Category Archives: JULY 2020

Deep Cleaning

Deep Cleaning

Ron Singer

 

The first time you make a mistake, you can usually shrug it off. But, if you make it again, you may be stupid. (Is there a saying to this effect?) I also believe that serious pain can teach enduring lessons. In the course of two recent cleanings, for example, I have become a poster boy (aged 72) for dental hygiene. Not to belabor the obvious, but this means thorough brushing and flossing after every meal, and no shortcuts with what Scott, my dentist, calls “the electric”: two minutes every night, before bedtime. I have also put an end to procrastination over office visits (to his office—I don’t have one, anymore). These days, I’m not especially busy, and since Mary is still toiling away in the vineyards of primary-school education, we continue to enjoy adequate dental insurance. Ergo, I go. No excuses. 

Accordingly, three months after the last, routine cleaning, and the day after receiving Scott’s friendly reminder (by snail, still), I made a new appointment, then showed up at the appointed hour, on the appointed day. As I climbed out of the cab and paid the driver, I dared to anticipate another “shallow” cleaning. 

While I waited in the anteroom for Scott to finish up with another patient, my whole dental life flashed before me (the last two visits, anyway): two voyages around the eight surfaces of the four quadrants of my mouth (each, recto and verso); my thoughts during the first, “deep” cleaning, which had included the sudden death, from a brain aneurysm, of a thirty-something friend, Charles Goldstein, and the funeral and sightings of his unquiet ghost; and, finally, Scott’s having confided in me that his son had been diagnosed with bi-polar disease. To my subsequent self-flagellation, his unspoken plea for sympathy and guidance had gone unanswered. 

By now, all that seemed like old hat: omissions, obsessions, and mistakes, there was no reason to dwell upon them–or repeat them. Charles’ restless ghost was long gone, even from my dreams. And, at the start of the second visit, I had asked about the boy — albeit rather brusquely. Not to be cynical, but the best good deed may be when you are rewarded for the intention. Scott had replied that his son’s illness had turned out to be “blessedly mild.” After a dicey start, they had regulated the lithium dosage, and the young man seemed to be doing better. 

“Thanks for asking, Marty.”

As soon as he ushered me into his office, I asked again. This time, although I couldn’t remember the son’s name, I tried to put a little feeling into the question: “How’s your boy doing these days, Scott?” In response, I received the same information as last time. Even Scott’s words, if I remember correctly, were the same: “…regulated the dosage … managing better.” Did he use those words with every patient? For an instant, the possibility hurt my amour propre. But then I remembered my cold reaction when he first confided in me. By what right could I now expect a personalized response? As you sow…. Besides, it would have been strange if Scott enjoyed this topic of conversation.

The moment before asking the question, I had hesitated for a single beat. I was having a little tussle with the residue of superstition that I suspect lingers even in rational people. When my wife holds her breath as we drive past that mile-long cemetery in western Queens, or when my daughter throws spilled salt over her shoulder, I confess to a feeling of amused superiority. But I don’t believe anyone is completely un-superstitious. 

Speaking of which, although I stopped seeing the ghost of Charles Goldstein long ago, it occurs to me that the sightings may also have been a subtle form of superstition. When someone several decades younger than you drops dead on the street one day, resurrecting them could be a way of shrugging off the actuarial implication that you are living on borrowed time. And don’t give me that crap about how “we all live on borrowed time.” The borrowed time of a thirty-something is nothing like the borrowed time of a seventy-something.  

As I was saying, at the moment of opening my mouth to ask Scott how his son was doing, I was brought up short by superstition. To ask the question might upset the stasis that the boy had apparently reached. But, then, I thought how superstitious it would be not to ask. And I realized something else: if the stasis (like a bad dental crown) had not held, I did not want to know. The fact remained that I still didn’t really want to share Scott’s burden. What an ignoble feeling! What a relapse into the coldness for which I had berated myself after the deep cleaning! So, as I have indicated, I did ask, after all, and Scott replied, also as indicated. After that, he changed the subject.

“Let’s get started, Marty, I’m running a little late today. Open, please.” 

And he launched into his usual expert renewal of my mouth. Scott’s care is personalized. As usual, he had hung my x-rays from a clothespin in front of a magnifying light three feet from the chair, so he could refer to them. After the hygienist had glided in, painted a little of the “local” onto my gums, and glided back out, Scott did a quick survey of the territory, accompanied by a blow-by-blow description. 

“Ve-ry good. That old crown, back bottom left, seems to be holding. We can postpone replacing it until the new insurance year kicks in…. And, let’s see … the temporary filling, third one in, top right…” Scott has an exceptional chair-side manner.  

Twenty minutes and three quadrants later, as we paused for a rinse and a jaw stretch, superstition once again pounded at the portals of my mind. (Whew!) Perhaps it was because, for whatever reason, we had not been saying much. Under the circumstances, of course, my own capacity to initiate conversation had been very limited. (“Ehhhee, aaww ett.”) But what about Scott? Had his excellent wife run off with the postman? Had his other, “normal” son disappointed? 

Not that our silence had been uncomfortable, but it was anomalous because, normally, Scott natters. Come to think of it, I would be surprised if there were many silent dentists. If he is typical (and I’m not forgetting the bi-polar son), it could be that many dentists suffer from incipient melancholy, which, most of the time, they fend off by nattering. But now and then, their motors must run down.

