Life blood, p.10
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       Life Blood, p.10

           Thomas Hoover
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  Chapter Ten

  I headed on back downtown, planning to take a bath, change clothes, andthen recalibrate my game plan. Maybe, I thought, I ought to just go upto the editing room at Applecore, try some rote work to helptranquilize my thoughts.

  But first things first. About halfway there, at Thirty-eighth Street, Ipulled over and double-parked by a Korean deli, and surveyed theflowers they had out front, an array of multicolored blooms thatvirtually blocked entry to the doorway of the tiny grocery. Azaleas,chrysanthemums, birds-of-paradise, but I wanted the pink roses. At tendollars a bunch, they seemed the right touch. I dug out a twenty andpicked two.

  Still standing on the street, I pulled them to me and inhaled deeply.As far back as I could remember, I'd always loved the scent of roses.I'd never really thought myself pretty, the natural-blondoften-dyed-brown hair notwithstanding, but just having roses aroundsomehow made me feel that way. I wanted to be engulfed in them,especially any time confusion threatened to get the upper hand.

  Five minutes later and I was at Twenty-first Street. I'd arrived. Myrefuge, my one-bedroom cocoon. Time to collapse into a hot bath, wonderwhy Alex Goddard had given me illegal drugs, and contemplate roses. Iwas looking for a parking space when my cell phone rang. No, don'tbother, I told myself. Enough intrusion for one day. Then I rememberedI'd sprung for the caller-ID feature, and I glanced down at the littleliquid crystal slot. It was a number I happened to know, Lou's placedowntown. One eye still on the street, I reached over and picked it up.

  "Finally got you," he boomed. "Where the heck are you?"

  "I just got home from--"

  "Yeah, I know where you been. Dave told me." He paused, as though hewas holding off on some important announcement. "Hang on a sec. There'ssomebody here might like to speak to you."

  I thought about Lou's makeshift digs, lots of"heirloom"--worn-out--family furniture he'd lugged along with him.Sarah and I used to play on the couch, and it still had a dim mauvestain where I'd once dumped a glass of "grape" Kool-Aid on her headwhen she was six. Whatever else, definitely not a Soho look.

  Then I heard a whispery voice.

  "Hi, Morgy."

  It was a tentative utterance I'd heard only once before, when she waswaking up after falling off a playground swing. She'd been knocked outcold for a moment and I'd been frantic, wetting a handkerchief in thenearby fountain and desperately rubbing it over her face. When she cameto, she'd gazed up into my eyes and greeted me as though we'd just met.

  My God!

  Before I could recover and say anything, Lou came back on. "We'repracticing eating chicken-noodle soup. And we're trying to do a littletalking. Why don't you come on down? She asked about you earlier thismorning, said, 'Where's Morgy?' "

  "Lou! This is incredible!"

  "You gotta believe in miracles, right? Just come on down."

  "Is she . . . God, you've got it." My hopes went into orbit as Iclicked off the phone and revved my engine.

  I could have swamped him with a lot of questions then and there, but Iimmediately decided I wanted to see her first, with my own eyes. Istill couldn't quite believe it was true. On the other hand, a weekendpartial recovery was not totally beyond the realm of medicalpossibility. With a coma, so little is understood that anything'spossible. Lou was right. This was definitely a weekend of theunexpected.

  I'd been close to the deaths of people near to me, both my parents forstarters, but I'd never been close to the restoration of life. It'shard to explain the rush of joy when you think somebody is gone forgood and then they pop up again, like they'd never been lost. And withSarah that feeling was especially jarring. It was almost as though somepart of me had come back alive.

  The fact is, since Sarah and I were both only children, we'd identifieda lot with each other. True, we'd traveled our separate paths, eachlooking, perhaps, for something to fill the lonely void in our livesthat a sibling might have taken. As a child of the dusty, empty plainsof West Texas, I didn't see other kids very much during the summer, andI made up reasons why she and I should visit each other as often aspossible.

  Once, when I was plowing, turning over oat stubble--yes, my dad warilylet me do that if I asked--I unearthed a rabbit nest full of littlebaby cottontails. Sarah was coming to visit the next day, and I rescuedthe infants so we could play nursery. We fed them milk with littleeyedroppers, and before long Sarah decided she was actually areincarnated mother rabbit. That was when she became a vegetarian, andshe remained so--by her account--till she finished college. It was justanother of those magic moments of childhood I ended up sharing with her.

  I also sometimes wondered, as you might have guessed, what it would'vebeen like to be born a boy. I was definitely a tomboy, had a realcollie (my own version of Lassie), liked to climb trees and dig holesin the hardscrabble West Texas earth. Maybe that was why I felt so athome--free associating now--when I filmed my documentary of the Mayavillage in Mexico's Yucatan. It was hot and dry and lay under apitiless sun, a blazing white bone in the sky that seared the sparelandscape. None of my crew could understand how anybody could bear tolive in such a place, but to me it seemed perfectly natural, almostlike home.

