As a college professor from a small town in the ancient land of Bessarabia, he taught linguistics and European literature at several universities in Eastern Europe and the United States for twenty-one years. In 2017 he retired from teaching and settled in North Carolina to devote his time to writing.
His short stories, personal essays and memoirs appeared recently in BoomerLitMag, Spadina Literary Review, Heart and Humanity, and others. His collection of short stories had been accepted for publication by Adelaide Books. He is a Finalist of the Adelaide Literary Award Contest for the Best Short Story 2018 and Bartleby Snopes 2018 9th Annual Dialogue Contest Winner.
NATURE’S BOOMING AWAKENING
The window was open just enough to let in the cool night air
It was Monday, a morning like many others.
The alarm clock awoke Ben Cooper at the set time of 7:00 a.m. There was no promise of a sunny day, he thought coming out of the bathroom and contemplating between going back to sleep or downstairs to make some coffee. Decided on the latter. With a fresh cup of coffee and a buttered waffle, he looked out through the slightly separated window covering: the sky, boringly gray with a few scattered dark-blue spots, looked strong and dedicated enough to hold the sun hostage for the rest of the day.
“It’s damn good to be retired,” said taking a bite at the waffle.
Then his house phone rang.
“I knew you were up already. Having your blueberry waffle I bet?” his ex-wife Susan.
They’ve been divorced for over a year now, but a month after the procedure was finalized, she began calling him every Monday to convey everything that happened to her during the previous week, and after countless attempts to find out why she was so inclined to keep him informed, Ben finally gave up.
“I met someone this past Saturday, Benjamin.”
He took a loud sip of coffee as a sign that he was listening.
“At my girlfriend’s birthday party. He’s a widower of my age, funny, polite and a real gentleman...say something, Benjamin!”
“Is it Mary or Ann – your girlfriend?”
“It’s Mary. What about the guy?”
“I guess, funny and polite should do it.”
“Don’t forget the real gentleman.”
“You don’t have to agree with everything I say, you know.”
Maybe I don’t, thought Ben, but kept quiet.
“He followed me home, and we kissed,” Susan continued. “Just a bit of a touch.”
He kept quiet.
“He wasn’t as gentle though after we saw the bottom of my favorite bottle of Chianti.”
He couldn’t anymore. “And why do you think I need to know that?”
“Why not, Benjamin!”
“Alright then. What else?”
“Should I buy another bottle?”
“That’s why you called?” asked Ben suddenly bored.
“Of course not… I wanted to hear your voice.”
“My voice hasn’t changed much since you left me.”
Now she paused, but the line was still alive: he could hear some clinking of the dishes and a muffled TV conversation. Tried with very little hope, “I don’t want to miss my morning walk, Susan…”
“You’re right, Benjamin, and I’m wrong,” she agreed quickly and was gone. And so were all the little noises around her.
The microwave clock just passed the 8:15 a.m. mark. The sun was still imprisoned by the gray blanket of the endless sky. Before locking the front door, Ben looked around making sure that everything was turned off in the kitchen and stepped out.
His walk usually lasted an hour; it was brisk and covered about two miles. The day had just begun, still had all its secrets untold. He thought about his lifestyle as soon as he walked out of his subdivision. He hasn’t been drinking much lately, as a matter of fact, only on weekends and rarely any hard liquor. It just came to that. Aside from the slightly high levels of cholesterol and blood pressure, he had no other problems. The slack skin and the bags under the eyes, when he had to look in the mirror while shaving, still looked merely like signs of passing tiredness…
He stopped for a minute to have a sip of water and crossed the street.
His hair fell out a short while ago. That, unfortunately, already happened. His lips were becoming thinner, more expressive so to speak; his nose longer – or he just imagined that. The hair on his chest was growing silvery, which showed every time he took a shower.
Another stop – on a wooden bridge now - for a few sips now.
Remembered suddenly how abruptly Susan left him. It was spring, gorgeous April day. She did it while he was still at work, which bothered him for a long time; then called a week later to let him know in a most casual tone of voice that she’s not coming back. Ever. That he robbed her of forty years of her life and that she forgives him. That she developed some necessary skills required by a life of a single woman, so she won’t be bothering him too often with her crying calls. And she didn’t…for a month or so…
As Ben walked out of the greenway path and stopped to catch his breath, someone’s hand materialized on his left shoulder, and a familiar voice greeted in a low baritone voice: “Top of the morning, my man! How the hell are you?”
