“O Captain My Captain” by Jo Perry

Maybe I hate NPR because I hate my job—which requires me to take in at least thirty-three tons of client-requested daytime National Public Radio content until each day’s allotment of artificial light dims into the dark bottom-ooze of Time. After the public radio shut-off, it’s “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy”….

I can’t tell you how much I hate NPR. It’s not just the uptalk and the vocal frys or the stuck-up hosts with smiles in their voices who pretend to be our friends and gush about books–especially the ones they wrote. I hate the obscure, heartening factoids about the Hubble telescope and artisanal Vermont maple syrup and the one they just dropped on me here while I’m stuck behind a big-assed, Ahuacatl Avocado Rancho truck stuffed with “biodynamic” avocadoes for bio-inert losers who just learned and cannot unlearn thanks to N.P. Fucking R. that a whale—I’m sure they meant an average whale—sequesters thirty-three tons of carbon during its lifetime.

And when the carbonated whale finally croaks of whatever whales die of and sinks to the ocean floor like a lead-stuffed Hindenburg, all that Devil-carbon remains trapped inside the whale-husk for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Which is about as long as I’ve been trapped behind this truck.

Alexa, what does “Ahuacatl’ mean?

“Ahuacatl means ‘avocado’ and ‘testicle’ in Nahuatl, the Aztec language.”

Avocados give me hives. Also cantaloupe. I’m a delicate fucking flower being crushed in traffic.

Maybe I hate NPR because I hate my job—which requires me to take in at least thirty-three tons of client-requested daytime National Public Radio content until each day’s allotment of artificial light dims into the dark bottom-ooze of Time. After the public radio shut-off, it’s “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy” with a T.V. tray loaded with pudding cups and a butter pecan Ensure with a flex-straw stuck in it next to an almost horizontal Lazy-Boy.

Me? I sequester Chip Ahoys. Or is it Chips Ahoy?

Ouch. I can feel the scald of a superior, artisanal NPR smirk wafting my way. Well, fuck NPR and NPR voices and whatever NPR eats. I may not look or sound like it—especially in these faded blue scrubs—but I earned a B.A. in psychology at a small, very selective liberal arts college that had huge, green lawns.

But yeah. Maybe if I’d majored in Marketing with a minor in Communications at USC, I’d be a successful death doula with a popular death-positive Instagram instead of being a home health aide—which is really a home final-illness aide—and real people would listen to my podcast instead of the thin haze in my head that listens to me think.

 How did they say “Do not resuscitate” in Aztec?

This client is going to kick before midnight, I can feel it. Which is why I’m not inside the client’s Van Nuys house but stuck in three P.M. southbound Laurel Canyon traffic. One of the family members—the disdainful one elected to communicate with me—told me to immediately transport the carefully packaged VIP item in the back seat to the client, “no matter the difficulty” and “whatever it took.”

It doesn’t look good for the client who collapsed last night after his urine turned black. He was hospitalized for a catastrophe that I know well—late-term renal failure. And I’m not sure yet how It looks for me. Maybe after the client’s kidneys complete their failings and—as per his instructions—he is not resuscitated, I can finally transition to something that bathes me in daylight more than once every sixty days and that pays more than fourteen dollars and fifty-one fucking cents an hour.

A whale death doula maybe. A testicle doula. A public radio book doula who says “luminous” over and over.

I’m great at my job, by the way. I don’t argue. I keep the client clean, comfortable, hydrated, medicated according to physician instructions and fed. I do what I’m asked and what needs to be done. For example, I made sure that the package was sedated, but not over-sedated. And I knew to pack my things—except a spare set of scrubs—in the Camry’s trunk right after the ambulance backed out of the client’s uneven driveway.

Everything would have been fine—well not fine but better—if it weren’t for this nightmare delay. The client has to be alive when I deliver the package. That’s all and that is everything.

And don’t tell me about Google Maps. The last time I took one of those three-minute shortcuts, I was dead-ended for over an hour behind a downed pine with a convoy of enraged, Tesla beta testers on my ass.

