With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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In the summer of 1973 I was eighteen years old and working as a swing-shift orderly at a San Diego old folks’ home called Lemon Acres Convalescent Hospital. They paid me $1.65 an hour, five cents more than minimum wage; but gas was a quarter a gallon, cigarettes were thirty-five cents a pack, and you could get a hut on the beach in Leucadia or Encinitas for eighty-five dollars a month.
Though it was six summers after the Summer of Love, with disco waiting like an accordion-and-tambourine act in the wings, it was still the sixties: long hair, free love, psychedelic music, bell-bottoms. People took drugs as if they were peanut M&Ms. Pushers were cool and marijuana cured asthma and Cary Grant dropped acid with Groucho Marx. It was a season of turmoil on the brink of the apocalypse, and you had to live for today because if it wasn’t Vietnam or the Russians or the assassins, then surely the Nixons would bring us all down. For me the world was simple then: it was the strong and the weak, the young and the old; it was the freeway, a south-facing beach, a girl you kept your eye out for who would be the one, a few laughs before the plug was pulled.
I carried around a walletful of LSD, a ten- or twenty-tab sheet of a particularly potent genus called Clearlight; some people called it Windowpane because of the way it looked after you cut it with a razor blade: a tiny, four-paned amber square against a little swatch of aluminum foil, a window you couldn’t see through, the murky yellow window of a little Quonset hut in the rain. After you ate it, it became a window of another kind, one you could look out of and maybe see a little purple train coming around the mountain, or silver lizards gobbling raw liver and chrome spaghetti beneath the sewer grates. The dose was 680 micrograms — about six times the strength of anything you can get on the street today — and you could change the world with it, change yourself, find wisdom, truth, and all that jazz.
I sold Clearlight for two dollars a hit, taking no profit, because I was a cool head in the tradition of the Indian spiritualists and the counterculture revolutionaries; I would even drop for free with anyone who wanted to give it a whirl. I had a marvelous talent for persuading first-timers. If I’d been on commission, I would’ve been a millionaire by the time I was nineteen.
I lived with my parents in the dreamy, chattering-sprinkler mist of the old lower-middle-class suburbs of northeast San Diego. Every morning I went surfing at one of seven ideal beaches: Marine Street, Windansea, South Mission, Tourmaline Park, Newbreak, San Onofre, or Abbs (below the Abbey along Sunset Cliffs). Then, in the afternoon, I’d drive back inland, park my Rambler in the hospital lot (the nine-six surfboard still strapped to the rack), and push, sun black and snarly headed, through the glass doors into the smell of isopropyl alcohol and baby powder and leaking colostomy bags, the floating plink and drone of Mantovani on the airwaves, the old ones sagging or propped like floury corpses all around, waiting for the ravens or the angels to take them home.
I’d change in the employee bathroom, brush the sand off my legs, pull my salty hair back into a ponytail, and climb into my whites. I was the only orderly on the evening shift, so they gave me all the heavy patients, the amputees and stroke victims and fat old men who never dreamed they’d die. Each section had its difficult ones: “Mr. Logy” (as we called him), who produced a gallon of mucus a day; Mr. Murdoch, who masturbated under his sheets; little, white-haired Bertha, who rode endlessly around in her wheelchair wailing and chanting, “My back is killing me I must go to the bathroom I wish to God I was dead”; Mr. Mueller, who, even without legs, weighed more than two hundred pounds and just about broke your back every time you lifted him; Alvin, who shouted all night like a four-year-old and wouldn’t leave the call button alone until you took it from him (which was against the law, but you did it anyway); Mrs. Ridalia Ridoon, who leaked clammy, black, swamp-smelling feces all day, and whose hands we had to keep tied to the rail so that she wouldn’t get into it and smear it and eat it and use it to write “Sigmund Freud” on the wall.
John “Jack” Hallifax was my most difficult patient, Room 29, one of only four private rooms in the hospital. Jack was rich, a frozen-food tycoon. He’d known Clarence Birdseye personally, smoked cigars with Warren G. Harding, and made a killing in communications margins in the twenties. He was a decorated World War I hero, and had raced early Harleys and Indians in the Isle of Man motorcycle races. He had lived a good life, seen the world, and married three times, most recently to a woman twenty years younger. But the memories only frustrated him now. Jack was seventy-six, at the end of his run, a long gray row of ashes behind him. He was slightly senile, a tall, haggard man, forty pounds underweight, and had lost most of his hair. He was rarely cleanshaven and refused to wear his dentures. He fought the day aides. He wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t take his meds, wouldn’t get out of bed. He wouldn’t let you bathe him, and I’d have to wheedle and finally wrestle him into a shower chair — he was still pretty strong for an old man who was supposed to be dead by now. He had a closetful of nice clothes, but he wasn’t interested in looking good for the world, in grooming himself to sit prettily in his deathbed all day with the sun like golden Monopoly money raining all around his head.
