Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Tick Tock

Vinnie Tuscavedo was the sort of guy that would hand a girl a five dollar bill with which to buy him a pack smokes, and tell her to use the change to pick up something 'nice' for herself. Then, if she came home without a new dress, he'd smack her around for disrespecting his generosity.

He was worse with us men. He’d scream and holler, leaping out of bed to take a swing. His mind was still locked in the sixties. I’m not talking about tie-dyed t-shirts and the summer of love here, I’m talking race riots, and Vinnie wasn’t backing the winning side. Vinnie’s an angry man with angry ideas. Over the years we learned to only send in white nurses with his meals, and to have a few of us guys waiting outside with sedatives in case anything kicks off.

That’s why I only see him when he’s sedated, or about to be sedated. We’ve never had a conversation and he’s never said a civil word to me. Everyone else looks peaceful when they’re knocked out, but Vinnie’s different. The hate in him has a knack of staying awake. His hands twitch into fists every couple of minutes. Makes his watch jangle. I swear I’ve seen the hair on his knuckles stand up, and his wrinkles are so deep he’s always frowning. Aggressive breathing too; sounds like he’s growling. He’s got a full head of white hair, so thick you’d never see his scars. Life aint fair. I’ve been going bald since I hit twenty, and this guy who’d as soon throw a punch as say hello aint even thinning yet.

Vinnie’s got this big ugly tattoo on his chest. You only see it if his shirt’s off, and that only happens for a medical procedure. We let him wash himself, unsupervised; it’s easier for us. He wouldn’t take to being washed by someone else. He’d find it unmanly. Sometimes he goes a month without a bath. Other times he’ll take eight in the same day. He only stops when he’s used the whole floor’s hot water. It’s always a bath with him, he doesn’t go for showers.

 I think he did the tattoo himself. If it wasn’t him it was some half-assed amateur in prison. It’s supposed to be a Klansman, most likely, but you could call it a ghost from the right angle. He must’ve had the same thought because he did a cross right next to it. One corner’s even on fire, like he’s trying to explain it. Flames didn’t come out too great so I guess he decided to stop there.

It might have looked better when he was younger. His skin’s sagging, his ribs are showing and the artwork’s faded green. I’d say he used to be a big guy, maybe a mechanic or something, but everything’s wasted away except those giant hands of his. They look out of place, like someone put incredible hulk gloves on a kid in an old man bodysuit.

You get used to him. I was obsessed for a while, when I started, years ago. Most new guys get the Vinnie bug. It passes.

Jim was the first guy to tell me about Vinnie. He showed me the ropes here. I’m big, but he’s a giant. He was a linebacker in high school, when he quit training he got fat but kept the muscle. He got a special exemption to wear his own clothes so long as the colours matched the uniform. Some say it’s ‘cos the hospital didn’t make them that big. That bit’s true. Even so, I reckon Jim being an angry son of a bitch helped.

I heard a busted knee took his chances of going pro. Drunk driver. You’re feeling sorry for Jim now, you shouldn’t. He was the one driving. Lucky for him he was the only person hurt that day. They tell me every few weeks after being discharged he’d be back in the hospital, getting pins out, then the cast off, then physio, always talking about going back to training. He never did. One day he must’ve given up and filled in an application form. Since then, best I know, he hasn’t once talked about football.

He doesn’t hurt the patients here much, unless he has to, but he likes to show how strong he is. He’ll do things like hold them against the wall with one hand and yawn in the other, or maybe scratch himself while they squirm. Might sound bad, but smaller guys are rougher, they have to be. The ones that get Jim are lucky, all things considered.

Jim’s black. Always has been unless he’s got some big hidden secrets. He took Vinnie’s racism personal. Me? You’ve got to remember, Vinnie’s a basket case; he can’t learn anything new. Sure he’s racist, but so were most whites back then and most of them changed. Vinnie would have too if he’d kept the mental capacity.

“Anterograde amnesia” Jim told me when he was briefing me on Vinnie. He always liked big words, and I was impressed before I was about six months’ in. By then you’d find out he was pronouncing them wrong, or using them wrong, or just plain making them up.

