Monday, September 7, 2015
LOVING THE LIVING...& THE DEAD
COULD YOU MAKE THAT GENERIC, PLEASE
Harry was slumped over his breakfast tray; his beatific face sublimely nestled into a blueberry muffin. The only problem the nurses could discern was that he looked to be on the far side of blue, and, as far as they could tell, not a whisper was coming out of him.
In that instant the boredom of bedpans and blood pressure ceased, and a code blue was issued. All of a sudden from lethargy and sullenness, an immediacy sprang to life harnessing all their energy and focus on their lifesaving call to duty; I would imagine much like how a S.W.A.T team would feel being roused in pursuit of a cop killer. One thing was for sure: it beat the hell out of morning rounds, or meetings.
Unfortunately, besides taking the briefest of histories and current medical needs, they didn’t know shit about Harry, except that he almost bought it last night in the emergency room. He had screamed then about how much pain he was in and to prove it, threw up on one of the poor admitting nurses who had the bad luck to draw him. He had tried to warn her. He told her that among the many problems he has, he had a diabetic ulceration inside the cavity that remained after having four toes amputated. He was in so much pain it was making him nauseous. She said he couldn’t be seen until she had taken some history, including the type of insurance he had. It was then that his projectile vomit caught her a little below the opening in her blouse. Her first instinct was to brush it off her chest before it ran down her cleavage, but, luckily, she stopped herself before her hands, too, got into the goo.
Finally making his point, he was escorted into the bathroom where he rinsed out his mouth and was then led to a gurney. As soon as he was inside the ER and lying on his side, he calmed down and soon afterward was asleep. It was only when the same nurse came back to get the insurance information from him, this time wearing a surgical mask on her face and a plastic gown covering her torso, that anyone noticed that his chin was resting on his chest; a chest which was not going up and down and up and down and up and down.
Blessedly, all thinking stopped. For how long, nobody could know. All the powers of the emergency room, was focused and put into action. For the first time that night they were mercifully back to reciting the multiplication table the old way. Their reaction time was spellbinding. A nurse began stripping him of clothing and shoes. Into a new vinyl bag they went; it looked much like a large trash bag, only clear and thick. Another shook him, while still another nurse began to run a line into a vein; and another began attaching those electrodes to his chest and hooked him up to a heart monitor. The first nurse who was done with her assignment, ran back in with a bottle of glucose, should he be diabetic and in insulin shock. Harry, groggy, and in a fog, had tried to lift his eyelids. They fluttered. To Harry, it was all a berserk swirl. Jump cuts. A spastic’s dance.
One other thing moved in Harry’s struggle: his eyeballs. They rose into the back of his skull. We might consider that trivial, but they were all signs! And all they needed. Working even harder, having more purpose, (if that was possible), they began to rush in with antidotes for everything that Harry might have taken, as they hurled questions at him: Drugs? Poison? Dreams?
Harry, after a time, was coming around. And for some reason he was angry. Each question they asked he screamed out a wobbly “no” to. There was a nurse situated behind Harry’s head who dutifully recorded each “no” to their questions. They asked if he had mistakenly took more medication than prescribed or obtained illegally, drank, or wanted to end his life. Each time he answered he seemed to become more awake. Who’s your primary doctor, phone number? Harry was like a resistant submarine breaking water. A doctor went behind him, put his hands underneath his arms, and hoisted him up to where his head was lying on the pillow. Once satisfied that he was out of the woods, they returned to triaging more mundane patients. A little while after that, Harry was resting comfortably, his color having returned to his cheeks, (he now looked like a skinned pig slung over the back of a Chinatown butcher, the head lolling over the butcher’s shoulder), his vital signs stable.
It was a busy night as far as New York City’s sickness was concerned; there was never any shortage of disease. It was standing room only; so much so that they had to put people on stretchers in the hallways. A chorus of moans, grunts, mixed in with the smell of fear and antiseptics, greeted the new patient or civilian.
Harry had been down there twelve hours. Once they were sure he was well enough to travel, Dr. Dallas who thought Harry looked like his father, (and kept asking him if he was), persuaded whomever to allow Harry, even though he was a medicaid patient, to be brought up to an exclusive room on the fourth floor. It was a room that cost nearly a thousand dollars a day on top of what the patient’s insurance would pay; in Harry’s case next to nothing. But the hour was getting late, and they had no beds to put him in save this one. So after a little arm twisting, Harry got a break and was wheeled up to the next best thing after heaven.