They shook hands. Cliff Barnes, a black man of his age, lived in the adjacent subdivision of much newer and more expensive homes, and once or twice a week, while walking, they bumped heads at the intersection of the greenway path and the walkway along Arcadia Boulevard.
“Morning, Cliff,” Ben greeted back. “I’ve no idea.”
“That bad, huh?
“Susan called again.”
“She’s consistent at least, isn’t she?”
A bench next to the mailboxes was long enough for both men to sit down and stretch their feet.
“She sure is… Had a man at her place over a bottle of Chianti.”
“At her place?”
“She’s thinking about buying another bottle.”
They fell silent, and kept silent for a minute or so.
“Let me ask you something,” Cliff broke the silence, “and don’t beat around the bush: when was the last time you got your ham glazed?”
“And why do you think this is your fucking business?”
“I never said it is, but look around, man,” Cliff leaned forward in a hopeless attempt to reach his toes. “It’s spring, nature’s awakening! Everyone and everything is jumping on each other: humans, animals, birds, flowers, even insects…”
“I walk!” Ben interrupted. “Religiously. And walking is the best and the oldest exercise known to mankind… Jesus Christ walked all his life, for God’s sake!”
“He did indeed, but all walking does is keep your bearings from getting rusty…”
“Since when you’re such an expert?”
“Since forever!” said Cliff and tried again to reach his toes. “Look, you need a woman’s touch, man, without it, you’re as good as dead, OK? A pussy, some tits – you dig? Because life goes on. After that you can walk the hell out of it – but not instead, my friend, not instead.”
“Thank you for the advice.”
“You can’t outrun what you’ve already done in your life.”
“You’re damn right.”
“What about the broad that used to work with you?”
“She’s a friend, Cliff!”
“Some friend! You talked about her ass like she just stepped down from one of those hot Rubens’ paintings!”
“You want me to lose the best friend I’ve got so I can fit in your fucking nature’s awakening? That’s disgusting…”
“No, man,” Cliff interrupted, “I just want you to get laid!”
“There is time for everything,” Ben didn’t really know what else to say. “I can’t imagine that you used to manage a restaurant.”
“Four of them actually…but only 60% of the work force.”
“Sixty percent? What kind of management is that?”
“The female kind of it.”
“You were one sick pervert, Cliff!”
“No, I wasn’t. I was young, healthy and single, and could handle as many women as I wanted,” he finally reached his toe and exclaimed, “Yes! It stopped though…32 years ago…”
“You finally got your head straight?”
“I wish… They hired a new meat grinder operator, and, man, could she grind that meat!”
“Are you talking about burgers?”
“You’re still one sick pervert!”
“No, I’m not. She’s the one who grinded out five great kids for me, all well-done, brown and tasty. Good day!” he stood up and began walking away, obviously satisfied with the way he handled his neighbor.
Once inside his house, Ben went upstairs, shaved and took a long shower; then dried himself and stood in front of the mirror ruffling the silver hair on his chest. The question wasn’t new, but he always had a different answer.
Out of the master bathroom, he spent half an hour in his office, measuring the eastern wall for the future bookshelf, slow and meticulously, length, width and height, re-measuring, as if not trusting his eyes any longer. His house phone rang when he went inside to get ready for his trip to Home Depot.
“Ben speaking,” he answered the line.
“Hi, Benny, thank, God, you’re home!” Ann Dickerson.
“You got lucky,” Ben explained, “almost left.”
“So, how are you, and please don’t tell that you’ve no idea?”
“Susan had sex with a widower at her place after killing a bottle of Chianti so this time I really have no fucking idea.”
“Firstly: this woman is not worth a hair from your head, honey, and secondly…”
“I’m bald, Annie…”
“Then from your balls – and don’t tell me that you’re bald there, too!”
“I’m not… And secondly?”
“I’m actually thinking about inviting you to my place and not let you out till the next morning.”
“Got a few bottles of Chianti stashed someplace?”
