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Simon Sobo Writing

A collection of opinion pieces and chapters from his novels

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.

March 25, 2014
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

Synopsis of After Lisa

 

Sixteen year-old Ritchie Russell seems like a lot of boys his age, grumpy, hours and hours in his room with the door closed, playing blood splattering video games. He once had a great smile. Gone.  He once liked to sing.  Not in years.  Loud angry music blasts through his door.

His parents hope Ritchie is going through a phase,  that time will heal, that he and they are going to put the past behind them.

If only.   The Russells have been to hell and back.  It is now five years since twelve year-old Lisa, big hearted, quirky Lisa, lost her battle with a lymphoma.  They still have a way to go, but considering the impact at the time, they’re relatively okay.  Fortunately, Michael’s anger had somewhere to go.  His reputation as a righteous impassioned investigative reporter, a fighter for the good has grown

Unfortunately, he can no longer connect to Deborah, and she’s stopped trying. She’s been tuning him out for years. As soon as he gets excited and angry she will soon have a headache.  Lisa’s death changed him. She knows Lisa is behind his ranting and raving, his political passion.  She knows that Lisa plays a part in his attempts to right wrongs.  She knows his hatred of the bad guys is proportional to his love for Lisa, his dedication to justice is justice for her.

Still hatred is hatred. It’s never finished. Deborah doesn’t hate.  She becomes too upset. She prefers the Lisa she can invoke in her memories, sweet moments, too quickly gone, but real.  With the help of marijuana she is able to spend quality and sometimes delicious time with her daughter.

It’s the best they can do.  It will have to do.  Much as they might wish it, neither can return to the way they were.  They can no longer throw down their defenses, and love unguardedly.  Deborah’s turn to marijuana to keep her memories flowing  has contributed to her withdrawal from the marketplace.    Despite their need for income  she hasn’t looked for a job.  She hasn’t thought about it.  Nor is she focused on their home, on meals, on cleaning, on keeping an eye on Ritchie.  Her friends have slipped away.  Her reveries are her entire existence.

Michael is seemingly doing better than Deborah.  Not just at work.  He could pass for normal. Along with millions of his brothers throughout America, he loves TV, loves good triumphing over evil, preferably violently, loves flashing  swords cutting down villains.  It never gets old. Deborah can’t stand the noise.

Ritchie’s suicide attempt shatters their adaptations.  It isn’t the first time their defenses have collapsed.  But this time, events suddenly move rapidly, flying out of control.  Following the initial scare, the Russells are relieved that Ritchie is safe in the hospital. However, at a thousand dollars a day, their insurance company is determined to get Ritchie out quickly.

The Russells soon learn that this is business as usual.  Insurance companies pay the bills, which gives them the power to harass doctors, make them jump through paperwork hoops until the doctors have been trained to see things the insurance company way.

Afraid for Ritchie, Michael switches into gear.  This has been his career.  He races to put together an expose that can apply counter pressure.  Will it be enough? Can they save their son?

Whether or not Michael’s plan works, it is not wasted energy.  The fight to save Ritchie helps revive Deborah and Michael’s relationship.  With the exception of his mother, Ritchie has never been an easy person for anyone to love, but especially Michael.  Facing Ritchie’s death, Michael taps into his love for him, which is a comfort to him as well as Deborah. Misunderstandings and anger develop quickly but so do spurts of love. While not enough, never enough, the love is  real.  Immersed together in a fight with real consequences, Michael and Deborah rediscover their passion for each other.

A true heartbreaking, yet strangely romantic story from my files,  memory and imagination.  The Russell’s name and the details have been fictionalized, but the real Russells remain alive to me.

 

November 27, 2013
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

Mark Twain Takes On Cornelius Vanderbilt

You seem to be the idol of only a crawling swarm of small souls, who love to glorify your most flagrant unworthiness in print or praise your vast possessions worshippingly; or sing of your unimportant private habits and sayings and doings, as if your millions gave them dignity.”

Mark Twain 1869

Wait there’s more:

Poor Vanderbilt! How I pity you: and this is honest. You are an old man, and ought to have some rest, and yet you have to struggle, and deny yourself, and rob yourself of restful sleep and peace of mind, because you need money so badly. I always feel for a man who is so poverty ridden as you… It isn’t what a man has that constitutes wealth. No–it is to be satisfied with what one has; that is wealth. As long as one sorely needs a certain additional amount, that man isn’t rich. Seventy times seventy millions can’t make him rich, as long as his poor heart is breaking for more. I am just about rich enough to buy the least valuable horse in your stable, perhaps, but I cannot sincerely and honestly take an oath that I need any more now. And so I am rich. But you, you have got  seventy millions and you need five hundred millions, and are really suffering for it. Your poverty is something appalling. I tell you truly that I do not believe I could live twenty-four hours with the awful weight of four hundred and thirty millions of abject want crushing down upon me. I should die under it. My soul is so wrought upon by your helpless pauperism that if you came to me now, I would freely put ten cents in your tin cup, if you carry one, and say, “God pity you, poor unfortunate.”

