something, or maybe something you'd get used to.  Hell, he himself wasn't much of a bargain with his game leg and emphysema.

     "You still think Tommy's a fag?" he said.

     "I KNOW he is.  Everybody knows that."

     "Big guy like that?  He must go over two hundred."

     "They come in all sizes."

     That night he lay awake for an hour praying that Tommy King'd stop being a fag.  He prayed as hard as he could and said a few Hail Marys with it, but finally he gave it up just like all his other prayers, gave it up with the same empty feeling that God didn't give enough of a damn to keep his son alive, was he going to make a heterosexual out of Tom King?  Was he going to straighten out the very awful fact that the blacks were taking over every sport you could name except some of the fag ones in England, that there would never be another Marciano, not ever, world without end, let alone a Dempsey, a Tunney, not to speak of basketball where you saw a white face you were lucky.  No, Tommy King was just like the rest of them except for his kindness and what he knew about things, especially the Bomb.  Thing was he didn't walk like a fag, not a bit of it.  Probably in his genes.  The world was getting stranger by the minute.  Someday he'd get lucky and wake up and not be in it anymore.  Let the minorities have it all.  Even his memories.  When those were gone where would his son be then?

 

THREE ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

Buteckus, arms spread wide over the yellow table, chin pressed down into the mesh, sees through a haze of octagons his striped walking shorts, split at the fly, his white boxers, a tuft of pubic hair, his left leg terminating just below the knee in a baby pink stump with the smile of an old incision, the hairless right shin down to an old encrusted wing-tip planted on the tile, and just off the heel the largest roach he has ever seen, tentacles barely visible in the blur of his failing vision, nevertheless waving slightly, alert perhaps to the very real threat of an aging foot's elevation, pivot, and certain termination.  And yet Bill has lost interest.  His gaze shifts upward past a haze of yellow metal to the urinal on the surface, just now partially blocking his fix on Edna, the gray Afro over her lined white face, the pursed lips, the tongue working, perhaps at a fleck of food from the morning menu, perhaps at some recent cellular intrusion in the cavity of her cheek, perhaps at a remaining tooth, perhaps at the anticipation of supper, a cigarette, the eyes inward, vague, wide set and olive, whites more toward yellowing parchment, the hue of the Fatima cigarette package he remembers way back when before they made you suck them all through cellulose like trying to get flavor from what is it?  A a . . . Tampax.  Only Camels and Chesterfields and a few others have hung on, and now they are setting themselves up for cancer and pretty much hating the process.  Thing he likes about good old Barry Stedman is his Pall Malls.  Don't have to turn them around once or twice in good light before poking them into the lips.

     As for Edna, she was ruminating on the most painful topic of all for the neurons holding over somewhere in her tiny wrinkled head.  She was reaching with the tongue for her daughter, for Dorothy and the Colonel.  That her lovely little girl, not so little, she was nearly five-eight, had fallen for that stiff-assed veteran of bureaucratic shuffling that he so often boasted was combat—fat chance of the latter.  And so pompous and cunning, shipping the old lady off after forcing those papers on her that signed away her whole estate so that there was not a damned thing she could do to get it back, to escape this nightmare, but plead with their every visit, each spaced apart further and further over the final months they had trapped her here, and the lawyer they had hired and the statements of the psychiatrists that she had, as if she'd ever do such a thing . . . thrown lit cigarettes into the waste bins, torched the curtains—with stuff like that they had her where they wanted her, declared mentally incompetent, and with the estate in their names, in the Colonel's name, to be precise, could shunt her off to this hell, this terror, this village of the maimed, old Buteckus over there the only one with anything remotely resembling sanity left over in the whole collection, and him so dumb that it didn't pay much to bring up a topic any decent person would find of compelling interest.  Half his life making Marzipan for a living till the big chains took over and he was forced out, ten years on Social Security and handouts from the children till the amputation and the stroke, and look what his loved ones did to him.  A little money under the table and they'd let Nixon in this place to rot and stink and holler his brains out and beg for mercy, or Rockefeller, or John F. Kennedy, and pretty soon all of them would be mad like the rest.  You had to hold it down or you'd shriek, just like this cigarette she was waiting for.  Would she have to beg for it?  God, she hoped that prissy monster was in a good mood.  The first was usually easy, but to worm out a second smoke was like trying to suck a drainage pipe for 25 seconds of pure oxygen.  If only that old buzzard Buteckus would stop staring at the slit in his pants and especially at her, if only he would turn away toward the corner when he took a leak or empty that urinal once and again.  Half the time he knocked it over, and it just laid there on the floor, the ugliest stink of a puddle, and when did the porters ever clean anything up around here?  They'd throw a sheet over it, and it would lay there soaking till morning when the day shift got around to it.  And then she heard Nicky, the shriek again, chills going up her back, and then she heard Stedman's characteristic nervous shuffle through the doorway, and she had an attack of nicotine dependence that was nearly unbearable, mouth dry as bone, thinking how to phrase her request.

     "God, give me a cigarette.  I can't stand it."

     It came out of her with a flood of tears.

     So hard to hold down that old woman's pain, or even the relative lack of it, and how quantify what was coming through the open doors he chose to swing shut behind him?  As if everything that had ever been uttered was in the dampened growl, shriek, chatter, wail, gurgle, whimper behind him and in that slight bent form in front of him, Edna, her sobs—and the loveliness and the greater chance for cruelty, all in a withheld cigarette—Christ, was it just cancer?  Oh yes, I'll give you a cigarette and spare you the flourish, that simple—reaching for the pack in his tunic, the bright red, tapping one out and reaching down to bone, the trembling shoulder blades.  Yes, take and smoke.  This is my pitiful suck-ass impotent body, given for thee.  Wishing there was a cigarette out there somewhere—given for me.  Those wailing tears, that waste, that wreckage, that awful gratitude, that awful gaining composure—bless you, bless you, bless you.  If it were just that simple.  And he took out the Schinken, the raw smoked ham he had saved for William in the zip lock bag, perhaps an eighth of a pound, and reached it across to William's myopic probing, eyes like smears, discord, discord, and that terrible terrible gratitude with the barnyard muted, taking a seat between them.  And William was gumming the ham, and Barry fired Edna's Pall Mall, as she sucked in the very smallest death to ever give her life for the smallest largest minute, down to the roach she'd butt at last on the tinfoil tray he reached to her from the windowsill.  This is my body.  Could it ever make sense?  Perhaps.  The greatest temptation to inflict the slightest cruelty to season his tenderness.  Oh yes, would you like another?  And another?  Perhaps a carton?  And wouldn't that just nail you down to more of the same, the insatiable need that no one out there really seemed to understand, all the same, more of the same, incredibly the same—old goat there taking his nourishment, what God has done him in?

     Edna sucking on a half inch of Pall Mall, William licking his fingers, eyes darting about as if there just might be another eighth of a pound.

     "Was it someone said it was going to rain?"

     "Rain?" Stedman asked.

     "Molly." Edna continued.  "She said it might rain."

     "So what am I supposed to say?"

     "The weather.  What's it like out there?"

     "About the same."

     "Too cold to rain?"

     "I'm lucky if I can tidy up a few asses let alone forecast the weather."

     Bill fails to respond to what she misses.  Perhaps he is ruminating on the last taste of the Schinken.

     "I don't know," Edna continues.  "I was just sitting here and wondering.  Rain, snow?  You can't tell much from the sky."

     Bill Buteckus works for a smile and gives up.  Barry hands him a Pall Mall and provides the light, and now William has a fresh one and Edna is stubbing the last quarter inch and eyeing Barry's tunic, hungry for another.  Stedman leans back and cups the rear of his head and waits for someone to speak, maybe Edna's eyes to alter.  They flicker back and forth from the pack to Bill, his excruciating good fortune, about a third of it moistened with the drool from the stroke side.

     "They took out Sadie this morning," Bill offers.  "They had one of those colored aides with them, and nobody said whether it was the last we would see of her.  You didn't hear, did you, Barry?"

     "Where'd they take her?"

     "Nobody said.  I thought you knew."

     "I'm sure she's all right."

     "God, I hope so."

     It is all muted through the doors, but they're out there, mirroring Bill's fear.  And then Barry hears the volume shift and the slouching gait of what materializes as Samantha Judd, broad, almost too happy, aimed for a garden chair to double down toward her splayed Totes and struggle.  Run up the left thigh toward a split in the panty hose and the chocolate swell, obscene wink of flesh till she has the Totes freed and a flash of regulation shoes, worn, cracked, whited.

     "Mattie be looking for you," she says, half an edge in the warmth.

     "What's her problem?"

     "Your problem, I guess.  Barrow leaking."

     "How bad is it?"

     "Bad enough.  Poor man sitting there just happy as the King of Siam.  Getting ready to play in it, I suspect."

     "Damn."

     "Yeah.  And Molly just saying you took half the linen.  Haaaaaaaaaaah."

     "My share.  No more."

     "Say you took pretty near half."

     "I suppose Mattie agreed."

     "She say tell that old boy Stedman get his lazy be-end out the dining room or wherever he be hiding and clean up that faeces fore supper.  She say tells him he best straighten up or God knows she writes him up.  You knows Mattie.  Say she be ready turning you inside out.  And then no coffee tonight.  Not till you be showing up here with a pound of Folgers.  Say you don't be getting a smell.  Haaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh."

     "Well I guess she covered everything."

     "Pretty near.  You knows Mattie."

     He takes one last look at Buteckus, his puzzlement over the turn his cigarette has taken, burning down the dry side, Edna filled with the same image, Edna so tiny, so fragile.  Samantha Judd spreads two broad dark hands above her great thighs like a monstrous Buddha in meditation, her polyester wig slightly off adjustment, a perfect upper bridge, heavy boned, solid, empty, as would seem, a Buddha's smile, unfathomable, a wedge of imponderable strength.  Then he hears Mattie hollering, and he is on his way down a tunnel toward Barrow, toward Mattie's voice.

     She is standing just outside the room with the medicine cart, standing there with her lumpy old woman's legs, the spread of her terminating on tile.  She pushes back her ornate glasses and squints over at him, nearly his height even with the bend and the shuffle.  He doesn't read the eyes or the smile behind the eyes or whether there is anything in the brain beyond a certain delight in his tremors.  Witch that she is, however, he likes her.  Steadies himself.  She is blocking the doorway.  Backs off and points inside, a broad hooked yellow finger.

     "What do you call that?" she asks.

     "Shit."

     "Don't you sass me, boy.  I been smelling it."

     "I can't be in there all day."

     "You sure as almighty knows can check it out once't.  I been smelling it and I sure doesn't like it."

     "Just a little shit."

     "Don't you be saying that S word."

     "Faeces."

     "I wants that room so sweet that old boy in there eat his supper with none of that turns his stomach.  Hear?"

     "Yes maam."

     "Then you gets your beds set up proper.  Hear?"

     "Yes maam."

     "Miss Porter to you.  Hear?"

     "Yes, Miss Porter."

     She watches him back into the doorway and then heads on down the corridor with her cart.  With her eyes, she strains to get the pills right, and then those shiftless aides have the habit of mixing up the rooms on her so that she has to check the wrist bands, and it is not that easy in the light.  She is very tired of working in a county hospital, but there is not much else she can do.  Right now, she feels the slightest weary thrill of joy.  Every few feet she pulls a can of Staphene out of the bottom drawer, creaking downward for the cylinder, and spraying out along the floor, aiming it downward.  That Stedman really a nice boy if he wasn't so damned lazy and with those highfaluting ways of his and that kind of swing to his walk and his heels scraping and the way he kind of backs off too quick to make it worth the trouble bending him down.  Somehow he much like Harold T, on dope at 32, in and out of Ward 8-3, a truckload of heartache.  She pulls up beside something listing over a lap-board and tries to read the file card, holding it up to the light.  Always has to watch her step cause they trying to get rid of her, and then maybe she'd end up like one of these zombies.  Wait till young Stedman try to get his hands on some of their coffee later on in the night.  Just thinking about it made her reach up to stroke the skin over her pacemaker.

     Barrow's eyes in the lenses, his guilty smile, sitting there with the headset, a dark stain on the isolation gown, spreading, lap to knees.  Stocking feet planted in the puddle.  Human misery.  Rank.  Stedman yanks a sheet off the wheel-chair and covers the soup on the floor, winding the sheet around the feet and then under and pulling off the socks.  He wipes the floor and balls up the sheet and goes back to the bureau and pulls out two towels and soaks them in the sink, grinding liquid soap onto one of the towels from the yellow dispenser.  Turns back to Barrow.  Chagrin in the old man's eyes.  Off with the gown.  Stedman drops it on top of the sheet.  Goes to work on the legs, what he can reach of the groin, toweling the old man off.  Back to the chair for a set-up.  Peels back the yellow spread and lays pad, doubled sheet, pad, doubled sheet, over the center of the bed.  Drapes a draw-sheet over the edge and prepares for the worst.  Get him onto the bed without soiling the uniform, all that weight on the unwieldy legs, the whole flushed body up and over, one contracted hand taking some of the weight, the other fishing for the headset, which Barry has forgotten to remove and which has been yanked down around Barrow's neck.  Radio teetering at the edge of the bed-stand, but there is just enough length of wire and Barrow has his soiled hams on the draw-sheet, ready for the pivot, flushed legs up and over and the torso supine.  And Stedman asks him to roll toward the far rail and reaches back for the first towel to attack the buttocks and the genitals, always careful of his uniform, and then the second towel, and he has him free of it, all but the scent, and he drops the two towels on the gown and sheet, a wad of it, and he slides out the draw-sheet and drops that and rolls the old man back, a great pink mass on the set-up with the headset's static against the pillow and Barrow's eyes tearful through the cataract lenses.   A Johnnie coat from the old man's drawer, slipping that on, and there is little left but to chase down a hamper and wash the stink from below his own elbows, the smallest spatter on the toe of one shoe.

     "God bless you, Barry.  God bless you."

     "It's all right."

     "I'm so sorry.  I'm so sorry."

     "It's all right.  Just pray for me."

     Stedman held his hands up and away from the old man's face.  He leaned down over the rail and kissed Hans Barrow on the cheek, and then the old man was praying, hands like parchment, contracted bone and paper skin joined to stab the rank air over the bed, lips moving in an incoherent hiss, and Barry Stedman left him that way, praying, rounded the bed to ease up the other rail, the spread, so that all of old Barrow was this strangely lucid swell of ribbed pastel and a flesh-toned cast of supplication, the two joined hands, old as death, jarringly pathetic, Dürer really, and not without dignity, a crackle from the headset just under a leak of prayer, quiet now, suddenly quiet.

 

THE ARTIST ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

Mike D'Angelo was doing his best with the drawing, but after that one where he truly had it right, there was really no interest.  In fact, they stopped his drawing lessons.  Some said the man in Recreation had quit, but Mike knew better.  Mikey knew that his was a one shot deal.  He had achieved genius one time and that was it.  There would be no more scaling the pristine heights, or however you wanted to say it.  The evidence was clear enough.  Tommy had bought that one for ten dollars, and then Mike couldn't even give him the best he had turned out over many weeks of struggle.  He just wasn't interested.  Oh, he had said he was aiming to see that there was going to be an exhibition in the lobby of the hospital and that he didn't want to be taking them home till more people could have the chance to look them over, but Mike knew better.  Even at 93, when he got the ends of the hallway mixed up and often went to urinate in the ladies toilet, he knew when he was being conned.  Tommy King just didn't like the new work, and he was trying to let him off easy.  After all those years during the Depression and even later when Mike and Ralph Perder used to spend their days at the Metropolitan, those years he worked in the glue factory and drew a bit on the side with no real instruction, choosing a dry medium because he didn't have the money for canvas and oils, but drawing nevertheless, with not enough time for it, and then he got retired to this senior citizens hospital and had all the time in the world, and he just couldn't get it right, excepting that one great face of a gentleman Tommy said was pretty much as good as Beardsley, if you liked Beardsley.  Mike's favorite man was the guy that did the Pietà in Rome, and the Sistine Chapel, a sculptor really, working out of his medium that time—the Pope had said to do it and he said let Raphael do it, that's his medium—and he laid on his back for four years to get it just right the way Mike had done most of his work in the open door to the dining room where the light was better, not seeing that good anymore with the cataracts, working with the illustration boards his niece had brought in, for Mike himself was unmarried and had no children to shell out a dollar 49 a piece for something an old man could scrawl on.

     There was quite a stir the first few days he started bringing them back from therapy, but that died out.  He guessed they got used to it like anything else, all but Tommy who bought the portrait, and then even Tommy got sick of it, just plain tired of looking over second rate stuff.  Mikey guessed there was just the juice there for the one drawing, unless Tommy was simply wanting him to feel good by buying one.  On the other hand, why would somebody with his job, only a nurse's aide, shell out ten dollars for some art if there wasn't some profit motive?  Maybe somebody on the outside buying it back for thirty, a clean profit for the little bit of trouble it cost young Tommy King, who seemed for a time to be the only outlet Mike had for serious conversation but who had ignored him later when he had done his best work and had to be discarded.

     But then the whole history of art was filled with tragedies.  Van Gogh had sold maybe only one work that came dear enough to be called a sale, and then he cut at his ear and left a big mess right there, giving it to the prostitute, and then he shot himself in the chest, and then those same paintings kids threw darts at were going for somewhere in the millions.  Maybe if old Mikey had taken a trip up to the third floor and threw himself off the balcony they would have paid some notice.  Maybe there would have been a big auction and he would have brought down a hundred a copy of the bar lady and the Judas drawing Tommy had said he wanted but never took home, even when he could have had it for free.  Damn shame.

     Well they weren't going to make a martyr of Mike D'Angelo, he decided, soon enough.  Not when he had three squares a day and a dry warm place to sleep and peace and quiet since they took him off the other ward where they screamed all day and night like barnyard animals and peed and messed themselves and even played in it times,  and the most you could get out of them was a grunt or two, the talk going worse than plain crazy, just making no sense at all, disturbing really.  And the smell that never cleared, and the stink of the food trucks, and the way the aides beat up on him.  It had been good to be over here where it was sane.  It made your life worth living.  And even if he never sold another painting and they never sent him back to the Recreation art class, he knew then he wasn't going to stir the waters, because old Mikey knew when he had it made, and if there was time the talent might get back into him and the juice he lost, and then there would be the big auction even before he was dead, and there would be reporters there and some of the big shots from the Metropolitan or even the Frick, and Mikey D'Angelo would go down in history just like his favorite, the man he could never recall for naming, easy as it was and reminding him of his own name if he got close enough.

     That's it.  Michelangelo.  The greatest sculptor in recorded history.  Maybe the greatest painter.  And Gauguin.  And da Vinci.  And Botticelli.  And Rembrandt.  And that list went on and went on, and none of those guys, Titian, Hopper, Watteau, Modigliani, died as long as there was a place to hang them up for dumb guys like Tommy King to see, Bosch, Bruegel, Klee, but Mikey D'Angelo had never heard of an artist who came down over the years, Wyeth, Marc, Chagall, came on and held with just one great painting to his credit, let alone one great drawing.  And so he spent his mornings and afternoons summer by summer by the big open door to the dining room where the light was best and tried and tried for another, and then he had his second stroke and ended on Acute, and when they brought him back the world was glued on backwards and he couldn't hold the boards anymore, let alone draw on them, and there was talk he was going back to 8-3 with the zombies, and his career was down the chute, finished, Mikey David D'Angelo.  It had a good ring, but the time just wasn't right.  And then his niece came and took away his crayons and his pencils and the drawings he had left unfinished, and then he had his third stroke, and there wasn't the juice left to even care what more they came and took away.

 

RIPPER ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

Ralph Pecco couldn't quite put his finger on it, what made Tommy King forgivable.  It would probably have to be something like that morning.  He came in at, say, 7:15 and flipped the lights on and in ten minutes had them all laughing.  And it wasn't that easy really.  First there was Wally with the stroke on the left side and who needed help even to take a pee.  Then there was Bruce with a stroke on the right, and he couldn't even talk right.  And then there was the guy Tommy called the Gray Ripper, who was really called Broderick, and he got hit by a car when he was with the green and had every right to be crossing safe when they knocked him cold, and Broderick couldn't raise his hands above elbow level and took those little short steps in a pair of old tennis shoes with the laces dragging and was half senile and suing for five hundred grand this time, the third time he got hit crossing, which was all the funnier for King, who said he earned his money that way and called him the Ripper, because, according to King, old Broderick, who could hardly shuffle his way to the toilet and who put chewing gum all over the bottoms of his sneakers, swear to God, for more traction, was molesting the nurses on the night shift and was over-sexed and stuff like that that made you just about bust laughing when young Tommy, who was queer on top of it all, started in.  And Pecco was laying there, minding his business, and Tommy said be sure to take a picture of the bowel movements for the day, that the camera was at the desk, and to be sure to wash the crack of your rear end or the nurses'd be riding him count of the smell, and then Bruce Baby started in, hollering to get him his basin, and Tommy said, who pulled your chain? and Wally laughing and Broderick laughing and then choking with that cough of his Tommy said he was faking just to up the ante on the lawsuit, or maybe how Ripper better get his butt to a hospital, as if they weren't already in one, the sorriest excuse for one you could name, Pecco'd say, if it wasn't for guys like Tommy, no matter his sexual preference, the way Ralph Pecco looked at it.  The guy was a born comedian.

     What he was really getting to was himself.  He had better get there because the whole thing started out that way, Ralph Pecco, 65 with a bad heart, diabetes, kidney failure, blind in one eye, high blood pressure, and then, last but not least, they had taken his left leg off below the knee three months back, and just when it was about to scab up proper and heal, he lost his balance and his other leg gave and he went down on the floor and split the stump open and bled like a sow, and they were talking about taking another three inches off it.  It was nothing to joke about, and most of the time he was crying inside, and just yesterday they tested out the circulation, and it was no damned good for sure, so maybe it was just a matter of time before it was cut off over the knee, and then maybe his other leg'd go, and there was even some speculation about how he was going to need a pacemaker, and after that, who knew?  It was a hell of a life, and he was just telling Tommy the other day at the renal clinic, Tommy and the social worker, Ruth Perkins, that he'd just as soon go to sleep and never wake up even if there was nothing on the other side, even if it was just some kind of vacuum or rotting in the box, just a pile of bones and stink till that was gone, even that, the way he felt all day, every day he was awake, every minute 'cepting that first thirty minutes when Tom King stepped in and hammered away at his misery.

     Maybe that was it.  Maybe Pecco had figured it out why the worst thing a man could ever do to himself was somehow strangely acceptable, why Pecco, who had grown up tough and lean, could like, even love the sorriest excuse for manhood that ever came down the pike, an outright fag, Tom King.  And then he remembered that trip the three of them had taken, Perkins, King, and Ralph Pecco, when they were waiting in the reception room, and Pecco had told King and Ruth Perkins about the time he was closest to dying.  And then he decided that maybe that was why he could forgive Tom King, that he sat there through the whole story and even asked a few questions, and didn't butt in, and let him get it all out, just like Ruthie there, who was paid to listen, let him tell the whole sad story about how Ralph Pecco just about cashed it in at the age of 21.

     He wasn't going to repeat the whole story right here, just hit the highlights:

     "We was just out of Key West, and it was getting toward dark, and I was fast asleep, and the engines went, and they misjudged the distance to the water, and we set down hard about a fifty foot fall, and I woke to them screaming and inflated my life vest, which was stupid, cause the water buoyed me up to the roof of the fuselage, and there was no way out, and wouldn't you know we had dropped right onto a sunken island cause just when I was crying to my mom who I'd never knew and was reading my obituary in a newspaper just as clear as the walls and the water rising past my shoulders, and could see my old man getting the telegram, the plane settled down on hard rock, and we was saved, just a miracle, you might say, and they cut me out of there an hour later with a torch and pulled me free, and I saw the lights off Key West and I saw the stars, and I saw the moon, and I knew I would see it again and again, but I had no way of knowing I would end up here in this kind of shape at my age, wanting times to be back there in that fuselage, drowning like a rat, only that time for real with all the misery I had to go through just in the way of surviving day to day to end up like the way I am right here looking over at that dumb SOB, that creeping Jesus, Broderick Fellshaft, the guy Tommy calls Ripper."

     It was morning again, and King was rumpling the old man's hair, old Broderick with his drawers down around his knees, and going for his testicles with the paper wash rag, old Broderick with his white hair out in tufts and the dandruff flaking all over his sky blue polyester shirt he never took off, even when he went to sleep.

     "So you think I should use Head and Shoulders?"

     "That's the only thing, old buddy."

     "How about Listerine?  They say that helps."

     "I don't know about Listerine.  You might try that for your piles."

     "Fire it up there with a syringe, maybe a air pump."

     And then the old man was laughing and hacking.

     "Use that for your piles, and rub your Preparation H into the scalp.  I've heard that works."

     "Ever hear of Pilo?  That was a damned good product.  Especially for the itch.  If you had the itching kind.  They took it off the market about thirty years back.  Somebody's kid swallowed a whole box of suppositories, and the parents sued, and the company went out of business."

     "You stick to Head and Shoulders."

     "For the piles?"

     "For the dandruff.  Christ, you look like you just walked out of a doughnut factory."

     "How about Listerine?"

     "I really don't know, Ripper."

     "It's really amazing the things they got."

     "It sure is.  And pretty soon you're going to have the money to buy it all."

     "You think I'll get my five hundred grand?"

     "What did you get on the last one?"

     "Ten.  Ten grand."

     "And the one before that?"

     "That one was hit and run.  I never seen the guy."

     "Well you go for as much as the market will bear."

     "My lawyer said their lawyer said if an I wasn't reaching up high for something I was good as new.  Ain't that something?"

     "Next time cough a little harder."

     "Anything you say."

     "And see a doctor about it.  Go to a hospital."

     "Ain't this a hospital?"

     "I really couldn't say."

     Under the gauze dressing about Ralph Pecco's stump was a deep triangular split.  It wasn't half as ugly as a bedsore.  There was no necrotic tissue.  The flesh was clean and pink.  And yet the prognosis was not entirely favorable.  Just last week they had taken Helen Redmond over to have a few more inches of bone removed.  Pecco lay back in the early morning somewhere midweek and read his obituary.  King had said something that had the others in spasms.  So much frigging misery.  Why had the Virgin let it just go on like that?  There were things in Pecco's life he didn't even dare to broach, elements of his past, the strange way they had of lingering, breaking into thought the least time you expected it.  It was going to be very good to die.  He could almost taste it.  Wasted guys like the old Gray Ripper.  How did he manage to suck so much out of life?

     The day Tommy didn't laugh was when Ralph Pecco hinted very straight on how many guys had ceased to stand in his way, when he took the good leg and snuffed his fag end on the floor just to illustrate.  Nothing all that direct, mind you, but enough to give him the idea.  And if they had just sunk two more feet there would be nothing, nothing that major, really, nothing he could wake up nights screaming so that Brucie wouldn't curse him in that awful wordless jabber, nothing on his soul.  Just a few harmless laughs, maybe a fist fight.  He hadn't learned how awful you had to get and stay on being till they shipped him home with a Purple Heart and six campaign ribbons.  That time it was legal.  Even then he could have stopped cold and gone on with a good clean conscience.  Maybe that was his problem.  He didn't have the latitude to just lay back all the way and roar.

 

FOUR ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

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.  Things could change, but all man really needs right now 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 last December 1972 and Eric Potter's column.  The best thing about a Jew, and a Muslim likely just as well, was the regularity of his elimination.  There was evidence to prove it.  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, Muslims, 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.

     So many times he has problems in here.  It is not so much Stanton, little man drooling in the corner with his ferret eyes and habit of sniffing about in search of some major solution, mute Stanton doomed to inarticulateness.  It is not that this is Wick's quarters, nor that it is Jarwalenski's.  He has had little trouble from those occupants.  It is rather something he chooses not to see, something horrible in the corner, old man Blackston and his family, punctually there before the evening's meal, attempting to wrest a bit of sentience from a stuttering bent heap of a man who never halts his churning struggle against the double restraints which hold him trapped in his battered wheelchair.  Right now they are doing it again, and chances are they will involve Stedman in their pursuit.  Perhaps a bit of advice, someone to share in their misery, this insanity with the flashcards the son dreamed up to nudge his senile old father back into the world of primitive communication.  And the wife, her pinched little form so expectant, basically a decent sort, painful really.  The son with the countenance of a Mafia hit man, the threadbare black turtle neck sweater, the tattooed hands, the black leather trousers ending in a zippered hug of the ankles, the pointed leather shoes, all of which have seen better times.  There they are.  He cannot escape them, their futile quest, hunched down toward poor Frank Blackston, who can no more utter a monosyllabic word as prompted than recite the last four digits of Nixon's Social Security number.  And holding up those cards—it all leaves Stedman with a sick empty feeling that requires half an evening to erase.  There are times he even dreams about it and wakes screaming hugely toward some fatal flaw in the cosmic mechanism that has doomed that pair and their loved one to such a warped and hopeless exchange, teaching him now like a recalcitrant infant, infant he is, dribbling on his rumpled lap where the zipper can never close on three thicknesses of diaper, Burton's brainchild.

     "Here, Dad.  Try it again.  Saw COW.  Come on now."

     The seedy man is holding up a flashcard.

     "Spell it.  C.  O.  W.   C.  O.  W.  Say COW."

     Those expectant eyes, both of them waiting for a twinge of recognition in the old man's face, the elder Blackston churning and writhing in the chair, head bent down, staring into his bloated gabardines, a crucified wife stroking his hair, pressing his cheek, prompting.

     "COW.  Say it, Frank."

     The hit man holds up another card from the stack.

     "What's this, Dad?  Say MOTORCYCLE."

     Stedman tries to press this all down, works with the set-ups, unobtrusively as possible.  Here he needs three doubled sheets and six pads per bed.  There is a lot of leak in 516, much to guard against.  One has to pad them thickly enough that it doesn't reach the bottom layer and require a complete overhaul.  Then a person cannot get by alone, needs two aides, one to pull them over against the rail, another to slide the linen under.

     He holds off as long as possible.  Then:

     "How's he doing, Mrs. Blackston?"

     "I don't know.  He seemed to be saying something about an hour ago, but it might have just been a kind of grunt or something.  Junior thought it was ICE CREAM.  His dad was always great for ice cream.  We always hope he'll manage ICE CREAM.  Somehow he seems a little listless today."

     "Oh, he'll come around," Stedman offers.  "I'm sure of it.  How was he at home?"

     "God, he was peeing all over everything, and we couldn't get him to use a spoon to eat his mashed potatoes.  Junior said he would improve with the proper care."

     "Well he's getting it here.  24 hours a day."

     "We plan to take him home soon as he can work his bowels and stop the peeing.  When we get him talking."

     "I'm very glad of that.  There aren't many relatives that care like you do.  I'm very glad."

     "Maybe we could leave the cards here in his bed-stand and you could work on it when you have the free time."

     "You do that."

     This time Stedman looked at them directly.  He could only handle it for a few seconds, but when he glanced up and beyond through the open door, there was nothing to rest his eyes on, for Tongue was in there and the lady with her eyes back in her head.  There were four feeds in that room.  Compared to Tongue and the lady with the eyes back and the other two, for the most part bed-ridden and terrible to think about, Fred Blackston was the picture of health.  But what could the wife and son know about Blackston?  They had never seen him at 10 PM during the change of linen.  Stedman pulled out a pocket watch and noted that he was relatively safe for at least six hours, and then maybe the worst would be over.  He left them there working on PIG.  They would linger past supper, one he didn't have to worry about until time for the change.  Getting him into bed was easy.  They wouldn't be there for that part either, not long enough for the revelation that the old man did have a certain command of language—an obscene bellow under five letters.  There might be time now to phone home.  Have to edge past Molly and Rachel, sneak the dime in the slot.

 

BARDI ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

Angelo Bardi was going home.  It was the strangest feeling just standing there in the lounge with all the cripples, standing, mind you, even if there was the crutches—he'd be rid of those soon enough.  Standing there watching all those wasted suckers with their strokes and amputations and never going to get any better, most of them fixing to get shipped off to one of the other wards where the only way they'd ever get out was feet first in a plastic bag.  Not this guy.  No, Angelo Bardi had beat them, had beat the crazy sort of fate that had him paralyzed from the waist down just six months back and wondering if he was ever going to get it up again let alone walk.  It was a frigging miracle, but he had brought it on himself just out of sheer willpower and determination, and one thing was certain.  There was going to be no more of that fag King handing out his water in the morning and even washing his back and breathing hard all over him, big strapping virile man he knew himself to be, just a year ago going 190 with a 32 inch waist.

     Tommy had asked him if he had learned anything from the experience.  In a sense, he had.  What he had learned was not to take things for granted, to get the most out of life really, and to live for number one, Bardi himself.  Because the strangest thing was that of all the women he knew, and he had a book full of them, only the first wife had had the decency to pay a visit, fat old slut that she was, and even then after the way he had treated her.  Not one of those other witches—he could think of worse words—had even paid a call, and he had set them all up proper and made sure they were in clothes and what have you just so they was available when the urge came, and the urge came often, very seldom for the same woman, that was sure, but came nevertheless and came hard and true, because if one thing was certain Angelo Bardi was a real man, not the kind of wimp they put him in with when the lower half of him was as limp as your grandmother's udder and he had to listen to the guy all night, Jeeter Simpson, shaking the bed, abusing himself, and coasting around during the day in a white vinyl crash helmet with those ugly thick lips and the vague eyes and the goatee and hairy as the back end of an ape.  No more Jeeter Simpson.  No, back to the Co-op and a bottle of Asti and that woman he had hired to take care of him in more ways than one—he had made that clear with the ad.

     It all started in Reno where he had spent the weekend at the Mustang Ranch and had gone through every high class hooker in the place, gone through all that anatomy and enough Bourbon to drown a small horse, had spent the weekend there blowing off steam, and came back into town and looked over a second hand Porsche that he thought might improve his image, and took it out for a test spin, and some Puerto Rican in a big Chevy slammed into the back, and they said it was whiplash, but he ended up numb from the neck down and hardly moving his arms the first month, and ending up here on this ward with the awful food and the sloppy service and no call system so that you had to lay in it for hours sometime, hollering out and no one hearing, not to speak of King's hands on him mornings washing him, and bit by bit the feeling came back in the limbs and a trace of hope and hanging on and knowing that the whole world was totally bent crooked and that if he ever had the chance to do it again he would really be selfish because the only one that came and brought him a bottle once in a while was Winnie, who was sagging and ugly and hoping maybe for a hand-out.

     Bardi stood there by the door watching them listing in their wheelchairs and the hophead in the motorized one inching his way through the doorway, and he was just tasting his impending freedom, when the first night in Twin Oaks flashed past him so fast his knees nearly buckled and he just missed hitting the deck.  It was a fleeting vision, but the whole thing was there, all that unquenchable misery he would never quite forget.

     They had flown him back to his home state, and he was given the option of two hospitals and he took Twin Oaks and he arrived on a litter toward evening, and they lifted him into bed in a double room where the curtain was drawn on his neighbor, and he lay there, and they fed him, and he used what was left in his right arm to get to his face and scratch it, and he was laying there till about nine, when the screw scooted out from behind his curtain and down the hallway, quiet there for hours so that Bardi hadn't even known he was there, and then the nurse came in, and Bardi asked who was the creep? And got the information that he had an epileptic for a roommate, somebody about 25 with an incurable brain tumor they kept cutting away at, and that he was sleeping was why there had been no noise, and that he'd be back in soon enough, that he stays up nights reading Hustler.

     Sure enough, he was scooting back in about 11, and pretty soon he could hear him breathing hard and the bed shaking, and Bardi hollered out for the nurse, and finally she showed, and Bardi asked her to take a look at his neighbor, he was having a seizure or something, and she just smiled kind of and said there was nothing to worry about he was just abusing himself, those exact same words, and for the next six months he had to listen to that bed shaking all night long, and one time, when he had his arms back, he leaned over and pulled the curtain aside, and the covers were jumping up and down like a madhouse, and he could see young Jeeter with his eyes closed and his back arched and the heavy lips and the goatee, and he swore if he ever had the chance he'd cut the bastard's throat, the dirty sick SOB that reminded him night after night, hour after hour, that there was no way in hell he was going to ever have another Mustang Ranch, and this guy was simply expending it on his hand, the same hand he offered out to shake the first day they met head on when Bardi had gotten as far as a wheelchair, and Bardi had just pushed on by, wanting to split the creep's big lipped face, Jew that he was probably, and cut his equipment off and nail it to the bulletin board. 

     No, he was going home.  A little damaged maybe, but still in the ball park.  He was going home to some sipping whiskey and maybe a little reefer when his son showed, cause he'd show soon enough when he heard the old man was back on his feet and a source of income, not down the tube like he figured.  And the ladies?  Well, they'd show too.  Word gets out.  And they'd be sweet and loving and forgive him a bit if he didn't produce like the old days just so long as the money and times were there, the restaurants, the night clubs, weekends in the Catskills.  And yet, somehow it'd never be just the same.  Thing he learned here in Twin Oaks was you were just a little embolism, they called it, a clot away from creeping Jehovah, deads-ville, just like the hophead there sucking a cigarette from a catheter tube.  Just a clot and you wouldn't know your mother's name.  And worse than that, nobody in the whole bitching world would remember you even existed 'cepting some loser who still had a heart.  Maybe he'd look up old Winnie.  Nah.  Too late for that.  Just get the hair touched up in the back and go on chasing, running like Jesus, toward the darkness.  Getting your jollies now and then, mind you, but always toward the darkness.  And then, leaning into the aluminum crutches, the tall man with streaks of yellow in the gray hair and the faded sun tan finally began to cry.

 

CINDERELLA ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

The whole story reminded him of Cinderella.  You might say it was a fairy tale.  Tommy didn't like that word.  Not a modern fairy tale, an old one.  A Cinderella story with the first hint about six months back when Tommy King was taking a specimen over to the lab.  He was passing the dinette when he saw Jarvis Barclay sitting there in his wheelchair beside someone young, slender, well-dressed, pretty for a woman.  She was holding Barclay's trembling hand, and they seemed very happy.  Tommy walked on by, trying not to look them over too closely, but all the way down to the labs he wondered who the woman was.  A sister?  A cousin?   A new social worker?  A friend of the family?  And then he began the painful memory of when he, King, was floated to 11-3, where they had most of the zombies that were still fairly young, and he had had to wash, dress, toilet, and feed young Jarvis Barclay along with seven others of varying degrees of cruel disability.  It seemed then that Jarvis was the worst, maybe because he was still with it.  God, was he with it!

     Somehow they had gotten started on poetry, perhaps because Tommy had mentioned that his friend Barry wrote some and that just to keep up with him Tommy had started reading a bit, some of E. E. Cummings and some Eliot that stuck in his mind, here and there a few lines that he quoted to Barclay just to see if he could guess the author.  And Jarvis Barclay had gotten them all.  And Jarvis Barclay had MS and was just a lump of quivering tissue with a catheter in him and had to prop his head with the one good arm so that he could be steady enough to be fed by someone with a big spoon.  And Jarvis Barclay was 38 years old and had discovered his illness while completing his Masters in Theology at some big seminary in New York.  And Jarvis was the brightest man Tommy had ever met, even smarter than Barry, who had studied six years at some university in the Mid-west before he got into drugs and strung out and ended over there in Building 6, a lowly nurse's aide, no more, no less, with all his education.

     Tommy made a special point to spend the last hour of the shift with Jarvis, and just before he left, he said he'd bring a tape of Barry's poems, a tape since Barclay couldn't read anymore with the tremors, and Barclay said, no rush, that he'd be there for the rest of his life, and Tommy choked up, knowing from their conversation that that young guy's wife had left him six months after the diagnosis, that his two children were nearly grown and couldn't bear looking at him it scared them so much about their own lives, worrying if the disease was hereditary, though they said it wasn't, that, from what Barclay said, there were few visitors, perhaps a distant relative once in a while, for both of his parents had passed on when he was still a boy and he was raised in foster homes.  That he had won a scholarship to a big university like Cornell and had graduated with special honors and was studying to be a minister when all the trouble started.  That the only way out of that ward for Jarvis Barclay was maybe thirty years down the line after a dozen years of tube feeding and incontinence and what have you, all the way out in a box.  And the worst part about it, Tommy King couldn't bear to return there with the tape of Barry's poems.  He didn't want to face that pain again.  He didn't want to face it the way it came flooding back that day six months ago when he was headed the last hundred yards to the labs after passing Barclay and friend in the hallway out in front of the dinette.

     There was a lot of pain in the hospital.  Tommy had seen already so much in four years it had aged him.  He did his best to loosen up when he left them, but the patients had a way of following him home, following him into the discos, the jazz clubs, even into his love making.  If he hadn't found Barry, he would have probably walked out of that job after a month.  It was Barry that made it possible to hang on with the only employment available just at that point with his lack of training.  Oh, later on he would take the LPN course and move up, but there would be just more of the same stuff, only more money.  It was all such a dead end.  And then came the only LOVELY ending he had known in all the months at Twin Oaks, and he got that second hand just a few days before his summer vacation when Slacey Oakes floated over from 11-3, and he had a chance to ask her about old Jarvis, young Jarvis, the guy that would die in Twin Oaks with all his brains and all his kindness and all his education, expire without the slightest trace of dignity in it, expire after thirty some years without the taste of hope.

     "Oh Jarvis," she said, adjusting her bodice.  She was a fat dark lady with a sense of humor sometimes but not much else.  "Jarvis be gone from here near three months.  Jarvis be off with a lady friend sure enough.  You never heard the story?"

     He said he hadn't.  Somehow what she had already said was confusing him.  It didn't seem that real.

     "There was this young lady with money that come in one day to the lobby and say she wanted to visit patients, and the guard stopped her and say she need a pass and some kind of relative there, and the lady, young thing that she be, commenced to crying, and then Miss Samson, the ADN, come over and be asking the problem, what it be, and Samson lets the lady go up to 11-3, and who will she, the lady, be meeting but Jarvis, and she come back and come back, and just three months back what do you know but they pack him up and ship him off to her place in Port Ferris, some big Condo where the richest people lives, and they be living there ever since.  I never heard the like, but I guess she must of known what she be doing, cause they say his catheter be out and he be feeding hisself and even taking a few steps with her help, and they planning to be marrying by winter, and the whole thing just so beautiful it made me almost sick.  Imagine young girl like that taking on that old bag of dead bones and raising him up, so to be speaking, just like Lazarus."

     And then Tommy King raised up himself and crossed to the visitor's toilet without saying a word of excuse to Slacey Oakes, not even knowing that Slacey Oakes existed, crossed to the toilet and entered and sank down at the sink and started to pray in a blur of tears.  He prayed for Slacey Oakes, for the amount she could feel that story, and he prayed for telling it to him, and he prayed for the lady that took Jarvis Barclay home, and he prayed longest for Jarvis, and then he prayed for himself.  And when he was done praying for himself he tried to pray for everything else, but he didn't have the words for it, and then he thought he might be weakening the prayer, spreading it out too thin, so he asked God for forgiveness, not for quite being a real man like old Jarvis Barclay, young  Barclay revived, and he asked that somehow he find his way, however long that took, out of his OWN imprisonment, and then he returned to the world again and then the universe, and then he knew it was going too far, that some things didn't work in prayers, but he went on anyway, and then he heard them calling him to lift a patient and Slacey hollering he was in the john, and he stood up and dried his face with a paper towel and avoided what he saw in the mirror and stepped out and was back IN the world again.

 

FIVE ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

Outside, waiting for the cracker to emerge, Rachel Scander.  And yet she is pretty, perhaps handsome, the great mammae jacked by some miracle of architecture, the black skin ruddy, perhaps by the tint of her hair, perhaps by a touch of blusher, even the hands reddish, however, so that the tall full bodied woman seems hardly of her own race, waiting for the white man.  Lord, she'd like to bend him down, just so he could taste it, what she thought of nearly all of them.  Edging gracefully toward fifty, carrying her extra pounds with dignity, there at the intersection of the two corridors, fists on the ample hips that rode high, a swell of the pelvis somehow in keeping with a proportion of her own, a wayward symmetry that sucked in toward the buttocks and then out at the start of big thighs that had muscle in them that would squeeze poor whitey to death.  A certain ostentation in the over-sized frames, the tinted lenses that obscured her wide cold eyes that took in more than most of her gender but no more than she could manipulate or chill down—for Rachel Scander had had to take in plenty till she learned the proper tactic, a husband just now laid up in Saint Vincent's from a motorcycle accident.  The latter she had classified under abundant stupidity, for the last mishap had been his third, and nigger that he was—she liked that word—hadn't learned.  And she wasn't about to shuffle around the next twenty years in a kind of terrible lamentation.  No, she was young yet and was still woman enough for plenty of men out there that knew where their candy lay if they were virile enough to get it up.  And she wasn't the kind that just put back and let them enjoy it.  There was a certain demand in her whole life rhythm, and every year it seemed that she was getting a whole lot more of her basic satisfaction, Freddie Scander with his frightened eyes, jealous, angry hateful eyes on her sweetly off—she knew, he knew, damned well—getting it down with them, the largest, raunchiest getting it down with them, making it with the ones that were big and strong enough to bring it all off, what went all out of her so that her toes melted into the sheets and she had forgotten even the very real fact that there was a whole great wall of white people out there that could, would, in fact, lick her juicy Afro ass in time, in time—Stedman up there probably kissing Blackston and hugging that other weasel with the shifty dead eyes and the little thing that never served anyone, certainly not his dead wife, whoever she was, is, never gave anybody the kind of treatment she deserved, in the hook of his legs with just a trace of pubic—all those white men pretty nearly alike.  Oh yes, maybe the Jews—some of them were large, but the average, and she had seen enough, went to the blacks.  Stedman telling her there was such a thing as an Oreo, that time they became serious on race—to think it was niggers that were black outside and white in, to think there were such creatures in God's kingdom!  An Oreo be one of them that acts nigger, when the whole thing was to act black, BE black, be tall and proud as God knows Jesus wanted all those niggers spades coons nigras to be, that black black man, sweet black man that they nailed up and called Jew.  Onliest thing worst than an all-out white folk—and maybe that be all-out cracker—was Jew.  Stedman sure seemed Jewish, seemed that way, taking all the linen, greedy, all for himself.  Just like a Jew.  Well he was going down to 6-3 for a whole load of linen, just as soon as he was out of that door with his faggy walk, stiff-seeming—vanillas were like that, and maybe most of them, maybe the ultimate white man was like that, just like, with the stiff-assed walk, the top of the body taut like a dummy and the bottom working, mincing along, and the ass so controlled you just didn't see it beyond sticking out perhaps, not like a good black ass, real buns she knew her latest Randy possessed, because she could feel it, hard flesh twitching when his love came into her and she sucked it in like pudding, safe with her menopause and even now with the juiciest, blackest pussy God ever gave unto woman to tease the devil out of his hateful ways.  Stedman with his theories, all his taking on's, as if he were out of some fancy Jewish family or maybe something LIKE a Jew family, only believing in Jesus, as if any of those ofays really knew, born-again or whatever sacrilege presumption, stiff necked choirs in their churches with the lovely windows and nothing but a lot of cold in their veins—Stedman, he was nothing but a fancified redneck, poorest white trash, and watch his step or he'd have this whole establishment all over him like a bad dream, screaming for pity—never mind giving him time to beg for it—poor nervous whitey trying to ease out now quiet, unobtrusive—God, it made her heart warm to see him coming on as if nothing were happening, trying cool, as if cool were ever possible for plain trash—watching him coming on—copasetic—despite herself a twinge of pity.

     "Stedman," she says flatly.  "Molly waiting you pick up some linen with the stretcher.  You don't mind, do you?"  Gives him a nice smile, so easy to show that poor man she really loves him.

     "No.  I don't mind."

     "Cause Molly just a little aggravated you took so much linen.  I told her you didn't mean to be."

     "Thanks.  No.  I'll get right down there."

     "You just do that.  And pay Molly no mind.  She just a little aggravated.  But Molly, she always aggravated.  Happy lady on the other side.  We all know she the happiest lady on this whole ward.  Maybe all of Twin Oak County."

     "She's a little hard to figure out."

     "Well some time talk about it.  Get it off your chest."

     "Good.  And thank you.  I try to get along with everybody.  I guess I make it my business to get along with everybody.  Sometimes it gets a little hard.  I'm not complaining.  I like Molly.  I guess I like everybody.  Really."

     "We loves you.  We all love you."

     Gives him an extra-warm smile.  God, he shaking with fright.  And past her just as she was going to give him a good squeeze.  Thing she knows most of all is how to treat the sickest ones.  Not the ones that hate you.  The ones that tries to love.

     Over at the edge of her vision, Stedman edging the corner, poor fellow—Francine Johnston is more alive to the two just beyond the counter from her med cart, Molly and her little senile pet Lettie Rizzi.  For it is Molly who makes it possible to come to work, coarse thing that she is, that black skin velvet and the perfect, broad vital smile, taking a quick and lasting fancy to the little shuffling gnome, Letti, in the faded print dress draping sizes too large over her velveteen slippers and bobby socks, the hair in oily peppered strands over a mottled face, like a Barbi Doll that has gone bad, gone thick and ugly and cute yet, a sort of cuddly shrunken doll that you couldn't help liking, even if you were manifestly Negro and heard the obscene prejudice the little old lady came out with, really a source of humor for Molly, the smallish broad girl with the little apple breasts that were always visible with her buttons toyed down, a wide face, features altogether lovely in their way, just like this exotic loveliness waiting for poor Stedman, to jump all over his ass perhaps now, perhaps later, and all the way in between just as sweet as pie to him—so that there is no method or pattern to it that even that large refined brain of his can fathom, always approaching Molly as just now, head tucked under just a bit for the first assault.  And there is even humor in that, much as Francine hates it, for how can Molly know something she'll never tell her, that the tall worn man in the spotted Stetsons is drug dependent, certainly not heroin, but she has seen the pills.  The time the case slid out of his pocket and spilled its contents on the tile—perhaps a dozen of those large 100 milligram tablets, Mellaril, and another seven Valiums that she helped him gather up and restore to the plastic case, tablets she saw him sneak off for time and again as he bravely faced this horror, the sheer ugliness of the ward and the way those black females bore down on him.  Perhaps he is something of a doll gone bad for them, a white blue-eyed doll over six feet and as soft and brittle as she has seen the weeks she is floated to psych, schizoids leaden from Thorazine, electroshock, shells of humanity teetering over an ugly abyss for the most part of their own making.  And she reaches down her own large form, the tunic, the slacks, and pats up her thighs to her own little zip lock bag and what she first cannot feel, a sudden tug of fear, and then feels, the tiny black uppers she is saving over from her last diet, the way they make you feel on top of things, especially with a touch of wine, a sense of strength and serenity, the world a pleasant, never-ending pastel larger than its contents.

     He stands there in silence as Molly strokes the old woman's hair.  Somehow he knows he is beaten no matter what slides out of her mouth, beaten by the tease in her aggression, the tease of her warmth, teasing Letti's hair, Molly with the hard buttocks swelling the white skirt.  All he can do is muster a twinge of patience.  Lovely dark princess with the caustic mouth.

     "You hanging around?" she asks.

     "I thought we were going for linen."

     "And so we be."

     They head for the stretcher.  It is a black vinyl pad over an aluminum frame, green disk wheels with rubber rims.  Molly Morris, holding hands with Letti, expressionless old eyes in the creased spotted skin—Molly's dark fingers into an open loop of metal at the corner, letting go to slap the down button, gripping the stretcher as they wait, Stedman watching Mattie Porter as far as the orange door, up by Sarah Jane, blond hair like a thatch of spun glass, steering her cart.  Francine has started her rounds.  Helen Sterngod is in the lighted office at a bare black table, far past the termination of her shift.  And then he is backing into the twilit compartment and the door slides shut on the three of them, silently descending, Molly fondling peppered strands, reaching to pat her own tight frizz, just the back of her creaking downward till they shudder to a halt and he catches a flash of pure joy, Molly's, backing out to an empty corridor, a TV in the alcove by the linen room, three aides there, one male, all with empty wheelchairs, eyeing their stretcher.

     And he is sitting there for what seems a very long time . . . Reaches into his back pocket for a spiral notepad, fishes a pen from his tunic.  There is no one there, just static, flux, freeze of time staring at his hand moving on the blank leaf toward what has become his first quatrain of the evening:

     "Sedder, doubled, dwells in stink,

       Twin blossoms on his hips.

       His face is human, human lips

       Phrasing a smile that grips."

     Nothing there beyond the slightest hint of a calm certainty, hardly noticing the wall-eyed aide bending over his shoulder, Max, from Rumania, it is said.  Seven languages, Munich, Chicago, somewhere in France, several Ph.D.'s, Max beyond which he knows nothing, sense of his watching, and, glancing up, almost a jerk toward the wall-eyes through heavy lenses, head, heart, tightly clipped, creases over the thick frames, brows, stab at Barry's sole mode of survival, a twitch of formal verse.

     "What do you think?" Barry manages.

     "Have you ever looked at the veins of a simple leaf?"

     "What do you mean?"

     "The abyss between phenomena and ultimate reality."

     "Meaning?"

     "There in your poem.  It's all relevant."

     Where is the aide with the key?  If it goes on like this they'll be serving upstairs, and now he has this crazy to contend with.  The voice of the older man is so low that Stedman must bend forward, nearly touching heads, to pick up his words.  It is like entering in on the tail end of a conversation.  He has been waiting for someone to talk to for twelve years, and now he is just catching Max's reply, as it seems, for what he hears sounds like half of something which has been going on somewhere nearly forever.

     "Just look at Blake in MILTON.  Visions, for all they're worth, flow from the optic nerve right down into the arm and fingers that create.  And yet it's still a cumbersome process, utterly removed from what we experience directly."

     The older man's eyes seem like sad sad holes, a suck of energy.  Stedman tucks his poem away.  Backs off but the chill brain follows.  They are locked head to head.

     "The whole benighted task is really a matter of employing the materials of art to convey the pattern we directly apprehend."

     Christ, will the man dry up?  There is the small case of Mellaril in Stedman's trouser pocket.  He finds himself gripping it through the cloth like a rosary.  Where is the fucking key?  He casts about.  Aides have gathered, nodding, lethargic.  Molly is watching from the entrance to the linen room, leaning against the locked door.  Letti is perched on the stretcher.  Why is everyone so calm?

     "Even if you could succeed you'd be taken into areas of brain capability and molecular structure as set up to interpret, and really to pervert, WHAT IS to acceptable transmissions compatible with brain cell circuitry.  If you look at it that way the whole thing's tentative, bitched.  Just look at the theory of . . . Jesus! . . . "

     The old man is on his feet and running, just as Wilbur Nagey shoves his key into the door.  Except for that last expletive he has closed like a trap.  And they are all clustered, shoving each other, to get at the linen, two trucks in there and maybe twenty aides trying to get a share, Max Shirkov aggressive as the rest, and Molly is wrestling Johnnie coats, a great bag of them, free from the mob, and then Stedman is in the dark room, groping for pads and draw-sheets, and they have some on the stretcher, but a small black girl has stolen the gowns, and it is very confusing but safer somehow than Max's obsessions, out now with Letti to the elevator with what they have managed to cull for themselves, enough to handle the padding and the ten o'clock change if they stretch it a bit.

     Ascending the shaft.  It has taken nearly forever.

     "You sure sweet on that old fool," Molly says, smiling.  Letti is gripping her breast in the twilight.

     "Max?"

     "You so close there I thought you was going to grab that old fag and kiss him."

     "Come on.  I couldn't hear him."

     They pass the fifth floor, pause at 7.  The door slides open on two psych patients hunched together on a vinyl bench.  Slides shut.  Ascends.  Stedman has the 5 button thumbed in.

     "WE could.  He be just about shouting."

     "I didn't hear it."

     "Well he got to take his pleasure some ways.  Maybe been feeling up those old ladies they has full of piss and faeces over on 9-2 so long he can't stand it."

     "I don't believe that."

     "Trouble with you is you doesn't know what to believe.  Even if it be truth flat kicking your butt.  All that old boy need is a piece of ass.  Straighten him up just like that.  Some white ass.  But he have to pay for it.  Nobody sleep with that old fool lessen the money involved.  Believe you me.  Black ass maybe.  Blacker the berry the sweeter the juice, and old Max just about sweet as old man Wicky we has, eating his movements."

     "You shouldn't say things like that.  He may be better than you think."

     "You tries him then.  Turn my stomach."

     She pulls the little lady into her small bosom and begins to braid her hair.  Holding the button in, they will probably reach their ward this time, totally alone with the quivering draw-sheets and his curious arousal at the tenderness of that so-dark, sturdy sexual flesh against a fright doll, death itself.  There is the slightest pink flick of a tongue at him just then as he completes his thought, and he feels his penis nudge stiff, just a tremor, till he closes his eyes on her smile and tries for something ugly enough to chill down this tug toward life.  Oh yes, Tongue and Max Shirkov coupling, writhing on a field of skin.

     "What was you writing back there?"

     "Where?"

     "Down on 3."

     "Poetry."

     "Poetry?  Lawd, I hear everything now.  Let me see it."

     "It's not done."

     "Let me see it."

     "Maybe later."

     "What's it about?"

     "Sedder."

     "You writing about that old twisted thing?  About Eyes?  Why you writing poetry about old Eyes?"

     "Because it makes me feel better."

     The elevator shudders.  They have reached 6-5.

     "I never heard man wanting to write something about that poor crippled thing makes it feel better doing it."

     They slide the stretcher out.  Stedman smells a rankness, a stench of food.  The carts are up.

     "I never heard of that.  Stedman, you a fool."

     "A poet."

     "What's a poet?"

     "Somebody that writes poetry."

     "Is that like a author?"

     "Yes."

     "Well author your ass down the hall and serve them trays."

     "Kiss my ass."

     "Don't you be wishing just that."

     "Kiss it."

     "Letti, listen how that man talk."

     "Kiss my ass and I'll write a poem about it and then maybe I'll feel better."

     This time he sees the back of her mouth.  She stretches her arms out and snaps her fingers and grinds her buttocks just out of arm's reach, turns back and sticks out her tongue.

     "You kiss my pussy and we'll both feel better."

     Arms out, fingers snapping.  Stedman turns toward the wall.

 

NURSE ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

Cora Bridey always felt there was a limit to sadness.  It had to be somewhere where the terrible just couldn't touch you anymore.  It was a human limit really, one's own capacity for sadness, and she felt she had reached it that winter afternoon in Children's Hospital when little Robbie MacCauley had reached his arms up to her from the bed where he lay dying of a tumor of the brain, little Robbie who had never hurt anyone, never a soul, had never had it in his mind or soul to hurt anyone, mite of a thing that he was at just eleven, and asked her, asked Cora Bridey, for death not to take him.  "Don't let me die, Miss Cora.  Don't let me leave my mama."  And those following three or four minutes, when she swore by the Blessed Virgin to that child that no, he was never going to die, that he was going to get better and better and walk on out of there, that he was going home to his mother in the north of Spokesbury, to play just that coming summer in the dirt and grass, those following minutes when she had held that little boy and lied to him with all the power of conviction left in her—Cora thought then that she had reached the end of that capacity, that she had known only then true sadness.  This week, however, she knew different.  This week she learned they were shipping her out to the zombies.

     It was her own fault really, and it didn't make it any easier.  Ever since she came onto the ward she had given them trouble.  Small wonder they were in the way of getting rid of her.  Just that first week when she had heard May Swenson with the seizure and had thrown her bedpan out into the hallway to alert them, they had taken that all wrong, that she should have relied on the call light, that she was just a trouble maker.  And when she bothered them just a bit too much to adjust a pillow there, lift a foot there, cut her meat, pour out a glass of milk, part the curtain, after perhaps a thousand of those requests she couldn't resist making, even knowing as a former nurse that she was into the pattern of making work for them, of seeking their attention, seeking anything but to be helpless and alone after the stroke that had left her null and void all the way down her left side, at 230 pounds too stout to make a comeback, too broad, too old, too lonely, too ugly, old maid that she was with her sharp tongue that had driven all her friends, all her relatives into hiding, even now in her time of need, their fearing that tongue and their fearing her stories, yes, even the stories, just as they feared her stroke, and they would never come, especially now that she was going to where they peed and messed themselves and hollered and screamed, poor devils, never for an instant knowing the difference between a dinner roll and the lowest refuse of their bodies.

     Tommy had been the last.  She had held onto him, that big effeminate man, with the sheer force of her will.  She had pulled him close and clung with how old Casey Stengel was one of her patients and how she poured out his whiskey and he called her the battle axe.  Or when she told him about Dr. Blumfeld, the eminent proctologist on Park Avenue where she worked privately, how he was examining a patient of hers, and when he pulled out the scope there was this flatulence and a torrent all down the old man's handlebar moustache, all down his pin-striped shirt, and oh, how she giggled.  Or when she told him about how at Vincent's the night crew baked a gingerbread cake in a metal bedpan and served it up to one of the young interns, how he got sick in the sink over it.  Or this story or that story, but finally running out, being 83 and not as sharp witted and a bit forgetful and just simply not recalling the whole rich texture of her nursing career, spanning fifty and more years from doctor's minor assistant to head nurse on one of the most demanding acute medical wards in the whole City.  Oh yes, how the two male aides at Broadhurst used to give themselves enemas before going off evening shift at eleven to help in their love making, and how she found them kissing and embracing in a dark room with a towel over the single light, and there was old Fox Stevens cold dead in the bed next to the window, dead for probably three hours while they were in there, feeling each other up.  But there was an end even to that, and even a dollar bill shoved into young Tommy's tunic wasn't enough to get him to just stick around, stick tight for a while, she felt herself so full of terror with the evening coming and the dark, and now the greatest darkness, headed for Chronic.

     That day she put a knotted handkerchief in her slacks and took her rosary and slung that over the armrest of her over-sized chair, and she watched them packing her belongings till she couldn't stand that anymore, and then she made her way with the good arm and leg out to the juncture of the corridors by the nurse's station and waited for them to wheel down the black stretcher with her effects, the TV, the housecoats, the lingerie, the extra shoes, the photo album, waited for Tommy and that little hussy Miss Goddard to wheel it down, and Tommy to take one hand on her chair and to push her into the elevator, while the nasty one got her chart and slipped it down into her chair, switching all the while her little rear end, and they were on with the stretcher, down two flights to the tunnel, down the ramp, yellow walls, fearful, sobbing, and even the lovely young man that Tommy was couldn't make him bend a bit and hug her, feeling the pain that the most the Head Bitch Nurse had said was a curt "We'll see you," and now there were the pipes and the dripping water and Tommy's breath heaving down into her neck as he pushed her chair and steered the stretcher with Miss Goddard coming on from behind.

     She was feeling for the only strength left to her, the rosary slung on her armrest, and for the other strength, the one she hated, the handkerchief that she had knotted with the one good hand and her teeth, and which contained three months of blood pressure pills that she had trapped under her tongue till they were assured they were swallowed and had then spit into her emesis basin and let them dry and then secreted away for an eventuality such as this.  Yes, she still had the pills, and she was a tough old biddy sure enough, and maybe just one of these nights the power would come to her, on out of this world where she was no longer looking on at pain but eating it.  Oh Mary full of grace yes, bless his rotting soul, her little Robbie getting on to 53 this very year had he had some better luck.  And Cora Bridey?  She had gotten the far side of any use to anyone, even to herself.  Even to herself, the last fifty feet to the ramp and into the 6-3 elevator and ascending with the stretcher and Tom King and Miss Goddard and the fear, and then hearing that door slide open on their sounds, a wall of barnyard cackles, screeds, the smell of faeces and urine, the stench of sweat, the dark tile floors, the fearful lack of light, sliding by in a haze of tears, all the way back to her very first job out of school, her first assignment with a fresh new pin when they walked her through Wilson Memorial, Ward 6, even now the scar on her wrist where one of them had reached for her, tongue protruding, rope of saliva, eyes in the back of her head, the ugly dark nails raking her flesh.  Oh yes, she was all the way back.  From nurse to patient.  Tommy King, brash Miss Goddard lying they would visit.  Sooner or later even Robbie MacCauley outlived you, sick of sin.  That night, if she had just a touch more courage, she would outlive them all.  Where she was right now it all seemed lies, even prayer, even the soft touch of compassion.  Just a touch more and then she'd find out.

 

THE BUDDHIST ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

It was a morning like any other.  Tommy King had heard the end of his district's report.  He was entering 102.  They were all dead in there, just moments as he stood there listening to their breathing, and then he flicked the lights on and hollered they should drop their equipment and grab their socks or something else he had learned in the Army, and he crossed to MacAntire's cabinet and pulled out his basin and the other things and filled the basin at the sink and set everything on the old man's table and reached down and grabbed a bit of the old man's hair and just pulled a little to make sure he was awake, and then he let the rail down and he was ready for Jonson.  Both those men had lost two legs from diabetes, but they were different as day and night, not just in color, MacAntire white, Butch Johnson as black as they ever came in that shade, but the first was originally over six six and had made his living climbing telephone poles, while the only pole the other had known was a pool cue, which earned him his keep playing snooker for 35 years.  And MacAntire's hobby had been opera, which he knew inside out, and Johnson's was boxing, just like Howard who had left the previous week.  Those two men, Howard and Butch Johnson, had been the closest friends, and the black man had cried when his boxing buddy left.  And thinking all that, he had Johnson cranked vertical and set up for washing, and he was crossing to red-haired Bart Klinton, who was 87 and tiny, with a body like a smooth-skinned infant, rosy and plump in the light of the tubing over his bedside, old man with his second mild stroke, a bit disoriented at times and a temper other times, but someone you just simply loved to tease, cute old screw that he was and making someone a wonderful grandfather had he had any children, making his crotchety wife a pest of a husband she loved him so, bearing his cranky remarks and some genuine abuse turning four letter when he really got going and wanted to tell her her place.

     He had saved the Accountant for last.  Bart Shedlock was the only complete.  He would have to wash, dress, pivot him into his chair, and change him twice that day when he wet or soiled himself, and all the time he would holler as if he were nailed to boards like Christ, drawing laughs from the others the moans were so pitiful and overstated.  God knew they were laughing right now as he took the paper cloth to the old man's face, the prominent nose, the body thin as a lizard, veins in the paper skin.  His Jeeeesus H. Christ, can't you be a touch gentle? or his Damnation, you big fairy, let go of my arm! or all the other explosions, the expletives that had an infinite variety, it seemed, as Tommy King soaped the ribcage and just for the hell of it pinched his nose to bring on another torrent of anger, wrenching him over to his side to wash at the buttocks, down the legs like sticks, the feet arthritic and contracted, giving them a pinch or two just to hear the outcry, laughing inwardly, and then turning back to Mack.

     "What did you think of the concert last night?" King said, crossing to empty Mack's basin.  "Did you watch the whole thing?"

     "I saw about an hour.  You were right.  The voice IS darkening."

