Torqwamni County Convalescent Center (“T3C”)
Sunday, 26 January 2014, 3:52 AM
Millie was in the breakroom waiting for her shift to begin, when, like a child, Wendy from the graveyard team peeked through the swinging doors. Obviously relieved to find Millie alone, Wendy rushed in; her eyes were wide with worry and woe.
Millie turned the music she’d been listening to on her phone off and smiled at Wendy. Drolly, yet without malice, she wondered “Oh little girl, what dumb thing now?” Wendy was nineteen, extremely sweet, hard working–yet still fairly new to the job, the United States, and life in general.
“Auntie,” said Wendy, in a frightened, hushed tone, “Mr. Talmadge–I think…maybe…heard the song.”
“Maybe you break protocol?” Millie asked, still smiling, without a trace of reproach in her voice.
Wendy nodded, quick and birdlike.
“And maybe forgot your CRASH,” Millie stated, rather than asked.
Another twitchy nod.
With a twinge of bittersweet nostalgia, Millie recalled something that her late husband used to say: “You don’t need to be Kreskin to know it.” Like “Oh, no, it’s Mr. Bill” or “Da boid’s da woid,” Roy was one of those fellows who’d work a catchphrase long past its pull date, and never pick up on the fact that only people his age knew what he was talking about. But Millie knew about Kreskin, and she knew that you didn’t need to be a mind reader to understand what was up with Wendy; it was the sort of thing that almost always happened when a kid was caught out by the song, for the first time.
“I got scared, auntie…and, and I couldn’t find Kali…I remembered seeing you come in.”
“It’s going to be okay,” Millie said. And for the first time since she’d flitted into the breakroom like a panicky sparrow, Wendy exhaled. Millie was the sort of person who meant it when she said it’s going to be okay.
Millie slipped her phone into her vest pocket, rose and rinsed her mug out in the break room sink. There was no need to hurry; if Millie had thought that there was any possibility that Mr. Talmadge was suffering, she’d have gone on the run. But that was hardly necessary for people who hear the song. And she knew that there was no chance that Wendy had been mistaken. Talmadge was less there than a ghost; his mind had shut down a few weeks back; it was only a matter of time. Millie knew without a doubt that he’d happened the instant Wendy spoke his name; thirty-two years at the Torqwamni County Convalescent Center (just “T3C”) had given her this sad power.
Still, young Wendy’s perfectly normal human reaction to getting caught out by the song for the first time posed a little problem that would not have existed in the old days, when Mr. Moody owned T3C and ran it with a heart. His body hadn’t a chance to cool before “Junior” sold T3C to the Company–as everyone knew he would. Nowadays, perfectly normal human reactionswere writeuppable offenses.
Millie considered this as she wiped dry her mug and hung it on a peg beside a sign that was somehow supposed to remind slobs to clean up after themselves. The sign, like all employee communications produced by the Company, was designed for a child, yet bizarrely worded to the point of defeating its intended purpose. The overnight lead Kali called the language “Karenish,” which perfectly codified the nothingness the Company stood for. Along with a sad looking, droopy cartoon sunflower the sign contained the following:
RESPECT IS A FLOWER THAT DIES FROM NEGLECT
PLEASE DO NOT SHOW THE FLOWER OF CLEANLINESS
Like most Filipino girls her age, Wendy didn’t carry as much as an extra quark on her tightly wound frame; unlike most Filipinos of any age, she stood an incredible five-foot-ten. Kali had nicknamed her “Olly-Oyl,” after Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive. Which was fitting not only in the physical sense, but was also due to the fact that Wendy had come to America as the wife of an American sailor. The same had been true about Millie in 1970.
“Let’s go see if Mr. Talmadge has heard the song or is just a real sound sleeper,” Millie said.
“Thank you, auntie.”
Together they left the breakroom. Above the swinging doors hung a seldom read banner, also in Karenish:
HERE GO MY HEROES!!!
(Always joking friend Kali believed that the banner ought to hang above the restrooms.)
T3C was atypical of the facilities that are seemingly everywhere anymore, but are seldom thought about on purpose. It’s where people too sick for home, not sick enough for the hospital and too well for hospice usually wind up; think of it as the healthcare system’s version of purgatory. The Company operated six such facilities in two states, and they specialized in medicare cases the same way vampires specialize in blood. Most, but not all, of the guests were elderly and suffered from various forms of dementia. Mr. Leonard Talmadge was (or had been) a typical guest.
Millie reckoned that long-legged Wendy must have covered the distance between Talmadge and the break room with amazing speed. For there lay at least a good hundred and fifty yards of hallways between the two places, and it hadn’t been five minutes since they had exchanged waves on Millie’s way in through the employee entrance. In fact Wendy was only on her way to where her dark surprise lay at the time, thus adding another forty yards to her trek.
T3C never slept. But at four in the morning the halls were fairly deserted and you could hear the low, steady merged drone of television sets that a surprising number of the guests needed on all night or they couldn’t sleep. And every door stood open, unless the doctor was in for a consultation, or if it was time for a sponge bath, or if the family was by.
