Bataan came to me, wiped out on whatever shit he had in stock that week. Sayin' he got a kid somewhere in Long Beach, ain't seen him since before the War. He had this scheme about breaking out of Rancho, but he needed help -- no way he could haul ass with his one arm. So we hatched this plan, hid oranges and crackers and sodas, stole a rope that they used to hold up the Christmas tree. So you got a address? I ask him. Not exactly, but I know it's off Lakewood Boulevard. Is he living with his mom? Must be, he says. We call information and ask for a Reba Evers in Long Beach. Sorry, no such phone number. Hey how about her maiden name? Oh, yeah, how about a Reba Mitsky? Sorry, I can't help you. But there was no going back, the escape was going down. How big can Long Beach be?
We picked the early morning Easter Sunday -- the wards would be on short shift, everybody stayin' out for church, catching a little redemption. At two a.m. the highways and the stores sure to be empty, one mile down Imperial to Lakewood, hang a right and a straight shot to the ocean. We packed our supplies in my saddle bag and eased out into the courtyard. Just a damn minute. I say. Bataan's losing his patience now. I give him a paper bag and he opens it: a brand new black leather glove -- right hand -- and a hard-sole left slipper. Got to be dressed spiffy for your kid, man. Then we put the rubber to the road.
On Easter they ast me to work a twelve hour shift, come in early an' let the Christians go home and do their resurrection thing. You know, they big day and shit. I ain't big on Jesus, like what he done for me? Been tinkering with the Muslims, you know, trying to make some sense of my black place in the world. So at two a.m. I gliding my Chevy into the parking lot at the Rancho and lo and behold there be two wheelchairs easing out onto Imperial Highway. I blind them with my brights, an' pull up next to them. The highway ain't no place for two crips be wanderin', you all get run over like a couple damn coons. Cyclops say shit man, the only coon around here is you. I kick his wheel, watch it boy, this coon goin' get rabid on you, bite your ass. I look at the stash of food hanging out Cyclops' saddle bag. You guys fixin' to escape? Relax, Blue-J, say Bataan, we ain't going AWOL. We'll be back, it's not like we got someplace else to go. Just want to see the sunrise from Signal Hill. You know, get a little inspiration. Easter and all that. You ain't going to turn us in to the authorities are you? say Cyclops. You're the Cath-man not the Po-lice-man, right? I eyeball them. You tell anybody at Rancho I seen you, they fire my black ass. Then I push you all and your wheelies in front of a damn Mack truck. Got that? They ease out on Imperial, Cyclops pulling on Battan, both them singing the Battle Hymm of the Republic. All the while Bataan slap-slappin the beat.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord ...
Damn if we didn't run into Blue-J pullin' an extra shift. So much for our great escape. Bataan lit up a reefer and we passed it around, the J's eyes getting bigger and bigger. Shit man, I say, cut us a break. I ain't seen real blacktop for five years, you got any idea what the road means to a biker? How many years has it been since Bataan seen his kid? You get out of here every day, 3:30 sharp. Then it's bright lights, big city. Ain't so bright as you think for a colored boy who can't read, Blue-J says. He slips us five bucks for the road. As we roll out he shouts One-Eye -- you're the ugliest motherfucker I ever seen. Ever. I shoot him my one-eye wink. Thanks, man, you just made my day.
Move'em out, says Bataan.
I tied the rope to his armrest, went about fifteen feet in front of him. Not exactly pulling -- he could really chug on his one cylinder. Just couldn't go straight. My rope pulled on the left side of his chair just enough to keep him headed north/south so he wouldn't have to drag his feet. At first we must've been making close to two miles an hour. Really motoring. Our two-man gang. The Road Warriors.
We began to run out of gas when the sun came up, maybe four miles down the highway. Then I got confused as hell. Lakewood Boulevard didn't look the same. What happened to all the orange groves? Shit, what's this? The Norwalk Mall? Parking lots? Horizon Apartments? Western Wind Ranch Homes, $2,000 down? Where are all the damn oranges? Lakewood's six fucking lanes wide. Bulldozers on the edges of some orchards that are still standing, resting on Easter day. Bonfires of trees still smoldering. Help me here, I say to Cyclops, did we make a wrong turn? Things're really different since the War, he says. All these crackers rolling in from Iowa and Wisconsin, up from Arizona and Texas. Hell-bent on living their dream in the California sun. Gotta have houses, nice place to shop. Malls is the future, my man. Yessir, heaven. Well, they still have their thousand acres of oranges at Rancho, I tell him. Yeah, a goddamn oasis, he says. In ten years it'll be a golf course, you watch.
Then Bataan sees something he knows, Archie's Donuts on Pioneer. Warm chocolate donuts and coffee. This tastes better than the ice cream cone I had when I got out of JapJail, says Bataan. Man, he was happy. You know we ain't going to find your kid, I tell him. Yeah, he says, but I won't die knowing I never tried. I put a quarter in the juke, and play Truck Drivin' Man five times. He chugs his coffee like it was the best damn cognac in the world. I got this idea he says -- what say we try to make it to the top of Signal Hill? There's still a Signal Hill, right? You're a crazy mother fucker, I say. Let's go for it. We look out the big bay window and see six cop cars swoop up, red lights spinning, blue lights blinking. I think they've come for us, says Bataan, a big shit-eating grin.
When they brought us back to the Rancho the place went wild, the returning heroes. Those who could clap, clapped; those who could, shouted; the rest shook their beds. Best Easter they ever had. Wish I'd had this welcome when I came home from the War says Bataan. Makes me want to go for it again. What are you doing July 4th?
Shit man. Piss! La chingada Nurse announced they're going to give me the catheter. To stop my antisocial behavior. Can you fucking believe that? What the hell is antisocial behavior? During one of my tie-downs this do-good gringo-ass orderly calls me a sinner. Says anyone who beats off in public should go straight to hell where the devil himself will cut off his balls and roast them on a spit. Was I supposed to take that shit? No way, man. All I did was throw my urinal at him. I missed the maricón for Chris' sake, wasn't even any piss in it. You'd do the same thing. Now you can take it two ways: nurse says: with your hands tied down, or nice and easy, cooperating. No fucking way you're going to stick something up my prick, bring it on puta.
I hate the first time I cath a man, something in him change. Hernandez done been a free dick for fifteen year; then the poor bastard up and lose it one day and they make him pay the price. One more prick on my to-do list. We bring in back-up -- no way this boy going to give up his boner to the cathman without no fight. We catch him off guard one nighttime, get his hands and feet tie down before he know what hit him. Like snaggin a rabbit when they ain't no moon. His head the only thing he can move, so he bang it on the mattress so hard everything shakin. He bite Timmons, the orderly trying to restrain him. How I gonna get the tube up his hole? We cut a small hole in a pillow case -- so's he can breathe -- slip it over his head. He know it over now. Finally I finish tubin' him, and we pull the pillow case off. His eyes look like horses eyes on my daddy's farm after they finally been broke. Except horses don't have no tears.
Spic and Span, say Timmons.
Next morning we untie boxer-man hands, and damn if he don't yank his catheter out, hollerin' like a possum in a trap. Blood all over the place. He been had forgot about the balloon.
I gave them a real fight the night cunt Nurse and Blue-J and their cobardes came to replace my natural-born plumbing with their goddamn plastic tubes. They brung over a couple orderlies from East, reinforcements. Me vs. six. One of the chingado orderlies says too bad my buddy, I guess that'll put a cramp in your jerking off. The dumb fucks still don't get it -- it's not really that I gotta get my rocks off -- I can't hardly feel nothing down there. It's about needing to fight. I went at least two rounds with those bastards that night. Damn! The crip still got it. Ladies and gentleman, the next welterweight champion of the world: El Conquistador!
Jodido pero contento. You got it, man: fucked but happy.
