Room 3B: In Dan’s Defense
Approach the building and you’ll hear Dan’s anthem, a rewrite to the tune of “Cindy,” the one and only hit left behind by Lorraine Hansberry’s sometime husband, Bobbie Nemiroff. It’s where our pasts quilt together as a security blanket: my Mom had known Bobbie since he was 14 years old; I’d named my first cat Cindy; Dan’s Mom used to hum the tune as a lullaby and turned it to call and answer when her baby grew up and went away. I sit down and sing it her way with him, answering his call:
Dan: I joined the Navy to see the world ♪ ♫
Me: But nowhere did he find – a life as sweet as his life – the life he left behind ♪ ♫
Dan: I searched the whole world over ♪ ♫
Me: But nowhere did he find ♪ ♫
Both: My life, my own life – Oh life don’t let me down – Teach me my name again – and I’ll be homeward bound. ♪ ♫
But before Dan could defend his country the Navy gave Dan defensive inoculations. Every antidote doted on Dan. Antibiotic, antiviral, antifungal, antibacterial, antiplague: a plague of injections searched the whole Dan over until capillary by capillary, he became them, not himself.
He hardly remembers who he was when he’s not singing that song. He’s allergic to everything and he can’t take pills anymore. Even a glass of water can make him sick.
They sent him back to the city to sit on the stoop in the sun, surveying oceans of pavement.
Room 4G: Lee’s Language
Friday evening sun set, Lee arrives, we ride the elevator together. Dan pushes Lee’s wheelchair into 4G, Lee wheels into the bathroom and drops what he’s carrying into the sink. Hair falls forward from behind his ears and he leaves it there.
One lock forms the letter L before his left eye. His gestures are a language Dan would read if he could read anymore.
Lee stares at the things in the sink. Small orange cylinders with sturdy white caps, multiply stickered with warning labels. DO NOT in red curves under ALWAYS in blue.
A packet is upside down, lime green letters bent across silver foil. The underbelly is vulnerable, puckered around twelve lozenges it was force-fed by the enormous clatter of a monstrous machine. Lee understands. He works on such a machine. It feeds cookies. Chocolate chip; oatmeal; vanilla sandwich on Monday Wednesday Friday. Ginger; pecan sandy; on Tuesday Thursday and so on, ad nauseum.
Damn pills make me sick. What you think, do packets find cookies is tastier than pills? Articulating rare words, that’s what he asks us as he fills a glass with water.
We see Lee thinks he’ll shower when he un-bunches the shower curtain and slides it along the pole.
He looks in the mirror and changes his mind. Knowing this is simple: he slides the shower curtain back along the pole and bunches it up again. Reaches for the sink faucet. Hot. More hair falls before his eyes, an overanxious tangled alphabet obscuring its own sense. He changes his mind again.
Un-bunches the shower curtain, slides it along the pole. Kekekekeke-kere-gere-geshhhhhuuuuh. It speaks in sounds. He speaks in gestures, mostly. Do I read that he’s slightly nauseous? Dan and I help him undress.
His body language says he’s slightly dizzy: as his clothes falls to the floor the angle of his head follows them, leaning to the left against a shoulders smooth and round as ever, an un-inscribed boulder. His neck’s a thick bark-creased branch and on the granite of his face is written his reading of ours. The stone of his stomach is where his nausea’s etched. Sticks and stones: few words. His gestures are the language we read: his wink says Honey, I’m home, fix me a cocktail; the shrug that follows says psychotropic, babay, I’m a flashback.
Lee stares at the things in the sink. Hard, turn clockwise. Sharp, puncture foil. These seals are proof against children without alphabets.
He bends down and picks up a towel. Nauseous. Raises his torso and wraps it tight around his shoulders. Dizzy. He drinks the water and rolls to the bedroom, goes to bed without taking his evening pills.
By the end of the week refusing those pills is the only remaining gesture. Incremental loss of gestures, suicide on the installment plan, consumes another portion of Lee’s life each day. One day the plate will be clean. A large blank plate only God can read.
Room 2C: Bill’s Pills
Saturday morning and we’re on the stoop in the sun, Dan, Lee, and me, when Bill arrives. Bill tells us how on the way home he’d braked at the yellow blinking light in front of the firehouse. He knew he shouldn’t stop but he couldn’t go on. He’d stared at the firehouse as it melted down to the bare bones of its rock foundation. Those stones were something you could stand on, he says. So he got out of the car and stood on them – and leaving his car behind forever, walked home.
He pulls his phone from his pocket and calls his doctor, tells him about the stones. The doctor tells him the prescription’s no good for him, to pour all his pills in the sink and wash them away with hot water. We all go upstairs for the ceremony.
At the wastewater treatment plant the city filters our water, but Bill’s pills micro-dosage their way through the gauntlet.
At Monday breakfast people all over the city drink coffee brewed with Bill’s pills. They get into their cars to drive to work. Each and every one brakes at a random location, initiating an eternal moment of gridlock. Nothing melts for them. Finding no stones to stand on, they fall from their cars and crawl home. Sitting on the stoop, we see the liquid glint of sun on car roofs, stilled as far as the eye can see.
Only the four of us know how to end that gridlock, but we won’t tell.
When the dammed pills speak, shut up and listen for the water.
Back in 2000 when I typed up these true stories about some of the guys in our building, I thought I only made up one part: the idea that pills got into the water supply. That it is actually happening hit mainstream media towards the end of the decade. Example: