|Oct/Nov 2011 Fiction|
Mosaic artwork by Laura Robbins
He had an ironic smile and a full head of faded auburn hair, gray only at the temples. His father had been a cop and kept his service revolver in the hall closet behind the telephone books. He learned shuffleboard in the city bars where his father walked the beat for 30 years. That was a long time ago.
When it happened, he knew it wasn't indigestion. He was in his living room in his faded summer robe, seersucker stripes of blue and white. As the pain ballooned to a crescendo, he coughed and raised his hand to his chest. As he did, he tipped over the half-filled glass of scotch that stood on the end table. The liquor and the ice fell to the rug and leaked into the pale cream pile.
"Damn," he said, knowing that his wife, Grace, would be annoyed. Except that his wife had left over a year ago.
He waited as the pain eased. When it ended, he felt a great expansion, a euphoria powered by the adrenalin that now flowed through his veins. His face was wet as if he had been running. Reaching into the breast pocket of his robe, he found his pack of Luckies, shook out a cigarette, and lit up. Drawing the smoke deep into his lungs, he rose and filled his glass, adding a few cubes of ice from the silver bucket on the bar along the far wall.
He was far from the green Eastern cities of his youth. He was in Palm Springs, in an economy seat. The gravel wash behind the condo roared with brown water when winter storms flooded the desert floor of the Valley. Before he settled down again, he moved the big leather chair a foot closer to the tube, to cover the spot where he had spilled his drink.
It was a few months, almost a year, before he saw a doctor. Miriam, the manager of the condominium complex, urged him to go. She lived in the next building in one of the least desired units, a single bedroom, first floor unit tucked away behind the laundry room. It had a view of the parking lot and faced north. Sunshine only arrived at her windows in the middle of summer when it rose highest in the hot, white sky. He liked to visit Miriam there. It made his own two-bedroom feel quite superior, considering its western exposure and view of the pool. His children, he knew, considered the place a dump.
He preferred to call on Miriam in her dim, baroque-styled unit with its red brocade and gilt side tables. If he brought a bottle of Glenlivet, she took off her clothes and let him have a bit. It was on one of those Glenlivet delivery occasions, lying in postcoital dishabille, that Miriam steered the conversation to his health.
"God, you got red in the face."
"A blushing boy," he said.
"Blushing my foot. You're still breathing like you're in a fifth set tie break."
Miriam loved to remind him of her tennis-playing youth, her ranking in the neighborhood club in The Bronx off Pelham Parkway where she used to unravel the game of both sexes. It was hard for him to imagine the slim, ponytailed young woman he saw pictured in a blurry photograph on her dresser as this same Miriam. She lay beside him, propped on one elbow as she twirled a frosted blonde curl draped behind her ear. Her heavy breasts slipped sideways.
"Why don't you go see a doctor and have yourself checked?" she said.
"I do go. I see a guy in L.A. I'm fine. I just shouldn't smoke, drink, or screw."
A few years back, he and his wife, Grace, had decided to try one last time. They booked a flight to Dublin, arriving on Christmas Day. The city was deserted, but pale and winsome in a melancholy diva sort of way. It was impossible to find a pub or restaurant that would serve a meal; everyone was home with their families. They were lucky to find the Shelbourne on Stephen's Green open for dinner.
The waiter was ancient, a sprig of holly in the pocket of his shiny, dark jacket. His white hair stood out above his ears in fuzzy wings, framing his slick bald head in a mimicry of Saint Nick. They allowed him to select the menu; he brought up parsnip soup, lemon ice as a palate cleanser, roast pheasant, farmhouse cheese, and biscuits. There were no vegetables, unless you count boiled potatoes or mashed. Outside, it had begun to snow and they walked the three short blocks to their small hotel near Merrion Square through a mixed drizzle of delicate flakes and wet fog. Across the road, a trio of merrymakers, two men and a woman, staggered down the street and into an alley that ran between old buildings. The woman shrieked with laughter and began to sing. It was a hymn in Latin.
Next day, they went south and took a room near Ballycotton Bay. The house was damp upstairs, but, at night, a turf fire was lit in the sitting room and they stayed cozy, reading their books, not talking. There seemed to be an understanding between them that, this time, they would keep talking to a minimum. Talk only lead to opinion and opinion to argument and argument to anger and anger to tears and shouting. So they remained quiet.
At night, they tried to make love, but it was difficult. They were either too sleepy from long walks in brisk air or too drunk from the Irish whiskey in the local pub. Or, and this was the worst, they were unable to pretend. On New Year's Eve, they went to bed early, and, at last, she was weepy and aroused. As he caressed her long thighs, she sighed and clung to his shoulder with desperate nails. He, who had never had the slightest doubt that sex with any woman was possible, found her skin terribly dry since the last time he had touched her. He couldn't chase the thought even by moving to other parts of her body. Her breasts reminded him that they were no longer firm, her hips that they were slack, her lips that they kissed differently, like she had been kissing someone else. But finally, in an agony of regret, he thought of her when she was young and firm and willing to do anything he asked. Only then was it possible.
