If life was put at a mountain summit, in a jag of rocky peaks, and sprout grass, midlight is the clouded fog; if anything is clear, it is the evermore. The midlight was placid, assuring; it was twelve or so daily hours of mending within the rested nostalgias of the 1940’s-era retro couch garishing the Coney Island flat, aside a sitting bounty of green, and red grapes. The salient truth was heart failure, a disability unlike any maladies, didn’t command his disposition. He did not feel any worse. He could not do many things. Travels to İo were as exhilarating as streaming a Carl Sagan on decaf, in a bluing blur upon a five-star yacht. He juggled the house keys. A FedEx package lay by the door. He recognized the handwriting of the return address; it was sent by his friend, Joe, an undergraduate professor at New York University, or NYU. They called it New York University, but technically it was not, at least not yet. He, Joe, and a third colleague, Milt, a full professor, were actually employed by Marsh College, a baronial institution, like nearby Pace University. Marsh was founded in 1836 upon the burgeoning wherewithal of Joshua Marsh, who was seeking substantial credit for inventing a condiment, dubbed “mustard”; the discovery was never affirmed, and most privately jested Joshua possibly ingested far too much relish; the school thrived, yet, and became an authority for patents, forthright, as it were, in reliably failing to pursue its own. Marsh neighbored NYU by West 3rd Street, adjacent to the Mercer Playground, and it was acquired for additional storage; while Marsh was reasonably prestigious manor, the minions of the college instantly retyped their vitaes, and began calling Marsh NYU nonetheless. He preferred the seminal, secluded, tree-friendly Marsh, and blamed capitalism, and then blamed New York, for the cozen excise of a medieval wonderland. Joe was more beatific. Milt was proud. The former was a maven for music from the nineteen-seventies, especially vinyl disk recordings in 45 RPMs, or “forty-fives.” The FedEx package enclosed Joe’s latest Flea Market find, and he hoped for a more recent CD. A similar evolution arose in the vicinity of Coney Hospital, where a wealthy tycoon.com purchased acres of land in 2015; it was nearby along Avenue X and Ocean Parkway to the sturdy buildings of the venerable Coney Island Hospital. The financier, a rotund, and boastful man who courted a rotund, and boastful wife, was diagnosed with infertility, or so the rumors consigned, and after constructing Brooklyn Medical Center, devoted it to the health care of children. No one in New York called it Brooklyn Medical Center, except the very pedantic; it was “Coney Hospital,” and it expanded quickly into general practice. The dot.com who scissored the tape to christen it Brooklyn Medical Center mistakenly acclaimed it to be “Coney Hospital,” and, rather emulously, the Ocean Parkway facility recast as “old Coney Hospital,” in the speech. He was sure the turning world would one day rename New York City, and that would be grand, an example of the teaming power of American generations. He considered the latter as a subject for a seminar at NYU, but soon forgot. This is America, he thought. He keyed open the door. He weighed the FedEx package, and tossed it in the palm of his hand. He had chided Joe with a challenge to find a Robert Palmer forty-five at the flea markets in Brooklyn, or even Florida, and brightly presumed it was impossible. Palmer was a more recent artist, from the nineteen-eightees, say, excelling past vinyl, and eight-tracks. A yellow sticky-note was attached to a new 45 RPM captured within the slim wrappings, and whereupon – in scraggy print, he could see Joe joshing the print – was scribbled “Can We Still Be Friends?” And there was a veritable trove of Robert Palmer works, in both vinyl and 45 RPM, with a newly-minted “Simply Irresistible.” He said simply, “Wow,” and set the FedEx on the kitchen table, blessed. “Wow,” he said again. The precarious eve of medicated insomnia, a Big Valley of rest, an ostensible cure for a still incurable disease, lay ahead of him, after attempting to replicate the culinary tactics of Gordon Ramsey. He pressed a plastic magnet on the door of the refrigerator, installing a toll-free number for a 24-hour Nurse Advice line, and then mulled the statistical odds of congestive heart failure, CHF. He mulled the numbers, the odds, as if they described the condition of somebody else: the chances of survival in the 1st, and the 10th year were bleak – 1 in 4; the survival rate in between was 50-50. This was the first week. Solemn. He said, right away, “complications,” like he might have said “snow.” The odyssey demanded facts; probity, and discipline, were integral to his nature; but more resolutely, and staring intospace, he knew whatever was going to happen was not going to happen to someone else.