Thus far, the cleaning had been smooth and easy –a little picking, a little scraping, nothing that tested my medium-low pain threshold. So now I almost said, “Seems to be going much better this time, Scott. All those two-minute sessions with the electric must be paying off.” Yes, I may as well admit it: I was feeling a little cocky about my newfound dental fitness. But I kept my proverbial pie hole shut. Why? Again, superstition: I feared the evil eye (or tooth). So I rinsed (very little blood), he reinserted the sucker, and we proceeded without incident to the northwest quadrant (top left, verso). As we glided toward this ultima thule, I filled our still-companionable silence by revisiting images from a favorite film, Master and Commander. 

“Which of us is which?” I wondered. And “do Galapagos tortoises have teeth? If so, do they decay and fall out as the animals approach an age not unlike eternity?” In fact, as I have since determined via a thirty-second visit to the Google Virtual Public Library, no modern tortoise has so much as a single tooth. 

On we sped, coming without incident into port. Toothbrush, floss, and paste were proffered, hands shaken, and that was that. Promising to “keep up the good work,” I danced from the office, mentally clasping my clean bill of dental health. As I sailed across the sidewalk, hoping to catch a cab home, I did not suffer, as I had after the deep cleaning, from any self-flagellating thoughts about insensitivity or stupidity, connected, of course, with ever-encroaching mortality. But I did recall something else, which made me freeze right there on the curb, on this typically warm June day. 

Early in the course of today’s session, an unwelcome image from another film had flashed, like heat lightning, across my mental horizon. (The careful reader –frequent sailor on these strange seas of literary thought– will see an epiphany about to appear on his own horizon. Not even a shot across the bows could make it tack and turn.)

The unwelcome image was of Lawrence Olivier, the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man, torturing poor Dustin Hoffman. Fleetingly, back there in the bottom right recto, it had occurred to me to ask Scott his opinion of this film. The question could possibly have started us on a survey of famous movie dental scenes, like the hilarious one in which biker/dentist Bill Murray tortures Steve Martin. But, once again, I had kept my pie hole –well, not shut, but silent. 

No, I had not asked, “Uhht ooo ink uh Awruhnce Oeeiuheh …?” etc. That question might have been given point by the fact that Scott (like many New York dentists) is, as am I (like many of their patients) a member of what I refer to as “the Jewish perversion” (i.e. persuasion). Not to mention that Hoffman plays the eponymous (Jewish) runner, and that Scott is himself a serious jogger. 

Back out on the sidewalk, on this morning of only moderate humility (boom boom), as I stood at the curb, arm upraised for a cab, I imagined how, had I given rein to curiosity and asked the Olivier question, the conversation might have gone:

Marty (I, me):  You’ve seen Marathon Man, right, Scott?

Scott: Hasn’t everyone seen Marathon Man? 

Marty: Well?

Scott: ‘Well,’ what? (Note: doesn’t want to answer. Drop it!)

Marty: What did you think of the dental scene? 

Scott: What do you think I thought? It was horrible.

Marty: Well, of course, Olivier was playing a Nazi.

Scott: Yeah, I noticed. But he was also playing a dentist. A very bad dentist, one who intentionally inflicts pain. 

So, as my raised arm began to tire, and I realized that this was the hour when the taxi drivers’ shift ends, and that I might have to resort to the hated subway, I decided I had done the right thing, after all. Had this conversation actually taken place, during subsequent procedures of any kind, if Scott happened to inflict any pain on me –unintentional, of course—we would both have awkward flashbacks to the Marathon Man conversation.

Yes, over the (I hope) years to come, during numerous visits (not, I hope, too numerous) to Scott’s office, as I try to preserve my teeth, in order to help sustain a Galapagos-like longevity (if I may be permitted a little latitude), I can schedule my regular appointments, then settle into the familiar chair and enjoy Scott’s wizardry, with the small satisfaction of not having evoked the confused archetype of cruel dentist/Nazi/Jew and hapless patient/victim/also Jew. When one visits a dentist repeatedly over the years, one does not need to bring along needless mental plaque. No, the dentist-patient relationship is sufficiently fraught, without making it worse. Scott, the Dentist, and Marty, the Patient, must and will continue to work together in relative harmony.

Note: “Deep Cleaning” (1) narrates two earlier visits by Marty, a retired advertising copywriter, to Scott, his dentist. “Deep Cleaning” (1) appeared at www.snreview.org › Spring2009

The Letters Keep Coming

The Letters Keep Coming

Holly Day

 

cringe. draw away from me out 

of me slough away

promises burn holes

in dreams I know 

you, silent in the darkened hall, white armor 

stripped and revealed to be paste. tell me why 

I need you. don’t leave me yet. run. pull 

yourself off of me out of me get

as far as you can from 

me, I exile you because 

I know. once a week 

she calls me to let me know you’re still 

sleeping with her, tells me about 

the life you have planned 

for the two of you. she wants forgiveness. 

she wants to know if I’m okay with all 

of this. 

I tell her I’m fine

My Yoke is Easy

My Yoke is Easy

James William Gardner

It was just Amos Handy and God standing there together on a lonely two lane road in Mississippi in the dark in the middle of the night.  It was God who first spoke.  He said, “Amos, what in the world are you aiming on doing now?”  There was a soft, breeze like God’s breath.  Amos didn’t answer the Lord right away.  He thought about it a while and of course when it’s just you and the Lord that doesn’t really matter because the Lord hears everything you’re thinking anyway.  He more than likely knows it before you do.

