Dissolution of the Senses

The next day, upon my return to the old folks home, I was immediately accosted by the unassailable frumpiness of Debora Fanning. Her dark eyes flashed upon my graceful and sweeping entrance through the front doors of this palace of the damned, but they faded back behind the glow of her shiny skin soon enough, for nothing seems to keep Debora Fanning passionate for too long. “Pendel. Just the person I was looking for. A word?”  I knew it would be more than one, but I meandered over to the front desk anyway. “Pendel. I spoke with Bill Hardisty yesterday evening. He said you left him hanging with Arnold Tillerman the other day. You know anything about that?” Was she speaking of Big Bill the orderly, friend to all mankind? “His name is Bill Hardisty, and to my knowledge, he’s never left this state.” I said yes, I knew that Big Bill had been on his way to wipe Arnold’s ass, but after taking into account the size of Bill’s dinner plate-sized palms, I figured he had everything under control. Debora stuck her tongue into her cheek and looked deeply into a spot above my head. “He did not, and poor Arnold has been very itchy for the last 36 hours or more. It isn’t funny.”

Well, okay, and so I’m sorry, and so where the hell is Arnie, and let’s get those cheeks scrubbed till they shine, America. Debora Fanning clucked and frowned slightly, and scratching the back of her head she said more: “Some gentlemen were looking for you the other day. You left before I could talk to you about it.” Casually I say: Oh? Did they provide identification? Had she seen them before? “Why would they have identification? They said they represented your grandmother’s estate. It wasn’t your day to serve, and I have no clue where you go when you’re not here, so they said they would be back. Has something happened to your Grandmother?”

The funny thing about my Grandma is that she died about four years ago. And before you all fall over yourselves telling me sorry, save it. The woman never liked me anyway. Apparently I reminded her of her ex-husband, who was of course my Grandpa, who was a difficult bastard, if you believe the rumors. My Grandma, a grown—nay, elderly—woman with stuffed bears and porcelain dolls all over her country-morning-breakfast-themed house…I’m sure my Grandpa merely had to lift a cheek and fart for her to consider him an abomination. She LOVED my brother Matty, though. He was her sun. He provided her with warmth and light and made the crops grow and brought the promise of better times to come on winter mornings after the wind howled and the cold seeped into every bone during the long dark of night. Every Christmas, Matty’s gifts were larger, and always needed batteries. And after I opened my new bathrobe, when the hurt expression would betray my feelings as Matty—a child at the time and not to be blamed for his actions, I SUPPOSE—would gloat with his beeping, blinking, plastic fantastic, my Grandma would shake her head with an impatient frown and claim, “Your Grandfather was the same way. He never appreciated the things he was given.”

So, look, I plan on keeping this short, so suffice to say that I doubt very highly that anyone came around to talk to me about Grandma’s estate four years after her death. Even if there were something left to give, it wouldn’t come to unappreciative ME, unless it happened to be a box of old bathrobes.

The thing I found really disconcerting was the fact that they DIDN’T show a badge. So then what the FUCK?

I told Debora Fanning that if the men happened to show their face again, she should ask them what my Grandmother’s name is. If they don’t say Esmeralda (her actual name was Gladys), she should contact the authorities IMMEDIATELY. She furrowed her brow and opened her mouth to speak, but I touched a finger to her lips and looked about conspiratorially. Later, I said, and ducked my head low, b-lining my way to Charlie’s room.

Upon arriving, having not seen Big Bill, I closed the door and snapped my fingers several times in front of Wide-Eyed Wendell’s nose. I said aloud to him that if he could hear or say a fucking thing, now was the time to let everyone know. In response he merely breathed. I turned and faced Charlie, who was seated in his wheelchair and watching General Hospital on the television. “What’s the big goddamned deal, scaring Wendell like that?” he said. I told him time was short, and I only wanted to ask if the men who talked to him the other day told him who they were. “They didn’t tell me, but it was pretty obvious, so I didn’t ask.” So who were they then? “How should I know? Are you deaf, Pendel? I just said they didn’t tell me.” And with that he turned back to his program. Charlie is so damned cool most of the time that you forget he’s an old man, but there he is in his wheelchair, sucking on his lip, his left hand fidgeting restlessly at his armrest.

