The tires on my car crunched the dirt as it lulled to a stop. The back parking lot was littered with a dozen vehicles: some right off the lot and some that had missing paint flecks and dents in the panels. Two people smoked stoically on a bench by the overflowing dumpster. A pasture with a few cows lazily grazing was next to the parking lot. I walked to the heavy rusted iron door and thumbed in my code on the plastic number box: 9734. The sound of metal scraping let me know the nursing home was unlocked.
Once inside, the smell of bleach and urine wafted into my nostrils. The walls were off-white and had Holiday Inn art hanging on them. The door at the end of the hall was my stop, and through it I could hear the pulse of water jets in the dish machine ring out from the kitchen.
After I finished the usual routine of setting up the dining room, dozens of half-conscious elderly residents where wheeled into their specified seats at the dining tables.
In the cafeteria, we had three sections of residents. In the back, we had the “walkers,” who were coherent, of sound mind, and able to feed themselves without much supervision.
The next category of residents, seated in the middle, where the “sitters.” These were the folks who, by and large, were mostly able to feed themselves without guidance. Sometimes, though, they became crazed by things that happened fifty years ago, so a close eye was needed. One gal became hysterical because she thought her parents got lost on a boat while coming to visit her – The Santa Maria.
The closest group to the food servers were the “feeders.” These were the people who couldn’t feed themselves, whether that was because they were crippled with age or they mentally could not understand how to eat.
There was a silence that hung over the dining room, once the walkers, feeders, and sitters where in their places. The only sound was the soft clank of silverware or the low hum of an oxygen machine. They looked like ghosts wrapped in old cracked leather sitting in their wheelchairs.
Every so often, a resident would start to cough violently. At that point, like clockwork, a nurse would slowly stand up and shuffle over to the resident. They would lazily pat the patien’s back and ask them if they were okay. Once the resident would choke down pureed turkey, the nurse would shuffle back to her seat.
After a few moments, my job would be to go around and ask the residents if they needed anything else. Most of the time no one would respond, or if they did it would be with a quiet grunt. However, there was one woman whom I always loved to talk to.
She was a diabetic who loved food. The only thing she ever wanted, when I would talk to her, was two slices of bacon. The nurses had told me many times before that she was not allowed bacon, because that would interfere with her medication. I never saw the logic in prohibiting a ninety-eight year old slice of bacon; I’m sure she was well aware of the risks. I feel that, at ninety-eight, if you want a piece of bacon, you should have the right to have one.
Every now and then, I would slide a few slices of the fried pork to her. Her boney fingers gingerly grabbed the greasy bacon and she would shove it all in her mouth at once. Drool would slide out of the corners of her mouth, and she would pick up her plate and lick the salt that remained.
Walking back to my serving table I would then smell the faint odor of feces. The nursing staff apparently did not notice, and after a few minutes, the scent became so strong that the head cook walked up to the head nurse and whispered something in her ear.
The nurse would then leisurely walk about the dining area, sniffing the air above the resident’s heads like a hunting dog. After a while, she found the person who was responsible for the fragrance. The head nurse waved a nurse’s assistant down and whispered something in her ear. The resident was then wheeled out.
The head nurse then wheeled in a giant cart. It was the size of a bail of hay and had a dozen drawers with labels. Without looking, she would then reach into a drawer and pull out a small cup with colorful pills. Then, she would walk around like a giant, placing cups after cups of tablets in front of every resident’s seat. Her eyes were predatory, as she’d make sure that every plastic-coated capsule had been consumed.
Chances are a few residents would either have forgotten to take their pills or refused to. Some of the more clever ones would sneak their capsules in their shirts or under their tongue. When the head nurse would come back around to check if they took them, the residents would grin and nod politely.
Once the residents left, it was my job to make sure no tablets had been left behind. I would usually find one or two, so I had to put them in a cup and walk to the nurse’s station. There, they would ask me whose it was; often I had no idea.
I continued cleaning the dining room. Plates were heaped with overcooked vegetables and half-drunk glasses of thickened grape juice. A blue slop bucket was next to me and I scraped every plate. Many times there would be so much food left over, I would have to dump the bucket out a few times into the sink to get enough room to finish my job.
Once the dishes were cleaned, I’d poke my head into the resident’s social living room. A big screen TV with Jeopardy! sang to no one, a glass case full of small birds were picking their feathers out was by the wall, and a small dusty piano sat in the back corner, like a child who was scolded. In the middle of this room, ten residents were in wheel chairs and automatic recliners. Some stared off into space, some slept, and some wanted to find a person to talk to.
The heavy iron door at the end of the hall always had one resident trying to get out. I would have to tell her someone was looking for her, but she would not buy what I was selling.
“Please…please let me out! They are trying to kill me!”
I was warned that she would say this; she made this a habit almost daily. Taking the handles on her wheelchair, I would slowly take her to the resident’s social living room.
“It’s okay, ma’am, they aren’t trying to hurt you,” I would sigh. She would start to cry quietly, but she did every day. Alzheimer’s disease gave her the opportunity to be this terrified and come morning everything would be forgotten – only to be repeated daily, until she passed.
After the Alzheimer’s patient was back under Big Brother’s eye, I slowly walked back to the clock-out machine. The clock-out machine was replaced with a computer that never worked right and had a layer of a sticky substance all over the keyboard. When I’ve officially clocked out, I cannot, under penalty of expulsion, do anymore work. I head for the door.
The plastic number box on the inside was worn down, and I’d have to press my code to get out extra hard. Outside, two other people sat smoking in silence.
My car’s engine would turn over and I’d go out of the parking lot. The cows mooing were the only goodbye.