There was a time where I was breaking a lot of things I’d fixed, which is to say I was wasting second chances. I smoked myself right out of a position when the regional manager caught me puffing in the stockroom. Then when I found a job at a sporting good store down the street, I told this clerk kid there that if he knew anything about customer service, he’d slow down the A.S.S. Express. The higher-ups figured I was a liability and gave him a few grand. I’d only meant to make light of a bad mood, but apparently when I started booming “Choo-Choo!” and pumping my elbow in the air, a sexual innuendo was made, which makes you wonder what kind of freaky whoopee lawmakers have. Our branch manager had a sad little flopped-over Mohawk. He’d never liked me once I got everyone calling him Flaccid Roger for his hair. You could tell he enjoyed giving me the can when it was time. “You’re done here. Finito. O-V-E-R.”
“D-U-S-H!” I said.
“Douche!” I said. “It means shower in French.” This was one of the few things I’d learned from my father, and the only one worth repeating.
After that, I looked around for bar-back jobs, security jobs, filing jobs. None of them would have me. I looked for delivery jobs, dishwashing jobs, didn’t dare for those offering salary. At night I smoked myself to sleep. When I didn’t have cash for that anymore, I smoked resin silly. I lay on the couch and thought about mothers and fathers, about the size of everything scientists call the universe, impossible kitchen scenes of blissful children. It seemed like everyone I knew in Newark then wished he could even sell out, and some of the ones with girlfriends would pretend to still have jobs. “Give us this day our daily bread,” I said at church, and I fucking meant it.
One afternoon when I’d gone to give my rap to God, I worked up a new prayer. After the compliment clause—Dear Heavenly, Gracious, Great, Glorious Lord, or something like that—I asked for him to make me a better man, someone like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life or Jesus around 25 A.D., even though I was thirty-four, which maybe was creative math because at thirty-four Jesus was dead already. Then I thought, forget Jesus, how about make me Charlton Heston in Ben Hur, since he also outlived Jesus.
I did the triple blessing thing, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, clasped my hands, and decided to go see about an ice cream. But when I got up to leave, my eyes traveled the stained glass stations of the cross as I turned and then these kids, like actual little kids, were sticking me up for eleven-sixty. “You always pray out loud, fuck face?” said one, as he pulled the gun.
“Watch your mouth, kid,” I said.
“Kid? I’m eleven! Where’d you learn how to count?” he said. One of his little friends poked me in the chest.
“This tubby bitch,” said the third, shaking his head. “Kid!”
I don’t remember after that owing to a smack to the mouth with metal, and when I woke up, I was poorer a tooth and almost twelve dollars. Something like that happens and the right thing to wonder is whether you prayed to be the wrong celebrity. Ben Hur was forced into slavery before the chariot race after all. But I just wanted to find those kids and teach them how to spell shower in French or something worse. I couldn’t pay the dentist, so I went toothless, and since I was toothless, I shirked the social aspect. Happy just isn’t the hour when there’s explaining a bunch of infants emptied your mouth out. Sometime around then, I drank a whole bottle of sleeping pills and got stuck with a big bill for the stomach pump. Because I’d lost my insurance sometime in the third term of the president, the hospital said they’d work out a payment plan, which is why I’m changing bedpans.
“It’s noble work,” my boy Carm said when I resurfaced. He was giving me the porcelain treatment, I guess, because of the pump.
“Yeah, Sir Bedpans A Lot,” I said. But I didn’t have a lot of choices, and the stinking awful truth is, you think you’ve reached about as low as it goes, and then you see what happens right before death. All the inside things, organs or veins and such, go blue. You stop noticing the dripping drops of your own drool. When you sleep, you start passing for dead, and you wake up yelling there’s no way you’re moving to Los Angeles with Watts in a riot, though you aren’t in LA and you are decades beyond. The arguments that happen around here about which president is sending the United States straight to hell can go on for days.
“Ike can take a hike!” an old person will say.
“The one to worry about is Tricky Dick,” another then explains gravely, shaking her head over the sad sucker who doesn’t know the year.
“Catamite Carter,” someone joins in. And so the decorated history of the United States goes.
There’s this one geezer lady always grabbing my arm right when I’m changing her out, sloshing piss all over us both. “Right turn on red: legal or illegal?” she’ll say. I sing her some “Highway to Hell,” and she likes this okay, but she says her favorite is jazz. She’ll be bee-doo-bap-bap-ee-doo-da-da-da-bap-a-dab-bopping most afternoons, but among the old, selves play hard to get more and more often, and there are afternoons when she just points at the television set, crying “Who?”
