I made it through the day. At midnight, I was sitting in the busy, little coffee shop of the Howling Coyote Casino. I had made a new friend. Across the table from me, was one Melvin Kemble, a ninety-two year old World War Two Vet. He was wearing an olive green nylon vest over a long sleeved khaki shirt. He had his army hat on with an impressive array of ribbons, buttons and bars.
Melvin looked more like a skeleton wearing the uniform of a World War Two Vet. One of his pant’s legs was rolled up and pinned to accommodate the recent loss of a leg, and he was sitting in a brand spanking new shiny silver wheelchair. I had met him at a Texas Hold-em table where we had played together most of the afternoon.
It turns out that I written his wife’s Clara’s obituary when she passed away at age eighty-nine and also his brother Clyde’s who had killed himself after his wife Katie had died of cancer. Melvin liked the fact that I had mentioned Clara’s love of poetry and ability to bake delicious fruit pies. It was Melvin who I had talked to in order to get a quote about Clyde. He told me that his brother had came home from his wife's funeral and swallowed a handful of sleeping pills. “ He told me that the pain was too much to bear. " I thought he was a weak-minded fool until my Clara died, and then I knew what he meant.”
I asked him what he missed the most about his Clara. He didn’t hesitate a bit.
“What I miss? She would light up when I took the first bite of a pie right out of the oven and tell her how good it was. She had a little shy, sweet grin. That little grin of hers never failed to fill me joy, seventy years and never failed to fill me would joy.” It was hard to tell if he was tearing up because he had the watery eyes of the aged. They were large and blue and magnified by lens so thick they would have burned a hole in the back of his head had he looked up at the sun; they did light up a bit when he spoke of Clara.
“She died on our seventieth anniversary. She had dementia; I was the only one she still knew. “Melly, don’t leave me, Melly, she would say and grip my hand. I won’t, I answered her and a hundred times a day I answered that same plea. I would tell her who would bake my pies if I left you? She would grin.”
He stirred his coffee and took a sip, “ I’m the last one. Friends, family, you name it. We didn’t have no kids. I got a nephew somewhere in Arizona, ain’t seen him since he went off to college." He waited a moment then went on, " There ain't going to be no one left to give you a quote when I go. I reckon I'm going to have to give it to you now."
He looked at me to see my reaction. For some reason, the image of an aged bald eagle came to mind as Melvin stared at me, his chin tilted up and his watery blue eyes magnified by his glasses. I made a point of getting my own glasses out and fished a small blue note pad out of my rear pants pocket. The note pad was slightly contoured to the curve of my ass. I never went anywhere without a note pad and the silver Pentel pen I took out of my pocket. "Go ahead and shoot, Soldier."
Melvin sputtered, at first, the moment was a bit too much, but eventually he rose to the occasion, shifted his shoulders forward and leaned in toward me. His hand lifted and his front fore finger pointed at me as he spoke, tiny flecks of spittle gathered at the corner of his mouth, " Life is beautiful at times." I could see the vision of his precious Clara form over his head as he spoke, " but it's tragic too." The vision quickly turned into an image of his brother lying dead on his sofa. " And it definitely ain't for sissies," The vision collapsed and he was back in the moment, "Signed, Melvin R. Kemble." When he finished, he leaned back and gave one final thrust of his forefinger.
I wrote down his words in the note pad and honored that last fore finger thrust by carefully exaggerating the exclamation point. Melvin wavered for a bit; I guess the excitement of dictating his last words was too much for him. He finally pulled a large, red calico handkerchief out of his vest pocket and blew his nose. I think what he really wanted was a furtive opportunity to wipe away a couple of tears that had leaked from the corner of his left eye. He made a production of wiping his nose cleanly and then balled the handkerchief up and put it back into his pocket. I put away the note pad and the pen, and we sat there quietly for a moment, our eyes locked into the soulful solemnity of what had just happened.