Breaking up is hard to do; breaking down is the end of you. Nobody touches you here. They handle you. They position you. They hoist you, prop you, flex you, they re-position you every two hours. Except for Pamela the orderly who works Thursday through Monday three to eleven. Second shift is bed-bath time, they soap you up scrub you down dry you off pat your thigh there you're clean as a whistle. Eight minutes flat. The nursing orders say apply Vaseline Intensive Care to the skin especially those areas that might break-down (let's drop our bed-sore rate, get the Health Commissioner off our backs, there's a rumor he's coming). Break-down: D-Cube's skin falls apart smells like rotten meat they keep cutting it away over there in Bed 16. Break-down: the milk-truck around the hair-turn curve, I braked too late sun in my eyes. Break up: Mara just walked away that Sunday, no official announcement, no I'm leaving now, no farewell ado alas my love, my mind wondering, wandering for three months. Then knowing one night staring at the starless ceiling. Pamela's homely by anyone's standards, close to fifty, buttons her blouse to the top, hair in a bun, not exactly five feet of heaven. But there are her hands. She drips the lotion onto my back, I can still feel cold, starts to work it in each palm along my spine, out towards the sides, oh yes right there just by my shoulder blade, moving from hips to neck, fingers walk between my ribs; now she kneads each shoulder, finds a knot rubs it away; now my elbow, now my palms, now each finger. One at a time. Next she attacks my flexures . Now there's a word for how my body folds in on it self trying to take up as little space as possible. Fetal. Adds more lotion, working it in I close my eyes just follow the perfect pressure of her hands. I can feel what I can't feel my arms relaxing straight now. She's in no hurry, please hands take your time. Do I have an erection when she rolls me over does it happen if I can't feel it? For five minutes she gives me back my body. So this is pleasure. I remember now. I want to tell her what it means to me, this memory renewed five days a week, these five minutes that I anticipate, I imagine. Does she know? I woke up last night dreaming of her no dreaming of her hands. Yes right there. Roll me over on my back, prop the pillows. Lights out. How do they do it, the sleepers? I am lost in the dark, my roadmap on the ceiling gone. I have nightmares about the curve. I wait for dawn when I can get my directions again, oriented. Then I sleep.
One day me an Bataan sit lunchin' in the courtyard him whippin' me in checkers like usual. He acting real inside hisself, Look at me funny and say J-Bird what does honor mean to you? Honor? I say. I ain't never really ponder that word. Doin' what right, I guess. That it: doin' what you gotta do. Then what's dishonor? Bataan say. Dishonor? Now he got me scratching my head. Now that a harder one, I tell him, seem to me it ain't so black and white. No, I don't agree, he say. Then he all quiet-like rest of the game.
Packing up the checkers, Bataan say do me a favor. Sure, you my man, what you need? He take off this medal hanging 'round his neck. Trash this, he say. Ain't worth a plug nickel, melt it down for tooth fillings. No way money can buy that thing I tell him. He pry open my hand. Just trash it, hear?
Back in the day when I still irrigating orchards 'stead of bladders, I find me a restin' rock down the lemon grove. To big to move, they done plow around it. Still there no way that thing gone move. Yet and still, when I tired or working up a blues song or just got to get away, come lunch time or end the day I go lie down on that rock. Let the sun bake me up. Come away ready to move on.
You think I gonna chuck that thing Bataan give me? I wrap it up in some gauze, lay it in a urine cup, tape the lid down tight. When my shift over I go walkin'. Blossoms gone, they sweet smell still linger, buds coming on, peepers in a irrigation ditch. Find my restin' rock. Take a stick and dig a tunnel, slide in the urine cup, tamp it all down. There.
One day Bataan goes crazy on me. Not happy fuck-the-world crazy like the day of our great escape; but crazy-crazy, losin-it-crazy, the kind of crazy that scares you. We'd motored out into the courtyard, time to catch some morning rays before the sun got too hot overhead, when we hear this thump against a window. What the hell was that? We look over and damned if this bird, maybe a sparrow, is flopping around on the ground, must've done a head-dive into the glass. Like it's having a seizure or something. You can tell by the crook in its right wing it's broken. It's flapping, trying to take off, but the bad wing just drags in the dirt while the good wing propels it in circles, one eye caked with dirt. Shit, man, I say, that poor mother'll never fly again. Bataan wheels over to the bird, reaches down between his legs and picks it up. So what do you think, what should we do with it? I ask.
He eyeballs the bird for a second, then bends over and jams it into the crease where his right wheel meets the cement. Then with one quick jerk of his right hand on the wheel he rolls over the bird and parks on top of it. This weird sound, a cross between a chirp and a gasp. What the hell are you doin' man! He lurches forward and backward, forward and backward. Three times, leaving the bird with this one-inch groove across its belly, guts coming out its beak
Jesus fucking Christ, man, what just happened! I'm yelling now.
You don't know me, you fucking one-eyed monster. Do you understand that? You don't know anything about me.
Bataan looks like a zombie. The loneliest damn zombie in the world.
