Home Synopsis Table of Contents Excerpts Chapter One Reviews

 

“Wake up Mr. Antonin. It’s over. How do you feel?”

          Through a bright haze, he sees an oval object hovering above him…Is it a head? Slowly he forces himself to focus, and a smiling face with a large nose, red lips and white glistening teeth takes shape out of the blur. Her voice – sounding as if it’s coming out of a long tunnel – commands his attention.

“Are you OK, Reno?” she says, more insistently.

Reno’s body, laid out on a gurney, is numb.

“OK? Where am I?...Who are you?”

“You just came out of surgery – your hip replacement, remember?”

His focus sharpens.

The blond nurse with the horsey face continues, “We’re gonna wheel you to your room.”

A Bantu face – flash memory of an African mask – replaces the horse face. A tall black man positions himself behind Reno’s head. White lights floating above a fog whirl past as the assistant pushes Reno’s gurney – his ‘train’ – through a grey tunnel. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack.

From the mist in his mind, memories emerge in reverse order: A nurse and a doctor forced him into a dreamless sleep. He checked into the hospital this morning.

The clickety-clack stops. Two male nurses roll him off the gurney and onto a bed. Ouch. A two-foot long, pink styrofoam wedge is thrust up between his legs to keep them separated.

Bed, legs, hospital. He remembers the terror when he busted his left hip two and a half years ago – the pain, the uncomfortable bed, nurses constantly poking him with needles, and the sick game of trying to piss in a plastic receptacle with a hooked neck, without squirting or leaking on the sheets or his hospital gown. He remembers the sadistic night nurses who left the room lights and his roommate’s television on, loud – voices shouting moronic gibberish at three a.m. – and the constant talking and walking of the night staff in the hallway, making sleep impossible.

Head, body, arms, all here; raise legs.

–A sharp knife is thrust into his right hip.

Pain, don’t move, but have to piss. Move slowly, gently, don’t wake Demon Pain. Ow! It hurts like hell!

Tonight he falls asleep – for a few minutes? A few hours?

Gray light from the window – morning. He looks to his left – a white wavy curtain. What’s on the other side of the curtain – a bright sunny day in his garden? A dark cave with a bear hiding in its shadows? No. A young lady’s brown-haired head peeks around the edge of the curtain.

“Good morning, Mr. Antonin. I have your breakfast.” Chirp, chirp. She yanks back the curtain halfway and puts a tray on his bed stand. “Eat as much as you can.” Chirp, chirp. She disappears behind the curtain.

He looks at the tray: A glossy pile of brownish home fries, a greasy circle of white with a yellow center – fried egg. Sit up. Ouch! Pull over the stand with the tray – positioned eight inches below his chin. Stick plastic fork into potato pile then raise to mouth – come on you can do it, you have to do it. “I’m not hungry” argues with “I have to eat.” Yuk! No taste except grease. Now he imagines grease oozing from the pores of his face. Two bites, only, might throw up. Try the toast. He reaches over and picks up a slice of cold brown bread and puts jelly on it with a plastic knife. Cardboard, no taste, chew it, swallow it, two bites only. Open milk carton to wash down cardboard. OK, not bad, drink it. Now, fried egg, eye with jaundiced pupil –total horror, no way! Tea? Tea bag with unknown name on label. Drop into hot water; wait two minutes. Sip. Disgusting – tea leaves, or wood chips? Nausea. Lie still; hope it goes away. Push the bed stand with the tray to the side – out of sight.

After breakfast:

I can’t get out of bed or walk so I’ll pass the interminable time with another stroll down hospital memory lane. How many surgeries have I survived in my forty-three years? Those memories are sharper today, like bright lights hanging above a dark forest path. First memory: orange and red chickens fade in and out, while they dance around the first white light on the path – ether dream. I was three years old, tonsils removed. Then my parents got me circumcised at age five – total nightmare. A broken hip and injured lower spinal cord three years ago. A baclofen pump implant for the spinal cord injury, inserted two years ago, and now hip replacement surgery, adds up to five. Of those five, I was totally knocked out four times with an anesthetic. How much time did I lose in those states of total nothingness? Nothingness, how can I describe that?

Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, the enemy approaches behind the curtain. Half the curtain is yanked back by a nurse pushing a machine on a stand with wheels and also dragging a metal cart with an assortment of empty test tubes. Reno knows what that means, and it’s not the chemistry set he got for Christmas when he was nine.

“I have to check your vitals and the IV on your right hand, Mr. Antonin.” She yanks a long cord ending with a black pad from the machine. Rrip. She pulls the velcro pad apart and wraps it around his bicep. Hmm, hmm, the machine on the pole purrs as the pad tightens – feels good to be squeezed with no pain. Humming and squeezing stops; red numbers flash on the machine’s digital screen: “One-thirty over eighty, not bad Mr. Antonin.”

She starts fiddling with the bandage on the IV on his wrist. “Your vein’s almost collapsed; I’ll have to put in a new IV.” She rips off the old bandage and some hair, ouch, and yanks out the IV needle from his vein. Ouch! I knew it; she works for the pain demon. Look at her face; see her sadistic smile. She’s a heavyset homely woman with short brown hair, and on the left side of her nose there’s a brown mole that has a black hair poking out.

In his mental fog, only partially aware of reality:

-Dark, fuzzy, bat wings rise up from behind her shoulders.

Maybe she’s a witch! Defend yourself, don’t watch. Don’t watch her wings or her needles. Picture something else.

