Saturday, 8 February 2014
Torqwamni County Convalescent Center
Naturally, the first thing healthy people experience when visiting the Torqwamni County Convalescent Center (T3C) is depression; many often secretly promise to kill themselves if they should wind up “like that,” but they never do. Mainly, T3C contains a sum of breathing bodies greater than the number of active minds. Most are elderly, and all are persons too well (in the technical sense) for the hospital but too sick to go home. Hardly any ever go home, save for in the religious view; most depart in the coroner’s van.
The inadequately appreciated orderlies and CNA’s and housekeepers, the real workers who do the staggering dirty work, and who are first blamed when something goes wrong, do their best to take care of the people in double occupancy rooms shared by pairs of the same kind of people: plainly, men with men, women with women, an active mind with another. The insensate are also kept together, or utterly alone, if their population is at an odd number.
It’s an old story; a tale given over to cliche; that final dehumanizing humiliation that makes death precious, though still feared; a reminder that even Hell exists to serve.
Typically, something that’s less fucked up compared to the general run of reality is the best you can hope for at T3C.
Still, these words would not exist if they were to relate a typical T3C occurrence.
Millie had been a CNA at T3C for over thirty years on the morning of 8 February 2014, when she entered a room inhabited by only one sleeper.
“Hello, Dreamer,” Millie said. The ugly bruise on the sleeper’s forehead, caused by the accident, was fading, but its deeper effect remained.
“I think you are still in there,” Millie said. “I’d never tell the doctors, but there’s a way home, sometimes.”
Millie pulled her phone and a set of earbuds from her smock. She arranged the bed tray, placed her phone on it and raised the patient’s bed as though she could see what was on the screen. Dreamer’s eyes seldom closed all the way, and Millie alone had seen the little, fragile light within. She knew she hadn’t much time to find her before the light went out, a day, three at the most.
Millie placed one bud in Dreamer’s left ear and into the other she began to sing…
Sunday, 9 February 1964
Charleston, Washington, U.S.A.
Eric Neal was born Sunday, 9 February 1964. He was what some call a “little surprise.” Chuck and Brett Neal were both pushing forty and had long since given up on a second child. But what is life without the little surprises? The Neals were thrilled by the news, as was, for a time, their nine-year-old daughter, Trudy.
Now, it should go without saying that the arrival of a baby is always considered the Big News of the Day in a family, and that the “editors” reach the decision unanimously–but, in life, even a little surprise can be an exception to the rule. Although Eric’s birth was eventually deemed the lead story for the Neal Family Report that day, the verdict was a split decision. For 9 February 1964 was also when the Beatles made their American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show. For young Gertrude Alice Neal (among millions), God had at last spoken to her in a way that she could understand.
Eric was born at 8:34 PM, during the show, which aired locally on Channel 7 every Sunday evening for centuries. A little after nine, Chuck plugged a dime into a hospital payphone and called Trudy at the home of her best friend Shelly (where she was spending the weekend because she was accurately judged too immature to wait patiently at the hospital) to tell her the news. Although it was Trudy’s bedtime, Chuck told himself “What the hell, it’s a special occasion–she’s probably sitting on pins and needles.” This was neither the first nor the last time that Chuck had correctly guessed the mood of his daughter, whilst missing the cause.
According to Shelly’s father (who’d answered the phone and was a man with a singular and unvarnished way of putting things), “The girls are still keyed over those limey frooters.”
Upon at last getting it across to his “keyed” daughter that she had a sibling, Chuck–who was a quick study and the rare parent who did understand (to a point)–was simultaneously charmed and annoyed by Trudy’s underwhelmed attitude:
“Well, that’s nice, I guess. We still gonna call her Erica?”
“Nope. He’s still a boy, Tru–Seems to me I told you something like that three seconds ago. Boys named Erica probably have a hard go in life.”
“Oh, Daddy. Hey! How ‘bout Ringo. Could we call it Ringo?”
“Nope. Wouldn’t name a goldfish that. Eric is his name, honey. Maybe you ought to write it down until you get the hang of it–Gotta pencil? Ready? Capital E…”
“I get it, I get it. Okay, oh-kay.”
“‘I’ not ‘O’–but you were closer at the end. Vikings use ‘K’ but we’re going with C.”
“Har dee har har.”
“By the way, Tru, Mom–you remember her don’t you? Red hair, stands about shoulder high, does the cooking and cleaning–I’m sure you’ve seen her around the house. Anyway, she’s still alive, which is pretty nice, I guess.”
