The funky smell is always penetrated & acknowledged first. Hotdogs & mashed potatoes & wet carpet & industrial disinfectant & plastic toys & usually pee & sometimes poop. Hardly noticeable to Teri anymore except during that first stride through the glass door at the end of the hall. Like entering an aquarium from one end — a heavy piece of glass that swings out then re-seals. The interior air like water that doesn't escape & stays shaped like a long rectangular box circulated through a filter of some sort but is never exchanged w/ the atmosphere outside.
State ward for profoundly retarded severely disabled children — not a grand imposing concrete castle on an endless lawn but just a contracted-out wing of a suburban convalescent hospital 2/3 still geriatric. That last long wing is now home to young & juvenile morons & idiots. Walls painted sky blue w/ friendly fluffy clouds. Filtered sun comes through the glass doors to warm the first few feet of sea blue pee & poop & sometimes vomit stained carpet.
After high school graduation fifteen years ago Teri's part-time job as a hospital housekeeper became geriatric nurse-aide w/o a raise in minimum-wage pay. Since then a lot of changes like w/o consent impregnated w/ a child who stuck around 8 years more or less then chose to live w/ the source of sperm — but the job in one form or another remains & remains part-time. Three years ago a half-empty wing of the geriatric facility was not recarpeted but cleaned & painted & cribs purchased then idiots brought in by ambulance one by one. Idiot is a medical term. There are other medical terms on their charts — syndromes disorders palsies.
Every two rooms share a bathroom every bathroom has a toilet & sink & mirror no tub. A tangled ball of sheets & towels on the floor at the start of every afternoon shift left by the a.m. aides. Cows who work full time from 6 to 3 then go bowling or to bingo either waiting for their navy husbands to come home from westpac or spending weekends washing motorcycle grease from garage jumpsuits. At work watch soaps & game shows on the B&W TVs which every room in the hospital has one of. Teri changes both her TVs to reruns of Rawhide then Leave it to Beaver then I Love Lucy then Rockford Files then Mary Tyler Moore then Unsolved Mysteries. Four hours of TV shift over. Every bed changed every child diapered twice or more p.r.n. every stomach filled every poopy diaper rinsed before being flung down the chute every lunch-crusted t-shirt peeled away & likewise down the chute w/ the sheets & towels. Potatoes creamed peas dried milk pureed meat washed from creases in necks navels & crotches s.o.s. Skin lotioned & powdered. Arms & legs wrestled into clean t-shirt or nightgown or footed pjs then restrained or otherwise strapped in bed w/ rail up & blanket available for night shift to repeatedly replace over twisting or deathly still body. Shift over.
But it's also 4 hours 5 days a week w/ Danny. He's 9/yrs wears diapers & creeps around on his stomach on the floor. Once they nicknamed him snake but it didn't stick there's no scary ominous peril when you see him slithering. He's had a few other nicknames too — poopbutt & little man & girl because he's pretty & he screams. Mostly he's scooterboy. He has crossed eyes & legs that look like twisted pipecleaners & brown spots on his big crooked teeth & long blond curls & a little blue wheelchair. He spends a lot of time screeching while strapped in the wheelchair w/ the wheels locked. He also has braces & spends a lot of time screaming while wearing those too. On the floor legs free but useless he laughs & chortles & rubs his cheek against people's ankles then bats a big rubber ball watches it go & chases it traveling arm over arm faster than you'd think possible.