Finally Amos Handy said to the Lord, “I really ain’t sure.   I reckon I’ll just go wherever it is that you lead me.”  He didn’t say it out loud.  He said it with his mind’s voice the way he was accustomed to talk to God.  He felt the breeze again.  God’s voice always seemed to come in through the top of his head.  It was almost warm like a stocking hat feels.  Amos Handy hadn’t eaten since Tuesday afternoon and it was Thursday.  “Lord, I sure could use me something to eat if you could manage it.  My stomach’s empty as a drum.”

He began to walk again.  He could hear the gravels crunch under his feet.  He remembered that piece of scripture when Jesus talked about how the Father takes care of his children.  He couldn’t think of the exact words.  That’s how scripture works sometimes.  Just then he saw headlights coming up behind him and he heard a growl of a diesel engine getting louder and louder.  He turned to face the light.  He wasn’t sure, but it looked like a logging truck.  He stuck out his thumb and smiled his best, friendliest smile at the driver.  The big truck slowed down.  The air breaks hissed and it came to a stop right beside him.

“You need you a ride?” said a deep, raspy voice through the open passenger side window.  Behind the voice Amos Handy heard Charlie Pride singing, Kiss an Angel Good Morning.

“I sure do!” answered Amos Handy still smiling as nice as he could.  The door swung open and the voice said to climb on up.  Amos Handy threw his backpack up into the floorboard and got in.  “Man, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this.”  All he could see was the dark silhouetted profile of a face in the dashboard light.  It had a cigarette stuck in it that wiggled up and down when the silhouette spoke.

“No problem Brother,” it said.  “I’ve done been down and out.  I know what it’s like.  Where you headed?”

“I ain’t really sure.  I’m just walking and seeing where I can get to.”

The silhouette offered Amos Handy a cigarette.  He pulled one from the pack.  Then a hand came over with a light and for an instant he saw the face of the driver.  “Where’re you coming from?”

“I was staying with this woman over near Montgomery until she kicked me out.”

“Women will do that,” said the driver as if it were nothing.  The big diesel started moving again.  The hand that had held the lighter gripped the gearshift knob and started moving through the gears.  “This is a damn lonely old highway,” he said.  “How come you to come this way?”

“”I caught me a ride with this guy and he dropped me off back there a ways,” replied Amos Handy.  The cigarette tasted good.  He hadn’t had one all day.  He held the smoke in for a long time and savored every puff.

“Hell Buddy, you look like you could use a meal.”

“Man, you got that right.”  Then the big hand came over again and it had a twenty in it.  The driver didn’t say a word.  Amos Handy took the money and put it in his shirt pocket.  “Thank you,” he said.

“There’s a little truck stop up here a piece.  A woman named Leona runs it and she makes some damn good biscuits.  You tell her Travis told her to fix you up.”

“Okay,” said Amos Handy.  Then he got quiet.  He was talking to the Lord again.  “Lord, you’re mighty good to me and you know I appreciate it.”  The Lord just smiled.  You know how it is when God does that, just smiles at you.  You can feel that too, just as real as anything.”

After a little while the lights of the little truck stop came into sight.  The driver pulled the old truck up to the fuel pumps and let Amos Handy out.  “Good luck wherever it is you’re headed.  Remember; tell Leona that Travis sent you.”

Amos Handy said he would.  The airbrakes hissed, and the log truck drove off down the road.  Amos Handy reached to check and make sure that the twenty was still in his pocket.  It was.  He slung his pack over his shoulder and walked inside.  It was warm in there.  He could smell coffee and bacon.  Those are two fine smells when they mix together in the air.  He made his way across the little dining room past the tables to the counter and sat down.  That Charlie Pride song was stuck in his head.  He was humming it under his breath.

“Morning!” shouted a woman’s voice.  Amos Handy looked to see.  A face was staring at him through the kitchen window, a big round face with little twinkling eyes like two raisins in a sweet roll.  “You want coffee?” said the face.

“Yes Ma’am,” answered Amos Handy.

“Just a second Honey, it’s about finished brewing.”  He pulled a paper menu out from between the ketchup bottle and the sugar and opened it up.  There they were right on top, biscuits and gravy.  That’s what he wanted.  A minute later the kitchen door swung open and a little fat woman waddled out with a mug in one hand and a coffee pot in the other.  She sat the mug down and filled it.  “You want cream?”

“Yes Ma’am.”

She reached into the pocket of her apron and pulled out a hand full of little half and half creamers and dropped them in a mound on the counter.  “Are you Leona?” asked Amos Handy looking at the two little raisin eyes.

“That’s me,” she said.

“A truck driver named Travis said to say that he sent me.  He said you fixed some extra good biscuits.”

“Travis Sellers?” she asked.

“I don’t know his last name.  He drives a log truck.”

“That him,” she smiled.  “Do you know what you want?”

“Well Ma’am, I tell you the truth I’m awful hungry.  I believe I’ll have me a plate of gravy biscuits.”

“Do you want any eggs or grits or anything with that?”

“No, just biscuits and gravy,” he said.  The woman nodded and headed back to the kitchen.  He watched her as she walked away.  She had on jeans, tight jeans and you could see the little dimples of fat on the back of her thighs through the denim.  He opened the creamers and stirred his coffee.  Then he raised his mug, blew a couple times and took a sip.  It was hot, but it was good.  An old Pepsi-Cola clock on the wall next to a big mounted fish said that it was a quarter to five.  Amos Handy didn’t have a watch.  He’d sold it to a guy he met in jail one night in Montgomery for seven dollars.  It was all the man had, but the watch wasn’t worth any more than that.  He remembered that he’d bought him a pack of Winstons and a can of beanie weenies with the money.  After just a little while they were gone and Amos Handy wished that he had his watch back, but really when you get right down to it, he didn’t need to know what time it was.  It didn’t matter that much. Time and watches were for people with things to do, places to go and people to meet.

