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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Nursing Pool

Give Him The Enema!

Who hasn’t heard the complaint of a weary airline passenger when they get off the plane: “Why is it that I’m always the one who has to sit next to the screaming baby?” Although I have often complained about that, a screaming baby is a birthday at the beach compared to the person I inevitably get as my hospital roommate.

I have a history of cardiac problems. It’s not that I’m overweight or don’t eat right or don’t exercise, or at least one out of those three. My parents should never have bred. My father was 51 when he checked out from a heart attack. Several years later my mother had valve replacement surgery and a pacemaker stuck in her, and she was never the same after that. Why I got all the bad genes and my sister is totally unaffected in any way from this mishmash of foul genetic combinations is something that makes me wonder if maybe, just maybe, my dad wasn’t actually her father.

In my early forties, I was a hospital inmate for 6 days with a messy bout with appendicitis. When I was first wheeled into my room, I got stuck with a barely cognizant man, easily twice my age, which is typical for me, because I’m usually in the cardiac wing. When you’re in the cardiac wing, you’re pretty much guaranteed that your roommate is going to be someone’s great grandfather. For this visit, I wasn’t in the cardiac wing, but I got the octogenarian anyway.

I always, without fail, end up with the screamers, the moaners, the complainers, and the violent, and they all poop in their beds (so do I, but that's another story).

Don’t deny it, nurses. You always wait for the one new patient who looks most likely to not complain. Once you find him, he becomes the person you place with the screaming nut case. You see me coming. I hear you whispering. “Looks like this one’s ripe for the picking.” is what you’re mumbling, isn’t it? ISN’T IT?

In order to be a hospital employee, it helps to be a gambler in order to pass all the free time they have. So they all take bets on the time they think someone will die, or, in my case, when I would finally break down and begin to complain about the accommodations.

So after a while, my roommate was sound asleep, muttering quietly to himself. I could live with that. I drifted off to sleep with his gentle yammering not disturbing me.

When I awoke to the screaming, my heart was pounding, and I had the uneasy feeling that a macaw had been released into my room.

“AAAAAAAAA! HELP! HELP! HELP ME! HELP ME!” screamed the tropical bird. After I tucked my heart back into my chest cavity, I realized it wasn’t a macaw at all. It was my roommate. I then thought, why don't hospitals have some kind of website where you can pick someone compatible? I'd put in for a quiet reader, maybe a Ipod listener of 60's folk music who spoke only when spoken to.

The screams were still echoing down the halls, and nurses came running into the room, not to aid him, but to help me. It seemed that the needle on the pulse-o-meter from the heart monitor on my chest sent out a code blue signal.

“Are you all right?” the nurse asked.

“Yeah, I’m all right. It was him screaming, not me,” I said.

“Yeah but your pulse shot up to 200,” he told me.

“That’s because he was screaming,” I tried to say with a sad look on my face, the kind that would send them the “I need a private suite with a whirlpool spa” message.

“Yeah, he goes on like that all night, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Well can I get moved to another room, then? This is crazy,” I snapped.

“All beds are full now, but maybe tomorrow we can get you in another one.”

“Please?” I begged.

The nurse moved out to the hall and yelled out, “Okay, whose name is in the 3 am box in the complainer pool?”

Someone called back, “Dr. Ansari.”

My nurse cursed, “Damn! It’s always a doctor who wins!”

Just as I was drifting back to sleep, the feathers flew again and the macaw started back in with the screaming. He sounded like a helpless girl in a B movie about to be stepped on by a dinosaur.

That was it. I took my pillow and my plasma-on-a-pole down to the family visiting room, which, at 3 am, was naturally empty. I stretched across half a dozen brick-hard chairs. When I woke up, my body felt as if it had been attacked by killer woodpeckers.

The next day was my surgery. The appendix and part of my intestines were successfully removed, but damn, I forgot to tell the doctor I wanted my appendix for show-and-tell.

Which brings us to the story of the first time I was hospitalized. I was seven and went in for a tonsillectomy, complete with ether anesthesia, which I can smell clinging to my nostril hairs to this very day. Before the surgery, I asked Dr. Bagby if I could have my tonsils to take to school for show-and-tell. He amusingly granted my request, and later sent them home with me in an old mayonnaise jar full of formaldehyde. They were enormous and red and just the thing to make the girls run away, screaming in terror. I’ve never seen the inside of a scrotum, but I suspect I could have convinced people they were testicles. But I was 7; I didn’t yet know what testicles were.

After my recovery, I couldn’t wait to be the envy of my second grade class with my Removed Organs in a Jar. My mother drove me to school that morning, but somewhere between my bedroom and the ’57 Chevy, the jar started to leak.

“What’s that smell?” my mother sniffed.

“What smell?” I pretended not to be a part of this.

“It’s those tonsils! Throw them out, throw them out now!” She pulled over, stopped the car and threw it in Park.

“Give them to me!” she demanded.

“No, c’mon Mom. It’s just a few more blocks,” I whined, pathetically.

“What’re you gonna put them in? They just don’t have empty jars in your classroom.”

Actually, they did. If you think back to second grade, you probably remember a high cabinet full of donated baby food jars that were used for doling out tempera paint. But before I could make my case, Mom snatched the jar from my hand, rolled down my window, unscrewed the lid and splashed my testicles, I mean, tonsils into Mark Pintaure’s next-door neighbor’s front yard. She tossed the jar on the back seat and sped off, as I carefully marked the spot where they fell, because I hoped to rescue them later. But alas, that afternoon when I walked home, I searched high and low, but the tonsils were gone, probably to a crime lab somewhere where someone was probably looking for the rest of the body.

Back to the appendectomy post-op scene. My second roommate was a 20-something mutt with long, greasy hair and teeth that had probably never seen the overhead light at a dentist's office.I waved as they wheeled me by him. “At last,” I thought as I pressed the morphine pump, “a young one who won’t scream.”

I woke up to him screaming on the phone, demanding that someone come pick him up, because, “I ain’t got no health insurance. You gotta sneak me outa here. “No, I di-ant drive here. They brought me by ambo-lance.” He was one of those odd white boys who spoke ghetto and thought that because he wore his pants belted at the knees, he was just as cool as the brothers who do the same. But he wasn’t.

After he finished his rant, a social worker came in and told him that he qualified for assistance in paying his bill. After that he called his friend back and told him to gather the white homies to come see him.

The next day, while eavesdropping, I learned from his ER-assigned doctor that he had only been dehydrated. The doctor told him to drink more the next time he went to the beach. It took a night’s stay and thousands of dollars of publicly-funded testing to figure that out.

Meanwhile, each time I woke up, it was to a room full of scary-looking white people and blasting hip-hop music. Once I woke up as Mr. Dehydro, waiting for his discharge papers, was reading the riot act to a nurse, demanding a better (free, publicly-funded) lunch. Mercifully, I was one with my morphine pump, and I just knocked myself out again.

Not long after that, I was back in the hospital for the first of two unsuccessful cardiac ablations. As I walked into the room I glanced over to see CNA's and volunteers waving dollar bills, eager to get in on the pool. I saw this as a bad sign. This time I roomed with a loud, old couple, even though he was the designated patient.

This great-grandfather and his wife were the bitterest wintering couple I have ever listened to. He was in for some kind of intestinal blockage and had just completed one of those luxurious barium enemas.

There was constant bickering between the two of them, even after visiting hours were long over.

He: Why can’t I see my doctor?

She: Because the doctor’s a stupid schmuck.

He: Well get the noiss, then.

She: I just went to the noiss. She said she’d be here in a minute.

He: They don’t care. You think they care? That was an hour ago. Tell her if she can’t give me an explanation, then I want to check myself out. I want to go home.

The nurse finally came in just as the doctor arrived, who insisted grampa would not be released until they figured out why he couldn’t keep any food down. Along with his wife, the patient (the word and the man both being oxymorons) demanded that they be told what was wrong right now; they were tired of waiting, and they were going to report the doctor to the AMA. The doctor said there was nothing he could do until the tests came back and made a hasty retreat.

A second nurse arrived with a bag and a hose, and the two of them hit him with the news. “We have to wash the barium out of you, otherwise it’s going to turn into concrete.” I don’t know if this was medically necessary, or if they just wanted to punish him. Naturally, the old couple flew into a rage.

As they got into a physical fight, Nurse Ratchet said to Cherry Ames, “Give him the enema.”

“I’m going to call the police!” he threatened, trying to slap the nurses away.

“The police won’t come, because there is no crime being committed,” the nurse argued. Then back to Cherry Ames, Butthole Nurse, she screamed, “GIVE HIM THE ENEMA!”

“I’m calling all the newspapers when I get out of here. I swear to God I am!”

The enema quieted him down. Or maybe it didn’t. You see, this time I had brought earplugs and forced them with my pinky way down in my external auditory canal. You learn you have no control over these kind of things. I drifted off to sleep, and in the morning I was taken in for the heart surgery, which was a picnic at the park compared to the ranting of Mr. and Mrs. Enema.