Another five minutes of similarly flavored, somewhat entertaining, yet essentially useless conversation passed. Chuck again repeated “The Plan” for the next few days, because (despite its numerous faults) 1964 was a civilized year in which mothers and newborns weren’t kicked out of the hospital as soon as possible. Trudy took a shot at getting out of school in the morning, on account of it “being Monday and all.” Chuck had said something about the idea being unfair to Shelly’s folks, but Trudy couldn’t remember his exact words because she’d stopped listening upon hearing the “No” in his voice. Anyway, it was just a half-hearted, on general principle attempt she was obliged to make, lest she lose standing with Shelly, who was right there in the room. Truth be told, Trudy actually looked forward to school; it would give her more people to talk Beatles with than just Shelly, who was probably thinking the same thing.
The operator broke in and informed Chuck that it would cost him another dime to extend the call. He figured that all the dimes in the world wouldn’t help, so he said goodnight and hung up.
As Trudy was about to hang up, something she recognized as a game show bell loudly dinged in the ear piece. It was immediately followed by applause, combined voices and laughter; it was as though What’s My Line? had placed a call to Shelly’s house. Unlike the bell, the accompanying sounds were faint and they deteriorated quickly… And it seemed that someone was singing…a lady’s voice…but off in the distance.
“Hello, hello?– Daddy?” And as was her already habit, Trudy scrunched her nose to convey a sense of bemusement to Shelly, but the latter was too busy mooning over a picture of Paul McCartney to care.
Then the lady clearly sang:
“In your mind you have capacities you know
To telepath messages through the vast unknown…”
A buzzer (which was as loud as the bell, and also something straight out of a game show) sounded in Trudy’s ear. Then the connection terminated and was replaced by normal dial tone. During the singing, Trudy found herself wanting to cry I’m here! In here! But once the buzzer sounded that feeling and any memory of the lady’s words unhappened in Trudy’s mind. From start to finish the “event” took maybe seven, eight seconds to unfold. Trudy shrugged, cradled the receiver and thought little of it; strange sounds on the phone after a call had ended were common in 1964. Even modern, medium sized towns like Charleston still featured entire blocks connected to a party line.
She plopped down next to Shelly on the sofa. “Mom had the baby.”
“Well, that’s nice, I guess.”
Wednesday, 5 December 1973
Television City, Hollywood, California
It was interesting inside television, but not magic, as it was when viewed at home. Although Millie was excited to be backstage waiting for her turn as a contestant on Match Game 74, she could not help but feel a touch of disappointment. The experience reminded her of the magician who had performed after church at her village in the Philippines. Millie was seven, and the magician’s act had instantly gained a special place in her imagination, but not for long. Papa had to invite the magician home for dinner. The man drank too much wine and showed the family how he did some of his tricks, apparently out of appreciation. That ruined it for Millie; she never wanted to know how the rabbit got into the hat.
Now twenty-three, a mother and married to an American sailor, Millie understood that shows were actually the flashy tips of volcanoes, and that, like Mt. Pinatubo, ninety-nine percent of the real action lay hidden below–or in the case of television–behind. Backstage at Match Game 74, strange, but sense making alterations in reality were common. Amongst all the cables and clutter backstage lay a large metal and plastic 73 that had once been attached to the big sign onstage. Although there was still almost a month left of 1973, the shows were taped in advance; Millie wouldn’t appear on TV until sometime after New Years. Everybody onstage was pretending it was 1974.
Since she was up next, Millie had been escorted from the green room to a single chair behind the rotating wall that took contestants to and away from the stage. A harried young, chain smoking production assistant hovered nearby, twice she reminded Millie not to forget the list of Forbidden Words.
In the green room there was a large sign that featured naughty words and their acceptable euphemisms. In 1973 (even disguised as ‘74) it was taken for granted that people knew better than to say things like “shit” and “fuck” on national television. So no words of that nature were on the sign. Instead, “tinkle” and “wee-wee” were okay terms for “passing water,” but “piss” and even “pee” were forbidden. Comic actress Patty Duestch would get “Whiz” past the censors in months to come, but it was still frowned on at the time. “Bust” and “bosom(s)” were just fine, but leave “jugs” and “knockers” in the gutter. “Boobs” was discouraged for contestant use because it usually got a big laugh, and was best left to be uttered by one of the celebrities. Anything racial was absolutely prohibited; but under the “Sissy” heading, you could say “fairy,” “fruit,” “Nancy,” “flamboyant” and so on, but those too were usually reserved for the panel.
Even more nervous than she thought she’d be, Millie began to quietly sing to herself, The Carpenters, whose songs she sang mostly because she loved them, and doing so repeatedly had helped to soften her accent:
“When I was young
I’d listen to the radio…”
A flamboyant gentleman, wearing a toupee much like those sported by Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne, came over with a makeup kit. He took a look at Millie and did nothing at all.
