Community Service

By: Lenore Zion

You have been feeling insecure lately, concerning yourself with your community involvement. You catch yourself wondering whether you’re contributing enough, doing your part, making the world a better place for people. Not that you particularly care about making the world better for people, but you know others would judge you harshly if you were to admit that you don’t mind taking a passive role in the popular social battles, sitting back while others labor at promoting good environmental practices or whatnot, sometimes even allowing your laziness to reign supreme when you have garbage in your hand and no acceptable receptacle in which to deposit the garbage. “Litterbug!” a man yells at you, and no one you know personally is present, so you give him the finger, as your finger is completely free to express your reciprocal distaste for this man because you are no longer clinging to trash as he would have you do.

But, as mentioned, you’re feeling insecure about this. So what you do, is you decide it’s time to volunteer. Volunteering is what good people spend their time doing, because good people are the only variety of people who don’t mind coming in close physical contact with those yucky individuals who require free services. Bad people, like you are at heart, find it generally repulsive to ladle watered down soup with floating chunks of potato into Styrofoam bowls for people boasting two months worth of squalor on their skin. But you are trying to be a good person, so you sign up to do exactly that, because the first step to being a good person is behaving in the manner good people do. A man swats at flies, both real and imaginary, and you hand him his bowl of tasteless soup and by unfortunate accident, his rotting finger brushes up against your finger, which is encased in a sterile rubber glove, but nevertheless you become convinced that the parasites that call this man home have been transferred to you, so you go to the filthy bathroom and vomit into the toilet in an attempt to rid yourself of the experience. It doesn’t work, of course — at this point you are infested — and there’s nothing you can do but go back to your good person station and contract more rare illnesses from the hungry people who lost all their money in the stock market crash and reacted with crippling psychosis.

When you get home, you scrub fifteen layers of skin from your body in the shower and decide that there simply must be a less objectionable route to becoming a good person. Eventually, after hours of watching the flesh you scrubbed off in the shower heal, you experience an epiphany: old people need help, too. Old people live in sad buildings with ambient television noise and they are simply dying for a young sprite to arrive in said building with a checkers board, ready to listen to a few hours of rambling, incoherent stories of the old days when stuff was just a dollar or a nickel or some small combination of coins. So, you resign from your post at the soup kitchen and add your name to the list of people willing to perform the services that the older generation requires. This decision, you realize, affords you the incidental benefit of telling your peers that you have volunteered at both a soup kitchen and a nursing home — you are not a one trick pony when it comes to social services. You are an auxiliary for all those in need. Because you are a good person.

And so, on your first day, you gather together your checkers board and a deck of cards and some dominos, and you head to a nursing home with the name Sunny Isles, or Sunshine Terrace or some such name with the word “sun,” because nursing home titles must always include mention of the sun so as to avoid the other thing, the night, which reminds old people of their rapidly approaching deaths. The name Sunshine Villas allows nursing home residents to pretend they are at a resort in Mexico, like their granddaughters, who can be seen flashing their breasts to a twenty-nine-year-old cameraman in Cancun. One slight change — Sunset Villas — instead forces old people to envision a death, the fizzling out of an unimportant light, the sorts of deaths that make these old people wish they had exposed their breasts to cameramen in Mexico, because then they would have at least done something. But they did not, and one day soon they will just die, but not before you force them to play a few games of checkers with you.

At first you let the man win. He’s old, how many thrills does he have left? So, even though he doesn’t appear to know the rules of the game, you allow him to double-jump your checkers pieces in a way inconsistent with those jumping directives outlined in the checkers manual. But then, when he cheats his way to a win, instead of demonstrating the graciousness one might expect from an older gentleman, he gloats. “You little thing, you don’t know nothing,” he spits at you. On the next game, you take that bastard. You collect every last one of his checkers pieces and when you win, you collect all of your belongings and prepare to switch to another old person, one deserving of your attention. “You shouldn’t gloat,” you tell him as you pack up. “Now no one will play checkers with you.” He shrugs as though he doesn’t care, and somehow, though you are leaving him, you are the one who feels rejected. You shake it off. It is okay; you will find a new old person.