Harry opened his eyes just when night was giving in to light, and thought he was in The Waldorf. At the very least, a Holiday Inn. He had no recollection of a nurse taking his blood pressure, temperature, and history last night, after he’d been brought up here. All he now saw was the wooden furniture, desk, desk chair, television in a beautiful mahogany bureau, and a red sienna leather lounge chair next to the bed he was in. There was a wooden closet near the door where, Harry figured, his duffle was stored. Holy shit, Harry thought, this is way bigger and nicer than my goddamn postage stamp apartment. He thought a mistake had been made and soon someone would be up to throw his ass out. Careful not to make a sound, he got up, tiptoed to the closet, found his duffle that held his toothbrush and paste, and made his way into the bathroom.
First he took a piss, but didn’t flush the toilet. C’mon, what are ya crazy? He pushed the lever. Fear rippled up into his chest. The sound the toilet made could have woken up King Tut. He put his finger to his lips. Ssh, he said to the swirling water. Almost sixty and still out of your fuckin mind, huh? He laughed and looked into the mirror. The face that looked back at him smiled, and made his eyes twinkle. Not bad, Harry, not fuckin bad, the face said. Just be cool, quiet, but stand your ground and you’re gonna stay here; nobody can throw you out. You’re here. That’s all you know. If a mistake was made, tough shit, it was their mistake.
Slowly, Harry turned the faucet on until a slow, but steady, stream of water reached his toothbrush. He loved the way that morning brush cleared up that disgusting mine field that was in his mouth. After washing his face he looked into the mirror again. Satisfied with everything except his hair, he turned to leave, but examined the shower first and shook his head reacting to another surge of happy disbelief. Tough shit, he said again to the voice inside his head, left, and crawled back into bed.
Panic seized him when he closed his eyes. Again, out of the bed, back to the closet where, after closing the slight crack that the door to his room made, searched out his duffle. Lying at the bottom it was, but with the huge plastic bag with his evening’s clothes and shoes on top. He, again, slipped his hand under the vinyl, and slow as a caterpillar, pulled the zipper open. His heart was beating faster as his hand was feeling around its innards. He squeezed the two individual pouches. Faster, Harry felt between underwear, t-shirts, and other garments until his fingers nibbled on the toes of the correct sock stuck into a corner of the bag. He felt the container that once held a hundred Bufferin. A puff of air came out of Harry’s mouth. He zipped up the bag and returned to bed.
No sooner had he pulled up the covers, when a nurse’s aide, dressed in janitor’s blue, came in to take his vital signs. He always thought that waking someone up to do this was a curious habit that hospitals had. Was it something written into the bylaws, or understood like the “silent you” before some sentences, for a nurse’s universal revenge?
Without a good morning, she went about her work after seeing Harry’s opened eyes. He could have been dead, but that hardly mattered. How times had changed since nurses were charged with doing those tasks. From Kate Smith to reggae. From rectal thermometers, to glass ones kept in alcohol with a mercury vein running up the middle, and finally, to almost the immediate digital kind with a throwaway plastic sheath. Harry looked at a bored, none to intelligent face, and regretted this crippled dance to modernity.
How am I doing? he asked, not out of curiosity, but a need to not only hear his own voice, but hers, too. The nurse, she be in soon, she answered. Her face didn’t reveal whether his readings were indeed good, or bad--not that he really wanted to know--and not that she gave a shit. If the listener cared enough to follow her, she really said it was about money needed, a job is the means, and if you’d like to empty bedpans, I’ll be glad to do what you do, and what, by the way, happened to the streets are paved with gold bullshit?
Anger, sometimes, breeds intelligence, Harry thought. What can you do with that; no matter, he answered himself, and closed his eyes.
Shit, closing my eyes must be the kiss of death, came to mind, as the door opened emitting light and allowing a nurse--a real one--to come into his room.
She’s white! What’s this!? was his next observation, as she came closer to his bed. He smelled blood. Good morning, Mr....
Call me Harry, Harry said, while thinking she had a voice saturated with innocent sincerity. Could be fake, a put on, he reasoned, but it still sounded good.
Harry then, good morning, she said.
Good morning to you, too.
I’m here to give you your Lantus. Where would you like it?
Happy to be on vacation, Harry looked around his body and all the spots the insulin could be administered to. Arm is O.K. She came to his left side, rolled up his sleeve, her fingertips brushing against his skin, and slid the syringe in. How did you know? he asked, with enough good humored surprise as necessary.
Know that I took insulin.
Her body leaned away from him as her eyebrows arched and her black pupils widened. Oh, you gave at least some information to the resident and night nurse. Don’t you remember?
I don’t remember shit,” he replied, with so many different inflections that he stood in wonder at himself. They both let out little chuckles. What’s your name, he asked, capitalizing on this quick surface intimacy.
Angela, she replied, her body relaxing once more. I heard you were a bad boy in the ER last night.
Sorry about that; I told her the pain was making me nauseous. I am sorry, though. Please tell her if you see her. Please. And that really was the last thing I remember...I think. Angela in good natured fashion shook her head.
Maybe you can tell me about the pain, and some more things we didn’t get from you last night, but need to know now, today?
