Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Women Artists, has had her work published in lit mags including Hektoen International, Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, and Literary Yard. A psychotherapist and mental health advocate, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with depression, bipolar disorder, and their loved ones. Viewwww.newdirectionssupport.org. She runs a weekly writers' group in the comfy home of one of our talented writers. She lives in Willow Grove, a suburb of Philadelphia. Her blog is www.ruthzdeming.blogspot.com.
Winnie took a cab to Laura’s town house. Laura met her on the porch. They hugged and Winnie gave her a box of Stutz candies.
“You shouldn’t have,” said Laura. “I’ll get even fatter.”
Laura always nursed a belly that looked like she was a couple of months pregnant.
“I’ll put the coffee on,” said Laura, as she opened the door and led her friend inside.
The place was immaculate, done all in white, with shiny white tiles in the kitchen and windows looking onto a small back yard with a swing set and slide beside a couple of small maple trees. Everything was frosted with snow and glistened under the noonday sun.
“Laura,” said Winnie. “Amy’s in college. What’s with the swing sets?”
“You know me, Win. Bobby and I don’t like change.”
Winnie shook her head as her friend put the tea kettle onto the all-white stove with one of those tops that was a smooth single panel, easy to clean.
The two old friends stood in the middle of the kitchen. They once lived in the infamous Village Green Apartments, built on a flood plain. Fortunately they had moved out before the tragedy. A tragedy waiting to happen, caused by greedy developers who built on a known flood plain. Laura and
Winnie knew the four people who were killed. Murdered might be a better word. They died not by drowning. But by something much worse. The water had risen quickly, like it always did, up to “A” Building – the old people’s building. But instead of receding and settling back into the tributary of the Pennypack Creek, it rose higher and higher, all the way up to the second floor of the building, where Angie and her son, Rudy, were waiting to be rescued.
The sound was heard for miles around. An explosion in the basement of “A” Building. The gas dryer had exploded and blew away six tenants.
Over the years, Laura and Winnie kept in touch by phone or met for shopping dates. Winnie knew every detail of Laura’s life and on New Year’s Day, when she had off from work at the factory, she took a cab over to the Parkview Town Houses.
The tea kettle began its high whistle and Laura poured the water through her clear-glass Chemex coffee maker.
“You and your perfect cups of coffee,” Winnie laughed.
“I know you want a tour of the house,” said Laura. She patted her belly, a habit Winnie remembered from the apartments.
“That husband of mine. At the gym. He practically sleeps there.”
As they walked, Laura gave a slow narration of her husband’s habits. He was either at the gym or at work. He had started his own computer company and did very well.
“You know what my husband did?” Laura asked Winnie.
Winnie laughed. “Can’t wait to hear.”
“He gave everyone a huge bonus – all one hundred fifty employees – and also took them out for dinner.”
“Let me guess where they went,” said Winnie, who seemed to pick up gossip as easily as picking up a piece of chocolate.
“Damn, Winnie. How did you know?”
Winnie begged off, saying they’d sit down and talk after the house tour.
The living room was a show place. It had that unlived-in look. Like looking in a store window. The carpet was eggshell white and most of the furniture, including two white sofas that looked so delicious you wanted to sink your teeth into them, was a pristine white. Yellow accents such as a tall yellow and turquoise vase on the carpet lent an air of sophistication to the room. Neither Laura nor Bobby O’Riley was sophisticated.
Photographs of Amy hung above the sofa. A beautiful child, if a bit pudgy like her mom, she had a broad smile when she lived in the apartments. As she inched toward high school graduation – and, yes, there she was in her cap and gown – her face looked less full. A third photo, taken in a lavender prom gown, as she stood between Bobby and Laura, showed a poised young woman on the edge of a brave new life.
Winnie learned that Bobby had taken his daughter under his wing and introduced her around the gym.
“She was always Daddy’s girl and the two of them would gallivant off to the fitness center, what a damn bore, where he taught her to ride all those godawful machines.”
Winnie laughed. “She turned out to be a beautiful girl, don’t you think?”
“More beautiful than I am,” said Laura. “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s when you and me go shopping at Marshall’s, try on clothes in those tiny fitting rooms and I have to look at myself in the mirror.”
She shook her head and fluffed up her dark brown hair.
From the living room they walked up the carpeted stairs to the second floor.
“The home of a movie star,” laughed Winnie, as she followed her friend.
Three bedrooms appeared at the top of the stairs.
Amy’s room was childlike. Her stuffed animals – a white unicorn with a lifelike horn emerging from its forehead, Kermit the Frog, and a baby giraffe with huge button eyes – lay on the pillows of her bed. One window, in the shape of a huge half circle, looked over the front of Parkview, at the cars asleep in their parking spots on this enforced day of rest, New Year’s Day.
“Does she come home much?”
“Barely,” said Laura. “She has so many friends now that she’s at Penn. It’s a tough school to get into, you know.”
Winnie didn’t wonder that she rarely came home. Bobby and Laura were constantly fighting, voices raised, fists pounding tables. Once, Laura told her over the phone, that Bobby had punched a hole in the kitchen wall, apologized, and had it plastered over before anyone saw it.
“And, here’s Bobby’s room,” she said, leading Winnie into the master bedroom.
