Yet not for those,
Nor what the potent victor in his rage
Can else inflict, do I repent or change,
Though changed in outward luster…
—Paradise Lost, Bk. I
Because I couldn’t bear to go back to the southside
of Richmond and the life I had led there – the blaring
televisions, the chained up hounds, the cigarettes hissing
in ceramic saucers, the not never’s, I’m fixin’ to’s,
the ain’ts — because anything at all was better than that,
I took the job. The four bucks an hour, the zip-front,
teal-colored, polyester uniform, the hairnets and latex gloves,
the intimate odors of piss and sweat, the eight hour
nighttime shifts of vomitus and shit, of death and death,
and then more death. Each day, I pinned on the badge that assigned me
to hell: nurse’s aide on an oncology ward for terminal patients.
Calvin Spotswood was my first patient. His metal chart
proclaimed him: “Non-ambulatory, terminal C.A..” A Goner,
the docs called him, a non-compliant asshole they wheeled
like a dying plant, out of the sun, out of the way,
so he could wither and perish at his own speed distant from those
with a happier prognosis.
They parked him in a dim back room so he could go unheard
when pain peeled him down to his disappearing center.
Calvin had dropped down through a chute in the day to day,
and skidded in for a landing on the flaming shores
of Stage III colo-rectal cancer. Nightly, he cooked there,
flipping back and forth on the grainy, cloroxed sheets
like a grilling fish. Timidly at first, I bathed the hot grate
of his ribs with tepid water, the cloth I dipped
almost sizzling dry on his heaving chest. I hated the feel
of his skin, the intimacy of my hands on his body. I hated
the smell beneath his sheets, the odor of his mouth. I hated
to touch him – a dying man, a devil, trapped, alive, in hell.
uncomfortable now, because he was black, imagining
Calvin as Milton’s Satan, as if I am demonizing him unfairly,
or engaging in a stereotype based on race. But I had read the poem
and I recognized immediately the one who was “hurled headlong flaming”
from the gates of heaven, and “chained” for infinity “on the burning lake”
of his hospital bed. Like Lucifier, Calvin
was a troublingly complex anti-hero — a horrible person in many ways, stubborn
and stupid, had abused his nurses and cursed the doctors,
refusing the colostomy that might have prolonged — or saved — his life.
He wouldn’t be unmanned, he said, shitting in a bag. No f-ing way.
He said “f-ing,” instead of the full blown word,
a kind of delicacy I found peculiar, and then endearing.
And though the tumor, inexorably, day by day, shut him down, he wouldn’t pray, or console himself in any of the usual ways. Each afternoon,
he turned away from the Pentacostal preacher who stood with his Bible
at the foot of his bed, and said his name kindly and asked to say
a prayer or lay his hands upon the burning body. No f-ing way.
The tumor grew until it bound itself into his stomach wall
Each move he made extracted a fiery arrow of flaming pain
from his rotten gut. And when the house staff figured
they had him beat, and organized a betting pool on how soon old Calvin
would entrust himself to the surgeon’s knife so he could eat
again, he still declined, still whined for pussy, porno mags,
and chicken fried in bacon grease. A third year resident,
Harvard M.D., wrote an order for the supper Calvin thought
he craved: mashed potatoes and buttered bread, a chicken-battered,
deep-fried steak. Beaming, our man consumed it while his doctor lingered
outside his door to await the inevitable result of the natural process
of human digestion… Here is where I need to remind you that this
was back when the old U.Va. hospital still stood, on the brick-curbed rim
of Hospital Drive, where the sign saying Private really meant white, a reminder
of what passed for health care in the segregated South.
Nurses still wore bobby-pinned, absurd white hats that looked
as if they were about to levitate off of their heads..
The R.N.’s were white, the practicals, black.
And none of the docs, of course, were black.
But Calvin was, and the Civil Rights Act was a decade old,
so it was the New South, instead of the Old, where Calvin consumed
his last good meal, deluded into thinking a black man in the South
had finally won. An hour later, he knew he’d lost, and patients
two floors down could hear him screaming from the mouth
of the flaming crater he filled with curses.
Night after night, wrist deep in the tepid water I bathed him with,
I stood at his beside and tried to change him from hot to cool
and listened to him discourse maniacally on the mysteries of gender:
Born again, he’d be a woman in slick red panties, a streetwalking
whore in high-heeled sandals and torn, black hose, opening his legs
for paper money, filling his purse with bucks to spend.
How anyone was granted a life like that he could never comprehend:
getting paid to fuck. His greatest treasure had been a dark red Pontiac with bucket seats
he’d drive to D.C.’s 14th Street to look for whores and a game of cards.
He’d been a lumberjack, he revealed one night. A quelling job,
and measured with his hands sphered into a circle, the muscles
jettisoned to illness. His strength had been his pride.
Now, he was a wiry and diminutive, sick stick of a man,
shriveled by a tumor. The image of his former power resided
in the two huge wives who guarded his door, one white, one black.
Passing between the corporeal portals of their womanly flesh,
my pale-toned puniness frightened me. But even in the final stages
of a violently invasive terminal carcinoma, nothing daunted Calvin —
not even the quarter ton of dominating, loud-mouthed women
with whom he had conceived six children. I marveled
at the unrancorous way they held each other, their cheap clothing
crinkling noisily, releasing that funky odor big people carry.
Their decalled fingernails, their huge, flopping breasts, their ornate hairdos –
the one teased up and lacquered high in place, the other cornrowed
flat with beads – their flamboyance so obvious I couldn’t help
but apprehend what Calvin Spotswood thought was hot in women.
Not me, of course, skinny college girl with straight brown hair,
and wire rimmed glasses, dog-ear-ing Book I of Paradise Lost….
What Calvin adored were the superfluous extras I tried to delete –
fat and loudness, clandestine odors of secreted musk.
At the end, cupping his withered, hairless testicles
in my cool, white palm because he asked me to, it wasn’t anything
like witnessing a death. More like the birth of a new world, really,
he was entering alone. The little universe of sperm that twirled
beneath my hand, he was taking with him. On the burning bed,
his mouth lolled open in forgotten, wasted pleasure,
and I saw in my mind images of the South’s strange fruit, the old photos
bound into books of black men who’d transgressed early in the century,
swinging heavily from trees — their demeaned postures and living deaths.
But Calvin was uncatalogued there. His name was written
in the dramatis personae of a slimmer text, an epic poem about the fall
from grace of a defiant, finger-flipping Beezelbub who dared
to challenge the creator of a world where black men swung
from the limbs of trees for admiring the backside of fair-skinned girls.
Calvin was the one kicking holes in the floor of that so-called heaven to hasten
his eviction. And so I cupped his balls. I did, and stroked his dick, marveling,
at the force of life even at the end, and the inscrutability of a God
who would keep alive a man who claimed to hate his f-ing guts
and nail into my mind forever, Calvin Spotswood in his final hours,
undiminished, unredeemed, unrepentant, his poor black body burning and burning.