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Simon Sobo Writing

A collection of opinion pieces and chapters from his novels

August 4, 2016
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

A Plea to Black Moderates (including Oprah)

After Ferguson two New York City policeman were assassinated, then the five at Dallas and three in Baton Rouge. As could be expected from the President, and throughout the black community, the reaction has been both shock and sympathy for the fallen officers and their families. They are calling for love, not hate, reconciliation not violence, reactions that should be expected of them and the only hope that can see us through.

 

But no matter how heartfelt their reaction has been, we can expect little improvement in the hostility towards policemen expressed by Black Lives Matter protesters and others’ fury about unarmed black men being shot by the police. What can make a great deal of difference is for moderates to straighten the misinformation that animates a good deal of the hostility.

 

From the very beginning of the narrative that the police have been shooting innocent black men, the media has played up racism as the motive. Starting with Ferguson, a shooting that the Grand Jury took the unusual step of making their deliberations public. This was followed by Obama’s Justice Department which independently went over the evidence. There was no question that the policeman involved was legitimately defending himself. There was gunpowder on Michael Brown’s hands from trying to grab the officer’s gun. He did not have his hands up. He was charging the officer. These facts were available to any reporter who did a minimum of research. (And I mean a minimum) Yet Ferguson is cited again and again and again by the media as an example of the police targeting innocent black men.

 

Following Ferguson, Philadelphia’s black police chief asked the Justice Department to study the problem there.  In Philadelphia there are six times the number of shootings by the police as in NYC.   The Justice Department studied  the pattern of OIS (officer involved shootings) when the suspect turned out to be unarmed (a great many of those shot were suspected of having arms).  Sure enough 80% of those shot owing to  “a misinterpreted threat perception” were black and their average age was 20. However the threat perception failure rate for white policemen was 6.8% with black suspects.  For black policemen it was  11.4% and for hispanic policemen it was 16.8%.  So apparently fear of the black suspects and acting on that fear was least prevalent among white policemen.  One other statistic is worth noting.  In keeping with the belief that having to patrol dangerous places is the main factor behind  OIS, a map of Philadelphia was made which clearly shows that the shootings, by far, most commonly occurred where there is the highest amount of crime and homicides, particularly districts 22 and 25. In black middle class neighborhoods no one was shot by the police.

 

Why has the media not presented the facts about Ferguson? Why has there not been more awareness of the Philadelphia study? Most of us who watch the news know how often they amp up happenings, to capture the most viewers. This is true of hurricane coverage as much as racially charged incidents, but there is another factor operating here. The media has been afraid to appear racist by not going along with the Black Lives Matter perspective. Another explanation is possible. They feast on extremist sentiment. It brings viewers. They also consider gotcha, pursuit of the truth, their most noble undertaking, not to mention that it turns them into society’s policemen, for nasty men and women a delicious display of their power.

 

I assume fear motivates someone like Oprah or former Mayor Dinkins of New York and I should add President Obama. They have a legitimate perspective. They fought hard to get to where they are and part of that fight has been to shut up. They don’t want to appear to be on white people’s side in these controversies. It could be seen as a betrayal. It isn’t just them. When the Justice Department’s findings totally exonerated the white policeman in Ferguson, it released this information together with a with a condemnation of the Ferguson Police Department for their racist policies. The media focused on that, not the innocence of the policeman

 

Even after the two New York City policemen were executed by a man furious with what he had been told happened in Ferguson, Obama held back from cooling things down.  He was against shooting policemen he said and he was also against the rioting in Ferguson that followed the grand jury’s announcement of their findings. But this man, who considers himself to be the president of all the people, could not bring himself to proclaim Officer Wilson’s innocence.  He did not mention that Officer Wilson had never used his gun before. The best he could do is this.   During a town hall-style meeting at Benedict College, a historically black school he said to the crowd:

“Officer Wilson, like anybody else who is charged with a crime, benefits from due process and reasonable-doubt standards…  And if there is uncertainty about what happened, then we can’t just charge him anyway because what happened was a tragedy.”

 

Again. There isn’t uncertainty! Obama likes to present himself as a hero of sorts, Oprah is thought of as a wise woman. Clearly they don’t deserve kudos for courage. I am making a plea to them and all black leaders. Before any more policemen are killed it is not enough to whisper platitudes. Your reluctance to speak loudly is understandable but too much is at stake here for you to hold back. There is so much that can be said to help heal the wounds created by polarization. Why won’t you bring into the narrative the fact that during the Civil war 360,000 white men from the north lost their lives trying to free black slaves? There is a lot to be said without appearing to be an apologist. The point of this article is people like Oprah and President Obama would not be apologists. They are trusted to not only say what they truly believe, but also to rise above most other people sentiments.

Wow, could that be something. Courage from one leader, with the support of the other is possible. It could save lives. Or are they, like everyone, so afraid of our media that they allow its mean righteousness to go completely unchallenged? Oprah and President Obama have the opportunity to truly earn the respect their persona has given them.

It doesn’t even have to be now. There will be many Fergusons, many times when people have been driven to hysteria by lies. Sometimes truth has a way of getting though.The way people trust you, it’s possible you can do it.

If not now, perhaps the next time. Whenever it happens it won’t be too late. Especially you Barack. They’ve already given you the Nobel Peace Prize. You have little to lose.

 

 

 

Commodore: Chapters 1 and 2

February 28, 2016 by Simon Sobo | 0 comments

Chapter 1

 

Staten Island 1802

For the last twenty days, the weather has been overcast. It’s April yet the gray dark winter sky seems like it will never give way. Not an hour of sunshine to warm the face. Not a single warm afternoon so that the body can lose its chill.

6AM:   Trailing behind his father Cornelius Vanderbilt, nine-year-old (Cornelius) “Cornele” makes his way across the potato fields. Deep mud from the melting snow sucks at the boy’s boots, making it difficult to climb the incline. Old Cornelius is irritated by the slowdown. He’s had to stop his wheelbarrow several times so that his son could catch up.

Gloomy weather like this would sour the mood of any farmer, let alone Cornelius. The freezing drizzle is also rotten luck for Cornele. He and his father would have taken shelter from rain, but his father insists, cold as it is, a drizzle is not enough reason to leave the fields. 

Making things worse, the farm borders New York’s Upper Bay.  A storm may be coming.   High, mean waves are crashing into the shore, sending sprays of icy saltwater into the air.  This joins the freezing drizzle, as gusts of wind sweep the moisture a hundred yards into the farm.

Cornele’s damp wool coat provides little protection. The wind finds its way beneath it, injecting icy chills that cut right through him.   More meat on him would help prevent the chill from seeping into his chest. Every few moments a sharp frozen, aching sensation reaches his bones, especially his knees.

Old Cornelius started this morning as he does every morning, wanting to call it quits.  After the rooster startled him from his dream, he pulled his quilt tighter, kept his eyes closed, and- if only for a few moments longer, fought to stay asleep.

No luck. As the dream dissipated, it left him all nerves, which increased the longer he lay there.

Now, an hour later, angry energy propels him forward. He parks his wheelbarrow carefully, facing up the hill, so that it won’t fall, reaches for his pick ax, lifts it over his head, and swings it wildly into the mud, trying to free a large rock from the soil. He is a man at war, hurling his fury at the enemy, which is everywhere. Cornele stands nearby ready to help his father, but he is aggravating him more than he is helping him.

When they first went outside, Cornele played with the frosty air. He blew out a thin stream as far as it would go and waved his hand through it as if it were smoke. He tried to make rings. His father looked at him like he wanted like to kill him. As usual Cornele doesn’t seem capable of standing still.

“When you work, you work. No bullshit,” he lectures.

Cornele’s heard it a hundred times, heard the anger as his father said it.   Only lately it’s moved beyond aggravation to a fury firing out of his eyes.

Cornele repeatedly tightens his ungloved fingers into fists, trying to prevent them from freezing.   His knees move in and out rhythmically as if he has to pee. From time to time, his shivering escalates into a tremor, which culminates in a quivering little boy moan. He tried to pass this off as a playful sound the first time, but hearing it a second time further pisses off Old Cornelius. He’s convinced his son is exaggerating how cold he is.   He wants Cornele concentrating on what they’re doing, not on what he is feeling.

“The Princess and the pea. Your mother is raising a princess.”

“I ain’t no princess.”

His father is undeterred. He is intent on showing Cornele his mighty swing. The boy has an unobstructed view. Each time Cornelius’ smashes his tool into the earth, it sends mud flying everywhere. He’s practically covered Cornele’s coat and face.   A fleck of mud hits Cornele just below his eye. He flinches. Old Cornelius stares at him defiantly.

“Who told you to stand there?”

Cornele moves two steps backwards. He stares like a deer caught in the headlights.

  His father scowls “Are you waiting for me to say something?”

Cornele’s eyes begin to water.

“Don’t you cry boy. Damn’ princess with her pea,” he repeats. “How’d I ever get a son like this.”

Cornele’s first tear finally slides down his cheek, and then many more. Old Cornelius has seen enough. He will not stand out here with a crying son. He throws down his pick, and storms away in the direction of the house. He shouts, “It’s your Ma’s fault. Made you a cry baby.”

Watching his father march off, Cornele wipes his eyes with his arms. He’s determined not to let the tears continue.

He lifts the pick lying on the ground and swings it solidly into the earth. Old Cornelius hears him and does an about face. He returns and roughly grabs the pick-ax away from Cornele.

  “Your Ma’d kill me…” he mumbles loud enough to be heard.

His father takes a mighty swing. The huge rock comes loose. “See what I mean?” is written on his face. Happy to have another opportunity, Cornele drops to the side of the rock. He digs his fingers into the cold mud surrounding it, and pulls the huge rock completely free. His father brings over the wheelbarrow. His face turns bright red as he lifts the huge rock to the edge of the wheelbarrow tray. Huffing and puffing he drops it in. This tips the wheelbarrow over.

“God damn’ it,” Cornelius yells. The steam is coming out of every pore. When he manages to get a modicum of control over himself he places the wheelbarrow at a better angle.

“Come here and hold this steady.”

Cornele does as he is told. He holds it tightly, trying to steady it. While doing so, he shifts his feet back and forth still trying to keep warm, which is what bothered his father in the first place.

“Pay attention to what you’re doing,” he scowls. He grabs the wheelbarrow tray and shoves it a bit, “Like this! Get it straight.”

With Herculean effort, cursing all the way, Old Cornelius again lifts the rock to the edge of the wheelbarrow and drops it in. The wheelbarrow falls over.

Furiously, he shouts loud enough to be heard in hell, “Hold it damn’ you.”

Cornele pulls the wheelbarrow up, positions it, stiffens his body, and tightens his grip. His father again lifts the rock and drops it down. Using all of his strength, Cornele manages to keep it upright.

“So when you want to, you can do it,” his father observes sarcastically, but as he wheels the rock away, there is a trace of affection for Cornele’s contribution.

Old Cornelius will add it to the other rocks, which form a wall cutting across the field. Each rock represents a separate battle. As has become his habit, he glances at the largest one every time he brings a new addition. On nicer days it serves as a trophy, but usually it is too hot, or too cold, too wet too dry—the biggest rock, all of the rocks, remind him of just how badly he’s been cursed by God.                                                                                                        

“Fuck you Jesus. You son of a whore. Stuck me on this piece of shit land. Fucking rocks everywhere.”

With his father gone, Cornele takes the pick and throws himself at another rock. He is able to get it loosened. He gets on his knees and once again moves the mud away with his hands. Happily he anticipates his father’s admiration when he returns.

Old Cornelius’ reaction is completely the opposite. He grabs the tool.   “You are a fuckin’ idiot. I took the pick away once. I told ya. Ma‘ll blame me if you hurt yourself.”

Still intent on showing his son how it’s done, his ferocious swing further placates his rage. His steady stream of cursing, thousand and thousands of times before, has never been enough to get the job done. He can’t shout as powerfully as he needs to. The vehemence of his pick ax swing, attacking the earth, momentarily makes him feel right.

The rock is not loosening.

“Mother fucker. You mother fucker.”

A boulder under the rock isn’t allowing him to get at the dirt underneath. He slams the pick into the earth a fourth time but it has no effect.

For Old Cornelius it always comes down to the same thing, futility. Why bother? You can’t win. He throws the pick ax on the ground.

One son sick and the other useless. Too many mouths to feed. Daughters not sons. There is nothing else to say or do other than quit. He heads for the house muttering all the way, bitter that Cornele has failed him. He had counted on the future when a strong son would ease his toils.

 “Thinks he’s a prince. Nothing. You hear me Cornele,” he shouts. You’re going to be nothing.” A moment later he adds, “Can’t even hold a wheelbarrow. The world out there ain’t gonna wipe your ass like your Ma.”

When his father is far enough away, Cornele lifts the pick-ax and starts swinging.   In the distance, his father turns around. Hands on his hips, he watches his son with the nastiest scowl yet. As he turns back to the house, he kicks a shovel that had been left in his path. He shouts at Cornele.

“How many times do I have to tell you not to leave the shovel there? How many times? Almost tripped on it.”

He picks up the shovel, swings it in Cornele’s direction, and then lets go. It falls far short of its target. Cornele is unfazed. His father has grabbed him roughly many times, but never actually beat him.

   Fussing and cursing, Old Cornelius heads for the house again.

“Nothing! You hear me Cornele. You’re gonna be nothing.”

Phoebe watches him through the window as he returns   She is not happy. She opens the door, stares him up and down.

“Another short day?”

“The weather.”

“So why’d you drag Cornele out there? You already have one sick son. Jacob’s coughing started on a day like this.”

  He doesn’t answer. She isn’t finished.

You managed to come back. Where is   Cornele?”      

Noticing his blue lips, her tone softens.

“There’s hot tea on the stove.”

She’s no fool. He’s regularly disappointed her, but with all his shortcomings, the family could not last 10 minutes without him.   It isn’t easy to chop out their survival against nature’s malevolence. She wouldn’t want to be out there on a nasty day like this.

She shouts for Cornele to come in.   Her voice sounds like it is coming from heaven.   His arms had gotten heavy. He will soon be warm by the fire and sipping tea.

With this in mind he has new energy. He stares at the rock that has been his nemesis, rust colored and smooth. He swings a mighty blow. No luck.   It isn’t budging. He loosens some dirt and takes another swing. Still nothing happens. The next swing does the trick. He is about to lift it when it begins to pour.

He fixes the location of the rock in his mind so he can return tomorrow. Slowed by the mud, he runs towards the house. Hail is bouncing off the ground. That makes him smile. He doesn’t get to see hail very often.

 

It is dinnertime. Cornele’s mother, Phoebe Hand Vanderbilt, and her eldest daughter Mary, are bringing food to the large kitchen table. Phoebe is pregnant. She has a strong face, a straight mouth a little drawn down in the corners, but green eyes that glitter humorously from under thick brows. There is shrewdness in her face, determination, kindliness. But not right now. Jacob, her eldest boy, is coughing the worst yet, hacking away from deep within his chest.

  “Damn’ it. Cover your mouth.” Old Cornelius shouts at him.

  Phoebe brings Jacob a kitchen rag. He hacks away once or twice more, but then coughs more gently before stopping. They settle down. She looks around the table.

“What’s with you Cornele? Why the sad face?”

He glances at his father surreptitiously, before looking down at his plate. Old Cornelius is chewing his food looking as innocent as a priest giving a sermon, making eye contact with no one.   He can keep it up for only so long when she stares him down. She catches his eye for a fraction of a second. That’s enough for him to momentarily lose his composure.

  The portions are meager. There is not enough food for the seven of them. After cleaning their plates, they look longingly at the little that remains. Phoebe takes the meat off her plate and puts it on Jacob’s plate.

  “Here, eat this.”

  The other children stare at the meat.

  “Not hungry,” he replies in a sickly way.

  “Try.”

  “Can’t. I’m nauseous.”

  Old Cornelius and Phoebe exchange a worried glance.

  Phoebe puts the meat on Cornele’s plate.

  “You take it.”

  Charlotte reacts immediately,

  “He always gets everything.”

  “Men’s work requires more meat.”

  “And what do we get? Sugar and spice?”

  “Keep it up and you’ll get the back of my hand.”

Cornele quickly devours the piece of meat. Phoebe pours milk about a third of the way up in each of the children’s glasses.

  Charlotte is not finished complaining.

  “Can I at least have more milk?”

  Phoebe pours the last of it into her glass. Charlotte continues to look expectantly.  

  “There isn’t any more.”

  “I’m hungry.”

  “Talk to your father about that.”

           She still hasn’t let up on his decision to sell Betsy, one of their two cows, for one of   his schemes. As usual, that money brought back nothing. Late at night, in bed, she’s told him a thousand times. She doesn’t mind the booze. It’s the gambling. Just because he loses it over a few months, rather then in one night, it’s the same. He’s gonna land them in the poor house yet. Now with Elsa, their other cow, not producing well…

     Jacob starts to cough again. Old Cornelius stands up and puts on his hat.

    “Where you going?” Phoebe asks him.

     “Out.”

     Without looking back, he closes the door behind him.

  No need for Phoebe to say anything. Old Cornelius storming out is a regular occurrence. She returns from the oven with a plate of steaming biscuits.

“One each.”

  The weather has cleared. The clouds left behind by the storm have made for a magnificent sunset. A schooner, its sails haloed in orange fills their front window.   Almost to touch the color Phoebe goes to the window. She wants to get a better look.

  “Come to the window.”

     Charlotte hardly glances. She knows what’s coming. She’s heard stories about her grandfather a thousand times too many.

