Qualified Entry: Fiction Category
By: Raymond Trainor
I whisper “death” several times and sigh. I look through the tips of the fronds of an adjacent, short pineapple palm from the balcony of my two-bedroom apartment in The Desert Springs Retirement Center. To the west, a line of tall palms etched across the twilight sky of Phoenix,
I knew I would die someday, but never thought about when, where or how. Now I realize that David Teller’s life, my life on earth, is limited. 2007 is probably my last year.
Two weeks earlier, Dr. Stevens, my regular doctor, smiled and said softly, “Probably scar tissue. Let’s get a CT scan on your chest, just to be sure.” But I experienced gut-wrenching fear. After the scan, “Well, we do need a biopsy. It’s probably benign.” Then, after the receiving the results of the biopsy, Stevens referred me to an oncologist.
The scary tests and consultations ended in the oncologist’s office. “You never know about these things. Between radiation and chemotherapy, you might even beat it. Surgery is no option though; it’s spread beyond the lung.”
I sat quietly in the office, staring at a potted plant and felt the flow of air as I breathed in and out—in and out. Then I looked at the doctor’s emotionless face. Maybe, medical school taught him to be impassive, especially when delivering bad news.
“Doctor Rogers, I know there is always hope,” I swallowed trying to moisten my dry throat, “but I need an honest answer, best-guess answer. I always hate uncertainty. Chances of a cure, or how long?”
A phone rang somewhere in the office suite, the noise muted by the closed door. The air conditioner came on. Cool air swooshed into the room.
Doctor Rogers cleared his throat. “Well, a few percent I guess, but I have to be honest—falls in the miracle category.” He paused. “Time is a little harder. If we have some success, two years, maybe even longer— much longer.”
“And worse case.?”
Doctor Rogers rubbed his chin. “Maybe six months.”
I glance down from my balcony. The streetlights come on. Twilight has almost surrendered to night. I wonder if I should ignore it all or deal with this thing head-on. Anyway, I need to call Doris, my wife, who is visiting our oldest son, then my other two sons. I don’t want to think about other calls I need to make. No rush on that one, because I don’t want sympathy. I decide that late evening was not the time to call anybody.
I tune the radio to the “Oldies but Goodies Station,” KOT, keeping the volume low, because this is not the time to have a fuss with our neighbor, Mrs. Jennings. Gravely voice Satchmo is singing “Hello Dolly”. The song, from the late forties or early fifties, had the same jazz beat as a thirties song.
My memory floods with my first close experience with death. Everything is crystal clear, even conversations and minute details. I wonder if reliving early and important incidents is part of the dying process.
I was a sixteen, a sweaty, lanky, redheaded teenager, sneaking smokes, thinking about sex and wanting to be with friends. Brick apartments and frame houses spotted my birthplace, and streetcars rattled down the main streets of Midtown Kansas City. Everything was future. I was between mother and girls. Friends were family, and family friends. Fifteen-year-old, Jewish Jacky Isaac was my best friend, and as I look back, the best friend I would ever have.
I can‘t remember the exact date, but I know it was late April 1937. On a Friday night, we all stood on the corner of 39th and Main Street, smoking cigarettes and ogling at girls. At eleven o’clock, the girls stopped walking by and conversation dragged. We walked home, through the soft spring night, and I went right to bed.
In the morning, I recalled crawling out of bed and seeing sun streaming through the window. I looked out. Two men walked down 33rd towards Summit Street and the downtown streetcar line.
I walked to the bathroom and looked into the small mirror over the washbasin. I pinched a pimple, rubbed the fuzz on my chin and realized it was time to go to breakfast with Jacky. I dressed and met him on the street.
As we walked into Broadway Donuts, the sweet, doughy odor laced the air. The glazed, warm donuts had a honey-like flavor. We each had a small, bottle of milk. The neutral taste contrasted with the sweet donuts. No wonder, I mused, we almost never missed a Saturday donut breakfast.
After breakfast, we walked back to my apartment, into my bedroom and sat on the floor. Jacky lived in an apartment identical to mine, but in an adjacent building.
