NOVEL EXCERPT: from WHO HOPES AND ENDURES AND IS PATIENT

On my bike the next afternoon I detoured away from the square and rode over to Memorial Drive and from there went across the Mass Ave. bridge to Boylston Street and the Boston Public Library. Though by 1982 the Vietnam War was to some extent still palpable in the air, and so, in my opinion, enough time had yet to pass for the topic to be sufficiently digested and reprocessed, I was somewhat surprised to find two entire shelves of books of all thicknesses and shapes about it in the second floor stacks. I fingered through four or five rows and carried a half dozen back to the small ashen-stained desk that looked out over the spacious lobby and entranceway. For three full hours I paged through them unfazed by the senseless muttering of what I assumed was a homeless man at the desk in front of me sitting slumped in his chair. He was young enough, I saw, that the irony he might be a vet of that undeclared and undecided conflict I was there to read about was real enough, and that kept me, and I presumed others as well, from complaining to the librarian and having him quieted down or removed.

Thus, in the second book I flipped through the pages of, I came to a display of photos on the evacuation of An Loc during the 1972 Easter offensive. It’d had such a direct bearing on Mai’s life that I sat with rapt attention in much the same way Mai must have when she went home with the book the librarian had brought out from the back room for her. I stared so hard at the pages of AP and UPI photos that with a little more effort I might have transferred my image onto them and joined her and her sisters and cousin on the ride along Highway 13 to Saigon, where her aunt and uncle waited to take us to their home, and where we’d stay until the NVA fought their way to the outskirts of the city and, before they entered it, we had no other choice but to head off to the coast and a refugee camp in Thailand.

It was a mesmerizing tour of a war I considered the most profound and tragic event of my generation. I couldn’t deny that the whole account, from Ho Chi Minh’s 1945 declaration of the an independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam, to the partitioning of the country at the 17th parallel under the terms of the Geneva Convention, to the Vietcong insurgency in the south beginning late in 1956, to Kennedy’s increased military assistance and Johnson’s appeal for hearts and minds and all out expansion, was moving and powerful, and when I thought of the people I knew, Mai and Richie and Carl, the story yanked at my soul even though, at the same time, I understood war was an entry in the Human Books that took up much, much more space than peace. And this one in particular, this absolutely unnecessary and deceitful one, I came to the conclusion right there in my seat, was like a mistake that was made a million times over and there was no point making it a million and one and so it came to an end. Those intuitions would be backed up twenty-five years later after the release of previously sealed White House tapes showed that early in 1964 Johnson doubted the war was winnable, he knew there was no plan in place for victory, militarily or diplomatically, and yet he went ahead with his escalation anyway and upset the lives of millions.

That sent me to the shelves again. And sometime later I was back at my desk with a book in either hand. Adjusting myself in the chair, the volume I opened next, an oral history of Vietnamese Americans published by a small press out in Madison, Wisconsin, held me enthralled. The somber first person testimonials were quite candid, and ten and fifteen years after the fact I brooded over the plight of people helpless to the armies clashing around them.

While as a Liberal Arts student with a History minor I’d certainly learned enough about the two great World Wars to think I understood them, I will say that was the first time I’d read what the survivors, those who’d experienced the battles and bombings, had to say about what went on in their own words instead of what the exploiters of the material contrived about it for their personal and professional profit. Many of the stories I perused were eerily similar to Mai’s, so it almost seemed she’d gotten together with them to synchronize the details. And then there were entries like this one from a man who had eventually settled in St. Paul, Minnesota.

We were evacuated from the provincial hospital after it was hit by mortar fire, perhaps by accident, we weren’t sure, but it was too much of a risk to stay there any longer. About thirty among us who had crowded into it for sanctuary were killed and there was no time to bury them so we left them there as they were. The wounded were cared for in a pagoda further down the highway in Phu Due. There were no beds for them, and only a few mats for the most badly injured. The other patients had to lay on the dirt floor or on the bundles of rags we brought up from the basement. There was a shortage of tetanus serum and a child died of lockjaw. Her body was twisted like a snake under the rags and there was nothing we could do to make her ending dignified. Not far from her an old woman was dying of malnutrition. She told us she’d spent more than a month in a bunker in An Loc eating boiled rice and rice soup, and when her supplies of those ran out she ate anything that was edible. Her skin was the color of the finest china and there were flies all over her face. All the time the communist artillery fire continued to pour into Phu Due even though there were no military targets of significance to threaten them.*

* passage created from my readings in several archive sites no longer available online

(2010)