“You island girls, have the best skin,” he said. “It never needs touching up.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Has Tammy,” he said pointing at the harried assistant producer, who was never far away, smoking one Kent after another, “reminded you not to call Charlie Nelson Reilly an old drag queen?”
Millie smiled, and wasn’t thrown one bit, being married to the Navy and all.
“It came up,” she said. “I’ll do my best not to.”
Suddenly, a swell of applause rose onstage. That only happened when something big occurred. Millie became even more nervous, she was seconds away from her big debut.
And she began to sing…
31 January 2014
“No reaction,” Dr. Wright said. “Just another rutabaga…”
Friday, 8 February 1974
“Shit,” Trudy said. Her guitar pick had gone into the soundhole. Everyone has that one dumb thing they are good at, and losing picks inside guitars was Trudy’s. “I wonder if this ever happens to John Lennon?” she said, turning her guitar face down and attempting to shake out the pick.
“Mom says shit’s a colored word,” Eric said. He’d just come home from school and was setting up the portable television he’d brought up from the family room, at his big sister’s “request.” Trudy was in bed recovering from an appendectomy. Tomorrow was Eric’s tenth birthday; Trudy had discovered early that her little brother was an effective slave in the days leading up to his birthday and Christmas, even at nineteen she wasn’t above taking advantage of him.
“Mom says lots of things, Ringo,” Trudy said, still shaking the guitar. The pick flew out and was immediately lost in the clutter of her room.
Eric found the pick, but feigned handing it to her, holding it out of reach.
“So, are you gonna tell me what you got me for my birthday?”
“A kick in the balls. Want it early?”
She said that every birthday and Christmas. But he always asked anyway, for it had become tradition.
Eric turned the TV on. The picture rolled, but after adjusting the vertical and the tinfoil attached to the rabbit ears it finally steadied. The Neals had only five channels to choose from–four, when you eliminated PBS–which, other than Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Marty Feldman, was seldom selected, even though it came in best.
Birthday Eve or no Birthday Eve, Eric couldn’t resist his little brother instincts forever. “Mom thinks you’re milking it,” he said. “Heard her tell Dad at breakfast.”
“Of course, I’m milking it, ding-dong. The doctor said I could stay in bed for up to two weeks and I’ve still got three days coming to me. I plan on having a miracle recovery come Tuesday, in time for the Spooky Tooth concert next weekend.”
There were times when their nine year age difference made Tru seem like an adult in Eric’s eyes, then she’d say something and that notion would puff away. She was already twelve at the dawn of his memory, and already at war with Mom and deeply dedicated to music. Her room spoke of her dedication. Although she was nineteen and planned on transferring from the local JC to a four year school out of state, Eric could not conceive the room minus his sister’s influence. It was a hundred and fifty square feet of albums, stacks of 45’s, a Sear’s stereo system Trudy had bought with money she had earned working at Herfy’s, and four guitars, including one she got for her tenth birthday, which he always associated with her. Yet there were no posters in the room. Instead Tru had filled her walls with lovingly etched lyrics of her favorite poems and songs. Mom went mildly apeshit when that began, but Dad somehow made it all right. Tru had a fine hand and knew calligraphy. She had painted the words she admired most on her walls, and come 1974 there was little space left to be covered. The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home often caught Eric’s eye and made him sad in a way he could not articulate.
“Hey Ringo, I’ve got two Cokes stashed in the fridge. Go get them for us. And bring me a straw… and glass full of ice too…and not that retarded Josie and the Pussycats glass, either…And be quick about it…Match Game’s coming on…”
Then somebody spoke and she fell into a dream….
8 February 2014
“I was a TV star once, Dreamer,” Millie said, as her appearance on Match Game 74 filled the screen on her phone. “Well, for two days, anyway.”
She sang softly in Dreamer’s open ear. “In your mind you have the ability to form and transmit thought energy far beyond the norm.”
Meanwhile…Back at 8 February 1974
“Thought I told you not to use that,” Trudy said, when she saw Eric with the Josie and the Pussycats glass.
“The rest are in the dishwasher–Boy, these are cold,” Eric said. He had a Coke bottle tucked under each arm, the offending glass filled with ice in one hand, straws and a bag of Nalley’s potato chips in the other.
“Tell me you remembered the bottle opener.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Eric sat on the bed beside Trudy, who absently scooted over to make room. Trudy was one of those people who’d talk when you were trying to watch TV, but be the first to shush when you did the same; but she also had her high points. Mainly, that involved her cute friends. Eric was beginning to have a keener appreciation for cute girls than he had felt to date.
