Contemporary Fiction

One Fine Day

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Synopsis

A fighter pilot, crippled by a disastrous crash, decides to make this day in the hospital his last -- but it doesn't quite turn out that way ...

This is a rollicking romp through 1990s America, from a stodgy Ivy League college to the rigors of jet fighter training, to the criminal underclass and the down-and-out who refuse to give up.

It's a story with a crazy cast of characters, including a faithless priest, a Senator's daughter, a professional Russian thief and a sympathetic young hospital volunteer anxious to please.

It all comes together to make one fine day.

ONE FINE DAY

a novel

By Frank R. Hotchkiss

(Approximately 67,500 words)

CHAPTER ONE - THE DREAM

The day started with a dream. I was the president of something, I don’t know what, but the big guy. I could tell because there was a huge desk in a very plush office with dark walnut paneling and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a city.

There was a secretary  - “assistant” we say now. I couldn’t make out her features but her hair was blonde, held back with a black velvet bow, and she wore a knit dress (I think it was red – it was a dream in color, rare for me), and high heels. She moved around the room with a steady sshh-sshh noise as she walked. She didn’t look directly at me, but she never looked away, either. When she leaned over or knelt down - the way women do with their knees tight together when they want to be modest and not show anything and show something at the same time - the dress clung to her. There was sex in the air. You could feel it, but I never did anything. Hey, I was the president, the big guy. You don’t do stuff like that. But it was fun looking.

I woke up when Margaret Johnson came barging in. Nurse Johnson is 55, with big fleshy arms, heavy black-rimmed glasses, blotchy red complexion and a spider-like mole with dark hairs on her left jowl. She looks like she’s never seen the sun. She could ruin any sexy dream, and she certainly ruined mine.

“How’re we doing today, Eddie?” she asked, as if I had had time to figure it out. It was 6:30 and I had been fast asleep. She was threatening me with a thermometer held upright in her hand like an exclamation point.

“Great, just great. Today’s my birthday. I’m thirty-four. Thought I might celebrate, go to the track, watch the nags,” I said for some reason. I have never been to the races in my life.

“Such a joker,” she said, shaking the thermometer, pushing me over and inserting it in my backside, which was to a certain degree humiliating but, you know, a sensation at least. You look forward to sensations when you are in my position. “I didn’t know it was your birthday. Happy birthday.”

“Thank you. I think I’ll make this a very special day.”

“I’m sure you will. Did we do anything last night?” the good nurse asked, ducking to check out my drain-away bedpan underneath the bed. 

“Damned if I know,” I said, “although I did have a hell of an erotic dream, so watch out for something special.”

“Such a joker,” she repeated, although I always had the feeling that Nurse Johnson hoped I had a “nocturnal emission” once in a while. Not too often, mind you, but occasionally. She had heart. I was grateful. She was doing a thankless job as best she could. I would never have done it, that’s for sure.

“Nurse Johnson, can I ask you a question?”

“Sure, dear. Ask away.” She was feeling bold today.

“What do you feel when you walk in that door?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, what are you thinking about?”

“Well, today I was thinking about my daughter who is in Fort Collins, Colorado studying to be a court reporter, and about - ”

“No, no, that’s not what I mean. What are you thinking about taking care of a guy like me?” How else do you describe a guy with no arms and legs lying helpless in a hospital bed?

That stopped her cold. She was about to walk into the bathroom with the disgusting bed pan filled with God knows what from last night but unfortunately not any wonderful nocturnal emissions, and she stopped cold in her squishy, crepe-soled tracks.

“I was thinking about how I could get out of here without conversing with you,” she said.

“Yes. I don’t blame you a bit,” I said as she dumped something lumpy into the toilet. “I would be thinking the same thing.”

Seconds later, after reading my temperature - we were normal - then recording it and cleaning me up, she flew out the door. That’s how my day began.

“What can his days be like?” you must be asking. “What would it be like to be limbless for the rest of your life?” Always wanted to know, right?

Well, to state the obvious, there’s a lot of lying around, and you can’t do a lot of things. Don’t get me wrong - there are bad days and then there are good days, days when things happen. Today, for instance. I intended to make today unique, bring “closure”, as they say, although I hate the term. Hey, it’s my birthday. I can choose how to celebrate. You try being armless and legless and look at a future of endless days on your back, with daytime TV and the occasional pitying visitor and tell me what you would do.

