By DON MUNRO
Jake lay awake in his bed. It was already 2 a.m. He knew because it was only two minutes ago when Elaine, the nurse with the squishy shoes and the Soviet-era blue eye shadow had made her way down the hall of the hospice. Even though Jake hadn’t gotten out of bed to check the hall out, he could tell it was really long, approximately 124 squeaks.
Jake thought: “I wish I could sleep, sleep and never wake up. Christ, I should be able to sleep with all the drugs they’ve got me on to keep me quiet.
“Geez, you’d think I’d at least be tired from all the God-damned tossing and turning in this bed,” he said aloud, his voice dangling in the air, hanging there with no destination. As he heard himself speak, Jake thought, “Feels good to say something out loud in this place … even if no one answers me!”
In Hope House, where Jake had arrived two weeks ago, there was little conversation, that is, conversation with any real substance. He always figured it was because everybody was so doped up. It was amazing anybody even managed to get out of bed.
Cancer was why most of them were there, and Jake had it, too, all through his bones. That was how his oncologist, Dr. Weissman, had described it. But Jake could have told the doctor the diagnosis himself because of the pain that he was in most every hour of the day. It had become unbearable. Before Jake came to Hope House, it was the kind of pain that made him get up from his chair or bed and walk around – just to try and escape the sudden, screaming stabs. When it had first started like that, before Jake came to Hope House, he knew that all the treatments and operations he’d been through had failed.
Jake figured it was his time to go, where—he didn’t know. But Hope House was the first bus stop on the journey.
The lack of noise, of people talking, bothered Jake. Sure there were plenty of silly-ass remarks bandied about between the staff and patients in this place. “Are you having a good day today?” was, to Jake, one of the nurses’ most annoying and patronizing questions. They always seemed to say it with their knees bent, too, like they were talking to a child or a cute puppy. Jake often wanted to respond: “No, sweetie, you see I’m dying, and it feels like someone’s got my legs in a fucking vice — just about every minute of every day. What the hell kind of a day do you think I’m having?”
But he never did say things like that because he knew it wasn’t their fault that he was dying. And if it wasn’t for them, he’d be lying in his own shit and slowing starving, and he wouldn’t get the morphine in the intravenous drip that he needed, his bag of happy juice. So he kept his mouth shut, and sometimes after getting his fix, he’d feel good enough to actually answer them. “Oh, I guess I’m okay; thank you!”
Tonight, the cancer in Jake’s bones was pretty quiet. A blessing. Everything would be absolutely perfect, though, if he could sleep, he figured. That would really take his mind off things, because it wasn’t just squishy shoes and dope-ass conversation that was bothering him tonight. It was his life. At least his memories of his life.
What bothered him the most was the thought of all the losses. It seemed as if his life was one big string of them.
Sure, there were good times – like all the friends he’d made in every city he moved to. Poker games, bowling night, drinking. There were some pretty good women that he’d managed to know, too. Jake always considered women as that rare species made by God to give you both physical and mental comfort. They not only made love with you, or, if it was uncomplicated, simply had sex with you, but they listened to your troubles, too. And, every once in a while, you could return the favor and listen to their problems. It was especially comforting to hold someone in your arms – maybe cuddle on a couch together or share a chaise on a sunny porch – and talk about your problems.
Tonight, laying in his bed in the hospice, alertness was a curse, despite getting a new bag about 15 minutes ago, on the beginning of Eileen’s shift. The first loss that Jake began to think about, really it was more about feeling – because Jake felt that feeling loss was like having a dark blanket thrown over your head – was the loss of his parents.
They were taken from him just as he was beginning to know them.
He was only four years old at the time, but his memory of them and the February night their “Tin Lizzy” slid off the road was clear. He still felt the horror of it – the brakes locking, his mother’s terrified scream and his father’s frantic manipulating of the wheel to prevent the car going down the river embankment. Jake had had a full view of it from the backseat – like watching a movie unfold on the screen in front of you.
