Friday Night Volunteer
Since everyone in my high school is encouraged to do volunteer work during sophomore year to make our college applications stronger, I figured I would be a candy striper so I could maybe learn how to talk to people better. I am good at computers and get great grades in school, but I can’t say that I know much about how to start a conversation.
Every Friday for the last three months I’ve delivered water and snacks to the patients on 4 West at the Medical Center. The nurse in charge gives me a list with my name, Aruna, on top, telling me the patients and their diets, and I match that up with the foods listed. Sometimes I feed old people their meals - the squash, ground meat, and potatoes all smushed up together. Sometimes I make beds; I’ve mastered hospital corners and get the sheets so tight you really can bounce a quarter on them.
When I deliver refreshments, usually the patients don’t notice me at all, like when they are sleeping or confused, or are on the phone or busy with guests. I feel funny when visitors mistake me for a nurse or aide. “Oops, here she comes. She needs to take your blood pressure,” they say, or, “She’s got some medicine for you.”
Sometimes the visitors ask my name and how old I am and what grade I am in school and where I live. Sometimes they know my parents or my neighborhood. Usually, though, I just say, “Here’s your water and a snack,” put the stuff on the tray table, and leave.
At first, I thought I’d contract germs, but I learned to wash my hands a lot, which the nurses tell me is the best prevention. I was afraid to touch the patients in case I hurt them, but the aides taught me how to support a person under one armpit as they support the other. We assist them to the bathroom or to the doorway or to the arm chair.
A month ago, after I’d delivered the snacks and helped make a couple of beds, one of the nurses asked me to go to room 416 and walk with the patient. She didn’t need assistance - she just needed to get out of bed and they wanted me to encourage her. I could hear the TV blaring before I even got to room 416. The lights were on bright, and in the bed was a young black woman. The tips of her braided hair were dyed orange and one nostril was pierced. Other than that, she was very pretty, about my age, and was propped up in bed with half a dozen pillows, aiming the remote control at the TV. Half eaten Jell-O and soda cans littered her tray table next to her cell phone. She didn’t seem to notice me when I came in, and I kind of stood there, not knowing what to do.
Finally she looked my way. “Yeah?”
“Um, I’m supposed to get you up for a walk.”
She looked me up and down. “Who says?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Aruna. I’m a candy striper.”
“I’m Shalonda. You gotta wear that dumb dress all the time?”
I looked down at my red and white striped pinafore. “Just when I’m here.”
She chuckled as she clicked off the TV, then grimaced as she sat up in bed and slowly swung her legs over the side.
“What school you go to?” she asked me.
“Pleasant Mountain High School.”
She just nodded her head.
I hesitated. What do you say in this circumstance? “How about you? What school do you go to?”
Shalonda snorted. “I don’t go to school. Are you kidding? I don’t need no stupid school.”
I looked at her again. She must have been really young when she graduated.
“They tell you why I’m here?”
Shalonda looked down at the floor and wriggled forward, grimacing, until her feet hit the floor. “I was attacked, you know.”
I caught my breath. “Attacked? That’s awful!”
She held on to her tray table and stood up. “A big dude. Stabbed me with a knife. Raped me, too.”
I gasped. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”
I couldn’t believe I said that. Of course she wasn’t all right.
She pulled her johnny around her back then motioned to her closet. “Can you get my robe for me?”
“Oh, sure.” I opened up the narrow closet door and pulled out the soft, light blue chenille and satin robe hanging there. Next to it was a costume of bright red chiffon over a bra top and panties, all decorated with sequins and bangles.
“You see what my mother did?” Shalonda reached out an arm for her robe and I helped her get into it. “I asked her to send me some clothes and she sent me that.”
“She’s a drug addict, you know.”
“My mother, that’s who.”
“She lives in a crack house in Detroit. She sent me that outfit because she wants me to be a hooker so she can use my money to buy drugs.” Shalonda wrapped the robe around herself and shuffled forward, bent over like an old woman.
Wow. What an awful story. “But how did you come to Pleasant Mountain?”
“I got sent to a group home for disadvantaged youth.” She pressed one arm over her middle, taking tiny, shuffling steps. “Everybody there is an addict.”
“Oh.” I looked at her again. She didn’t look like an addict to me, not that I really knew what an addict looked like. “It sounds awful.”