     "He can still hit a high C, can't he?  Better than Domingo."  Tom King looked down at the lanky man on the bed, naked all but a towel over his lap.  There were tattoos all over his body.  One said JESUS SAVES.

     "Domingo has the better voice."

     "I don't think so."

     "Neither one of them could touch Bjoerling."

     "Who was the best?  Caruso?"

     "I'd say Caruso.  Or Bjoerling.  Maybe Gigli."

     "How about Del Monaco?"

     "One thing about that guy he could belt it.  But that was all.  Pianissimo?  He never knew the word."

     Tommy was over by Klinton now, finishing up his legs, drawing his shorts up to where he could wriggle into them, the little old man with the rosy flesh, somehow even the physical presence endearing, at times even sexual.  Tommy watched that flesh wriggling into the shorts.  He watched the old man struggle with his blue plaid cotton shirt, half the buttons gone, watched with a sense of leisure, for he was in the last room of his assignment with another twenty minutes till trays.

     "Did you go to Mass Sunday?" he asked the red-haired dwarf.

     "Does a pig eat crap?"  MacAntire and Johnson caught that and were laughing.

     "I guess you were born a Catholic," Tom said.

     "I married one."

     "You didn't start out Catholic?"

     "Baptist."

     "You became Catholic to please your wife?"

     "Maybe."

     Tommy crossed back to the Accountant and began the wrenching task of getting clothes on the man.  Shedlock would swing at him, rake his arms with his fingers, spit and kick with all of them laughing.  He went at Shedlock like all the ones that were out of it, a bit rough perhaps but taking no nonsense.

     "So if your wife was Buddhist you would have turned Buddhist?"

     "Likely so if you want to know.  I'd just as soon you skipped the questions.  Every day it's the same thing.  Questions.  Questions.  I just want to get the hell out of here."

     "I thought you liked Twin Oaks."

     With that they all laughed but Shedlock, and MacAntire took over.  His voice had a ponderous quality to it, long deliberate pauses for effect perhaps, maybe a certain sluggish scramble of the neurons.  Tommy didn't hear the first of it.  He was getting ready to prod the little red-haired man again, ask him not to pick on the big black man, Johnson, for the rest of the week, the way he had him scared half to death.

     "I had a buddy maybe forty years back used to root for the Dodgers that was Buddhist.  He started I think was Roman Catholic but one time he was in the Orient he saw this little gold statue of the Buddha and he bought it and took it around in his locker ship by ship till they were back in Stateside and he left the whole thing and set up a shoe repair store over in the Bronx where I got to know him.  And he was worshipping this statue, got a book or two on it, and one day the Dodgers were on the radio, and they were down two and the bases were loaded, and my buddy, I think his name was Sliver, just fired up a little incense and prayed some, and what do you know there was a grand slam and the Dodgers won by two, and after that he kept on doing it, and I think they won the pennant that year, and every time he wanted them to hit a home run he would just set up a bit of incense for that idol, and wouldn't you know it, he got kind of carried away and tried it on the horse races and bet his whole business away, and lost everything on that golden idol, cause it would only hold water for the Dodgers and never for racing, though he learned that just a month too late, never wanting to believe that Buddha would only be caring for the Brooklyn Dodgers and not enough for the races to earn some big bucks."

      Tommy, drawn totally into it, convulsed, pivoting Bart Shedlock, the Accountant, into his chair.  Christ, even Shedlock was laughing.  Shedlock was laughing and Johnson, the Negro, was laughing, and Klinton, the dwarf was laughing, and MacAntire was just roaring, as Tom King settled old Shedlock into a wheelchair, trying very deliberately not to see the only darkness in all that humor, the half of an old Accountant's head shaved in toward the skull, a stubble of just three weeks, and the welt and the scars left from the sutures, having been removed that Friday, that stubbled half a head of half an Accountant who had still half a tumor there waiting to claim him, the little bit left that could share in old Mack's story, old Mack who worked as a top climber 41 years for a company that folded, who lost his pension and went on Social Security and hand-outs from his only child, a daughter, who was never that well fixed herself, divorced at 33 and five mouths to feed, honoring her father with old recordings of Caruso she found at rummage sales and flea markets up and down Long Island all the years she continued to love him, and Shedlock's eyes when the laughter left, the way they turned to fear, vague nameless dread, a confusion not quite total, with it enough to know he was going to die.

     "Funny thing was he never gave up on it."

     "The Buddhist?"

     "Yeah.  I recalled he worked eight years on the docks to earn his keep and passage to mainland China where he might be still there yet."

     Tommy King knelt down to fix Bart Shedlock's restraint.  Curious.  Shedlock was still laughing.  Half human and somehow endearing that this time the old Accountant could do more than simply create a bit of humor.  So often nothing but a scream.

 

SIX ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

At 5:02 Izzy Burito has heard the trucks arrive, cannot escape their scent.  Izzy has learned from hard experience, however, the value of space.  By sitting tight in the kitchen with her knitting she will acquire space, perhaps as much as a dozen minutes until those lazy dead ass bitches have reached the end of their patience, calling from down the hall, and have gotten as far as the door and stuck their blank stupid faces in and procured a bit of eye contact—and then, just then, Izzy Burito, who is pursuing an associate degree at the Twin Oaks Community College in health management, will be just as docile and forthright as humanly possible.  She will put aside her knitting, jammed in right down on top of her other monthly projects, the evening's paraphernalia, and be out there right with them—nothing all that quick, mind you, but out there wheeling those old bent devils down to the dining room to pack in tight for the trays.  And serving them—she was not above that.  It was just part of the job.  The paramount thing that was not her job was to hustle her behind ragged, to ease a bit of the burden off her so-called sisters out there.  They had eased enough off on that poor man Stedman, God knew well enough about that.  There would come a time when she would fill him in, and maybe old Rachel and Molly—Samantha was the onliest decent one—would just have to strain a tad to get things done around here, lazy good for nothing trash that they were to make her so ashamed sometimes to be black.  And then she saw the tall broad form of Rachel herself—didn't you be hearing me calling you, girl?—and she dropped her work and waited for the older woman to back out and then reached down and pulled aside the contents of her bag, the empty gallon jugs, the yarn, the coffee tins, the Tupper ware, to a small black ruddy doll with a nurse's uniform, eyes, ears, groin, studded with needles, safety pins, a rag doll she had smeared with the blood of a dead cat she had found fresh last week over on Marston Boulevard, and then further to another rag doll with a white rag face, also studded, also smeared.  And smiled, let the contents fall back to obscure the two dolls and found her squat heavy way to the edge of the armchair and had her body erect in three tugs and was in progress toward the doorway, easy like, no need to raise the pulse rate.  Yet still in that there was a type of twitch just over her left breast that alarmed her slightly and then went warm and melting at the thought of those two dolls going down with the evening's linen, gathered by the porters downstairs, to be pitched into one of the big vats, to float there with the faeces and urine till one of those darkies fished them out and there was more fear in those superstitious uppity cunts, be white or black, that Izzy Burito had got the spell on them for all the rank injustice she and those of her caste and type had had to bear, fearing it was THEIR number up and easing off just an inch more afore they ended up in a vat with knives sticking out of their eyes, lips, bellies, rectals, pubics.

     Just outside she could see Miss Sterngod in her tailored pantsuit, military creases, fists on her pelvis, eyes like big blue marbles over the heavy half frames.  How long into the night was that old witch going to stay?  Further down were the trucks, stainless steel with double doors, misted in unsteady light.  Barry was down there with Samantha and Molly Morris, the latter just itching to get into his pants, as if they all didn't know it, even poor Stedman, who was chaste, for all Izzy knew, as the ones that parked their Bibles down in Housekeeping, chaste but likely burning to let the chaste shed down to hot need and flesh.  And then just that hint of a rumor that even Stedman, poor old devil that he was, was in the habit of picking up an all out fag from one of the other buildings, taking no stock in that from what she knew of him.  These girls here, why they ever did it, wheeling those monsters all into the dining room, packing them in there like fish in a tin with the ones that were with it so that sooner or later they would all be babbling—and maybe that was the idea.  She could see in the distance big Rachel pushing one of the worst in a geri chair and dragging another.  On up Mr. Clairborne had taken a seat by his Millie.  She alone would stay out, her and the twins and Nicky.  Izzy shot a look in there and they had already wheeled old Wick out.  She glanced left and saw old Buteckus and Edna forlorn as stalled cars in a ghetto, Rachel on ahead, coming down to pack more in.  There was Sarah Jane up ahead, and old Doc, Rachel coming on with a hard look, queenly, triumphant, tossing the tinted hair, as if that girl didn't even have the NOTION of easing on up for Doc or the other, the only Jewish man there certainly but moreover the only man with some real refinement, which was plain from the wife that came in some weekends.  Izzy could tell that from the way the latter stood around with her genuine furs and her talk of limo-sedans and Barbados and St. Thomas and even cities like London and Amsterdam where the onliest people ever went were superior in every conceivable fashion.  They said that old Doc could even write words out if'n you gave him a thick enough pencil and a little time—terrible the sounds he made, a dentist and all, a man of breeding.  She'd take him first.  She was almost there, careful lest she give them the notion that she was running scared, laughing inside at the way they were going to shake when the dolls were raked out of that soup and given the once over.  Yes indeed, old Doc, Eric Potter, scabs on his skin-head from his scratching, a week of white stubble on his jowls, looking up at Izzy Burito herself like some tired scared lizard, pink as a slug, as if she had just peeled back a large slimy rock and exposed him to the light.  Sitting there tight with an empty Pepperidge Farm bag—the wife must of showed—squeezed between his legs and crumbs all down his front, big short fingered hands poking out and wriggling, dark nails full of last night's digging.

     The best part about it was putting him next to Buteckus.  God how those two hated each other.  Easing the dentist along, she saw the dark tile past a scabbed bald crown, just like the prow of a ship over something that was so ugly and filthy that if she ever dropped yarn on it the best she could do was throw it out.  And she knew enough to leave her shoes at the door and not track any into the house.  Here she was making a swath through it, all the way past Millie and Clairborne toward the mass of sound, the hoots and shrieks exploding from the dining room.  And sure enough, there was a place at the yellow mesh table, just beside the old German with the long thin nose and the stubble like Doc but the steel blue eyes that ate into her somehow, knowing that he hated all the aides on the female side, 'cepting Samantha, mostly because they were black.  But hated this old man Doc even more if that were within the realm of possibility, old Doc that never hurt anyone beyond filling a few cavities or pulling a tooth, or maybe digging a root canal, and that was in the interest of science.  Lord, those eyes just bore through her, wheeling the old man in with the cookie crumbs and his "Moooooooeeeeehhhhhrrrr" at being just where he wanted to be, maybe close enough to get one of them hands on the old Nazi and rake his fur.  There were none left out there with Doc settled and Rachel approaching with Sarah, so she headed down, nice and easy, down toward the trucks.

     Bill Buteckus watched her depart.  There was something evil in that light skinned Negress, he thought, something that might have been part of her stride, her broad hips, her bulging flesh beneath the short sleeved tunic, a swell of fat there that edged in toward the elbows and then sloped out and in toward the wrists, the latter contour perfectly normal, so that the whole aspect of each arm was that of a reversed Popeye doll, just black, not that complete perhaps, but distinctly abnormal, even when the lazy shuffle was typical, at least in Bill's mind, of all those big dark aides, the ones that seemed to delight in his torment.  And just this last trick of hers—pushing an old goat with nothing but malice in his twisted heart, pushing him right up to the table to stink and drool and grab for him when he wasn't looking.  Times like that he had to defend himself as best he could against powerful fingers with one arm game and the other arthritic, and a stump on the good side and a stroke on the other, just sitting there quiet and well-meaning, hoping to make the best of a bad situation, those old ghouls raking up such a fuss as to make a scramble of the clearest order and decorum of mind itself, and make even God run amok, run weeping for a dose of calm—Eric thumbing his nose just now and flicking his coated tongue—so that there were times Bill wondered what function this ward had in the total picture, the awesome symmetry and purpose existing in a benign Creator's universe.  Maybe that was the worst scare of all.

     See, there is no order in the way they are doing it, Bill thinks.  They crowd all four trucks in out there, a real jam-up, and then the doors stick and they have to hammer them free, and then you see the broad white expanse of their rear ends as they bend down and squint in the bad light to read off the tickets.  And even the tickets are covered by a dish or maybe a cup, you don't have to be that close to tell, so that they have to move that aside to get them out, and the ladies that spell the names must be pretty damned primitive because half the time it is hard to figure out where they get Buteckus out of what's down there.  On top of that the patients are yowling like demons, having smelled the food, and when they ease out a tray they have to match it with one of them and try to get it set up before some of them, maybe half, are eating the tinfoil and cellophane, the teabags, you name it.  Probably far worse than the general din is the clamor and hideousness of their eating, old spotted monsters gobbling like trolls, a spray of pureed beef and saliva, dribbles down onto the paper bibs, food on their knuckles, chins.  Just now setting up old Potter's tray—by the time they have the lid off his plate he is already slurping up the soup with both gnarled hands on the bowl, and half of it is already down his neck before one of the dark ones pulls it free and slaps his fingers.  God in his wildest fancy could never have pulled off a darker comedy than this one, an uglier tragedy, upright respectable man of the world the old Jew must have been right down there with his chin in it, raking the ground meat into his rubber lips with one hand and stuffing a piece of pound cake, wrapping and all, in after, and chewing and coughing and nearly asphyxiating on the cellophane but somehow getting even that down, even the yellow crenellated cardboard that edges the slice, all this time Edna setting herself up with a tray from somewhere, tucking the napkin in under her folds of skin, the chin sprouting delicate bristles and working up and down with the lips, pursed on a straw.  That flutter of her fingers—such delicacy you'd think she was somewhere overlooking the Mediterranean, oblivious to her surroundings, hoots, bleats, slurping, gobbling, retching, that chorus of heartache and greed, oblivious seeming, all but the twitch up the left side of her face and the way she jukes from time to time at the loudest outbursts.  Maybe Andrew Wick's "I love yooooooooooooouuuuuuu" to a black one setting him up, trying just then with a fork and then dropping that and going at it with his claws.  Sarah's eerie giggle, the lopsided grin, spooning peas, mashed potatoes, ground beef, all churned into a Technicolor stink by one of those loving imbeciles, ungodly mess, squeals of delight at something that would turn back a rat.  And at last his own—pork chop they haven't had the decency to slice up for him into mouthfuls so that he must grip one end with the good hand and work it into his mouth like a drumstick, let alone the milk carton, chewing a hole through for the straw—pig or no pig, you swill it all down, pretty near all, to survive.

     Weathering the tumult, Bill Buteckus stares past Edna to a sudden glare in the TV room and Nicky's white hump on the litter.  Nicky is unaware that he is observed.  He is unaware of anything beyond Samantha's broad chocolate face above him, coffee hand that is ladling his food.  He is ultimately aware at this moment of food, an exquisite throat-full of ground beef working its way down to his aching hungry belly.  Now ground beef, now pureed peas—for loving Samantha has never cared for the Technicolored blend—awful the way they feeds them, almost like hogs—and spoons carefully and slowly, giving Nick time to work it around in his mouth a bit before the swallow.  Somehow she can sense that that man is in fact alive, and it warms her heart to know that that poor man is taking just a bit of joy at her hands.  Gracious, it almost seems as if she had her baby, GW, back, not GW, the father, who is long dead, her a widow now 14 years and making the best of a bad relationship with a younger man on disability who just lays back all day and sucks down Millers and shots and expects her to come home from a night on this ward, six days a week with the over-time, and feed HIM.  She can almost detect gratitude in the sweat damp face, the Adam's apple bobbing, the dark stubble on the doughy cheeks, even the pores on his nose like deep pits against the greater dark of his nostrils.  There is the strangest communion here.  Nick Sandro could be her own.  The age is about right.  Unlikely that he'd take to black, for sure, and nice wife that he has, poor thing that has to make four bus connections both ways to get in and see her Nicky when that twisted thing, all he can do is curse her half the night with giving him no children.  For being nothing but a barren woman, worst bitch, awful words that makes Samantha's blood curdle.  Nice as pie to the wife when she shows, but evil, nasty in his heart, it seems at times.  But then who wouldn't be a mite nasty with the legs and arms all shrunken up in knots from arthritis and a polyurethane hose in his belly that coils just now toward the bag there at his knees?  The best thing Samantha herself can do for that poor man is give him all the flavor of it, even the Jello, gravy, even if the others complain at her taking so long with him.  Way they would jam up his mouth, even Stedman, till he nearly choked and then leave him there trying to gum it as good as he could and then back to make him finish up, cold stuff that tasted about like simply puke, as much as she hated that word, puke that had laid around a bit afore he got to it.

     Bill was not so much aware of Nicky as of the face above Nick on the litter.  It was the only colored face he had ever gotten around to liking.  There was much he didn't understand of that face, in fact the whole head, the wig, for instance, a white streak through the black fiber like a skunk's, and always just a tad askew as if maybe it didn't fit right, probably didn't, so that you could see the white bristles of her shaved scalp.  And then the breadth of the nose—it seemed to take up half her cheekbones, a wide spread like a wedge of pudding, almost a scar on the woman, nearly painful, possibly, certainly ugly by itself, but somehow fitting the breadth of the whole face, the creases that jerked across her forehead, the laugh lines that edged up the fat of her cheeks.  In fact, any of that in isolation would spell destruction, blemish, even the broad cleft chin and the rolls beneath, not to speak of what came even lower than that, the whole ungodly expanse of that woman, the great sagged breasts, the rolls just under, the massive belly, squat thighs, legs like fatty tubes through the stockings, straight down, not a hint of taper beyond the big balled calves until they reached a wrinkle of flesh that splayed out to cover the shoed feet, in themselves a sorry lot, a spread of cracked lumps and whiting, that and the stockings and the dress the only white thing about that woman beyond the eyes.  Oh yes, and then especially white, so lovely white, and which gave to the rest perhaps the symmetry, that and the nose itself—that spread of perfect teeth, framed by lips he knew were also lovely, not in the fashion that he could call lovely, but in the fashion that at moments like this only he would admit was indeed lovely, times like this she took him off guard.  All of that woman—lips, teeth, nose, breasts, wig, arms—yes, the arms themselves would cry grief to any aspiring siren—were just to the side of Nicky in there with something that in the strangest confusion moved Bill Buteckus to question even the notion of loveliness, having gathered up to speak it loud and true in the most unpredictable shape, form, texture—a shade, a touch of black.  Colored yes.  But black.  And he could sometimes forgive it.  He could even forgive himself strangely hating it, just then in that instant when he loved it and had that overwhelming sense of its total unquestionable beauty.  And he couldn't place it either.  Madonna perhaps.  But closer to the point perhaps was one afternoon in Stuttgart as a young child when he had visited the local museums and the teacher had asked him to rub a fat man's belly and he had touched it, the belly, and had gotten the strangest sense that there was something wrong in what the teacher and the others were doing, making fun of a fat man with the strangest loving scariest smile he had ever dared to look at, then, ever, since, except perhaps in this God-forsaken barnyard.  Stedman didn't have it.  Rachel, Molly, Izzy didn't have it.  Not a damned one of them had the slightest taste of it.  Edna?  Christ, she was like a shriveled bladder.  Samantha?  Samantha Judd, just now feeding poor Nicky Sandro, like a big black colored goddess, stoking that aching torment and feeling it enter just a bit, no more than any human being could handle, certainly, black, white, purple, but feeling it enter a bit, feeling, feeding that dark dark devil's pain.

 

TWINKIES ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

The hardest thing for Edmund was the diet.  Certainly, you needed to watch your sugar, but didn't the nurses tell him every day that his sugar and acetone levels were quite OK?  Well maybe harder was the smell of garlic coming from Greg Marston's locker.  Just that alone pervaded the room so that you were constantly reminded there was food, real food, not this hospital stuff, in there just waiting to be eaten by someone a hell of a lot more deserving than Greg Marston.  Not that he was anywheres near so bad as they made him out to be, the ones that ran the joint or just worked there, or even the patients themselves who couldn't put up with his uppity ways or how that story got around that the way he lost his leg was he had a cast on and he never went back to have it off and the maggots got in there and he had to have it sliced off below the knee.  Who the hell would believe a story like that?  They were really just jealous, couldn't talk on the man's level.  Hell, Greg Marston had been a broker on Wall Street.  There weren't many like that.

     Right now it was early morning, maybe 6 AM, and Edmund Skuzz was lowering himself down the end of the bed into his wheelchair, sliding the good leg first, and then the stump, quiet like, just to keep the ones outside and Marston and the creep from hearing what he was up to.  The way they put the rails up at night so you couldn't get at them?  The place was like Alcatraz.  And you would lie there smelling that food and knowing that there was something even more delectable just a few yards off, over in the creep's cabinet, the Polish guy, Kolokov or something—he could never pronounce it.  And never make out where he got his shoes, the funny black ones with the point on the wrong side, as if his feet were all wrong, not that anything else wasn't with the stroke that had him bent up and garbling everything he said, half Polish, half nonsense, the whitish blond hair like some kind of Communist agent and the pale eyes that were always turned the wrong way when he tried to speak to you.  Only thing about that man right now was what he had in the cabinet, only saving grace, a dozen Twinkies, only one in the whole pack gone, and if Edmund, old boy, could just get his butt safely over there with the good foot, the only foot propelling, he would be pretty near in paradise.

     Marston had had them all against him the moment he got the guy on nights to start bringing in all the food.  Even more when he started to be putting garlic powder on everything he ate, even  his Jello.  They all said it smelled worse than body waste, not really having the compassion to forgive such a tiny failing in a big man like that who had played football at Princeton and was in with the big wigs over in Upper Saddle River, even the alcoholic that he was, if even that were true, so much they said against him.  Edmund had never seen him even sniff at a drink, let alone sneak in a bottle.  You should have seen the type that came now and then to just drop in and chat—even lawyers, mayors, people of the highest breed and culture—and it made Edmund proud to be the only friend of Marston's on the ward, though knowing enough of the man's psychology to never ask him for the slightest hunk of bread, a slice of cheese, a bit of cake, but to rather wait for the offer, and those came readily enough to usually pacify his hunger.  Knew enough not to sneak over to Marston's locker this early AM, big man that he was with those powerful arms and fists like mallets that would just snuff him out like swatting a fly should he anger the man.  No, it was safer right now, settling into the wheelchair, inching his way toward Kolokov.

     What would Tommy King think of this?  Fag that he was, Tom King would forgive.  Even sneaked him packs of sugar at mealtimes, he would forgive.  Tom King knew what it was to hanker for something sweet.  And Tom King knew poetry.  The truth was there were only three human beings of culture on the ward, and one of them, God rest him, was a fag, and the other was an amputee from maggots, if the story was in any ways true, and the third was Edmund Skuzz, who had made his living as a bartender in only the highest class of places for 47 years till the diabetes got him and he lost a leg to sugar, but who had learned all he knew from talking with the lovely important people who had sat across the hardwood from him and had given him all kinds of information on the stock market, on the law, on the medicinal nature of certain herbs, on astrology, on fishing, sports in general, philosophy, history, metaphysics, and the nature of the human condition.  It was a formidable threesome for sure, Edmund knew, in his heart, just as he knew poetry from the people who had spent an hour or so across from him, knew Joyce Kilmer and Edgar A. Guest, not to mention Hugh D'Arcy, not to mention the song writers, the men that delivered them, not to mention the way he himself could imitate Rudy Vallee if you gave him the time and space to compose himself, slick his hair back, fondle his chin, and deliver that lilting tone.

     Just a few feet left.  The Polack wasn't stirring.  It was still twilight in the room, just enough to make his way to what he longed for so badly he nearly could cry, some real food, some of those lovely Twinkies the creep's wife had brought in along with those funny little shirts without any proper buttons, along with sausage that just melt in your mouth if you got a hand on it, licking your fingers.  He could hear his breathing.  He could hear the Polack breathing ever so sluggishly, and then he was just at the drawer, just inching it out, when he saw the creep's left eye flicker open and then wide, and Kolokov was twitching and screaming, and Edmund had a fistful of Twinkies and was shoving them in his mouth and back-pedaling and the old man was shouting in an incoherent crazy mixture of what had to be obscenities, and Edmund was as far as his bed and lifting himself over the end with the good leg dragging, when the lights flicked on and Nurse Saxon was over to his bed and Marston was hollering, finally out of his stupor, and all the excitement ended in Edmund's urinal where he chucked the Twinkies, and he knew as he knew his own soul they would have it on morning report.  Knew in his own soul it was worth it . . . . . . . Knew!

 

SEVEN ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

Here on the south wing, Stedman has made excellent progress.  Heaving one truck forward, dragging the other, having paused at Gigliani, Meisten, Jaird, all who in some remote fashion can ingest the evening's meal unassisted, he is ready, steeled for the first feeds.  All that remains is Blackston at the end of the hall, a hook right with laden tray, wife and son a blur as he covers the tile toward the old man's chair and leaves him with his supper.  Perhaps Frank Blackston has mastered one of the words.  Stedman will not linger to inquire.  There is something so painfully trapped in that gathering, Blackston churning, pinching at his hands as if probing for lice, the worn wife so solicitous, afraid, the son still fumbling with the flashcards, puzzling them out, reaching for a little hope.  Too late to speculate—Stedman is outside, feeling for orange Fiberglas, sliding it out with the tremors, backing to turn toward relative quiet till he hits the light switch with a forearm and has all four of them erupting like monkeys, Lucy's monosyllabic whine, sucking oxygen from udders in her nose, Brady's "Aaaabaaaabaaaa, aaaabaaaabaaaa," head tilted back, only the glistening chin visible in the total hump of her masked by a spread, Borzali's "Come, come, gimme, some, some," stabbing erect against her restraints like a manic Emily Dickinson, and finally poor Tongue herself, Esmeralda Butterfield, whom they have OD'd just one too many months on Thorazine and whose prominent feature beyond the total facial aspect of an ancient great horned owl, even the winking deep-set yellow eyes, is a coated gray tongue in constant turmoil, protruding cancerous, thumb-like, a polyp, nearly three inches out and wriggling, as her voice comes on with it, liquid, hoarse, a series of muttered obscenities and pleadings that increases nearly imperceptibly in volume until a final roar, shriek, bellow, as far as the adjacent wards, at times through plaster, glass, cinderblock, and making even the hardened coil inward toward dread, perhaps by intensity, perhaps texture, a certain aching void it seems to speak to, erupting from absolute zero.

     Stedman often takes the easiest route.  He will crank another first and begin to feed, holding off on Miss Butterfield till last with the very real optimism that one of the other aides will have worked her way down to the south end before he has no choice.  There are uglier feeds, but no room contains such terrible insanity, such total syncopation, the four sad suffering devils competing in a sonata of sorts, ghastly, perhaps the darkest whisper.  On other evenings he takes whatever tray is first to hand and attempts—as now with poor Brader, cranking her bed, stuffing a towel under her folds of skin, sliding off the misted steel disk above the main course, procuring a spoon, churning the purees into a pastel hash—to confront the whole process a mouthful at a time, working his jaws with theirs, just now working and salivating, as if he is feeding himself.  And Brader?  The worst thing about Mabel beyond her incessant babbling, the eyes rolled back to total whites, the taut spotted cords of her neck, the drawn blotched skin so tight over the bony prominence of her cheekbones, the few lank strands of hair that adorn her skull, here leaning over her tragic form, is her infuriating slowness, the way that tight mouth goes on forever.  Such a stink it is, and yet the old lady, nearly ninety and hanging on with a grim tenacity to what a few MD's call life, lolls it about and gums it, endlessly working the food clot down.  Borzali gobbles as fast as he can stoke her, and even Tongue makes pretty short work with it.  Here, stroking the forehead, minutes stretch on toward what seems eternity, begging her to swallow, above all to swallow, gripping her jaw at last in desperation and seeing the spasms as it wrestles downward to a fit of choking and a spray of phlegm.  And then it is "Maaaamaaaamaaaahaaaamaaaa," terminating only when the mouth is crammed, as if the whole world, the cosmos itself, has been maligned, subverted, reduced to orifice, to an old woman's tears, beef, peas, mashed potatoes, even the Jello worked in, laden stainless spoon prying a clotted mouth.

     He entered 513.  Frieda Stitt barely swelled the pastel spread over left where Mattie Porter was feeding her.  There was just a clot of bone there under the green, the tube descending from a translucent cone in two loops.  Mattie's yellow face hovered over what was left of Sittt with a can of Feed, siphoning it into her nose.  In the muted light Stedman could see the dark mass descending and a shudder of the ribbed spread, the mottled arms like sticks jerking a bit, as Frieda took her supper.  She was on her way out, but there was no dignity in it.  In ten months he had seen her tube-fed seven times back to a diet of purees only to "regress," as Mattie put it.  Word was that she had been hanging on this way for nearly two years.  There was no dignity in the strange accompaniment, Molly Morris over by Bess Stokes, boogying about with a plate of food, ladling a bit into the wine colored mama with the slitted eyes and the black doll hooked in one arm and the contracted hand that fought against the spoon, black feeding token black, the only other Negro Wendell in 507, his tongue, his metastasis, his Demerol q.i.d.  It was not her silence, not Bess's, but rather Molly's finger-popping rhythm, strutting the broad rump as she pried tight jaws to an Afro-disco beat.  For Molly had borrowed Walkerson's FM to plug over Ocker's bed, trail of wire to the night stand, Ocker, who was ambulatory and semi-with-it, juking at the heavy insistent bass, trying for her mashed potatoes as the dance went on, perhaps forcing some of it out, her surroundings, for that much was possible, even with the shrieks from the other corner, the last inhabitant, Maida Sturg Burgis, 83 and pleading for her tray, just out of reach, straining against her Posey, coiling erect like wire and then back to thrash against a lilac pillow, knees up taut against her marginal chest and then out along the mattress, a claw of toes against linen that almost seemed audible in the din—Stedman's next assignment.

     With Maida he had to avoid the flailing arms.  Pinning them down, there was the risk of tearing her skin.  He had learned in time that he could guard against them with one forearm just above her chest so that at most he would lose a spoonful or two beyond what she spit back at him, choking on it or ejecting it with her outcry.  The latter chilled him always, for it seemed to come from a special form of torment he associated with the woman.  Just now, looking down into eyes he had seen nowhere, eyes like open holes into some obscene agony, wild, distempered, he gave her the only substance that seemed to calm her, the cherry Jello that he would in every other case mix in with the rest.  With Maida he tried to get enough into the mouth at a time so that when the swallow came it would make a dent in the total mass they tried to force into them, and perhaps with six or seven of those choking tortured spasms there would be enough gone that anyone checking her tray would assume that there had been a legitimate effort.  He had been faulted on that once or twice, and yet he had seen far worse than a gradual starvation in the interest of getting on with the nightwork—the torn skin where aides had gripped too tightly, the bruises where they had slapped, hoping to force a bit more down with a show of strength.  His greatest fear was that she would die on him, would choke to death before he could free her of the restraint and encircle her abdomen and clear the esophagus.  He had seen many of them dead, but only from a distance, and he had never seen them die.  And yet this unseemly mass of spotted skin, the nose like a talon, the neck cords that tautened with each screech, the pharynx like a spur on a protrusion of lesser ridges, all doomed, all old beyond purpose, mocking the very semblance of life, seemed far worse than any notion he had ever entertained of the end of it.  Maida's was the countenance of a far larger death, present, unredeemed, unending.  And even knowing this, he had just now the impulse to strike her, as if perhaps to beat back death itself.  And he turned from Maida's face, that awful aching mask, and saw old Mattie pouring the last of the Feed into Stitt's tube, and it seemed that there was a trace of triumph in the "big ugly yellow one," something perhaps even more difficult to bear, that and the crude dance of triumphant unending life in Molly Morris, turning just now to bump her hips at him, to flick the tongue, dancing back toward sad old blighted Stokes with another spoonful.

     Stedman headed slowly down the corridor, retrieving trays, wiping up spills with sheets from beds he had set up previously, sheets he would have to replace.  With most of the patients fed, the ward was less turbulent.  There was nearly space to reflect.  With the north wing finished, Rachel and Samantha would work their way toward him, feeding the last of them.  He had only to release Gigliani from his geri chair and steer him toward the toilet.  There was a certain nuisance involved with a continent patient.  The others he could tidy up at intervals.  The few like Gigliani were less predictable and would often interrupt even a break.  This old Italian loved him and was known to weep in gratitude at being released to empty his bladder, but, in truth, he often seemed simply an obstacle to the set routine.  Rather Sedder's obscene eyes as Stedman entered 503, his bizarre grin, pawing at hallucinations with his mittens, the decubiti, his Texas, for the most he required was to be turned at intervals and wiped clean with a sheet or towel, and, tossing the soiled linen in the cart, one was rid of him, could ignore his sad sad jabber.  Jaird and Meisten, on the other hand, would fight him, would struggle against Stedman's hands which fought to wrestle their wasted bodies into place for the long dark night.  Doc, in the same room, would do his best to smear.  The latter, in the dining room with Buteckus, was likely finished with his supper.  Sedder was also fed, probably by Molly, finishing up with Bess Stokes—there was little left on his tray.  Jaird himself sat nodding over a dent in the main course, a milk carton gripped in his broker's fingers, leaking white spatter on the tile.  Stedman took those trays and took Meisten's and wiped all three men with a towel he bunched up with the soiled sheets and stuffed into a wall locker for later.  And then he went back for Gigliani, only to find him still fumbling with his zipper, having not yet completed his urination, and there was the impatience of having to free him of his trousers to take a seat, stuffing his overly large penis between his legs and reaching for toilet paper to wipe his nose.  Waiting in the twilight of the bathroom, Stedman tried to imagine who really SHOULD be condemned to this curious village, as if there were those out there who might profit from a stay, ten hours locked in a geriatric chair with the wails and torment.  Or those who might best spend a term as an aide to their distress.  And he could only imagine certain esteemed politicians, matrons, politician's wives, manifestly refined and pampered, who just might profit from a draught of the whole routine, perhaps just a whiff, a guided tour, 35 aching minutes, perhaps a stint at wrenching the ugliest from slumber at ten o'clock clean-up.  But then that canceled, and he walked the old man toward his room, genitals swaying over smooth hairless legs and varicose calves and wrestled him into a Johnnie coat and strapped him in and kissed his mouth, mio amico, mio amico, good boy, good boy, and hooked the urinal over his railing and killed the light.