I told Wendell to keep it real as I exited, and promptly smacked my nose hard into the chest of Big Bill the orderly. “There he is, ladies and gentleman!” he roared, and he slapped a one meaty hand on my shoulder as the other palmed what seemed like a dozen white towels. “Can I have a word with you, little buddy?” Rushed with no real idea why and with my eyes watering, I tried to tell this heavily browed man with the dark, curly hair and kind face that I knew what he needed to say, but that he needn’t because I was very sorry about Arnie’s rash-covered ass, but he silenced me with a serious look.

“Buddy, I can’t have YOU leaving me hanging when I’VE got to get something hanging out of a man’s butt, okay?” I repeated all my regrets, and stressed that it wouldn’t happen again, but that I needed to be on my way. “Where’s the fire, buddy? This is my point. There’s work to be done HERE. That’s why YOU’RE here. You screwed it up out THERE, so they sent you in HERE to learn about how what you do affects others. You see?” I said yes. He laughed. “No, you don’t. Look, you’re not so new around here that you don’t know what happens to an adult’s sheets after they shit the bed. It’s easily a two-man job, sometimes more. Sometimes MORE, you see?” Bill often repeated his words, adding weight to the things he really wanted his audience to grasp. “Now, that old man has about 500 hours left in him, maximum, and you just stole the dignity out of the last 40 or so. Does that sound like a person who knows what I’m talking about? Does it SOUND that way to YOU?” I said no, because it’s the truth. Bill took his hand off my shoulder and walked away.

I sulked to the nearest cleaning supply closet and shut myself inside the acerbic dark, and wondered morosely why I was made to suffer. This eventually tuned to self-reproach—inevitably, maybe—and the sheer depth of my inability to grow or learn sat on my chest—a lead gargoyle with a sharp, sneering eyes and zero remorse for my shortcomings. My stomach was killing me. My mouth felt watery and tasted of copper.

Eventually the dark grew kinder, and soon my raw nerves, deprived of stimulus, grew calm.

****

Sugarbear was in a panic about the strangers questioning the workers of the old folks home regarding my whereabouts. He wanted to dump every cube he had right then and there, but Benji and I convinced him to reconsider. I told him that I had no idea who was looking for me yet, and as far as I knew, the eternal Camile’s mother was hunting me down for my indirect role in trashing her house-cleaning business. We kept him from disbanding our little enterprise for the time being, but Sugarbear has been far less jolly than is the norm. If his old man ever found out about how he makes his spending cash, well, kiss Wittenberg University goodbye. I honestly think he frets over this more than he does, say, oh, I don’t know…JAIL TIME. That tells you right there how much simple approval means to a human. We are weaved into a social fabric at birth, the threads tight around our throat. Struggle but a little, and the grip tightens, choking off breath and weakening your resolve.

In all honesty, I think Benji and I are most worried about having to find REAL JOBS. A large part of me is happier than I have ever been. I seem to flourish on the underside of the ship, and the thought of being pried from the hull and dragged out into the sunlight to squirm in the plain sight of others leaves me hopeless and thin.

Personally, I think the horrible bitch that lives next door has something to do with all of this. I can’t prove it yet, but she’s fat and always complains about our music and has one nose out the curtains every time I walk out to hear the birds.

She’s going to find out what trouble is if I discover she’s fucked things up for me. Make book on it.

Ugh. Something tells me I should have apologized to Arnold T. for what happened to his ass. Oh well. There’s a lot of things I should have done.

Charlie Can’t Feel His Face

Debora Fanning runs the old folks home with the discriminating hand of a curator. Her face is often serenely blank with sparse robotic emotion pulling back the corners of her lips only sporadically, and while she is not at all an unpleasant woman—at times even attractive—it is this seeming lack of interest in the affairs of humans that leads me to fuck with her at every opportunity.

The old folks home is a place that could use the human touch. The air is thick with the shame of neediness, and even upon my first arrival to this stone castle—a gloomy fortress holding back the final army—I could feel the weight of their demands on my shoulders. With skin paper thin, they advance upon you at first entrance, some begging to be taken back to the outside world where sun and energy feed the soul against the onslaught of the self, others begging you to please ignore the pleas of the beggars; their spines creak as they lift their heads high, demanding acknowledgement for their rejection of your pity.

