Hamilton Stone Review #28
Miguel Ortiz, Fiction Editor
On my first day in the army I had to fill out a form asking my religion before I was issued dog tags. The choices, as I remember, were Protestant, Catholic, Jewish or Y for other, which I assumed meant Buddhist or agnostic or atheist. I hesitated for a moment before deciding. I considered myself agnostic, with a leaning toward atheism, but then I thought that not putting down Jewish would look as if I was trying to pass as a non-Jew in order to avoid discrimination, so I checked off Jewish. Perhaps secular Jew would have been appropriate, though Hitler made no distinction between religious or secular when he rounded Jews up. Anyway, I had no thoughts about secularism at the time. I was just irritated that the Jewish religion, which I thought gave rabbis command over believers, now had power over me.
Dog tags were intimate things. You were issued two small tin rectangles with your name, serial number, blood type and religion printed on them, which you had to wear around your neck on a little silver key chain at all times. Each dog tag had a triangular indentation on the left side that was to be twisted between your front teeth for identification in case you were killed in combat. This would insure that you would have a proper burial; I pictured a rabbi officiating over mine, but comforted myself by thinking that I’d be dead anyway and wouldn’t care.
Yet on the first Friday night of basic training I lined up with the ten or eleven other Jews in the company to go to Friday night services. I did this to get out of what was known as the Friday night G.I. party, which consisted of trainees scrubbing their barracks for several hours in preparation for Saturday’s inspection.
I walked over to the regimental chapel with my fellow Jews to hear Colonel Engel, the Jewish chaplain, open his sermon by saying to us, Now boys, if you want to hit a home run or score a touchdown for yourselves, you have to believe in God and follow the Jewish faith. He went on in this vein for what seemed like an excruciatingly long time. The following Friday night I decided to remain in the barracks instead of returning to religious services. This angered the other Jews, who felt I was making them look bad. You’re just a New York Jew, Schrader, one of them told me, no matter how much you try to pass. I answered that Colonel Engel offended me, but they all dismissed me as a self-denying Jew.
Still, when Passover came the next month I fell in with them when a sergeant told all Jews to line up so that they could finish gas mask training early and be given passes to leave for the religious holiday. The first night of Passover and Good Friday fell on the same day and Catholic and Jewish trainees were lined up alongside each other. Without any hint of anti-Semitism or black humor, the sergeant called out, All Jews into the gas chamber first. Each trainee had to run into a small shack filled with tear gas, detach his mask from his waist, put it over his face, remain still for a few seconds, and then run out when the sergeant motioned him to. I was sweating in fear the whole time, but managed to hold my breath long enough so that I didn’t breathe any of the gas.
Actually, being Jewish at Fort Dix was often an advantage. A large percentage of the trainees were Jews, particularly the National Guard units, whose members served for only six months, unlike the army draftees like me, who were in for two years. A number of National Guard trainees were recent law school graduates and frequently wrote letters to Senator Javits and other New York representatives in Congress complaining about mistreatment, so the officers and the sergeants in charge were especially careful not to appear insensitive to the needs of Jewish soldiers.
I remained at Fort Dix for two years as a company clerk in a training company. The army, at least on the level I was on, was the fairest place I had ever seen. Consideration of race and religion were absent when orders were given. Onerous tasks, like K.P., were assigned alphabetically. I’m sure anti-Semitism existed, particularly at higher levels, but my training regiment at Fort Dix seemed prejudice free.
Despite my agnostic leanings, I continued to claim my Jewish heritage on religious holidays so that I could get a pass to leave the base. I felt like a hypocrite, but then I would remember my dog tags, which identified me as Jewish, and that would soothe my conscience. Fifty years later I still occasionally take out my dog tags and look at them to remind myself of my serial number, blood type and religion.
In 1961 a week after I’d been discharged from the army, I started working as an investigator at the Harlem Welfare Center at 131st Street and the East River. Every morning I left my parents’ apartment on Central Park West and took the local C train uptown from 72nd Street to 125th Street and 8th Avenue and walked east across town to the welfare center. I followed a different route each day and found the atmosphere exotic, as if I was in a foreign country. One morning, amidst the poverty and faded tenements, I discovered a street with tidy brownstones and well kept lawns with trees and flowers.
Harlem was a mass of humanity. Crowds of people rushed by me on their way to the subway; later in the day the streets were jammed with groups of men drinking on corners or talking on stoops. Once I passed two policemen as they moved a few prostitutes on, cursing them and telling them they were going to put their ass in jail. I stopped to look. It was a sunny spring day and I had on a tie and sport jacket and was carrying my black casebook that identified me as a welfare investigator and not an undercover cop. One of the policemen asked what I was staring at. Move on or we’ll put your ass in jail, too, he said.
Intimidated, I continued walking. The women were less intimidated and talked back to the cops but they walked away also.
I had just read Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin and wanted to get to know black people. I enjoyed watching groups of young school children stop at the neighborhood candy stores and come out with bags of candy, which they consumed on their way to school as if they were eating breakfast. Harlem seemed like a small town, with people greeting one another under a sky that was visible over the low buildings. I could understand why blacks lived there. Harlem had a warmth and familiarity that the rest of the city lacked. It also had garbage and poverty and crime. And of course black people didn’t live there solely by choice. They had few other options. One morning as I walked to work past a sea of black faces I had the revelation that you could solve the race problem if you just mixed in whites and blacks together. It all seemed so simple to me. I was surprised Baldwin hadn’t already written about it.
The next morning I was early for work and as I strolled along Lenox Avenue past a barbershop I decided on the spur of the moment to walk in. The barber, a young man with a thin moustache, gave me a startled look. I’d like to get a haircut, I said. He motioned me over to the barber chair, placed an apron around me and picked up his clippers. Passers by stared in through the front window as they walked to the subway and pointed me out to the other pedestrians. This was probably the first time they had seen a black barber give a white person a haircut. I wanted to ask the barber if my hair was different to cut than a black man’s but I didn’t want to offend him. I knew that white barbers refused black men as customers with the excuse that they didn’t know how to cut their hair. So instead, I mentioned to the barber that I had just finished reading Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son and that I thought he had important things to say about race relations in America.
Who’s Baldwin, the barber said and kept clipping. I looked in the mirror and noticed that the front of my hair seemed uneven. After a few minutes the barber opened a bottle and poured a dark liquid on my scalp and combed my hair back with a part in the middle, not the usual place where I made one. I reached my hand up from under the apron and touched my head. My hair felt stiff, almost like metal.
Finally, the barber removed the apron and I paid him and rushed off to work. Along the way I kept touching my hair. It had always been thin and now I was afraid it would become even thinner. I wondered if the barber had worked in his usual way or if he had used the gluey substance as revenge for all the insults he had suffered at the hands of white society. I was sure Baldwin would have thought he’d done it out of rage. When I got to work I rushed to the bathroom and tried to wash the glue out, but no matter how many paper towels I used my hair remained stuck together in clumps and I finally gave up and went to my desk. I hoped no one would notice how strange I looked.
