Hell is yourself and the only redemption is when a person puts himself aside to feel deeply for another person. -Tennessee Williams
~ Prologue ~
The ringtone carries a peculiar melody - not a personalized tune selected specifically to identify a loved one or a foe to avoid; the banal factory ring seems to convey a sense of doom. The accompanying vibration-induced dance on the glass table nudges the phone away from me, as if the handset itself feared the incoming call. The caller ID displays the ominous and exasperating Unknown. I answer regardless, altering my voice the best I can to throw off the unwelcome intruder. The same way one cannot un-ring a bell; I could not un-answer that call and avoid the events that it precipitated. The brief conversation - laconic in both nature and delivery - would inextricably link me to a man I had met less than a year before.
"Is this Brooke Blake?"
"Yes…" I grudgingly acknowledge.
"Do you know a Frank Moretti?"
"Yes…" I acquiesce one more time, with mounting unease.
"This is Lisa Bryer at Ridgeport Medical Center. I regret to inform you that Frank Moretti has died. You may retrieve his belongings and claim his body at your earliest convenience."
"Hold on," I clamor with legitimate angst, "What? Claim his BODY? I barely know Frank; I ran into him eight months ago…"
"Listen honey," she interrupts, an undertone of profound exhaustion in her voice, "I have even less time than you to deal with this. I have a dead man in my charge with nobody claiming his remains. You don't want him? That's fine, I'll deal with it."
It. The disdainful syllable reverberates down to my core.
"No, wait. I'm sorry. I'll be right over."
A million thoughts rush through my head, not the least of which an estimate, probably grossly exaggerated, of how much that ordeal will cost me. While I struggle to feel sadness instead of inconvenience, I resolve to remain professional and politely decline responsibility in regards to Frank's remains and estate - both of which probably amount to pretty much nothing at this point.
I profoundly dread hospitals; which is rather ironic given that I make my living in them. I am a drug dealer. Not like the despicable thugs that prey on innocent victims and stop at nothing to get them hooked on their poison; I, for one, pay taxes. I push legal drugs, typically with integrity, sometimes with the patients' best interest in mind, once or twice even alluding to potential side effects. I am a strong proponent of better living through chemistry; therefore, I never go anywhere near an actual sick person. I sell to doctors, flirt with them, and cajole them into prescribing MY drugs to as many patients as possible. I am a stunning five foot nine impeccably primped pharmaceutical representative. When doctors see me approaching - with my tailored Armani suit perfectly hugging my size-2 figure and my wavy blond hair bouncing to the rhythm of my Louboutins on the terrazzo - they'd prescribe arsenic to babies if I asked them.
To me, entering a hospital to attend to a person who is already dead represents the optimum in counter-productivity. Ultimately though, the gnawing guilt vanquishes my reluctance; I surmise that the brief inconvenience of a face-to-face dismissal will assuage my shame of knowing that Frank died alone.
I can't recall the drive from my home to Ridgeport Medical Center. I'd be unable to provide an alibi should law enforcement demand 'where I was between 11:00 and 11:30 the morning of March 2nd, 2012.' A parking spot, just a few steps from the entrance, is suspiciously available. For once, I wish I could have parked as far away as possible, even conceivably using the lack of parking as an excuse to avoid seeing dead Frank altogether. I wait a while for someone to whisk that prized spot from me, to no avail. Like the condemned heading for the execution chamber, I leave the comfort of my Lexus and head for the hospital's general entrance.
I approach the welcome desk staffed by two homely women and arrogantly flash my credentials - old habits die hard. They obediently wave me right through; doctors always leave orders to promptly send me in. I realize that I must have bribed those two gatekeepers with pastries and candies quite often, judging by their ample girths and affable dispositions. For the life of me, I can't recall ever interacting with these women. Not only are their bland looks utterly forgettable, I tend to overtly dismiss the rank-and-file. Pressed with the task of christening these two, I'd go with Humpty and Dumpty.
"I'm sorry, not this time," I shove my badge into my Coach purse, "I'm actually here on personal business."
They both flinch, unable to repress the smirk that comes from learning that I - perfect Brooke Blake - may have a health problem.
"I'm here to see someone, a patient," I correct, "actually a dead patient. Forget it; I'm here to see Nurse Lisa Bryer."
"A nurse?" mocks Humpty, "isn't that quite a step down."
"Not really, I'm talking to you, am I not," I flash my signature veneered smile that entitles me to demean people without them realizing that they are - in fact - the butt of the joke. Thank you, Sir! May I have another?
Humpty (or is that Dumpty?) blushes, validated.
"If you could hurry along," I plead, pointing at my Rolex.
"Of course, right away, Brooke."
I turn on my heels and head for an isolated chair in the waiting area. Aside from scarce visitors and the occasional delivery man, the lobby is quiet. Obviously, the most severe trauma cases enter from the back, where the ER is located, in order to preserve the hospital's curb appeal.
After a few interminable minutes - I can't recall the last time I was kept waiting for anything - a stout and determined-looking woman crosses the lobby, bee-lining in my direction. I hear her coming my way, her sensible footwear squeaking on the polished floor, as annoying as nails on a chalkboard. Her mousy-brown hair is cropped short - a true wash-and-wear coiffure - just above earlobes pierced with studs of the Walmart variety. Her plain, hospital-issued scrubs could use some serious tailoring, and her only jewelry is a Mickey Mouse watch. I rise to meet her.
"I don't shake hands," she offers as greeting, "too unsanitary." Without missing a beat, she introduces herself and instructs me to follow her. Ever the multi-tasker, Nurse Lisa Bryer has perfected the 'walk and talk'.
"Listen, Mrs. Bryer…"
"Call me Lisa," she interrupts, "I'm highly efficient and low on ceremony. I'll just need your signature on a couple of papers and we'll both be on our way."
We reach the elevator bank. Lisa presses the up arrow button using her left elbow. A quick glance at the illuminated floor numbers directs her to the next available cab. We step in and Lisa instructs me to press '5'; "I don't shake hands, neither do I touch elevator buttons," she justifies.
For the second time, I attempt to extirpate myself from the situation.
"Listen Lisa, about Frank…"
"Here we are. Take a seat," she interrupts.