At the sink between two rooms Teri contemplates how a face lift would smooth out creases running from the corners of her nose down toward the corners of her mouth. Four pieces of sliced hotdog & 3 green beans huddle at the bottom of the toilet where someone rinsed a bib after lunch. Toilets Are Not Trash Cans the sign above the tank says so it will be flushed after Teri pees or as soon as she checks which of her 8 kids have pooped since the a.m. shift left or had already pooped before that but the cow decided not to delay clocking out thinking let the p.m. part-timers do it. Other p.m.'s besides Teri are mostly college girls coming in after school. Three times she's passed up a move to the a.m. full time shift to continue earning unreported cash in the morning mowing lawns & trimming bushes. The year-round California sun is hell on her face which stays white around the eyes from sunglasses & elsewhere growing leathery. Her workmate of 2 years & new roommate of 2 months Cleo uses Oil of Olay — Teri's seen it in the bathroom but hasn't asked Cleo what made her think to plan ahead at 22/yrs. Cleo's station is the 2 rooms across the hall w/ 8 slightly younger kids who are slightly smaller than Teri's even though Cleo's not smaller. Actually she out-weighs Teri because she has bigger boobs. Cleo lucked-out & got group 2 when she was hired — not the babies but next group up — when the group 2 aide quit 2 years ago. Teri still has group 3 which includes Cheryl 14/yrs & she plays w/ her yellowish diarrhea which she has every day even though she eats a chopped not pureed diet.
But Teri also has Danny. Experimenting w/ tongue & teeth some of his sounds are almost words & enough brain to be capable of boredom unless entertained & can't be mollified w/ a blabbering TV or wind-up musical crib ornament — he needs action & adventure a real boy a boy's boy.
The TV in the room on the right hasn't been changed yet — the Jeopardy song counting down. On the left the TV she's already switched Clint Eastwood as Rowdy in Rawhide talks quiet sense before he punches someone out. She pees & flushes & is washing her hands when Cleo slips silently on crepe soles into the bathroom puts her hands on Teri's shoulders turns her around leans against Teri's forehead w/ her own — noses squished together & Cleo's mouth talking w/ lips touching Teri's lips. "He's here."
"What's he like?"
"Barely looked. His pants make whizzy sounds. He's calling a meeting right now."
"We haven't changed anyone yet."
"You haven't. Mine're done." Cleo picks up the bundle of linen. "I'll take these out for you. They're not your clean ones are they?"
"Har-de-har. I'll be right there. I'm going to do Danny first."
She sings There was a crooked man who walked a crooked mile while loosening the strings on the heavy white shoes attached to the ends of his hip-to-ankle stainless steel & soft leather w/ sheepskin padding braces. He has to be distracted. If he knows the braces are being readied he'll curl his foot like a fist & nothing will fit — the shoe impossible to tie the brace impossible to lock into place. So after the braces are gaping open she changes his diaper first. Just wet. Still singing now also tickling his tummy & ribs kneeling astride his no bigger than a four-year-old body her back to his face. He pounds on her back w/ his strong hand & laughs not realizing she's pulling the braces closer. Tickling his foot relaxing it slipping it into the shoe while her finger continues to tickle her voice continues to sing. At the last second her middle finger flicks his toes straight & the shoe is on quickly laced. His face puckers but a piercing finger into his armpit makes him giggle & forget to scream so the other foot relaxes too. Once the shoes are on the rest is easy except the force required to straighten the crooked legs & lock the metal rigidly in place so his knees & feet actually face forward.
She holds his hands & stands him up. "Dance with me, Little Man." One of his legs is shorter but no provision built into the bottom of the shoe. So he only stands on one foot unless she tips him. His face getting ready to scream but obviously also wondering if he should laugh. But Danny's no fool — doesn't want to be immobile & the scream will win out after Teri has to leave him to change the other kids. A towel for a rope she ties his straightened body to a wide scooter-board w/ small wheels so he can crawl w/ the same arm over arm motion. But it's more difficult to crawl when he's on the scooter not the same leverage for his arms two inches higher off the carpet. He hits the ball & stares cross-eyed after it then bends face to the floor to dig in & chase it.
Teri goes the other direction looking back once. Danny is watching her then abandons the ball to follow. He's still halfway down the hall when she goes into the new therapy room at the end of the ward.