When I woke up, I was in a private room. No whirlpool spa, but completely void of noisy strangers. Apparently, if you don’t complain before you have your procedure, you win the pool.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

So You Want to Work for a Police Department


It was a few days after September 11, 2001. I had been voluntarily unemployed and planned to stay that way until my unemployment insurance ran out. Because there were reports that the attack would cause a recession, I figured it would be in my best interest to go out and start applying for something with benefits.

Several weeks later, as luck would have it, I got a response to my application at a local police department and went in for an interview. Because it was a low-paying administrative job, I had intentionally dumbed-down my resume, hoping to make myself look more interesting in person.

Not long after that, a detective called me and requested that I report the next day for a polygraph.

I had never taken a lie detector test, and had only seen them in the movies, with the nervous, off-the- paper, needle-twitching-device going berserk whenever the accused was fibbing. So I felt a little nervous about it, but not nearly as nervous as I should have been, I later learned.

The night before the test, I tried in vain to resist reviewing my sins of the past, which numbered in the upper digits of infinity. I wondered exactly what they’d want me to admit. Would they make inquiries into my sexual orientation? I thought about all the reckless things I did when I was in high school. My only chargeable offenses were drunk driving, vandalism, weed smoking, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, all of which went uncaught, but what else should I prepare for?

At the police station the next day, before he started asking me questions I didn’t want to answer, Detective Palmer shut me in a conference room, leaving me alone to fill out a 22-page volume of questions. Most of my written answers I had never told family or even my closest of friends.

I could feel sweat dripping down my armpits. There were dozens of questions, asked several times but with different wording, attempting to trip me up about my drug and alcohol use, gambling, and financial status.

I had a tough time with the questions. Did taking office supplies really count as stealing, and wasn’t a laser printer just an office supply? What about using the photocopier for my income tax returns? At least I didn’t take it home.

Another question was: How many times have you smoked marijuana?

Who writes for these people, I wondered. Are they kidding me with this shit? Did they think I kept a reefer diary? A narcotic spreadsheet, maybe? How many times? What did that mean? What constituted a time? Did one hit constitute a time, or did a whole joint constitute a time? When I was in high school, no one ever smoked their own joint. It was passed around. If I had half a dozen bong hits at one party but hours apart, was that one time or six? Should I wait for Detective Palmer to come back in to illuminate? And what kind of idiot was I going to look like if I asked him for clarification?

I decided to estimate. I probably toasted one with friends every weekend through high school. As the worst case scenario, let’s say the group of us hit on 3 joints every weekend. I didn’t smoke on summer break. 52 weeks minus 12 weeks equals 40 weeks times 3 J’s times three years. I had to do the math longhand, but the answer was 360 times. That seemed excessive, so I rounded down to 200. But what about college? Fuck it, I thought. I am never going to get this job. I should just get up and leave.

Detective Palmer came back in the room before I had gotten to the end of the book. He told me to take my time and went away again.

Great, I thought. Not only am I a degenerate, but I’m also a slow degenerate. Sweat poured off of me. I finished it as quickly as I could, trying not to read too much into the questions. Then I started reviewing it, but before I could finish, Detective Palmer came back in and sat down.

Earlier he had told me, “As long as you tell the truth about everything, you will pass the polygraph. All you have to do is not lie.” This gave me little to no comfort.

He slowly scanned each page. I was thinking, Would it be bad form to ask to have a ceiling fan installed in here or request some Gatorade? My electrolytes are dimming.

How many times have you used cocaine?” Detective Palmer asked me, pinching his chin.

“Twice,” I admitted, just as I had on paper.

“And when was the last time you used cocaine?” he continued.

“Probably around twenty or twenty-one years ago.”

“When you used cocaine, how did you use it? Did you snort it or shoot it?”

Honestly, I thought, why is he asking me this? Was this going to be on the final? Wasn’t it enough to admit I had done it?

A cokehead lesbian friend of mine once told me if I didn’t like the taste or the feel of snorting coke, I could get the same buzz if I inserted it rectally. I never liked cocaine, and at that minute, I was so relieved that it would have been a lie to say I had shoved it up my ass.

“Snorted it,” I said.

For some reason, he looked pleased.

Just as the questionnaire had asked the same questions several times in different ways, so did Detective Palmer. For example, at one point he asked me the value of the things I stole in the past 10 years, then later on asked me the total value of everything I ever stole. This, I guess, should have included those sixty-some rolls of Lifesavers I tricked out of a faulty vending machine at the library where I once worked. And was that stealing, or was it just a good value? After all, I had paid a quarter for those rolls of Lifesavers. Was it my fault the vending machine wasn’t foolproof? This was a 30-year-old theft I recalled the night before when I was trying not to remember bad things I’d done.

After reviewing every question in the 22-page book, Detective Palmer decided to go through it one more time for good measure.

