By Paul Silverman
The machine said 160 over 120. The man, Henry, was with a girl who seemed more like some after-school burger flipper than a trained physician’s assistant. She gave him a death’s-door look as she wrote the numbers in his file. The tattoo on her writing hand wriggled. Next, the assistant squeezed out one of those lying, tight-lipped smiles, and a bolt of fear raked across his chest. He could feel his heart go crazy in his rib cage, banging against the bones, an animal trying to escape. He wished he hadn’t even made the appointment; he wasn’t sick when he’d walked in.
An eternity after the assistant scurried away there were voices outside, then a rap on the door. The doctor entered, pulled the curtain aside and did his medical best to bring the BP down. Tried to chitchat, change subjects, make him just sit there in the paper johnny, distract him with bullshit. Finally the doctor held his arm, raised it to heart level and strapped the cuff on again. The cuff: what a word. As though he were in the police station.
“I got it down, Henry, but not down enough,” the doctor said, unstrapping him. “Next time you’re in a drug store, take it yourself. Do it a few times. Let me know. Your pulse is a hundred miles an hour. What are you afraid of?”
“I read about white coat syndrome.”
“That means you’re afraid of me.”
“Is that what it is, white coat syndrome? Maybe that’s all it is.”
“Why don’t you make an appointment with behavioral health, get relaxation tapes or something?” He consulted his manila folder. “This happened last year too. You could think yourself out of a small heart attack into a big heart attack.”
For the next few minutes the doctor pushed and prodded him in a perfunctory way and the appointment was over.
“The drug store. Do it Henry. And write it down.”
“What if I have drug store syndrome too?”
“Behavioral health. Why don’t you just walk up the stairs now and make an appointment.”
The doctor shook his hand and left Henry alone. Alone with the blood pressure machine, the wipes, the lubricants, and a waste basket in which to discard the paper costume on the way out. He dressed himself and, almost as fast as the doctor, left the grim little examination office, where every surface he had either touched or sat on had been ice cold.
He marched straight to the garage and sped away, remembering that they were visiting Dani’s mother tonight, a novel experience for him. But not for Dani, who was in her 58th year of being her mother’s best friend. Henry expected to be good and bored, and he welcomed it after the doctor visit. Bored and double bored. All would be quiet in the rib cage.
Coming through the front door after work, Henry found Dani in a phone fest with her—and already cutting him no slack whatsoever. She threw dirty looks at him and apologized ad infinitum into the receiver, the good daughter begging forgiveness for her husband’s lateness, pledging they would run into the car immediately and be off.
She hung up in a burst of groveling and knotted her scarf, threw on her coat. She wouldn’t even let Henry run into the downstairs half-bath for a piss.
“If you paid a little attention you’d know she needs to eat early. Couldn’t you get home on time for once?”
“She doesn’t need to eat early. She demands to eat early.”
“She’s 86, Henry. Have a heart.”
After his day at the doctor’s she had to say that word. She just had to.
They charged into the breezeway, Dani pulling the sleeve of his coat.
“What were you talking about on the phone,” he asked, “the Chinese restaurant?”
“Yes we were. She’s bereft. Utterly bereft.”
It had been the biggest thing in her mother’s week, to hear Dani tell it.
All week long Estelle suffered the food in the elder’s dining hall. But on Saturdays she was set free. Of all her biddy clique only one of them had a car and was capable of operating it. Melvina, diabetic and 83. Her unit was three doors down from Estelle’s. Melvina had found the restaurant. It was called Canton Paradise, in a strip mall that was a good half-hour’s drive. Canton Paradise really understood elderly people living in elderly housing on strictly fixed incomes. Saturday they designated senior budget buffet day, and the troughs of beef in oyster sauce, sweet and sour pork, egg rolls and shrimp fried rice came out—offered in limitless portions for an incomparable price. The “girls,” their walkers and canes stacked in the trunk, had been cramming themselves into Melvina’s one-owner Plymouth for months. These oriental Saturdays, rain or shine, took precedence over everything, even competed with funerals, Dani said—and she believed it, too. For sure, she was on the phone with her mother enough to know.
Henry felt the two of them had a home together, somewhere in the ether-land of telephony, a secret mother/daughter garden, deep in a fiber optic cable, where they went every day.