He thought about that girl Tammy, the one in Montgomery that had let him stay with her and then kicked him out.  “Get your shit and get the fuck out of my house this minute!” he could hear her shout.  The sound of it ringing in his head pushed out the Charlie Pride song.  Tammy was a raunchy, messed up chick anyway.  She was on something, nervous and twitching all the time and skinny as a rail.  He though about it a lot after he left and he figured it was probably the best thing that could have happened after all.  Still, he couldn’t understand why she’d turned on him all of a sudden like that.  She’d even said that she loved him.

“Here you go, Baby,” said the little fat, raisin eyed woman as she sat the plate of biscuits and gravy down in front of him.

“Lord!” he said.  “That’s the prettiest, biggest plate of biscuits I’ve ever seen!”

“Any friend of Travis Sellers is a friend of mine.”  She laughed.  “You enjoy that, Honey.  It’s on the house.”  Then she turned and waddled away.  He looked at the biscuits.  There are very few things as pretty as good soft biscuits and sausage gravy with plenty of meat in it.  It was steaming.

“Thank you Lord,” he whispered under his breath.

“Certainly, Amos,” answered the Lord.  “I hope you enjoy it.”  That’s the way the Lord works sometimes at least on easy things, at least for Amos Handy.  He picked up his fork and took a bite. It was as good as he’d ever tasted.   As he was eating a guy walked in and sat right down beside him.  He was a heavyset guy with a black leather cowboy hat perched back on the head and a leather vest with tassels.  He looked over at Amos Handy.  First he looked at his face.  Then, he glanced down and eyed his backpack on the floor.  For a second he looked judgmental, like he was going to say something mean, but then he brightened up and the guy smiled.  He was missing two bottom teeth right in the middle.

“How’re you, Buddy?” he said.

“I’m doing right good,” answered Amos Handy.

“Them’s some damn pretty biscuits,” he said.

“They are.  You ought to get you some.”

The guy hollered out, “Leona!  Get me a cup of Joe and a big plate of biscuits and gravy!”  The woman with the eyes looked out from the kitchen.

“Billy Ray, where in the devil have you been?  I ain’t seen you in over a week.”

“I been down in Hattiesburg.  We’re putting up a warehouse down there.  It’s a big job, thirty-two-hundred square feet.”

The woman pushed the kitchen door open with her knee and came out.  She poured the man’s coffee.  “I seen Shelly the other day.  She was asking about you.”

“We ain’t seeing each other no more,” he said.  “Not since Friday before last. I’m done with her this time for good.”

“Hell, I’m sorry to hear that.  What happened?”

“Aw, I don’t feel like talking about it.  I’ve done pushed it out of my mind.”

The woman didn’t say anything for a minute.  The man just looked at her over his coffee cup.  Amos Handy stared at his plate and ate.

Then the woman said, “Well…” and let it just trail off.  Then she walked back in the kitchen.

The guy in the hat turned to Amos Handy.  “You know something, Buddy?  You can’t trust a woman, not no woman.  They’ll do you wrong as soon as your back is turned.”

Amos Handy thought about that Tammy in Montgomery again.  Then he said one of those stupid, predictable things you say when you don’t know what else to say.  “You can’t live with them and you can’t live without them.”

“You got that right,” said the guy.  The woman, Leona came back out with the guy’s order and sat it down.  Amos Handy ate slow.  He was making it last, enjoying every bite as much as he could.  After a while the woman brought more coffee.  She filled their cups without even asking.  Finally, Amos Handy got down to his last bite.  He looked at it.  Then he stabbed it with his fork, mopped up the last of the gravy and popped it into his mouth.  Sometimes the last bite is the best of all.  Other times you can barely taste it.  He had one more cup of coffee, then thanked the woman and stood up from the counter.

“You on the road?” asked the guy in the hat.

“Yeah,” said Amos Handy as he slung his pack over his shoulder.

“Want a lift?  I’m headed back down to Hattiesburg if you’re going that way.”

Amos Handy looked at the Lord.  He wondered if that’s where the Lord wanted him to go.  He’d never been to Hattiesburg.  Maybe something good was waiting there.  He glanced over at the Pepsi-Cola clock next to the fish.  It was almost six.  “Okay,” he said to the man.”

“Leona Honey, let me have one more cup of coffee to go.”

The woman got it.  The man paid and then they walked out.  It was just starting to get light.  Amos Handy saw an old man coming through the parking lot.  The old guy was pushing a baby stroller.  When he got close Amos Handy noticed that inside the stroller the man had a twenty-four pack of Blue Ribbon Beer.  The guy never looked.  He just walked on by.  “Wonder what the hell that old dude’s doing with that beer at this time of morning,” said the man in the hat.  Amos Handy didn’t answer.  The man pulled out a pack of smokes and offered him one.  Then, they just stood there and watched it grow light.  The breeze of the Lord blew softly across Amos Handy’s face.  Over on the other side of the parking lot next to a puddle of water, he saw a duck sitting there.  It was just as still.  It didn’t move a bit.

