Rick Edelstein was born and ill-bred on the streets of the Bronx. His initial writing was stage plays off-Broadway in NYC. When he moved to the golden marshmallow (Hollywood) he cut his teeth writing and directing multi-TV episodes of “Starsky & Hutch,” “Charlie’s Angels,” “Chicago,” “Alfred Hitchcock,” et al. He also wrote screenplays, including one with Richard Pryor, “The M’Butu Affair” and a book for a London musical, “Fernando’s Folly.” His latest evolution has been prose with many published short stories and novellas, including, “Bodega,” “Manchester Arms,” “America Speaks,” “Women Go on,” “This is Only Dangerous,” “Aggressive Ignorance,” “Buy the Noise,” and “The Morning After the Night.” He writes every day as he is imbued with the Judeo-Christian ethic, “A man has to earn his day.” Writing atones.
By Rick Edelstein
Harper wasn’t exactly a friend...more a of a friendly acquaintance so when he called at 2 a.m. it was an unlikely wakeup. In a fervent whisper he said, “You’re the only guy I could call, Carl, so please accept my apologies but you have to come to my place now.” [in bold because that was his emphasis] “You visited a few months ago so you remember the location, right?”
I tried to shake off my sleep and annoyance at being awakened. “Who is this?”
“Harper. Harper Morgenthauler.” He continued to murmur urgently. “You’ll understand when you come. Please, you’re the only one I could call. You have to come to my place now.”
Ah, Harper, I remembered him as a very smart too polite guy in these times of rude. “Are you in danger, Harper? Just say yes if someone is threatening you I’ll call the police and...”
“No, no, please, it’s, I’m fine, as a matter of fact,” he whispered, “I am beyond fine and so will you be once you get here. The door will be open so enter quietly. You will understand. I promise.”
“Harper, it’s two o-fucking-clock in the morning!”
“Please,” he implored, “you are the only person who would resonate with this experience. I can’t say anymore. The door will be open.” He hung up.
A bizarre call and the fact that I got up, dressed and drove to his small cottage in Santa Monica canyon is also bizarre.
The streets were quiet as expected at 2:30 a.m. I parked the car, walked to the front door and it was, as promised, open. I entered quietly to hear Harper saying, “Hellooooo.” I was about to respond when I heard a strange retort, a throaty deep rasping, “Helloooo.” Walking very quietly towards the room where the hello’s beckoned I saw the evidence of ultra-bizarre.
Harper was sitting in a chair. He was leaning forward talking to...take a breath dear reader because the usually restrained, sane and responsible Harper Franklin Morgenthauler was...wait for it...talking to a huge dog. I believe the breed is Mastiff. This dog weighed at least 150 pounds, close to three feet tall, skin the color of a faded apricot. The giant hound sat directly facing Harper and...here it comes...specifically replying to Harper. Yes, the dog responded to Harper, the dog said--do dogs say?—forget the semantics, this Mastiff animal, in the deep back of his throat emanated a resounding guttural howl that was distinctly and specifically, “Helloooooo.” I stood there for many minutes observing this delightfully, insanely, deliciously, wacky scene of a grown young man and a grown dog saying “Hello” to each other. I concluded that Harper was totally justified in calling me at two a.m.
That was almost a decade ago. Since then we sustained a casual connect, doing a Starbucks occasionally. Harper matured into a man still very polite with a touch of sub-textual angst and perhaps a suppressed sexual hunger as a single man. He had a substantial position as editor at a book publishing house which, reader alert, published my books. The fact that he was and is very appreciative of my writing enriched our relationship, sez this ego-pleased writer. It was a pleasure talking or rather listening to him dissect and admire some specifics of my latest works. In truth I was a guest at his home to speak to a gathering of hoi polloi, the subject being my recent publications, two novellas, “Jaytee, ” and an important one because it deals with a dire issue of global warming, “Not if...When.”
Last week at one of our casual connects over coffee, actually coffee for me, green tea for Harper, he shared some surprising personal not-so-casual information. His mother may have died from cancer or caused her own death after chemo-therapy’s dubious results, among which caused baldness for a woman totally attached to her physical vanity. Harper also told me about his multi-billionaire father, a powerful man who boasted, and Harper quoted him in imitative ponderous affluence, “I do not respond to every dog that barks but the ones who come too close, Arthur Delano Morgenthauler reins in the cur.” [I have an anathema to people who refer to themselves as 3rd person entities.]
As an aside observation from this non-qualified writer about psychological effects of parenthood influence, I find it interesting that polite, quietly un-cliché Harper comes from such less-than-wholesome parents. I remember reading about Harper’s father selling off ownership in mid-West newspapers and TV stations for one billion six. The writer in me was curious and I asked, “Well, Harper, now that your father sold off his media empire for a figure beyond my comprehension, I think it was reported as one billion six...”
Harper corrected, “It was closer to two billion.”
“Two billion,” I muttered and gestured in awe, “I say the word billion as if it has meaning to me, me who still checks his bank account each month to determine if I can go for a new car. Two billion dollars! I mean your father was a high end public figure who always had an avaricious appetite for challenge and gain, with his kind of brilliant amoral...” I stopped myself realizing I was dissing his father. “I’m sorry, Harper, if judgment of your father is insensitive but he is one of the Robber Barons of our time, so if I’m out of line...”
Harper assured me, “No problem, Carl. You should hear my judgments of dear ‘ole dad from the corner of my closet.”
“Okay. Good. Not good I mean...what do I mean? I’m curious, with that kind of money, is he going to buy Saturday? What are his plans?”
