Wednesday, May 16, 2018

N + 1 Mississippi





 

In our climate, snow after Easter is heavy, sullen, ashamed of its transience and, therefore, prone to cling stubbornly to utility poles and trees and highway signs. The snow doesn’t even necessarily delight children (except if school is canceled) because the stuff is very wet and encourages bullies to make snowballs and, often conceals mud, so that play is both sodden, perilous, and filthy. The only people who welcome these last embittered snowstorms are the contract snow removal companies, at least those paid by the event as opposed to those who have wagered on the weather and agreed to a flat fee for their services.

At Faith Lutheran, the snow removal service was paid by the episode and, so, any snowfall greater than a half-inch warranted arrival of the truck-mounted plows and the kid pushing the snow-blower along the sidewalk – pay was by the call and not the inch: indeed, for the trucks careening around the parking lot and the kid dancing with the snowblower, it didn’t really matter whether the snow was an inch or a foot deep: the same general strategies applied – the two trucks did their minuet pushing the snow into conical mounds at the perimeter of the parking lot and the kid in the orange hood and blue snowmobile mittens shot the snow off the sidewalks and into the bushes and shrubs that were already heavily laden and, with the work of a half hour, the job was done whether a dusting or a blizzard.

So the snow came down in a final unseasonable assault by the winter and the two trucks masked by orange plows appeared and the kid with the snow-blower carved his swaths in the wet, heavy stuff and, since this work was done after sunset, the headlights swept back and forth over the parking lot and sent their beams across the snow slumped on the lawn and crushed down to wet ice on the streets and the trucks dropped their plows with a thud, only slightly muffled by the matted snow, and whisked back and forth, cutting down to the asphalt which the blades abraded, sometimes kicking up a little fountain of sparks incongruous amid all the cold and dark and wet, and, apparently, all this plowing and scraping ripped up the asphalt sealing a deep, round hole where the sidewalk dips down near the far end of the parking lot.

The next morning, the lady who volunteered in the office parked close to the sanctuary doors. Our church opens its doors directly onto the parking lot – the fellowship hall is between the sanctuary and the Sunday school wing and the pastors’ offices are an annex built onto the back of the corridor and classrooms. It’s an unusual design and somewhat impractical but an artifact of the way that the church was built in stages as the congregation’s stewardship allowed. And so, the volunteer parked her car at the far end of the parking lot, next to the side-walk, and, therefore, the round cylindrical hole in the asphalt, planning that she would enter the church through a side-door that opened into the Sunday school classrooms. She didn’t exactly fall into the hole but came perilously close to it and took offense at the way that what had once been a smooth parking lot was now pierced with a hole that was "half-invisible" (as she said – although it was open and obvious) descending to God Knows Where since her eye couldn’t discern its bottom, a snare and a trap that she immediately reported to the senior pastor who was, at that time, visiting some elderly congregation members at the Lutheran nursing home on the other side of town. The senior Pastor, Dr. Zwingli Pederson, talked briefly with the volunteer and, then, said he would inspect the declivity when he returned to the Church. The office volunteer repeated that it was a serious hazard, one that was undoubtedly created by the snow-removal service and that they should be summoned out to the parking lot to fix the hole.

The sun was yellow and hot enough to clear the remaining ice on the sidewalks and the trees leaked icy water down around them, droplets pitting the white fields of fallen snow. The pastor found the hole without any difficulty – it was a round, vertical shaft, bottomless at least to the eye, with its sides armored with circular tin or aluminum plating. The shaft was a little larger than a pie tin, probably about 15 inches in diameter. The mouth of the shaft was actually on a low prominence of asphalt and, therefore, didn’t function as a drain. Although Pastor Pederson paced around in the adjacent mounds of snow, wetting his pants to the knees to see if he could sound the drifts for the asphalt or metal cap that had once covered the opening. But he couldn’t find anything. When the maintenance man, Joe, showed up, smelling very faintly of booze, he told the Pastor that he didn’t recall seeing any metal fixtures or lids in that part of the parking lot – he called it "the drive way." "The cap musta been set in the asphalt drive way, sealed in the tar," Joe said. "The blade guy cut off the tar and exposed the hole."

Pastor Pederson called Boris, the man who owned the pickup trucks masked by orange plows, what he knew about the hole. He drove to the church in his black Suburban and squatted down by the hole. "Where does it go?" he asked. "I don’t know," Pastor Pederson said. "Well, what do you want me to do about it?"

"Well, your workers exposed it."

"I’ll see about that," Boris said. He drove away and called a half hour later. "I talked to my boys," he told the Pastor. "We don’t know nothing about that hole in the ground. It’s obviously some kind of ventilation shaft. It’s not something we created."

"Ventilating what?" Pastor Pederson asked.

"How would I know?"

Pastor Pederson sent the Youth Pastor to Fleet Farm to buy a couple of bright orange cones. The youth pastor set the cones next to the vertical shaft. The volunteer lady came from the office, limping a little to dramatize that she had almost fallen down the hole.

"Where does it go?" she asked.

"Who knows?" the Youth Pastor said. He was gay with a red head of hair and a red moustache. He dug around in his pant’s pocket and found a dull brown penny.

Then, he dangled the penny over the open shaft.

"Don’t throw that penny down there."

"Why?"

"You’ll clog it all up," the volunteer lady said.

"Clog up what?"

"Well, I don’t know," she said.

The Youth Pastor dropped the penny and began chanting "One Mississippi, Two Mississipi, Three Mississippi..." and so on. At 15 Mississippi, he stopped.

"I didn’t hear it strike," the Youth Pastor said. "Did you?"

"No, I didn’t," she said. "It must be bottomless."

"Well, it can’t be bottomless, but it’s very deep."

"Very deep," she said.

"I’d better talk to Zwingli," the Youth Pastor said. "We need to get some measurements."

The Youth Pastor went into the educational wing of the church and was gone for a few minutes. The lady volunteer picked up some trash in the parking lot and, then, sat in her car. Zwingli came down the sidewalk with the Youth Pastor – they had a yardstick and bright-beam flashlight.

The aluminum tube was 15 inches wide. The flash light showed mirrored reflections dimming to grey and, then, darkness.

"I can’t see any bottom," Zwingli said.

"It’s bottomless," the volunteer secretary said.

"Bottomless usually means about 42 feet," the Youth Pastor said.

The janitor came from sanctuary toting a panel of plywood just cut with its raw edge leaking sawdust. He came to the aluminum-sided pit and set the plywood over the hole. "There," he said. He replaced the orange cones on top of the plywood.

"That’ll keep people from falling in," the janitor said.

"No one could fall in," the Youth Pastor replied.

The lady volunteer grimaced a little. "Someone could pitch an unwanted new-born down that hole," she said.

"You’d have to cram the kid down," the Youth Pastor observed.

"They’re very tiny," the volunteer secretary and receptionist said.

The next day, Pastor Pederson called the City Engineer. He asked if there were steam tunnels or some other infrastructure near the Church. The Engineer said that the Church was in a residential neighborhood and that he didn’t know why there should be a shaft of unknown depth in that area. He came to the Church and photographed the tube inserted in the parking lot and, then, looked at some topographic maps. "It probably is some sort of drain to the river," he told Pastor Pederson.

At the end of the week, two hydrogeologists driving a State truck came to the Church. They used a plumb line to sound the tunnel but had only 350 feet of measuring tape. The tunnel was deeper.

"Were there military facilities here?" one of the hydrogeologists asked.

"Not to my knowledge," Pastor Pederson said.

"Mines?"

"What would they mine here?" the Pastor asked.

The scientists dropped six blood-colored sacks down the hole. The sacks looked like blister-wrapped chicken liver. It was dye that could be used to track any drainage through the hole.

"You’ll clog it," the Youth Pastor said.

"Clog what?" one of the hydro-geologists replied.