Jack had multiple myeloma — cancer of the bone marrow — and, like many of the terminal cancer patients at Lemon Acres, he’d come there because of the acute-care hospital across the lot, with its big chemo and cobalt setups. Jack had been diagnosed a year earlier, and no one had expected him to last longer than four months, but here he was: something kept him going, kept him ticking; perhaps the same force that had brought him into the world, that had pulled him through big business deals, that had sustained him in a foxhole at Verdun, that had won him a Croix de Guerre and a bronze star for bravery, that had kept him together after a motorcycle crash on a dark night in Longview, Texas, that had seen him through the flames of both diphtheria and spinal meningitis, that had given him two sons.
Now he wanted this life force to stop, but it wouldn’t stop. It’s a marvelous trait, the fighting will, the survival instinct, but he had no use for it anymore. Yet there was no turning it off. It ran on because that was its nature.
Every day I would come in to check on Jack, and he would sit up in bed and plead with me to kill him. There must have been something about me that suggested I would help him commit suicide, or even outright murder him, because he never asked anyone else. He would grab my hand and ask me to please, God, help him, and sometimes he would cry, and sometimes he would fix me with his old, messy eyes, and sometimes he would roll his eyeballs up as if he had already made arrangements with his Maker, and he would whimper, his breath heaving in staccato sobs, and all that was left was my end of the bargain.
For the most part I ignored him, sidestepped him, humored him, stuffed him into a chair and wheeled him down to the shower room, but he kept after me. I’d never before seen anyone who so much wanted to die. He was like a small child who wanted to go on a long trip, and it was snowing outside, and I was the only one who owned a sleigh. I didn’t know why it had to be me.
“What do you want me to do, Jack?” I asked him one day when he wouldn’t let go of my hand.
“Bring me a gun,” he said.
“Oh yeah, Jack. I’ll just select one from my World War II collection.”
“You can get one. They’re everywhere. I’ll get you the money. I’ll pay you. I’ll put you in my will.”
“I don’t want to be in your will,” I said.
“I’ll do the shooting. I’ll shoot myself in the heart. I won’t make a mess —”
“Stop it, Jack — this is a hospital.”
“It’s not a hospital. It’s the end of the road.”
He had a point, but the sign out front said, “Hospital,” so I had him on a technicality.
“Bring me some pills then,” he said.
“I don’t have a key to the med room.”
“You can steal me some: a handful of sleeping pills. They won’t do an autopsy. You know that. Pleeeease.”
“I can’t do it, Jack.”
“Oh, God.” His runny little Texas eyes began to shine with tears.
“Jack, you’ve got to stop this. I can’t kill a patient, or help a patient do himself in.”
“But I’m in pain,” he said. “It’s in my bones — don’t you understand that? I’m not going to get better. My wife —” He choked on the word, and I thought of his wife, who came in to visit him every Wednesday, a young-looking, scalpel-sculpted Rodeo Drive doll, hermetically sealed in turtle oil and fingernail polish. She would sashay around with a fresh bolt of sperm in her, while out the window I could see her boyfriend cleaning his fingernails and leaning against the pastel blue curve of her new Lincoln Continental. Jack would smile at her, his last connection with the outside world, smile at this person who was nominally his wife, and they would hold hands, and he would look like Walter Brennan on heroin, and she would say her obligatory bit, so as not to lose her place in the will; and then she’d be off, leaving a trail of Chanel that would hang in the air like smog for a week. After she was gone, he would grab my arm and ask me to please kill him.
“Look, Jack,” I said now. “I can’t kill you and I can’t help you die, but I’m not unsympathetic. I know that fifty years down the road I’ll be lying in a room like this, pleading with some pimple-necked dufus who doesn’t understand. But I understand, Jack, so this is what I’m going to do.”
“What?” he said.
“Do you know what LSD is?”