     In time he has reached the orange linen cart just outside 517, steering the tray-laden trucks.  There are two plastic sleeved cards taped to the doorframe to indicate the presence of an infection.  Inside, Francine, the charge nurse, is feeding Dottie Walkerson from a Styrofoam cup.  There is a carton of milk on the bed stand, all that remains of the tray.  He gives the two trucks a final push toward the intersection of the two corridors and returns to Dottie's room.  Francine looks massive in the isolation gown, her hands encased in pale green rubber gloves.  The slight form beneath her is merely a twist of bone and skin, face like a small bird, a lovely injured bird that sweats with pain.  Stedman cannot bear looking at her, and yet he stands in the doorway waiting, perhaps for the large woman in the pageboy to let him in on some terrible secret, an explanation in part for what lies beneath her, sucking a plastic straw.

     "Your boyfriend's here, little sugar."

     "Oh really?" Dottie answers.  Her voice seems as fragile as what is left of her, like a thin reed intoning in a great vacant pit, barely escaping her lips.

     "You watch out for him.  He's a very lonely man."

     "He's not so lonely.  He has a wife."

     "Oh but you don't know.  Maybe he's still looking."

     "Oh my.  That sounds threatening."

     The bed is tilted on a thirty-degree angle.  Dottie's form seems pressed into the mattress, the outline visible under a yellow spread.  Her legs are drawn up toward her chest but off to the side with the feet curled down into the mattress so that she cannot be shifted to ward off what they have debrided so many times, a terrible decubitus which has spread to the size of a starfish across the lower buttock and has eaten inward, exposing bone.  Barry has seen it through the Op-site, a black-rimmed liquid eye, an orchid sprouting wayward, in human tissue.  The arms, merely bent sticks, hover over the chest, terminate mantis-like in hooked bone, fingers strung on wire to prevent further contracture, a useless expedient.  Arms, bird face, are beaded with sweat.  The little mouth is like a rosebud planted on a bone bag, incongruous.  When Dottie Walkerson is utterly alone she prays with that mouth for death.  And yet she is seldom alone.  They usually hear her from the kitchen.

     "You'd better watch your step, little sugar.  Barry's the kind of man that falls for older women.  You know there's been some talk of that.  They say he's sweet on you.  They say he's going to pop the question just about any time now.  You watch your step."

     "I think you're just trying to build up my hopes."

     "I'm simply being realistic."

     "I heard Molly has a case on him.  I heard that."

     "Molly?" Francine answers.  "She's not his type."

     "Molly's pretty."

     "Not up to your standard.  Dottie, you're a princess."

     "Wow.  Now I'm getting conceited."

     The terror is that she is lucid, Barry thinks.  And closing her eyes on each bite, working it down, a fragile tenacity, eating despite herself, for it only prolongs her entrapment.  Perhaps the ones that want to die must die the hardest.  There is something no one is saying.  And yet even this banter, this weighted dance, is somehow lovely, easing the old woman's trial.  Not so old at 63, she could hang on like this for perhaps a dozen years.  Perhaps in and out of that someone will come, Francine here at 5:25 PM.

     "Not talking?" Dottie prods him.  "Cat got your tongue?"

     "I was just standing here thinking."

     "What are you thinking about, Barry?" Dottie asks.

     "About things.  Maybe you'd like some cold water."

     "Oh, I've got plenty on the bed stand."

     "How about a sloe gin fizz?"

     "Now you're talking."

     "How about a daiquiri?"

     "That's even better."

     Is this simply his imagination?  How about Demerol intravenous, which they will never provide her, just Darvon and Tylenol which cannot touch the agony of the bedsore or the greater agony of the arthritis, or possibly the greatest agony, which he assumes is inward, a large WHY he observes in her eyes when he gets too close, perhaps when he wants to test himself.  There is just so much one can ever get down.  Is Stedman the ultimate clinician?  The terrible thing he must face with her is the lucidity itself, that she knows full well where she is and can sometimes bear it.  There is a frightening loveliness in that fleeting strength and in something else, in what a few decent, loving people such as Francine derive from bringing it out some twenty minutes daily, that strength, that momentary dignity, that devastating pain.  They pull the soiled linen out from under her every four hours and turn her like a spit, knees down into the mattress, and slide fresh under.  The old, with its staph, goes into the orange bag to be double sealed and thrust down the chute.  Perhaps that is all that will really remain of her, Stedman muses, a vague remembrance in one of a dozen anonymous minds, somewhere, years hence, double sealed, retired.  They say that of the tired.  Or some hopeless effort to get it down, all down.  Double bagged.  And then he hears it coming from down the hall, from the dining room likely, a "Moooooooooeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhrrrrrr" and then another that shakes the ward, and he turns back toward its gaining volume and half the patients juking, and then there is Rachel Scander in the doorway with Doc in his wheelchair, scented, soaked, scabbed head glistening wet, above his bawling senile infant's head, Rachel, indignation, tossing her ruddy feathered hair toward some undefined source of Eric Potter's misery, Buteckus with an ugly scratch on his throat and the urinal he's emptied on the dentist.

 

CODE B ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

When Tommy King was called to 106, he knew it wasn't going to be very pretty.  He had avoided that room all morning.  The nurses, doctors, in and out, especially the Code B they called at 7:47, how Mrs. Tomasito had wheeled the crash cart toward what was dying in there, well, probably already gone.  Tommy's part in it was minimal.  He was pushing that ahead, the stretcher.  Across the black vinyl surface he could see a very passable butt on May Goddard, nearly that of a young boy, slender as she was with the white blouse gathered in at the waist with the elastic of her whiter slacks, the twitch of her rear that somehow he felt was something she had acquired after years of practice, just about wasted on him, nevertheless, but wasted on few.

     As they passed the linen cart, Goddard pulled a sheet and draw-sheet off the shelves and tossed them on the padding, hardly pausing in her stride, and then they were entering the room, where Tomasito and two aides were waiting on the other side of the curtain, at first just a silhouette against the morning sun muted through the big wide windows, then a somber trio over what was left of Ma Kenney among the scent of Staphene, a white plastic shroud gathered at neck and ankles, a mummy, a tidy, disposable horror.

     "Let's get the draw-sheet under," he could hear vaguely.  The next few minutes he was only truly conscious of the shroud and its masked contents, the shape and texture of something he remembered from Basic Training, ah yes, target silhouettes on the firing range when they tested him out on mobile attack.  The way they had of popping up just to the edge of your field of vision, the way he spun and knocked them down with his M-16, each of them just a trace of human, just a trace of Ma Kenney.  And then he remembered HER grace under pressure.

     "On count of three.  One.  Two.  Three.  OK.  Pull her up just a bit.  That's better.  Thank you."

     She had been one that he knew was never going to improve.  He always had a sense for that.  They came in sodden and limp and never got past a listing torso on their wheelchairs, never past the catheter tubing, the spoon feeding, in most cases, an inability to utter a meaningful syllable, IN most cases in one mouth and out the other until the second stroke hit them and they were hustled to ICU and never came back.  You did your best to pacify the relatives until that fade-out, for the human species was curiously hopeful, and  you never had the heart to betray that, even in a guarded personal assessment.  And when they were past ninety, as with Kenney, you tried to wrangle a no-Code out of them when it got to the point the hope was all eroded, and some of them had the charity and sense to sign on the line, and others recoiled from the thought of actually giving the institution permission to let them die.  In Ma Kenney's case, no one but Ma Kenney was going to ever let her die.  It was a battle she waged totally on her own.

     There was a white sheet on the stretcher, then Kenney, then another sheet draped on top, a touch of decorum at 10:14 AM, when May Goddard preceded Tommy with the body out past the other Rehab patients in the lounge to the nurse's station, where they were given the slender chart and the other paperwork, where all eyes were on the hump that quivered under the cotton, seemingly quivered it was so present, crossing the threshold of the elevator with the stop button thumbed, inside at last with Ma and Goddard, releasing the button, down to the basement and the receptionist for the two therapy departments, the rain still out there in car tracks this hot July morning, having no recourse but the tunnel, down into its heated throat, all the way down the ramp, where it had to be over a hundred, the same route he had taken countless times with the living, with a sealed swab from Ma Kenney's leaking eye just Wednesday to the Micro lab, the little bit they caught up on, addressing an infection in the right eye, minor discomfort after all compared to the trache and feeding tubes and the blue mittens that tied her hands to the frame of the bed so she couldn't pull out any of it anymore, prolonging her dying by weeks, when even then the lady had the intestinal fortitude to vomit up what they forced on her, willing to die with an intensity that was frightening, for Kenney had made it out of her world on her own steam, starving herself when all the caring relatives and nursing personnel, the latter having no option, held that emaciated clot of bone and tissue into life until the final indignity—Code B.

     "Steiner will meet us at the top of the ramp with the key," Goddard whispered over the jiggling form.  "We'll leave the chart with her.  The son was by at nine for her belongings.  Poor thing, I'm glad she's out of it."

     "Really?" he asked.

     "Really."

     "You're not as glad as she is."

     "Tommy, don't start talking like that."

     "After all, she beat every damned one of us."

     "I don't look at it that way."

     "I think someone's celebrating."

     "Tommy, she starved herself.  The whole thing was very ugly."

     "I suppose you prefer the ones that get better."

     "Doesn't anybody?"

     "I guess it's a matter of how you look at it.  What did we do for Kurt Swenley, teach him how to crawl?"

     "Tommy, you're terrible."

     "You admit you're glad she's out of it.  Dead."

     There was a low spot midway toward Building 6 he always watched for, a jutting steel support for the steam pipes that was just about forehead level with his height, over six three.  The body on the stretcher was incredibly light.  It seemed they were pushing an empty.  On the other hand, there was greater presence under that sheet than he had encountered ever on any living being, a finality that seemed to pronounce malign judgment even on their conversation, drawing the tunnel, the pipes, the concrete floor, the walls, the oppressive heat, stretcher, their own bodies, souls, whatever, in toward itself, sucking it into one grim punctuation mark.  It was certainly no exclamation point, no matter the courage of her dying.  It was a terrible, flat, unavoidable period, an ending that would come to all of them, even the speech pathologist he hated so much with her degrees from Rutgers, her moneyed family, her moneyed engagement, her seemingly unassailable confidence.  Come even to Miss Goddard there ahead, the lilt of her boyish rump.  Since working at Twin Oaks for four years, going on five, Tommy King had paid more attention to punctuation.  Back there at thirty he had still obscurely known he would never die.

     The Code had come, again, at 7:47.  He had heard it over the loudspeaker.  Tomasito was flying with the Crash Cart, that elegant lady with the premature white hair, the  prude in her, the class, and then that same individual whom he had thought nothing much good of was giving CPR in anticipation of the doctors hastening from 6, and CPR was mouth to mouth on a corpse with vomit and bile just to get them back into the barely living, and too long there was brain damage, and the rest of it was neither pretty for the deceased or the people involved in the whole procedure, the injections, the tubing, that curious scream to bring someone, some thing, back to a world Tom King was not at all certain was a viable place to operate, especially when your solitary ambition was to be the hell out of it, be anywhere but living, breathing, peeing and soiling yourself and grunting and taking in tube feed and even throwing that back up on the linen day by day, week by week, willing yourself into a terrible transition that could have had dignity just with a simple form and a reluctant signature and a vague sense of guilt.  All that effort to bring her back.  A smear of emesis on Tomasito's elegant countenance, the prim cut of her lips.  Even with the amazing fortitude it might represent, and he saw that, saw her bending at the sink when the whole frantic formality was over, there was perversity.  THEN, at last Ms. Steiner, ADN, opened an unmarked door and he could scent the formaldehyde, eyes flickering just a second at the bottles, the grooved steel platform, the log, the metal cooler.  Just as they slid her in, eyes riveted on Goddard's buttocks twitching, just that flick of her tail even pushing someone into hell, he could suddenly taste it, taste Kenney's startling victory.  There was nothing more final than the snap of the stainless door, fear in Goddard's flat eyes.  It was Ma Kenney's victory, but it was the victory of something else, all the way back to the ward, where he was rid of both of them.  It was as large as life, and yet it was a little larger.  No, it wasn't death.  There was no amount of death in Ma Kenney's dying.  Perhaps it was finality.  Whatever it was, it was a whole lot larger than Code B.

 

VERBAL WARNINGS ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

He was waiting for his district leader to give him a specimen to take over to Micro when Miss Sutler approached him.  Oh yes, he could talk to her immediately, but this would take a bit of time, so they would wait till he returned.  And all the way to the lab he had the anxiety in his stomach and shoulders, all the way, hurrying back, and at last rapping the doorframe, and entering, and she asked him to sit anywhere he liked, and he chose closest to her desk for the intimidation, and all the fantasies he had had on his trip over and back were like a wriggling line imploding on itself, the fears, for he knew it had to be something unpleasant.  God, she had even made notes for it, the woman in her totally under control, even where she bulged too much in the proper directions, pushing her glasses back on the bridge of her nose, soft dark hair, not ugly, but then no one he would choose to sleep with.

     "When Miss Sorenson transferred you here three years ago, she told me a good bit about your problems.  There were deficiencies from the start, but I decided not to lean on you.  I had hoped you would improve.  Your areas were untidy.  Your patients were not properly washed and shaven.  You were finishing your assignments far too quickly and spending your time in the lounge.  Often when we'd call for you to help you couldn't be found.  Since you stopped therapy in January things have really gotten out of hand.  Now I know that I am partly to blame in this, and I am willing to forgive everything up to this point, to let you proceed with a clean slate, so to speak, since I have said nothing to you in three years, and to evaluate you in October based on only what has transpired since this morning, but there is one thing I cannot forgive and for which you will receive a verbal warning next week.  And that is the occasion where you were asked to make beds on the north side and you wondered aloud who had originally been assigned that job.  That was simply insubordination to a nurse, and we can't tolerate that."

     Miss Sutler paused there from what seemed utterly mechanical, out of rote memory, and smiled, but the smile was just a ripple over stone, and Tommy knew there was only one way to placate the woman, and that that was to simply agree with everything she had said.  After all, her back was up, and he was getting off light.  As far as the hiding, he couldn't recall that much, and far as the insubordination, he had heard far worse from the other aides.  As far as his patients and their areas, he couldn't much contest that.  He had always been sloppy there, and everyone had always known it.

     "You don't think," he found himself saying, "there are any mitigating work habits I have in the whole situation?  You know it's a little late in the game to be told you aren't doing your job."

     "I know it's late," she said, winding on like rote, "and that's why I am willing to forgive the past.  On the other hand, while you have always claimed you relate well to the patients, far above the average, I have heard you on a number of occasions, even just last week, scream at a patient who couldn't follow instructions.  We are paid to care for those who cannot care for themselves, not yell at them, not abuse them.  No, there are no mitigating circumstances, nothing much at all I, for ONE, can attest to."

     "Well, I'll just have to do my best."

     "I'm glad you see it that way."

     "Is there anything more?"

     "No.  Simply that I'll be watching you.  You know I see a lot more than you think from this office."

     He tried to match her smile.  It was true then she had eyes out there.  He would have to watch himself very closely.  No more talk about how he hated her guts.  Nothing about slashing her tires.  About how she took food off the trucks and fed her fatty jowls.  Nothing to the patients either.  He was standing and backing out, but there was no way he could leave what had just transpired totally behind.  It was almost time for lunch break.  He would even have to watch that from now on.  No more eating his sandwich at 11 and then taking the full 45 minutes on top of it.  And then he'd have to slow down, and he hated that, slow down to make it look as if he was doing more.  It wouldn't be something he could leave at quitting time and pick up again the next morning.  Until October he would be bringing it home with him.  And he spent the next ten minutes straightening the linen closet, and then he dropped his lunch in the trash barrel and set his watch carefully by the big clock and stepped out of the dining room onto the ramp and descended to a clump of oaks and his favorite bench and stretched out, eyes shielded from the late July sun, and tried to blank his mind.

     It worked for ten minutes.  Rachel was at it again, wailing twenty feet across the lawn with her battered white leather Bible, screaming for her own salvation, for the salvation of anyone who cared to hang around and be counted, for all the blessed and all the damned and the three lane highway between them, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but mostly Jesus, sweet Jesus, oh God, sweet Jesus . . . . . . . . .

     " . . . save me, SAVE me, mercy Lawd, save this lady from her torment, SAVE this girl, dear Lawd, almighty Jesus, JESUS, help me, help me, God, I's drowning, DROWNING, DROWNING, in the fire, save me from the fire, my little Jeremy Phillips, Jason, my man, save me, save US, DEAR JESUS LAWD, though I walks, though I walks, through the valley, through the VALLEY, THROUGH the valley, of the SHADOW, of the SHADOW, of evil, dear Jesus, sweet Jesus, oh Gaahd, oh Gaahd, oh Gaahd, thy ROD shall comfort, oh God I knows it, knows it deep in my heart of heart, THOU ANOINTS, THOU anoints my head, my head with oils, and MY CUP RUNNETH over, over, over, just as sure as I be sitting here, sweet Jesus, Lawd, oh help my little boy, my man, my Jason, my JASON and GOODNESS, and GOODNESS and MERCY, and mercy Lawd, shall FOLLOW, FOLLOW, FOLLOW, all the DAYS of my LIFE, oh God, oh GAAAAAHHHHD, GAHHHHHHHHAD . . . "

     And he was on his feet and headed past her doubled form, the pink plastic shoes, the pale green porter's smock, the processed hair, the chanting lips, straight across toward the tennis courts where the mental patients and druggies were lurching about in pursuit of a volley ball, so much, so much of his past haunting him, and even that was too much, and he looked up at heavy white clouds drifting in an otherwise perfect sky and down at the beaten grass, and he skirted the courts and was aimed for Building 8, eyes down at the pastel lawn, bare packed earth and trampled blades and the heat of the sun baking in a day that should have been perfect, and just as he looked up it was too late to avoid them, an old man, haggard, wild, mouthing obscenities, in odd-sized clothes, a man in his thirties, longish blond hair and sandals, propping the old man up, that forlorn couple angling toward him, the distance closing too fast to do much about it, even if he had the will, could summon it from Sutler, Sutler's office, Rachel's chant.  They had met head on, and the old man was directing toward Tommy King his manic soliloquy:

     "And then I told Robertson, and he was the only Negro MD psychiatrist in North America, that we had THE SOLUTION.  We'd just cut up the bodies of all the sickies that died stone dead on crazy forecasts, and then be mincing and mulching their vital organs, the bone, the marrow, the genitals, even the colon and its contents . . . "

     "Leave the man be, Professor Quick."

     " . . . and feed that into a saline solution and inject the corrupted bodies . . . "

     "Leave em be,  Quick."

     " . . . three or four times a day and within a few weeks we'd see the results.  The tumors would be melting.  The AIDS would be urinated out through the vital systems, and there would be nothing but clean, unsullied body tissues and wastes and vitals left in the purest form, and there would be no more remaining stigmata in the whole of God's creation, and the world would be at peace, and there would be . . . "

     "I said leave em be."

     " . . . reign peace on earth forever and ever, no pain, no agony, no dying, no putrefaction or corruption of any nature.  But you know what happened?"

     "No," Tommy felt himself saying.  "What happened?"

     "Leave that poor man be, for Christ sake."

     "The toadies over in Albany said because Rufus was a nigger we couldn't publish our results.  Can you imagine that?  Just because he was a black man."

     "Well I hope you soon have better luck, sir."

     And then Tommy was free of them, walking fast now and with intent.  He was in the dazzling sun and willing to be free of it, of Sutler, Rachel, this madman whose voice now even followed, came on, dogging his escape:

     "Wait!  Merciful God, can't you wait?  I'll give you the formula.  Don't let it perish.  Don't let the world rot forever . . . it's horrible . . . "

     "I said leave the man be, Professor."

     "Simply a sexual preference, and the whole world eaten up.  Gaaaaahhhd, it's coming . . . the Cosmos . . . . . . "

     One or two steps, or was it just the landing?  He was in under the awning, the plywood they had just last week attached, and was opening the door, and then he was inside in the twilight and was standing there trembling, listening to his heart, his breathing, and then, for some reason, it seemed that all the light was gone, and he was descending not only to the basement and the cafeteria and a cup of coffee with two half-and-halfs but also to total darkness.  That the darkness was suddenly everything, even more than his destination.  That it WAS his destination, and he was groping his way with his hand on the metal banister, step by step down into it, into the last quiet, a voice of silence, the last warning.  It lasted about a minute, and then he could hear the doors flung open at the base of the steps and hear their rich laughter, the living somehow ascending.  He wasn't, on the other hand, totally free of it.  For just that moment as they nodded, passing, three blacks and a white, their faces melted into lopsided frights, an interwoven spill of color, and his head was rising through the scalp, and the hues were all melting, fusing, a frightening world of poisoned rainbow sherbet, tasting, tasting, tasting with his fingers, and somehow in the twilight he had the two tablets of Barry's out of the plastic Correction tab case and was swallowing them without water, praying for his head to clear, just to clear so he could negotiate the balance of the day.

 

EIGHT ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

In 515 Stedman strips a soaking Johnnie coat off old man Potter and kneels to remove his slippers.  Even the trousers are rank, but he will save those until he has Doc on the bed.  Standing, he tosses the scabrous knitted footwear on Doc's dresser and reaches over his bed for a towel.  The old man is looking up at him sheepishly, calm now, quiet, the large green eyes like aggies in a bloat of skin.

     "I must say, in my humble opinion, that you are making the very worst of your situation," Stedman intones.  "A man of your breeding, it's simply sad."

     Old Doc grins and paws at his face.

     "To be sitting there reeking.  What if your wife could see you?  What would the good woman say?"

     Doc grins and thumbs his nose.  Stedman towels off the head and bare shoulders, crosses to the sink.

     "Think of the world at large.  A respected man of our community doused with stale piss.  It's horrible."

     "Moooooooooooeeeeeeehhhhhhhrrrrrrr."

     Stedman turns back from wetting the towel.  The old man is thumbing his nose again.

     "Ecce homo," Stedman utters with a flourish of his right hand.

     "Moooooooooooeeeeeehhhhhhhrrrrrrrr."

     Doc is grinning again, nodding his head and winking.

     "God, you even know your Latin."

     "Mooooooeeehhhhhrrrrrr."

     Barry Stedman crosses the tile and wipes Doc's face and torso down, kneels to wipe the feet.  There is another scent beyond the urine.  A dentist reduced to this?

     "I've been conducting a survey of people in your condition, people of refinement and breeding, community leaders, men of power and influence.  We have only the preliminary findings, but I must say that there are very few who have used their disabilities as a kind of license to perform acts of a barbaric nature against their fellow men.  Perhaps in time I will understand your motivations.  There may be some darkness in you that will surface, something perhaps too obscure to fathom directly, but with time, and God knows we have enough of that, maybe the larger world will come to understand and will perhaps in time, in time, forgive.  God knows we must be merciful."

     "Moooooooooooeeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhrrrrrrrrr."

     Doc sits, grinning, thumbing his nose.  Stedman readies the bed.  There is always a small supply of linen in the end locker, compliments of Burton Randolph.  All the Day shift hide linen, and Stedman can locate most of it.  He has found it stashed in the most unlikely places, ingenious often, even under mattresses, just above the springs.  Here he makes do with another towel, a diaper, and a draw-sheet.  The latter he lays across the edge of Potter's bed.

     "Potter, you are no more than a stinking animal."

     He has him under the arms, hot there, coarse, and is yanking him up and over to the bed, hand now hooking the knees until the old man is supine with the legs up against his chest so that, freeing the belt, Stedman must work toward a sharp bend to slide the trousers off.  He tosses those on the dresser.  Potter is a pink gaunt figure in a soiled diaper struggling against him, "Moooooo-eeeeeehhhhhhhhrrrrrr" by "moooooooeeeeehhhhhhh-rrrrrr" until Stedman has him over fetal and is peeling off the last rank vestige of his garments.  There is a lot of it wedged in his buttocks, and he digs for it with the towel as Doc fights his hands and tries to scratch him.  And yet the struggle takes his mind off the odor, just long enough to finish up roughly and stand back and let him thrash.  Under Doc's bed-frame is a full roll of silk tape Stedman has hidden there for his work in this room.  There are similar rolls all down the corridor.  The paper tape tears easily and is useless for his purpose.

     "Moooooooooooooeeeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhrrrrrr."

     Turning him back and forth to slide the fresh diaper under, drawing it up around his belly and the small of his back, going to work with the tape, wrapping it all the way around as tight as possible and then folding the diaper down over it and taping the fold until the dentist is trussed despite himself and Stedman has him where he wants him, all but a fresh Johnnie coat which he steals from Jaird's locker and struggles over the torso.  He has the spread up to Doc's chin and then the rail up, and he stuffs the soiled linen into a wall locker, and the worst is over.

     "You know why I have to do that.  Why do you make it so hard?"

     "Moooooooeeeeeehhhhhhhrrrrrr."

     "If you just wouldn't smear we wouldn't need to truss you up like this.  If you would just promise not to smear."

     "Moooeeeehhhrrr?  Moooeeehhhrrr?"

     "Is that a promise?"

     "Moooooooooooeeeeehhhhhhrrrrrrr."

     "Maybe some other night."

     All this time Sedder's eyes have been radiating a blue wild vacancy at the ceiling.  Jaird in the corner nods over the remnants of his supper, head sinking, sinking, until it reaches the edge of the narrow table.  Stedman crosses to the sink and cranks liquid soap all up and down his arms and scrubs thoroughly and then flicks the light on over the sink and crosses to the entrance and kills all the rest so that the room is all darkness but the blue wash from the area of the sink, just to the right and beyond Sedder's feet, Sedder fetal, hands in mittens trussed to the bed-frame.

     Stedman sits with his eyes closed, reaching for his Mellaril.  At last he has the pill case open, careful with the tremors, to a 100 milligram tablet, shoving it back on his tongue and swallowing easily.  In this twilight he remembers an occasion when he was going manic and had to take four of them fast and had ground them in his teeth, and his mouth and throat had been burned by the acidity.  Night noises blend into each other with half his hearing gone.  He cannot pick out the origin of each textured scream.  At last when he is calm he will call Marka.  This time perhaps no one will interfere.  The main thing is to sit back and let the silence take him, the darkness.  What was it that he feared so totally, that senility would claim him too?  Or was it that other virus that claimed so much of the news the last months?  Or that it would claim someone he loves, that somewhere sometime someone somehow something-—will that person also have to lie like Doc, trussed in a wrap of diaper?  There were certainly problems for him either relatively young, or if he survived.  That he might live to see it solved.  He prays for that.  And then he remembers the notepad in his rear pocket and the quatrain and he stands and crosses to Sedder and pulls back his covers and looks down on the wasted body in the twilight.  This old man.  They say there are eight young ones on Acute, fifteen since the previous winter, seven dead.

     "What's the story?" he hears.

     "Go to sleep, old fellow.  Sleep sleep sleep."

     Again on the vinyl armchair, sinking back at Sedder's silhouetted mittens in relative darkness, opening to a blank leaf, easing his pen out of the stiff white trousers:

     "Mittens grace his mottled fists,

       Blue as his tortured eyes,

       Protect the bruises on his thighs.

       He'd score them otherwise."

     Christ, getting it down.  Then:

     "A condom sheathes vestigial sex

       To feed the tube and sack

       Beneath his fickle, human crack."

     Perhaps the rhyme is too compulsive.  Then:

     "We monitor the surfeit, lack."

     He thinks of Christa, his twelve-year-old daughter, and things come a little lighter.  Will Christa grow old?  Any way one looked at it, life HAS gotten lighter.  He has been working for nearly a year since the last hospitalization, and this new therapist is smart enough to figure him out.  The others were too easy to fool.  One had to lead them by the hand, and then one could lead them simply anywhere that was wholly beside the point.  They would buy the persona in the end, and then one had to get rid of them.  At best it was a maintenance procedure, preserving the status quo.  Now there is just the taste of it, a whiff of hope.  And he can feel the Mellaril sinking into his nervous system, ganglia, synapses, lulling him toward a deadness that almost makes up for living.  Some-where off at the edge of his reverie someone is shaking a door.

     He cannot know what is on the mind of Sterngod at the entrance to the clean utility room.  Why hasn't the old fool gone home?  Here in relative darkness Stedman peers out at the tautly erect figure, like an aging gay field sergeant in white drag, total white, reaching to the levered knob and shaking, walking off a pace, turning back again to grasp the knob and shake, standing seemingly in puzzlement.  Hell, it has to be after seven, and she is still on the ward.  And he watches her shake and walk off and return and shake and cannot know that she is INWARDLY shaking in fear.

     What if the inspectors arrived?  You could never tell when they would show with their clipboards and their insolence.  What if they found the supplies unguarded, utterly unprotected?  Anyone could waltz in there and make off with a Foley catheter or worse, far worse, a syringe, or saline solution, a 4 by 4, a roll of cling, a bedpan, a urinal, some of that silk tape that always seemed to be missing.  One could never be too cautious, probably not even with her nurses, Sterngod thought, as loving and gentle as they might be.  It would be nice to trust your staff, but there was not one of them, beyond Stedman, the cripple, who wouldn't like to see her six feet under and stinking.  And what if she lost her job?  What would there be to live for?  Who would take care of her poor brother?  Who would send the nieces Christmas checks and sing in the North Church choir?  God, they tried to usher her out every evening, but she knew there was more at stake than a simple martyrdom.  Who would run this ship?  The wounded, the maimed, all these Godforsaken children, all the soldiers—who would bind their wounds?  Who would protect their interests, now that they were all demented from the blind scare of it and couldn't fend for themselves?  Oh yes, the door seemed to be locked, but it could be some grand deception.  If only there were someone to confide in.  That was the hardest, being the person in total, unrelenting command, almost God himself.  Being left to one's own liabilities and strengths in the face of unforeseen circumstances, like this tape that was missing.  How could you send in a requisition for 700 rolls of silk tape every nine weeks and expect the higher powers to come across, to not look askance at such a bewildering figure, such an endless waste of an essential ingredient?  There were forces out there which would seek to overturn her authority just on the basis of a simple expenditure.  What if they shut the place down?  And those agents within—what could she make of them?  Certainly someone was stealing—the stuff didn't literally walk.  It was as frightening as the notion that there were actually those who didn't care, who would waste a vital supply in a situation of total crisis—and what were those colored females doing about it with their shopping bags?  Maybe she would be able to sneak in some night like this and have a look for herself, just some concrete evidence of what they were up to, bleeding the wounded dry.  She'd close THEM down some time.  Just a  hint of luck and she'd have their shuffling black asses.

     This time she got as far as the laundry chute.  Just as she expected, it had been left unlocked.  Christ, they could throw anything down there, even a patient.  And who had the key?  She would have to stay on just to wait for it to show up.  And then there was the uneasy feeling that someone was watching her, almost a brush of fingers on her back.  And she hadn't eaten since noon.  Maybe there was time to sneak off to the dinette to pick up a cup of coffee and a sweet roll and be back up before she was missed.  Yes, it WAS unlocked.  When you grabbed the handle it turned just as sure as God made little monkeys, and the worthless devil that left it that way was nowhere in sight.  Helen Sterngod took one look behind her and headed toward her office.

     Stedman stepped back into the room and waited.  Perhaps Doc was sleeping.  He would check.  He stood at the foot of the old man's bed and listened to his breathing.  Asleep.  He reached slowly, carefully under the covers and grabbed Doc's foot and pinched it, laughing inwardly.

     "Moooooooooooooeeeeeeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhrrrrrrrrrr."

     Outside, he could see none of the staff.  He moved quietly down the corridor to the intersection.  No one at the nurse's station.  Just right, toward the dining room and beyond, were the patients again, subdued.  As usual they had been returned to the corridor after their feeding.  Molly, Rachel, no one in sight.  He heard rich laughter, then relative quiet, just the intermittent groans and screeches and something from Nicky.  In the coat closet was his supper, the thermal bag.  He slipped out with it and headed down past the elevators and past Frau Backer with her visor to the telephone.  It was just around the corner and set into the wall.  A geri chair was pulled up within sitting distance.  There was a view of the night sky through a wide deep-set window.  Stedman opened the bag and took out his supper, a can of ginger ale and a sandwich of rye bread and American cheese.  It seemed terribly dark out there.  Stars barely pierced the black.  Below were the great oaks and the parking lot.  He slipped a quarter into the phone slot and dialed and let it ring three times and hung up.  Waiting for her to return the call, he tried to get down as much of the sandwich as he could.  The ginger-ale was lukewarm.

     He was quick to cut the ring in half.

     "Süsse?" he said.

     "Yes.  How are you?  How is it going?"

     "I took a hundred just a while ago.  It's about the same.  Buteckus poured his urinal all over Doc's head."

     "My God.  I suppose you had to clean him up."

     "I just finished.  And they're after me for coffee."