Melvin was in the Battle of the Bulge. I found this out while we played poker. He told a story that he said he had never told anyone although the way our poker companions rolled their eyes; I knew that this wasn’t true.
He and his best friend Tom were shivering in a frozen foxhole when a bunch of “Goddamn Krauts” crawled over a small knoll in front of them. It was intense for about ten minutes, and when it was done, he turned to tell Tom “Good shooting,” but there was bullet hole where Tom’s left eye used to be.
He sat his cup down on the blue Formica table top and stared back across time to a snow covered field in Germany.
While we sat in there in our own little worlds with the noise and the bustle of the casino in the background, I began to think about my own taste of pie. Jenny had a shy little smile too. It would come out when I was kissing the back of her neck as she was trying to put her make-up on in the morning. I knew exactly what Melvin was saying when he said that Clara’s shy grin never failed to fill him with joy. That little smile was all that was needed. It made me feel protective; it made me want to battle dragons.
I also had memories that I never spoke about but spoke about all of the time. I was sure that Melvin that turned his into a myth as he retold it as I had done with mine. When he spoke of Tommy’s death, I could visualize a storyteller speaking to a mesmerized audience twenty thousand years ago as a small tribe of forest dwellers huddled around a campfire on a dark, autumn night. I could hear the wind and the muffled voices and see their nodding heads and the fright in the eyes of the young as the storyteller recounted how he had faced the snarling wolf head on and plunged a spear into its chest.
I’m pretty sure Melvin was remembering things that never happened, he was remembering the way it should have been, the way he wished it had been. When he said he saw Tommy’s head after the fire fight had ended, I sensed that Tommy had died when the shooting began, and Melvin had hunkered down trembling in the snow fearing his own demise. When he said, he avenged Tommy’s death tenfold afterwards, I knew he only wished he had avenged his friend’s death but could not muster the nerve to kill the enemy. All he wanted to do was survive the war, to go home, meet his darling Clara, and taste a bite of apple pie.
I was glad that he had never killed an enemy. It only made him more human. Most people are not killers. It takes a special breed to plunge a spear into a snarling wolf, to get that blood on your hands and your soul. I’m glad that they do exist, for protection sake, but I am also glad that I am not one of them. I would much rather write an obituary.
When he found out about Jennie leaving me, he became strident, “You go get that woman back. I don’t care what you got to do. You do it.”
I tried to explain how crazy she made me, but it didn’t matter to him. “You think you’re crazy now. You wait,” he flashed me a bitter smile. He took a bite of the apple pie before him and made a big production of spitting it out into napkin. “Store bought.”
I laughed and studied his face. He noticed this.
"What do you see?" he asked.
"I asked you what do you see when you look at me like that?" His tone wasn't angry at all. I looked into his magnified eyes and saw a question that needed an answer.
"Well," I said stalling for a little time. I made the point of studying him up and down. The right answer finally came to me, " I see a work of art."
The words caught him by surprise; he smiled a bit, " A damned Picasso I would guess. It takes a old geezer like me to understand just how fragmented a man really is, how life is just a bunch of pieces tossed against a canvas."
That statement threw me. There was nothing leading up to it that would have suggested such an insight. I had assumed for no valid reason that Melvin had been some kind of clerk or person who worked on repairing things, more used to reading how-to manuals than books about art or even literature. I took a sip of coffee before I answered. " I was thinking more along the lines of Rembrandt. I once saw a drawing he had made of his father. There was something about it that made me study it for several minutes, a sense of longing; your expression was the same."
"Longing? Oh, yes, what an old man could say about longing. That's good. Most people, I suspect, would probably think of Warhol, a squeezed up tube of Colgate lying on a bathroom counter and the image reflected in a mirror."
"You are probably right." I toasted him with my mug. He picked up his own mug and toasted back.
A minute slipped by before he muttered sadly, "Lazarus, be glad that you can see the art in wrinkled faces. I pity those who only see us as debris."
" Yeah, I can see that. Hey, Melvin what's your biggest regret in life? If you don't mind me asking."
