Thursday, August 26, 2004

Two Stories

Carl and Nurse April by Charles Moore
(Note: This story takes place, as if you might notice, before the new appendectomy procedures came into practice.)

The operation itself had never been in doubt, Carl's appendix had to be removed. He had had his enema the night before and gotten used to the hospital routine, the dry air, the uncomfortable bed, stale sterile surroundings, stuff like that. He remembered later, that he hadn't dreamed that night. It wasn't until a day later that he really recalled the apprehension just before the calm, masked faces that looked down at him and a quick bright light came on . . .
Carl lay still in the internal darkness of sleep. He could hear, a rustling sound of clothes, the air conditioner, a TV, sirens through a window. But he couldn't really hear anything distinct. Only background sounds. Like just before his alarm clock would go off, something internal sort of warmed up his consciousness. He would hear the neighbor's car start up, or hear the wind against the house but it wasn't like he was really awake and prepared to do the sit up required to reach the alarm clock at the end of the bed and then collapse back onto the pillows for nine more minutes of light sleep or until the radio came on in the other room. He had to have this one-two punch to help him crawl out of the sack. Like he really didn't want to go to work but actually he did want to go to work he just didn't want to sit at the table slurping Cheerios with nothing to do. That was the problem in waking up, he had to do something, so he stalled getting up until he had no excuses but to hustle and rush to get to work on time.

Now, in his dreamless state, something warm held his wrist, feeling his pulse. It was someone's hand, wasn't it?

The warm tentacles let his wrist drop. Not placed back under the sheet with respect, but dropped, like a wrap of meat that is unacceptable at the A&P. Plop, his hip could feel the pressure on the sheets of his wrist landing near it.

He could smell a faint odor of a noxious anesthetic. He asked himself, was it anna-these-ia? Or was it a-neth-sia? Carl tossed the words over like pancakes. Anna-theeeez-ia? Ah-neth-zee-a? Didn't matter, he reckoned, he could smell something awful and he wished it'd clear out soon so he sleep in peace.

"Doctor," said a female voice, "he's not responding." The quiet, smooth, voice had silk written all over it. It had a breathed quality to it. Not breathless, that seem to mean, to him, thinking it meant whispering, that the voice was without impact. This kittenish velvet tone sashayed into his head. "All his signs are good but he won't come out of the anesthetic. He is now four hours overdue."

Carl, in the pause of an instant by the person sworn to look after him, imagined a chisel-chinned, dark haired, young intern--casting a seductive glance at who?--Nurse April?--smiling with teeth that sparkled.

Don't worry about it, Nurse April, Carl would say in a baritone born somewhere around his belly button, I'll take care of it. Are you available for lunch?

Instead, "Well, haven't you tried talking to him?" The voice was nasal. Urgent. Alto. Male and small. Lots of lips. Maybe glasses.

Warm air drifted against Carl's right ear. His good ear, at that.

Nurse April sighed, "Carl?"

I'll never wash that ear again, rushed through his brain.

This serene, deathly quiet whisper penetrated the inner reaches of his brain., down in the stem somewhere where Broca lived or where resided Carl's reptilian ancestors' gift to the human gene pool.


His ear was melting like cheap wax.

"Do you hear me, Carl?"

He thought, Yes, oh yes, yes, yes, yes, but, hey, why stop a good thing?

"Carl, if you hear me just squeeze my hand." He felt warmth in the palm of his erstwhile held hand. An echo from below resounded in his brain, "Oh Carl, please, squeeze it." Some motorized portion of Carl's inner drives refused to respond to the dimly perceived wish to squeeze the hand of the lovely--she must be lovely?--Nurse April.

Oh yes, yes, yes!

"Doctor, he's not responding." The voice was now precise. A yard away. Unhappy. Not caring.
Carl's defense system sensed the warm fingers an instant before they pried open his eye lid followed by a bolt of bright light.

"He dilates, that's good. Give 'em time."

Damn, Carl's synapses yelled, that hurt. You s.o.b.! Wait till I'm up and around and point a million candle power at your retina. Almost a doctor! Fry a few of your cones, for sure, buddy! How do I get some more of Nurse April's bedside manner?