   “Like the boat my father had. Some days I’d stand by the shore. Waiting…”

Cornele can’t take his eyes off the boat. In contrast to Charlotte, every time his mother talks about her father he enters into her memory like in a dream. It brings him to a better place. Like songs that sometimes play in his head, his pleasure multiplies each time the story gets repeated.

  The ship’s deep foghorn fills the airways.

  “I could hear him before I could see him. As soon as he entered the harbor, he’d sound the horn extra long for me.”

  The foghorn again sounds its deep extended bass.

“Still sends a thrill through me… It’s why I fell in love with this house… You can hear the ships’ horns, watch the ships come back from the sea.”

  She runs her fingers through Cornele’s hair, as she stares at the boat.

  “He was tall and strong like you…”

  She sees he is uncomfortable.

  “Go keep your father company.”

  Cornele hesitates.

  “He likes your company when he goes walking.”

  Cornele is still hesitant.

  “Believe me. He does. He told me. He used to like it when Jacob could go out with him.”

  She hands him his hat. Cornele takes it and reluctantly puts on his coat.

  Phoebe is pleased. She feels a little guilty for driving Cornelius from the dinner table. This will help. Cornele needs time together with his father when they’re not working. He can be a different person on his walks.

  “Here take this biscuit to your father.” She breaks off another half for him.

  “Preparing for a comment from Charlotte, she goes on the offensive.

“You can each have another half a biscuit.

Cornele catches up to his father. He is deep in a dark mood. They walk slowly, quietly along the shoreline, Cornele kicking pebbles along the way. It is now well into the sunset, the bay slowly changing from orange to red. They stare out over the water as small waves fold into the shore. The sound lures them into silence. It quiets Cornelius’ anger.

Cornele throws a pebble into the water.   A thin ping can be heard as it breaks the surface. Lit by the sunset, circles of color slowly expand from the pebble, becoming less intense, and then disappear.

Cornele measures his father’s mood cautiously. He is still uncertain what will come next. His father throws a pebble. It is again followed by a circle of color.

Cornele lets down his guard a bit. His father takes out a flask and gulps down a swallow of whiskey.

Cornele’s apprehension returns. Could be the beginning of trouble. Then suddenly, another schooner appears, slowly passing them on its way to docking in Manhattan. Ordinarily, Old Cornelius lacks the patience to nurture Cornele’s curiosity. He might begin with an educational purpose, but it too often turns into a lecture.   Interesting details fade, invariably replaced by a lesson aimed at his moral education. This soon becomes scolding, sometimes for things Cornele didn’t do. His father will acknowledge this, but he says its good for Cornele to listen anyway and learn. Old Cornelius can’t help himself. There is so much that needs fixing. There is so much anger in him at the injustice in the world.

   The one exception is ships. Like Phoebe he has a thing for ships. He points: “What is that called?”

  “The bow.”

“That?”   

“The jib sail.”

  The ship’s flag comes into view.

  “What country?”

  “Spain. That’s the Castilla.”

  Sure enough, soon is seen, written boldly, La Castilla adorning the bow.

  “See I told you.”

  “Your Ma says you can name every boat that comes into the harbor.”

“I can.”

“That’s how you use your time? Watching the boats?”

  “They go all over the world.”

  Old Cornelius says nothing but it is clear he is unimpressed.

   “Your Ma also tells me you like to wear your grandfather’s captain hat.”

  Cornele remains silent.

  “You’re too old to play baby games like that.”

  Another ship comes into view.

  Cornele calls out excitedly.

  “That one’s Dutch. It’s Dutch like us.

“Don’t you let your mother tell you any different. The English stole New York from us.” Frustrated, angry, determined he continues, “It should be New Amsterdam.”

  Cornele’s apprehension grows as the anger grows in his father’s voice.

  “Telling ya. I would sell Betsy again. Your Ma don’t understand. Ya can’t get anywhere working with your hands.   No future in it.”

  He looks at Cornele, not sure what he understands. Cornele is, in fact, not listening. He’s planning his escape route, should the drinking continue.

                                                        Chapter 2

                                                                 Late December 1876, a lifetime later.

Cornelius Vanderbilt is sitting on the side of his bed using a cane to support himself. A doctor has just completed his examination. Eighty-four, thin and pale, he groans in pain as he attempts to stand up. Yet, sick as he is, he still radiates authority.   His groans are as much shouting back at the pain as feeling it. When he feels irritation in his throat his raucously loud coughs take over the room.

Below his bedroom window, a mob of reporters has overflowed into the street at the front of his Manhattan townhouse. A newsboy can be heard outside calling out the tidings:

“Commodore Vanderbilt dying. Richest man in America very ill.”

Making it to a standing position, Vanderbilt heads towards the window. An extern, dressed in white, tries to help him, but he is waved away contemptuously.

The doctor begins to stir but thinks better of it.

Outside, someone is shouting “Commodore” over and over.

Vanderbilt mumbles to himself as he moves toward the window. He rubs away the frost with his pajama sleeve and looks out at the reporters.

“Twice as many as yesterday. They’re ready to suck on my bones the minute I die.”

An organ grinder, with a leashed monkey sitting on his shoulder, cranks out a tune.

“A fucking carnival under my window.”

One of the reporters catches a glimpse of Vanderbilt and points. The result is a new round of shoving and pushing as each tries to secure a better position. Everyone’s shouting.

“Commodore.”

“Mr. Vanderbilt!”

Vanderbilt leaves the window.

The doorbell rings, a series of gongs.

“Pendleton. Get the door,” he shouts to the butler, as he makes his way to the second floor landing overlooking the entrance.

“Who is it?”

“A reporter,” Pendleton shouts back, “Mr. Michael Burch.”

Burch leans forward and looks up at the landing.

Vanderbilt moves into full view and straightens up.   Like a bear rising on its back legs, he appears doubly menacing.

“I ain’t dying you mother fucker.”

Calmly, Burch shouts up to him, “Sir, it’s Michael Burch.”

He waits for a response, but there isn’t any.

“Michael Burch. You asked me to come here… You liked my story about you in last week’s Sentinel…Said you wanted to tell me the rest…that ring any bells?”

“I read that article.” Vanderbilt shouts to him in a raspy voice. “I don’t remember asking you to come here.”

“Our readers want to know everything they can about you.”

“Sure they do. Especially, how I got my money. Probably think I have a secret which I’ll take to the grave.”

“Well, do you?”

“Just one. I tripped over a chest of diamonds and gold on Treasure Island when I was twelve. Been living off it ever since.”

“You’re a lucky man.”

“I wanted it enough. That’s how I done it.”

“Can’t be that simple.   You started with nothing.”

“Actually it is that simple. It ain’t the stuff you guys write about. I know it’s hard coming up with news.   Still! Ya ever get tired of bullshit?”

“We’re not all like that. Make you a deal. You tell the story straight and I’ll report it that way. Let our readers decide.”

“Decide what?”

“How you did it. That’s what people want to know.”

“There’s nothing unusual about it.”

“Nothing? You were better at making money then anyone that’s ever lived. People want to know about things like that.”

“I’m sure they do.”

“They’re looking for ideas. What’s wrong with that?”

“I ain’t no ‘how to’ person.”

“I’m sure you aren’t. But something made you succeed. It wasn’t just luck.”

“There was plenty of luck.”

“Not the way you kept multiplying your money. You did it for 70 years.”

Normally, flattery would turn Vanderbilt off, but since he’s become ill, he’s been more vulnerable to compliments.

“People want to figure out how come, what drove you on like that?”

“I’m trying to sort that out myself.”

“There’s a lot of stories floating around, not all of them nice.”

“Not all of it was nice. But none of it was crooked.”

“They say you could outsmart anyone.”

“That’s because everyone thought they were smarter than me. Dumber they think you are, the better you’ll do.”

“See that’s what people are looking for, advice. You have some more like that?”

“No. Only other thing is ya gotta be quick. Act before someone else gets the idea.”

“So you are cagey.”

“You want to call it cagey, go ahead.”

“Well what is it?”

“Who the fuck knows. I just do what I do.”

Vanderbilt starts to cough. He clears his chest and gathers his phlegm, forces the gunk out of his throat. He lets the phlegm

fly towards the spittoon. He hits his mark.

“Getting sick brings out new talents,” he says triumphantly.

“Do you see things differently since you got sick like this?”

“Probably.”

“Like what?”

“That I may be dying got me thinking about a lot of things. ”

“Is that on your mind a lot?” Burch asks with some genuineness.

“You really give a shit?”

Burch squirms a bit, which Vanderbilt ignores.

“Some days, it feels like I’m dying. Other days…I feel like a million bucks.   Like today.”

“You know the Herald is printing a daily report on your health. Been running it for the last month.”

“I know. The countdown. You can tell your editor I ain’t dying any time soon.”

Burch isn’t sure what Vanderbilt believes. His physical deterioration is striking, especially his pallor. Burch saw him at a function a year ago. It’s as if the person before him is someone else, taking measured steps, frail like a ghost.

“Since you are feeling good, how about an interview?”

“Truth is when I read your article I thought about doing an interview with you.

Give you this. Most reporters make up stories to fill in what they don’t know.   In your article you didn’t do that. What you wrote about me last week was true. Every bit of it.”

“I do my best.”

“I respect that.” Vanderbilt observes Burch as he absorbs the compliment. He continues.

“I need that. I want to set things straight. Never understood people my age writing memoirs. Now I do. I want the last word.”

“I can help you do that. People trust what I write.”

Vanderbilt seems perplexed.

“Is something wrong?”

“Sounds like I invited you, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“I really don’t remember doing that. Don’t remember it at all. I’m forgetting a lot of things lately. ”

“I was definitely told to come here.”

Thinking further: “Was probably my son, Bill. You got sons?”

Burch holds up two fingers, “Eight and ten.”

“Wait ‘til they get older and become pricks like Bill…”

“You really didn’t ask me to come?”

Vanderbilt isn’t listening.

“I’m sure it was Bill. The fuck has taken over. Convinced the doctors I’m senile. That’s put him in charge.”

He clears some more phlegm from his throat.

“Probably I’m not all there. But all that means is I’m not paying attention to what’s going on around here…Who wants to? I’m stuck with this body that ain’t worth shit. And the fact is, my memories are a thousand times more interesting than the people around me now.”

He takes several labored breaths, than continues. “I keep mentioning people my son’s never heard of. So what? He thinks my talking so much about the past is proof I’m a goner. The doctor agrees it’s a sign of senility. What they don’t get is, these people in the past happen to be the people I spent my life with.”

He hesitates to catch his breath.

“They mean something to me. I’m sorting things out with them. Finishing things up between us.”

“That matters to you?”

Vanderbilt doesn’t answer.

The extern, a tall young man, has followed him to the landing.

“Sir, I think you have to get back to bed.”

He grabs Vanderbilt’s arm trying to force him back to the bedroom. Over matched, Vanderbilt’s hand tightens on his walking stick as the extern begins to pull in earnest. He

cracks the extern on his head, a sharp glancing blow, and pulls his arm free.

“Keep your hands to yourself,” he spits out. “Who the fuck da ya think you are?”

The extern retreats.   Vanderbilt waits for him to leave the landing, which he does. He returns to the bedroom, leaving the door open.

“Shut that door!”

The intern ignores him. Vanderbilt returns his attention to Burch.

“Believe me, the people I’m thinking about are god damn’ more important than the assholes around here. Including Bill when he pokes his head in.”

He looks toward the bedroom.

“Put that down,” he shouts at the extern. He leaves the landing to retake possession of a urinal from the extern. He grabs it out of his hands. The extern gives him a patronizing glance, the same he gives to all the old biddies that he sees.

With Vanderbilt busy, Burch questions Pendleton, “Is he okay?”

“His mind’s sharp as a bell. Remembers everything. What’s changed is now he tells people things he used to keep private. Doesn’t care anymore.”

“Anything else?”

“The last 7 or 8 years the second Mrs. Vanderbilt had made him into a gentleman.”

Pendleton’s pride swells as he speaks.

“Should have seen him at 80, dapper, erect posture; he looked 60. They made quite a couple…Up until this illness. Now he’s more like he was before he married her, yelling and cursing as bad as he ever did.”

Having defeated the extern Vanderbilt returns invigorated. He shouts down to Burch.

“You can bring your ass up here. Except you gotta do one thing first. Tell your buddies to clear out. I want ‘em off my sidewalk.”

“Sir. The sidewalks are public property.”

“Fuck you Pendleton. Who asked you?”

Vanderbilt waits to catch his breath.

Outside someone shouts. “Burch got in!”

“Try it”

There is a knock on the door.

“Burch?” Vanderbilt yells down at him.

“Get rid of ‘em. And get them off my sidewalk.”

“Sir, most of them are not my friends out there.”

“I don’t give a shit. Next thing – they’re gonna invade this place.”

Two more knocks, this time louder, more insistent.

“Pendleton. Get that door and slam it in the man’s face. And none of your bullshit manners. See if you can catch one of his fingers or his nose.”

“Yes sir!”

“Then send someone to the precinct. Talk to Donahue.”

Shouting like he’d like to slap him on the ass, “Pronto!”

Pendleton mutters to Burch:

“He’s the same man.”

“One other thing, Pendleton. After you send someone to talk to Donahue, I want you to get my revolver from the gun case, walk to the back of the house and blow your brains out. And don’t make a mess!”

Pendleton winks at Burch.

“As you wish, great one.”

He adds cheerfully,“ Burch. You can have my story.”

Burch goes to a mirror, nervously slicks down his hair, straightens his tie, and then rushes up the stairs. The doctor, looking bedraggled, passes him on his way down. The doctor shakes his head in frustration. He has a sympathetic look of “you’re next.”

January 10, 2016
by Simon Sobo
2 Comments

Ending Insurance Companies Control of Mental Health Care

 

My retirement from psychiatry has allowed independence from fears that caused temperance in my opinions about issues, which all along deserved a passionate campaign for change. This is an article about the stranglehold that insurance companies have had on health care, particularly mental health care, for more than 20 years. First a description of what can only be described as atrocities that I personally witnessed.

I got a call from a social worker at Danbury Hospital in Connecticut. The following day they were discharging a female patient, a second grade teacher from New Milford with three children. The social worker begged me to see her the day she was discharged. I agreed to do so. The patient appeared in my waiting room as scheduled. The only problem was that she was so afraid of me that she would not come into my office. To no avail I tried everything I could think of to convince her that she would be safe. Only when my next patient appeared in the waiting room did she agree to enter my office. There were only 5 minutes left in her session, but in that time she told me that she had ruined her life, and all was hopeless. As best I could, I tried to reassure her, but it was obvious that nothing I said was having an impact. We made an appointment for the next day, which she did not keep. I called. Her husband answered. She had blown her brains out the evening before.

This was early on in the HMO era when I didn’t immediately understand the desperation in the social worker’s voice. She clearly knew that the decision to discharge this patient was completely insane.

I was called to the New Milford Hospital ER to see a young woman, holding a baby, who was experiencing her first psychotic break. She was convinced that a spying device had been put in her baby’s vagina. She kept checking her baby’s vagina hoping to find it. Oxford (an insurance company in the Northeast) would not approve hospitalization. They said she was not a danger to herself or others. They wanted her treated at Danbury’s Day Hospital. At the time there was no public transportation between New Milford and Danbury, but even if there was, this woman was not sane enough to commute there every day. I insisted on speaking to a supervisor at Oxford, then to his supervisor. They wouldn’t budge in their decision. The next day I was summoned by administration in New Milford Hospital. Oxford had called them to complain about my rudeness. I confess that I was guilty as charged. As Chief of Psychiatry there I was expected to set an example. This incident also happened early in the HMO era, a time when hospitals were worried about remaining in the insurance company’s network. Early on doctors were also worried about being labeled as a provider who gave unnecessary care. Certain insurance companies let it be known that they were keeping tabs.

I was seeing a woman in her 40’s for psychotherapy who had a double mastectomy for breast cancer. The gods were not favoring her. She had also had a heart attack. Her grown son was drinking too much and her daughter had had an affair, which led to the end of her daughter’s marriage. This woman’s husband was tired of listening to his wife’s troubles. After 10 sessions her insurance company, PHS, decided she had enough psychotherapy. I went through their chain of command appealing the decision. Finally I got to talk to the head of their psychiatric division, Dr. Robert Dailey from Bridgeport Hospital. He told me this woman did not need psychotherapy. She needed hospice. Astonished, I argued that she was not a terminal patient. She was still working and struggling to keep her family afloat. He would hear nothing of it. Case closed.

The situations cited above came from my direct experience. I could describe ten others.   Most psychiatrists have similar stories to tell. Indeed, this article was originally prepared for Psychiatric Times. They felt it was unsuitable because it was old news. As one reviewer put it “everyone has their own horror stories no different than these.” All across America, when it started, it was if a plague had descended on the field of psychiatry. Except this plague had been paid for by our patients, or else it was a benefit bestowed by their employers.

Mistreatment was not confined to mental health care. Patients unfortunate enough to have M.S., or those who had had a stroke, were learning that after initial treatments, they could no longer have physical therapy, the one way they could do battle with the calamity that had befallen them.

Dr. Linda Peeno was the medical director at three different insurance companies, including, Humana. When she came to the conclusion that the first company was unethical she moved on to the next and finally the third before concluding the problem was industry wide. Her conscience was bothering her. She felt directly responsible for the death of several people. This is not why she went into medicine. Although she liked the hours provided by a job at an insurance company, she could not continue. The opposite. She felt she had to reveal to the public what was happening. With a secure job as an professor of ethics at a local university taking on the insurance companies became her life’s work. She has written extensively and well about the problems she observed. Writing for U.S News and World Report in 2002 she described a typical scenario at her job:

“The staff of our medical department had attached questions as the letter passed through its maze to me, the HMO doctor at the end of the decision-making line. If something has to do with medical necessity, I am the final word. Our nurses could make denials if something was a benefit decision. Cosmetic surgery, for example, would be excluded in the certificate of coverage. The number of notes on the letter signals that this request falls in the gray area between outright necessity and clear-cut exclusion–the danger zone for the patient.