They finished their cigarettes.  The guy flicked his butt high over into the bushes.  Amos Handy flicked his.  Then they stepped down off the curb and walked out into the parking lot.  Amos Handy kept looking at the duck, waiting for the thing to move, but it didn’t.  Then he squinted.  It wasn’t a duck at all. It was a damn plastic grocery bag.  It sure looked like a duck.  A lot of times it’s hard to say what’s real.  Then sometimes, it doesn’t matter anyway.  He climbed up into the cab of the truck with the guy in the hat and they headed off for Hattiesburg.

Procedures for Treatment

Procedures for Treatment

Sandra Florence

Zoe drove through the morning thunderstorm that had quickly filled gutters and many intersections making them impassable. She took a back route through the ever-expanding medical complex to the parking garage. As she turned the corner a flock of oblivious pedestrians, some with umbrellas, others with newspapers held over their heads, lurched into the street right in front of her.

“Look out!” Miranda yelled grabbing Zoe’s arm.

She braked, spraying water in three directions before the engine died. Fuck, that’s all she needed…to run over some idiot today.

“Sorry.” She said looking over at Miranda, trying to calm down. Rain had a strange effect on desert dwellers.  Zoe waited while packs of medical, nursing, and pharmacy students took the opportunity to wade across the flooded street. She switched on the ignition and the Rav sputtered to life.

In spite of the downpour, they arrived early for Miranda’s treatment planning session. They watched the RA’s and the docs arriving, and played a game, matching the actual life-size doctor with the small photo on the wall.  

“There’s Dr. O’Herlihey,” Miranda whispered pointing to a black and white photo. A cheerful-looking woman with a stylish bob smiled at them from the wall. “She was Mimi’s oncologist.” Miranda was referring to a friend of hers who was in the last stages of liver cancer. Zoe noticed how vulnerable Miranda looked. Her beautiful blue eyes were wide, almost teary.  She reached over and put her arm around Miranda hoping she wouldn’t mind since she did not like public displays of affection.

    After sitting in the waiting room for at least forty-five minutes, they were escorted to an exam room.  Zoe stared at the wall. Hospitals were always cold and she was beginning to feel numb. Miranda read a flyer about a support group for the brain injured.  She  looked up. “I wonder if I’ll have to take time off from work during treatment?”

“Well, that’s something you can ask the doctor. I don’t think it’s a given, but…you should if you need to. I certainly would.”  

    Zoe listened carefully to the steps in the hallway. She thought she could distinguish between the footsteps of a nurse, an assistant, or doctor by the pace, sound on the floor, and the pause at the door. She hadn’t heard any footsteps, however, when Dr. Corelli’s RA, Kiko Tinaba slipped into the room in her white coat, trousers and what appeared to be satin Chinese slippers. They turned out to be Sketchers but still, they were a nice touch. Dr. Tinaba couldn’t have been more than twenty-four.  Her head was shaved, a tiny silver Buddha dangled from her neck, and her eyes sparkled behind trendy wire-rims.  She shook hands with Miranda and Zoe, sensitive to the fact that they were a couple. 

      “Ms. James, I just have a few questions to ask you before you see Dr. Corelli.”

      “I will get to see him today won’t I?” Miranda expressed the same concern Zoe had. Would they indeed see the real Corelli, the doctor who had completed his residency under the doctor who had created the procedure.

      “Of course, he’s just finishing with another patient.”  As Dr.Tinaba spoke, Miranda hung on each word, but Zoe became mesmerized by the voice. There was a clean clear …no…fresh cool…. tone. She couldn’t quite figure it out.  Maybe it was the precision of the voice that entranced. As Dr. Tinaba asked Miranda questions, Zoe got up to get a drink. She felt fidgety as she paced. She had just turned around in the room when Dr. Corelli hurried in and said, “Ms. James, I’m sorry to keep you waiting. He reached for her hand and she side-stepped him and said “no, it’s not me. There she is. Miranda turned and smiled, he laughed, the RA chuckled. 

     “You looked so nervous I thought you must be the patient.” They all chuckled again.

     “Well Ms. James. This is a good decision you are making.”

     “Do you think so?” Miranda seemed hesitant.

     “Oh yes! The Cyber Knife,” Corelli explained, “is state of the art non-invasive surgery. There are only 50 of these machines in the country. You are in very elite hands.” 

      “Isn’t it dangerous?” Zoe asked not because she didn’t understand the risks one took with any medical procedure. It was more that she was dumbfounded by the virtual aspect of it, the thought of Dr. Corelli manipulating the cyber knife in cyber space, and shooting pencil beams through Miranda’s head.

Dr. Corelli smiled at Zoe. “Oh, no. We don’t do anything dangerous around here.”

There was a sweet, playfulness to Dr. Corelli. Zoe liked him. He made cyber surgery on the brain seem like an afternoon at the opera.  

                                                             ***

After dinner, Zoe watched Miranda head straight to her room and log onto the WebMD site. “I just want a little bit more information than the doctors gave me,” she said closing the door. Part of the problem as Zoe saw it was that Miranda had worked in health services over twenty-five years. She knew nurses and doctors; she knew the ins and outs of hospital procedure; she was aware that mistakes are often made by even the most diligent health professional. And as the old saying went, people in the medical field make the worst patients.  Zoe usually believed what the doctor told her if she liked the doctor. She knew that mistakes could be made, but she chose to leave things alone. And if she couldn’t actually trust in the doctor, she could trust in the good nature of the universe.  Miranda couldn’t.  She simply knew too much.  She always had questions after she had finished her consults even though she made lists of questions. What are the chances of seizure, will I need to take steroids, will my vision be affected. How much hair will I lose?