“My plans,” Harper corrected. “As the only child, I, Harper Franklin Morgenthauler will be moving into the Holmby Hills house to...” he paused as if taking time to handle the undefined...then continued, “To be the director of Humanity-Funds, guiding the dispersal of the largesse. Largesse,” he repeated, “What a wonderful term for billions of dollars.” He was taking cynical pleasure in his reveal. “My plans, Carl, are to help people and institutions around the world which merit or have potential to improve the human condition.” He paused, looked at me as if he was offering a surprise gift. “And if you have any pet projects I’m listening.”
“I’ll give it some thought,” I said, “But will your father be involved? He has a public history of demeaning foundation grants...close to Ayn Rand’s assertive do-it-yourself in your face individualistic power to...”
He cut me off with a wave of his hand, a sly look of amusement in his eyes. “Here’s the evidence of God’s dark sense of humor: I will also supervise care for my father who has been afflicted with Alzheimer’s. Eight months now.”
“Jesus,” I exclaimed. “Alzheimer’s. That’s a blow.”
After sharing such depressing data, a wan smile appeared on a face needing more time in the sun, “My father was not a kindly man. He was amoral in his treatment of adversaries and would most likely not approve of my intentions with Humanity-funds.” He paused for a conjecturing moment. “I wonder if there is such a thing as karma. What do you think, Carl? Alzheimer’s karmic comeuppance on my father?”
“I don’t know about your father but the Bible believes in karma just different words, you know as ye sow so shall ye reap.”
“First my mother and now this to not-so-dear ‘ole dad. I feel like getting a restraining order on God for what he’s done to the Morgenthauler family.”
“My empathy, Harper.”
“Well, in a way it’s all interesting.”
“Interesting? Hmmm...truly or just not wanting to...”
“I’m involved in the details but somehow...” he paused looking for the words, “Not emotionally. My shrink would probably label it as avoidance. Me, I think it’s...well, frankly I never was very close to my father. He made sure of that. But as a dutiful son I’m doing the best possible...flew him to Switzerland where their labs are years ahead in research for Alzheimer’s, yes even seeking cure possibilities and until then, drug easements. We remain actively in touch with leading doctors, research scientists...some drugs, which we are currently ingesting...listen to me,” he rambled, “Using the editorial we.” He paused again...seeking clarity or perhaps he was not as emotionally detached as he would like me to think he was.
He continued as if summarizing a justification to the jury of his peers, “But then again I am making the choice to use these new drugs hoping for my father’s improvement. What the hell,” he shrugged off the heaviness and perked up when he observed a woman passing our table. “Look at her walk,” he said. “Her butt bounces to a rhythm that only she hears. Some men like breasts others legs, me I love a bouncing butt.”
I laughed. “A bouncing butt to a rhythm that only she hears...I may steal that imagery, Harper.”
We connected occasionally over a cuppa’ during the next three or four months with nothing more exchanged other than small talk. But, and once again a big BUT, five months later at 7:28 a.m. my phone rang. I looked at it as if it’s the enemy. Although I was awake I do not talk until I am what I consider human...after coffee and morning ablutions. At 7:28 I was still in my shlumpies (a favorite term of my Aunt Sonia for proletariat in-home casual wear). The incessant ringing nagged me to check the face of the cell and I saw it was, you got it, Harper calling. “What’s up, Harper? It’s a little early isn’t it?”
This time his voice was not in a whisper but just as urgent as the way-back call summoning me to his hello-dog event. “You have to come over.”
“Don’t tell me you found another talking dog.”
“No, a talking human. Please, Carl, bring your recorder.”
“My recorder?” I asked.
“All writer’s have recorders, don’t they, for when they have a thought or an observation that must be recorded lest they forget?”
“As an editor you know us well. Yes, I have a recorder but I also travel with a pad and pen.”
“Bring your recorder. Does it take double or triple A batteries?”
“Now you’re getting weird on me. What do batteries...”
“You’ll want to record for perhaps longer than expected.”
“Fill me in, Harper, what’s up?”
“You’ll thank me, I promise.” He said.
“Okay, thanks out front. Now tell me what’s going on.”
“How about your next book?” He said.
“I don’t share my writing process, Harper, so if you have an idea to collaborate, it’s just not my thing.”
“No collaboration,” he replied. “It’s all yours. Is eleven too early,” he asked?
“Can you make it eleven thirteen?” I played.
“Eleven twelve,” he retorted. “A compromise to which I assume you’ll agree,” he said with his wry humor, and hung up.
I had the address and Waze app told me where and when to turn until I finally ended up at Harper’s Holmby Hills house. House? More of a manor. A substantial edifice reflecting the indulgent use of--Harper’s word--largesse. I drove to a designated area that would welcome a dozen cars a few of which, a new Beemer and a vintage Rolls were already there. I was almost embarrassed when I parked my two-year old Honda Civic next to them and walked to the door...stopped, returned and got my recorder, back to the door and faced with a choice. A huge beautiful oaken weathered door with an old fashioned brass knocker or on the side a subtle button with an almost hidden speaker above it. I pushed the button expecting a voice from the speaker but instead the door opened to Harper extending his hand, “You’re two minutes late,” he smiled and ushered me in, “Let’s go to the study.”
The study was a warm room with first edition books in the walled construction; a table made out of a tree trunk with comfortable chairs surrounding it; a fireplace that was burning wood even though it was a relatively warm day; a few old stuffed chairs with ottomans nearby. Although I preferred the comfortable looking armchairs, Harper led me to the table indicating I should sit as he closed the door. Closing the door was a clear indication that something arcane was about to go down.
Sitting facing me, Harper pointed to my recorder, “Start it.”
I placed it on the table and did as he suggested.
Harper assumed a formal almost ceremonial tone leaning towards and talking into the recorder, “I Harper Morgenthauler...”