“Damage to the hippocampi” he’d said “They’re in the medial temporal lobes.”

Jim rubbed the top of my head as he said this, showing off his extra six inches height. That bugged me.

“The way he landed made a mess of both of them. They’re what let you store memories. If you cut those bridges the brain’s got no route to put anything in long term storage. This guy’s living on a fifteen minute loop. Once his short term memory’s full then bam! Slate’s wiped clean. As far as he’s concerned he’s sitting at home on a Summer’s day in 1961.” Jim checked the chart “May 6th, to be precise. Probably thinks he just woke up from a nap.”

I kept quiet when I did rounds with Jim. He wasn’t one for other people’s opinions. The way he’d read charts and wear different clothes to the rest of us made some visitors think he was a doctor. He never corrected them.

“He’s an angry old fossil. Always calling me names. All he has to do is lie about the place all day, laundry’s done for him, food’s brought to him, nurses checking up on him all the time, and still no gratitude. He’s been watching the same cartoons for longer than you’ve been alive and he still finds them funny. A good life, isn’t it? But he’s still full of hate. Here. Watch this.”

Jim knocked on the door, checked his truncheon, paused, and tiptoed in.

“Mr Tuscavedo, everything alright? I thought I heard a noise.”

I couldn’t see much, Jim’s back could block the view at the Grand Canyon. I could hear though. Vinnie was swearing like a trooper trying to get kicked out for insulting a black general. I’d never heard anyone called a nigger monkey before. Might have been the brain damage. Maybe people said that back then. Never did find out. There was more scuffling. Jim came out and shut the door; it only opened from the outside.

“Bastard swung a tray at me” Jim said, dabbing a tissue against a bloody lip. “I don’t mind the lip, it’s the fucking paperwork that gets me.”

He put the tissue away and started pulling at his shirt.

“You think the lip is bad? Here, have a look at this.”

He opened buttons on his shirt and pulled it up to the ribs. His finger followed a delicate line of whitish skin travelling from his hip to his belly button. White dots, scars from stitches, lined up on either side.

“Those idiots let him keep his cutthroat razor when he moved in here first. Said it would be good for him to have familiar items, like the watch, the radio, the TV. Got me real familiar with A&E here, that’s what it did. Twenty seven stitches it took to make this right. I’m just lucky I had him knocked out cold before he could take another swing at me.”

Jim only knocked Vinnie out that one time, unless you count sedatives of course. The incident review board met and said Jim provoked Vinnie. He asked what, apart from being black, he’d done to provoke. They had no answer. That’s twice by my count he had the makings of a great lawsuit. I guess he liked the hospital too much, made him feel important, even if he did have a three page form to fill out every time Vinnie took a swing at him.

Vinnie doesn’t take as many swings these days. He passes the time by reading a small pile of old magazines, watching TV, winding his watch when the mood takes him and looking out the window. He keeps a youthful attitude for a man in his seventies. Two months ago he got touchy feely with one of the nurses and I stepped in. He doesn’t like another man in his space; he jumped out of bed swinging. Caught me by surprise too – and him nearly forty years older than me. He got one hook off, broke his hand on my cheek bone before I sedated him. His strength’s nearly gone. He spends most of his time in bed and his muscles have wasted. We have to sedate him whenever we need him out of the room. He’s fine in there, it’s like a little time capsule back fifty years, no iPods, and a giant TV with a tiny screen. He hates modernity. It terrifies him. If he sees anything from this decade he freaks. For the broken hand we rushed him to x-ray, jumped the queue, had two pins inserted and a big sixties style cast put on. When we got him back to his bed I wrote “No more bar fights, sweetie! XXX” on the cast. I didn’t feel all too manly doing it but it made things simpler. When he woke up and read that I knew his brain would make up a story. Hell, he’d probably enjoy having something to talk about.