“So you smoked marijuana 200 times,” he said.

“Well, you know it’s hard to say. When I was a kid, the group I hung out with, that’s what we just did. It’s hard to put a number to it, it was so long ago.” I tried to emphasize the fact that it was ancient history. That should count for something, right?

“Well,” the detective continued, “would you say you smoked it two times a week for several years, or one time a week, or more?”

“Sometimes more than twice a week,” I admitted, refraining from adding the Clintonesque addendum, depending on what your definition of what a “time” is.

“So let’s say you did it three times a week,” he suggested, rounding back up. “For how long?”
He knew that I smoked dope more than two hundred times. He’d been interviewing applicants for, oh, let’s say, three times a week for the past fifteen years.

“All through high school, and then I tapered off during college,” I said.

“So would you say two hundred and fifty times over a period of maybe, five years?”

I could feel the sweat running down my neck now. Great. Nothing like visible signs of dishonesty to insure my unemployment for the next fifty years.

I delayed my answer, trying to do the math in my head and compare it to what I wrote down.
“I’m not sure,” I finally said.

“Does three hundred times sound like a more accurate number than the two hundred you put down on your answer?” he probed.

What was this, a flea market? He was trying to jack my number up. I should have been riding it down. Instead of a job, I was going to be leaving with poor-quality tube socks.

“I guess so, now that I do the math.”

“Well, that’s why we go over this with you, because sometimes a person won’t go back and think about the span of time involved,” said Palmer. “This will make it easier for you while you take the test. So three hundred times sounds good?”

I nodded.

I knew that every time this man blinked, he saw a different junkie, as if he was clicking through a Viewmaster. Blink. Hello, Keith Richards! Blink. It’s John Belushi! Blink. Lookie, it’s James Taylor! Blink. Looks too old, but is that River Phoenix?

The tide of sweat started to recede a few minutes later, while he covered debt, gambling, and arrest history. He made notes in the 22-page workbook as we conversed.

Then he said, “It says here you don’t drink alcohol.”

“That’s correct,” I told him.

“You don’t drink any alcohol at all, or you just have a cocktail now and then?”

I said, “I don’t consume alcohol at all.”

Now I was being grilled for the bad things I didn’t do. Am I on Candid Camera? Is Alan Funt, Jr., behind the wall?

This seemed to perplex him. How could I, this Timothy Leary job applicant, have snorted coke, sometimes took Percocet just for the euphoria, and smoked bales of marijuana, not also imbibe in the legal intoxicants?

“Did you ever drink alcohol?”

Here we go, I thought. I decided just to purge. “Yes, when I was younger I drank a lot. From the time I was fourteen up until I was twenty-eight. Heavier when I was in my twenties.” And you would have too, if you’d lived with the dickhead I’d spent my twenties with.

“So you quit when you were twenty-eight?” Palmer asked.


“Did you go into rehab or join AA?” He asked that as if those were my only choices. What, like I couldn’t have become a Mormon?

Detective Palmer was getting on my nerves. I was beginning to wonder if these were legitimate questions, or if this was all for his personal entertainment. After the interview was over, would he and a bunch of other officers head down to Mr. Donut and recite excerpts from my 22-page Dissertation of Sins? “Get a load of this one!” And they would all laugh and say, things like, “Oh, yeah, and while we’re at it, let’s hire Charlie Manson.”

“I didn’t do either. I just stopped. I changed my routine and instead of going home after work, I went to the gym.” I was proud of that and wasn’t embarrassed to admit it.

“Very admirable,” said Palmer, genuinely.

Wouldn’t kill you to put a few dents in the treadmill, either, I wanted to say, but held my tongue. I had no reason to be hostile; the man was just doing his job.

Finally, he closed the book, stood up and said, “Okay, are you ready for the test?”

I stood and looked at my shirt. You could see through it, it was so wet. “As ready as I’ll ever be,” I told him.

“Just relax and tell the truth, and you’ll be fine.”

We walked into the next room where there was a desk, a chair with arms, and a personal computer. Palmer hooked me up. He strapped two belts on me: one over my chest, the other over my abdomen. There was also a blood pressure cuff snugly in place on my upper arm and a gizmo clipped to my finger. I was told to sit up straight with my feet on the floor and put my arms on the armrests of the hard chair. His desk was behind me, so I didn’t look at him when I answered. I looked at a blank white wall. I felt as if I was seated in the electric chair. Where is my pastor? Where’s my stone crab claw dinner?

Blink. I’m not Janis Joplin; I’m Susan Hayward. I want to live! I want to live!

The room was silent while he booted the computer. He told me my answers would all be yes or no. He then started the program and had me answer “yes” to a couple of questions that I knew weren’t true, I guess to gauge the meter. That’s it: just relax and lie.