Dendrology for two hundred: This makes trees fall down in L.A.

No, not vandals. Think.

Okay, I’ll put you out of your misery:

The correct answer is, “What is rain?”


That’s how fucked and fragile L.A. is. A forty-five-minute medium-strength downpour with a little bitty wind uproots centuries-old, giant motherfucker trees. And I mean regular rain. Not acid rain. Not nuclear rain. Just the L.A. kind of rain that murders innocent saplings that would have sequestered so much carbon it would blow your mind.

Alexa, what’s up with toxic rain?

“Uncontaminated precipitation is naturally acidic. Water contains atmospheric gases as well as carbon dioxide, which when dissolved form carbonic acid.”

Carbon again.

Yet—at least on earth—carbon is life. And anti-life.

I’m not the only one who needs to calm the fuck down. I should have snagged some of the client’s Ativan, but preparing and packaging the special item took much longer than I’d planned….

The bag crackles and a shrill, gurgly moan escapes from the Hefty inside it. I check the rear-view mirror and the package is still belted into the seat—but I swear to God that bag is writhing.

“Shut the fuck up!” I tell it.

The bag settles.

And I’m not the only one who needs to calm the fuck down. I should have snagged some of the client’s Ativan, but preparing and packaging the special item took much longer than I’d planned.

Alexa, how much carbon is produced by the average human being?

“The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is sixteen tons of greenhouse gasses per year.”

The Testicle truck’s brake lights dim as it lurches forward and around the curve. I’m right on its ass until it wheezes to a gaseous stop across from the Houdini estate.

Now there’s a guy who could have used a home health aide. An aide who could have deflected the abdominal blows he received from a suddenly-hostile visitor as he rested—unready and defenseless—on his dressing room couch so he wouldn’t have died of peritonitis from his blow-ruptured appendix at the age of fifty-two on fucking Halloween.

Do you even know what a Home Health Aide does?

As Vanna White would say,” A Y I G

Anything unpleasant or disgusting or frightening that non-aides can’t stand to do or refuse to do for their dying or demented loved ones. Plus meal and snack prep, transport to and from suffocating medical and physical therapy appointments, errands, hair washing, hand and toenail trimming, shaving and sponge and regular bathing—try giving an incontinent dead horse a bath with a hand shower sometime and let me know how it went, and dressing—try that, too. Administration of medications, and my favorite—“light” housework—which equals all the heavy housework and maintenance.

And odd shit like what I’m doing now—delivering an absolutely-must-get-there-immediately package of contraband to the client’s hospital deathbed as his alive-time on this carbon-overheated planet hemorrhages.

During my months of drapes-closed, always twilight, sometimes anesthetized and sometimes high on whatever it is the client is taking, carb-fueled weeks and days, I executed systematic explorations of the attic, crawl spaces, closet, drawers, storage bins, boxes, cartons, baggies, cupboards, pockets, shoes, sock-balls, old suitcases and a briefcase, and shook book and magazine pages searching for the client’s valuables and cash. I left some of what I found for the client’s future survivors to discover and to convince them that their recently-departed was so thoroughly demented in his last sad months—so sad, that they couldn’t bear to come near him. These leftover items will convince the client’s loved ones that he “did something” with this or that precious family thing that was the only family thing that meant anything to them or that they ever really wanted. And then they will complain that the client must have burned the precious things, or on a senile whim given the thing to the transient who attaches discount pest extermination flyers on lamp posts with rubber bands, or—having lost all reason—the client “hid” them by ingesting them one by one, and then shit them into oblivion.

Anyway, I’ve sequestered my cut of client cash, coins, jewelry and other high-value items in the space under the carpet of my gassed-up, greenhouse-gas-spewing Camry’s trunk.

Which is why that keening thing inside the oversized powder blue, heavy duty “Happy Birthday” gift bag lined with a Hefty—open—I’m not cruel and I’m not stupid–and that I stapled at the top in intervals wide enough to permit air movement had to be in the back seat. It’s not a great set- up. But a leak in the trunk could ruin months of methodical and relentless thieving.