We reached the office of Lisa Bryer, RN, before I could make a graceful exit; therefore, a clumsy one will have to do. Aside from the prominent name plate on the door, the office is nondescript with nary a photograph or personal memento to give it a touch of humanity. I choose the chair closest to the door and sit on the edge of my seat, ready to dash out the moment I am dismissed. Lisa is ignoring me and my discomfort, buried in mounds of file folders, shuffling from one pile to the other.
"There!" she victoriously announces, brandishing a green folder.
Determined to get my point across once and for all, I unfurl a convoluted diatribe without taking the time to breathe.
"Listen, Mrs. Bryer… Nurse Bryer… Lisa! I don't really know Frank all that well. I just wanted to let you know that. In person. Because Frank was a good man and he deserves that much. So, thank you for your time. I'll be leaving now."
As I stand to leave, Lisa drops the green file on a random pile and sinks into her worn office chair. She's aged ten years in the past two minutes. The fierce and efficient Lisa Bryer, RN, looks defeated.
"I understand," she quietly laments, "be on your way; I'll call the M.E. and get it taken care of."
Again with the ghastly: it. Cold shivers run down my spine.
"What do you mean, M.E.? Was Frank… murdered?" I mutter. For all the time I spend in hospitals, the day-to-day operations strangely elude me.
"Of course not," she scoffs with a hint of mockery, "Frank Moretti collapsed on a sidewalk. A witness called 911 and he was brought here DOA. The only identification he had on him was a library card; he was also carrying your business card, that's how we could get hold of you. You wouldn't believe how many people die alone; all their relatives are estranged and their friends are nothing more than casual and convenient acquaintances. The Medical Examiner's Office handles all those unclaimed."
A phone rings in the distance and Lisa's head turns slightly toward it; somehow hoping the faint toll will call her away. The ring stops and is replaced by muffled laughter. Lisa looks down, certain that any conversation involving the slightest amount of merriment doesn't involve her.
"Anyway," she continues, with forced enthusiasm and a tad of incrimination, "I guess that's not your problem. Now, if you don't mind, I have work to do."
I am paralyzed. Part of me wants to dart off and run from this place as fast as I can, but my legs won't move. I need reassurance.
"The M.E. will find a next of kin, or at least give Frank a decent burial, correct?"
Lisa sighs and rubs her eyes, attempting to erase the dismal picture forming in her head - one she sees repeated too often.
"They'll try," she concedes. Her tone is suddenly compassionate, understanding. "Since we have a name, they'll go to Social Security to find a birthplace, parents, siblings, wife, or children. However, Social Security probably has a few thousand entries with the name Frank Moretti. They simply don't have the manpower needed to find the next of kin, assuming there's even one alive. Like I said, unless someone comes forward…"
"And if they can't find any relative…?" In spite of my better judgment, I carry on.
I look up inquisitively; Lisa's expression indicates that I've asked too much. Some questions are better left unasked, and especially unanswered. She opens the desk drawer closest to her and pulls out a cigarette.
"I quit twenty years ago," she reveals, "and even now, once in a while, I'd kill for just one puff. If I were diagnosed with a terminal disease tomorrow, the first thing I'd do is pick the nasty habit right back up; that's how much I miss it."
Lisa gently lifts the unlit cigarette to her nose and deeply inhales the tobacco aroma. She gently presses the filtered tip to her lips as if kissing a lover goodbye, before finally putting the cigarette back in the drawer with a forlorn sigh. She closes her eyes for a few seconds, just long enough to regain her composure and gather her thoughts.
"I used to be an investigator with the Medical Examiner's Office," she starts, "I lasted three days. The workload is unbearable, with a dozen open cases at all times. My first investigation was for a homeless man who cracked his skull while dumpster diving. The doctors couldn't stop the hemorrhaging in his brain, so he died and ended up at the M.E.'s."
"Did you find a next of kin?" I probe, knowing full well the answer.
She snorts, "well, I for sure did not. I quit, remember? But, no, probably not, he must have ended up at the University - probably the closest to a higher education he ever got." Lisa smiles at her joke, even though she must have said or heard it countless times.
"Medical research?" I volunteer, prodding Lisa to continue in the process.
"Exactly, unless the body is crushed, has a contagious disease, is overly obese, or is severely decomposed, the anatomical board gets the first claim."
Visions of swarming vultures forge in my head. I shoo them away.
"Unless, of course, the deceased's religion prohibits it," Nurse Lisa stipulates. "Was Frank Moretti a Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientist, or Shintoist?"
"I really don't know," I stammer, shaking my head, "he may have been Catholic at one point… or maybe Jewish? He sometimes quoted scriptures, who does that?"
"A lot more people than you think… did he quote Old or New?"
"I don't know," I blurt with exasperation, "aren't all scriptures old? He quoted the Bible, not some New Age Scientology bogus creed."
"I mean Old or New Testament - from which book was he quoting? If he referenced Jesus, we'll know he wasn't Jewish."
I stare at Nurse Lisa blankly. "I. Don't. Know." I cadence with visible irritation. "I. Never. Asked." I rub my temples to thwart a fast-approaching headache. "Frank Moretti loved Johnny Cash and cowboy movies. He hated intolerance and feckless hustle. He never cursed and always respected others. Above all else, he loved children. Apparently, I didn't know him well; I really can't tell you which god - if any - he made his own."
"I am not judging," Lisa assures me, "I'm simply trying to help you make the best decision. If Frank was Jewish, he would want to be buried as quickly as possible; a Catholic wouldn't care."
"Let's go with wouldn't care then. For how long will the anatomical board keep him anyway, a week?"
"More like two to three years," she estimates, "they will dissect him like a frog: every single organ, muscle, and nerve. They may hack him into pieces, thus allowing his body to support a wide range of research - a leg may be sent to an orthopedic researcher, for instance, while his head would be studied by a neurosurgeon."
"You mean like a cadaver chop shop?" A tidal wave of nausea engulfs me.
"Sure, if you want to look at it that way," she morbidly concedes.
"Trust me," I willfully take deep, long breaths, "I don't want to look at it any possible way. Don't we have options?"