“You don’t have to lean into the recorder, Harper. It’ll pick up your voice ten feet away.”
He nodded appreciatively, sat back, “Okay, I Harper Morgenthauler agree to share information with Carl Goldman that is to be used in his book without alteration, editing or rewrite, in other words what is shared will be reproduced in his book verbatim.” He looked at me for auditory agreement for the recorder.
I shook my head, “No way, Harper. If material is published under my name I retain the right to rewrite, editorialize, change whatever strikes me according to my own values, craft and choices as a writer, period.” I said.
He smiled, “I think it should be an exclamation point. Okay, all right Carl, here’s the deal. You can do as you wish as a writer up to and including this, what would you call it, a chapter, a session with you and me but...and it’s a big BUT...what my father says must be recorded and transcribed verbatim. No editing of his words.”
I was confused. “Your father’s words? Wait a minute. Months ago you told me he’s afflicted with Alzheimer’s. I have heard of early stages where limited communication is possible although substantially limited. Is he talking? Lucid?”
“My father’s Alzheimer’s is well past the early stages. Diagnosis by the most experienced doctors on the planet as Severe, Advanced to we neophytes.”
“Well, not being all that conversant with...I mean...severe...advanced, isn’t that beyond communication?”
“Yes,” he said too simply.
“So then...this writer asks the obvious...if he is diagnosed as advanced...”
“Severe, is the medical term.” Harper corrected in a neutral tone.
“Okay, severe, meaning he cannot communicate...then what is this verbatim agreement all about?”
“Carl, my father and I and Mrs. Lazarova have...”
“Mrs. who,” I asked?
“We have four care-givers alternating six-hour shifts, Mrs. ...Ruth Lazarova, she’s our primary Care-Giver who supervises the others. And more importantly she has a kind of, well positive effect on my father.” He took a breath not so much for his lungs but to calm himself. “We have traveled to Europe, me, my father of course and Mrs. Lazarova, seeking the best available practitioners on the planet. They recently had a big breakthrough, developed a brain scan that can spot the debilitating Alzheimer’s disease years, maybe fifteen before the symptoms actually appears. Of course too late for my father. So...” he hesitated and then continued but his tone was more of an explanation but with a tinge of asking for personal understanding, “Carl, after many meetings and tests we intimately settled on a series of drugs such as Gantenerumab, Aducanumab and others for which I had to sign an agreement because some drugs are only in the experimental phase but have been used on sixteen men in Europe with various results; positive to a degree stopping deterioration and without going into graphic, gory details, to too many let’s just say not-so-positive...or to be honest, negative discouraging results. We also used a BACE inhibitor, aimed at dramatically reducing levels of...I won’t inundate you with medical jargon or is it too late,” he cracked with a sly smile? He continued with an assertive type of defense, “But I promise that when you have your book ready for editing, or before, up to you, you will have access to the specific records of medication, when applied, dates and dosage, I have been meticulous in record-keeping. When you experience my father, I am sure you will understand,” he said in a contradictory ominous and yet humorous tone.
“I am listening hard, Harper, but I feel like I’m trying to break through a dense pea soup of a fog imploding in my brain. To this layman Advanced, Severe Alzheimer’s denotes an inability to communicate, to give or receive cognitively, right?” I asked rhetorically and Harper nodded affirmation. I continued, “Okay, he cannot communicate as determined by the medical establishment’s prognosis of the specific disease and you insist on verbatim...verbatim what! Talk to me, man, and tell me what the fuck is going on!”
Harper took a few moments, his face changed expression a few times; his silence was active as if his cerebral cortex ached to reveal itself through his creased forehead. He inhaled, exhaled slowly, then talked quietly but with lasered intent as if sharing state secrets. “As I said before,” he was defensive, “I had to sign agreements not to indemnify the Swiss doctors as usage of these drugs have not been tested sufficiently to determine their value and possible side effects.” He shook his head but I could not determine anything from his facial expression other than an almost defensive albeit naïve façade. “My father’s Advanced Severe state demanded that we...I take risks. Are you getting this, Carl?” He almost pleaded.
“I’m with you, Harper, but obviously I need more...”
He interrupted with a sense of dramatic urgency. “The side effects on a Severe afflicted Alzheimer’s man are...” he stopped, looked at me as his eyes were in an amused panic... “Carl, my father has not been able to communicate, to talk, to respond to anything for over six months now.”
“But?” I asked. “Something has apparently changed, right?”
He grunted and shrugged. “Apparently,” he concurred, “Even though the medical profession ascertained, no, confirmed that my father is afflicted with incurable now-Severe Alzheimer’s...something...okay...no one has experienced my father’s...well only me and Mrs. Lazarova so forgive me, Carl.” He started over again distinctly talking towards the recorder, “Do you, Carl Goldman,” he went into stentorian tone, “...agree to record and reproduce anything my father, Arhtur Delano Morgenthauler says, verbatim?”
I was obviously conflicted as to what to expect but... “I agree to anything your father says will be reproduced verbatim without editing. Okay? The side effects have apparently...I’ll shut up now and you better enlighten me, man!”
He led me out of the study, “Take the recorder.” Walking up beautiful curled stairs to the second floor he shared, “The side-effects, if that’s what they are called, are inexplicable, to say the least and to say the most they are incredible, strange, phantasmagoric.”
I love the word phantasmagoric. It has heft, like an entrée of a great dinner at a prime rib steak house and if that reference turns you veggies off, forgive.
I had no idea what his father would present but I was admittedly provoked, eager like a hungry porpoise biting on the phantasmagorical bait as we walked up the plush carpeted curved staircase and then down a lengthy hall with walls adorned with original European masters. I thought what a waste for these great paintings adorning shadowed walls like gluttony rather than...my judgmental meanderings were cut short by Harper.
