Do you have any idea how hard it is to impress the judges of short story contests, to stand out among hundreds of entries that have been workshopped and polished and then polished some more? My friend David Veronese wins short story contests. Even the most jaded judges are halted in their tracks by his gorgeous prose and his gripping, authentic emotional tales.
I love seeing him win awards, because it validates the way I feel about his writing. Makes me realize it's as good as I think it is, and I'm not biased by my affection for him.
Read this wonderful story and see if you don't feel the same way. It took second place in the prestigious Lit Pot contest a few years back.
By David Veronese
I was killing time in the hospital admission room with my wife, Inga. She was down for a full hysterectomy, ovaries and all. She didn't seem particularly jumpy, but you never know with her. She’s from Denmark, her ancestors are the Vikings, and people like Sweyn Forkbeard, who by the year of 1013 had conquered all of England and Norway. The Danes don’t tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves, around their necks or pinned to their lapels; they don't tend to wear them anywhere at all.
A nurse summoned us, and led us into a vacant room with a desk and a few chairs in it, for a pre-op interview. The nurse was a fast-talker, and by my estimates, burned-out on the job a long time ago. You wouldn’t take her for a bedpan slinger or feeding you with an eyedropper.
She plowed through the spiel, answering questions with too much certainty. Any doubts that were shown she quickly acknowledged as worthy of consideration, giving a grave and meaningless nod, thus saving the time of having to argue with the patient.
Inga stated her distaste for painkillers. She'd had a few compacted teeth and a bit of jaw removed the previous winter, and once the anesthesia wore off, she refused to take anything except liquid Tylenol: add swallowing pills to the things she doesn't want to do.
Instead of telling Inga that she was a lunatic, and that sectioning out your gut might hurt a shade more than oral surgery, the nurse gladly wrote on the chart that the patient was not to be given any narcotics, chatting animatedly about how unnamed other patients had great luck with bullshit over the counter stuff like Advil and Aleve, in managing post-operative pain.
Stepping into the conversation at this point would have been like walking through the woods on the first day of hunting season wearing antler horns. These were empowered women, rightfully fed up with men telling them what to do about their uteruses, their fallopian tubes, their labia and vulvae. You could see the look in their eyes, they were for toughness, for heroics, for chewing and spitting out the nails. They could endure the unbearable pain of childbirth, after all: burrowing into the abdomen and removing a few elements from their private stocks, was a cakewalk. Painkillers! How gauche. How male. I kept my lips buttoned.
The nurse guided us back to the waiting area. Inga withdrew farther into herself. She'd been through many surgeries in the past few years, this was the point where she would ask me to leave, so as to be able to meditate upon her situation, to focus her concentration on the ordeal to come. She squeezed my hand with her powerful fingers, hugged me and kissed me on the ear. These were marching orders, I got up and left.
I'd closed the gallery for the day. My customers were used to my eccentricities, it gave credence to my artistic talents: Closed for Remodeling, Open Tomorrow would suit them fine, even though the store was surrounded by glass, and the absolute absence of anything resembling the remodeling process would be beyond obvious.
I went home and looked through the television schedule: it was the usual crap. I repaired to the video collection in the bookcase, and found a tape of Burt Lancaster and Yvonne DeCarlo in Crisscross. I fixed myself a roast beef sandwich with salt, and for the next hour watched the cast of characters doublecross and hustle each other, themselves, and anyone who got in the way.
I'd told them to have the doctor call me at home, when he was through cutting Inga up. His name was Aziz, a suave and steely Iraqi who'd spent about fifteen years practicing in England before coming to the U.S. to opportunely make his fortune. He drove a Jaguar, went hunting in Wyoming every fall, and after we’d consulted one highly recommended quack after another, it was he who finally identified my wife's malady. "It surprised me too," was about all he said, after showing me the photographic results of the laparoscopy.