In the morning, he woke early to hear the sound of slippered footsteps rustling in the hall. The morning coffee would be by the door, prettily hidden under a linen napkin. He dressed without waking her and remembered to pull on his heavy sweater under the waterproof shell.
Downstairs, no one was in the public rooms and the kitchen was silent, as if everyone had gone back to bed. He slipped out the front door, which groaned a little on ancient hinges, and stood on the slate step, his mug of black coffee steaming in the clear, brisk air. He could see his breath in the cold. It was about seven in the morning, and, at this northern latitude, the gray sky had a silvery sheen. The sun, when it finally rose, appeared as a weakened glow skimming through the tall trees in the meadow beyond.
He sipped his coffee and began to drift across the lawn, which was hidden under a pearly layer of frost. In front of him, a stand of cedars flanked the property with a dark and broody presence. As he walked further on, to the right the land spread out flat toward fields that would be cultivated in spring and full of grain or potatoes. Just before the fields began was a lone tree, a great old tree with its branches bare and wet. From the look of its twisted branches and distressed trunk, he decided it was an oak. He stopped and took another sip of coffee, the last of it.
As he stood there on that first day of the new year, the whole landscape had a spiritual ache that drew his eyes again and again to the lonely tree standing in desperate dignity in the middle of the frosty scene. He felt his heart beating in his chest, his fingers cramped with cold, one hand tense in his jacket pocket, the other gripping the empty mug. There was an overwhelming sense of loss, of passage, of ending. Looking at the tree standing against the pale land, his eyes filled with tears. Even though he recognized his maudlin sentimentality, he cleared his throat and blew his nose in the Irish linen handkerchief she had given him for Christmas. Finally, he knew that it was over.
The doctor wasn't much help. Tall, military shoulders, flat gut, he affected a white starched jacket over a yellow buttoned-down shirt. His tie was decorated with sailboats.
"You should have an angiogram. We'll be able to see the extent of the problem."
So much for giving up cigarettes last month. He'd read about those angiograms, a wire right into your heart. They look around with a little camera stuck on the tip. He put his hand on his chest. Just the thought of the wire creeping up—he imagined ants under his skin.
"There's a risk with that, isn't there?"
"There is a risk. About two percent. But it's not as risky as ignoring this problem."
He thought, what would two percent feel like if it killed you?
He was soon in the outer reception room, waiting for the scheduling nurse. There were two other patients, a man about 20 years younger who seemed normal. Maybe he was in the wrong office or was waiting to sell the doc some drugs. The other guy was clearly sick. He used a walker and dragged a steel oxygen tank around. The tank exhaled every few seconds, like an alien hiding out in a closet. A clear, plastic tube curled over the man's shoulder and around his ears, crossing his face underneath his nose, a transparent noose. The man's eyes behind their thick lenses were dark and liquid, deeply set beneath worried brows.
"Waiting long?" the sick man said.
"I've already been in. Just waiting for the scheduling nurse."
"Gonna cut you up?"
"Don't think so."
"I didn't either." The man made a peculiar noise, close to a snort. He pushed his walker over a bump in the rug and clanked to a stop. Easing his body into a side chair, he took a white handkerchief out of his pants pocket and wiped his forehead, now shiny with sweat.
"Pretty hot in here." The man tried a smile.
"Maybe you should take off the sweater."
He watched as the invalid pulled and tugged at the sleeves of the gray knit, becoming more flushed, muttering, wheezing. He knew he should help, but he stayed in his chair. He could think of nothing but cigarettes.
"When she comes out, tell her I'll be back. I have to make a call."
Before he drove back to the Springs, he bought a carton of Luckies and threw them in the back seat. He screened his calls for a few days, but the nurse never phoned.
He woke up, scrunched down in the leather chair, his chin buried in his chest. A drizzle of spit was pooled between his cheek and the old bathrobe. On the TV, the cheery, outdoor types were whispering to each other about strategies preferred in lake fishing for large-mouth. He watched the valiant battle between a two-hundred-pound human and a ten-pound bass and winced as the hook was twisted out of the fish's lip. Now, both humans were grinning at the camera, one holding the limp trophy by the gills. The fish wasn't smiling.
He switched channels to highlights of last night's Laker game, then to a salesman hawking a set of carving knives, then to a fat nun with rimless glasses. He turned off the sound and watched the nun's wet mouth wrap around the words. He thought of Sister Beatrice, his third grade teacher, who had pulled him by the ear when he lost his Baltimore Catechism on the way to school. He couldn't tell her that, because it was the only thing at hand, he used the book to rub dog poo off his shoe. He had thrown the defaced and dishonored catechism into the sewer.
He turned off the set and the light next to his chair. Outside, a nearby mockingbird called from its hiding place in the hedges along the building. It was very still. He got up and tipped the blinds so that he could watch the sun flood the sky, but the pool lights spoiled the effect. Iridescent aqua blue, the pool was an empty box of luminesce. Only a lone leaf floating on the surface corrected the paradox. It was 4:00 a.m. Time for coffee.