Later the room was fractionally quieter. The TV was off, the AC still hummed, he thought, or was it now a fluorescent bulb? He could hear an occasional traffic sound from outside and announcements over the public address and the ding-dong of some kind of hospital-only signal. It reminded Carl of the J.C. Penney's when he used to pick up his mom after her shift at the store in town, where they'd dong once that had some meaning he never learned, then twice, then three times, until the damn thing donged continuously! He would have to leave the store to wait for his mom so that he didn't get gonged to death!

Carl couldn't see a distinct light source through his eyelids so he reckoned he was really way out of it. Or maybe the lights in the room must be off. This is kinda nice, he thought.

It was only a few minutes ago Nurse April and the witch-doctor had left, wasn't it?

Through the fog in his brain Carl tried to conjure up an image of Nurse April. She seemed to bounce between some buxom lifeguard or a two-hundred-pound freeweight hobbyist, drifting first one way and then the other, in and out of his consciousness, before he coalesced both images into one.

"He's still out," said Nurse April.

"What's the matter here?" This was a new voice. A little lower than before. More calm. More authoritative. "Carl." His name echoed between his ears like someone talking into a barrel.
Bad connection, thought Carl, hang up and try again.

"Carl." Again the name. It was his name wasn't it, drifting into his brain and right back out again. He hadn't flinched when they mentioned intravenous feeding.

"Doctor, we're up to eight hours now."

"I know. I know!"

He sounds a little worried, thought Carl. Lawsuit time? Warmth on this eyelids and then another supernova blasted his left eye. God damn, screamed Carl, you guys torture that left eye much more and I'll need something more than new glasses! He felt his heart rate recover a bit, a cold metallic touch right over his heart. And that damn dong going off in the background. Doesn't that thing ever quit?

"His heart rate is steady," said the Voice.

'Cept now I'm pissed, thought Carl. I just may lay here for a couple of days and let the tab for my suit run up. That'll fix you, you bunch of phonies, can't even detect my heart jumping up like it did. Doctors, taught to think that everything will always work out and that if they aren't in control then ain't nobody in control. Ha! I'll bet you think I'm just brain dead. I'll just wait a while and come out of it like a miracle, sue you guys for a gazillion bucks, get your Porsche and the house up on the lake and take off with Nurse April to Cancun. I'll fool 'em.

"No, Nurse, he isn't brain dead. Besides, he's smiling."

The gong went off again just like the alarm clock at home.

Swearing under his breath, Carl rose from the dead. The siderails were down and he rolled off the bed towards the doctor. Shoving him to one side without so much as an "excuse me," Carl, left hand pulling the I.V. tree behind him, bare feet slapping on the tile floor, yanked open the door and took a big stride into the middle of the hallway.

"For cryin' out loud," he shouted at the top of his parched voice, "will you turn that blankety-blank gong or dong or chime, or whatever the hell you call it, off?"

The station nurse, interrupted in the middle of a file examination, cocked an eyebrow towards Carl, standing there in his gown, hand on hips, hairy white legs, feet spread apart, defying her or anyone else to take him on. And Carl, getting no takers, in a huff, turned, and in one fluid motion pushed through the door while untying the back of his gown and letting it flag open in the breeze.

Carl retraced his route between the doctor and the bed only vaguely aware of the nurse on the other side of the bed. He hopped up on the bed and rolled back underneath the sheet. In the middle of some thought that he couldn't remember the next day, that he hadn’t dreamed despite being asleep, he was back asleep.

They checked Carl out that next day. He got to take his plastic pitcher and his hospital gown. And the bill, of course. An intern had shown up to tell him it was time to go. Carl had awaken on time the next morning hungry and dry. Carl grumbled about dongs and lights in his eyes and how he couldn't get any rest and how they'd hear from his lawyer. The intern hadn't known a thing about the day before and Carl thought as how that was just one more reason he--Carl--didn't want to come back to this hospital ever again. He never did find out what Nurse April looked like.

Banana. Orange. Apple. by Charles Moore

Ronnie, was what some people called him and he called himself, but his parents called him Ronald, was just past his tenth birthday. The three of them, Mom, Dad and Ronnie visited Atlantic City once a year from their western Virginia home of Roanoke. They didn't have any kind of gambling like this in Roanoke. For that matter, no where in Virginia.