Your next old person doesn’t have the manual dexterity to play checkers or a game of cards or dominos. He probably had a stroke, because he doesn’t speak, either, which means no back talk. He smiles, and so you sit down with him. This isn’t what you expected — his not being able to speak also means he cannot tell you about the old days when he had to carry his school books with a belt. But certainly this man is lonely, still, even though he cannot speak, so you begin to speak to him. You tell him your stories, like the time you got arrested for selling nitrous to another kid in middle school. “I was in so much trouble,” you tell him, but he seems sleepy. Before you know it, you’re treating the stroke victim as though he were your mute therapist — you’re telling him everything, just everything. You tell him about who you irrationally hate, you tell him about the time you slept with your boyfriend’s best friend, you tell him about how you’re pretty sure you’ve been lying about the event you report as being your biggest childhood trauma, but, you tell him, if you are lying, you’ve been doing it for so long that you believe it yourself. You cry, because admitting this is emotional for you — you’ve never told anyone! At this point, something gets into you, you don’t know what, but you just stand up and show him your breasts, like his granddaughter in Cancun, and you keep your shirt held up for over a minute, really allowing him to take a good look. And when you make yourself decent again, you can see he’s happy. You’ve done some real community service.

The second time you visit the nursing home, you leave the checkers at home. Instead, you take a hat with you, and a bowtie, because you know that old men have fond memories of dressing formally, and you suspect your old person might like to wear a hat and a bowtie, because wearing such accessories might bring to his mind memories of the years in his life when he wasn’t actively dying. Unfortunately, you cannot locate a bowtie designed to be taken seriously, so you settle on the oversized polka-dot bowtie you wore to a costume party years ago. Your impression is, the seriousness of the bowtie is irrelevant; your old person just wants to wear one. You arrive, and your old person is using the toilet, meaning, an orderly has lifted your old man’s wrinkled body out of the wheelchair in which he was planted and then placed him on the toilet. Your old man has skin like a leopard, purple spots freckling his thighs and chest. The orderly stands, facing your old man, holding him in place because he might otherwise tip over. “Good job, Bill,” the orderly says. “Come on, Bill, keep it up.” Your old man swivels his head toward you and you briefly make eye contact. He closes his eyes and keeps them shut. You take this moment to contemplate suicide.

You wait outside for your old person to finish because, frankly, it’s rude to observe as another person uses the restroom, and also because witnessing the bathroom process in a nursing home has caused you to want to blind yourself so you might never again witness something quite so bleak. Sitting on a bench outside is another older gentleman, and he has no nose. There is a hole where normally there would not be, right in the center of his face, giving him the appearance of a two-month-old corpse. He’s smoking a cigarette, and you decide that his smoking has caused his nose to disappear — perhaps it became cancerous and just fell off one morning. Or would that be leprosy? You’ve never seen a man with no nose before, and you try very hard not to stare. “Hello,” you say to him, making a point of looking in his eyes so he might think you are such a good person and volunteer that you didn’t even notice that he’s missing his nose. He nods at you in acknowledgment of your greeting. This is followed by an extended period of awkward silence.

When you return, your old person has been placed back in his wheelchair, and oh boy, you realize, your old person looks depressed. This doesn’t reflect well on your volunteer work at the nursing home — the recipient of your attention must appear to be benefiting in some way, otherwise there is significant reason to call into question the quality of your volunteer work, and there is a list, you know, a list of people who are desperate to switch volunteer positions from the soup kitchen to the nursing home. You must defend your placement at the nursing home, lest you find yourself back at the soup kitchen, toiling away at becoming a good person while being invaded by imaginary parasitic worms every couple of hours. Immediately, you approach your old person and begin to dress him up. You place the hat on his head, and you tie the oversized polka-dot bowtie around his neck. Adorable, you think. He smiles at you, and that’s how you know you’ve done a good job — for your old person, a smile generally indicates an improvement in mood. You relax, and begin to talk — this is what you’ve been looking forward to since the last visit ended. He’s a good listener, due to the fact that he cannot speak or move on his own. You tell him about the man you last dated, and what a total jerk he was. Your old man agrees, naturally. You show him your breasts again, and then take the hat off his head and the bowtie from his neck and tell him you’ll see him again in a few days.