Fire away, and fall back.
Harry divulged what information he thought necessary, no more. Yet the way that information came out made you feel as if he was laying bare his whole life and soul. The parts he was asked, but left out, seemed to be nothing more than a man who tried to remember, but couldn’t. And what he let out, each word, each sentence, was crafted through long practice, to get the most mileage out of a gas guzzling dinosaur.
He was lucky to live not far away from the hospital, but unfortunate, (and don’t forget miserable), that he lived alone and had experienced for the last decade the complications of his childhood illness: amputations, pain in his lower extremities, loss of feeling, bypass surgery, and now this ulceration in his foot that was driving him nuts. But, despite it all, he’d never lost his humor, thirst to create, a great appetite to live each day...blah, blah, blah, etc., etc., etc.
Angela, used to hearing symptoms, not narratives, had become hooked. “Keep turning the pages; what happens next?” came her automatic, and somewhat unconscious response, after every period. Until the natural nurse in her rose up. You look tired, why don’t you get some sleep now?
I’ll try, but every time I close my eyes someone barges in here trying to save my life. The nerve of them, she quickly replied, and again they both let out small, conspiratorial laughs. Try, I’ll see you later. I’ll put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign, she said as she was walking out the door.
Harry got so immersed in her, he forgot about his pain. But not for long. No sooner had she shut the door then he was up and over to the closet. He opened up that little Bufferin bottle and shook out a few pills: Dilaudid--yellow for two and orange for four milligrams--and cute, tiny, white demerol pills. It was a combination that worked the best. It took Harry a long period of time and experimentation to arrive at that, but it was not an unpleasant trip.
Back in bed, he rang the little bedside button, and a voice came on the intercom--another strike against modernity. Yes, said the voice. I want to make sure my nurse remembers my pain medication, Harry said, loud enough for him to be reasonably sure it carried to the mouth behind his bed.
I’ll remind your nurse.
The ground was now prepped and the order in, but he was not at all sure that whomever this disembodied voice belonged to would deliver the message to nurse Angela. Harry, with some reservation, (and after he put the pills under his pillow, like baby teeth), once again closed his eyes.
Harry had painstakingly built into his body an internal alarm clock. It would go off every six to eight hours when his nerves began, with the faintest of shivers, to inform him that they were alive, but not at all that well. He knew what to do to ease them before they got fully jangled. The lack of preparation had happened to him in his distant memory past, and boy oh boy was that terrible, but he made sure that that would never happen to him again. Days, sometimes weeks, before he needed to, he began doing what he had to do to avoid another, boy oh boy. Sometimes though, Harry got fagged out, spent, tired, drained really. He needed a vacation. Not having the resources to go island hopping, or to a Roman spa, he took what best can be described as an all expenses paid, Medicaid vacation. After going through the list of hospitals Harry carried around in his head, he would chose one that matched whatever amenities he wanted to have at the moment. It was not that easy. Hospitals had a physical look and a personality all their own. Rooms, bedding, view, food, were only part of their makeup. They also had powers of observation that, depending on the hospital, were either turned on or not. As was the level of care, specialties, discipline, and rules. They, of course, effected what type of staff--interns, residents, doctors, and nurses--were allowed or attracted to work there. Lenox Hill, if it was a candidate for office, would be labeled a liberal conservative: east coast, upper east side, smart, and stuck-up.
It seemed like a second between when he closed his eyes and woke up. He looked at the wall clock which read, almost eight. Harry swung his legs over the side, gripped the styrofoam pitcher on top of his night stand, and poured some water into a paper cup. He looked around, quickly grabbed and swallowed the tiny teeth that had turned into money. Aside from wishing he had gotten up a half hour before he had, he was still pleased that he gobbled them before breakfast, before he drank hot coffee,--but preferably tea. An empty stomach coupled with a hot beverage was the perfect environment he found to allow the pills to come on and do their job--balm and heal. It sounded like a vaudeville team. Maybe burlesque tits and ass. Seriously sexy.
Speaking of sexy, a cute little island babe came into his room carrying a tray. Breakfast. But goddamn he couldn’t eat it without taking an insulin shot. And he couldn’t do that before taking a glucose test. Listen, this is Harry, I need to take a blood test and insulin shot before I can eat, he said, his mouth a few inches away from the intercom. When he needed to do that--which was a minimum of four times a day--there was always a certain urgency which made his voice sound strained. I’ll be right in Harry, came Angela’s response. Immediately, Harry felt his upper body sag. Relaxed, he turned to the tray, lifted the plastic round dome and saw some hardened scrambled eggs. Oh, man. Fuck that. Can’t do it. Just can’t. Won’t, simple as that. That’s it. There was a piece of whole wheat bread, some butter, (maybe), a nice looking large blueberry muffin, and a cup with a lid on top. Before he pulled the lid off, he saw a decaffeinated tea bag underneath the bread. Wanting the caffeine, he was a bit disappointed.
