COPYRIGHT Paranoia by Joseph Finder. Copyright 2004 by Joseph Finder. All Rights Reserved. Sharing not permitted.
The night before my first interview at Trion I went over to see my dad. I did this at least once a week, sometimes more, depending on if he called and asked me to come over. He called a lot, partly because he was lonely (Mom had died six years earlier) and partly because he was paranoid from the steroids he took and was convinced his caregivers were trying to kill him. So his calls were never friendly, never chatty; they were complaints, rants, accusations. Some of his painkillers were missing, he'd say, and he was convinced Caryn the nurse was pilfering them. The oxygen supplied by the oxygen company was of shitty quality. Rhonda the nurse kept tripping over his air hose and yanking the little tubes, the cannulas, out of his nose, nearly ripping his ears off.
To say that it was hard to retain people to take care of him was a comic understatement. Rarely did they last more than a few weeks. Francis X. Cassidy was a bad-tempered man, had been as long as I could remember, and had only grown angrier as he grew older and sicker. He'd always smoked a couple of packs a day and had a loud hacking cough, was always getting bronchitis. So it came as no surprise when he was diagnosed with emphysema. What did he expect? He hadn't been able to blow out the candles on his birthday cake for years. Now his emphysema was what they called end-stage, meaning that he could die in a couple of weeks, or months, or maybe ten years. No one knew.
Unfortunately, it fell to me, his only offspring, to arrange his care. He still lived in the first-floor-and-basement apartment in a triple-decker I'd grown up in, and he hadn't changed a thing since Mom died—the same harvest-gold refrigerator that never worked right, the couch that sagged on one side, the lace window curtains that had gone yellow with age. He hadn't saved any money, and his pension was pitiful; he barely had enough to cover his medical expenses. That meant part of my paycheck went to his rent, the home health aide's salary, whatever. I never expected any thanks, and never got any. Never in a million years would he ask me for money. We both sort of pretended that he was living off a trust fund or something.
When I arrived, he was sitting in his favorite Barcalounger, in front of the huge TV, his main occupation. It allowed him to complain about something in real time. Tubes in his nose (he got oxygen round the clock now), he was watching some infomercial on cable.
"Hey, Dad," I said.
He didn't look up for a minute or so—he was hypnotized by the infomercial, like it was the shower scene in Psycho. He'd gotten thin, though he still had a barrel chest, and his crew cut was white. When he looked up at me, he said, "The bitch is quitting, you know that?"
The "bitch" in question was his latest home healthcare aide, a pinched-faced, moody Irish woman in her fifties named Maureen with blazing fake red hair. She limped through the living room, as if on cue—she had a bad hip—with a plastic laundry basket heaped with neatly folded white T-shirts and boxer shorts, my dad's extensive wardrobe. The only surprise about her quitting was that it had taken her so long. He had a little Radio Shack wireless doorbell on the end table next to his Barcalounger that he'd press to call her whenever he needed something, which seemed to be constantly. His oxygen wasn't working, or the nose-tube thingies were drying out his nose, or he needed help getting to the bathroom to take a pee. Once in a while she'd take him out for "walks" in his motorized go-cart so he could cruise around the shopping mall and complain about "punks" and abuse her some more. He accused her of trying to poison him. It would drive a normal person crazy, and Maureen already seemed pretty high-strung.
"Why don't you tell him what you called me?" she said, setting the laundry down on the couch.
"Oh, for Christ's sake," he said. He spoke in short, clipped sentences, since he was always short of breath. "You've been putting antifreeze in my coffee. I can taste it. They call this eldercide, you know. Gray murders."
"If I wanted to kill you I'd use something better than antifreeze," she snapped back. Her Irish accent was still strong even after living here for twenty-some years. He inevitably accused his caretakers of trying to kill him. If they did, who could blame them? "He called me a—a word I won't even repeat."
"Jesus fucking Christ, I called her a cunt. That's a polite word for what she is. She assaulted me. I sit here hooked up to fucking air tubes, and this bitch is slapping me around."
"I grabbed a cigarette out of his hands," Maureen said. "He was trying to sneak a smoke when I was downstairs doing the laundry. As if I can't smell it throughout the house." She looked at me. One of her eyes wandered. "He's not allowed to smoke! I don't even know where he hides the cigarettes—he's hiding them somewhere, I know it!"
My father smiled triumphantly but said nothing.
"Anyway, what do I care?" she said bitterly. "This is my last day. I can't take it anymore."
The paid studio audience in the infomercial gasped and applauded wildly.
"Like I'm going to notice," Dad said. "She doesn't do shit. Look at the dust in this place. What the hell does the bitch do?"
Maureen picked up the laundry basket. "I should have left a month ago. I should never have taken this job." She left the room in her strange lame-pony canter.
"I should have fired her the minute I met her," he grumbled. "I could tell she was one of those gray-murderers." He breathed with pursed lips as if he were inhaling through a straw.
I didn't know what I was going to do now. The guy couldn't be alone—he couldn't get to the bathroom without help. He refused to go into a nursing home; he said he'd kill himself first.
I put my hand on his left hand, the one with an index finger hooked up to a glowing red indicator, the pulse oximeter, I think it was called. The digital numbers on the monitor read 88 percent. I said, "We'll get someone, Dad, don't worry about it."