Ah yes, waves gently slap the sand on a beach. Ouch! A shark’s in on the pain conspiracy; he’ll walk up on the beach and bite me. No, just waves and beach sand, please, please, please.

For a spiteful grand finale the nurse pokes Reno’s left arm with another needle.

She wants blood – a vampire – for her chemistry set.

La, la, la, I’m walking along the beach.

“I’m almost finished, Mr. Antonin.”

He’s relieved, and slowly falls back into some quasi-reality.

Just as she’s packing up her kit of torture tools, Reno spies a tuft of gray hair peeking around the edge of the curtain.

“Hello Reno, hello nurse.” Startled, the nurse turns around and looks at the old man.

“I’m Reno’s uncle. I came to see how he’s doing.”

“This is my uncle, Reverend Clarence Summerville,” Reno says to the nurse.

Oh no, Torquemada left over from the Spanish Inquisition, emerging from his castle dungeon to put me to the “question,” Reno imagines.

-Behind Torquemada there’s a Dominican friar dressed in a white robe with a black tunic, the palms of his hands pressed together in prayer; he stares down at Reno, trying to decide if he’s a heretic or a believer. As Reno’s uncle approaches closer, the Dominican and Torquemada fade away.

The old geezer’s casually dressed today, no white collar, no dark coat. He’s tall and thin with a long skinny neck and a large tuft of white hair which hangs over his face with its prominent hooked nose. His appearance always reminds Reno of a whooping crane.

          -Nurse Vampire collapses her wings behind her back, pulls in her incisors.

“Pleased to meet you, Reverend, your nephew’s doing just fine.” She leaves.

Old Clarence smiles; this is his lucky day. Now he can minister to his helpless nephew’s spiritual needs. Reno can’t walk away – captive audience.

          “How are you doing, Reno? The head nurse told me you pulled through with no problems. I told her you were one of toughest, most stoic men I know.”

-Jacques DeMolay, in medieval mail, and white tunic with a red Latin cross, appears behind the old man and nods his head in agreement.

          Disturbed by the Reverend, and his imaginary companion, Reno responds, “I’m doing fine. I want to get out of here as soon as I can,” he says, while squirming around in his bed trying to get comfortable with the styrofoam wedge, six inches thick and two feet long, pushed up against his crotch to keep his legs apart.

          “I know you don’t attend church regularly, since your mama’s passed away, but I think a short prayer leading into silent meditation might calm you….”

          -The smell of incense wafts through the air as the room darkens; a boy’s choir sings softly in the background.

          “Try meditating on an image of St. Michael spreading his wings over you. It might give you the strength to endure your pain and feelings of helplessness.” Reverend Summerville is hovering over Reno’s head like the Crane of Death, looking down at him with a pained expression in his teary eyes.

          “You know I don’t believe in your ghosts. They’re conjured up by your imagination.” Reno isn’t too weak to fight off Uncle Clarence’s mumbo jumbo, but he’s too weak to conquer his own hallucinations.

          Reverend Summerville stands up straight and sighs. He can’t break through Reno’s stubbornness, even when he’s captive in a hospital bed.

          “Sorry old boy,” Reno says, victorious. “Blaise will be here soon; he’s working with Dr. Plimpton this morning.”

-DeMolay, frowning, steps up beside Clarence and points a dagger at him.

          The Reverend perks up, raises his right hand and points an accusing forefinger at Reno. “That man’s responsible for your fall from grace. He’s a bloody atheist. Living with him has destroyed your faith. You were a good Christian before he came along.”

          -Reno closes his eyes. He’s being chased out of the Garden of Eden by the Archangel Michael who was conjured up by his uncle.

          Opening his eyes and looking at the preacher, “Blaise didn’t destroy anything. He just pointed out that the old sky god’s chariot – even with a squadron of angels – can’t match a B-1 bomber.  God passed away when faced with modern science, and the horrors of two world wars.”

-An old grey-haired man dressed in a knight’s tunic is laid out in a coffin.

 Blaise showed me that the Universe is God – if you still need a god.”

Reno likes to spar with the Reverend, and watch him stiffen and go silent whenever his medieval beliefs are challenged.

          “…I pray that someday you’ll return to us, Reno, when you finally see how empty Blaise’s views are.”

          “Maybe Blaise’s beliefs are empty; they’re based on nothingness, null, zero, the absence of everything. There’s no pain or stress there.”

-A huge black zero hovers over Clarence’s head.

          The old boy steps back from the bed and turns to look out the window. The only views are other wings of the enormous hospital.

Reno wonders if the old man sees beautiful silver towers of Paradise, or towers of Babel with hanging gardens, where people have orgies. To Reno they look like industrial buildings in a socialist realist mural. They’re part of a factory full of busy mechanics repairing damaged human bodies.

 “You’re terrified of death, uncle.”

-DeMolay places his dagger close to the Reverend’s neck.

The Reverend turns away from the window with an awkward jerk and looks intently at Reno. His complexion reddens, he sputters, “That’s not true; death is the gateway to Paradise.”

“And what is your paradise? Only a slightly refined version of the life you have here on this insignificant planet.”

Reno pushes a button on the arm of the bed to raise his upper body higher.

          “No Reno, Paradise is a place of indescribable beauty and peace, where we rejoice in God’s glory, forever.” the old man counters, while approaching him more closely and projecting himself over his head – like a mechanical crane ready to pick up a load.

          “The idea of billions of human egos living together, forever, even in a place of ‘indescribable beauty and peace,’ enjoying God’s love is obscene.”

-Reno imagines a mob of chattering, smiling shades – souls – milling around aimlessly in an enormous, glaringly white marble hall.