Cleo & the 6 other p.m. aides are already there at the far end of the room sitting on round bolsters or pillows on thick floor mats. But no one's in the lone granny-like rocking chair which is usually in Teri's room across the hall but someone has moved it here & it's on the linoleum floor like a lectern facing the circle of girls on the mats. Teri sits beside Cleo sitting alone upright on the edge of the waterbed that butts up against the mats. The other aides talk about their new fall schedules at college & new men they've been seeing & cars they're thinking of buying & where they've found hospital smocks half price & how the a.m. shift has powdered half the kids instead of changing them again & the 17-year-old boy in group 8 was been left in bed all day & is masturbating.
The hinges creak & the new director of programming squeezes himself through the barely opened door. Not tall & slightly doughy w/ powder blue & white checked shirt. Once inside he pushes the door all the way open & leaves it. "What do you think of the new room?" A peculiarly high voice sweet & mellow. Behind him Danny pulls himself into view & stares into the room then turns his head & closes his eyes w/ effort. Swivels & drags the scooter holding his body off the hall carpet & onto the linoleum floor.
"As you heard in the memos last week, I'm the new program director for the children on this ward." A black organizational notebook held under one arm like a clutch purse. Pasty skin hasn't seen the sun in maybe forever & looks like he'd be clammy to the touch. "My name is Frank Bishop, and here on the ward I'll ask you to play a little game called Frank and Earnest. I'll, of course, be Frank, and you'll be Earnest." No one laughs & it looks like instead of blushing he'll only get a thready spiderweb of veins on his cheeks if anyone wanted to be close enough to look. "Anyway, I'm here because the state has determined that these children warrant more than basic care. Their conditions are all being reviewed by physical and occupational therapists to plot their individual programs." Eye sockets that look too small being stretched as wide as they go for washed-out blue eyes to be able to see through. Hair drained of color or too short & neatly combed to tell. "Those deemed suitable for therapy will have, in their charts, a specific goal and set of instructions for therapy, and the nurse aides, both morning and afternoon shifts, will do a daily therapy session with each child, charting results and progress at least once a week. And let me tell you in advance, we've only been preliminarily assessed. The more progress the state sees, the more money will be allocated when the programs are re-assessed in three months." Teri waits to see if a dark sweat spot will start to grow where the notebook is still pressed into his armpit creasing the fresh pressed shirt. He's right behind the rocking chair & Danny's behind him until he comes around & sits in the chair & crosses his legs. Cleo was right his pants make a zippery sound because they're fat-ribbed corduroy the kind you see on European men w/ loafers & looks right on them. Maybe they'll call him Whiz-Kid but it looks like he's so bland no nickname will stick. Notebook now resting on his knees he opens it & shuffles through papers. Employee schedules lists of residents state assessment results therapy consultant phone numbers therapy schedules. Assembled arranged typed graphed charted. Each aide receives a schedule for her group those days & hours they are to use the therapy room & the rest of the time therapy is to take place in their own rooms.
"Individual therapy programs are being placed into each of the patients' charts," he repeats. Lifting one leg to cross it over the other the corduroy zips & the notebook tilts almost dumping many multi-colored sheets on the floor but one hand slaps down like squashing a fly & catches everything in place. "There's fine motor and gross motor, tactile awareness, aural awareness, we have a few children who'll do colors and letters, plus the occupational therapies, chewing, swallowing, toilet training, etcetera. And physical goals, rolling over, clapping, bending knees, crawling."
"No playing baseball?" Cleo asks w/ hand raised but she speaks simultaneously w/o being called on. "No teaching them to pitch and slide?" Teri crashes backwards onto the waterbed making waves that cause Cleo's head to bob. Many of the aides laugh a sound like spitting or sneezing. Danny's no longer in danger w/ fingers no longer too close to the rocking runners of the wooden chair because he's gone under the circular table that has cut-out slots for wheeling a kid close enough so the table surface comes around the sides of a wheelchair — & he's out the other side trying to reach a blue plastic crate full of multicolored plastic toys inches too high on a shelf & he shrieks like a parrot in guileless frustration. He does manage to grab a stuffed bunny obviously donated second hand & the victim of a thousand trips through the washing machine. It doesn't go very far when he bats it like a ball.