The decision is now mine, and I feel the pressure to find a way to say no. If I cannot pronounce it medically unnecessary, then I have to find a different way to interpret our medical guidelines or the contract language in order to deny the request.

A bright-blue square catches my attention. It is from a particularly cost-conscious staffer and contains a handwritten warning to me: “Approve this, and it will be your last!” It is common practice to use removable stickies. After we have finished passing any document around, we can remove all the comments. Official records will reflect only the final decisions and not the process by which we made them.”

From that same article:

“A doctor had called to tell me that his patient was almost 80, lived alone, and could not handle the preparations he would need to make for bowel surgery. Besides, we had already told the doctor that the surgery would have to be done in a hospital over 60 miles away from the man’s home. There was one in his town but they weren’t affiliated with the company. The local hospital had not yet learned to buckle under.

Without the pre-op admission the night before surgery, this frail man would have to drive himself to the hospital almost in the middle of the night, after hours of laxatives and withholding of fluids. When I approved the request, I got a call from my physician supervisor, angrily telling me that we did not pay for creature comforts. I told him I had already done it, but in the future…”

Linda Peeno testified before a Congressional subcommittee on Health and the Environment on May 30, 1996. Her testimony, and many thought provoking articles by her, can be found on the internet. Showtime produced a film Damaged Care that tells her story. She had accomplished a lot. Except about what mattered. Despite her Congressional testimony, her well placed articles, and the Showtime movie, very little changed.

In 2001 I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a lawsuit against an insurance company written in what I thought was a disparaging tone. I understood the sentiment behind the reporter’s attitude. Lawsuits have gotten out of hand. There are far too many of them that are built on lies and exaggerations. In our litigious society, small mistakes, which we all can make, can be exaggerated into a million dollar payoff. The result? Enormous energies directed to covering your ass, which means the multiplication of professionals adept at that noble aspiration. Lawyers and their enforcing bureaucrats get to tell workers what they can and cannot do, which means programed rigidity from the top, the last thing needed in a service based economy.

The suit that the reporter was dissing was not frivolous. I knew the person who was suing. He had lost his 16 year-old son because his insurance company determined that his son must leave Danbury Hospital. It was clear to his father and everyone that knew the boy, that he was  in grave danger and could not be discharged until his condition improved. The boy’s suicide attempt was for real. It was sheer luck that the pipe he put his rope over broke. My patient knew his son still wanted to die and if let out of the hospital he would finish the job. He reasoned with the doctor, he pleaded with him.  He begged.

I called the reporter Milo Geyelin and we spoke for 3 ½ hours. I gave him the details of how what had happened in this case was happening everywhere. Necessary care was being rejected as unnecessary. Several months later he called me. He had written, the lead story in the Wall Street Journal of May 8th 2001. a story about HMO’s control of mental health. That story was particularly focused on Magellan,  the largest mental health managed care company. It was gobbling up all its competitors, particularly less profitable, but more ethical HMOs.  By the journalistic standards of the day Geyelin’s duty was to be “balanced”.  He allowed Magellan to respond. The gist of their defense was mistakes happen, but they were being corrected.

I thought the article allowed Magellan to come across as sincere, as trying their best. From direct experience I knew they were not trying their best, anything but, when it came to siding with their patient’s best interests.  They perceived those who had become seriously ill as a plague on the company, understandable from the insurance companies point of view.   But from the patient’s point of view, insurance companies were a curse, one that had to be combatted along with the illness.

His story didn’t stop there. Magellan sold contracts to large insurance companies (as a mental health carve out, a company that specializes in managing psychiatric care). They contracted to produce providers that would take care of any insured patient in need of care.

They didn’t deliver what they had promised.  In many parts of the country they had no providers available at all. Many on their list of psychiatrists had once been providers but they had long ago given up on Magellan after submitted insurance claim forms were repeatedly “lost.” It required a lot of energy to get paid, and it just wasn’t worth it.

Magellan had their patients in a no lose situation for them. They allowed their patients to only see providers in their network and there were practically no providers available.  That didn’t bother them at all.  Moreover, if, by luck, a patient found a provider, treatment had to wait until the insurance company approved of it. This could take weeks. And too frequently there was no reply at all. They accused the provider of not sending in their form, (usually a lie) or they accused the doctor of filling the form out incorrectly. Probably true given the confusing directions and triviality of the form.

I can attest that it was impossible to reach the insurance company to try to straighten things out. Not only did they choreograph a long musical, “your call is important to us” wait, if you did get through, the people handling the calls were minimum wagers with no authority , little intelligence, and zero energy to climb the mountain of rules, the operational chaos that awaited them should they choose to truly help the caller with his problem.  They were trained to deal with forms. They knew their list of approved symptoms, as designated by DSM IV.  Anything that didn’t fit on that form was like Chinese to them.

It should be noted that, the form had very little room for the doctor to individualize his case, explain things as he saw it. It didn’t really matter. If he were to try, he would be passed right over.  There wouldn’t be a call back even if he had made his case. Clerks have very little tolerance for outliers.

Essentially the process was a scam. Totally legal but a scam nonetheless.  Entirely within the law  medical care was being shaped by purveyors with criminal motives and intent. Patients, who had lost it, forced to finally acknowledge that they needed help, were out of luck if they tried to get that help. They had to meet criteria that were sacrosanct, prepared by experts, hired for the purpose of making sure their patients didn’t cash in on their policies

The amazing part of the story is how Magellan had come out of nowhere, and overnight they were everywhere. It was formed out of the ruins of a failing company Charter Behavioral Health systems. At their height they were a Wall Street darling, a chain of 90 psychiatric hospitals from which they were making industrial profits. In the end Charter was investigated by the Justice Department for Medicare Fraud.  As they closed up shop, selling off their hospitals provided the capital to allow them to quickly become a huge player in managed care.

The irony is striking. One of the very companies that had, on a massive scale, overcharged for care, billed for care never given, with very little difficulty became in charge of what care would be allowed or disallowed. Businessmen to the core, they stuck to first principles. They followed where the money had gone. The denial of care business was now more profitable than the delivery of care. Of all people, they were now deciding what was, and what was not, “necessary” care. The fox was  guarding the chicken house. Every dollar they saved by denying care was money that went into  their pockets..

Managed care companies do not compete in the quality of work they deliver.  The only thing that matters is numbers. Particularly in the 90’s CEO’s were moving from rubber companies to cupcake bakers, to oil drilling companies, with little knowledge needed about the products of the companies they were leading.   As long as every quarter they could deliver the right numbers,  their job security was golden. Magellan was confident that the money they made from selling off the hospital chain would be multiplied by their new business. The sale of ninety hospitals leaves you with a lot of capital, the muscle required to buy up  competitors.

Numbers can also work against managed care companies. For example, an audit of American Biodyne which contracted for 14 million dollars to provide mental health services for Ohio state employees for 2 years found that the firm had actually spent $2.1 million on treatment claims in 1991 and $2.6 million in 1992. The rest of the $14 million went to American Biodyne.

The need to keep medical costs down was the original impetus for HMOs.  This is a real issue. America’s 3 trillion dollar health care costs were, and still are, wildly out of control.   We spend far more than any other country and the results are far from obvious. There is waste and unnecessary procedures anywhere you look.

The problem I am addressing is the decision to put for profit HMOs in charge of cutting costs. Taking care away from ill patients and putting these savings in to the pockets of an HMO amounted to legally stealing care from those least able to defend themselves. It was breathtaking in its audacity.

The head of Oxford, a relatively small company, was paid 28 million dollars a year, the majority of it pinched from sick patients. US Healthcare’s CEO, a former pharmacist, earned 900 million dollars when he sold his cost cutting company to Aetna. His daughter and other family members also got millions not to mention the 25 million dollar jet Aetna gave to him. Inside Edition featured him in an expose on the lifestyles of wealthy HMO executives.

US Health Care executives were put in charge of the company. Changing their name back to Aetna was easy. It took years for Aetna to extricate themselves from the chaos US Health Care had wrought

The Wall Street Journal in 2006 ran an expose, “Health Care Gold Mines.” It was reported that William McGuire, CEO of one of the larger health insurance companies, United Health Care, had unrealized gains on stock options worth 1.8 billion dollars. He had been given the right to “time” his stock option grants. His timing was so extraordinary that questions have been raised that he backdated his purchases. His associates call him “brilliant.” Very brilliant. The Wall Street Journal’s analysts concluded that if the options were granted to him blindly, the chance of his guessing as well as he did, was 1 in 200 million.

Not only have congressional committees long ago had the unscrupulous practices of insurance practices revealed to them.   Newspaper and national magazines have made reports about it, again and again in exposes. Yet the issue has no legs. Nothing changes.

Frankly, at first glance, the quiet on this issue is a mystery. Politicians, and columnists have so often carried on about abortion rights, or gay marriage, or some other higher cause that these issue have become de rigueur in the politically correct playbook. Yet neither abortion nor gay marriage materially affects a great many people’s lives. Health insurance practices do. Why is there silence from media pundits and politicians who love any exposure they can get?The strange thing is that what’s going on in the health insurance industry is no Enron. It isn’t a secret. If not personally abused, most people know people who have gotten screwed by their health insurance company. They have heard stories from colleagues or family members, anguished stories if the illness has been severe. People have come to expect that somehow they will be done in by the small print in their policies.

The absence of a public outcry, the failure of news stories and Congressional hearings to halt the HMOs was one of the reasons I wrote a  novel After Lisa. I had written articles for years with suggestions about how I thought psychiatric care could be improved.  This was, I felt, the most important way my writing could make a difference.  If enough of the public could identify with the Russells, the protagonists in my story, there might be a possibility of change.  After Lisa is based on the story of the case I contacted the Wall Street Journal reporter about. I was seeing a father who had lost his 12 year-old daughter to cancer. His 16 year-old son tried to hang himself. He was hospitalized at Danbury Hospital.

From day one they had started discharge planning. In those days insurance companies had a little trick they pulled. They pressured doctors to get their patient to “contract for safety,” have the patient put in writing a promise that they would not commit suicide. Once this was signed out the patient would go.

AS I noted this boy’s father was convinced his son’s attempt was completely serious. He was desperate.  One of his friends, a social welfare worker said to legally abandon his son. That way they couldn’t discharge him. The hospital answered that his son would be sent to a shelter. I will cut to the chase. The day he was discharged his son successfully hung himself. With two children gone my patient’s opening words to me, when I first met him, was “I am a dead man.”

My hope was, and still is, that my novel, or better, a movie based on the story, might translate the issues enough to arouse the public. When I started I thought discussing the  book on Oprah would bring forth thousands of people with their own story to tell. But, my fear is that even if the best result occurred, with the long history of public exposure about this issue, it too will have no effect.

December 14, 2014 60 Minutes ran a story Denied. It was well done, detailing what other stories like it have done, dead patients the result of insurance company indifference. Has the  60 Minute expose had an  impact? It’s been three months.  The usual silence on this issue continues.  There is no reason to think it will be different than all of the exposes that preceded it.

There is one angle that could have an enormous impact.  What was not covered by their story, or the others documenting insurance company malfeasance, is the fact that insurance companies have no fear of making bad calls (e.g forcing a patient out of the hospital who soon after kills himself).  The embarrassment is minimal (no news story) and the legal consequence nil. The parents and spouses of those who have lost a love one cannot sue an insurance company.   Federal ERISA law forbids it.

This issue has a history. In June of 2001 (see June 21st 2001 Congressional record) the Senate debated and passed the McCain Kennedy Bill, a health care “bill of rights,” that would have allowed lawsuits against HMOs. The vote was 59-36. Changes were made on this bill in the House and then the bill mysteriously disappeared from the political landscape!

Subsequently, several states passed legislation allowing suits against insurance companies. But, on June 23, 2004, the United States Supreme Court unanimously decided that while congress could pass legislation allowing lawsuits against health insurance companies by injured family members, states could not do so.   There are suggestions that the unusual 9-0 vote was an indication that this issue was too important, the pressure was too great for the justices to allow controversy.

Nevertheless, the success of insurance company lobbying to not only defeat this bill, but successfully end all discussion of lawsuits is a mystery that I do not fully understand. After all, the media and politicians have vigorously gone after other powerful industries, Banks, Wall Street and Oil companies. Despite their power they have not been as successful at keeping a lid on their controversies.

Because 60 Minutes has not responded to my repeated attempts to reach them about the ERISA law, I am including the phone number of the executive director, Kevin Tedesco, 212-975-2329 in the hope that one of the readers of this article will have better luck. Or perhaps call volume will have an impact. If this were to happen, if 60 Minutes were to take up the issue of the ERISA law’s prohibition of law suits, and if this led to the law being changed, so that insurance companies had to live in fear of being sued, it would change mental health care for generations to come.

But I am not sanguine about the prospects. The issues are in fact complex.  Ultimately the real issue, the debate that has to take place is how we, as a nation, are going to restrict health care to keep costs under control. Managed care companies have been hired to do the dirty work. They are not simply dirty. They are filthy. Powerful forces are lined up to keep things as they are. For instance, when the the Erisa Law was up for discussion in Congress the U.S. Chamber of Commerce  lobbied along with other powerful groups   to not allow the ERISA law to be changed. I assume they are still working hard to keep this issue submerged.

When the Democrats stuck their nose into regulating health care, so health care costs could be reduced, the Republicans rightly identified the “Death Panels” they were looking to set up. The Republican solution was HSAs, high deductible medical plans. This has been partially adopted in ObamaCare. Faced with  four or five thousand dollar deductibles smart middle class shoppers have delayed seeing their doctors and their expensive procedures.

But ultimately we have to bring  the issue front and center. What should and should not be covered?   HMOs have been a disgusting solution. We can do better.

 

October 23, 2015
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

Is “Natural” a Good Quality When It Comes to Medications

 

An excerpt from Chapter 5 of After Lisa addressing this question :

{Looking down at the playground from her 5th floor  73rd Street window, watching  little Maria on the swings, enables Deborah  to stay calm.  They have just returned from the hospital where the outlook looks grim for her 12 year-old daughter Lisa. She is speaking to Michael her husband}

“Joanne’s cousin had a lymphoma. Everyone said nothing could be done. She took shark cartilage. They’ve used it in China for thousands of years. Joanne’s said it cured her.”

Michael’s face tightens. Joanne cuts Deborah’s hair so they get to talk at length. Joanne’s place now has an acupuncturist and a Yoga instructor. There is talk of a spa. She sells facial creams containing herbs. Deborah claims the creams work wonders. Still worse from Michael’s point of view, Joanne is mellow and soft spoken with a smile,  an aura that hints at an understanding of the secrets of the universe. She truly believes what she believes. In style and tone she is the very opposite of Michael. He has looked over some of the brochures that Deborah’s brought home. They are nonsense.

Unfortunately, Deborah’s friend Laura is also into organic foods, and on the face of it, she doesn’t seem very crazy. No ax to grind.  Deborah has several other acquaintances who are in the same camp. Health food is no longer a cult, like Macrobiotics was in the 60’s. There are too many mainstream true believers. On the talk shows that Deborah watches similar information is repeated again and again by celebrity after celebrity, all with confidence that they know what they are talking about.   

Healthy foods, unprocessed food; at first pass that kind of makes sense. But the amount of misinformation being broadcast in the mainstream drives him nuts. Michael’s mother had her chicken soup as a remedy for sniffles, and honey and lemon juice for a cough. She knew, however, that these were bubameinsas that she got from her mother, and her mother got from her mother.  She knew that her children should drink plenty of milk, and eat their vegetables. She also knew that she didn’t know very much about scientific subjects. Nothing in fact. She didn’t adopt an I am a dodo persona. Not a hint of Lucy or Gracy Allen. She expected to be taken seriously but in science it would have been apt to be classified as stupid. His mother didn’t know how to change the channel on the TV nor did she care to learn.

“You want Lisa to take shark cartilage?”

“Michael, It’s natural.”.

Michael erupts when he hears that word. He has gone over this subject in his mind again and again. Every time he reads or hears someone refer to “natural” as validation of a product, he comes up with a thousand counter arguments, which he marshals as what should be the end of the debate. It never is.   This is the perfect opportunity to unleash his full battery of thoughts..

“Deborah I love nature … I love the Grand Canyon. I love that river we go to upstate, untouched by people. I mean that place in the mountains, clouds lit up by the sunset, watching the lightening from there, the trees turning into a painting in the fall. You know I love it.  But that doesn’t mean that everything natural is safe or good especially when it comes to medicines.”

“There is a balance in nature. Michael . We are always screwing it up. Throwing its equilibriums into chaos when we mess with it.”

“ Fine but those equilibrium are not sacred. You know Manhattan was full of swamps. Living there in the summer meant being in a smelly, clammy, damp, rotting environment. It was like living inside  dirty underwear. Yellow Fever could hit anytime. Washington DC was even worse. Guess what? They drained the swamps. They stood up to defenders of the wetlands. Fine some birds may have been displaced. Some may have died when they lost their swamps. Except we have New York City and Washington D.C.”

“ Yeah we have concrete paved over nature.”

“We have two vibrant centers of human activity. I’ll take that over a swamp…Nature is just what it is. it is good, it is bad and it can be very bad.