Shadows passed across his face like the shadows of birds flying over, and he turned his head a notch, as if peeking out at me from behind a tree.
“This is strong stuff, Jack,” I said. “It will put you out of your head — you will literally go away. You might even see death and change your mind.”
“I wouldn’t,” he whispered, and I could tell that, for the first time in a long while, he had forgotten about himself and his pain.
“You won’t have a bad trip,” I told him. “I’ve done this stuff fifty times, and the only time anyone ever has a bad trip is when they’re afraid.”
He nodded at me slightly, like a boy taking down instructions for how to fly around the world on paper-and-bamboo wings.
“You’re not afraid of anything, are you, Jack?”
“Hell no,” he said, wiping the back of his hand across his eyes. He had fought in the trenches of Verdun; had lain awake all night in his blood under the moon in Longview, Texas; had burned through the fever of meningitis and the fever of life and the fever of time. He had seen death, and death didn’t scare him anymore.
I glanced back at the door, then took the little packet of foil out of my wallet, like radioactive candy; inside was the hard, thin amber gelatin square about the size of a transistor. Most people liked to take a quarter of a dose. Few took more than a half. That was strong enough to make the wallpaper flap like curtains in a breeze; strong enough to make the fireplace disappear, or to make the aquarium drip off the counter, or to make everyone in the room start to look like your mother. I took a hit and a half once out in the desert, and had I not been alone in the dark in the middle of nowhere, they would have put me in a wagon and taken me away.
The gelatin made a little snapping sound as I cut it in half on Jack’s bedside table. I had to be careful, or it might pop out onto the floor or behind the curtain or into a shirt pocket, where it would probably not be found again. Jack stared at me, breathing through his mouth, one eyebrow cocked high.
“I’m going to give you half a dose, Jack. It’s a big dose, but I want you to forget about everything. I want you to swim to the moon. You just have to promise me you won’t tell anyone about this, or start shouting when you come on.”
“ ‘Come on’?”
“When the stuff starts to kick in. It’ll probably take half an hour, but it will come on very slowly, and be almost worn off by the time my shift ends. I’ll keep checking on you. What do you say?”
“LSD?” he whispered.
“Yes,” I said, and held up the tiny fragment of amber.
“That?” he said.
“That’s it.” I poured him a glass of water.
He cleared his throat, and I set the chip on his tongue. “Bon voyage, Jack. I’ll be in from time to time. Everything is going to be fine, although you probably won’t feel like having dinner.”
“I wouldn’t anyway,” he said with a withered little grin, but there was something else in his eyes now, a little mischief.
Though I gave Jack the drug in part to get him out of my hair, the thought occurred to me that he might be changed; I gave great credence to the power of LSD. Not only that, I had seen patients come in sick and go home cured — sometimes the cobalt, sometimes the will, sometimes luck or prayer or whim of nature. Cancer is not a specific-objective viral, genetic, or environmental disease. It strikes and recedes as it pleases: babies get lymphoma; track stars die of Hodgkin’s; old women with papillary carcinoma go into unassisted remission. A tumor often arrives with retirement, like a deadly pocket watch. Treatment is as fickle as cause. Sometimes, as with exposure to radiation, they are the same. In Mexico, beyond the reach of the American Medical Association, bitter almonds and apricot seeds are milked for amygdalin to treat the desperate rich. There are those who claim that neoplasms and nucleic-acid flaws are products of the negative mind. I know a girl who had a tumor erased from her uterus by a faith healer. For some, cancer is a puzzle to be solved. For others, it’s a black spot drawn out of a hat. For many, it is simply a way (among a diminishing list of possibilities) to die.
I checked Jack every half-hour, wondering what he would see: White light shining up from the silent black river of death? A hundred emerald army ants marching single file into a hole in the ceiling? An Arabic transliteration of Pythagoras’s theory of numbers and music? Minnie Mouse meeting Marilyn Monroe?
At 4:30 that afternoon Jack was sitting up in a chair, his polished, old man’s legs crossed, eyes staring intently at the floor. My heart turned a little pirouette: it was the first time he’d been out of bed on his own in six weeks.
