Saturday, February 28, 2009

Columbus Circle, 4:30 P.M.

On Central Park West, uniformed doormen stand at attention, quietly awaiting residents and visitors for whom they can open doors and carry packages with well-practiced and graceful aplomb. At Columbus Circle, cars, taxis and buses revolve around the crowded roundabout, the Trump Plaza towering above this magnificent southwestern corner of the park.

The ubiquitous steam rises from sidewalk grates, as harried women amongst the throngs of commuters emerging from the subway straighten stockings and brush hair from sweat-dappled foreheads. At every Starbucks (and, parenthetically speaking, there seems to be more than one at many city intersections---how can that be?) men in rumpled suits desultorily read the Wall Street Journal, type rapid-fire messages into Blackberries, and sip double-skinny-mocha-half-caf-lattes, careful not to spill the cream-colored gold onto company-owned laptop keyboards.

In a corner of the Starbucks at 59th and Broadway, a young woman in Goth attire and black eyeliner writes poetry in an old-fashioned composition book. A man with a seeing-eye dog bumps into the Goth girl’s chair and apologizes. The young woman is so very tempted to pet the dog, but remembers how she was admonished by her mother when she did just that several years ago when they were shopping at Macy’s.

You never touch or speak to a working dog, Jodie”, her mother had said. “You just don’t distract the dog from his job.” Jodie had looked at her mother and defiantly said “His or her job, Mom. His or her.”

Her mother had shot her a glance and replied, “Well, if you were more observant, my dear, you would have noticed the enormous balls on that dog, who is most certainly male. But, yes, I agree, gender-neutral speech is all the rage these days, and it’s most inconvenient.”

Jodie sighed to herself as she remembered that exchange, and rolled her eyes at the thought of her mother’s impending visit to New York.

Meanwhile, the barista with seven earrings and a nose ring contemplates whether grad school is really a good idea after all. Tattoo school sounds like such a better idea, but who knows if people will still want tattoos in this economic climate. They certainly still want their coffee, she thinks to herself, although she has indeed noticed a significant decrease in the number of people ordering the more expensive gourmet drinks.

Nearby at the grocery store on 53rd and 8th, the flower delivery is an hour late. Cellophane-wrapped roses, carnations, lilies and baby’s breath are plucked from boxes and placed in their upright black display containers where fresh water was added just this morning from a green garden hose coiled in the corner for just that purpose.

Inside, the owner, Mr. Li, writes a check to the delivery person, checks his math, places the invoice in a dusty accordion file, and dials his sister’s number on the store phone. She’s halfway through chemo, and he wants to make sure that his nephew is accompanying her to Sloan-Kettering this afternoon for her ultrasound. There’s no answer, but before he can think of his next option, his cell-phone rings and his breathless sister is breathing heavily in his ear.

Can you bring me some kimchee tonight, brother? I need some kimchee. I don’t care what Dr. Slater says about spices.” He breathes a sigh of relief. Kimchee? Is that all? If only it could remain this easy. He hangs up and writes himself a note to bring home the best kimchee in the store. Last week, she was projectile vomiting. And next week?

On the avenue outside, sirens scream and Mr. Li looks up in time to see the ambulance rushing through the red light. “There but for the grace of God....”, he thinks to himself.

Inside the ambulance, Millicent Henry (whose first name means “she with the gentle gait”) looks up at the paramedics leaning over her and wonders what all the fuss is about. She knows that she’s dying, and she regrets ever allowing her husband to dial 911. Her remaining kidney is almost shot, and her liver is nearly kaput. Why won’t they let her be?

Her husband, Jack, insisted that they not transition to hospice just yet, relegating her to these torturous ambulance rides and heroic efforts by earnest and, she admits, frequently handsome EMTs. At 77, she knows handsome, and this face looking down at her most certainly deserves a spot on “ER”. The next George Clooney? Perhaps. No wonder her heart is racing.

Ma’am, do you have any pain?” asks the Clooney clone.