Fever's down today. IV plugged into my arm. Must be the morphine. Floats me in a haze above the pain. Part of me dreaming, the other part is perfectly clear. Like that moment I stand on the diving board, back to the water, arms out, now bend my knees to flex the board, a slow rhythm, two-three-four, now ready for take-off. Completely silent up here on the board, like a dream, aware of everything. The sound of the board as I flex it the clouds behind the stadium the silent bleachers the exact moment when my feet leave the board. The moment, the perfect moment of take-off.
Something different this morning, I know it's morning by the light shooting down the hall, it would be something if the windows were stained glass. Not just the morphine. Nurse mumbling with orderlies at her station. They wheel me into the washroom and hose me down, nobody's talking. When I return to my bed my dresser is cleared, no photo of me on my dive, no Kleenex. Blue-J comes to replace my catheter, usually he chats it up, making jokes about how the nurse wants a piece of my circumcised penis. Today he isn't talking. Hey, where's my photo I muster a whisper. He puts his head down close to mine I don't know nothing about that he says maybe doing some housecleaning.
I done D-cube's prick more'en twenty years. Do the math. It's not like I just go in there, put on my gloves, wash him down and tube him. We talk. Ten minutes a day, that a lot of conversation. More than most friends. You learn a lot about a guy when you cath him, probably stuff nobody else around here know. Maybe that nobody nowhere know. Like D-Cube bein' a life guard down Laguna Beach one summer, try to save a kid who drown. How the kid mother cry a wild animal cry just like D-Cube mother done cry first time she seen him in the emergency room. How he tell me to wheel his bed over to Larkin Wray the year Larkin bottom out. Then he say forget it, what can I say to the kid? Look at me, things turn around? Like how he ast me how come all the cath-men at Rancho are Negroes -- white folks too good to touch another man's pud? And this coming from a Jewish. I never know a Jew until I come here. I tell him he got the shortest dick on the whole damn ward, do all you Jew-guys got puny pricks because your rabbi lop half it off? Over the years we laugh a lot.
One time I ask him hey man what you think about at night lying there and can't sleep? I got a small box of memories, he say, that the damn shame about bein' paralyze when you barely a man. How many memories can you collect by time you twenty-five? I ain't seen much, ain't got much imagination, other than the shapes I see on the ceiling, what I think the light telling me. Tell me about your most perfect dive, I say. He do. Man you must been something. Yeah, he say, something. Then he close his eyes.
I wonder if I should done ast that. You know, 'bout memories.
The most hard of all is the last cath, before they ship 'em off to B-South. Like I know they going before they know, but I can't say nothin'; wouldn't know how to anyway. Wag their dick and say hey man, it been swell? Then the next day they bed got a new inmate, a new dick. Hello, my name James Johnson, but you can call me Blue-J. Don't worry man, I really good at this. Relax, you ain't going feel a thing. So tell me about yourself. What a guy like you doing in a place like this?
You know my biggest fear? Dying alone like those grunts in Japan, crying for their mama. I wish to hell my son knew I came looking for him. Made it all the way to Signal Hill. Something I don't let myself wonder: if he ever came looking for me.
The white-uniformed painters start down at bed 1, rolling our beds into the middle of the ward two at a time, then working the ceiling with their cream-colored rollers. Then it's my turn. What I want to say, if I could say it, I'd say I beg you don't paint over those cracks above my bed -- nobody will notice. A perfect sunny day, the window's down Mara turns the map around looks like we'll be there in two hours look at those snow caps have you ever seen anything more beautiful? I'm thinking in two and one half hours we'll be making love again. They climb the ladders, I turn my head away and close my eyes. I can't remember any sounds of the crash, like watching a movie with the volume turned off. Finished, they roll my bed back in place line up the wheel with their marks on the floor, set the brakes. Did I hit the brakes? How can I not know that? I keep my eyes closed for the rest of the afternoon, finally lights out, no way will I be able to sleep tonight. Goodnight, sweet prince Mara whispered, sotted by wine and love.
Morning. I open my eyes and face the ceiling.
Pain that I had almost forgotten.
