Me and James Arness: Searching For Festus at Whispering Pines

October 25, 2011

I spent the shittiest eight months of my life working at Whispering Pines Retirement Community.

There were three tiers at Whispering Pines-the first being the one where the people are wearing track suits and have a pretty high degree of autonomy. They go for day trips to Fredricksburg, the outlet mall tour from San Marcos to Hillsboro and back.

The second tier is where those same people go after they burn something in their mostly-autonomous apartments, or fall and snap something crucial, or lose the ability to clean themselves up after their “accidents.”

I worked on third tier. That’s where I met James Arness.

Most of the other orderlies on third tier-young black women about my age with kids, and nails, and tattoos on their necks and forearms; women who called me the white girl or little miss don’t belong here-didn’t even know who James Arness was.

But I was raised by my grandma. We watched a lot of Big Valley, Rawhide, and Gunsmoke. Especially Gunsmoke.

In fairness to my fellow orderlies, James Arness didn’t know who James Arness was either.

He was still pretty tall for someone in their eighties, and though he wasn’t particularly fat, he was heavy. Tier three was understaffed most of the time, so the jobs that were supposed to be done by two people-say, getting people in and out of bed-were usually done by one if the person was semi-ambulatory. He’d had a stroke, but could still get in and out of bed with help, could roll in and out of his protective undergarments when it was time to change him.

Thing was, he would only answer to Marshall Dillon. I was the one that figured that out. Everyone else just thought he was ornery, refusing to cooperate.

But my grandma had Alzheimers, and she wouldn’t answer to anything but the pet name my grandfather had for her. So towards the end, before she went to a place a lot less nice than tier three, I spent a lot of time with her saying “Boogie-Woogie, don’t pick at that. You’re going to make it bleed,” and “Boogie-Woogie, leave that band-aid on,” and “Boogie-Woogie, keep your hands out of your diaper. That’s gross.”

So when one of my fellow orderlies said, on my third or fourth day, “somebody tell the white girl to go change mister ar-nis” (they wouldn’t speak directly to me, and yes, they mispronounced his name, putting the emphasis on the first syllable), I figured it out pretty quick. His name was on the door (J. Arness), and he looked enough like himself, still, that when he didn’t answer to Mister Ar-ness, Mister Ar-nis, or James, I tried Marshall Dillon.

“What is it?” he asked, a kind of clarity coming into his eyes, his voice still gravely if higher in register.

“I need to change your… bandages, Marshall,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. He didn’t ask how he’d gotten hurt, didn’t realize that he was wearing an adult diaper. We kept this dialogue going for the eight months I worked at Whispering Pines. We didn’t go to the dining hall at meal time, we headed on down to the saloon. I think I might have referred to the shower room as a stand-up washtub.

He would get confused and upset sometimes, calling out for Festus, or Quint, or one of his other deputies, wanting to know where his six-shooter was. And sometimes, sure, he called me Miss Kitty and groped me, but all old men grope. And I could usually tell him his six-shooter was at the blacksmith’s shop, getting a new trigger or whatever.

Close to the end of my employ with Whispering Pines, I went through his dresser and found a gold watch, which I pawned and ran into my arm.

I felt pretty bad about that, him being so nice and all, although that was just one very small part of a much larger and worse thing that was going on with me back then.

Not to blame others for my mistakes, but his family really shouldn’t have left that watch there. I’m kinda surprised, in retrospect, that one of my fellow orderlies didn’t steal it before I did.

And no, not because they were black, because they were orderlies, and that’s what orderlies do.

At least, all the ones I’ve talked to since at NA meetings-white, black, and brown-did when they were orderlies.


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1 Treacle and Naugahyde October 26, 2011 at 6:05 am



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