“Bubonic plague is natural. So is smallpox. That killed 300 million people.

“Michael-”

“They mine asbestos. It is a natural product buried under the earth. Poisonous mushrooms, mosquitos carrying malaria…”

“I get the point.” That doesn’t stop him

“Fungal diseases killing roses; black spot, aphids, mites. Nature’s gifts to us.”

He hesitates before speaking with gusto.

“Roses represent a victory over nature. Same for the Polio vaccine.”

At this point Deborah is irritated. Which he interprets as she does not yet see the truth of his argument. His voice get louder. He reads her irritation  as skepticism which makes him pile on still more examples for his argument

Cholesterol plaques building up in your arteries. That’s natural. Once again people have defied nature. Lipitor is a nasty chemical, according to Joanne’s brochure. It’s synthetic, it’s disturbing the balance in your body, that’s a no-no according to her booklet.

Yes it gives some side effects, yes it changes some of your body’s equilibriums. It is an unnatural chemical that just happens to have saved the lives of hundreds of millions of people. This artificial chemical is a miracle as great as anything nature serves up.

When I was growing up, three of my friends’ dads died in their 40’s of a heart attack. Ever notice that just isn’t happening any more. Lipitor.

Foods without preservatives are natural. Nature’s true purpose, spoiled food once killed tens of thousands of people before they added those unnatural processed chemicals, the preservative that Joanne’s brochures carry on about.”

Okay Michael, Okay, Okay. This is just what I need, you ranting and raving. You’re like a bull dog.”

 “You don’t want to hear it? Don’t get me started with that kind of bullshit. Natural.” He unsuccessfully hunts for one of the brochures she brought home. He finds it, but before he can open it, and read some silly quotes that he’s underlined, Deborah cuts him off

    “It’s not just the brochures. I’ve read articles, a lot of articles. Plenty of people believe in natural foods..”

    “ I don’t care if 99% of people buy into it. Debbie. You’re not stupid. Use your brain instead of going along with everyone. What they are saying simply doesn’t make sense. What counts is whether something makes sense. Natural has nothing to do with it.

“You’re so narrow minded. If it’s not Western…”

 “Deborah, think about what they’re saying. My mother would have never claimed she knew more than doctors, She knew her chicken soup worked and that was the end of it.

  He doesn’t like the look on her face.

  “Oh right. My mother’s not liberated?”

“You said it. I didn’t”

“Thank God she isn’t.  Let me tell you. My mother had a good mind. Still does. She can sort out bullshit better than either one of us. She doesn’t buy into this women know better than men

“Okay. Your mother’s not an idiot.”

“You’re not either but you are too taken by what other people say. I know Joanne is cool, and the people on Oprah are cool but they know shit about health and medical treatment. They’re like you, all liberal artsy in college. Science was for nerds. Those brochures you bring home? If you had ever taken a science course and taken it seriously, a course in anything, you would have read the first paragraph in that brochure and thrown it away.”

She raises her voice louder than him, “Can we stop? Michael we were talking about Lisa. Not politics. This is about Lisa. I know you need to talk about stuff you think about, but-“

It silences him. She is right. He’s gotten carried away once again. Lately more than ever. The room is quiet for the first time since they got home.

Remorsefully he takes her hand. “You want to give her shark cartilage, give her shark cartilage. But that’s it. It’s not going to replace real treatment.”

February 12, 2015
by Simon Sobo
1 Comment

About my book: The Fear of Death

                                         The Fear of Death  

An argument  with Freud, and a reconsideration of his  ideas.  This book is an attempt to   introduce the obvious into psychoanalytic theory, that the fear of death plays a seminal role in our psychology.   Freud had a powerful  fear of death.  Yet he dismissed its importance in his theories about our motivations.  This despite the fact that  it was, by far, his most pressing neurotic symptom.   It was the lurking monster in his most frightening and famous dream, the Dora dream. He looks into his patient Dora’s throat and discovers a horrifying lesion that he had missed. Like the Pharoah questioning Joseph, he has to understand what that dream means.

It takes hold of him, drives him to work on what  will become “The Interpretation of Dreams.”   The extent to which Freud had no choice  about this undertaking can best be appreciated  from his  letter to Wilhelm Fleiss.  He describes a process of working   “to which every effort of thought has to be given and which gradually absorbs all other capacities and the ability to receive impressions– a sort of neoplastic substance that enters into one’s humanity and then replaces it.  With me it is even more so.  Work and earning  are identical with me–so that I have become wholly carcinoma…my existence from now on is that of a neoplasm.” (Jones 1953)

A strange image describing one’s work, work that was later to be  recognized as inspired.    Eventually, what his dream meant became clear.  The location of the lesion in the back of Dora’s throat was to be the exact spot that Freud’s throat cancer developed many years later. Had he felt a tickle there from his cigar smoking and then dreamt about it?  Apparently. He had looked into the mouth of death.  The cancer eventually killed him.

“The Interpretation of Dreams” is usually considered the birth of psychoanalysis.  Freud called dreams “the royal road to the unconscious.” He  brilliantly wrestled with what he found there,  asked many of the right questions. He  came up with many right answers.  But if his search for clarity about  dreams, and the working of the unconscious,  was induced by the Dora dream, what influence did it have on the body of his work ? He correctly discovered that in their dreams, unencumbered by the  deliberate mind  that occupies our daytime consciousness, his patients’ unsatisfied sexual cravings push to be fulfilled.  The evidence was everywhere.  But what about their fear of death? Certainly, many people are awakened by a dream in which they are about to die. There is much to learn from these dreams.  Appreciating the reality of death, makes life more meaningful.  It makes one’s relationships, one’s work, one’s discoveries all the more valuable.

Or trivial.  But whatever one’s reaction, it is not possible to understand a person through their  dreams without considering their relationship to their death.  How could someone  describing their work as a cancer, with an openly admitted  powerful fear of death, ignore this aspect of the dream’s meaning and dismiss the fear of death as a major part of our psychology.

I have no answer, but clearly, he was wrong. It is not hard to find the fear of death constantly addressed in men’s thinking.  It is usually transformed, put in a  positive perspective. The best example is religion; to get rid of the fear of death, the Aztec’s practiced human sacrifice to appease the angry Gods.  The Christians offered Christ to a more benevolent Jehovah. It is the road not taken by Abraham with his son, Isaac.

Century after century, Christians worried about their future after death.    Transformed by religious doctrine, they were tormented  with the dark possibilities awaiting them when they died. They were pious (or resolved to follow that path) in order to assure a  place in heaven.   But that wasn’t easy.  Few men are entirely innocent.  Especially in the past they were terrified  that their moments of giving into temptation might land them in hell.  

Even those quietly pious had their moments.  Immortality is the cornerstone of Christianity, its most powerful ideal.  Hundreds of millions of Bibles have been read, studied and  held dear. (in contrast to this book which makes no promises)   Christ promised his believers would live forever. What else has to be said to the fearful flock?

 Today we see a revival of that passion.  Isis members have been willing to  fight ferociously and fearlessly,  offer themselves for suicide missions, with the belief they will achieve the opposite result of their fear. They are guaranteed a heaven that is  quintessentially the opposite of a revered Muslim life.  Life as they have known it has centered on strictly imposed  sexual suppression.  It drives them crazy.  Makes them turn on those who have given in.  Yes they stone adulterers, but their own path is not a bed of roses.   Young men, trying to defy their powerful hormonal push,  pray several times a day to keep themselves under control.

How difference it is in Allah’s dynasty, where they will receive their reward.   Not one, not two, 72 virgins await them in heaven after they die.  It beats the promises of Jesus where heaven has never been adequately imagined.  Angels playing harps?   I suppose that means, paradise consists of innocence completely restored.  Essentially asexual composure awaits the virtuous  Is this the best reward Christ can offer?

 Modern Western secular consciousness is quite different.  Since the existence of God is dubious,  happiness  in this life is all we have.  So that is what we pursue.   The fear of death is resolved very differently.  Virtuous behavior is redefined (exercise, weight loss, lower cholesterol, and the most virtuous of all,  “organic” food).  This belief system is transformative  in religion’s usual ways.    Fantastic beliefs are bought and believed,  logic and evidence tossed away.

That is not a problem.  Whatever bargaining, compromising, and self deception is required, when it comes to religion, the mind is up to the task. Faith and spirituality invariably trump common sense.  Or any and all evidence. Information about nutrition and exercise,  has run in a thousand different directions,  with an astounding number of  easily tested ideas promulgated and  going unchallenged.   

 As might be expected, when it comes to religion, people can  go over board.  In its modern incarnation some people become fanatical about the organic purity of their food.  They become “glaat” kosher.  Many become sanctimonious, outraged by the lack of healthy eating by others. Or they are angry that corporate agribusiness is poisoning them. The inventory they do of their soul would not be recognizable by the conventionally religious  Their virtues and vices are measured  by whether or not they gave in to temptation and ate that slice of pizza, or whether they forgoed their morning workout.

Whatever language we use, the fear of death insinuates itself into our consciousness, demanding solutions.   Unfortunately, this book doesn’t offer a  solution to the basic problem.  As Woody Allen put it  “I don’t want to be immortal because of my work.  I want to be immortal by living forever.”

 

P.S.   Readers seeking great wisdom, (or any wisdom at all) about how to cope with death or dying should look elsewhere.  This book is specifically concerned with developmental psychoanalytic theory.  Twenty-five years ago that was  my passion.  I spent five years writing this book.  It is an interesting primer for those wanting to dive into Freud’s and my thinking about a host of subjects too varied to easily summarize.  I hope it has my usual passion to lay bare mysteries that are unnecessarily ineffable.  I once believed that truth is unmistakably helpful and important,  a virtue of the highest order. I have had no choice.  It is what I must do for reasons unknown to me.  Now I only half believe it is crucial.  Kindness is more important.

October 23, 2014
by Simon Sobo
1 Comment

After Lisa: Chapter 1

Based on a true story

Chapter 1

October 1999

New York City

Glittering crystal chandeliers brightly illuminate the Plaza Hotel’s Grand Ballroom as the sound of Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz sweeps through the room. Sipping cocktails, guests lightly applaud the MacDonalds as they glide around the center of the ballroom, the floor to themselves. Several dance partners stand at the edge, gathering courage to challenge the MacDonalds for the spotlight. At the tables, gossip is cheerfully exchanged, as, here too, they check on the MacDonalds from time to time. Standing off not far from the bar, spicy singles in their 20’s flirt, their eyes searching through the crowd for the opportunity to find a still better partner.

Strauss has been a great choice for tonight. Retro worked. It’s made the evening grand, not what the guests expected when they received their invitations.

Very high up in the vaulted ceiling, a sniper has positioned himself. He looks through his high-powered rifle, moving through the room, one table at a time.   While the women have spent weeks preparing for tonight; putting the perfect shoes, hair, and make-up together with the right dress, they didn’t expect to be examined through a rifle’s telescopic lens. At the head table, the assassin’s sight focuses on one after another of the guests.  He lingers on a matronly lady covered with serious jewelry, but tonight his goal is narrow. He settles on the MacDonalds as they return to the table. Mrs. Martin MacDonald is a stunning blonde in her thirties. The assassin’s only interest is her dance partner, Martin MacDonald, a silver-haired man with a jutting chin, and a physique chiseled at his club.  Killing MacDonald is the whole purpose of the evening.          

The rifleman is perfectly positioned in a utility room above the ballroom.  Perched as high as he is, behind the glare of the chandeliers, his protruding telescopic rifle is a speck in the filigreed façade. Unnoticed, he will be able to proceed at a leisurely pace, carefully aiming without drawing the slightest attention.  His escape plan should also go smoothly.   He is dressed in a nicely tailored tuxedo. The sniper is confident that after he’s killed Macdonald his dapper appearance will allow him to easily disappear among the guests. He was born with good looks. He enjoys using them.

Joe Tolley, from Channel 2 News, gently clears his throat into the microphone.  People eyes are drawn to the now lit up dais. This part of the evening is the reason they are here.  Everyone returns to their seats.  Tolley clowns a bit, gets some nice laughs.

“Our speaker tonight needs no introduction.  He is a man of our age, a captain of our decade…

Applause. Tolley has prepared well. Leaving little to chance, in front of the mirror he practiced the casual smile he is now presenting during the extended applause. As it dies down he continues.

“Martin MacDonald is the personification of who we are and have become.”

Cheering.

This brings a smile to MacDonald. As he gets up from his chair, he bends forward over the table, and, whispering an imitation of Tolley’s voice, he captures his lisp perfectly.  The men seated nearby find this funny.  Not the women.  They draw back from MacDonald’s meanness, an effect that MacDonald seems to regularly elicit from the fairer sex.

MacDonald winks at his wife. She returns an encouraging smile, which he doesn’t notice. He long ago stopped seeing her. Jauntily he dashes for the stage.   Skipping up the steps he is soon at the lectern.  With his reading glasses low on his nose, patterned after an image of John Adams he saw on TV, he shuffles his papers, looks over the audience from far left to right.

MacDonald is hot. Buoyed by increasing opportunities, at this point materializing daily, he, more than anyone, knows exactly what he has done to create his good fortune. He is proud of it. He looks upward, to his Sicilian grandfather in heaven. He wouldn’t be here today without him.

He smiles broadly at the audience, feeling among friends.  They are completely captured. Who wouldn’t want in on MacDonald’s phenomenal profits?  Who wouldn’t want the wife he has, beneath the glittering chandeliers at the Plaza.

Business Week ran a feature on MacDonald in its May issue. His story is quintessential 90’s. A startup in his garage, an office consisting of a file cabinet, desk, and telephone. MacDonald answered the phone himself.  He did the filing.  Later, as the business grew, he sweated through payrolls, wondering where he would find the money for his 12 employees.  Today he’s unfazed by billion dollar figures. The one caveat? He went into the health insurance business knowing nothing about health insurance. Like so many of the new wave of CEOs his expertise is with numbers. As long as they work he remains the golden boy.

For CEO wannabes in the audience MacDonald offers magic.  For actual CEOs he offers lessons in how to hit the bottom line out of the ballpark.  He’s someone to study closely, figure out whether he’s doing what he claims to be doing.  In not very long they will be expected to replicate Cambridge Health’s profit. If they don’t they’ll soon be gone, replaced by a CEO who will get the right numbers. Anticipating platitudes they don’t expect to learn much tonight. But just in case, Martin MacDonald has their total attention

It’s been 25 years since his graduation from Macalester College, in St. Paul Minnesota. He’s never lost his boy wonder quality. Probably it was the football.  Being a second team All-American linebacker did a lot to shore up his identity. Thrown into the lion pit, he emerged a lion. He has kept the momentum going. He takes great pleasure smashing an adversary in his teeth. It has served him well. Winning is the only acceptable result in his encounters. When the need to fight his adversaries temporarily abates, he has fun. He is a wiz with numbers. There is special satisfaction when the numbers are large. Lately they have been huge.

Growing up he was hugely influenced by his mother’s scrappy Sicilian father and her two brothers, who lived nearby.  A Sicilian style wouldn’t ordinarily work in the insurance industry.  But MacDonald is also Scottish. On the face of it he seems an all American regular guy, a team player, a boy scout, very unlike his ruffian uncles, an insurance man through and through.   Only savvy.

He saw his father, Robert MacDonald, only during the summer, but those summers  powerfully influenced his persona. His father’s cheerful Scotch veneer is what others knew him by and respected.  MacDonald’s adulation of his father made it possible to effortlessly emulate him. It also spiritually connected him to his father’s Scottish clan, one with a long tradition of money cleverness invariably bestowed on the eldest son. So his take no prisoners uncles from Sicily were well camouflaged.

He adjusts the mike, taps it with his finger a few times. Then, with a strong voice he begins.

“My thanks to the American Insurance Association.  I am honored that you are having me here to tell you what you already know.  We need to stick together.  Stand as one.  Be strong. We share the same mission, to put a stop to runaway medical spending, to deliver health care at a reasonable cost.”

Happily, the audience applauds.

Ever so slowly the rifleman scopes MacDonald between his eyes. A voice from inside him urges.

“Now!”

He can’t trust that voice, a hard lesson learned again and again when he made the mistake of trusting his impulses.

The sight is fogging up. He pulls his rifle back into the utility room, and wipes off the condensed vapor with his thumb. All the while he keeps an eye on MacDonald. (an unobserved target can disappear.)  He double-checks that everything else is in order.  Nervously his tightly gloved index finger rubs over the filed off serial number. That was item one in his plan. An identifier that had to be removed. He pulls at the ends of his thin leather gloves to tighten them still further.   He cocks the trigger mechanism: cutting through the utility room’s silence, the sound of precision steel snapping into place with a bit of an echo. He repeats this a second time with military efficiency.  He takes a cartridge case from his pocket and loads.

Soon enough he again has MacDonald’s forehead perfectly centered.  Carefully, calmly–he can almost feel the bullet drilling in to the spot, into MacDonald’s skull. He can imagine the sweetness of that moment

There is a noise somewhere down the hall.  The sniper freezes. He listens carefully for it to repeat. He soon recognizes the scratching of a busy mouse.

“Stay with this,” he commands himself. He must follow a series of steps that have been practiced so often, that when his eyes and trigger-finger have the target in sight, what follows is automatic.   His finger tightens slowly.  Slowly.   He is almost there.

MacDonald’s wit is knocking the audience out. Laughter, cheers, happy shouts interrupt his talk. This has seduced MacDonald into letting it all out. The rhythm of a revivalist preacher rings out in the ballroom.

“Our fight is the good fight, our goal necessary…”

The audience’s enthusiasm pisses off the rifleman.   That stops him.