He said, “After you spend sufficient time with my father, perhaps once you finish the first draft of your book, I shall send a visual recording to the specialists in Switzerland and Germany who will no doubt want to do their testing, which I may or may not agree. You can choose to include the professionals’ editorial response as a closing coda, an addendum, an epilogue if you wish. There’s the editor talking. Excuse me, Carl, you’ll understand I’m sure as it’s all too inexplicable, even weird and I confess that I am a little crazy and ...” he said as he opened the door to a huge room. “a little, what are the words...it’s almost an enjoyable, terrible, extraordinary, frightening experience.”
“An event that defies paradigms, that breaks the rules, an occurrence without explanation as to cause, a result which has no logical explanation, frankly it scares the shit out of me, Carl.”
A sizable room with the most proficient, professional hospital bed. Near the bed are a few chairs, one of which is upholstered to designed specifics with Arthur Delano Morgenthauler seated. His body seemed frail, nearly disappearing into the lush cushions with a large soft faded leather belt around the chair and just above his waist, which I assumed were to ensure that he does not fall over. He is sitting in a robe and silk pajamas staring at a TV set with a 24-hour news service channel playing. From the distance I could hear a murmur of the TV reporter’s descriptions of events. Arthur Delano Morgenthauler, I shall call him Arthur for brevity, is staring at the images and listening (Can Severe Alzheimer’s listen, hear, make sense of?) to the narration of events. (I later found out that all his waking hours are spent watching news broadcasts on different channels adjusted by Care-Givers.)
Sitting near him was Mrs. Lazarova, who Harper called, ‘Our primary care giver,’ looked at us as if she is the protective mother-bear ensuring no harm will come to her cub. Her eyes were a powerful mixture of strength and cover of some unrevealed trauma. She was about 43-years-old but with a...what’s the word...a carriage, no too old fashioned of a word...a bearing, a kind of I-will-survive comportment with a character-etched face that Modigliani would like to have painted. She was seated but her long legs indicated height.
Harper introduced us, “Carl meet Mrs. Lazarova.”
She stood and yes, at least 6 feet tall, in a formal gesture she extended her hand to shake. She had a strong grip. She said in an East-European accent, “How do you do and why are you here?”
I shook her hand meeting her strength with mine as if we were contestants, and looked at Harper who had a humorous smirk. He wasn’t helping me out.
“I am here,” I said to Mrs. Lazarova, “because Harper invited me to observe and possibly write about his father, Arthur Delano Morgenthauler.”
She looked at Harper who nodded and then back at me. “You are a writer? A Professional?”
“Yes,” I said trying to hide my surprise and slight annoyance at being interviewed by a Care-giver. “I have been published including two novels by Harper’s firm and,” I decided to get back at her, “From your accent you are obviously from a European country. What training do you have to be a Care-giver? Are you an R-N?”
She grimaced. “R-N,” she said dismissively. “In Bulgaria I was eight months short of completion before interning as Doctor Lazarova, not a nurse. But your American Medical Associations questioned my credentials and training...” She stopped when Arthur started moaning in a low uncomfortable hum. As if she was summoned by an emergency call she abruptly turned from me, walked to Arthur, kneeled at his side, gently rubbed his neck and whispered as if caressing a young boy who scraped his knee assuring him it will be all right, “Ne se trevoji, vsichko ste bude nared.” I knew not the language but apparently it had a calming effect on Arthur.
Harper whispered to me, “Mrs. Lazarus has a kind of mojo that only she can...what can I tell you, on some inexplicable level my father gets her.” He indicated Arthur’s easing, ceased moaning as Mrs. Lazarus stood, looked at us as if she was evaluating our presence, her head tilted, “Arthur will be all right for now.” She nodded to Harper, “You can call me I’ll have this...” she indicated a kind of intercom beeper, “I am going to the kitchen.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lazarova.”
“Your father prefers my first name. Ruth.”
A grunt was heard from immobile Arthur, and I swear I heard a low hoarse mumbled, “Truth Ruth” emanating from Arthur who was a not-coherent Alzheimer’s victim.
I was startled and looked at Harper and Mrs. Laza...Ruth...but either they did not hear or...or what? I could not process this in any rational frame of reference.
Harper simply said to her, “Yes, Ruth, thank you.”
She nodded, touched Arthur’s shoulder maternally and whispered, “Ruth will return soon,” to which Arthur did not respond as he continued to stare at the news channel. To us she said, “He has been not very easy.” And then searched for the English word. “Ah...yes... restless.” She looked at her watch, “Clarence will be here soon,” turned and in her erect straight backed-stride, ignored me as she went to the nearby kitchen
I felt like I was in the middle of a three-dimensional hologram which I think is redundant since hologram means three-dimensional...I better stop now because I was losing it with my mind scrambling to find a logic to a man with advanced Alzheimer’s responding to a striking European woman who was taking no prisoners.
Harper reminded me, like a splash of cold water on my face, “My father,” and specified the chairs near Arthur with a table between us, indicating placement for my recorder. I put the recorder down, I checked that the light was on, recording, sat and watched Harper move slowly between his father and the TV. He shut off the TV. No response from his father who continued to stare blankly at a blank monitor. His face was, the word eludes me...perhaps quiet. No turmoil, no struggle for anything. If it wasn’t Alzheimer’s you might consider him as a man described by Buddhists as a state of Satori, no contradictions, no challenges, just an is-ness. But then again he was an Alzheimer’s stricken man reminding this writer to avoid romanticizing his affliction.