Only when I think about the perfect cup of coffee I left on the kitchen table, dear. It was just the right temperature, with the perfect amount of cream and sugar. What a waste. My husband probably threw it away before he caught a taxi to the hospital.” She waves her hand dismissively in the air.

Sorry about that, ma’am”, the paramedic replies. “There’s no coffee allowed on the ambulance, anyway. Just relax. We’ll be at the emergency room soon.” He turns his back on her and begins to clean up the IV supplies and trash strewn around the compartment.

Millicent notices a sharp and sudden pain on her right side, a searing pain that tears through her like a shot. Stoic, she keeps that information to herself and sinks into the stretcher as she shivers under the thin, white blanket. She breaks out in a quiet sweat and closes her eyes, wincing.

They round the corner to the ER entrance and the ambulance comes to a halt. As the paramedic turns to check on Millicent, he notices the fixed stare and grayish pallor that only moments before had been brimming with defiant humor.

We’ve got another DOA, Paula,” he yells to the driver. “And all she wanted was to finish her coffee.”

(c) 2009, NurseKeith

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Redemption at Piccadilly

What he had tried to say was that he was sorry. His stumbling, inconsistent words hung like unanswered questions in the stale air in the tunnels below Piccadilly Circus. His apology was all disappointment, hollow words apparently devoid of true contrition.

She walked the underground hallways, crying, wondering why she had ever thought that a trip to London would be a good idea. Sure, their memorable trip here during the first months of their marriage had been a watershed moment in their long relationship---fulfilling, romantic and simply effortless in its ease. Now, twenty-seven years later, their patterns of speech and behavior solidified, calcified by habit and ennui, their relationship flew a habitual orbit that a trip to London could not simply derail with the novelty of a Ploughman’s Lunch, a pint of bitter, and nostalgic walks in Soho and Hyde Park.

He followed her up the impossibly long escalators below Piccadilly, giving her enough space to fume but not enough so that he would lose her in the rush hour crowds. They emerged onto the street, and he wondered what he would say when he finally gathered enough courage to start a new conversation. “I’m sorry” seemed trite, and “Please forgive me” might come across as melodramatic. Perhaps “Can we start over?” would work, an honest offer of a second chance, another go of being together and enjoying one another’s company in this crowded and eventful city.

He was awash with feelings he couldn’t quite name, and his body felt like it was filled with pebbles that rattled inside him with every step. He felt a pressure in his head as he walked, and emerging from his reverie, realized that he had indeed lost her in the crowd.

He waited at the light, crossed the street, cursing quietly, and turned around several times, squinting his eyes and willing her to reappear. Giving up, he crossed back the way he had come and decided to simply walk in the direction of the hotel. Then, out of the crowd of harried people rushing home from work on this unseasonably warm London day, she emerged, smiling slightly, eyes wet with tears, her hands simply at her sides.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Denouement

The basement is filled with the detritus of a long, curious life. The closets, packed with collections and ephemera, teem with stories. In the chests of drawers, papers of dubious importance wait in silence for the tax collector, the lawyers, or perhaps simply the fireplace or shredder.

Wooden floors creak with the strain of years. Warped shelves, having carried so many dusty plates and bowls with great patience, and are now ready to release their porcelain burden.
This house sings with history and groans with age. It tells tales of ghosts, children, animals, fights and romance. Seeped in feeling, the walls have absorbed decades of laughter, tears and shouts.

The house is alive, even as its days are numbered, and when the sale is complete and the new owners begin their reign, much of the history will then be lost, the familial spell broken.

Those trees that were once saplings struggling to survive their first winter ice storms and summer droughts have been like sentinels guarding a silent history that continues to unfold.

With a final, longing look, we hurriedly quit the premises like defrocked domestic priests riding off into the sunset.

(c) 2009, NurseKeith

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Tangier and Cognac

He sits alone at a candlelit corner table near the window. His grey hair is short and neat, and he’s wearing a slightly rumpled beige linen suit without a tie. The restaurant is quiet, and other diners speak in hushed tones as the servers glide between the tables like ersatz ice skaters.

Scribbling in a leather-bound notebook, he writes about his life, pulling the strings of narrative together with threads exhumed from the cauldron of memory.

