By RE Katz
When Eva introduces herself to you she will reach out and take your hand, and holding it there, tell you her name how old she is how many years she has been married who her daughter is and how many degrees Celsius it is outside. You will listen to her closely even if she slips into German or Russian. You will ignore her rotting gums and promise to pick up a jelly donut for her if she makes it to her father’s house and back with no problems. When he comes to pick her up you will pretend that she does not look ten years older than he does, and you will pet their sad little dog that burned its leg again walking through the firepit in the backyard. You will do these things in the morning before your shift is over, and you will drive home with the sunrise clobbering you through the spidering crack in your windshield. Breakfast is the last thing—world waking up and breakfast is the last thing you have to do before you sign out. Sliding down in their chairs, the powder blue ones with extra height to support their necks, they gape at you and shake one shriveled hand from the elbow. They never touch their food, and so their clothes hang off of them—collarbones white as chalk just above the neckline.
Even when it is not cold out the night will freeze you. Sitting in the same wonky chair that teeters between the first hall and the second, you catch your head as it falls forward or backward every hour. You will glimpse down one long hall and then the other, and the flickering light overhead will split your head twice in a night or else be blotted out completely for its frequency. When the sun pinks from the bottom of the windows and grabs you golden, you will find you have forgotten how to squint. This is third shift, and it is yours. Sometimes you have to take vitals, because in the past they have slipped into respiratory arrest without so much as gasping for air. Some of them scream and beat their chests for no reason at all, and their eyes bulge, but you have to look into those sick globes but past them and know it’s nothing. Sometimes they lash out, and it’s an awful lot of paperwork for a stray elbow in the throat; incidents will go unreported. You begin to flout protocol. At the end of six months, you will chart nothing but a hygiene assessment and whether or not there has been human contact that day.
The narcotics are chained inside the medicine cabinet, which is padlocked inside the office with the emergency panel on the door. You will distribute meds at the beginning and end of the overnight and they will sleep God-willing they will sleep in between. When the dented doors of the cabinet swing open, you will gag from the smell of the multivitamins nestled in a psychotropic cornucopia dealt in saving plastic cupfuls. In the morning you must count the dose twice, because you have now been awake for a very strange long time. Working third shift, you will learn to trade in daylight hours. You will not be able to shake the night. You will try to sleep early afternoon, shades all pulled. While the world spins and grinds, you will try to sleep and fail then self-medicate and then finally, when you seem to swim endlessly underwater, you will stop caring. You will roll through darkness and light like a possum in the road. Somnambulism starts in the eyes. Where eyelids no longer fall, colors are brighter; memory overcompensates for what you already know.
Federico is small for nineteen and a terrible hypochondriac. You will meet him in the early morning hours with a phantom fever, begging you to sift out a precious anti-inflammatory from his medicine drawer and all of a sudden you’re panning for fool’s gold together. You will send him moaning back to bed and threaten to withhold privileges for his rulebreaking, or else you will be human. You will take his temperature, reassure him that there has never been an outbreak of meningitis in the home, and walk him back to his room. Halfway through the door, you listen to him describe the pins in his toes and tell him the foot has just fallen asleep and you may even be so asinine as to add that he should be too. You will become so irritated that you actually read his file. There will be that moment when your eye snags on a landslide of infectious delusions. You will pry open the filing cabinet stashed in the dark office downstairs with the separate key, and you will begin to read everything.
Night after night windows become mirrors. Sometime around three or four every morning or two-thirty-four on the dot, you will freeze before the black glass and see your outlandish face. You will see the reflection of a ceiling lamp hover over the bitten off moon and you will smile. When insomniacs grin there is a moment you expect their teeth to break or burn out one by one like tiny bulbs of night blooming there. Your mind is fertile after dark, eyes are lantern sockets, and you don’t think anything that doesn’t think you back. You will find you have been stuck on yourself like some queer Narcissus for too long, because it is time to wake them and it hits you like a slap in the face. The gentle cooing tone never works, but for a while you will use it anyway. Then you will shout, stomp, lean right next to their burning dream heads and bark. “Get up” you will say, “get up it’s seven-thirty” or “come on, time to wake up now I don’t want to have to call Doctor”—the longest a doctor has stayed with the home so far is eight months. They will roll over, draw blankets; they will scowl, curse your name. They will resent you for opening the blinds, as if you—you who drink the night so that it curdles inside you—have brought the morning in to trash them. And it wastes you too. When you do sleep, you dream of nothing.