Turns out he wouldn’t shut up about it. Every time some overworked nurse went in to give him his food or check the cast there’d be a different story. If he read what I wrote you’d generally get an argument over a girl or a card game. If you asked him in the morning he’d tell a great tale, like fighting three guys from out of town, winning, then drinking the night away with them. Past the afternoon he’d be gruff. “Just a fight is all – must have blacked out or somethin’, don’t really remember much.” If he didn’t see the cast you don’t know what you’d get – dropped something on it in the garage, fell off the roof, hell, he even said he boxed at one point, but if he boxed back then without ever getting his nose broken, it’d be unusual.

It took a while for them to bring in the white girls only policy. It’s not official of course; I’m pretty sure there’s nothing written down about our little corner of apartheid here in the US, but all the nurses abide by it. Guys can’t go in without truncheons. Girls, well, he’ll turn on the charm for the white ones, if they know how to play him, but blacks and Asians are likely to get pushed, maybe slapped. He’d never punch a woman though. Seems it took management a couple of years to work that out. I mean, if you’ve got a violent, brain-damaged patient, sending in a dainty little thing isn’t likely to be your first idea. A temp nurse tried it by accident. No-one told her to avoid Vinnie, she had him fed, blood pressure and pulse checked before anyone found out. Not a peep out of him. She called him a real old time gent.

Sometimes I feel sorry for the guy. He’s happy enough most of the time, but there are times he realises things aren’t quite right. He doesn’t have any visitors, but someone pays the bills. Not just bills, they’ll Fed Ex clothes and tapes from the sixties to keep up the charade, as Jim puts it. We’ve five identical TVs in a storage room for parts in case anything breaks. They’re specially made too, loaded with all the shows from May 6th 1961. Even has one channel tuned in a bit fuzzy, just like his old TV. Same deal with radios. Everything in Vinnie’s room gets a photo and a catalogue number. If anything breaks we e-mail an attorney’s office in the city, generally have a replacement delivered in two days. Must cost a bomb; someone sure likes this guy.

The nurses, well, like is too strong a word, but they spend a lot of time talking about him. You have to be here two years before you can go on the Vinnie training course, but you can read the procedures whenever you like. No-one likes beating on a senior citizen, no matter what his attitude; it’s easier if we keep him happy. Nurses’ uniforms haven’t changed much since back then, so that bit’s easy. We have problems if one of them forgets she’s wearing a digital watch or a cell phone. Happened to Sandy once, spent ten minutes pretending the ringtone meant her portable x-ray was ready. Vinnie got a kick out of having it run over his head, over and over. She’d be his favourite, if he could still remember people.

Sandy? Oh yeah, she’s the temp nurse that first found out how to handle him. She made a good impression that day, though her honesty made her say it wasn’t intentional. She got made full time over it. She’d been looking for a permanent job for two years, always doing maternity cover or sick leave, moving a couple of times a year, travelling for hours when she didn’t. She never said so but I reckon she had a soft spot for Vinnie; in a way, he got her the job. Once I got to know her I said it must be great to be able to tell the same joke every day and have him laugh every time. She went quiet. Changed the subject real quick. I asked Jim about it the next time I could.

“Sandy tried jokes a couple of times” Jim said “problem is, you tell someone a joke, they’re liable to tell you one back. And if you’re a racist, ignorant troglodyte with a brain stuck in the sixties... I’ll tell you the first joke I heard from him. ‘Hey! When should you wink at a nigger? When you’re looking down the sights of your rifle.’”

That explained it all right. Still, what should you do? Someone tells that joke, you can let them know it’s wrong, tell them you don’t want to hear anything like that again, maybe try and educate them. What can you do when you’ve only got fifteen minutes, and you know he won’t remember a word you say? And he’s violent?

Turns out Sandy laughed at the joke.

She couldn’t say she wasn’t racist, that some of her best friends were black. It was her first week in town and Sandy didn’t have friends of any colour, race or creed. The sound carrying from Vinnie’s room made a terrible first impression. For two years I’m told she ate lunch on her own, her apologies never quite coming out right. She had to work hard to stay away from the less racially enlightened staff. Vinnie was only person who’d talk to her, and that made her reputation worse.

