The Initiate – Snippet 04
Sam began closing down his old life and creating a new one. The first step was to disentangle himself from the financial network. That meant scaling back on his credit cards. He began carrying cash again, for the first time in decades. He remembered how funny he had thought his father’s habit of carrying at least a hundred dollars in bills at all times. Now Sam did the same.
For a week he did research using the public library computers and one of the few remaining public pay phones in Hartford, looking for a likely target.
Then he devoted himself to charity.
Specifically, he began to volunteer at an extended-care facility for disabled adults. When he started searching, he hadn’t known if such a place even existed, but he soon discovered they were everywhere. Even remote little hill towns had one or two former hotels repurposed to warehouse the old, the imperfect, and the damaged.
Bright Hill Residential Care on Route 7 still had a faded Howard Johnson’s logo on the floor of the front lobby, though someone had mercifully covered the orange roof with asphalt shingles. A couple of rotting picnic tables were half-buried in the snow outside.
“I’m here to see Ms. Varelli,” Sam told the bored-looking black woman watching television in the lobby. Two pale, withered old people were bundled up in wheelchairs beside her. One was staring blankly at the floor, the other was intent on the screen.
“In the office,” she said after looking him over.
The office was small and cluttered, with a portable heater doing its best to help out the radiators. Ms. Varelli was stocky and well dressed, with Kabuki-mask makeup and lacquered fingernails. She practically dragged Sam out of the office into the library, which was a big empty room with one shelf holding a dozen old Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and a couple of dictionaries. They sat across from each other at a big polished table.
“My pastor has been urging everyone in our congregation to get out and actually help people — not just write checks or buy stuff, but help others with our own hands. I saw your place here and I wondered — do you need volunteers to help the patients? I don’t have any medical training or anything but I can help them run errands, read aloud. Stuff like that.”
“There’s three rules you have to follow, okay? First, you don’t get to change things around here. We have schedules, we have rules, and they work. People come here sometimes, they think they can liven things up, get the residents out and everyone gets magically better. That doesn’t happen, okay? Our people don’t like changes. It makes them upset. Understand?”
“Yes. I’ll respect your procedures.”
“Second, you don’t touch anyone, ever. Understand? You’re not trained, you’re not accredited, you’re not covered by our insurance. So you keep hands off, okay? Not even to help someone. Any of the staff see you have any contact, you’re out of here. Okay?”
“Right. No physical contact.”
“And third, you don’t talk about what you see and hear in the facility. No pictures or videos, okay? Some of the things we do to assist our residents aren’t very pretty to watch. I don’t want any bad publicity. And some of the residents talk about things they shouldn’t. I don’t want to embarrass them. Understand? So you don’t talk about anything.”
“Got it. As I said, I want to help people.”
“Sure,” she said. “Come as often as you want. I just hope you stick with it. The families start out coming every day, then they start skipping a day or two, maybe go on a trip for a while, pretty soon it’s once a week or once a month. Then it’s birthdays and Christmas, maybe. And then they just quit. Move away or just give up. So I hope you stick with it.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “I’m willing to make the commitment.”
The first week was interesting. He passed a background check proving he had no criminal record. He learned the rules and the schedules, and got to meet the staff. They were glad to see him; a new face was always welcome. He spent eight to ten hours at Bright Hill every day. He read to some of the more lucid residents (never “patients” or “inmates”). He helped make beds. Despite the prohibition on contact he was soon allowed to help roll wheelchair-bound residents to the dining hall, or carry trays to the bedridden.
By his second week he offered to take over the job of updating the whiteboard. At nine o’clock in the evening, before he went home, he wiped it clean and then wrote the next day’s entry in big dark letters. “Today is MONDAY, JANUARY 27, 2014. The season is WINTER. The weather is COLD and SNOWY. The next holiday is VALENTINE’S DAY. Dessert tonight is FRUIT CUP.”
He got to know most of the residents. There were two dozen — ten women in their eighties and nineties, four men in their seventies, two quadriplegic men, one woman in a persistent vegetative state, three men and one woman with severe cases of autism, and three intellectually disabled men and women in their forties.
The biggest demands on his time were the old women and the two quadriplegic men. Most of the women in their nineties were perfectly lucid but too physically frail to leave their beds. They and the quads were bored out of their minds, desperate for someone of average intelligence and sanity to talk to.
He spent forty-five minutes a day with each of them, which left only a couple of hours for the other residents. But it was worth it. He heard Mr. Riccioli talk about Vietnam. He read letters to Mrs. Glauber from her granddaughter in Dubai. Mrs. Cabell and Mrs. Salomon had him track down old friends and write letters. Everyone called Mr. Douglas “Hawg,” and he told Sam about runs with the Hell’s Angels back in the seventies. “Swear to God,” he said, staring up at the ceiling, “I nailed a different chick every night for two solid weeks. Probably got grandkids in every town from L.A. to El Paso.”
Six weeks went by. One of the nurse aides quit and was replaced, and Sam realized he was no longer the “new guy.” He had the run of the facility. He could borrow Mrs. Varelli’s laptop to show Mrs. Glauber some emailed photos. He could go right into the kitchen to get cream for Mrs. Merritt’s tea. Nobody cared if he helped move patients, or washed their faces for them.
And nobody even noticed if he spent an hour in the office in the evenings going through Mrs. Varelli’s files when she wasn’t around.
Billy Hunter was forty-nine years old and had a vocabulary of fewer than fifty words. He could not feed, dress, or clean himself without help. He spent his days playing with Fisher-Price toys, watching animal videos, and masturbating. The staff used Hostess cupcakes as a motivational tool, with the result that Billy weighed close to three hundred pounds and had no teeth. Sam helped dress and clean Billy — it took at least two people — and read to him from Winnie the Pooh. The first time he did that, Sam had to go out to his car in the snowy parking lot and cry for half an hour afterward.