And now there was no car and almost no Melvina.
Henry drove briskly. Not good enough for Dani. He came upon two yellow lights and each time stopped to wait for red. “Christ what a face. You look like you want to decapitate me,” he said.
Finally he nosed the Lexus (GS300, not even 2000 miles old) into the approach road of the Fernsbrook Residences. Fernsbrook needed no sign to tell you it was a seniors-only complex; the sheer number of speed bumps said it. With each slowdown to cross a bump Dani fretted at her wristwatch. But Henry got a rebound of youthful confidence. Sixty is the new forty. That’s what the pot-holed parking lot said to him. He gazed around it, at the cars of the residents still possessing the faculties to operate cars: cars as old as the residents were, in car years, gas-guzzling tankers from the Detroit Golden Years. He passed Toronados and Malibus and New Yorkers, sagging fat-fendered over their little black puddles, afflicted by oil incontinence. Could these rattletraps even make it to Walgreens for their owners’ pills?
Among such cars his GS300 was a space ship. Red too, same color as Henry’s first Schwinn. Sixty is the new forty.
Henry dropped Dani off at the door and cruised the rows, hunting down a space. It was the only parking lot he had ever been in where non-handicap spaces were in the minority, and tonight Henry desperately wanted a non-handicap space. At the doctor’s he had felt like a near-corpse. But here at Fernsbrook he was a lad again. He found his space at the farthest end of the lot and was happy about the long walk. He had never broken a hip. He had thigh and calf muscles, and they worked. For the last twenty yards he broke into an aerobic trot. He burst into the lobby picturing a marathoner breaking a tape.
But then he was crossing onto the carpet. And this, somehow, slowed him to a crawl. Bluehairs and baldheads were everywhere. Lurking and looking him over. Doddering inexorably to the dining hall, moored to their droid-like oxygen canisters. As he fell in with them, he told himself he’d think twice before booking another annual physical. What good was a checkup if the stress shortened your life span?
He found the two of them with their heads bent over the fruit cups, attacking the sodden peaches and grapes. But Dani put down her spoon and went after him, the bigger prey.
“Where were you?” She had that overseer look. About to send the bloodhounds.
“Just parking. Busy out there.” He summoned a voice even more syrupy than the appetizer and said, “ How are you, Estelle?”
The mother-in-law tilted the permed helmet and offered an ancient cheek pasted with rouge. He pecked at it, hardly touching, but Estelle was no more interested in the kiss than he was. She turned back to the fruit puddle, exploring its components with her spoon. He sat down and ate his fruit cup at lightning speed, suddenly aware he had come under the impatient eye of a large high-school girl in uniform. Out of nowhere she had rolled up behind him with a steaming tureen-wagon, and she stood there swinging her ladle impatiently, like a cop with a nightstick. Through the cloud of steam, the girl reminded Henry of the physician’s assistant, and he felt his pulse slam and bolt. The instant he gulped the final grape she snatched his cup and tossed it into the bin. Then she presented him with the second course, a gray, scalding soup ladled so violently a dribble of it sloshed onto his pants leg. She was 17, maybe 18. He wondered what she told her friends about this place. If she thought about it, would she say he was a guest or a resident? Suddenly, Henry saw this question as the most important one on the face of the earth.
They served no wine at Fernsbrook. Too many liabilities, too many major meds going down. Henry wished the blood in his veins could be replaced with cabernet sauvignon. He swigged his iced tap water and felt the walls pushing towards him.
“Mother, tell Henry about Melvina. Henry?”
“I know about Melvina, Dani. How’s she doing, Estelle? Back on her feet yet?”
“Feet, yes. Back behind the wheel, no. Not ever, I think. You don’t know how lucky you two are.”
Tell Henry about Melvina. Why was Dani doing this? He had been told everything about Melvina and her car, ad nauseam. Green Yukon piloted by a rabid soccer mom just up and plowed into it, very nearly over it. Vehicle totaled, never to be replaced. Melvina now seeing the chiropractor indefinitely, amazed she’d escaped the undertaker.
“Tell Henry. Go on.”
He sat through it. Estelle’s recounting the crash, the police, the EMT’s. The spiderwebbed window. Melvina’s lacerations.