But today turned out to be special. It turned out to be one fine day.

***

Next up after Nurse Johnson was Kossaroff. Alexei Kossaroff is a thief, a recent imigré from Mother Russia, which he hates only slightly more than his new “homeland.” No one should take offense at this, however. Kossaroff detests democratically: he hates everything. It’s as if he always wants to be somewhere else. Consequently, he is never happy where he is. And never call him Alexei if you wish to converse with him again. It’s Kossaroff, period.

He comes in with his dirty blond, shoulder-length hair that was fashionable in this country 25 years ago, and a sarcastic look that hardly ever leaves his face. He gives me a thumbs-up. I don’t respond in kind. I am the one person Kossaroff looks forward to seeing, because I am the one person Kossaroff feels superior to, the only one who is less fortunate than him. That’s what he thinks, I swear. But when you’re in my position - flat on the back, tubes in your butt and sometimes a catheter (do I have to spell that out for you?), you welcome pretty much anyone. Kossaroff is, if nothing else, a colorful guest.

“Eddie,” he says conspiratorially, edging right up next to my bed and glancing over his shoulder. “Eddie, I did her!”

I have no idea what he means. With this Russian, it could mean he laid someone, or he did something which is of the feminine gender in his mind, or he did something egregious he had told me he was planning during his last visit. Like I said, I have no idea.

“Kossaroff…”

“No, no, wait!” he says in a whisper, then moves to the door, closing it. “You remember that beautiful” - he says it “boo-TI-ful” - “woman we saw in hall other day?” All of this in an absurdly thick Russian accent minus certain elements of grammar. Akim Tamiroff at his worst.

Remember? How could I forget? Kossaroff and I were discussing his latest scam: He takes girls out and gets their credit card numbers, I don’t know how, then skips off to New York and charges stuff at Bloomingdale’s and Saks as fast as he can before their next statement comes through and they realize what’s going on. Then he disappears into the night. In the midst of this conversation we hear coming down the hallway the clack of some very loud heels, heels loud enough to stop us both in our tracks. Actually, as I don’t have any tracks these days, let’s just say they stop us both cold. We look out my open door, and past breezes the singularly most boo-TI-ful woman I have ever seen: tall, dark hair swept back, perfect makeup, dressed in longish skirt, aloof (a very good thing to be in a hospital, where at any moment you may be assailed by the most terrible smells and noises without warning) plus attitude, major attitude. We both swoon.

“You did her?” I am amazed. Such a woman would never look twice at Kossaroff, unless I have completely lost my feel for the gender. Kossaroff wouldn’t be it for her in a million years.

“I rob her purse!” he says, completely delighted. He is wild-eyed, like a madman in The Brothers Karamazov. He actually cackles. This is a bright spot in his life, I can tell. He is thrilled - a conquest!

It seems he got into the elevator with her, pushing a laundry wagon for purposes of disguise, then played the fool by speaking English even worse than he usually does, pretended to drop something, distracted her, slipped open her alligator hand bag - “It was real alligator!” he says, ecstatic, eyes to heaven, hands in prayerful clasp-and dipped in. It doesn’t take a professional thief like Mr. K. long to do his business. In a second he had one of her credit cards in his pocket, and then he put the rest back. “She won’t realize for days,” he hisses.

Off he zips to Bergdorf’s and charges up a storm, then fences the stuff for about one-tenth the real value. Stealing is not particularly profitable, and it’s not why Kossaroff does it. It is a way of life for him, his profession, and like everyone else, he wants to excel in his chosen field. That means stealing everything in sight. He spares me only because he knows I am defenseless on the one hand (bad choice of words) and because the moment anything disappeared I would know precisely who did it. There would be no excitement, no suspense, no fun.

“Why does he steal?” you might ask. “Has he no feelings for the people he robs, no conscience?”

In fact Kossaroff has a unique outlook, very religious. He attends church regularly, and once pondered becoming a monk.

“All things belong to God,” he says one day when I question him about his activities. “We just borrow temporarily from Him.”

What he means is, when people die they lose all their material possessions, which eventually turn to dust, so essentially they never really own anything, but “borrow them from God.” Kossaroff simply borrows from these temporary owners. God doesn’t care. He’s going to get it all back anyway when everyone dies and all the stuff deteriorates. Everything is “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” It is Kossaroff’s aim to get in there somewhere between the ashes and the dust, partake of God’s plenitude and make the most of God’s creations, no matter who they may, however temporarily, actually belong to. As I say, he is very religious.