I don’t know the names of all these dead actors she points to, so I just sit there through these old movies hoping the black and white bursts out into song sooner or later. If I’m lucky, one of the little gray figures will start doing some old-timey dances around the television set, singing about how she’s gonna shampoo some guy right out of her hair or how raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens are, in her opinion, the goddamn Virgin Mother’s tits. You’d be surprised how often the reruns rerun, and I’ve started to know some of the songs myself. I go right in for the chorus if I do, the old lady stops Who-Whoing, and then we’re getting along pretty good for a couple of sad sacks marinating in piss, and I go “Sing it, Addy! Now shuffle off to Buffalo!” which is exactly what happened a few days ago when her kid came in.
“Now shuffle off to Buffalo!” I hollered.
“What’s going on in here?” he said. He was standing in the doorway, and I could tell he had been for some time. When he asked the question, he asked like he was a dad walking in on a guilty-faced teenage daughter sliding to the end of the couch opposite her horny study partner, when in fact it was his mother, and she’d really been hitting some high notes too. “Hey, I’m talking to you,” he said.
“Who?” I said.
“Gene Kelly!” she cried. “That’s it! That’s it! Gene Kelly!”
“I’m talking to you,” he said again. It took until then to realize you was me.
“Luke,” Addy said sternly.
“It’s okay, Addy,” I said. “We can talk.”
“Addy?” Luke said.
“Well that’s her name,” I said.
“It’s Adrienne,” he said. “Her name is Adrienne.”
“Luke, honey,” Addy said. “Laissez-faire, okay now?”
“That’s French,” I explained.
I saw this movie once about a robot kid who could live like eight hundred years, but all he wanted was a mommy. He’d be melting some very big, bad robots with his orange laser eyes, and still be beeping “Ma-Ma. D-26-47-J-K-L-94 desires conference with Ma-Ma. Repeat. D-26-47-J-K-L-94 desires conference with Ma-Ma and will not relent offensive until demands are met. Ma-Ma. Ma-Ma.” I guess there are limits to artificial intelligence. What I’ll say about parents is this: you can’t live without them, but if science ever progresses enough, I’d prefer a Petri dish. After the sleeping pills incident, I got a letter from old Moira, my mom. It said this: “Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear, why did you do this, Teddy Bear? I’ll never waste a thought on you again. Don’t write back unless you’re sending me a check.” I’m surprised she remembered how to write, let alone address.
After my accident, which was sort of the opposite of an accident except for the living through it part, I asked Carm and Richie if they remembered this robot movie. I wanted to know if D-26-47-J-K-L-94 was as much of a dip as I remember. “D who?” Carm said.
“Sounds like a locker combination to me,” Richie said.
“Or a lottery number,” Carm said. Then Richie asked if we thought his ex-wife Margarita would take him back if he won a million dollars, and when we said maybe, he asked what about five million. It went on like that in four million dollar increments of luck for a while. So I didn’t ask again about that movie, and I didn’t write Moira back.
Sometimes I think about Moira and I think about that fake French fuck, my father, and I really believe scientists need to rethink all the stuff they say about the animal instinct to protect their young. Père Alexandre took off to France when I was a kid, and I almost don’t blame him Moira’s such a junkie lunatic, but then I remember being like eleven and instead of sticking people up for twelve bucks, knocking on neighbors’ doors asking what they’d eaten for dinner all innocent-like, as though I was just taking a poll for the Republicans, and I want those wire-rimmed lab coat dorks to get their heads in the game and work on making babies the right way for once. I could pray Moira and Lex’d turn into lab equipment, but we all know how praying goes.
What helps is this: I read Moira’s letter and I imagine the old geezer lady with the jazz songs, the one from my job, Addy. I pretend she’s the one who wrote to me, that she’s my mom. Because when I see her singing and crying and asking about movies, it’s like she’s apologizing for the world, and I can’t hate her.
Her son is a different story.
See, this Luke dude comes in every so often, like party’s over. Usually he just stands there staring at me as if I don’t belong, when in fact I have filled out my I-9 Employment Eligibility Verification and W-4 Employee Withholding Allowance forms and have been given an employee identification badge that gives me clearance to enter all geriatric residence rooms.