Harper said to me, “He responds to one word. Just one. More apparently is confusing and gets no response.” He turned his chair to face his father. He said, “Dad.”
Arthur Delano Mergenthaler’s face remained passive but his voice, like a distant sound echoing from a spelunker’s cave:
“Dad was bad now sad life I had makes me mad a tad of glad on dad’s lad .”
I was startled. Nothing and everything made sense which obviously was the...the what...the experience...the phantasmagoric event to which Harper insisted I attend.
I was in a mild panic because I could not get past this astounding so-called side effect from a Severe Advanced Alzheimer’s...insane side-effect to...I was beyond logic as I flashed on what was politically-incorrectly called Idiot-Savants, what a terrible word, Idiot, but Savants were often used to label people who revealed a miraculous gift, a talent, a genius not earned but fully present...some with autism can play Mozart flawlessly without ever having a lesson...some Savants were retarded or, okay yes, to be politically correct, of massive limited intelligence who could calculate complex algorithms...I was freaking...the words affliction and savant kept reverberating inside my mind and yet...I was at odds with how much does he, Arthur, understand? I looked away from my chaotic inner rambling to see Harper indicating, signifying I should say something, as he held up one finger designating only one word.
One word, I thought, as if whatever word I came up with would change everything...or nothing. I looked at Arthur. His face remained expressionless, passive. Word, one word...what word? Can I use a word without inflicting some disturbance, some undiagnosed pain. I felt Harper’s impatience as he cleared his throat and made a gesture with one finger, no, not the middle finger, just pointing at me to say the word, any word, and I blurted out: “Politician.” I looked at Harper apologetically for my stupid word but I just finished reading the newspapers before...politician, what a lame choice...but Harper showed no judgment as he was affixed on what his father would do with the word.
Arthur’s face changed-not while the words tumbled from his being as if he had no ownership:
“Politicians are morticians entomb the gloom with moneyed broom enhancing the dancing of sour power they decide suicide in vain pain seducing producing empty fates of believers ‘n grievers much too late politicians avaricious cartoons politicians pernicious buffoons.”
I was two clicks away from crazy. This afflicted man who seemed to have no conscious ability just rolled with...I was breathing heavy trying, with limited success, to process this beyond-logic, beyond-reason...what...to call it a side-effect is diminishing the...oh god, I was dealing...literally with an unconscious savant. I thought Arthur was complete with his politician-response and then surprisingly he erupted:
“They perspire and aspire inflictive vindictive expensive apprehensive inscrutable immutable their lust in disgust scheming and dreaming amassing their jewels sassing their cruels as we roast into toast.”
He stopped as suddenly as he started. Facial expression unchanged. It was as if he was Zoltar, that figure in a booth which played out the recording for money put into the slot but is now dormant.
Harper gestured an expression of justified proof in demanding my resistant presence. He smiled gently, leaned towards his father and whispered one word: Awake.
Arthur did not respond immediately. Both Harper and I thought the damage was done and the Savant may be no more. Until like expletives overflowing from his mouth, with no facial expression other than placid, came:
“Awake is mistake on a break.” Arthur paused and then continued as if an inner recording was released. “Baked faked brakes stop awake.” He stopped. A bit of spittle escaped from the left side of his mouth. Harper gently dabbed it dry with a nearby tissue. Then Arthur surged with a cascade:
“Ax don’t care the tree will dare to be awake with life at stake ...there is no reason to be in season when the breath of death in search of a lurch of veracity loss of capacity in a dumber slumber hiding what is the biz for heaven’s sake do not make me awake.”
He stopped as if completing a prayer, closed his eyes, breathed evenly, seemingly asleep.
I was beyond cognition, thoughts, reasoning. What I just saw, heard, experienced fit no paradigm, no archetype, no prototype, just a human conundrum defying parameters, exceeded bounds of diagnosed Alzheimer’s behavior...Alzheimer’s! My god, it was as if he was channeling a free-style rapper.
At this moment I was, what, freaking, yes! I looked at Arthur whose head was now lowered, chin resting on his upper torso, breathing quietly, yes, sleeping in his forced upright position due to the belt, otherwise he may have fallen on the floor, unawake. Ugh...there’s that word...awake. I replayed his last words, “Do not make me awake.”
Harper quietly said, “That’s it for today.”
I was trying not to reveal my close to totally losing my grip on reality, “What it? Did you hear your father? Alzheimer’s be damned I mean...”
“Yes, Carl, that’s why I wanted you here. But when he talks, or rants or rhymes whatever you want to call it and then...well, then he goes into a sleep as if nothing happened...that’s it until...until tomorrow I would guess.”
We were interrupted by the sound of a door opening and closing, admitting Clarence, another Care-Giver, coming into the room.
Clarence, with his stuffed back-pack in his hospital light blues, Kobe’s Nike yellow X sneakers, horn rimmed glasses on a square face and a body that looked like he pumped iron. His attitude was confidently casual as he walked close to Arthur. “What’s up, Harper?”
“Hello, Clarence. This is my good friend, Carl, Clarence.”
“Hey,” he briefly acknowledged me, took off his back-pack and turned to Arthur whose eyes were closed, shallow breathing, chin resting on his chest. Clarence said, “...hmmm....the old man’s asleep. Time for beddy-bye Mr. M.”
Clarence efficiently untied the belt restraining sleeping Arthur upright, lifted his body with strength and tender care as if he was cradling an infant and carried him to the bed, laid Arthur down gently, covered him...actually tucked him in. He turned to us and quietly said, “He’ll sleep through my shift I figure.” Then grabbed a chair roughly, sat, and pulled a paper-back book from his pocket, adjusting his glasses and read...yes, I strained to see the title, “Love in the Time of Cholera.”