At five o’clock his dentures were in and he was snapping and baring them like a chimp with a blister on its lip. His tongue darted and flicked about. I waved at him from the doorway, as if I were waving from the shore. He waved back. I offered a nod, as if to say, We’re not going to go screaming off into the sunset now, are we? His quick, emphatic nod in return did not reassure me. It suddenly occurred to me that the worst place on earth to take LSD just might be a convalescent hospital, with its smell of death and harsh linoleum echoes; the whisk and whisper of nylon-sheathed legs endlessly scissoring up and down the corridors; the rubber squeak of wheelchair wheels; that soft madhouse babble of your dissolving, dying neighbors, a few shouts and howls and groans mixed in; the white-clad figures flashing by your open door every few minutes, erasing privacy, poking a head in, offering a little paper cup with a pill in it.
Jack skipped dinner. I thought he might at least want his pineapple juice, something to wet his gills, but he waved me off, running his hand repeatedly through his thinning hair. I drank the juice myself, worried now about what I might have done.
At ten minutes after six his wife showed up. She never came on Saturdays. The hair pricked up at the back of my neck. She was shocked to see him out of bed. It was a bad sign: Recovery? Remission? I peeked in once. She sat by his chair and held his hand, hoping to put the wild cell mutation back on course in his system. His eyes were spinning like bobbins, and he wouldn’t look at her, wouldn’t talk to her. A minute later she was up at the nurses’ desk, shrieking.
I slunk back to my station while the nurses all flocked to Jack’s room. But Jack was not in his room. The head nurse, an old, silver-headed warhorse, bellowed my name. We searched the grounds and found him wandering in the inner courtyard, clicking his dentures and sniffing the hibiscus blossoms. He had taken a scrupulous, minute, bumblebee interest in one of the crinkled orange blooms. The head nurse shot me a glance. She had always been suspicious of my strange habit of spending all my free time out on the ocean.
The wife went immediately to Jack’s side and tried to guide him back indoors, but he threw her off in one wild carousel motion. Everyone backed away. Jack grinned all around, his shoulders lowered, his eyes swinging back and forth like the shadow of a pendulum inside his head. “I’m not finished,” he said.
“He’ll be all right,” I said.
“What have you done to him?” cried the wife.
“It’s almost dark,” said the head nurse, just to say something. I knew she was considering calling the violent-ward people from Mercy. But Jack was private-fund, not a state case, and those single rooms made Lemon Acres a dandy profit. “Did he eat anything?”
“He drank his pineapple juice,” I said.
The wife paced back and forth. “He’s never been like this before,” she snarled. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Help him inside,” the nurse said to me.
“I think it would be better if he stayed outside for a while,” I said.
“I’m going to call his doctor,” announced the wife.
“You’re upsetting him,” I said.
The wife scowled at me, then glanced at the head nurse, who counseled once more with the darkening sky, then nodded reluctantly, holding out an arm to the wife. “Why don’t we go into the office and have a cup of coffee?” she said.
But the wife refused to give ground until Jack, in his mauve bathrobe and pin-striped pajama bottoms and fringed deerskin slippers, came up and put his arm around me. He was taller than me by about three inches, even in his strange, cancer-afflicted stoop. “I think that anyone who disagrees with me should see a psychiatrist,” he said. “You don’t agree with me?” He flicked his fingers at them. “Well, then, off you go.”
I nodded all around. “You see? He’s fine.”
The wife stood frozen, a dozen facial surgeries and a São Paulo suntan in danger of sliding clean off. The head nurse led her away. An observer might have wondered who the real patient was.
“He’ll be all right,” I called after them. “I think he’d just like to stay outside for a while.”
Jack sat in a patio chair at a round, glass-topped table under a white metal umbrella. The courtyard was designed for the patients’ use, but few ever went out there. The fine gray powder of dusk settled down. I stayed with him, letting everything else in my section fall apart for an hour. He got up from time to time. He watched the sky. At one point he exclaimed, “I’ll be damned!” and then, slapping his leg, “I never knew. . . .” I thought of kidnapping him, taking him home.
The head nurse came outside after she’d gotten rid of the wife; for the first time since I had known her, she seemed tired. We sat together at that table in the darkness: the idealistic surfer boy, the dying man on LSD, the pragmatic World War II nurse. Jack got up and wandered off to sniff the hibiscus again.
“What do you think’s gotten into him?” she whispered in a confidential tone.
“He’s going to die,” I whispered back. “Isn’t that enough?”
“I’ve never seen anyone act like this in forty years of —”
Jack had snuck back around through the darkness and now banged his fist between us on the table, sending the black plastic ashtray clattering across the walk. The head nurse leapt into the air, almost hitting her head on the fringe of the metal umbrella. “I want my attorney!” Jack bellowed. “Where’s the phone? I’m going to call my attorney!”