     "But you don't drink it."

     "Yeah.  Mattie is saying she's going to have my ass."

     "Just like that then?  God."

     "Süsse, I've been thinking about Christa.  Just the other day—I can't swear it but I'm pretty damned sure I was short on my Valiums.  I'll not say I've been counting.  I haven't gone that far.  But it scares me to think about it, that maybe she's—would you think she might be taking some?  Or selling them.  Maybe she's selling them."

     "Barry, I'm not even going to discuss that.  She's not taking anything.  She doesn't even drink.  You worry about the strangest things.  Please.  Just stop."

     The sandwich is about half gone.  He washes it down with the ginger ale, nearly draining the notched can.

     "Your voice sounds wrong," she says.

     "I'm eating."

     "I know you're eating.  It's not that."

     "There's nothing wrong with my voice."

     "Don't be angry."

     "Listen.  Everything's looking up.  You said it yourself."

     "When?"

     "Last week.  I don't know. You were talking about how you could stand with the braces and that maybe they'd let you try that new drug.  Remember?  You'd be driving again."

     "I might have said that."

     "You did."

     "I'd feel a lot better if I could get around this apartment.  I think what we have to worry about first is getting out of this apartment.  I feel so worthless sometimes.  Like the worst sort of prisoner."

     "Don't say that."

     "Is your sandwich all right?"

     "It's all right.  It's fine.  Don't say you're worthless.  I hate that."

     "Well what am I?"

     "I think we've talked long enough."

     "I'm sorry."

     "I think we've talked long enough."

     "Don't be angry.  I just feel so insecure."

     "So maybe we're both insecure."

     "Cripples."

     "All right.  Cripples.  So we'll lean on each other.  And say hello to Christa.  Is she doing her homework?"

     "She's reading the book you gave her."

     "Good.  And don't let her hear you talking like that.  She's scared enough.  Thank God things aren't impossible.  Far from it.  And get some sleep.  Don't wait up."

     "I love you."

     "Ich liebe dich.  Sehr.  I mean that."

     "Good night."

     "Yeah.  Schlaf gut.  Good night, Marka.  Bye."

     He waited for the dial tone, then hesitated.  Tommy was probably out.  Pretty soon he'd give up on him.  There was just a fragment left of the sandwich.  He ate that, trembling.  Sweet sweet Tommy King, bitch none-the-less, if only he'd be faithful.  The whole thing was scary.  Terrible to know these days simple need was not just a matter of sinning.

     "God God God God Gaaaaahhhhd.  Kill kill God."

     NICKY?  Or was it coming from within?

 

DEADHEAD ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

At the age of eleven, the young man in the motorized chair had helped his grandfather commit suicide.  Very little had gone right since.  It was not that he talked about it.  He rarely talked about anything, even to Miss Lucy Barnes, the fundamentalist, who visited him on Thursdays.  The people who occasionally took an interest could find it all in his chart, the drug addictions, the visits to the State Hospital, the electroshock treatments, some sixty in all, the period Nathan sized up as the Sixties blur, when the Grateful Dead became his favorite group, and when he copped the bad bag of heroin that paralyzed him, all but enough movement in the right arm to propel himself from a toggle switch, the motion infinitely caring, skirting the other cripples, nursing that high slung chariot where he reclined like some Medieval artist's conception of a scourged Messiah, handling it like a fragile instrument, never grazing a wall, never touching a laundry cart, always with his large wide eyes in the emaciated bearded face surveying the field of action until he ended in the lounge and waited for a passersby to insert a Marlboro or a Kool in the end of his smoking tube and fire it up, but mostly waiting for Edgar.

     Edgar was the only human being he had ever met who really knew the score.  Tommy King had said he was spaced, but King didn't know the Sixties, and besides, King was a fag and a no good son that would say that about anyone who didn't come across so straight in their own way that you had to be afraid for your life.  King felt he was spaced, but Nathan knew different.  Edgar Biederfeld had had the ultimate experience.  No wonder people with small souls didn't read him right.  Edgar Biederfeld had taken 10,000 hits of liquid acid in the winter of 1968 and had gone on tripping for another half a year, and nobody else had done that, not Dylan, not Timothy Leary, not Jerry Garcia.  In many ways Edgar Biederfeld was God.  Besides, he smoked non-filter cigarettes and had a crewcut with a long untrimmed beard and was on Social Security disability and played the guitar better than Clapton when he had half a bag on, and that whole combination was enough to make anyone God or at least very close to it.  Not to mention that he was a Deadhead.  There were more of those left than anyone really thought, but when you ran into one you savored it like a fine wine, like a whole fresh bottle of one of those German wines like Blue Nun, because you knew you were in the presence of something important, and no matter what they said, Edgar Biederfeld who came every day to visit his senile uncle, was purity and love and kindness and all those other lovely words he could think of when he took to thinking about him, and he had saved Nathan from the one time Lucy Barnes had gone too far and had told him that rock music was the work of the Devil and he had screamed and twitched and cried and ran his chair into her leg and called her out, saying he would simply turn her into fire if she ever said that, ever again, anything about playing tunes backwards for messages from Satan, any of that garbage and crap that wasn't even worth mention-ing for fear of getting sick on it.

     Just when it became unbearable, when he was left alone in the lounge and Lucy was out in the larger world looking for someone else to convert, Edgar had walked in with a big smile and those funny Lennon glasses, the gold wire rims, and told him, told Nathan in his agony that there was only one way to go.  That you put Paul McCartney on the right and Lou Reed on the left, or maybe Mick Jagger, and you went right down the middle between them, you burned down the middle, and on the other end was Paradise, and that there was no other way to get even close, to get a sniff, and from then on Nathan wasn't bothered by those people anymore, the Lucy Barneses.  He let them run on all they wanted, because he knew that there was complete order and harmony in the world, and it was all due to the very thing he had founded his life on, and that was rock music, and especially the Sixties, and especially that narrow lane between Jagger and Paul McCartney, because he took young Edgar Biederfeld just a step further, though he never mentioned it, that that narrow path was Jerry Garcia and the Dead, world without end.

     It didn't matter anymore.  Nothing mattered.  It didn't even matter that his mother had deserted him, that she was up to her teeth in the Kingdom of Jehovah just like his father, dead now five years, that she never came to see him, that she sat around all day and prayed to Jesus and didn't even take the time to pray for her only son who lay around all day with a tube in his privates and looking at the world from one angle, just past his lap-board and contracted feet with eyes that saw just a corner of the floor and the doorway, waiting for Edgar or sometimes Lucy, but saw it all, saw more than God, he thought, saw and heard and knew that life was not without meaning, not as long as he had it in his memory, as Garcia had it in his memory, because he loved Edgar Biederfeld, and he loved Garcia, and he would go on that way till they all died, and even beyond, even till he was a hundred and 23, sucking on Kools and Marlboros and a taste of reefer when he got very very lucky, just a touch last month, and go on that way maybe till there was absolutely no one in the whole miserable world left who had the slightest notion who even Lou Reed was, and then he would go peaceably, knowing he had done his part, for he had gone the path, and that was Nathan Muller's ambition, to be the last, the very last unsullied flower child on earth, the last freak, the last Deadhead.

 

A TOTAL ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

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 nigger, 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.

 

NINE ((((((((((((( LongTerm Care

 

 

There is a disco rhythm from the dining room.  The four black aides plus another Negro female from Housekeeping are in tune with Walkerson's radio around a large yellow mesh garden table.  They are gathered at Chicken Delight, four tubs, and two half-gallon plastic bottles of diet cola.  Edna alone peeks through the glass at them.  Bill Buteckus is somewhere up the hall, pawing his way toward the wait for bed.  In the corridor is the same intensity, the same outcry, a cacophony of hoots, grunts, shrieks; but the doors to the dining room are shut, and the music has all but the most fevered contributions from Sarah Jane, Nicky, Wick, the twins, Millie, etc. safely distanced.  There is warmth in the dining room.  There is the tantalizing aroma of Southern-fried chicken parts.  One can almost detect a festive air, the rich laughter, the tapping of whited shoes, the warm liquidity of the voices, like thick cream melting into coffee.  Rachel Scander is holding forth on union scuttlebutt, waving a drum stick, nipping off a bit with one hand cupped to save her tunic, licking at the crisp slick skin.  The others lean back, lean forward in a hush, double back in rolls of laughter.  Amazing what those stewards come across on the Grievance Committee, anything from flushing old Brader's dentures to trapped getting it down on the back stairs.  And weren't those the good old days, the latter?  God time flies.  Aides used to live on the grounds themselves, and after ten you'd see those old boys work their way across the roof and into some happy arms.  Time sure flies.  Like that one occasion they poured sugar into Miss Sampson's gas tank for she was getting so damned, so all damned uppity, coming hard down on the crew over on 9-3, and they got caught, mind you, and they grieved them off Scot-free.  Just imagine!  Molly Morris watches the ruddy lady work on that chicken as she talks and waits for HER turn, for she has something that she needs to relate.  And then comes the pause.

     "Way you set your lips to that chicken put me in mind of something I dreamed last night about four in the AM."

     "What's that, Molly Morris?" Rachel asks.

     "God, I hates to even repeat it."

     They all bend forward, even Samantha, who is almost at the edge of the evening's entertainment, would likely not be there at all were it not for the chicken, which she likes just about better than the Colonel's.  Molly's eyes flash over a flick of tongue.

     "Well, if you can be pardoning the way I puts this, I was fast asleep and dreaming about the biggest pussy I ever seen in my whole life, woman's pussy, mind you, and I had my head in there and be licking it out something intense, and I wakes up and rushes right for the bathroom and be brushing my teeth out, made me so sick, and that's the God's honest truth as I setting here."

     "My Gaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhdddddddddd."

     They are all laughing, tears in their eyes, roaring, slapping their thighs, poking each other in the ribs.

     "Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhdddddddddd."

     Izzy Burito finally has herself under control.

     "You knows that could be a sign."

     "Sign of what?"  Anger flashes in Molly's eyes.

     "Nothing like that.  I means you should have it done up in a reading.  Maybe that dream be telling you something.  Ain't nothing to be laughing at.  I heard of peoples dream things like that afore, bad dreams meaning the house going to be catching fire or some-thing."

     "There you goes again with that superstition."

     "I don't know," Samantha says.  "It pay to be careful."

     The woman from Housekeeping reaches for a breast part and nips off some and rubs the free hand dry on her apron.  They call her Skeeter but no one knows her real name.  She has been working there for about as long as anyone can remember, and the common opinion is that she is just about the ugliest lady ever came to Twin Oaks.  Skeeter is big like the others, but the homeliness is in the face.  Molly calls her King Kong's sister and asked her Halloween last year if she had already bought her mask.  Skeeter makes up for her deficiencies with a good sense of humor and a willingness to go out for the chicken.

     "They say white folks eat it," Skeeter offers.

     "Not just white folks.  Colored too."

     "No tell, Rachel," Samantha says.

     "There be men that likes it better than straight."

     "I never run into that.  Not me, honey."

     "Well I did, more than once.  Thing I can't understand that clearly is a woman that would do it to a man.  There be awful things in this world but sucking off have got to be the ugliest.  Ugly black thing like that.  Gaaaaaaaahhhhhhhddd."

     Samantha is rather accustomed to such discussions.  When they come up she simply tunes most of it out.  Tonight's topic has always been an area, however, in which she has maintained a certain interest, if not curiosity, having had her experiences in the past, ones she would never relate to these girls.  There were things better left wholly private.

     "I wonder what it's like," she offers.

     "Sucking?" Rachel asks.

     "No.  Getting eat."

     "I never would let a man do that to me.  Not me, girl."

     "I tell you one thing, ladies," Molly says, brightly.  "I just be taking any of that I be getting and loving it all the while.  There be nothing, nothing in this whole blessed world out there I likes better than a tongue in me, and I means it sure and truly.  But suck a man?  Never."

     "Hows about a white man?" Samantha asks.

     "Gaaahd, that chalky little thing?  Girl, you turns my stomach."

     Skeeter reaches for a wing and leans back in the momentary silence.  There is a story she'd like to tell.  It has been preying on her mind for nearly twenty years.  If it goes on like this silent she just might be tempted.  She looks over at Izzy, who is eating her fourth thigh.  Girl like that!  Why they ever associates with a devil that makes up those voodoo dolls is beyond her.  Everyone is busy with the chicken when Skeeter finally relents.

     "All this puts me to mind of something happened maybe back in late sixty I ashamed even to be relating."

     They all lean forward, except Samantha, who has finished up her third cup of diet cola and is tempted toward a fourth just to keep down her appetite for the chicken.

     "What's that, honey?" Rachel says.

     "Well I been seeing this colored boy that had hisself a Packard, one of those old cars, honey, that you don't be seeing no more.  And this boy, he a musician.  He play the saxophone.  Maybe it was the flute.  No maybe it was both, cause I think I seen him playing one or t-other maybe twenty times in this old club they having in Mount Olive.  And I be kind of shy, see, and he always trying to get me up into my apartment, but I be leaving him at my door, and he goes home sad like.  I hated the expression on that man.  And then one night I be out in the Packard with him.  He be a very handsome man, I tell you right now, good looking.  Almost like Paul Newman if'n Paul Newman was black.  And we be out in the Packard and he gets me in the back, smooth talkin like, and then he be kissing me up and down the belly under my blouse and things, and pretty soon I doesn't knows where I am.  It get all foggy like and indistinct, almost like a picture out of focus.  And I feels like I been smoking reefer or something, though I doesn't really smoke reefer, never tried it in my life.  And he has me pinned down, cause he strong, mind you, but he don't really need that kind of strength, cause we been dancing all night, and I been sweatied up and being fat just like now, the dancing was something that always do that to me, sweatying up like a blur, all excited and tired.  And to make it short, I looks down and he have my panties off and his head be right there in it, and I don't know what to do, I so shocked, so I lays there and take it, and pretty soon I comes off like a rocket, like one of them asteroids, just a coming and a coming till I thinks I going to pass out, and then he looks up and aks me to be doing it back to him."

     "Gaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhddddd.  Did you do it?"

     "No, maam.  I just says I a lady and don't be doing no fancy degrading things, and then he takes me home, and that be the last I ever seen of the man cause he got his throat sliced the next Sattiday evening and stone died on the way to the hospital."

     "Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhddddddddd."

     "Oh my Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhddddddddddd."

     Ugly old thing like that, Rachel thinks.  Oh my God, if anybody stick his mouth into them legs.  Oh my God, and it be such a sad tale after all.  Ugly old thing like Skeeter.

     "There go Stedman," Molly says.

     Stedman has emerged from the TV room with Nicky.

     "Stedman eat pussy," Molly says.

     "How you be knowing a awful thing like that?"

     "Cause he tole me.  Anyways he white.  They all eats it."

     Probably in there discussing me, Stedman thinks, head down gripping the litter.  Really, one needed two for this job, but there wasn't much point in asking.  And yet they'd call on him without question and expect a cheerful obedience.  He can scent the chicken.  Where they get the money to order out three nights a week is completely beyond him.  Can't be earning more than six an hour.  He looks down at the white bulge of the spread and the flush of Nicky's face, coasting along toward troubled sleep.  Just as he rounds the corner he catches Sterngod leaving the elevator with a sort of hidden, embarrassed look and a tray from downstairs.  She'll probably hang on till ten.  Nothing else in her life, poor ugly thing, kind as can be under that exterior.  And she loves them all, every crippled one of them, he knows that.  He can tell it.  That first day he ascended the elevator with the lady from Personnel and Sterngod escorted him up and down the halls and into the dining room—I guess you could say they grow on you—something like that, barely audible with the screeches and groans.  Yes, even Nicky here, poor old suck, sliding him into 501, angling his bloated form toward the bed and reaching for the Hoyer Lift in the corner.

     There is a canvas sling under him with four loops he attaches to the linked chains, facing the hooks outward that they won't dig into his skin.  He has the door swung shut so no one will catch him at it alone, and then is cranking the lift, a chromium bar that extends over the litter to descend in two arms and chains.  Underneath are the two steel legs that one extends from a lever at the vertical support.  There is supposed to be someone on hand to guide the patient free of the chair, the litter, but with the length of Stedman's arms there isn't that much of a problem.  He soon has old Nicky dangling like a great fetus over the dark tile, dangling and quivering with his fin-like hands and feet, the latter scraping the set-ups as he guides him across the bed.  All that is left is to release the pressure with a turn of a dial on the upright and ease him down, guiding the legs so that he is just right and doesn't need adjusting.  It is a matter of five minutes work, the easiest part, for Nicky at least.  Even HE seems to like it, stone silent all the while, in some sort of funk this Sunday evening, his large eyes rolled up and protruding at the wall behind him, an expression of resignation, even disgust, on the pitted face.

     "How'd you like it?" Stedman asks.  "Almost like the old amusement park back home.  Maybe the Terror Twist."

     "Cut the chatter, Mack."

     "What's eating you tonight?"

     "That was a good show on in there."

     "Then what were you hollering about?  Christ, you sounded like somebody was sticking knives into your feet."

     "Never mind my feet."

     Stedman must remove the sling from beneath him.  Nick lies in a hook, hands up and contracted at his chin, body angled over toward the side with the legs drawn up to his chest and the feet coiled.  He is fetus.  He is a massive polliwog on the folded linen.

     "See the Jets today?" Nick asks. "Jesus, they were tremendous."

     "I don't watch much football."

     "Big guy like you?  Come on."

     "I don't watch pro ball.  It's too much like a business.  Maybe some college if I know the teams.  That's all.  Maybe I got tired of watching them run up and down the field.  I mean if you like it it's OK, you know."

     "What the hell are you, a fairy?"

     Stedman doesn't like that.  He crosses the edge of the bed and grabs the feet and buttocks and pivots the contracted body up and over against the railing.  Nick is immediately roaring, like a wounded bull, the face scarlet, breaking into sweat, the scrotum too large, trapped in the glistening pale of the thighs, wedged there like cranberry sauce.

     "God God God God fuck you oh God my God."

     "Just getting the sling out.  Does it hurt a little?"

     "That's how you get your kicks, ain't it?  Oh God."

     Stedman takes his sweet time, rolling the sling inward toward the base of the contorted body and then pulling the latter back supine over the roll of the sling and crossing to the other side to grab the knees and the shoulder and pivot him back the other way, this time with the head against the railing, the bright head livid with frustration and pain.  Stedman slides the sling out and tosses it on the litter, leaves Nicky there groaning, an obscenity of sorts, almost too much to bear.

     "Let me down.  Jesus, what the fuck are you?"

     "Maybe I AM a fairy, Nick.  Maybe you hurt my feelings.  Maybe I like to torture old farts like you in my spare time.  Maybe I don't get paid for this kind of work.  I could be just in it for the kicks."

     "God God God God God God God God God."

     Stedman takes Nick's pillow and wedges it between his face and the railing and then slides the covers up over his form.  Nick's face is a bright bloat of dimpled skin, the eyes like jagged cuts.

     "I'm going to leave you like that for a while."

     "Christ, have a little pity."

    "It's all on the chart, Nick.  Want to see it?  Flip and turn every half hour to prevent decubitus.  Positions drawn out and a place for our initials.  Just to prevent decubitus.  You know what that is, don't you?  You had a big one on your slimy fat butt last December."

     "You sound real tough.  Goddamn candy ass prick."

     "I'll be back in thirty minutes."

     "God God God God God God fuck God fuck God fuck die die die kill kill God God kill God merciful Jesus."

     Stedman steps out and closes the door on the sound of it.  There is something horrible he can't quite catch, a texture.  Perhaps the repetition, that hoarse aching persistence.  He glances up at the yellow sheet and the various initials down the right column.  Takes out a pen and adds his.  Position 1.  Position 2.  Position 3.  Simple as that, even diagrams to show them how to do it.  Tidy, efficient.  And he'll be going on like that until they lower him flat at 8:31.  And he'll lie there staring at the ceiling, and maybe someone will turn on his radio, poor old Nicky who likes the soft easy-listening stuff that reminds him of his youth, the good old tunes that you don't hear anymore, perhaps of his adolescence when he set a record in the fifty yard dash that held for thirteen years.  No mistake about it, a bedsore is an awful thing, just about as terrible as that noise the poor suck is making, sack of leak, daring to go nowhere but in.

     He cannot feel Mattie's eyes on his back.  Just inside the kitchen she is sitting at a tray of soul food with Francine, the charge nurse.  They have two small bowls of black-eyed peas.  There are ribs and chitterlings.  Sundays the high yellow lady and the charge nurse, off-white, white, cook up a nice nourishing meal to share.  At times like this one can even detect a twitch of love between them, Mattie with the sharpest tongue that ever served a black woman to fend for herself in a sea of rampant bias, Francine with  a heart as big as Twin Oaks County permits, each hating the other, yet sharing four extra hours labor just that morning, perhaps some grits on the side tonight, a touch of pecan pie to tide them through that clamor across the hall, until he closes a door on it.

     "Don't you be drinking no coffee, boy."

     "Mattie, what would ever give you that notion?"

     "Don't you be smart-mouthing me.  Write you up in a minute.  I have witnesses you been perfectly disrespectful.  You just gets on out of here and finishes up your work.  Get on out now and leave two ladies in peace."

     "Mattie," Francine says.  "Maybe he'd like some chittlins."  She looks up at Stedman.  She is over-sized in her white tunic, whimsical, smiling.

     "That boy don't be getting nothing but the sweat of a good night's work.  Get on out now.  I said git."

     Stedman backs out, a bow, a flourish, almost a curtsy.

     "And leave that door shut.  Only Satan himself love a noise like that.  Poor tortured man."

     Yet it somehow aids her digestion.  God if it don't.  And that Stedman, somehow he has class, just there mocking pretty-like, almost a gentleman.  All the same those shiftless girls out there don't be talking the way he does about fetching in one of them microwave ovens to play the devil with an old woman's pacemaker.  Not so old.  Hell, she may just outlast them all.  Close this place down afore she quit, Lord know that sure enough.  Stedman.  Gaaahhhd, he tighter on the money than a steer's be-end come fly time.  Just so cute the way he backed out.

     "Stedman sure have a bunch of lip, Miss Francine."

     "Why Mattie.  He loooooovvvvveeeees you."

     "No such thing as love in this hospital.  Just BM wall to wall.  Haaaaaaahhhhh.  Just BM wall from wall."

 

FOX ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

In the three years Tommy King had worked on Ward 4-2, he had only known one certifiable, genuine, fully believable Fox.  And that was Luella Stoat, and she reigned till Beth came, made her brief appearance, and then she reigned again.  Luella was one of the few women Tom King would have slept with, and if he hadn't been tied to Barry so securely at the time, things certainly would have transpired.  As for Beth, that was another story.  Luella, Tom, they both loved Beth.  After an awful lot of talk about whom they'd spend some intimate time with, it was always back to Beth.  And Beth was on her way out.  On her way out so terribly it didn't bear thinking on.  Some obscure illness from a genetic defect that shared a lot with MS but was terminal and faster acting and pretty well remorseless.  The technical term was Friedreich's Ataxia.  It had its claws half-way in that lovely, lovely woman at less than 25, just half way but enough to bring out of one woman's anguish a whole lot of what was coming, of what no amount of prayer or divine solicitation would alter in the slightest, so certain, so certainly awful it had bent poor Beth into the strangest kind of cripple, one whose sheer loveliness would in itself make you cry, one whose sheer horror would have you flee toward visions of a different sort of life.

     That life was the one Tom and Luella used to talk about in the afternoons when their work was over and there was nothing to do but hide by the TV set in the dining room or in some vacant space on the north wing or out on the porch in the summer, close enough to hear being called but not too close to annoy authority with their sitting.  That life in general consisted of whom they'd sleep with, just running names by, people in the news, nurses on this or that ward, relatives, even patients, and sometimes it was just for humor, mentioning the grisliest sorts of humanity to get a rise out of each other, maybe not the best kind of joking but innocent enough, a way to make the hours pass till the clock nudged toward quitting, and they could once again put Twin Oaks behind them.  And even when they lapsed into silence, Tom King had that lovely dark skin of Luella and her flashing eyes and her braided hair, and her long elegant hands and her smile, and that in itself was a feast he could enter any time even if she WAS female.  After all, there weren't many men better looking, and sometimes sexual preferences had very little to do with anatomy.  Luella was something he liked.  At 28 she was vital and cocky and full of anger, but even that flashed pure and sweet in her firm soft coil of a body, her sweet sweet spirit, a presence that had you carnal at a distance of twenty feet when you knew the woman, aching to investigate the inner resource of her laughter, aching to be wholly enveloped by the languorous grip she had on living, the bright white lovely affirmation of an open smile.

     It was quite another thing when the Fox she was fell in love with that doomed wench, that other Fox, that other very opposite loveliness, that young stuff that was made for cheerleading at Oklahoma or Pitt and never for tremors and curvature of the spine and a general degeneration of the nervous system that affected her walking and slurred her speech so that even bra-less in a knit jersey with her flawless skin and the long braided hair she was breaking your heart, breaking Luella's in more ways than one, so that with the anger that all that was bringing on and with the abuse she showered on that young black woman that was assigned to take care of her, to bathe that sweet white anatomy, that youth, so perfect in its own way, so very much more perfect, curiously, for the disease that was getting its tentacles in,  you cried if you were warm like Luella, agonized for all that beauty that was twisting all too young, somehow far too much like a blighted flower, just turning toward decay and blazing all the more for it, for the first wrinkles in its texture, the first mutations of its pure unyielding hues, even the curses Beth showered on that Fox of a warm young black woman being sweet in themselves, the "Nigger"s, the "you black mama"s she was calling, shrieking, even in her innocence, sweet in themselves, an anguish that was killing off the bloom in Luella's cheeks, telling Tom King that, yes, there was one woman she'd sleep with gladly, with the greatest joy and bliss, and that he'd have no trouble judging it was Beth, what there was that they knew of her, what there was going to be just five years down the line, give or take a few, and death a certainty thereafter.

     And then, just like that, Beth left.  On a Saturday afternoon, as they were setting up for church in the dining room, the ambulance men came for her, and she transferred with difficulty from her wheelchair to the litter, bra-less perfection there in the most ungainly of means for such Fox as she was to be navigating even the slightest modicum of space, there on the litter with the flash of her anger and insolence, and Tom King watching and wanting to somehow say good-bye, to tell her he somehow knew what she was facing, but knowing there was no point to any of it, that there was no way that time would ever prepare that young woman for her fate, that it had come on too soon and progressed too soon, that it had struck without warning and would leave no room for abeyance, a stretch of coming to terms with it, and that, above all, Beth Madden was the loneliest creature he had ever met and that no one looking on there by the nurse's station would ever reach out to her, for between an individual and her dying came in actuality no one.  It was that kind of marriage.

     Luella was off with a specimen of blood to the Lab when Beth made her exit, and Tom was off on the south end with his patients when she returned, so he never had the chance of gauging her immediate reaction.  The full force of it came about an hour later when he was slipping in to the service at twelve and saw her there with her hymnal.  There was a coarseness about the woman he loved, the use she often made of certain four letter words to describe her involved and elaborate love-making, the husband she found too old but who danced when she cried dance and never faulted her for her separate vacations, separate weekends, separate cheating on every occasion, loving her as he did, as Tommy knew he had to.  What he saw at that moment, there at the back of a crowd of listing old wreckages of humanity in their wheel-chairs mumbling the little bit they understood of what sounded like AMAZING GRACE and could have been just about anything else, for even Luella couldn't sing that much with her voice just then breaking, all of it a cappella, the organist having not shown; what he saw there was the kind of purity he had only seldom known and then very early in life at church of a different sort, a holy blessing of tears and anguish in her radiant face, a purity beyond all that coarseness, beyond even the woman itself, herself, beyond Beth, beyond Twin Oaks, even Christ.  Those long lovely hands holding an old stained hymnal, hands that had touched Beth's breasts, and the wide-eyed tearful face, and the whole attitude of the woman, and Luella was even beyond Fox.  In all his years at Twin Oaks her reign, as he saw it, was never disrupted.  There was just a lull, an opening onto something no one really understood, ugly as all death but lovely as the yearning, contrition, hope.  Lovely as the tears in a young young woman's eyes.

 

GROMMET ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

It was winter, maybe December, when May Goddard asked Tommy to see about the clothing list for the new patient in 105.  Ordinarily, he would only have had to do that for a man, but that day they were short, and May had her charting.  That Wednesday was his first encounter with the woman who had mastered a grommet.

     "And how might you be today?"

     There were two things wrong with that question.  The lady in the bed had suffered a slight stroke affecting the right side, so that there was a certain slur in her voice.  Worse than that was the very weird metallic timbre of the voice, as if it were coming from a stuffed doll, a kind of pull-string Olive Oil.  Maybe a third was the strange cheery tinge of the whole setting, as if they were on a yacht and not in a hospital ward with with-its and semi-with-its scuttling past in their wheelchairs.

     "And are you fine?  And are you half the man you seem to be?  God, what a hunk, Willy.  Look at him."

     The little man on the straight chair was just as unusual.  He was wearing a gray herring-bone suit with a bright checkered ascot and those old buttoned high-top shoes polished to a patent leather sheen.  His hair was slicked back, pepper and salt, and he had a moustache Tom King had heard about but never seen, the kind that was waxed and pointing out on each side to give even his present dead-pan a kind of smirk.

     "I'll leave this list in here.  Your husband can fill it out.  Just check off your clothing."

     "Willy, the man thinks we're married.  How cute!"

     When he returned they were holding hands and cooing like doves, all but the metallic pull-string effect on Sally, whom he saw more closely this time, her platinum hair at over eighty, her veined rouged neck, her eye shadow, the rhinestone glasses, the ghastly pallor of her forearms, and the garter-like contrivance around her neck, a black lace affair with a very genuine looking carnation.

     "I know what you're trying to ask us.  What's wrong with her voice?  Oh God, isn't that strange how they all want to know.  Well, Sally Stopper gave up caring a long time ago."

     "That's right, Sally.  Show him your neck."

     The old distinguished man had a German accent.  Later Tom found out his name was Wilhelm von Kinderstat.  Right now he was glued to the garter she was pulling back and to what it revealed, something Tom had heard of but never before seen, her speaking device, shaped like a metal grommet.

     "You see I used to smoke five packs of Camel regulars a day, and then they had to take out my larynx, and a few years later they put this in, and they taught me how to burp through it, and now I can talk as well as anybody else even though I can't sing, which was how I used to earn my living before your time certainly, singing and dancing and playing the piano a bit.  But Willy does my singing now."

     "Show him how you can recite the Gettysburg Address without the slightest pause.  Just show him, Sally.  Nobody ever believes that one.  How many burps does it take?"

     "Willy, let's not give away all our secrets.  I WILL say to you, young man, that I am happier now than I've ever been in my life, especially since I met Wilhelm at the Cancer Ward.  Oh yes, we were love at first sight.  Sally had it in the throat and Willy in the colon, and they got together, so to speak, and now we're a team.  Willy has one of those bags, if you would just like to know, but it doesn't slow him down, not Willy.  Why, he's just like a young stud, he is, even at 79.  And well-preserved too."

     It went on like that for another twenty minutes, Willy even offering to display his colostomy bag, and then Tommy was free of them till the very next day when their new patient was up and down the hallway with her lover, already with a quad cane, the old lady, and headed out of Twin Oaks as fast as nature would permit.  But not before she had made her impression, the Rolls that parked out front in the safety zone, the dinners from a catering place in Fort Lee, the ultra-lite cigarettes she smoked without inhaling, the way she had of wagging her false eyelashes at everyone, male or female, strutting her padded shanks, and then, especially, the concerts she gave for the others, the old, the crippled, the twisted creatures life had gotten its claws in, the two of them, Sally and Willy, in the dining room at the upright piano, Sally announcing each old favorite in that terrible Olive Oil voice that seemed to emanate from some manic IBM masterwork and not a human being, announcing RED RIVER VALLEY and THERE'S A LONG LONG TRAIL A WINDING and SWEET VIOLETS and SMILE A WHILE and then turning back to the upright and plodding mercilessly away with the one good hand, and Willy serving for the lyrics, the waxed moustache and the interminable changes of suits, and the ascots and the boutonnieres and the high-topped polished shoes and the socks and garters, and tapping his foot and preening himself, and under all the volume of the oldsters shaking their gourds and rattling their tambourines in time, their cracked aching voices, getting the biggest bang out of it, was the Olive Oil undertone, heading straight out of the grommet.

     They said she had been as big in her time as Mae West.  They said she had more money than Onassis.  They said she had chosen Twin Oaks over the more expensive rehabilitation establishments in the City and further south in Jersey because she wanted to be near her friend from North Arlington, where he had a spectacular view of the New York skyline, had eight bedrooms and a ceiling high enough for a Chuck Close and several Rothkos and even a Manet.  And they said a lot more about that lady in the five weeks she stayed, and they continued for months afterwards, for she came back often, walking straight, without the cane at last, and always with a new bright flaming outfit and more makeup than you could find on an inner City whore.  And some of those outfits were pure cashmere and linen and silk and costing more than most of them earned in a year, and some were dated far back when the figure was still in place and the money rolling in from vaudeville and the high class strip joints of three continents.  And they said she must have invested wisely, because there was no end to the presents she lavished for the longest time on that ward, designer chocolates, umbrellas for the ladies, Cuban cigars for Tommy and the porter, Charles, who had never smoked anything higher till those occasions than a White Owl.  And they said a lot of things until she stopped coming suddenly, and some said she was in Switzerland and others in L. A., but no one really knowing till someone read the obituary in the TIMES, the column and a half devoted to Sally Stopper, who had made the final voyage with a massive cerebral hemorrhage, survived by distant relatives and certainly by Wilhelm von Kinderstat, who probably didn't waste much time finding another Sally Stopper, slick old man that he was and all the fire in his bumpers, as she had put it so aptly, crudely perhaps, edging on with the moustache and the spit-shined boots, the ascots, the herring-bone suits toward his own reward, maybe edging on that way forever, old rake that he was, going for an Olive Oil with enough juice left to lift a certain impudent finger to the odds, going on that way till it seemed like perpetual motion, so much so that even the obituary seemed like a cruel rumor, nothing to place much stock in.

