I met Marla around ten one night on the swing shift at the convalescent hospital. I was doing wheelchair wheelies and had just done three laps through the halls without dropping my front wheels once — a personal record. Marla, the new nurse’s aide, seventeen and all dressed in pink, did not look impressed. I was a skinny kid, just seventeen myself, with purple rashes of neck acne and big plastic-framed glasses. My wheels were still up in the air when she found me in Section C.
“Where do you keep the pillowcases around here?” she demanded, hands on hips, a lock of auburn hair falling across her forehead. “Mr. Frank threw up all over, and I can’t find the clean pillowcases.”
I dropped my wheels and trundled along to the nearest linen closet, from which I withdrew a stack of pillowcases, probably seven more than she needed, and thrust them at her. She huffed and turned away. I decided that with her skin as pale as cream, those blazing pink cheeks, and that full head of russet hair, she must have been Irish, or possibly French. I followed for a few yards, like a shaving of iron after a magnet, then put away the wheelchair and went to answer the call light of one-legged, six-fingered Grover Sperry, who wanted me to take him down to the rec room for his nightly smoke. A diabetic, Grover had passed the bar exam and become an attorney straight out of high school. Though he was down to seventy pounds and losing body parts left and right, his mind was still sharp. Affable and squeaky-voiced, he treated me as an equal, shared his cigarettes, cackled fraternally at my jokes, and regaled me with stories from his glorious past.
That evening Grover told me about a cache of lost gold in Arizona: a ferry had sunk, or a river had dried up, or the place had the word ferry in its name — I wasn’t entirely clear on the details — but he wanted me to go out and scoop up a coffee can’s worth of soil and have it analyzed. He had the exact map coordinates. He would pay me for the excursion and split the take with me if any gold was found. It was the twilight fancy of a dying man, and I should have indulged him, but I didn’t. I couldn’t get Marla off my mind.
After work, still in my white uniform, I went to see my friend and fellow nurse’s aide Cherry St. Pierre, who was nine years older, six inches shorter, and a hundred pounds heavier than I was. She’d moved to San Diego from Helena, Montana, and lived in a second-floor apartment on Baltimore Drive, only two blocks from the convalescent hospital. She had come there hoping to curb her drinking and avoid some trouble with the police back in Montana, but so far she hadn’t enjoyed any of California’s reputed salvational effects. Her attempt at a career in semipro women’s football (games held weekly at Balboa Stadium) had been foiled by a knee injury. In her relentless pursuit of pleasure she would now and again drink until she got into a fight, made an unsolicited romantic pass (she’d even kissed me once), or dismantled her apartment, punching holes in the walls and clearing shelves. She’d exposed me to San Diego’s lesbian bar scene and also taught me how to cure the hiccups with my mind.
When Cherry opened the door and saw me, she squealed with delight. She was drunk, as expected, but not yet out of hand, and she wore baggy jeans, a hibiscus-print Hawaiian shirt, and red flip-flops. “What are you doing, sporty-sport?” she asked, dragging me inside.
I told her I thought I was in love with the new aide, Marla.
“You should ask her out,” Cherry said.
I laughed and said I didn’t stand a chance with her.
“I’m uglier than a mud fence.”
Cherry hooted and swept her bangs aside with her fingertips, her black eyes burning. “Women don’t care about that.”
“Alfonso will get her,” I said, referring to the dashing weekend orderly Alfonso Boynbee, who went through nurse’s aides as if they were shelled peanuts.
“You’re right,” Cherry said, clapping a hand to her mouth and spinning into the kitchen to return with two tall Budweisers. She handed me one, cracked open the other, and slurped with a frown. “We should shoot Alfonso up with Thorazine and leave him out in the desert.”
I was never able to anticipate the point at which Cherry’s joviality would turn into purple-faced mayhem, but I stayed and drank with her anyway. I had kind of a drinking problem myself. I just never blacked out or tore the room apart the way Cherry did.
Around 2 AM her eyebrows merged into one and appeared to take control of the upper half of her face, and I said I had to go. Cherry walked me down to the parking lot, muttering nonsense rhymes, swatting me on the behind, and plotting to push Alfonso’s car over a cliff.
I returned home to the lower-middle-class suburbs of East San Diego, where I lived in a four-bedroom ranch with my mother and father and thirteen-year-old sister. As I entered, the house was silent save for the ticking of my mother’s four living-room clocks. All through my devil-may-care early teens my parents had enforced a strict curfew. I don’t believe they’d imagined I would ever become a responsible member of society, but when I was able to keep my full-time job at the hospital and still get good grades in high school — albeit an “experimental” high school from which the average eighth-grader could probably have earned a diploma — they decided to let me come and go as I wished. To please my parents, and other adults in purported positions of authority, I often said I might become a doctor, though I knew I lacked the discipline and drive. (The same deficits would keep me from achieving anything worthwhile for decades to come.) I threw my uniform into the washer, fried a hamburger, watched Have Gun — Will Travel, and went to bed just before four.