“I prefer the hard stuff,” Ann paused for an instant, and Ben thought that he heard a sound of a supermarket cart, that squeaky, easily recognizable sound of a well-used cart. “What I was trying to tell you, Benny, is that I’ve been seriously under-fucked lately…”
“Oh, come on, Annie!”
“…and I’m not talking weeks, honey.”
Ben never thought that the vocabulary of a man can suddenly shrink to a point where he won’t have enough words to build one useful sentence!
“Any thoughts on that subject, Benny?” Ann brought him back to earth.
“To be truthful to the last word – more like months…”
“Well, if it makes you feel somewhat levelled, I haven’t been a Casanova lately either.”
“You haven’t, huh?” another short pause. “I must confess then: I’m still a bit on the chubby sight, but my skin is pretty tight, and I’ll make you sweaty in a heartbeat – you can take that to the bank…”
“What’s that noise I’m hearing, Annie?” Ben interrupted. “Are you in a supermarket?”
“Supermarket? Yes, yes, I am! Not a shopper as I used to be, but…”
“Miss Dickerson, we’re ready for you! Just a quick…” a woman’s voice interrupted Ann, and there and then the line went dead.
Ben stood in the dimmed hallway, phone still attached to his ear, unsure of what had happened a short moment ago. Where were they taking her? And who are they? He dialed Ann’s cellphone, but got a recording. Checked the time: 12:42 p.m.; then went back to his office and tore to pieces his measurements. Felt lost and unable to think straight. After some hesitation, he flipped open his laptop, glanced at the screen and shook his head in disbelief: there were more than a dozen hospitals within thirty miles radius on the first page alone! Decided to start with the first hospital on the page, which happened to be Blue Ridge Care Center, and after some interrogative questioning was informed that no one by the name of Ann Dickerson had been admitted in the last 24 hours. He thanked the proud interrogator and dialed the next place, Chatham Hospital, to hear the same robotic answer, delivered, thank goodness, without interrogation.
He wasn’t about to give up now. Suddenly, it became very important to know where Ann was and what really happened to her. Tried to remember if she ever had any health problems, but the only thing that still remained in his memory was an appointment with a cardiologist she mentioned once a few months ago.
He dialed the Heart Hospital.
“Dickerson, Dickerson,” the operator kept repeating Ann’s name, “I think we did this morning, but let me make sure just to save you a trip through the lunch hour traffic… What was her first name again?”
“There she is, my darling! Ann Katherine Dickerson. Give me a moment, please!”
“Surgery admission, Marsha speaking,” another woman’s voice appeared on line after a short wait.
Surgery? Ben couldn’t be silent for long.
“Let me ask you something,” said, “those carts that you use to wheel your patients, do they squeak?”
“They do, sir,” Marsha admitted sincerely. “We’ve been promised…”
“See you in about 45 minutes!” Ben interrupted and half an hour later, despite the still busy lunchtime traffic, stood in front of a thirty-something blue-eyed woman, skinny, freckled, with a surprisingly thick long braid.
“You made it in thirty!” she said after a quick glance at her wristwatch.
“Name’s Ben Cooper, I respond better to Ben.”
“OK, Ben, how may I help you?”
“She’s on the operating table as we speak. Was admitted with severe chest pain at 9:52 a.m., giving us just enough time to complete the necessary tests before the decision had been made to operate on her heart as soon as possible…”
“Her valve in particular… It was really a matter of life and death,” she disappeared into the little area in the back and soon returned with a carafe of steaming coffee. “Would you like a cup of freshly made Columbian? It’ll take at least two more hours till it’s over.”
“Two hours? I’ll have one then, black, no sugar.”
In the waiting area, as soon as he finished his coffee, the tiredness of the day took over, and he fell into a deep sleep. Awoke feeling someone’s hand on his shoulder: Marsha. “Does Ms. Dickerson have any relatives in town?” she asked.
“I don’t think she does.”
As she was walking away, Ben dialed Cliff’s number.
“If you calling to apologize, Mr. Ungrateful, it’s accepted,” Cliff answered. “I tend to forgive mentally ill men, especially the ones who haven’t been laid since last century…”
“Ann’s undergoing surgery at the Heart Hospital as we speak,” Ben interrupted.
“So, why are you calling?”