His adopted homeland has added a new wrinkle, another dimension to his Slavic thievery. He believes that capitalism gives his thefts socio-economic value as well as religious meaning. “I jump-starting the economy,” he says one day out of nowhere by way of explanation. He is very proud of this latest colloquialism, jump-start.

      “Kossaroff, what can you possibly be talking about?” I ask.

“Simple,” he says, his hands moiling over his thesis. He pauses a moment so that I, less equipped to understand the complexities of his subtle discourse, may catch up. He continues: Those from whom he steals quickly replace what is stolen “with credit card.” He sells the “borrowed” goods to the less fortunate who “no have these things” at a huge discount. Because of him, the lower classes can enjoy a material wealth otherwise unavailable to them, and the producers can make and sell extra goods to satisfy the new demand that he, Kossaroff, has created. Even the party from whom he steals loses nothing. “Insurance,” Kossaroff explains. “They get full value for their used goods!” He is absolutely ecstatic! It is the perfect circle, and he, Kossaroff, has created it. As middleman, he gets a small cut in the process, which is only fair. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work in America? Everyone wins! Thus he is doing a real service to his new homeland by putting more of its goods in circulation, while distributing wealth to the poor. Karl Marx, John D. Rockefeller and Robin Hood combined.

      And Kossaroff is not selfish, he wants me to understand, but an integral part of the system where everybody wins: Him of course, “the people, the credit cards, the capitalists (I think in his mind it is spelled with a “k”) -  even the…” Here he gropes for the right word.

“Victims?” I ask hopefully. Perhaps there is a conscience in the man after all.

“No, no!” he replies, shocked at my implication. “Contributors!” Straight out of the collective. Stalin would be proud.

Beautiful. If he works a little on his English, I am sure one day he will be a superb politician, maybe even a senator. He has a political future at some level, I am sure. Even the accent, if somewhat mollified, could work in his behalf, say in Chicago.

So Kossaroff stimulates the economy as often as he can. He says he realized all this economic theory during one of his citizenship classes when they were studying about the Teapot Dome Scandal, and it stirred him so much he immediately went out and stole a car - his first large “endeavor.”

 “Capitalism is great thing,” he told me very seriously the next day. “But materialism is bad. People depend too much on things.” I have learned not to ask for an explanation of this duality, impressed as I am at his remarkable ability to hold completely conflicting thoughts simultaneously with no trace of irony or conflict. The guy is truly amazing.

Kossaroff tells me all this one morning as he is straightening up my room, and I listen in rapt attention. I have never heard such perfect logic so illogically applied. Kossaroff has revealed to me the key to all the evils in the world, the key to human behavior in all its deviousness - mine included: Start with a good premise and go wherever you want from there. Knowing Kossaroff has been a revelation. If I were Oriental, I would say it has been enlightening. He is welcome anytime in my little cell.

“What did she smell like?” I ask him, harking back to his assertion that he “did” this incredibly beautiful siren who marched down our hall. I can imagine, from the way she dressed, her elegant scent. It gives me twinges.

“Ah, you are thinking dirty thoughts,” he says deliciously.

    “Of course I am. Do you think I am dead?”

“She smelled rich!” my friend says exultantly. It is the perfect answer. He has captured more than her scent; he has captured her essence. We both sigh.

I switch the subject. I have been waiting a long time to say this, but the moment had to be right. I don’t want Kossaroff to ponder my request.

 “Kossaroff, I need a favor.”

 “Of course. What is, Eddie?”

 “It’s so quiet in here sometimes. I would like a radio. One of those plug-in clock radios, with a remote.”

“This is all? Done. When?”

“Today. I want it today.”

“Why?” Immediately suspicious. He can’t help it. I keep silent. “You are being difficult. All right,” he says with a shrug. Thankfully he is still dreaming of the beautiful woman and pursues his line of inquiry no more.