Over the weekend, three local boy scout troops and several interns working for the City waded in the shallows under the river banks. A lot of construction debris had been dumped at the edge of the river over the generations and it was hard to walk amidst the rotting timbers and the shattered pieces of sidewalk and the ham-sized chunks of fractured asphalt with the savage mesh of re-rod eroding through slabs of broken concrete. The densely wooded ravines above the river held suspended refrigerators and TV sets and parts of car bodies. A couple boy scouts cut themselves on broken glass. Toward the end of the day, an intern called out that the river was pink just below the dam. Falling water hung in a silver veil over the dam and the old mill pond upstream still had some ice floating in its center and aggressive robins were strutting and prancing on the turf overhanging the river banks.

The City Engineer verified that the river was tinted pink in the sandy shallows just downstream of the dam, but also found the guts of a half-dozen fish decorating a slab of pavement that extended like a wharf into the stream. On the river-walk on the bluff, a couple of Laotian immigrants were walking away from their fishing hole.

"It’s just fish-blood," the City Engineer said.

No trace of dye dropped into the hole was found.

Pastor Zwingli was off on Mondays and worked only a half-day on Tuesday. The Youth Pastor usually went to the Cities on Thursday night and didn’t come back to town until mid-afternoon on Sunday. So the only day that they could reliably meet was Wednesday. After the volunteer receptionist and secretary had left for the day, Pastor Pederson and the Youth Pastor met in the Senior Pastor’s office. Pastor Pederson ostentatiously shut the door even though the church was empty except for one old lady baking a funeral cake in the kitchen.

"We have to develop a cost-effective plan to get that hole in the parking lot filled," Pastor Pederson said.

"I agree," the Youth Pastor replied.

"We’ve got a few people in the congregation who apparently think that the hole is an opening into Hell," Pastor Pederson said.

"H - E - double hockey sticks," the Youth Pastor said, whistling between his teeth.

"They say that if you put your ear close to the hole, you can hear new-born babies crying down there," Pastor Pederson said.

"Is that true?"

"I wouldn’t think so," Pastor Pederson said.

"Why would new-born infants be in Hell anyway?" the Youth Pastor asked.

"I don’t even believe in the place," Pastor Pederson said, " the whole concept is wrong, inconsistent with our theology: – it’s medieval bullshit."

"Well.... you know: it’s in our Creed – ‘he descended into Hell and on the third day he rose..." the Youth Pastor replied.

"It’s a mistranslation – it should be he descended down to the local garbage dump outside Jerusalem – Sheol right?"

"Or," the Youth Pastor said, "He descended to the dead."

"Whatever," Pastor Pederson said. "You can’t have an infinitely loving God and a place of eternal punitive torment."

"I don’t know," the Youth Pastor said. "I find Hell to be a useful mental category. It’s fun to imagine people I don’t like cooking down there."

"So do I," Pastor Pederson said. "But we’re not talking about theology. We have to keep that in mind. We’re talking about a hole in the asphalt near our sidewalk."

"It’s got to be fixed," the Youth Pastor said.

"I’ll call Darwin Vulture," Pastor Pederson said. "He’s our best resource on things like this."

Mr. Vulture’s pick-up truck was alarming. It had fog lights on metal stanchions that rose above the cab like antennae, a black King cab long and sleek as a limousine, and huge flotation tires, duals in the rear, that lifted the driver’s seat up above the pavement like a throne. The side of the truck, drawn up next to the hole bored into the asphalt, told the world Darwin Vulture was a "dirt man" and that he did business with his sons – the latter insignia was untrue: Darwin was quarrelsome, a trait he had passed to his boys, and the last time he had seen them was in court at a hearing arising out a squabble over the ownership of a half-dozen Ziegler graders. He was small and wiry, a lean bundle of sinew and he wore a baseball cap over his bald head and big round sunglasses that made him look vaguely nocturnal. His beak was bright with varicose veins and shoulders were flared up above his armpits.

Darwin was profane and bullied everyone around him, but he had also made a fortune in his earthmoving and grading business and, so, even, Pastor Pederson was a little afraid of him. Darwin was very old, but he had supernatural energy and there was something indelibly exorbitant about him. For many years, he had served on the Church Council, ordering people around as if the Church were his private corporation and, although the others resented his management style, the congregation had to acknowledge, grudgingly in many cases, that his leadership brought prosperity and that Faith Lutheran Church was successful in outreach, always had new members in a favorable demographic (young professional families with lots of babies to baptize), praised the Lord with several excellent, and well-staffed choirs, and, even, could afford to tithe its support to Mission Work in Burkina Faso (obstetrical and neo-natal clinics). Darwin was tight-fisted and astute with investments and, when he retired from the Church Council, several managers from the Company, capable men in their own right, were required to do the tasks that he had completed on his own.

Darwin slid down off his patent letter throne and stood next to his big truck, blinking at the hole that the Youth Pastor had exposed by kicking aside the orange cones and sliding the plywood off the shaft. Pastor Pederson had been picking up litter from the lawn and putting it in a black garbage bag. He set down the bag and shook Darwin’s hand. Darwin’s had strange hands, mutilated and stubby – he had ground off a couple of fingers both right and left. He wrists were scabby with half-healed dog bites. He big old German Shepherd, Duke, was in the back seat of the King Cab snarling at everyone, bearded with white lather. When the dog suddenly barked from the back of the pick-up, the Youth Pastor who had not noticed the beast was startled and jumped high in the air.

Darwin Vulture told Pastor Pederson that his wife had given him a two-ton crawler-loader with a detachable 100 inch bucket as well as earthmoving blade for his 80th birthday. "It’s fun as hell," Darwin said. "I take the tractor and just butcher trees, I knock them down in the wood-lot or shelter belt. Then, I push them together and make big piles. You should see them burn. It’s my toy."

"Why are you clearing the trees?" Pastor Pederson asked.

"For shits and giggles," Darwin said.

"No really?" Pastor Pederson asked again.

"Because he can," the Youth Pastor said in a half-whisper.

"Because I can," Darwin said.

He stood over the hole to Hell as if he were going to piss in it, legs apart, mangled hands on his hips.

"How deep?" Darwin asked.

"Bottomless," Pastor Pederson said.

"That usually means about 60 feet," Darwin said.

Darwin squatted to inspect the shaft. He kicked a stone over its edge and cocked an ear to the pit, lips moving: "One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, etc."

"I don’t hear any bottom," Darwin said.

Darwin went to his pickup truck and found a long black baton of a flash light. He pointed the flashlight down into the hole. The Shepherd dog howled mournfully.

Darwin lit a Swisher Sweet cigarillo and leaned back against his truck.

"We’ll have to cap it," he said. "I don’t think we can fill the thing. This means I’ll have to set some kind of metal plug down a couple feet and, then, pour asphalt into the hole until its full."

Pastor Peterson nodded his head.

Darwin Vulture said that a couple months after his retirement, he decided to dig a hole in his back pasture straight down to China.

"How far did you get?" The Youth Pastor asked.

"Well, it’s 7951 miles through the core of the earth to China and I don’t think I got more that a third of that way."

"Why did you stop?" Pastor Pederson asked.

"Molten lava," Darwin Vulture said.

Pastor Pederson looked at him quizzically.

"No," Darwin said. "I got about 20 feet down and I hit a concrete shelf. Turned out to be the roof of a Bomb Shelter that the previous owner had built and fully equipped and, then, when the Berlin Wall came down just plowed under."

"A bomb shelter?"

"Fully equipped," Darwin said. " A dozen 55 gallon drums of water, bags of rice, a whole room full of peanut butter, gas-powered electrical generator – I retrieved that from the shelter."

"Did you know it was there?"

"No," Darwin Vulture said. "But when you dig you find all sorts of stuff: Indian arrowheads, old cemeteries full of bones and hairy skulls and brass handles on the rotted caskets, subterranean rivers..."

He paused: "You know if you were to jump into a bore-hole all the way through the earth’s core, you’d fall very fast at first, but, then, the air pressure would increase so that it would be like sinking down through water. Then, you’d just stop right there, a couple thousand miles down, corked up by the density of the air pressure and cooked alive by the adjacent magma – it’s maybe 1000 degrees down there."

"You couldn’t fall through the earth anyway," Pastor Pederson said. "Wouldn’t gravity pull you back down to the center?

"Right," Darwin Vulture said. "If you evacuated the tunnel, pumped out the air, to avoid the problem of the air resistance of several hundred atmospheres, you’d keep falling and shoot past the core, and, then, fall up, I suppose, toward the surface in China before the gravity would catch you and suck you back down and, then, you’d yo-yo back and forth through the center of the earth until ultimately coming to a complete stop right at the molten core, where it’s like 5000 degrees Fahrenheit."

"Is that right?" the Youth Pastor said.

"You betcha," Darwin said. "But you’d break up anyway long before you got to the core. You see the earth is rotating and the Coriolis effect would hammer you against the sides of the bore-hole, back and forth, until you were pretty much atomized, ripped to shreds.

"I never thought of that," Pastor Pederson said.

"It’s part of the problem of digging a hole to China – you got the air resistence, the deadly heat, the Coriolis effect, and, of course, the fall-out shelter right in the way only twenty feet down with its metal bunks and moldy mattresses and the peanut butter and drums of water."

"Maybe, this is ventilation for a fall-out shelter down below," the Youth Pastor said.

"Or a whole underground City," Darwin Vulture said.

"Some people say it goes straight to Hell," Pastor Pederson said.

"Maybe it does," Darwin replied.

Darwin said that he would call the City Engineer and ask the authorities to treat the shaft as a sand-point well. In some parts of the town, every house had an old sand-point well, hand-dug in the pioneer era – unless properly sealed, these pits oozed pesticides and hydro-carbons down into the aquifer and poisoned the ancient glacial waters there. "We’ll see if we can follow that ordinance," Darwin said.

A couple days later, Darwin came to the church parking lot, his big pick-up flanked by two dump trucks. A few old men who were members of the church stood around kibbitzing. They teased each other, joked with Darwin’s truckdrivers and pitched some pieces of gravel down the aluminum tube. The City Engineer arrived as well to watch the work.

An agile young man climbed down from Darwin’s truck. He was chewing tobacco. The young man squatted next to the bore-hole, aiming a flashlight down the shaft. He dropped a fiber-optic probe plugged into his battered laptop set on the asphalt next to the hole. The screen showed greenish reflections as the probe rapelled down into the darkness. Dangling from the end of the wire, the probe showed the gleaming surface of the circumferential tube with darkness above and below.

The young man said that he was surprised. In his experience, most "bottomless holes" were about 70 feet deep. The probe was hanging 150 feet below the surface.

"Why would it be that deep?" the young man asked.

"We don’t even know what it is," Darwin Vulture said.

The young man spit on the asphalt. Then, he rolled over on his side and put one of his ears directly over the hole.

"What do you hear?"

"I can’t tell," the young man said. "Voices maybe."

"It’s from up here," Darwin said, pointing to the peanut-gallery of old men, several of them sitting on canvas folding chairs. They were cackling at some joke and clapping their hands together.

The young man got up and went to the pick-up, bringing two white jugs of Chlorox bleach. He opened the bleach and kneeling by the hole poured the fluid down the sides of the aluminum tube. Then, a truck came and funneled a couple cubic yards of washed limestone chips into the shaft. The limestone chips were very white and glittered in the sun. The other truck backed up to the hole and funneled a couple cubic yards of black, sooty Bentonite clay down the shaft. The two trucks alternated dumping limestone chips and Bentonite into the hole. When the limestone rattled down the hole, a haze of snow-white dust stood man-high over the pit. The Bentonite rose in a plume like dark smoke over the shaft.

When both trucks were empty, the young man dropped his fiber-optic probe down the tube. There was no sign of either the washed limestone chips or the Bentonite clay.

"It must go straight down to Hell," the young man said, shaking his head and spitting on the asphalt.

The City Engineer went to the side of Darwin Vulture’s truck and spoke with old dirt man. Then, the Engineer left.

"We’re on our own here," Darwin Vulture said. "He don’t have any good ideas." Darwin pointed in the direction that the City Engineer had gone.

"I’ll fill in the goddamn thing tomorrow," Darwin Vulture said.

Pastor Pederson blinked at him.

"Pardon my French," Darwin Vulture said, "but I’ll cap the son-of-a-bitch tomorrow."

Pastor Pederson blinked again and the Youth Minister grinned.

Darwin couldn’t come the next day or the next. It was raining, a hard soaking downpour, and the fields and woods were wet and half-drowned worms decorated the sidewalk with limp, pink curlicues. The third day was almost dry and Darwin came on the fourth morning with a Ziegler grader fitted with a front-end bucket and a big, ugly-looking auger mounted on stilt-like pads that could be retracted or extended according to the terrain.

Darwin’s men used the auger to twist about twelve-feet of aluminum tubing out of the hole. The aluminum tubing was coiled into spiral, something like the silver skin of an apple pared away from the fruit. Two of Darwin’s helpers jack-hammered asphalt away from the tube to a distance of about a car-length. Then, with his grader, Darwin gouged out a cup-shaped hole down to the raw metal twisted up over the open bore.

The sun was above the trees and the dew in the grass evaporated into a pale haze. Darwin and his helpers drove off to Burger King in the big black pick-up. Pastor Pederson had retreated into his office during the jack-hammering – the heavy concussions gave him a headache. Fragments of asphalt like the pieces of a perverse monochrome puzzle were scattered across the parking lot. A crater with steep, slick-looking yellow clay walls opened downward to the silver twist of aluminum casing.

Pastor Pederson wondered about the voices that people said they had heard echoing in the vertical shaft. On an impulse, he stepped over the rim of the crater and, then, slid down the steep side, launching little avalanches of clay and gravel behind him. The coil of metal casing looked very sharp, a torn blade suspended over the open bore.

Pastor Pederson dropped to his knees and, then, slid sideways, cocking his head toward the metal tube. He closed his eyes to listen. At first, he heard birds singing in nearby shrubs, a truck shifting on an incline, the faint rattle of dislodged pebbles and sand sifting down the sides of the crater. It took him a little while to ease into the sound coming from the hole. It was very faint -- the whisper that you hear when you hold sea-shell to your ear, something tidal, the wash of waves, perhaps, a tiny voice murmuring something unintelligible, the hoof-beats of your heart carrying you along the deserted beach.

Something moistened his cheek. Pastor Pederson sat up and groped at his ear. The razor-sharp edge of the auger-torn casing had cut him and an ooze of blood ran down under his right ear-lobe. He struggled to his feet and climbed half-way up the crater’s side before losing his footing and sliding back down to the bottom. He tried again, got to eye-level with the shattered asphalt and, then, slid back down into the pit. Exertion made him breathe heavily and, when he looked down at this hands, Pastor Pederson saw that they were bloody. After he caught his breath, he lunged at the side of the crater again, but achieved nothing other than a landslide of clay and gravel that buried his feet and ankles. The old men who had been spectators to the previous attempt to cap the Hell-mouth were nowhere in evidence.

A mentally retarded man named Gary lived a block from the church. Pastor Pederson saw him sitting on his bicycle looking down into the crater.

"What are you doing down there?" Gary asked.

"Just looking," Pastor Pederson said. "Can you help me to climb out?"

"Sure," Gary said. He dropped his bike on its side, and, before Pastor Pederson could say anything, slid down into the bottom of the crater.

"Don’t!" Pastor Pederson shouted. But Gary took hold of the twisted coil of casing. He cut himself and stepped back.

"Sharp!" Gary cried. It didn’t look like a very bad cut but the palm of Gary’s hand was bleeding vigorously.

The Youth Pastor had just returned from lunch. His Mini-Cooper was parked at the opposite end of the lot. He ambled over to the crater.

"What are you doing down there?" the Youth Pastor asked.

"We can’t get out – the sides of the hole are too steep and this metal is like a razor-blade," Pastor Pederson said, pointing to the twisted casing.

"I’ll get you out," the Youth Pastor said. He stooped over and extended his hand down to Gary. The retarded man was crying a little because of the gash in the palm of his hand. Gary took hold of the Youth Pastor’s hand clutching him with both of his hands. He started up the side of the crater but, then, fell back, dragging the Youth Pastor into the hole.

The three men sat with the bore-hole between them as if it were fire-pit or a common hearth. Gary cried a little because he was cut, dabbing at his eyes so that his cheek and nose were sticky with blood and ocher-colored clay. After a few minutes, Darwin Vulture returned. He and his helpers laughed at the men in the hole. Then, they dropped down some ropes and, one by one, the trapped men dragged themselves up out of the crater, first Gary, then, the Youth Pastor, and, at last, Pastor Pederson.

Darwin Vulture’s helpers slid down the sides of the crater, snipped off the twisted casing with a tin shears, and set a galvanized wire mesh with half-inch grating over the open bore. They set another grating with 1/4 inch mesh across the larger grating. Darwin Vulture dropped a four by four plywood form into the crater and they poured a couple yards of concrete into the box that was staked around the mesh. They set a lattice of re-rod over the freshly poured concrete and poured more concrete to seal the Hell-Mouth. They put orange-cone barriers around the open crater. The next day when the concrete was set, they dumped gravel into the pit up to grade, carted away the spoil and the broken asphalt and, then, poured a concrete patch over the place where the crater had been. The job cost about 4900 dollars but what else could you do?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Pledge Drive



 



 

 

The Spring Pledge Drive at the Public Radio Station didn’t go well. The Station was under attack at the Endowment of the Arts and politicians in Washington had promised to punish the non-profit organization for its audio documentaries on hazing in the military (decried as "unpatriotic") and gay marriage. Indeed, Congressman Pritchard, representing a largely rural section of the State, made a vehement speech threatening an investigation to withdraw the Station’s non-profit status under 501( c) (3) – "if they want to advocate along Democratic party lines," Representative Pritchard bellowed, then, they "should be taxed like any other political advocacy organization."

In past Pledge Drives, a whole bank of telephones were installed in the downtown studio and volunteers were recruited to man the phones and take incoming calls making pledges. But the paradigm was shifting: in the last pledge drive, half the phone operators had nothing to do, since more donations were pledged on-line than by phone. So during the this Spring Pledge Drive, only six phone operators were on-duty per shift. And, as it happened, this turned-out to be six too many.

Just after the Winter Pledge Drive, Addison "Whiskers" McGee, the avuncular long-time host of the Station’s most popular progam, Li’l Ole Opry of the North (abbreviated LOON) had been accused of serial sexual harassment amounting in some instances to attempted rape. LOON had been an anchor program for the station for more than 30 years – it was a kind of country-and-western variety show, Hee-Haw with Proust and Hemingway jokes. The show was broadcast live from the State Fair and traveled around the country and was a venerable, highly profitable institution. Addison "Whiskers" McGee was the public face of the Station and, so, when he was accused of misconduct, summarily fired, and, in fact, expunged from broadcast, re-runs of his vast library of shows also wholly forbidden and announcers admonished not to mention him by name, eyebrows were raised and many contributors, particularly corporate sponsors balked at making donations. "Whiskers" was replaced by an enthusiastic and, apparently, deeply sentimental mandolin player, Jeremy Benson, who began each show by leading the audience in singing Lutheran and Methodist hymns. The LOON show was re-named North Country Pickin’ and Grinnin’ and it also quickly ran into trouble – Benson was accused of beating his wife with a frying pan and he also had to be summarily discharged.

Callers offering donations to the Spring Pledge Drive fell into two parties: the "due process" camp denounced the Station for firing "Whiskers" and Jeremy on grounds of political correctness and without a thorough investigation of the allegations against the two hosts. But, in fact, the Station had conducted an independent investigation and concluded that "Whiskers" was well-known to all employees at LOON as an inveterate sexual harasser, a man who had once written on a white board in the Station’s conference room an elaborate and bawdy stanza in "Rime Royale" featuring no less than five rhymes on the word "ratio." The problem with the investigation, publicized to some extent just before the Pledge Drive, was that it showed that everyone was aware that "Whiskers" was prone to attempted rape and that, until his firing, management had done nothing. (And the allegations about Jeremy were a matter of public record, a public record that apparently no one had scrutinized before hiring him as "Whiskers" successor.) These factors explained the second category of callers – those who contacted the station to denounce it for failing to act with proper alacrity and forcefulness when it became aware of the crimes and misdemeanors committed by its on-air talent. This latter camp, the "cover-up" callers, were just as angry as the "due process" donors, indeed, enraged to a point approaching threats of physical violence.

And, then, in the midst of the Pledge Drive, management received a phone call from someone outraged that no one was manning the phone banks and that those hoping to donate by making their pledges to a volunteer were being wholly unheeded. The woman taking this call on the news tip line hurried down to the studio where the six volunteers were supposed to be stationed at their phones. The phones were lit-up and buzzing with calls but no one was there. The station manager saw that the corridor door was open and, further, that the door to parking lot was askew. She went outside and found the six volunteers engaged in a fist-fight – they had divided into "due process" and "cover-up" combatants, three on each side, and were hurling feeble punches and insults at one another. One of the lady volunteers, with her braided grey dreadlocks whirling, shrieked "Fascist!" while another woman, plump with prominent rosacea on her cheeks, dived at her knees, in an attempt to tackle her – "Sexist!" the plump lady cried.

A little later that day, Ian and Carrie were on-air. A local Indian casino had offered a challenge grant and the two broadcasters were trying to gin up pledges to match the grant money. Carrie received an email that Jennifer in Edina had made a 10 dollar a month pledge, thereby entitling her to a tote bag and public radio stocking cap. Jennifer’s pledge was registered on-line and, in the comment section, below her address and the pledge amount, she had typed: I am a news-slut. I am a whore for the Facts. Just call me a Truth Junkie. At a break, while they were broadcasting an abbreviated version (due to the ongoing Pledge Week) of Ira Flatow’s Science Friday, Carrie showed Ian the email. "We need to acknowledge her on-air," Carrie said. "But I don’t think we can read that." "No, no," Ian said. "We can’t read that."

After the break, Carrie said to listeners: "We want to thank Jennifer in Eden Prairie for her generous donation. Jennifer, you know who you are – she says she’s an addict for public radio news." Ian muted his microphone and mouthed to Carrie: "It’s Jennifer from Edina not Eden Prairie." Carrie mouthed back: "Same difference."

The story has a sequel. After the pledge drive, Ian looked up Jennifer from Edina on the internet. He found her Facebook page. The picture showed a pale vampirish woman with red lips. Jennifer, the news slut, was an intellectual property lawyer, and her mother was a well-known State representative. Ian was intrigued and sent her some flirtatious messages and she "friended" him. Later, they met, went on dates, and began a relationship. Ian and Jennifer, the news slut, married and, if I am not mistaken, have two children. Unless they are divorced, they are still together today.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Lacrimae Rerum

It was twenty minutes before dawn, and, although the sky was half-lit, the narrow valley remained dark and shadowy. The trail leading down to the river and footbridge had not been groomed since the last blizzard and David M – saw that it was icy. Although he had chains wrapped around his boots, he suspected that the steep switchbacks grooving the hillside would be too slippery to traverse and he didn’t want to risk a fall. No one was around – the homes on the river bluffs behind him were mostly dark and the streets deserted. Across the river, the town stood on a terrace above the black waters – someone was walking a dog there, precariously picking a way through patches of ice. A lamp still shone above the dumpster next to the old building that had once been a train station but was now a single’s bar. One car was stopped at the red light on Main Street. A mile away the freeway throbbed with early risers driving to work.

David M – followed the foot path on the hilltop. A dog let out to do its business barked at him from a fenced backyard. The trail was level and crossed the empty fields between School for the Blind and the Medium Security Prison. The wind had cut the snow into elegant porpoise-shaped drifts and the hollows on the hill were blue with shadowy ice. The sun was rising when he came to the railroad trestle and, then, the highway bridge slanting down to cross the valley. As he hiked across the bridge, the buckles of his chains clattering on the concrete, a couple cars passed him. One of his patients recognized him and pulled to stop next to where he was walking on the bridge.

"Do you want a ride, Doc?" the man in the car asked.

"No, I am walking a little for my health," David M – said. "But thank you anyway."

The driver nodded to him and continued on his way.

David M – thought about his medical practice. He remembered patients that he had seen twenty-five years before. Of course, they were almost all dead now. In the end, everyone died notwithstanding his best efforts. The cemeteries around town, he imagined, were full of his former patients. Death wasn’t a thing to be avoided. It could only be delayed.

The sidewalks in town were glazed with ice from a recent thaw. A couple times he slipped, but the chains on his boots kept him from falling.

The hospital and clinic stood next to the campus of the bible college. A carillon hidden in the concrete filigree of the Bible College tower sounded – the bells played a hymn that David M – recognized but couldn’t identify. Shift change was underway at the hospital and the new nurses on-duty were taking report from the night-shift. The parking lot was alive with people coming and going.

David M – stopped at the cafeteria in the hospital. He bought a large cup of coffee and a chocolate chip muffin. It was his custom to spend the first 45 minutes of his work-day reading case-studies in medical journals. He took off his coat and boots and put on a pair of shoes that he kept under his desk. Then, he sat down with a bound print copy of The New England Journal of Medicine, took a pen from his breast pocket and set an opened ledger next to the periodical. He wrote a few notes in the ledger as he read. On the shelf above his desk, there were thirty ledger books, all of them filled with his notes but covered with dust because he never looked at them, indeed, didn’t even touch them after the volume was put away.

Case 23 - 1683 was documented in the medical records of Massachusetts General Hospital and entitled Copious aseptic discharge bilaterally through fistulous apex of olecranon. David M – cocked his head and began to read. From time to time, he stroked his chin and made notes in his ledger.

The account was a collaboration between a Hospitalist at Mass Gen, two interns in internal medicine and orthopedic surgery respectively and two board-certified physicians, also an internal medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon. David M – speculated as to which specialist had written which paragraph or sentence, suspecting, of course, that the prose by the orthopedic doctors would be clumsy, grandiose and rife with solecisms. But the editors of the periodical had, apparently, combed the prose so carefully that it was entirely without idiosyncrasy, a text that seemed to have been translated not once, but two or three times successively from completely unrelated foreign languages. It was the sort of prose that a space alien might write.

In fact, most of the report was written by a second-year resident in internal medicine, Evgeny Sugata. Evgeny was the eldest son of Russian Jews who had emigrated to the United States in 1988 when he was only one year old. His parents settled in Brooklyn and were both quickly disenchanted with life in the United States. The Jewish community in the neighborhood was very orthodox and conservative – but Evgeny’s parents were secular and didn’t attend the synagogue. Evgeny’s mother had been a gynecologist with a substantial practice in Leningrad; his father was a cardiologist. Neither of his parents spoke English when they came to the United States and they had difficulties with the language. Evgeny’s father drove cab to support the family and came home each day exhausted from fighting the traffic in the city. On a couple of occasions, he was mugged and beaten. Sometimes, drunken passengers threatened the cab driver or insulted him and this seemed a grave indignity to the older man who had, in fact, been a prominent physician in his native land. Evgeny’s mother had things worse – she was afraid of the neighborhood where the family lived and, so, she kept to herself and would not leave the apartment unaccompanied. People knew that she had been a gynecologist and, after a while, she began performing abortions for girls in the neighborhood. But one of those operations resulted in an infection and, then, death and, so, Evgeny’s mother was prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. She pled guilty to the charge and spend two months in jail; part of her plea was that she agreed to never re-apply for a medical license in the United States. This aspect of the sentence she experienced as a profound insult and indignity – in her heart, she knew that she had been a capable, generous, and caring physician. One day, she said that she was going to visit a relative on Staten Island. She bought a ticket for the ferry but never arrived at her destination. A couple days later a featureless corpse washed up near Rockaway Beach wearing her clothes.

Evgeny’s father was broken by his wife’s death. He ignored his family, now consisting of Evgeny and his little sister, Sophia. Alcohol ravaged the family and Sophia was taken from the home to be raised by her Aunt on Staten Island. Finally, Evgeny’s father bought a one-way ticket to Moscow and went back to Russia without saying goodbye to his twenty-year old son, then, attending Columbia on a scholarship and enrolled in pre-med classes. The whole story was too complicated to tell and, so, Evgeny simply said that he was an orphan and, even, implied that his parents had died in a pogrom of some kind in Russia. One of his girlfriends said: "I don’t know how you’ve been so successful in school with this terrible tragedy in your family." Evgeny told her: "I’m an immigrant. I don’t have time for grief or sorrow. My children, I suppose, will mourn all this misfortune – I don’t have time." Later, his girlfriend accused Evgeny of being cold and, even, emotionally shallow: "If you won’t shed a tear for your parents and your sister, I’m pretty sure, you won’t have much compassion for me." Evgeny told her that his life would be lived in opposition to what happened to his parents:

"I will succeed where they failed." "I am revenging them," Evgeny said.

A professor at medical school encouraged Evgeny to consider writing case-studies to advance his career. "A case-study in a peer-reviewed journal" the professor said, "is quite a feather in your cap." Accordingly, Evgeny kept notes on some of his patients. His ambition was to have an article bearing his name published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

After graduating from Columbia, Evgeny commenced a residency in Internal Medicine at Mass General. It was there that he met Farrington W– . At the time of his illness, Farrington was living in Fall River, but had been raised West Roxbury, an elite neighborhood in Boston. Evgeny recognized the surname – most people living in Massachusetts would have read about Farrington’s family from time to time in the financial and social pages in the newspaper. Of course, Evgeny dutifully concealed the identity of his well-known patient. The case study begins: "A 24 year-old WM presented to his dermatologist with symptoms of psoriasis bilaterally at the apex of each oleocranon. The erythematous papules showed copious joint effusion. Fluid cultured from the discharge sites was aseptic and saline with trace amounts of lysomal enzymes as well as amylase. Treatment with topical cortisone and ultra-violet radiation was unsuccessful. Thereafter, systemic corticosteroids were prescribed without any long-term benefit to the patient. A course of methotrexate followed, also without any apparent benefit. The patient was referred to Massachusetts General Hospital where skin biopsy studies were conducted."

One of the key words searchable under the case study abstract is "tropical infections". To understand that reference, additional case history data is required.

Evgeny saw Farrington W– sitting on an white-papered examination table. He was slender with a sardonic smile. At first, Evgeny thought that he was homosexual but his somewhat affected, slightly British accent was an artifact of his education and status. He was blonde with bushy eyebrows that were remarkable fair, almost white. His eyes were blue and he had no discernible lips, merely a very slightly purplish trace outlining his mouth. When Evegeny looked at this tongue and uvula, he noticed that Farrington’s teeth were perfect, straight as little pale soldiers standing guard over pink gums – the order in his mouth seemed implausible, obviously the result of very expensive orthodontic treatments and dentistry. Evgeny noted that the patient was height-weight proportionate with narrow shoulders and narrower hips. His fingers were long, pale, and delicate. When he stretched them forth to itch at his inflamed elbows, Farrington’s fingertips had the aspect of a blind man’s fingers tentatively stroking a page pimpled with braille.

"My elbows have this wicked itch," Farrington said, groaning a little at his use of the word "wicked."

He tilted his shoulders upward so that Evgeny could examine his elbows. At the apex of both elbow bones, the olecranon, Evgeny observed a puffy reddish inflamation around the crater of a small urethral opening. Colorless fluid was oozing from the opening.

"This is fistulous," Evgeny said.

"Fabulous, you say," Farrington responded.

Evgeny probed both openings with a stainless steel sound. Farrington winced but didn’t complain of pain.

The discharge from the points of both elbows was copious, wetting the tissue on the examination table. Evgeny captured some samples of the discharge. It was both colorless and odorless with a slightly viscous or slimy texture.

Farrington had first noticed symptoms about four months earlier, a couple weeks after a trip to Bimini in the Bahamas.

It was not his first trip to Bimini. Farrington’s father had bank accounts on the islands and, in fact, was involved in some sort of business involving currency exchange. "Don’t ask me about it," Farrington said. "I never grasped what exactly my father did and, in fact, it was understood not to discuss that subject either publicly or privately."

Evgeny nodded.

It seemed that his father had been injured while using a jet-ski rented to him at the resort where he was staying. Some barrels were floating in the cove, mostly submerged, and the jet-ski crashed aground on them. Farrington’s father was flung clear but suffered a painful back injury. On the telephone, his father said that he had two compression fractures that were untreated except for a corset that he was wearing. "I will get my back fixed in Miami," his father said. He told Farrington that he had to facilitate an exchange and that, due to his injuries, he couldn’t accomplish this transfer. "So I need you to come down and make the transfer."

Farrington asked him why the transaction couldn’t be accomplished by a wire or some other electronic means. "You don’t understand," his father replied. He told him that a plane ticket was waiting for him at the airport in Boston.

Farrington flew to Nassau and stayed overnight in a hotel in Cable Beach. The next morning, he took a cab to the airport and where the once-daily flight to Bimini was scheduled to depart. The airline was called "Flamingo" and the little propeller-driven plane was painted a bright pink color. The sky was clear and cloudless to the far horizons and the archipelago of islands was spread below on an ocean dabbed and swathed with every imaginable tint of blue. Some of the islands were densely encrusted with houses and the lagoons were streaked with the wakes of speed boats. Other islands were uninhabited, swaddled in mangrove swamps or dissolving around the edges into dunes of lime-colored sand.

The plane landed on the North Island of Bimini. Farrington’s father was staying at an All-Inclusive on a pine-shadowed cove. The resort’s bar and restaurant were floating on pontoons in the limpid water. His father was confined to his room, propped half-upright on a mound of pillows. A cinnamon-colored nurse seemed to be staying with him or in the adjacent room. The older man looked haggard and his complexion was grey with streak of red flaring in his cheeks. He was drinking vodka and medicated so that he slurred his words. He explained the transfer to Farrington.

This case history need not be burdened with unnecessary detail, particularly when it doesn’t pertain directly to the syndrome at issue. It suffices to note that there was a rental car located in the resort’s parking lot and that, at a certain time, just as the sun was setting, Farrington was to drive the vehicle to a shed in Alice Town. Farrington’s father sketched the route from memory.

No one reminded Farrington that he had to drive the SUV on the left side of the road. The steering wheel and transmission were on the left side of the car just as you would expect in Massachusetts and, so, Farrington forgot the local rules of the road and almost crashed within the first 300 meters of his mission. But he recovered, made his way to Alice Town and found the shed, a rusting metal building with a badly storm-damaged roof located next to a particularly murky-looking slip. A big commercial fishing boat was moored there and some men wearing sunglasses notwithstanding the darkness – the sun had set en route to Alice Town – were standing next to the vessel. A couple men helped Farrington lug several heavy boxes from the back of the SUV to the boat. There were no introductions and Farrington didn’t say anything to the men at the slip. Driving back to the resort, Farrington was blinded by the oncoming headlights, coming at the front of the car from an unfamiliar angle, and he felt very dizzy – the air was humid and smelled of rot and crab-sized bugs with wings were buzzing around the street lamps.

The next day, Farrington drove his father to Alice Town. The nurse directed him to a baseball diamond on the edge of town and, after a few minutes, a helicopter appeared marked with insignia of a Miami hospital. The helicopter landed about where the shortstop would be positioned during a game. The nurse helped him into the ‘copter and it levitated over the pitcher’s mound, flattening some of the tall grass in the outfield with its rotor-wash. Then, the helicopter climbed and set out across the ocean.

Farrington drove the nurse into town and let her off at the clinic. He returned the rental car because he found that driving on the left side of the highway was disconcerting. A cab brought him back to the resort. His father had rented the room for a week and he had a couple days remaining at the All-Inclusive.

That night, at the floating bar, Farrington talked to an attractive young woman. She smelled slightly of cocoa-nut butter lotion and had braided hair that the sun seemed to be brightening to the color of corn-bread. The girl let Farrington buy her a few drinks. She said that she was a guest at the All-Inclusive but that her companion had jilted her.

"That show’s poor taste," Farrington said.

The drinks were watery and didn’t pack much punch. But the spongy floor of the floating bar was a little had to navigate. The sun set was too glorious: it brayed at them, orange and purple, like a hundred trumpets.

Farrington asked her about her date.

"It’s complicated," the girl said.

Farrington suggested that they go for a walk on the beach. "Too many bugs," she said. She told him that she had a reservation to visit the island’s famous "healing hole", a freshwater spring where the mineral-laden waters were supposedly medicinal. "It’s supposed to be wonderfully relaxing," the girl said. She told him that Ponce de Leon had discovered the spring and that it was reputed to be the Fountain of Youth. Farrington asked her to come to his room. "Have to leave early tomorrow on the excursion," the girl said. "You should go with me." Her name was Mandy.

"What’s early?" Farrington asked.

"Ten o’clock," she said.

"That’s not early," Farrington replied.

"Speak for yourself," Mandy said.

The next morning, he met Mandy at the dock. She was wearing a sleek black one-piece bathing suit and had wrapped her hips in a big, orange towel. "Where’s your swimming suit?" Mandy asked. "I didn’t bring one," he said. "You’re gonna skinny-dip?" Mandy asked. "I’ll swim in my underpants," Farrington told her.

An old woman wearing a windbreaker but with bare legs met them on the dock. A big black man with a round barrel-chest skillfully slid a flat-bottomed boat beside the dock. The black man’s head was shaved bald and glistened in the sun. He was very, very dark so that his features were hidden in the gloom except for the shark-flash of his teeth and the whites of his eyes were like the flames of an acetylene torch. The man spoke with a slight Scottish accent and his "r"-sounds were round with the roll of his brogue. Farrington thought to himself that the guide sounded like a suave and deadly villain in an old James Bond movie.

The old woman in the jacket, Mandy, and Farrington boarded the shallow-draft boat.

"We have to make time here," the James Bond villain guide said. "You can only reach the Hole at mid-tide."

The three tourists sat at the front of the boat and the guide fired the engine so that they flew out of the cove and around the point of land where some palm trees were embedded in big boulders all white with bird-lime. They followed the pale sand beach to a place where it began to dissolve into reefs of wet gravel interspersed with great half-drowned ranks of mangrove trees. After a while, there was no trace of the beach at all and flat-bottomed boat was whirring through a channel surrounded by bushes that seemed to float on the salt swamp water. The canal beneath them looked pale and milky and the mangroves were green, heaped with leaves on spidery branches that rested atop a crooked tangled of bare roots. The roots were like puzzles embedded in the swamp-water, reaching down to the pale, white-veined sand at the bottom of the channel. The whole floating jungle, with its water and labyrinth of narrow canals, changed color every time a cloud crosse the sun and dimmed the light – in the sun, the mangrove swamp glittered and raw, salt-encrusted roots seemed fragile and dead, but when the shadows slipped over the watery landscape the leaves on the trees looked grey and the water changed to the color of brown silt and the crouching tangles of roots looked animate, tense and coiled as if ready to spring.

A couple of times, they stopped in the channel, at wider places where there was space to swim, and the tourists jumped in the water. It looked as if the water was very shallow, only a couple feet deep, but where they slid into the sea, the water was deep enough to swallow them to the neck.

After a half hour gliding through the swamp, the guide stopped the boat, shut off the outboard, and moored the vessel to a tree.

"Here we go by foot," he said. A hundred feet ahead of them another flat-bottomed boat was bobbing in the channel, also anchored to the roots of mangrove.

"Are you kidding me?" Mandy said.

"It’s not far," the guide said.

"By foot?" she asked.

"We wade," the guide said.

The water was waist-deep, brackish, and warm as bath water. They followed the guide along a narrow opening between the closely clustered trees. At times, branches gathered over them as a canopy and they had to duck and swim with their chins in the water to keep from being scratched by tangle of tree above. Once, a big pelican-like bird stirred up directly ahead of them and flew skyward, dangling down legs like a serpent’s body. A fat greenish spider sat on one of the branches that they glided under.