"Once you turn the body over to the anatomical board, you have no say in its disposition. However, there's always a chance Frank could be spared the chainsaw."
I exhale a sigh of relief… prematurely.
"Some research doesn't involve cutting the body," Nurse Lisa explains, "but rather studying how a body endures a car crash or whether safety equipment can protect a body from an explosion or fall. Ever saw those crash-test life-size dolls used to assess car safety?"
I neither answer, nor blink. I painfully swallow.
"Well, they're not all fake dummies, you know. Also, some researchers in criminal forensics expose cadavers to various environments and observe how they rot. Some corpses are even used to test military equipment such as body armor or protective eyewear - to determine whether or not the eyeballs would cave in the skull…"
"Stop!" I yell, "I heard enough! Why are you being so graphic?"
"Don't be a hypocrite," Lisa openly condemns, "are you sincerely offended that Frank's body could be blown up rather than patiently sliced into tiny pieces. What difference does it make?"
"I don't know yet! I don't know if it makes a difference or not. I need time to think - stop badgering me!" My eyes well up unintentionally. Lisa notices but doesn't relent.
"Listen, you can decline the post-mortem experimentation - that's your call; however," she carefully weighs, "unless you make other arrangements, he'll end up in the state's mortuary for cremation. His ashes will spend four months there, as per state law, after which he'll be disposed of in the Gulf of Mexico."
"Dumped in the Gulf?" I stammer in utter disbelief, "Frank will be dumped in the Gulf?"
Lisa's smirk is condescending. In one slash of the tongue, she has slaughtered Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny.
"What did you expect?" she slights, "why should the State care anymore than you do?"
I am visibly distraught and Lisa compassionately takes notice. Finally.
"It's not like he'll be scattered on the beach," she soothes, "boxes containing the cremated remains of all unclaimed bodies are emptied into the Gulf twice a year. A boat motors three miles out, the captain says a prayer, and the boxes are emptied out."
"This is unacceptable," I announce with a resolve I didn't know I possessed, "we are not barbarians for crying out loud! Where do I need to sign, I'll be taking care of Frank."
~ Florida, July 28, 2011 ~
Eight Months Earlier
I lean on the horn in a futile attempt to plow my way through the concrete jungle. I have allocated exactly thirty minutes to get to the store and procure my weekly nourishment: all organic, hormone-free, and low fat. Gluttony is the ONLY capital sin in my book, and I earnestly sacrifice flavor to the altar of my perpetual size-two figure. In every project I undertake - and yes, eating is a project - the only acceptable outcome is victory. My body is a temple, and I care much more about the curb appeal than the interior: my young corpse will look spectacular.
Once more, I lean on the horn for much longer than necessary and gesture at a startled driver. She flips me the bird before taking off in a cloud of exhaust. I really don't like people. I tolerate a few other human beings, but as a whole, I find the whole human race to be rather disgusting. The utter lack of self-control that plagues society is turning citizens into fat wheezing monsters with the brain capacity of a gerbil. At least I make money, obscene amounts of it, on the obese backs of those slobs. Go ahead, stuff your face with massive loads of empty calories; I'll be waiting for you on the flip side, arms loaded with a wicked cocktail of insulin, heart medication, and diet pills. In public, I euphemistically call you a script; but don't be mistaken, I consider you a pig.
It is an inclement ninety-five degrees in South Florida - and it's not even lunchtime yet - but I don't sweat; a few Botox injections in the armpits ensure that I never succumb to the elements.
"Ladies don't sweat, they perspire," my grandmother used to say. Well, real ladies don't do either; they take care of business.
I don't mingle with the riff raff that much anymore; thank God! My condo concierge handles all my errands; well maybe not him personally, but it gets done and I don't care how. I had to reclaim the food gathering portion of my upkeep though; since I once inadvertently consumed a full-fat yogurt that some incompetent dunce had placed in my refrigerator. Anyway, with no other recourse, I strive to make the most of my time with the common mob. I get to witness the habits of my constituents, a.k.a. clients, a.k.a. patients, a.k.a. the sick proletariat who consume my drugs like candy. Besides, I like hearing the clickety-clack of my stilettos on the supermarket's terrazzo floors; the melody parts the sea of flip-flop-clad housewives and other random losers like magic. Move over peasants - make way for the one percent!
Having successfully completed my weekly safari to the supermarket in under twenty-five minutes, I head home with the hurry induced at ferrying the most precious of cargo: gelato. That's my only indulgence: one scoop of gelato a day that I religiously burn with a vengeance by furiously pumping the elliptical for ninety minutes. I could crack walnuts with my butt cheeks, but I don't eat nuts; they are too calorific.
I round the parking lot corner, slightly clipping the curb in order to avoid a Hummer barely controlled by a diminutive driver. There, standing on the swell, in this unbearably scorching noontime heat, stands a very old man with his right arm outstretched and his thumb pointed up. His left arm is weighted down by a plastic shopping bag from which a baguette is protruding. In a brief moment of insanity - there is no other possible explanation - this incongruous vision compels me to swerve onto the swell and stop abruptly right next to the man, as if shielding him from traffic. Without missing a beat, he opens my passenger door and unceremoniously sits down with a heavy sigh.
"Thanks for stopping," he wheezes, "women are usually pretty good at stopping. The name's Frank Moretti."
"What are you doing?" I stammer.
"Hitching a ride, of course."
"Well, I can see that," I confirm with disbelief, "I guess what I mean is: why are you doing it?"
"Get going," he orders, "you're blocking traffic. I'll tell you where to turn."
I comply, not that I care about an old man's wishes, but I'd hate for my car to get scratched or worse, dented.
"Are you having car trouble?" I inquire.
"It's more like eyes trouble," he jokes. "I haven't driven in over six years on account of my bad sight. I see well enough to get by, but not well enough to drive."