          “Souls will be transformed, different from their previous existence,” says the Reverend raising his voice and talking more rapidly.

          “That’s not what most people think. They want to keep their old tired personalities after death. They want to hang out with Uncle Joe and Aunt Martha –boring…The church is only interested in controlling people here and now, by promising them all the good things that they’ll never get when they’re dead.”

          The Reverend smiles, “You’re too materialistic, Reno. The next life will be totally spiritual. There’ll be no place for material corruption.”

          “Christianity’s a load of medieval rubbish for peasants…and what religions are the ‘real truth,’ anyway? Is it Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Wicca or some other fairy tale?”

-A star of David, a Buddha, an eight-armed Lakme, a cross and a crescent float high over the mob of shades in the crowded marble hall, and violently crash into each other.

“When I traveled overseas I met all sorts of people believing in their favorite myths,” Reno adds.

          On the other side of the room, Reno’s roommate – an old man with severe diabetes, who just had his left foot amputated – lets out a loud moan. Reno’s conversation with his uncle about death and religion probably disturbs the invalid.  Last evening, Reno heard him talking anxiously with a visiting nun who regularly roams the halls like a hellhound sniffing out the hopeless cases – collecting souls. When Reno saw this smiling jackal approaching him, after giving his roommate a large dose of saccharine comfort, he closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep.

          “That poor man” – referring to Reno’s roommate – “He’ll find no comfort in your cynical views,” Uncle Clarence says to Reno, his voice almost a whisper.

          A hand yanks back the curtain, abruptly, and Blaise appears, Reno’s partner of over twenty years.

Reno, after sparring with the sky god of Clarence’s mythological tales, thinks:

Now here’s my archangel – radiant, too good looking to go anywhere unnoticed, tall, with blue eyes and black wavy hair.

Blaise’s only physical flaw is a slightly shorter left leg with a deformed foot. He’s had this condition since he was two years old. Over the years he’s succeeded in cleverly disguising his handicap. He’s learned to walk in a way that his condition is not noticeable to most people. It’s only when he’s forced to walk rapidly that his limp becomes apparent.

          Blaise wears a white hospital coat with his ID card pinned to its left pocket. He’s one of the highly paid mechanics working in the factory-hospital. When he sees Reverend Summerville a faint frown forms on his lips; the two only politely tolerate each other.

          “I thought I heard a discussion on high theology.”

Reno’s glad to see him; he’s tired of jabbering with Clarence.

          When the Reverend sees Blaise he stands up straighter and shuts up. He knows that Blaise thinks his religious beliefs are a load of hogwash.

Blaise walks toward the Reverend, offering his hand and says, “Hello Reverend. Lovely day.”

The old boy limply shakes Blaise’s hand and responds, “It’s too overcast and damp for my taste.”

Blaise takes Reno’s hand and says, “How’s my hunky strawberry blond athlete? All set for a rugby match?”

-Out on a rugby field Reno grabs Clarence, shoves him down in the mud and runs toward Blaise.

Smiling, Blaise gives Reno a quick look-over – like doctors do. Reno doesn’t smile back, only stares at him.

“Are you in much pain, do you feel nauseated?”

“I’m OK. Once in a while I push the pain killer, drip button, but not too often; this afternoon I haven’t used it.”

“Use as much of it as you need, Mr. Tough Guy. You don’t have to go Calvinistic on us.”

At that comment the Reverend raises his eyebrows and gives Blaise a disapproving look.

-DeMolay reappears glaring at Blaise.

“That stuff makes me feel groggy and nauseated. The pain isn’t as bad as when I broke my left hip and they put me on morphine. That was really awful. I had paranoid dreams and visions all night, and I was really uncomfortable. I couldn’t get my body in a good position, and my heels hurt from the weight of the blankets…No, I’m staying away from the pain killers as much as I can,” says Reno. All the while he’s feeling some generalized aching in his right leg.

“I’m glad to see that you’re still your old stubborn self. I’ll check on you again before I go home this evening.” Turning around and looking at the old man, “Good to see you Clarence. Try to keep his spirits up,” Blaise chuckles.

Unknown to Blaise, Reno’s “spirits” have been quite active. Blaise walks around the curtain and out of the room.

In the hall a nurse greets him, “Hello, Dr. Berrington, I didn’t expect to see you way over here.”

“Personal business,” Blaise responds curtly, and keeps walking.

“That man has such bad manners,” Clarence complains.

“No, he’s just busy. Come visit us at home. He’ll have a lot more to say.”

“No, I prefer a private audience with my nephew.”

-A Dominican opens the door of a dark confessional booth where Reno will be put to the “question.”

Blaise and I have nothing in common, except your well-being. The rest is futile…I should be going, too. I have a parishioner in the cancer ward. She’s a brave woman. She has faith in the after-life and appreciates the spiritual guidance I try to give her.”

“Whatever turns her and you on,” Reno says, sarcastically.

“You’re incorrigible. But I’ll always love my sister’s son. Good-bye.” The old heron and his halo slowly disappear, gliding around the edge of the curtain.

 

Reno spends three more days in the hospital. The second day two thugs pull him out of bed and force him to sit up in a wheelchair. He sits uncomfortably for about an hour watching zombies with sad blank eyes and dressed in loose, skimpy hospital gowns shuffle slowly up and down the hallway on their crutches, while nurses respond to urgent messages from their lapel transmitters and scurry to their next assignment.

