We're in a basement, serving meals to the hungry. The church I'm with, it's our turn to do this.
She says, "Dandelions are one of the healthiest plants to eat, and we spend billions on chemicals, trying to kill them."
I ignore our age difference. She's tall and thin with intense eyes and a glow of the outdoors.
"We should be serving steamed veggies, raw fruit, fresh juice, beans, and grains."
I ask if she's a nutritionist.
"No. I'm a nurse."
That explains the cigarette smell in her hair and clothes.
The nurse says, "What's with their smell? Why don't we get them some shower time?"
One of them is a friend I call Charlie. Nobody knows his real name. Alone or with others, Charlie mumbles, pointing at nothing.
"Everything is disgusting. I need a shower," she complains.
I wonder why she's volunteering.
"See that guy over there, ruining the carrots? I want him to ask me out."
I say, there must be a better way to meet people.
"I work nights," she says, "because there aren't any visitors, and most of the damn patients are asleep. At night, I have time to pursue my consulting practice."
I picture her at a neighborhood dive bar, wearing tight jeans and a tight shirt, shooting pool, drinking bottled beer, and listening to '70's rock.
"The way some of these people look, this could be their last meal," she says. "Did you know that 19% of all deaths by suicide are by people age 65 and older?"
Several volunteers work in a small area, and I enjoy each time the nurse and I bump into each other.
"A guy who's helping these people must be good. I hang out in churches to meet nice men. I'm looking for stability, that's all. Isn't he cute?"
To myself I think, what about me?
She says to me, "Hey, what are you doing back here? Get out there with the rest of them and wait in line for your food."
When my guidance counselor told me I would amount to nothing, I said that's the plan.
My Mom works as an account executive, babysitting large companies. She told me to reprioritize my life. She said to me, "We want things to be easier for you. We want to retire early."
My Dad's work takes him across oceans. He's not around enough to give excuses. His favorite, unoriginal saying is, "Nothing succeeds like success."
My parents live in a nine-bathroom house. I offered to give up my share of the footage so Mom could work less. When I got my driver's license, I retired from high school and moved to another city. I think my parents are relieved they won't have to pay for my college.
I live out of a big, green canvas bag. I stay in community shelters, apartments of people I don't know, and even in lock-it-up storage cabinets. When the weather is nice, home is with Charlie and his friends.
During the activist season, I stay at Youth Hostels. It costs money, but it's worth it. What's funny is irritating a peace protester into fighting. It's my definition of sport.
I prefer to stay with churches, because of the nice people. I pretend to listen when they say things like, "Long before you were conceived by your parents, you were conceived in the mind of God." Something was lost in the time between.
If someone asks, I say I'm a consultant, the catch basin of job descriptions. For money, I make friends with smokers on loading docks. They offer me their company's product, or I steal it. Either way, I have buyers. The places I stay, I sell their next-year's yard sale junk. I assume they won't miss it. If I take too much and raise suspicion, I move on. When Charlie and his friends are passed out, I sort through their things, looking for items that make no sense for them to own. Once I found a handheld global positioning device in Charlie's coat. As if.
At another church, I volunteer at their chicken barbeque fundraiser. The nurse is there.
She says, "Did you know wheatgrass contains the widest range of vitamins and minerals?"
She doesn't remember me, but that doesn't stop her from discussing the new guy she's targeting. My definition of dating is trying to coax the girls working in the clothing department to join me in the changing room.
I share my goals with the nurse.
She says, "Nothing huh? If you're serious, you should stop by my hospital. They're paying people to be human guinea pigs. Some tests provide a room with TV, VCR, video games, and food."
Of course I'm interested.
"You can earn $100 a month by giving blood three days a week. Hypothermia studies pay $100 per test. A local drug giant pays $2500 for 16-day studies. Sorry, there's no money in giving semen due to market saturation. But hey, the going rate for a kidney is $50,000."
My first guinea pig job was simple. I sold bone marrow for $50.
Prozac is the Valium of our time. I received $100 for a month-long series of psych tests.
My current study, I'm in the hospital for two weeks, testing Ephedrine, Tolcapone, and Sinemet. 60 blood draws through a catheter and I'm $1500 richer. During my stay, the nurse visits me.
"You look good in a uniform," she says. She looks at the food scraps on my plate and adds, "A drink of carrots, alfalfa sprouts, and lettuce will cure baldness."
She sits on the side of my bed. My knee almost touches her. Little beads of sweat form on my temples. She smells like a scented candle. I think about my Mom, and the way she looks before a big client meeting. In the dim light, the nurse looks famous. I could see the zipper on the back of her uniform. Blood surges through my body and my mind races.
Then for some reason, she laughs herself out of my room, too loud for a night nurse. Someone in my mind says, "God enjoys watching every detail of your life." He must watch me for humor.
I return for a $300 brain imaging study, but the nurse is gone. I don't know her last name. I visit other churches and hospitals, but I can't find her. I participate in more tests: $500 for a sleep deprivation study that almost made me insane, $3000 for eating a radioactive compound and having my bowel movements collected for two weeks.
A void devours my insides. I spend more time talking to Charlie. Despite his mumbling, he's a good listener. I always feel better after our chats. Instead of giving Charlie throw-away processed food, I bring him fresh fruit and vegetables. I can't get the nurse out of my mind.
Charlie's condition changes. His eyes sparkle, and his words start making sense. But he also listens less, and he's not around as much. I think of my Dad.
I killed Charlie. Not directly, but I blame myself. I gave Charlie some cash. I don't know whose money he used to buy the booze, but he passed out in an alley and got run over by a garbage truck. "Life is a temporary assignment."