I pull into traffic and start driving in silence. I surreptitiously take a closer look at my unexpected passenger to evaluate his potential as a serial killer. His heavily wrinkled face and wool-like white hair place him well into his eighties. He wears massive dark sunglasses, like the ones patients must don after pupil dilation. His clothes are neat, yet seem unseasonably warm: black Rockport slip-resistant Oxford shoes, light grey trousers, and a short-sleeve iron-free white shirt with a neatly folded handkerchief stuffing the sole chest pocket. The man is rather lean, a mere few pounds away from being frail, but his complexion has a healthy glow. His only adornment is a large-faced Timex with a thick black leather band. I note the absence of a wedding ring. Compared to Florida's customary lax fashion standards - where tube tops and rubber clogs are perfectly acceptable office attires - he looks polished and well groomed. Somehow, this man doesn't strike me as the type to wear cropped pants, regardless of the weather, opting for short sleeves as compromise necessary for survival. I get that. I never bought into the absurd concept of dressing down: one is either impeccably clothed or totally naked; the grey zone in between is for boors.
I don't know how to address this man, his age would typically command a respectful 'Sir', but given the unusual circumstance, I think that familiarity would be most apropos.
"Frank… you said your name is Frank, right?"
"Yes, ma'am, Frank Moretti."
Great, now I'm the jackass.
"Brooke, my name is Brooke. Do you know where to go?" I query. While the old man seems lucid, I fear that I unwittingly picked up some demented Alzheimer patient out on the lam from some reviled Old Folks Home. Were that to be the case, what would I do? I can't picture myself wrestling an old man out of my car and abandoning him on the side of the road like a discarded mattress. I know that Florida has enacted a Safe Haven law to prevent unwanted newborns from being abandoned into dumpsters; the babies can be left at any hospital or Fire Rescue Station, with no questions asked, totally anonymously, free from fear of prosecution… but I doubt they would accept an old man. If Frank Moretti were a dog, I could easily unload him at the Humane Society… or if he at least had the decency to pull a gun on me - in true Florida fashion - I could hand him over to the authorities. Perhaps he is an 'undocumented alien', in which case I could slap a bow on his head and bestow him onto the open arms of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
My undesired passenger ends my nightmarish reverie with a laconic: "Make a left at the light."
"Is everything all right?" I inquire, more for my benefit than his.
"Yes, I'm a bit tired, that's all. The heat really gets to me these days."
"The heat gets to everybody," I shrug, "how did you get to the supermarket?"
"I walked," he answers, with nary a trace of pride in his voice. "I thought I'd be able to walk back, but I got too tired." With this simple, yet heart-wrenching explanation, Frank's head drops slightly; yet, he continues depicting the travails he must endure to acquire basic necessities.
"The cops, they don't want me to hitchhike. They told me often enough - at least twice a month in the past three years. Once, I asked a rookie to take me to jail, where I would be served three square meals a day without having to lift a finger. I could have enjoyed a little vacation at Club Fed!"
I crack a smile, "Did he do it? Were you arrested?"
"No, hitchhiking is not illegal as long as you stay off the roadway; but people feel very uncomfortable seeing an old man standing on the side of the road, so they call the police. I usually tell the cops: 'If you don't want me hitchhiking, just take me home.' Most of them do, not out of kindness, but because they don't want to deal with me, and it's their job to keep the peace. Women are very good at stopping, especially the ones with babies in the back. I guess they figure: I have to take care of one, might as well take care of another…" Frank's voice trails off. He lifts his right arm, displaying a slight tremor, and points to a series of identical buildings in a quaint and manicured complex.
"Right over there, building C," he indicates.
I park in front of the main door; apparently, not too many residents own cars.
"Don't forget your bag," I dismiss him, "and please don't slam my car door."
"Thanks for the ride," he sheepishly lauds, "I'm really sorry to have inconvenienced you," he apologizes.
I watch Frank extirpate his aging body from my car and close my door with care. He navigates the few steps to the front porch and nearly misses the stoop. I watch, useless, as he starts swaying before grabbing the door jamb to steady his gait. He barely escaped a fall that could have proven fatal. In a spur of uncharacteristic altruism - again! - I quickly leave the comfort of my air-conditioned vehicle and rush to the old man's side, ready to provide assistance. He straightens up, visibly embarrassed at his display of weakness.
"This heat has got me totally parched," I grudgingly hint, "do you think I could bother you for a glass of water?"
He takes the bait. "That's the least I could do. Please hold my bag while I find the right key."
As I stand with Frank Moretti in the pounding Florida sun for what seems like an inordinate amount of time, I think about my gelato slowly melting away. I estimate that three minutes should be amply sufficient to get Frank safely inside the building, out of harm's way… or at the very least, out of my sight. Frank's keychain holds only two keys; yet, instead of trying each one of them, he contemplates them in an attempt to remember which one to use. I resist the impulse to snatch the keys from him; he's not merely clutching keys, he is holding on to his dignity. A stroke of genius - or divine providence - hits him, and he finally manages to open the door to the foyer.
The stench of old: a mixture of cheap aftershave, joint ointment, and acrid sweat, hangs in the air. Decay may smell sweet, but old age really stinks. The lobby light is dimmed to the point of almost-darkness, especially in contrast to the luminescent Florida daylight. One would think that elderly people would use all the light they could to avoid tripping, but a combination of poise and frugality propels the residents into a life of obscurity.
Frank takes off his enormous shades. Even in this subdued light, I am transfixed by his piercing blue eyes. Still holding his bag, I am blackmailed into following him down a narrow hall to a rickety elevator.
We ride in silence, staring at the numbers flickering from one, skipping the two. Inside the cab, the door to the emergency phone cubby hole stands ajar, exposing a couple of wires sticking out hazardously, as if reaching out for a conspicuously missing handset. I dreadfully realize that I left my phone - potential lifeline in this precarious mobile coffin - safely tucked away in my car. I scan the cage for a reassuring certificate of inspection, only to find such document bearing a seal over a decade old. A dim '3' flickers and the elevator cab finally reaches number four and screeches to a halt, which is surprising given the unbelievably low speed of the ride, before the doors slide open onto an inhospitable corridor. I look up and down, searching for a salutary 'stairs' sign, vowing to never re-enter the cocoon of death. Again, the quasi-darkness prevents me from distinguishing an alternate exit.
While Frank may appear to be independent, he is no less tucked away from society. Desolate or not, he should at least be safe.
"You need to call maintenance about the missing phone in the elevator, and those unbelievably dark corridors," I lecture.
