She looked around at the shabby apartment: beer cans, scattered laundry, UFO dishes, over-flowing garbage, unfinished graffiti on the walls, two cavorting kittens, and a toxic litter box.
In the middle of it, sipping a beer, was her clueless boyfriend , Johnny. Hearing the word “job” shock- waved his lazy demeanor to attention. With one long gulp, Johnny dusted the rest of his favorite refreshment.
“I don’t want to look for another job already, Sylvia. We’re doing alright, aren’t we?”
She wanted to slap him. The good times rolled when they were high together, but she found his irresponsible behav- ior somewhat appalling.
“Your rent’s due, Johnny. You spent the rest of your money on that case of Coors. You’re out of food. Don’t you know you’re about to get kicked out of here?”
“So I’ll move.”
“Where? Back with your parents? They won’t help you. They hate you, Johnny.”
Johnny looked suddenly
girl wasn’t as toler- ant as he thought. The hammer was coming down. “Look at all the jobs I’ve had this year, Sylvia. It’s not like
I haven’t been trying.” The list was only impressive to Johnny. Unskilled, mindless labor: dishwasher, bus boy, janitor, curb painter, lawn mower. bird feeder, baby sit- ter, after-school basketball coach, experimental test sub- ject…
“See, that’s a lot of jobs, Sylvia. I got fired every time. They discriminate. They hate hippies.”
Sylvia grimaced. “ What was wrong with this guy? “ You can’t hold down a job, and party all night, every night. You don’t get to just have fun all the time, Johnny. The world doesn’t work that way. And by the way, couldn’t you at least have passed some of your classes? You were taking really easy stuff.”
“I tried, Sylvia, but I just couldn’t concentrate. Don’t you remember all that mescaline and peyote we ate last quarter? Shit, I’m still tripping.”
“That stuff only lasted twelve hours, Johnny. That’s just another excuse. I got all A’s last quarter.”
“I know, Miss Perfect. You always do.” Johnny laughed uproariously.
Now Sylvia’s face flushed red
with anger. “Look, Johnny,
either get a job, or I’m done with you. I don’t want a bum for a boyfriend. People work in this world.”
This was a bum who was also hopelessly in love. “OK, I’ll try again. Any suggestions?”
“They need an orderly at the convalescent hospital where I work. I already told the charge nurse you were available. Don’t screw this up, Johnny. The shift starts at 7Am, so we better get some sleep.
She slammed and locked her bedroom door, leaving Johnny to contemplate his mess and bleak future.
Johnny smoked a big fatty on the way to his 7AM shift, ripped out of his mind for the first encounter with his new boss.
“Ever worked in a hospital before?” The charge nurse was an old hippie named Steve, with a heavy east coast accent.
“No,” Johnny said obliquely. Although he was secretly relieved that Steve seemed so non-threatening.
“Well, this job isn’t rocket science. You got to have a strong back.” Then he peered into Johnny’s bloodshot eyes, laughing. “More important is a positive attitude.” Then Steve laughed again. “You look like you got a pret- ty good attitude so far—just being nice to these old people is a good start.”
Johnny mumbled something about doing his best, as the charge nurse walked away. “At least that guy won’t try to bust me.”
Johnny walked into his assigned ward: six debilitated old men with varying degrees of dementia, physical impair- ment, and eccentricity. Two were completely comatose. A seasoned orderly showed him the ropes, only briefly. Get them up in wheelchairs. Feed them, bathe them, dress them. Every day, eight hours, no excuses, $1.75 per hour.
stayed very stoned while he worked, and was a horrible
nurse’s aide that first day. He fumbled with
their clothes, throwing disheveled
patients into wheelchairs, in varying stages of undress.
The oatmeal drooled like Dickensian gruel, when Johnny tried to
feed them break- fast.
Finally, as a last
resort, he undressed
them all again, rolled them down to the shower
room, and hosed them off.
A semblance of cleanliness. At least his job was temporar- ily saved.
Johnny was frantically finishing his last patient. The shift was almost over. He gathered the frail body up into a giant bear hug, hurling the poor old man into the wheelchair.