People who have never had the pleasure of visiting a dump like this have no idea what I’m talking about. They’ll say I’m waxing dramatic. But dig this: on my first day of court-ordered compassion, I walked into the lobby and was immediately assaulted by a dusty old fart with pleading eyes and a brain as soft as the dawn outside. She began calmly enough, but something bubbling inside her set my teeth on edge, and I waited miserably for the bait and switch. She did not disappoint. “Hello,” she began simply enough.  I said hey. “Why are you here?” Strange for someone to ask such a simple question, but by now I have grown used to the bluntness of seniors. For them who have nearly run out of time, there is little need for social finesse. It just gets in the way of finding out information; suddenly the economics of time takes on real weight. And hey, I get it. I appreciate the lack of ceremony. So, instead of becoming hostile, I say to this woman that I’m looking for the front desk, and with hardly a pause she says to me, “You know, they keep me here.” Ahhhh, yes, of course. I repeated that I was purely looking for someone in charge, and her face stretched into a parody of melancholy. “I need help. I don’t want to stay here. They are terrible to me here. They treat me like a child. They treat me like I’m already dead. Like a dead baby. I can’t stay. Please call my daughter and tell her I need to come home. I need her help but they won’t let me talk to her they keep her from me please help me…”

“Don’t listen to her bullshit! None of it’s true!”

Startled, I swung around to find another old woman with stubborn steps and a surly face advancing upon me. She was wagging her finger in a very old-person way, and scowled at me as if it was my fault that the first old bat was spouting paranoid nonsense. The corners of her mouth curled down so far that they almost disappeared under her chin, and I wondered what came first: her bad attitude or a long, shitty life? Probably the latter, but me being who I am I tend to believe in both.

The first senior turned to face her: “Don’t you come near me!”

“She’s a liar. Her daughter doesn’t come here because she’s sick of listening to crazy bullshit!”

“No! Not at all! She doesn’t come here because they all told her I’m dead!”

“You ARE dead.”

“Young man, PLEASE. If you see my daughter, tell her she has to come and get me, tell her I don’t want to be here anymore. They take my money.”

The second old woman, the gruff truth teller, turned to address me: “She doesn’t have any money.” After she spoke, she looked away from us both, and dismissed the first woman with a wave of her hand. Finished with us, she crept back down the hall from whence she came. From somewhere, a disembodied voice confirmed, “It’s true. She doesn’t have any money at all.”

The first old woman with the gloomy outlook took my hand. It was like being grasped by a ghost bird, and reminded me of a great aunt that used to live somewhere in my past. “They all hate me because I have a daughter who loves me,” she whispered. “That woman who was yelling at us? She hits me when no one looks.”

Eventually I found the front desk, and with it Debora Fanning. Her dark hair was bobbed around her head—sensible with minimal flair. With arresting blackberry eyes pressed flat into a plate of white dough, she looked as though she could do some damage if she could only manage to drop a few (but people in this neck of the woods NEVER drop a few). Of course, now I know better. Without a complete emotional overhaul, the only thing Deborah Fanning will be doing any damage to is a pint of Ben and Jerry’s. As I approached the desk, I immediately sensed her authority and handed her my paperwork from the judge. She glanced at me coolly and said, “What’s this and who are you?” I told her the paperwork had all the answers she might be looking for—I mean, you know, FUCK her. I’m not getting paid to be here, and I don’t plan on finding a new perspective on life during this time with my elders, so pull teeth, bitch.

Debora looked at me unenthusiastically, and browsed the forms she had been handed. Without looking up, she says to me, “Are we going to have a problem?” I explained to her how I plan on setting an example for all of the young people here at the nursing home, and if possible, her look became even drier. Ten minutes later I had a mop in my hand.

And now I am ensconced in setting up board games, slinging soup, wiping chins, and pushing oldsters from point A to point B with stolid efficiency as they curse my ever being born and spit insults from denture-filled mouths. They ask for my help constantly, all the while hating themselves for asking, and hating me for giving. The whole place smells like death if death could be picked up with thick rubber gloves and scrubbed with pink industrial cleanser. Isn’t life wonderful? Isn’t GOD great in the gifts he bestows upon all of his blessed children? Is it any WONDER I am asked at every goddamned turn to fall upon my knees and thank him for all of his glorious mysteries? Well, just you try and stop me, all you little darlings of the starlight! Maybe if I try my best and always tie my laces tight and smile at every face I see then one day I can piss through a catheter of my very own and beg every passerby to set me free and wonder why my children forgot.