Aziz had zero bedside manner. He wasn't mean or rude, but, at first, he scared the hell out of Inga: she couldn't imagine a doctor who wouldn't give more than yes or no answers to her volumes of questions. Inga thought you could only solve problems by discussing them. He's a specialist, I told her: he just works on Aston-Martins and Lamborghinis. You can't expect him to sit around talking about hub caps and spark plugs.
I put the VCR on pause, made another sandwich, and poured some cherry cola over a glass filled with ice. With remorseless fingers, my imagination took hold. I wondered why I was no longer entitled to meet any women like Yvonne Decarlo, Gene Tierney or Barbara Stanwyck. Some deadly femme fatale who'd allow me to seduce her with, on my part, a minimum of savoir faire. Who would proceed then to play with my heartstrings for some time, before fucking me over: committing acts of tortuous deceit, pulling me in like a fish, then letting out the line, then pulling back in again, until I was hopelessly obsessed with her. At which point I'd be given the remorseless boot.
The phone rang; it was Aziz. "Well, it's finished," he said.
"How'd it go?"
"It was a tough one," he said. "It took me nearly three hours."
"So you think that's the last we’ll see of the endometriosis?"
"It should be."
I watched the rest of the movie. I can't remember if Yvonne Decarlo took the bullet for Burt Lancaster or vice-versa. I liked film noir, there were no motives, rarely a need for character development, and anyone was likely or not to bite it.
Inga's hospital was a small one, just for women, on the east side of downtown. There was an ancient parking lot underneath it, that looked like a basement catacomb under Alcatraz. I let the valet park the car, I didn't care.
We'd gotten Inga a private room. My son's pediatrician, Dr Benghazi, was a sworn enemy of the insurance companies, and he'd walked us through a procedure that often would have them pay the differential over a double.
"These robbers take the money out of my pocket," said Benghazi decrying the insurance companies. "They take it out of your pocket. Then they put it in the stock market! The government should have the socialized medicine for the poor, and let us doctors compete in the market for the rest of the business."
Benghazi had been the one to recommend us to Aziz. They'd known each other as children in Baghdad. The men were near polar opposites, however. Benghazi was about five feet tall and had an accent as thick as Zsa Zsa Gabor. He was like a physician from the fifties; he'd make a house call, he'd pick up the phone himself on his day off.
Benghazi didn't even much care for Aziz, as far as I could tell. He only recommended him, I guess, because he thought he was the best man for the job.
Yes, no, and maybe were the major components of Aziz's vocabulary. If Benghazi, on the other hand, had a little time, he'd sit down and bullshit a spell, on any topic. "My father was in business," he told me once. "He didn't push us--we decided for ourselves what to do."
"How many siblings do you have?"
"Five brother. Three sister."
"What do they do?"
“All doctors," he confessed with an incandescent smile.
I'd figured out a shortcut to Inga's room. You walked past the lobby, turned right and pushed a knob on the wall. You walked through an atrium past a sign that said DO NOT ENTER: SURGERY ONLY, and got onto the first elevator.
Inga was out cold. They had all the IVs hooked up. I checked the contents of the bags. One was your 5% glucose: lunch and supper, the other appeared to be an antibiotic. No painkillers, naturally. The anesthesia from the surgery would last for a few hours.
I went up to the cafeteria. They were stacking the chairs; they always closed five minutes before I got there. I went down to the basement to the snack automat room. It was the same kind of crap they sell at a 7-11. Potato chips, candy bars, trash fruit juice, microwavable ham and cheese sandwiches on wilted bread.
At one time, recreational drug use was the focal point of my life, but now I couldn't even stomach a cup of coffee. How the mighty have fallen! I settled on an Eskimo Bar; I made sure not to read about the grams of fat on the ingredients menu.
There was a lone table and the newspaper scattered over it. I checked the progress of my internet stocks in the business pages. I was down about four thousand bucks. I read a column about picking mutual funds. It was based on the same principles used in handicapping ponies at the track.
