"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Don't Rush Me, I'm Dying

"Conscience is the mirror of our souls"

My life has been void of anything that could be described as carefree since the age of eleven. A dark cloud of doubt having hung over my head since that age. I found myself unable to apply rose colored tint or to cast off a sense of gloom. Nevertheless, I threaded my way through life, determined not to be a buzzkiller.

I had just spent eleven years working maintenance at a retirement apartment complex, I had seen, smelled and endured every disagreeable thing you could imagine. My self deprecating  condition and generally sour outlook had served me well on the job.

While that place was advertised as a close knit community, all too often it was the last stop as a tenant once told me "before the nursing home or the mortuary." Most preferred dying to a nursing home, and when phone calls and doorbells went unanswered, I was the point man sent in to investigate.

One man had been dead for at least seven days (thank God the air conditioner was running the entire time) I caught the distinct smell of death as soon as I opened the door. I turned to his niece and told her "Stay here, this doesn't look good"

He was laying face down in the bedroom, butt naked... all his bodily fluids had drained into the carpet. His niece walked in behind me, we both stared at the body, she broke the silence by saying, "His son came by to see him two weeks ago and he turned him away."

"For as one star another far exceeds, So souls in heaven are placed by their deeds"

Bob Jones kept a motion activated bullfrog on his porch that would croak loudly whenever anyone approached his front door. For this reason I called him Froggy, he drove me to distraction with his questions whenever I worked on his apartment.

Bob passed away in his sleep. A creature of habit, his neighbors quickly reported that he hadn't been seen nor his porch light turned off. (there was a casual understanding with tenants, that a porch light left on during the day was cause for investigation) We found him in bed, laying on his back, his eyes were closed, his final expression was one of peace and serenity.

My boss felt for a pulse, there was none, she called 911 as I stood vigil. Bob had been a tail gunner on a B-17 during World War II, I could only imagine all the fleeting moments of terror he must have endured as his squadron flew missions over Germany. In return, his reward was a dignified and peaceful passing.

The one that broke my heart was the one that was least expected. Gladys, a diminutive woman slipped and fell while bathing, she was close enough to pull the cord to a panic alarm installed in all the bathrooms. I responded to the call and found her naked on the floor.

Rushing to cover her I could hear her gasping for air, I tried to comfort her while waiting for the ambulance. "It hurts so bad and I'm scared" she spoke in a soft whisper. I tried to reassure her "Gladys, help is on the way.. we've called for an ambulance" She asked for water, I fed her sips from a paper cup that my boss had filled.

"I'm so scared, I don't want to die" she moaned, I almost scoffed at her "You're not going to die, help is here." The paramedics had arrived. Gladys died three days later, from a broken hip... a broken hip! I hardly knew her but it was a soul crushing experience.

Ken Scales was a boastful, bullying, jackass of a Texan. He had got together with a quiet woman named Billie. However, with Ken being so abusive and manipulative, the relationship soured. Billie moved to Oklahoma and Ken was left to mope around the apartment they once shared.

One morning his neighbor Peggy called me over, "Ken's been sniffing around my backdoor at night" she said "He's trying to find himself another gal" I laughed and told her "Good Luck with that", the feisty woman sneered, "I'll shoot him in the ass, if he's not careful"

The following day, Peggy called the office, no one had seen Ken exit his apartment and his porch light was still on. I accompanied my boss to Ken's apartment, when he didn't answer the door we let ourselves in. He was laying on the bed, two pill bottles were on the night table, along with a note and his wallet.

He appeared to be dead, but was still warm and had a strong pulse. What was really bizarre is that he was cradling an alarm clock in his arms. As my boss started to dial 911, the alarm went off it was 8:15 am. The sound of the alarm startled both of us, Cindy (my boss) let out a scream. Ken did not respond, I removed the clock and shut off the alarm.

As we waited for the ambulance, I picked up the note and read it, "I cannot live without Billie, I don't want to be alone~ Ken S." I folded the note and put it back on the table. "What an asshole" I thought to myself. Once the paramedics arrived, I exited the apartment.

Peggy was outside supervising, "Is he Alive?" she asked, "Yep!" I drawled, "Why did Cindy scream" Penny inquired, "An alarm clock, went off" I told her, then without missing a beat she dryly added "Did the sonofabitch wake up?" I snickered "He did, but I hit the snooze button" Peggy grimaced "Smartass!" I heard her say as I turned to leave.

 "For every moment of triumph, for every instance of beauty, many souls must be trampled"

Often while waiting for Polly, I pondered in dull contemplation, the path my life had taken.  I'm no angel of mercy yet death seemed perched on my shoulder like a fucking bloated albatross. My  attempt at leaving that part of my life behind had brought me full circle.

Polly was the first client I picked up. When I mentioned this to the guy training me, he wrinkled his nose and exclaimed "Oh man! she smells bad, that's a tough one to start out with." Just how bad could it be I thought to myself. It turns out that Polly lived thirteen miles out of town, in a travel trailer without any hot water. The only running water she had came from a garden hose stretched between her modest home and a nearby house.

She was surrounded by an untold number of cats, several dogs and a dozen roosters and hens. My co-worker's warning was right on the money. I discreetly rolled my window down and then cracked a back window open to allow for a flow of fresh air. I soon caught on that if I opened the windows once Polly was in the car, she would protest. If I did it before I pulled up to her house, she didn't notice.