It is time for him to leave on his rounds, which in his case means pushing a cleaning cart around so he can case out every possible room in the hospital, even the Doctors’ Lounge. It is a tribute to his cunning that while the doctors realize things are missing, they have no idea who is fleecing them blind. Watches, credit cards, drugs, even entire medical satchels have disappeared. Kossaroff keeps the good doctors guessing by sometimes snatching things right from under their noses as they dress, sometimes slinking in late at night with a pass key, and sometimes filching things and then putting them back, just to keep the docs wondering if maybe they simply misplaced that Rolex after all. Kossaroff is a genius.

Once, at my suggestion, he actually sold some medico’s $5,000 Pathek Phillipe wristwatch to one of the more detestable nurses for $150, a real bitch who jammed pills down your throat and always used the simpering “we” when she really meant “you” - “We’re feeling better?” “Are we having good BMs?”  -  shit like that. Once she even yanked my catheter, pretending it was a mistake. “Oh, sorry, Eddie. Did that hurt?” A direct attack on my last working limb and she wonders if it hurt.

Her boy friend showed up with the watch one day and was hustled off by Security to ascertain just how an out-of-work carpet cleaner could be sporting a diamond-encrusted watch worth half his annual salary - when he was working.

The guy had balls. He told the cops it was a gift from his Uncle Vinnie. Apparently he knew the cops had a “working relationship” with Uncle Vinnie, a local numbers boss with connections. The matter was quickly dropped.

***

Now comes my first slack time of the day - the morning doldrums, I call them. Breakfast, truly a dreary prospect, is just around the corner. Once that is down, what may follow is anyone’s guess, but is certainly beyond my control. Will it be one of the doctors making his rounds, checking to see if my limbs have grown back overnight, or a new class of interns doing their best not to be shocked at this once fully functional, barrel-chested individual who is now a true couch potato, and who but for his little “accident” would look and act pretty much like every other 34-year-old red-blooded, red-headed male? Jesus, could this be their fate, to lie abed and wonder about the rest of their life in a prone position? They would much rather think of themselves as standing, or running, or playing tennis or whatever sport their little prissy hearts desire, paying the bills and arguing with the wife and avoiding the kids on the weekend. They shudder, take notes furiously, avoid eye contact and scurry out like crabs, trying to wipe the thought out of their minds. This is the kind of thing no one warned them about in med school, where they were too busy memorizing vascular systems and the like to realize the darkest hours, the worst times, would come when they had to face someone else’s horrible reality and try to feel truly sorry and not be overwhelmed themselves, or let on in any way that, thank God, it isn’t them. There weren’t courses for that, and there never will be.

And after that, what - daytime TV? Have you seen daytime TV lately? My concept of hell is to be forced to watch daytime TV incessantly. Actually, with the advent of cable and its multiple channels, Hell has improved. Of course, as you punch  -  or in my case, nudge  -  the channel changer to see what’s on, there is the usual fare of soaps - “Luke, you and Matty should have known Brandon would never let Lance take Sherry home without doing…something!”  -  to cooking shows  - “That’s right, just chop-chop-chop and your vegetables will come out looking just like these, and oh, are they good, so tasty and crisp, and if you want them a little al dente-we all know what that means, don’t we?  - then just take them out a few minutes early!  Ooh, so yummy!” - vegetabalis interruptus  -  to teen movies, where every third word is “like”, “really” or “awesome” and the girls all have apple tits and the boys sport zits and spiked hair. I actually heard one show where the “dude” said, “Like really awesome, man,” as if it were a complete sentence. Occasionally you can learn something meaningful about history and interesting people in the middle of the day, or catch a decent film, or watch golf for hours. I understand tennis lovers can find endless mindless hours of people whacking away, the ball flying across the net in a straight line where it is impossibly retrieved. Actually, with the new styles and the strapping Amazons who wear them, even I enjoy the occasional match.

When you get bored with this fare you can view the decline and fall of Western civilization on The Jerry Springer Show. My last alternative is to look out the window.

As you may have realized by now, I wasn’t always like this. You probably suspected it from the start. Jesus, doesn’t he get depressed? How can he live like that? Think you might even want to kill yourself, right?

The answer is, “Absolutely,” and if all goes right, today will be the day.

But occasionally, some days can be quite good, as I said before. For one thing, there is a lot to listen to. Sounds are quite amazing when you “get into them”, as we used to say in the old pot-smoking days.

I remember those. The first time I had a joint, nothing happened, and the second time nothing happened - but I noticed the carpet looked like the canopy of a rain forest viewed from 1,000 feet up, and the third time I ate a whole jar of peanut butter with a pickle chaser, all with a white plastic spoon.