****

Charlie Murphy sits in his wheelchair with sunken lips resting against exhausted gums.

Charlie Murphy wears flannel shirts everyday; bolo ties with pewter buffalo skulls adorn his neck.

Charlie Murphy calls to me from across the common room and asks me to push him into the sunlit garden nearly every afternoon. My bushy hair and denim vest don’t seem to alarm him in the slightest; he gives none of the glaring disapproval that his peers have reserved for me. Charlie and I sit in the sun and he tells me about his trips to the city when he was a young man and how his parents hated his fascination with jazz and the smoke-filled clubs and coming home at dawn. I tell him he ought to give the hella-fucking awesome rock of Mayhem a try, and he says to me, “I’d never listen to that crap. I’d die of an aneurysm.” I push the others into the sun and they tell me I’m wasting my life. I think of my afternoon and its promise of bloody toilets and a grimy sponge, and I must agree that they may have a point.

Charlie Murphy looks at Debora Fanning and shakes his head sadly. “You could have been a beautiful woman,” he tells her. She looks through him and if she feels slighted by his comments, it doesn’t show. She simply hands him a small paper cup filled with variety. “Please take your pills, Charlie.” Charlie tips the cup into his hollow mouth, and only then does Debora hand him his water, as if the old man before her could not process all the objects at one time.

Charlie Murphy never met a bottle of suds he didn’t like, and he’s taken to sharing his secret supply with me every Thursday at 4PM in the room he shares with a comatose named Wendell. We toast the decline of Western Civilization and hope for the collapse of American Express. Well, I couldn’t give two shits about American Express myself, but it seems important to Charlie, and since he’s got the beer…

Charlie Murphy is a man of memory but not ceremony. He lived life like an actual human being, and from what I can tell, never relied on the false pretense of societal mass self-deception or rationalizations to form a picture of himself. He knows what he is, and he knows what he’s been, and if Debra Fanning, or my mom, or Dr. Duchenheimer, or any other fucking asshole for that matter doesn’t like it, they can kiss Charlie Murphy’s skinny ass.

Charlie Murphy is an old box full of new toys found just days before the house burns down.

****

I was searching the halls of the old folks home seeking out Big Bill the orderly When Charlie waved me over. “Wheel me to my room, Pendel. We have business to discuss.” I replied that Bill needed me to distract Arnold T. while Bill wiped his ass out, and Charlie said, “Arnie can go to hell or wipe his own ass. We’ve got bigger issues.” I told him I was more worried about Big Bill than Arnie, and was told, “Bill can blow air on his balls. That’ll distract Arnie, I guess.” So against my better judgment I ducked my head low and pushed Charlie to his quarters.

The rooms at the home fall somewhere in between a hospital and a hotel, with muted colors, wall-to-wall carpeting, full-length curtains, TVs bolted to mounts high upon the walls, and plenty of oxygen tanks. Staff members scuttle to and fro with tempers barely contained. Dim conversations regarding various aches and pains flood the open hallways like a college dorm jacked-up on Geritol. Most of these rooms have little-to-no personality, as the residents have largely turned their backs on individuality in favor of keeping watch. The occasional moan makes the hairs on my neck stand up.

Wendell stared at the ceiling without blinking and Charlie handed me a beer even though it’s Tuesday. I said, what’s up? It’s not like you to hand out beers midweek. He said, “What would you know about what I’m like? If you don’t want it, give it back.” I kept it. He cracked his beer and blew on the top, which is something he always does. It’s a mystery to me, but I suppose I must not care that much because I never ask him why he does it. Then he says, “Let’s get right down to it. You know my great nephew.” I said I’d have to take his word on that. “His name is Martin. He went to your high school. He wrestled. He was good. Not ringing a bell?” I did remember the guy, and I said as much. Thin and short, he did very well in the light-weight classes (so they say), and was one of the only male anorexics I had ever heard of (so they say). I told Charlie that I saw the guy standing around spitting into a can in the lobby of the school all the time. “Well, yeah, it’s a way these guys drop weight.” I asked if the dehydration made them weak for matches, and Charlie became impatient. “What am I, a doctor? The point is he told me about you.”