During training they drilled it in. “Don’t act unless you’re emotionless.”     Focus requires brain silence.   The mind must disappear as the momentum of the plan closes in on the target.   Anger is the natural emotion before and during a kill, but not for a professional. It undoes your skill.

He learned the hard way. In his first battle he got excited, terrified and furious at an adversary who had killed Arnie, his friend standing 3 feet away from him. He shot wildly, like he had never learned a thing.   Fortunately, cool as a cucumber, one of his buddies shot the man dead.

It was the closest he came to getting killed. He had no trouble picturing himself as rotting flesh six feet under. That image subsequently, kept him completely professional.

Twenty-six years ago, at army sharpshooter school, the basic method of training was simple and absolute.   Every step was repeated again and again, again, and again until nothing else is possible other than the next step.   The final decision to kill doesn’t reside with the sniper. It is muscle memory.

That’s not happening now.  The opposite. Normally obstacles to a plan, which inevitably arise, are quickly absorbed as interesting new wrinkles to be patiently overcome. Instead, unexpected events, like the sound of the mouse, rattle him. His concentration is shot. In the army, the sergeant sometimes fed the men greenies, amphetamines to improve their concentration. Given their level of stress it helped them even more than kids with ADHD.

His chin tight, “Focus,” he says to himself in a nasty whisper.

He began so determined.  Righteous anger can move mountains.  Or drive you crazy until you act. For months, unanswerable questions had wormed their way through his mind and exhausted him. First grief, then blame, endlessly assigning it to one person after another including himself.

Then that dissipated. His anguish completely disappeared once the specifics of his plan to kill MacDonald were thought out in detail. Setting it up took over. He went from inactivity, practically in a coma, to energy harnessed by having a purpose.

Getting things done their way. The army had taught him how to stay organized. Concentrate all efforts on the first step before going on to the next.  He needed a well-camouflaged spot with complete vision of the target. As soon as he learned MacDonald was going to speak in the Plaza ballroom, he went through twelve utility rooms located in the ceiling before finding the perfect one. The next thing on his check list-finding a MacMillan Tac 50 rifle was easier than he expected. The Tac is extremely accurate and able to be broken down into a compact form. Fortunately, Marty, his pal at work knew exactly where to find one. It took only an hour and a half to find the guy. And contrary to the image he had, based on Hollywood versions of gun salesmen, the guy who sold it to him was a character, an educated friendly enough black man with a wicked sense of humor. Next he had to find the right size satchel. The first one that he bought was too small so he had to return it and try out another size.

No problem. The view of the dais was so perfect, like a gift from God, it energized all the other steps. Everything fell into place. It may have taken two times on one of the items, or ten. Didn’t matter. It got done.

His smile returned.   At last justice would be done.

Except it isn’t happening tonight.

In truth, even in the army it got more complicated. At the beginning of his sniper training he had no difficulty pulling the trigger.  He carried out three missions successfully without a second thought. He killed whom he was assigned to kill and took pride in his accomplishment.

His fourth assignment brought that to an end. He noticed his target’s red hair.   That did it.  His precision, so easily summoned a moment before, deserted him.   There was no flow. His trigger-finger and eye were no longer one.

It wasn’t a morality thing, at least not that he was aware of. He had no specific thoughts about right and wrong. He knew it was right to kill this particular bad guy, with or without his red hair. There were no thoughts at all. But the red hair kept coming into his mind.

A therapist taught him how to shut that off. But it didn’t matter.   He’d still miss his target again and again.

When the time came he didn’t reenlist. His sergeant more or less made clear that was to be his plan.

Once again the gunman pulls the rifle back into the utility room.  We get a better look at him.  He’s sweating.  His face is alive with emotion.   As opposed to our initial impression, he is anything but a professional.

“Take your time,” he commands himself. That does nothing. Drifting thoughts grab his attention, one after another, without rhyme or reason.

He had imagined the exact instant in detail.    MacDonald, just after he’s made a clever observation, bathed in adulation, a split second before the applause erupts, the audience smiling, congratulating themselves for being there.

Bang!

Blood is the perfect punctuation.

A single shot.

Sweet!

Bang.

It will put them on notice.  Someone’s watching.  Someone

sees what you’re doing.

MacDonald ends his talk. Like a politician at a convention he waves to the audience.

As he returns to his table, the rifleman’s frantic.

He still has a good shot. Now!

He doesn’t pull the trigger.

The rifleman soon makes peace with the new facts. His fantasy about the precise moment of MacDonald’s death was self-indulgent. The joy of catching him at a glorious moment in front of the audience isn’t all that important. Reaching for a French fry, wiping off the ketchup from his lips, blowing his nose, trying to catch the eye of one of the attractive women at his table-any moment will be okay. Shot and killed is the main point. If the deed gets done, the meaning will be clear.   Dead is dead.

This last thought enables the rifleman to cool off. MacDonald will remain in target range for at least an hour. Later will be fine.

Michael wipes the sweat off his forehead. He’s hot and clammy, his shirt and underwear are sticking to him.  He takes off his tuxedo jacket, sits himself on the floor against a huge cable roll stored in the room. Trying to regain his composure, he closes his eyes and inhales deeply, filling his chest with air.

No luck.  His clammy shirt is bothering him. He can’t seem to catch his breath. His mind is still all over the place. Doubts. More doubts. He closes his eyes, drifts through his memories…

 

October 23, 2014
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

After Lisa Chapter 2

 

Ten years earlier.

 

Two tents have been pitched at a clearing high in the mountains. It is a day to worship the fall foliage, sunny, the air with a bite to it, crisp, clear, newly cold.

Far below, the farm fields form squares of contrasting green color, fall crops of lettuce and broccoli, waiting to be harvested.   Orange pumpkins are piled high near the corner of one of the squares. Another square is brown and orange, half picked and half unpicked.

Ten years younger Michael Russell is a devil with light green, deep-set eyes. Calm and carefree, he hardly resembles the gunman. At 30 Deborah Russell’s striking blonde, still thick, almost hippie curls are the first thing that catch people’s attention. She is petite. She moves like a cat. The children are adorable. Six-year-old Ritchie is quiet and observant, seven-year-old Lisa feisty. They are lucky. They have inherited Deborah’s hair and Michael’s luminescent green eyes. They are graceful like Deborah, with Michael’s energy propelling them.

Michael is eight feet up in a tree. He’s taped his brand new Nikon on a limb above him. Seated on a lower branch, he looks through the eyepiece. He is constructing a family portrait.   It’s going to be a great shot.

This shot was planned over a year ago. He told Deborah about it before they arrived. It was hatched while they were making their first visit here and Michael sat on this exact tree trunk. He saw an extraordinary view as he looked down at Ritchie, and wished he had his camera. This time he is prepared.

He screws a cable into his camera he purchased for this picture. The cable will invisibly run to the spot he has designated for himself in the portrait. With the cable, his thumb will physically control the shutter.

He moves them to their places, then plays with the shutter speed.   Deborah is beginning to lose her patience. Lisa also has done enough posing.

“Dad, how long do we have to stand here?”

That emboldens Deborah. She gives Michael an “enough already” look.

“Good things come to those who wait.”

“Daaad!”

He saves fortune cookie advice for the children. And Lisa is never amused. But they both like the ritual of it. This is the tenth time Lisa’s heard it, and the tenth time she’s admonished him with that exact tone of voice.

“One more second.”

He always answers with the same words and it is never a second. Once his stubbornness is aroused he can dig in. He will not be rushed.   As he looks through his eyepiece, he is fascinated by how he imagines the picture will look. The four of them will seem surrealistically suspended in air, two thousand feet above the farmland in the valley.

Behind Michael, in front of him, to the right and to the left, is the glory of autumn. Maple trees, birches, and oaks prepare for winter, yellows, oranges and reds, intense pastels, intersected by strong brown tree branches and trunks. Michael likes the beauty of the surrounding foliage, but what he is even more drawn to the immense emptiness in front of him. It beckons him, pulls at him. Once before, on the top of the Empire State Building the same thing happened; again vast nothingness. 

He once again feels an urge to jump. He can feel it in his stomach which is poised to react to his leap.  Immediately after that impulse comes dread. Like it was a close call. Yet, suicide is not at all on his mind. It never occurs to him.   Why that sensation? He read an article that claimed having a desire to jump from a great height is common. So is the quiver of anxiety when the thought registers. Freud took this phenomenon as evidence for one of his most radical speculations. He claimed we have an unconscious wish to die. Fully aware of how crazy it sounded, he nevertheless ranked it with our sexual drive as one of the two fundamental forces shaping our motivation. Despite his anticipation of rejection Freud wouldn’t back down.   He felt he had the evidence.

Clearly, this is not a fitting background for a family picture. Why does Michael want to use it? It has nothing to do with his family. The explanation isn’t all that complicated. He’s still young, at an age when novelty can seem exciting, when “originality,” “creativity” are taken as a sign of serious talent.   His real talent is plain and simple, his attraction to beauty. But he can’t help noticing the lilt in people’s voice when they describe someone as creative. He would like his photography to be “cool” like that.  In fact he likes it a little too much. He has not reached a point where he appreciates how much this kind of vanity interferes with his artistic purposes.

  “Okay, everyone stay where you are. Look up.”

Ritchie breaks ranks.

A little too emphatically Lisa grabs Ritchie and returns him to his place.

“Ouch” he cries out angrily.

To deaf ears. Lisa looks up at her father. He smiles his ‘we are partners on a mission’ smile. She loves that connection when it is offered.

Still sitting on the limb, Michael positions Ritchie first to the right, then Lisa to the left. Then he moves Ritchie left again. Lisa pulls on her brother. “Ritchie! Over here,” she commands.

“Look into the camera. Deborah, Lift your chin… more…That’s it.”

Exasperated, Lisa admonishes him. “Daddy take the picture already.”

They are very close to perfection. He likes the way Lisa’s arms are thrown around Harry, their mutt. He likes the way Harry is smiling, half giddy, panting away, ready for the next bit of action.

“Just one more minute. Ritchie, you could be up a little higher.”

A look from Deborah warns him. She has a temper. She has complained many times to Michael about his fussiness when he takes pictures. She’s asked him a thousand times. Why does she have to get angry for it to register?

He hears her, or more accurately sees, how pissed Deborah is. He will have to settle for the picture he has now or get nothing at all.

“Nobody move.”

He hurriedly fiddles with the cable one last time, then swings down and hangs by the branch, imitating King Kong.

“Careful,” Deborah shouts.

He drops to the ground almost bouncing up as he lands. Score one for him against the nay-sayers. Extending the cable he joins them.

“Okay everyone, Look up… Cheese.”

They shout, “Carrot juice.” “Carrot juice” has become a tradition since it made them laugh the first time. This time is no exception. Smiling happy Russells-he likes what he sees. Click, click.

“Okay, one more”

It is the signal the kids have been waiting for. They are outta there.

“Wait!” he yells

Lisa yells back ,“No way.”

Ritchie imitates Lisa.

“Yeah. No way.”

Happy noise: laughter, barking, Ritchie emits a wssssss, an airplane sound as he flies his miniature plane. Chin level he wsssses past Lisa. She drops her coat to the ground and spreads her arms wide so that they resemble airplane wings. She takes off with a wssssss. She shouts to Ritchie.

“My plane is bigger. Wsssssss.,” she yells, twice as loud as Ritchie. “Catch me.”

He reverses course and runs with his airplane chasing her. The two planes circle the campfire. Suddenly Ritchie trips and goes down. He has scraped his knee. He tries not to cry.

From the ground, For one last second Ritchie tries to continue his “Wsssss,” but it no longer is coming from a glorious airplane defying gravity. He fights against his tears.

It is no use. The dam breaks. He hopelessly looks up at his daddy. Michael lifts him and scolds the ground with a ditty.

                                     “Oh what did you do to my Ritchie?

                                        My Ritchie did nothing to you.

                                       The next time you hurt my Ritchie.

                                       I’ll caw-awl the policeman on you.”

 

Michael kicks at the ground twice with his heels as he shouts

“Boom. Boom.”

His tears gone, Ritchie is put down and, imitating his father, he clumsily kicks the ground himself, twice with his toes.

“Boom-boom.”

He again holds his plane in the air and starts running with it. Lisa turns around and with arms still held wide she makes her wsssss sound still louder, more powerful than Ritchie’s. She is soon chasing Ritchie’s airplane with her own. Harry comes into the picture.  They smile triumphantly, join forces, two wissssers united, chasing Harry. He gallops far away. Laughing, Lisa shouts for Harry to return. He barks at her from 20 yards away..

She once again runs around the fire. Watching from the distance, Harry continues to bark. Lisa calls to him. He returns to chase her. Finally catching her, he jumps on her back, a perfect tackle.   “Harry!” She screams happily as he brings her down. Ritchie simply stands and watches them with a big fat grin.

The campfire is dying down. The sun is low in the sky. The children are still whizzing around, but shortly exhaustion will take over.

Deborah yells for them to come to her, which they do without protest. It has become a routine. Brushing their teeth. Putting a dab of toothpaste on each toothbrush, she hands the yellow tipped one to Lisa and the green tipped to Ritchie. Lisa holds hers up and inspects it to be sure she’s been given the right toothbrush. From a canteen Deborah pours water on her brush, then does the same for Ritchie. They get to work. Ritchie hums as he goes.   Lisa is a more competent brusher. Soon however, they are making more noise than actually brushing.

“Okay enough.” Deborah orders them.

   She hands Lisa the canteen for a swig of water. Lisa gargles noisily then spits it out, aiming for the longest distance. She enjoys the idea of spitting on the ground.

It’s Ritchie’s turn. He gargles and spits not nearly as far as Lisa. As compensation Ritchie sticks his toe on Lisa’s wet spot for good measure.

Deborah’s voice breaks through their procrastination. They know perfectly well what comes after brushing their teeth. They deliver their toothbrushes to Deborah.   They love the absoluteness of the rules in this routine. Like a game of Monopoly, “Go to Jail, Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.”

The excitement is only possible if you don’t ask why. Why do I have to go to jail? Why can’t I collect $200 dollars? Why? No whys are allowed. No whys are needed. The fun comes from totally living within Monopoly.

“Okay. March to the tent.”

They march. When they get to the entrance she calls to them.

“About face.”

They do so with military precision.

“Wow. Do that again. No wait. Let me call Daddy.”

She shouts from some distance away, “Michael!”

He shouts back, “What?”

“Watch this.”

Happy marionettes. They repeat their about-face.

He shouts to them. “You want to join the army like me?”

“Yeees.”

Deborah yells, “I’ll be there soon.”

She turns to the kids, “Okay. In your tent. I’ll come in to kiss you good night in a minute.”

No protest. Sleeping in the tent is a treat. Off they go.

Deborah washes their toothbrushes while listening to the crackling timbers in the fire.

She shouts to Michael. He waves from the distance. She inches her skirt little by little up her long legs.

He loves her legs. He’s told her many times that he married her for her legs. She swims miles at the YMCA pool every other day to keep them that way.

She enters the children’s tent, picks their clothes up and folds them. They are excited. This is a treat. Normally they sleep alone in their rooms at home. They are sitting side by side with their legs in a shared sleeping bag.

Lisa is wearing a ring that Deborah had found in her mother’s attic. It belonged to her grandmother’s great aunt, a beauty who had never married. The ring had been given to her by a young man who was killed in a duel fought over her. She remained true, wore the ring for the rest of her life, never marrying. After she heard the story, Lisa asked for it. Deborah had it sized. Lisa wouldn’t take it off even when she took her bath. Something about that story.

Lisa hands her ring to Ritchie, “Put it on tonight. It means we are married.”

Ritchie counters, “I can’t marry my sister. Right Mommy?”

“Make believe,” Lisa argues.

The boss interrupts.

“Come on guys.”

Lisa ceremoniously puts the ring on his finger. Ritchie lies back, enchanted with the thought of being Lisa’s husband.

Deborah snaps him out of it. She has him slide further into the bag so that she can zip him up on his side. Next Lisa. Deborah looks into her eyes. Her lips are parted. She gives her a juicy kiss which makes her giggle. As Lisa brings her arms inside her bag and Deborah zippers her up they smile at each other, a devil in Lisa’s eyes. Deborah gives Ritchie a kiss. As usual he gives her his yuck face.

There is still a bit of light. Not long after Deborah has left the tent, giggling excitedly, Ritchie and Lisa share a look of complicity. Lisa unzips and flashes her hidden Hershey Bar.

She puts her finger in front of her lips. “Shhh.”

Their arms disappear inside the bags. Ritchie pinches Lisa.

From outside the tent Deborah warns them.

“Shh…”

They giggle again. Deborah sticks her head back in the tent. They let out a startled scream.   Then more giggles. Deborah pretends she hasn’t seen the chocolate bar. After it disappears under the cover she points her finger at them, teasingly accusing them. A high pitch tweet from them. She gives them their definitive goodnight, a “that’s enough” face. They settle down quickly. The fresh air has had its effect. As their eyes close they are already half asleep.

Smiling, Deborah walks away and settles by the fire. She listens to crackling twigs and sparks flying out from the fire. She stares at a log luminescent orange framed by grey ash. She is soon absorbed by the constancy of the flames and sparks. She grew up with a fireplace. She misses it in their New York apartment.

Every once in a while, she thinks she hears an animal stepping on a stick behind her.   A cougar jumps out of the dark woods! A quick look in that direction. It’s Harry settling down. She feels a chill. She puts on a sweatshirt and gets closer to the fire.   Sitting on a boulder, she lights a joint, unwinds, stares into space, finally calm with the darkness all around.