A little background.  Some historians consider the 3 most famous people of the 19th century to be Twain, Vanderbilt, and Edison.  In any case Vanderbilt was constantly in the news.  First because he loved to be in the paper, but more importantly, as a poor boy who made good he was the people’s choice.  He was one of them.  Here is what Vanderbilt says in the novel:

What a crock of shit.  What’s with this guy?  He is more involved with me than I am.  What else has he written about me?”

 “I think that’s it.”

  “Mark my words.  He cares about money a lot.  I mean a lot. Or, he wouldn’t care so much about me.”

  “Well you are in the paper all the time.  It’s hard not to react.”

“Yeah but he’s not calling me a show off.”

Vanderbilt sends a wad of phlegm and spit accurately into the spittoon.

  “One day, this Mark Twain guy is going to go broke.  People who love money, but won’t admit it, that’s what happens.  They don’t think clearly about what they’re doing.  There are more people not worrying who make fucked up money decisions just because they make believe they don’t care. 

I said I am crazy when it comes to money.  But, I’m not the only one.  I see people all the time like Twain, acting better than other people and all that.  Snobs about it. You just know it’s a big lie.  Sonia has a cousin like that.  He made the craziest decisions.  You couldn’t get him to talk about it, like it is not dinnertime talk.  But some of the things he did.  He’s a lot crazier than me.    He couldn’t  be sensible making decisions because it drove him too nuts.  Tellin’ yah. Twain is going to make crazy money decisions.”

   “You can’t know that.”

   “Mark my words.”

Clearly Twain was protesting too much.  Fact is, our Huck Finn, man of the people, lived a genteel, dandified existence in Hartford, with many servants.  He made all kinds of desperate financial decisions which brought about his ruin.  So if Vanderbilt had still been around he would have had the last laugh.

 

Commodore Kindle Link

 

October 25, 2013
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

Describe your background

I grew up in a kosher home during the 50’s in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens, mostly a Jewish garden apartment town,  four rooms for 5 of us.  When my sister entered adolescence, she got the second bedroom and my parents slept on a Castro Convertible in the living room.  By today’s standards we were poor, but we always had enough to eat and we actually had very nice clothes; a priority for my mother, whose father came out of the garment center, where “clothes make the man.”  My grandfather owned a sweater factory and, while he had the money, was a local benefactor of his shul.  He was typically President of the congregation.  According to my mother’s ga ga memory of him he was a great orator.   Other synagogues often asked him to speak,  He  helped found a Yeshiva.  That was while he had the money.

 

So Kew Gardens Hills was a step down in my mother’s eyes.  She was forever on  guard that one of us not pick up the speech patterns of our neighbors, recent arrivals from the Bronx and Brooklyn, particularly Shoilee (Shirley) actually a lovely woman who loved us and watched over us when my mother was at work.

 

It was a step down for my father as well.  He was kind of a waspy type like his brother Cecil. Both went away to college and law school in the middle of the depression, although my father managed to fail out of Harvard Law, (the story goes) playing too much bridge instead of studying.  He was brought home to finish at Rutgers.

 

To be charitable he was broken by the depression.  He got out of law school in 1933, not a propitious time to try to make your way into the great cruel world out there.  Although he secured a job at Milton Unger a toney law firm in Newark  (Also in the family mythology: he knew William Brennan another young Newark lawyer at the time, who went on to become a justice in the Supreme Court.)  Unfortunately, while Unger was a well known prestigious law firm they paid junior lawyers nothing.  He followed that with a partnership with his brother, Sobo and Sobo which was so disastrous that both of them stopped practicing law and did what they had to do to earn a living during the depression and for the rest of their lives.

 

While I was a child my father was a salesman for Decca Records (before records became a hot commodity) and then he worked as a manufacturer’s representative for Gold Brothers, a very Jewey  47th street jewelry outfit that needed my waspy father to visit Tiffany’s, Cartier  and other places where 47th street jewelers didn’t feel comfortable.  He did very poorly moneywise.  The one interesting thing about his job was that celebrities would go to Gold Brothers to get their jewelry wholesale.  The list was long, the Ford family shopped there.  So did Leonard Bernstein, Elizabeth Arden, Betty Furness, and all kinds of movie stars, and owners of companies throughout the New York area.  The only other interesting thing was how (if I remember correctly) Van Cleef and Arpels never paid their bills, which was bad luck for my father since when that happened he wouldn’t get paid.