His Aunt Winnie, on his Dad's side, lived in South Atlantic City and his mom and dad always visited her first and then left the next morning to go into the city for two days as if the visit to Aunt Winnie was just an excuse to go gambling. Ronnie's mom used the word 'always' to say how often they had visited Aunt Winnie over the years. Always, he guessed, meant sometime before he was born. It didn't quite sink in that there was something in his parent's life before him. Aunt Winnie's house was a two-story brick and wood house on a long straight street, Elm-lined, but people parked in their driveways and not on the curb and he noticed this year that two houses in the next block were abandoned and Aunt Winnie had complained, near cried, about her pension, which he understood to mean money, was drying up. If worse came to worse, said his dad, she could come and live with them and Ronnie noticed his mom give his dad one of those looks that if she had aimed it at Ronnie it meant "don't be so quick to say such things" and "we'll talk about this later" which Ronnie had begun to discover meant his mom would talk and his dad would listen.

Anyway, that was yesterday. This morning the three of them had driven from Aunt Winnie's house out to the interstate, which just after rush hour traffic still seemed to be pretty busy to Ronald, and drove to downtown Atlantic City then across downtown to the Grand Hotel On-the-Boardwalk.

The Grand was pink concrete with domed corners and a pool to one side of the arched entrance and the floor was polished granite like at church in Roanoke and high ceilings with chandeliers. Ronald would twist around and look at all the lights and glass along the top of the ceiling and marvel at the tree lined open veranda that opened to the courtyard where there was sunshine and a fountain and the air was warm and sweet flowing back into the veranda and then through a ceiling-high double door that opened into the casino. In front of him was forest of slot machines. Rows and rows of them all clanging and zinging, occupying, seemingly, only old folks standing or seated pushing in coins and pulling down the handles some of them betting at two or three machines. He was old enough to wander around but his parents had never allowed him to play the slots. The card games were much to adult for Ronald to even understand except it seemed to be only men playing and they had half-full glasses of booze and ashtrays full of cigarette butts in front of them and their eyes were glazed from lack of sleep. All of them looked unhappy.

His mom and dad told him to be back at noon and they each went right and left and Ronald made a bee-line straight towards the bright light at the other end of the casino and through the French doors, out beneath the canopy, onto the boardwalk.

He could smell the salt before he saw the ocean. He could still hear the clanging of the slots as he stepped out from underneath the canopy and out into the sunlight glaring off the wood decking of the boardwalk and the sand and the ocean that was flat calm and gleamed like it had just been washed and waxed.

Beyond the slots, he had discovered on the very first trip, was the boardwalk and beyond the boardwalk, the beach and the ocean. The waves and sun and the rocks and shells, the gulls, were always new to him. On his very first trip he wandered to the very edge of the water. It was cold and he stuck his finger in the water and tasted it. He spit to clear the salt taste from his mouth.

But the sky and sun took in all his gaze. Nothing prevented him from seeing all the way to the edge of the world. It was different than standing on top of Signal Mountain and seeing the hills and valleys below him roll off into the haze. The sky and sea met in a flat line that he could follow from one end of the beach to the other end and all he had to do was turn his head. And there were people playing in the low surf. Kids, littler than him, ran and jumped and splashed around and couples would walk by, hand in hand. The salt wind would shift to a shore breeze and the heat would stick to him for a moment. He walked across the beach and waded out to water was up to his ankles and his sneakers filled with sand and sank into the sand slurry. He jumped back but not out of the surf and he let the cold water rush around his ankles again and he moved down beach a little bit watching the surf tumble the shell fragments and shift the sand dissolving and building little ripples in this endless motion of pure energy.