But then I see that Luke has this look on his face like he might cry for some reason, right there, not even the loud bawling sort but the silent, frightening type. And suddenly I think I might too, and then I’m down the hallway and wiping my eyes and what can I say but my plumbing’s off? I get sentimental. I think about the times when a school year was a whole one hundred-eighty days and Ellis Island wasn’t a casino.
From down the hall I can hear Addy sing, I used to. I used to. I’m so lonely. Every road I walk along, I walked along with you. I walk away from the voice, think Luke ought to thank God he had Addy for a mother and wasn’t an artificial life form with laser eyes and a broken heart.
One thing about Addy: she may not remember all the time, but she is a movie buff as much as me. I used to prefer the stuff with guns and such, but since I was mugged by third graders, I feel a little different, and it’s not so bad to watch the la-la-la-la-love stories anymore.
“Sure, those 1940s girls are hot. In fact, I’d lick 1940s clit all the way to the present,” Carm says.
“That’s enough with your political aspirations,” I say.
Anyway Addy likes the old smoocheramas and that’s what we watch mostly. In these movies, people find each other so perfectly music happens. They’re fun enough that you start to think if that was how romance really worked, you’d fall in love all the time just to hear the songs. But sometimes, when a couple gets together onscreen and Addy’s got clarity, she’ll talk a little gentle trash.
“My ex-husband treats empathy like the chicken pox,” she’ll say. “Once is enough; he’ll never have to do it again.”
“You want me to beat his ass, Addy?” I ask.
“I don’t,” she says. “But I wouldn’t mind if he got Chlamydia.”
According to Carm and Richie, the simple math is we got in this mess crybabying around and the thing to do now is accept the world’s rotten and learn to make it bow down to our own half-past three stiffies; factories didn’t come back from simpering. But I happen to think I could stick here at the hospital helping forever and leave some history behind me. These days, sometimes what I think I’ve always known becomes itself, and then I hear it speak something harder to explain. Like recently, I saw this nurse in the wing, Annie. We were in the break room, and she was waiting by the microwave for her frozen Salisbury steak to finish heating.
“Do I know you?” she said.
“Fat Ted,” I said and stuck my hand out. “I’m the only guy around here over three hundred pounds, so I’m sure you’ve noticed me.”
“I didn’t notice you,” she said, “for that reason.”
“Isn’t that like asking someone where they lost their keys?”
“Not really,” I said. “Because I’m not lost.” But I admit I had stared a long time into the vending machine without choosing a thing.
When her meal was heated, she peeled back a plastic sheet, and a wavering cloud of meat stink rose from the microwave dinner. She slipped the sheet in the wastebasket and began moving the food around on the plate to cool it. There was this nice choreography to the way she moved. She didn’t need to figure out what was next. I wondered what it would feel like, to figure you always knew the steps.
“What are those?” I said.
“What are what?” She turned, suddenly very nervous, like I’d noticed toilet paper tamped onto her shoe.
“On your scrubs. In the pattern. What are they?”
“M and M chocolates,” she said, just like that, M and M chocolates. I’d never heard them called that before.
“Never heard them called that before,” I said. “Chocolates.”
And all the rest of the day, I heard the shuffle-ball-change as M and M chocolates, M and M chocolates, M and M chocolates.
Yesterday one of the farts took his thing out and rubbed it all over one of the nurses. He scared her pretty good and was able to make a run for it right out the building. This isn’t usual, but someone had left a door propped that should have been closed, and suddenly one person forgetting the door routine meant there was an old guy on the loose who had a bone to pick with President John F. Kennedy. “Somebody’s getting fired today,” Dr. Johnson said when she gathered the staff. Then she asked who was going to call his kids, these very nice people who had kids of their own, and tell them baldy was missing.
So anyway, I’m pulling and replacing the pee pots, getting a lot of old people grabbing me and asking for the things they can’t get themselves, which is just about everything. The guy on shift before me had had to join the geriatric hunt, and there’d been a lot of overflowing bedpans when I came into work. I could’ve been right steamed with the old runaway, but you can’t blame the guy a bit for wanting to pull a fast one right out of this place. You wouldn’t imagine what the people around here call food.