We started to play Parcheesi, just something to do, then I paused, glanced around and frowned, aggravated about the dingy walls, the scarred oak floor and the window with the broken sash. I recalled saying, “This place is a dump.”
“Not a total dump,” Jacky responded with a grin. “Old Mrs. Holder had the outside painted.”
I shrugged. The decor of the old brick building with four apartments, really wasn’t that important to me either. My home life revolved around my bedroom and the refrigerator. All of my friends lived in similar conditions.
I realized Jacky was waiting for me to make a move. I guess I wasn’t interested in playing.
“Tired of playing?” my friend asked softly.
“Yeah. Just thinking about not having any family around. Always wanted big Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. Mom’s never around much. Grew up on movies. Cary Grant taught me to brush my teeth.”
“Lucky you. Mine’s always around. Tells me when to pee and fusses when I don’t eat everything she cooks. Then she wants me to do things with her. It’s embarrassing. People think you’re weird when you’re at a movie with your mother.”
I frowned. “I don’t think she likes me.”
“Naw!” He paused and blushed. “When we moved here, she was afraid, ‘cause people don’t like Jews. When we became friends, it kinda smoothed things out. She don’t say thanks, but the invites to dinner say a lot.”
He was right. When he first moved in next door ten years ago I befriended him, a new kid with a Jewish last name, who like me was fatherless. And the neighborhood. . . Well, Protestant/Irish/Catholic Midtown rejected “Isaacs”, Indians, Italians and “different” people, but I preferred to judge people on how they acted.
Jacky brushed his hand across his center-part Don Ameche haircut. Then he put his hand on my shoulder. He grinned and said, “Hey, we both got food in the fridge, our own rooms, and I think you’ve got some Camels and I need a smoke. Maybe mothers are for children. I guess they do the best they can. Anyway, please come to dinner tonight. Mine’s a good cook and you need a good meal. Besides—no arguments when you’re there. Please come.”
I grinned and said, “Sure. Guess we both got problems and a smoke sounds like a good idea.”
“Oh, how about The Vogue tonight? There’s a John Wayne movie.”
“Okay,” I said. “You know I have to work. It’ll be the late show.”
Jacky didn’t respond, but I knew he would always wait for me.
I reached up and pulled the chess game box from the closet shelf. I removed the black king, stuck my finger in the hole, lifted up the cardboard divider and exposed a pack of Camels.
That Saturday afternoon I peddled my fender-less bicycle with the wobbling front wheel, over to Stacks Drug Store on the corner of 33rd and Summit. I delivered for three hours a day and Janice, the store manager, already had eight addressed packages.
I hated the job. The weather: the slippery, cold winter slop, the miserable rain, and the hot, summer sun, cooking the asphalt, made bike riding brutal. There was also a chance that I would be mashed under a tire or thrown into the gutter by big trucks or daydreaming car drivers.
Jobs were scarcer than silver coins on the ground around a bus stop, though. Stack’s money bought clothes, paid for recreation, handled school expenses and even helped out with utilities. Also, I wanted a car, but there was no surplus money at my house. So, like my friends, I patiently saved coins in jars and dreamed. I remembered starting to look at cars on Broadway Ford’s used car lot.
On my first delivery, a surly drunk tried to anger me while I handed him a bottle of bourbon, by calling me a stinking redhead. I just grinned as he paid, because the boss was the boss. I would certainly have been fired if there were any complaints. Jobless youths were as plentiful as crickets in August. Every day, some kid approached Stack about work. Life would have been bleak indeed without Stack’s money. Besides, I used baking soda, since I had run out of deodorant. Peddling a bike made me sweat. Maybe, the baking soda was not working. I made a mental note to replenish my deodorant before going out that evening.
I was always glad when work was over, especially Saturday afternoon. Miss Isaac always fixed a great roast beef dinner, with potatoes and brown gravy. Anyhow, after buying deodorant and putting away my bike, I walked in the twilight over to Jacky’s for dinner.