Within a few days my hair returned to its normal texture and, to my relief, didn’t seem any thinner. I resumed wandering down different streets on my way to work, but stayed clear of the block on Lenox with the barbershop.
Dressed in clogs, hospital greens and a fleece vest, Dr. Jill Gilman descended into her backyard eyesore. A hundred-eighty square foot crater, the foundation for an addition to her two-bedroom Cape. She halted construction after they poured the concrete floor, which is where, if she believed what she was seeing, lay a shadow resembling a human body. Nightfall leaned upon her tensed shoulders. Hers was a snug dead end street where yards fit like puzzle pieces. Anyone making camp here, she feared, must be crazy, desperate, or dead. The air turned damp and cool as the steep walls rose above her head, hinting at the pickle of climbing out should the situation scream for escape. She met the darkness with a silver vintage zippo, a strange gift from Robbie after she quit smoking six years before. The flame trembled cautiously towards a sleeping bag massed in the corner. She choked, recognizing the bearded face. “Norm?”
“Quiet, will ya,” Norm Allens yelled, then retreated into sleepfilled mumbling.
She’d last seen Norm two years ago in a trendy market buying four dollar apples. He’d closed his medical practice and was moving to a Boston condo. Nettie hadn’t yet sold their house and vanished with the kids. The state board hadn’t yet revoked his medical license. Now, an unlit Coleman lamp guarded his head. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People splayed at his side.
“What gives?” said Jill, nudging him in the ribs.
Drool cobwebbed his beard. He pointed over the fence, across the street.
“The Martins live there now,” said Jill. “You moved away.”
“We have history, don’t we? History doesn’t move away.”
She felt her heart cave. “Come,” she said. “I’ll make tea. Like the old days.”
“The idea of tea hurts.”
“What do you say, Norm? Because you’ve caught me on the ass end of a long day.”
He grumbled, kicked free of the sleeping bag. She rubbed her eyes. This lumpy version of Norm Allens was a startling change from the fit, middle-aged workaholic he once was. As was his nimble clambering up the side wall, his strength when pulling her up to ground level, and his steady perch upon a bulldozer rut to check back on his sleeping bag, lamp, and knapsack.
“Take them inside,” she said.
“Better not,” said Norm. “They wouldn’t know how to behave.”
* * *
“I’m off the grid,” said Norm. He slurped tea at the kitchen counter. He wouldn’t sit. Rothko barked, sniffed him up like a cavity search.
“Meaning what? Homeless?”
“What was it that Robert Frost said? Home was a place where, when you go there, they have to take you in? So, using Frostian logic...”
“Logic?” Jill said, eyes sweeping over his crew sweater and baggy corduroys, his unexpected girth and barrel torso. “I found you sleeping in my backyard? Logic?”
Jill saw struggle in Norm’s wind-burned face, thinning hair and gray-streaked beard; dignity in his singular mustache primped like tiny wings.
Newspapers nailed the tiniest details. Large payments for enrolling patients in clinical trials. The imposter urine, piss that Norm claimed came from the bladders of actual patients, when he kept reserves in his office refrigerator that fit the exact entry criteria for certain trials.
“Why?” she said, leaning against the countertop, arms crossed.
“That’s one luxury crater. Private and safe.”
“I looked up to you.”
“The shelter broke me. It’s really a sleepover for drunks and druggies.”
“Shelter?” she said. “You were an excellent internist. When other top internists hightailed it to other states that paid better, you dug your trenches. You stayed. You were principled.”
Norm smiled joylessly. “Virtue. The invisible killer.”
“Norm, I’m serving you tea.”
“And what? Kindness buys an explanation? Try this. My patients lost jobs, lost insurance, and I still saw them for free--though the liquor stores and drug dealers all got paid. If they had coverage, I wrestled insurance companies for every dime. The news didn’t report that, or how I needed a loan to make payroll for my office staff. That’s when I hit bottom.”
“You hit bottom when you fabricated research.”
“I loved medicine. Next to Nettie and the kids, nothing came close. But everyone was playing by different rules.”
Norm stared into his tea, contemplative and crestfallen, then gestured to the backyard.
“Why did construction stop? Can’t be a lazy contractor. Brad Cutler did our kitchen. He’s as reliable as a fresh penny.”
“You’ve been watching?” Jill arched her gaze out the kitchen window. For that instant, the moonlight kissed the backyard, the pebbles glittered like gems. “Robbie suggested an office before moving in. He was going to write a memoir about his relief work. Slum Dog Doctor was the working title. We’d reconsider the space later on. Kids room. That sort of thing. Well, discussions on that sort of thing lead to fights. He stayed on longer in Somalia, then moved to Haiti and hopped to Liberia. Instead of returning home to break up with me, he’s become a serial altruist.”
“Maybe he’ll surprise you. You can’t scrape the bottom of someone so completely that he can’t surprise you.”
“It took me five years to realize he relates better to populations than actual persons.” She sighed. “You in touch with Nettie?”
“Who?” He knocked Rothko off his leg.
She had trained with Nettie, who practiced only briefly before taking a ‘mommy-break.’ Now she had advertisers flocking to her mommy blog.
“I’ll make up the couch,” said Jill.
He rinsed his mug in the sink. “I’m an outdoors guy now.”
“You can’t sleep in my backyard crater,” Jill said, thinking how crazy times have become that such words can be spoken with absolute earnestness.
“You calling the police?”
“They’d laugh at me.”
“Yes, they would,” said Norm, pushing through the door into her backyard.
* * *
Making breakfast for Norm the next morning presented challenges. Scrambled eggs seemed too formal, and dried toast felt like dog biscuits. Jill thought one could never go wrong with a classic peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Grape jam. Concord grape. Definitely not exotic flavors, homemade preserves, or specialty jams in precious jars clothed in fine netting.
She packed the sandwich, apple and bottled water like a school lunch and took it out to Norm. Only he was gone. Jill kicked the dew-spanked dirt. Not even a good-bye.
* * *
At 9am, the clinic waiting room was packed with all the patients scheduled until lunch, plus a few unlucky leftovers from the day before. Jill held her breath against the particulates that thickened the air every morning; the unwashed bodies and greasy McBreakfasts, rotted teeth and gangrenous feet, cigarette smoke and coffee and the halitosis of hopelessness. She moved through the crowd, head lowered, humming a thoughtless good morning, well aware that it wasn’t a good morning for most of them.
A toddler jumped in her path. He smiled with big dark eyes, then slammed her knee with a metal Tonka bulldozer. He giggled, then struck her knee again. Jill grinned with pain, embarrassed that it hurt as much as it did.
“Freddy!” a girl said. He screamed when she pulled the bulldozer from his hand. “I’m sorry,” she said, using a ziplock bag dancing with Cheerios to quiet his tantrum. The girl was a teenager, a high schooler. The toddler was two or three. Simple math never made Jill this queasy.
“You’ve got one cute kid,” said Jill.