She accused me of writing that letter, but I’ve sworn over and over that I didn’t write it, and never could have,” he writes, his spidery handwriting slanting, as always, to the left.

I was in North Africa at the time, and Dad and I hadn’t even spoken in more than a year. She dismissed my alibi and said that I simply could have mailed it to a friend and had the friend post it to Dad’s address.” He takes a sip of wine.

When they sent the telegram to tell me of Dad’s suicide, I was as shocked as everyone else. I never expected it, and still swear that I had nothing to do with that letter. It was a cruel letter filled with vitriol and hatred, and even though I despised the man, my modus operandi was to simply ignore him, and I did that successfully for years on end.”

The waitress brings the check, but he looks up at her, requesting a cup of coffee, a glass of cognac, and a slice of chocolate cake.

Dad was cruel. We all admit that,” he continues. “The years we spent holed away in Manitoba, cut off from family and friends---those were hard times. Being forced to learn how to butcher what he brought home after a day of hunting in the hills was nothing short of traumatizing, and his punishments---like being pushed into the lake through a hole in the ice---were like something from a novel, a Dickensian nightmare. When I read ‘The Beans of Egypt, Maine’, I thought that our years in Manitoba were like a cross between the Beans and ‘Deliverance’, and I’m not trying to be funny here.”

The cognac, coffee and chocolate cake arrive, and his pen is laid to rest as he tastes the sweet pungency of the cognac followed by a sip of the dark coffee. The chocolate cake is moist and slightly warm, with a very faint flavor of lavender.

He continues. “I was in Tangier when that telegram arrived to my hotel. The concierge waved to me as I crossed the shabby lobby, calling me over. ‘Monseuir, un telegramme pour vous.’ I was taken aback, and went out onto the front veranda before opening the blue and yellow envelope.

After I had read the brief message, I sat on the woven chair, frozen with shock, somewhat relieved, and utterly alone. Vendors, Bedouins and women on the way to market streamed by the hotel veranda, and the call to prayer wafted above the medina in its inimitable, ghostly way. I saw the call to prayer as a personal invitation for me to mourn my father’s passing and allow his spirit to leave this earth unencumbered by the avarice and resentment of his children.”

He finishes the cognac, takes a final bite of cake, and follows it with some lukewarm coffee, somewhat disappointing after the intensity of the cognac and the sweet bitterness of the chocolate.

Sitting on that veranda in colorful and alien Tangier, reeling from the news but also somewhat numb, I neatly folded the telegram, tucking it into my back pocket. After a few moments of watching the donkeys, carts, and vendors streaming into the medina for the day’s eager commerce, I, too, strolled unhurriedly into the crowded medina, intent on using forgetfulness as my greatest asset and ally.”

He pays the check in cash, leaves a generous tip, and exits the restaurant into the snowy street. Thinking about those days in Tangier, the estrangement from his father and his father’s self-inflicted death, a feeling of profound loneliness and isolation seeps into his bones. Taking out his cell phone, he dials a number he hasn’t dialed in years……..

(c) 2009, NurseKeith

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Everything Worth Reading

The newest edition of "Everything Worth Reading", a literary blog carnival, is up and running for your reading pleasure. One of my recent stories, "Grammar School", is happily included.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Crane and the River

The story I really want to write is the story of my father’s birth.

Born on the river, amidst the silence of men fishing and laundry hanging to dry in the still hot air, his infant wail rose above the quiet like a siren. The women who tended to my grandmother during the many hours in that long forgotten houseboat stroked her tense body and massaged her cramped legs, placing cloths soaked with cool river water on her anxious, sweating forehead.

My grandfather, following tribal tradition, spent the day fishing on another part of the river, careful not to touch the water in which his newborn son would be solemnly and ceremoniously dipped. It was said that the Mother River would not bless a newborn child if his father had bathed in the river on the day of his child’s birth. Thus, my grandfather sat on a friend’s boat throughout the day, casting his line and catching the fish that would feed his exhausted wife that evening as she suckled his child, the child that was to be my father.