He answered immediately as if he had thinking about that very question for awhile, " I don't regret anything, Lazarus. That seems like an awful waste of time."
" That, now that surprises me. It seems like old age is the time where a person would reflect on their life and the mistakes that they made."
" I didn't say nothing about not reflecting: I said that I don't regret anything in my life. You see people see this part here as the breakdown of all the things that make up life."
"And you don't?"
"Not in the least. I see as the end of one thing." He waited for me to ask.
"And what would that be, life?"
" No, illusion, its when we lose illusion. When you get this close to dying you lose the ability to lie to yourself. If you are a liberal, you leave off being a liberal; if you are a Republican, you leave off being a Republican. If you're a teacher; you start to learn; if you are a hater; you quit hating."
"If you are a lover; you quit loving?"
" No, never. If you think you are a lover; you learn what it really means to love."
" That's an interesting take on things, Mr. Kemble. I'm impressed." I toasted him again.
" You bet your ass it is, Pilgrim. It's true too."
A few minutes after twelve thirty, his caretaker came from playing the slots. She was a cheerful, little Filipina woman named Dolly who had just hit a hundred dollar jackpot. She was very happy and waved the five crisp twenty-dollar bills in Melvin’s face and then held them up so I could see. He smiled sheepishly. She put the money in a small red clutch and made sure Melvin was secure in his seat. I waved good-bye, and he nodded to me as she rolled him away. He flashed me a bitter little smile before he rolled out the door. It wasn’t much, but it said, “Don’t forget about me, and don’t go starting on my obituary yet. I’m old, one legged, and already more in the mist than in reality, but don’t throw the dirt on me yet.”
I sat there by myself for several minutes and thought about my day. I had played cards for about three hours before I took a short break and walked around the casino to get the blood in my legs flowing. It seemed that every corner of the immense building held a hidden secret or two.
There was the row of slot machines back against the rear wall. I hit a $2,400 jackpot one time on a nickel machine at the very end of the row, and the way that Jenny reacted you would have swore that I had won a million dollars. She jumped, clapped and laughed so loudly that all the people around us turned and stared, some of them smiling and others looking as if we had doomed them to a losing night.
It really felt great for that moment in time. I felt like a conquering hero, and knew even then that Jenny’s joyous laughter was the real prize that night.
At the other end of the same row of machines, there was a slot machine where Jennie had sat down late one night while feeling a little bit tipsy and dropped her phone on the carpet right in the path of a two hundred pound blonde woman in tight green stretch pants. The woman crushed the phone before she even saw it.
The phone was annihilated along with Jenny’s spirits. She had had a very rough day arguing with her boss, and the crushed phone was the final straw. She lost it right there in front of a slot machine and began sobbing loudly. It took me several minutes to calm her down. I wrapped my arms around her and kept whispering over and over, “ Everything will be okay, Babe.”
The first memory made me smile, the second grabbed my heart and squeezed. As joyous as she was when I won that jackpot, she actually felt even better when I wrapped my arms around her and assured her that things were going to be okay. The intensity of the memory jolted me with a sudden wave of painful regret as I realized that that kind of assurance was all Jenny ever wanted, shelter and strength, someone to protect her from the storms.
Instead she got a runner. My parents fighting in front of my brother and I when we were young had done something to me, something that told me that when danger arises, it was always best to seek safety first. My whole life, up to that point, was a living example of the flight part of “fight or flight”.
The second memory made me very, very sad and also did something to my head; I slipped into a deep, dark place. I thought I had completely blocked off the entrance to the tunnel that led back to the dark place with a landslide of huge boulders of diversion, delusion, and self-deception. It made realize, for just a moment, that life is always just a paper-thin illusion that enables people to survive their days. I had somehow fallen through a hole in that illusion and had dropped into the churning ocean.