I complained to my manager, but she advised me to "Get used to it, if we don't give her a ride another company will." Picking her up at 7a.m. became the bane of my existence. I would arrive at 6.45 sharp every time and then she would have wait fifteen minutes while she fed her animals. Invariably after dialysis she would ask me to stop by the grocery store. This meant another twenty minute wait, usually in the heat of the day.

Polly was an excellent conversationalist, a skill that could instantly disarm my impatience. She had once lived a communal lifestyle in Glorieta and Santa Fe. Having raised poultry all her life, she was  knowledgeable about all the different breeds which she loved to talk about. I knew that her condition and circumstances pained her, but through it all I never heard her complain or appear discouraged.

"Life itself is but the shadow of death, and souls departed but the shadows of the living"

Dispatch would always squeeze in as many riders as they could, which left precious time between pick-ups. On this day, I got a call to pick Polly up from dialysis at 4:00 p.m., which was much later than her usual return time. There had been complications and they had rushed her to hospital and then returned her to the dialysis center. For  Polly it had been a long day.

I helped her into the car, once I got on the road she asked if I could stop at the grocery store. "It'll only take a few minutes" she explained. I started to object, but immediately felt like a real shithead for doing so. When she returned I helped with her bags and then apologized for my impatience. She just smiled and said "Would you like an ice cream?" 

For a few minutes we traveled in silence. Then Polly spoke "Dialysis just buys us a little bit of time." I nodded my head. "We're just cheating death, is all" Pulling into the driveway, I saw her husband coming out to greet her. As Polly gathered her bags, she smiled and said "See you next time." My next two scheduled pick-ups were cancelled because Polly had been rushed to the emergency room overnight.

Two weeks later I pulled in to the dialysis center and one of my co-workers asked if I had heard about Polly, which I hadn't. "She died last night" he said. Polly did have a knack for being right about things. I stayed on the job for two more months. Over that period of time two more of my dialysis clients passed away. It was disheartening.

Friday, February 3, 2012

~ And in Arcadia I Am ~

I grew up on a farm in the irrigated plains of  Southern New Mexico. A desert landscape, yanked from it's dry barren state and coaxed to produce cash crops. Though, if was not the paradisaical Arcadia of myth, it did have its splendor. 

To this day... I ask myself if it was real. The memory of it still haunts me. It  was a different time and another world. A setting straight from the pages of a Steinbeck novel, as if illustrated by the brushstrokes of a French realist. 
The migrant workers appeared overnight, at least one hundred. They had arrived in a caravan of old cars and trucks. It was a disheveled and unwashed bunch, desperate looking men, tired women and sad eyed children.

They traveled in thirty day cycles as they followed the cotton harvest from California to Texas. In the Golden State they picked the Upland variety and when that ran out the flow of humanity moved east as the Pima bolls popped open in Arizona and New Mexico.

The single men were housed in dilapidated barracks, salvaged from a nearby Army Air Field. Those long buildings were a reminder of a time when an even larger number of workers would harvest the crops. Already an era had passed and a generation of workers vanished, to be replaced by the next. 

The men with families lived in camper trailers or camped alongside their vehicles. A sense of gloom gathered in the air over the cotton fields as workers shouldered their long bags and plucked the cotton, one fluffy boll at a time. By the next season, machines would do the work, but for now time had stood still. 

At times my father would drive a bus. In the morning he would swing over to the barracks and pick up the workers and deposit them at various fields. I would sit behind him, taking it all in. The men would board the bus, some  cheerful others sullen, but without exception they would greet me with affection. I became a mascot of sorts.

On this day, there was a buzz of excitement. The men had kicked in for a raffle, there was a cash prize, a wrist watch and a clock radio. As chances were sold, the excitement built up. That day after work my dad hustled me to the barracks, I was the good luck charm selected to draw numbers out of a hat. 

The cash prize winner rewarded me with a fifty cent piece, I was flush with joy. They had set up a boxing ring in the center of the barracks, several boxing matches were scheduled for later that night. I foolishly stepped into the ring with an older boy from town and suffered a bloody nose that bled for what seemed like an eternity. 

The men chastised the boy and offered him a match with someone his own size. He started crying and couldn't apologize enough, but it was my fault, I had my guard down... lesson noted.

I've been living on borrowed time since I nearly stepped into the path of an oncoming car on a two lane road in the Gila Forest. I was about five years old, by a stroke of luck someone pulled me out of harm's way at the last possible instant.

I cheated death, a fact that I've never been able to ignore. I went about my childhood with the knowledge that somewhere another boy died in order to fill the quota for that day. It was my quick and easy ticket off this world and I missed it. 

As a child, I caught the tail end of an era... The timing of my birth was perfect, by accident of said birth, I was too young for Vietnam. I enlisted in the armed forces after high school and waited for my generation's defining moment... it never came. 

In frustration or relief, I drank and drugged my way through the terms of my enlistment before returning to civilian life, slightly worse for wear.

I won't die before I get old, I won't live fast and die hard, I will not leave a good looking corpse, nor will my passing be noted. They won't play taps or carefully fold the flag into a perfect triangle. I will transition from this life to another without fanfare. 

A life spent in quiet desperation, humble, pensive and with few regrets is all that I'm entitled to and all that I've ever asked for. Life will come to pass as it has for countless generations. The fields are now fallow, the desert as it always has, is restoring the natural order.