The interrogation then began and went on for the next forty minutes. I felt like a dumpling, curdling in chicken stew. Most of the questions that Palmer asked me began with, “Other than we discussed.”

“Other than we discussed, were there any other times when you took things from your employer?”

“No,” I answered honestly.

“Other than we discussed, were there other times that you used cocaine?”

Instinctively, I almost said no, but at that second I remembered a time when a friend brought some cocaine to a party, and we did a line in my mother’s bathroom. Fortunately again, not rectally.

“I just remembered another time,” I said.

“Just answer yes or no,” he reminded me.

“Yes,” I answered. I figured I was finished then. There was a long pause.

“Other than the ways we discussed, were there other methods you used to ingest the cocaine?” Palmer asked.

I was immediately paranoid. Had that cokehead lesbian been interviewed during my background investigation and told him I took opioids up the butt?

“No” I muttered, but I was flustered, and I felt myself turn red. If the needle flew off the Richter scale, it was then. I knew that was going to be his lead punch line at the Mr. Donut meeting.

After it was over and he unplugged me, Palmer asked me about the third time I had done cocaine, and I told him I really didn’t remember it until right when the question was asked.

“It’s okay,” he asked. “You were still honest and told the truth.” He released me and promised someone would call me the following day with the results.

I went out to my car and breathed a sigh of relief and wondered if I had any Percocet left in the cabinet at home, or if I had finished them during my last migraine. I could use the euphoria, but I was late for another interview elsewhere.

Just hours earlier, I thought that being a working for a police department would be fun as hell. I’d get to rub elbows with motorcycle cops and the SWAT team. Maybe some of them would let me play with their Tasers. I thought I had certainly earned it during that three-hour Spanish Inquisition, but realistically, I never expected to get the call I got the next day from the interviewing captain, offering me the job.

“I passed the polygraph?” I asked, thinking that this was some kind of cruel joke and that maybe she was calling on a speaker phone from Mr. Donut.

“Well, Detective Palmer said there was a little inconsistency in a couple of the questions, but not enough to disqualify you,” she informed me, and she asked me when I could start.

I thought for a moment. “You know, I was wondering if I could have until the end of the week to let you know.”

“We really need to know as soon as possible,” she said, “because we don’t want this position to get held up in a possible post-9-11 hiring freeze.”

I sighed and said, “Well as long as you promise me the job won’t be as stressful as the polygraph.”

She laughed and said, “Hell, no one here has a job more stressful than that, even when they’re being shot at.”

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Inability to See Distances


I was in third grade. Initially, my teacher, Mrs. Reins, was out recovering from cataract surgery, and we had a substitute. This was back in the day when cataract surgery was a life-threatening operation, before implantable lenses. After surgery you looked like Mr. Magoo, with eyeglass lenses so thick you could fry ants on the sidewalk with the magnified solar energy. Mrs. Reins was no exception. When she arrived in December, she was a target for mockery. A frightening sight, her eyes were magnified to the size of tetherballs. And unfortunately, she was still pretty blind. You could make wild faces at her, and she never knew. Her handicap also enabled Howard Frankland, Steve Smith and me to stay busy drawing Batman pictures while she assumed we were practicing our newly-learned cursive techniques. Today, of course, if you need cataract surgery, all you have to do is pull up to the speaker at the cataract drive-through.

“Do you want 20/20 vision with that?” comes the voice from over the speaker. “It’s only seventy-five cents more.”

You then answer, “Yes, and I’d like mine with cheese.”

“The doctor will see you now. Please pull up to the first window.”

For ignoring my blind teacher and failing to do my class work, my karmic justice arose four years later when puberty hit. I flunked the in-school eye test and was sent home with a note to my mother, directing her to take me to the eye doctor.

The optometrist confirmed the myopia, and I was given a prescription for eyeglasses. At that time, the choice of frames for boys was virtually unlimited, provided you wanted only black or brown horn rims. I chose the black plastic frames, because I knew that my ability to look like pubescent Woody Allen, along with my sparkling orthodontia and clunky orthopedic shoes, would make me the most popular boy at Wilson Junior High School.

Picking up the glasses at the optometrist’s office, I remember looking through the storefront window across the street to the clock on the bank and being able to tell the time.

Wasn’t technology wonderful?

But my vision continued to deteriorate. When I was fifteen, I begged my mother to let me have the now-available wire-rimmed frames. Up until then we just replaced the lenses in my shabby looking Woodys.

By then the braces had come off, and I flat-out refused to wear the orthopedic wingtips anymore, knowing full well that this would cost me my popularity for the rest of my youth.