Just spoke with your doctor, Angela said. She’d come in like a gunslinger, two fisted, a syringe in one hand, testing equipment in the other, and extra ammo: another big syringe sticking out of her jacket pocket. Also, she brought a bottle of insulin, her pretty face, and her dumpling delicious body. Harry might be sick, but he wasn’t dead.
Eddie, you spoke with Eddie? Good man. He’s a goddamn good man. Harry couldn’t help but lower his eyes. Eddie was like any other croaker he came in contact with on his merry-go-round in again/out again bout with life. Only Eddie wasn’t a cut throat practitioner of the Hippocratic dictum; he really believed he was not doing any harm, but was helping the patient instead.
Besides, being white, educated, and old could be, if played properly, the holy trinity to gain access to those Wizard of Oz antidotes of common crucifixions: Marriage unraveled; parents dead; money evaporated; body betrayed. And Harry, if the truth be known, was very distinguished looking, could bullshit his way out of Berlin in the thirties, (even though he was a Jew), and be charming as he did it; well, the world, as the saying goes, was his oyster--at least the Disability/Medicaid world. As soon as the docs heard a literate, funny, and engaging utterance, out came their prescription pads. It was just a matter of time before he had them ratcheting up his dose. Not having to pay for visits the “seek and ye shall find” apparatus was in play. It wasn’t too hard to hunt down more than a few doctors who’d do the right thing, get out of his way, and have their secretaries fill out forms. Often, Harry would spy his name on charts on certain dates he knew he was out to lunch. Never there. Docs were making fiction money. And mucho, and how. Not here. Not there. You know, man. Cool. So nice to still be a hipster, glued to this modern, daisy chain, forgery.
Angela sat on Harry’s bed and put the machine on the corner of the table. Do you want to do it or do want me to do it?
I’ll do it. Harry stuck himself with the penlet and put a drop of blood on the testing strip; in five seconds they got a reading: 133. Good. Very good.
Your doctor gave me some instructions, guidelines, but they were so confusing he finally told me to listen to you; seems you know as much as him, she said, and a lovely crimson blush came into her cheeks. She smelled nice, too. Fresh. Like honeysuckle on that certain moment in spring, when it simply couldn’t wait anymore. Harry breathed deeper. He wanted to put his head under her dress; nothing dirty; he wanted just to rest there; maybe just his lips and the tip of his nose nestled against the soft flesh of her thigh. Damn, he said to himself, that sure was quick.
Angela, I could use some pain medication, Harry said, even though he felt the first inkling of what he’d already taken begin to work.
I’ll give you the insulin first.
Would you mind giving it to me in my arm; I’m so tired of injecting myself in my stomach? She smiled, happy to accommodate his request, knowing what a task it must be to stick a needle in yourself five or six times a day.
How much should I give you?
Well, I can’t eat the eggs, you can forget about that, and the bread goes with the eggs... So, if you can swipe another blueberry muffin...we’re in business?
She smiled conspiratorially. It’s sugar, Harry. Are you sure you can eat that?
Sure, I’m sure--as long as I cover myself with enough insulin, I can eat just about anything. Anything. He looked at her, with an embarrassed boyish smile and blush planted on his face, until it became uncomfortable--for both of them.
Harry, I’m trusting you...so,...
Guaranteed, Harry said, or your money will be generously refunded, the redness all but gone as he spoke. But, all right, we’ll play it safe...just a little safe. Harry showed Angela his two fingers, the thumb and index ones, just the tiniest bit away from each other.
You’re a rascal, you know that? she said, and grinned. Her fingertips brushed against his arm again; she raised the sleeve on his hospital gown and deftly gave him his shot. Your doctor said either percocet or dilaudid, but dilaudid, Harry, that’s for terminally ill cancer patients. And I’ll tell you what: I suspect, after what you told me, you might be in a lot of emotional pain that you’re using these drugs for.
Well...I think you might be right, but I’m still in a significant amount of pain, that’s no lie.
How about I give you a shot now, and alternate the percocets, but just if you need it, if you call out for it, how’s that?
Sounds good to me. Angela told Harry to lie on his side and with a syringe that was much larger than the first, being an old fashioned glass and metal kind, (Harry just loved the look of it), she slowly inserted it into the fleshy part of his upper arm. The long steel needle needed to penetrate the first layers of flesh.
What a pretty face can do to me, Harry was thinking as Angela was administering to his needs.
After the shot things got a little blurry. Harry began feeling sweaty, and his eyelids seemed to weigh pounds, but he concentrated to keep his head up--and he did--until Angela brought him another blueberry muffin. As the door closed, Harry inhaled deeply then exhaled, making the paper napkin ripple.