Midlight ensued with the darkness, and eased through the apartment like the Fog Bowl. Bah, he said; no one has heard of the Fog Bowl, – it was a football game at Soldier Field in 1988, when, and where, a weird merger of hot and cold air engulfed the Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles in Lake Shore clouds, the only part of Chicago in the fog, – and he was still needed to help recall it. The midlight was a normal breach, an aperture, and not merely mystical. He proceeded in the raiment of wee hours, in a murky tirade of sirens, to discover the voice of a women. It was a distant voice, and unfamiliar; it was aimless, foregone, easy to discern, and hapless to place; a whispering. He couldn’t hear the words. It was loneliness in a busy, populous world, and in the midlight, he could see Jesus with his sheep; Buddha, under a tree. This was far more compelling than dust around the clock, or dishes in the sink. He hopelessly watched the grandfather clock strike four o’clock. He chuckled about one memory of the Miller Hourglass: He had described the chimer once to an overnight guest, Pearl, his partner in romance for almost five years. She was a Unitarian Universalist, and she explained there is a difference between Unitarian, and Universalist, late one night, in the balmy air of spring, a gentle breeze arising through open screens. Her father was a minister in the Ukraine. Pearl was an emigre. They talked absently about religion, her raison d’etre, in the New York flat, amid candles, inexpensive wine from CVS, and Ritz crackers set in a row like checkers on the Karastan rug. She poised to view their reflection in the glass panel of the clock. Joe had jested earlier in the evening how Pearl was so very thin, and embellished it by paraphrasing Ezekiel, a Hebrew exile in Babylon, in the 6th Century of B.C., claiming Pearl, whose actual name was Kapitolina, was comprised of “dry bones.” She responded by hoisting empty cellophane wrappers of jack cheese into the air, and shook the box of Ritz crackers, careful not to spill Merlot. He issued her to “the kitchen” from the passage to get “‘wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt.” Pearl strolled there, unadorned, and he watched her, and returned to his distorted image in the Hourglass, continuing from IX with the rumblings of grape: “And go through the midst of the city! Even through the midst of Jerusalem! And put a mark of the Tau on the foreheads of the men, who sigh and groan.” The voice was probably a delusion; there was surely a simple explanation. He dismissed it, staring glumly at the clock, and into his memories, alone. Ah! He bent his knees adroitly, and stood with Pearl now at his side. The glass was like a circus mirror, and it configured their size, and shape. He said, “That is Universalist!” Pearl frowned briefly, not really entertained, and she stumbled to a chair. He valiantly repeated the alm of the Tau toward the strange woman’s voice. “Put a mark of the Tau on the foreheads of men, who sigh and groan.” She would go away.
He awoke at Brooklyn Medical Center after a marathon binge of Jeopardy against Alexa, and not a winner. Less instructive, in fact rather startling, was the discovery of Mare Ligeia, the candy striper, a Coney Hospital volunteer, in the chair next to the bed. Mare had returned to complain about his foul language. “Alexa is just a machine, you know,” she intoned. He glanced at her, immediately recalling only how Mare’s arrival first inspired him to escape through the hospital window, and rappel over the roof of the cafeteria to the pleasant streets of Brooklyn. It was the morning of his discharge. He knew why Mare was here. He had mentioned, in the Commons Area, how the candy striper had “expired” candy; it seemed like a harmless observation, the afternoon before, privately, to another patient in the Commons Area, a Great Room with large windows, greenery, and a flat-screen TV; the patients gathered there, and sunk dolefully into destiny in overstuffed chairs. Mare Ligea was staring at him narrowly in the gray, steel chair. He decided Mare couldn’t prevent his discharge. No way. He diffused the tension with conversation. “Terrible about Maurice, huh?”
Mare Ligea replied, “Maurice?”
He gestured to the empty bed next to him. “Maurice,” he said. “Died in his sleep. Two days ago. You remember Maurice?”