I loved pot. There was a girl I knew in college who had a real twinkle in her eye, and although she was “large” - that’s what you say today - that twinkle made her sexy. The first night I met her at some silly dorm party she took me back to her apartment off-campus and lit up a joint the size of a cigar.

 “Try this,” she said with a knowing wink, and I did. “Watch out. It’s strong,” she added.

I was standing up toking on this thing saying something like, “Yeah, sure,” and the next thing I knew I was flat on my back deeply absorbed in her cottage cheese ceiling, vaguely proud of myself that I was still clutching the joint despite my complete collapse. She sat down next to me.

 “If you’ll permit,” she said and relieved me of the source of my demise, taking a puff herself. We spent a long night solving every problem of the universe and then addressing the more immediate needs of personal gratification, which she was also quite good at. I can’t recall exactly what happened after that. I think we spent three months in infrequent contact, and finally it petered out. But I was appreciative. She was very nice to me, with no ulterior motive.

I once asked Kossaroff to fetch me a joint, but he said he would never do something like that. “Drugs bad. Illegal!” What could I be thinking of? He was shocked.

The noises I hear flowing down the hospital corridor are these, starting at the bottom: first, so low it is almost beyond hearing, is a bass thrum. I am not sure what this is, but I think it is the sound of the electricity coursing through the building, the lights, the central heating/air and - stretching it perhaps - the rumble of human activity at its basest level - defecation, fornication, mastication, exhalation - the contrapunto of life itself, and the earth is humming along. Or maybe it’s just the plumbing.

Next comes the more obvious - the whisper of conversations down the hall like dried leaves rubbing together, the approach and retreat of squishy nurses’ shoes, a door opening and closing, all punctuated by the electronic chirp of a telephone or the ululating moans of low-volume television.

We are pretty much prisoners here in our little ward of “permanent care” where no one can make it solo. Spitzer, the guy in the next room, can’t breathe on his own and needs the modern equivalent of an iron lung. He lives in mortal fear of power failures. I once asked him if he didn’t think the lights were flickering, and he got so panicked he almost cried. I realized it was a rotten thing to do, and apologized. I never did it again, but Spitzer and I are still not on speaking terms. It will probably take a power surge to do that.

M. Merriam, across the hall, can’t do anything, including think, as far as I can tell. She just lies there in a coma, eyes open, staring at nothing. She has automatic drippers to keep her eyeballs wet so they don’t dry up and fall out of her face. It’s not a happy sight, I hear. She must be living in some nether zone between life and death. Now there is someone with a problem. Me, I’m relatively well off.

Of course, if I was abandoned, I would die in three days because of lack of water. I would lapse into a coma and just “pass”, as my black friends so delicately put it. I am completely dependent, like a babe in arms. The concept disgusts me.

I have discovered that I, like everyone else, want distraction, amusement. For all of us, time is passing, life is slipping through our hands like a rope that we cannot grip, try as we might. It’s as if we are in the midst of life, but there is no there there, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein. Thus the ridiculous amounts of time devoted to diversion to keep us from thinking about our awful waste. Chez nous here in permanent care, television is the preferred means of escape, our drug of choice, for no reason I can understand. Personally, radio can carry me to far more distant places.

Today looks like it may be a fairly good day. First there was the dream, then Nurse Johnson got courageous and ‘fessed up about hating to talk to me, then Kossaroff came in to share his bit. Now Father O’Reilly sweeps in after the tasteless breakfast. (I’ll explain the eating process later.)

Father O’Reilly is the Catholic priest, and he is made for his role, a Leprechaun with laughing eyes fighting to make the world good. I can tell that deep down, he feels it has been a losing battle.

 “Eddie!” he says in mock surprise, as if he were unexpectedly encountering me on the street - an unlikely prospect, to say the least. I haven’t moved in a year. He means well, walking from room to room in his frayed black suit and high stained collar paddling palms, telling terminally ill patients that things will get better, God understands and will help. If he believed it, it would be a lot more comforting. As it is, he has seen too much death and depression (the latter worse, in my opinion, than the former) to be a true believer any more. There is a note of hopelessness in the good Father’s 55-year-old voice - a kind of thin, reedy, hollow ring to his cheery words of reassurance, compounded by a difficulty in looking anyone in the eye. It’s as if when he speaks there is so little force that his words fall to the floor like an underthrown rope that never reaches the person he so desperately wants to rescue. The members of his flock are left empty-handed to face their futures with no lifeline of hope. This only increases his despair. 