Ronald shaded his eyes with his hand and with the sun at his back looked up beach at the buildings and the boardwalk slanting down to the upper beach and then the flat run-off of the beach into the water. Beyond the foreground of the town ran the jetty and behind it a few tall skeletons of the pier derricks but soon all that ended and the endless flat of the water reaching up to the sky, or was the sky stopped by the water, was straight away from where he was standing as far as he could see. Even when he stood on his tip toes he couldn't see any further.
Ronald climbed back up the beach towards the boardwalk. The sand stuck to his shoes and got inside and ground against his skin. There was a shower stand not being used so he stuck his feet underneath the sprinkler and washed off the sand from the outside and then he took off his sneakers and washed the insides and his feet. He didn't have a towel but he sat in the sun for minute or two and put his shoes on only to find that he still had sand in them. The worse that would happen, he had found from other years, was that his feet would get really uncomfortable and gritty but that after his shoes dried completely if he brushed them out enough they didn't bother him any more.

He put his shoes on and started up the boardwalk towards the jetty. He had never gotten that far yet. The boardwalk had a gap in it where the pavement from the street cut through the beach cliff onto the beach proper and he always stopped there.

That last building before the break in the boardwalk was also a casino but it didn't have any bright signs or fancy doors. It was just an old building with slot machines in it without card tables or the fancy interior like his mom and dad visited at the Grand.

Inside the dark casino, Ronald had watched some people lose at the slots and get mad at the machine and others get mad at their friends and still others droop or cry or sit with their heads back just staring at the ceiling, broke, he supposed. Finished. Busted. How was it people wanted to gamble? he thought. Because they had won once and felt they could win again? His parents always came home with less than they started. They bragged to their neighbors, the Lorenzes, that they had been seventy-five or one hundred dollars ahead but never admitted that they eventually walked out of the casino with less than when they walked in. It didn't make much sense. They acted like it just an expense of the vacation.

He stood now, on the boardwalk looking into the dark din of the casino. The shadow of the building enveloped him but the huge brightness of the ocean's sky lighted the edge of the shadow but couldn't penetrate past the doorway of the casino. From inside he could hear the clanging and rumble of voices and smell the occasional whiff of cigarette smoke. Ronald stepped forward into the opened doors. The air conditioned air tickled his front but the hot humid sea air warmed his back. His eyes still didn't not adjust to the dark. Off to the left he could see the black outlines of the slot machines and the heads and arms, reaching up to pull the levers of the one-armed bandits and he could see the fluorescent lamps against the ceiling. Across was another door and Ronald could watch shadows cross in front of the light so bright it lost focus against the doorframe.

To his right, back lighted by the outside windows of the building were more slots in the far corner and dice tables and a roulette table and in the corner nearest him more slots in a big circle, facing in, connected by a circular table for people's drinks and cigarette trays. In this little circle of slot machines drawn together like wagons circled in an old western movie, was a man sitting on a stool. Ronald was just inside the man's peripheral vision and he glanced over at Ronald, cigarette dangling from his mouth, the smoke making his eyes hurt just enough to cause a squint. The man needed a shave and he wore a plaid shirt, open at the collar and one more button undone, and light slacks. He had kicked off his shoes and his stocking feet rested on the top rung of the stool. This caused him to sit up straight but Ronald could follow the contour of the man's back and see that he actually was stooped over like an old farmer who'd worked too long in the fields with a too short hoe.

The old man eyed Ronald for a second, just long enough to notice the boy standing in the doorway, dark on one side, light on the other. Ronald noticed the glance too for about all he could see in the room was this man whose clothes stood out in minimum contrast the the darkened background. The lights of the one-armed bandits and the overhead lights all shifted to a tapestry superimposed by the old gambler. The man no more than glanced and Ronald no more than noticed the glance and each went back looking at what they had been looking at before each other.

Ronald did want to enter the room. His understanding of gambling and losing money was childlike, treating the business as game and entertainment not as a way of making a profit.
Voices and clanging bells drifted out the door. Smoke and cheap perfume and lousy aftershave mingled with salt air in the doorway. Standing half in shade and half in the sun, his chest felt the coolness through his shirt and the back of his legs felt the sun burning them.