“Oh, he has his own room now, does he?”
It was filled with mirrors, a huge walk-in closet and a bathroom on the right.
Laura opened up two closet doors. Immediately a bright light went on revealing Bobby’s wardrobe. Winnie went over and fingered a red silk robe.
“Wonder where he got this?”
“Oh, he goes downtown to some fancy shops to buy his stuff.”
She led Winnie into the bathroom.
Winnie saw the sunken pink Jacuzzi with water jets all around and seats for the bathers.
“Me and Johnny, when we were going together,” said Winnie, “stayed in a fancy hotel downtown and had a great time in the Jacuzzi, if you know what I mean.”
Laura laughed. “Bobby and I have the same old problem.”
“I’m sure you do,” said Winnie. No need to say it: no sex.
Returning to the kitchen they sat back down at the glass table. Laura poured more coffee and warmed it in the microwave above the stove.
A red amaryllis, sitting atop the table, had just bloomed and sent its tall red spikes into the air.
“You do have a way with interior design,” said Winnie. “Your apartment looked nothing like this.”
Laura laughed. “We paid for a designer to come out. She still does. And she brought me this plant.”
“One of the reasons I never visited before, hon, was because I was afraid to tell you something about your husband.”
“My husband? Bobby? I can’t imagine what that would be.” She quickly thought of the first thing that pops into a woman’s head: an affair. But quickly dismissed the thought.
Winnie cleared her throat and placed her hand on Laura’s.
“Bobby is gay,” said Winnie.
There was total silence.
Laura got up and took the coffees out of the microwave, then sat back down in silence.
She took a sip and sat stiff as a cardboard box.
She looked down and then she stared at her friend.
“Winnie, how do you know?”
“Laura, everyone knows except you.”
Winnie mentioned the lack of sex. “Men are horny. They love sex. Look at my Johnny and my Carl. They don’t even mind sleeping with a cripple.” She laughed.
“How many times did you do it?” asked Winnie.
Laura paused only a moment.
“Once on our honeymoon. Or almost. He got sick, so we never finished.”
“Go on,” said Winnie.
“Well, there was that other time ….”
“Yes, when you told him you wanted a child,” finished Winnie.
Laura scratched her forehead, trying to comprehend what she had been in denial about for nineteen years.
“Tom Abado and his restaurant?” said Winnie. “Bet that’s his boyfriend.”
“Winnie, how could you?” said Laura, standing up and walking around the kitchen.
“If he is gay, Winnie, do you think Amy knows?”
“Probably. She’s a smart girl. But she loves her daddy. And always will. People are liberal nowadays about things like that.”
They heard the sound of a car pulling into the garage. Laura looked at her watch, then looked at Winnie.
They heard Bobby’s feet running up the basement stairs. He burst inside, panting, and saw the two of them seated at the table.
“Honey!” he said, his voice rising. “Why didn’t you tell me you were having company?”
Bobby took off his jacket and hung it on a hook in the hallway. He was an average-sized man with firm muscled arms that showed through his blue short-sleeve shirt. His hair was dyed black but looked natural.
“Bobby,” said Laura. “You remember Winnie from the apartments.”
“Winnie! My God, I didn’t recognize you. How ya doing?” He went over and hugged her.
Winnie was a pretty woman with dyed blond hair. As a polio victim, one leg was shorter than the other, but it never stopped her from meeting men or becoming a supervisor at the factory. She wore a brace under her blue jeans and had a specially-made shoe with an elevated sole, her “polio shoes,” as she called them.
Winnie smiled. “I finally decided to visit your beautiful home. Oh, it’s lovely, Bobby. Just lovely. Like in a magazine. I’m so happy for you.”
“Where are you living now?” he asked.
“I couldn’t escape Hatboro, like you both did. I live on the seventh floor of The Garner House, right across from the train station.”
Winnie talked about her job at the jewelry factory, wearing special thermal suits and goggles when she melted down gold nuggets to make jewelry.
“They gave me a nice bonus since I been there thirty years.”
She pulled out a blue-rimmed iPhone from her pocketbook.
The phone began to vibrate and they all laughed. “It’s probably my Dawnie,” she said, referring to her grown daughter.
“Guess I better be going.”
Bobby volunteered to drive her home.
“No, no, I’ll take the cab,” she insisted.
“Not while you’re in my house,” said Bobby and helped her on with her coat.
Laura heard the clop clop clop of her friend’s awkward-looking shoe as she walked down the basement steps and into the garage, where a ride home in a black BMW sports car awaited her.
So, thought Laura, it must be true. “I must get used to this. What an embarrassment. Everyone knows but me.” Her festering resentment toward her husband began to grow and as the days passed, she felt uncomfortable living “with a fag in my house,” as she told Winnie over the phone.
But how could she divorce him? She couldn’t possibly live on her own. She hadn’t worked a day of her married life. She had waitressed as a teenager at the Willow Inn. Every time she drove by, she was reminded how afraid she was to work outside the home, and how, yes, “pathetic” and “frightened” she was. What if anything happened to Bobby? She’d have to go out and find a job.
One evening she was trying to fall asleep in her room. Where was that husband of hers? When she heard him walking up the stairs, she came out of her room, wearing a see-through white nightgown.
“Where the hell have you been?” she yelled.