The first time I heard him I instantly felt sorry for the man. He was talking to Merriam across the way, a lost cause if there ever was one.

“How are we doing, my dear?” he began brightly, hopefully. Of course there was no reply, just the whir of machines and the occasional mechanical click - Merriam’s drippers, I suppose.

 “Yes, yes, I understand,” he continued the monologue, her limp hand in all probability in his. There was a pause, some shuffling noises. I don’t know what he was doing. I imagine him looking around for something to talk about, perhaps some new flowers signifying a recent visitor, a family photo, a card - anything for a prop. I grudgingly admire his courage for venturing into her dark, hopeless world to try and shine a light. I couldn’t have done it. I would have been out of there in seconds, limbs willing.

 “Life is not always…easy to understand,” he continued in colossal understatement, “but we have to have faith. “Yes, must have faith…”

I could hear his voice along with his faith cracking like glass underfoot. And now he was talking to himself as much as to her, praying for both their souls.

“How hard it is,” he said with a wail, tears in his voice. “But you must never give up. Cannot. There has to be a reason…If only you could…Dear God, help me!”

And then there was a whimper, a choke and a long, awful silence. He must have been praying intently. I certainly was - or at least hoping for some redemption. How my heart went out to him! By God, he was trying. You had to give him that. He was really trying. Surely that counted for something.

It didn’t take long to figure out that I could help Father O’Reilly far more than he could help me. After all, I was the one looking horror square in the face - a life of absolutely nothing to do and nowhere to go for the rest of my born days. Daily I face oblivion and stare it down. He can only imagine. He needs me, and I want to help. And now here he is once again in my room, trying, trying.

“Father, how are you today?”

“You sweet man, how kind of you to ask,” he says, taking hold of my shoulder. And he means it. He is sincere. That, in itself, is remarkable. His hand is rough. My hand is not available. At his age, he still has a sparkle in his eye, although his cheeks are shot with vessels mapping his nightly forays to find God at the bottom of a bottle.

 “What’s the tally today?” I ask. “Who didn’t make it through the night?”

He recoils.

“Eddie, you shouldn’t make light of God’s creatures like that,” he admonishes. I half expect him to slip into an Irish accent. He is beginning to sound like some old character actor playing his role to the hilt.

 “I’m not making light, I’m just counting,” I say, and I mean it. You have baseball and football, with an occasional trip to the old stadium to drink beer, eat hot dogs and watch the home team kick ass, but my road trips are over, so I go in for different sports to supplement what I see on TV. Check-In, Check-Out is one of them.

In this, as you can imagine, I need help to keep score. This is not a big hospital, but still it’s hard to track all the comings and goings from the confines of my bed, so I must rely on the kindness of others, to paraphrase Blanche DuBois of Streetcar fame. Jefferson, the janitor here for the last 25 years, who will probably drop by later, is my main source. He usually shuffles in in the afternoon with the body count. Father O’Reilly is my

back-up.

Jefferson, for your edification, is often better at diagnosing the sick and wounded than the close-cropped, tight-assed, Mercedes-driving medicos who hustle the patients hereabouts. I would take his word any day over the Doctor Grossmans and Fields or whatever doc you are counting on to give you the straight skinny on your immediate earthly future. Jefferson’s got a very good eye for things as they really are. He ought to be giving the interns instruction in on-site diagnosis, but of course that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Once we had a celebrity guest, a real Hollywood type whose name you would recognize in a second, supposedly in for exhaustion and an annual check-up.

 “He had the AIDS thing,” my man said, this long before most people had any idea what AIDS was all about, including doctors. Jeff had seen how weak the guy was, and how drawn he looked. And he saw his visitors. “It was sad but he didn’t have long to go. He was embarrassed about being gay. Exhaustion was just a cover-up.”

Sure enough, within days the guy was out of here after a “miraculous” recovery that made the cover of all the tabloids, including a picture of him walking out the door, head high, ascot at his throat. It didn’t show him staggering to a wheel chair seconds later. Six months more and he was gone. Like I said, when Jefferson speaks, you should listen.