They say that on the day my father was born, a white crane circled three times over the boat in which my grandmother labored. The crane alighted on the shore opposite the anchored boat, perhaps listening with cocked head to my grandmother’s moans and screams as my father’s small fish-like body trembled and quaked its way from the dark, moist cavern of the womb into the light of day. That crane didn’t move for many hours, and the midwives took it as a sign that my father was a favored child, destined to be a deep thinker and a thoughtful leader of his people.

After emerging from the womb, my father was immediately placed upon my grandmother’s breast, the midwives knowing that the suckling would slow the bleeding and calm the uterine storm raging in her belly. When the umbilical cord had ceased pulsing, the head midwife cut it with a ceremonial knife and my father was then dipped into the river three times: once for his ancestors, once for his current family, and a third time for the family that he would one day bring into the world.

They say that my father’s birth was a turning point for our people. They say that his birth brought with it a new era of prosperity and goodness. The crane that presided over his emergence into the earthly realm returned to that spot on the river again and again, and an image of that majestic bird was woven onto a blanket that my father handed down to me and that I, in turn, will give to my children in good time.

My grandmother always said that my father’s birth was a miracle, having lost three babies before his birth and losing two more after his arrival. Despite her great losses and undeniable suffering, my grandmother eventually died believing with all her heart that my father’s birth was her greatest achievement, a joyful deliverance of a promise made before her birth and without her conscious knowledge. The crane was always her symbol, and whenever I hear that singular and plaintive call across the stillness of a lake or see that majestic bird standing as still as a reed on the shore, I remember how my father was delivered under the watchful eye of a white crane, and no one can ever erase the beauty and poignancy of his masterful arrival.

(c) 2009 NurseKeith

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Rilke in SoHo

Who are my angels, you ask? That’s quite a question to ask a stranger at a train station bar, but I have some time to kill and you seem like a sincere person. So sure, why not?

Y’see, my life has taken some interesting twists and turns over the years, and angels come in a variety of guises. What I’ve found in my life is that we often don’t recognize an angel until long after they’ve moved on from our presence. Hey, you might be one, too. Who knows?

So, here I am, sitting at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia in the middle of a snowstorm, and I choose to sit in this bar and have a beer. All the trains are delayed, so there’s nothing else to do. And two minutes after the bartender serves me my cold Bass Ale, you sit down and ask me a few simple questions. I could wonder where you came from, where you’re going, and why you sat next to me, but it’s OK. I don’t really need to know. I’m just being rhetorical.

Speaking of angels, have you seen that enormous sculpture of the angel out there in the center of the station? The one where the angel’s holding a dead soldier in her arms? That sculpture’s almost 40 feet tall, and it was sculpted by Walker Hancock. I knew him. I actually modeled for his apprentice, Daniel Altschuler, who’s probably famous himself by now. Look ‘em up.

Their studio was near Gloucester, Massachusetts, and it was as if an angel sent me there about twenty years ago to talk to Daniel, meet Walker, and then model in that drafty studio for more than two years. I’d strike a pose on the modeling stand and Dan would work on clay figures. I had nothing else to do, so I would meditate on the dozens of sculptures in that old dusty studio. And do you know what was there? A small-scale bronze replica of the angel sculpture that’s right out there in this station. I would stare at that thing for hours. Hours! And it truly was a glorious thing to behold. Dan was so determined and serious, and sometimes we chatted as he worked and I stood, frozen in time. Walker himself was like an elf, a friendly shadow who kept out of Dan’s way when we were working.

Wow, I’m digressing. Sorry, you asked about angels and just the thought of it brought me back to that studio. It’s that sculpture out there. It’s mesmerizing to me.

So, yes, there have been angels in my life. So many. And devils, too, mind you, but even when we perceive people to be devils, they’re probably just angels on a bender.

Once, in New York City, I was wandering through SoHo, looking at galleries and writing in cafes off an on throughout a long weekend. I was staying in a cheap hotel in the East Village, giving myself the gift of doing whatever I wanted to do in New York for three days. I still have my notebook from that time, somewhere in my attic.

