Starting at the Bottom

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Contributor: Frank Grigonis

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I was ready
to start at the bottom,
but I didn’t know
I’d be wiping
the bottom
of each and every resident
at Green Acres Nursing Home,
during the graveyard-

Still, I was grateful
for that job
because it got me
out from under
my father’s roof
where I lived as quietly
as a housecat,
but not
quietly enough
for the old man,
who felt that everyone
under his roof
should sleep and wake
according to his schedule.

His mail-order,
third wife
seemed to agree
with him, and
went to bed
exactly when he did
every night.

In the upstairs bedroom,
I’d stay up and read
or write with pen and paper
because the electric typewriter
kept the old man awake.
But still he complained
that he could hear me
creaking the floorboards
while walking to and from
the downstairs bathroom
two or three times
a night. So I started to piss
in empty plastic bottles
and then
screw the caps back on,
but the old man complained
about the “smell”
of both the urine
and the air freshener
I’d spray afterwards.

I thought it was strange
that my father was so
obsessed with smells.
He was the same guy
who used to proudly fart
then laugh about it
in his blue Dodge
with my little brother
and me in it
when we were
still young and dumb
enough to go
on Sunday drives with him
after he left my mother
to shack up with
my aunt.
And when my brother,
then seven or eight,
would fart in the car
just like dad did,
the old man would scream and
threaten to stuff him
in the trunk
until my brother cried.

And our father chain smoked
in that old car
just like he did
in his house,
but if I so much as tried
to microwave a tv dinner
or even a sixty second
cheese sandwich
for myself
in his kitchen,
he’d rant and rave
about the fumes
and the smell
seeping into his wallpaper.

Even so I was
a little stunned
when I tried to bring
a dying kitten
I’d found outside
into his vast basement,
and the old man
wouldn’t hear of it.

So I took that job
as an orderly,
rented a small room,
and ignored the telephone
when my father’s number appeared
on the answering machine.

I lived blissfully alone,
though the job was tough
at times
to take.
There was Ethel in Ward B,
who regularly pleaded
for someone
to please kill her,
and there was Gunter,
who’d tear off his wet diaper,
then throw it against the wall
and cry,
when we were too busy
to get to him
in time,
and there was meek Edith,
who got assaulted by mad Marco,
because she wouldn’t give him
her apple pie at lunchtime,
and there was Tony, who dressed
up every Sunday for visitors
from his past who
never arrived.

I talked with,
learned from,
and cared for them all
as best as I could
for three years,
and I earned a good rep there.
The director even called me
St. Francis--
and only half-jokingly.

I still can see
the faces of the residents, hear the things they
confided in me, and see the flickers
and embers of hope, but mostly
anguish in their eyes.
I saw so much suffering
in so many pairs of eyes
marooned in as many
forlorn, wrinkled faces,
that I thought I’d mastered
the art of compassion--
until one day,
years later,
after I decided
to pick up the ringing phone
and heard my father,
by then quite old,
propose that I should
move back in with him
and take care of him,
in exchange for that
one year
when I lived
in his house
and he
took care of me.
He said it so seriously
that I had to laugh
and couldn’t stop
so hard in fact
that the tears came
and flowed,
until finally,
after the last laugh
I wiped the tears
from my face
with my sleeve,
then hung up on him
for the last time,
as he puffed away
on his cigarette,
in his house,
to contemplate
his perfectly
and silent

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Frank Grigonis started at the bottom during the Kali Yuga.


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