He thought of his mother’s smell – a mix of lemon and pie dough. And he remembered his father’s medals on his chest. He could still recall playing with a rainbow-colored ribbon and a bronze medal with a fierce-looking woman wielding a sword and shield. Later, when Jake was a teenager, relatives told him that the crash happened the year the Great War was over and that his father was only home two months when the accident happened. Jake treasured the memory of playing with those medals whenever his father held him in his arms.
Jake thought, too, about the succession of jobs that had come in and out of his life. It was amazing how these jobs actually fell into his lap, even at the height of the Depression, when half of Kansas City was waiting in bread lines. The Star was where he’d gotten his first job – copyboy, then reporter. And it was like that in every city he’d moved to … St. Louis, Cincinnati, Chicago and finally New York.
But as lucky as he was, there was something broken, or more to the point, something lacking, about the whole process. The pattern went like this: after a flurry of excited interest in a new paper, getting to know new buddies on the desk, he’d lose interest. It was just a matter of time, but it was inevitable. Sometimes it happened after a year, sometimes two; once he lasted even eight years.
When he was lucky, he’d been able to buy some time and quit. But sometimes his work became so shoddy because of boredom that the bosses gave him the axe. Once, back in the 50s, he’d even become executive editor at a daily financial about the banking industry. It was way downtown in New York, and he loved the shabbiness of the neighborhood—the dive bars where you could go and get drunk for a few bucks.
But his interest in the daily business of the nation’s banks and the comings and goings and breathing and farting of the men who ran them soon waned. He was working on his second year when he got, as he used to call it, “the heave ho” after taking off too many Mondays and Fridays. It’s not like he wasn’t warned, either. Fred Zimmerman, the publisher, called him into his mahogany-everything office one day, and, puffing on a cigar, told him: “The weekends are two days, Jake, not three. Quit it or quit.” So Jake quit – the job, not weekends.
And then there were his romantic adventures. My God, the losses he stacked up in that department.
During the war, when he was stationed in England and was bombing the hell out of the Germans by night and screwing and drinking by day, he’d met Annie, a pale beauty with dark hair, so skinny that you could wrap your hand around her waist. She was from the English countryside but worked for the War Ministry in London.
War gives you license to do just about anything, he quickly learned. He remembered how shocked he was by the whole desperate rush to meet his physical needs then, as if his body knew that he might not come back one night from giving the Germans what they so justly deserved.
He remembered, too, how used he got to the furtive sessions that he and Annie had, usually in her flat while her roommate was working the night shift somewhere. Five minutes tops was all it took, but it felt like he was getting away with something so important. It was a rejection of everything he’d learned about courtship back home in America – the whole business of no ring, no sex. My God, he thought, one night as he was lying in Annie’s arms, he’d actually dated women in Kansas City who wouldn’t let you kiss them until after the second or third date.
But this was London, 1943. No rings, no commitments. Just lots to drink, plenty of sex and the odd outing for tea and scones with a girl’s family on a Sunday.
Then again, there was the downside to the whole scene. On a 24-hour pass he’d gotten after pulverizing a good deal of Hamburg one July evening, he arrived at Annie’s apartment only to find a note pinned to the door asking him not to call anymore. “Sorry, love, my boyfriend’s home from North Africa,” was all the note said.
At the time, Jake found it easy to shake off the parting. “He’ll she’s just another broad,” he remembered thinking. But now, lying in his bed at Hope House, with the starched white sheets that felt like weights pressing on his cancer-eaten legs, Jake felt only sadness that he didn’t try to get to know Annie better. Sure, there were many nights that he thought were plenty meaningful – where the two, after exchanging passions, lay naked staring out the skylight above her bed, words unspoken. On those nights, he’d felt fulfilled in a way. But it wasn’t anything like love because there was no intimacy. There was no trade in vulnerability between them.
Tonight, because he couldn’t drift off to sleep, Jake was going down paths he’d never intended to tread again in his life. And there was one that he’d wished he could forget, but it was not possible. Sam was his name. When he met Sam, a tall, Gary Cooper look-alike, Jake had no idea that he’d be anything more than just flying buddies with the guy. But one night, a long bombing mission behind them, the two staggered home – absolutely floating in whiskey and ale from a local pub. Outside their bunkhouse, their breath was visible in the damp, chilly English night. Sam put his arm around Jake’s shoulder.