I finally sat down at the slot machine where Jenny had dropped her phone. The large, loud, colorful machine had a Dragon’s Gold theme and featured an image of a fearsome looking, green and gold dragon sleeping on a huge pile of golden coins. Every now and then, the dragon would awake and breathe flames across the screen accompanied by the sound of flames and the shriek of the dragon. The fire-breathing dragon was supposed to announce a special opportunity to win a big jackpot. Sometimes you won, but usually you just lost.
I didn’t want to remember Jenny right then, so I pulled out my beat-up brown leather wallet extracted a twenty-dollar bill and inserted it into the machine. I didn’t even pay attention as I played but mostly stared at the sleeping dragon. As my credits dwindled, so did my resolve. When the machine said that I had lost the last of the money, I sat there staring down the dragon.
I suddenly remembered a time when I was reading The Brothers Karamazov, not so much what was in the book, but the time that I was reading it. I was sitting outside in the front of my house taking in some of the late October morning sun. I read the passage where Father Zossima’s dying brother says, “Don’t cry, mother. Life is paradise, but we won’t see it, if we would, we should have heaven on earth the next day.”
The words moved something inside of me. I felt the shifting. I was sitting in a white plastic chair wearing a black t-shirt and pair of black gym shorts. I began to fumble around in my pockets searching for a yellow highlighter and a pen. It was always my way back then to highlight important passages and write a note on what I felt it meant. But, I had no pen or highlighter. The words came out unbidden, “Lord, how will I remember?” Those innocent words, coming from somewhere deep inside of me, caused me to cry. I looked up at the dragon again, the dragon looked back as a few tears slipped silently down across my face.
I looked around quickly to see if anybody else was watching the spectacle of a guy tearing up as he stared down a slot machine. A restroom was nearby, so I got up and entered it hurriedly whispering to myself, “It will be all right. Everything will be okay, Danny.” It had worked with Jenny, not so much for me. I went into a stall and put the lid down on the toilet and sat there quietly for a few minutes listening to the shuffling feet and other sad noises of those who came in. My phone beeped, so I pulled it out and looked down at a text message one of my oldest friends had sent.
“Danny, are you and Jenny separated? Q just saw her having lunch at Falstaff’s with some dude. She said they were holding hands and stuff.”
That was the final straw. I placed my hands into my hands and cried. After a few minutes, I could hear someone outside who wanted to use the stall I was in, so I pulled myself together as best I could and opened the door. While washing my hands, I stared deeply into the empty eyes of a stranger looking back at me in the mirror.
I resolved to do what I had originally set out to do that morning, to do something, anything but sit around cursing the world that I created around me. As I started to walk out of the restroom, another man came in, an older Mexican gentleman wearing a black cowboy hat. We danced that awkward dance required of such random meetings, I stepped around, we nodded and I reentered the casino floor.
It seemed to me that whole atmosphere of the casino had changed while I had been in the restroom. The faces of the people all around me, the risk takers and the holy fools, once joyous and excited at the prospect of pulling a blessing out of machine, had morphed into rodent like masks of lemmings approaching the edge of the cliff, subliminally searching for some form of redemption, their eyes locked on the screens of the slot machines.
I stumbled through the throng of frantic risk takers and made my way back to the crowded card room and started playing cards again. It was everything I could do to stay focused enough to play. I finally started paying attention to the things that Melvin was saying.
I sat back down at the table, but it was almost like I wasn't even there. I was skating on thin ice by gambling without focus but couldn't seem to muster up enough caring to leave and go home. My perspective had somehow switched from the first person to the omniscient; as I glanced around the table and the crowded card room, I wasn’t sizing up opponents any longer; instead, I felt a general inkling of the pain that had brought us all together on that night and at that place.
I suddenly understood that Jo-Jo, the brown-skinned mechanic sitting to my right, had rushed there after a hard day’s work in order to gain some semblance of control in his life. Jo-Jo had five young kids under the age of twelve, a crazy alcoholic mother-in-law, and an equally domineering wife living all together in a small three-bedroom house on the edge of a parched, barren field about a mile from the casino. I somehow knew that to Jo Jo, a great poker player, playing cards well helped to somewhat stave off the darkness and that feeling of impotence that sucked away at the small stockpiles of hope that he had left.