  Thoughts of which now made me sad. I only wish my parents had livedlong enough to see that documentary. Maybe then they'd have understoodhow terribly lonely I'd been as a child, a loneliness I shared sodeeply with Sarah. Would we ever be together again?

  On my hurried trip downtown, I kept wondering what I was about toencounter. Was it going to be the fantasy-bound Sarah of her girlhood,perhaps the same Sarah who'd spun out some stuttering vision of a jademask? Or would all that be past and would she again be the ambitious,sparkling pre-med student she'd become when she was in college?

  Getting to Soho took only about ten minutes, scant time to think. Lou'splace was in what had once been a garment factory sweatshop. He'drented it from another agent at the bureau, who had inherited it from acousin, a well-known downtown artist, lately dead of AIDS. Lou paidvirtually no rent, was there mainly to keep out squatters, and couldn'tcare less that he was living in one of New York's trendier sections.All he knew was that there was plenty of room, and free parking on thestreet for his old Buick.

  I'd been down many times before. Inside, the space was still inhabitedspiritually by the dead artist, with acrylic paint spattered on wallsand graffiti I didn't fully understand in the bathroom. The placeseemed to be a broom-free area, with layers of the past littered on thefloor like an archaeological excavation. And the old Kool-Aid-stainedfurniture, fitting right in.

  What always struck me, though, was the number of photos of Sarah. Theywere everywhere in the open space, on tables, the desk, several on thewalls. Mostly they were old, several blown up and cropped fromsnapshots, grainy. The space felt like a shrine to her memory.

  When Lou let me in, I was greeted by a spectral face, a wheelchair, anda valiant attempt at smiling normalcy. Maybe Lou thought it was real,was progress, but I was immediately on guard.

  It was Sarah's eyes that caught me. They pierced into my soul and weseemed to click, just like always, only this time it was as though allour life together passed between us. I had the sense she was trying totell me something with her eyes that went beyond words, that she wastrying to reach out to me, perhaps to recapture that sharedunderstanding we'd had years ago.

  Lou introduced me to a Mrs. Reilly, a kindly, Irish-looking practicalnurse who was part of the outpatient package the hospital provided. Shewore a white uniform and was around sixty, with short-bobbed gray hairand an air of total authority. She'd just finished feeding Sarah a bowlof soup, and was brushing out her cropped blond hair, what there was ofit.

  Mrs. Reilly glanced at me, but never broke the rhythm of her strokes."She's tired now, but she's already stronger than she was."

  Then Lou spoke up. "They called me early yesterday morning. But by thetime I got around to trying to reach you, you'd vanished. So I rangDave and he told me where you were, up there with that crackpot." Hewas grinning. No, make that beam
ing like the famous cat. "By lastnight, she was walking with some help, so they said she might as wellbe here. Like I said, it's a miracle."

  "You brought her home just this morning?" I couldn't believe thehospital would discharge her so soon, but this was the HMO Age ofmedical cost-cutting.

  "Only been here a couple of hours." He pointed to a shiny set ofparallel steel railings in the corner. "That's for physical therapy.Right now she can only walk with somebody on either side holding her,but in a few days, I figure . . ." His voice trailed off, as though hedidn't want to tempt fortune. Then he turned toward Sarah. "In a fewdays, right, honey?"

  She nodded, then finally spoke directly to me. "Morgy, I want someclothes. Please. I hate these horrible hospital things. I never want tosee them again."

  I noticed that she'd started crying, a line of tears down eachemaciated cheek. Was it something to do with seeing me? I wondered.Then she began trying to struggle out of the blue bed shift she waswearing, though she didn't have the strength.

  "I'll get you something great, Sar, don't worry." I reached to stay herhand. It was, I thought, extraordinarily cold, even though the loftitself was warm as toast. What kind of clothes should I buy for her? Ifound myself wondering. Blouses with buttons? Pullovers? What could shemanage? Maybe I'd bring some items from home first and let her try themout. We used to be about the same size, though now she was all skin andbones.

  I moved a chair next to her, took her other hand, and leaned as closeas I dared. I desperately wanted to put my arms around her, but Iwasn't sure how she would respond to my touch. Her eyes, however, wereclear and had never looked a deeper blue. "Sar, what's the matter?Why're you crying? You should be happy. Your dad's right here and heloves you and we're going to take wonderful care of you."

  "Who? Him?" she asked, looking straight at Lou, her blue eyes like anunblinking camera's lens.

  The plaintive question took my breath away. Hadn't they been talkingfor two days?

  "Don't pay any attention when she says things like that," Mrs. Reillydeclared, her voice just above a whisper. "She's still not quiteherself. She drifts in and out."