     The resident had suggested she would have to have six weeks of treatment. That seemed extreme for what was supposedly only a small piece of tumor left after brain surgery two years before, made inaccessible by its location on the sagittal sinus vein.          

     “Well, you see,” Dr. Tinaba said, “we don’t want to zap you with too high a dose. It is better to treat a little at a time so the brain cells that die, don’t die all at once and cause other problems. This way the brain has time to re-absorb the dead cells.”  Even a child could understand this explanation.

     Dr. Corelli had corrected the resident’s calculation, however. We can do this treatment in five days. Only five days. That’s much better thought Zoe squeezing Miranda’s hand for support.  Miranda squeezed back slightly then said, 

    “ But will that be safe? I mean you can do that?” And Zoe thought about all those dead cells lying around in Miranda’s skull if the treatment went too fast.  Dr. Corelli was amused and reassuring. He spoke with his hands, his eyes and a soft Italian accent.  

     “Of course! You see the tumor is about the size of a walnut.” He pulled out 

the x-ray and put it in front of Miranda and Zoe. 

     “We will be able to fractionate the treatments because of the size. It is small, yes, but still you don’t want it in there.” They stared at the dark walnut inside Miranda’s head that was pressing ever-so-lightly on her right lobe.

                                                             ***

Miranda logged off the computer and came into the living room. She had managed to find what she was looking for: 1 in 1,000 patients may have blindness after treatment.

     “I don’t want to be blind,” Miranda said dropping into the chair next to Zoe who was watching Law and Order, the original. It was an episode she had seen at least three times but she was transfixed by the quirky criminal being interrogated by Lenny. 

     “You are not going to be blind,” she said, continuing to watch Lenny do his thing. She reluctantly turned toward Miranda, trying to be more empathetic and patted her leg.  Would that suffice? Would that be enough to hold Miranda until a commercial break?  She had been comfortable in her stony silence, not wanting to talk anymore about “the procedure.” They had talked all day about it. Miranda asked questions Zoe couldn’t answer. And Zoe made assurances. She felt a surge of resentment at spending yet another day, another evening trying to find answers to unanswerable questions.  Then she felt the guilt and took a breath letting herself relax. A commercial came on and she hit mute. She turned to Miranda. 

     “I know you’re scared, but it will be okay.”

     “How do you know that?” Miranda asked in a tone that was almost angry. Zoe felt the despair setting in. Telling Miranda she would be alright wasn’t going to fix her fear. No amount of assurance would.

     “I just know, that’s all.” Zoe persisted. “I just feel it. You have to trust. And besides, it’s benign.”  Zoe did feel optimistic. That wasn’t a lie. She also felt fear herself because her reserves were low.  It had been about two years since the original tumor had been discovered. They were packing for a weekend trip when Miranda began to complain of an excruciating head ache that would not go away. A trip to the ER, a six- hour wait, and a CT scan would reveal the problem. Zoe was reading a book to Miranda called, The Town That Forgot How To Breath, trying to take her mind off the pain in her head when the doctor appeared and said…

      “I am sorry to have to tell you this, but you have a tumor on your brain.”  Zoe dropped the book and burst into tears. Miranda looked up at the doctor. 

     “We will need to do an MRI to get a closer look at what we’re dealing with. We’ll get you prepped for the procedure shortly, but I’ll give you a minute,” he said, visibly disturbed by Zoe’s wailing. He patted Miranda’s shoulder and left.

      “My god! Is this it? Is this the end of my life?” As they held each other and sobbed, doctors, nurses, more sick people passed or were wheeled by them. One young woman who had apparently escaped from the hospital’s psychiatric unit was subdued by police officers and brought back in, strapped down and screaming. They were finally moved into a room and it wasn’t long before the lab tech showed up to take blood and prep Miranda for an IV.

     “Do I really need an IV for this?”

     “It’s just a precaution,” he said. “This way you’re ready to go.” He worked gently, but Miranda’s veins were not cooperating. He tapped and inserted the needle and deftly moved it around under the skin searching, then moved to another spot. 

     “I’m sorry,” he said as one vein after another slipped away from him. Finally he found a vein that could hold the needle and he said, quietly, “Eureka.”  Miranda breathed a sigh of relief and leaned back against the pillow. 

      This procedure, a much more exact and close look at the brain, did reveal that the tumor was benign, on the outside of the meningial tissue and non-life threatening. She would, however, need a craniotomy, and then she would need time to recover.  Their relief was as quick as their distress had been.

      During the recovery time, Zoe, did everything for Miranda, cooked healthy meals, bathed her, helped her dress, called friends and family and reminded them to come by and visit. She trudged to her full time job overwhelmed by the confluence of emotions, and at times her fear of being trapped manifested as anger. There was so much uncertainty. Miranda reported so many symptoms: tiny seizures, a cut in peripheral vision, tremors and internal shakiness, sensitivity to light and noise, ringing in her ears, pain at the back of her head where the flap, a horseshoe- sized incision was located, held together with giant staples. Zoe came home from work early one afternoon and found Miranda standing in front of the bathroom mirror examining the incision.

     “My head hurts,” she said furiously rubbing the back of her head.