Melvin, on the other hand, was there just trying to feel alive. He was already three quarters of the way below the surface, and his every other day visit to the card room was a really more of a beckoning hand sticking out of the quicksand. He wore his hat and his ribbons and his bars to tell whoever who saw him that he had existed for real once upon a time and had left the pieces of himself scattered all over the landscape, his innocence on that snow covered field in Germany and his heart in a neglected graveyard just outside of Concord. All he had left was the remainder of his brain and a few tattered memories which were already in the process of dissolving into nothingness.
Me, I no longer knew who I was. It was like I no longer existed. Jenny's vanishing into the fog the way she did had shaken my earth upon its very axis. I was San Francisco in 1906, Chicago in 1871, and Nuremberg in 1945. I had gone to sleep one night and awoken to a landscape of ruin and debris. I was wearing an ankle bracelet around my heart, one that constantly trembled with the constant reminder of my transgressions.
My feet were frantically fidgeting in the air like Fred Flintstone’s as they searched for a bit of traction and firm footing. I knew that even my past was no longer true; instead of living with a loving wife all of those years, I had just shared an illusion with a deadly stranger, an intruder spreading termites on the walls and floors of our home, and the man I thought I knew as Danny Lazarus was just a fictional character in a story heading for either climax or resolution; I wasn't sure which.
I stayed in the poker game for most of the afternoon before I quit and went back to the casino floor to play slots. I knew I didn’t have anything to eat at home, so I later decided to go the café before going home. That was where Melvin and his caretaker had found me after he had lost his poker stake.
The booth where I was sitting had been where Jennie and I had spent many a moment after a night of gambling. It had become a place of refuge for us both, a place where we momentarily stepped off the wheel and relaxed after losing money we couldn’t afford to lose.
The last time we sat in the booth was right before her mother died. I think it was the last time I saw her smile before she descended into a kind of madness. She sat there with a beatific smile on her face, like Beatrice standing at the entry to the underworld calling to Dante, “Come with me, love, there is something that I want you to see.”
Afraid, the best I could do was chuckle. A few days later the doorway was closed and she was lost to me forever.
I was lost in a memory of the time that Jenny and I had spent the night at the casino hotel instead of going home. A loud couple in the booth behind me started smoking and the ceiling fans blew a thin blue haze my way, suddenly, a waitress dropped a tray of glasses behind the counter, and a dark shadow suddenly blocked my light. The smell of perfume completely snapped me back to reality.
I looked up and there was very pretty redhead standing in front of me in a short green dress and a black coat. I stared at her for a few seconds in silence as if she were something that had suddenly materialized from my thoughts. I wasn’t quite sure that she wasn’t.
She ignored my stare, smiled and said, “I didn’t mean to scare you, but aren’t you Daniel Lazarus?”
“ Well, that depends. Sometimes I am, and sometimes I don’t quite know who I am,” I answered trying to sound cool.
The line must have worked because she laughed. Actually, it was more like a girlish giggle, “ I read your column all of the time. I know it probably sounds a little ghoulish, but it is my favorite part of the paper.”
“Why, thank you.” I replied and then I noticed her nervously eyeing the other seat, so I followed with, “ Would you like to sit down and join me in a cup of coffee?”
“I would love that,” she said as she slid into the seat. She removed her black coat revealing a low cut blouse that showed off her best assets. She had a great rack. When a redhead is beautiful, she is usually very beautiful, and such was the case with Sylvia. That, I found out, was her name, Sylvia Nerval.
She said she was married but barely. She told me her husband Gary taught literature at a local college and that their marriage was really more of an arrangement than anything else.
She wanted out of it but was confused about how to go about it. I explained how Jennie had quickly and expertly extricated herself from our marriage.