The family that jangles my cell phone night and day to communicate their suggestions for extra things that I must do—“wash down the moldings” or “declutter”—insisted that—before they descend—probably late this evening—upon the client’s hospital death-room for their final farewells—I must provide their loved one with an in-person, closure-achieving, final visit with Captain, a twenty-pound, thick-boned bruiser of a tabby with permanently dilated lime-green irises who spent the years since his kittenhood pissing on, shredding and marring every non-metallic object in the client’s dark and reeking ranchito.

I know how these things go down. I could supervise the whole pre-and post-death shebang asleep. And I know that once the client approaches death or death sidles up to the client—things speed up.

So, there isn’t much time left.

Once the client is officially deceased, the family will mob the home sweet home they’ve avoided for the duration of the client’s final illness and conduct the frosty Tipping and Fake Thanking the Home Health Aide Ritual which concludes with me getting a check—not cash, a fucking check—for a hundred bucks and one of the dead client’s musty sport coats—no matter if I cared for the client for five days, five months or five years.

Then they will expect my exit to be instant.

I must somehow quiet the now raging Captain that the client always calls “My Captain” yet told me he’d named him after Abraham Lincoln­­—try to figure that one out—during our sure to be rough passage through the hospital lobby and up the elevator without getting busted. And I must travel past the hallway nurses’ station and inside the client’s private room­­ as if I am making a routine delivery. Then after raising the head of the bed so the client can be eye to eye with the feline I will have carefully unbagged and plopped upon the his rickety, heaving ribs—I will expertly extract the cash box combination from the client’s uremic and misfiring brain.

I’ve looked everywhere for the slip of paper on which the combination had to have been saved. I unrolled the little rolled-up paper inside the mezuzah nailed the client’s door post. I checked the inside of Captain’s yellow and rhinestone collar, shook soup cans in the pantry to check for fakes, checked the contents of the freezer—seventy-five gray lamb chops—pried open cleanser cans, and dug through the roots of potted plants.

After the combination is in my possession, I will repackage the chunky feline in the Hefty-lined gift bag, tuck the client in one last time, fluff his slippery hospital pillow and raise the bars of his bed, then arrive in the treacherous lobby via the fire stairs this time and—holding the bag tightly against my heart—I will cross the lobby’s treacherous marble surfaces without incident, then literally fly over the canyon to the client’s reeking one-story, remove the cash box from the Camry’s trunk—did I tell you that I excavated it from the bottom of a disintegrating carboard box of Christmas ornaments I dug out of out of client’s car-less garage?

Then I will open the box.

If the arc of history really bends toward justice, the contents of that steel box should belong to me—not to the invisible grandson with his fully-subsidized Silver Lake Craftsman and a “job” writing experimental, bedpan-free screenplays the client cannot fucking stop talking about.

What if it isn’t a cash box, you sneer? If something looks like a cash box and is steel like a cash box and has a combination lock and feels like it is stuffed with something when I shake it except for a distinctly precious-metallic ping—then the things inside the box must be cash and the Tiffany platinum, three-carat diamond—carbon again—engagement ring the slender female ring-finger in the faded wedding photograph in the dining room that the more-amnesiac-by-the-minute client keeps having me look for and which I honestly and repeatedly tell him that I haven’t found.


Four months minus two non-consecutive days off of twenty-four-hours shifts doing anything for a dying and terrified-of-dying stranger while completing four loads of laundry daily means that if the arc of history really bends toward justice, the contents of that steel box include the ring, and the box and the ring should belong to me—not to the invisible grandson with his fully-subsidized Silver Lake Craftsman and a “job” writing experimental, bedpan-free screenplays the client cannot fucking stop talking about.

Captain screams. The Houdini stop light changes. And the Testicle Truck scoots up Lookout Mountain Drive.

Maybe there is a carbonless God.

I urge the Camry forward. A few more stoplights, a few turns and the hospital I know too well will rise up before me.

Or maybe there isn’t a God. A gnome in an acid yellow vest and hardhat skitters down Kirkwood into the intersection where he flaps a Day-Glo STOP sign, then waves a churning, elephantine cement truck to the intersection.