I couldn’t resist, actually I chose not to when I commented, “Gabriel Garcia Marquez...a great writer.”
Clarence looked up at me as if surprised that I was still there. “Yeah,” he nodded and returned to reading.
I wasn’t ready to be dismissed. “Most people think ‘A Hundred Years of Solitude’ is his best.”
Harper helped out. “Carl is a writer.”
Clarence nodded, looked at me, trying to read my intentions. Satisfied with whatever he found he said, “Nope, not to me. This one is it. I mean he features a child-molester, someone I would have no problem castrating, and yet...hmmm....and yet...I like the deranged motherfucker. Now that’s good writing.” He ended his sentence as if a teacher sending me to the principal’s office and turned to his book.
I was dismissed...and got his point. Valid, says this writer. I picked up the recorder, stood and started walking out accompanied by Harper. “Tomorrow?”
Harper nodded, “Yes.”
“God, I’m making an appointment...tomorrow...as if for a coffee and or something...I mean, Harper...” I glanced over at Clarence who was absorbed in his book and back at Harper. “Does Arthur...your father talk to him, Clarence and...?”
“No, only Ruth, you and me have heard my father.”
“Okay okay...I am trying to be calm, cool and collected and I hide in this cliché adornment but after listening to your father...Jesus, Harper, this book will start a bon fire in the medical community.”
“You haven’t typed page one yet, Carl, and yes I know how you writers think but...”
“Right, right...another cliché of cart before the horse...eating dessert before the entrée...I’ll stop now...tomorrow same time?”
“Good,” Harper said.
“Uhmmm...” I stopped as I wanted more...more what? I wasn’t sure but I asked Harper, “Think I could speak with Mrs. Lazarova...Ruth?”
Harper hesitated and then, “I guess...yes, she’s probably still in the kitchen...but Carl, Ruth is running the show with the other three Care-givers so I do not want you to upset her in any way. She’s too valuable...my father is...he responds to her...in ways that...well...listen to me, Ruth Lazarova is a strong woman...switch channels...she may upset you. Of course. Go.”
I walked into a huge kitchen with hanging copper and steel pots and pans, two large ranges, two giant butcher blocks...but no Ruth Lazarova. Then I heard a cup clinking on a dish or something. I wandered to the source and through an open door was a small homey-kitchen.
Ruth was pouring coffee into a mug. When she felt me standing there, turned, nodded, “Can I help you?” She turned, putting down the mug and very carefully remove a hot cheese sandwich from the grill.
“Yes, Mrs. Lazarova, I would like to talk to you.”
“About Arthur, Mister Morgenthauler?”
“Yes, and as Arthur has a specific favorable response to you, I would like to know more about how that happened and even more about you, your background...”
She stared as me as if measuring whether I was friend or foe.
I looked at her trying to be a safe place although I was distracted by her original beauty...original in that her face, her eyes reflected strength, intelligence and...what...a secret...something carefully hidden, protected, which also intrigued me. As a single man, perhaps a few years younger than her early forties I figured, I was attracted...there was something about her that felt like...I stopped my personal response which had no place in this situation so I shelved such pedantic romantic fantasies to the corner of my whatevers and mused, “pedantic romantic”...Arthur’s rhyming came to mind.
“Harper and I have an agreement.” I said, “I was invited to observe his father and eventually write...” I held up the recorder which was obviously still in my sweaty hand...why was I perspiring...it was cool even in this small kitchen. I felt like a kid auditioning. “I am a writer and will write a book about the...well, I’m sure you understand that Arthur Morgenthauler talking and responding in certain ways despite professional diagnosis as Severe Alzheimer’s denying such a possibility and yet his explicit response to you is unique so bizarre actually that...”
She grabbed another mug, poured coffee. “How do you take your coffee?”
She poured another cup, set it front of a chair indicating I should sit at the small table. Then she took the grilled cheese sandwich, sliced it in two, put one on a plate for me and one for herself.
“I’m not hungry,” I said pushing the plate towards her.
She pushed it back in front of me muttering in her European accent, “In my country it is impolite to eat alone with company.”
I sat in the other chair, held up the mug as if to toast. She did not respond. We both sipped hot coffee and then she asked, “Are you a good writer?”
I took a small bite of the grilled cheese sandwich and surprisingly liked it. A lot. “This is as good as it looks.”
“Of course,” she said dismissively. “So?” waiting for an answer.
“Yes, I am a good writer. You can read some of my work. Harper has copies in the library. You may check out either ‘Manchester Arms’ or ‘Women Go..”
She interrupted me triumphantly, “Women Go On!” You wrote that? I remember the writer, yes your first name Carl...is your last name Goldman?”
I was pleased and smiled, “Guilty.”
“My God...that novella is so...” she was searching for the English words... “So full of the way we women handle pain...and the humor that is our saving...what...what is the word?”
I softly offered, “Grace?”
“Yes, saving Grace.” She looked at me with new eyes. “Carl Goldman. Good yes. How do you know so much about woman?”
“Well,” I was about to shrug it off with false humility but looking into her powerful eyes, whip-cream wouldn’t do. “Well, I was brought up by a mother and four aunts. We all lived in a small apartment in the Bronx...hard times in looking back but they made sure I always had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch.”
Ruth half-smiled not in joy but in cynical observation, “Americans answer to problems: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”
“Yes, we Americans. You said you’re from Bulgaria, right?”
“ I was in Sofia once when I back-packed Europe. Are you from Sofia?”
She made a derisive sound. “You Americans do a tour like High School students, Sofia, Paris, Berlin, London...and think you know the country. No, I am not from Sofia and this may surprise you, most Bulgarians are not from Sofia. I am from a town you would have difficulty pronouncing.”