  She seemed to be drifting in and out at the moment, though it wasmostly out.

  Then she looked directly at me, only now her eyes were losing theirlaser-like focus, were starting to seem glazed. "Who're you?" Shereached out and touched my unwashed hair, running her hands through thetangled strands.

  Next she stared off, terrified, her eyes full of fear.

  "The smoke," she whispered. "The knife. I'm next."

  Abruptly she was off again in the reverie that had enfolded her thatfirst time in the hospital. Or at least that was what I guessed.

  "What are you talking about?" I felt like shaking her, except I was tooshook-up myself.

  She turned back, and for a moment she just stared glassy-eyed, first atme, next at Lou, and finally at Mrs. Reilly. Then she reached for aglass of orange juice on the table beside her. She looked at it asthough it were some potion, then slowly drank it off, not pausing once.Outside, a faint police siren could be heard, and I was afraid it wasdistracting her. Anyway, something told me her momentary seance wasplayed out. Her face had grown calm and rested, though I could barelyrepress a tremble.

  "Whatever you think," I said finally, slipping an arm around hershoulder, "we're both right here. And we love you and we want to helpyou get better."

  She didn't say anything more, just closed her eyes and drifted away.But it wasn't back into a coma, since her breathing was growingheavier. I wanted to grab her and yell at her and demand that she comeback to us, but I was fearful of what effect it might have.

  "What the hell was she talking about?" Lou asked finally, his voicequavering.

  "I don't know," I said, as puzzled as he was.

  That was when Mrs. Reilly spoke up. She was the only one not upset.

  "When they come out of a coma, sometimes they're not right for awhile." She patted Sarah's hand then gave it a solicitous squeeze. "Ionce had a man wake up and start talking about magic trips through theair, about how he was a dual citizen of the earth and the sea. He wastalking like a lunatic. One day he would know his family, and the nexthe would look at them and start screaming they'd come to kill him. Youjust never know how these things will go at first. But she'll beherself before long." She lifted Sarah's limp hand up to her cheek,then kissed it. "You're going to be all right, dear. I've seen enoughlike you to know."

  "Then what do you make of what she just said?" Lou asked her, havinggiven up on me. "Earlier this morning she was fine. Knew who I was,everything. Then the minute Morgan comes in, she starts making up thatloony jabber."

  The sanguine Mrs. Reilly just shrugged as if it didn't really matter.

  For my own part, I didn't necessarily like him implying my arrival hadcaused her to relapse into her dream world of terror. It seemed to methat whenever I showed up, she started trying to tell me what wasreally eating away at her soul.

  Well, I told myself finally, maybe she's regressed back to when we werekids, when we only had each other to share our secrets with. What ifwe've rebonded in some new, spe

  cial way? It would be natural, actually. She's trying to reach out tome, like long ago.

  Now she appeared to be dozing off, exhausted, her head tipping downwardtoward her blue hospital shift. Mrs. Reilly took that as a hint, andslowly began wheeling her toward the bedroom, leaving me alone with Lou.

  I glanced over at him, thinking more and more that I had to dosomething, track down what had happened to her. I wanted to do it forme, but even more for him. I'd never seen him so despondent. Maybe itwas the thing scholars call the curse of rising expectations. Back whenshe was hardly more than a vegetable, he was overjoyed by a flickeringeyelid. Now that she was talking, he wanted all of her back. Instead,though, it seemed as if she had returned to us for a moment, only to besnatched away again. I could tell it was killing him.

  "Look, I'm sorry that when I showed up, she started going off the deepend." I wanted desperately to help, but at that moment I feltpowerless. "Maybe I should just stay away for a while."

  "Nah, she loves having you here. Don't worry. But anyway, Dave saidsomething about you taking a couple of days off. Maybe I can use thattime to be here with her and settle her down." Then he grimly took outher locket and rubbed its worn silver in his fingers, his eyes brimmingwith his heartache. "This is all just so damned confusing."

  Was he telling me, indirectly, that I should go away and leave themalone? First Hannah Klein rejects me, and now _et tu_, Lou? Maybe, Ithought, he's taking out his despair on me, blaming me for her relapse.Truthfully, I guess I was blaming myself a bit too.

  "Listen, I'm going to go home now and leave you two alone," I said."But why don't you see if you can get her to talk some more? Without mearound, maybe she'll make more sense."

  "If she wants to say something, I'll listen." He gave me a strong,absent embrace, his eyes still despondent. "But no way am I gonna startpushing her."

  I edged into the bedroom, unsure if I really should, to say good-bye toSarah and to give her one last hug. Her eyes were open again and shejust stared at me for a second, then whispered a word I couldn't quitemake out. It might have sounded like "Babylon," but that made no senseat all. Finally she covered her eyes with her hands and turned away,gone from me, leaving me more alone than I'd ever felt.

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