After 10 minutes she reenters the children’s tent. They are sleeping peacefully. Her eyes embrace them as she listens to their gentle breathing. Lisa coughs. Deborah continues to listen. Her breathing is a bit nasal. She finally convinces herself that it is nothing, as Michael invariably tells her. As she parts the door flap of the tent to leave she can make out Michael sixty yards away.

He is seated where they took the picture, on the edge of the cliff thousands of feet above the valley. The ledge is tilted slightly downward. Deborah appears. She is feeling the marijuana, grinning like a happy child.

Approaching carefully, she grips the rock with her strong fingernails for traction as she slides next to him.

She slips anyway, but quickly recovers.

“Whoa. That was close,” Michael says.

“I’m all right.” She examines her finger. “I broke a nail.”

In the quiet she sits close to him, both of them looking straight out into the emptiness.

“How is your book going? How’s Cornelius?”

“Amazing- as always. He refused to quit.”

“I still don’t get what’s so interesting about Vanderbilt?”

“He came from nothing and died the richest man in the world. Believe me there is a story there.”

“But two years on this guy. It’s like he’s part of our family. Truthfully I think he’s a macho schmuck.”

“You don’t know anything about him.”

“Is that what you really wanted to be, a macho guy who wins all the time?  You know that means everyone else loses?”

“Yeah, but it must be nice to win all the time.”

“Don’t know how I landed up with someone like you… an ex army sharpshooter” she teases. She loves his competitiveness. She hates his competitiveness.

“You don’t want to win?”

“ Not really.” She lies.  Yeah I hate to lose, but win.  I don’t think about it much.”  She hesitates, then continues, “Michael. You have a bad case of it.”  She tells him with a superior tone, a tone that bugs him every time he hears it.

“Thanks,” he utters in a warning tenor. 

They both stop.  Time out.  They are quiet. She chews on her lip.  Both look straight ahead.

The quiet is at first a way to get away, to hide from the preceding moment. But it soon takes over. They came here hoping to be captured. It is happening.

            The sunset has begun.  Dreamily her eyes drift to the clouds, now painted with glowing colors.  Beyond she can make out the distant line where the sky touches the ground.. They listen to the soft whistling wind occasionally punctuated by ospreys screaming out dominance over the valley below. Ca, Ca, Ca. They don’t let up.

They both start to smile.

“Nirvana.” He states sweetly.

“Shush you’ll chase it away,” she whispers. “No talking.”

She’s right. He feels it in his fingers which seem light, in the air going in and out of his lungs, but mainly in what he sees, which excites both of them- the sky saturated with deepening colors. No sunset is exactly the same.

 ” This is our fourth year.  Can’t remember how we found this place?”

“Joe told me about it.”

“Well he’s good for something. Is he still giving you a hard time about your Exxon story?”

“Not as much.”

“Doesn’t surprise me.  It’s a good story.”

Again they are silent until Deborah laughs to herself.

“What?”

“Something Amy said.”

“What?”

“She said in a past life you must have been Japanese. Always trying to take it to the next level.”

“Do you think so?”

They both know it is true. Neither understands it.  He is forever on a quest for perfection. “Live Now.  Live now.” the drugstore gurus urge.  Working towards tomorrow’s possibilities guarantees disappointment. You never quite get there.  Perfect is the enemy of the good. Enjoy things for what they are. Grab what you can while it can be had. The good, the good, the good is best.”

But it’s simply not in him.  Perhaps you have to be born that way, able to live now.  Able to be satisfied with the moment.  Deborah complains that his quest makes him too critical. She sees it in his expectations of the children. Why can’t he see exactly how perfect they are?   Deborah’s sister complains about the same thing with her husband. They tell each other that it is just the way men are. Michael should understand. He’s always felt that he disappointed his father. They never talked about it before his father died. But he knew. He could see it in his father’s eyes.

Wanting, expecting perfection makes him critical of what he has. Living in the future means that when Michael gets where he wanted to go, even if it was very hard to get there, the satisfaction disappears and he soon dreams a new dream. A better one.  “Why not?” he asks.  “If you are alive why not want the best there is, just so that you know what that is like?”  Greed she calls it. Deprivation, he counters, but understanding will not change it.  It is simply a given. 

Except when it comes to a sunset. It is not compared to other sunsets.   A sunset cannot be improved. Just followed quietly.

The sun is huge, the sky orange with hints of red. Beyond the farms, high grasses define a creek that leads to an inlet.  Even without pot Michael is there with Deborah.  He thinks of Maine and the sea grasses.

 Off to the right, leaves dance in the fading orange light, which, ever so slowly, is changing to a reddish hue.   Very, very far away a tractor, looking like a toy, moves slowly along, leaving mounds of dirt looking like anthills.   Its driver is a tiny dot.

 Deborah’s body feels buoyant, like she is floating.    A cool crisp breeze blows across their foreheads, as a sliver of red sun shimmers at the very edge of the horizon.  Then it disappears. They exhale in appreciation.  He hands her a plastic cup of wine.  He is excited by a new thought.

“I can see why they used to worship the sun.”

“Who are they?” He is too easy a target. She loves to tweak him when he becomes contemplative and speculative. He is like a child.

“Ancient people. People who lived outside. Not knowing how things work, not learning about it in books, in school. Just what’s in front of them, the sun, huge, hot.   Or cold on a winter day.   Completely gone on a cloudy day.  Can you imagine that?”

She is elsewhere.

“Sorry.”

 He doesn’t pause for a breath.

“For someone in that state of mind the sun is a mighty god.  If you’re trying to make sense of things, worshipping it makes perfect sense.  What else is a god if not something powerful, unworldly?”

She stays silent.

His voice raises, inspired by still another of his thoughts.  “Except you can see the sun!   It’s actually there.  That sure beats Jehovah. I’d  worship it if I lived back then.”

She says nothing. He is stirred up, his voice loud.  Michael and God. Not the makings of a peaceful evening, but not always unpleasant.

  A Jew is not allowed to flirt with ancient gods.  Michael hasn’t been righteous since his teen years.  He’s long since blasted away at God in his mind and in conversations.    His heart is unmoved by the rituals his parents practiced.  But he’s close to blasphemy and he knows it. Blasphemy is blasphemy. Taunting Jehovah makes him giddy, which must be stopped.  His voice becomes quiet and respectful, almost humble.

“God’s done a pretty good job here,” he tells Deborah.

She smiles, acknowledging the thought.  Saying that calms him a bit.  He feels better when he is on better terms with Yahweh, the God he’s certain doesn’t exist.

 He holds up his cup. In a few weeks it will be Rosh Hashanah. 

“To the big guy in the sky.”

 He points his wine glass at Deborah” Shana Tova”

Shana Tova” she repeats.

Deborah holds her cup up, points to where the sun has descended.  “To the Sun God.”

He gulps the wine.   She sips it. The` howling wind can be heard in the distance.  Leaves fly in the air in front of them. A moment later stillness returns.  They smile at each other contentedly, lucky to be a witness to “His” magic.

She points skyward straight above his head.  A sliver of the moon is already visible.  He turns around.

She whispers, “To the god who owns the night.   With a whisper.”

“Only one god allowed.”

 “If there is a sun god there is a moon god,”.

He smiles at her logic

She opens her arms.

“Come here Mr. Vanderbilt.”

October 23, 2014
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

After Lisa Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Two hands slap at an overturned card, a jack. Lisa and Ritchie try to out shout each other. Michael watches quietly.

“Slapjack!”

Ritchie, now eleven, is sitting on twelve-year-old Lisa’s hospital bed.   Both want to win badly. Happy rock n’ roll plays in the background. Lisa has mastered her bubble gum, cracking it emphatically, rhythmically, repeatedly blowing small bubbles then sucking them in. With one hand behind her back, she draws the next card.

Ritchie fakes slapping the pack. Lisa, just in time, freezes her hand. He points at it.

“You moved your hand.”

She shakes her head, “No!”

“You did!”

They prepare for the next draw. Lisa sneaks a look at the covered card. Another jack! Keeping a poker face she uncovers it. She beats Ritchie’s slap, smiles triumphantly.

Ritchie is not happy.

“You cheated. You snuck a look.”

“I did not.”

“You did. I saw you.”

“Daddy!

“Leave me out of it.”

She brings the back of her hand to her chest, swallows hard with a little too much theatre. Ritchie suspects this might be a ploy, but by the second swallow it looks like she is fighting nausea. Concerned, he looks at his father for reassurance. Another tentative swallow. She gags. This is clearly not under her control. Michael, who’s been reading the sports section of the newspaper, comes to life.

“You okay?”

She smiles at him a bit tearfully but then her discomfort passes as quickly as it came. In very short time, her mischievous grin takes over, as she prepares to turn over the next card. She imitates the sound of a drum roll. Ritchie is not amused by her sound effects.

“Stop,” he orders.

Deborah noisily enters the room. Lisa doesn’t look up. For a crucial moment she tries to stay with her game. Finally she gives in.

As Deborah’s mother once did to her, Deborah moves the back of her hand across Lisa’s forehead, then puts her cheek on it, checking her temperature. “How’s the patient?” she asks cheerfully, as she deposits some bags of snacks on a chair.

“Is the food any better in the cafeteria? What they bring me here sucks.”

Deborah glares at Lisa. She doesn’t like that kind of talk. Lisa’s eyes drop. Michael tosses a bag of potato chips to her. Deborah tries to intercept it.

“Doctor said only hospital food.”

Lisa throws it back to her father, “I wasn’t hungry anyway.”

Ritchie moves off to the corner of the room. He pretends to be busy, shuffling his deck of cards, but he is watching everything.

Deborah again touches Lisa’s brow with the back of her hand.

“She definitely has a fever.”

“Again?”

“I’m pretty sure. Here, feel her brow.”

Michael ignores her and plops into a different chair by the bedside. He takes the TV remote and puts on the New York Jets.

Deborah strokes Lisa forehead.

“Are you okay?”

“The same.”

“Does anything hurt?”

“It’s the same Mom, the same. Stop asking me. That’s the hundredth time you’ve asked today.”

“When did they bring your medicine? Michael, check with the nurse.”

He reluctantly starts to get out of his chair. Lisa intervenes.

“Mom. This is a big game. Ritchie you go.”

Ritchie goes forward with his task. He leaves the room and heads towards the nursing station. The once grand hospital is showing its age. The corridors have been scrubbed and scrubbed, but the marble trim around passageways has passed the point of a pleasant ivory toned patina to simply looking brown and dingy. The high ceilings seem to amplify the cold creepy institutional feeling. Ritchie shuffles down the hall. He shoots a look in the first room he encounters. A doctor and two assistants are busy preparing for a procedure. He catches the eye of seven-year-old Billy sitting up on his bed.

“Hey Billy.”

   Billy, pale and clearly ill, points his index finger at him, pretending to shoot a gun. His thumb comes down as if it is the trigger, followed by an imitation gun recoil. Ritchie returns the gesture calling out “picccchhhhu” as he shoots back.

The door closes. Ritchie moves on down the hall happily when suddenly Billy’s scream rips through the quiet.

“OWWWWW”

   “It won’t hurt…It won’t hurt. I promise you. Stay still.”

    Then another scream is heard all over the ward, this one the result of a local being administered so that a scalpel can cut through Billy’s flesh for a cut down to start the IV again.   In her room, Lisa looks at her father. She squeezes her mother’s hand.

    Billy screams again. “You said it wouldn’t hurt. You said it wouldn’t hurt. You promised.”

  Michael closes the door to their room.

The doctor’s voice can still be heard. “Hold him still. I can’t do this if he keeps moving.”

October 23, 2014
by Simon Sobo
1 Comment

After LIsa Chapter 4

CHAPTER 4

 

As soon as they return from the hospital to their fifth floor West 70th Street apartment Ritchie goes to his room.  Michael turns on the Jets game in the living room. Deborah settles by the window that looks out at the asphalt playground five stories below. It is late afternoon but the children’s energy has not let up. From up high their screams are soothing, like birds chirping in the countryside, each with a different call, talking back and forth to each other through the airwaves.  Laughter, anger, silliness, pleading, a little boy’s voice over and over in Spanish, “Mira! Mira,” then another and another, “Higher…” “Get away….”  “Stop that Joey…” Then a mother, “Get over here…    Now!”

  When she was playground age, Lisa used to call Deborah over to this window.  Within seconds their coats were on, and they were on their way out.  They both loved that about the apartment- the nicest view in all of Manhattan, the playground beneath them.

 Leaning against the windowsill, Deborah looks for little Maria and her mother. She’s been drawn to Maria ever since she watched her being introduced to the swing.  Frightened cries as her mother pushed her higher, laughter and shouting as she came swooping down. 

Gradually that changed.  Excitement replaced her fear. As she glided back to earth she shouted, “Higher, higher” to her mother who had positioned herself to send her flying again.  Weeks later, quiet willpower as, by herself, she kicked harder and harder, and then still harder, rhythmically pumping the swing to the highest possible point.  

She reminded Deborah of Lisa’s determination. Eventually, she started to do stunts like Lisa, standing on the swing, first on two legs then one, anything to revive her original fear and sweet conquest of it.  Her most recent trick? Leaping off the swing as it descends, a perfect landing 3 feet from takeoff.   Nadia Comenici! 

Except tonight Maria is not there. Deborah settles on a different child who is swinging calmly, ritualistically performing the same kick so that the arc takes her upward. The height she is reaching commands Deborah’s attention. In what she is doing there is her own kind of beauty, her legs held straight out, gracefully heading towards the sky.  But, consistency is not dramatic enough to distract Deborah.  Billy’s cries from the hospital return in her mind and she’s as distressed as ever.  

She stands in front of Michael blocking his view of the Jets game.    

He tries to see around her.  

“Fourth quarter!” he counters in a conciliatory tone.

Deborah doesn’t move.  He mutes the TV sound with his remote. But her irritation with him grows. She wants his full attention.  It’s her or the Jets.  It’s no contest.  

“ 7-7, fourth quarter” He repeats. He assumes Deborah understands the importance of this game for the Jets.

“Great!” she snaps back sarcastically. 

“Debby, just tell me what you want.” He’s about to run out of patience. He’s warning her.

She sees herself as offering little provocation.  But she’s aware she’s just as pissed off as he is.  

He’s the same as her father, Sunday after noon widowhood. During a game the house could be burning down. Her father was not at home. For three hours he was dead to them.  Except, it was the Giants not the Jets.

 In the earliest years, when the current of Deborah and Michael’s love was powerful, there were no wrong moments, no good time or bad time to talk to him.  There was no right way or wrong way to begin. His attention was a given.   Anything she did, or said, put her on his stage.  

That is long gone.

“I want to take Lisa out of the hospital.”

 He looks at her like she is not in her right mind.   Fire is coming out of his eyes. She returns to the window. Maria’s arrived. 

 Watching Maria in the playground is sheer joy. She is one of the few remaining ways Deborah can connect to someone else without becoming agitated.  Her friend of 20 years, Anne has grown impatient with her.  “You have to get yourself together. You can’t let this get the best of you.”… It’s her way of saying “I don’t want to hear any more.” She wants to chat about her own life.  

Laura’s the opposite.  She’s over solicitous, talking in a droopy “poor Deborah” voice, which has more than once pushed Deborah’s mood from being morose to complete emptiness. Once, after Laura left, suicide entered her mind.   It wasn’t the first time she had that reaction, but as before she quickly dismissed the thought. “Where would that leave Lisa?”

She couldn’t as quickly dismiss the thought however, that, if it were to happen by accident, she would welcome a quick death .  It would be a relief. 

Lana is in a category by herself.   Ten years ago, Lana’s brother and his wife were murdered in their bedroom by a stranger who had grown up in her brother’s house before he bought it.  Lana has never fully recovered.  She can talk 20 minutes straight about her misfortunes, barely stopping to come up for air.

Deborah holds the phone a foot away from her ear.

            “Lana?” Michael asks her. Deborah smiles as she puts down the phone.

            “That is not nice.”

            “I promise you. I won’t miss a word.” She whispers.   “She’s told me these stories a hundred times.”

            “Still.”

            “She uses the exact same words.”

            “So then get off.”

Lana is divorced.   Her children, as early as they could, moved away. They limit their contact to a once a year visit at Christmas. Short visits.   It hurts.   When they were young she gave them more love than she had ever given anyone. Not a lot. She is a self involved person. But more. Christmas ends the same every year. They snap at her when she hints that they should be grateful.  Arum, the oldest boy, pushes her hand away when she tries to lift the hair out of his eyes.  

She has little left for Deborah.  

Any mention of Lisa and she immediately steers the conversation to her brother. Her final word to Deborah is always the same.  She’s lucky because she has Michael.

 It isn’t just Anne or Laura or Lana who won’t or can’t connect with Deborah since Lisa’s illness.  All of her relationships aren’t going well.   She gets nothing from cheap encouragement or dreary empathy.   But almost every other response from people equally turns Deborah off.

It’s no one’s fault.  What else can people do?   They mean well.   Still she longs for heartfelt sympathy. There is too little of that. When the moment occurs its over in a jiffy. She rarely any longer initiates seeing anyone.  Not that her friends are beating down her door. If they are in a good mood, even a so-so mood, the last thing they want to do is get together with Deborah.  Obligation demands a phone call every once in a while, but that’s about it. Seeing her can poison an entire day. 

Before Lisa’s illness Deborah may have given the thought of how alone she is, how alone we all are, a nod, but she never fully understood its implications.    As the mood arose she saw her friends. They saw her.  They came in and out of her mornings and afternoons, visiting, phoning, shopping, in a natural flow that usually left pleasant feelings.  That was enough for her.  She liked them.  They liked her.  They were “friends.” If you had asked her before her current state, she would have told you she was lucky to have so many friends.   Some of them go way back to grammar school, friends she trusts, and who want the best for her.  