Or if someone had heard the song.
Wendy had attached herself to Millie’s right arm, like a little girl, which was somewhat comical looking because she stood a foot taller than Millie. Yet the rookie CNA was perfectly fine with coming off like Ripley nervously skulking toward danger in one of the Alien films.
“Kali ever tell you about the time she got called to the Office for stopping a clock and covering the mirror after a guest heard the song?” Millie said, leaning into “guest,” because “patient” and “resident” represented “inappropriate language.” Thus writeuppable.
Wendy’s giggling, dumbfounded reaction moved Millie’s secret heart. The girl’s face, so cleanly pretty, so shaped like a cat’s, reflected in Millie’s mind as being her own. Was I like this? You know you were, ”auntie.” And she remembered what it was like to be afraid of every little mistake, so certain that if she were watched that it wouldn’t be long until she’d be on the next boat back to Manilla, despite Roy’s constant assurances to the contrary. And now, seemingly more in the glaze–rather than a blink of an eye, she was a sixty-four-year-old widow and mother to three grown children who were so delightfully, so distinctly and, yes, so arrogantly American that they could never understand that sort of fear.
“Oh, yes,” Millie said, as she reached into the pocket of the cheerful floral vest she always wore over her scrubs, extracted a few Hershey’s kisses and offered them to Wendy, who always said yes when the subject was chocolate. “And it didn’t happen when she was new, either. Told them she saw it in a book–”
“Olly-Oyl!” Kali interrupted with that special, carrying stage whisper known only to health care workers and retired librarians. “Jesus saves,” she laughed. “Been lookin’ for you. Thought maybe you ditched for one of these rich old white men.”
“Wendy thinks maybe Mr. Talmadge heard the song,” Millie said, shining her for Kali smile, and winking at Wendy. “And maybe she misunderstood her CRASH…and maybe you were still sleeping in the supply closet, so maybe she went for me.”
“And maybe the Lord will punish you with special vengeance for always lyin’ on me,” Kali laughed (always laughing). “And maybe you oughta gimme some of that sugar, before I hang you upside down in that supply closet you’re always lyin’ on me about,” she added, extending her hand, into which Millie dropped kisses.
On the surface, neither Millie nor Wendy were anything like Kaliko Jamison. Third only to Millie and little Esteban in housekeeping in years “served” at T3C (the Company frowned on the union-sounding term “seniority”), Kali was a slightly rounded, gregarious, frank and immaculate black woman who looked, say, forty, but was actually in her “deep fifties.” And she was an American–born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. Yet these three women separated by either culture and/or age shared a quality alien to the Company tongue’s poor power of description: They were humane, and it showed.
Wendy, however, was too young to have developed the ability of compartmentalization, which is a must for humane health care professionals. She reacted emotionally to events as they came; Kali and Millie had learned how to automatically control their feelings for the sake of efficiency, order and self-defense.
Kali made eye contact with Millie then glanced down the hall toward Mr. Talmadge’s room and back. Her own intuition told her that Wendy wasn’t mistaken. And the ever present laughter in her large brown eyes fell silent and a series of complicated little movements in the small muscles of her face spoke eloquently of sorrow, then it was done. Millie often traced this process in her friend’s face, upon hearing news of the song. It was like knowing exactly when a shooting star was going to streak across the sky. But she didn’t always look for it; on average the song played five times a week at T3C.
“All right,” Kali said. “Maybe we ought to go see if Olly Oyl’s been smoking doobie on the clock.”
“Auntie says that you got in trouble for stopping a clock,” Wendy said, as they approached Talmadge’s room; for even the shyest person didn’t need to know Kali long to understand that she enjoyed back and forth teasing.
“Oh, now, did auntie?”
“And about covering the mirror, too,” Millie offered.
“Hah!” Kali replied. “Under normal circumstances I’d say that you two got fish sauce on the brain. But this time I got to admit that some of the lyin’ on me is true. But don’t you get all prideful on me, bean pole,” she said to Wendy, “cos even a stopped clock’s right twice a day.”
They arrived at Talmadge’s room, where Wendy had been just minutes before. An insipid CRASH (Compassion Respect Advocacy Safety Health) poster (a typically ill-conceived arrangement of cosmic Karenish buzzwords that meant nothing, and formed a snappy word seldom used in a positive sense) was taped to the wall beside the door. The poster singled out and mocked Wendy. Tears welled in her eyes, and she nervously fiddled with her wedding ring, which was way too big and always sliding off and often the cause of break room trash can searches. Kali and Millie saw this, exchanged glances, which were pregnant with the special telepathy that only persons who have worked many years side by side in the face of constant pain may develop. Plainly, it was time to teach the kid the facts of life.