The next day at work Cherry was already hatching plots to get Marla and me together. She would let the air out of Marla’s tire, and I would come to the rescue, or I would compose for Marla a volume of poems. (Cherry thought I was a good poet.) At one point Marla walked into the break room, where Cherry and I were smoking, and Cherry called her over to introduce me. Blushing deeply, I mumbled that we’d already met. When I tried to pull my cigarette from my lips, it somehow got stuck, and I dragged my fingers across the coal, burning them. Cherry laughed. I kept my head down until Marla had left.
After all my patients had gone to bed and I had done my charting and taken Grover Sperry (still talking about that Arizona gold) down to the rec room for his customary cigarette, I wandered the halls hoping to catch a glimpse of Marla. Once, I slipped into a room she’d just vacated and stood where I imagined she had. I had never even kissed a woman before — not one who counted, anyway — and I wondered if I ever would. Over in the corner senile Mrs. Poole, who was ninety and had grown up in South Dakota in the days when there had still been “wild” Indians, clutched her sheet to her chest and wanted to know if I’d come to take her soul. I licked my burned fingers and told her no, that I lived in La Mesa with my mom and dad.
Two days later I saw Marla in the hallway under the spell of suave and curly-headed Alfonso Boynbee, who was twenty-one and in med school. If there was a woman in the world who would have chosen me over Alfonso, I couldn’t fathom who she might have been. That night after work Cherry consoled me with tall beers, a frozen mushroom pizza, and a plan to enlist my nemesis in the Marines.
Marla confronted me in the break room a few nights later, her cheeks a brighter pink than usual. “Is there something wrong with me?” she wanted to know.
“No,” I said.
“Then why don’t you ever say hello or anything?”
“I don’t know,” I stammered, making prolonged eye contact with her for the first time. I should have asked her to sit down and gotten to know her better, but instead I said I had to put Mrs. Darval to bed.
The next night Marla came to find me, her face discomposed. Mrs. Sissle had died, she said, nibbling on her index finger. Marla had never had a patient die on her before, and she asked if I could help clean up the body.
Mrs. Sissle had been my patient, too, ever since she’d arrived six weeks earlier with two blue suitcases, her daughter at her side, and a small tumor on her right lung. There were not many women in their sixties I regarded as attractive, but Mrs. Sissle qualified. I also liked her feistiness. “It ain’t exactly the Ritz,” she’d snapped upon seeing her room. A former airline employee, Mrs. Sissle had been convinced that cobalt therapy would cure her (the tumor, after all, was small), and I’d seen her wheeled down the sun-spattered corridor to the acute hospital across the way for radiation therapy every day until she’d gotten too weak to go anymore.
Marla and I pulled the curtains around Mrs. Sissle’s bed and spoke quietly so that her roommate would not know she had passed. I had prepared three corpses before: two assisted and one on my own. It was preferable to have help.
Hospital death has a jungle smell about it, with hints of feces and tropical fruit. When a patient dies, the muscles relax, and everything in that baby-blue gown goes slack. You have to move fast to refit dentures, close eyes, and fold arms and hands over the top sheet before the muscles start to tighten again. Dead people never looked peaceful to me. Life was some kind of rush from racing sperm to shuffling old age, the body losing speed the whole time until you fell over in a heap.
I pulled on latex gloves and handed Marla a pair. She fumbled and made little hitching sounds like sobs as she worked. All at once I saw her not as an unattainable beauty but as a teenager, as lost and unsure of herself as I was. To ease her distress, I fell into a patter of lighthearted remarks and gallows humor. I did my best impression of Monty Hall, the host of the game show Let’s Make a Deal, offering her the choice between the color console television or what was behind the hospital curtain. She rolled her eyes but laughed despite herself, and her gloved hand touched mine.
I had noticed, in my frequent contact with dead bodies, that even family members were reluctant to touch the dearly departed, as if in some thrillingly medieval way death might be contagious, but it had never bothered me. Marla and I washed Mrs. Sissle and exchanged her soiled blue gown for a yellow one. Freshly expired and properly certified, she was the easiest cadaver I had ever handled, and when we were done, I kissed her cool, lifeless forehead.