If this shit right now is the universe telling me something, I refuse to hear it.

I turn the radio to the oldies station hoping for Van Halen, but catch the last part of “Turn, Turn, Turn.” The Byrds lived in some hippie shack around here, didn’t they? I open the window halfway and watch three huge, vanilla ice cream-colored dogs with identical narrow heads smile at alive people dressed in clothes—not scrubs or stained pajamas—and sipping shiny coffee in chlorophyll-infused sunlight on the Canyon Store’s redwood deck.

A crooked, tie-died LOVE banner-thing ripples behind them.

I take in a big mouthful of the emerald air and exhale it through my nose, carbon and all—then steal another one.

If glass wind chimes in a breeze were a flavor, that’s exactly what the air here tastes like.

The cement truck groans into the intersection. The small man in the hard hat waves his sign like a fan. I can tell by how antsy he is that he and his colleagues will soon be pouring the foundation of something big–probably one of those four-story celebrity villas with a 365-degree view and a wraparound deck with its dick hanging out towards Malibu.

Today is the client’s last day.

Today I will score the combination to the box and begin a new phase.

Today Captain will decamp to the grandson’s Silver Lake digs along with the client’s precious, framed Captain poem that he had me hang above his tattered leatherette couch so he could glance at it from the recliner during T.V. commercials and his beloved My Captain dozed on his disappearing lap.

Today Captain will embark upon a fresh campaign of befoulings and lacerations.

Today I will lay off the Chip Ahoys.

 Today I will not permit a small obstruction like a cement mixer to rattle me.

This is just the pause—the intake of breath—that comes before the release and unfolding of luminous and forward-tilting events.

The cement truck rumbles and begins a turn.

The sign man switches things up and waves the STOP sign like at me like a fan.

A cloud forms above one of the canyon’s sharp crests, drenching the intersection in shadow which signals the pairs of blinding Halogen eyes behind the Camry to ignite.

An elongated, satanic, human-infantile screech surfs the stench of cat piss and cat shit arriving in the drivers’ seat. I see the birthday bag convulse, then captain’s head—his pink mouth open and white drool-ribbons festooning his needle-teeth—pushing like a birth through the vertical slit he ripped.

“Hey, Big Guy! Everything’s okay. Don’t worry, Cappie! Just chill for few more minutes and you’ll get to see Daddy!” I talk to the rear-view mirror, trying and failing to make eye-contact.

I release the seat belt and twist my Chip Ahoys-thickened trunk, then stick my arms between the seats until my palms prickle against Captain’s erect whiskers—the whiskers the client warned me to never ever touch. A big-boned, irregular amber shadow launches itself onto my head and lands with scrambling, dizzying blow while implanting its talons into my scalp.

Somebody somewhere shouts “Too far!” The mixer’s back up alarm bleats, then stops.

Blood pulses into my eyes and ears. Captain hisses, then drives his fishhooks deeper into whatever blood-spewing thing lies between my skull and scalp as I locate, then squeeze his abdomen hard enough to rupture the appendix I really hope he has.

Captain replies with an infantile-humanoid satanic screech and digs deeper.

I lift my foot off the brake for the moment it takes to channel all my strength into one devastating, sharp, upward unlatching of the needle-feet from my erupting head and the Camry rolls—the downward slope intensifying its trajectory—toward the gray, agitating, pregnant whale shattering the red-flecked windshield, then into the scorching, undulating, hissing burst of luminous, luminous, luminous light—

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
 But O heart! heart! heart!
 O the bleeding drops of red,
 Where on the deck my Captain lies,
 Fallen cold and dead…

—Walt Whitman

Jo Perry is the author of the acclaimed Charlie and Rose series of novels, including Dead is Better, Dead is Best, and Dead is Good, along with the novel Pure. She earned a Ph.D. in English, taught college literature and writing, produced and wrote episodic television, and has published articles, book reviews, and poetry. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, novelist Thomas Perry. They have two adult children. Their two cats and two dogs are rescues.

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