He snorts, "What for? They keep the outside pretty, that's all they care about. Most of the residents are rotting away anyway; the interior fits just fine."
"Hey, I'm all for curb appeal…" Frank is not listening. He hangs a right and shuffles down the hall, his head bowed. At first, I assume he is either watching his steps or extending pious gratitude for a safe journey up the cursed elevator. I am wrong on both fronts; Frank is counting the steps to his front door to compensate for his failing vision. Halfway down, he stops in front of an apartment identified only with a faded bronze-colored adhesive '5'. He opens up without the help of a key.
"You don't lock up?" I inquire.
"Why bother? I have nothing of value. The ladies require that we lock the main door, something about preserving their virtue. They should be so lucky…" he alludes with a twinkle in his deep blue eyes.
I try to hand Frank his shopping bag, "I need to get going…"
"Bring it in, would you?" he interrupts.
I follow him inside the apartment. Except for an abundance of doilies, the room is neutral, unadorned by photographs or any inkling of a family life.
"You crochet much?" I quip, pointing at a rather ostentatious serviette.
"The ladies do," he explains curtly.
"Well, I see that you have a large fan club, probably a whole harem of blue-haired devotees; so I better leave you…"
"Kitchen is over there," he points.
I sigh and comply. In this small apartment, the kitchen is only a few steps away from the door; I'll dump the bag on a counter and take off. I pause for a moment, as the scarcity of Frank's provisions strikes me.
I once attended a seminar extolling the benefits of marketing antidepressant drugs to the elderly; it's like giving candy to a child! Many factors contribute to senior citizens' gloom: declining health, waning stamina, fading looks… but clinical depression mainly results from being stripped of any sense of purpose. Because of the establishment of Social Security during the Great Depression, many workers are forced into retirement to make room for younger employees. This gives everybody the skewed impression that people over the age of sixty-five are worthless in any kind of productive sense. Bluntly put, there's nothing more depressing than having no purpose in life… and I have a pill for that!
A telltale sign of depression - we were instructed - is weight loss; in fact, more than half of elderly hospitalized patients are undernourished or malnourished on admission. Granted, malnutrition could also be attributed to more mundane factors, such as extreme frugality, perplexing dietary requirements, and lack of access to food supplies. Since I am not privy to Frank's prescription drug coverage; I am compelled to inquire about his feeding regiment.
"Did you get enough food?" I inquire while emptying the bag. "How often do you go shopping? Should I contact Social Services?"
"Are you with the Gestapo?" he replies, visibly hurt. "I have never taken a hand-out from anybody. Open the cupboards; you'll see plenty of food."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply…"
"I know, I know, you meant well. You ladies always do; look at all the doilies! I was jonesing for a Philly Cheesesteak and didn't have all the fixings, that's all."
"So you risked a heat stroke for a sandwich?" I once again start doubting Frank's sanity.
His piercing blue eyes lock on me. I can almost see the young and vibrant Frank under all those wrinkles and age spots.
"Not any sandwich," he clarifies glibly, "a Philly Cheesesteak like the ones they made in Philadelphia back in the '40s. Ever had one of those?"
"I can say with utmost certainty that I have not," I confess, resigning myself to the fact that gelato is nowhere in my near future.
"Then, sit down," he orders, "you're in for a treat!"
~ Port of New York, 1920s ~
Francesco Moretti holds on tightly to his young bride Teresa.
"Leave me here to die," she pleads meekly, all her strength seemingly leaving her body in pools of revolting vomit.
"Never, I will never leave you. Grab onto my arm, I'll get you to the deck; the fresh air will help."
Francesco can barely stand himself, weak from malnutrition and lack of sleep. He places Teresa's left arm around his neck and painstakingly drags her. A fellow passenger takes pity and flanks Teresa to the right, placing her limp arm around his neck. Francesco acknowledges the help with a faint nod. They make their way to the limited open deck space reserved for steerage passengers and gently lay Teresa on blankets. Francesco leans by her side, brushing away the sweat-soaked hair from her forehead. Without taking his eyes off his wife, he thanks the charitable stranger who lent him a hand.
"Grazie, grazie mille… my wife is so sick…"
"Naturalmente… my name is Gianni, I'll help you any way I can; we Italians need to stick together."
Unlike the Morettis, Gianni is spry and alert. He scans the upper deck and realizes that Teresa is drawing the unwelcome attention of the crew. They point at her and deliberate agitatedly, apparently to elect an emissary that will reluctantly handle the hindrance of the sick steerage passenger.
Gianni crouches down and whispers in Francesco's ear.
"Signore, you can't stay here with your lady. The first-class passengers above, they can see you. If they think that she's contagious, well…"
"What do you want me to do?" wails Francesco.
"Signore, please," Gianni implores as the commotion above surges, "you and the lady have to go. I'll stay and stall the crew; you go back down below and hide. You can trust me; I'll make sure they don't get to your lady."
With no other option, Francesco reluctantly complies. He musters every last bit of strength to laboriously lift Teresa into his arms. Shoving his way counter-current against the flow of passengers in search of fresh air, he makes his way down below. Ironically, hiding is rather easy in steerage where passengers are packed as tightly as space would allow, sharing their limited living space with livestock.
The appointed first-class crew member steps down onto the steerage deck and searches for Teresa.
"Where is she? Where is the sick woman?" he bellows to no one in particular, incensed at having to evaluate a steerage passenger's potentially contaminating illness, "You!" he spots Gianni, "you were with her, where did she go?"
Gianni feints ignorance, "I don't know what you're talking about, Signore."
"I could have you arrested, thrown into the brig for obstructing the work of a naval officer," roars the low-ranking seaman.
"The brig, my, that would be mighty fine Admiral," Gianni openly mocks, "it can't be much worse than the third-class accommodations!"
A feminine chuckle interrupts the exchange.
Both the seaman and Gianni turn toward the impetuous giggle and are confronted with a smoke screen emanating from a lit cigarette gracing the tip of a needlessly long cigarette holder. Gianni's gaze travels from the ember, down the holder, to bright ruby red lips. The woman's eyes are obscured by a cloche hat placed low on her forehead, hinting at a boyish bobbed haircut. A low-waist dress with a full hemline is adorned with a pearl necklace descending all the way down to her midriff. The woman seems ready to kick up her heels and start dancing the Charleston; quite an incongruous sight on the third-class deck.