“Business,” he said sleepily.
“Business! Yeah, with your gay friends! I never dreamed I’d marry a faggot. A fucking faggot!”
Bobby, head down, slunk into his room, saying nothing. He closed the door and she heard him lock it.
“Oh!” she screamed as she went back into her room. She turned on the television. And flipped through the channels. In bright vibrant colors she watched a program about farmers. They strode through the landscape filled with purpose and wore odd clothing. Aha! They were the Amish. As she watched, she forgot about her recent discovery about Bobby and totally focused on the program. How good it was that everyone in the family, even the little children, worked, and the man – a manly man! – was the head of the family.
While Amy was growing up, they had taken many a trip to the Reading Terminal Market in downtown Philadelphia. It was a high cavernous building replete with everything you would want: cut flowers, fresh fruits and vegetables year-round, and delicious meals from several Amish families. She remembered the juicy chickens and fresh cranberry sauce, piled in Styrofoam plates, along with black-eyed peas and cornbread.
Laura decided to act quickly before she lost her nerve.
From the basement, she pulled out a suitcase on wheels and dragged it upstairs and into her bedroom. An elevator would have been nice, she thought. She was out of breath when she got to her room and placed the suitcase on her yellow bedspread. Into it she put sweet-smelling clean clothes, pants, bras, underwear, and an old bathing suit for good measure. She packed a few towels and washcloths and took the suitcase downstairs to the kitchen. She would leave in the morning.
She wrote a note, which she left on the table after Bobby drove off to work.
“Bobby, I’m going away for a while. I’ll be fine. Will get in touch in a few weeks.” She signed it “Laura.” Forget the word “love.”
She drove out of the garage in her own BMW sedan, a sturdy gray color. She punched in an address into the GPS on the dashboard and listened to the deep sound of a baritone male voice as she left Parkview Homes behind. She wondered if she would ever return.
She was a woman who would not look back. She was afraid to. Hands firmly on the wheel, the roads were fine, the snow had all melted.
“Turn left at Meetinghouse Road,” said the male voice. She paid strict attention as if her life depended on it. After a while, the voice stated, “Merge right onto Route 30.”
Route 30 seemed to turn into another country, another lifetime, another century. After an hour, she found herself behind one of those famous black Amish buggies. The wheels of the buggy were huge. She lowered the window so she could hear the clopping of the horse’s hooves. The driver motioned to her to pass him and so she did, craning her neck to see what the man inside looked like.
There he was, with a long scraggy black beard and a top hat like Abraham Lincoln’s. Her heart quickened. Certainly watching that program was a sign from God that she belonged here.
She drove along the road. There wasn’t much traffic. Which shop should she pull into? Three of them on her right had quilts hanging outside the stores. My goodness, she thought. Maybe I can learn to quilt. She was more excited than on Amy’s high school graduation day. Had her whole life been a pretense, she wondered. Waiting, just waiting, for this sacred day?
She pulled her BMW into the gravel driveway of the third quilt shop. The moment she walked in, she heard a strange language – neither French nor Italian but something like German – spoken by a few people in the store. When she walked in and the bells jingled on the door, a slender young woman greeted her. She wore a calf-length blue dress and the traditional bonnet on the back of her head.
“Make yourself to home,” she said. “Look around. I am here to answer any questions you may have about our products.”
Laura looked at shelves filled with all sorts of jam and honey, sticks of candy like licorice and mint, small wooden toys and stained glass designs of cardinals and bluebirds.
She fingered some quilts, large and small, and lifted up some exquisite pot holders. “Great gifts,” she thought, but then remembered she was not going back. She remembered her suitcase in the back of her BMW. The Amish did not drive cars. She must be prepared to give up her car.
She felt certain she could do it. To live like an Amish. To have a purpose. A reason to rise out of bed in the morning.
More people leave the Amish community than join. Conversion is rare. She would soon learn this. But the Amish were big-hearted people and welcomed newcomers into their fold, like Naomi her gentile daughter-in-law, Ruth.
Laura became a boarder in the household of Jared and Rachel Stolzfus. They lived on a farm with their four children. Laura’s BMW sat in the driveway like a spaceship just landed on earth. She slept in the attic, where various pieces of broken furniture were stored, along with bags of fabric waiting to be fashioned into dresses and pants and long socks. It was chilly in the attic, but several patchwork quilts warmed her body. She kept the window open a crack so she could hear the comings and goings of everyone outside.
A small candle sat on her bedside table until she was ready to snuff it out for the night.
It was only at night that she had a moment to think. And it was only a moment, since she was so utterly exhausted. Sometimes she would massage her sore feet and ankles. At home in the condo, she would watch television before bed. Despite the strange languages, clothing, and people, she felt utterly comfortable. Perhaps even like she belonged.
“Don’t be impulsive,” she reminded herself. “I’ve got to give it time.”
She slept well and could hardly believe how quickly morning had come.
“Time to rise, Sister Laura!” called one of the children from the stairs.
Laura dressed in her new Amish attire. She looked down at her new costume, for so it seemed at the time, and smoothed it out. No mirrors were to be found in Amish homes. Perhaps, she thought, she might look upon herself in the side view mirror of her car.
No, she decided. That would be dishonest. This was her new life. Only honesty would prevail.