The frames were awkward and heavy. My lenses were glass, and thick glass at that, and they drilled dents in my nose and behind my ears. When I took off my glasses, there were big red spots on the bridge of my nose and blisters on my ears. They couldn’t be adjusted enough to make them comfortable.

When I was a junior in high school, I don’t know how, but I convinced my mother to pay $200 for a pair of hard contact lenses for me; the cornea-scratching, painful, masochistic kind. Had to have them.

For two weeks I ran around school with my head tilted back at a 45-degree angle, because that was the only way I could see. I looked like some kind of William F. Buckley trainee. I never thought they might be ill-fitting. I just thought that was the price I had to pay for fashion. They made my eyes itch horrendously, and I would rub them, and the lenses would slide up into my brain. Then I’d have to raise my hand and tell my teacher I needed someone to guide me to the bathroom so I could look in a mirror and fish out my lenses, which were lodged up somewhere in my dura mater. I had insisted that getting rid of my thick spectacles would make me appear less ridiculous, and clearly that was happening. I had evolved from Woody Allen to José Feliciano by way of William F. Buckley.

I got refitted, and the new hard lenses weren’t so bad, but every other time I blinked, one would fly out, and then I went back to glasses for a week until a new lens was ground for me.

The next year I switched to soft lenses and had a little celebratory party in the bathroom to flush my old hard lenses down the commode.

In my life, I wore soft lenses, gas-permeable lenses, extended wear contacts that damaged my eyes, and disposable lenses. With every new contact lens breakthrough, I stood up to the plate to try them.

In my 30’s I got sick of buying the paraphernalia required for contact lenses: cleaning solution, boilers, conditioning solution, saline solution, forceps, artificial tears, re-wetting drops, and endless cash to buy all that crap. Not to mention the affirmation cassettes that told you that nothing was wrong with plucking rubbery disks off your eyes with unsanitized digits. It was too much trouble. I went back to glasses.

My vision still declined, but just as technology changed with contact lenses, so they did with eyeglasses. They were now able to condense the thickness of my Mrs.-Reins-tetherball specs to a thinner polymer. There were glasses that were almost frameless, making them very lightweight and comfortable to wear.

Still, when I entered the production floor of the beer factory where I worked, I had to wear safety glasses, and the employer didn’t pay for condensed lenses, and the required frames were solid and heavy. The lenses were 5/8" thick, so thick that they prevented the side temples from closing. Legally blind is 20/200. I was 20/200 light years.

I closely followed vision technology. I remember seeing a show about a procedure called radial keratotomy, where your cornea is sliced like a pizza to improve your nearsightedness. The procedure was discovered by accident by a Russian doctor after picking shattered eyeglass lenses out of a young boy’s eye.

Yeah, baby, come at me with an X-Acto knife, smile and say, “Pizza! Pizza!” I’m ready for that.

I only knew one person who got the radial-K surgery, and he ended up having to get new lenses implanted from a cadaver. He had stitches hanging out of his eyeballs, and if that doesn’t make you wince, you are not human.

Then along came LASIK. And after Tiger Woods had LASIK, I went to the same doctor who did Tiger’s eyes. I was making enough money then that it seemed reasonable that for perfect vision, I would have to pay four thousand dollars. As a bonus, before the procedure, they gave me Valium, which to me is worth at least half of that.

I thought the procedure would be grosser. My worst fear of seeing someone come at my eyes with a knife was unsubstantiated. They just had these little gizmos that pried my eyes open so I wouldn’t blink. It went dark, and I heard a little buzzing and felt a disgusting little splash on my face (eye soup?) I sat up, looked across the room at the clock and could tell the time.

Isn’t technology wonderful?

That was ten years ago. Three years ago I got a prescription from an optometrist and am again wearing glasses. My myopia has returned. And I need a magnifying glass or readers to look up a number in the phone book.

My dear third grade teacher, Pauline Reins, I’m sorry I ever mocked you. If you were alive today, I’d treat you to a ride through the cataract drive-through. And then we’d go split a pizza.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Allene's Voice


It is January of 1964, a few days after my seventh birthday. It is my first birthday without my father, who died 4 months earlier. I have been sick a lot since then, and my mother has an interview today and can’t stay home to take care of me.

I am a veteran croup kid. When I cough, it sounds like the bark of a bull seal. I also have a temperature. As a special treat, Mom calls Allene to see if she can come watch me.

Having Allene there guarantees that I’ll have an exceptional day, despite my being sick. Before Daddy died, she would come to the house to clean and make us a nice fried chicken dinner. Now, without our man-of-the-house income, we can only afford to have Allene on rare occasions.