The woman slowly lifts her chin to expose her face and stares at the seaman provocatively, a mocking grin gently pressing the tip of her cigarette holder. The seaman immediately recognizes the ship's most illustrious passenger.
"Miss Mitchell, you shouldn't be down here," he stammers, visibly distraught, "please allow me to escort you back to the upper deck."
"Fiddle-dee-dee, I will not be ordered around. You go back to where you came from officer…" Mitchell tantalizingly blows a lung-full of smoke in the seaman's face and runs her finger along his name plate as she languidly enunciates C..a..n..d..l..e..r… any relations with the Coca-Cola tycoon?"
"I'm afraid not, ma'am," he blushes.
"Umm, that's too bad," she teases, "in any event, I'll have this fine young man here," she places her hand on Gianni's shoulder, "escort me to the lady who was indisposed previously. I'm convinced there's no cause for alarm, Mister Candler. Now, that's a name I won't forget - Candler - let's just hope I remember it for the right reasons."
"But Miss Mitchell," he dissents, "you don't want to go down there, the conditions are…"
"Deplorable? Horrendous? Abysmal? I am well aware of the inhumane conditions maintained in steerage, Mister Candler. Those unfortunate passengers are confined to their berths for most of the voyage, in a stupor caused by the horrid air. Do you realize how difficult it is for these poor souls to get a breath of fresh air? In rough seas, you batten down the hatches, forcing steerage passengers to remain below in the dark and rocking ship. In fair weather, sea water seeps into steerage through the holes intended for ventilation. I am painfully aware that you average a mortality rate of ten percent per voyage, Sir, and I have yet to see a First Class passenger being so much as inconvenienced. Your operation stinks in all senses of the word."
"But, Miss Mitchell," Candler justifies, "they are third-class passengers…"
"Exactly! They are passengers, and not cargo, Mister Candler."
Gianni stifles the impulse to cheer.
"With all due respect," Candler frets, "may the record show that you have been thoroughly warned. This being said, Miss, feel free to do as you please."
"Teresa, can you hear me? My name is Margaret. You need a doctor," Mitchell presses the palm of her hand on Teresa's clammy forehead, "I'll have the ship's physician come down."
"No!" shouts Francesco, "nobody can know that she is here. In fact, she is not even here…"
"I see", a stowaway, Mitchell figures, "don't worry, I won't tell. At least, take some money," she forces a few American bills in Francesco's hand, "and make sure she sees a doctor the moment we dock. I need to go back to my quarters now; I fear that the overzealous Candler may have sent a search-and-rescue party after me. I'll come back with food and whatever medicine I can discretely sponge off the on-board doctor."
Francesco, overcome by emotions at such unexpected generosity, grasps Mitchell's arm, "Miss, how could I ever repay you?"
She gently unclasps Francesco grip, one finger at a time: "Take care of her - that's all I ask."
The sun shines brightly on Ellis Island, like a beacon of hope. Francesco Moretti tenderly holds the hand of his young bride as they both leave the dark and damp steerage room of the RSM Mauretania, squinting painfully. Companions of misfortune, Francesco, Teresa, and Gianni huddle on the foredeck for fear of separation and look with wonder on this miraculous land of their dreams.
Teresa clutches the only memento she brought from Italy: her father's watch. During the Great War, that pocket watch - worn in a breast pocket - had saved his life by dodging a bullet that would have otherwise pierced his heart. Teresa, the first member of her family to ever leave Europe, caresses the dented watch to calm her frayed nerves.
"Will I get to meet the wonderful Miss Mitchell who so generously contributed to my well-being?" she softly inquires.
"I really doubt it," snickers Gianni, "those rich people; they casually breeze through Customs without so much as a second look. The government figures that someone who can afford a First Class ticket will most likely not end up in an institution, hospital, or become a burden to the state. We, on the other hand, will be heavily scrutinized."
Panic seizes Francesco, "what about Teresa? She's not fully recovered; what if they deny her entry?"
"Don't worry, follow my lead," Gianni takes off his overcoat and hands it to Teresa, "here, wear this."
She pulls back, "No, thank you, I'm not cold… in fact; I'm still a bit feverish."
"You won't keep it on for long; I have a cousin in America, he wrote to me and told me all about passing the health inspection," he gently cups Teresa's face in his hands, "trust me."
Francesco intercedes in his favor. "Do as he says, Teresa; Gianni is one of us," he winks at the man who would once again rescue his wife.
The trio joins a cohort of other immigrants and walks single file up the grand staircase which enables health inspectors to do a rapid check for lameness and other physical problems that would appear while moving. Given her apparent weakness and shallow breathing, Teresa's outer garment is marked in chalk with the letter 'P' signifying a physical or lung ailment. About twenty percent of prospective immigrants receive similar chalk marks: some would only undergo closer examination while others would be sent back to their homeland. Gianni casually places his arm around Teresa's shoulders and slowly lowers the marked garment off her back. Teresa catches on; she continues walking as she sheds the coat, which Gianni reverses - thus hiding the chalk - before putting it back on his own shoulders. They are free to continue the clearing process unencumbered.
With sincere gratitude, Teresa quickly embraces Gianni before being rushed to the next clearing stage: the legal exam. The interrogation is uneventful, most immigrant readily proffering their name and whether they had relatives or a job waiting for them in America. Francesco goes first.
"Do you have any money?" inquires the inspector.
"Yes, of course."
"Let me see it."
Francesco frantically rummages through his pocket and retrieves the crumpled bills that the American woman generously tendered him on the ship. He peels off twenty-five dollars which he hands to Teresa and shows the balance - twenty-five more dollars - to a satisfied inspector. Teresa quickly follows her husband and, having carefully observed the process, gets approved without a hitch. Their happiness is short-lived though, as they both witness Gianni squirming when asked about the required stipend. Teresa runs back to her friend to seemingly embrace him one more time and whispers in his ear 'in tasca'. She lets go and returns to Francesco, leaving a stupefied Gianni to reach in his pocket to find the money Teresa passed him.
