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.”
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.