What's the difference between picking stocks, and picking horses? What? There's only eight horses, and one of them always wins.
I contemplated what Benghazi had said. In fact, the market, like similar vehicles, was a funnel for enriching the very rich. They just wanted to keep the average suckers down, up to their necks in mortgage and car payments, putting the little spare change we had in money markets paying the same interest we'd get burying the dough in the backyard. Of course once the market caught fire with Joe Normal, the tycoons would take their profits, and it would drop like a lead balloon.
I read the back of the world news section. There was a major genocide going on in central Africa. Hutus, Tutsis, Rwanda, Burundi. A god-awful sickening mess. Unfortunately, I'd given up on the revolution, just like I'd given up on the drugs. But I wasn't a revisionist--I kept fond memories of both.
I went back up to see Inga. The ward smelled of isopropyl. An orderly pushed a dolly filled with dinner trays down the hall. Inga's eyes were fluttering.
"How's it going, angel-baby?" I asked. I touched her hand right above the vein where one of the IV needles protruded.
"What happened?" she asked very slowly.
"Dr. Aziz said it went real well."
Her eyes fluttered some more. Her lips were bluish. She didn't look anywhere near as bad as after the jaw surgery, when she resembled someone who'd gone a few minutes with Joe Frazier.
"How do you feel?"
"Okay," she said, in a stone-like voice that probably meant that she felt like shit. Of all the countries occupied by the Nazis, the Danes came through the best. They surrendered after about fifteen minutes, then sewed their mouths shut for five years, pretending like it didn't matter much. They kept every last Jew hidden and shipped them secretly over to Sweden. You never really did fucking know what they were thinking about. I checked the drainage of her catheter, and the level of the antibiotic.
I went to fetch my kid, Giancarlo, from school. I had to park a few blocks away. He didn't want anyone to know his old man was picking him up.
I watched in the rear view mirror. I saw his head appearing over the top of an old Pontiac.
Giancarlo got into the car. "How's it going, man?"
He was a tight-lipped little kid. "Fine," he said.
"How was school?"
"Mommy's operation went real well. The doctor said she'll be just fine."
I know he cared a lot, but you couldn't see it on his face. He looked and acted exactly like his mother, not a bit like me. The Danish gene pool was tough to go around. Having been brought up among a screaming, hysterical ethnic group myself, it was hard to believe that my son exhibited no neurotic tendencies whatsoever.
"You mean you never even read Giancarlo any Bible stories?" asked my mother incredulously.
"No, Mom. But you can if you want to."
"But what do you tell him about God?"
"I tell him that God exists inside the human heart, and that we're innately capable of making decisions based on morality, without having to go into a building on Saturday or Sunday and talk to a wall..."
Giancarlo didn't want to go to visit Inga at the hospital. I'd taken him to see her when she'd had the jaw surgery. It was truly the worst she'd ever looked. They'd covered her face with some white paste and her cheek was blue and swollen. It was like looking down a long tunnel and getting your first glimpse of death.
I went up with him to our apartment and let him watch TV while I fixed him some macaroni and cheese. We had our daily tense discussion concerning homework strategy. Inga was nice cop, and I was mean cop. It worked out to the good; he was a decent kid.
I drove back to the hospital. I thought about work. It was tough having to sell five-thousand dollars worth of merchandise every week just to pay the rent and have a little vacation in the summer. I was sick of arguing with landlords, I was sick of leases. I was sick of having to hustle, hustle, hustle, to make sure the competition didn't take away too much of my money.
Inga was lying on her side, curled up, with her eyes closed. I could see she was wide awake.
"How's it go, angel-baby?"
"It really hurts."
"Have you told the nurse?"
"No. I was waiting." She was like a wounded horse. Instead of screaming and yelling with the pain, she was lying on her side as quietly as she could, hardly breathing.
"My wife is in 604. She had a full hysterectomy. She's in extreme pain. She needs some drugs."