At one point, the runaway’s kids come in. They’re a balding man and a woman with these purple plastic glasses that she keeps taking off to dry with her T-shirt because she can’t stop crying. Nastying up on unsuspecting nurses with your spotty old pee pipe isn’t the greatest, but the guy was her father. I wondered if I’d be like the wet glasses lady should something happen to Moira or Lousy Lex—which, by the way, is what everyone in town called my father and is just one way that I know he’s a lower echelon bastard. When I slipped by to room four-oh-nine, I heard Annie talking to the grownup kids, telling them how fondly Mr. Reynolds always spoke of them. It was a lie and it made me like Annie a little more, even though the mean shtick had really given me a five past twelve stiffy.
Four-oh-nine, Eileen Ellison was cold, so I brought her a blanket. Room four-ten, Jeremiah Moehringer wanted water and to tell me about the time he got roughed on by a member of an Italian crime family in Brooklyn. He kept calling his assailant a real don and elaborating the size of the guy’s arms. “It’s the milk,” he whispered, real secret-like. Then Moehringer looked over each shoulder and passed me a note on a napkin that said THEY’RE WATCHING. I shook his hand before four-eleven, Addy’s room.
Addy already had a visitor by the time I made it to four-eleven. He was a man maybe fifteen, twenty years her junior, and I could tell he didn’t get his tan naturally. When I looked at him, there was something familiar that I didn’t like about him, but I couldn’t place him. He wasn’t anyone who’d ever fired me. He wasn’t Lousy Lex. And he sure as hell wasn’t someone Moira ever dated. Those guys never could get out of town, much as you might want them to. They were serious victims of gravity who couldn’t motivate to the refrigerator sometimes, let alone out into the world of treatment. This guy had the neck of a marathon athlete.
“You got visitor’s clearance sir?” I said to the stranger. He grabbed at his ass and then found the pass in a front pants pocket. For a moment, he squinted at it to make sure it was right, and I could tell he was putting off the inevitability of reading glasses which is like nice try, buddy, but it’s clear you’re old. He handed me his pass, this sticker with his name printed on it backwards and the name of the visitee printed beneath. The point wasn’t to walk around with the pass in your pocket. It was to walk around identified like at an AA meeting. I peeled the sticker from its backing and slapped it hard on his chest. “Paul Krause!” I said. “That’s you, buddy.”
“Watch it,” he said.
I began humming a song from Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, which Addy and I’d watched together recently. Then I shuffled off to Buffalo a little. The visitor was staring, but I couldn’t have given less of a shit. Once you’ve been mugged by middle schoolers, you lose an inhibition or two. “The ex-husband,” she whispered.
“Oh him,” I said, then glared over at the guy, who to be fair was really just a guy on the downward slope out of middle age. “You want me to ask him to leave?”
“He’ll leave on his own,” she said loudly, “when it gets too hard.” Paul Krause closed his eyes.
“Adrienne,” he said, glowing orangely.
It was obvious this wasn’t the first time he’d said her name that way, that special way that says have mercy on me for I am but a sorry asshole in every language except the kind that’s direct. “Adrienne,” he said again, but she didn’t answer.
Krause looked ready to blow some kind of body function, and I almost began to feel a little bad remembering my buddy Richie sad-sacking around after his wife left him. Truth is, he still isn’t over it, and one time when he saw her eating hero sandwiches with a new guy, he blew eight hundred dollars at a steakhouse owned by the president. Krause might be an oven-roasted speed walker, but he probably had the capacity for depression just like the rest of us. “Maybe I should give you two a minute,” I said.
As I left, I heard Addy make a deal. “Let’s make a deal,” she said. “I’ll forgive you, and in exchange, I’ll never have to see you again.”
Pretty soon after, the old runaway Reynolds strolled right back on into the hospital like nothing happened. Usually his face was drawn together in a mean, puckered scowl, but now he was whistling and as happy as I’d ever seen him. I saw him from the nurse’s station, where I was checking rooms off my checklist. The daughter was still crying into her glasses. Dr. Johnson was checking Reynolds for minor injuries. The guy who left the door open was probably somewhere quietly pissing his pants with the relief of renewed job security.
The middle-aged daughter punched the middle-aged son. “Don’t talk about dad that way. Haven’t you ever heard of kindness?”
I continued my rounds. It was good to see families pieced back together. I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, thought up letters to write to Moira and Lousy Lex. Dear Mom, Dear Dad, they’d begin. I forgive you. Let’s make a deal.
“You crying, fuckface?” said a familiar-looking little kid. And son of a bitch, I was.
Photograph By Oskar Miarka