When I was 19, I worked the graveyard shift at a rehabilitation home for the elderly. It was an easy job and I didn’t have a supervisor watching over me. After the job orientation — which mostly consisted of sexual harassment videos made in the 70s with actors who looked like they were in subpar porn movies on the side — I found myself working alone in the back of the facility doing dirty, menial tasks.
It was only a temporary position, but I learned something about myself in that short period of time: I have a fear of living to an old age. If there was one specific moment when I came to this realization, it would be the time I saw one of the patients passionately masturbating in the TV room whilst a female patient, who had Alzheimer’s, sat next to him watching SpongeBob SquarePants, completely oblivious to his activities. It was as if an invisible barrier separated them despite being physically next to each other. They were both disconnected from reality.
I could imagine the horror on people’s faces if I pulled my wrinkled dick out at the meat market, and began pleasuring myself with vigor. Losing yourself at any age is a dreadful prospect and I saw a preview of what my future could look like that night.
There were many colorful people at the facility, most of whom were kindhearted despite their eccentricities. One resident, a 70-year old man named Bill, had the hormones of a 14-year old virgin at an all-boys school. The rumor that went around was that he had been sleeping with a young, beautiful Nigerian nurse. The rumor turned out to be true when the administration found out that Bill had been showering her with gifts and money, and that she willingly “paid” him back.
She wasn’t the only one who was in Bill’s radar. A nurse assistant nonchalantly told me — out of the blue during our lunch break — that Bill had approached her once with the same sex-for-goods proposition.
“He’s a disgusting old motherfucker,” she said in between bites of her vegetarian burger.
Bill was a generous fellow and not just towards pretty nurses. Every once in a while, he would make chicken salad in his room and share it with the staff. However, after seeing a large lotion dispenser and a box of tissue sitting on his bed stand next to a tub of freshly-made chicken salad, I consistently but politely declined to have a taste of whatever he made in his room.
Then there was Mr. Williams. He was a Vietnam War veteran and recovering heroin addict who stubbornly refused to quit smoking even though he had an oxygen tank fastened securely on the back of his motorized wheelchair like a flamethrower. His stubbornness reminded me of myself when I was 15 and my girlfriend at the time would lecture me on the adverse effects of cigarette smoking. I would just nod, step outside, and light another one.
One night, as I was walking down the hallway that lead to the back exit, I saw a trail of tiny blood drops perforating the shiny floor I had just buffed. I followed it and turned the corner to find one of the saddest things I had ever seen. Mr. Williams was in the doorway, hunched forward, a cigarette between his index and middle-finger slowly metamorphosing into a cylinder of ash. When I walked up next to him, I found out where the trail of blood had come from. His right foot had recently been amputated due to diabetes. The blood thoroughly soaked the bandage wrap. He was snoring and mumbling in his sleep.
He gave me medium-sized American and MIA-POW flags on Memorial Day. He left it at the nurse’s station with a note that simply said, “For Mike. God bless.” I have both of them framed, on my wall, next to a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence that had the immortal words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” And yet Mr. Williams, a black man from the South, sacrificed his body and sanity for a country that continued to oppress people with his skin color upon returning home.
One night, I asked him if he had been a POW back in Vietnam. He shook his head. “Nah. But two of my buddies were taken.” He took a drag from his long menthol cigarette whilst I sat in silence, waiting for him to continue, but that was all he had to say about it. There were times when I would find him in his room, facing the window, quietly sobbing — private tears for ghosts of the past. Mr. Williams wasn’t the only one haunted by the dead. The entire place was a claustrophobic place filled with converging timelines, where the past and present are thrown in a saucepan and melted.
Mrs. Hattie, a 78-year old African American woman, once stopped me in the hallway, and, with complete emotional detachment, asked me, “Are they burning the kids outside?”
She stared at me blankly, waiting for an answer. I stared back, my mind still analyzing what I had just heard. And before I could even utter anything she casually walked away and went into the cafeteria.
I tried searching for any background information on Mrs. Hattie, but came up with nothing. I could’ve asked her family members, but I heard from the day staff that they rarely visited her. I was saddened when I heard that. These “homes,” the marketable term the administration liked to use, seemed more like orphanages for the elderly. There’s something about that idea which feels out of place in a civilized society, and yet it fits perfectly into the 21st Century life, where daily motion is fast-paced and everything is dispensable.
I crawled around the Internet in one final effort to find at least a tiny fragment of Mrs. Hattie’s past. All of the promising leads led to dead-ends. I did find a lot of articles on lynchings and other hate crimes in the South during the height of the Ku Klux Klan’s power. I stumbled across a few photos of young black men with swollen tongues hanging out of their mouths, a cattle rope constricting their neck, and tied to a large piece of branch. Arson also seemed to be the favored method of terrorism in those days. These were just photos — pixels on the screen. Whatever Mrs. Hattie saw, it was real and tangible
It doesn’t take a historian to guess correctly that many of these acidic events happened around the same time Mr. Williams was watching his buddies get ripped into pieces in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Like him, Mrs. Hattie became a bearer of a piece of American history — witnesses to a turbulent era in our country.