A white, four-door Ford, with a blinking light, sat in front of the building. The front door of the Isaac’s apartment was open. Miss Isaac sat on the couch wailing. Two red-faced police officers stood quietly next to the door.
An officer grabbed my shoulder. “You had better leave. Her son’s been killed in an accident.”
“Killed! I don’t understand. What do you mean?”
“There was a traffic accident. It was getting dark and he started to cross the street and . . . Seems like nobody’s fault.”
My mouth flopped open. For an instant, I stared at the officer. This is a nightmare, I thought. Old-people with gray hair, wrinkled faces and mottled hands, die, not fifteen-year-olds with smooth skin and fuzzy chins. My mind went blank. I started to shake, sucked in air and tried to control myself. Finally, I walked in, sat on the couch next to Hannah Isaac and put my arm around her.
“Ma’am,” the officer said softly, “would you like this boy to stay?”
I started to cry, without blushing, not caring about the frowning, fidgeting cops.
One cop whispered, “I hate this. They ought to have somebody that knows what to say to people. Worst part of this job.”
The police left the room, but the blinking red light of the police car reflected in the glass on the porch door. The clicking valves of the idling engine played a tapping tune.
I stopped crying and took a deep breath. For ten years, best friends and now what. The dining room table set for three, was loaded with roast beef, green beans, and a huge bowl of mashed potatoes. I started weeping again as I stared at the three place settings.
Somebody knocked. The officer opened the door and poked his head through. “Ma’am is the man of the house at work?”
“There is no man of the house,” I replied brusquely. We don‘t know where Jacky‘s father is.”
“Well, son, we need somebody to identify the boy.”
Hannah Isaac shook her head. “I can’t.”
I sat quietly for a moment and swallowed, trying to regain my composure. There was only me and I would have to handle the funeral and whatever else. I shrugged and frowned. I really wanted to be alone, do nothing but sit in a dark room and weep, but the first on the to-do list was for me to go with the cop.
“Well, we need a family member to sign the paper. I’m awfully sorry,” the officer mumbled.
“I’ll go and we can just bring the paper back here. But before we go, I’m going to get Mom to come over and stay with Miss Isaac. That’s the way it’s got to be.”
The officer nodded.
I walked out the front door, ignoring an older couple, standing on the porch next door, who mumbled, “What happened?” I did not want gossip nor did Miss Isaac need to be consoled by distant neighbors.
I sat in my dark room agonizing and waiting for my mother, who often socialized after work. I hated to leave Miss Isaac alone, but she needed mother’s support while I went to identify my dear friend. Car lights shone through the window and splashed on my wall. The Big Ben Clock just ticked, ticked . . . I thought of Jacky’s poor mother, sitting alone with a frowning cop for company.
I know my mother needed a life, because in a few years I would walk out the front door, probably to never live here again. But still. . . I needed her so much, right now. Time seemed to crawl by like turtles traveling between lakes.
I heard the door. “David, you here?”
I rushed out of the bedroom. “Jacky’s dead. Killed in an accident.”
“Oh, no!’ She hugged me. She placed my head on her shoulder, rubbed my hair and patted my back. I started weeping again.
It was almost dark. Streetlights came on as we walked a short block down 33rd to the Isaac‘s apartment. The dim twilight cast enough light so that kids could still play in the big vacant lot, behind the plumbing shop across the street. “Oley, oley—“all in free!” a high pitched voice yelled, finishing a game of Hide and Seek in the rubbish strewn lot. The words drifted across the street in the deep twilight, overriding the waves of motor noise, as a driver went through the three gears of a V8 Ford. The car disappeared down the street, leaving only the crickets chirping in the spring evening and the babble of children’s voices.
The kid’s voices must have reminded mother of the little-boy Jacky. She started crying. Then she looked at me, and I think she realized that I could be the one in the morgue. I rode the bike every day. She just hugged me.
When we got to the Isaac’s apartment, white-faced Hannah sat on the couch, staring at the wall, barely breathing. I sat next to her and rubbed her shoulder. There was a faint smile. Then she resumed her passive stare.