Next he awoke to the sight of doctors and nurses hovering above him.
Apparently, Harry was found slumped over his tray; his Elysiasn face nestled blissfully into a large, cushiony looking, blueberry muffin. One of which was flattened against his nose.
If it weren’t for morning rounds, Harry might have fought his last fight. The young, brightly scrubbed interns, their uniforms as starched and white as the Klan’s hood, trailed a chief resident who, after seeing Harry’s ear buried into the pastry, and his ol “Schnozzola” with a popped blueberry on the end of it, called a code blue, draining the newer one’s blood from their faces, the more seasoned interns into alert, and the nurses into full bodied action. A crash cart, wheeled by a deranged resident, barreled into the room, paddles at the ready. Angela called out that Harry had diabetes, and so an I.V. glucose hookup was run into his arm, lest he had fallen into insulin shock. Also, she informed the doctors that she had just given him a shot of dilaudid, but he was fine, he was fine, she repeated like a mantra. Just in case, get some narcan, a doctor instructed.
Harry, is that his name, a doctor asked.
Yes, Harry, Angela repeated.
C’mon Harry, stay with us, the doctor implored.
Harry, c’mon baby, another voice chimed in.
But the doctors were baffled. Harry, according to the monitors and test results so far, should be able to do The Charleston in the middle of the room. His pulse and breathing, while being slightly shallow and slow, were still well within the bounds of normal; his tox screens, except for the little morphine that Angela’s shot put there, showed nothing else; his blood sugar read like most humans: 123. Fearing that either they or the tests missed something, they continued to work on him.
I think I’m in heaven, Harry said, upon first seeing Angela. It was still a struggle for Harry to keep his peepers open; in fact, for a brief second he looked, with his eyelids fluttering, like an old, faded, funny, male ingenue, or something out of some fag transvestite review.
How do you feel, how do you feel, came at Harry from all directions while a blood pressure cuff was put around his arm. He thought his arm was about to suffocate; all his attention was distracted there; he felt like trying to make a muscle and break it apart. Easy, easy, Harry said to himself. Yeah, they fucked up your high a little bit, but you still feel cool, and there’s always later. Easy, buddy, easy. Buy some time. Be gracious; show some class.
Whoa, what happened? Harry asked.
You tell us, the doctor replied.
Man, how the hell do I know--one minute I was here, the next gone. Whoa. Lemme get back to myself, Harry said good humoredly. You guys probably saved my life.
From what I don’t know, the doctor said. But I’ll be happy to take the credit.
Whaddayamean ya don’t know?
Just what I said, I don’t know.
They had unhooked him from the miracles of modern science, and were now taking all the bells and whistles back to wait for their next chance to perform.
Well, Harry said, when you doctors don’t know what the fuck happened, you call it an “episode.” Harry couldn’t help but grin.
And neither could those gathered around his bed, especially Angela and the head doctor.
When it happens twice, he went on, you call it a law suit.
The grins stopped.
Only kidding, only kidding. I’m a schmuck, I don’t sue, even when they thought nothing of allowing this blind doctor--who even had a seeing eye dog--to do a little neurosurgery on me. Nothing very complicated, they said; nothing to it; just a little growth on your amygdala. It could have been my rectum for all this doctor knew. I think the expression, “can’t tell his ass from his elbow,” came from my operation. You see the shape I’m in; maybe that explains it.
Harry, they don’t even kid around like that, Angela said, after the doctors and staff filed out of his room. Just hearing the word, “sue,” is enough to make their testicles go into a vacuum. Angela!
Harry! Harry, I’m not as prim and proper as you might think--or want to think.
Angela, I’m not what I appear to be either.
None of us are.
Angela’s face was simply radiant. Harry, without wanting to, was slip sliding away. She left him happily munching away on the remaining blueberry muffin, but not before she promised to bring him back a tea. She was debating whether or not to tell him that a blueberry precariously hung from his nose when she returned.
Harry had some business to take care of; it was on his mind ever since he opened his eyes and saw those mostly hideous, but necessary, faces above him. Most faces were hideous. No sense in arguing, Harry thought, they just are. He crept over to the closest and dry swallowed another two tablets; he wanted to give the initial intake a little more fuel; a boost; a nudge; shove; glad tidings. Back in bed he drank the last of the now cold tea, and laid back in bed. Could be worse, could be worse, he said to himself, much worse.
This time the nod came to Harry slowly, blissfully, nice. That liquid heat ran up the back of his neck and spread across his shoulders. Intuitively he knew he could play with this feeling for as long as he wished, turn it this way and that, and still go to sleep whenever he felt like it. It was one of those moments that made doing what he did to obtain it worth every penny, every second of bullshit. There weren’t many places--or times--that would allow him to feel this much at home...safe. Safe from those persnickety pain in the ass elements that would play with his head, like dying and leaving a mess. Here, for as long as he could stretch it out, would be beyond the grave’s tentacles; beyond the gas man; beyond the chit chat of what passed for conversation between humans; and way beyond the simplicity of bowling balls and heroes.