“Good question… Trying to figure out why I am here…”
“Oh, that’s easy: you’re missing her fat ass.”
“And that’s not a bad thing, man, healthy,” said Cliff and was gone.
Why was he here? Why did he jump into his car and drive to this hospital as fast as he could, at least twice on the border of yellow and red lights, more red than yellow? He wasn’t in love – that’s for sure. He wasn’t even attracted to her, not to a point where he would suddenly, in the middle of the night or his boring lunch in front of a silent TV set, think of her or imagine things. Not ever. As far as thoughts are concerned – never a sexual one… Why then? A couple of times they went to the movies, and she held his hand, often a bit longer than the scary episode required. They kissed once, when the company he worked for threw a surprise party to honor his retirement, a good friendly kiss with a long hug afterwards.
He understood now why the sexy talk a minute before Ann had been wheeled away on a boarded stretcher. She suddenly ran out of time, couldn’t wait any longer for his wound to heal or for the moment when he, tired of waking up in a cold bed, would make his move…
It was suddenly then or never…
His thoughts were interrupted by the slow opening of the heavy operating room’s doors. Four people in light-green smocks walked out talking amongst themselves, three men and a woman, all smiling. The surgeon in front of the group, a man in his forties, with a big head full of dark curly hair, obviously of Middle-Eastern origin, asked in a soft accentuated voice: “Are you Mr. Dickerson?”
“Name’s Ben Cooper,” said Ben. “I’m a close friend actually…”
“A very close one?”
“You can say that, yes.”
“I’m Dr. Masrood, and these are the members of my team: Dr. Matthews, Dr. Gramm and our irreplaceable surgical nurse Ms. Fisher. The procedure took a little longer than usual, but it went well. We’ll monitor Ms. Dickerson’s condition during the next 24 hours to make sure that there are no leaks of any kind, and everything is tight and adjusted. If you need any assistance or have any questions, Ms. Fisher will spend as much time as needed to address them, and hopefully I’ll see you in a few days… Shall we, gentlemen?”
Ben waited till the elevator began going up, asked: “What’s the earliest I can talk to her?”
“If no sudden complications – Wednesday afternoon,” said Ms. Fisher.
“Around six o’clock: by then, you might have a chance to talk – not just look at her,” said Ms. Fisher and explained. “The breathing and feeding tubes could still be in, but she won’t be in as much pain as tomorrow,” she looked at his intently. “So that was you she talked to before I put her to sleep?”
“I overheard a few things she said…very memorable.”
“Ye, she’s a spicy bitch, which makes her so lovable, I guess.”
He got a smile in response, they took the elevator and went up. Out of the lobby, shook hands. “Her arteries are healthy; it’s just the valve that gave up,” said Ms. Fisher before going into the “Employees only” section of the parking lot.
“I’m a lucky guy then, huh?”
“You’re damn right you are. Enjoy your evening.”
Ann’s round, always smiley face stood in front of Ben’s eyes till later at night, as he lay in his bed unable to fall asleep. A decent, trustworthy face of a woman who lived a simple straight life, lying a little, being crazy a little, hating, admiring, furious, in love… Then that kiss at the party. A sincere, friendly kiss. He didn’t feel any different. A kiss of a co-worker who already had a drink or two. Very appropriate and sweet. They spoke quite a bit after he retired, easy chats about nothing.
When his phone rang close to midnight, Ben was ready for the worst.
“That’s a lot of a woman you’ll have to deal with,” Cliff of all people.
“It’s fucking midnight, man!”
“So what? I knew you weren’t sleeping…and I am worried: you are a friend, even if the meaning of this word is practically unknown to you,” he became silent for a moment. “The other thing is that I’ve got some valuable experience dealing with big women, which I’m ready to share with you. No charge…”
“I’m going to see her on Wednesday afternoon,” Ben interrupted.
“Do you need an old black man next to you to make things go smoothly?”
“Night-night then. Call if you’re feeling otherwise.”
And just like that, Ben fell asleep.
… Wednesday couldn’t come any slower. Around three o’clock in the afternoon he took a long shower. Stood under the hot water with his eyes closed, having no thoughts. Noted a few tiny shades of rust in the corners of the shower floor, made a mental note to get some tile cleaner at his next trip to Walmart. Out finally, shaved his face more carefully than ever before: everything had to be perfect today, he told himself, not really knowing why.