“She could have been a goner. I could have been a goner too if I had been in the passenger seat. Our tickers have seen better days, you know. By God’s grace I was back in my unit watching Regis and Kathy Lee.”
“You’re a lucky one yourself,” Henry said, but the martyred look on Estelle’s face only grew more pronounced. She picked at her salmon, pus-colored at the edges and overcooked, and said, “I hope you’re enjoying your dinner. It’s not what you’re used to, I’m sure.”
“No problems here,” Henry lied, shoveling in a chunk of the steamed-out fish. It was rank. “You can live to eat or you can eat to live. At your age—ours too—eating to live is better. It’s scientific fact. ”
“Lucky is what you two have,” Estelle said. “Companionship. No matter how bad it gets you always have each other. You never have to go out alone. You have your wits about you, both of you do, and you should be thankful for it. Life changes faster than you think. It’s no fun when the only one you have to go walking with is a fat little oxygen tank.”
Dani’s face creased with alarm. “What about oxygen, mother? Do they want you to go on oxygen?”
Estelle shook her head—but slowly and reluctantly—visibly trying to keep the oxygen card in her hand. Henry saw it all. Most galling was Dani, who let the blatant lie pass, and maintained a face of extreme daughterly concern.
Henry continued, attempting diplomacy. “Well, we’re on the same road you’re on. We’re just a little behind you.” Just hearing himself say this made him shudder.
Estelle put down her fork and stared, moon-eyed and beseeching, straight at her daughter. “Things change, don’t they? Sometimes they change faster than you think they will.”
“Don’t I know it,” Dani said. “I think Henry knows it too, even though you’d never catch him admitting it.”
Estelle made a clicking noise with her teeth, a noise that made Henry remember old Polident commercials. “You two aren’t spring chickens any more. You’re not an old sack of bones like me. But you’re getting up there.”
Henry winced and held out his hand, like a cop stopping traffic. He hated what he’d just heard, so much so he wanted to be temporarily deaf. But Dani’s eyes grew limpid with love. “That’s my mom,” she said. “She tells it like it is.”
The whole drift of the conversation made Henry’s skin crawl. And the panic and paranoia loosened his lips. He felt his mouth twist into a snarl. “Pretty soon we’ll be hitting the senior buffet at Canton Paradise,” he snapped. “Just like you.”
Estelle put down her fork. “Don’t say things like that—unless you mean it.” Her voice spiraled into a desolate quaver, not quite a sob but almost.
“Henry can be stupid sometimes, mother.” Then she hissed at him, “Stupid is the understatement of the year.”
But now that Henry was out on a limb there was no turning back, no way he could stop his mouth.
“Look at you two. Boo-hooing over bean sprouts. What crap. So what if there’s no more Canton Paradise? So what? Play cards on Saturday, do needlepoint.”
Estelle began to weep quietly into her salmon. Under the table Dani dug her nails into his thigh. Henry winced. But he went on.
“That chop suey stuff is in every mall in the country. They make the egg rolls in a central commissary—that’s what I hear. Why don’t you just get it delivered? We’ll pay for the cab. What do you say?”
She said nothing. Neither did Dani. The cold way she withdrew her fingers from his leg was even worse than her digging them in. He felt frozen by her silence. But still he couldn’t shut up.
“Well, what if Dani came down every Saturday. Now there’s your new Melvina. Better driver too. The two of you can eat General Gau’s Chicken till it’s coming out of your ears.”
Silence and more silence. Deeper and deeper. All Henry could hear was the chatter from the other tables. Shrill caws, brittle beaks, the cackling of an aviary where the birds were turning to dust.
Soon Henry’s radar told him there was more to it than the cold shoulder. The two of them, they weren’t telling him something. The tension seized his bladder like a vice. In between the dismal salmon and the upcoming shortcake he hurried out of the wretched dining room and found a men’s room with a handicap sticker on the door. He pushed in, flooded the urinal and stayed an inordinate amount of time, consoled, somehow, by the sense of being close to the handicap bar beside the seat.
Emerging at last, he fought his way back through the sea of feeding residents, squeezed past a walker draped with a pink cardigan and a shawl, and edged into his chair just as Estelle muttered something to Dani. Henry heard a snatch of it.
“Why not sign up tonight? The list gets longer every day.”