The chubby teen blew a dark curl from a precociously serious face.
“I’m his cousin. Mom’s over there.” Mom wore headphones, tapped the tiles with her suede Chuck Taylors. Her lip was split like a baked potato. A tear limped down her cheek.
The shock of Norm Allens’ fate reminded Jill that she ceased caring how these patients got here, from what cruel height circumstances had dropped them. Recalling an article that described how the deliberate act of smiling could instill a feeling of happiness, she wondered if compassion could be similarly fashioned. She asked the nurses to push her ahead of the others.
Patients protested, jawed on about how the clinic sucks. Jill knew explaining triage to desperate patients often worked like water on a grease fire.
In the exam room, the toddler played quietly with the tongue blade puppets Jill had made. “What happened?” Jill asked the mother, Eva Martinez.
“Eva?” the cousin said. “Talk to the doctor.” She looked at Jill. “She didn’t want to come. I made her. Her boyfriend beat her up last night.”
“Shut up,” said Eva.
Eva didn’t resist Jill’s gestures to examine her, but she didn’t cooperate either.
“The ER might be a better place for you,” said Jill, thinking domestic violence and a complicated lip laceration were not problems that fit into eight to ten minutes.
The cousin was fighting tears. Jill weighed the teenager’s troubled affection, her great efforts to get Eva here, and the probability that Eva will leave if the laceration wasn’t fixed now. Eva’s record listed a number of missed appointments. But suturing a lip with a waiting room full of patients? A mess, Jill thought, a mess of her own design.
She explained how lidocaine might sting, but soon her lip would go numb. Eva snapped at Jill’s hand, yelling.
But Freddy amused himself. Jill was chilled by the idea that her screams were Musak to his ears. “Are you and the kid safe at home?” she asked Eva.
“Why wouldn’t we be?”
“It must be hard, caring for him and working.”
“We’re fine,” said Eva. Jill heard the beat thumping from her headphones.
“Does dad help out?”
“Dads,” said the cousin.“She has three other kids. Freddy lives with her, the others live with my family.”
“And I’m pregnant,” said Eva, her bruised face glowing like Miss America.
“Again?” said the cousin. “You’ve got to shut that thing down. That’s why he hit you, isn’t it?” said her cousin. “Last night you told him.”
“He was surprised, that’s all.” Eva Martinez tenderly rubbed her belly. “He loves me.”
“Yeah. The others loved you, too.”
“You’re jealous, that’s all.”
Jill finished suturing, her hand now pushed away as she cleaned the dried blood. The wall clock chastised her. What are you doing? Patients are waiting.
“Being a mother, a responsible mother, means more than having babies,” said Jill.
Eva jumped off the stretcher. “Yeah?” said Eva. “How many kids you have?”
Jill turned to the computer screen.
“Thought so,” said Eva. “And you’re how old? Fifty?”
“Thirty-five,” said Jill, her tone hard. “This wound needs to be checked. Come back tomorrow. And when you do, leave the music home.”
Eva darted from the room, left Freddy to his Tonka bulldozer and tongue-blade puppets. He whined as the cousin took his hand. Eva slinked back into the doorway. Headphones sat in retreat around her neck. She held out her hand. “Enough now, Freddy. Come to mama.”
* * *
Jill hustled, missed lunch, but couldn’t catch up. She apologized to six remaining clinic patients, who must return the next morning. Regret followed Jill home. Trolling the backyard, she was disappointed by Norm’s absence, though she’d banned him from camping there. She felt knotted in contradictions, and figured a hot bath might help. She rarely took baths, and slipped stepping into it. Rothko scampered through the steam, breathing worry. He jumped up on the tub to lick her nose, then dropped down, licked his own genitals, and traipsed away. She smiled, preferring Robbie’s dog to Robbie. She found a pocket of perfect warmth in the water and sank into it, when Norm called. He was at the police station, arrested for breaking into his old house.
“Maybe you can come down, be what they call a character witness?” he said.
“You really need me to vouch for the fact that you’re a character?”
“Please, Jill. I have no one else.”
She cursed beneath her breath. “How did I get so lucky, Norm?’
A smile filled with strong yellow teeth greeted her. She persuaded the Martins to drop the charges. He hadn’t stolen a single thing, and he’d fixed the leaky faucet in the downstairs bathroom. Afterwards, they stood outside the police station.
“Let me crash in the crater tonight.”
“Forget it. How about my couch?”
They agreed on dinner, at a diner two towns over. Norm feared recognition. Jill couldn’t tell him the Martins hadn’t recognized the man who once sat across from them at the closing.
* * *
The cruel diner bright exposed his puffed hands, the severity of loose skin hanging from his jaw. She had missed these changes the night before. His odor, sweet and foul, forced a perimeter of empty booths. The waitress left a pot of coffee instead of visiting with refills. She ordered grilled cheese, suggested steak and eggs for him. Norm shrugged off dinner, and picked at a vanilla sundae. “Should I regret what I just did for you?” she finally said.
“I didn’t steal anything.”
She pushed aside her grilled cheese. “Trespassing. Breaking and entering.”
“The Martins never changed the locks. I used a key,” he said. “I entered and fixed.”
“But I offered you my couch.” Jill stared at him, took her first bite of grilled cheese when the waitress slipped the check upon the table. “What’s the rush? What if he wants dessert?” said Jill.
The waitress pointed her pen at Norm’s empty sundae.
“Maybe he wants an entree now. He’s eating in reverse,” said Jill, disgusted, but finding it hard to blame the waitress. She reached for the check, but Norm snapped it up; polite, but ferociously so. He dumped loose bills and spinning coins onto the white tabletop.
“Leave a tip,” he said. “It won’t make me feel better.”
“Then I’ll leave the tip.”
They were walking to the car when a man stepped out of the darkness, faceless in a hoodie. “You have the time?” he said, angling a pistol level to their chests.
Jill froze, removed her watch. The mugger’s hand was thin, and shaking as much as hers. She felt scared and beyond fear. And silly, struck by the inane magical thinking that has sustained her over the years, the belief that her efforts at the clinic bestowed immunity from such crimes.
“I don’t have the time,” said Norm, “because I don’t care about the time.”
“Wallet,” said the voice urgently. “Phone.”
“Look at me. Do you really think I have a phone?” Norm stepped between the gunman and Jill. “Return her watch.”
“The watch can be replaced,” she insisted.
“Do you want him to have it?” asked Norm.
Jill stood completely still, nervously monitoring the gun barrel as she spoke with Norm. “Under the circumstances I do.”
“But if not for the gun, would you choose to gift him the watch?”
“Not really.” She nodded apologetically. “Sorry.”
“Understood,” said the faceless man.
The rest was a blur. Norm slammed the mugger to the parking lot. A tinted Lexus streaked out of nowhere. An explosion of limbs pulled their motionless friend into the backseat, swarmed over Norm for seconds of breathless pain, then sped away before she could exhale. Action so quick, motion appeared to stop; violence so pure and hypnotizing that she was blind to her paralysis, until it was too late, and she was flying to his side.