Mother Rachel told her she would learn to milk a cow. “You must wash your hands very thoroughly,” she said. “And then Rebecca will walk you to the barn.”
The soap in the kitchen was home-made. It was a cake of gray soap in the shape of a star. It felt good and pure on her hands, with her pink nail polish, that would soon flake off.
Four huge cows were pawing the ground when they entered the barn. The last time Laura had seen a real cow was at a petting zoo. How strong was the smell, she thought, as their feet crunched on soft hay and earth. Rebecca was a fair-haired child, a miniature adult, who patiently taught Laura where to place the metal bucket and how to squeeze each teat to draw out the milk, which landed in the bucket. The sound of the milk was like a gentle rain spritzing on a tin roof.
She sat on the little stool and, as she milked each cow, feeling an unaccustomed sense of peace sweep through her entire body. Her eyes began to tear up and flowed down her cheeks.
Other chores included walking to the school house to pick up the four children after school. The two-storey wooden structure had a tower on the top with a bell inside.
“Dong! Dong! Dong!”
How loud and musical it was, she thought, as she approached. She stood to one side as kids from kindergarten through eighth grade came scrambling down the steps. They were like children everywhere. Like her Amy, when she’d come home to mom at the apartments.
She gathered Rebecca and Daniel, Ben and Abby, into her outstretched arms.
“What’s your name again?” asked little blue-eyed Abby.
“Sister Laura. Can you say that?”
“I can!” shouted Daniel and Ben in unison.
A chorus of “Sister Laura” and “Thithter Lauras” greeted her.
Laura helped set the table, with shiny pewter spoons, forks and knives, upon a pink tablecloth.
Again she remarked to herself what artists her new people were.
They all settled down in the large kitchen. Mother pulled up the shades as darkness was beginning to fall and they had no electric lights. She lit a family of candles all along the high shelves. Everything had been thought of. Even placement for the candles.
Father Jared, in his chest-length graying beard, gave the blessing. His voice was breathy and musical. “We ask our Heavenly Father, the Lord Jesus, to bless us all and to allow Laura to learn our simple ways and decide if she wants to live among the plain people.”
“Amen,” everyone, including the children said in unison.
“How was your day, dear,” asked Mother Rachel. Laura realized how lonely she had been at home. There wasn’t a soul to talk to at the table or even during the day.
“I am liking my time here very much,” she said, after swallowing a large forkful of meat loaf. “Rebecca has been so helpful to me. I would like to taste some of the milk we gathered.”
“Tomorrow morning, dear, you will have nice creamy milk in your hot oatmeal,” said Mother Rachel. Laura watched everyone digging into the meat loaf, the best she had ever tasted, including her own, and the green beans with butter melting slowly on top, black-eyed peas, and mashed potatoes with butter.
For dessert, Rachel brought out a hot apple pie.
Laura patted her belly.
When they finished dinner, the children asked if they might be excused, and Laura helped with the dishes. The water had been heating up at the wood-burning stove and was ready to transfer into the large wooden bucket. Soap flakes were poured in. Dipping her hands inside, Laura felt the smooth feel of the sudsy water and again her eyes teared up.
After the dishes were cleaned, dried and put away, the family yawned and repaired around the fire in the living room. Laura didn’t even consider her own “designer” living room as she sat in a comfortable wooden rocking chair on cushions with colorful blue and white starburst patterns. What a love of art these people have, she thought once again.
Father Jared brought out the family Bible, a well-worn book with faded edges.
“My man, Daniel,” asked his Father Jared. “What would you like to hear me read, son?”
“That’s eathy,” he lisped. “The thalm of King David, pweese,” he said.
“The Lord is my Shepherd” was duly broadcast to the little family under the setting sun. When he finished, Rachel told Laura she had a gift for her.
In her long green dress, Rachel walked over to a shelf in the living room and picked up a small object Laura couldn’t recognize. In fact, it looked a little like a small furry brown rabbit.
“Stockings!” cried Laura, feeling them. “Woolen stockings.”
“Yes indeed,” said Rachel. “I wove them this morning just for you.”
“Just for you!” echoed little Abby, five years old.
When Laura went up to the attic that night, she stroked the woolen stockings after she climbed into bed. She held them against her cheeks and then rubbed them across her mouth. They smelled like wool and wood smoke and apple pie.
She pulled them onto her very tired feet, first the left and then the right. They clung to her legs as if they loved her and never wanted to leave her.
“There’s so much to do here,” she thought. “I cannot wait to learn to knit woolen stockings. I’ll send a couple pair to Winnie, of course, and maybe even Bobby. Yes, I know Bobby would like them. He’s quite the fashion plate.”
WOMAN IN A COMA
I saw him the moment I walked toward the biographies. His name I would learn was Carmen LaRosa but he wore no cross around his neck. His table was spread with one large library book, held open with another book, and a Mead Composition Book, like the one I use to record every book I read.
I’m known as a person who talks to everyone she meets. My kids find it embarrassing. I find it necessary. It seemed impossible not to talk to this bewildered-looking gentleman, an older man, quite old, as you’ll see, and very well dressed in a fine linen short-sleeved shirt and white cotton trousers. A stain near his breast pocket told me he didn’t have a woman to take care of him.