Harry remembered the first few times he did dope--Christ, what was it now?...forty, forty-five years ago?--he couldn’t get to sleep at all. Must have been the quinine, or somethin with the cut. Or maybe it was the newness of the whole thing, but he couldn’t for the life of him, fall asleep. Not that it was unpleasant. No, not a bit, but...well, but nothin, he just couldn’t get to sleep. No big deal.
Then there were grace periods of, well, nothin. Nothin. Not a drop, or a drug--illegal, that is. Clean; a clean feeling. No filters. Barriers. No, (or little), fear. Sometimes that could last for a day, or a decade. No tellin, with Harry. Strange, huh? But then, like the old joke, “slowly, slowly, he turned”...he went back to the cooker, in one form or another. And anything could return him to that dark place. No tellin with that either. Sometimes six months before the actual action, volition, or whatever you want to call it, he set himself, or was setup, to be, once again, open to the seduction. That last sentence, or thought, had that faint smell of a lie breathing on it. The truth, better stated, was that Harry was both the seducer and the seduced. He knew exactly what would get him hard, and was willing, if it called for that, to make it a very long courtship before he would demand to get laid.
Unless, of course, it was a chick that Harry was head over heels about. Someone so lovely, so enticing, that Harry would have waited forever before he demanded any goddamn thing. After the act, however, that was another story. One chick told a friend of Harry's that her first mistake was telling him that she loved him. The second was, after having told him, she hung around, and stayed.
After five days the doctors were no closer in understanding what caused the seemingly arbitrary nature of Harry’s condition. One after the other they ruled out, in seemingly alphabetic fashion, today’s hit parade of diseases. There was no such thing as “consistency” as to when Harry would have these bouts of near unconsciousness. They thought him incredibly lucky to be found when he was, walking that ol precipice of death. One time they were ready to send him to the I.C.U., fearing that he was near extinction, only to find him, when they came back into his room, requesting cable television for the reruns of The Sopranos.
Even though Medicaid was picking up his tab, they didn’t flinch in ordering every conceivable test that could solve the riddle of Harry. The hospital figured that since Harry was lucky enough to inhabit one of their exclusive suites they’d write the whole goddamned thing off, and every other poor bastard, at the end of the year. It wasn’t quite the, “in for a penny, in for a pound,” ethic; it was more like how can I turn this bullshit around and make it work for us.
Harry, meanwhile, was living The Life Of Riley. It was Alfred E. Newman’s, What, Me Worry? take on whatever life could throw at him. It was arms behind the head, leg crossed over the other, foot dangling, television on, and getting loaded with impunity. He was also pleased with himself for dealing so well with the guilt that he felt when he was with Angela. He wished he could level with her, but even though in the previous days she had shown every indication of being cut from a different swatch than the rest, was still, he thought, too square for him to risk such a racket by coming clean. And it was so hot out that he could feel the days heat and humidity drip through his windows; his windows that looked out to Park Avenue; he couldn’t even contemplate being in the furnace and shit box he called home.
Is it possible to get a haircut around here, he asked Angela.
“Yeah, a haircut. Don’tcha want me to look good being your patient and everything.
You’re too much, Harry.
Answer the question, baby.
You need money for a haircut.
That’s a problem.
Hmm. What can we do. Let’s see. I could, I guess, advance you a little cash.
A little cabbage, yes, you know I’m good for it.
Never had a doubt.
How sweetly you lie.
Part of my charm, Harry.
What else do you lie about, he asked Angela the next day. He couldn’t get the last line she said to him out of his mind. Sometimes, after hearing something someone had said, they look completely different. Almost like another dimension was added. He was positive that before Angela left his room the other day he saw a few creases that life had driven into her face; they weren’t ugly, quite the contrary; they allowed Harry to enter.
Nothing...much, she replied.
Being cute, huh.
You think so; cute, I mean.
He looked at her, studying her, weighing her, Cute, no, I don’t think so.
I don’t know. Hard to say.
Hard to say, or you don’t want to say it.
Hard to say. Except that thirty forty years ago I’d be in deep trouble.
Is that so.
That’s so. Smart and looking the way you do, damn, always been a very lethal combination for me.
Harry, don’t do that.
Harry, the woman was always in more trouble than you were.
Ya see, that’s what I mean. Trouble. Fucking trouble. I’m tellin ya...
Harry, enough. A smile broke across her face and carried Harry out with her.
Did you send up a barber or a foot doctor, were the words Harry greeted Angela with.
She stamped her foot and laughed. Her hand covering her mouth.