In Tampa, it is a common site every day at 8 am to see throngs of black women walking down the street in front of our house. They arrive on the bus that brings them from the other side of this segregated city. They dress colorfully, and some carry umbrellas to keep the sun off of them. After their walk, they arrive at the residences of white ladies, where they change into their crisp white maid dresses and scrub floors and toilets, wash windows, vacuum, dust, and sanitize their kitchens after making the evening meal. For all this hard work, they get paid only a few dollars a day, less than minimum wage. In the late afternoon, they don their bus dresses again and walk back to the bus stop, laughing and trading stories about their day.

Today when Allene arrives, as always, she pretends not to know who I am. “Where’s Billy? All I see is a big boy.” Then after taking a closer look at me, she says, “Well lookie there. You’re growing so big!” I give her a hug. She smells like line-dried laundry and vanilla.

Allene changes from her traveling clothes to her white dress in the back bathroom and puts her colorful dress in the clove-scented broom closet in the back hall.

After my mother leaves, Allene comes to my room and asks me what I want. It’s always the same: a Coke. Allene makes a Coke like no one else. She wraps ice cubes in a dish towel and goes out on the back step and pounds it with an empty glass Coke bottle until the ice is coarsely crushed. She transfers the ice into a plastic tumbler and then pours the Coke over it . She wraps a paper towel around the base and serves it to me in bed and asks if I want a story.

“I want to play school,” I say.

“Your Mama said you need to rest. But maybe later we can play if you’re up to it,” she offers.
She pulls out The Tall Book of Nursery Tales. The book has been opened and closed hundreds of times by Allene and my parents. Many pages are dog-eared. The spine is split, and some pages are loose.

My favorite story is always "The Three Bears." She sits beside me in the bed, holding the book with one hand in front of me so I can see the pictures. The other arm is behind my neck with her callused hand resting on my shoulder. She reads with such joyful expression and uses different voices for all three bears and for Goldilocks. I laugh with her, and she reads me another one, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, which puts me to sleep as her voice intentionally softens.
She wakes me up in a couple of hours to give me a Sucrets lozenge and a tablet of penicillin and asks me what I want for lunch.

“Peanut butter and jelly,” I say.

“What kind of jelly?” she asks.

“Ummmm, apple.”

“What else?”

“A banana popsicle.”

“You want to watch some television?” she asks. “If you take your blanket and pillow out into the den, you can stay warm on the couch.”

I am happy to do so. There is a long sectional sofa that I bundle up on. We have two televisions, but they are both in the den. One is an old DuMont console that stands like Atlas, holding on its shoulders the Sylvania black and white portable that used to be my grandmother’s. They are set up this way because the DuMont only has sound, and the Sylvania, on top, only has picture. Sometimes we like to watch NBC while listening to CBS. When my dad was alive, he would watch Chet Huntley, and then when it switched over to David Brinkley, he would let me switch the sound to the other channel, which was Woody Woodpecker. I loved watching Woody’s voice come out of David Brinkley’s mouth. When Chet came on again, I had to switch the sound TV back to his voice.

Today I decide to watch The Price is Right, and in a few minutes, Allene brings me my sandwich, cut in four even squares, just the way I like it, and some apple slices and thin strips of carrot. And of course, another crushed-ice Coke. For a while she watches the show with me as people win new ranges and other things we can’t afford, like new color televisions.

“Aren’t you going to eat something?” I ask her.

“I think I’ll get something later,” she says, but she never does. She doesn’t eat our food. Allene always brings a piece of fruit or some crackers from home, even though we have told her many times to help herself to anything in the house.

After lunch, I fall back asleep to the sound of someone winning an Amana refrigerator-freezer. When I wake up, I’m back in my bed. Allene has carried me there because it’s closer to the kitchen, where she can keep an eye on me. I stretch and yawn and call her name.

“Awake now?” she asks, arriving at my bedside with half of a popsicle.

“Yes, can we play school now?” I ask.

“Sure,” she says, “after you finish your popsicle.” The cold bar is soothing on the back of my swollen throat, and I finish it slowly, savoring its sticky coldness as it trickles past my tonsils.

We go into the kitchen, where we arrange two dinette chairs to face each other, and we sit.
Sometimes Allene is the teacher, and sometimes she is the student. This time, as the teacher, she holds up a pad of lined paper that we pretend is a chalkboard. She draws a picture of a cat on it.

“Can anyone in class tell me what this is?” she asks, panning the room of imaginary students. I raise my hand, but she calls on Jennifer. She cups her hand to her ear. “What? What, Jennifer? Speak up Jennifer. A horse? No, this is not a horse. Go sit in the corner.” We both laugh.
She sees me with my arm up. “Billy, can you tell me what this is?”