Mare blinked sternly, and said, “I don’t know who you mean. No one else has been in the room. It’s a private room.” His heart skipped a beat. They had played hearts late one afternoon, Maurice, and the attorney, H.L. Tauri. Mare was testing him. He let it go. He practiced breathing exercises in Mare’s watchful eye; it was a habit, the exercises, one of Kapitolina’s relatives taught him, her older sister, who was now deceased, and it occurred to him it may be a way to combat his malady. Deep breathing exercises strengthened the muscles of his phalanx and his lungs, and were similar to birthing drills; it had arguably had saved his life. He began deep breathing in the spring, annoyed by strange coughing fits, what he believed were the symptoms of acid reflux. He tried doses of over-the-counter remedies for reflux in the ensuing months, and searched it online. He was deep breathing in his Coney Island flat that day, waiting for the ambulance, he recalled. His neighbor, Red, chose the fateful moment to pilfer scotch, knowing where the key was hidden, and he called “9-1-1,” in the moment, minutes, seconds, as the curtains of life, and death converged. An embolism, a ruthless, peripatetic blood clot, was cruising in a major vein, and venturing to his heart, and later dispensed by calm, insistent detachment of a nurses’ aide. She forced him to inure the clot, to sit, and not stand, as was his habit, and force it to dissolve, rather than breath deeply, his usual response; in the unnatural instant, in the flex, he did stop breathing, and said, wheezily, “I’m not breathing!” The nurses’ aide nodded silently, and he tried deep breathing, deep gasping, in the clutches of the aide’s strong arms, alone with her in the lab at a CTR. He would not lie flat for the scan, as it was when the coughing would begin. The embolism dissipated, sheared in the blood stream before it reached his heart. Staff mentioned matter-of-factly it was one of many clots. This was concern. It was only seconds after the congestion was relieved “color” returned to his system, and again, normal was normal: He might easily have gone to a Mets’ game. His chin dropped with the news of a subway full of emboli. He let his head fall weakly against the ample green cushions of a chair in the Commons Area. An elderly woman rose in front of the television, and leaving, blocked his view. No one else was using the Great Room. He strained to see the TV from the chair; for some reason, Apollo was landing on the moon. He closed his eyes, and breathed, contently. Blood thinners provided air support. Kapitolina, “Pearl,” told him once he liked to confuse wit, and innocence. He began to understand what she meant.
A featured guest in a municipal ambulance is like being the king of a foreign country. He was boosted like Cleopatra in a palanquin by his devoted bearers, but feared his reign might end too swiftly. Alas, the royal carriage was outrageously paused by a cross of two black-and-white planks, and pulsing red lights of alert signals for a Brooklyn Railroad Stop. “Wha-aat?” he stammered. “We can’t go through this?” The driver was cautious, and glum. She acknowledged him, offering, “How?” He couldn’t speak. He thought all the borough’s Brooklyn Rail Stops were elevated in a recent display of brilliant New York civil engineering, but they had apparently managed to find the only one still situated on the street. He glowered, changing the subject in his mind. He called Pearl by her formal name, Kapitolina, usually, and wondered why, deciding it was because he was college instructor, and instructors were usually formal. Kapitolina would not take this very well. He had his cell phone with him, but didn’t dare use it. He was ambulatory, and it must seem urgent; otherwise, they might stop at a deli, he supposed, a pass at humor. He had secerned leaving the bathroom, earlier, to reply to a text message; if he was to suddenly die at a Railroad intersection, it would not be answered. He defied the common sense, and flipped the cell open with one hands; the emergency medical technician, the EMT, looked at him, skeptically, but perhaps the general purpose of this accident had already been divulged by The Fates. He groaned. Not really. The text message attached a blurry pix of Claire, one of his former students. She was wearing scrubs. It was hardly worth the heroic effort. He clasped it shut. The attendant blinked. He smiled. He heard bells of the RR stop, and hope surged the jaunt might soon end at the hospital. Students, he rued, in the still-revving, stalling ambulance; whatever. He opened the phone, and thumbed the icon again, to read the text, white, in a green shade: “Cll me, & you be (sic) my 1st custmr.” Sales call. She was now a