An old man gets on a crowded bus and no one gives him a seat. As the bus shakes and rattles along, his cane slips on the floor and he falls down. After he drags himself upright, a seven-year-old kid, sitting nearby, turns to him and says—
That’s the setup, says the nurse in charge of pep a/k/a Human Enhancement Therapy. In acknowledgment of the sleep status of the elderly, she says she’ll tell us the punch line at our discharge. None of us leaning on our walkers, not even the kid in the wheelchair who has floor privileges, who zips down the halls and turns, as he says, on a half dollar, pleads for more. The idiot nurse takes our silence as a cue to rib us: Skydiving, anyone?
She likes to make fun of us and our therapy challenges. It is not merciful, it is not PC, it is not fun, and we shuffle or wheel or cane ourselves away, back to our cells. But such escape isn’t total: I return to a roommate. She is “in” for a stroke, but that is the least of her diagnoses. She offers as blossoms her feet in soft casts, twenty-seven operations worth, after being hit by a car in a parking lot ten years earlier. But she does not break out in the Safety Song, something that the pep nurse had presented at orientation as suitable for amusement outside the confines of rehab.
Yeah, right, she says, safety. I’m a frequent crier, not a frequent flyer. To go with the rouge on her cheeks, she has vixen red hair and bed wear no car could miss without intent. In her sixties, she relives the era with a hippy Mexican lover who bears the weary expression of a man expecting to inherit.
Bed-resting with a broken hip, I have to say resistance, in general, is our M.O. Rehab is not all major bone breaks and brain-injured disorientation, but also the mendaciousness of the almost-mended, liable to rebellion. She and myself and sneaker-ready grandmothers and pulled-back mechanics and ex-cheerleaders still have other lives in our bodies, not to mention strong wills banked with the fire of pain. So when she refuses to provide a urine sample and holds her pee as long as she can and only in the dead of night ambulates herself—a miracle—to the toilet, I am bemused, even sympathetic. Caught with her pants down the second night by a vigilant Redbulled nurse, she cuts off the flow and flashes a disingenuous smile. I, sorely awakened, witness that smile—asserting that she contains no more. Two hours later, the a.m. nurse, a tall and nonsense-less type, waves the order for the sample in her face and shrieks. Force is also possible with that nurse, although I do not see it, but she at last prevails, the sample procured, held aloft, dripping in triumph.
Sleep is not an option for me anyway, what with her television not solely murmurous background. When it is revealed, through innuendo and compliment, that she wants possession of my orchid at the moment of my exit, I strike a deal: TV to ten, and as soon as my rehab is finished, the orchid.
How do cripples make love? They rub their crutches together.
A hospitalist appears at my bedside every morning with a tragic face as if he’s just rolled in on a gurney himself. He hasn’t been outside the confines of the hospital for over a month, has no hobbies, he says, and he’s just read a study that says you die without at least one. He fears death-without-hobbies, and thus he is sad. He says this sadness won’t go away, that it has nothing to do with the lack of natural light, or the rules that prevent him from receiving therapy from less handicapped patients such as myself. Huh? I say, I’m no therapist, and short on pity with regard to his lack of outside stimulus, given his pay scale.
But the truth is, I am enjoying myself and this rest from the ambulatory world full of fools skipping over cracks and jumping from airplanes and second stories, and never ever landing on their hip. Then my roommate begins hyperventilating, something you can still do at her age if your feet have been too recently operated on, you can hold your breath because there is so little of it. What she wants, she tells the nurse between gasps, is to return home for only one hour to do her books. What could be simpler? For two weeks she’s been in the custody of the ICU, and those bills do pile up. Someone is surely going to repossess her car or her mini-fridge if she doesn’t get to go home to re-occupy her desk, and her little Social Security will never cover the overdue penalties. No, her lover can’t sign for her, he knows nothing about where she puts anything, and she wants to keep it that way.
Neither the p.m. nurse, let alone the a.m., give her the time of day. Although the rehab boss doesn’t spell it out, reimbursement is the problem: the hospital loses big if it lets her out and then has to re-admit her. Bad judgment on their part. The head of the hospital tells her to her hyperventilating face that she will have to take care of herself if she exits, she who can’t wash or evacuate without expert assistance. I am finished with you if you leave on your own, the head says. Kaput. But, she says with the tone of largesse, we can lend you a nurse to accompany you home, it could be an approved excursion and overseen. This is their best offer and from my vantage, generous. But the woman is not in the least tempted. She holds her breath with more force and turns purple and then calls a taxi, the driver now standing at her bedside, having primed her exit by stealing a wheelchair.
Her boyfriend, assiduously in avoidance at the first sign of her breath-holding, perhaps sensing or having some preternatural knowledge of this outburst, or even experience, is called midway into her tirade but appears later, proffering a couple of flowers, purple, her best hyperventilated color. The head of the hospital vases the flowers while she cries, loudly. He says, Let me talk to her.
The curtain between us is drawn, as if the sound doesn’t carry. Look, he says. We’ll find a supply closet to smoke the dope in.
She sobs, she quiets, she says, It worked the last time.
I was playing Scrabble and put down S-P-A-S-T-I-C. Cripple word score!
I have targeted leg movements overseen by a phalanx of therapist-fighting sadism. Due to my persistence in successfully faking said leg moves, or else needing my chart to show progress, I graduate from the wobbly walker with ubiquitous tennis balls to a cane, as black and utilitarian as its cousin, the doorstop, nothing flashy or Astaire about it. I imagine its rubber cap removed, best to impale a sleeping Vladimir, or my roommate.
If you put the little nubby thingy on the end of your stick, it won’t slip, my roommate says. That’s the next part of the nurse’s joke. I know the whole ending, she brags. She’s been a patient here often enough. She chews cinnamon gum, a scent that advertises her every attempt at concealment with regard to her drug habit. The joke has to do with sex, she tantalizes, like everything that refers to death and decay and destruction.
The joke that the interns and social work staff and night nurses and the overweight aides don’t find funny is how their back braces, their infected cuts, and their cough cough coughs aren’t covered the way mine are, old enough finally to have drifted into the land of the permanently covered. They try to laugh off their rehabbish problems that can so easily get worse. I wish the hospitalist would laugh too. He needs to understand that he’s merely another upright animal that needs only to be good at grooming, catching prey, and conducting thorough assessments of every other animal.
On the last day of my stay, the prep nurse exiles me to bicycles, replacing an old man who’s pedaling with testicles hanging on both sides, his gown awry. After she ratchets my speed too high, she pins me low on the totem pole of the broken-down. Some people with your problem walk out of here, she says.
I say No? in my best unbelieving manner. I’m heartened by the old man who says No too. He’s holding a weight in his hand as if he will throw it—if he could—then he’s putting it down, he’s shaking his head. His wife rolls him away, crying.
Remember the old man on the crowded bus with no seat, who drops his cane and the seven-year-old boy says he ought to put a rubber thing on the end of it and he snaps back something? The pep nurse calls out to me as I pilot myself and all my belongings minus the orchid toward the elevator. Well, if your daddy did the same thing seven years ago—
I use my cane to keep the elevator open.
I would have a seat today! she cackles in her ta-da moment.
The boy on the wheelchair zips past the elevator, aimed straight for a concussion. The doors close before I hear him hit anything. All I know for sure is that the punchline is lame, and not me.