The next day he’s taken to the physical therapy room – a large brightly lit room with two padded platforms for lying-down exercises and a set of steps to practice climbing stairs. He’s the youngest patient there by at least twenty years. He sees an older man with a nasty-looking gash, about a foot long, on his left calf which is stitched up with coarse thread, like the stitching on a football. Reno’s heart goes out to an old lady who says softly that she’s so relieved that no cancer was found when they cut her open to fix her broken femur. But today she’s in too much pain to handle the exercises the therapists are going to force on her. She hopes she can get around a little bit better before she has to return to her nursing home.

Hearing the old woman Reno wonders if this is what he has to look forward to? More pain and suffering. What a world! What a life! For Reno hospitals are a combination of boredom and terror; he has to get out of there, as soon as possible.

The routine of nurses taking vital signs, passing out medicines after meals and poking Reno for endless blood samples continues. At night the voices in the hall and the blaring nonsense on his roommate’s TV – even though the old guy’s drugged and asleep – continues. The third night, it gets more bizarre. When he closes his eyes and tries to sleep he thinks he hears the faint voices of people he calls “dead souls” – former patients who have suffered and died. Their voices, wailing and crying, that “they don’t want to die,” come out of the walls and from the hallways. He’s only hallucinating – “hospital psychosis” – but he can’t shut them out. He can’t sleep. He needs to go home. Finally, the next afternoon, the surgeon says he can leave. Blaise will take him home the next morning.

 

After a nurse forces Reno to take two percocets for his ride home, she and Blaise wheel him down to Blaise’s car, parked illegally at one of the hospital’s entrances. Reno’s pleased that he can maneuver himself from the wheelchair into the front seat of the car – progress! Blaise slips a Schubert Trio CD into the player as they drive away from the hospital. The music soothes Reno who’s been pent up for the last four and a half days lying in a hospital room made frigid by a noisy air conditioner, running twenty four hours a day.

The percocets create a dense “fogginess” inside Reno’s head; it’s difficult for him to focus on anything. At the same time there’s real fog hanging over the city’s streets – steam formed after a downpour cooling on the hot sizzling pavement. Now and then, Reno sees a pair of headlights – dimmed by the real fog – looking like the eyes of a large animal. As the other vehicle gets closer, the headlights become brighter. The glare’s painful to Reno’s eyes.

          “You’re driving too fast; I can’t see anything…the fog…Watch out, you almost hit that truck!” Reno cringes and closes his eyes.

          “Relax, Reno, I’m only going thirty miles an hour, and we weren’t close to the truck. You’re drugged up; you don’t know what you’re seeing.”

“That’s why I hate these goddamn pain killers. How can anyone enjoy taking them? Do they get some bizarre thrill?”

          “I don’t know; I’ve never taken one. And I know that you’re a boy who likes a ‘clear head.’”

A “clear head”, what’s that? Is it an ‘empty mind’ with no thoughts? Is that why some people meditate, to get a clear head? He thinks.

About twenty minutes later, the fog lifts off the road and the surrounding hills, revealing a bright sun and fluffy white cumulus clouds with grayish-blue and dark yellow underbellies.

“That’s better, now I can see,” Reno says, relieved to be out of the fog, but his head’s still fuzzy. “Where am I going, Blaise?”

“You’re going home, guy. Zulie’s waiting for you, and the garden’s more beautiful than ever – the brugmansias are at their peak; wait till you smell their scent tonight.”

Reno closes his eyes and sees the beautiful, giant bell-shaped brugmansia flowers. Remembering the history of the plant adds to his fascination: They were discovered by Spanish missionaries on misty mountainsides in the Andes in Ecuador. Long before the missionaries arrived the Incas considered them sacred. Every part of the plant contains a poisonous psycho-mimetic alkaloid. Incan shamans discovered that in small doses the alkaloid gave them mystical powers and helped them enter the spirit world. In midsummer, Reno sometimes imagines a shaman dancing around the giant pink and yellow flowers in their garden on hot humid, moonlit nights. That’s when their scent is particularly strong and saturates the soft breeze wafting into their bedroom.

Reno opens his eyes. “No, that’s not what I mean. Where is my life going, now that I’m more crippled than ever?”

“You’re not ‘more crippled.’ You just had hip replacement surgery and that’s going to make you less crippled than you were. You’re just feeling down from the pain pills; they’ll wear off soon.”

“I was an athlete, Blaise; I could’ve gone professional, when I was eighteen. I was recruited by several rugby teams, but I turned them all down to be with you.”

“And I wanted to be with you, remember? We have a great life together, and you’re a wonderful swimmer and skier. You can do any sport that you put your mind to.”

“Not anymore, Blaise, I won’t be an athlete anymore, even when my hip heals. I’m finished.”

“You’re getting older, Reno; you’re not some young jock anymore; you couldn’t be a jock, now, even without your leg problems. We’re both getting older. It’s a fact of life.”

No response from Reno, he doesn’t want to think about his legs and getting old. He lies back, closes his eyes and listens to Schubert.

-Two old geezers dressed in bathrobes, sitting in lawn chairs, wear visors on their heads to protect themselves from the sun, while they chatter aimlessly in a garden of giant hostas and brugmansias.

As they drive along Reno contemplates the widening landscape with its rolling hills and valleys which he sees opening up into one large wide valley where the lightly traveled two-lane road winds around irregular, tree-covered piles of rock and soil – lumpy moraines dumped in place by a retreating glacier, which also formed small kettle lakes, from the melting of huge blocks of ice. He also notes the fields of green corn with border hedgerows of Osage orange and wild roses climbing up some of the rolling hills.