 

TEN ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

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 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?"

     "Baaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy."

     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."

     "Barrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrryyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy."

     "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.

 

THE COLONEL ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

The day the colonel arrived he was not on Tommy's assignment, and then, only a few hours after he had settled in, they shipped the man over to Acute, and he stayed there for three weeks.  They said he had severe heart problems together with the stroke, and that he was nearly blind.  The day after his return to 4-2, it was obvious that there were other problems, perhaps not physical, not emotional even, maybe something else.

     He would be sitting perfectly erect in the mornings when Tom came in and flicked the lights and started handing out the basins of water.  He would be erect like that and holding his hands in front of his chest in the attitude of prayer but with the fingers spread and touching.  When addressed, he would answer politely and even smile, but he would look straight ahead no matter, the bright blue eyes out of focus, burning straight through the wall.

     "I heard you were a pilot," Tommy said.  This was after assisting the man for a month.

     "You might say so.  Anything from a P-38 for the Chinese to a 747 for Boeing.  Anything in between.  Commercial airlines.  Even been a test pilot.  I dropped a load of bodies over the Red Sea for a government you never heard of, and some of them were still screaming so loud you could hear it carry on for about forty seconds.  I've done things.  You might say that."

     He was sitting in his red vinyl chair with his hands joined.  His torso was bare and smooth, veins of old scars back and forth over the ribcage, the breast bone.  There was the slightest flicker of a smile on the sharp lips.  He was nearly bald, the remaining hair over the temples cut in tight to his skin.  His nose was sharp and thin like an eagle's beak.  The face would cut a hole through what was left after the eyes finished.  And yet the eyes could see almost nothing.  He had shown him a picture of Barry, and the old lean veteran with the fierce countenance had to squint at it from a distance of several inches.

     "Were you an officer?  In the Air Force?"

     "Those days it was the Army Air Corps.  No, I'm from Canada, you know, and I'm not a citizen, and even then for some I was persona non grata, but they took me on to train their men and even fly some missions, and I had all the amenities of a full Colonel, but there was no rank involved.  I don't think they even have me on the records.  I stayed on till it was nearly over, and then I went with Lockheed, and then I guess it was Pan American for about five years.  I never stayed long with anyone.  Some said I was bad luck.  Some said I was ruthless.  I'll tell you what ruthless means.  Put your money on the SS.  Hell, they'd slice off your family jewels and shove them in your mouth and hang you by the toes in the open market, no questions asked.  And they got things done that way, and you had to respect them for it.  Not like your Green Berets.  Hell, their hands were always tied."

     Vic Kenyon had the smallest genitals Tom King had ever seen on a man.  They were nearly retracted.  And yet, strangely, Vic, the Colonel, hardly had the slightest trace of modesty, washing in the morning naked in front of the sink, the body with its welts and creases nearly handsome, a smooth pale of old striated skin and yet somehow young, somehow formidable, somehow something to fear.  With Vic Kenyon it was always Mister.  Even as he progressed in therapy to where the quad cane was optional, there was no mellowing in what one could not help detect as fierce determination, a single-minded thirst for survival.  Perhaps the man had lived with death so long it was only a cold drink of water.  It was a drink he'd take willingly, fearlessly, but not till he was good and ready, and now at over eighty, he was walking around with plastic tubing for arteries and the heart timed with a pacemaker, and a million and one things clogged or imperfect, but not quite willing to cash it in, not until he had dumped another load of bodies, perhaps, over the Red Sea.

     The strangest thing was that Vic Kenyon, butch as he was, hadn't the slightest distaste for Tommy's homosexuality.  And yet perhaps it was understandable.  One afternoon Tom had asked him about the elderly woman that came every second day to read him his letters and take care of his business concerns.  She was a kindly thing and took a lot of abuse.  Tom asked if it was a sister perhaps.  Vic Kenyon had only the one visitor.  If there had ever been a wife and children, Tom King didn't know about it.  He asked Vic about the old woman who came to see him and wasn't prepared for what he got.

     "Elsie?  She's just around because she read somewhere it was good to be Christian.  She spent a lot of years being a slut, and now she's trying to make up for it.  Don't let the appearance fool you.  She's been used by everything from Clark Kent to Popeye any way they could do it, and she wants to be a virgin, and she's never going to make the grade.  But that's women for you.  You're better off leaving them alone.  The only way to deal with a slit is cash on the line, and if it's Hong Kong, they'll press your suit in the morning, and if it's Manhattan, they'll spit in your coffee.  If you're lucky you're a fag, but if you're me you have to put up with someone like Elsie.  She even wants me to marry her.  I tried that once when I was very young and that's enough.  They say there's a son somewhere and maybe even grandchildren, but the bitch is dead and good riddance.  When it's legal you always have to beg for it."

     The only time Kenyon seemed frightened was the day he leaned too far forward in therapy and nearly plugged up his by-pass.  They brought him up on a litter and lowered him into bed, and cranked him vertical, and he was sitting there with all the color gone and his lips moving as if he was praying, strange as that seemed, and then the doctors were in there behind drawn curtains, and Tom had to wait another hour to talk to the man, and by then he was all right, the same sharp features, the same fierce sightless eyes, a face that would cut through stone and wood and even steel to get what it wanted, what it thought it wanted, cut through silver, cut through human flesh.

     As far as Tommy ever knew, the Colonel had been a dealer in weapons the very last years before the stroke brought him to Twin Oaks, and it certainly seemed that way the week he left.  They were sitting out on the porch, and Vic Kenyon reached across the gap between their chairs and dug his fingers into Tommy's forearm, a grip like an eagle's talon that left a mark for nearly three weeks, and said that if he'd just listen there was something the older man wanted to do for him, seeing that Tom had seen a bit of action on his own and that Vic Kenyon would be needing a pair of eyes and a strong young body to do the footwork, perhaps in China, maybe in Libya, but not to mention it to a soul, maybe in Nigeria if it turned out that way, all the while digging his thumb into Tommy's flesh, digging his fingers in and staring out over the parking lot toward the distant throughway.  And then the Colonel handed him a scrap of paper with a local telephone number and told him to keep it in a safe place.

     "You'll be getting a passport as soon as possible.  You'll be saving up 2,000 dollars.  You'll be buying three good suits, a herringbone, a check and a flannel.  Make the herringbone a tropical.  You'll be buying expensive luggage, nothing ostentatious, on the other hand.  And a good watch and a pair of Stetson shoes.  And then about seven months from now you'll be expecting a call.  It'll come about three in the morning.  Exactly nine minutes past.  It will ring until you answer, and then the party on the other side will hang up. And then you will be calling the number I gave you.  If anyone answers but me you'll know I'm dead.  If I'm on the line you will be leaving for your assignment within 36 hours.  I can't say anything more.  Oh yes, don't call the number on impulse.  No.  Don't do that.  It's just too dangerous for both of us.  Whatever happens, don't call."

     And then the grip relaxed and then the man tried to borrow ten dollars from Tom King, and then Vic Kenyon was gone, just a day later discharged, and Tom was left with a number that he could barely read, and the last thin edge of a smile, a crease, a cut really, and the vague pale eyes unseeing, burning nevertheless past his shoulder.

     And he waited seven months and nothing happened.

     And he waited another month and then called the number, called it at 3:09 AM on one Sunday morning late in September, dialed and waited for nearly twenty rings.  There was no answer then and there was no answer an hour later, but then a day later in the heat of curiosity, he dialed again toward 6 PM.  No answer.  He called at 11.  Nothing.  He was nearly ready to go through the whole directory to find it.  He called the next day at noon.  An old woman answered.

     "Don't be calling here no more.  He's dead."

     "Victor?"

     "That's right.  Victor Kenyon's dead."

     "Why didn't you answer the phone?"

     "Cause you're the only one that had the number."

     "You knew it was me?"

     "That's right.  Now don't be bothering about Vic anymore.  He's dead."

     "How did it happen?"

     "I wasn't to tell anybody.  I ain't telling you."

     "He shot himself."

     "How'd you guess?  How'd you guess that?"

     And then he hung up.  There was nothing more to do.

 

ELEVEN ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

Edna is just outside the locked door, peering into the dining room.  There is little to see in there.  The lights have been extinguished.  One small nub of heat appears toward the corner, descends in dizzy succulent spirals promising fragrance, gratification.  It is Barry's cigarette.  That flare at his lips is nearly more than she can bear.  There is the haze of his face at each inhalation, and she can almost taste the invisible gust from his lungs.  It is 9:01.  Nick Sandro's anguish is fiercely audible down the hallway, a hook left to his room, having just been pivoted against the opposite railing.  Nicky's outcry counterpoints Edna's inner ache, a gnawing need for just one Pall Mall before darkness and sleep.  In a twitch of fury she seizes the levered knobs and gives those two unyielding doors the greatest rattle she can muster, falls back against the vinyl upright of her chair, clutching her chest—Barry, pity sakes, Barry, oh God, have mercy on an old woman—and the devil has just minutes past turned up the volume on the portable radio somewhere left.  She could see the wink of the coal loop past the window as he tuned to a classical station and returned to his obscurity in the darkness.  Those cruel black mamas will soon have her in their grips and down toward 527, and then the night.  Oh Stedman, Stedman, if only her curse would take.

     Some of the darkness is a bleed of Edna's cataracts.  There is in fact moonlight where Stedman sits with his notebook, enough to proceed.  The clamor of the ward is muted by the doors.  Even Edna out there doesn't really trouble his search for a quatrain.  It is really a matter of gaining a workable first line and then a rhyme word that will last through to the end of the stanza, and then without a sense of strain.  Somehow he doesn't care for the way they've freed verse up.  Rather hammer one's torment into structure—and he is just about there.

     "The blossoms rooted in his soil

      Flaunt angry stamen, petal,

      A stench of vivid, rosy metal

      Fed in the flesh to settle."

     "Barry, for pity sakes, open up.  Open up, hear?"

     Like lacerations.  Sucks them in for an instant of his pain.  Edna, for God's sake, shut up.  Let them look away then toward Claude Monet.  What he liked was STARRY NIGHT, that insolence, slashing with paint to hold it over and against . . . even a galaxy . . . if the old bitch out there would just calm down, light years smaller than this verse.  Than a hearse.  And yet larger, so large EVEN a galaxy couldn't hold it . . . little Francis, even  Bacon couldn't hold it all the way.

     "His conversation's useless, mad,

      From soup to pureed veal.

      Necrotic orchids share each meal.

      The dialogue is mute but real."

     Damn it, Mattie, don't bother me now.  Not now.

     "Stedman?  You in there, boy?"

     "Barry's in there.  I know he's in there."

     "In there hiding and he won't give you a cigarette."

     He sees the yellow spun glass hair on the sagging white-black, high yellow face, a run of creases above the deep-set eyes in the lenses, sagging breasts, spotted arms, doubled fists on a pelvis, just like that man, half trash, half as elegant as God gave, hiding from Mattie Porter.  She is sure she can sniff him, and then she tries the doors and the anger rises up, choking her, anger and a thrill of pleasure that she has cornered her prey.

     "You come on out of there, hear?"

     "Make him give me one.  Just one.  I'm dying."

     "Stedman?  You come on out of there afore I be writing you up for insubordination.  Hear?  They wants you over on 7-5 just so fast as your shiftless mean bones gets there and be lifting them poor young devils to bed.  Now they needs you, hear?  Come on out.  I said git.  That's better.  Now give this lady one of them smokes afore I plain sick to death with her.  Here you be, Miss Perkins.  Now take it and git.  Git now.  Go on, sorry little thing that you be."

     They are all of them lucid on 7-5.  And he has been there before, every several weeks, the new brightly lighted addition, there for Saunders and for Stace Benson and some nights for others.  He heads directly toward 541, Saunders's room, trying to anticipate.  The corridors are nearly empty.  Rounding by the elevators, he finds them at last utterly empty, all but Watkins, a black aide just stepping out of the nurse's lounge and gesturing him further with a cigarette, on up to the solitary figure in the last room but one, Saunders grimly spinning his electric wheelchair from a little toggle on the arm.  Dizzy semicircles angling for the doorway as Stedman waits for the aide.  And then they both stand and watch him clear the entrance, in past a little gray-bearded man with oxygen ducts in his nose, gasping on a vinyl chair.  On to the far bed.  And Stedman sees something with a special taste of pain, for Harvey Saunders must be in his twenties, the taste of Marka perhaps, not greatly older.  And he sees Watkins, her dark face oblivious to just that texture, the particular Marka there on a mobile throne awaiting Stedman's hands.  And he sees himself.  Stedman is leaking, strapped in tight, leather at his ankles, thighs, nylon at his waist, towel tucked to contain the drool—gaunt Stedman somehow sick of sin as they position him, freeing the sneaker from the footrest, peeling the shirt, ungainly into the Johnnie coat, suddenly rigid, stiff as bone.  And Stedman grips his own shoulders, ankles—I've got him, just hold the chair—on count of three into the bed like a sack of cheese, nightmare cheddar, hooked, irregular, and Watkins slips the trousers down and Stedman is looking on, despite himself, at a waste he feels, an inscrutable inward waste, starved legs twisted like a spinning orchid, stamen somehow shocking, perfect in the wreck of him, a nightmare SPECIMEN with the frightful smooth nearly flawless shape he has rarely seen, there, tugging toward upward along the belly, gathering all his brain.

     "Christ, how did that happen?"

     "Pay it no mind.  He done that times."

     "I've never seen it like this."

     "Well it happen.  Happen more than once't."

     "Who else is there?"

     "563.  Benson.  He have a private room.  I think Rosie down there if'n you needs somebody to take the feet.  Maybe you done him afore.  Gaaahd, you sure did handle this here one.  Like a rag doll.  Maybe he queer for you.  You queer for this boy here, Harvey?  You got some interest there?"

     There is no sound.  The penis is wilting.  Saunders is a twist over against the railing, pressing it with his open mouth.  That last image chases Stedman toward 563.

     Here things are not much better.  Stace Benson lies in a low slung litter much like Nicky's, earphones clamped to his ill-shorn head.  Benson is an inverse Christ, a magician, with the stereo plugged, the color TV, the Atari, a small single room crammed with electronic equipment, one small shelf of religious books, for Benson is born-again.  The aide who fusses with his gown, the blanket, pulling the latter off bone legs, curled feet clawing the chromium footrests, is a squat black with an unlit Kent 100 dangling from her lips.  She ignores Stedman.  Perhaps her present assignment requires all her concentration.  Just alone folding the blanket, squaring it off on the only empty chair, smoothing the triple set-up, checking the pump beneath the bed which leads to the air mattress, unclamping Benson's midriff.  The young man, perhaps thirty, removes his earphones with the better hand and stares up at Stedman as if he has found a convert—she is totally occupied.  Benson's deep-set eyes glitter with a small intense heat.  The hair and beard are in long matted strands.  A Gideon large print Bible is on the end table.  Benson gestures toward it as the black aide fusses.  Stedman picks it up.

     "Just read where it's marked.  It's all in there."

     A Methadone card marks THE TWENTY-THIRD PSALM.

     "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.

       He maketh me to lie down in green pastures."

     "All in there.  All of it.  Right?"

     Stedman nods.  He looks at the card.  The color photograph is of Benson at 23.  And yet it cannot be Benson.  Here is a young god, sexual, clean-shaven, all but a tuft on the lower lip.  One can see the muscles in the face.  The eyes are larger, seemingly serene.

     "Maybe you're wondering how I came like this."

     The aide is impatient.  She grasps the lower legs, just above the knotted ankles, and Stedman takes the shoulders.  He hears her counting toward three, and then the wreckage of the god on the Methadone card is up and over, into the bed, pressed like a clot of rag against the mattress.  Stedman unhooks the leg-bag while the female aide transfers the catheter tube to a larger vinyl sack clamped to the lower bed frame.

    "It's a big word.  Psychosomatic.  You heard it?  They say it's all in the mind.  My mind.  I could get up and walk out of here when I put my mind to it, and there's times I believe it.  They say I'd murder everything I see like one of them mass ones you read about, like Stalin.  That's what they say.  I know different.  It's Satan put me here.  Jesus is bringing me past.  I'm at peace, man.  Totally at peace."

     The aide hands Stace Benson his earphones and leaves the room.  Stedman is staring down at him, Benson fitting on the earphones, black glossy clamps against the stringy hair.  Over against the far wall are nearly a thousand tapes, jammed tight into four wooden frames.  Benson is moving his lips with the music.  There is the barest ghost of it audible through the ear-phones, Christ rock, sugar-coated rhythm.  Stedman cannot make out the total sense of the words.

     "Straight on through toward Christ."

     "Amen."

     "Amen."

     He steps outside to an empty corridor, suddenly an elderly nurse with a lot of motion but seeming to get nowhere, coming on, a creased face with flaming red hair.  Her legs are stout wedges in the knee-length skirt, and all the fat is moving in various intricate spirals, a glitter of movement leaking away her approach.  Perhaps he can escape.  He turns quickly to head back the other way past the far elevators, but then he hears her, hoarse from the exertion, hears his name and stops.

     "You're . . . Mr. Stedman?  Oh, I'm . . . so glad I found you.  They . . . need . . . help on ICU with changing the linen."

     "Changing the linen?"

     "I know it sounds silly, but you'll . . . see when you get there.  It must be quite a project.  They've got half the males in Twin Oaks . . .  down there for it."

     "That's on 7-3?"

     "All the way back toward the end.  And thank you."

     "You're most welcome, I'm sure."

     This time he passes the darkened dayroom.  Four ladies, all young, are on electric wheelchairs, watching a TV movie.  There is the scent of stale urine and the sweeter odor of cologne.  Then he has thumbed the elevator and is waiting for one of the arrows to light up.  Stepping inside, he knows enough to pull the emergency knob to release the doors.  One evening he spent perhaps twenty minutes waiting till someone from Housekeeping stepped on and showed him the trick.  Even on this new addition things are going down the tube.  They installed ten new showers just last year, but the contractor had cut corners, and the first occasion they leaked all the way down to the basement.  7-3 is Acute.  The male aide there considers himself to be a doctor, struts about all evening with a stethoscope around his hairy neck.  There is blood on 7-3.  He has never gotten as far as ICU.  There is MORE blood there.  They wheel them in and try to pump them back into it, but most of them cash in after three or four hours.  The ghouls from 6-5 often exit from that unit.

     Beyond the monitors, an arc of cathode screens facing inward toward the nurse's station, here on ICU, beyond and left through a curtain, is a great mound of chalk white flesh, the largest human being Stedman has ever encountered, large beyond belief, 723 pounds, as he later overhears, utterly naked, spilling out to press the railings, electrodes taped to his torso, IV's in his arms, oxygen tubes connected to his nostrils, the nose a pink smear in the total white, eyes a crease of ugly blue as the great man heaves for breath.  There are six male aides in the tiny room, including Max Shirkov, six males and three nurses, and with Stedman's arrival they are ready to proceed.  The aides take one side and grip the doughy paper white flesh, fingers sinking into a texture like ghastly putty, gripping and lifting back, for the great heap of him needs fresh linen.  And gasping from the effort, they have him pivoted over against the railing, the flabby breasts indented with the chromium bars, the tiny head like an afterthought, over to the side and snorting.  This man is Moby Dick, a fearsome leviathan floundering on the mattress, and the little nurses beyond have peeled the bedding back under the crease of the body and are rolling fresh beneath, a certain anxiety in their eyes, perhaps that something just might give way, perhaps the bed frame itself, the floor, and all plummet down through three stories into the chapel beneath.  And then the old man coughs into Max's face, and Max turns away, his lips wrenched ugly, and they have the body back supine and are ready to take the other side and pivot him the other direction.  And Stedman is wholly observant of the utter absurd texture of the pitted mass of tissue that his fingers now encounter, and of something perhaps more frightful, Max's voice.  It comes on with its accent like a bad dream, counter-pointing the soiled linen which is just now being stripped off, a clutter on the floor as they pull fresh under.

     "Please listen.  I'll make it simple.  It's a paragraph from my solitary book, selfpublished, to be certain.  No one would ever dare to inflict it on the poor-in-heart."   

     "I don't want to hear it."

     "But you must.  Perhaps you alone can carry it forward.  I'm sixty.  My vision's just about gone.  I have a bad heart.  They have diagnosed cancer in my colon.  There is no one to carry it on.  It will make you ache, but it will make you free."

     They are tugging the linen down, the bottom sheet, the draw-sheet, several pads.  There is a slit in the tiny scrotum where the catheter protrudes.  Stedman stares down at the minuscule genitalia as Shrikov hoarsely begins.  Stedman has heard that voice somewhere.  Somehow it reminds him of Meisten, as if Meisten somewhere had half a brain.  Shirkov's voice.  Dark as a dead man's mouth.

     "All human culture is a vain and often imperceived attempt to replicate patterns explicit in nature.  Thus, discord is the imperfect replication or is perhaps the impulse itself to replicate rather than simply and yet infinitely to apprehend.  Lapse is perhaps even further when it moves beyond apprehension, beyond replication, to domination.  This movement is perhaps precipitated by an unconscious recognition of the futility of replication.  Such movement is science in all its implications, the furthest remove from primal apprehension.  It is neither apprehension nor culture.  It is springboard to total despair, manifested in the first calculation, the first rude movement toward Nature as implement, and yet prefigures the extinction of all lapse, for what can no longer exist at the furthest remove must, suitably, perish."

     The great heap supine now, gasping for oxygen.

     "And that's it?" Stedman asks.

     "That's the concluding paragraph."

     "And you published it?"

     "Yes.  I printed a thousand copies and sent them to the best minds in the Country."

     The tiny scrotum, the catheter tube protruding.

     "And what was the verdict?"

     "I really wouldn't want to say."

     "Then we're both lost."

     "Young man, the world is lost."

     Stedman looks finally into the large wall eyes behind the lenses.  There seem to be tears in them, but there also seems to be an emptiness beyond tears, a sort of frantic nullity that the eyes are masking.  He looks back at 723 pounds of terminal humanity and walks out on them there, shifting the last inches up with the draw-sheet so that the feet clear the base of the bed, clean as forgiveness now but on his way out, all the way out of ICU.  And STEDMAN is out, on down toward the elevators when he runs into Roger Peaks.  Has Peaks been waiting?  He seems to be waiting.  He is just 23 and waiting, clear calm eyes, seemingly in control, waiting for Stedman to sort it out.  Stedman pauses at the chaplain's assistant, reaches out a hand, feels the younger man's arm across his shoulders.  Waiting for STEDMAN to cash it in.

     "Would you like some coffee?" Peaks says.

     "I have to get back to the ward."

     "How about up there?"

     "All right.  Maybe that would be worth something."

     "So bleak.  So bleak."

     "Maybe you could have some coffee and I could show you something.  Something just between us.  Between friends."

     "Sounds good."

     They stand there anticipating the arrow.

     "First I'd like to know if you think it's all in Scripture.  I mean all the answers.  Is it all in there?"

     "Well the Bible's quite a document."

     "But does it cover it?"

     "It covers an awful lot."

     "We'll have some coffee and then maybe I can show you something it doesn't cover.  It'll only take a few minutes."

 

YUPPIE ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

Gus Karsky had had a lot to put up with in his life.  At least he thought so till he lost the first leg to sugar and ended up in Twin Oaks and fought his way out of there with a brand new prosthesis and then lost the other leg and that one contracted at the knee and wouldn't heel, and then his insurance ran out and he was just about to get shipped out with nothing to walk on but the stub.  And, Gus felt, you had to blame it on Reagan, after all, much as he liked the guy.  Some obscure way you had to blame it on the man, that big old cowboy, that red-haired SOB.  It was the one thing he kept up on, Gus Karsky, and that was politics, reading U. S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT cover to cover every other week and as much as he could stomach of the liberal county rag and watching CBS every night.  Gus was pretty sure Reagan was the reason he was sold short with the second prosthesis, not 100%, but certain to no mean degree, and certain to where his bones ached that it was right he had voted for Mondale, not Reagan and not for that other creep, not Jackson cause you had to admire his mouth, but that other terrible terrible creep, that Yuppie, Gary Hart.

     He had spent some time reading up on the whole phenomenon, about the way they combed their hair, the raincoats they wore, the sneakers, even their underwear and their briefcases.  After all, what was a briefcase anyway but a fag pocketbook?  And they had special kinds, and even their shirts had animals printed on them, and there were degrees of success even in that, for Gus had learned that for the Yuppie the alligator was the highest.  And what was an alligator anyway but a mean nasty critter that ate its own leavings and bit into people, anywhere it felt.  Gus had read all he could on the subject long before Hart even happened, and then just four weeks past he had met one.  He had hated Fudd more than even God for the longest time, the fat Italian that slept in the other bed, and he had come close to swatting the drooling little wimp, but then the Yuppie had moved in across diagonal, and then he knew what he really hated because now at first hand, more horrible than the worst kind of minority you could think of, was everything he knew deep in his heart was evil, was eating at the innards of the Country, and before it was over he was going to fix his pompous fat little face, his beady little shoe-button eyes, his slimy pouting lips, Garth Bellweather, and what kind of name was that, the only real live Yuppie Gus Karsky was ever going to meet, circles he traveled in, the only genuine specimen and the only one whose tail he was going to fix for him in the biggest final way.

     It was partly the way he came in there and took right over about whose radio was too loud and who was going to get first at the carts and who was going to get special helpings of the good stuff at mealtimes, and really the whole summation, lording it over the rest of them, even Gus Karsky, cause Garth Bellweather was a graduate of some big college in New England in mathematics and was high up in some corporation before they booted him and was only 35 and earning nearly six figures as well, lot of good that did him now with the tumor they finally took out of his spine and that had him walkiing more stiff-assed than Reagan or Hart himself but confidence with a capital C that he would just waltz out of there to a new and better position while the Italiano in the corner would end up on Chronic for the rest of his life, and the Negro as well—right now he was already gone—and Karsky, who he noted first off was Polish and kind of smirked over it, would end up in a rented room with a nineteen inch black and white TV and maybe a radio and not enough on Social Security to even pay for a good bottle of Scotch to tide him through a depression over the general state of the economy and the way Reagan was fixing to push the button and how Hart was going to help out all the guys that didn't need it, guys like Bellweather himself with his fag alligator shirts and his bikini briefs and the way he had of looking through you or just past your shoulder as if you was just some kind of low filth of garbage and not having the right to three squares or a piece of extra pie for lunch, just sub-human.

     Christ, there was no life in that young fellow's eyes.  Little black agates like you'd get on a raccoon, and then that smile that played over the fleshy lips like he just got done eating up a big slice of something so tasty it could have never come from the local kitchen, and all his talk about his friends from Rutgers and Montclair State and other expensive institutions, dentists and the like, from Fairleigh even, posh place that that was, and Gus and even Fudd there had never gotten past tenth grade, and the black man that left for Building 8 couldn't make out a shopping list or spell his name out for you even before his strokes and amputations, suffering devil that he was and stinking so, not that Bellweather had the right to spray him.

     But then that was what gave Gus his idea.  That was what was going to be the equalizer.  That was what he had in the bottom drawer of his cabinet behind some towels.  That was what he was saving for his last night there, waiting patiently and reading the label on the pale green aerosol can to get the whole effect.  Anti-fungal, germicidal.  Kills most viruses.  And wasn't a Yuppie a virus?  Waiting his time, biding it till early on August 3, maybe 5 AM, he was easing down into his chair, not even breathing loud enough to scare the roaches, easing down into it and hefting the contracted stump over the swivel leg rest, and making his way across the diagonal to where the Yuppie lay sleeping, the pouting lips, the face gleaming in the light from the parking lot, dead quiet in there, the only sound coming from way off in the north wing, some tortured creature trying to raise a nurse with a broken call system and only the benefit of her lungs.  There in the moonlight with the can of Staphene on his lap and the fierce determination to right things, to put the screw back where he came from, back in the slime, easing close where he could make out every last pore in the young creep's upturned face, moonlight and silence, only the roaches conscious, and now the biggest roach of all . . . and he reached the aerosol can through the rails, easing it through careful just to avoid clinking it on the chromium, and he aimed down into the upturned lips and the eyes, and he let it go with a WHOOOSSSSSSSHHHHHH that ignited the room, and you could hear the holler all the way across 300 yards to the main building, the initial horror and shock, the splutter, and the others kicking off, and Garth Bellweather bolt up and gagging and screaming and choking and thrashing his way blindly through the darkness, and even later when they had their hands on Gus and were holding him back from administering another dose of the same medicine, four aides and a nurse, and the Yuppie coiled up against the wall and twitching, and Fudd and all the others kicking up the worst kind of fuss, Gus Karsky knew for a certain fact that he had not lived in vain, that even the sugar had its place in the whole scheme of things, the cut-off legs, the phantom pains that sunk their teeth in in the middle of the night to scream HIM half erect, knew beyond the nuance of a doubt that life made sense, Karsky's life, Karsky himself with the long moustache and the dark wide tilted eyes and the big nose and the pitted face, made absolute perfect, total, irrevocable sense, for that night he had eliminated his first Hart, his first Bellweather, his first blighted suck of a Yuppie.

 

TWELVE ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

Izzy Burito at 9:32 has the makings of a real problem.  She can account for just about everything in her massive shopping bag.  The knitting's there.  The jugs are filled with Hawaiian Punch from the cooler.  They are also present.  Her Tupper ware contains pork chops and mashed potatoes left over from the evening meal.  There are two coffee tins filled with assorted Bandaids, 4 by 4's, cling, silk tape.  There are three rolls of toilet paper.  Further down, far down in the darkness, under the booty, however, the voodoo dolls are missing.  This period of the evening is usually a happy one for Izzy Burito, a time to work on her current projects, lately a shawl for her sister in Trinidad, warm socks for niece Eileen, but tonight she is filled with a heavy suspicion and a sense of dread.  Who in all screaming necessity has dug in there and found the dolls?  Was it Rachel?  Rachel seems unchanged.  She is in the dining room with Molly, also seemingly oblivious to Izzy's misfortune.  But what about the cracker just across the counter, Francine Johnston?  Sitting there just as pretty and smug as God makes them, itching at Otis Butler's shoulders.  It can't of been Butler—hell, the poor man's a wreck tonight.  And then it can't have been Samantha just to their right, for she seems too happy, like a pig in BM.  The three of them have broken open a bottle of cold duck and are drinking from plastic cups, holding the bottle down low under the counter in a plain brown bag.  All three of them swilling it down on duty.  And Sterngod?  Just a few minutes past, Izzy took a quick look for that terrible lady, but the office was closed, the room utterly dark and silent.  Otherwise, those three over there wouldn't possibly have the nerve to be drinking their wits loose.  Stedman?  He is on another floor, and the only time Izzy left the bag alone, he was putting the patients to bed.  And what would Stedman know about one of them dolls?  Probably scare him silly.  Someone—was it Skeeter?  She hasn't seen Skeeter since suppertime.  Skeeter'd be the one to suspect.  After all, that ugly old whore never takes to anyone deep down inside, and there are plenty of reasons to be doing old Izzy in.  Can it be Skeeter?  Can it be Mattie?  Or Stedman?  And if it is Sterngod, what would she be doing with two dolls in nurse's uniforms with pins sticking out all directions?  And how will they handle it in grievance?  There is nothing in the union contract covering a thing like dolls.  But they'll be watching her.  They'll be on her like flies on movement.  Big old Samantha Judd just across the black, ugly as a horse's ass, sucking down ice cold sparkling wine that they don't be having the courtesy to offer around as is proper.  Maybe the whole thing, all that joy and satisfaction, is that she has somebody she hates by the snatch, right by the old front-side, and is ready to shove in her broomstick, right up to the straw, nasty old devil of a witch that she is, being so kind and proper to the patients and staff, playing it right to the hilt, when God knows she is down deep evil just like the rest.  And Izzy fishes aside the contents of her bag and the dolls are still missing, just before she had the proper opportunity to send them down with the linen.  There are peoples who won't stop at anything to turn a good woman around, to smear a reputation.  Oh yes, they all know that Izzy Burito has a hand in the magic, but they don't know for certain.  Just a hint dropped now and then in the right places, a casual hint or two, but not a tad of proof, not one.  Well she'll have her Marv on the whole lot of them if'n they get down on her for it, even Mattie, pacemaker and all.  Old Marv, evil man that he is, can handle a whole pack of those females, whether it be slicing a tire or even a ear off, or just a fist in the right place, or maybe a boot in the tail or going deeper.  He'll be right on top of them so they be screaming for pity, devils they are, she-devils like Miss Proper over there stroking old Butler's back, innocent-like, as if there be any innocence in it for either of them.  And taking the cup dainty-like with the little finger extended and sipping just a bit, as if she don't really have the need but to savor the whole hearty bouquet, when Izzy knows full well that it is nothing but that cheap dollar-eighty variety and that Francine is the worst lush that ever came down the tubes with her fancy ways and her manners.  Popping pills too.  She has heard that said by Molly herself, just leaning down over the sink and cupping water to flush them down, little black ones that probably turn your head every which way.  And Miss Burito turns back to her knitting and thinks of her brother Marv just out from a term for assault and battery, and then she feels good for just a minute, and then she feels bad, really bad again, clutching at her stomach and running her fingers into it, that aching in there like there is something missing, as if someone has come in and cut it out, maybe one of those butchers at Twin Oaks that they put out to being doctors but are only the worst breed of quacks and can't get any other assignment no how, not an office of their own, not a fancy house and three cars to go with it, but drive a pitiful, nasty pack of Toyotas and such other Jap cars that even Stedman, guys like that, are forced to throw their money on.  There is this awful feeling in the pit of her belly, and there is a shudder and chill down her back like the flu coming on, and she is developing the worst headache in the back of her neck, and pretty soon she'll be seeing things if'n she isn't careful and takes good care of herself and not lets it get the better of her.  Francine trying to get herself into that black man's pants, blacker than flat black enamel with those ugly veined eyes, old enough to be her grandfather least, and she with two children of her own and a totally white man, formalized and legal.  Should be ashamed of herself.  Gaaaaahd, she'd like to fill one husband in on the kinds of goings on right here on this ward in naked sight, prissy old thing that she be, pretending to give Otis a simple rub.  Rubbing further down in time—it always leads to that.