They entered Mr. Talmadge’s room, which he had to himself because he had been labeled AT (“Aggressive Traditional”). He was eighty-six and had been a guest for almost five years. At first Talmadge had been favorably tagged SH (“Sweet Heart”), a designation that he held onto until he was overwhelmed by that final rage so often experienced by dementia sufferers. Near the end it’s as though they’re dying stars intent on burning off whatever’s left however possible before collapsing into that final unsteady coma prior to hearing the song. In his mindless rage, Mr. Talmadge’s personality had devolved into that of a feces flinging monkey that screamed “fuckin’ jigaboo” and “rice nigger” at every face that appeared in his living nightmare. No one held it against him.
Millie proceeded to Mr. Talmadge’s bedside. Kali stopped, closed the door (a huge CRASH violation) and prevented Wendy from following Millie by gently grabbing her by the hand.
There’s a special kind of stillness that comes when a body quits breathing, and the heart stops pumping and the demons have departed, like fleas abandoning a dead rat. Millie didn’t need to take Mr. Talmadge’s pulse to know that he’d heard the song. How many makes this, auntie? a thousand? Ten times as many? But she took it anyway.
“You recall your first one, Miss Millie?” Kali asked, and it was strange to Wendy not to hear any of the joking in Kali’s voice.
“Yes. But not here, at Long Beach, where Roy was stationed after we got married,” Millie said, deliberately setting aside a plethora of sunny, happy memories of that time in her life. “I was your age,” she added, smiling at Wendy, “and I got a job in a rest home. One day, I had to check a lady for bed sores or something or another. I had her rolled over on her side before I realized that she was stone cold. She’d been awful hard to get over, maybe she weigh two-hundred pounds. I ran out of the room for help like I was on fire. Then I got yelled at–not for running, but for leaving her like that.”
Both Kali and Millie began to laugh.
“I don’t get it,” Wendy said. “How’s it funny?”
“Almost anything’s funny if you’re thinking right, Olly,” Kali said. “Don’t you remember your training, girl? Everything sinks to the bottom when folks hear the–no, fuck it, when people die. Blood, water, pee, you name it. It’s easier to move a lying flat body than it is one up on its side. Balance gets all wrong; they get like one of those weighted punch clown things you see at kids’ parties.”
“Ohhhh, I get it,” Wendy said, smiling weakly. “But it’s still so sad,” she added, disengaging herself from Kali, moving toward the foot of Talmadge’s bed. “He died alone…I don’t think I ever saw anyone come see him.”
“It’s like that a lot for the long timers,” Millie said. “I once watched a TV show about men in prison. The ones a long time in and still doing life said that their people just fell away, one by one.”
“And it’s still so sad,” Wendy said, still stubbornly holding back tears, arms now crossed, chewing on her thumbnail. “And the big bosses here don’t seem to care about none of it…it’s scary here, you know? Not at all like I thought it’d be like back home. You know, auntie, oo?”
“Honey, you can’t always be scared of the shit you’re told to be scared of,” Kali said. “It’s like this CRASH garbage. It doesn’t mean a damn thing. I mean right now, you did the right thing. Mr. T here, God love him, died tonight. He didn’t hear no song, unless it’s taps. He plain died. He died because he’s old and sick. And I’m sure if he had his druthers he’d have had it come a hell of a lot sooner than it did. He surprised you by being hell dead, and you felt the way a human being ought to and ran off, but you didn’t forget him. For all the good she’s worth, you went and got Trouble over there. Now, the Company would try to write you up because you broke some stupid CRASH policy that says you got to ring the duty nurse ASAP. Well I know for a fact that she’s spent most of the night outside smoking cigarettes and flirting with that new skinhead looking boy from security.”
“Anyway,” Millie added, extracting her phone from her vest (another big Company no no), “even if you did make a mistake, so what? If they sent everyone back for messing up, there wouldn’t be anyone left. Not even the Indians. Nobody is really from here. Only the eagles and the buffalos.”
“See, Olly, Wendy,” said Kali, “America is a great place, but we’re pretty spoiled. If we can pay someone to do what we don’t want to do, we do it and pretend to ourselves it’s for the best. We also hire people who shouldn’t be in charge of anything–like those fools in HR who make up stupid shit like CRASH and who told me that covering a mirror and stopping a clock are ‘unsanctioned acts of compassion’–to run the places we don’t want to think about because we can’t get anyone who’s qualified to take the job. What they are should be Wendy’s English word of the day: sadist. There are people in HR who get a kick out of writing other folks up…”
“Big shots,” Millie said, with an uncharacteristic sneer in her voice. “You know, Kali, maybe you’re right. Maybe a person ought to get the clock stopped and the mirror covered for him in the end.” Then she laid her phone on the stand beside Talmadge’s bed. One of her favorite songs, Buckley’s version of Hallelujah began to play. “A little late, but maybe unsanctioned acts of compassion sound better than taps.” Millie then did what Wendy had forgotten to do: she pushed the CRASH button to call the nurse. “Maybe we should open the door.”
Kali laughed and opened the door. Inspired, Wendy fetched a face mask out of her pocket and placed it over a small mirror on the dressing table.
“Bean pole,” Kali said, reach those long arms of your up there and get me that clock.”
And the telephone sang: