Chuvash

No one in the big emergency clinic understood a word the old man was saying. They just knew he’d wandered in off the street in distress and collapsed before he could get to the reception desk.

A nurse, tech and Physicians Assistant rushed out into reception with a wheelchair and carefully placed the old man in it after checking his head and spine for injury.

“Let’s get him into Treatment 4,” Maggie Hennessy, the PA, said with the firm and confident voice of someone who’d worked at this East Side neighborhood clinic for five years. She’d seen it all, from overdoses to obstetrics, gunshot wounds to ears stuffed with gummy bears.

“Quick get me some vitals. Sir? Sir? Can you hear me? My name’s Maggie and your in the East 23rd Street Clinic. Can you tell what your problem is?” she said.

The old man rolled his head side to side and moaned, attempting to form words but all that came out was an unintelligible slurring in an accent no one understood. Hennessy leaned down so she could hear him, but said, “I’ve no idea what he’s saying. Sounds like an eastern European language, maybe?”

Nurse Angela Mezzanote asked, “Do we have anyone on staff who might know what he’s saying. It sounds something like Russian, but I’m not sure.”

“What about Joey Markov in maintenance? Isn’t he Russian or something?” Bret Nelson, the tech, said.

“Page him or fetch him, would you Bret? This guy’s looking pretty bad and I’d love to have a translator to help me make a damn diagnosis,” PA Hennessy said.

Within three minutes, Josip Markov rolled his maintenance cart up to Treatment 4.

“You need cleanup?” He asked Hennessy.

“No, Joey. I need you to help me diagnose what’s wrong with this guy if you can. I don’t even know if I can give him a sedative if I can’t communicate with him. Do you understand anything he’s saying? Is that Russian?”

Markov moved closer to the gurney and looked down on the sick man.

“What do you need to know?” He asked the PA.

“His name would be a good place to start, I guess.”

In Russian, Markov asked the man his name.

“Śeśpĕl Praski,” the old man whispered through clenched teeth. Markov moved closer, eying the old man as if he was the physician instead of a mop jockey.

“Good, now we’re getting somewhere. Translate for me, please, Joey. Mr. Praski, can you tell me what’s wrong?” Hennessy said.

“Śeśpĕl.”

“What?”

“His name’s Mr. Śeśpĕl. He’s Chuvash, not Russian.” Markov said.

“Do you speak Chuvash, Joey?”

“Yep. It’s my native language.”

“Thank goodness. Would you ask him that question in Chuvashian?”

“Chuvash. Sure.” Markov said, and translated the basic questions Hennessy fed him and Śeśpĕl’s replies. He got closer and closer to Śeśpĕl with each question until his mouth was right up to the afflicted man’s ear. He kept speaking to Śeśpĕl and Śeśpĕl would reply, each time with more agitation and pain.

“He says he’s a hemophiliac and believes he’s bleeding in his gut.”

“Get me some bloods on this guy, STAT. He is showing symptoms of bleeding. Man, his spleen is frigging huge,” Hennessy said as she palpated Śeśpĕl’s abdomen. “And he’s got some nasty bruising on his ribs.”

“We’ve got a lead in, Maggie,” Nurse Mezzanote said. “Blood pressure 80 over 40, heart rate 134, respirations are 22. I think he’s gonna crash.”

“Shit. Okay, let’s slow push one milligram IV of TXA and see if we can get his bleeding under control. Call up to OR and let them know we’ve got bleeder down here on his way up.”

Śeśpĕl’s eyes frantically looked around the room until Markov one again whispered in his ear. Then he focused intently on the maintenance man, who smiled and said in Chuvash, “Epĕ Josip Markov jatlă. I’m Josip Markov. I know who you are, who your father was, what he did to my family in 1940. How he forced them to leave our home and move to that frozen hell in Karelia, just to be a human shield between his Muscovite masters and the Finns. My grandmother died on that trip. Our women were degraded by our own soldiers. My great uncle killed himself in despair. I know what your father did. Did you like growing up in our home? Oh, I see your time’s up. Tav sire! Good health to you, asshole.”