Fever's up again, halos around my eyes. Light's out, someone snoring. Or is that a train? Two dark shadows stand over me, do I know you? I'm soaked in sweat or is it a pool of pus? What's that smell? For the first time I smell my own stench, so that's what they've been putting up with. I need to talk, my mouth stuffed with cotton, morphine gauze. It's true what they say: smell is the last sense to go. Who are you? An echo. Am I talking to myself? Can you hear me? Something about Jimmy and Steve. Orderlies. Or orders? The bed jerks, like a train leaving the station. Are we going somewhere? Two conductors, one passenger. Next stop? .Where are you taking me? Silence. You think I don't know what this is about? Can't you come back tomorrow morning? Sir? The shadow smells of perfume. Come back to morrow I want to say good bye to my friends. Sorry, sir, our orders are to bring you over now.
Orderlies don't make order. They take them.
Bring me over. Where's Blue-J? Blue-J! BLUE-J! Deaf conductors. Dead conductors? Is this heat or chills? On the ceiling: a wheel roles down a mountain. Faster, faster.
They're wheeling me. Twenty-six years here, nobody ever called me Sir. Past Finley's, Larkin's, Hernandez, all asleep. According to plan. Orders. The nurses' station, radio playing under water. You don't remember me/ but I remember you/ Tears on my pillow/ Pus on my sheet. Odors. Turn. The ceiling blurring by, the water stains are a forest fire, the snake has gone into its hole.
Hey! Wait a minute, just a goddamn minute, stop this fucking bed! A police officer chasing down my abductors? Conductors? Arrest these men, sir, take me home. It's me Cyclops. His hand on my hand. His eye a crater, a bed sore. God is he ugly. Eye sore. Boiling over. Hey man he garbles. There's a crime in progress, they're stealing me. If I had one wish. Time-lapse storm clouds on the ceiling rushing by, bright light sucking me along. To have died there on the rocks of Laguna Beach after that perfect swan dive. Who are you, where are you taking me? People crying in horror and grief. Take care hums Cyclops his hand slips off mine I drift away. To be remembered with my back arched against the sky. Under water. He's drowning, or I am. Not this.
Damn, I should have shaved D-Cube one more time, that's what I should'a done. They could have told me they were taking him away, not just roll him out in the middle of the night, going to his last stop with his face all bristled like that. That ain't right.
And Larkin, he hasn't let me shave him for two weeks. Come on, man, I tell him, I just oiled my Remington and sharpened her blades, smoothest shave you'll ever imagine. He just nods no. Eyes staring nowhere.
Can't fucking sleep tonight. Mierda! Now that I'm cathed my fighting days are over. Viva el Conquistador. So I get all tensed up, ain't got no release, got trouble sacking out. No more sweet dreams. Please Saint Michael, just let me sleep for Chris' sake . Lyin' here counting the welterweight champions: Sugar Ray -- the best ching&oacture;n ever and all class; then there was Kid Gavilan -- man he moved like a black panther, ese gato negro; Johnny Saxton -- definitely not in the same league as the other guys; and Carmen Basilio -- uglier than sin and moved like a bulldozer, but that wop could fight. Yeah.
What's that? Slap slap. Bataan motoring up the ward. On his usual rounds, right on schedule, making sure the troops are locked down. There's a little light tonight on account of the moon. Bataan pulls up to Larkin's bed. Now he's whisperin' something. I lift my head and see him open a medicine bottle and slip something into the Lark's mouth, like Father Cardone used to do at Mass with the wafers. Larkin sips from the straw, Bataan holds the bottle. Then another wafer, another sip, another wafer. What the fuck? Jesus Mary, this ain't no communion. Then another, and another. Least thirty in all. Some more whispering. Bataan parks about fifteen minutes, squeezes Larkin's hand, then rolls out.
Amen, man. Amen.
* * *
All aboard! All aboard B South.
Last stop along the line
Give me your ticket, yessir
If you run out of tryin'
Mister conductor he all red-eye
Last call. Last call for the dyin'.
* * *
Gotta walk. Sun goin down early, being January. Trying to make sense of the winter an' this place, people coming people going. Find my rock. Light cutting through the trees, stucco on the Rancho catch the sun-set, turn pink. White coroner truck back up to the bay on B-South, engine idlin'. Lights on the west wing go on all golden. Look warm in there. Two doors slam, coroner truck drive away.
Where they taking Larkin, where they putting him? They shoulda have a grave yard here at the Rancho, give him a proper burial. After all, this where his people is, this his home.
-- Mark Lyons
The Piker Press moderates all comments.
Click here for the commenting policy.