“Try me,” I said in the face of her surprising negative judgments of ‘you Americans.’
“Dobrich,” she said in an easy Bulgarian accent.
“Dobrich,” I repeated.
She nodded. “Well, you have a good ear.”
I sipped the coffee, nibbled on the sandwich struggling to avoid my personal attraction with the purpose of my visit...more about Arthur and yes, her. I asked, “When Arthur was moaning...you knelt by his side and said something...in a foreign language...”
“Not foreign to me,” she snapped.
“Give me a break, Ruth, I mean no harm. Just trying to get to know you better and your relationship with Arthur is...”
“Apologies, all right,” she said in her sweet accent. “I sometime have difficulty, an inside what is the word, resistance, not liking, annoyed, yes bothered very much of...of American authority figures.”
“Is that what you think I am? I am an author. Not an authority.”
She shrugged and sipped some coffee, nibbled on her sandwich and
pointed to my half of the grilled-cheese sandwich, “I know it is not American peanut-butter and jelly but...”
“You keep saying American as if it is a...what is the word...bad weather or...definite negative connotation. What’s with that?”
“I do not know conno whatever word but when I come to America..” She stopped herself as if shaking off a bad dream, “Forget it, no problem.”
“Please...I would like you to...well, this ignorant American has no idea what an immigrant goes through so...as I writer, okay, please, tell me.”
She stared at me in evaluation and then decided. “I come to America not speaking the language but trained educated more better than most Americans...” She was trying not to be emotional with limited effect... “You Americans condescend...I learn that word painfully...because I do not speak your language people talk loud to me as if that would help me understand. Fools!” She lost her rein and ranted, “Americans are like everything is printed in extra large bold with underlines but narrow vision.” She stopped and realized she went off. Sipped more coffee and grimaced. “No good no more.” Put the cup down quietly and looked at me. Shook her head as if to deny what she just shared. Then as if recalling my question. “Yes, Arthur was restless...I was murmuring Bulgarski, “Ne se trevoji, vsichko ste bude nared.”
“Do not be worried, everything okay.”
“Well he got it...’cause he did settle down.”
She stood and took the cups, yes, mine included, walked to the urn and poured fresh coffee into each. Returned, shoved my cup to me and sat. Her eyes softened, “So, Carl Goldman, good writer, do you have something I should read next?”
“Try ‘Jaytee’ it may surprise you.”
She stood and opened a near drawer, pulled out a napkin, a pen, and wrote, “How do you spell it?”
“J – A – Y – T – E – E.”
She wrote it carefully saying the letter out loud. I was now so into her rather than my original intention of determining how her relationship with Arthur Morgenthauler evolved. She had a vulnerability contradicted by an assertive strength that said I handle what has to be.
I asked, “I would guess that your name, the name your mother gave you is not Ruth.”
“You guess correct,” she said quietly, “Yordanka.”
“Yes good. But Americans could not pronounce it correctly...so I say Ruth.”
“Where did that name come from?”
“I learn American watching TV. One day a little old lady was on...” she laughed...first time I heard her laugh...it was a strong infectious sound, “This tiny lady with a German accent talked dangerous wonderful truths about sex, in the old days they would burn her at the stake.”
I laughed, “Ah, Dr. Ruth. Yes, I remember her. Ruth Westheimer, four and half feet tall if that much.”
“I like her very much.”
“So, Yordanka Lazarova...” I proudly pronounced, “Are you married, children, how’d you end up in America?”
Her face and her demeanor changed. The warm inviting eyes were now covered with a survivor’s glare. She looked at me, away, stood and started walking out but stopped and spun around facing me with a dare and voice to match. “I will tell you,” she said almost angrily, “Because...you know why? Because your writing...your care...you do not...how can I put it...your people...your characters you show good bad smart stupid but not in a what is the word, of course, not in a condescending way...you care about their...ugh sometimes English...one word for Achilles’ heel?”
“Frailties,” I offered.
“Yes, you accept, recognize everyone has an Achilles’ heel so, all right Mister Writer...you can ask again.”
I did. “How did you end up in America. Married? Children?”
She looked down as if her release were in the crumbs of the sandwich and very quietly said, “I could not remain in Dobrich where too many people know me and tsk tsk feel sorry. If one more neighbor said I am praying for you Yordanka, I would have hurt her very bad.”
It was obvious some traumatic even occurred. “What happened,” I asked in a hushed voice?
She stood, all of her six feet straight backed energy was feral as her heated words fired the little kitchen. “Pray for you! Pray? To who? God? Omnipotent God. If God can do all things then he is the son of a bitch who lets a drunk Serb drive wrong way on a one way street into the car.” She turned and glared at me as if I was the Serb and then spit onto the floor hurling frenzied words, “Da puknesh dano i tsialoto ti semesistvo da gori v ada.” She stopped and became loudly silent.
“What happened?” I asked in a quiet empathic way that I hoped she would trust.
She would not look at me as she stared into an abyss that only she knew. She rubbed her temples as if she had a bad migraine. “I was married. Boris. A ten year-old son Asen...Asen...” She said his name as only a mother could endow grace on her son... “Asen would beat me in chess. Yes...” she said, but the ‘yes’ was a haunted sound. “I hope the Serb dies and his entire whole everybody family burns in hell!” She rubbed her shoe over the spittle on the floor. She sat down and stared into dark space.
“How horrific,” I muttered weakly not finding the appropriate words as I wanted to just hold her and ease the pain but obviously that’s not our connection but... “How long ago?”
“Too long ago and not long enough,” she mumbled.
“There is no way I can come close to understanding such a loss but I feel your hurting as something so profoundly painful that...” I just fell into empathic silence.