“Why did you do that?” Marla asked, her eyes wide, a patch of sweat across her hairline.
“She was a nice lady,” I said.
“That’s it?” she asked.
“That’s it,” I said, peeling off my gloves and tossing them into the can.
“Let’s go smoke,” Marla said. “I’m a wreck.”
After work Marla was waiting for me in the parking lot, a white scarf wrapped around her neck in the fashion of a World War I aviator. She wore the same fierce, compressed-lipped expression she’d had when I’d first met her on my record wheelie run, but she didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands. Her gray eyes swept from side to side, and she asked if I wanted to come to her house in El Cajon.
“I thought you liked Alfonso Boynbee,” I said.
She smoothed her hair. “I do not like Alfonso Boynbee.”
“Do you want to get some beer?” I asked. “I know a place.”
I didn’t know a place, exactly, but I knew Cherry would buy me booze whenever I asked. And so Marla and I drove to Cherry’s apartment, me in my parents’ station wagon and Marla in an old blue van. Then I rode alone with Cherry to the store.
“You’re a lucky guy,” Cherry said, pushing the buttons on the radio to find a better song.
“I haven’t even taken her out yet.”
“She likes you. I can tell. But don’t take her to the beach.”
“She’ll get sand in her pants. And we’re going to buy Michelob,” she added as we pulled into the liquor-store parking lot. “It’s a dollar more, but you want to make a good impression.”
We returned from the store, and, six-pack behind my back seat, I followed Marla’s van into the dusty, low-rent valley of El Cajon, where she led me to a cramped bungalow that smelled of horses and reminded me of a hunting cabin. The inside of the front door was gouged and scratched as if some animal had tried to escape. I caught my ghastly reflection in a diamond-shaped mirror on the wall and wondered how many first dates in history had been predicated on dressing a corpse.
“You live here alone?” I asked, opening two bottles of Michelob and bringing Marla one.
“This is Trina’s house,” she said, explaining that Trina was her foster parent. This was foster home number four for Marla. She told me Trina owned a lesbian bar a mile or so away (I’d been there once with Cherry), hated men, and was “training” Marla to hate men, too.
“Do you hate men?” I asked.
Marla folded her arms across her chest. “What do you think?”
“Why don’t you just leave?”
“I will, as soon as I’m eighteen.” She took a slug from her bottle and frowned at the label. “And she doesn’t like Michelob, either. She says it’s just Budweiser in a different bottle.”
I asked what time Trina would be home, my voice an octave higher than usual.
“Not before two,” Marla said, and she put a record on the player. I knew the song but not the words, so I made up my own. Marla laughed, sitting on a divan that appeared to double as a bed. Cherry was right: it didn’t matter what a man looked like, especially if he could make a woman laugh. I had a full repertoire of accents, from Scottish to Norwegian, and some frenetic dance moves that caused Marla to guffaw. I couldn’t bring myself to make a pass, but I dreamed of the two of us falling together on that divan, our bodies mingling exquisitely, Marla’s uniform blouse pulled over her head.
Just after 1 AM the front door banged open, and in walked Trina. She was squat and big-shouldered, her short hair plastered down and cleanly parted, an expression on her face as if she’d just tossed back a pint of vinegar. “What are you doing in my goddamn house?” she demanded, arms flexing in her black T-shirt.
Marla explained in a shaky voice that she and I worked together, and that I’d helped her with a dead patient that night.
Trina scowled at the Michelob in my hand and ordered me out with a warning never to let her catch me there again.
The next day Marla called in sick, and I worried that I’d gotten her in trouble. After work Cherry and I went downtown, where she bought two bottles of a grape-flavored wine called Cold Duck at a liquor store on Broadway. We strolled over to the empty warehouse district, climbed onto a loading dock, and sat with our legs hanging over the edge, a fog from the harbor drifting across the streetlamps.
As we sipped from our heavy screw-cap wine bottles, I told Cherry about my date with Marla and getting caught by her legal guardian — Trina, who owned the bar in El Cajon. After a pause Cherry said, “You don’t want to mess with her.”
Soon Marla was back at work and threading her fingers into mine beside the central nurse’s desk. Cherry was standing down the hall, watching us with a wistful expression. She knew she’d be seeing a lot less of me now, and she gave me a small circular wave, of the sort a silent-movie actor might deliver in farewell. I pictured her in her apartment by herself, watching television in her bathrobe, drinking a tall Budweiser, and having a bowl of ramen noodles before stumbling off to bed.