     “Of course your head hurts. You just had brain surgery. It wouldn’t make sense if your head didn’t hurt.” In truth Zoe could only imagine what Miranda must be feeling everyday as she sat in the living room beset by the after effects of someone poking around in her brain. These symptoms could possibly indicate a breach in the temporal parietal juncture causing scattered arrhythmic electrical patterns her neurosurgeon had explained.  And so they waited, together and apart, and Zoe had been amazed by her own capacity to deal with the daily demands on her, both physical and emotional. She had managed to keep her own fear at bay and rise to the occasion.  They walked around the block each evening, down the alley past an old adobe being renovated and barking dogs. Miranda leaned on Zoe for support and balance, and when the noise and light became too much, they headed back to the house.  Finally, after months of being vigilant, Miranda 

began to emerge out of the dark cloud that had been engulfing her, the symptoms began to disappear. Zoe was grateful to have her back.

                                                                  ***

     “I shouldn’t go on line and look for answers,” Miranda said, looking down at the floor and shaking her head. Zoe agreed. Every time she did, Miranda found more conflicting pieces of information, more duplicate symptoms, more confusing exceptions to every other piece of research. But she couldn’t help herself. Like a bystander who cannot turn away from a terrible accident, Miranda looked and looked. Except in this circumstance she was no bystander.

                                                                 ***

The first day of treatment Zoe took time off from work and drove Miranda to the medical center.  

     “People in hospital parking lots drive a little crazy,” Miranda warned, as Zoe circled looking for an empty spot. She wondered if Miranda was referring to other drivers or her. She did often become aggressive behind the wheel. 

     “Why is that?”

      “They’re often slightly debilitated from medications, pain, maybe bad news.” Zoe whipped their tiny Rav into an open spot just ahead of a Lincoln Navigator. 

     “There is no fucking way that giant-ass vehicle is going to fit in this space,” she grumbled. The Navigator sped away screeching its tires and narrowly missing an equally large-ass truck barreling up the incline into the lot. They climbed out onto the top level of the parking garage and made their way across the grounds passing people in various stages of decline and recovery, depending on how one looked at it, waiting for Van Trans, Handi-Cars, and  unreliable relatives scheduled to pick them up. Near the entrance to the Cancer Center, two blue signs in front of them read, THIS IS A NON SMOKING CAMPUS, and SMOKING AREA UNDER THE BLUE AWNING - . Zoe looked around for the blue awning and expecting to see a cluster of smokers furtively puffing under it, but she didn’t see either.  They boarded the elevator which took them to the basement, and Radiation Oncology.

Miranda slid her identification card through the machine and was checked in. They found comfortable seats against one wall next to a table piled high with bananas, apples, and fruit juices. Zoe picked up a Cran-Grape for herself, and an Apple for Miranda. Zoe was so thirsty she downed the juice in two gulps. Then she headed for the vending machines and bought a large Snickers bar. She offered a few bites to Miranda, but Miranda was restless and distracted. 

     “I wonder if I should alert the receptionist to the fact that I’m here,” she said looking around for a receptionist to speak to. 

     “I think that’s what the card and machine are for…that is your check-in,” Zoe tried to reassure her as she shoved down the rest of the candy bar crumbling nuts and tiny chocolate pieces on the front of her shirt.

      “I just want to make sure.” Miranda got up and went over to the large circular reception area just as a receptionist came out of the back. 

     “Hi, yes….if you put your card through, you are checked in…..oh! let me look just to make sure.” The clerk typed in some numbers and Miranda’s name appeared on the 

screen. Miranda returned to her seat and Zoe got up to get another fruit juice, suddenly aware of how thirsty she was again.  

       A man in moccasins milled around the waiting room looking for a magazine, coffee,

snacks.  There seemed to be a miscommunication between the radiation tech, the receptionist and a patient. They couldn’t locate her. They kept calling her name,

     “Barbara Jackson, Ms. Barabara Jackson” Zoe knew the woman was in the bathroom and that her husband was in the hallway talking to someone. 

 How come I know where the patient and her husband are but the staff doesn’t, Zoe thought, feeling slightly contemptuous of them.  And another thing, why can’t these people sit still so somebody can find them?  Should I tell the staff where they are?

Is it any of my business?  Within a few minutes, the woman emerged from the bathroom and rejoined her husband just in time as the radiation tech made another sweep of the waiting room and located the wandering couple. Zoe was relieved, and glad she had not interfered.

     She glanced over at Miranda who was still thumbing a copy of the Smithsonian,     

     “Denizen’s of the Deep: New Views of the Weirdest Creatures You’ve Ever Seen.”  

Not today she thought.  She noticed a young woman who was bent over a clipboard filling out forms for her sister who was in the hospital. Zoe had heard enough of a conversation between the rad tech, the doctor and father to understand this.  Miranda looked up from the magazine.

     “That family seems very needy,” she said leaning toward Zoe. 

     “The girl’s sister is in the hospital already.” 

     “Oh!” Miranda said wincing.   

The father of the girls, long-haired, with Indian Pride tattooed on both shoulders, kept pacing, chattering to the nurses and even the man who was cleaning out the giant aquarium.  A short-stocky elderly man was escorted back to the waiting room by a smiling pregnant rad tech. He hung on her arm and kept talking to her. Then he stopped by the reception desk after spotting two doctors. 

     “Hello, hello,” he said, raising both arms at the two men sitting on stools by computers. 

     “Hello, Mr. Archer, how are you today?” One asked and both turned and smiled giving him the full force of their attention. 

