Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Becca And Bernie


I was pissed off when I came to work that day anyway. I wasn’t even able to enjoy my bad mood much because I hadn’t had a shower for a week. Air conditioning and evaporative cooler start ups were on me in a rush because the weather was unseasonably hot, which was disturbing enough in itself without adding family stress, a mother with Alzheimer’s, a sister with Schizophrenia, and I have to be co guardian and co trustee with an absolutist authoritarian brother who just came down with a bad case of Jesus, the years of research I’d done become irrelevant in spite of or to spite my best efforts. Because he’s scared, I said. Because he’s greedy, I said, he had to go to the one place where he could have it all. Goes with the territory, I said. Go faster, I said, hell ain’t half full. That’s his line. O yeah, right, wrong again, excuse me for living.
One of the first jobs I had to do was for two old people who lived next door to each other, Becca and Bernie. Becca’s husband had died two years ago from emphysema. She’d quit smoking and gone through chemotherapy and made a better than usual recovery from chemo, but she’d lost interest in collecting Guatemalan art and just about everything except TV and solitaire. I asked her why she didn’t invite Bernie over to play cards now & then & she said,

“He’s too crude.” Which reminded me of a joke where the guy responds,

“What’s all this crude shit?”

Bernie’s bald, muscular and fat. He sits in his armchair or his wheelchair day after day, watching TV, thinking about how crappy his situation is, and getting drunk a lot. He had childhood polio and was paralyzed from the waist down so long his legs atrophied to the point they are now just bones covered with flaps of skin, and his feet are purplish puffballs with stubby toes sticking out. He’s very tight with his money but he gave his nephew Power Of Attorney over one of his checking accounts. The nephew got put in prison for child molestation and the State Of Texas drained the entire checking account to pay his child support. So Bernie got even drunker than usual and fell out of his chair, which is where I found him.

When I came in after working on the screen door, the reeking disposal, the lid switch for the washing machine, the blinds, two coolers needing work on the roof which also needed extensive repairs, it was dark and I was tired & had been ready to go home hours ago. I saw him sitting on the floor in front of his armchair & just thought he decided to do some exercises on the floor or something. He stumbled and fumbled around with his words for awhile and finally said,

“Young man,” (joking) “could you help me get up in this chair? And by the way could you get my cooler cover and put it over on my side of the fence? I’m afraid Berta’s gonna die.”


“Well she’s 87, and if she doesn’t die I will.” Yes, I thought, by god If my neighbor’s gonna die, the first thing I wanna take care of is to get my half rotten cooler cover over on MY side of the fence, because I’m not going through probate to get it back. But if I’m disgusted it’s because I’m just like him: invested in stupid little possessions and an animal body that can’t control its urges or excretions, and also I too am invested in the idea of family. For years I told myself if I just worked hard enough and long enough for what family I had left it would know me in some way that the word “family” always seemed to promise, but, o well, just don’t talk to me about family values. . .

I was a little surprised to hear him say Becca was dying. A lot of people would not have done nearly so well at surviving chemo. But, he said, she was getting thinner and thinner and didn’t seem to be in her right mind, at times. And then, he said, she started smoking again. It didn’t make any sense to go through all that and then suddenly reverse course.

I couldn’t lift him. I took the footrests off the wheelchair to try to use it as a lever and ramp to lift him, but I couldn’t even slide him up the slope of the wheelchair seat.

“I’m dead weight.” He said, “I’m a heavy motherfucker.”

I struggled for awhile with the weight and more than I wanted to see of naked white flesh as his underwear slid around. Then somehow I managed to help him crawl up into the armchair where he lay at a dreamlike angle for awhile waiting for his strength to come back. He’d shit on the rug and I had to roll it up and take it outside, meanwhile thinking: “Blood is thicker than water.” Ok and where does that leave us besides sitting on the floor in our own crap? So, why don’t you just get up from it, what’s stopping YOU? I asked myself.

“Being crippled up like this isn’t worth a crap.” He said.

Obviously I was in better shape than him and so couldn’t say anything back. But I felt sad, frustrated and exhausted. I wished I could take him down to AA and leave him there without transportation until they’d listened to and told him exactly what he could do with all his sad stories.

And then when I came in looking for a way to get power up on the roof, Becca asked,

“Dennis, do you ever do anything just to have FUN?”

Like she was going to fix everything up with a little cryptic feminine wisdom, while the terrible irony of her statement totally escaped her. I said,

“Well if I start having fun, tell me, because I want to make a note of it.”

And there she sat, smoking, playing cards, watching TV, just like her husband before he died, and her and ten to twenty other customers like her, the very reason I wasn’t doing anything else except just exactly what I was doing at that moment.

Trying to lift Bernie was like trying to lift the dead weight of all the sad all too solid human flesh in the whole damn dumb world. . I tried hard. So something was supposed to happen. I explained it all logically so somebody was supposed to listen. I got really sad so somebody was supposed to fix it. Yes all that was true but something was broke and crying inside me and just couldn’t stop. And there was a refrain from a songlike childhood joke that kept running through my mind:

“Is THAT what pissed you off?”

And the final answer was, “No, what really pissed me off was I hung from the window ledge all night with vomit freezing on me and dawn came and I looked down and saw my feet were six inches off the ground.”

But that never happened to me.


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