Up to that point unscathed, Francesco finds himself in dismay over the final hurdle of Ellis Island.
"I can't read," he shamefully admits to Gianni.
"That's not a problem, my friend," smiles Gianni, "you're a good Catholic, aren't you."
"Is the Pope Catholic?" Francesco indubitably acknowledges.
"Well, the test consists of reading a passage from the Holy Scriptures in your own language," explains Gianni, "good Catholic that you are, I'm pretty sure that you can confidently 'read' John 3:16."
Francesco sighs with relief, "I can 'read' it like nobody's business!"
Francesco and Teresa do not stop in New York even for the night. With their newly minted immigration papers in hand, they head for the Stairs of Separation. One staircase is for 'New York Outsides', where people like Gianni take a boat to Manhattan Island to meet a waiting friend or relative.
"Thank you for this," he hands Francesco the loaned money that allowed him access on American soil.
"Keep it," insists Francesco, "you'll need it. I have Teresa, so I'm already rich. Besides, we couldn't have done it without you."
Gianni reluctantly pockets the money, not wishing to be an immediate charge on his cousin.
"Where do you think you'll be settling?" he asks the doe-eyed couple.
"We have nobody waiting for us, so we'll take the staircase leading to the railroad ticket office. I heard great things about Philadelphia."
Gianni nods in approval and hugs his travelling companions farewell - knowing all too well that they would plant new roots in different locales and would never see each other again.
As they wait for the train, Francesco asks his young bride to read aloud the passionate, patriotic passage that they received prior to leaving their homeland to explore the land of opportunity, the land of freedom, the United States of America. Francesco closes his eyes and revels in the invigorating message delivered by Teresa's soft, soothing voice.
The immigrant should never abandon his feelings of the value of being an Italian… Keep alive, at all times, the use of your mother tongue and the practice of your own institutions; bring up your children in a love for your Fatherland and teach them the language, history, and geography of Italy. And even if you assume the nationality of the country in which you have settled, never deny and never forget the sublime moral inheritance of your ancestors and transmit to your descendants the sacred flame of the love of the distant fatherland. Thus will you ever remain a true son of that world-extensive and strong Italy. Long Live Italy. Forever.
~ Florida, March 2, 2012 ~
Ridgeport Medical Center
"Unbelievable," utters Nurse Lisa Bryer, chewing the unlit cigarette that has somehow found its way back to her lips, "do you really believe that Margaret Mitchell, THE Margaret Mitchell from Gone with the Wind saved Frank's mother's life?"
I chuckle, "I don't know what to believe anymore, Frank was quite a raconteur. Everything is possible though…"
"Do you know if he has any family left in Philly?"
"I don't think so," I deplore, "while he told me at length about his parents and childhood, he never mentioned a sibling or any other relative."
Once I agreed, however reluctantly, to take over Frank's disposition, Nurse Lisa noticeably warmed up to me. I promptly signed the documents relinquishing Frank's remains to my custody and bade her farewell.
"Where do you think you are going?" she'd challenged.
"Well, you mentioned how busy you were… so I'll see myself out and go…" I'd scanned the documents in my hand for a list of procedures and subsequent steps.
"Sure, just go ahead and see my assistant, Suzy Sue, she'll walk you through it."
"Where would I find her?" I'd gingerly asked.
Lisa had erupted in laughter. "You're kidding, right? You don't really believe that I have staff at my disposal?"
"Well, I know that most hospitals are scrounging for good nurses…" I'd rationalized.
"Good? I'd settle for breathing!"
That's when I realized that Lisa's blunt demeanor didn't stem from an absence of compassion, but rather from a lack of time and resources.
"Ironically," Lisa pontificated, "at a time when many Americans are in desperate need of a job, the field of nursing will soon be in desperate need of Americans."
"The nursing shortage is nothing new," I argued, "for years now, hospitals have jumped through hoops to find and retain talent."
"That may be so, but the problem is quickly compounded by an aging baby boomer population as well as a generation of aging nurses who will soon retire. Unless the current conjecture changes drastically, needed nurses will exceed available ones by over half a million in a few short years."
"It won't get that bad," I reasoned, "with the job market in the shape it is right now, many people will flock to nursing schools and the problem will resolve itself."
Lisa shook her head in disbelief. "Applicants are not the problem," she specified "admission is. Last year alone, nursing schools turned away over seventy-five thousand qualified applicants due to budget constraints. All this at a time when an additional thirty-two million Americans gained access to healthcare through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act."
"Thus giving them access to something that is virtually unavailable," I concluded.
"You said it, not me."
"Given the circumstances, why do you even care about the disposal of a dead body?"
"I like the dead," she joked, "they don't complain! Seriously, in my line of work - gerontology - I see too many ailing patients with no one to lean on. A quick and painless death is a positive outcome for many of them. Whenever possible, I like to send them off with dignity… I like to believe that somehow, somewhere, these old folks mattered to someone at one point in their lives."
I find it unsettling and rather menacing that a nurse would rather deal with the dead than the living. Lisa noticed my growing unease.
"Don't worry; I'm not some angel of death going around unplugging respirators. This hospital is faring better than most in the nursing department; they caved in and started importing nurses from the Philippines."
"Importing nurses?" I exclaimed in disbelief.
"Si, seňora, es la verdad. The Filipinos are picking up the slack in the inadequate American labor pool," Lisa mournfully contemplated before shaking her resentment and tackling the task at hand, "and that leaves me some time to play detective! Has Frank shared anything else over that sandwich that could help you identify a next of kin?" Lisa is gleefully sleuthing; piecing together scattered clues to solve what I believe is a nonexistent mystery.
"It wasn't a sandwich," I correct her sternly, "it was a Philly Cheesesteak like the ones they made in Philadelphia back in the 40s." I can't stifle a smile at the thought of Frank's storytelling. I am convinced that he granted himself quite an ample poetic license.
An additional stack of papers shoved in front of me brings me back to reality.
"This being said, it looks to me like I can't help you much further right now," Lisa apologizes, "as far as you are concerned though, I'll need you to sign a release to have Frank's body moved since you'll be assuming custody of the final disposition. Morgue space is at a premium on swamp land," she humorously concludes.