     “Fine, great. I guess I don’t have to come back until……tomorrow…oh no….uh! Monday…Monday cuz we’ve got the weekend coming up. And I’m feeling good, good,

but I’ll be back.” The doctors nodded.  He inched closer.……”Now which one are you,” he asked pointing to the younger doctor, “are you Jensen or…….Franklin?” The doctors were both standing now and they towered over Mr. Archer.  

     “Neither, I’m Hanson…..”

     “Edgar, we’ve got to get going now before traffic gets too bad and the kids are hungry,”  his wife intervened, gently pulling him away and reminding him of a pending engagement and the two grandchildren she’d been corralling during his treatment.  

     “Oh yeah! Oh yeah! Just let poppy go potty and we’ll get going.” He disappeared into the long hallway. The oldest child dangled from one of the chairs next to Zoe, and started singing, “poppy’s going potty, poppy’s going potty.”  Zoe smiled at the boy, then turned to Miranda. 

     “Some people need a lot of attention, don’t they.”

     “Did you see the scar? Miranda whispered. “There was a huge scar above the temporal area. It’s probably a loss of inhibition. Maybe a partial temporal lobotomy.” 

     “Do they still do that?”  Zoe asked.

     “Well, sure! Lobotomy just means lobe or removal of a lobe.”

 Zoe was startled by a radiation tech in pink teddy bear scrubs calling Miranda’s name. She came over to shake her hand. 

     “Hi, my name is Mary and I’ll be giving you your treatment today. She beamed at both Zoe and Miranda. Zoe could tell the meds had finally kicked in but they only seemed to have made Miranda more anxious.

     “Can she come with me,” Miranda asked pointing to Zoe. 

     “Oh sure, for the first part of it, while we get you set up.” The three of them made their way back to a large room. Another tech helped Miranda up on the table and brought the mask over. It was white with ½ inch square holes all over it, a combination fencing mask and medieval face plate. 

     “My lips are so dry.”  

     “Here’s some water,” Zoe brought over the bottle of Dasani and Miranda sat up to drink.  

     “Do you want some music?” one of the techs asked.  “Let’s see….we’ve got Oldies, some kind of piano singer, and classical.”  

     “Oldies, that’ll be good.” Soon a tune from the late 50’s came on, Goodnight My Love.

Zoe leaned against the wall and imagined drive-ins, cruising main in long-low, chrome encrusted cars. A night sky filled with stars. Yes, it was comforting. The techs began fitting Miranda into the mask.

     “It’s tight back here where the screws are,” she pointed to the back of her head. One tech tied a rubber band around her feet to make sure she was even, then began manipulating the mask again. Miranda put her hand up, “wait, I’m sorry,” she said. The technician removed the mask and Miranda sat up to cough. She looked over at Zoe. Zoe smiled and gave her a thumbs up.  Miranda swallowed hard, took a deep breath then lay back down. The mask went on again. 

     “Lift your chin, okay, how’s that?”

     “Uh, okay. It’s very tight back here.”

     “There’s not much we can do about that. Can you handle it for about 15 minutes?”

     “Yeah, okay. Will you keep talking to me and telling me what you’re doing?”

     “Sure, we can do that.”

There were green beams of light knifing across the room above the exam table where Miranda lay. 

     “Okay we’re going to do the first x-ray now,” Mary said, and the other tech turned rapidly toward Zoe and shooed her from the room. She walked back to the waiting room thinking of gamma rays, something about marigolds and gamma rays, and moonlight.

                                                           ***

She could see the Indian father standing by the reception desk as she approached the waiting area.  His desperation and uncertainty about his daughter’s fate were palpable. His other daughter had put down the clipboard and wrapped herself up in a red blanket. Zoe felt the cold but didn’t want to talk to the father even though that might have been the compassionate thing to do.  She walked by him avoiding eye contact. She found 

another seat against the wall and picked up a copy of House Beautiful flipping absentmindedly through its pages. Poppy and grandchildren were no where in sight but a father and his athletic-looking teen-age son had taken their place. The boy looked completely healthy and normal except for his shiny bald head. The elevator bell made a loud ding, and a mother wheeled her young daughter into the waiting room. The girl wore a leg brace with an American flag sock over it.  Zoe’s heart shuddered for a split second. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath letting in the pain. Outside, above them, the season began to shift from summer to an almost imperceptible autumn.

                                                              ***

MRI image from Wikimedia Commons, by Dr O. O’Neil

Election, 2019

Election, 2019

James Croal Jackson

 

Another rainy voting day– this time,

I crossed Main Street without looking.

I know traffic patterns enough

to know around noon there’s no one

 

out here, and so I walked into

the alley by Tina’s, the anti-social

route past people’s fenced backyards.

I met a hanging skeleton and

 

a wooden turkey two houses apart,

and when I walked downhill to

get to Woolsair a man in a Tahoe

pointed to the school’s side door.

 

In other years, there are people

lurking who want to tell me how

to vote, but this time, no signs,

nothing– just an empty gym, three

 

old men and my neighbor, Nolan,

who I didn’t know volunteered

here, told me there have been

just a few today, and thus as I

 

tapped my choices saying no

to oligarchical, corporate forces

as best I could, I temporarily

felt the weight of my fingers

 

multiply, that my choices would

count as thousandths not

millionths on the grand tv ticker

tonight– no. I know enough

 

to know that if it’s only me,

my vote will never matter.