He tried to sound bright and unthreatening. “Sign up for what?”
The two of them gave each other very arch looks, soap-opera looks. Finally, Dani reached across, took his hand, and took Estelle’s hand too.
In a flash her silence evaporated and her eyes glinted.
“Henry, I’m blessed with good genes, and I believe you’re blessed too.”
What was she saying—and why was she saying it with a voice that seemed to be mimicking the lilting strings of a harp?
His wife went on, gently lecturing him—so gently, in that trilling harp voice—about taking the right steps now, and if they only did, they would have many wonderful years together. At one point she even used it, that wretched phrase: the golden years.
What was she doing, and why? Everybody else was saying sixty was the new forty. He had heard it just the other day on a radio call-in show where the topic under discussion was arteries and veins, techniques for optimizing your cardio-vascular system.
“Do you look in the mirror, Henry, do you really look? I do.”
He pulled his gaze away from her and picked at an awful strawberry atop the shortcake, prodding and stabbing it into until it was a shapeless mass, and then he threw it in his mouth. The substance was so drenched in sugary goo it sludged its way down his esophagus like a sweet piece of sponge, then got stuck in a part of the pipe that made him gag and cough violently.
From somewhere in the large dining hall some sort of a health worker materialized. A real nurse, it seemed. She had the uniform, the white shoes, and a bag like a doctor. For a small woman she was surprisingly strong. Henry felt her put some kind of wrestling hold on him just as the blob of fruit shook loose and went down his gullet. He gasped and hacked and found air. The nurse pushed her face at him and stared into his eyes, blowing bad breath at him. She wouldn’t leave until he took several swallows of water.
When she did, Dani started in at him again. In the same harp voice. The sound of it struck his ear the way a packet of saccharine strikes the tongue.
“I wanted to do it four years ago when you turned 55, but I know how you have this…boyish thing.”
If Dani wanted a fight in public, Henry was prepared to give her one. He felt his voice shake, and his hands too. He swore at her, raising his voice. He saw Estelle cringe and turn away. But Dani hardly batted an eye, and she kept her hand right on his hand. Firmly.
The strawberry blob may have cleared his windpipe, disappearing into the basin of his stomach. But now the animal was loose in Henry’s chest, and raging. It hurled itself around like a bull in a chute. His ribs ached and the air in the room seemed oddly thin.
Dani pushed ahead, not changing the pressure of her hand, not missing a beat. “I’m signing us up for a unit right here in Fernsbrook. It will take six months at least. And believe me, we won’t be the youngest couple living here. It’s time, Henry. I know these things. I’m your wife.”
All over a Chinese restaurant. He didn’t say this, but obsessed on it as he sat on the floor, which had begun to roll like a ship at sea. He wondered when and how he had arrived on the floor. He tried hard to remember leaving his seat.
For some reason his shirt was off and the small, strong nurse had returned. He looked up at her and at the ring of gawking bluehairs. All so parched, so withered. In the center Dani and Estelle clutching each other, like two old sisters. His brain wildly replayed one part of the radio call-in show, in which a doctor had pointed out that the entire earth had a circumference of only twenty-six thousand miles, but the blood vessels within a single human being went on for as much as a hundred thousand miles.
So many miles to cover, Henry thought, as the nurse held his wrist and talked dramatically on a cell phone, barking instructions.
Paul Silverman has worked as a newspaper reporter, sandwich man, olive packer and advertising creative director. One of his commercials won a Silver Lion at Cannes. His stories have appeared in Tampa Review, The South Dakota Review, The North Atlantic Review, Word Riot, In Posse Review, The Pedestal Magazine, The Timber Creek Review, The Front Range Review, The Jabberwock Review, Jewish Currents, The Coe Review, Amarillo Bay, The Adirondack Review, The Paumanok Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Subterranean Quarterly, Thieves Jargon, Lily, The Summerset Review, and others. His piece, Getaway, published by Verbsap, is on the Million Writers Award list of Notable Online Stories of 2005. Byline Magazine and The Worcester Review have nominated his stories to the Pushcart Committee. New work was recently accepted by Oyster Boy Review, Hobart Online, Alimentum, and Cricket Online Review.
Photo "Time 5," courtesy of Andrzej Pobiedzinski, Olsztyn, Poland.
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