Landscape imagery has always been a theme in many of Reno’s dreams. And awake, he likes to imagine landscapes forming over thousands or millions of years. So when he was a college student, it was only natural that he would major in geology with an emphasis on how landscapes and soils developed over time. And since he wasn’t going to be a professional rugby player, the next best thing was to become a professor of geomorphology.

Finally, they arrive at Alba, nothing more than a crossroads with a post office, fire station, gas station and an old inn converted into a restaurant.

“We’re nearly home. Thank god. The hospital was driving me crazy…Now I’ll have to read and answer all my students’ e-mails,” says Reno, anxiously.

“You can do that sitting up in bed with your laptop; it’ll give you something to do, instead of watching TV and worrying.”

“I feel bad that I won’t be able to go along with my students on their field trips this summer.”

“You’ll go with them next summer when you’re in better shape.”

“Yeah, I guess, but I won’t be able to take them to see landscapes where a lot of uphill hiking is involved. I’ll have to take them to see boring glacial till plains or dismal drumlins.”

“So what’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, I guess, except I hate to feel limited. I’m too young,” Reno says. “I’ll have to drop some of my field research with my grad students. And I’ll probably be forced to pick up more classes in the fall. I hate performing in a stuffy classroom for a bunch of undergraduates, who are only taking the course to satisfy a science requirement.”

“You can’t be sure of that, and you had to get this operation in the summer, otherwise you’d have to deal with snow and ice while you’re learning how to walk.” Blaise is getting tired of Reno’s whining.

          They turn left and continue down another road for about two miles and come to their long narrow driveway surrounded on both sides by forest. Their driveway is about a half mile long. When they were looking for a home of their own they were attracted to this isolated house with redwood siding and floor-to-ceiling glass windows – they’d have some passive solar heating in the winter. Reno also noted that the soil around the house would be perfect for growing a variety of plants. And over the years they’ve cultivated an extensive garden which wraps itself around three sides of the house. The driveway ends at the fourth side of the house, and down from the edge of the driveway is a dense forested ravine.

Their dog, Zulie – a golden lab, samoyed mix – barks inside the house, when she hears the car nearing the front door.

          “Damn, I’m sure glad to get home. I’d crawl on my hands and knees to get into the house,” says Reno.

          Relax, I’ll get your walker. I’m glad you’re home, too. The nights were lonely for Zulie and me when you were away.”

Blaise brings the walker to Reno and they go slowly through the entrance to a hall and their bedroom: a large bright room with a southern view of the garden through a floor-to-ceiling window. There’s a double bed, chests of drawers and a bookcase along one wall.  The north side of the bedroom – no door or wall – is the entrance to a double, open shower and two sinks.  While Reno hangs on to his walker, Blaise undresses him down to his boxer shorts.

Blaise closes his eyes:

-Reno and he are making violent love – wrestling, each trying to make the other submit.

Blaise is getting hard. But he’ll wait. Reno’s too out of it, and he might hurt his leg. He helps Reno lower himself slowly onto their bed. Zulie approaches, tail wagging.

“I’ve arranged for a nurse to come over and check on you while I’m at work; and a physical therapist will come by to begin whipping you back into shape. I want to see you walking around as soon as possible.”

          “Me, too. If it’s like the time I broke my femur, I’ll be much better in a couple of weeks; I should be using a cane by then…I’m tired; come lie down; let’s take a nap.”

          Blaise takes his clothes off, down to his shorts, and lies down next to Reno.

 

Reno tries to sleep, but instead he starts thinking about the skiing accident when he broke his left leg and injured his lower spinal cord. Why is he obsessing on this now? He has to talk to Blaise about it, even though he knows that Blaise doesn’t like to be reminded of the catastrophe. He wishes that Reno would never talk about it. But that’s when Reno’s leg troubles began. He sits up and looks over at Blaise.

          “I can’t sleep; I keep thinking about the skiing accident. Like. It’s on a loop playing over and over in my head.”

          “Why talk about that now? I’ll turn on the TV and you can lose the thought watching some idiotic movie.”

          “No, that won’t work. I remember the day. You and I, and your so-called friends, went to the ski lodge. I wasn’t comfortable around them; they were a couple of phonies,” Reno says bitterly.

          “…Oh, them. After you had your accident – and were loaded into an ambulance – they took off and were never heard from again. I’m sorry I let them convince us to go skiing.”

          “You didn’t have to be convinced. You wanted to prove a point to them: that you could ski in spite of your lame foot and leg.”

          “We should’ve stayed home.”

          Reno continues, in spite of Blaise’s resistance.

“At the top of the mountain, I sensed that something was wrong, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I really felt a disaster coming, Blaise. The sun was blinding, reflecting off the fresh snow.”

Blaise is silent.

“Don’t you remember, Blaise?”

“Let’s not get into that now. Try to sleep.”

Reno insists, “Don’t you remember, what happened?”

“Of course, I do. I had sun goggles, and I was blinded, too.”

          “I was heading down the slope at a good clip; I’ve skied that slope dozens of times with you, Blaise.”

Blaise sees an image – a searing memory of that day – of Reno flying through the air, skis and poles wobbling, then Reno landing on the snow and smashing into a tree. He reaches for Reno’s hand and squeezes it.

“Halfway down the slope the sunlight reflecting off the snow blinded me for a moment, but maybe there was something else…I thought I saw a man skiing parallel, beside me. I looked at his face – he was laughing at me. He passed me and I saw the initials ‘AC’ on the back of his jacket. I kept looking at him; I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. Then he disappeared into a bright ball of sunshine. When I could see again, it looked like I was going to miss a turn on the slope, so I leaned quickly to adjust my course. But it was too late and I smashed into a tree.”