 

Later, I was ashamed of where I grew up.  My assumption is that my parents’ view of how far they had fallen gave me this shame (although they would never admit it).  But I knew.  My mother would talk about her rich childhood friends (when her father was doing well) and where they are today.  She could not exactly invite them to tea in Kew Gardens Hills (though my parents still polished the silver in case that day might come).

 

My father also knew.  We were the poor cousins.  As a a result of the depression,  my mother’s two brothers didn’t finish high school, but both now owned factories.  One of my mother’s brothers had 2 sweater factories, one in Mineola, Long Island and one in Puerto Rico, running in three shifts, 24 hours a day.  The other had a cardboard box factory in what is now Soho, and they owned their own homes.

 

My father was a lot like the character I created as Commodore’s father.  A broken man.  Later I would see him as Willy Lomanish  in Miller’s Death of a Salesman. That play left so many people bowled over.  I imagine a lot of men in the audience could understand the disillusionment and desperation of a Willy Loman.  They had seen it first hand in their own fathers.

 

People like to glop on to the successful father imago, the Warren Buffetts, the Cornelius Vanderbilts.  Having a career is the way to go in terms of meaningful things to do with your life.  But countless fathers have been smashed to smithereens by the ferocity of the countervailing forces that stood between them and success.  I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone, except for most people there is no choice, other than having your wife go out and have the success.

 

Fortunately for me, before I became ashamed of being a resident of Kew Gardens Hills, (when I reached adolescence) I thought it was the greatest place in the world to grow up.  There were tons of kids, nice kids, living in our court, the arrangement of garden apartments around a “courtyard”  (really a huge area for us to play punchball,  stickball, and stoopball (there were a million stoops), hit the penny, touch football, and basketball).  We had perfect walls to flip our baseball cards at  (the closest card won the other cards).  The only books I read, that weren’t required by school, were baseball books.  I knew all about Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth.  And then there were the grand debates I used to engage in (long before politics occupied my mind).  Who was the best centerfielder, Duke Snider, Willy Mays, or Mickey Mantle?

 

I had no doubts about my future.  I was going to play shortstop for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  I oiled my Rawlings PM endlessly with linseed oil to make it soft and pliable.  I played catch hour after hour after hour, grounders to my left, to my right, fly balls in front of me (I loved Snider’s shoestring catches- he would do a somersault as he caught the ball).  Then there was climbing the Ebbett’s Field   wall, saving the Dodgers from a home run.  We’d play catch to the sound of Vince Scully, the Dodger announcer,  who I had learned to imitate.  I would catch pop-ups exactly like Pee Wee Reese- a graceful, almost ballet movement,  where he seemed to embrace the ball high above his head, bringing it down into the bosom of his chest, as a continuation of its arc.

 

I practiced so much that I actually thought I had a shot at the majors.  My coach in the Queens-Nassau League was going to bring me to a Philadelphia Phillies try out (but that was actually because when I pitched I could throw the ball very very fast).  I was also the starting All Queens shortstop in the Kiwanis League.  That all star team became our Queens Nassau League team, just as the Forest Hills Babe Ruth All Star team had become my Kiwanis League team.  My coach loved pulling that off.

Only problem was that like most shortstops, I couldn’t hit.  I’d feast on lousy pitchers but when a good one came along forget it.  There were very few lousy pitchers in the Queens Nassau League.  One of the pitchers, Howard Kitt, on a different team from Cedarhurst, Long Island,  had been offered $$60,000 dollars by the Yankees.  My lousy batting average in the Queens Nassau League League put an end to my baseball career.  I realized I didn’t have it.  Probably because of my fear of getting beaned by a  pitcher with a blazing fastball.  Fear interferes with total concentration in your swing.  Actually, the eye hand coordination was there. I was a thousand times better hitter in stick ball (we used a Spalding not a hard ball).  But fear did me in.   The Queens Nassau League ended my career at 15.