Shalonda laughed. “God, what a hole. Fifty miles from nowhere. The staff gives you drugs in exchange for sex.”
She was walking a little straighter now, with a little more speed. She looked casually inside each room as we passed. “That’s where I was attacked, you know.”
“Really? At the group home?”
“I wouldn’t have sex with the director so he retaliated.”
I could feel my indignation rise. What is wrong with this world?
At the end of the hall we stopped and looked out the window at the parking lot below. It had started to rain and the street lights were reflected in the puddles on the asphalt.
“Did they arrest him?”
Shalonda laughed. “No, of course not. No way was I telling the police. Nobody would have believed me. They shipped me off here, said I tried to commit suicide, made up a big story about it. Tomorrow they’re sending me back home to my mother. She probably won’t even notice.”
We walked back to Shalonda’s room. The injustice of her experience made me seethe inside. “Do you want me to talk to somebody for you?”
Shalonda just laughed. “Like I said, no one will believe you. No. Just forget about it.”
I helped her get back into bed and hung her bathrobe back in the closet next to the chiffon and sequins. I pulled up the sheets around her and pushed the tray table over her bed.
“Is there anything I can get for you?”
She motioned to the tray table. “I don’t want that stuff anymore. Can you toss it for me?” As I turned to throw away her trash she turned on the TV.
Back at the nurses’ station, the head nurse, Cheryl, smiled at me. “Did you girls have a nice talk?”
I shrugged. “I guess so.”
“You looked so deep in conversation.”
“I do feel badly for her.”
Cheryl looked surprised, then frowned. “Oh?”
“She didn’t really try to commit suicide,” I told her.
Cheryl’s eyebrows raised. “Suicide?”
“She told me she was attacked. She never reported it.”
Cheryl and a couple of other nurses nearby looked at each other and started laughing.
How could they laugh at someone who’d gone through so much?
I could feel my face getting hot. Just because the girl is black it doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be taken seriously.
“I’m sorry,” Cheryl said. “But it sounds like our friend Shalonda really pulled one over on you.”
“What are you talking about? You’re saying she wasn’t attacked?”
“She’s here because she had her appendix out and got an infection afterward, so she needed some antibiotics. She’s going home tomorrow.”
I pictured her mother, living in a crack house in Detroit…
Cheryl interrupted my thought. “Her mother used to work in the ICU and her father’s a cardiologist, which is how we all know her. She goes to private school at the Pine Ridge Academy.”
“She wants to be an actress someday,” said one of the aides.
“Did she show you that costume?” another nurse asked. I nodded, not really wanting to hear any more. “She had a screaming fit when she saw her scar after they opened her up to drain the infection. Her parents have planned this elaborate Halloween party and Shalonda was so worried her scar would show. She made her mother bring her costume in for her to try on.”
I must have had a funny expression on my face because the nurses all looked at me and started laughing again. I smiled and pretended it was funny, too.
Did they plan all of this? Or was it all Shalonda’s doing?
I walked back to room 416. I knocked on the door, but I wasn’t sure Shalonda heard me, her TV was turned up so loud. I knocked again during a pause in the noise and walked right in to stand next to the bed.
Shalonda turned off the volume. “I’m not getting out of bed again.”
“That was all a big lie,” I said, much to my surprise.
Shalonda snorted, flipping TV stations with her remote control.
“Why would you tell me such lies?”
Shalonda shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe you need to learn that not every black girl is an addict.”
“I know that.”
“Not every black girl comes from a broken family or breaks the law or gets pregnant.”
“I know that, too.”
“Right. Sure you do.”
“Just because my family is Indian you shouldn’t assume I’m racist.”
Shalonda laughed, then clenched her arms over her sore abdomen. “I wouldn’t know.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I just wanted to say that I think you’ll make a great actress some day.”
Shalonda rolled her eyes.
“I mean, you already are one,” I said before I left.
My parents are hopeful that I will become a doctor or an engineer someday. At the moment engineering sounds so much better than medicine, as the only manipulation that happens is with numbers and equations. But my mother says, “So let them laugh. You are there to learn.”
So I come in every Friday and mix the old patients’ food together and tell them it is good, and help people get out of bed, and deliver snacks, and make beds. The nurses are nicer to me now. Whenever a doctor does a procedure the nurses encourage me to watch.
Still, whenever a patient tells me a story I nod my head and try not to believe them.