“Every time you talk about this you always mention the man with ‘AC’ on his jacket. He must’ve meant something to you. Who was he, Reno? Think hard. What does it mean?”

No response from Reno.

When Blaise finally got to Reno he saw him wrapped around a tree, one leg sticking out straight, the other leg folded up against the tree trunk and his left cheek cut and bleeding.

Blaise asks again, “Who was the guy you saw?”

“…No one, just a guy,” Reno answers, not wanting to think about “him.”

“I didn’t see anyone, you just lost control.”

 “Forget it, it all happened so fast,” Reno says, spaced out.

          “When we got to the hospital, and they took you to the emergency room, I remember pacing around like a trapped animal. When I found out you only had a broken femur I was relieved,” says Blaise.

          “I don’t remember any of that emergency stuff. But I do remember Dr. McBride telling me later on that I had a lower spinal cord injury, too. He said he didn’t think it would paralyze me, but he didn’t know what would happen when I tried to walk.”

“Yes, I remember. I hoped he was wrong.”

 “At the time I wasn’t too concerned about walking. I was focused on the incredible pain in my left leg,” says Reno.

 “You know that I’m sensitive to the slightest sign of a leg problem, because I’ve had a gimpy foot and leg since childhood...As time passed I noticed that you were dragging your left foot, ever so slightly.”

-Blaise imagines a tall blond, handsome Frankenstein’s monster limping past the foot of their bed – rigidly putting one foot in front of the other.

 “I guess I was trying to pretend to myself that my foot dragging was just some temporary thing. But both legs felt heavier than normal and stayed that way.  Dr. McBride finally told me that I had myelopathy and that it could get worse.”

“I didn’t want to believe it,” Blaise says, sadly.

“Then McBride decided that the best solution was to put me on a baclofen pump.”

“When we saw a neurologist at Johns Hopkins to get a second opinion, and he concurred with McBride’s diagnosis, we had to face facts,” Blaise says.

 “And that meant more surgery to install the pump. I’m damn tired of hospitals and surgery.”

          “You’ve gone through a lot. But it was necessary.”

          “Necessary? Am I going to spend the rest of my life fighting leg problems?”

“McBride said that the pump wouldn’t be enough to get you back to normal, but it would keep you out of a wheelchair. A wheelchair! Imagining you in one frightened me.”

“I’ll never run or go skiing again. I see people who don’t take care of themselves – even obese folks – walking, running, swimming, but I’m just a cripple.”

          “We’re both cripples, Reno. I’ve told you lots of times that my fucking fundamentalist Christian parents refused to let me be vaccinated for anything.”

          “Yeah, you got polio when you were two…But most people don’t notice anything; they don’t even see your special shoe.”

          “They notice when I try to walk fast; they all gawk at me,” Blaise says, angrily.

-The handsome monster appears again, smiling at Blaise.

          Under Blaise’s calm exterior is a subconscious burning with hatred – especially for his parents. He used to think a lot about killing them to assuage his seething anger, but he was intelligent enough to know that that would only destroy his life, too. Since childhood he’s been a dissembler; he’s covered up his irrational, angry, interior thoughts and presented to the world a person who is reasonable – enough to succeed in becoming a respected medical doctor. But dissembling has taken its toll; it’s damaged his emotions and made him, oftentimes, seem aloof and cold, unable to relate to people in a warm, welcoming way. Sometimes he feels that he might not be able to control the molten anger deep within and it’ll explode – destroying him and Reno. He’s tried extra hard to cultivate a loving relationship with his partner, but there are times when he looks at his clubfoot, pities himself, and feels that he’s not worthy of Reno.

“You told me that the kids at school called you ‘gimpy’ or ‘Frankenstein, Jr.’”

          “I had to put up with that crap all the time. I don’t think I told you another sad story, about a sweet lady that had to put up with much more than me: When I was in fourth and fifth grades we had an art teacher, Mrs. Hutchison, probably in her forties – ancient to fourth graders – who had an exaggerated limp. You could see that her right leg was at least three inches shorter than the left – way worse than my case. When she walked forward she lurched side to side in a wide arc – left to right. She carried a large woven basket of art supplies on her left arm, and some of the meaner kids called her ‘old witch Hutchison’ and mimicked her whenever her back was turned. I felt like murdering those little assholes. I had daydreams of bringing a gun to school, tying them up and shooting them in their knee caps to fuck up their walking, see how they liked it.”

-The monster pulls out a gun from his pocket and aims it at the two on the bed.

          “I’m glad you didn’t. They’d have thrown you into a reformatory, and I’d never know you.”

          “I guess reason trumped my hot temper, even then,” Blaise muses. “In sixth grade gym the boys had to learn to swim. It turned out that I could swim better than any of them. I trained hard, and with the help of a sympathetic coach I became my high school’s champion swimmer. All the assholes were silenced, and some of the attractive girls started paying attention to me.”

          “You also figured out how to ski. You beat your handicap. But I keep getting new ones. Why did I get arthritis in my right hip? Now they’re telling me I won’t be able to do anything that’s considered ‘high impact,’ like running or jumping. That rules out rugby, for sure, and skiing.”

          “But not swimming. We’ll go swimming together; I’ll train you for long distance swimming; we’ll get wet suits; see how far we can swim up Cayuga Lake.”