The funny thing is, only now, decades later, do I remember a different Kew Gardens Hills.  Actually, it was a cool place. Simon and Garfunkel came from there.  Art Garfunkel used to sing at our synagogue, as part of Cantor Koussevistky ‘s Rosh Hashanah program.  The same voice as Bridge over  Troubled Water crying out in Hebrew in a chapel with  perfect  reverberating acoustics.  Every note.  I can still almost hear it.   Cantor Koussevitsky was a relative of  Sergei Koussevitzky,  conductor of the Boston Symphony. (Interestingly Art Garfunkel in various biographical sites says he came from Forest Hills not Kew Garden Hills.  I used to do the same thing out of embarrassment until I reached 70 and my coming clean mode.  It’s just ironic that he wrote (with Paul Simon) “And ev’ry stranger’s face I see reminds me that I long to be, Homeward Bound,” but can’t come clean about where his home really was.)  Believe me I understand.

Not just the music was high end.  Judy Thurman, today a regular at the New Yorker, was my sister’s friend. She described where she grew up as a slum (which it wasn’t just lower middle class.)  My mother wouldn’t forgive Judy Thurman for that. Those aren’t the only two notables from the neighborhood. Next door Howard Shulman went on to write musicals in London, and practically everyone I knew went on to careers in law, medicine, academia and the like.  And the strange thing, when I think about it, was that the other Jews in our court even then, weren’t exactly from the bottom rungs of society.  One guy owned a Chrysler dealership. Sidney, who played ball with us, owned a gas station and two car washes.  Teachers and former lawyers (like my dad) lived there, as did small businessmen. Shoily ‘s husband was a middle man for nylon stockings.  Howard Shulman’s father used to go all the time to Japan where they manufactured cheap toys for his company.  Just shows you how much shame can distort perspective.

 

Later when the counterculture  came to America I went to Berkeley, first in the summer of 1965 and later, in 1968 for my internship  year at Herrick Hospital.  It was  the year of the People’s Park.  Governor Ronald Reagan sent the National Guard, including tanks.  The Alameda Sheriff’s men used 00 shotgun shells.  They killed a student on the roof, James Rector, who I spoke to before he died in the ICU.  I called all the newspapers (including the New York Times and national magazines, Time, Newsweek (trying to let it be known  that they had shot 00 shotgun shells at the students).  No one would accept the story (They weren’t yet left wing and antiwar).

This was before Kent State.  The only media outlet that  would listen was the Oakland Tribune, a Hearst paper who ran a big story, quoting me.  It got me in trouble with the president of the hospital who was ready to kick me out should I open my mouth again.   Although I was starting to be disillusioned by the Left, (it was starting to get very crazy)at the time I identified with the best sides of  60’s Berkeley.  Not with the radicals, or macrobiotic food freaks, but the rest of it.  I thought, at the time, it was the politics I loved, C Wright Mills, the rightness of our cause, the great music, Zen, the exciting culture that was exploding everywhere.  Now I am not so sure.  I think far more important was the mindset it gave me, the opportunity to make money and class  irrelevant in my (our?) minds.  It was a way to leave behind the shame of my background.  Thinking about it now, I honestly believe that.  So reconnecting to money and all of its reverberations for self esteem in my novel  Commodore has been a way to reconnect to the dynamics of my true background.

 

One other thought.  Linda, my wife, is surprised that I am not including as “my  background” my entire career as a psychiatrist.  That will have to wait until After Lisa  which is all about psychiatry (written with the freedom given to me by  retirement) a tell all novel about the business.

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October 25, 2013
by Simon Sobo
0 comments

What is the message you want readers to take away from Commodore?

No single message, but a lot of important ones.

1) Don’t give up.  Ever! No matter how bleak your situation may seem.

2) Have your work be something you love. By this  I don’t mean anything fancy or something that will sound good at a party.  In Vanderbilt’s case it was simple.  He loved money.  He was always thinking about (then doing) whatever it took to make money.  That made hard tasks easy.  As long as he had a good plan and the plan delivered.

3) Being fancy is what it is, strokes for your vanity, but it is window dressing.  Vanderbilt was notoriously clumsy whenever he tried to show off for the swells (New York’s old money) but in the end it mattered little.  He won what he deserved to win.

4) Make sure you have a mother that thinks you are fated to accomplish important things (Freud, FDR, Vanderbilt, unfortunately Hitler).  Obviously this is not under the control of the reader.  But he or she can always go back to message 1. “Don’t give up.”

5) In all seriousness, Commodore is loaded with messages.  How could it not?  Burch the reporter is interviewing a man who knows he doesn’t have much time left.  He wants to figure out what it was all about.  He’s got a lot of observations.  He  wants to make peace with his dead father, his dead wife.  After he’s gone, he’s hoping things will work out as he has planned. Interestingly  as he is dying his mind is totally alive, going over incidents, and over them, and then one more time.  The message for the reader, get that stuff done so you can die in peace