I figured him to be a retired scientist like my ex-husband. His shiny bald head was sprinkled with a few lonesome hairs and some freckles or age spots. I prefer to think of them as freckles.
“I’m looking for a good book,” I said. “Know any?”
He looked up from the book where his finger was following a particular passage. “Can’t hear you,” he said, cupping his ear.
“I’m looking for a good book to read,” I sort of hollered in a whisper. This was, after all, the reading section of the library. You know, don’t disturb the other patrons, who, at this hour in the morning were few. He didn’t seem to comprehend what I was talking about. He looked sunk deep in his own thoughts. I knew I shouldn’t have interrupted him, but now I had to finish what I’d started. I took a different tack.
“What’s that book you’re reading?” I said, gesturing to the huge open book on his table.
“A medical book. You wouldn’t like it,” he said.
Without being invited, I pulled out a chair and sat down at the round wooden library table.
“Good place, the Mayo Clinic,” I said, tapping his book.
“I’m reading about comas. Whether you can feel pain if you’re in a coma.”
I told him my dad died of a brain tumor, he went into a coma for two days and then died, perfectly at peace.
“So your wife died,” I said.
“Elsie died forty-four years ago. It was my…. girlfriend. Barbara.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, touching his tanned arm, and pulling my chair closer.
The light was flooding through the domed window of the library, holding him in a beatific spotlight. He didn’t seem to mind the light. Welcomed it, almost.
He would call Barbara every single morning, he told me, and they would have their coffees together while on the phone. Barbara was much younger than he was, early 70s, but had more serious ailments than he did, nothing that should kill her, though. All’s he had was macular degeneration in one eye, and a touch in the other, which was why, he said, he liked sitting in strong light.
Barbara hadn’t answered her phone. That was strange, he said. I pictured her as a woman with long white curly hair and I do mean long. Middle of her back long.
“It was my fault,” he said. “I should’ve gone over but it’s not so easy at my age to drive, especially at night. Well, I don’t drive at night. Unless I absolutely have to.”
“Eighty-two?” I guessed.
Barbara’s oldest son had a key, like Carmen did. The son drove over to the house in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, let himself in, and found his mother crumpled up on the kitchen floor. Not dead, but unconscious. One of her arms was pinned beneath her body.
“She’d been there nearly two whole days,” he seethed. “Two days! Can you believe it? I could strangle myself!”
He was fine narrating the event. Emotionally detached. It was good for him to talk, I thought.
“Next time I see Barbara they’d taken her to Luther Woods.”
I knew the place, over on County Line Road. At my age, sixty-two, the new eighty-two, I had been over to smelly Luther Woods at least three times. They have pretty plants at the entrance but they should boil cinnamon sticks in the kitchen to keep out the smell of old people’s bodies and their excretions. Sorry to be so blunt, but I’ll be like that myself some day.
I pictured Barbara with her long white tresses in a hospital bed with the usual paraphernalia sticking out of her body.
“Did she ever ….”
“No, she stayed in the coma. They had her in diapers. My Barbara.”
Just the word “coma” coming from Carmen’s mouth. I’d gotten used to saying “My dad went into a coma.” Look, I can think about it now, dozens of years later, and not even picture him lying helpless in his hospital bed downstairs in the family room with the built-in bookshelves and his books stamped ex-libris Harold J. Greenwold.
Now Carmen began to cry, right there in the reading room on the hard wooden chair. He just looked down and began to sob. It was all my fault. “You’ve done it now, Holly,” I thought. “Happy?”
His whole upper torso was shaking, convulsions of sobs right there near the biographies. I was so ashamed of myself and yet I rationalized it was good for him.
I put my hand on his shoulder and rubbed it a little. Barbara would have done that. His Barbara, the love of his life. Now he had lost two women. Plus his eyesight. He wiped off his glasses with his handkerchief.
I wondered if he and Barbara had made love. Certainly they must have cuddled. He would look into her generous blue eyes and lose himself there. Carmen’s eyes were indistinct behind his glasses. Rheumy, the way old people’s eyes are. My ninety-year-old mother doesn’t wear glasses yet, but her eyes are not the deep clear coal-black my late father had fallen in love with.
On the third day of her coma, Barbara’s son told Carmen to come to Luther Woods. He had no idea what for.
“When I got there, they told me to say goodbye to her. They were gonna pull the plug on her.” He began to cry again.
There had been family photos arranged on the windowsill. The nurses and the family constantly spoke to her. Not a minute passed that they weren’t trying to rouse her. They said, “Blink your eyes if you can hear us.” She never did. Her eyes, with those long black lashes never moved.
“I held her hand,” he told the family that day, “and I thought she might have squeezed it, though I can’t rightly be sure.”
He wanted them to wait a few more days, just a few more days, what would it cost them? But he had no say in the matter. He was merely a friend, though he knew he was the most important person in her life. The two of them were even planning another one of their trips. This time, he told me quietly, they would take a cruise to Alaska to see the grizzly bears and the eons-old glaciers.
He perked up a bit while talking about the plans as if Barbara were still alive. And I, too, thought Barbara might still be alive. She was as long as we talked about her future.
