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