Mr. Bishop says "You'll be called therapy aides now. The nurse is still in charge of their basic health and you'll do those duties as before and follow any instructions she gives you. But we're going beyond basic care now."
"Are we getting paid more?" someone asks. The someone wasn't Cleo who's now flat on her back beside Teri. The someone also wasn't Teri who's busy using her hips to help Cleo keep the waves moving on the waterbed.
"You'll still be working the same number of hours, so ...."
"No, in other words," Cleo says to the blue ceiling.
"I have nothing to do with how you're paid. You're employees of this hospital, and I'm not an administrator of the hospital. The hospital has a contract to maintain this ward for the state. That includes all the types of care the state decides are mandatory."
Danny shrieks higher shriller because the bunny's faded floppy ears are wedged under one of his wheels & he can't move forward or back.
"So when're we supposed to change the beds, change the kids, give baths, feed them, and all the rest. It takes me 2 hours to feed mine." That's the baby-group aide. Once Teri had come in on a day off to do the baby group when the regular aide was sick. They do take forffuckingever to feed. They have no concept of eating it runs out of their mouths & down their chins. Danny now screaming nonstop contorts & twists his body until he manages to roll to his back like a turtle four wheels up in the air. He's in a patch of sun laid across the linoleum by the sliding glass door that opens to a patio & lawn & unused playground.
Mr. Bishop glances at Danny while saying maybe as loud as his delicate voice can get "I believe your group has the least time-consuming therapy. Mostly aural and tactile awareness. And I believe chewing and swallowing will be part of their programs as well."
They begin talking between Danny's shrieks as his vocalizations turn rhythmic gathering air screeching gathering air & grinning roguishly while he rests.
"Where'd you work before this?"
"I was an aide like you at a hospital for retarded adults."
"So you hit the administrative big time?" Cleo's voice crisp like snapping clean sheets before they float down onto the mattress.
"I worked there for ten years."
"Hey, I've got a hydrocephalic who only has a brain stem."
"Each child has been assessed. Not all of them will get therapy."
"What about the boardboy?" Cleo's voice dry like cutting paper w/ an arm across her eyes the other across her nose & mouth still thrusting hips to make the waterbed slosh higher. Looking sideways Teri can recognize Cleo's smile even w/ most of her face covered. Danny's not boardboy but scooterboy. He plays patty-cake which Teri taught him last year palm of his good hand beating the back of his weak hand.
"I expect there'll be many individual questions as you read the programs being placed in the charts, so it'll probably be best for me to answer specific concerns as they come up." Mr. Bishop rocks forward & uncrosses his legs then presses his knees together to make a flat surface & pats the papers in the notebook straight.
"Hey, can we go?" Cleo abruptly sits upright. "If I don't get enough diapers and sheets when the laundry comes down, someone'll be sleeping in a peepool."
Now some color in his face Bishop's cheeks are pinkish but his lips thin & bloodless. Before he says anything everyone gets up & leaves anyway because the afternoon cart full of diapers towels & sheets is waiting at the nurse's station & it's a free-for-all to get as much linen as you can. Armed for battle against bodily fluids Cleo calls it wheeling her own tray table piled w/ stiff white diapers & thin white towels & even thinner white sheets back to her rooms. Teri has an equal hog's portion & they'll share later on if either has a catastrophe of spilled food vomit urine feces or mucus. They talk almost constantly at work about work or at the laundromat where they do Danny's clothes w/ theirs but no rap sessions around the living room of the little house in the backyard of a bigger house & no talk ever about what Cleo does all day besides the 4 hours of part time bottom-of-the-food-chain work nor about Teri's former daughter. Who's to say Teri didn't deserve what she got — not from the sperm donor but from the child who became priceless only after she was gone. Maybe Teri didn't deserve the girl in the first place since she's so concerned now about who's telling her to do what w/ someone else's abandoned defective kids but she had never once thought to worry that the healthy whole girl she carried to term would choose not to have a mother.
therapeutic (an excerpt)