“Grizzlies’ll be gone in a hundred years or so,” said Carmen. “The glaciers, too. My grandson and his wife were up there kayaking. Their guide shaved off some ice from the glacier for the margaritas they’d have at the inn. Best goddamn ice they ever had. Imagine. Millennias-old.”
He and Barbara would go there some day. If only she weren’t stone-cold dead.
I had one of my imaginative forays of conning him into being my boyfriend. I’d even allow myself to cuddle with him, so he could put me into his will. He was a retired college physics teacher. Maybe I could get some sharp new clothes at Chico’s instead of buying things at Impact Thrift.
“Shush,” I told myself. “Stop this nonsense immediately.” I did obey, but I thought about it a couple more times. My dark side, which they say everyone has.
“Ever hear of that guy, he just died a couple years ago, they put him in jail, the suicide guy, Dr. ……?” asked Carmen.
“Kavorkian?” I asked. Why on earth would he bring that up?
“Yes,” he said. “Suicide should be legal. I wonder how it’s done.”
“You can’t want to kill yourself,” I said.
“Might,” he said. “I have nothing to live for,” he said looking down at his Mayo Clinic book.
Frankly, I was shocked to hear it. Mostly because the library was such a tranquil place. The aides behind the counter were friendly and knew your name and asked about your children and grandchildren. People at the library seemed so normal, so boring, lacking the imagination you might find at the downtown Philadelphia library, I thought. That someone here at our hometown library would have the guts to take his own life was truly, well, astonishing.
Carmen had no access to the Internet. I could have told him how to kill himself, barbiturates and alcohol, but certainly I hadn’t walked in at 10:10 in the morning, right after the library opened, in order to tell a perfect stranger how to die.
I was here, I thought, to comfort the man. But who really knows what the man upstairs had in mind for us. Or even if there is a man upstairs. In fact, my thoughts turned to another time, a very long time ago, when I had the opportunity to comfort someone and I failed. I simply turned away from her. I was nineteen at the time, a sheltered virgin from Shaker Heights, Ohio, who had flown in her best red Lanz dress to the Montpelier airport, there to be driven by taxi to the liberal arts college, Goddard, where no one wore dresses, only jeans, of which I hadn’t a single pair.
I made friends with old white-haired Mrs. Edson, one of the cleaning ladies. I call her old, but she was probably a little older than I am today. I was squeezing out the toothpaste in Kilpatrick Dorm, and she was mopping the bathroom floor.
Suddenly she blurted out that her husband had just died and she was so miserable without him she didn’t know how she could live anymore. She stood holding her mop upside down and began to cry. I still remember her red nose. She looked like Mrs. Santa Claus. And me, I looked at her in horror, absolute horror, and quickly rinsed out my mouth, and mumbled a goodbye.
My lack of compassion still haunts me to this very day.
Suddenly, an idea flew into my brain. I couldn’t believe that I thought of a reason for Carmen to live.
“Carmen,” I said. “Did you fight in World War Two?”
“Normandy,” he said.
I didn’t care that Margie Peters, the librarian, was giving us the “hush-up” look, but I did lean closer to Carmen. I felt as intimate with him as if he were my own beloved father. My dad, who had gone out in a coma.
“Abington Library, down the street, has a series where the old vets come and talk about their war experiences.”
I began to get really excited. I stood up to stretch my legs, my sciatic nerve was starting to bother me, and then sat down again.
“Two weeks ago,” I whispered like a lover in his ear, “I heard Ted Heck. Ninety years old. Older than you! He talked about staying on in Berlin after the war was over to, sort of rehabilitate the Nazis.”
I looked at Carmen to see his reaction. His eyes had lifted and were looking at me. Excited he was not. But he’d temporarily left behind his missing Barbara thoughts and wishing he were dead thoughts. He was listening to me. Fresh Holly who pokes her nose where it doesn’t belong.
I wrote my phone number in his Mead Composition book.
“Carmen, I’ll drive you to the Abington Library and you can give your lecture on D-Day and Normandy,” I said.
But I had lost him. He was staring into space. He had no idea I was there.
I waited for his call. I kept his phone number on my desk for a week. Then I put it away in the drawer where I could find it. I memorized it in case I lost it.
Why had fate brought us together?
I’m at the library a couple times a week, returning books, returning movies and audio books which have me surrounded by stories and fantasy worlds from morning to night. But this was real with Carmen, wasn’t it? It actually happened, didn’t it?
I see him nearly every time I’m there. Carmen LaRosa. Well-dressed, purposeful, walking from the biography section to the front of the library, perhaps to use the men’s room or to drink from the water fountain. The man has no idea who I am. When I last passed his table near the biographies, the Mayo Clinic book was no longer center stage, but pushed off to the right. The Mead Composition book was there. But something new was on the table. Black cover shining in the light, I read the words “The Rise and Fall of The Third Reich” by William L. Shirer.
I gave thanks to the man upstairs, if there is one, that quite possibly Carmen’s shifting of books on the table was all my doing. And hoped that the late Mrs. Edson had found peace in the burial grounds of the Green Mountains of Vermont.
NEVER SAY I’M SORRY
She blinked her eyes on and off, on and off. Was this Heaven or was she still alive? Her eyes wandered around the tomb-like structure which she finally discerned was an ambulance. An ambulance. That meant she was alive. Damn it. Her pain was so bad she could not live with it.