In the kitchen, he measured the water, scooped out the recommended amount of grounds, and added an extra for the pot. He opened the cupboards, but was not interested in Special K or tuna fish. The fridge contained three eggs, a stick of margarine, a carrot wrapped in a plastic bag, a leftover Chinese food carton, two bottles of Grey Goose, a six-pack of Diet Coke, and three English muffins. There was blue mold on the muffins. In the freezer compartment was a half pint of sugar-free, fat-reduced vanilla ice cream and a bottle of Dewar's.
After he scooped the ice cream into the sink, he uncorked the scotch and took a short pull from the bottle. He waited for the coffee, looking through the kitchen window into the camellia bush that covered the lower half of the window. White buds were already formed and ready to open.
He was sitting in the lounger, and as he watched the closed blinds fill with light, he sensed it coming. It was like he fell off a building and landed on his chest, a tremendous blow to the center of his body. He felt nauseous but couldn't move. The pain migrated to his arm, like his elbow was in a vise, twisting. He smiled, idiotically, and thought, this is so predictable. A textbook coronary. The warning earlier was a dress rehearsal. He heard you had about ten minutes to prevent permanent damage. Unless you didn't get past the ten minutes.
He remembered his father, gone down to the cellar lavatory to relieve himself and wash up for dinner. He heard the story from his mother many times, told over and over to relatives, friends, strangers met in the grocery store. She was up in the kitchen, a small square with a table against one wall, a stove against another, a sink under the window. A set of unused, hand-painted canisters for coffee, tea, sugar, flour was lined up on the cupboard shelf.
"I was making him lamb chops, nice lean ones from Wolff's, mashed potatoes, green beans. Everything was ready, the table in the dining room set for two. The crystal pitcher filled with iced water was next to his place at the head of the table. I called down the stairs." She described it the same way every time. The lamb chops, especially.
When she got to him, he was slumped sideways, head lolling, his eyes open. With a corner of her apron, she wiped the spittle from his cheek. Because he was too heavy to lift off the toilet, she began to cry. She wanted to make him decent and pull up his trousers. She hurried up the stairs and across the yards to yell in the kitchen window of her neighbor, Brennan. He came running, hiking his suspenders over his pajama top, still not dressed at suppertime. Brennan managed to get his father on the floor. The two of them, Brennan and his mother, dragged the heavy burden into the cellar near the washtubs and got the trousers up.
It must have been the same for his father, a stunning blow that knocked him sideways. His mother never heard a word, no cry for help. He wondered if his father had time to think. What was it now, eight minutes left?
The phone was on the wall in the kitchen, but he couldn't move. He thought of his kids, his girls, both beauties, their husbands, still young. He hadn't seen them in several months. His son, Billy, called every Saturday. Billy would be making coffee, watching the news, checking the traffic for the trip from the beach to his boring job in downtown L.A. He thought of Billy when he was a boy, tossing a ball to him across the back lawn, pounding the mitt like a pro. Then, they both had bright red hair. They usually talked about the stock market and the horses. He thought it was Tuesday; the track would be closed.
The pain was different, a fist clenching tighter and tighter in his chest. He felt smothered by the lounger, held down by a cold weight. Now, it was very near. He measured the thoughts, savored them as proof that he could still do it.
Once, his father took him to Breezy Point, just the two of them, a sweltering summer day in the middle of the week. He couldn't have been more than four years old, an age to be awed by the Atlantic rollers. He had stood there, a step behind his father, who was taking a last puff on the stub of a cigar. Then, they went into the ocean together, his father holding his hand as the waves broke and foamed at their feet. As they moved further out, his father leapt with his strong legs and lifted him into the air, out beyond the breaking waves, into deep water. He had felt the uplift, the flight, like a seal rising from the sea. His father's arms were hard as stove wood, the skin of his shoulders slick and alive. Then, his father showed him how to float on his back, arms outstretched, breathing deep. They stayed there, bobbing in the swells. He remembered there was a hissing sound in his ears, the voice of a seashell.
A gray mountain hovers over downtown Palm Springs. The tourists wander from curio shop to Indian jewelry shop to T-shirt shop. Behind the commercial strip, there are streets lined with dun-colored condos and apartments, each built in the same faux Spanish style. There is always an entry courtyard with a small fountain, usually inoperative. Occasionally, a citrus tree struggles in the dim light of a narrow passage. Well set back contemporary homes with their manicured lawns and bowls of blooming fuschia are far away to the south and east, down the valley, mixed in with the golf courses.
Here, on most mornings, few cars pass on the quiet streets in this modest backwater. No one is working, at least not on a job that requires an early appearance. The few who do work are waiters, bartenders, manicurists, real estate agents—people that work while others play.
The phone rang toward evening, and again the next day and the next. Finally, on Saturday, the sheriff's deputy answered. It was the dead man's son, Billy, making his weekly call. The condo manager, Miriam, had summoned the police; she was standing in the doorway, a handkerchief over her mouth and nose. One of the neighbors said afterward that the drawn blinds should have been a clue.
There was a reception in the common room, an understated wake, with cold cuts, potato salad, and beer. His children came and took his things away, dividing the books and pictures and distributing his clothes to the Salvation Army.
His son, Billy, returned to L.A. and, not wishing to leave it with strangers, hung his father's dress uniform from the Korean War in his hall closet.