The nurse looked at the chart. "It says she can't have any pain killers." She gave me a strange look. We knew we weren't going to like each other.
"They just sliced open her abdomen a few hours ago. She needs something."
"I'll have to call the doctor."
I went back to the room to sit with Inga. About thirty minutes went by.
I walked down the hall until I heard the nurse's voice coming from a room to my right. "We can switch you to a semi-private room tomorrow," she said all too sweetly. "It shouldn't be a problem, Mrs. Kirby."
I buttonholed her coming out the door. "Where's the painkiller?"
She looked at the floor. "The doctor hasn't called back. There's nothing I can do. I'll try calling again."
I went back to Inga's room. Oh shit, I thought. It's always me. The god-damned knight. Oh, well. I looked in the phone book and found Aziz's listing. He had a separate residence number. This is almost always a night answering service.
A woman answered the phone. "Hello."
"Is this Dr Aziz's house?"
"Yes, I am the housekeeper." She had a Latin accent.
"I'm in the hospital with my wife. She had surgery today--a hysterectomy." In my mind I composed the word in Spanish. It should be historotomia. "She's in horrible pain, they won't give her any drugs."
She didn't need any further prompting. "Oh--that's horrible," she said. "I will get hold of the doctor."
"Have him call me at this number." I gave her the direct phone to Inga's room, I didn't want to take any chances with the loose screw at the nurses’ desk.
"Okay," I said, resigned to the indeterminate wait.
But Aziz pulled a fast one. He called me back in four minutes. "This is Dr Aziz," he said in his vague British accent. He sounded like he'd just finished a top-notch desert with a thimble of brandy for a chaser.
I dispensed with formalities. "It's Inga's husband. She's in extreme pain. They have a block on narcotics on her chart. She's not allergic to anything."
"She's not?" he said.
"No, she just doesn't like taking them. She snookered the admitting nurse into blocking the chart."
"She's a tough cookie," said Aziz. That was the only personal thing I ever heard him say.
"She needs some Demerol. She needs to have it right away."
"Okay," said Aziz. “Yes...” For a moment, he seemed like a helpless child. "I'll order a pump. She can control the dose."
"Do you want the number of the nurse's station?"
"I have it."
It took me another half hour of kicking the nurse's ass to get the pump hauled in and running. I watched the gage while Inga lay there. "Hit it again," I said, the second the clock ran out. On the fourth squeeze she was okay.
That night I took Giancarlo out to shoot pool. It was one of those new wave parlors; bright neon, smart-looking college kids, short-skirted waitresses attending your drinking and dining needs. We played eight-ball. The girl at the front counter was a real dish. I went back several times to ask technical questions.
"If you're stripes, and the cue ball touches a solid ball and then sinks a stripe, does it still count?"
She had a slight accent. "No, that doesn't. You have to put the ball back." She looked at me looking at her.
"Where are you from?" I asked.
"Okay, I love you."
She smiled, a big bright one, I returned to the table. And I did love her. And I loved Giancarlo while he chalked up his stick, still a little clumsy at the game. And I loved Inga and I loved Benghazi and Aziz and I loved all the lights, the clatter of the balls filling the room, splitting apart from the rack like the fission of rogue atoms.
I knew it wouldn't last long. Love only comes in very small teaspoonfuls these days. It used to be it was always there, bubbling under the surface, forcing my hand; and I'd err on the side of passion every chance I got. I've given in now. I walk among the half-witted brotherhood of man, just another chump. But maybe I'd get lucky this time. Maybe I'd get a little extra mileage.
I left the counter-girl a five dollar tip when we turned in our rack. "See you in Budapest," I said.
"No," she said. "I don't think so. That time is gone."
Maybe she was right.
* * *
This story first appeared in Lit Pot
David's novel, Jana, is out-of-print, but the folks at amazon.com can find you a copy. They did for me!