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Michael-Finkel-The-Stranger-in-the-Woods

This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with journalist Michael Finkel . He is the author of True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, which was made into a film starring Jonah Hill and James Franco. His latest book is called The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, available now from Knopf.

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BAKERSFIELD, CA-

She was a head-injured quadriplegic at a nursing home. I took care of her sometimes. The other assistants who cared for her brought her Playgirl magazines. They’d open them up to a photo of some guy’s package. That brought a big smile to her contorting face, which was the only part of her body she could move. A former Cal Trans road worker, she had been smashed by some kind of vehicle as she stood on a Florida roadway. She couldn’t talk, only smile. She couldn’t eat except through a tube that dangled from her side. But she loved porn. You could see it in her eyes.

I had to turn her constantly to keep the sores off her body.

A head-injured man shared the room. All he could do was eat. He couldn’t move a muscle. I spoon fed him and had to massage his throat so he could swallow. I changed his diapers, took him to a shower room and hosed him off while he lay on a big blue gurney. He stared a lot. That’s all he could do. I didn’t sense any thoughts behind his eyes. I figured any kind of reasoning was hidden far behind a veil of fog so thick that his soul was in a constant winter.

His mother, whose fingernails looked like strange digging spades, would come to his room once a week and rub his head. She thought he might wake up. “He’s going to come through,” she said. Her little puffs of grey hair and big glasses hid a motherly anger.

I hung out with a couple of CNAs at the nursing home. James was a large black man who would tell me lots of Bible stories. “You know Christmas trees are in the Bible,” he said one day, then launched into the old testament tale on the topic, saying there was an evergreen, that it meant Christmas. “It’s true,” he said.

“Fool. That’s a bad word. Don’t ever call anybody a fool,” he said on another occasion. “People don’t know, but they should be afraid of that word. God will punish them.”

I was glad to be at the nursing home, far away from the clinic and the likes of the angry head-injured like Ken Svent, who would always throw his breakfast at me. He often screamed until his ribs cracked. Herman Burger also lived there. He was a six-foot, five-inch-tall gay lumberjack. He once lunged at me with his razor while trying to help him re-learn how to shave. More than once he threw a shoe at his Alaskan wilderness lover, missed, and hit a window.

My favorite head-injury victim was an old timer named Tom. He pitched in the World Series back in the 1950s and still had enough wits to show me his hand gestures for a slider and curve ball. His smashed brain could at least put together those memories. I always wondered if he made the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame

The rooms and halls of the nursing home smelled like piss. The old people in the hallways constantly pissed themselves, the floor, their rooms. The smell lingered in a cloud of human waste.

I studied in the nursing home. I read and then fed the head injured. I remember Fall months and the leaves tumbling through the air outside the windows. I remember James saying he had another story for me. “It’s about God’s covenant by fire and water,” he said. He came into the room often and saw a bit of God in there. I know he did.