The more isolated she became, the more time she spent with Vinnie. The way I figure it is Vinnie didn’t warm to her, so much as she made herself into someone he’d get on with. Four times an hour, six days a week, Sandy got to wind back time fifteen minutes and make a better first impression. I’m sure she wished she could do that with everyone, but it only happened with Vinnie. Her accent changed around him, so I heard. She’s a quiet girl but she always shouted when talking to Vinnie, he’s half deaf and doesn’t like repeating himself. Come to think of it, he probably doesn’t realise his hearing’s gone. The guy hasn’t had a cigarette since Kennedy but he’ll still hand nurses the same five dollar bill a couple of times a day and tell them to pick him up a pack. When Sandy trains up new staff on Vinnie she’ll always tell them they should never try and put it back in his wallet. She got caught once, got slapped for her trouble, and Vinnie got an armful of tranquilizer for his. She says it’s easier to drop it on the floor when he’s not looking, once his memory counter resets he’ll pick it up and put it back in his wallet. Sandy doesn’t go in there anymore.

She keeps great records though. His five dollar bill gets ragged and replaced every two years on average. It’s getting harder to find old bills now, but the guy in the gift shop is under orders to keep any that come his way. When health and safety said she couldn’t buy in any more vintage Uncle Sam cereal boxes she persuaded a local print shop to do up replicas. She even got them to do up a crate of Lone Star beer stickers - she sticks these over alcohol free Beck’s. Vinnie never notices. He’ll complain about the taste now and then, but no-one’s surprised when they don’t get drunk on their first bottle. It’s not like he can keep count, and the docs said the extra fluid does wonders for him; they even grind down his pills and mix them in with the beers.

She used to sit with him for an hour or two after each shift, he’d flirt with her, sometimes he’d be good, sometimes he’d tell his jokes and say how integration was ruining the country. She played him well and mostly kept him calm, probably the closest he got to happy. She always had her makeup done, kept in shape and looked good. Vinnie generally worked out she’s in another league and didn’t try any moves. They say the guy was practically shy around her, no other nurse has been able to pull that off. Back when she visited him I’m told you’d hear their laughter through the halls. The other nurses certainly did.

Anyway, before Sandy, the only way anyone examined Vinnie was with a general anaesthetic. Researchers often asked the hospital if they could run some tests, the attorney who paid the bills would check with the client, but the answer always came back no. I don’t blame them; he’d been sedated way too much already. Besides, what can you check about a man’s memory when he’s unconscious?

Sandy offered to help a researcher and the rest of the nurses said she was sucking up for a promotion. Could be true. She dressed up in street clothes, pretended to be a market researcher and got him to play Tetris for about four hours one day. He didn’t like it, but Vinnie’s always eager to please a pretty face. The next day she asked him about his dreams and everyone got a shock when he talked about coloured bricks falling the whole night.

Another researcher wanted to see if Vinnie could still learn new skills. He wanted Vinnie to sort a pile of rings on three wooden poles. Sandy said Vinnie wouldn’t play with a kid’s toy, no matter how much make-up she wore, and that they’d need a better plan.

In the end, she spent a month teaching him to play the harmonica. She told him she was going door to door, first lesson free. He bought it. She got Vinnie to practice a lot. He’s not the sort of guy who gets bored with something quickly, and every fifteen minutes he got his first free class. After a week he was talking about his beginner’s luck, after two weeks he said his daddy used to play, and by the end of the month he was speechless when he played songs by ear on his first free lesson.

The researcher made a career off that paper but Sandy’s name isn’t on it. The next week Jim confiscated the mouth organ, said Vinnie might disturb other patients with it. Things got worse when some of the nurses lodged an official complaint about Sandy. Said she spent too much time with Vinnie, meant everyone else had to pick up the slack. Said she spent her shift drinking beer, singing, doing other people’s research and telling racist jokes. The way I heard it the board only gave out to her to keep everyone happy. They didn’t dock her pay or anything, and they knew she didn’t drink, but it hit Sandy hard. If it wasn’t for the thank you letter she got from Vinnie’s sponsor, and a small cheque from the attorney, I think she’d have left.