The prospect of another confrontation with Trina was not enough to prevent me from accepting Marla’s invitation to return to her bungalow, where I sat thrillingly close to her, listening to records, smoking, and admiring her wide mouth and pretty teeth. We giggled and drank Trina’s beer, turning every few minutes to look at that scarred door. Finally Marla broke the tension by suggesting we get out of El Cajon.
Her clunky blue van (which was really Trina’s) had captain’s chairs, a moldy-carpet odor, and an automatic transmission that Marla kept in Drive 2. I told her she should put it in regular Drive to keep from burning up the gears, but she insisted on second gear even as the transmission screamed going down the freeway.
“I like to drive around and get lost,” she said.
“What if we can’t find our way back?”
“Sounds good to me.”
It sounded good to me, too, even though I had two parents at home who cared about me and would wonder where I’d gone. Marla followed the side roads and old highways, stopping so we could talk wherever the whim struck: city parks, hillside vistas, and finally a beach north of Del Mar, where we strolled barefoot along the sand, the tide sliding away, the dark houses perched on cliff edges six hundred feet above, the pewter moonlight puddling in our footprints.
Marla insisted that there must be caves up ahead, and, in the spirit of our getting-lost-and-never-coming-back fantasy, I said maybe we would find one that opened into an underground spring, a warm lagoon where we’d discover a forgotten case of fine Scotch.
“No one will ever find us there,” she whispered.
We did come upon a low cave, ten or so feet to the back, but there was nothing inside except empty beer bottles and a white paper bag shaped like a cat. So we sat like castaways at its entrance, knees touching, and watched the hourglass glitter of the moon on the black surface of the ocean. That was all. It was my first experience of nervous teenage heaven, and I doubted I would ever know anything so fragile and sublime again.
Just before dawn we returned to Marla’s house and sat quietly out front in the van. A power line crackled and hummed. I had sand in my pants (Cherry was right), and my teeth were chattering, but I wasn’t cold. From the way Marla kept smiling and turning her head to expose her neck, I figured she wanted me to kiss her. I thought about it, then decided I would kiss her the following day at work. Then I changed my mind and decided to kiss her now. I went back and forth like this, making up mental excuses, until Trina drove up in her black sedan.
“You going to get into trouble?” I asked Marla.
She shivered and peered at me through a fallen lock of hair. “Don’t worry,” she said, sounding resigned but resilient. “I’m used to it.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said, having decided to kiss her then for sure, and I scampered back to my car.
Marla didn’t show up for work the next night or the night after that, and the head nurse finally took her off the schedule. Worried, I went down to the bungalow to talk to her, Trina be damned, but the windows were dark, the blue van and the black sedan both gone. There were three newspapers on the stoop, and the mailbox was overflowing. I drove around the city for hours, soaking up all the sad songs on the radio and hoping to spot Marla in a convenience store or pass her on the interstate, the van screaming along in Drive 2. I wanted to put her and me and everything else back where it belonged, in nervous teenage heaven.
I looked up Marla’s number in the employee records and called it, but it was no longer in service. Each time I went down into El Cajon, I thought of her, and I drove slowly past her old house on occasion. Once, I ventured into Trina’s bar with Cherry, but it was no longer Trina’s bar. It was some kind of country bar with Kitty Wells on the jukebox and hats and horseshoes and license plates hanging on the walls.
That summer I moved out of my parents’ house and into a two-bedroom apartment on Central Avenue with a friend. It was party time all the time, and Cherry came to a few, sometimes with lovers. She had discovered speed and LSD and continued to drink destructively, but the pleasure she relentlessly chased kept falling out from under her, the lovers never seemed to work out, and one day she left town — returned to Montana, I was told — without saying goodbye.
Grover Sperry passed away that July, taking his golden dream with him. As with Mrs. Sissle, I had gotten close to Grover and missed him when he was gone, remembering his courage in the face of annihilation. Too often I’d found it easy to discount the decaying patients around me, whose lives I’d foolishly believed were insignificant or wasted. My friends found it funny when I talked about death, but it didn’t feel like a joke to me. I began to ponder the time-bomb conundrum of mortality: the seeming impossibility of understanding anything about myself or the world in the short time before it would be my turn to be folded into the ground.
I quit being an orderly and got a job delivering for Caruso’s Italian Restaurant downtown. Every night I worked until 2 or 3 AM, navigating the streets of San Diego, tins of lasagna and fragrant stacks of pizza by my side, the flicker and flash of streetlights pouring over me, the past filling up behind me like an old churchyard, and me feeling ancient with the knowledge that everything comes to an end. I often wondered about Cherry, my vital friend through the many long nights, and Marla, whose yearning to leave the city I would soon share. I would have gotten lost with her anywhere.