* * *
Blood soaked through his sweater. “I’m OK,” he said, grimacing.
“Don’t move,” she said. “I’m calling 911.”
“The ER? Are you nuts? I used to sit on the hospital board of directors.”
He fought back when she hooked her finger under his right armpit, through a rent in the wool sticky with blood. “Up with the sweater.”
“I’m fine,” he said. “I’ve been stabbed before.”
The waitress rushed out to tell them she’d called 911.
“Now she helps,” said Norm. In that moment of distraction, Jill raised his sweater, enough to see his chest, the three rows of slits on each side; the slits covered with veiny flaps fringed with fine hairs. On the right, a flap was slashed through, each half waving, helplessly divided. “What the...” said Jill, about to feel sick.
Sirens blared in the distance.
Jill helped him into her car. They headed home in a cloud of unspoken words.
“Thank you,” she said, finally. “For defending me.”
“What you saw on my chest,” he said. “I think they’re gills. I’m growing gills.”
“Sure,” said Jill, as if she’d seen this before. “Why not?”
“Because I have lungs. This isn’t normal aging. Arthritic joints, embarrassing hairs sticking out your ears. This is entirely new anatomy.”
“You could have told me, Norm.”
“The 'gill talk' isn’t easy to slip into conversation,” he said. “Besides, why should I confide this information to you? You’ve got your own problems. Stopping construction and doing nothing with that crater. And it’s been months. That’s not normal. What’s up with that?”
She nosed into the driveway. The engine died knocking. They remained in the front seat.
She saw Rothko jumping in the living room window. “You had no right to spy on me.”
“I have gills,” said Norm. “I operate under different rules of etiquette.”
“The gills defense,” she said, swimming in confusion. She could accept this silly counterargument and believe it as valid as any philosophy or jurisprudence.
They stepped out of the car into evening’s damp chill. He hugged his sleeping bag, threw the beaten knapsack over his shoulder.
“I could dress that wound.”
“I should dress that wound.” She paused. “I’m sorry. I just stood there.”
He creaked the hinges on her backyard gate. “If it makes it easier for you. I wasn’t defending you. I was defending the moment.”
He dug into his pocket, twisting in pain, and propped her watch on the fence post.
* * *
When Eva Martinez didn’t show up for her follow-up visit the next day, Jill felt wronged, even duped, caring for someone more than she cared for herself. She called twice, expressed cheap concern to a disembodied voice that may, or may not, be Eva’s voicemail. She had many patients from this neighborhood where crack and alcohol could be found on every street corner, while fresh fruit required a bus ride with a transfer. But when clinic was over, she went in search of her.
The front door bearing Eva Martinez’s address was a striking indigo, a splash of hope against a porch with rusted rails and gimped folding chairs. Jill knocked lightly at first, then leaned in with a clenched fist. The door cracked. Inside the frame braced a dark, handsome man with slick black hair and a coiled charm.
“Is Eva home? I’m Dr. Gilman.” She raised her stethoscope, as if waving a white flag or a string of garlic. His invitation was a backward step. “I’ll wait here,” she said, trying to tame her heartbeat from knocking against her throat. But wasn’t that why she came here, and didn’t wait for Eva to come to clinic, which her colleagues thought more prudent. The clinic provided security, the comfort of easy opinions. Jill needed this fear. It held out the promise of kindness.
Eva joined her on the cement porch. Her lip was healing. Make-up shaded a bruised eye.
“You didn’t have that yesterday.” Jill reached out to examine her, but Eva snapped back. The young man stood in the doorway. Eva nodded. The door slowly shut.
“You were supposed to come back today for a wound check.”
Eva thumbed the front pockets of her jeans. “I know I’m bruised. I don’t need you to tell me that.”
“There’s a risk for infection. And you’re pregnant. A young mother.” Jill was aware of the curtain shuddering inside the window, and Eva pretending not to notice.
“A bad mother, right? I could tell you had some sort of problem with me.”
Jill narrowed her eyes. “I moved you ahead of the others.”
“I didn’t ask for no favors.”
“You weren’t appreciative,” said Jill, biting her trembling lip. “I fell behind because of all the time spent with you. Several patients had to come back the next day.”
“Yeah? Well--” Eva’s big eyes turned towards the gray moon peering over the rooftops. “I’m sorry about that.”
Jill felt the frame of her impressions listing. She studied Eva’s face.
Eva busied herself with chewing on a thumbnail. “None of your business.”
* * *
Jill returned home cursing herself, lost in the trappings of her selfish concern. Patients missed appointments all the time, and she didn’t visit them at home. She sought calm, or the promise of a smoother anxiety, in the paradoxical form of Robbie’s sweatshirt. Years had softened the heavy cotton, washed out the Penn Crew lettering. Hanging almost to her knees, the sleeves sagging beyond her fingertips, it swaddled her in a forgiving warmth and conjured memories so sweet she could taste them.
She headed to the backyard. Norm was snoring. She slid into the crater, the soil and pebbles cutting into her skin beneath the sweatshirt. Jill sat cross-legged, her sweatpants useless against the chilled cement. Norm appeared well-tucked, the sleeping bag zipped to his chin.
“We need to do something about this, Norm. It makes me uncomfortable.”
“You’re uncomfortable? Try sleeping here.”
“Unfair. I’ve asked you inside.”
Norm turned away.
“It’s not the easiest adjustment,” he said. “Losing hope of the good.”
In his glowing disgrace, his pure and transcendent decay, she saw a person she didn’t know she needed. Someone who had lost the luxury of judgment.
“I told a patient, a young mom with kids, now pregnant and beaten up by her boyfriend, that she was an irresponsible mother.” Jill held her breath. She couldn’t tell if he was listening or sleeping. “I told her a mother means more than having babies.”
“You’re entitled to your opinions.”
“Some of us want to have a family. Badly. But we try to be responsible about it.”
“What counts as responsible behavior,” said Norm. “And who counts it?”
Jill’s felt her face drop. Listening to the stories of those who suffer was the hardest part of her work, but it paled against sharing her story with someone who had suffered more.
“The girl wants to be loved,” he said, in a surprising, solemn tone. “If anything, maybe she’s an irresponsible love-seeker.”
“Start over elsewhere,” he said. “You bought this place in residency. It’s a tiny Cape. That’s all it can be. An addition would make it a tiny Cape with an unsightly growth.”
Norm turned to her. His face creased into patches of pride and disgust. “Drug company hardball did me in. Someone in my office reported how I didn’t follow study protocols. Whether patients were assigned to placebo or the study drug, I still gave them the standard of care.”
“You were a double agent?” said Jill.
“I put my patients first.”
“By polluting research?”
“Treatment was of the highest caliber. Pharmaceutical money kept my practice alive. That’s all I cared about. This cost shifting felt so right, even when the lawyers told us to put the house, cars and investments in Nettie’s name. I never expected to be punished. I never expected that one day Nettie would take the kids and move home to Kansas City.”