“Hungry?” my mother asked softly. “I can heat up the dinner?”
I shook my head. Jacky had been going to the A&P to pick up ice cream for dessert and I wanted nothing from the food-laden table. Hannah didn’t respond.
“I’ll fix you both some soup, chicken noodle. You need something,” Mom said, gently touching Hannah’s knee. The police car still waited, the red light blinking, blinking, blinking, beckoning through the window, and reminding me of the ordeal ahead.
There was a knock on the door. A glum officer stood there. “I’m sorry, but we do need some one to identify the body.”
“I’m going to have to take care of things,” I said as I focused on Mom’s eyes. “She’s got nobody in town. That’s what Jacky would have wanted.”
“We are going to take care of things. No work until this is over.”
I sighed with relief. I had never been to a funeral and didn’t where to start.
Mom sat on the couch, gently placed her arm on Hannah’s shoulder, and whispered, “We need to call your family in New York. They need to know.” Hannah nodded, pulled out an address book from the lamp table drawer, and pointed to her sister Irene’s telephone number. Then I left with the police.
I sat silently in the back seat of the police car. It started to rain. The swishing wipers slowed, hesitated, and then resumed a steady clunk, clunk, clunk, as the vacuum pressure rose and fell, responding to the engines RPM. A sweaty, humid smell hung in the car while the radio squawked. The two burly officers sat quietly in the front seat. Other car lights and street lights blurred through the car windows, but I could see the rain drops falling from somewhere, zooming past the halos around the streetlights, and then disappearing, joining the puddles and rivulets in the black street. They drove past the neon marquee of the Vogue, the letters wavy and spotted because of the wet glass. My eyes watered. We were going to attend the late movie. Finally, the car splashed down a dark alleyway, parking in front of a featureless, brick building.
We entered a stark, white-walled hallway, with an antiseptic smell and gray linoleum on the floor. Employees sat around a table sipping coffee and laughing. The voices seemed disrespectful and inappropriate in the austere building housing “The City of Kansas City Morgue.” Maybe that was they only way morgue workers could maintain sanity, I thought.
A man walked out the door, changed his smile to a frown, and attempted to radiate sympathy, while softly asking who we wanted to view. When the officer explained, the man mumbled something about a family member. The police officer shrugged, while handing him a paper.
Jacky lay under a sheet with only his head exposed. His ghostly white face surrounded his dull eyes, which stared up at the ceiling. I nodded, started to weep, felt like vomiting and turned and walked out the door.
When I got back, mother told me that Irene Isaac, Hannah’s sister, was shocked and asked that we get a Rabbi to officiate. They would pay for everything. Eleven members of the Isaac clan from New York would arrive on Wednesday.
Both my mother and Miss Isaac insisted I work Sunday afternoon. After picking up deliveries, I rode past the big vacant lot behind the plumbing shop and stopped, holding the bike up with legs spread and feet touching the ground.
A big kid yelled, “This is my road!”
“No it ain’t!” a smaller one said.
The smaller boy paused and let the bigger one pass. Another child yelled while zooming past two cracked china toilet stools, on a tiny play car dirt road that was there when I played cars. Several others pushed toy cars down the other roads, which meandered past discarded plumbing fixtures, trees and clumps of hardy weeds. I’m sure many dreamt of driving a real car and wishing time would hurry. A tilted, chipped, white bathtub served as a gateway to the bottom of the big lot that stopped against the sidewalk on 34th Street.
I recalled short-pants Jacky, playing with me on those roads. In the spring, each new generation scooped out fresh roads and cleared the growth from the roads laid out by kids last year. I remembered building my own road, past the bathtub, down to an anthill next to the sidewalk and then mashing ants with my kitchen spatula road tool. It must have been eight years ago, but now it seemed like yesterday. I would be glad when the funeral was over.
