The Witch and The Clown

[img_assist|nid=847|title=Curious Eye by Gary Koenitzer © 2008|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=144]

I hate my job. As evening supervisor of a one-hundred bed nursing home, I oversee the work of one other nurse and ten nurses’ aides. The corporate manager, Scott, wants me to complete more paperwork during my shift. I explain that I often help feed, shower, and medicate the home’s residents. Scott tells me the facility is adequately staffed according to state protocols, and suggests I discipline employees in writing who fail to complete assignments. Whenever I do this, the employees shoot hot glares at me as they whisk by my desk at the second floor nurses’ station. I please no one, and feel caught between worlds.

I want to bridge the chasm between me and the staff I supervise
nightly. Together, we decide to bring food to work and throw a
party on Halloween. I don a witch hat, tight black dress, fishnet
stockings, blood-red lipstick and high heels. Will is a licensed
practical nurse who works on the third floor. Will is Spanish;
with his slight frame and dark wavy hair, he reminds me of a bullfighter.
Tonight he wears a jumpsuit with polka dots, a red rubber nose,
a curly multi-colored wig, and huge black shoes.

Around nine, the aides begin the evening’s final rounds.
They feed warm Ensure through straws to emaciated residents, and
turn bedridden people with frozen limbs according to the hand-drawn
paper clocks taped to the residents’ doors. The latter task
prevents holes in the residents’ skin caused by too much
pressure in one area. Some residents are taken to the bathroom,
while others have their diapers changed.

I grab some medical charts and start to document the shift’s
activities. I welcome the chance to rest my legs. My toes, shoved
into a point at the end of my shoes, pulse with pain.

I am almost ready to sit when Martha, one of the nurses’ aides,
runs out of the room next to the nurses’ station. Martha
is gasping, her stiff black wig askew. Martha is not wearing a
wig for Halloween. She always wears a wig.

“Mr. Smith…” she sputters, “he ain’t breathin’.”

I rush to Mr. Smith’s bedside. Mr. Smith has not breathed
in a while. His skin is gray, and he is doing what some in the
medical profession call ”Q”-ing. His jaw is slack and
his tongue hangs to one side, causing his open mouth to resemble
a capital Q.

As a registered nurse, I cannot legally pronounce Mr. Smith dead.
I need to perform CPR. I direct another aide, Nicole, to call 911
while Martha and I roll the head of the bed down.

“Martha, get Will,” I tell her when we finish. She
dashes out of the room toward the stairwell.

I place a green plastic mask over Mr. Q’s, I mean, Mr.
Smith’s, face, and administer rescue breaths. My witch hat
falls next to him on the bed after three puffs.

Will appears a few minutes later. He has taken longer to descend
the stairs than he normally would in an emergency, probably because
of the floppy shoes. Will pulls up his ruffled sleeves and positions
his palms over Mr. Smith’s chest. His arms harden into a
piston, one that will hopefully pump life back into Mr. Smith via
a series of strong compressions to the heart.

The rescue squad arrives after a dozen cycles of compressions
and rescue breaths. Two young male paramedics try to maintain their
wooden solemnity, but smiles tug at their lips. We saw them last
week, when one of the female residents kept taking off her clothes.
She hit a couple of us, called us all sluts, and told us she was
kicking us out of our apartments. Nothing in my magic box of medications
helped her.

The medics load Mr. Smith onto a stretcher. They resume CPR,
squeezing a plastic blue ball over the lipstick-stained mask on
his face. Mr. Smith is wheeled out the back door into a waiting

The five or six staff members who have gathered, including Will,
Martha, Nicole, and me, indulge in some deep breaths, then retreat
to the lounge to consume our Halloween feast.

I look at Will. Crumbs stick to his white-painted chin as he
gobbles a chocolate covered donut with orange and yellow sprinkles.

I start to laugh.

Will raises his eyebrows, which he has outlined in blue triangles.
The rest of the crew stares at me as if I have just announced that
I had sex with my brother.

“I was thinking,” I tell them, “that if Mr.
Smith was even sort of there, he was probably really confused.”

Nicole stops picking through her candy corn in search of brown
tipped pieces and listens to me.

“He must have thought,” I continue, “there’s
a witch kissing me, and a clown jumping on my chest, and I don’t
know whether I’m in heaven or hell, but this shit’s
fucked up.”

We start howling, laughing so much that we bend over and choke
on our cookies and cider. The story circulates throughout the facility
for weeks, shifting shape like a ghost each time someone retells
the tale.

I drive home seeing Mr. Smith’s eyes. The open eyes of
the fresh dead still look a little alive, like a flashlight beam
operating on low batteries. They never seem afraid, only amazed.

I pull into my driveway. Toilet paper trails cling to the bare
branches of trees, remnants of mischief from the night before.

Halloween itself is a remnant. Earth-worshipping tribes in northern
Europe once celebrated the harvest festival of Samhain each November
eve. People believed the veil between the realms of the living
and the dead was thinnest at Samhain, when one could see shadows
invisible by the light of day.

I turn off my ignition and savor the warm darkness. I do not
hate my job. I hate the way I am expected to perform it. I do not
want to punch holes in forms and organize them while watching others
struggle to assist the human beings entrusted to our care. I hold
our moment of shared joy at the nursing home tonight in the hands
of my mind like a captured butterfly. I release hope into the purple
chill of the night before entering my house.

Judilyn Brown is a lifelong resident of Northeast Philadelphia. She works full time as a nurse at The Philadelphia Women’s Center. Judilyn likes to read, write, and spend time at play with her husband and son.

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