She reached for a response. Her mouth hung open in painful silence. She felt his pity, which hurt worse.
Norm sat up, head tilted. “I have no regrets,” he said.
Tears filled her eyes. “Can I check that stab wound?”
“Don’t take it so personally,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Norm pulled off his sweater. His sleeves were stuffed with balls of newspaper, hiding rounded arm nubbins below the elbows. Was it possible she hadn’t noticed the previous night, or made assumptions from his expert use of a long sundae spoon? She would consider this all a hallucination if not for the knife wound, now pus encrusted and angry red.
“It’s infected” said Jill, her body quaking. She tried to control it by sounding clinical, by finding protection in that which was familiar and understood.
He emerged from the sleeping bag, stretched out, belly up. “That’s unimportant. Feel my chest.”
Her trembling fingertips skimmed rubbery skin, explored the serrated ridges and filamentous hairs. “They’re real,” she said, disgusted and amazed.
“What? You think I’d get gill implants?”
“Thinking isn’t helping me at the moment.” She filled her lungs as if each breath was her last. Thinking had lead her to an unsettling notion. This makeshift species that resembled a junkyard sea lion might have had its origins in honor.
“This has to be our secret,” said Norm.
She stood, wobbled from mischievous gravity. “I’ll get you Tylenol.”
She collected a flashlight and supplies from the house. She was saddened to return and find Norm in a deep sleep. How can heavy sleepers survive in the wild? Tending to his infected wound, she was startled to find the water bubbling, the gills quivering hungrily. She laid wet towels over his chest. She dressed the infected area with gauze. His spiny skin wasn’t receptive to tape, and she was certain the dressing would fall off in the water. But she kept at it. Down here, one foot below the frost line, doctoring felt undeniably right, and she didn’t want this feeling to end. For hours she sat with her fingertips tickled by the grateful puckering from beneath the towels. Her peace interrupted only by a disturbing thought. What if there were others like Norm? She dismissed that idea, while at the same time reaching beneath her sweatshirt and carefully running her hand over each rib.
Daybreak pink smeared the sky. When Jill opened two cans of tuna, Norm bolted upright. She took strange pleasure in how Norm licked the cans clean, then rubbed his face in the dirt.
“I once took Nettie for scuba diving lessons in the Keys,” he said. “I couldn’t do it. The air hunger got to me. Now, Key West here I come.”
“I’ve decided to ask Brad Cutler to fill in this hole.”
His once dandy mustache slumped.
“What will you put here?”
“I’ll start with level ground. That will be an improvement.”
“I thought you’d be happy for me,” she said. “I’ll give you a lift somewhere. The Keys is a reach, but the cove is nearby.”
“That’s always the case. People say they want to help, but only on their terms.”
* * *
The next day Norm was gone. She reported a missing person to the police, but hung up when they asked where he was missing from. Besides, she couldn’t say what he needed, and what response was called for. She called Brad Cutler, and he came around in his pickup in the early evening. “About time. Let’s make things right.”
Cutler ripped off his baseball cap. “You’re not changing your mind?”
She nervously talked about Norm. His boot kicked dirt. “Shit. Norm’s killing business.”
“Norm’s been elsewhere?” Jill asked, feeling spurned and betrayed.
Cutler pointed in several directions.
“You’re not disturbed by it?”
Brad Cutler coughed, smacked a pack of cigarettes. “Not anymore.”
His men came around Saturday. The bulldozers and backhoes replaced the soil, but couldn’t fill the hollow whistling through her. She took Rothko for a walk along the cove. Rothko sprung forward and bounded down the rocks, leaping into the low tide, barking fitfully. “Get back here, Rothko,” she yelled, worried that baby geese were innocently resting in the tall grass. Then, bobbing towards shore, gauze came floating like a bloody raft. Jill jumped down, shielded her eyes and looked out. Her heart was dancing. Sunlight sparkled off the water. The winds were calm, the unsuspecting sailboats lounging with uneventful grace.
What's Left Out
“What makes the kidney so special?” asked lawmakers during the Health Transition, before revoking universal coverage for life-saving dialysis. The Midtown Dialysis Center went bankrupt, and InterCorp Treatment Center bought their six recliners at auction for asthma chairs. The fates of those patients haunted Dr. Max Reese as he examined the breathless Tamika Sparks; her lips pursing out pennies of air, sweat beading her mocha cheeks, thighs squeaking the same faux leather that once cushioned scarred kidneys. He’d read how the Health Transition was equally unkind to asthmatics. “What makes the lung so special?” thought Max, his new white coat suddenly stiff.
* * *
“Relax, kid,” Max said, worry drying his tongue. Two full years had passed since he’d cared for any patient, let alone a patient this sick. “This hallway chair isn’t ideal, let’s move you to a stretcher in an actual room.”
Tamika violently shook her head, unable to fit words into each breath. Suze Mackins, the nurse he’d first met that morning, took her hand. “This is the Asthma Room,” she said to Max, her bright Irish face blotching with anger.
“Chairs in a hallway?” said Max. “It’s an asthma space.”
“These chairs work well enough for the other docs.” Suze shook her reddish-brown hair, pushed up into the toes of her clogs and whispered heat in his ear.
“Of all the docs in the city, we hire Reese’s Pieces.”
After two years, the YouTube incident was still chasing him.
“The video left out a lot,” he said, grinding his teeth. The ache in his jaw asking why he listened to his dentist, who called him a grinder, and advised a night guard to prevent his molars from destroying each other when asleep. During the day, however, his molars were free to rumble.
“I saw what I saw,” said Suze, threading an IV. Max noticed how Tamika didn’t flinch when the needle broke skin. Indifference to pain was ominous. He thought about his self-imposed exile from clinical practice, those endless days playing medical advisor for a software start-up strutting the motto: Removing doubt from critical decisions.
* * *
The treatment orders for asthma were once swimming in his bloodstream, leaping off his tongue. Bronchodilators. Steroids. IV fluids. Maybe epinephrine. Always oxygen. A stretcher, not a chair. Dredging up each detail now felt like manual labor. He could assume nothing. Tamika wouldn’t move to a stretcher. He couldn’t even count on that.
* * *
“She’s nineteen, a lifelong asthmatic,” Suze told Max. “Hospitalized twice as a child. Never intubated. She ran out of her inhaler.”
The nebulizer hung from Tamika’s lips; her head sunsetting between her knees. An inhaler might have prevented this situation, he thought, a simple inhaler.
“Who gave this information?” he asked Suze.
“There’s a sister hovering.”
Tamika’s eyes widened at the mention of her sister.
The empty nebulizer fell from her lips to the tiles. Suze replaced it with an oxygen mask. Tamika pushed the mask to her forehead. “It chokes me.”
“You need it,” Max said, troubled by the idea of choking oxygen, assault by a savior. He folded his arms. Her stubbornness eluded him. Did it reflect her character, a tough streak that might serve her well in this struggle, or altered thinking from respiratory fatigue? He couldn’t distinguish personality from pathology.