She looked at me, looked away and talked quietly to the ghosts, perhaps. “I left Dobrich but I could not leave, flee the...what, pain. No, pain subsides but not this...this...what this...a word that does not exist. As if God is a mean-spirited violent sculptor who took a knife to my soul and cut away.” She was quiet and then whispered, “Losing a husband whom I loved yes a permanent scar on my heart.” She paused and then a tear flowed from her right eye, “But Asen...he had big ears...taking a son is cutting away the important part of this mother’s heart.”
She stood and walked out of the kitchen leaving me with a human ache I could not express.
The next day I drove to the manor with the professional intention of spending more time and one-wording Arthur Delano Morgenthauler in this what, strange curious unusual bizarre breakthrough of a condition for which there is no break-through. But in truth, Ruth, I heard myself repeat Arthur’s mumblings...I was equally interested in connecting with Yordanka Lazarova.
Harper greeted me at the door, more solemn than I expected. “Doctors are with my father now. Ruth noticed his breathing was too rapid too short and wisely summoned me and...well, not good. Would you like to come back another time, Carl, or if you wish, join me upstairs with the Doctors and my father as we...”
“I’m with you, Harper. Let’s go.”
The room was filled with oxygen tanks, a mask on Arthur’s face to breathe in the rarified oxygen, an I-V in his arm, a portable heart monitor that showed an undulating line and repetitive beeping, and other medical paraphernalia in my ignorance I had no knowledge of its intended use. Yordanka was standing to the side, her arms folded across her chest. I looked at her. She felt it and glanced at me, imperceptibly nodded as if to a negotiated ally, her eyes reflected the polarity of empathic vulnerability and a survivor’s armor.
Suddenly the beeping sound from the monitor became one screaming steady sound of fatality. The doctors did what doctors do. I won’t inundate you with the painful details but...Arhtur Morgenthauler died at 11:42 a.m.
After the funeral Harper and I sat in his study. He was not in deep mourning. More of a detached sadness. We were each nursing a brandy. He looked up, “Well, I guess that ends the possibility of your book, Carl.”
“No,” I disagreed. “It was still, as you said, a phantasmagorical experience. I have your father’s ... I’m tempted to say rapping...recorded. And I also spoke with Yord...Ruth...about her connection and your father’s response to her. It all would make for an interesting, no much more than that, a fascinating reportage of a Severe Alzheimer’s victim’s response never before...”
Harper interrupted me. “Carl, come on, the medical establishment will insist you, I, even Ruth were lying...because what happened could not occur. I should have video-taped my father’s extraordinary responses rather than just limit it to your recorder.”
“But I do have your father’s voice recorded!” I insisted.
“They will contend it is a bogus recording of an actor or as you say, a rapper. They will discount it and you and I will look like imposters or at the very least, fools.”
“I’ve been called worse.”
“Well,” Harper said, “It’s up to you. Just be aware once it is published you will be vilified by the medical establishment and...”
“And worse yet, book critics.” I intoned, “I have to do it, Harper. This experience with your father, believed or not, deserves an homage.”
Harper smiled weakly, “Okay, go for it.”
“I uh...” I was hesitant but I plowed on, “What about Ruth?”
“Who...oh Ruth, yes. I asked her to stay on and...well, she is a better educated person than just a Care-Giver, I discovered, so I asked her to stay on and perhaps be an assistant as I have a staff of more people than I know, so many things to handle with the my father’s departure and yes, I made the suggestion to her.”
“What was her response?” I said in an effected neutral tone which was a lie because my interest in Ruth...Yordanka was...
“She said she’d think about it.”
“I’d like to ask her additional questions. For the book.”
“For the book,” Harper said his eyes glistened as if he was in on a secret.
“Okay, got me. For the book, yeah, and there is something about Yordanka...”
“Her Bulgarian name. Something about her that...well, okay, I am interested in her. Personally.”
Harper nodded almost in appreciation. “Ruth...Yordaina...”
“Yordanka,” I corrected recalling her issue with Americans unable to pronounce her name.
“She’s in the kitchen...Ruth is...easier for me to say.” He saw my hesitation. “Go, go, Carl, for the book of course!”
I smiled, “Of course.” And went to the kitchen.
Yordanka was sitting at the table drinking coffee from the mug when I entered. She looked up, nodded, eyes saying she was pleased. She pointed to a chair. I sat as she stood and poured another cup of coffee. Put it in front of me, touched my shoulder, and sat. There was something about her touch. Or something about me as a too-long single man that...her touch felt like...like home.
She broke the silence, “So Mr. Writer, are you still going to write the book?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Harper told me that he asked you to stay on, be his assistant.”
“Yes, he is very...very considerate, yes.”
“Will you...I hope you do.”
“You hope I do what?”
“Stay on. Here Not relocate to another city or even country.”
“Talk about cut to the chase,” I muttered.
“What did you say about chase,” she asked?
“Okay,” I admitted, “I would like you to stay on because I would like to...to spend time with you.”
“For the book?”
She looked at me longer than I felt comfortable but I wasn’t retreating.
“You are talking to me as a man...to a woman, yes?”
“Yes,” I said.
Her eyes softened, “I don’t know if I can find whatever is lost, Carl.”
“I would like you stay,” I said.
She almost smiled, “You make me uncomfortable...in a good way, I think.”
“Then you’ll stay?”
“I do not know. I have a temporary visa.” For the first time her armor dissolved into a gentle smile. She was unprotected as a woman to this man. “I am almost not entirely legal...” Her eyes were laughing, “Unless you Mister American wants to marry me.”
I laughed, “I need a grilled cheese sandwich before I can make that decision.”