With Charlie and the nurse gone, I'm depressed. To cheer myself up, I earn $5000 for having a toe amputated and sewn back on. My latest, I'm recovering from donating a chunk of my liver for $4000. Liver regenerates itself. A renewable resource.
In my room late at night, I hear, "Hello stranger." Like the first plunge of the day into a swimming pool, that's what happens to my breath when I see her.
She pulls the covers off my bed and lifts up my gown. Her personal attention makes me nervous. I feel my eyes roll up. Our soft, slow moans and heavy breathing are relaxing. I ask about her consulting work.
She says, "I'm an angel of death. A mercy killer."
The way she's moving, I hang on with a death grip around her waist.
"I find clients at churches and senior centers and through prayer chains."
New sensations ripple through my body.
"Families don't want the burden of taking care of elderly relatives. They want the easy way out. They don't want their inheritance depleted."
I think of my parents.
"A shot of the paralyzing drug Mivacron and it is lights out. It's difficult to detect. If a hospital gets suspicious, I move on."
Her back now rests on my chest. Her feet point to the ceiling, and my hands grasp behind her knees. Even like this, it's my turn to work. I'm concerned about my liver.
"30% of the nursing homes abuse their patients. Elderly drug abuse sucks for the health care industry. Come on, faster!"
I worry about my sciatic nerve. After the cool down, I tell her I love her and want to marry her. She laughs but not like last time.
In the doorway, she says, "Are you sure you want to marry someone who reminds you of your Mom?"
The saying "free as a bird" is an oxymoron. Birds are imprisoned by the instinctive habits programmed for them. They have to execute the tasks on their list.
People aren't much different. We don't live our lives the way we want, but the way someone or something else has defined for us. From the beginning, we're told what to become, and how to achieve it. The list of tasks to be executed. Someone has handed us the daily planner of life, and we cannot change it.
I'm interested, but I cannot do it alone. The nurse and I marry.
I thought my wife's place would be nicer.
She says, "I'm saving my money, so I can retire early."
Cream-filled sponge cakes pack the cupboards. The refrigerator houses several liters of soda. Her glow comes from a tube of sunless tanning foam. Not a fresh piece of produce anywhere.
My first job as husband is shopping. She hands me a list with dozens of items to buy from six different stores. I ask if there's one big store that sells everything, where I can get a haircut, buy clay pigeons, buy a garden weasel, and get film developed.
She says nothing, just gives me a look that could etch glass. I heard other men talk about this. I want to tell someone. I think of Charlie.
The lists multiply. Separate ones exist for cleaning the apartment, doing laundry, cooking, paying bills, and reading the classifieds. My instructions for living scattered throughout the apartment.
Then consolidation. All of the paper scraps get replaced by a single computer printout. My life according to a spreadsheet.
I'm afraid to complete a task, because it means I'm closer to death. But new tasks appear, and I receive a new printout daily. So I complete enough items to break even, stay afloat, and keep my wife from killing me.
It's not scheduled, but I'm depressed again. The married life, wanting it is better than having it. I dream of the simpler times before I met her.
Salvation came from television. The commercials. I record hours of TV programming, fast forwarding through the shows, so I can watch the commercials. From TV ads, I learn a lot of people have worse problems. Every other commercial is selling a pill, probably something I tested.
Acid reflux, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and an overactive bladder can be controlled with pills.
There's a pill to give a guy an erection and a pill for the woman who doesn't want the result.
Can't sleep, can't stay awake, can't eat healthy, pills.
Lazy parents get their kids diagnosed as ADHD, and zombie them with pills.
Depression, anxiety, stress, more pills.
Side effects from pills require additional pills.
If you have Pharmacophobia, the fear of pills, there's a pill for that too.
Watching these commercials and knowing none apply to me, it's my definition of therapy. I'm no longer afraid, and I complete all my tasks.
"A $4.50 tip!" the waitress shouts.
I'm cleaning a nearby table.
She says, "Those pricks. That was an $85 meal."
I watched the couple earlier. The man signed the receipt with a $200 Faber-Castell Porsche Design stainless steel pen. His female companion rummaged through a $400 French calf leather Bellatoff Alexandra purse. And they left food on their plates.
This is my first real job, bussing tables at a black-tie restaurant.
Carrying a load of dishes, I bump into a co-worker who despises me for no reason.
He says, "Watch it idiot. I've had just about enough of you."
I smile and say I watched three hours of commercials before work. I'm enlightened.
The TV in the back airs the local news. The top story is my wife hauled away in handcuffs. An anonymous tip, me of course, turned her in. It's a break in the years-long investigation. I don't know why I did it. I think we both needed a change.
The camera caught some of her shouting.
"My husband forced me to kill those people. He abused me."
The news has no picture of me, but they give my name. That's my cue. I give myself the rest of the night off. On the way out, I take the coat of the guy who hates me.
I sit in the office of another preacher, at another church, in another city, and it's the same talk.
He says, "A life devoted to things is a dead life, a stump."
I tell him I've already heard that one.
"The man without a purpose is like a ship without a rudder."
"If you want your life to have impact, focus it."
My guidance counselor, my Mom, my Dad, they're all here through this guy. It's all crap I say.
"You're right," he says.
He slams shut a book he's not reading. He gets up from his desk, walks around to the front, sits on the edge, and leans toward me. His eyes laser through mine. In a few seconds, it feels like he knows me.
"I tell you what," he starts. "There's a room in the basement that's yours as long as you want it, provided you do some work around this place."
I say no problem.
"But remember this. If anything strange happens around here, or if things become missing, nothing in any of these books will save you. I will find you and come down on you so hard you'll wish you were in hell."
Someone's voice in my head tells me, "You are not an accident", and I'm alive inside. I say to my new preacher, where do I sign-up?