          Just then, a large grackle smashes into their bedroom window with a loud thud; the bird falls down on the patio, and twitches around; it’s stunned. The incident scares Blaise; he walks over to the window and looks. The stunned bird’s like Reno. The grackle will recover and fly off, but will Reno? Blaise has to be patient with him. He walks back to Reno, who’s sitting up in bed.

          “Was that a bird? Why can’t they see what they’re flying into? Stupid things,” Reno says, still in a dreamy drug fog.

          “Sometimes we run into things we don’t see, but we wait until we’ve come to our senses, walk away, and continue our lives,” Blaise says.

          “I get it, an appropriate moral for this bird – me. Well, sometimes birds, especially smaller ones, fly too fast into the window and break a wing and then they’re helpless.”

-A flock of screeching blue jays fly in front of Reno.

          “Come here boy; you’re far from helpless.”

Blaise pulls him to stand up and puts the walker into his hands, and leads him over to a full-length mirror in their marble-tiled bathroom, directly across the room from the open shower area. He reaches over to the wall and turns the recessed ceiling lights on bright.

“Take a good look. I see a tall man with broad muscular shoulders, and muscular legs and arms. You’re built like a damn Viking. Remember I used to call you ‘Leif, the Red’ when we first got to know each other?”

          “Some Viking warrior – I can’t even walk normally, and my muscles will turn flabby if I can’t get back to the gym.”

          “Stop it, Reno! We’re both getting older; we’re not immortal, like we thought, when we were twenty.”

          “Don’t complain; you’re a damn ‘Dorian Gray.’ You look as young and fresh as when I first met you. You’re damn handsome: black hair, blue eyes, your high cheekbones, your full lips, and you’re perfectly muscled. I’m glad you’re a lame gimp. Otherwise, you’d be too perfect. You’d’ve married a beautiful rich woman and lived in Europe most of the year,” Reno describes what he sees looking at Blaise in the mirror.

          “You’re wrong. People are put off by me. When I walk down hospital halls or go to the supermarket I’m still a gimp. Everyone sees a cripple; that’s what fascinates them. You don’t see many limpers nowadays. When I was young, stupid people were always telling me to smile; how can I smile when I’m a hopeless cripple? What woman or man wants a deformed leg and foot wrapped around their legs when making love? No, my mother always told me to forget about my leg and foot; she said that she had a long time ago. But she didn’t have a deformity. She wasn’t me,” Blaise says in a bitter tone.

          “You’re totally wrong,” Reno says shaking his head. “I think some people see a man who’s too handsome, too unapproachable, that’s what they’re reacting to. Maybe they notice the foot, but not in a bad way. It just makes you more interesting, more unique,” Reno emphasizes.

          “I don’t believe that, but I know you do and that’s why I love you. You accept me, even if I walk like Quasimodo.”

-The hunchback of Notre Dame rings the cathedral bells.

          “You’re impossible, man,” Reno says laughing.

          “Good! You’re laughing. Doesn’t that feel good? Makes me feel good.”

          “Agreed, OK, I get it. I’ll try not to act like a hopeless case. That won’t get us anywhere. Let’s get back in bed. All of a sudden I’m feeling sexy,” Reno says.

          “I’ve been waiting a long time for you to say that.”

 

Bedtime games done, now it’s choosing which side of the king-size bed Reno’s going to sleep on. They decide to stay in their usual positions. Blaise arranges the pillows at the foot of the bed so that Reno can elevate his feet.

          “Wake me up if you’re uncomfortable or your plastic urinal needs emptying. And I’ll get you some water and pain pills, if you need them. I can help you to your walker if you have to crap. I’ve set up the portable toilet next to the TV.”

          Blaise turns the lights off. Tonight, through the floor-to-ceiling window facing their bed, the bright light of a full moon reflects off the flowers and bushes in the garden. The varied colors are now shades of gray and black, making the shapes of flowers and leaves more striking: Giant Tiffany bells hang over a blur of low gray bushes and tall grasses with drooping seed pods swaying in a gentle breeze; gladiola and crocosmia leaves are swords with flowery tips; leaves on the tulip tree look like little lyres, waiting to be plucked by tiny humans with wings.  The too sweet odor of the brugmansias, overpowering all the other garden perfumes, wafts through the open screen door and fills the bedroom air.

          I wish I could bottle that; I’d release the scent only on the coldest, longest winter nights, Blaise muses.

The sweet, strong perfume wakes Reno. He turns his head and looks at his handsome lover’s profile.

“How many times have you taken care of me?” Reno asks, feeling like he’s becoming too much of a burden for his friend.

          “Relax, I’m a doctor, remember. Besides, isn’t this what partners do for each other?...Look out the window. The garden’s beautiful, mysterious, completely different from the daytime.”

          “If I die, you’ll have me cremated – like our wills say?”

          “No one’s near dying. Your pain killer’s talking, again. You’ll feel a lot better tomorrow. I’m going to make you a tasty breakfast. Cheer up; you’re a man who likes to eat.”

          Zulie’s watching from the other side of the room. No doubt their behavior isn’t what she’s used to. Dogs are conservative; they want things to go the way they always do, over and over; it reassures them. But her masters can tell she’s happy to see both of them together again.

          Zulie slept in the shower when you were away. Now the pack’s back together; she’s a happy girl.”

          Zulie walks over to the bed. Blaise pets her and she jumps up on the bed placing her head on Reno’s stomach. Reno pets her and scratches her ears.

          “Too bad they don’t allow dogs to visit their friends in the hospital. She sure would’ve made me feel better.  Instead, I get a visit from old Uncle Clarence. The old heron stretching out his long neck and looking down at me, gave me the creeps.”