Śeśpĕl tried to speak, but he couldn’t. The stroke was instantaneous and massive. The clotting agent Hennessy had administered for internal bleeding was the worst thing she could have given someone with Chuvash Polycythemia. The condition made his body produce too many red blood cells, thickening his blood, slowing its flow, which alone could lead to a heart attack or stroke at his age. Markov was counting on the clotting agent to seal the deal.

“Out of the way, Joey,” Hennessy yelled. But it was too late. Śeśpĕl expired before the ER team could do anything to help.

“Okay, guys, let’s call it. Time of death, 14:20. Sorry we couldn’t help your old countryman, Joey,” Hennessy said.

But Dr. Josip Martinovich Markov, who was a physician back in Tsivilsk before his breakdown and immigration to America, was already pushing his maintenance cart toward the service elevator. He recognized the symptoms and the man from his name and the questions he’d asked.

“I’ve done my job today. I’ll let Julio or Brandon clean out the trash,” Markov said to himself with a satisfied grin. He pushed the elevator button marked B. The doors swished closed in front of him and he dropped one more floor closer to hell.

The idea for this first draft has been banging around in my notebook for months. Perhaps it should have stayed there. But I’m a hot streak of production right now and I couldn’t not push out the first draft tonight.

The Viewing

I never liked this tie.

I must admit, I’m sure I’ve looked better in my life, but my life ended three days ago. I have no say in how my family and the mortician presented me for final inspection by whoever is coming to, at best, say goodbye to me and console my family and, at worst, see if I managed to leave a decent looking corpse.

True, it’s only 6:00 PM, but I expected a bigger crowd. Maybe it’s the weather, rush hour traffic or extended happy hour prices or something. Denise and I were always early arrivers at the wakes we had to attend. Even for the schmucks who couldn’t die soon enough for my tastes.

Ooh, there’s old Fred Howser. Wow, Fred, time to put down the beer and Doritos. There’s room for only one in this box, buddy, and I have the lease until The Rapture. Take care of yourself and moderate some, pal. The world needs more happy drunks like you, not dead ones like me.

Uh oh, here comes a coven of ladies from the old job. Jesus, what the hell are Diane and Sally doing with Elaine and Joanie? I never got any warm vibe from them. Wish I could sit up just a little to hear what they’re saying. I was afraid of this. I’d hoped for some sort of omniscient point of view deal when I tripped on that rainbow. What fun is watching your own wake when you can’t hear what the all the people are saying about you? If I could breathe, I’d be sighing now.

The kids look pretty busted up. I guess the dead can feel guilt, even though your balance sheet for the afterlife is closed. But damn, seeing them cry like that makes me feel good as much as it makes me feel sad. Wish I had been a better Dad. I know I can’t go back to make it right, and that I was a good Dad for the most part. When you’re lying here, you’ve nothing but time to figure out when and how you could have done better. Maybe this is what they really mean when they talk about Purgatory. No fire, no pitchforks, just your soul and time to think about your shortcomings.

Oh no, here she comes. I guess Purgatory is a timeout to think about your sins, even the almosts, too.

Been a while, but she looks pretty good, at least to these closed eyes. But then I always had closed eyes for her, from the first time I saw her. She had all that crazy curly hair, angry victimhood, fierce intelligence in a man’s world and some spark that lit a flame in me I didn’t know I had. She was my red ink, my fall from grace, my weakness in the face of vows, honor and duty. Boy, was I stupid, but boy did I love her.

Okay, Rose, Joe, Jake, Marylou and Bobby, move it along. Nothing to see here but the husk of the entertainer. No more yuks, except for the fact Denise made the mortician put this tie on me. Oh, well. If it makes Denise happy. I owe her that.

Shit, now Teresa’s right there above me. Wow, real tears. I remember how I joked that when I died I expected her to get a gussied up for my wake and then throw herself across my body, shuddering in wracking sobs. Damn, she did wear a dress. If she throws herself atop me now that I’m dead, I’ll be so pissed. No, she’s kissing her fingers and touching my cheek. Well, I’ll be damned. Perhaps. Probably.

Well, last call, I guess. Funny how time moves when you’re not counting it anymore. Bounces around and then you can sit somewhere in the past for who knows how long. There was that bender in ’78 that was like that. I guess I’ll get used to it.

Hi, Denise. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to support you tonight. It really is all I’ve ever wanted to do. You’ve been my rock, my touchstone, my soul mate, my savior. Don’t know how you can look at me with such pride. You finally got me sober and some drunk plows into me. Sorry I never made it home with your ice cream. This time I remembered—peanut butter crunch.

Aww, man, please don’t cry like that. I don’t really hate this tie. Don’t lay your head on my chest. I don’t deserve…I’ve been a total drunken fuck up…I… Wait, what’s she saying? Damn it, why can’t I hear her? There’s that crooked grin I fell in love with 45 years ago. That’s it, honey. Straighten this cool tie.

Please don’t drop the lid, dude. Denise, I don’t know if we’ll ever be together, you know, on the other side, but if your face is the last thing I’ll ever see before…

I guess that’ll have to do for this eternity.

I wrote this piece in a rush and no doubt sparingly so it would fit within the parameters of my friend Dan Mader’s every-Friday feature 2MinutesGo over on his site, Unemployed Imagination. Since I went away for a week without access to a computer nor my iPad, my writing muscles got pretty flabby fast. So if this looks like I think it does, realize that it’s an exercise to get back in writing shape. In the my case , though, I just choose to exercise here in the equivalent of a picture window…wearing a Speedo.

Caught In My Own Web

I started out with a length of golden thread
with which my life’s tapestry one day would be read.
But, Oh what a tangled web I’d weave
when first I set out not to deceive,
but to become he who I’d be proud to call Me,
the man I and they always wanted me to be.

But I was the guy who’d fall for a girl
who’d never fall for me, and instead would curl
into the arms of another’s possession,
only strengthening my ardor into obsession,
which always clung stronger, in fact like a glove,
to my oft-scarred heart, than affection or love.

I was the man who with artful words
built billboard ads, where nested birds,
upon which footnotes called “news” were hung.
I crafted webs of truths (full, half and un-)
to snare those who’d read them with their heart,
missing the fine print and calling it “art.”

As a youth I somehow viewed, through history’s haze,
certain learned men, who back in their days
owned other men, as being “of their time”
and somehow not as culpable of the same crime
as those who’d as soon destroy the constitution
they built and defended, for their “peculiar institution.”

This web, strung with self-deceit and knotty lies,
supports and ensnares he I’ve come to despise.
So I bid you and they and the old me goodbye,
leaving behind the smug mug I wore while I became I.
I hope you’ll forgive me my many transgressions
and pray for any and all divine intercessions
on behalf of the boy who always meant well,
but ultimately found he wove his own private hell.

A Life Full of Comings and Goings

The rains came and went,
just as the sun and stars did,
over and over. But that’s summer,
which also came and went like blinks
for half a century of my recall.
Some things like opportunities
came and went, few I snagged,
others slipping through my fingers
like a silver bass, some passing me
without my noticing, as if
flashing beneath the lake ice,
which comes and goes, too.
Clouds came at night, taking away
the stars I dreamed upon,
dreams that never came,
true or otherwise. But what
would I do with a dream
come true anyway?
Comings and goings are what
life is about. You never came,
just moved past, like that
ice-bound fish, though it was you
not noticing me standing there
with cold feet, captured by your
flash of light and thinking how like
the sun and stars you were.
Always coming, ever going…
unfailingly untouchable.

Casting for Carpe Diem

Another week has peaked and waned
and here I lie to wonder,
“What is it that you’ve gained
from living seven more days under
a plan with no plan contained,
in this life of blunder after blunder?”

Oh, I’ve seen seven suns rise
and watched them seven times fall.
But life no longer offers a prize
on the ride where you must be this tall.
Adulthood offered only losses and ties,
barely chance of winning at all.

So I guess this is a lesson learned
over time and rock hard ground,
that my life’s happiness is earned,
not serendipitously found.
That each time the Earth it turned
was my shot to make laughter’s chiming sound.

Maybe it was for a nebulous tomorrow I’d pine,
a today out of reach, a chance not yet blown.
A day where I could seize a ring so fine
on the ride not dependent on your joy alone.
So tonight, when I row in at sunset, I’ll be fine,
savoring the day I hooked all on my own.