“It’s too late, Jack,” I said, holding up a watchless wrist. “Look, it’s almost eight o’clock. We’ll call him in the morning, OK?”
“Doesn’t a man have any rights? I’m not in prison, am I?”
“Come on, Jack,” I coaxed. “Let’s go back inside. We’ll call him first thing in the morning.”
He blinked at me. Then, glancing down at the old, silver-haired nurse, he followed me inside. I walked him all around the hospital, telling him the names of the people who lived in the rooms, and what they had done: Mr. Weaver, who’d been an inventory buyer for a custodial-products company all his life; and Mrs. Mayhew, who’d worked for Charles Revson, the cosmetics magnate. Jack was interested in them, and also in the texture of the wall plaster and the way the wooden rails flickered in the fluorescent light.
I got him back into bed with the promise that he could contact his attorney in the morning. I told him I thought the ceiling looked beautiful, flowing — didn’t he think so? Then I made him drink a tall glass of water. He told me I looked like Albert B. Fall, the Secretary of the Interior. A nurse came in, but Jack refused his usual regimen: a pill for nausea, a pill for sleep, his calcium supplements. He also refused whatever else she had in her bag of tricks: tranquilizers, phenobarbital. He was scheduled for chemo the next day.
I left him for an hour; I had to put seven other people to bed. The call lights were on all the way down the hall. Thankfully, he was quiet for that hour, just staring up at the ceiling every time I went by. Around nine, I heard him murmuring a little, but it was a peaceful sort of bubbling chuckle, the sound a dove would make eating sunflower seeds.
But when I came by at 10:30 for the last check, Jack was out of bed again, standing in the pool of pale light at the sink, dressed in his beige twill and red wingtips, leaning into the mirror and cinching up the knot in his tie.
“What’s going on, Jack?” I asked.
He twitched his chin as he pulled the knot up clean. I noticed a ring of wet whiskers on the porcelain. He rolled his shoulders and tipped his head back and forth in the mirror, checking to see that everything was in place. His tongue flicked across the front of his teeth. Then he looked at me and cracked an old, dry grin. “A little unfinished business,” he said.
“Jack,” I said, watching him stride out of the room, “where are you going?”
I followed him down the hall. He swung left, then walked right past the nurses’ desk and out the front entrance, head high, elbows out. A foggy juniper smell washed back as the glass door whisked closed behind him. He gave a jaunty glance in both directions and crossed the parking lot under the sodium-vapor lamps.
I quit that night, abandoned my medical career before someone made me abandon it. There were plenty of other low-paying jobs around. I’d been thinking of something a little closer to the ocean anyway.
About a week later, Jack’s attorney contacted me — to sue me, I was certain, even though all I had was seventy-nine dollars and a ’58 Rambler that leaked oil. But the attorney only wanted to get the correct spelling of my name. He told me that Jack was back in Wisconsin at the home of one of his sons, resting comfortably.
I didn’t see John “Jack” Hallifax again, but I got a note from him thanking me for giving a damn. He said he’d left his wife, and the way he put it I knew she was out of the will, too. About a week after that, I read his obituary in the Evening Tribune. Much later, while I was working at a sub shop in Pacific Beach, a probate check for $4,212 (after fees and taxes) arrived in the mail — the equivalent of two years’ full-time wages as a swing-shift orderly at Lemon Acres. There comes a time in all of our lives when we must begin to think seriously about death. I took the check, bought a Ford van with surfboard racks and a little kitchen in the back, and drove it slowly down the Mexican coast.
Poe Ballantine’s “Last Day at Lemon Acres” [December 1996] touches on an important medical issue. Although the use of psychedelic drugs has proven to be helpful to terminal patients in a number of well-documented studies, almost all further research and therapy has been prevented by the War on Drugs. It’s a Catch-22: applications for further research are denied on the grounds that there is not enough research to justify approving them.
Several scientists have even speculated that regular, small dosages of psychedelics may enhance cognitive functioning in Alzheimer’s patients. When my father was almost entirely lost to us due to his progressive dementia, I was tempted to try this strategy on the outside chance that I could spark some reemergence of his old self. After agonizing over the pros and cons, I finally abandoned the idea. I will forever wonder whether I made the right decision.