But everything’s changed now.  Everyone was duly concerned about Lisa at first.    They probably still are, but as the news about Lisa got worse, time spent with Deborah became unpleasant, sometimes unbearable.  Lisa’s lymphoma gives Deborah a generous allowance of forgiveness for whatever unpleasant behavior she shows, but there are limits.  

Her emotions keep breaking through, despite everyone’s determination to not let that happen. When it does, time spent with her is miserable, far beyond what they bargained for when they offered to see her.

Deborah has come up with a variety of strategies to improve her behavior. She usually gives short answers when people ask about Lisa.   “Fine.  Thank you for asking.”  That’s it.   

When one of her friends visits, the first few moments are strained, as she and they try to keep it light. On occasion they might reach a point where they can let down their guard, even relax.

But despite their best efforts, Deborah’s desperation invariably comes out.  A pleading look in her eyes- the slightest sign of anguish and the visit might as well be over. Small talk may continue. They might chatter as if they have noticed nothing, but the gulf between Deborah and them grows stronger the more they labor to keep it light.    Her visitors wait for the moment to exit gracefully.  And even then, as hard as Deborah tries to wish them a casual good-bye, the pain on her face is obvious.  Which is humiliating.

Before now she assumed that if her friends really tried, they could get through to her. She hasn’t totally given up on that idea. But her acceptance that it is not going to happen is growing. Fortunately, she isn’t bothered as much as she initially was.  Her father always told her this was the human condition. “We are born alone and die alone. You have to accept it and live with it.” He’d tell every member of the family the lesson he had learned as his little gift to their spiritual composure. She always dismissed his perspective as an excuse for his not being social. But lately it isn’t as easy to dismiss him. She hadn’t realized it also applied to the family of a sick child.

When she is alone, she can feel whatever it is she feels, without the added concern of whether her helplessness is creeping others out. 

It is creepy. Her lack of interest in fun things, good gossip, a joke Johnny Carson told the night before, her inability to engage in pleasurable interchange, irritates whoever is stuck with her.   

Michael’s advice is to not let her difficulty with friends bother her, “You can’t let it get to you.  You just can’t!”    She listens to him, and sometimes after a pep talk she feels a lot better. But then, some incident mirrors the truth to her. So whatever motivation he’s tried to instill, quickly dissipates.  

She knows she shouldn’t, but again and again she takes thoughtless remarks personally, intended or not. It isn’t just what people say to her which tears away at her confidence. It’s their reaction to what she says. What she is talking about is never found interesting enough for their eyes to not glaze over, even when she’s made an effort to be clever.  Even when she has been clever. She can’t remember the last time, Anne, Laura any of them, asked her to get together with them in a way that sounded like they truly wanted to be with her.  

 Going over unsuccessful conversations in her mind, working them to death, can take over entire afternoons. Soothing thoughts she has used in the past to get distance, fresh ideas and resolutions she’d make as part of her effort to make herself a better person, her pursuit through her twenties and thirties, to be a better Deborah carried her through many rough times. Before Lisa’s illness, when she came up with an intelligent way to attack her shortcomings, she could blanket herself in self-satisfaction She was able to construct attitudes which convinced her she was, in fact, wise or good to make such fine declarations of her intent. Just believing she would follow through gave her self kudos. That purposefulness, the feeling that she was getting some where kept her on an even keel.

 She still tries to put it all together. It isn’t her they are rejecting.  Why would anyone want to hang out with the mother of a girl with cancer? Misfortune, not personality shortcomings are the problem. But her common sense no longer works as well. She can’t get herself to fully believe that conclusion.

Growing up, Deborah’s mother’s fierce efforts, years and years of battles with her and too many tears from her, all were aimed at teaching Deborah how to put on a mask.   The right hair, the right make-up, how to hide unpleasant feelings so others can’t gather ammunition against you, everything she thought she hated most about her mother’s advice, the paranoia implicit in her lessons, she now treasures. She wishes she could regain her ability to follow her mother’s example, be pleasant and never let down her veneer.

But she was never good at it, and she is terrible at it now.  She can’t imitate cheerfulness. When she was a teenager, she often practiced her smile in front of the mirror.  Eventually she got acceptably comfortable with people.  No effort was involved.  Now she is back to square one.  Her best smile is pasty.

With Laura it got very ugly.   Laura belief in Truth as the secret of   good relationships became extreme. Without a hint of regret, last week, seemingly out of nowhere, Laura’s indignation took over.

 “You’re milking your misery, trying to get everyone to feel sorry for you.” As she spoke Laura stared at her. She knew it was true. Deborah wished she could crawl into a hole. 

Michael was furious.  She may believe truth is intrinsically better than deception, but pouring salt on Deborah’s wounds was beyond the call of duty.

After that Deborah watched herself like a hawk. As soon as she would hear the slightest intonation of pleading she shut it down. 

Or tried to.  She can’t help it.  She can’t fully stop it.  The truth is, if she were free to shout out her feelings, she would beg anyone and everyone for mercy, even if they have brought a baguette and good aged cheddar from Zabar’s.  As she makes coffee, and tries to chat, that tone in her voice  takes over before she is aware that she is at it again. 

 Even Gail, who used to adore her, and thus initially gave Deborah the most latitude, can’t take much of Deborah now.  Losing Gail hurt more than the others, but perhaps it was inevitable.  Gail’s tolerance for her moods allowed Deborah to build up a head of steam, to go  way beyond acceptable limits with her self pity.   it was ugly.  And it happened more than once. So the outcome was inevitable. Neither of them could any longer conjure up a reset, drop previous missteps in their relationship so they could have a fresh start and try to enjoy a nice afternoon.

 Michael says times like these are how you find out who your real friends are. Yeah people love you when you are in your glory, but the test of friendship is how they are when you are down. 

  Only he isn’t much better.  When he’s listened to her struggles about how it went with this friend or that one for the umpteenth time (“What did they mean by this? By that?”)  especially, when  he’s at work,  he’s little different than her friends.  He finds an excuse to hang up.  He can do that easily at work, tell her he is busy, even when he isn’t, but at home…

 Dr. Stern told Michael about Freud’s Totem and Taboo.  How in certain primitive cultures, families in mourning are shunned.   It has nothing to do with social factors. The spirits of a dead person are said to hang over family members and possess them.  It’s believed that if a villager gets near a grieving person, the dead person’s spirit will infect the villager. So they stay away.  

That thought comforts Michael when he tunes Deborah out.  He doesn’t feel as trapped. Realizing that his reaction to her is part of a universal impulse means it is not a defect in his character. It is no longer his fault. That allows him to listen without a guilty conscience, which makes it easier when her eyes beseech him for answers. He has no answers.  Nor does anyone else.  But, being relieved of his guilt helps him to be patient, and that helps Deborah. 

It starkly contrasts with him when he is irritated by her clinging.  She knows it immediately and hate starts to flow between them.  So with the help of Freud he doesn’t get irritated, and this keeps both of them ahead of the game.  If only Freud could supply him with some more theories to shore up his interactions with Deborah.

 On a more positive note, while theories help, or any comfort he can muster up, when all is said and done, Lana is right. Like Deborah’s mother Michael possesses the most important quality.  No matter what, he will be there. At least that is what he says, and he has never gone back on his word.

 

October 23, 2014
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

After Lisa Chapter 5 and 6

 

Chapter 5

 

A week later. They’ve been to the hospital again. Maria has bumped it up to still another level. Standing on the swing, she holds on to the ropes and momentarily lifts her body into the air as she flies back and forth. Each time she returns to earth she is bracing herself trying to extend her time in the air. She saw a trapeze artist at the Big Apple circus and vowed she would one day match her miracles.   Deborah erupted when Lisa did similar experiments. She grabbed her and let her have it.

  That didn’t stop Lisa from trying to do tricks again. Deborah blamed Michael for encouraging her wildness, which is fair enough. Lisa’s stunts gave him a kick. He’s done the same thing with Ritchie, despite promising Deborah he would try to get them to be more careful.

Deborah looks out the window as she speaks. Despite her fear when Lisa was trying similar maneuvers, seeing Maria succeed again and again is elevating her spirits. She has stopped picturing a calamity. Gathering her courage she goes forward.

“Joanne cousin had a lymphoma. Everyone said nothing could be done… Shark cartilage. I know you think it’s crazy, but it worked. Sharks are all cartilage. They don’t get cancer. They’ve used it in China for thousands of years. Joanne’s said it cured her cousin.”

Michael’s face tightens. Joanne cuts Deborah’s hair so they get to talk at length. Joanne’s place is a lot different than the beauty parlor his mother used to go to weekly.   She has an acupuncturist and a Yoga instructor. There is talk of a spa. She sells facial creams containing natural herbs. Deborah claims the creams work wonders. She doesn’t only do Deborah’s hair. She massages her scalp helping her to relax. Since the women’s movement places like this have gained a legitimacy about health issues that would have been unimaginable in his mother’s era of beauticians.

From Michael’s point of view Joanne presents a problem. She is mellow and soft spoken with a smile and an aura of understanding that hints she knows the secrets of the universe. In her very marrow she believes she knows what is healthy and unhealthy. She is the very opposite of Michael in style. He knows a lot more than her about these things. She never went to college. He was an outstanding student with genuine curiosity and questions about practically everything. Which is the reason Joanne is winning the war for Deborah’s mind. Her confidence, her knowing things, contrasts with Michael’s continuous questions. Deborah’s confidence in Joanne’s understanding drives him wild. He has looked over some of the brochures that Deborah’s brought home. They are nonsense.

Unfortunately, not only Joanne but Deborah’s friend Laura is also into organic foods, and on the face of it, she doesn’t seem very crazy. No ax to grind.  Deborah has several other acquaintances who are in the same camp. Health food is no longer a cult for the crazies like Macrobiotics was in the 60’s. There are too many mainstream true believers. On the talk shows that Deborah watches similar information is repeated again and again by celebrity after celebrity, all with relaxed confidence that they know what they are talking about.   

Healthy foods, unprocessed food; at first pass that kind of makes sense. But the amount of misinformation being broadcast in the mainstream media about food drives him nuts. Michael’s mother had her chicken soup as a remedy for sniffles, and honey and lemon juice for a cough. She knew however that these were bubameinsas that she got from her mother, and her mother got from her mother.  She knew that her children should drink plenty of milk, and eat their vegetables, and fish was good for the brain. She also knew that she didn’t know very much about scientific subjects. Nothing, in fact. That doesn’t mean she adopted an I am a dodo persona. Not a hint of Lucy or Gracie Allen. She expected to be taken seriously but in science it would have been apt for her to be classified as stupid. His mother didn’t know how to change the channel on the TV nor did she care to learn.

“You want Lisa to take shark cartilage?”

“Michael, It’s natural.”

Michael erupts when he hears that word. He has gone over this subject in his mind again and again. Every time he reads or hears someone refer to “natural” as validation of a product, he comes up with a thousand counter arguments, which he assumes should be the end of the debate. It never is.   This is the perfect opportunity to unleash his full battery of thoughts as he has organized it in his mind

“Deborah I love nature … I love the Grand Canyon. I love that stream we discovered upstate, forming as it flows down from the rocks. I don’t think people have ever gone near that area. Unspoiled nature turns me on. I agree with you. It is sacred. That place we went to in the mountains, the clouds lit up by the sunset. Going there in autumn, the trees’ foliage blending their colors, miles and miles of colors. It dwarfs Cezanne. I agree. Nature is mind boggling. No one should mess around with certain places. They are sacred. But that doesn’t mean that everything natural is safe or good. Especially when it comes to medicines.”

“There is a balance in nature. It has its own rhythms and equilibriums. We are always messing it up.

I get that, but nature’s equilibriums are not sacrosanct. You know Manhattan was full of swamps. Living there in the summer meant being in a smelly, clammy, damp, rotting environment. Yellow Fever could hit anytime. Washington DC was even worse. Guess what? They drained the swamps.

They tampered with the wetlands. If some birds had to be displaced? Fuck ‘em. I don’t doubt some may have died when they lost their swamps. No argument. Except now we have New York City and Washington D.C.”

“ Yeah that’s great. We’ve paved over the whole island with concrete. It’s really great. The subways in the summer are worse than swamps.”

“Not since they put in air conditioning. D.C, New York we have two vibrant centers of human activity. I’ll take that over a swamp…Nature is just what it is. it is good, it is bad. It can be very good. It also can be very bad.”

There he goes again, lecturing. Deborah walks over to the kitchen table. Conspicuously ignoring Michael she starts opening envelopes and studying the bills.

That makes Michael’s voice go up several decibels.

“Bubonic plague is natural. So is smallpox. That killed 300 million people.”

“Michael-”

“They mine asbestos. It is a natural product buried under the earth. Poisonous mushrooms, mosquitos carrying malaria…”

“I get the point.”

That doesn’t stop him.

“Mold, fungal diseases, if we go the way of nature we will have very few roses. Nature does its best to keep them from being plentiful. Black spot, aphids, mites. That’s nature’s gift to us.”

Michael gathers still more gusto.   In his mind, scoring point after point is supposed to win her agreement. It never does.

“Roses represent a victory over nature. Same for the Polio vaccine.”

Deborah irritation is clear, but he takes that as a sign that she doesn’t yet grasp the essentials of what he is saying. That makes him pile on still more examples for his argument.

“Cholesterol plaques build up in your arteries. If they get too clogged you die. That’s how nature arranged things in our body. Guess what. We’ve chosen to defy nature. According to Joanne’s brochure, Lipitor is a nasty chemical, wholly synthetic, a disturbance of the natural balance in your body.

Yes Lipitor has some side effects. Yes it changes some of your body’s equilibriums. It is an unnatural chemical doing unnatural things. But it happens to have saved the lives of, I don’t know what the number is, but I’ll bet it is hundreds of millions of people. This artificial chemical is a miracle as great as anything nature serves up.”

“Michael-“

“When I was growing up, three of my friends’ dads died in their 40’s of a heart attack. Have you noticed that just isn’t happening any more? Lipitor!”

“Foods without preservatives are natural. Nature’s true purpose for once living things is for them to spoil and rot. Entropy is the final state of nature. So over hundreds of years people fought back. They salted food, smoked it, pickled it, peppered it. froze it. You know they can’t grow food in the winter. They have to have a way to store it. So they’ve found chemicals that act as preservatives in tiny amounts. Spoiled food once killed tens of thousands of people before they added those unnatural processed chemicals, the preservatives that Joanne’s brochures carry on about.”

“Okay Michael, Okay, Okay. This is just what I need, you ranting and raving. You’re like a bull dog.”

“You don’t want to hear it? Don’t get me started with that kind of bullshit. Natural.” He unsuccessfully hunts for one of the brochures she brought home from Joannes. He finds it, but before he can open it, and read some silly quotes that he’s underlined, Deborah cuts him off

“It’s not just the brochures. I’ve read articles, a lot of articles. Plenty of people believe in natural foods..”

“ I don’t care if 99% of people buy into it. Debbie. You’re not stupid. Use your brain instead of going along with everyone. What they are saying simply doesn’t make sense. What counts is whether something makes sense. Whether something is natural or not has nothing to do with the facts about it.

“You’re so narrow minded. If it’s not Western thinking…”

“Deborah, think about what they’re saying. My mother would have never claimed she knew more than doctors, She knew her chicken soup worked and that was the end of it. He doesn’t like the look on her face. “Oh right. My mother’s not liberated?”

“You said it. I didn’t.”

“Thank God she isn’t.  Let me tell you. My mother had a good mind. Still does. She can sort out bullshit better than either one of us. She knows how smart she is. She doesn’t buy into this women know better than men bullshit.   She never thought men were smarter than women. Well maybe her father. She thought he was brilliant, how he spoke with a thick accent, quit elementary school in Russia to come here, but he could do her advanced math problems in Hunter High, like a whiz.

“Okay. Your mother’s not an idiot. She has a mind of her own.”

“Deborah You’re not stupid but you are too taken by what other people say. I know Joanne is cool, and the people on Oprah are cool but they know shit about health and medical treatment. They’re like you, all liberal artsy in college. Science was for nerds. Those brochures you bring home? If you had ever taken a science course and taken it seriously, a course in anything, you would have read the first paragraph in that brochure and thrown it away.”

She raises her voice louder than him, “Can we stop? Michael we were talking about Lisa. Not politics. This is about Lisa. I know you need to talk about stuff that you think about. But… Why do you need to get so angry?“

He doesn’t know why, but he agrees that he’s gotten carried away once again. He should have been a teacher. So he could lecture all day long and get it out of his system. It would have been easier on her. Lately he’s been lecturing more than ever. She knows he is a gifted teacher, but she no longer wants to be his student. Hasn’t for ten years.

The room is quiet for the first time in a while.

“You want to give her shark cartilage, give her shark cartilage.” His tone is remorseful.

“I don’t really care.”

“But it stops there,” he adds emphatically. “Shark cartilage. That’s it! We’re not going to replace real treatment with any of that.”      

Pleased, Deborah drifts back to the window.   She’s thinking about where she can buy shark cartilage.


 

Chapter 6

 

Deborah tunes out the noise from the Jets game. There is a time-out. Michael is caught up with the analysts offering theories about what they are doing right and what they are screwing up. Deborah’s eyes return to Maria in the park. She remembers her as a pipsqueak, quick to cry if she didn’t get her way. But now she is a new person. Except Maria’s antics have stopped working as a distraction. Billy’s scream and the doctor’s shouting is still running through Deborah’s mind. She returns from the window. She addresses Michael. “I’m not going to let them torture Lisa.”