I Was Just Thinking…Making Us Better

When I was a kid, my mom would walk me from our flat on Bradford Street down to Dr. Jack’s brownstone office on the border of Albany’s Washington Park. Even now I can recall the giant yellow pine blocks, smoothed to a semi-gloss sheen over the years by innumerable toddlers’ hands. I’d pull them from the corner toy box to build grand castles and forts there in his rubbing alcohol-redolent waiting room.

But beyond those tactile and olfactory memories, I remember the vaccination shots he’d give me for any number of kids’ diseases, most especially that polio shot. But I don’t remember Mom paying anyone any money, which in our house was usually as scarce as enough real beds for everyone to have his own. But Dr. Jack must have gotten paid his couple of bucks because he didn’t hesitate to drive to our house and give me another shot when I got really sick one snowy Saturday.

When I got older, I had to visit the County Health Building in the big parking lot on Pearl Street, at the bottom of Morton Avenue, in the down-sliding neighborhood that once served as the pastures for Albany’s buckle-shoed, ruminant-owning swells and a chicken sufficed as a co-pay. I remember seeing all the little brown and black kids sitting with their moms and grandmas, waiting to get their shots. It never occurred to me if they had to pay for their pointed opportunities to avoid the kind of childhood diseases I did.

It wasn’t until I had to dig into my own pocket for a visit to the doctor, ponying up some cash for necessary medication, paying the hospital for sewing up another of my skull’s collisions with reality or saving my life when an asthma attack almost removed me from it, that I realized what a blessing and burden is the quid pro quo for some sawbones to exercise their Hippocratic Oaths.

These memories of those long-past times don’t surface very often. In fact, I’d forgotten them, even when, check in hand, I brought our girls to their pediatrician for all their shots. Even when my own health speed bumps brought me enough pause for thought. Even as I bumped up against mortality and Medicare.

That was, until this week, as I watched the proceedings of the United States Senate in attempting to dump and probably not even replace the law established to help people get healthy without having to give up not only a chicken, but the whole damn farm. It forced me to scour my recollection-seeping mind to recall the history I share with America’s post-World War Two healthcare system.

In my life, I’ve seen kids in leg braces and iron lungs, draped in pox scars and being born without limbs because their pregnant mom took a medication to help her get over morning sickness. I’ve known kids with cancer who now are grandparents like me. I’ve seen the advent of machines that will keep you alive until modern science, magic and prayer can get you better. And I’ve given the nod to turn them off.

These days, I see how much of my meager assets I spend on keeping a pretty healthy family pretty healthy and wonder how those little girls in the County Health Office and the little boys up in the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation waiting on their free vaccinations managed to do that in their lives. And, yeah, I know I’m paying for some of that, but I know that now they can have the health insurance they never could before if they ever need it. It’s not their fault it costs so damn much. It’s the system’s.

It’s a system that’s grown as creaky, expensive and imperfect as I have in sixty-odd years and I’d like to see both of us healthier before I have to bid you all goodbye. But I’d never ask my family to kill me first in order to cure me. And that’s not me talking the dreaded P word—Politics. Just some old guy’s sore back, shaking hands, stiff-walled heart still pushing what few undiluted drops remain of his human decency and common sense.

I ramble, therefore I am. A true change of pace. But I’ve paid my dues for this pulpit and sickbed. Thank God I’m an American who’s free to express myself here and who’s lived long enough to see how we as a nation can make bad things get better. But I also know that’s if we all get pointed in roughly the same direction, and to accomplish that we’ll have to accept the individual and communal guidance of “the better angels of our nature.” 

The Climb Left Me Breathless

Now I know. But I wish
I didn’t have to.
Then I’d be able to look down
that deep well of recollection
and enjoy seeing the reflection
of the guy I used to be.
Instead, I focus on the skin
of memories I scraped onto its walls
in my halting climb to today.
And as fallible, forlorn and
sore as that climb has made me,
seeing that hopeful face
staring back, framed by all those
slime-coated scars, breaks
what’s left of my heart.
Funny, even though I’m standing
here on the ground, peering into
this well feels like I’m looking
down from some mountain top.

That view of my yesterdays
often hits me like a gut-punch, 
taking my breath away.

I quickly wrote this poem in response to the prompt set in that photo at the top of the piece. It’s from my friend Sharyl Fuller’s Writing Outside the Lines Challenge.