“Ouch!” the patient called out angrily. “Why are you such an asshole?”
“Uh…sorry” Johnny stammered. He really was an ass- hole. This broken down, alien body was hiding a real per- son.
“Look, kid, you can’t be as stupid as you look. I can tell you what I need. Slow down, and show some respect, will you?”
Johnny looked over at the name on the bedside table: Henry Cook. There wasn’t much left of Henry’s ancient body: bony, contorted, stiff. He breathed like a struggling locomotive, and his voice was raspy sandpaper. Henry had a full head of thick brown hair, though, and piercing, beady eyes. These eyes were fully alert, now that Johnny was paying attention. A trifle agitated, but Johnny sensed a little bit of playfulness in the old man.
“Look, kid, finish getting me dressed, and take me down to the smoker. Get the Marlboro’s out of my drawer.”
Johnny fetched the pack. “Where do you want them, Mr. Cook?”
“In my shirt pocket.” It was obvious that Henry’s cooked arm could not perform this action independently.
Johnny placed the pack of cigarettes in the old man’s shirt ever so tenderly. “Ready to go, Mr. Cook?”
“Let’s go, kid. I need a
smoke before your shift’s over.
I swear, you’re the
slowest damn orderly
I’ve ever had. Just let me have my
smoking time, kid. Get me dressed without hurting me, fill
my damn lungs with smoke when I want
to, and set me back in bed. Can you handle that kid?”
Johnny swore he saw a mischievous glimmer in the old man’s eyes. “Sure, Mr. Cook, let’s go have that smoke. It beats working…”
Henry sputtered, coughed, and smiled. “Yeah kid, it shore beats the hell out of working.”
Going into a convalescent hospital’s “smoker” in those days was like entering Dante’s Inferno.
Old men and women inhaling and exhaling tobacco smoke for all they were worth. The stench of so much tar and nicotine was nauseating, even to Johnny. All the old fingertips in the room were stained with gooey brown residue from the cigarettes.
Cook was in a hurry. “Light me up, kid.”
Johnny took the pack of Marlboro’s from the old man’s shirt pocket.
“Give it to me.”
His gnarly old fingers could still grasp that cigarette— straight into the mouth it went.
Johnny lit him up, and old Cook went to town: dancing smoke rings, gigantic puffs, mixed with gruesome hack- ing.
“Damn,” Johnny thought, “this old guy really likes to smoke.”
Johnny had an idea amidst this Philip Morris carnage. Serendipity was about to benefit a good-hearted, irrespon- sible kid, and a courageous, dying old man, who never lost his sense of humor.
Henry finished his cigarette. “Take me back, kid. I’m ready for bed.”
wheeled him back to the bedside. He looked at
Henry’s body again. All those misshapen limbs. “He hurts,” thought Johnny, “this old guy’s in a lot of pain.”
“Want to smoke something different before I put you to bed, Mr. Cook?”
“Hell yeah. What’s you got, kid?”
Johnny whipped out the spiff. “Columbian Gold, Mr. Cook, the best on the market.”
“That marijuana, kid?” Cook laughed and shook. His eyes got real fierce.
Johnny fired up the joint, then held it for Henry.
The old man toked like a Rasta Shaman! Inhaling deeply, he coughed wildly, blowing copious amounts of marijua- na smoke around the small hospital room.
“Hold it in longer, Mr. Cook.” “You’ll get even more stoned.”
The old man held that shit in, till his face turned bright red, and his bulging eyes watered.
“This guy really wants to get high,” thought Johnny.
When they were done with the joint, Mr. Cook was already dreamy-eyed.
Johnny lifted him majestically, and laid him safely in the white sheets. Johnny had skill, now. And confidence. And compassion. A reason to be a good orderly.
Henry Cook looked up at Johnny. The once grouchy old eyes were transformed into a kaleidoscope of love and wonder. “I think I’m going to sleep good tonight, kid.”
Johnny tucked him in.
“Sweet dreams, Mr. Cook.”