* * *
Into the Asthma Room stormed Tamika’s sister, a planetary force, the heels of her black leather boots bruising the tiles.
“Put that oxygen on your face,” she said.
Tamika reared up and quickly obeyed.
“You the doctor?” said the sister.
Max sensed her eyes burning judgment through the laminate of his ID badge.
He offered his hand. "Dr. Max Reese."
Her fingernail, painted with a snake coiling around a sword blade, tickled his nose. “Reese’s Pieces? Oh, no.” She clasped her sister’s wrist. “I love you babygirl.”
* * *
The video incident was recorded with a cell phone two years before, by another patient, back when he staffed the emergency department at Cityside Hospital. The viral video,“Dr. Reese Falls to Pieces,” caught Max arguing with Laslow Birch, uttering the fateful words get out. Later, he could watch himself only by pretending that he was somebody else. His voice cut like a whip, one blogger said. The scene ended with Laslow Birch, shirt undone, stumbling into the winter cold. The video left out how Laslow Birch frequented the ED two to three times a day, everyday; that he’d sleep, demand food, get discharged, liquor up and return by EMS to the ED hours later. The video left out Laslow’s cursing, his tossing of mashed potatoes. What was left out didn’t hold forgiveness for what Max had done. But the truth had teeth, decayed teeth.
Max’s resignation letter apologized for embarrassing the hospital. The Cityside General administrators grumbled about Laslow Birch and the many others like him, pulled at their ties and twirled their pens on the mahogany conference table. “Thanks,” they said, accepting the envelope. “We can’t say you did anything wrong, but there’s no way to make it look right.” A door in his belly dropped open. Twelve years at the hospital suddenly meant nothing. What started as betrayal grew into paranoia. Max feared that everyone had watched the video--colleagues, patients, the check--out girl at the market, the kids in his daughter’s preschool.
* * *
“We want another doctor,” the sister said, her heavily lined eyes hard as steel.
Max was the only doctor on duty.
“I’ll take good care of you, Tamika,” he said, the words sticky like syrup. His former therapist said nowadays people suffered little shame from behavior that made them famous. Any choke collar was of his own design.
“This place sucks ass,” said the sister, teasing sweat-pasted hairs from Tamika’s face. “Poor neighborhoods get doctors other Treatment Centers puke up.”
Max didn’t reply. He could alter the earth’s orbital axis before changing the sister’s mind. He found solace in his stethoscope’s snug fitting earpieces, clotting off the sister’s remarks while connecting him into Tamika. Her lungs pulsed with unexpected silence. He skipped the stethoscope from side to side. Her wheezing had vanished. Max seized the impulse to celebrate, recalling how this was a trap, the illusion of better, the fatal quiet of airways collapsing.
“We need to place a breathing tube,” he explained to Tamika. “You’re getting tired. The ventilator will breathe for you until your airways open up.”
She pushed herself off the chair, head too heavy for her neck, and teetered down the hallway. “Tamika?” he said. She didn’t answer. “Talk to her,” Max begged the sister.
“Let’s go home,” the sister said, clasping her elbow. “Cousin will do you right.”
He felt his chest tightening as the sister led Tamika away. His body’s outrage against injustice and stupidity. It landed him in trouble with Laslow Birch. “Are you nuts?” Max yelled, looking in all directions for cameras.
* * *
“Her choice,” said Suze.
“Her choice?” He spread his arms. “She’s two breaths short of respiratory arrest.”
“Don’t let appearances fool you. This is a Treatment Center, not a hospital. The rules are different.” Suze turned to Max. He noticed the deep creases around her eyes, regret being held hostage. “I can’t lose this job. I’ve got two preschoolers.”
Max understood what she wasn’t saying. “Patients are still patients,” he said, and chased after Tamika and her sister. Penlight, stethoscope, trauma shears, ID badge, cell phone, keys, wallet rattling in his white coat. He felt like a dropped package.
“Leave us alone,” said the sister.
He leaned close enough to smell her gold-plated hoop earrings. “She’ll die if you take her out of here.”
“She’ll die if she stays,” the sister said, her jaw cocked in a hopeless smile.
* * *
Tamika and her sister turned the corner, walked off into a lost horizon.
“Patients are allowed to make bad decisions,” said Suze.
“And when something bad happens?” He wanted to scream. “I should have forced them to stay,” Max said, hands locked upon his hips. “I need a coffee. Where can I find coffee in this place?”
* * *
Max really wanted control, an identity that didn’t come with a dunce cap, a second chance with Tamika. But medicine didn’t grant mulligans, and coffee was a desire easily satisfied. When they returned, Tamika sat perched in the row of asthma chairs, her fingers begging him close. “Where did you come from?” he said. The sister’s presence cast a shadow like a lunar eclipse.
Tamika settled her head upon his shoulder. Her tears warmed his shirt collar. She gestured to her back. “Rub” she gasped.
“Another neb, please,” he said to Suze. Her stylish hair was frizzing now.
Tamika’s neck muscles were taut, her shoulders pulled back. “Rub.”
Max bit his lip and rubbed. Sweat soaked Tamika’s white T-shirt. Through the fabric he caught a tattoo with the script letters JJ and a scar shaped like a knife blade. “You made the smart decision,” he said. The sister stepped back as if he was crazy.
* * *
The sister whispered into her cell phone, then pumped Tamika’s hand with sass and attitude. “Don’t worry, honey. Cousin is on his way.”
“Dr. Cousin?” Max asked the sister.
“Two jobs plus no insurance doesn’t equal doctor.”
Cousin appeared without making an entrance, flashing gold teeth beneath a flat rimmed NY Mets baseball cap. “How’s my girl?” He pulled out a stethoscope, a top of the line Litman that Max coveted. Max watched as Cousin examined his patient.
“You haven’t been using your inhaler?” he said to Tamika.
Tears crept into her eyes.
“No bullshit,” he said.
“She ran out,” the sister said.
“And whose fault is that?” he lashed at the sister.
Max inwardly cheered as ferocity leaked from the sister’s body.
Cousin opened his black leather coat, the inside lining a custom-fitted pharmacy. Max’s gaze couldn’t expand enough to accommodate the inhalers, pill bottles, and epinephrine pens on display. “She’s very sick,” said Max. “I need to intubate her.”
“She don’t need no breathing tube.” He laughed. “She needs Cousin.” He set his hand upon the sister’s nape. “And she needs family who has her back.”
“What are you? A nurse?” said Max, studying Tamika, jealous of the faith aglow in her eyes.
“Asthma Specialist, Governor Housing Projects.”
Cousin pulled out his iPhone, displayed Tamika’s records. Max was impressed by the dated progress notes, including lung exam, peak flow, medications and plan.
“You wrote your own program?” Max said.
“Nah,” said Cousin. “A techie in the building who loves his oxycodone.”