Torture?  Deborah come on.” She stares back defiantly. “Torture?” he repeats in a sarcastic tone.

She is unaffected. Lately she has gotten used to his counterassaults. He fumbles with the remote control, turns the sound back on, then turns it off. Then on. The Jets are behind by two points.

 “Yes torture!” she repeats unapologetically. He can only half hear her. Once again he turns the TV off then puts it back on with the sound muted.  

“They’re not going to torture Lisa” Deborah states with growing insistence.

“Come on,”

“God only knows what they were doing to Billy last week. I swear. They get off on it. The needles they stick into Lisa to start an I.V. are nothing compared to when they can’t find a vein. Last week, the interns were all happy and excited that Dr. Peppard was going to show them how he does a cut-down. No one could find a vein. He took out a scalpel and just like that cut into Lisa’s arm looking for one. Peppard sounded like an Eagle scout, out in the forest showing a Boy Scout how to carve a stick. They were having a good time. They just had to keep their voices sounding like doctors.

Michael is upset, picturing what it must have been for Lisa.

“Some of the interns are nice. They make friends with Lisa, explain what they plan to do to her. The guys doing the cut-down were not from that group.”

Without hesitation she continues. “They make her swallow awful tasting syrups. I gag when I watch her.”

“Yesterday she had to swallow a plastic tube. She has trouble with pills. A plastic tube? She almost vomited… twice.”

Deborah takes a deep breath. Michael sees a tear forming. He takes her hand. He gently strokes it.

“You have a problem with Joanne? I want to know where doctors come up with what they do to the patients. Tell me. What stupid person dreams up the procedures they do to her?”

“Those stupid people are Harvard trained.”

“Oh Harvard. Mr. Harvard. There are fewer sadists at Harvard. Right? People are really nice there, soft spoken, nice, no bubermeisters.

She takes a breath then continues. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe all that bookishness makes for better ways to torture children? They finally get to do something besides read.”

He says nothing. He knows where this is heading.

  “Leopold and Loeb. Turned on by Dostoyevsky. Brilliant. The two of them bored out of their minds.   City boys, bookworms, wanting adventure.”

“I don’t want to talk about Leopold and Loeb again.”

“The trick was finding someone weak enough to bully. They figured it out. A baby!   A baby. Those bastards killed a baby!”

She waits for a moment before continuing, “I just wonder about child cancer doctors. There has to be something wrong with someone who doesn’t mind seeing children in pain, someone who has no trouble doing those procedures. Doing them every day, year after year.”

They don’t do them after a few years. That’s for the interns. They are busy trying to beat the cancer.”

“I’m telling you. They’re bored book people. This is their form of excitement.”

 “Dr. Clark doesn’t have time to get bored.”

  She continues. “You think being smart makes people nicer.” She looks him straight in the eye. “It just makes for better bullshit.”

She’s said all of this before. Often. He’s always tolerated it. At first it got to him. It doesn’t any longer. Repetition has dulled its sharp edges. But you never know what Deborah might come up with. He waits for what is coming next.

The phone rings. It is Michael’s mother. They both get on.

“How are the two of you holding up?”

“We’re okay.”

“Anything new?”

“Not really.”

She can hear from their voices that she is interrupting them.

“Is this a bad time?”

“Well…”

“Put Ritchie on. His birthday is coming up isn’t it? Any ideas?”

Both of them are miffed with themselves for forgetting his birthday.

“No real ideas. …Maybe a video game?”

“Which one?”

“I don’t know?”

“Okay, just put him on.”

Michael screams down the hall to Ritchie.

 “Pick it up…It’s Grandma.”

“Hi Grandma.”

“Someone told me you have a birthday coming. Are you going to have a party?”

“No.”

“Your Mom didn’t say anything?”

“No.”

“What video games are you playing now?”

“ Duke Nukem.”

“That’s your favorite?”

“I’m at level 3.”

“So you’re good at it?”

“Well…”

“Is there a new one coming out?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Find out. It’s getting harder to find presents for you. Duke and Nukem?”

“ No just Duke Nukem.”

“Okay. I’ve written it down. How’s school?”

“Okay.”

“Keeping up with your homework?”

“Yes.”

“Getting good grades? You’ve got your father’s brains. Don’t waste what God has given you.”

He doesn’t answer.

“You and Lisa getting along?”

“She’s still in the hospital?“

“I know honey. Will you give her a kiss for me?”

“Yes…”

“Okay. I’m getting off. Duke and Nukem?

“No just Duke Nukem.”

They get off. Deborah doesn’t waste a moment to get started again.

“You think Billy’s a cry baby don’t you?”

“I was wrong about Billy okay. I admit it. Last week I saw him.   They barely touched him and he was screaming.”

“You called him a wuss. Do you know what he’s been through?”

“I was pissed, okay? I took it out on him. I’m not allowed to get pissed?”

“You said it loud enough for his mother to hear you.”

“You really think she could hear me?”

  “Are you kidding? Billy heard it too.”

His face drops. “I’m sorry. I just lost it.”

Deborah knows Michael is telling the truth. She believes Michael is sorry, but she can’t bring herself to forgive him.

“I was wrong,” he repeats. “Okay?”

It is not okay and won’t be. She talks about Billy all the time. The other patients on the ward and their families have become family to her. They are the only ones that understand.

He knows how important they are to Deborah, but it slips his mind. He has never felt part of it. At that moment he couldn’t stand the whimpering. No it wasn’t the whimpering. It was when Billy began to scream.

She stares at him waiting.

“What do you want me to say? I know Billy’s been through hell. I was wrong. I can’t take it back.”

She continues to stare at him coldly.

“We’re talking about a lymphoma. Dr. Clark knows what he is doing.”

“It’s not whether she’s going to lose control of herself. I know she won’t. They’re not going to break her. She can put up with anything they throw at her. Anything.   Lisa is not Billy.”

“So you understand what I was saying?”

“I understand nothing.”

“They are not trying to break her.”

“Oh no?”

He would like to grab her. Shake some sense into her head.

“Lisa is better than Billy at putting up with pain. She can withstand a lot. I just can’t stand her having to put up with the pain. I don’t care if she shows it. It’s feeling it. When she hurts I hurt. I can’t help it. You don’t think I’d like to be like you, feel nothing.”

“I feel something. Just not like you.”

“It’s okay. You’re a guy. If you felt as much as a women, you’d be one.”

“You mean gay?”

“Not necessarily”

It’s not what she is saying as much as her measured tone, like his mother would get when he was in trouble with her.

His tone becomes calmer.

“Do you really believe that the doctors want to give the children pain?”

“You’re right. Most don’t. You can’t do your job if you get caught up with your patients?”

“So you can understand that?”

“I’m sure they probably have to do most of what they do. But some of it…. I swear!   One day they are going to do one thing, which they tell me is critical. Then they change their mind and don’t do it. Or they do something else instead. They’re in the dark and they are chopping away at my daughter.”

“There’s nothing wrong with changing plans. It means they are thinking things over, not just following a cookbook.”

Michael continues. “I hated when they were following protocols. Everything preordained. The doctor’s decision-making totally shut down.”

“But they knew what they were doing.“

“They didn’t know anything. They were just following a protocol.”

“Michael, the protocols meant they knew what they were doing.”

 “They knew all right.” He says with deep sarcasm.

  That shuts  both of them down.

  “The good old days,” he says morosely.

She speaks slowly. “So what are we going to do? Lately they really don’t know what they are doing. Half of it is just to do something. Anything”.

“Well, I…”

Every one of those procedures hurts Lisa.”

“Maybe, but they’re trying. It is better than nothing.”

“It’s vanity. They’re just trying to impress everyone that they are a great doctor.”

“Deborah. Come on… Maybe Dr. Fabian’s like that. But not Clark. He usually talks to me about what he’s planning. He reads somewhere about a procedure.   He goes over it with me. We both agree. If might help, why not?

“Why doesn’t he talk to me? Is this a man thing?“

“There is no way you can hear him out when he’s talking about the pluses and minuses of a procedure. You go bonkers.”

“Maybe it’s something else. Have you looked at those bills? Every time they do a procedure they get paid a fortune, what you earn in a month.”

“Deborah, the money goes to the school not them.”

She is only half listening, which starts him off again, makes him speak louder.

“They’re doing their best.”

She won’t look at him.

  He glances at the TV hoping nothing has gone wrong for the Jets.

She shuts off the TV manually.  

He clicks it on with his remote.

“I hate that TV.”

“Deborah!”

“Fine. You want to watch it. But while you are off in TV land what about me?”

“Deborah. I need to unwind. it’s not about you.”

“Okay. But less… okay? Less.”

As her eyes water her anger softens. “Michael it’s just that I can’t do this alone.”

She sits down on the arm of his chair. Her tears continue. Soon his fingers begin kneading a knot at the back of her neck.

“Over here?”

“A little higher. More to the left. That’s it. You got it.”

She continues, “You’re not at the hospital during the week.”

His fingers stop.

“I have to work. We have bills. You don’t have to make everything add up. I do. It’s a disaster.”

“Still.”

   “I’m not going to apologize. I have a job. We need money.”

“ Fine, I understand. I do. I admire the way you manage to keep bill collectors away from us. I know it is not easy. But understand. You miss half of what is going on.”

“Like what? What?” he repeats.

“Everything!”

He knows and she knows she is exaggerating.

She takes his hand. “Okay, not everything.   But a lot.”

“What? Really?” He means it. At this moment his anger is gone.

“What?” he asks.

“Like Lisa’s spinal tap Tuesday.” Deborah smiles proudly like Lisa has done something big at school.

“ She had that little scared smile. Remember…at her three year-old birthday party…? The clown broke a balloon? She was startled but it was her “princess” party.   That’s what you called it. Those crinolines. She looked like a princess. She knew she was a princess.   A princess doesn’t get scared. So scared or not, she smiled.”

Michael does remember that day. It is on video. At one point during the party, she has her hands on her hips, like she is about to sing out a verse from Oklahoma. Scared, not scared. Hamming it up.

Deborah continues. “It was like she was in one of her stories.’

She loved picturing herself as someone else. Still does. Making believe she is that person. They used to talk about how she was going to be an actress.

“I don’t know who she was playing, what story she was in.”

She continues.

“Maybe it wasn’t a story. I don’t know what it was but during the spinal tap she did whatever the neurologist told her to do. No resistance…”

Deborah smiles again, “She’s a trooper. She gets that from you.” Her eyes water. She whispers Lisa’s name through tightened lips. Then she’s back.

“The neurologist asked her to lie down on her stomach.   She did. She did everything he asked.   Waited for the next direction. She had it under control. She was determined to go right along with the doctor. Florence Nightingale, a patient’s version of it.

They told her to roll on her side. She did. The nurses rubbed Betadyne on her back. They moved her higher up on the examining table. That’s when the trouble started.”

“What do you mean?”

“Her hospital gown got pulled up. Her underpants were showing. She tried to pull her gown down.

But, suddenly they were in a hurry. They had her pinned down and they weren’t going to let go. The neurologist had had enough pussy footing around. Getting it done was all he was thinking about.

Her fingers kept moving, trying to catch her gown. A nurse noticed.   She held her wrist even tighter.”

“So what did you do?”

“I was whispering into her ear, kissing her.   I could see what was going on.”

Her voice rises. “I thought nurses are supposed to know about twelve year-olds.   About her underwear showing…I swear. They aren’t really nurses. They’re doctor wannabes.”

“Some of the nurses are good. Lisa loves Barbara.”

“Barbara wasn’t there. It was that tall one with the braids, and that

other short one. I wanted to shout: “Let go of her hand. Let go of her

hand. Give her a minute.” Deborah hesitates. She’s again fighting her tears.

“I said nothing. Nothing.”

Deborah’s rubbing her wrist.

“They could have waited two seconds so she could cover up her underpants…She’s a twelve year-old girl.”

She rubs her wrist some more.

“I don’t understand why I said nothing.”

“You didn’t want to get them upset. You wanted them to have a cool head. They were going to stick something in Lisa’s spine.”

Deborah’s face hardens. “It’s not that. It’s that they’re in charge. What time we come, what time we go, what they feed her. They are just automatically in charge.”

“It’s their hospital.”

“It’s our daughter. Lisa’s ours. Michael she’s ours.” She cries for a moment.

His voice is sympathetic. “Okay fine. But Debby, Joanne’s health food stories are wacko.”

“Doctors are no better.”

“Dr. Clark studied for years, studied hard. He’s not stupid.”

“Were back to that. Good. He’s not stupid. But you know what? It doesn’t matter… Sometimes the cancer calls the shots. I just want Clark to admit it if nothing is working.”

“He’s giving it everything he’s got. Deborah. Everything”

She looks out the window.

  “If he’d slow down. Not just Clark. All of them, … In and out of the room.   Dr. Clark should stop staring at Lisa’s chart and look into her eyes.”  

   Deborah eyes water again.

    “Just once.” She wipes her eyes.

She pushes Michael’s hand away as he tries to stroke her.

Angrily she shouts “He’s gotta tell me if he can’t do anything.” She looks imploringly at Michael “He has to stop torturing Lisa. Am I asking too much?”

He doesn’t answer

“Am I?”

“No.”

“I’ve gone along with you all along, but now we’re done. Lisa’s staying in the hospital for us. She puts up with them for us. For us!”

“Deborah, No more. I can’t do this.”

Deborah ignores him. She continues. “She’s waiting for me to say it. Come on. We’re out of here. She’s waiting.”

“Deborah…”

“I’m going to take her home.”

“Deborah. Please. We’ve been here. Again and again”

“What do you expect? I should come home after seeing her and do my nails?”

“No, but-“

“One more incident and we’re out of there.”

“This is bullshit. Taking her home will make everything worse!”

She stops. She knows that particular pitch and volume. Michael is about to blow. She suddenly becomes very quiet, like she has heard thunder in the distance. They’ve been here too many times. The argument has gone on way too long. They’re both exhausted.

She returns to the window. The only person still in the park is a fourteen year-old girl, sitting on a bench. She is fixing her hair, waiting for her boyfriend.

He arrives. They talk earnestly. Biting her lip, Deborah gets lost in them. That calms her. Her voice is warm.

“Remember the time I had that flat tire with them in the car? Lisa was about six.”

“No.”

“AAA? I had a fight with you that night?”

“Right.”

“I never told you the whole story…” She has his attention.

“I was screaming at Ritchie and Lisa to stop fighting, I got out. Opened the trunk. I couldn’t find the jack. Meanwhile the back door opens. The traffic is buzzing by. I screamed. “Close the door. Close the door.” Lisa steps out anyway.   ”Get back in the car. Get back in the car.” She just looked at me and understood everything. I didn’t have to fake that I knew what I was doing. I couldn’t fake it.   She knew that I didn’t. But she also knew it was going to turn out OK. I wasn’t going to let anything bad happen. Lisa and Ritchie used to get that from me.”

She smiles, “Lisa pushed her body against the car and slipped over near me at the back. When she was close enough she stood next to me, “Mom. Call AAA.” She ignored that I didn’t know what to do because she did. Or thought she did. Either way it didn’t matter. She knew I wasn’t going to let anything bad happen. Lisa and Ritchie knew that. That was my job. I was good at it!” Again tears.

“Sorry about AAA.”

“It’s okay, Michael. We didn’t have much money back then.”

“Yeah but you were pissed about it and you were right.”

“Well you said no. I wasn’t going to let you get away with that.”

She refocuses. Her voice changes. “I understood. We had to economize.”

“So okay we agree?”

“Yes.”

“If anything gets screwed up we are out of there. ”

“ No we are not agreed. We’re going to do whatever Dr. Clark says. We have to.”

She screams at him. “You’ve got this thing with Clark.”

“Yeah he’s the doctor.”

“Clark doesn’t give a shit. It’s just a job to him.”

He shouts louder than her. “You said that already. Clark tries to do his job right. That’s enough. That’s plenty.”

There is a trace of resignation in her voice. They are both exhausted, and saddened by their inability to get to the same page.   Lately that’s how it’s been. No matter how third they try.

She trails off “If we’re not going anywhere, he better admit it.” She mumbles, “Fuckin’ Clark’s’ ego.”

           She pours scotch into a large glass, fills it half way up. She sips a little, then downs it. She stares down Michael’s disapproval. She knows at this moment she has become a typical shiksa in his eyes. She’s not sure she can forgive him for putting her in that box.

“You think your praying is any different? You think you’re gonna get a miracle here?”

She downs another, then continues.

           “You think God listens to your mumbling? He’s old Michael. He needs a hearing aid and better glasses. Because if he hears okay and sees okay he’s definitely a sadist.”

“Shut up. Debby”

In his room Ritchie turns up the volume on his video game.   It fills the entire apartment with its pounding, its laser gun screeches, grunts from splattered monsters as they are gunned down.

Yet despite his game’s battlefield noise he can still hear parts of his parent’s fights, the anger, Michael’s “shut ups”. He hates him for that. Adding to her mother’s anguish.

He turns up the volume of his game still more, to the point where it is now banging on Deborah and Michael’s ear’. That pisses Michael off. But he doesn’t shout to him. He allows it to bang away at him. The action gets more furious. Deborah shouts from the foyer.

“Ritchie do your homework.”

   Ritchie shoots a mutant alien. A loud groan.

  “Ritchie. I mean it,” she shouts to him at the top of her lungs.

   There is a letup in the action. Michael goes to his computer. He checks the football score. The Jets lost. He gets back to work on his novel about Cornelius Vanderbilt. This man always won. Always! Michael is blessedly absorbed within minutes.