     "On up.  No, over left.  Now up a little.  There."

     How could he begin to tell them how much it meant to get away just a bit like this from those scary monsters on Forensics?  And the way this young Francine, and the older one there sipping, the way they takes him in.  Otis feels kind fingers on his spine and the warm sweet reach of the wine.  61, with a small child to raise, just when it was time to ease down a bit, to lay back and relax, and his Sophie just off with that smart dude from west Chicago, off in a flashy bright Lincoln and leaving little Morris there with his grandpa, leaving him one dark night to two old people, one game in the legs and back, the other having just now to work two jobs to make ends meet let alone something extra on the table for the holidays.  And both jobs no real bargain.  Just last month the one boy cracked his ribs, and he was written up for swinging, cooling that crazy hyped son who was in for murdering three women and cutting out their parts, mind you, with a six inch knife, written up for one casual unmeaning act of self-defense.  And the year before the BROKEN ribs from the other one that tossed him, all 220 pounds, across the room like a sack of wet feathers.  Oh yes, you had to get hard on a job like up on 6-9, and the other drive of two hours to the next county was wearing just in itself to be taking care of some that aren't much better in the all around, that even on the streets you found yourself edging along the sidewalk with your back to the buildings case somebody come on with a knife or a lead pipe or just hard fists to do you under.

     "Just there.  Oh my Gaaahd, that be good."

     "How about I fill your glass?" Samantha asks.

     "Well!  Aren't you going to consult me?"

     "Sorry, Francine."

     "Of course he's going to get some.  All he wants."

     Samantha smiles broadly and holds Butler's cup down under the counter and fills it from the bagged bottle.  She loves the tall white woman with the pageboy.  There are so many good ones out there, ones that doesn't hate, and Francine be just the evidence in itself.  Those other females didn't know how good they had it when they put that blessed lady on the floor.  And all the trouble they gives her that doesn't have an ounce of prejudice in her whole warm body, kindest lady Samantha has ever seen.  How many of them would touch a old man like Otis Butler?  Not in the sense of meaning to be heading toward something sly and physical, something cheating on the Lord, but in the sense of just keeping the goodness alive in that old tired man.  And the rumors they be spreading, Rachel, Molly, especial, who claims to be so close up on sister Francine.  Let alone Izzy just looking over at them right now like she seeing them nearly to the point of sneaking off to the back stairs.  Well, Samantha knows better.  She knows the touch of real Jesus-loving-pity when she sees it, softer than the brush of a butterfly wing, deeper than all compassion.

     "Heah.  You finishes that and we'll pour some more."

     "Gaaaaaaaahhhhhd.  Kill God.  Kill me God.  Gaaaaaaaahhhhdddd."

     Otis jukes noticeably, trembles his cup to the table.

     "What's that?  Christ sake, what is that?"

     "Never you mind.  That Nicky."

     "Oh yes," Francine says.  "Someone must have turned him."

     "God God God God God God God God fuck God."

     Mattie slouches through the doorway just then, Molly dancing after.  The latter is finger-popping, strutting the small broad body, the high soft breasts, twitching her buttocks, arms to the side and snapping, a spiral strut to the Mr. Coffee as Mattie takes a seat at the large black table.  All eyes on Molly.  She always commands attention.  Even the flash in her eyes can bring those tired older women out of themselves toward a cruel vitality, larger than life.  Eyes on her beauty, twitch of the rich dark skin.

     "God God God God God God God God God."

     "You don't believe what we just seen," Molly sings out, flicking her tongue.  "Stedman a homo."

     "My Gaaaaaahd, woman," Samantha intones.  "How can you say such a awful thing like that?"

     "You aks Mattie what we just seen."

     "Mattie, what you be seeing out there?"

     "Well we was at the nurse's station.  You tell it, girl."

     "We be at the nurse's station a fixing to turn old Nick, and the two of them stepped out of Building 7, down at the end by the orange door where Sarah Jane always sit, and they be holding hands."

     "Who be holding hands, Molly Morris?"

     "Why Stedman and that lady preacher friend of his'n."

     "Gaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhd.  My Gaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhddd."

     "You mean the Reverend?"

     "I means just that.  That little lady preacher."

     "Reverend Peaks?"

     "That's right.  They be standing there just now, all I know.  They be hugging and kissing prob-bly, just doing it up fine.  I always know'd Stedman a homo even if'n nobody proved it. I know'd it in my bones."

     "You sure you not lying, girl?" Samantha replies hoarsely.

     "May God strike me dead if'n that preacher don't have his arms around Stedman just a minute afore we come in here."

     "And they headed this way?"

     "Most likely."

     "Well keep down on the noise then.  They be hearing you."

     "Damned if I care."

     "God God God God God.  Gaaaaaaaaahhhhhhdd.  Kill God God."

     The noise from 501 comes on to punctuate nearly every sentence.  It is steady, persistent, but most of them tune it out.  All but Otis Butler, juking with each shriek.

     "What was they looking like?" Samantha asks.

     "Who that?"

     "Stedman and the preacher."

     "What you mean looking like?"

     "I mean was one of them crying?  Was Stedman crying?"

     "Come to tell he sure look like it, don't he, Mattie?"

     Mattie Porter struggles to her feet and gains ground toward the Mr. Coffee where Molly is standing.  She smiles a taut slit and removes a Styrofoam cup from the stack leaning up against the window.  There is a general undertone of excited conversation which she floats on, happier than she can nearly stand.  Otis Butler has gathered up and finished his wine and is headed through the women toward the door.  Somehow he seems to have had enough of the whole subject.  There is plenty on the ward where he's headed, men sucking each other off through the bars.  Now a preacher and one of the aides.  What was this Godforsaken world coming to?  What was Otis Butler coming to?  He'll be damned lucky to make it through the night.

     "Stedman look like he crying pretty much," Mattie says.  "Look like he real upset.  Still'n that no reason to be kissing."

     "Gaaaaaaaahhhhd.  You say they be kissing?"

     "Well not exactly kissing but flat close to it."

     "Gaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhdddddddddd."

     "Stedman and that little preacher man.  My Gaaaahd."

     "Well you just plays it like nothing that much out of the ordinary cause they headed this way any minute."

     Francine slides the bagged bottle into the bottom shelf of the cooler and straightens up.  There is plenty of curiosity still holding her to the kitchen, but someone has to do the meds if she is going to make it home that night.  Whatever happened to Sterngod?  Just like her.  Stay on till after nine and then slip out like a wily predator.  Would be nice to just sit here and watch how they deal with this latest excitement, but duty always seems to call.  If Mattie would just hold up her end.  It was like working the whole floor alone.  And then she sees Stedman's torn face in the doorway and Roger Peaks coming after, and there is no way that either man is queer in the sense they know it.

     "Just take a seat anywhere," Stedman says, strain in his voice.  "I'll fix us both up a cup of hot coffee."

     Mattie unleashes like a snake that has been coiled for nine years.

     "You get your sorry hands off that Mr. Coffee, Barry Stedman.  That preacher be getting all the coffee he wants but you don't be making it.  You don't be touching that machine.  And furthermore, you don't be drinking none.  You just keeps back and sucks your thumb for all I cares."

     God, the minister thinks.  They really DO hate him.  And that awful noise in the background, that shrieking.  It is almost as if some animal is trapped, perhaps on fire, and yet no one seems to pay it the slightest attention.  It could be just out there across the hall, someone in terrible pain, and these females are totally oblivious.

     "God God God God God kill God God kill want to die."

     "You just be sitting right down here nice," Mattie continues.  "Here, this be a good place next to the window.  There be a nice view of the parking lot if'n you gives it a good squint out and over when the smoke clears from the boiler room.  Now Stedman, in case you be getting the wrong ideas, is just simply the cheapest thing in all of Twin Oaks, and it not be just a matter of being cruel to that boy if you knows the true story.  That man cheaper than a elk's be-end with the flies a coming on't."

     What crudity, Peaks thinks.  The woman is a total animal.  And poor Stedman there, leaning against the wall and shaking.  What about Stedman?  And what about that suffering creature across the hall?  Isn't anybody going to go in there and see what's the problem?

     "How does you like it, Reverend?  With the milk?"

     "I'll take it black, please.  A touch of sugar."

     "Sugar we don't got.  Saccharin do?"

     "Saccharin's fine."

     "Onliest sugar we gets is what come up on the trays.  Now we could be a stealing it from the old peoples here, but we not that kind.  There be such a thing as low and ornery way to be operating, but you don't be seeing it here amongst these ladies, 'cepting Stedman, if'n you be considering him a lady, in the same category of sexuality, that is, if'n you knows what I be speaking of."

     "God God God God kill God kill God fuck fuck fuck."

     She sets Roger's coffee down and straddles a chair, the whites of her stockings just reaching a swell of yellow pitted flesh where it turns darker and frightful for the minister to contemplate.  Stedman is still leaning against the wall.  Izzy Burito is working on the shawl for her sister, paying the proceedings little mind.  She is working against the grain, a certain fear still lurking in her belly despite all the recent excitement.  Mattie sure be rambunctuous tonight.  Maybe she have those dolls.

     "Well this certainly is a pleasure."

     "I be just mighty pleased to hear that."

     "I notice there is a sound from across the hallway.  Amost like a prayer.  Or perhaps a curse."

     "That be old Nicky.  Pay it no mind."

     "But it sounds as if he's in pain."

     "Pain sure enough.  But pay it no mind.  Tune it out."

     "But couldn't something be done for him?"

     "Let's put it this way.  Can something be done for Stedman?  He buy two pounds of Folgers these last ten months and suck down more coffee than three of us'ns put together.  And what can you do about Stedman?  Just tells him keep those lily white hands off'n that nice Mr. Coffee we all paid out good money for ten weeks back, all of us, not counting Mr. Stedman, cheap thing that he be hisself."

     "Maybe we could bring him a glass of water."

     "Stedman?"

     "No.  The other man.  The man across the hall."

     "Nicky?"

     "Yes.  Maybe a glass of water."

     "You just hold on a while.  He be running out of wind pretty soon.  Water just give him a few more licks at it."

     "He seems to be cursing God."

     "Oh my yes.  He curse just about everything else too."

     "And he wants to die?"

     "Prays for it."

     "Is he a Catholic?"

     "Sandro Catholic, Izzy?"

     "Can't say.  Probably Jewish."

     "Maybe you could let me speak to him."

     "Now you just listen here.  Molly have it straight the old way, won't you, girl?  Show the preacher how to calm the hurt in that creature."

     "Glad to."

     Molly dances out of the kitchen with the minister on her trail.  They enter the darkened room.  Nicky's bullet head is over against the railing, his body tilted like a steer on a great spit.  Molly flicks the light, turns and bumps, arms out, fingers snapping, dances toward the black bullet eyes.

     "God God God God God God God mercy mercy fuck God God kill kill God fuck God God God . . . "

     "I's God, honey lips.  What can SHE DO for you?"

     "HAAAAAAAH HAAAAAH HAAAAAAAH HAAAAaaaaaaaaaah Haaaaaaaaaaaah Goddamn lousy cocksucker haaaaaaaaaaahhhhh."

     Peaks turns back as if blinded.  Could this be what Stedman had to show him?  Molly continues:

     "God be letting you down in just twenty minutes."

     "Haaaaaaaaaaaah haaaaaaaaaaah haaaaaaAAAAHHHH."

     God be letting you down?  World without end.  Peaks stumbles back out into the light.

 

A FAMILY MAN ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

The family man arrived during the period Tommy was trying out not talking much to the patients, just doing his job, the essentials, and not taking any of it home with him.  But that only lasted a few weeks, and one afternoon in August, Tom King was sitting in the lounge reading a Watchtower for lack of something better when Mike Shorter edged his way up with a cigarette and a Bic lighter and fired the cigarette and sat there pulling on it with that small thin-lipped mouth, the eyes large and sad, the moustache very tidy, even with the slight extravagance of it down past the filter vibrating in the small thin lips.  The guy obviously wanted to talk even though he already knew Tom was a fag, even if he knew other things, needed it like his low tar cigarette, needed it like his wife and daughter.

     "Getting yourself an education?" Shorter asked.

     "These aren't too bad.  I've seen worse."

     "Wait till they get their teeth in you.  It's an awful religion."

     "Come on.  No religion's bad."

     "Oh yeah?  Let me tell you something.  I was working for this electronics firm, and we had a new secretary that was simply a gorgeous piece of tail, and yet seemingly nice inside too, and one day, after she had been there a month, she asked me if I had children, and I said I had a daughter, and she said that I was such a gentle quiet man she must be simply lovely, and I said thank you, and then she said that was she a good Christian, and I said I wasn't quite sure what she meant by that, and she said that it wasn't that hard to figure out she wasn't if I didn't know she was, and that therefore she was going to hell.  Straight to hell.  Can you imagine that?"

     "Well, what did you do about it?"

     "What could I do?  I just walked away.  But then she must have pulled that with some others because she didn't last that long.  They fired her after about nine weeks."

     In that same conversation Tom King learned that Shorter, the family man, had a wife Elise, who was 28 and had been a clerk in his previous firm to the stroke that finished him, that they had had to hide their romance and then switch jobs.  He found out that the daughter was adopted because Shorter's kidney failure ten years back had been genetic, a defect on his mother's side.  The latter was a surprise to Tom, because Tammy, the little one, was a dead ringer for Shorter's wife, little lovely Tammy and the wife that had developed just a touch of coarseness over the years but was nevertheless pretty in a good way that didn't intimidate.  He found out that Shorter was over forty and on dialysis until the stroke and still on after, twice a week in the big rope of a vein in his left arm, that it took over four hours each visit and that Mike Shorter had a Sony Walkman that he plugged into, his favorite music being opera, dozens of tapes of it, maybe hundreds, and that he'd listen to a whole opera over the time it took to cleanse his blood and that that made it easier somehow, his favorite tenor being Domingo, simply crazy about Placido Domingo, and that Elise, the wife, picked all the clothes he wore and superintended the moustache even to the extent that after about six weeks there the longer points past the lips disappeared on the wife's advice, and Mike Shorter looked even more conventional and cautious in appearance than before.

     Tom learned that the man had majored in English at a State University and had hoped to become a writer, completing about ten stories and sending them out to the major places before giving it up and entering a low level position with an auto parts supplier and working his way up, always hurting inside that he had not made it the whole way with the writing but then, some years later, having married and adopted a child, putting all his energies into his family, being strong for them, giving little Tammy every chance for  the cruel world out there, shielding the two of them till a clot in his brain made it very difficult any more to be the strong man they could lean on, finding it terribly difficult to even look ten feet into the future, a future on disability with the right side rubber and the wife having to go back out there and put in the hours he had accustomed himself to, not that he could quite take all that in, telling himself that he was going back to his middle management position till they finally chucked him about twelve weeks after he entered Twin Oaks, and till the other incident which Tom King had his part in, the one that pulled back the whole macho façade, the time reality, the whole weight of his hardship, clamped down like a cold lens, like a billion pounds of heartache and misery.

     That morning Tommy had quoted the final couplet from the only poem he had written.  The poem was entitled BODY SHOP and was about one of the stroke patients he had seen over the months he had been there, maybe about a number of them, all sucking in to the one terrible figure of a man, Krystal, who was aphasic, who would never make it the whole way back, not even part of it, and when Tom quoted those final lines there was a wince in Shorter's face.  The whole face tightened into lines and then twitched bland, and then later in the day it winced again and stayed that way for weeks, perhaps the rest of his life.  Winced at:

     "Old Krystal shouts in death's sweet tones;

       We'll patch his fenders and his moans."

     Winced at 3 PM downstairs in PT when, working the bad leg toward a slow, halting walk between parallel bars, he lost control of his sphincters and had his first accident, and they wheeled him up, and Tom was called and found Mike Shorter sobbing by the nurse's station, and stripped the shoes, socks, trousers, shorts, bundling the whole rank package into a plastic bag, as Shorter, on the toilet, went on sobbing, moaning, muttering, wailing, that he couldn't go on, that he was too embarrassed, that he was no longer a man, that his wife should forget about him, that he was just no longer a man, that—Oh Christ, I messed myself, oh Christ, oh Christ, messed myself, how could I do that?

     Tom had wanted to put his arms around that man and tell him it was all right, that it was really all right, but he was too afraid Mike Shorter would not understand, especially coming from a homosexual, that kind of tenderness, that kind of compassion.  And pretty soon he WAS all right again, seemingly all right, all but the trace of a wince, so that for the rest of the time Tom knew him, Mike Shorter seemed to be expecting the next hit, the next blow.  And it stayed there even after he had managed the quad cane and was up and down the hallway at a fairly good speed with the affected arm in the sling, a swinging kind of gait, a loop of the good leg and then the affected dragging after, working on that partial recovery as hard as Tom had seen anyone, working with the wince and the pretty wife and the five year old Tammy, who would break your heart to see her reach up to Shorter with her flawless arms, Shorter holding the ever-present low tar cigarette away and taking the encircling arms somehow like something he didn't deserve anymore, not quite deserve, a touch of heartache in the whole scene, having given up returning to work and now waiting with real fear for Uncle Sam to decide if he was going to eat and have a place to sleep for the balance, all that till he finally walked out of there with the looping gait, a walking wince, a victim.

     Tom saw him maybe five times afterwards, for every so often he'd see the wife parking their Dodge in the handicapped spots, and then he'd take the elevator down to visit a few minutes, Shorter having come in to therapy, often working out on the mats, sometimes on the tilt board, sometimes simply walking the long oval track around through the corridor and rooms, a stone look of determination and hurt, the flicker of a real smile at seeing Tom King, who seemed to care enough to take the time to come down to him and find out about the first real break, the disability coming through, and then the health coverage, and with the months, weeks, passing, a hint of control and strength in the wife's expression and a deepening wince in the husband, all the way till his final visit, the week after the big concert in Central Park, which Tom and Barry, his friend, had attended, bringing wine and cheese and salmon mousse and coarse black bread and a touch of chemical just to get further into those great voices he told Shorter about, Shorter over in OT that last day, listening with a noticeable strain, bent over a masonite table and a pegboard, not really seeming to hear a word of Tom King's narrative, even of the Voice itself, that well of sound that was nearly enough to make even Barry happy, in and out of guilt, and Shorter not seeming to take it in, seemingly fixed, looking always down to the pegboard with a polite, wincing lack of attention until Tom King noticed the timer that was winding down on the other table, and that all Mike's concentration was really on the task of getting the black and white pegs into a pattern despite the scramble in his affected hemisphere, and that really all this about Luciano Pavarotti was simply keeping the man from the real struggle, one he had lost months back at the very beginning when he woke up without any words coming out when he was trying "What happened to me?"  Nothing for the first 36 hours but Well and Well Yes and Well Yes Yes and that terrible fear he might never speak again, the man who had had at one time those terribly romantic aspirations to become one of the truly great writers, the great American writers, a novelist perhaps, a legend, but put that behind him for what became a family, an isolated locale, a sheltered tract of quiet and peace and harmony and love and caring, so that nothing else mattered but what it contributed to that locus of divine innocence and calm, his family of three, his Elise, his Tammy, and Shorter himself providing it all for them even with the dialysis, going on that way for all the years it took far larger than any story, any novel, any reputation, bending just now over a pegboard to bring it back, as a half-assed faggot was raving about a concert in the Park and he had to be seeming polite.

     "You hang in there.  All right?"

     "Yes.  I guess I certainly will.  You too, Tom."

     "And hang onto that wife and daughter."

     "Thanks."  Eyes with a wince turning down to his pegboard, lifting the affected arm to place it next to the board on the table.  Tom realizing at last what he is doing, what Shorter is doing, what everyone in the Cosmos was doing, what they were all somehow up against.   "Thanks a lot."

     Shorter's voice was nearly inaudible.  Tom turned toward the door.  He got as far as the telephone booth and stepped in and bent down over the graffiti on the ledge and wondered if he would have to cry.  Everything he had ever said to Shorter.  Everything he had ever said to anyone, he had said, in truth, to himself.  Even his prayers were to himself.  When he saw the death in their eyes he saw his own.  Borrowed time.  At 35 you shouldn't be so ready to die even without the virus, even without anything, watching that bent kind man, so utterly aware of it.  And yet Tom King was still in there, bent at the pegboard.  Still all the way back in there, bent apart like Christ.

 

THIRTEEN ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

At 10:02 Stedman and the chaplain's assistant enter 507.  Stedman has his wheelchair freshly equipped with as much linen as he has been able to forage.  He has an empty cart for the soiled.  Tonight is his first guided tour.  Oh yes, there's Hans Barrow.  Looking down at that great swell of ribbed spread, hands still joined in prayer, quivering lips, mottled skin, eyes like cuts, fluttering at the wall of light, elderly mantis praying his heart out.

     "I always start at this end.  You'll see why later on.  Let's just say at this point Barrow here's a picnic.  Hans?  Are you clean?"
     "I think so, Barry.  Maybe you better check."

     Stedman draws back the spread.  Not a trace.  So far there is luck.  He pulls the urinal off the railing and empties it into the sink, turns back to Roger Peaks.  Peaks looks calm enough, a seminarian in the dark green jacket.

     "Otherwise I'm running all the way down to the bathroom.  Everybody does it.  Only one uses this sink anyway is Bad John over there, and Bad John doesn't fuss."

     Stedman crosses to Wendell and hefts his urinal carefully, empties it in the sink.  Poor Wendell points to his tongue, a great mass in the gaunt dark cheeks with the scarlet X, and tries to communicate.  It is as if his mouth were stuffed with cheese.  The eyes are dark holes in a darker mask.

     "I'll tell her."  To Roger:  "Wendell needs his needle."  He'll tell her if there's time.  Someone will.

     Stedman kneels to empty Chamber's bag.  There are over a thousand cc's.  He flips back the spread.  There is just a small chunk which he digs out with a dry towel and tosses into the linen cart.  Marvelous.  The set-up hasn't been touched.  All that remains is Bad John, and the old man's reaching it out to him like an offering, the pale green nightly jug-full he empties in the sink.

     "Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you."

     Outside he fills Peaks in on Wendell.  Oh yes, the cancer, the various diagnoses with which they have deceived him, old man terminal without really knowing it.  Relatives, everyone keeping it a secret, and by now the drugs take only the edge off the pain.  Pitiful to see that old man eat, Sustecal and purees tortured back along the tumor.  And then they are heading toward Nick, Gigliani, Buteckus, the rest.  The other aides will take their turn in some odd thirty minutes, just a flick of the light on each room to see if there is something major.  Nothing to get the hands dirty—after all, it makes more sense.

     "Let's put it this way," Stedman whispers.  He is pushing the cart with the wheelchair out in front of him, steering it past the geri chairs lining the corridor.  "I asked you before if Scripture covered things, and you said just about all of it, just about all.  What about Genesis?  That's a pretty interesting story, you know.  Just as sheer drama makes Darwin seem pretty thin.  The snake, the tree, Adam . . . "

     "Well I must say Genesis is very impressive reading, but I don't believe it's literal truth.  It's true in another way, of course.  I think the whole allegory holds up, the origin of sin, the lapse from grace.  It's really a very complex subject, you know.  You could spend half a lifetime on just the first twenty pages."

     They pause at 501.  Stedman kneels in the darkness to empty Nicky's bag.  There are nearly 700 cc's, as far as he can tell.  The first was a thousand?  He makes a mental note and raises up.  Nick's eyes are wide open, but he appears to be sleeping.  Maybe they'll let him rest the balance of the night.  God knows they've heard enough of his yammer.  Closes the door on him.  Quiet this night, almost eerie.

     "And you believe God is all-knowing?"

     "Certainly."

     "And all-merciful?"

     "Of course."

     "Then he knows about Nicky in there."

     "Yes.  I'm sure he does."

     He pulls back Bill Buteckus's spread and checks out the set-up.  Clean as a baby's snatch.  Just free the tape.  Goes on this way he'll never make his point.  Stedman empties the two urinals, Gigliani's and Buteckus's, in the sink and hooks them back on the railings.  Leaning over Gigliani's bed, he feels the old man reach up to him and hook his head down to kiss.  Still strapped in.  Every other night he manages to work his way out and walk out to the TV room or even down the back stairs.  They have found him all the way over in Building 9.

     "So if God is all-knowing then he must have created this universe even with the realization man would sin.  He must have known that they would bring it all down on themselves.  I mean even if it's just all allegory, isn't that the thrust of it?"

     Stedman shoves the chair and cart on toward 515.

     "Well he IS all-knowing.  No one questions his omniscience.  And he IS all-merciful.  I know where you're headed, Barry.  Why he went ahead and created it."

     "Yeah.  That seems like the whole thing.  If he knew there would be boundless suffering over thousands and thousands, perhaps billions of years, all the way out there, even out there in other galaxies perhaps, not just here on earth, not just here on Ward 6-5, but pain and agony and lies and torment and deceit and children maimed and still-borns and the necessity to eat and slaughter and die of hunger and syphilis and AIDS and thirst and cancer and nerve gas, and then senility and the whole horrible slimy mess of it, why didn't he just call it a halt right there and say, no way?  No way.  I'm not going to bring that on.  It's not worth it."

     "But that's where Christ comes in.  He also knew that his Son would die for us.  That there would be a whole lot more than just lapse.  There would come forgiveness."

     "Tell that to these ghouls in here."

     Stedman flicks the light and swings the chair and cart in on the stink of Doc's bowels.  There in the harsh light he is sleeping with his hands caked, and the smears of it over the spread and sheets.  There are clots on the railings, clots on the floor.  As they round the edge of the bed they can see the roaches.  There are six or eight of them gathered on old Doc's waste, food in their lack of discernment, something to grow fat on.  And Eric Potter is sleeping, blissfully, with the spread bunched up at his shoulders and the diaper torn loose despite the trussing, a great stink of an old dentist that sleeps on oblivious to the gaping hole in his dignity, a fuzzy white panda steeped in the brown sand, happy as an infant.

     "Tell old Doc there about Christ."

     "How often does this happen?"

     "Every third night maybe.  You see how I wrapped him."

     Stedman soaks two sheets and a towel in the sink and cranks out soap on another damp towel and walks back to the bed.  The others are asleep, all but Sedder, eyes like bright new manic disks in the light, his silly grin, the mittens.  What does he see out there near the ceiling?

     "First thing is to get the rails and the floor so I'm not leaning against them or tracking it around.  I use a sheet for that.  Just wipe them clean and toss it in the cart.  Here, now you can hold his arms.  Do you mind?"

     "No, of course not.  Every third night?"

     "Oh yes.  At least.  And Doc's not alone."

     "You mean there are others like this man here?"

     "Wicky up in 516 has been known to play a bit.  Eat it too for good measure.  May just depend on the stages of the moon.  There's room here for a dissertation."

     Peaks grabs the old man's arms.

     "Moooooooooooeeeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhrrrrrrrrrr."

     "Careful.  He'll try to bite you."

     Stedman soaps off the hands with a towel and then goes at the forehead with a clean patch, just a small smear there.  He drops the towel on the floor and reaches for the silk tape, tearing it with his fingers and drawing off the sodden diaper.  He wipes with the diaper and then a second towel, and finally has the man clean, all but the sheets he rests on, and he pulls them free on one side and jams them up against the old man's back.

     "Roll him over the sheets.  Like this.  OK."

     He pulls the linen through and lays out a fresh sheet and set-ups, and then Peaks has him pulled back the other direction, and they have the fresh linen under, and Stedman is tucking it in with a hospital fold, and is covering old Doc with a top sheet and spread, and the worst is hopefully over.

     "This is what you wanted to show me?"

     "Not really.  Part of it, for sure.  But not really."

     Stedman empties Sedder's bag and pours the urine in the sink.  650 cc's.  He lifts the spread and checks the linen for damage.  Lots of luck tonight, clean as God made him, squeaky clean stem to stern, not the slightest trace.

     "But this is horrible.  And you were trained as a teacher?"

     "I taught on the college level nearly three years."

     "English?"

     "Right.  Then I got into drugs very heavy in the late Sixties and I was lucky to tie my shoelaces.  And in time I ended here.  But I'm not complaining.  Somehow this work suits me.  Call it expiation if you want.  I'm lucky I can tell you the time of the day from where I stood just four years back, lucky to count up to a hundred."

     "But doing this?"

     "Someone's got to do it.  Hell, half this country's going to be incontinent in another fifty years.  People just hanging on too long, and they'll do anything to prolong it, just about anything.  They code people in here that have been on tubes for over a year, suck them right back into it, and they call it the miracle of modern medicine.  Last week they worked on one old guy for over three hours.  Some say that's how they manage to train the interns.  That they don't really care about what's left over when they bring them back, even if they can manage to babble a bit and be spoon fed and dig like old Doc here for another year or so.  They've brought them back in.  But then it's really a metaphysical problem, isn't it?  I mean your loving Creator saw the whole program in advance, the whole thing Christ came down here to take care of with his dramatic death on the Cross.  Sins of the whole world on his shoulders.  How about this sin here?"

     Stedman reaches in under Meisten's spread and grabs the old man's toes and gives them a sharp painful squeeze, and Harry Meisten bellows like the rage of Satan, jukes erect in the bed and hollers like a scene from a monster film, eyes blinking in the light, winking, fat lips drooling, hair a fright, cords like wire in the mottled neck flesh, taut and quivering, a monstrous roar of sound that goes on like death itself, unrelenting, utterly without qualification, as if the old man, what is left of Meisten himself, is voicing the sentiments of all Creation wrested from peaceful slumber, a soft gray void that might have been lulled there forever were it not for the first thrust, that first agonizing twitch toward life.

     "Evolution in just five seconds," Stedman whispers, letting go of the toes.  "In the beginning God created Meisten.  Just have to take the tape off this one, and then we're free.  Just this one and Jaird there, slip out the top set-up, and we're free.  One more room to go."

     "I guess it starts to harden you in time."

     "Not really.  Oh maybe it does, but you don't know it.  What I really wanted to ask you, did your God create old Meisten?  This one here.  Did God create him?"

     "All God created really is the concern you're voicing.  He created your apprehension of Meisten.  After all, you're raising the largest question.  God created your capacity to do just that.  The real Church is right in your brain.  Call it your heart.  The real Church is in you, and it is in this room."

     "And the sermon's our conversation."

     "Don't be so pessimistic.  There IS a reason for all this even if we aren't large enough to take it totally in."

     "I've heard that just a bit too often."

     "Is it that hard to purchase?"

     "Yeah.  I've heard it maybe a hundred times in one way or another.  I don't buy God's wisdom.  The way I see it the real wisdom if there is any at all is right in my mind, your mind, whatever.  It's Meisten's wisdom.  It's Jaird's there.  It's Einstein's.  It's Doc's.  The only wisdom that one can ever appeal to is really human, because we're the ones going through it, and it's going to stay that way till someone gets a little trigger happy and lets go with the Bomb.  And then you're still going to have organisms, but the real lapse for this little planet is over, because you have managed to eliminate the only real witness, man himself."

     "And how about Christ?"

     "The only thing I get out of that man is his death."

     "And how about the Resurrection?"

     "That never appealed to me very much, not after I was out of my puberty.  No, I'm a lot more taken by the death."

     Stedman flicks off the light and wheels the chair and cart toward 516.  The corridor is almost silent, just a muffled groan now and then from on ahead, possibly Tongue stirring in her sleep.  Stedman is waiting for the young minister to speak.  He is tired of talking.  He is very tired of hearing his own voice.  At least with Wicky in the final room there is real dialogue.  Somehow Max had it right.  All human discourse is small talk, all but the conversations he has had with the banker in the corner bed, his—I love yoooooooooouuuuuuuuuuuuuu—into the other darkness, the aching void that is within Stedman himself, larger than ALL discourse, greater than total metaphor, a madness he has eaten only to run in horror.  So many times it seems he is talking to himself.  Oh just to buy one of Roger's arguments, lock in on it where it becomes utterly safe.  But there is no buying in tonight, damned straight.  And yet he cannot stand the silence, and entering on Wick and the rest, he turns toward Roger Peaks.

     "My God my God, why hast thou forsaken me?  That's what I buy.  The moment he realizes that the whole thing's defunct.  Oh he calls it back later, but that's the real drama, when the loveliest kindest man we know of has to cry for mercy from a God he no longer believes in.  What a terrible lucidity, that even God has let him down."

     "You will find this hard to swallow, but your doubt's the real Christianity.  I've had a lot to do with faith.  I'm up to here with it.  The real Christians aren't in those comfortable churches believing their brains out.  They're on the Cross and doubting.  And THAT'S what the question's about.  It's not despair.  It's the utter beauty of service.  It's total commitment, not just to explanation but to faith itself.  Some day it turns around.  And that's the Resurrection."