Jake thought it was so that his buddy could get his footing. But Sam reached over and kissed Jake on the mouth. Jake was shocked, and he stared back at Sam in disbelief. But this was three months after Annie, and he’d been without sex for what he thought was too long. Jake kissed him back. And then the two moved to a field of tall grass. Jake did things with Sam that he never thought he was capable of.
The day after, he and Sam avoided each other, and as more days passed, it became easier to forget what had happened between them. It was a blessing, in a way, that they spent so much of their time together in a plane over Germany, dodging Kraut fighters; they were too busy risking their lives to talk about what had happened. And then, as more time passed, Jake came to think of the episode as just the kind of stuff that sometimes happens in war.
Now, Jake wondered about Sam, and just for a moment, he thought about what it would have been like to get to know the guy – hell, maybe even become his friend.
After the war, Jake had one love affair and job after the next. The relationships and the jobs had a common thread: Jake was excited about them both for about six months, and then he inevitably lost interest. Susan was the closest he ever got to marriage. She was a Lana Turner blond with very large breasts, and everyplace they went together, other men’s heads turned. There was a lot of whistling, too, when they were together.
That kind of made Jake feel good, that so many other men were jealous of him. He remembered how he enjoyed spending time with Susan … dinner, dancing and inevitably sex either at his place or hers. God, how he used to love the feel of her laying on his chest after making love!
“I guess that’s the closest I ever got to being normal,” Jake thought, as he smoothed out the top sheet on his bed. But Susan had pressed for marriage and kids, and Jake was scared to death of being in one place with one person for very long. It actually used to annoy him when they got on the topic of marriage; Susan was rather pushy in that area.
Strange. There were many years that passed after Susan, but there weren’t many times when Jake felt alone. It wasn’t until he was in his 60s, sometime around the middle of the 1970s, that Jake began to feel an emptiness that he couldn’t define. It was just there, inside his body, and no matter what he did, how busy he kept himself … he could never get rid of it. On the weekends, home for two days from whatever paper or publisher he was working for, he couldn’t stand to be in his apartment alone for very long. Turning on the TV and listening to talking heads was no help. Hell, who wanted to watch what was going on in the country, anyway.
The only relief that Jake found was when – in all his 60-odd years – he felt like he actually fell in love. It was the kind of love that had nothing to do with sex, but everything to do with being loved for who he was and loving someone else completely … no strings.
It happened this way: It was 1978, and his Upper West-Side New York apartment had been bought and was going condo. Jake had to find a new place because the salary he was making at The New York Times, together with the tiny sum he’d saved over the years, were pitiful. There was no way that Jake could afford to buy. If his bank account was a country, it was tiny Lichtenstein, certainly not the big, broad U.S of A.
But he got lucky; after only three weeks searching, Jake found a two-bedroom apartment on the second floor of a private home in Astoria, Queens, just a 20-minute subway ride from his editing job in the city.
When he first saw the apartment, they were just empty rooms, but the place soon became the happiest spot on earth for Jake. And it was special because of Roberto, the three-month-old son of Sylvana and Angelo Fortini – the couple that owned the house and who lived downstairs. The minute Jake laid eyes on Roberto, sleeping like the Savior on Christmas night, Jake knew that this was a very special child.
As Jake settled into his new life in the apartment, spending lazy weekend afternoons in the small but sunny yard of the house, Sylvana and Angelo generously began sharing their life – and Roberto – with Jake. The baby had a wide, laughing mouth and deep, brown eyes, as still as a pond in the middle of a forgotten forest. During those golden afternoons, Jake would make a game out of lifting the boy up to pick grapes from the small arbor that his landlords had set up in the yard – a bit of the old world in the new.