massage therapist. Rilly. He ignored the spelling, and translated it, as he often did: “Call me right away, and you can be my first customer.” He hefted in the gurney, and squinted at the road. The RR scissors were relenting. He was perplexed to see Claire, the rambunctious twenty-something, and she was also fuming, at the hood of her vintage Mercedes, just two cars away on the other side; not so ironic, it was a mile from his apartment. She was probably trying to visit. The ambulance engine roared, and rumbled. He realized in passing how Claire was a close friends, but, prompted to reality, surrendered the cell phone into the EMT’s open hand. He was preparing to review his vital signs, with unnoticed, anxious beads of sweat dripping from his forehead. He resolved no more excitement. This was important. He lied flat of the gurney. Claire was a fiery, red-head from Ohio, originally. She had taken one of his lectures, and retook it, before dropping out of Marsh, a psychology major in her junior year, claiming to “need a shrink.” He knew she had recently-acquired a state license to be a massage therapist – not a masseuse, this was a “bad word” – in New York City. He was ambivalent. Claire was an enigma. She did impress his neighbor, Red, who waited for him one morning in the hallway, and blearily told him dirty jokes. The train bound past the intersection, bounced over tracks, and burst into a clearing path to Brooklyn Medical Center. Good. He didn’t see Claire’s car pass, or think to watch; in the following days, as the hospital wrested life away from Buddha’s Hand, her text was forgotten.
He did not completely open his eyes. He noticed someone else in the Common Area, standing next to him. He closed his eyes. He had nothing to say. The person didn’t speak, either. It was a shadow. The person – the shadow – was Maurice. It was a panoply of the strange. He did not want to talk to a ghost. Was he a lucky man? Probably not: Maurice’s image faded in the clutch of a passing cloud; but it did return to occupy the adjoining space. Maurice’s gaze was tough, grim, straight upon him; the shadow was casual, and shifted its weight, one of Maurice’s personal habits. It seemed to possess no shortage of time, no notice of its relative welcome; another trait. Was it Maurice? He summoned his courage, and confronted it. “Maurice,” he said. The shadow became more genial. Maurice said, “Beware the hedons.” He nodded courteously after a moment. He implicitly understood this caution, but didn’t explicitly; it was not something he could explain to anybody. He acknowledged. He felt safe to ignore Maurice.
The caution about the Hedons, an anamnesis could be derived from Siduri, in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, among the first written words: “Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy…These things alone are the concern of men.” That was the hedons. They believed if there an ounce of pleasure to be gleaned from cheating the time of death, it should be prized. Twentieth century writers of existentialism suggested hedons, with the joy, and glory of earth, never would choose to ascend to a heaven, and might perhaps crowd away other souls. He glanced quickly at the shadow, and there was a shadow there, but it was not Maurice; the figure resembled himself. “There is no time,” said the voice. “Beware the hedons. Beware thin air.”
He was not especially an extrovert, but the darknesses of ten days of lonely recovery were many fold. Aji had dijected through İo to 2544 Sombrero in the locales north in Laniakea. The shadow, however, followed him to Coney Island. He supposed it was beyond the call of duty for apparitions, and blamed it, partly, in the midlight, on a joke about Wal-Mart, musing about a sign, “Beer, Wine & Spirits.” The dark figure was not amused, but bemused. It encouraged him to speak with abandon. To speak his mind. He complained, in the dead of the night, “What is this, Patmos?” A small Greek Island in the Aegean Sea, Patmos was where the Biblical John reportedly received the key details of The Book of Revelation. The darkened figure moved freely, if slightly. Dark figures seldom maneuver very much, perhaps it’s an unwritten bylaw, as it might startle any ordinary New Yorkers, and most earthlubbers. The figure was not empathetic. (He quipped, without saying it, “He’s been through this before.”)
The shadow responded to the inquiry about Patmos, and replied, “Not at all.”
The tone of a voice was normal, like a man waiting for a cafeteria to open at lunch time. “No, not close.”
“I supposed you’re Death,” he said. “You’ve dismounted from your dark horse for a few terse, and knowing comments.”
“Nah,” said the figure, defensively. “That’s a huge jump to conclusions.”