Jim fixed it in the end. He didn’t make a big speech or try and win people over or anything. He just sat down across from her in the canteen one night shift, gave her one of his wife’s cookies and asked how her day was going. I’ve heard the first thing she said to Jim was that she wasn’t a racist. Jim said only racists ever said that, so she didn’t need to. Said the sooner she relaxed, stopped hanging out with Vinnie and forgot about the whole thing, the sooner everyone would move on, and if they didn’t, she could always say she had one black friend. Sandy cried that night, right in the canteen, and brought in her own cookies the next shift. She still did all the paperwork and organising, but she never set foot in Vinnie’s room again. It took time but people moved on. Jim didn’t need to shout, once he made his thoughts known on a matter, people tended to line up behind him. She made more friends, even married one of them, and had Jim’s wife as her bridesmaid.

I still haven’t asked Jim about that night. When your job is to physically control psychiatric patients you tend to avoid long night-time conversations about friendship, forgiveness, acts of kindness and having women cry in front of you. It just doesn’t fit the persona, as Jim once said. I must ask though, before it’s too late. There’s every chance Jim just wanted to make Sandy’s life a little easier. Maybe part of it was the feeling of control and the power to change people’s minds. I suppose the answer I don’t want to hear is the one I still think most likely - he was just happy to see Vinnie lose his visitor.

I only ever saw Sandy stressed once. Vinnie’s watch did it. Vinnie handled big things quite well, he never complained when he woke up with a cast or a bandage, and he never once wondered why his room changed size. It was the little things he focused on daily that got him. He had to have clean argyle socks every morning, and brush his teeth with the right toothpaste – we used a dialysis needle to refill an old tube. We should have realised that there was nothing he saw as often as his watch. If you’ve got a fifteen minute memory span you’ll check your watch a lot, and if any of his long term memory was still open for new business, it’d be filled with images of that thing. It’s a good watch, I remember Jim once called dibs on it for when Vinnie passes. Seiko, with a metal bracelet. They were making watches with batteries back then but this one’s a wind up model. Surprised it lasted as long as it did really; he was always winding it. Anyway, it broke, and Sandy was now holding it and a creased twenty dollar bill that had seen more years than me.

“He asked the nurse to get it fixed!” she said, looking worried. “We’ve nothing on file. We only catalogued things in the room and we only did that when he was outside it. We don’t have a spare and he’s freaking out. Do you know how hard it is to get a fifty year old watch around here? Jim’s calming him down but he’s not going to be right till we get this watch fixed!”

Jim did a lot of things well, but calming Vinnie down wasn’t one of them. When did this place turn into a jeweller’s? Why should I care about some senile Klansman? The watch probably didn’t tell the right time anyway. I went to see if Jim needed help. Unlikely. I brought a notepad too, had an idea.

“You’re brain damaged. You’re seventy two years old and you haven’t had a visitor in the fifty years you’ve been here.”

I found Jim leaning his full weight into Vinnie through one massive outstretched arm. Vinnie couldn’t escape. Or breathe right.

“Every time I see you I get abuse. You even cut me open once.”

Vinnie hissed out one word while I scribbled. “Good.”

“You think making me bleed is good? You wouldn’t know what goodness is. Here, let me give you an example.”

Jim stroked his chin with his free hand and hummed to himself as if deep in thought while Vinnie struggled. Show off.

“You know what? I’m a good person. My blood type’s O negative. Universal donor. Everyone can take my blood. Definition of goodness. It’s like I’m put on this earth to help people, and I always donate. Take you for example. I’ve personally seen to all your blood transfusions. Every single one you’ve had since I’ve been here has come from me. All that black blood over the years, I doubt there’s any white stuff left. My gift to you.”

Jim gave one last shove and Vinnie collapsed, scratching at a plaster over a needle scar in his arm, screeching for breath.

“No need to thank me.” Jim said, limping over Vinnie and seeing me “That normally keeps him calm for a while.”