“Maura?” said a disembodied voice. She looked around and met the eyes of a short-haired woman dressed in a blue jumpsuit with patches on it that Maura could not read. “You made a serious suicide attempt,” said the voice, “but you’re going to live.” She paused. “Like it or not, you’re going to live.”
Maura closed her eyes and felt the same empty feeling in her gut that made her take the pills with a few sips of Sam Adams Beer, which is what he liked to drink. He was the married man, whose name she refused to say, who had broken up with her. She supposed she was a fool for believing he would leave his wife. Her therapist told her they never do.
The ambulance bounced along the road. She lay on her back and watched the countryside pass by through her grey booties. They were coming straight from the hospital where her stomach had been pumped – she had a terrible taste in her mouth - and were now headed to Rolling Hills Hospital near Roanoke, Virginia. This was her third time there. He had broken up with her twice before, but this time she was determined to succeed.
She felt the ambulance swing around a circle and come to a stop. Oh God, how could she even move? Two of the EMTs helped her out of the ambulance and tucked her into a wheelchair. She felt her long black hair tickle her neck. Her head bent over toward her waist. All she could think was, “I’m a hollow person. I don’t exist.”
In the morning, the nurses went around to the twenty rooms in the Airedale Building waking up the men and women whose befuddled brains had tripped them up and caused untamable grief. The patients – called “visitors” - were rounded up and ushered into the dining room. The room was so bright the visitors felt they were touched by divine light. Glass windows formed a protective barrier around the diners who were treated to a view of the rolling hills of Jamison, Virginia, a short drive from Roanoke. Green verdant hills, touched by sunlight, sang from the windows. The visitors lined up, took a mint-green tray, moved down the line, selecting whatever breakfast they wished. Marvin, an unshaven black man with a diamond earring in his left ear, called out, “This is better than Mama’s home cooking!”
“Oh, shut up, you fucking nut,” said Renee, who hated minorities.
Nurse Jeanette, a black woman with long cornrowed hair, watched to make sure the animosity didn’t feed on itself. As the head nurse in Airedale – all the units were named after dog breeds – Beagle, Collie, Dachshund – she would have to write up “progress notes” about the dyspepsia of her charges. Document everything was the unavoidable motto. She had learned not to sit among the patients as it would inhibit their conversations. Instead she stood over by the window, clipboard in hand, in her vibrant blue scrubs, the fashion statement of all the RNs. Maura sat wedged between Marvin and Winnie, a woman, she would learn, with terminal cancer who was distraught about her diagnosis. Group psychotherapy several times a day, led by a master psychologist, would bring the visitors together where they would get to know one another and begin their journey of trust and acceptance of whatever it was that so addled their terrified brains.
After breakfast, twelve visitors moved into the dark-paneled library around a huge table that had the odd effect of making many of them feel important.
Maura laughed. “I feel like shit,” she said. “Is it okay to swear?” The doctor nodded at her. “Yet this long table makes me feel important.”
“Me, I’ve never ever felt important,” said Eduardo, a Latino man hailing from Cuba.
“What do you suppose is the reason for that?” asked Dr. Philip Goodman, a clean-shaven man of around fifty who wore a gold wedding band.
Eduardo shook his head of thickly packed black hair, set close to his head like wool.
“Anyone?” asked Goodman, who wore a grey ribbed sweater.
“Cuba. They don’t make you feel too good in Cuba,” said Renee.
“Go on,” encouraged Goodman.
“Well,” she said, “one wrong move and they lock you up.”
“We might say there’s an overbearing feeling of paranoia,” said Dr. Goodman.
“Hey that’s my diagnosis,” said Marvin. “Bipolar disorder with paranoid features.”
Goodman asked Marvin to talk about what frightened him. Marvin explained that his ex-wife was getting married again and he was afraid he wouldn’t see his two teenagers any more.
“And what proof do you have of that, Marvin?” asked the doctor.
“Proof! Shoot, doc, I don’t need no proof. I know that bitch.”
“I beg to differ, Marvin,” said Goodman. “You’re …. jumping to conclusions…. we call that in French catastrophizing.”
“Renee,” said Goodman. “I’m curious about your comment about Marvin. If I remember correctly, you called him a nut.”
She laughed and told him she had a problem with black people. He asked her to discuss an early memory of herself and a black person.
She was a pretty young woman of about thirty with curly brown hair to her shoulders. She looked down at her fingernails. “We had a hired hand on our farm, Tommy, and he always looked at me funny.”
She continued. “He, he, looked at me like he was gonna, you know, take advantage of me.”
“And the proof of this was?” asked Goodman, looking at her.
“Proof? Who says I need proof. I know what I saw.”
“Oh,” said Marvin. “You’re a fuckin’ mind reader!”
“What do the others think?” asked Goodman.
Sean leaned toward the table and tapped his hands together.
“Renee, you probably came from a culture that didn’t like blacks. Am guessing that farm people didn’t have much contact with minorities.”
She stared at Sean, who was wearing his striped pajama tops.
“For the record,” said the doctor, “it’s hard for many people to admit they’re wrong. Keep that in mind.”
“May I be excused?” asked Maura, who had been fidgeting in her seat.
The doctor told her to wait a minute.