I sat stiffly in a red upholstered chair, tapping my fingers on the velvet arm. Rabbi Golden sat opposite me and smiled. “We need somebody to say the eulogy. It can’t be Miss Isaac, just somebody who knew him well. I can do it, if there is nobody else, but I didn’t know the boy,” he said softly, obviously trying to reduce my level of anxiety.
“What’s a eulogy?”
“Just some final words. You say it at the funeral. A little speech I guess.”
I was always uncomfortable with speaking in front of a group, but that’s what my friend would have wanted. “I’ll do it.”
“It’s a lot to put on a Christian, sixteen-year-old’s shoulders, but I’ll show you some scriptures from your Bible’s Old Testament. Even though it’s a Jewish funeral, we all spring from the same source. You can use them if you want. It’s really up to you though, whatever you wish to say.”
I remembered Jacky’s funeral, every detail. I stood behind the curtain, rubbed my face and felt a new crop of pimples. I also probably had thin, flexible, reddish-blond chin-hairs, even though after shaving, I used manicure scissors in the dim bathroom to cut the visible ones. My dead friend accepted the pimples and hairs and my other friends had similar problems, so I shrugged and strode over to the podium.
I hid behind the podium because it covered my shaking legs. My mouth was a clamped, straight line as I fought to hold back the tears. The closed bronze casket sat before me with a picture of Jacky on the top. My Midtown group-of-friends, dressed in shirts and dress pants, sat on red velvet cushions that covered the top of the pews. I thought the cushions added elegance. Even Julia Steiner, who Jacky hoped to date, sat among the group. Twelve family members filled the first two rows. Each wore a scarf or a black cloth bowler on their heads. I guess it’s one way the Jewish honor the dead. My empty seat was next to the softly, sobbing Hannah, because she insisted that I sit next to her. “He was closer to Jacky than any brother,” she had said to the Isaacs.
I realized that Jacky would never make love to Julia Steiner, throw a black papier-mâché’ hat in the air upon graduation or live on to see and do. I would be glad when this was over, so I could go home and mourn in private.
I looked at the lined “Big Chief” tablet that contained my handwritten speech. I remember the red-covered Big Chiefs were almost universal, used by most kids in my world. Then I looked again at the audience. There were so many Isaacs. Jacky would have appreciated it, even though he barely knew them. Irene had told me, “This was a big Jewish family and when things like this happen, we all come together.”
The Rabbi sat next to the podium in a red padded chair, while the undertaker, in a black suit, with a frowning mask-like face, stood next to the double doors at the back. I scanned the scene. Even though it was my first funeral, I decided we had honored Jacky.
Several coughed and Hannah sobbed. I started to read a speech, but my eyes watered and the paper blurred. Then the words just came. “He was so nice. He never teased other kids. He never was snooty. He was Jewish and I thank God for the people here who treated him good.” I looked out at my friends. “He was so generous.” I saw Rob Hanson nod and remembered the times that Jacky gave him a dime to ride the streetcar, because Rob’s father had no job. “Anyway,” I continued, and then talked briefly about Westport High, my own meals at the Isaacs and how much I thought of Jacky. Then I ran out of words. The Rabbi read some Hebrew prayers, made a few comments in English, moved down to the floor and spoke softly to Hannah.
I was one of six boys who carried the casket. I picked up the picture and looked at Miss Isaac, who merely nodded. We moved the casket onto a cart, out to the hearse and it was over.
The hearse carried the body to Railway Express. The entire family, including Hannah, was going back on the same train to New York, where Jacky would be interred in the family mausoleum.
Hannah gave me a big hug and handed me a card with her address. “Jacky would really want you both to come back to New York. Please, please write and tell us when you can come. It will probably be July before we get a stone. Anytime after that. We will send you the tickets. I really want to pay everything, so do come.”
When I got home, I cleared the top of the bookcase, placed Jacky’s picture in the middle, and set die cast solders from the war game and a ticket stub from the Vogue around it. Whenever I looked at the shrine, a portion of my friend seemed to live on.