Vinnie started to catch his breath. I ran in and dropped three copies of my note before he looked up:

“Received with thanks one Seiko speed timer watch, silver bracelet, for repair of faulty spring. Estimated repair time – two days. Matthew’s Jewellers.”

I shut the door and watched through the keyhole till I saw Vinnie forget, stand up, check for his watch and search room. He found my note on his TV, read it, and sat down with a beer. Fifteen minutes later he found an identical note on the floor. I looked at the third copy on his table. I’d bought some time, but I didn’t see it lasting.

“The sponsor’s coming in! Personally! They’re a jeweller!” Sandy cut me off when I tried to tell her what I’d done. “He’ll be here in two hours! I’ll keep an eye on Vinnie till he gets here. Bring him straight up!”

Technically the nurses weren’t supposed to give us orders but if someone wants me to sit in reception holding a watch and reading magazines for two hours, I’m gonna help them out. I’d nearly finished the back issues of Time magazine when an ageing black gent approached and asked for Nurse Sandy.

“Sorry sir, she’s dealing with a high maintenance patient right now and, believe it or not, is expecting an urgent visit from a jeweller. Can I get another nurse to help you?”

“High maintenance eh? That sounds like Vinnie. I’ve been a jeweller for longer than you’ve been alive, son. Can you take me to Sandy or not?”

I apologised and signed him in.

“Did the sponsor send you?” I asked while holding a door open.

“Sponsor? As in the one paying the bills around here? That’d be me.”

“But you’re bl-“ I stopped myself. He took the watch from my hand and looked at it.

“Blabbering? Son, I’ve hardly said a word. Or maybe you meant blanched? But that doesn’t sound right with my skin tone. And I haven’t blasphemed since I was saved. Maybe you meant bleary eyed and if so you’ll have to excuse me, I had a long drive. Yes son, I’m black. Got it from my mother. Is that a problem?”

I felt about six inches tall.

“I’m sorry sir, I didn’t mean – it’s just Vinnie..” He cut me off. I’ve never been happier to be cut off.

“Vinnie today is a small-minded racist, much like he was yesterday, the day before, and every day he’s been in this place. He was a racist before he got here too. I’ve seen pictures of the tattoo, I’ve read the reports, and I know what happened in the sixties. My parents were freedom riders. You’re probably too young to remember what they did. Used to be busses and rest stops had black sections and white sections. Law said they shouldn’t, but it happened. About three hundred freedom riders took to the busses to test the law. My mama rode in the white section, my dad in the black section. They used the wrong toilets and ate at white only restaurants. And I’ll spare you the embarrassment of opening that mouth of yours, yes, my dad was white.”

“Vinnie turned out to welcome them to his town. Him and his buddies. Turned up with pipes and baseball bats and started throwing rocks, and Vinnie in the thick of it. Kept it up too, till someone threw a firebomb. Turns out Vinnie has some strong views on hurting women, even if they’re the wrong colour. He changed sides right there and then. Tricky thing to do when you’re wearing a white sheet with eyeholes. He took a beating off of everyone that day, black and white, tough bastard, but he got the doors open. Caught a hammer to the top of the head while he had his back turned, then fell on a pile of bricks with a broken skull. Took a long time before someone brought him to hospital too. They were surprised he lived. Anyway, he got shunned, no visitors, no family and no money so my dad’s family paid for him, and we’ve been looking after him ever since. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got another long drive ahead of me.”

With that he handed me back the watch.

“Did you fix it that quick?” I asked.

“Of course it’s not fixed. That watch is fifty years’ old, you think they make parts for it any more? There’s still a bit of spring left, it’s enough to move the mechanism if you disconnect the hands. It’ll still tick, it’ll just never move forward.” He smiled “Should suit Vinnie down to a T.”

“Why ten past ten?” I asked as he turned to walk away.

“It’s called the jeweller’s smile son. I’ll never meet him, or talk to him, but I like to think he’ll sometimes have a smile.”


John Considine said...

Nice twist in the sponsors character and good explanation for that twist.

Anonymous said...

That was brilliant. Read it from start to finish.

Geoff said...

Thanks for the comments, glad you enjoyed.