“Look at her,” he said to Cousin. “See the way her belly moves when she breathes in. We call that paradoxical respirations, a sign of respiratory fatigue.”
“Feel her pulse,” said Cousin. “It’s what I call a don’t fuck with me pulse.” He pressed the back of his hand against her damp forehead. “You good?”
She gave a thumbs up.
“That’s my girl. What have you given her?” Cousin asked. Max started presenting the case, then caught himself. “She’s my patient.”
“You’re Reese’s Pieces.”
“If you’re so good, how did she get this bad? Why did they come here?”
Cousin stepped up into Max’s face. “They came on their own,” he said, his gold teeth gloating. “I can’t force her to fill her meds. Can I?”
Where were the cameras now, Max wondered?
“Don’t be stupid.” Cousin hissed into Max’s ear. “I’m here to help you.”
“I’m fine,” said Max.
“You need me.” Cousin aggressively twirled his stethoscope, then rechecked Tamika’s lungs. “She get another epi?”
Max felt his spine turn into rubber. How had he forgotten a second round of epi?
Cousin dug through his coat, expertly injected the needle into her upper arm.
“We’ll make things right, Tamika,” he said, shooting a look at the sister and Max.
They waited. Max raked his wavy hair. Too many storylines and characters, he thought, for such a straightforward incident. Now he’d permit anything, be open to everything. But Tamika couldn’t die. That is when her head fell back.
“Tamika,” Max cried, pushing Cousin aside.
“She’s fine,” said Cousin.
“Respiratory arrest is not fine,” said Max, fuddling his stethoscope.
* * *
Tamika sat slumped. She wouldn’t wake. But her pulse was strong, and Max felt the gusts filling her lungs against his cheek. “She must be exhausted,” he said, his heart hammering. He stopped Suze, who had run for the code cart. Suze appeared stricken, devastated by relief. He understood completely.
The sister pressed her cheek against Tamika’s lips. “You’re all good, baby.”
“She might relapse,” said Max. “When the meds wear off.”
“You must listen to me. I know asthma.”
“And I don’t? I raised her.” She paused, as if to untangle her anger. “Our mother was shot ten years ago, buying a quart of milk at the corner bodega. JoJo died right here. It was Riverside Hospital back then. When they finally let us see her body she had one of those breathing tubes coming out of her mouth. Didn’t seem to do her much good.” Tears glossed her eyes, then vanished. Never before had Max seen sorrow so ruthlessly beaten down. “I needed my cornflakes,” she said.
Disgust riddled Max. He’d never asked Tamika why she feared the stretcher and intubation.
* * *
“I don’t want her to get worse again.”
“That won’t happen,” said Cousin, updating Tamika’s medical record in his phone. “Right?”
The sister nodded.
“How can you be sure?” asked Max.
“This is what I do.” Our whole building wheezes. Mold, leaky pipes. Shit, the roaches pay rent.”
“Where’s the landlord?” said Suze.
“He wants us wheezing,” said the sister. “It keeps us from complaining.”
“He walks with a cane now,” said Cousin, proudly folding his stethoscope inside his leather jacket. “Doing a little complaining himself.” He winked at Max.
Suze stood with her hands over her mouth. Max thought she might be sick.
“I never wanted to expand into asthma. The medicinal narcotics industry did me fine. My mom was an ICU nurse. They fired her ass during the Health Transition. I know the guidelines. American Thoracic Society, the British Thoracic Society, whatever. Doctors make a big deal of it, but it’s nothing special.”
Cousin checked his watch, then lead the sister away. “Excuse us for a moment.”
* * *
Max listened to Tamika’s lungs as she slept, measured each breath against his own doubts. She opened her eyes. “You scared us,” he said.
“I’m so sorry.”
“We should transfer you to our Respiratory Center. We’ll observe you overnight.”
“I feel good.” She rustled in the chair. “Where’s sis? This bill is going to break us.” She stood. Knees buckled. Max caught her, and with Suze’s help, lowered her down.
“I’ll find her,” Max insisted. She didn’t argue. Max searched the carcass of this former hospital. The empty corridors were teeming with absence, with all the sick people suffering elsewhere. He couldn’t stop thinking about Tamika. Her turnaround defied scientific logic; too sudden after the second epi, the reversal too crisp and complete after she’d been clawing for so long. “Consider it a gift,” he said, trying to convince himself. Gifts, like tragedies, don’t always make sense.
A fog of breathing drew him to an abandoned X-ray suite. He found Cousin with his jeans pooled at his ankles. His hand braced upon the sister’s head. Cousin didn’t hide his pleasure when their eyes met.
Max cleared his throat. “Tamika wants to leave.”
The sister pulled away, but Cousin grabbed her hair without tenderness. He raised his finger, politely requesting that Max hold his thought. Max couldn’t believe the sister would willingly submit on her knees in this way. Cousin’s back stiffened, his face twisted in unattractive ecstasy. Max turned away. The sister pushed herself off the floor.
“Tamika’s all good,” Cousin said, breathing heavy, the crisp zip of his fly closing an irrefutable argument. The sister shouldered Max as she passed, knocked him aside. One hand played with her hair, the other clutched an inhaler.
* * *
“What’s that look for?" said Cousin to Max as they walked to the dialysis chairs. Everyone had gone, including Suze. Max looked at Cousin, dropped into one of the recliners. He massaged his jaw. “I should thank you.”
Cousin sank beside him, groaned. “Damn. These chairs are cruel on the back, would have killed all those kidneys, too, if they weren’t already toast.” He tapped the armrest. “Asthma Room? Call it what it is. A hallway with chairs. You should see my set up. It’s an Asthma Apartment.”
“I held a lighter to one, the others got the message.”
Max pushed his card into Cousin’s hand.
“Keep a close eye on Tamika. Call me if she runs into trouble.”
Cousin studied the card, seemed to ponder it.
“I know Laslow Birch. I don’t think there’s a bigger #1 asshole in the neighborhood. His own son refuses to have anything to do with him.”
“Why didn’t he speak up when the media was eating me alive?” said Max.
“Laslow might be an asshole. But he was still family.” Cousin stood, shaking his head. “Besides, you lost your cool. It’s amazing what you can get away with if you don’t.” He returned the card to Max. “I’m good. We’re all good.”
The Wolf Man
The elevator door slides open.
Sightings of the Wolf Man flash before me: his tall thin frame outlined in the distance; his late night prowls around the grounds; his hairy face captured in a beam of moonlight streaming through the lobby window.
“Good morning,” I say, stepping into the elevator.
The Wolf Man's dark eyes widen. I drop my gaze.
“MY BUNNY SLIPPERS!” I yell, thrusting out my hand to press a floor.
The Wolf Man grabs my arm.
“I have to get off. I'm in my slippers!”
The Wolf Man releases my arm and shakes a hairy index finger signaling no.
“You call me the Wolf Man,” he says tapping his long thin finger against his chin.
“I said, YOU CALL ME THE WOLF MAN.”
I look at him, my face burning, and say, “Yes, I call you that.”