Should he call Cliff and ask him to come after all? The thought didn’t last long enough to change his mind. After running his dark clothes through the washer, he moved the bulk into the dryer and finally left his house.
To avoid the heavy traffic, he chose the longer but less crowded stretch of the road, which took him out of the city for a short while. Remembered a trip he took with Ann in fall to a small town in Eastern North Carolina, with a great downtown and a bunch of tiny shops and restaurants along the main street. They had a late lunch, bought tons of little souvenirs; then drove through a pine forest, parked the car and walked to the bank of a river. He remembered every detail! They threw pebbles in the foamy water, and talked, talked and talked. It got late, but they didn’t watch the time. The sun began disappearing behind the mountains, seemed bigger and red. As they were getting ready to leave, it touched the top of the nearby mountains and began slowly sinking into the far-away world. And the deeper it sunk, the more distinct were the mountains. It even seemed that they became closer somewhat. In the valley along the river which enveloped the northern part of the town, the reddish twilight silently faded in front of their eyes. Then the sun completely disappeared beyond the tallest peak – and there and then a swift fan of bright-red beams flew out into the greenish sky. It lived a few short moments – and went out quietly. They made it home around ten o’clock, and there and then Ann suggested to take the same trip in spring, but it got forgotten…
At 6:45 p.m. he parked his car and took the elevator to the ICU on the second floor. The nurse at the station asked him to wait and dialed the room. No one else but him in the quiet lobby: usual visits ended a while ago. As he was waiting for Ann’s nurse to call back, his phone rang: Cliff.
“This is your sex and marriage counselor calling,” he announced. “Any good-looking black nurses in the ICU?”
“Sorry, forgot to arrange,” said Ben keeping an eye on the nurse on duty.
“I see… Any disturbing thoughts while you’re farting around the nursing station?”
“Not really… I did think about a high school girl I thought I was in love with, how I walked her once to the door of her house, talking stupidly, looking like an idiot…”
“No, no, and no!” Cliff interrupted. “This is not a positive thinking, but a recipe for disaster!”
“So, what’s your counseling,” asked Ben, “or you just enjoying your sexy title?”
“Very simple, man: think about her big ole’ ass! It has been proven a million times that this part of a woman’s body can bring a smile upon your face and most importantly, will keep you smiling forever.”
“Thank you for your patience, Mr. Cooper, you may go in now,” the nurse came to Ben’s rescue. “Room 2112 is on the right side of the hallway. Jason, Ms. Dickerson’s nurse, will answer any questions you might have.”
Ben thanked her and left the station. His phone rang the moment he passed room 2108 as if his self-appointed sex and marriage counselor was watching him from above. “Now what?” he asked rather angrily.
“A quick reminder: it won’t be pretty, trust me: I’ve been in an ICU room more than once, last time when my sister had a quadruple bypass surgery five years ago,” said Cliff ignoring his anger. “Be yourself, smile, joke, and make her feel like she is, despite the fact that her chest had been cut wide open, the most attractive, sexy woman you ever met…oh, and say it in a sincere tone of voice. You dig?”
“I’m not sure it’ll come out like that.”
“It will – if you think about that big ass of hers at the same time. Cliff’s out.”
The door was half open, Ben walked in without knocking and stopped as though rooted to the floor and there and then understood the full meaning of Cliff’s warning: what he saw, wasn’t Ann Dickerson…well, it was her, but barely recognizable: pale, not as round-faced as usual, with her eyes closed, a thin tube in the corner of her half-open mouth and a bunch of needles pierced in the veins of both hands, which rested motionless above the white sheet. Jason just hooked up a bag with blood in it when he noticed Ben.
“Mr. Cooper?” he asked. “I’ve been told. Please, have a seat: I’m almost finished here.”
“Is she asleep?” asked Ben unable to move yet.
“She wasn’t a minute ago… Ann! Do you hear me? You’ve got a visitor!”
Ann’s eyelids quivered, but remained closed.
Ben meantime sat down in an armchair as advised by Jason who adjusted the blood bag and repeated, touching her hand: “Come on, Ann!”