“A cat,” I say.

“Yes, that’s right, it’s a cat. Now can you spell cat?”

“C-A-T,” I recite.

Below the drawing of the cat, she writes, D-O-G

“No,” I correct, “it’s C-A-T.”

“That is C-A-T,” she insists.

“No it’s not. It’s dog, D-O-G.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes I’m sure.”

“Why don’t you write it for the class, then?” she suggests.

She gives me the crayon and the pad of paper. I cross out D-O-G and write in C-A-T.

“Oh, that’s right. You’re so smart. You get an A-plus.”

This game goes on for an hour. We switch, and I get to be the teacher, and she intentionally answers my questions wrong. Two plus two equals five, she insists, and we both break up with laughter. I love to hear her laugh. It is a hoarse, wheezing chortle that grows into big belly laughs.

Not too long after that, Mom comes home, frustrated and in a bad mood. But the smell of Allene’s fried chicken is somehow soothing, sitting steaming on its paper towel-covered plate.
Allene has also prepared her scrumptious milk gravy. Later Mom will make rice to put under the gravy and also a box of frozen vegetables. Mom thanks her and offers to drive her home.

“I’ll take the bus. You don’t want Billy out in the cold car, now.”

Mom thanks her again.

She changes clothes, and I always cry when she leaves. She gets down on one knee and hugs me and promises she will be back soon. I watch her through the jalousie windows as she joins some of her friends on their walk to the bus stop.

My sister and I grow up and learn to cook. We are made to vacuum and dust, wash windows and strip wax off the kitchen floor. We rarely see Allene now. She is old and doesn’t work much anymore, but now and then she comes over to make us chicken and visit with us.

As I enter adolescence and become politically and socially aware, I chastise my mother for taking advantage of Allene and tell her she should send her a thousand dollars. Times are a little better now for us, and we have a cleaning woman, Helen, who comes in once a month. Mom pays her $7.50 for a day’s work, and she never even sees Helen. She just leaves her the money in an envelope with the instructions written on the outside.

It is 1969, and I am 12. When my grandfather takes us out to dinner, it is always to the cafeteria. At the end of the food line there are a half dozen black men dressed in starched white uniforms. They work for tips only. Three men carry our trays for us, and my grandfather gives one of the men a dime. It drives me absolutely out of my mind.

When my grandfather dies, more than anything else, I feel relieved that I no longer have to be a witness to his selfishness. But now, when Mom takes us to the cafeteria, she puts only a quarter on one of the men’s trays. She doesn’t even put it in his hand. She places it on the empty tray the man offers, just as my grandfather had.

The next time she offers to take us there, I refuse to go. My mother and I bicker about it. I insist the cafeteria is violating labor laws, getting something for nothing and is taking advantage of minorities. My mother insists the men are just carrying trays, for God’s sake. What do they expect for that? She asks, “Would you feel the same way if they were white men?”

“Absolutely. The cafeteria is getting free labor no matter what color they are,” I insist.

“Well then why do they do that job if they feel like they’re being taken advantage of?” she asks.

“Maybe they just need the money.”

“Well they should be glad they have a job. It took me months after your father died to find employment.”

It’s no use arguing with her, and I stand firm in my convictions. “Fine,” she says, “your sister and I will go, and you can stay home and fend for yourself.”

So I do stay home. I eat a peanut butter sandwich. With apple jelly. Cut in four squares, just the way I like it, and some apple and carrot slices.

Now it’s 1983. I am working in Saudi Arabia, and the mail, which is addressed to me at work, is the highlight of my day. I recognize my mother’s handwriting on the envelope and return to my office to read it.

My Dear Bill,
I have the unfortunate task of having to tell you we lost our dear Allene last night. Her house caught fire and she was trapped inside…

I weep hard, like a child, and my tears smear the ballpoint ink on the letter. After I was old enough to do so, I never visited Allene, even though I loved her and thought of her often. I was a teenager and was too busy misbehaving with my friends to pick up the phone and call her. I feel just dreadful; my guilt is immeasurable, and I’m consumed with sorrow. I can no longer picture Allene as the sweet, generous woman from my childhood. I can only picture her with a look of terror on her face as her rickety old clapboard house, in flames, engulfs her.

Today a copy of The Tall Book of Nursery Tales arrives in the mail. It is a sentimental find from eBay. When it arrives in the mail, I am happy to see that it is as beat up as our old copy had been. I leaf through it and admire the colorful illustrations. I sit down and read "The Three Bears." The words come back to me, but I don’t hear my mother’s voice or even my dad’s voice.

It’s Allene’s voice I hear.

Creative Commons License by Bill Wiley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.