“Oh,” she said shocked, “ I could never do that. In the first place, I still love him, and he does need me. His temper is out of control at times, but at other times, he is as lost as a small child. I just don’t know what to do.”
After we made small talk for a while, I asked, “What is that intrigues you so much about the column?”
She was blowing on her coffee and then looked up at me with pretty jade eyes, “ The subject matter mainly. You also write very well.”
“Most people, I would think, would be uncomfortable admitting to being fascinated by the subject of death.”
“Who said anything about death? Your column is about life. It is about living people who are dealing with grief and who are searching for answers on how to do that. I find it very life affirming,” she even got a little bit worked up as she said it.
“I never thought it about it like that I guess. I figured I was just doing service to that dead. I didn’t like the thought of people being just snuffed out a candle and forgotten.”
“ I do like that quality too, but the most beautiful things are written by people who are just trying to stand tall while being buffeted by the storm of life.”
“ That’s nice. Mind if I use it?” I laughed.
“ To be honest, I think I stole it from one of the letters.”
We talked for about a couple of hours, first in the booth and then later in a quiet corner of the darkened bar on the second floor of the casino. It was late, I had long forgotten on how to finish these things off. I wasn’t sure I was supposed to finish it off. I was very confused about what I should do. I was still madly in love with Jenny and then there was the fact that she was married. I froze and after a few seconds, I decided to let go and see what happened, but I still hesitated.
Luckily, Sylvia saved me, “ I have a room at the hotel. Would you like to join me for a nightcap?”
I don’t how I answered so coolly because everyone of my five senses was jumping up and down inside my head high fiving each other like a bunch of thirteen-year-old schoolboys. I stood up, took her hand, and helped her out of booth as smoothly as James Freaking Bond, and I mean the one played by Sean Connery.
In her room, she fixed me a scotch and water from the contents of the mini-bar. I made a show of drinking it slowly and deliberately. When I sat the glass down, she came forward and kissed me. I kissed her back, strangely enough, a little hesitant at first.
She was hungry. I was hungry too. One of the worst things about a marriage in trouble is the long enforced celibacy prior to the final moments. I took off my clothes and lay back on the tan covered bedspread. She stood before me, unpinned the rest of her hair and let it fall in front of her face, and slowly and sensually she removed her dress. Beneath, she was wearing very expensive looking leopard skin lingerie. Normally, I didn’t much like underwear like that. The animal print told me things about a woman that scared me.
This time, I lay there calmly, resigned to my fate. If she wanted to devour me, then I was ready, but before I went, I just wanted to feel my fingers on some warm flesh, to smell a woman’s perfume in her hair, to hear warm breath close to my ear, and to just let go and release myself to the wind and pretend that I didn't have a problem in the world.
It was wonderful. For a few moments, I wasn’t a broken down old fool, I was a young fool again, and must admit it was good. Afterwards, lying there entwined, I confessed to her that I never knew what to do afterwards. I usually just kissed Jenny, then got up and went to the bathroom and washed up.
“No wonder she left you, you insensitive clod, “ she laughed. “ A woman just wants to be held. You don’t have to say a word.”
So, I held her until she fell asleep. Then I studied her face while she slept. She was gorgeous, much too gorgeous, in fact. Why would such a beautiful creature suddenly appear out of nowhere right after my wife left me? I wasn’t buying the fact that this was some random event.
After several minutes contemplating, I reached the conclusion that she had to be an angel sent forth and instructed with the mission of giving me some hope. I also knew if I looked tomorrow for a professor named Gerald Nerval at the UC Freeport there would be no such professor, or even at Freeport Lutheran.
I fell asleep shortly afterwards and woke up right before the sun came up. I dressed myself quietly, wrote a short note on the pad by the phone that said “Thank you, Angel. Good luck getting your wings!” Then I kissed her forehead and stooped down and snatched up her animal print panties, and left.
I don’t know why I took the panties. Was it like a hunter keeping proof of the kill? Or, was it that something felt so wrong about an angel in leopard skin panties?