That night, you think about your old man, how adorable he was in the hat and bowtie, but you also think about the man with no nose. He could use a volunteer, you think. But you are devoted to an old person already and cannot just jump from one old person to the next just because one happens to be missing his nose. You determine that you will bring the noseless man a gift, so he might feel attended to. On your way to the nursing home the next time, you stop and buy a rose, which you present to the leper who is reliably smoking a cigarette on his bench. “I’ve been thinking about you, and I hope you have a lovely day,” you tell him. He hesitantly reaches up and accepts the rose, and you think he is much like a child, really — just shy and in need of affection, which you have delivered, thus cementing your place in the long line of good people who volunteered at this nursing home before you.

Inside, you dress up your old man in his favorite outfit again and tell him about your father, how he is such a strong man but you don’t always know how to relate to him. This time, you only show him your breasts for a moment because time gets away from you while you are telling him about your father, and now you are in a hurry — you’ve got dinner plans.

You make sure to show your old man your breasts for an extra long time when you return two days later, and you bring him a nice tweed vest to wear in addition to his hat and bowtie, and also a corncob pipe to hold onto. You bring the noseless man another red rose, and hand it to him on his smoking bench. You continue to put your old man in outfits, even, at one point, locating a monocle for him (though it is difficult to keep it held against his eye, so you give up after a few attempts), and you continue to tell him all of your secrets and show him your breasts, and you continue to bring roses for the smoking leper outside — you do these things for months. You’ve really begun to settle into a good person routine. You’re feeling happier, less guilty about your tendency to litter, and you’ve not been infiltrated by a single parasite — or any other pestilent wormy thing — in the entire time you’ve been volunteering at the nursing home. This, you’d say, is a major success in community service.

And you think that, proudly, for a few more months, until one day, as you hand the noseless man his rose, you catch a look from one of the orderlies through the automatic glass door. It is, without a doubt, a look of bewilderment and disapproval. You realize at that moment just how cruel it might seem to give a fragrant flower to a man with no nose, week after week. In experiencing this realization, you also consider the possibility that you’ve been laboring under the misapprehension that your man is enjoying your visits, when, in reality, the manner in which you treat him is similar to the way a young girl plays with her favorite doll. You are dressing him up in costumes, for God’s sake, and he cannot move to get away from you or speak to tell you to stop. Even worse, while you have been assuming your old man was delighted at the sight of your breasts, he may actually have felt molested by you. You never wanted to molest anyone; this was not your intention. You just wanted to be a good person. This is what you wanted, but the inherent badness inside of you would not allow it.

You stop volunteering at the nursing home and return to the soup kitchen in order to punish yourself for your unintentional sins. And punish yourself, you do, until you reach a breaking point and can no longer tolerate those individuals whose gums are a horrendous shade of green and whose conversational skills are so irritatingly lacking. You miss your old man — you don’t want to tell the people at the soup kitchen anything. And so, you work up the nerve to visit your old man, not in the volunteer capacity, but just as an old friend. When you finally do this, you arrive without a bowtie or a hat, without a single prop, because you want your old man to know he is not a joke to you, that you are no longer operating under the assumption that he might like being treated as a giant doll.

When you arrive at the nursing home ready to make up for your bad behavior, your old person is dead. The noseless man is outside smoking, and he doesn’t make eye contact with you. You exit the building, entirely woebegone, and take a seat next to the noseless man. “I’m sorry I brought you flowers,” you say to him, and he asks you in a labored long-term smoker’s voice why you’re sorry. You hesitate. “You have no nose,” you say. He looks you directly in the eye and curls up his lip. “I can still smell, bitch,” he says, and he walks inside, leaving you alone on the bench. You decide to never volunteer again.


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