Janelle wears too much white powder on the right side of her face. The left side looks different, but it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t actually exist. You will help her dress in the morning, pulling on the one sleeve that never makes it to the shoulder. One time you do this she will probably tell you about the accident, but she will lay it out like summer camp or her mother’s antique store—placing objects but not their meaning. You will note that the damage affects her spatial recognition, her mood, her energy level. Early in the day she will appear carnivalesque with the blush and eyeliner smeared across one side and the amblyopia on the other, lifting her leg in time with the aerobics instructor on the TV screen. At commercial breaks come the fits and you must try hard not to stand on the left when you reprimand her or else you will disappear. They have been able to save the leg from obliteration but she hates the left arm so much she doesn’t even wash it anymore. In this way you will notice that she does not make it to the dining room unless you lead her, lining her up like a Rubik’s cube every step of the way. When she begins to eat her scrambled eggs sloppily with a cupped palm, you will reproach her for forgetting her table manners, or else you will reach across and press the haughty fork into her right hand. She will not thank you, but that’s okay, because when she speaks, her face breaks right down the center and you can almost hear it snap.
In the winter a shiver starts in your spine at the beginning of every shift, and it steals all of your energy. You will carry your long nights in the smallest muscles—a twitching lip, rhythmic but menacing: a symptom soloing above your cigarette. The home is a three-story building made of brick and cement, but it seems to shrink and swell with the weather. An inch of snow and the walls are closing in; a heat wave sends you following a white rabbit through the keyhole. On the night shift you are emblazoned in a world of darkness; everything comes to you like in the second after sneezing—a shimmering bony jab of pure white idea. Or the emergency exit is just hissing at you again. You will need to keep your body churning for hours, and so you will be insatiable. You will find nothing of interest in the shitty hypoglycemic pantry they keep on the main level. So plunging into the deep hollow just off of the laundry room, you will grope for two auxiliary refrigerators like lighthouses over grey sand. You will hear the scattering of cockroaches and earwigs, and draw some holy frozen pizza or leftover ice cream cake from the top shelf. Your dinner will slowly become a scrolling infomercial of dark suburban plenty, a plague of high fructose corn syrup and processed cheese. And cradling this drippy wonder in hand, you will hunch before a smoldering screen and thump another sterile five-year plan. Animal midnight crawls over you only so many times before you change.
Lance was eligible for an apartment in a nice neighborhood before he relapsed. They tell him that he sets fires because he is ungratified. He is ungratified and he has abnormalities in the levels of certain neurotransmitters including but not limited to norepinephrine and serotonin. He has decreased concentration of 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycol in his cerebrospinal fluid. You will note that he has also been diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. He has the best medications, but no real treatment plan. The last doctor decided that you are to help him deal with his mania by simulating a situation in which he might feel the impulse to burn something. You will drive him to the lot behind the local fire department and dumbly construct a pile of trash. You will not watch him, because then he is too aware of the farce for it to be therapeutic. You will disregard his euphoria, and you will extinguish the flames only when they have become harmful. You will find that this is very much like the way you must manage Lance. You will over time stand back and watch him cremate his life with a single wavering flame, and you will ask to be taken off of his case.
Disciplinary techniques are lost on the night staff. No one wants to do a restraint at three o’clock in the morning, no matter how belligerent, how flailing; you will block your face with your fists, and you will let them tire themselves out. You will be half a brain when they come at you. Your eyes will be burlap sacks, melted candles, shattered car windows with garbage bags duct-taped from the inside fluttering frantically in the wind. You catch them moving toward you in one dimension, and a sympathy fishes beneath your eyes. Seeing them lose themselves on third shift, seeing that sleepless violence, you will know in that instant that you are the same drowning creature. And you will wonder whose condition is the one too obscure, too far gone. You have been sleeping sitting up for six years. You turn in your keys and walk out through the rec room where they are celebrating Janelle’s twenty-fifth birthday, and with a silver tiara sliding over her right eyebrow, she turns to you and smiles. But you’re already out the door because you just can’t take what her face looks like.
Check out the other authors posting pieces for our anniversary series:
Diane Lefer: What I Learned From Genital Cutting
Susanna Childress: Retroactive Empathy: A Haunting
David Olimpio: Variations on a Theme
Donald Quist: The Animals We Invent
Rudy Landeros: Wars of Their Own
Gene Kwak: Dirty Work
P. E. Garcia: Some Thoughts on Forrest City