          “I think your uncle gives quite a few people the creeps,” Blaise agrees.

          They cuddle with the dog for a few more minutes then she jumps off – probably got too hot lying between their warm bodies. Blaise turns over on his side and tries to sleep. In a few minutes he’s asleep; Reno hears a soft snoring sound.

 

Reno is uncomfortable lying on his back.

          What time is it? I’ll look at my alarm clock. No, don’t. That’ll only make me nervous and I’ll try to force myself to sleep, but that never works, he thinks.

A half hour passes and he’s still awake. Blaise is snoring. Reno can’t turn off the thoughts of self-pity. He keeps thinking about his disabilities, over and over. He wishes he wasn’t a burden for Blaise.

 He’s a doctor, but doctors need some down time, too. What would I do without him?

Thinking about dealing with a broken leg, or a replaced hip, and living alone, is too horrible.

What do sick people do when they don’t have someone to care for them? If you’re rich you can go to a fancy rehab center or hire a nurse. But most people, if they’re just average, middle class, don’t have the savings or insurance to do that.

Reno doesn’t want to think about it – too depressing.

If I were in that situation I might seriously consider…suicide…Maybe that’s the answer…No! That’s for weak people, desperate people. But maybe that is a solution. I wouldn’t be a burden to Blaise. And what have I got to live for, look forward to? Just a body that’s going to submit, more and more, to entropy – the good old second law of thermodynamics that I learned about in a graduate chemistry class. Order breaks down, and cells in human bodies degenerate; you get old and infirm…Death releases you from all that.

Death…what’s that like?  No one really knows. I haven’t been close to many people who have died – except my parents. Religious people claim they know, but they don’t, really. It’s always a matter of faith for them. But that’s not enough for me…Some people claim they’ve had an experience which they thought led to death, a sort of “pre-death” experience – baloney – like those good old stories about “tunnels of light” or some bright apparition with a human form. Bright tunnels and brilliant apparitions of people are probably caused by nerve endings sparking in their brains. I don’t think that any of that rubbish is some kind of “near death experience.” Death’s something more final.

          I’ve had some personal experiences that gave me a clue about death: I’ve come to believe that every one of the four times that I’ve been anesthetized, I’ve gotten a little taste of death. The more times I’ve been anesthetized for my surgeries, the more I’m convinced that I have an idea of what death might be like. Who can judge the validity of my “death experiences?” It can only be me.

I believe that an anesthetic turns off all awareness, sensations, feelings, like turning off the lights with a switch – click. During the times I was anesthetized there was nothing, no awareness or consciousness, nothing remembered, no dreams, nothing felt by my five senses and relayed to my consciousness, because there was no “me.” The consciousness of Rinaldo Antonin didn’t exist; I was turned off, like an electric light. It was ironic when, once, an anesthesiologist said, “sweet dreams,” before putting me under. The anesthesiologist didn’t acknowledge that there’d be no dreams, no consciousness, no memories, no feelings of anything, only nothingness, rien, null.  I can’t even say that my subconscious, or some call it the unconscious, was black; when I woke up I just assumed that it had to be black. Was it, or wasn’t it black? Reno Antonin, my personality, sometimes called my ego, has no way of knowing. I was turned off. Sure, my heart, my lungs and all that autonomic stuff kept going, but I wasn’t conscious of that, because my consciousness was turned off. Technically, scientifically, I couldn’t be declared dead until my heart stopped beating, my lungs stopped processing air, etc. Some people might call the autonomic system the “ground of consciousness.” But I wasn’t aware of this ground of consciousness, either. So if my human body has no consciousness – Rinaldo Antonin no longer exists – I’m dead. It doesn’t matter if my heart’s beating or not; there’s no consciousness. “I can’t know anything.”

Lying in bed, tossing and turning, trying not to wake Blaise, Reno’s mind can’t sleep; it moves on to another concept of death:

Most people think that some form of their consciousness – their personalities, their egos, their souls? – continues on after death. Their consciousness isn’t completely wiped out. Some form of their consciousness is going to journey to some mythical heaven, or hell or some other dreamed up place and live forever…That’s more than I want to think about tonight. I should try to go asleep.

When his operation was over, the anesthesiologist gave me a drug to wake me up, or turn my consciousness back on. Click, the light’s on; I’m awake; Rinaldo Antonin exists, again. I was dead, then brought back from death. The anesthesiologist had reversed the process, turned on my consciousness. Do I dare say that I was “resurrected?” If I can call it that, my resurrection wasn’t very pleasant. I awoke to pain and a drug-induced bewilderment. I didn’t know who I was, or where I was…But what if I woke up feeling great: no pain, no mental fogginess? What if I had a sense of joy! If I was strong, and could leap up from my bed? That might actually be quite pleasant, but that’s not the way it works in a hospital after surgery…Would it be possible to get anesthetized outside a hospital? If I weren’t sick or in pain, my awakening would be completely different. I could awake in a pleasant setting…and have a sense of joy, leap up from my bed. The idea fascinates me.

Why am I thinking about death so obsessively tonight? Is it because I’m so damned depressed, and the thought of suicide floats like a soft cooling breeze through my mind? It’s sort of reassuring to think of death as nothingness, no feelings, no memories, no knowledge. It’s a final “light’s off.” If death were like what a lot of people believe, that some form of their consciousness lives on forever, I’d be damned afraid of dying. I’ll discuss this with Blaise sometime, but right now I have to get some sleep so I’ll take an ambien, that’ll lead me into dreamland.