You don’t have to say it. Oh, my god!, comes next. I know.
Again she stamped her foot and kept her hand where it was.
I didn’t think that what I had to say to you before would be met with so much retribution. Jesus Christ.
Harry please, no more. I’m going to urinate on myself. Please.
“Urinate,” hmm, how proper we are.
Please Harry, I’m begging you.
Harry looked forward to Angela getting to work in the morning, and Angela couldn’t wait to get in. A few times she even showed up an hour or more before her shift was to begin. People started to talk. Harry felt this tingle that worked it’s way up his balls and into his stomach until it tickled his brain. Not since his early thirties had he felt this way. Usually the word, “Fuck,” was the first thing he uttered upon opening his eyes; now, his thoughts moved more to getting up, showered, shaved, and dressed; he even felt less of a need to raid his drugstore as of late. But Harry kept them there in case it all came crashing down--which was always a likely possibility.
And Angela had finally met someone who was unlike the someones that she kept meeting. Could have been his age, what he knew, the way he thought, the sound of his voice, looks, personality, or smell. Who really knows why we want to get close to the people we want to get close with? The irrational are more rational than the rational in understanding what’s what with that.
Angela came in through the door as Harry was kneeling in front of the wooden closet. It wasn’t anger, or disappointment, judgment, or fear he saw on her face. It was more like, What are you doing on the floor praying? and then she smiled. But again, it wasn’t a smile of compassion, understanding, sarcasm, or contempt. It confused him, but didn’t stop the blood from rushing up to his cheeks, making him feel hot all over.
I thought you were gone.
No, not yet; I’ve been spending so much time in here that I needed to catch up on some paperwork.
You’re flattering me.
You don’t have to do that, you know.
Do what. I was just rummaging around for a pad to write on, that’s all.
He didn’t want to go down this road, but lying was really the only road he knew. The words, even if it were a one word sentence, kept sticking in his gullet. From nowhere he began to stutter like he did when he was five, when each word he uttered had the potential to kill him.
I’ll see you tomorrow, Harry. Have a good night. Again her words were light, neutral, and impossible to understand.
Harry put his palm on the floor and pushed himself upright. He put his hand through the crook of her arm and led her over to the lounge chair. He tightened his grip, but gently guided her into a seated position. He sat down on his bed and pushed the hospital tray out of the way so there was nothing separating them. Angela, he began, what’s going on here?
I think you know.
I don’t know shit, Angela; why don’t you tell me.
No, Harry; we’re going to do something different this time--for both of us. Why don’t you tell me.
I feel like the old man at the end of, Moonstruck: “I’m confused.” Harry lowered his head and dabbed at his eyes as if he were crying.
You could charm the spots off a leopard. But, of course, you know that. You count on that...and why shouldn’t you...that’s what kept you alive these many years.
If you keep trying to deflect this thing, we’ll never get anywhere.
‘Anywhere?’ He pondered the word. Where would you like this thing to go?
The one dim fluorescent light that was on, made the room look like the tenderness of a welcoming saloon.
No, Harry, she said, low, but resonate, where would you like to go. And please don’t tell me about the thousands of reasons why we shouldn’t go there, why this is crazy, absurd, and then go into your personal trough of misery--or perhaps ecstasy--to cement the impossible. Lets keep it simple: Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby?
Her smile tempered his heart with light, putting out fires so old and damp as wet ash they’d now become moldy with contradictions. I don’t know how you know all the stuff you know, but I’d like to know what you know.
Come home with me, then.
Come home with you?
That’s what I said. I wouldn’t have to talk so fast you’d miss, (or I’d forget), the good parts.
How can you be so sure.
Sure. Who’s sure. That’s what discovery is about. It’s art, Harry. Great art is work. A lot of work.
He stared at her for what felt like a long time. The night nurse came in to check his vitals. She said hello to Angela and then went about her business. Angela and Harry just watched her, and each other. They remained silent until she left the room.
I wish I had a cigarette, Harry said.
Makes two of us...and I never smoked.
Harry laughed despite himself. He knew what came next. Angela, you know what I was doing by the closet when you came in.
I knew two days ago.
What the hell can we do to fade that?
Do you want to “fade” it.
His body cleaved in two. The battle was defined, as it always was, but now, once again, verbalized, which somehow made it more real.
Wait, Harry. Think about it. I know it’s not an easy decision--if it’s really a decision at all. Tell me in the morning.
Maybe we both got lucky here; what do ya think?
Maybe you got lucky; I was always lucky. Oh, I see, you think I’m lucky to have you. How did I not know that that was, you were, a golden gift from the gods.
Harry just shook his head. Is it always gonna be this tough a ride with you?
Until you realize that you were always lucky, too.