Above the shrine, hung my plaque inscribed with “Whatever Goes Around, Comes Around.” I understood it meant, good begets good, evil begets evil. A bunch of B. S., I thought, so I hid it in the bookcase, behind some old encyclopedias.
I left for New York in early August, on Jacky’s birthday. The Isaac Family Mausoleum, a small, stone structure with columns and surrounded by the deep green, East Coast grass, unlike the brown August vegetation at home, seemed like a fitting burial place. As I stood next to the stone insert, I made a vow to do something to remember him. After all, this was a direct connection with my dead friend, the last I would ever have.
Six months after the accident, I received a registered letter from New York. There was a note from Hannah Isaac: “This was from an insurance settlement. Jacky often told me how good you were to him. Without you, he would have been just another ostracized Jewish boy. He often wondered how he could pay you back. I’m sure he’s smiling, if he can see you with this check. Anyway I love you for what you did.” I realized that a piece of paper had fluttered to the floor.
I stood open-mouthed. I was unfamiliar with checks. My name was on the “To” line. I peered at the “Amount” line and it read “$4000”. I checked the second line: “Four thousand dollars”. I stood quietly for several minutes just breathing and looking. I never expected to own anything worth that amount and now I did, and it was just a little piece of paper.
My mind swirled. I realized that my life changed. I would not be a shoe salesman, bookkeeper, or grocery store checker, but a college man. I pulled out the “Whatever Goes Around” plaque and hung it back over the shrine. Now, I really understood the inscription.
That spring, I received a letter from Irene. Hannah Isaac had died. The doctor decided it was simply heart failure. In her letter, Irene blamed a broken heart, a mysterious malady cause by the emotional trauma of a horrific separation. But to me, it was the good God’s way of reuniting a lonely high school boy with a mother, who needed her son. I even imagined Jacky’s smiling face, as he greeted her in a different time and place. I carefully removed the shrine on the bookcase and stored Jacky’s picture with important papers. I dusted the top of the bookcase and went on with my life. The memories of our friendship returned though, on Jacky’s birthday or when an incident evoked memories of youthful days. I never forgot the vow.
I eventually married. When my first son was born in 1947, I told my wife, Doris, that I really wanted to name the baby Jacky. Doris said she understood, but was concerned because it sounded girlish. I remembered smiling and putting my arms around her. “I made a vow and I think it’s time to keep it. I’m sure his friends will call him Jack and that‘s an okay name. Anyway, a good boy is buried in New York and if our little Jacky just has his traits, I’ll be so proud. Please sweetheart?” Doris merely shrugged, smiled back and that was that.
I looked up from the balcony at the stars, shining in the dry desert air. Perhaps the good God will give me some answers when I do die. I never understood why a young boy would suddenly be taken before he really lived. I know that God is just and there must be a plan.
I see two figures walking in the shadows down the street. A tall, skinny, teenage boy holds his girl’s hand. The pair stops under a street light. The boy looks right at me. I’m sure all he can see is a dim outline. He smiles, a sweet loving smile, smiling right at me. “My God,” I whisper, “it looks like Jacky.”
Jacky, I want to scream out, but the words won’t come. I can’t believe what I am seeing, and I don’t want the two to think that a demented old man calls from his balcony. My eyes tear, as his girl tugs at his hand and he walks away. A tidal wave of emotion blanks my mind.
I regain my composure and wonder if I if it’s a dream. People my age often slip into a short nap. I look up at the stars and gasp. God’s Universe is especially bright. Is there a message here? Do we reincarnate? Is this one definition of life after death?
I decide that maybe this thing called death is not all bad. I’ll learn some things and see my mother, maybe Jacky, if he hasn’t been reincarnated, and even Miss Isaac. Possibly, she’ll fix us a roast beef dinner with potatoes and brown gravy, just like 1937. Doris will also join me, then my boys, and finally the grandchildren—all in time. I don’t think I’ll tell anybody yet that I’m dying. Death is a big move, the scariest unknown I’ll ever face, but no sense in making it even bigger and extending the grieving period. After all, we all go there, wherever “there” is. Sooner or later, all of us.