“Is Shelley coming to my party?”
“Maybe,” Tru said, as she carelessly poured Coke onto the ice. “But she’s not into jailbait, if that’s what you’re thinking, you little Chester.”
For his age, Eric would be surprisingly fluent in this sort of idiom, to people who didn’t know Trudy.
“Don’t let Mom catch you when you reach meat-beating age. You’re not pulling yet, are you, Ringo?”
“I’m trying to watch,” Eric said, his ears red, his voice small and angry.
Trudy looped her arm around his neck. “I’ve gotta toughen you up. Gotta make you steely and mean. You’re getting too big to hide behind a boo boo face. You should be tell me to fuck off. Should, but I don’t recommend it, not if you want to live to see eleven.”
A pretty little Filipino woman had just won the round on Match Game.
5 December 1973
Millie was at least a foot shorter than the Match Game host, Gene Rayburn. From her vantage point she saw a small shaving nick, where his neck met the collar and the nick had left a tiny spot on his shirt. Time had slowed down for Millie, as it always seemed to whenever she was in the middle of a big new experience. Other than her wedding night, arriving in America and giving birth this was as a big new experience Millie had ever met.
“All right, Millie, all you need to do is connect with one of these knuckleheads and win some money,” Gene said.
The knucklehead crack was greeted with good natured hostility from the panel, and a smatter of laughter from the studio audience.
The first part of the Money Round involved the three most popular answers to one word asked of an earlier studio audience. Then you selected three celebrities who’d suggest a match for the word.
From being backstage, Millie knew that the answer board was operated by a stagehand, who’d slide back a cover which first revealed the mystery word then the $100, $250 and $500 answers below it by sliding back a flimsy board when it was time.
The Mystery word was…
8 February 1974
“”Wake?’” said Trudy, when the mystery word was revealed. “What kind of spaz word is that?”
“Wake up,” said Eric.
“That’s brilliant Ringo, I’d never thought that. I guess you did get enough oxygen to the brain at birth after all.”
On TV, the pretty little Filipino woman called on Richard Dawson, who said “Something Brett tells Gene at the hotel in Encino–’Wake Up.’”
This revisitation of a little ongoing joke involving regular panelist Brett Sommers and Gene got a big laugh. Both Millie, in person, and Trudy watching it on TV two months later, had glimpsed something in Brett’s eyes that suggested she didn’t care too much for “Dickie” Dawson.
Millie’s second choice, Fannie Flagg, responded with a caught in the headlights expression, which seemed to strive for permanence, until she suddenly blurted “Island!”
Instead of choosing a third celebrity the little Filipino woman began to sing.
“In your mind you have capacities you know
To telepath messages through the vast unknown
Please close your eyes and concentrate
With every thought you think
Upon this recitation we’re about to sing…”
8 February 2014
Dreamer woke, mouthing “Calling occupants…Calling Occupants…”
Later That Morning
Trudy was in surprisingly good shape for a fifty-nine year old woman who had been in a coma since December. She had no memory of the accident; it was as though the thread of her life simply ended while she was driving on I-5.
“Someone’s here to see you,” Dr.Wright said.
Eric entered the room. Thankfully, he hadn’t brought that imbecile of a second wife along.
He was teary-eyed yet smiling. “We almost lost you there. Say, I turn the big five-oh tomorrow, get me anything?”
She smiled. “A kick in the balls, want it now?”
“She’s all right,” Eric told Dr. Wright. Eric extended his hand to shake that of the doctor. “I want to thank you for bringing her back.”
“Not bad for a rutabaga, is it, Dr. write-me-off? Don’t shake that useless fucker’s hand, Ringo. If it were up to him I’d be shitting in a diaper until the day I died.”
Three AM 9 February 2014
“You saved me with Match Game and a Carpenter’s song,” Trudy laughed. “I tried to tell the shithead Doctor about you, but I guess describing someone as a small Filipino woman doesn’t narrow it down too much around here.”
Millie smiled and shrugged her shoulders. “They don’t say a lot to us one way or the other–would you like to take a walk?”
“All right,” Trudy said. Her muscles felt that they had been removed and replaced with bags of sand. But she could move them with extra urging, and she knew that recovering her strength was all she had to do to leave T3C.
“Millie?” Trudy asked as she shuffled down the empty hall, propped against the amazingly strong tiny woman who had to be well into her sixties
“How did you know when to find me?”
“I didn’t. Just knew you were in there, in your ago.”
Trudy thought about it. And she let complicated thoughts go. Sometimes all that’s needed is someone who gives a damn.
“Say, you know any Beatles’ songs?”