That night Harry couldn’t sleep. At about two, he thought about taking a few of his pills, but decided to hold off. If he was going to start anything with Angela, it couldn’t be predicated on a foundation of shit. There had to be a reasonable semblance of good honest intention going in to this thing. He thought he had to talk with her about quitting. And wanted to know how she thought the best way to go about it would be. Harry knew that one of the reasons he was drawn to her was because she was a nurse; it was a profession that was loaded, (no pun intended), with fireworks and pitfalls of various kinds, and he was subject to explode or fall into any number of them.
Looking at this honeydew rind of a moon, he decided that he’d give himself one day to enjoy himself in his own inimitable way, and the rest of his life to enjoy with Angela. Off and on, for over forty years of his life, he had researched pleasure and escape that only an ego made of mush was built for. Sometime, the next afternoon, a road would be chosen, a vehicle established to see him down it, and perhaps a destination that he and Angela would agree that both wanted to go to.
Angela didn’t sleep either, but not for the same reason. She was nervous, apprehensive, and decided to clean her apartment. No sense in waiting for the last moment. Or worse, waiting for him to come to her, and finally get there. A sliver of a moon, she thought, the melon must have been very good. She had lived, and survived, her home and men who recreated that home over and over again. With her help, of course. No longer was she willing to pitch in. Angela was no fool, and no stranger to who Harry was; no pie in the sky for her. She knew it would be hard work, but interesting work. She felt drawn to him as soon as he opened his mouth...and not because of what he was, but what he secretly wanted to become, and could become if he gave himself half a chance. Age and circumstance were on her side. Now, if only time would give her a goddamn, and well deserved, break. A little luck.
Finally, at around five she finished and was so dirty that she decided to take a shower right there and then. Afterward, she laid down in her bed, put her hands behind her head and in a moment was asleep. Such a deep and restful sleep that she overslept and late, hurried off to work.
As was his habit, Harry accepted the shot of dilaudid before breakfast. Now, it didn’t get him that high, but still made him feel very nice. Content, safe, and secure in this blanket of near forgetfulness. When the nurse brought in his testing equipment and his insulin injection he told her he’d take it himself and engaged her in some meaningless, but funny, conversation. When he knew she was distracted enough, he secreted the empty syringe under his blanket and waited for her to leave his room before he got it and put it, along with his pills, in his duffle.
He got up and walked over to his window. The traffic was beginning to build on Park Avenue. The bustle of cars, and cabs, and people going someplace. Someplace!? Where the hell were the places that all of them were going to? Damned if I know, he thought.
Looking further upward at the high sky of a deep baby blue, he thought of 9/11 and the exact same color and canopy that day. Huh, interesting, he muttered. On that day, Harry was on the north side of The Brooklyn Bridge when the sky exploded. The ball of red, orange and yellow fire, then black smoke, rinsed the sky of reason. It was enough to knock Harry back against the doors of a high school; the heat followed immediately after. It felt like the outer edge of a furnace. It was official: Hell was New York City.
When breakfast came, he politely asked the orderly if she couldn’t get him a metal spoon to eat his oatmeal with--those plastic spoons feel like they’re melting in my mouth--and smiled at her. I be back, she said.
Harry was sipping his coffee, fully dressed after shaving and showering. He knew he’d have to sign himself out, but knowing that Angela and he would work this all out this morning wasn’t all that concerned about it. Geez, c’mon already. Where is she? he said to himself after a due amount of time went by when she should have been there already. C’mon.
Where the hell were you.
Getting things ready for you.
Harry was instantly calmed. Well in that case...
Yes, don’t worry even though I know you must be going crazy. I know that. I thought that we have two ways to go: one, I could get you into a rehab unit and they’ll do what they have to do and then you’d come to my place, or, two, I could get some methadone and do the thing myself. I worked in a detox unit for seven years and know what I’m doing...
So, that’s how you...
Harry, sweetie, Ray Charles could have seen it.
Harry thought he was invisible. All right, you got me--now what the hell are you going to do with me.
Harry didn’t ask her how she would get the methadone. It wasn’t his business. If she said she could get it, she could get it. That’s all he needed to know. That he wouldn’t be sick.
All right, I’ll sign myself out.
A.M.A., against medical advice.
What else is new?
I’ll just do it one more time, give me a jolt before I pack it in, he decided after a brief, if one-sided, debate. Harry sat on the toilet, his sleeve rolled up, a belt wrapped around his arm, with the tongue between his teeth. He held a syringe in the other hand. He had taken three four milligram dilaudid, crushed them into the metal spoon, added water, and with a pack of matches, cooked the mixture in the base. Slowly, he guided the syringe into his one useable vein and watched as the blood came into it, like a rose coming to life, its petals moving to the side of the plastic cylinder. Gently, he guided the plunger down and watched as this slightly water colored orange mixture went into his vein. A pumpkin exploded behind his eyes.
Greenwich Village, 2005-2015