Ronald turned and walked back to the edge of the boardwalk. Away from the flashing lights and the clanging noises and hurrahs of the winners and seethings of the losers. He shaded his eyes again looking over the beach from end to end, horizon to horizon. There seemed to be more people on the beach now. Swimmers, waders, strollers. Couples walking hand-in-hand and little kids running unchecked along the surf line and then dodging into the surf ankle deep; acting scared of the cold water and prancing back to the warm sand and then just as quickly scampering into the low surf again. Up and down the boardwalk people strolled toward him and away from him. He stood against the railing as adults and even retired people walked on by, talking, chatting, laughing, ignoring him. Down the boardwalk he could see the sign announcing the Grand with an arrow that bent at the bottom and pointed into the long line of facade. He looked at his feet for a moment and then looked away, towards the gap in the boardwalk made for the street. Then back down to his feet again. Next to his right foot was coin. No, as he bent down to pick it up, it was token. A metal token not a plastic one. It was hot from the sun and it was too warm to handle. He tossed it between his hands willing it to cool and he stepped into the shade of the doorway sensing that would further help cooling. He kept tossing it between his hands and then flipping it like a coin to see if the casino's medallion or the value would land up in his palm. The token took a moment to cool and he could see he was already in the right place--the Madagascar--and it was a quarter-sized like the slots took. It was also good for real money.

The old man was still slipping tokens into the slot of the machine and pulling down the handle. Sometimes he would use his thumb and forefinger to place the token in the slot and let gravity pull down the token and then reach up and pull down the handle in a mechanical one-two step process. Other times he would let the token just barely balance on the edge of the slot and the using his forefinger to give it a boost as it by dropping faster into the bin inside would trigger a different set of gears and cogs or spin them harder and longer and increase his chances no matter how hard or fast he yanked down on the handle. It was if there was a track the token followed down through the machine that lead to "winner" and another that by misfortune, or lack of a good shove, ended up in the "loser" bin. That was the way Ronald saw this man operate although the man pulled the handle with about the same quickness using his whole arm rather that forearm and wrist like his own father did.

The man seemed to sense Ronald staring. Or maybe the man just looked to see if someone was watching him crank steadily on the handle, pitching money into the machine one token chasing another.

"It just disappears," he said. Ronald wasn't used to someone he didn't know starting the conversation. Usually it was him mom or an aunt who asked some question of him that he suspected was only to be polite and not even going to pay attention to the answer.

"The money," the old man said. "The money disappears. It just goes in and disappears. You looked like you didn't know what I meant."

Ronald looked at the token in his hand. Would it disappear?

"You can only get lucky," said the man. "Bein' unlucky is sort of the regular state of things. I mean, you put in your money, and take your chances and nothing happens. You can't get unlucky. You can only get lucky. I guess."

Ronald put the token in his pocket. He had one other that his dad discovered had made it back to Roanoke in the bottom of his suitcase. Now he had two. The start of a collection maybe? Ronald turned around and stepped into the sun whitened light of the boardwalk. The cloudless sky blended into the horizon just like it had ten minutes ago and the people still shuffled arm in arm and talking, ignoring him still.

Ronald turned around again, this time looking into the dark and din of the casino. Nothing had changed there either. The place had no seasons or weather or irregularity to the landscape although doubtless he could have articulated that pleasure of the eye in landscape that changed within one view. The sameness, not necessarily the unchangingness, of the beach and the rooms now began to seep into his brain. What was the magic that drew his mother and father here? Why were all these people, maybe lots of them from places like Roanoke, here and not up the mountains or down on the beach?

Ronald sidestepped into the corner of the casino next to the old man who now ignored him, not interrupting his shoving coins down the machine's throat and giving the long handle a yank.
Ronald wasn't sure if he should be in here let alone have a token and now to take the token and put in the slot. The token rattled loudly as he imaged it found it's way to either the winner or the not-a-winner bin, the lucky or not-lucky bin deep inside it's guts. The money just disappeared. He watched, slightly open mouthed, as nothing happened. The man next to him kept dishing in the money, kept levering the lever, kept reaching for more in an endless routine that didn't seem to yield any satisfaction. The old man's slot paid off clanging loudly and coins dumped into a box at the bottom of the machine. The money, the tokens, went back into a cycle of taken from the box at the bottom and pushed back through the slot as if the human hand was only a conduit because the money couldn't do that by itself.

Ronald took the cold shaft of the handle, he couldn't even reach all the way to the top, and pulled, but not too hard. The little wheels in the three windows rolled and rolled and as if some little gambling god inside the machine stopped each wheel in turn. Banana. Orange. Apple.