She finally opened her eyes as wide as she could, and a likeness of a smile lightened her face.
“Evening, Annie,” said Ben, “thought you can run away from me, huh?”
She squeezed a likeness of a smile, obviously through pain.
“I’m done here,” said Jason and handed Ben a tiny remote control. “She’ll be alright for now, and we’re able to monitor her vitals from the nurse’s station, but if you see anything abnormal – push this red button, OK?” And he left.
Now what? Unsure when exactly he would have to push the red button, Ben measured Ann’s covered body from head to toe, stopped at the lower part of it and forced a smile upon his face.
“Like what you’re imagining, baby?” whispered Ann, her eyes now wide open.
“Annie! You’re talking!”
“Not really,” she paused. “This shit hurts like hell!”
“It probably should, right?”
“I’ll be pausing a lot because of that, so be patient with me, OK?” She fell silent, and kept silent for a while. The gauges above the bed jumped left and right, up and down, and Ben had a hard time concentrating on them. “Benny,” she called him in a bit stronger voice.
“I know you always wanted to have me from behind, but my current position unfortunately won’t allow…” Whether it was the long sentence that made her fall silent again or Jason’s sudden appearance, didn’t matter: Ben was simply glad that it happened.
“Just talked to Dr. Masrood,” he said transferring the data from the gauges onto the chart, “who told me that if things continue to improve, by Friday afternoon at the latest we’ll take all the tubes and most of the IV’s out. Isn’t it good news?”
Ann blinked both eyes in agreement.
“And by the end of the weekend we might even get you out of the ICU,” he hung the chart on the back of the stretcher and left. As soon as the door clicked, Ann asked: “Do you remember what I said, Benny?”
“About me wanting…”
“Well, we’ve got tons of time ahead of us for that, don’t we?”
“So you’re not upset with me?”
“How can I?”
The pause this time was the longest. Ben placed his thumb on the red button ready to alarm the nurse’s station, but Ann, as though reading his mind, said in a joking (or he just imagined that!) tone of voice: “On Friday, after they take the tubes and IV’s out, I might be able to spread them.”
Whatever Ben wanted to say, he didn’t.
“I’m actually pretty good down there…”
“Why don’t you rest a bit, Annie: you’re probably tired talking all the time…”
“I’ve been laying on my back in silence for three days, baby.”
Ben tried to imagine that and couldn’t. They were both quiet again. He put the remote on the bedside table; Ann, her eyes barely open, looked up at the ceiling, a threadlike smile hidden in the corner of her half open mouth.
The clock on the wall just passed 8:30 p.m.
“Benny?” she called.
“Yes, Annie,” he was glad she talked again.
“I’ve read in a magazine that there was a Swiss scientist who did a lot of research and came up with some solid proof that a woman’s orgasm is eight times more intense than a man’s.”
“Eight times, huh? I would’ve never thought…”
“Well, as soon as we’re out of this god-forsaken hospital, I’m gonna prove him wrong, baby…many times over.”
“Are you sure of that?” Ben asked.
“As sure as God’s vengeance.”
To see whether she was serious or not seemed impossible.
The gauges began acting crazy again, and Ben intuitively reached for the remote.
“Will I see you again tomorrow?” asked Ann in a really tired voice.
His answer was spontaneous, but he wouldn’t come up with any other:
“Who said that I’m leaving?”
“You’re not, honey?”
“All I need is a bite of food and a strong cup of coffee from the cafeteria, and I’ll be as good as new…that is, of course, if they allow a visitor to spend a night with the patient.”
“They probably don’t, but Jason’s shift is not over till seven in the morning, and he won’t mind.”
Ben thought about calling Cliff on his way to the cafeteria and tell him that everything went well without the big ole’ ass thinking, just because he felt comfortable in Ann’s presence, despite her condition, sometime inaudible whispering, pauses. “The sooner I’ll go, the sooner I’ll come back, OK, Annie?” said.
“OK, honey… Would you hold my hand if I fall asleep?”
“It’s kinda half-dead though…”
He was already at the door. “I would,” assured again, “no problem at all.”
“When I’m up and running again, will you promise to prove me wrong, too?”
He was in love now.
“I will,” said, “no doubt.”