It wasn’t just the past that stalked the residents in the building. The future can also be scary if you’re not prepared for it. On my last night working there, a few of the nurses in one of the units threw me an impromptu farewell party. They just pitched in and bought a truckload of dollar menu items from the Jack in the Box across the street, and had also laid out an impressive spread of leftover cookies and brownies lifted from the cafeteria. There was always a stockpile of sweets since most of the patients were diabetics, which made me wonder if the kitchen staff just baked the goods for themselves.
I was particularly close to Maria, the petite nurse who always told me that she would set me up to marry her daughter. The other nurses didn’t really know me that well, but I invited them to our small party, too. They gave me genuine send-offs, such as “good luck.” One nurse enthusiastically and with a serious face told me, “You can be whatever you want to be if you believe in yourself!”
At the time, besides wanting to become a published writer, my only other ambition in life was to move to Brazil, become a dashing and daring scuba diving instructor, and marry a member of the women’s national volleyball team. That seemed more realistic than becoming a mildly-successful writer.
One of the nurses, a woman from Cameroon who loved to bark orders to all of the staff members, couldn’t even remember my name despite always asking me to magically vanquish the patients’ shit-filled diapers every night. Yes, it was part of my job, and I solemnly performed that duty each night, but she somehow felt that it was her duty to constantly remind me.
“What’s your name again?” she asked.
“It’s — ”
“Oh, oh, right. It’s Marian.”
“Uhm. Isn’t that a girl’s — ”
“Oh, sorry. No, it’s Malik isn’t it?”
“Well, much luck to your future endeavors, Michael!”
She walked away holding a paper plate stacked with brownies. Then right before walking out the door, she turned around and said, “Oh, Michael, don’t forget to pick up the diapers in my unit, please. It’s starting to stink in there.”
“Enjoy your brownies,” I replied with a forced smile that any customer service rep would have been proud of.
Two hours before my final clock-out, one of the patients started buzzing the desk frantically. The head nurse rushed to the patient’s room, irritated that the phone conversation with her boyfriend was rudely interrupted. A few seconds later, the entire unit was filled with blood-curdling screams, ricocheting off the corners, and traveling down the halls towards the rest of the building. The nurse popped her head out the doorway and asked me to assist her. I ran to the room and saw the patient in the far corner, hugging her knees to her chest, screaming, “I don’t want to go!”
Her eyes were the definition of fear. She kept a sharp gaze directly on the opposite corner. She pointed at something only visible to her and demanded that we kept “that thing” away from her. My initial thought was that she was experiencing hallucination. None of the patients had psychosis, or even showed signs of schizophrenia, but with all the medication they consumed, I wouldn’t have been surprised if all those intermingling chemicals caused profound neurological effects. Yet something about her mannerisms and intense emotions told me that she was the sanest person in that room.
She said that someone was trying to take her away. She shouted at the top of her lungs. The nurse told me to watch the lady and help calm her down whilst she went to fetch some sedatives. This wasn’t exactly in my job description, but the unit was short-staffed that night. Plus, I only had a little more than an hour before I was out the door for good, so I obliged. I felt sorry for the poor old woman.
When the nurse left the room, the patient calmed down a bit, but kept her eyes on the corner as if she was waiting for something to pop out and grab her. I asked her what was wrong in the softest voice possible. She didn’t respond at first and I figured that she didn’t hear me, but after a while she simply said, “I don’t want to go.”
The nurse came back with some pills, but the patient refused to take any of it. Within ten minutes she was sound asleep, and it was as if nothing had ever happened. Just as with Mrs. Hattie and Mr. Williams, I will never know what she saw. Maybe the Grim Reaper dropped by to hand her a pink slip; a 2-minute warning at the fourth quarter.
When my shift finally ended, I said one last farewell to the staff and clocked out. As I was leaving the building, I noticed, surprisingly for the first time, the exit sign on the ceiling in the main hallway. I wonder how many patients saw that glowing red word as the paramedics carted them away in a stretcher, taking them into the unknown.
When I arrived home, I went straight to the bathroom and rinsed my face with cold water. I looked at the figure in the mirror and wondered if I would be able to look at myself in the eyes five decades later, and still recognize the person staring back. Would I be able to live with my past? Would I easily accept my fate? Or would I try to bargain with Death?
I don’t remember if I came up with any answers for those questions, but I do remember, vividly, the sky that morning. The sunlight was still a deep orange and the clouds were pink with shades of purple. I lifted the blinds, sat on the floor with my back against the door, and watched the day unfold.