“Let me ask you something, Renee,” said Goodman. “As a woman how do you perceive yourself? Attractive, vulnerable, loving? Tell us your feelings toward yourself.”
“Well, I’ve been told I’m an attractive woman.”
“Please, forget about the I’ve-been-told. Speak directly. Who do you see when you look in the mirror?”
She stroked the back of her neck and flipped up her brown curls.
“I do think I’m a pretty girl,” she said, smiling and looking down at the table.
“I agree with that,” said Marvin. “I think you’re a very attractive woman and if you wasn’t white and if I wasn’t going with Roberta, I’d like to jump your bones.”
Everyone laughed, breaking the tension.
“I’m enjoying this conversation,” smiled blonde-haired Winnie, who had cancer. “I think the Afro-American – is that the right term, Marvin?”
“Call it black, Sweetheart, it’s easier.”
“Thanks, hon,” she said. “I think black men are handsome in their own right. Can’t say I’d like to sleep with one, sorry, Marvin, I think it’s what we’re used to. I come from a big Catholic family. Faces white as the moon.”
“In the time you’re here, Winnie, do you think you’d like to become comfortable with a black man? Become friends with Marvin?” asked Goodman.
She shook her head and laughed. “I suppose so.”
He asked her what she’d like to do and how long she had to live.
“Well, doctor, no one knows how long I have. The loncologist thinks maybe six months or even longer.”
“Oncologist,” said Renee from across the table. “Oncologist that’s the cancer doctor. My dad had one.”
“Thanks, Renee,” said the doctor. “Let’s listen to Winnie a few more minutes. Winnie, please continue about what you’d like to do in…..”
“Easy. I’ve got this big family and I want to have a reunion and see them all, all the ones that are alive, anyway. Cancer took my mom, my brothers Tony and Mickey, and then there was Lillian and Dotty, who also passed.”
“So, who’s left?” asked Renee, clearly interested in the cancer conversation.
“Six are left. Six. I can’t wait to see them.” She was now animated.
The doctor turned to Maura, who was closely following the conversation.
“Maura, we’re talking about death here. What are your thoughts?”
Maura, flipping up her dark curls, nodded her head. “Well, here I’ve tried to make myself disappear, through my own taking of pills, and Winnie’s gonna, well, she’s got no choice, and I had the choice and I, well, I’d failed, and wish I could trade places with her. She’s so sweet.”
“Look at her and tell her,” said the doctor.
“Winnie, you’re one of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. And I’m so sorry. So very sorry.”
The doctor said he had to interrupt. Never, he said, tell a person who is dying or who has lost someone to death, that you’re sorry.
Everyone looked at him.
“It’s a terrible word,” agreed Winnie. “You’re showing them pity. And we don’t want pity. The last thing in the world we need is pity. Understanding and listening is what we need.”
Many people wondered how Winnie got so smart. For certain, she was the oldest one there. “Seventy-three” she had said.
The doctor told them they would break for lunch in ten minutes.
“Who needs the help of the group right now?” he asked.
Some folks looked to the side, others at their hands or the ceiling. Only one person looked the doctor in his eyes, which meant she wanted to speak.
It was Maura, her eyes ringed with dark circles.
“I can see your pain,” said the doctor. “Who else can see her pain?”
Mumbles came from the group. Everyone agreed.
“There’s no magic wand,” said Winnie, “that’s gonna make that pain go away. If it’s any consolation, my heart’s been broken so many times, I’m surprised it’s still ticking.” She put her hand on her heart at the long table that glistened under the dimly lit Tiffany-style lamp.
Maura spoke slowly.
“Are there pills I could take, not to kill myself, but to free myself from this godawful pain.”
Eduardo spoke up from the end of the table.
“I been married twice,” he said. “When my Gina broke up with me, I worked at a record store in Habana. We played music every minute of the day.”
“Ah, the soothing sound of music,” cried Marvin. “My man, Marvin Gaye and Sexual Healing, the Miracles, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder and that broken down bastardo, Michael Jackson.”
A feeling of uplift, of energy, began to transform the grieving group.
On a shelf in this room was an unimposing grey radio that read “Bose Wave Radio.”
Doctor Goodman got up from his chair and walked to the radio.
“Let’s see if I can figure out how to turn this on,” he said.
A few people got up to help him.
The doctor held up his hand.
“Please,” said Doctor Goodman. “Don’t treat me like a child.”
He always said what he meant, no pussyfooting around. The patients thought of this man, this role model, as confident and self-assured. By osmosis, his attitude seeped into them like small sips of water.
The doctor studied the buttons, then pressed one and then another.
Soft music began to play. The doctor pressed a silver button and the sound got louder.
Oliver's army is here to stay
Oliver's army are on their way
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today.
The rhythm was unstoppable. A force to contend with. A force that took over the room like an invisible mist. Within sixty seconds, every single person – from Renee to Eduardo to Maura to Sean – arose from their stultifying seats – went over toward a free space at the end of the room and began to dance.
Even the doctor danced and knew in his heart of hearts that every single patient would heal in his or her own time.
“The power of music,” shouted the doctor, with his hands up in the air.
“The power of music!” he called out. “Oliver’s Army is here to stay and I’d rather be here than anywhere else in the world today.”