     Stedman checks his patients, one by one in harsh light.  It is perhaps the quietest night he has known.  Just a touch of it on three of them, Blackston churning, Stanton coiled and stiff, Jarwalenski open-eyed and mouthing his foreign tongue, and then, finally, Wicky himself.  Old man Wick has spent a quiet forty minutes.  Maybe the later crew will end up cleaning the worst.  Stedman motions Peaks over to look down on Andrew blinking in the light, the mad professor, the Johnnie coat, fluttering fingers over his lips, as if at an invisible rosary.  Pulling the spread to release the set-up and yank it from under his hips, Stedman leaves Peaks alone for a moment.  Only half a bag of soiled linen.  It is usually overflowing.  The diapering with the sheets he has learned from Rachel and Skeeter who came in on him one night he was cleaning up Doc.  They had slapped the old man around and pulled his hair and poured ice water on his genitals and told him they were going to cut that big thing off if he was smearing again, and then they trussed him, but even the trussing was no guarantee, set-ups or diaper.  Francine said that there was the theory that the digging was a substitute for a sex life in these old people.  Probably a Yale man came up with that.  Nothing too intricate or self-involved for a man of that class.

     "Hello.  Is your name Andrew?"  Peaks's voice seems otherworldly.

     "Oh Gaaaaaaaaahhhhhhd.  I hope I'm nice to you."

     "Where are you from, Andrew?  Where is your home town?"

     "Bossssttttonnn.  I'm from Boston."

     "Is it nice there?"

     "Oh Gaaaahd.  I hope I'm nice to you."

     "Is it nice in Boston?  I've never been to Boston."

     "Oh Gaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhddddddd."

     "Barry tells me you're his friend."

     "I love Baarrrrryyyyyyyyyyy."

     "He loves you."

     "I love everyboddddddddddddyyyyyyyyyyyy."

     "That's a wonderful thing."

     "My mother, she told me to be nice to everybodddyyy."

     "That's wonderful.  You sleep well now.  Hear?"

     "Oh Gaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhddddddd."

     They step outside and flick off the light.  On down the corridor Molly is stepping in and out of rooms, making her rounds.  There is the distant strain of disco music and some laughter, a space of music and then laughter.  And yet, there is so much silence it is nearly overwhelming.  Stedman is just on the edge of breaking it when he seems something ugly in Roger's face.  Almost the sense that now he has undergone everything and that nothing will ever ever shake him.  And yet he seems to be praying.  Yes, the lips are moving.  Even silence bounces off these walls, even prayer.  There is this curious twitch of triumph in the face of Roger Peaks.  And yet even that bounces.  Up to the north wing the corridor seems to stretch on forever.  They say there are ten waiting for every bed they fill.

 

KRYSTAL ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation

 

 

The patient Tommy knew as Krystal was fading even the day he arrived, the last spring he worked there, the last summer, the last fall.  The man had been a cop, and there was a lot of dignity in his features at well over eighty, a profile that would have suited a Barrymore, the long carefully sculpted nose, the commanding chin.  He had worked the force in Brooklyn for over thirty years and had never been promoted past patrolman, a thing Tom King could not quite understand, but on the other hand he received this information utterly from the wife, a nervous little thing who was twenty years Jacob Krystal's junior, and whose whole life was that man, her support, her foundation, the little that was left from the condition in which he arrived.

     The story was sweet enough, lovely in a way if it weren't for the denouement, the very fact that Maggie Krystal had been Margaret Ackerman, a pretty grade school child with a fascination for the handsome man in blue that patrolled the route she took each day over six formative years of her life, and he the kindly gentleman who told himself that one day she'd grow up and he'd marry her, while she, quite without his knowing, was thinking in much the same line, and in time, in fifteen years, after his first wife died of leukemia, an interlude in which he had given up his romantic dream, an interlude of just three years between the time he married that "other woman" and the time she abruptly left him, left him totally alone, childless, in time the only child he would know entered his life to stay seemingly forever, for Maggie and Jacob Krystal in turn had no offspring, and only their abiding love for companionship, comfortable enough perhaps on his salary, less so on his pension, and then the final issue of their whole affair, his stroke, a massive cerebral hemorrhage that barely left him living let alone communicating even the barest essentials of his sentiments beyond a periodic bellow that could in fact have meant anything but certainly for Maggie meant reality, meant horror, punctuation, end-stop, a lack of dignity, a cruelty that lacerated what was left of HER sensibility the day he began to slide so abruptly out of her life.

     Since Krystal had the habit of lying coiled fetal on his left side, so much so that no amount of positioning would amend it, there was the first of several complications, a decubitus the size of a large man's fist, a bedsore that had to be debrided again and again, the black necrotic tissue removed and with it the terrible scent of decay that emanated from his bed by the window, where the light came in relentless toward mid-afternoon to gleam on the other complication, his persistently elevated temperature they monitored daily and investigated with all manner of blood test, X-ray, urinalysis.  He would lie there facing into the sun with his eyes a squint till someone would pull the curtain, and then he would lie in shadow, peering through the bed-rails at the solitary adornment on his bed-stand, a photo of their wedding party, the bridesmaids, the groom, bride, the best man, a few relatives, a modest assemblage perhaps for the time, for Krystal had not only been twenty years Maggie's elder but also a practicing Jew and no great bargain on both accounts with her immediate family.  Jacob Krystal would stare through the chromium rails, seemingly only at the faded print, the dated costumes, the strain of the smiles, stare with a puzzled, pained expression that would alter into the most terrible mask of confusion prior to his bellow, one that shook the room and had his roommates angered and the staff perplexed, for they had never heard anything quite so agonized, so full of terror, the bellow serving for all Jacob Krystal's speech, his sole mode of expression.  For all inquiry into his emotional state, all questions, were received with a blank, confused stare and again the bellow, questions that they soon stopped addressing, all but Maggie, who elicited bellow upon bellow in the course of her visits, in all the time that she was not fussing about him, checking his Foley catheter, the irrigation bag, the sheets beneath his hip where the seepage of his wound seemed more than just the drainage of fluid but the seepage of Krystal, the leak of the man, all that remained being carried off in the changes of linen to be stuffed into baskets and trundled to the chute, even the bellows, even their story-book romance, the child and her protector alone against the world, a childless couple feeding on their own love, something that was really supposed to go on that way forever and never leak its way out without drama, without dignity, without the slightest nuance of renewal, and Maggie Krystal, smartly dressed for her budget, a tidy, cheerful soul, fussed the last weeks over the bit that was left, seemingly out of desperation, telling herself that it was in fact not over, not really over, Jacob at last on Acute, failing, peering through the rails at a wedding party.

     "Look here, Jacob.  Tommy came to pay a visit."

     "Moooooooooooooeeeeeeeeehhhhhhhhhhrrrrr."

     "Don't DO that.  Can't you just say hello?  This is the man who took care of you."

     "Mooooooooooooeeeeeeehhhhhhrrrrrrr."

     "He's not feeling well, my Jacob.  They've been feeding him good enough.  See the tube in his nose?  I know it looks awful, but they think it will soon be out and even the ones in his arms, and then my Jacob will be up in a chair, God willing, and then even taking his first steps, and we will be out of here before you know it, in time for the last of the summer, maybe September at the latest.  I've arranged for a first floor apartment so he doesn't need to climb all those stairs.  I have it all set up.  I've been working on his speech too, just reading him Guideposts and such things like that book the chaplain got him about all the blessings of our immortal sacristy and the medals.  It won't be long.  He keeps his rosary under the pillow at night.  I know God loves him even though he's Jewish.  After all, he married a Catholic, and that's good enough in MY book.  I got Father Nester to say Mass over him.  Pretty soon he'll be able to take it."

     Tommy read about the death in the back pages of the local paper.  Maggie herself was totally out of his mind till October, when he spotted her by the psych clinic.  Only with her voice could he place her.

     "I guess you heard Jacob's gone," she said.  He had sat down beside her on the vinyl couch.  "I've been coming here to therapy for the last six weeks.  It isn't helping much.  They have me on three pills.  I seem to shift back and forth so much I often don't know who I am.  The real me went with Jacob.  I was committed for a few days, and then I ended in therapy, but they say it won't be long till I'll be my normal self, but I don't now what that is without my Jacob.  But you know he asked for you at the very end."

     "He asked for me?"

     "It was just about all I could stand.  After all those months, and the poor man is dying, and the lungs are full of congestion, and he's sweating, perspiring all over his body, so that even the blanket's wet, and then, just at the end he asks for Tommy King.  He says, where's Tommy?  Even the man in the next bed swore he heard it.  Just like that in the clearest voice imaginable, and then he was gone."

     "That's very strange."

     "I guess that's life though.  Right now I don't SEEM to be living.  I don't seem to be living anymore."

     He sat there and let her go on for another twenty minutes, knowing they were missing him on the floor, and then he leaned over and kissed her parted lips, feeling a near recoil, and then stood and muttered something and left her to her despair.  There was more of that where he was headed.  There was enough to go around even if they spread it all over the county.  Even over the universe, they wouldn't spread it thin.  And yet he knew that their ward was a picnic compared to the others.  No one had a corner on it.  Even the tortured man who hung there for Maggie Krystal, hung there on the silver chain around her neck, had no corner on the market.  Salvation was bound to come in so many different wrappings you had to take your time opening the box.  Inside you might find Krystal.  There might be a man and there might be a son of God.  Chances are you'd always find yourself.

 

FOURTEEN ((((((((((((( Long Term Care

 

 

"Stedman?  Where be that old boy hiding just when I needs him?  Stedman?  You gets your lazy be-end out here this minute."

     Mattie Porter cannot know that Barry is lying fetal in the linen closet, coiled inward.  It is the one hiding place she has not discovered.  Here on the empty linen bags it is nearly serene, just the ghost of night sounds through the metal door, bent inward toward himself.  And he has had a quatrain for nearly twenty minutes, burning it into his memory, marshalling the will to write it down:

     "Turned like a spit at intervals,

       His eyes a frightening why?

       This host requires attention, dry

       Dressings, blessings on the sly."

     Even with the terrible compulsive rhyme scheme it contains the very first line that is not end-stopped.  And it seems to beg for a final stanza.  With relative peace he may just have it.  But out of an ugly recess in his recollection comes another voice, insistent, hoarse, intruding on hard fought calm, raking him back toward light.

     "I swear you be just about the biggest no-account lazy mess of a human type I been seeing in 71 years.  Now get on up out of there, hear?  I said git."

     It takes him a few minutes even then to react, and Mattie is at the edge of a well-placed whited shoe when he is finally erect, rubbing his eyes in the glare.

     "You be getting flat down to 6-4 to pick up the morgue kit.  Old Stitt expired sometime after the change.  She gone now, poor ugly creature that she was, and she didn't have the proper consideration to be doing it on somebody else's time.  We be lucky to be getting out of here by midnight."

     "How late is it?"

     "I has 10:43.  Come on now, git."

     Downstairs Miss Paley hands him a vinyl sack about the size of a large attaché case, yellow seals to protect the sterile contents.  He takes the emergency exit back up to 6-5.  A curtain is drawn all the way around Stitt's bed.  Light spills upward toward the ceiling.  Stokes and Burgis are asleep, but old Ocker is sitting at the edge of her bed in a Johnnie coat, squinting into the darkness.  Ocker seems puzzled by the excitement.  Her usually sober face suggests emotion.  She seems fearful, betrayed.  Francine emerges, bulky in an isolation gown, rubber gloves, just a slit of light across her, over the dark tile, rippling against the end of a bed, jagged at a dresser.

     "We'll need the stretcher," Francine says.

     Her voice is very low.  He hears Mattie behind the curtain, edges out to the corridor, down toward the linen truck, clearing off the closest stretcher, piling the contents on wheelchairs, and then again toward Stitt, hands on the metal loops, knuckles into the black vinyl pad.  Their voices are almost a whisper. Ocker has shifted on the bed and is facing the wall.

     "Frieda gone?"

     "Yes.  She's dead.  You'd better get some sleep."

     "The doctor was here.  And one of the preachers."

     "Yes, well get some sleep," he continues.  "I'll tuck you in."

     "I don't want to sleep."

     "Suit yourself.  But I think it'll make it easier."

     He stands there a few minutes listening to the murmur behind the curtain and then draws closer to the slit.  They have removed the feeding tube.  They are drawing out the catheter.  Stitt is the same mottled clot of bone but somehow different, the belly sucked inward, the mons veneris almost too large as the tube comes out and Francine lifts it and coils it and shoves it into a vinyl bag.  The feet are hooked down toward the sheet.  The nostrils are dark holes in a leak of phlegm, moisture over the cheeks, mucus, the mouth gaping.  From his height he can see what is left of the eyes, a vague white smear, unfocused.  And then the mouth again, a yawn without a tongue.  There is a cast to all of it which is still Stitt, somehow less and more.  She is still in the room, powerfully there, and yet she is utterly absent.  She is stronger in death than in life.  Somehow this horror is more poignant, and he closes the curtain the whole way, afraid that someone is watching, afraid that even his daughter is there in Stitt's bed, profane, exposed.  Stitt is a sack of death, calm now, extinguished.

     When he passes the dining room with the stretcher, even with the doors tight, he can hear the disco beat.  Molly, Rachel, Skeeter are up and dancing, a primitive vital rhythm, a finger-popping strut so self-involved and intense that there seems to be very little room for what he has witnessed in 513.  There is small room for the jouncing cadaver in the plastic shroud, white vinyl tucked at the neck and feet with a yellow cord.  And even the few possessions, likewise bagged, the Easter greeting, the crucifix, a change of underclothing, three gowns, a pair of slippers.  And they are defeating the double-bagged linen and the double-bagged tubing caked with the last of Stitt.  And they are overwhelming Stedman himself with his eyes past the quivering shroud, wheeling himself toward Building 7 and through the orange door, down, down, down toward the tunnel at last, dripping ceiling and uncertain light, twitch at seams in the concrete floor.  On toward opaque glass with the scent of food coming on from the kitchen, that night's supper, leavings still sodden in galvanized cans, waiting for a pick-up.  The unmarked door, fitting the key, the first whiff of formaldehyde, the light within, just at the edge of the sink and over right the attendant's desk, and beyond, the tables where they cut them up to piece out their suspicions, that it is after all a clinical reality, amenable to thesis, study, confirmation.  And not this bag of guts, this termination at the frosted stainless steel with the temperature gauge at 34 Fahrenheit, the lever, chill twist and into the bright haze of litters, strangely empty, as he shoves in Stitt and backs out, sick with fear.  And doubles down into his hands at the desk, doubles there minutes, reaching at last for the log—felt pen clipped like the tag to Frieda's foot.  And then under the entry, under—FRIEDA STITT, 89, WHITE FEMALE . . . 10 PM, DECEMBER 5, MALCOM BUTRIDGE, ATTENDING PHYSICIAN . . . OF DEATH UNCERTAIN—under there the final quatrain.  Writes it in the log.  Writes it there for Sedder, Frieda, all of them:

     "Curious.  We struggle to survive

       A final meal we cannot cheat.

       All garden blossoms soon must eat.

       An angel seeded Sedder's meat."

     Staring down at his handiwork.  Raises up.  Just as the phone rings, like stabs, once, twice, eerie at this hour, this location.  Hesitation.  Maybe God's on the line.  Is it God Jehovah?  Again the fear, a knotted mass in his chest with the scent of Stitt, fearing to hear her voice.

     "Barry?  This is Francine.  Don't forget the stretcher.  Bring the stretcher back with you.  They're going to need it in the morning.  Transfer the body to one of the litters and bring the stretcher back up.  Got that?  Barry, are you all right?"

     "No, I'm fine.  Yeah, I'll be right up."

     Francine settles the receiver down and leans out over the counter.  All four females are sitting on the chairs opposite the elevators in their winter coats, waiting for the clock to notch down toward the final minute.  They are always there by ten after.  They will always be there, winter, summer, spring, now this late autumn bundled up for the night, the great shopping bags stuffed with the evening's loot, bundled in their coats, their shawls, their natty hats, their high-topped boots.  Home to the current lover, maybe out for the balance of the night—there was no way to tell.  And she didn't hate them.  Not really.  But she did curse the whole injustice of a system that has Stedman, brittle as he is, down with those stiffs and she herself consigned to another hour at the inside waiting for the relatives to call, people who haven't had the decency to show up for a friendly visit with the lately Stitt for over four months just then too at the inside, let alone paperwork that cannot wait for morning.  Oh but Izzy Burito.  So smug, so cruel.  What did she say just last week?  I doesn't get paid to talk to them patients.  There she is, all of that woman, self-contained, nasty as a dose of melanoma, cancer of the lips.

     Izzy Burito cannot know she is being observed.  She cannot feel the second set of eyes from just to her left and rear.  If Helen Sterngod's gaze were palpable it would come as a searing itch, would tear inward through hair, skin, skull, but Izzy cannot feel it.  Her present preoccupation is far too intense, the notion that in one of the shopping bags just to her left have lain the two voodoo dolls.  The itch is really to search them, to put her mind at rest, for tonight has not been easy since she discovered their absence at 9:22.  She cannot know that Miss Sterngod, staring at her brain stem through the crack in a curtain, staring from the darkness of her office, is the present steward of the dolls, their total arbitration, their redemption.  She cannot know that they lie presently in the top drawer of Sterngod's desk next to the time sheets, locked in, secure, and that there is something hideous attached to their existence, in the mind of the small erect woman, Sterngod, head nurse, 6-5.  And cannot know that it accumulates and directs the whole might of Sterngod's vision at her, at Izzy Burito, the source of damnation itself.  And cannot know that in Sterngod's aching mind, she, Izzy, is the source of all the decay, suffering, injustice, ruin, Sterngod has encountered in her 21 year tenure at Twin Oaks.  That she has complete assurance that she has located at this moment the root of all cancer, the wellspring of all iniquity, at long last the fountain of pain itself.  There at the brain stem, there where it could just as well terminate by one skillful and deliberate act, a clinical operation by the only mind who cares enough to proceed, Sterngod herself, the only human with the courage and intelligence to endure the heartache of such an act.  Could Izzy know?  That only Sterngod can erase the nightmare, the sick, the maimed, the wounded, the demented, even Stitt's death this very night—did they think it escaped her?  And can she ever know that the instrument of purgation lies in another drawer, and not the drawer of Helen Sterngod's mind even though she feels that had she the stamina that very evening she could will Izzy Burito to die, could burn directly through the stem itself?  That it lies rather in the bottom drawer of her filing cabinet, where she has kept for 21 years the solitary souvenir, beyond a freight-load of pain, of that terrible drive through Belgium?  And can she know that Sterngod has turned back and crossed to the cabinet and inserted a key and pulled the catch out gently, quietly, and knelt to the drawer and found it there at the back of 21 years of flow sheets and BM lists, wrapped in a yellow flannel, warm and comfortable to her grip, her own way out in time of desperation?

     Sheer delight in hefting it, the total weight of a perfect God-given machine, an instrument of forgiveness and destruction.  Oh certainly to kill outright was a terrible sin, and it was something she had promised herself never to commit.  And yet to kill that dirty black Jew German Asian that had maimed all the boys over on the Islands and on the Continent, that was pumping fluids of disease and putrefaction into the helpless here at home, that was in fact omnipresent, evil in the highest degree?  Never.  Such darkness deserved to be put out of its misery here and now.  And she checked the clip and racked a round slowly into the chamber, muffling the sound with the cloth, and headed back across the floor, pausing at last at the desk, inserting a second key, taking one last look at those horrible twisted things in there, two loving gentle nurses—God knew that nurses were the only caring beings on this planet—and that one sight in itself was nearly more than she could bear, and she slid the drawer back in, careful not to disturb the tormented beauties in any way, not exacerbate their distress, and crossed the final distance to the window and cracked the curtain and took steady and deliberate aim just under Izzy Burito's left ear where the bullet would provide her instantaneous relief from a torment only lesser than the one she was inflicting.  And she leveled and aimed and steadied her hand with a firm grasp of the wrist and tugged inward toward the worst scream of all.  Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhddddddddddd.

     That hideous thing was talking just like a Darky.  Was she simply a Colored?  Could an Asian, say a Buddhist, say a German, a Jew, be fishing in there a chocolate hand for some knittings, along with the juice, the silk tape, the 4 by 4's, the pork chops, the mashed potatoes, the toilet paper, to just simply give them poor girls a notion of what she was doing up for poor Sally come X-mas?  GaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhHHHHHHHDDDDDDDDDDDDDD.

     "And I said to Jimmie that she'd be liking the red, cause of the warmer color, but he put me in mind of the weather down there, and I guess we pretty well agreed that she be tasting plenty of warm all year."

     "Gaaaaaaahhhhhd.  That sure be pretty, Izzy."

     "Gaaaaaaahhhhhd.  That be the loveliest shawl I seen."

     "Your sure does have a talent, girl.  You sure does."

     "Think of all the time.  I'd never be standing it."

     "Patience.  That the word.  P A T I E N C E.  Haaaah."

     "Honey, I don't know about you, but I think it be just about that time.  Wonder what be happening to poor old Stedman.  Hey.  There he be coming now.  White as a sheet.  Gaaaaaaaahhhhhd.  Taking poor Stitt down to the morgue."

     "Stedman not that bad."

     "I never said he was."

     "Stedman just messed up cause he white."

     "White black green—don't make no difference to me."

     "Here.  You girls treat him decent like.  Be nice."

     Stedman parks the stretcher by the dining room, fishes into the closet for his olive topcoat, crosses to the nurse's station to sign out.  Mattie Porter is standing at a med cart, going through the Card-x, checking each entry against the drawers beneath, the various capsules, the signatures, noting discrepancies on a pad.  Francine is filling out Stitt's valuable list, recording the absence of dentures, an FM radio that walked some months back.  She is waiting for the call from the remorseful relative she will have to console.  Oh yes, she passed peacefully.  There wasn't the slightest evidence of pain.  Lovely lady, your aunt.  Everyone LOVED her.  Yes, it is sad, but life is that way, and you have at least the knowledge that she received all the love and care we could provide.  I'm sure you'll feel better in time . . . Stedman stands just a moment and looks directly across at a calendar.  He is scheduled for a week's vacation the first of the year.  That much keeps him going, just that much.  And then he turns and approaches the elevator where they wait for him.  Probably more torment.  But then he has his nightwork utterly behind him for another fifteen hours.  He will have Tommy or he will have his wife.  There is no bargain involved in the love of the one or the love of the other, for there is no love in himself, no more than an occasional twitch that catches up, and then and again something warm he can remember so far back that it aches, so warm he fears its resumption.  He pulls on the coat and smiles inwardly.  Free for a day.  Sleep a dozen hours.

     "You sure think you be looking cool in that coat," Molly says, flicking a tongue.  "You sure thinks you cool."

     "Yes.  I guess I look just like Paul Newman."

     "Gaaaaaaaahhhhhhdddd.  Paul Ass Newman."

     The elevator flickers, and they step on, bulky in their coats, the four females, and then he is crowded in with them and some male aides from the psych floors above.  They are big husky men with expensive jackets and jogging shoes under the whites.  Molly is still giggling, and then one of them puts his arms around her waist and draws her in, and she pushes him back laughingly and bumps and flicks a tongue.

     "See this here man in that green coat, look like a army coat maybe.  Say he look just like Paul Ass Newman."              

     "Gaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhdddddddd."

     Some of the men are laughing.  Some seem hostile or indifferent.  They are descending slowly, haltingly, a shudder at each floor as the car packs tightly in, a scent of cologne and flesh.

     "Paul Ass Newman.  Gaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhdddddddd."

     At last they reach ground level.  It is only perhaps a hundred feet to the exit to Lot 6.  They must pass the nursing office.  Several minutes early, a few hang back, Stedman among them.  Then he is totally alone, just the hint of laughter and here and there a Paul Ass Newman drifting on up, and he stands there leaning against the wall while a few more pass by, on into the night, and then he moves on, down concrete etched into patterns, a rich dark border to the central tan.  This is one of the oldest wings in the hospital, and yet it has a certain charm.  He interviewed here over a year ago and was terrified, totally overwhelmed that they chose to hire him, considering the tremors under the gaze of Miss Richter from Personnel, failing to meet her eyes.  He is so close to the double doors now, rounding the corner.  Buttons his coat to the neck, reaches the gloves from his pocket.  Prays silently.  Somehow he can hear his daughter's voice.  She is asking him to pray for her also, to pray for her salvation, to pray for Marka, her mother, to pray for her grandparents, the uncle she has never met, her cousins, for Jennie and Christopher, for Sue and Dannie, to pray for Minnie, their nine month kitten.  The other night he got up at 3 because he could no longer face not sleeping, and out in the living room in the darkness he found himself stepping all over toys, balls, mice, rabbits, as he discovered later when he flicked the light.  Minnie had been in heat.  Marka had put them there to draw her attention from it.  There was that much beauty in her, that much mercy in the world.  Maybe it was out there in the darkness.  Just as he reached for the door he heard the report, a muffled sound, almost like a backfire.  And then his hand was on the chill of the door and he was swinging out into the pure dark mystical rush of night air, merciful as death, unrelenting, total as expiation, sweet and clean as the last flicker of Helen Sterngod's brain when her mind went utterly dark.

 

FLAPPER ((((((((((((( Rehabilitation    

 

 

Tom King could not remember when Bess Peterson actually arrived, i. e., late spring, early summer?  He did know that it was the day they removed a defective air conditioner from the dining room and stranded a nest of baby wrens.  Their parents never returned, and every working day Tom looked on, fearful perhaps, perhaps just with morbid curiosity, at the progression of death that was visited on the five bald chicks.  It took a while for them to die, and then it took a while longer for the nest to be washed away by the rain, and some time in August when he thought he was totally free of them, he spotted a flat shriveled cadaver on the next ledge down one day leaning far out and knew that beyond that terrible small iniquity there was nothing more of them and that only he knew their secret.  Perhaps he was more enamoured of the very small terrors of life than the larger.  He was living with the latter day by day.  Somehow a nest of dead infant wrens seemed as poignant as all these cripples, all their fears and personal disasters.

     Bess, the flapper, was quite a young girl at 85, and he thought at first she wouldn't be staying for long.  At first sight there seemed little wrong with her beyond the amputations of two toes in the right foot and the stubbornness of the remaining flesh to heal.  Oh, they might take more off, but pretty soon she'd be out of there in her orthopedic shoes, lifting the walker out in front and placing it stubbornly, impervious to tragedy as a young woman in the peak of  health, a young, desirable woman that knew her own worth and was set to exploit it.  For so she seemed, Bess Peterson, there where they had set her up in 125, with the vanity from home and the soft chair with an art deco design and the genuine Tiffany ring she had been given by one of her male friends some forty odd years past, the only one she claimed to miss, the only one she ever considered marrying.

     "He was a handsome devil," she remarked past her hand, shielding their conversation from the others on the porch that August afternoon.  "Secretary to the president of Leverland Shipping.  I don't know if they're still in operation, but it was a very big outfit then.  Wild about me.  A fresh red rose every Saturday morning delivered right to my flat off Third Avenue.  And it meant more than a dozen, mind you.  It always does.  Don't let any of these present-day hussies fool you.  A single rose.  There's no better way to break a young girl's heart.  And not that I was that young either.  Over forty at the time and not getting younger, and he was just 35.  And I was really thinking it over with some serious intent when they discovered his cancer, and six months later Greg Molker was stone dead.  Not before he gave me this ring.  There's a stone missing, but I don't mind it.  It'll go to the grave with me.  Tommy, I cried for seven weeks.  Such a lovely young man.  In his pancreas, and there wasn't a damned thing they could do about it.  Down there with the maggots at just past 35 and a dead ringer for Clark Gable if you ever seen the pictures.  Enough to break your heart."

     Bess had a sister, Mary, who visited every Sunday afternoon about 3, a sister who had married, unlike Bess, and had raised a family and lost a husband, and stayed on loving the children and the grandchildren and, lately, the great-grandchildren.  This married sister wasn't HOMELY, was shorter perhaps and with less of the elegance, for Bess had more than her share going for her over the years and was still something of a princess even with the hoarse deep booming voice that seemed to emanate from a lumberjack and the pacemaker and the ropes of flesh descending from her chin and elbows, gaunt as a praying mantis, deaf as a rock, cupping the better ear toward her sister's voice, as the two of them sat there over the summer and into autumn hollering at each other and quarreling like two mad witches over a cauldron, over in fact events of sixty, eighty years past, people long gone, times that had faded from living memory, times and events they remembered differently, the principal leverage for their flare-ups, which would always end with Mary leaving tearfully and warning that if it ever happened again she'd never return, that at the very least she'd leave the doughnuts and cookies behind, that Bess was just plain spoiled and not deserving of all the love she'd been given, all because she remained a maid and didn't know what it was to give in to higher authority, even if that authority was simple financial necessity, mouths to feed, a mortgage payment.  And they'd leave on that note, just hollering and weeping and shrieking at each other, and then Mary would be there the very next Sunday with her doughnuts and cookies and the two of them embracing and gentle until their tempers began to ignite and the sequence was repeated.

     The Sunday the sister didn't come, Bess was out on the porch as usual, eyeing her features in a compact mirror, powdering the jowls, rouging the prominent cheekbones, patting a stray strand of white hair back into the neat careful style she had maintained at fierce insistence over the objections of many a hair stylist down through the decades, out on the porch with a host of visitors, including Lois Bumley's son Eric, who was as gay as a tanager and heatedly desirous of Tommy King, flirting at every opportunity with his moist large eyes, smoking a filter cigarette with the most effeminate of flourishes, crossing the bare legs in the Bermuda shorts and tapping with the free shoe against the edge of a chair, a wall, whatever, tapping and prodding to keep himself in time with his own motions, those of the whore, the old queen, his mother aphasic and oblivious, the two of them fairly silent until the son would erupt into a monologue about his latest trip to the Islands or what occurred Friday afternoon in court where he was head stenographer.

     All this was only mildly apparent to Bess, who was presently rouging her cheeks and chuckling inwardly, guilty that she was finding something so objectionable so humorous, waiting for a nurse or aide to show up so she could amend, revise, what she had just seen a minute ago, leaning forward past the open storm door.  Waiting till Tommy arrived and took a seat beside her, leaning back and breathing heavy, the lovely smell of man on him, not like that other fag, Eric Bumley, who used the worst sorts of designer scents and laid them on so thick you could smell him all the way over in Building 6, if that wasn't too much of an exaggeration.  She leaned left and spoke guardedly in Tom King's ear.

     "You just lean forward, Tommy, and look left, and you'll get a load of something just too awful to think about.  I don't know about these other people.  Maybe they're just ignoring it."

     Tom King leaned slowly forward and peered past the aluminum storm door.  There, to his left and facing in toward the open door, was Lois Bumley, squat, obese lady that she was, in a floral print dress that had climbed half-way up her thighs.  She had the blandest dull, almost confused expression on her face, and her son, the effeminate homosexual, was pulling on his cigarette and tapping the point of his black loafer against the edge of her chair, mincing there, wholly oblivious, for under the hem of Lois Bumley's dress was an expanse of white doughy flesh and the biggest bush Tom King had ever had the luck or misfortune of seeing, for the nurse in charge of that lady hadn't even put a diaper there to block the view of that massive wedge of hair and private places that seemed to loom out, lurch into vision like a misplaced stop sign.  And Tom recoiled in a fit of inward laughter, and Bess Peterson leaned again into his ear and observed:

     "I thought I'd seen everything.  After all, I'm 85 and proud to admit it.  At 85 you seen a lot of things, but that one beats all.  For Christ's sake, she's bare as a blue jay just out of the nest and winking at you.  God almighty, I'm lucky I'm still alive.  Isn't it criminal?  I'm just simply out of breath with it.  Why, it's plain disgusting, that's all.  And I thought I'd seen a few things in my time.  Well I lived to see the worst, I swear.  I lived to see the worst."

     But she hadn't.  That afternoon about 3 she received the news of her sister's stroke.  She took to her bed and stayed there for three weeks.  It was October when she came out again with some of the old fire back, but most days it was too cool on the porch, and then she had the long winter ahead.  As for the wrens, they came back the next spring and built another nest.  They built another nest.

 

 

     CODA

 

     On Monday, July 23, 1984, you were counseled regarding your deficient and totally unacceptable job performance.  During that conference, you were informed that an injustice had been done to you and to the Unit by not having discussed your performance deficiencies with you at an earlier date.  As explained, the delay occurred in an attempt to permit you the opportunity to deal with your emotional problems and to adjust to your return to the work environment.  You were given until October at the July 23 meeting to improve your general working habits and your relationship to the patients and the staff.  The time has since arrived for a thorough evaluation:

     The opportunity provided you has been utilized.  Improvement in all job categories has been seen.  Specifically the following performance areas have markedly improved:

        1.   Quality and thoroughness of patient grooming.

    2.   Attention to patients' hygiene needs.

        3.   Thoroughness of physical, emotional, psychological, behaviorial, and social observations on assigned patients and

              reporting of those observations.

        4.   Attention to cleanliness, neatness, and disposal of waste material in patient environment.

        5.    Constructive and productive use of all working time.

     Congratulations on a job well done.  Your performance will continue to be monitored in the coming months.  At the present time there is no need to institute disciplinary action.  You are, on the contrary, to be commended for a genuine and successful attempt on your part to meet the needs of 4-2, your district leader, all licensed staff, Twin Oaks as a whole.

 

 

                       

                                                                                   THE END