It quelled his heart to notice the figure, Death, he called it, was a lot like him. His gasp passed instantly. He didn’t answer. It was the shadow who broke the awkward silence. “Don’t dawdle in limbo. Do something.”
It then roamed the Coney Island living room, with the smell of after-shave. “Limbo?” he allowed, making conversation. “You work days? I always wondered.”
The shadow nodded agreeably. It said, “Write things down. Use a pencil, if you want.”
“Why does that seem funny?”
The ghost replied, mulling, “Maybe it’s –Universalist.”
He grew less enamored with the realm of darkness. “I’m totally unprepared for this. How long do I have? I have things to do. Do you know?”
“Impossible to say,” the shadow responded. “But stay awake.”
“I got that much! I haven’t slept in months.”
The shadow brimmed, and parted the window curtain with his finger to view New York. “I’ll be outside.”
It advised, “Misfortune doesn’t mean more of it won’t follow.”
“That’s kind of cynical.”
“Alright. Stay awake.”
“Awake, and aware,” said the ghost said, returning to him. “Why, why do people always forget I’m here? That never made any sense.”
“Shouldn’t I ask the questions?” he said.
The shadow said, “I can only stay so long. Write things down.”
“Not poems, no,” it said. “Write about space. About – İo.”
The shadow elapsed with a guttural laugh, which seemed to resonate through the neighborhood, and then it reappeared. “You owe.”
“Don’t you think?”
“I never thought about it.”
The ghost said, “A lot of people owe. You want to break even. And then some.”
The shadow asked, “Do you want to go the beach, or stay stuck in traffic? Things are not entirely free.”
“You mean, karma. Proverbially. You’d don’t mean money.”
“Your yin and yang are not in balance. You have to give something, to unsnarl it all. You know, there’s a lot of houses in the kingdom, but not all of them have cable.”
He paused to think about it, and then asked, “Am I going to heaven?”
“Everyone thinks they’re going to heaven,” said the ghost. “Most of them just visit.”
“Do what? What should do? I can think of a lot of things. Tell me what to do.”
“Maybe,” the shadow observed, “In your case, you should ‘sit, and wait.’”
“Nathan’s!” Aji exclaimed. “There it is!” She hustled to buy a German sausage and peppers from the deserted Coney Island boardwalk, presently scaring away for winter in the offing. He lent her some cash, more or less, continuously, and he didn’t mind. She lent him the LifeRaft®.
Aji said, “Nathan’s is a good reason to visit Earth, yes!”
Her dispatch by the American Legion from Sombrero was a mission to find an aeronaut, Will Adorjan, the son of Hydra’s noted hero, Bud Adorjan. She explored Earth for years. Will disappeared from Coda, a tiny orb in the vicinity of Lazarus Taxa, in Virgo, in the Sombrero Galaxy; and not “Pandora,” one of Aji’s mirthful drolls, still lying low. Will’s voyage had been to discover a plausible edge to the universe, Laniakea, and it was purported to exist at Coda. “He was young, Will,” Aji commented, wistfully. “Not aware of a lot of things. You know, Nature doesn’t always make sense. We have trouble when we don’t make sense to Nature.”
“The Tao,” he said, reflecting on complete devotion to nature, but it seemed like a non-sequitur.
They departed the boardwalk in a taxi, riding north to a restaurant in the Bronx for sauerkraut, a delicacy in Sombrero. They approached a red light, and the driver wailed, “Hey, look at that!”
They searched the city street from the cab’s window. An ambulance had crashed, and was overturned, surreal in a four-way intersection in the throe of the early evening. A crowd was gathered, but were blankly stumped by it. The people kept a safe distance for fear of an explosion, frustrated, unsure of what to do. The siren was blaring in these seconds, and wound down to a tinny, dying horn; the ambulance was flat on its squared top: up was down, down was up; the wheels spun madly in the air. ◊
¤ Juke Box ¤
Theme, (Episode): “Coney Island,” Van Morrison | playlist, “Flea Markets, Nos. 1-50,” a myopic vaile (No. 24)
….. reminisc of Coney Island’s sister city Inishmulclohy in Ireland
“The Echo By Seas” is one of three works by SODA TOM.
Created by Soda Tom