"Where do you expect me to move him?" I voice in sheer horror.
"There are always a couple of funeral home representatives hanging by the morgue," she briefs me. "Have them give you a quote for transport. Make sure to get the quote in writing before you accept; some reps have been known to act rather unscrupulously toward grieving relatives," she casually explains, as if we were discussing moving a piano.
"I told you before: I really don't know what Frank's wishes were for his final arrangements. I need some time to look for relatives. Can't you keep him here? I wasn't planning on spending any money…"
"You don't have to," she interrupts, "you are well within your rights to transport Frank yourself. A pick-up truck or even a large SUV should do the trick."
As hard as I try, I cannot detect the slightest hint of sarcasm in her voice. Apparently, she's not kidding.
"Keep in mind though," she continues, "that Florida law requires that a body be buried, embalmed, or refrigerated within twenty-four hours of death. You'll simply have to keep Frank on ice or turn your air conditioner way down. If that's not practical, most funeral homes have coolers for such purposes."
Unwittingly, the tag line of 'Weekend at Bernie's' comes to my mind: Two morons. One corpse. And the plot thickens…
"Fine," I relent, "I'll splurge for professional refrigeration. How much time do I have before I need to make a definitive decision regarding Frank's final disposition?"
"State law allows a funeral home to discard human remains, without ceremony, after four months. You should have something figured out by then."
Somehow, I doubt it. However, I feel relieved at having a deadline - never has a pun resonated so true. Regardless of the outcome, Frank will be off my agenda in four months. I absentmindedly leaf through the stack of paperwork.
"There's the release form for the M.E.," Nurse Lisa starts explaining, "the form for the Office of Vital Statistics, an obituary template form, and the Social Security notification form."
"This is all so formal," my lame attempt at humor poorly disguising my growing discomfort.
Lisa doesn't even crack a smile. I dutifully sign every required document next to the ubiquitous 'x'. My signature, in total sync with my nerves, is shaky and uncertain. The task completed, I lean back, drop the pen, and sigh loudly.
Lisa unceremoniously hands me a clear plastic bag containing Frank's library card, Timex, and set of keys. I notice an object I have never before seen in Frank's possession: a hunter-case pocket watch.
"There you go," she announces victoriously, "it's all yours."
The trade seems unfair: a stack of paper three inches-high worth of obligations, exchanged for a pathetic sandwich bag. Out of curiosity, I open the bag and take out the pocket watch.
"Are you sure this is Frank's," I ask Lisa, "I've only seen him wear the Timex. Why would he carry two watches?"
"It beats me," Lisa distractedly answers, already busy with another patient file.
I flip open the case and realize that the watch is banged up and doesn't keep time; however, a black-and-white photograph of a woman is pasted inside the lid.
"That's not Frank's," I insist, shoving the open watch under Lisa's nose.
"It was on his person when he was brought here, that's all I know. Maybe he stole it, who knows."
"Are you sure…"
"Positive. Don't forget to pass by the morgue," she dismisses me.
As if I could forget.
"And listen," she hands me a business card, "I know I seem cold at times, but it's the only way I can get through each day. Keep me posted, and let me know if I can help in any way."
My skepticism must be written all over my face, for she continues:
"I mean it, really. I may be able to help you. I still have investigator-friends at the M.E.'s office. Not only would I be able to help you, but I would love to. You're not alone in this."
I hesitantly take her card. She seems sincere enough.
"Expect me to take you up on that," I conclude as I wave the card in her direction, and make my way out of her office. My steps are uneasy as I descend to the morgue; rigor mortis - the stiffening of the recently deceased's muscles - has taken a hold of me as well.
~ Florida, August 12, 2011 ~
"Now, that's what I call a supermarket," extols Frank loudly, his arms wide-opened in an attempt at embracing the abundance displayed in aisle after aisle of perfectly aligned products.
"They have to live up to their slogan: Where Shopping is a Pleasure," I quip.
The joke is lost on Frank. Our bimonthly shopping trips have turned into a pilgrimage of sort, a nostalgic trip down memory lane where every bump on the road unearths a mountain of buried - and at times painful - memories. I almost feel sorry for shoppers merely running errands; Frank and I are on a crusade!
"So many choices," contemplates Frank for the umpteenth time, "and so little time left," he deplores.
"Come on Frank," I hurry him along, "time's a wastin'," I cheerily add, referencing his favorite singer Johnny Cash.
Standing by the rows of shopping carts, tightly nestled into each other, I probe Frank one more time.
"Where do you want to start today, the produce aisle?"
Frank's stoicism frightens me. He stares off in the distance, in what I believe is a stroke-like stance.
"Frank," I call, putting a hand on his shoulder and shaking him gently, "Frank, are you all right?"
Concerned and curious shoppers glance in our direction. An alert employee proudly wearing the requisite logoed green vest seems ready to dial 9-1-1. I am unaware of the sorry spectacle we are offering our unsuspecting audience: Frank, mouth agape, staring blankly in the distance, being unsuccessfully rattled by a suited-up woman more than half his age perched on stilettos. Nice.
As quickly as he faltered, Frank comes back to his senses.
"Did I ever tell you about the time we got robbed?" he offers as sole explanation.
"Frank," I gently inquire, "are you aware that you just… lost it… for quite a long time? Who got robbed, Frank? Do you even know where we are right now?"
"Oh, shush it! I didn't lose it, young lady," he admonishes, "I'm old, and sometimes it takes me a while to get my thoughts in order. My parents' market was robbed. We are standing in a market," he points out with derision, "and that's what triggered the memory. I'm not the one losing it."
I ignore his reprimand. He called me young, and that alone gives him the right to berate me to his heart's content.
"So, in comes this kid, gangly as they come," he continues without missing a beat, "he seemed so tall to me; heck, I was a wee one, I had to stand on a crate to reach the top shelves, the same exact crate my parents used to keep me in so I wouldn't get underfoot. My parents had no money to waste on one of those fandangle 'Kiddie Koral' that cost over twenty dollars. A crate was good enough for me. They ferried me from the floor, to the kitchen counter, to the porch in that thing. The only time I left th