But I digress. I was speaking of Father O’Reilly and our daily tally.

 “Mrs. Epstein, God rest her soul,” he says, referring to a “check-out.” He is downcast, as if it were his fault she bit the dust.

 “The woman was eighty-three!” I say in protest. “Come on, Father, it was about time!”

“Oh, I don’t know. She was so strong, such a dear thing.”

“Not from what I heard.”

This gets his attention. He edges closer to my bed. “What do you mean?” he asks with a glance over his shoulder, knowing full well he is crossing the ecclesiastical line and moving into the world of rumor and smut.

“She was a shrew. She used to scream at her husband every time he came in. Probably the reason he died.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” the good Father says, rejecting me. “She loved him. I saw them together once.”

“If she wasn’t shouting at him she must have been drugged. I bet it was Thursday.”

“It was Thursday,” he says, startled.

Wednesday night the new interns would come by and the nurses would get them to fill her up with medications to “ease her pain” they would say, so she would give them peace and quiet through the night instead of

ring-ring-ringing and grousing about Mr. Gelberg in the room down the hall who is “snoring so loud I can’t sleep.” She acted like she was at Grossinger’s in the Adirondacks and warranted better service. Usually she was still flying on medication come Thursday morn.

 “Jefferson heard her call the poor man ‘a fucking asshole’ one day, and a ‘worthless schmuck’ to boot,” I say.

 “No! Not possible! Why, she was a dear. She smiled at me all the time. Of course, she wasn’t Catholic.”

 “Drugs, Father, it was just drugs. Believe me, it was time for her to rejoin her hubby and have a little chat with the Big Guy. She went where she needed to go. Surely you can see that.”

      “My God!” he says, outraged at my audacity, but hoping I am right.

“Precisely,” I say.

Of course it’s all a lie. Well, not all of it. She was terrible to her husband, but she never said those terrible things, although I am sure she thought them. But it is the Father I am worried about. After all, he is the one who is still living, and he can’t take too many more of these sudden demises, people just dropping off the edge of the universe, slipping over the side into the cosmic maw with no attributable cause. His faith needs bolstering, restoring, rejuvenating. He needs a reason. I am the man to supply it.

 “Father, it was her time! She was all alone. First Jewish woman in history not to have a family. She was ready to go,” I press.

     “Do you think so?”

 “Father, could it have been any other way?” I feel like I am a seminarian with a supplicant at my feet, figuratively speaking.

 “No, of course you are right.” He prays for a moment, then claps his hands, jumps up and smiles. We have held the hand of God together - metaphorically speaking.

Now he will skip out of my chamber and scoot to the rest of his rounds, delighted that he has seen the woman’s death through the eyes of God, remembering - how could he have forgotten - that in the end, all is good and righteous. There is definitely a Maker watching over us, each and every one, Mrs. Epstein included.

He must also feel rejuvenated to realize once again that he, the padre, has not spent his life in vain proclaiming His presence. That’s what he was thinking as recently as last night, and maybe today, and maybe just now as he shuffled in my door, and certainly the nights he has knelt on the hard, cold linoleum floor of his meager apartment and wept with his hands clutched in prayer that please, please, please, he wants only to serve and to honor, so let there be some truth, some sign, some reason, some cause for hope. So I see him in my mind’s eye, and I believe it must be so.

And now this timely demise of Esther Epstein. Surely it is an answer from God. She is with Him. Who among us has not clung to such paltry proof? I myself am guilty. But now it is time for me to move on.

In a few moments he is gone, and an air of up-lifting faith follows him out the door and down the hall. I envy him. He is wonderfully, if temporarily, happy. How nice to be thrilled with delusion. I wish I could be. For me, it is no longer possible, try as I might.

I can hear a change in the bass notes reverberating through the hospital, and I feel pretty good for a while. The day progresses. But before we get to what happened next, perhaps I should tell you a little bit about me, for I am the reason I am in here, staring at the ceiling and wondering if there is a dignified way to end it all.

About the author

My first serious writing was as a journalist in Los Angeles. This led to several screenplays and then my first novel, now published as "Playing With Fire" based on stories about successful men mistakenly casting off a long marriage to a faithful and loving wife for a much younger woman. view profile

Published on November 01, 2021

60000 words

Genre: Contemporary Fiction