Oh really.

He must have read my face because he scowled and shook his head. “No. Come on. It’s nothing bad. If you’re a killer or screw little kittens, I don’t know and I don’t care. Well, I guess I would. Look, Marty says you’re the guy.” The guy for what? “You have something people want. Or at least, you can lay your hands on it.” I sat mutely. “Look, I have GLAUCOMA, okay?” By now I of course knew what he was getting at, but chose to continue staring blankly. Charlie became very agitated and exclaimed, “Goddamnit! Haven’t I spelled it out?!”

I said okay, okay. Maybe I knew how to help him (which made me feel a tad nervous because Sugarbear often says he’d rather we not make deals out in the world) but what the fuck did he want with that kind of trouble?  He sighed deeply. “All you guys,” he said, nodding unhappily, “you think I’ve always been old.”

****

The next time I came to the home, I had Charlie’s cube. Amazingly, he produced a small one-hitter that looked exactly like a cigarette from the inside of his shirtsleeve. I told him he was full of more surprises than anyone I had ever met, and he says to me, “We’ve only just begun. Wheel me outside, Pendel.”

The sky was a cloudy mess and the sun nowhere to be found, but it was for the best. Most of the seniors were deathly afraid of the rain, and stayed inside at the slightest inclination towards precipitation. Charlie and I had the courtyard to ourselves.

“Over there. Behind the tree.”

I sat down beside him on the ground, and made some kind of nonsensical chatter about the seasons. Charlie told me to shut up and handed me the CIGARETTE. After a little while he laughed and wiped something from his nose. “This shit…it’s crazy, but since I had my first stroke back in 92, this shit always makes my face go numb. But it’s not bad. It’s just different.” I said I never knew he had a stroke, and he said, “I’ve had three. Small. Very small. Miniscule. This big.” And he held his fingers out in front of his face just an inch apart to indicate just how small the strokes were. Then he grinned his toothless grin and laughed. I said, so okay, I didn’t know he had three small strokes. And he patted me on the shoulder and smiled. “Everyone in here has had a stroke. Don’t worry. You’ll have one too someday.” He laughed again, even more than before, and clapped his hands. He seemed happier than I had ever seen him, which was also happier than any of the other old people trapped inside this final stop before the great end.

“You know, you’re a nice kid for a punk.” I said thanks. “I’m…uhhh…smoking this with you now because it’s a courtesy.” What was he talking about? “I’m not so old that I’ve forgotten my manners, is what I mean. But after that I think I’m gonna have to keep this to myself, son.” He had never called me that before, and it was curious. I told him no worries, I understand the old folks are on a budget, and he shook his head and interrupted. “No, it’s just that I’m too old for trouble of my own, or to deal with yours.”

?????

“There were some guys the other day who came around here asking questions about you. I said I had no real contact with you. I said you were a punk and look like trouble and I’m too old for trouble. All of which is true, by the way.” Needless to say, this information knocked me off my precarious center. GUYS coming around and asking QUESTIONS? Well, that couldn’t be GOOD, could it? When GUYS come poking around asking QUESTIONS, it usually leads to people running manically and breathing heavy and flushing shit down toilets and climbing down fire escapes and all sorts of other crazy bullshit that I simply had no desire to find myself doing. What did these men LOOK LIKE?? “Jesus, Pendel, they looked like the kind of people that come around and ask questions about other people. They didn’t smile when they talked. They were serious men.”

I stood up and said I had to GO, but standing made me dizzy and I had to pause. “Look, you need to be careful. It’s probably nothing. I just wanted to warn you about this, and I wanted you to know why I can’t be sharing more of this with you. I shouldn’t have gotten it anyway, but I’m glad I did. I feel great. Even if I can’t feel my face.”

I said I couldn’t feel mine anymore, either, and old Charlie laughed and said something else, but I was already on my way out of the garden and didn’t hear him clearly. I had to go and talk to Sugarbear. If this was about what I was AFRAID it was about, well, you know, I didn’t sign up for that kind of shit.

How fucking stupid am I though? Of course I did.