Anyway, there I was on Spring Street, walking along, daydreaming and thinking about art and writing, and I suddenly heard this sound. It was as if I wasn’t even in my body at that moment. You see, I had walked directly into the street. I was so absorbed in my thoughts, I’d stepped right in front of a delivery truck that was doing---oh, I don’t know---35 miles per hour. Certainly enough to kill me twice.

So, there I am, stepping directly into the path of this truck and I don’t even realize it. Suddenly, I hear this sound and it’s like a mixture of a siren, a roaring gun, and a “whoosh!”---like air shot through a cannon. I also felt, amidst the strangeness and ferocity of that moment---the lightest touch against my face, like a feather drawn across my left cheek. It was as if---even in that moment when my death was a distinct possibility amidst the noise and piss and trash of SoHo in the 70’s---it was as if all time had stopped, and I was caught in a moment of non-time, a space where all eternity could be experienced at once. Do you know what I mean?

Yeah, so there was this moment, and a “whoosh!” sound, and somewhere in the very distant background, a woman screaming and a horn blowing and I’m suddenly, without knowing how or why, crashing back onto the sidewalk from where I had just so carelessly stepped into traffic. Shocked back into my body, I realize that, from out of nowhere, a man—about thirty or so, dark hair, beige London Fog overcoat, sunglasses, briefcase---had leaped into the street, grabbed me and tackled me onto the sidewalk, the truck, its brakes screeching and horn blowing, missing us both by an inch at best. The man’s briefcase had broken open from the impact of him dropping it as he rushed to save me, and there were papers flying everywhere in the aftermath of the near-accident.

As I regained my composure and noticed the crowd gathered around me, I suddenly realized that my savior was nowhere to be seen. I asked the person leaning over me if she’d seen the person who saved me. She said yes, and that he’d appeared suddenly, jumped in front of the truck, tackled me to the ground, and then just as suddenly disappeared. She couldn’t even say where he’d gone or what direction he had taken. His briefcase was still in the gutter, and the street and sidewalk were littered with pieces of notebook paper that were released like a bomb when the briefcase had exploded on the pavement. His beige overcoat also lay on the edge of the sidewalk, one sleeve hanging over the curb in a small oily puddle.

I was helped to my feet by a few people, offered an ambulance by a police officer who arrived on the scene---which I refused, of course---and was tended to by a kind retired nurse who borrowed some paper towels and a few band-aids from a nearby restaurant. She cleaned my face, covered the scratches with the band-aids and helped me to pick up my notebook and other effects that had been scattered in the fray.

A few passersby had picked up some of the papers that had been released from the abandoned and broken briefcase. The nurse showed me a few sheets that she’d picked up. There were quotes by Herman Hesse, Lao Tzu, Thomas Aquinas, Charles Baudelaire. She said that all of the papers seemed to be collections of quotes by famous people, mostly spiritual leaders, poets and writers. Other people seemed to have picked up some as well, stuffing them in their bags or pockets to read later. Only in New York, I thought.

Looking down at my now dirty shirt, I saw a piece of paper tucked in my breast pocket. I took it out and unfolded it. It was the same type of notebook paper that was scattered all over the street. On the piece of paper was a quote by Rainer Maria Rilke, a quote that, from that day forward, changed my life forever. I had no recollection of anyone putting that piece of paper in my pocket, but there it was, folded neatly, the edges creased as if with great patience and thoughtfulness. The quote? Oh yeah, the quote---it’s forever burned in my mind and my dreams and I’ve never been the same since first seeing it that day when I almost died on the streets of SoHo:

If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for the Creator, there is no poverty.”

(c) 2009 NurseKeith

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Six Word Story #6

Thursday, he died while watching Oprah.


There is a myth that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write the best story he could write using only six words. His response to the challenge: "For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn."

Friday, January 9, 2009

Six Word Story #5

She left the house in anger.


There is a myth that Ernest Hemingway was once challenged to write the best story he could write using only six words. His response to the challenge: "For sale. Baby Shoes. Never worn."