He doubles over in uproarious laughter, then straightens up and places his paws, I mean hands, on my shoulders and wags a long pale tongue out at me.
“GET OFF ME!” I scream in disgust.
He removes his hands and drops to all fours, shakes like a wet dog, and stands up.
“Good God,” I say brushing off my shoulders. “What were you doing?”
“Now, now, dearie, don't get all ruffled. You're no crow. Besides,” he says looking me up and down, “We're just getting to know each other.”
The elevator lurches to an abrupt stop and I'm thrown into the Wolf Man. I quickly regain my balance and start pressing random elevator buttons, but the elevator doesn't budge. I look over at the Wolf Man calmly raking his long sharp nails through a thicket of black growth on his other hand. I pound my fists against the door screaming - “OPEN! OPEN! OPEN!”
The Wolf Man sighs and unbuttons his long gray raincoat. A mass of wild coarse inky black hair bursts out the top of his shirt. His dark eyes stare. He licks his brown lips. “Sara McCloskey of 14H,” he says.
The Wolf Man steps forward and fingers loose strands of hair around my face. I stiffen.
“Relax Sara. The touch of a man's hand should be pleasant.” His long lashes bat.
“I call you the Wolf Man,” I say.
“Yes Sara, I know.”
“How can you know such a thing? I only call you that to myself.”
“Please,” I say pointing down at my bunny slippers. “I really need my work shoes.”
“Didn't the rabbit say, 'I'm late! I'm late! I'm late for an important date?'”
“My work shoes! My work shoes!”
“Didn't the wolf huff and puff and blow the house down?”
“Please, I never meant you any harm.”
“You, my harmless one, are good enough to eat. Yum-yum.”
I drum my fists into the elevator door promising to be kinder and more generous if the door would only open.
The Wolf Man removes a large S shaped pipe from his pants pocket and places the sole of his right foot against the back wall. He flicks the head of a red tipped matchstick with a claw-like fingernail and lights the pipe. Smoke rises from his head.
“Good God,” I think, “I'm trapped with the Wolf Man.”
“Oh Sara, we're all trapped,” he says stoking his pipe.
“The Wolf Man reads my mind!” I look up at the little escape hatch in the ceiling.
“Would you like a boost?”
“Wolf Man I am sorry I call you that. But please, what is your name?”
“Names are a trifle point, my pink-eared bunny slippered child.”
“I offended you. I didn’t mean to. By the way, would you really hoist me up to that little door?”
The Wolf Man's eyes roll up. “Yep,” he says, and his eyes roll back down and take me in.
I survey his hairy fingers and long sharp nails.
“How do you know I call you the Wolf Man?”
“I read you.”
“How? How can you do such a thing?”
“I am the man of the woods.”
“Man of the woods?”
“Of the word Sara, THE ETERNAL WORD!”
“I don't understand.”
The Wolf Man flattens himself against the wall, arms out like a cross, and laps the surface greedily.
I press my cheek against the opposite wall; it is cool and refreshing like a forest stream. I cup my hands and bring them to my lips to drink. But I've cupped air.
“Appearances are deceiving,” he says flashing a sharp-toothed grin.
I stare at his long pointed teeth. “Lift me up!” I command.
The Wolf Man spins round clasping his hairy fingers together and bends forward.
The thought of touching him turns my stomach.
“Understand,” he says, “that once you disappear through the escape hatch we will never see each other again. You will have no memory of this encounter.”
“What could be better,” I think.
“But why? Why won't I remember you?”
“You will have chosen to leave me behind.”
“But you are the primitive growth that clings to century old vines. YOU ARE THE WORD!”
I stare at his hairy fingers, sharp nails, pointed teeth and say, “Wolf Man, unclasp your hands.”
The Wolf Man throws his head back and leaps across the elevator knocking me to the ground. His jaws open, the skin around his mouth retracts revealing long sharp teeth. He grabs hold of me and shakes me from side to side. I lose consciousness.
The elevator door opens. An oxygen mask is thrust over my mouth and nose. Neighbors jostle to get a good look; their cow heads dip; their fat nostrils flare and sniff; their bulbous eyes examine me. A fireman yells, “MOVE BACK! MOVE BACK! GIVE HER AIR.” I'm lifted into his strong arms and carried off.
"The elevator malfunctioned,” he says looking down at me, his head bobbing as if on the tip of a spring. “The lack of air caused you to faint. You will be fine,” he reassures and takes me through a long dark corridor that ends in a field of large bright yellow sunflowers. In the middle of the field stands the Wolf Man; a lifeless rabbit dangles from his jaws. The rabbit will twist and turn and try to defy undefeatable death.
The Wolf Man starts running towards us at animal speed. My screams gather like moss and sink into the oxygen mask. I try lifting my arms to tear off the mask, but my arms won't move. The sunflowers drop their large heavy heads, exposing necks so easily snapped. The fireman looks down at me and rips away my mask. His hot gamy breath nearly suffocates me. I kick my legs and thrash from side to side. His paper-thin lips part. His large black wings flap. My eyes turn inward.
Just the Thing
I bring two bourbons, mine with water and ice. A citronella coil cloyingly oils the air stuffed under the front-porch awning. Florence tells a story – the night the circus came to town.
It was the year Pretty Boy Floyd killed them G-Men up Kansas City way. She was thirteen, working in the old man's butcher shop, then sewing for neighbors at night.
She lights a Pall Mall from the butt of one dying out.
Her mother had been gone a week, or so, and she'd gotten it bad that particular day, on account of they were low on sawdust. She woke her baby brother round midnight, took him to meet the train at the bottoms. They hid in a ditch. Men planted torches, then unloaded crates and cages, hay bales, giant tents and poles, trailers, tools, lockers, steamer trunks, ropes and wires. Women lit camp fires and started cooking.
At last, the elephant shambles down thick oak planks, chains rattling, and fire glinting off his hide.
Florence nods for a refill. She asks why a guy like me would drink such shit whiskey.
This Thing of Ours
They named him Eduardo Carmino Corvino. They call him king of the little red crows. His Jolly-Jumper hung among roses, tulips, poppies, and gerberas. His tire swing swung below the cedar tree-house, above the columbine, bee balm, and scarlet sage. They bought crayons, paints, kaleidoscopes, and a butterfly net. They made puppets and cooked up bedtime stories.
His high school sweetheart and him got married in the Botanical Gardens. He left one day and told us all to call him Butch.
As Time Goes By
No matter what my parents say, I know I have a sister. They stashed her, and her blues eyes, and her blond hair, in the wardrobe. But I heard her hum, and, sometimes, when I was alone, I'd find the toilet seat left down.
I brung her a frog. She was sleeping, I guess, so I left it in the pan of water on the radiator.
My friends paid to peek through the keyhole, to see them blue eyes. Jenny wanted to kiss my sister. I beat it before they started moaning.
Some blue-eyed blondies bought our house, and, when I watch at night, I figure it's Jenny's car parked out front.