It was all so unreal to Jake, and an entirely new emotional experience. “Could this kid actually like me,” he remembered thinking, and “why?” There was something otherworldly about it; it was as if the child knew Jake before he came into the world and was trying to tell him so.
Eventually, as Roberto grew into boyhood, Sylvana would come to rely on Jake to babysit. Jake now considered himself a kind of surrogate grandfather, taking Roberto with him on trips to the grocery store or the movies. During these times, Jake was amazed at how “in the moment” he felt in the presence of Roberto – loving every minute of the time he spent with boy, just for the sheer enjoyment of it.
Each night, when Roberto was put down to sleep in his bed, he’d tap on the wall next to his bed to signal Jake, whose living room was directly above Roberto’s room. The kid had worked out a code. “Two taps means good night, Jake, okay? And then you knock twice, and that means you’re saying, good night; got it?” But inevitably, when Roberto began knocking, Jake would laugh because after a few taps, he’d hear Angelo yell: “Shut up in there and get to sleep.”
One day, Sylvana came to Jake, holding out a small plastic bag in her hand, the kind you put sandwiches in. “Jake, I make a da present for you.”
“What is it?” Jake asked.
“It’s a from Roberto – a curl from his-a hair. I take a him for a haircut, and I save for you a curl. I know you love him so much. You keep for da memory. You like?”
“I like,” said Jake, swallowing hard and casting his eyes away from Sylvana’s face.
All of these things Jake stored up in his heart and, on more than a few occasions, he thought that they could be memories that would serve him well in his old age. He considered them treasures. One evening, as Jake sat on his kitchen floor peeling an orange and handing slices to Roberto, the boy looked up at Jake and said: “Jake, you’re my best pal.”
Even now, as he lay in his bed, tears ran down the sides of his face as memories of that happy moment washed over him. Here in his bed at Hope House, waiting to die, Jake was sure that was the sweetest moment of his life.
But he suddenly remembered that he was quite wrong about that.
The most wonderful place Jake had ever been to, the happiest few minutes on earth, had occurred one broiling afternoon in August. It was just past 6 p.m., and Jake was dragging his feet home from the N train. His apartment was about half a mile from the 31st and Broadway station, but it might as well have been 10 miles on this night. Yet he could see the tops of the trees in Ravenswood Park, and so he felt encouraged. All he wanted was a cold beer and to sit in the yard for a while.
Suddenly, he heard: “Jake, Jake, Jake!” He looked up and saw Roberto, about 100 yards ahead, running toward him, arms flailing wildly. Jake dropped his briefcase and opened up his own arms, welcoming the boy. And that got Roberto to run even faster – as if he suspected Jake had a pocket full of chewing gum for him.
Jake dropped down on one knee, and Roberto ran into his arms. Jake scooped up the boy, and in one movement, stood up and swung him around in the air – the world around them blurring in the hazy evening.
“Jake, Jake … you’re home!”
“Yes, yes … I’m home, my big man.”
And as Jake drew the child into an embrace, he felt something he’d never experienced before with any other living creature – a feeling of completeness. He loved this boy, as if he were his own, and it was the first time in his life that he understood what his friends with kids meant when they said that they’d die for their children. Jake thought that if this kid ever needed an eye, or a kidney or even a heart transplant, he’d gladly give it – just to know that Roberto would get to go on living in this world.
And as he stood there holding the boy, who was now reciting a list of afternoon activities that he’d planned for the two of them, Jake felt so grateful that he had finally come to know true love.
Now, as he lay in his bed, Jake felt good, even though he was sad that it was this love, maybe the only thing that ever mattered to him, the one thing that he kept close to his heart and cleaved to, that was most difficult to say goodbye to.
It was just too hard to let go, he thought. He leaned over and opened the draw to his bed-side table and, pushing his rosary aside, took out the small plastic bag that Sylvana had given him so many years ago, the bag with Roberto’s curl inside. He ran his fingers across the package and looked at the piece of hair, somehow miraculously, after all these years, still shining on the rounded edges.
“Thank you, God,” Jake said aloud, in this silent place.
The words hung in the air.