The swamp-bottom was sandy with dead leaves that, sometimes, swirled in fragments up and around them so it seemed that they were splashing forward in tea.

The guide stopped. They heard voices. For a moment, it was uncanny, a vibrating hum in the tangle of mangrove trees. "Om Vashrahani Uum." The chant continued. The guide dramatically drew apart a veil of mangrove branches. The hole was elliptical, roughly the shape of a pear, although this was something you gathered only by measuring out the spring with your body. The water smelled faintly of sulphur and it was suddenly, startlingly cold – there was no gradient between the soup-warm lagoon water and the scrotum-tightening chill of the spring boiling up in the middle of the swamp. Four women were arranged on their backs, floating on surface of the hole, and they made a pattern like an Escher print, interlocked arms and legs. The women were wearing bathing caps and yellow suits and floating with their eyes closed, chanting at the sky. A skinny charcoal-colored tour-guide wearing a baseball cap and soccer jersey stood at the opposite edge of the spring.

After a few minutes, the women floating on their backs stopped chanting and dropped their feet to the sandy bottom of the hole. Cold currents brushed their shins and calves, as if icy fish were finning by them. The more they splashed and moved the more the air reeked of sulphur. The women apologized and bowed to them and, then, their guide led them back toward the main channel.

"It’s nothing like I imagined," Mandy said.

The trees dangled branches down very low, so that they had to wiggle through them, and the cold draft of water rising from below numbed their feet and thighs. The water was chest-deep and they crouched to submerge themselves in the spring. The guide opened his mouth and swallowed some of the water although he spit it out.

"It will heal you," the guide said. "It will make healthy and strong."

He began to sing the hymn "Amazing Grace." His big bald black head made him look like a seal.

After he was done singing, Farrington and the old lady clapped. The old lady said that the spring water was rejuvenating – "I don’t feel a year older than fifty," she said.

Then, they turned and waded back to the flat-bottomed boat. The guide pulled out a cooler and offered them each a beer, Dockyard Pale Ale. The old lady and Farrington sipped the beer. He had a bottle of tequila in the cooler as well. Mandy said she would like to drink a few shots and so he handed her the bottle.

On the way back to the resort, the guide pointed out a bronze monument to Martin Luther King, several unusual birds standing on one leg on a mud-flat, and a large skinny fish with the hide of an alligator – it was some kind of salt-water sturgeon. A frog jumped from a lily pad and landed in the bottom of the boat. Later, Farrington told Evgeny that he had touched the frog and, then, possibly brought his hands up to his mouth while sipping the beer. He denied intentionally drinking water from the spring although he said that some drops might have got in his mouth. He had some suspicious-looking insect bites that he discovered on his buttocks and shoulders after the trip through the mangrove swamp but they healed right away.

At the resort dock, Farrington told the guide, whose name was Baron, to wait there so that he could go to his room to get him a tip. "No, sir," Baron said. "It’s all-inclusive."

"I want to tip you," Farrington said.

"If you wish," Baron replied. But when Farrington came back to the dock with a 20 dollar bill, the guide was gone.

That night, Farrington hooked-up with Mandy. Mandy said that normally she charged for her services but, in his case, it was "already bought and paid for." She told Farrington that she was returning to Miami the next morning. Farrington told Evgeny that he used a condom when he had intercourse with her. Mandy said that the water of the spring was evidently good for your skin – she told Farrington that her C-section scar was almost invisible after bathing in the "healing hole" and that some stretch-marks on her upper thighs had simply vanished.

Farrington took the Flamingo flight back to Nassau at noon and, then, returned to Boston.

About two months after his trip to Bimini, police executed a pre-dawn raid on the West Roxbury home where Farrington’s father was living. Computers and financial records were seized and Farrrington’s father, who was then encased in body cast, was briefly taken into custody. Farrington’s mother called him to say that she suspected all phone lines connecting to the West Roxbury address were tapped.

At the same time, Farrington noticed a reddish rash at the points of both of his elbows. The rash was uncomfortably itchy and Farrington scratched at his skin until his fingernails were specked with blood. He consulted with a general practictioner who suspected that the inflammation was some form of contact dermatitis. The GP told him to change his shower soup and use a different laundry detergent. Farrington was given some topical salves and told to return in ten days.

Farrington was living in Brooklyn at that time, part of a team of writers providing comedy material to a late night TV show. He worked out in the gym four times a week. In the gym, he wore athletic tape wrapped around his elbows and told his trainer that he had a susceptibility to bursitis and elbow dislocation – "it happened when I was playing tennis last year," he said. He didn’t want others to see his elbows because they were red, scabbed over where his fingernails had cut his skin, and the inflammation was puffy and purulent. One day, after exercising, Farrington noticed that he had trouble pulling his shirt on over his biceps. Those muscles seemed to have become hypertrophic. He wasn’t conscious of doing a lot of exercises to build muscle mass in his upper arms and so this puzzled him. Furthermore, his enlarged bicep didn’t feel hard and muscular – instead, there was a swampy, puffy feeling to the muscle.

Farrington met his mother at a delicatessen near JFK. She told him that she was now under indictment and that she suspected the federal government of threatening her with prison as a way of inducing a guilty plea from his father.

"I’ll be next," Farrington told her. He put his fingers to his eyes, expecting to find his cheeks wet with tears, but no moisture was there. The itching in his elbows was maddening him.

"What do you mean?" his mother asked him. Farrington said that he didn’t want to tell her.

"The lawyer says that it will all work out," she told Farrington.

Farrington was wearing a long-sleeve shirt and the cloth at the elbows was soaked with discharge.

A few more weeks passed. Farrington saw a dermatologist who suggested that that elbow inflammation was some sort of parasitic infection. An intravenous infusion of antibiotics was administered. Medi-honey leptospermum gel was applied to the wound and sterile dressings were wrapped around both elbows. Farrington had to change the dressings three-times a day and this was difficult for him to accomplish without help. He was ashamed of the condition and felt that it was stigmatizing and, so, he had to attend to the wound on his own.

One night, he was performing some new material in comedy club in the East Village. Farrington had written some jokes about his father, whom he called "the Racketeer." The show was stressful and some of the material flopped and, while he debating the gags with a heckler, the dressing on his left arm ruptured. A flood of warm, slippery fluid poured down his forearm. At first, Farrington thought that a blood vessel had torn and that he was bleeding to death. The colorless fluid spilled off his finger tips and when he moved his hands droplets were flung in all directions. People in the front tables leaned back in their chairs because Farrington seemed to be dissolving and melting before their eyes. So much fluid poured out of his left elbow that his shirt was soaked and a puddle formed on the floor and, when he cut short his routine, and tried to exit the stage, he slipped in the fluid and fell. Some people in the audience thought this was an intentional pratfall and guffawed. Farrington went back stage and found that his left bicep muscle seemed deflated and slack. When he flexed his arm, fluid squirted from the tip of his elbow. The next morning, Farrington awoke in a bed awash with fluid. His right elbow was squirting fluid into his sheets and mattress whenever he moved his arm.

Farrington took the train to Boston where he had several friends in medical school. One of his friends was interning with Evgeny at Mass General and it was, at that place, that the discharge though his elbows was treated.

Evgeny’s treatment, supervised by several senior doctors, involved draining and electro-cauterizing the interior of the cysts located bilaterally in the tissue of his biceps. The course of therapy was complex and involved skin auto-grafts. By the time of the trial in Federal Court of Farrington’s father, drainage through fistulas had been controlled and Farrington was well on his way toward recovery. His mother told him to keep his distance from his father and not attend the trial. When he next saw his father, he had been released on bond pending his appeal of the jury verdict against him. Farrington’s father looked exceedingly weak and thin – he seemed to be in a great deal of pain from the compression fractures that he sustained in the Bermudas. Farrington saw him at a restaurant in a famous hotel in Boston where they met for lunch. While they were eating, a man came up and tried to take their picture. Farrington stood and punched the man in the face. The journalist was expelled. He waited outside on the sidewalk and, when Farrington came outside, the photo-journalist swung his camera tripod into his face and broke his nose. Farrington sat on the curb, holding his smashed nose between his thumb and forefingers, dizzy and waiting for an ambulance. A month later, Farrington’s father committed suicide.

Evgeny published two more case studies after the note about Farrington. The first of these studies was printed in the Journal for Infectious Diseases, peer-reviewed and very highly regarded. The article was entitled "On a possible correlation between Fruit Bat Syndrome and infectious hemorrhagic fever." Evgeny was invited to the World Health Organization’s International Conference on Infectious Disease Control in Geneva, Switzerland where he presented his Fruit Bat paper. After that presentation, Evgeny became a post-doctoral research fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. After two years at the Mayo Clinic, Evgeny was terminated and ignominiously marched to this car by Mayo Clinic security. Another researcher had discovered that Evgeny had falsified the data in his laboratory work and key microbiological studies reported in the Fruit Bat paper could not be reliably replicated. A statistician retrospectively reviewing Evgeny’s data concluded that his mathematical analysis was flawed, although it was unclear whether the errors in the management of that data were due inadvertence (as opposed to intentional falsification) or simply the result of unchecked confirmation bias. Evgeny’s claim that he had personally visited several sub-Saharan African countries could not be independently verified.

Evgeny’s third case-study was published on-line in the proceedings of Revitalization – the Journal of Rejuvenation. This study was not peer-reviewed. The title for the article as "The Use of Embryonic collagen as an anti-oxidizing dermatological agent." Evgeny currently directs a research laboratory at Shanghai for Aveda, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Estee Lauder Companies.

When his coffee cup was empty and the chocolate chip muffin reduced to a scatter of moist crumbs on the desk, David M – closed the bound volume of The New England Journal of Medicine and replaced it on the shelf. He put down his ballpoint pen and set aside his ledger book. He swept up the crumbs and muffin wrapper and threw them in a waste-basket. Then, he put on his white lab jacket.

The hospitalist on-duty knocked on the door to the office and, then, entered.

"Always studying?" the on-duty hospitalist said.

"Indeed," David M – replied.

"Anything of note?"

"I read four notes," David M – said, "they were mostly unilluminating except one about Poland Syndrome. It’s a congenital asymmetrical weakness of the chest."

"From Poland?"

"No," David M – replied. "It’s an eponym."

The on-duty hospitalist handed David M – the census. The patients were listed in order of the perceived severity of their illness. The census was high and several of the cases demanding. Mid-winter in this climate is cruel: you count yourself lucky if you survive until Spring without pneumonia or flu or a bad fall on the ice. The cold and dark had driven several patients mad.

David M – looked at the chart material showing vital signs, blood-work and, then, tests, and took report on those patients whose conditions seemed to be deteriorating. He made notes on 3 by 5 cards that he arranged in an array in his black log book.

"I’ve got more than an hour of charting," the on-duty hospitalist said.

"Well, I’m off – " David M – said, rising to start his rounds.

David M –‘s shift was 36 hours. When he left the hospital, the weather had changed and a warm, wet wind was blowing. The moon was low and bright enough to cast deep blue shadows. The ice in the narrow valley had thawed and David M – crossed the black river on the footbridge among the bare trees. Rafts of ice under the bridge groaned and there were jams where the stream was tightly braided so that sheets of dark flood water stretched between the bends in the river. His boots wrapped in chain gripped on the upward trail and he reached the bluffs overlooking the river with no difficulty.

David M -- was tired but felt radiant and ennobled by the work that he had completed. Death had been kept at bay – at least, during his shift at the hospital. His home was warm and quiet. He drank a bottle of Belgian beer before retiring to his bed.





 

 

 

 



 

 

 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Five Scenes from a Crime Film



 

 

1.

Who would have thought such a landscape existed, not three hours from Manhattan’s thronging pavements and soaring skyscrapers? A dark escarpment shaggy with old trees loomed over watery meadows where a braided stream wandered between dark pools of bog-water. From the left side of the escarpment, a waterfall hung like a white and foaming curtain over the upper-end of a wild valley cleft in the rocks. On the lower, right side of the cliffs, another smaller waterfall cast up a whirligig mist from where the plunging flood was split by a boulder poised like an axe in the middle of caramel-colored (tannic acid) waters.

A feeble-looking dam impounded some water above the falls. From time to time, a gaunt-looking mill on the height diverted water into stone channels and through a slimy, algal-green sluice spillway. Then, the density of the upper waterfall changed slightly, lightened a little and the perpetual motion of the falling river became translucent, so that the stony cliffs behind the veil of waters could be better discerned.

2.

The top of the escarpment is wooded. A road leads from the valley up to the ridge where the rivers flow down from foggy mountain heights. The road curves in several places and ascends a steep grade to an overlook from which the traveler can peer down at the way that he has come.

Where the road crests on the heights opposite the waterfalls, a chateau is perched on the granite flank of the mountain. The chateau is made of white clapboard above stone cellars cut into living rock. Once elegant, the place is now a little threadbare and worn. Travelers park their cars in the lot underneath the diner that now occupies a part of the chateau. Stairs lead up to the white porches running around the sides of the big mansion house. Formerly, this was the home of the vintner who raised grapes and made wine in this area.

Entering the house, there is a sort of promenade that runs between a café and observation decks. The decks extend over the cliffs, affording an impressive view of the valley and the road switchbacked through fields of fallen boulders up to the mansion. When I toured the house, I found a narrow room with panorama windows overlooking the hillsides descending steeply to the grey-green pastures below, terrain that seems to have been farmed once but is now left fallow, a scarecrow brooding over a small pond and naked rows of lathe trellises on which dry and wizened vines are still tangled.

Well-dressed and silent people are sitting in pews in the narrow room with the high and wide panorama windows. At first, I think it is some kind of religious ceremony. Then, I understand that it is a concert, that there is an old, dusty-looking grand piano at the head of the pews. The people are waiting for the pianist to arrive.

A young man in a suit appears framed in a doorway. He takes his place at the piano and starts to play, Beethoven’s "Moonlight Sonata." But, there is something wrong with the piano’s action, one of the notes necessary to his performance does not sound when he presses down the ivory key. This occurs and re-occurs and the young man is frustrated. He rises from the piano seat to protest the defect in the instrument.

 

3.

In extreme close-up, we see the intricate action of the grand piano – the wippens or repetititons, taut bass and treble wire, capstans, bridge pins, dampeners, all of these things in the gloomy belly of the piano. The tuner spreads out his tools – he has several tiny silver hammers, a tiny wrench, tuning fork, two mutes with handles and four mutes without handles, some felt temperature strips.

The piano tuners hands are delicate and they glide skillfully between the wippens and bridges. He finds the hurt part of the piano’s action, twists something and taps with his silver hammer, and, then, the repetition that was locked is unlocked and a note sounds and it would not be unfair to compare the sound that this note makes to a limpid drop of bee’s honey.

 

4.

A man dressed in old fashioned clothing sits on white-washed wooden rocking chairs gazing down over the stone terraces into the misty valley. The man wears a scarf at his throat and has a neatly trimmed goatee. His teeth are yellow.

The man tells elaborate histories, intricate with family chronicles – who married whom, children in and out of wedlock, dastardly cousins and uncles, aunts who were courtesans in the capitols of Europe, heirs, inheritances and disinheritances, estates in fee and entailed. He speaks of seafaring members of the family and the Iroquois confederation and how the first guest-house was so close to the foaming brink of the upper falls that no one could sleep because of the perpetual thunder of the waters. He recalls duels, celebrated crimes from the last century, and, then, remarks that it is pity that the oenoculture in the hills has given way to sugar beets and that sugar beets are, indeed, the most unsightly things, scarcely to be differentiated from the filth in which they grow, and, then, he rambles and his fine hands become transparent and his goatee evaporates like the dew and the interlocutor is mildly appalled to realize that all this time, he has been talking to a ghost and, soon, nothing remains of the apparition except the faintest trace of his burning gaze...

 

5.

In the parking lot, passed from mouth to mouth: the word that someone has murdered the pianist. This crime will have to be solved. We are all suspects.