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WORD OF THE DAY

– improvisational response to a word received in my In Box from Dictionary.com

The word of the day that comes in my In Box this morning means that which is favorable to promoting health. In other words, to eat right, exercise a lot, keep calm and carry on. To engage in those and other activities that will keep me in good mind and shape. Another of them, and also very important, is going to a doctor and getting tested when you’re supposed to. Which means taking the medical community’s advice and getting a colonoscopy when you turn fifty. Which, well, you guessed it, is something I didn’t do. And which was why, two and half years ago, constipated and in unbearable pain, I walked to the medical center two blocks away bent in half as if shot in the stomach. A few tests later the doctor sent me to the radiologist further down the street. Checking my scan, she told me to take myself to the hospital. “What hospital?” “Whichever one you want to go to. But do it today, now.” Still in agony, sprawled across the back seat of the town car that took me there, the look in my driver’s eyes seemed to wonder if I was going to make it to Beth Israel’s Emergency Room alive? And that was where, you guessed right again, I was diagnosed with colon cancer. Oh the joy in finding out there’s a malignant tumor growing inside you that a simple, painless test might have caught in time and you have a year of brutal treatments ahead that may or may not cure you. Then you find out, because there had never been a reason to give it much thought, you’re never actually “cured” of cancer. Once the beast is loose it can be shrunk and removed, but there’s always a chance of it coming back anytime anywhere. The best you can hope for is to be “in remission.” A slippery medical term meaning the diminution of the seriousness or intensity of a disease. Not a complete recovery in other words as, say, stitches close a cut on your finger and that’s that until the next time you mismanage a kitchen knife. The dictionary definition of remission is to pardon, to forgive, as of sins or offenses. Though in my case it’s difficult to pick an offender? Me? Latent malignant cells that were always going to hatch? The environment? Life? Life as a preexisting condition? That always gave me a chuckle. How, before the Affordable Care Act was passed in 2010 health care insurers could reject an application due to a preexisting condition. Hah, hah. I could total my car and an insurer would still sign me on. But health insurance if I got cancer? I’m guessing if everyone forty and over had comprehensive testing done on them something would be found that would likely lead to, at some point, sooner, later, who knows, but sooner or later to a problem requiring extensive treatment and thus the outlaying of a lot of cash by both parties, insurer (private or public) and patient, with, nowadays, the patient taking on more and more of that cost. I say this knowing that without the ACA I’d have no insurance right now. I’d be insurance-less. I, someone who can afford to buy a plan from a provider without a subsidy, would be among the uninsured. No way any of them would have taken me on as my current provider “had to” this year even if the worst (most costly part) of my treatment (two operations, radiation, two stints of chemo, five scans, an MRI) was over with. I’m too much of a risk. And someday you will be too. The two insurance companies I had prior to my current one went out of business in successive years and I just received notice that next year the one I have now will no longer offer individual plans. But fortunately the ACA eliminated pre-existing conditions. I can’t be denied coverage or charged more. I won’t have to find out what it’s like living without insurance. I won’t have to go about my days with the fear of cancer returning and bankrupting me. The possibility of its coming back is enough to keep me on edge. So I’m good. For now. Albeit with a plan that covers less for more money. But that’s the current state of health insurance, a chart with a descending line reflecting the relationship between cost and coverage. And as more insurers exit the ACA I expect plans will get even more pricey and thus more unaffordable. But never mind that. Somehow, somewhere, get checked out. That’s a salubrious thing to do.

(2016)

NOVEL EXCERPT: from FORGOTTEN CITY

– from my novel set a year before the 2008-2009 market crash, an investigative reporter finds out damaging information about one company selling risky investments

———-

Night was falling when Rossi pulled into the gravel lot next to the giant Victorian house with the office and lounge and two looming gables. Across the street the three floors of a restored brick factory held the rooms based on themes ranging from Saturday Night Fever to the Etruscans. Down the sloping field at the side of the house came the steady, liquid song of a running stream. Rossi took their pull bags out of the trunk and they rolled them up the ramp.

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” Caroline said when Rossi had the key card in his hand.

“It’s a surprise,” he said. He hadn’t told her what to expect. He hadn’t known what she would think. “You’re going to like it. I just know you are.”

Not much longer after that they were in the room with the soft blue walls, etched glass fixtures and sparkling Tiffany-style tiles. Caroline was staying positive. Humored as well. “I’ve been in plenty of hotels, but nothing like this. It’s a first for me.” Her roaming eyes continued to scope it out. Never, she went on, would it have occurred to her he’d take her to a place like it. It was a bit of playfulness she hadn’t recognized in him.

She was at the desk unwrapping a Godiva chocolate, one of the sweet welcomes left for them next to the postcard greeting Mr. Rossi; they hadn’t forgotten his previous visit. “Nice to have you back!” the handwriting on it said. He opened the bottle of syrah he ordered with the room. Touching glasses, he said, still selling it, “Come on, admit it, you dig it the most.”

“I thought you’d be more of a lodgey, brown wood guy. With the big spa and tacky cocktail lounge with a moose head over the fireplace.”

“I was one of those once. I suppose I have to give it up to Anne for expanding my horizons. Making me realize idiosyncratic isn’t so bad. Strange is good. Very strange can be interesting too. That’s about all I can credit her for. Maybe I’ll aspire back to paneling and ugly wallpaper.”

“Don’t do that. Not for me at least.”

“I was joking. Believe it or not, this is the most popular hotel in the area. And since we were heading this way, why not?”

“Where’s the steak place you mentioned? You put that idea in my head so… Unbelievably delicious steak, you said. It’s been a while since I sat down to one of those.”

“Meat Me’s. Cute huh? Free range cuts. Roasted potatoes and veggies. Locally sourced. Run by a graduate of the Culinary Institute. Everyone wants to eat their food.”

“That includes me. So let’s go. This wine’s making me hungry.”

“I was thinking we do that tomorrow. It’s a-ways from here. I say no more driving. Tonight we go around the corner to Common Ground. It’s fine. Fine enough to keep us out of the car the rest of the night.”

The lights of a living room came on as they passed by it on the way to Common Ground. A mild wind blew in their faces. A bag of almonds was all Rossi had eaten since lunch at Nakai, munching them at his desk mid afternoon. His mind focused on the menu as he remembered it from two years ago. Pasta and barbeque ribs and quesadillas. Not top quality Culinary Institute grad food, but better than standard bar food as he knew it.

“If we’re having steak tomorrow I’ll go with either pasta or a quesadilla. Still pondering that important First World matter.”

“Same here. Go easy on the colon, is what I say, even if this is supposed to be a vacation, mini as a vay-kay it is.”

“Mini is the right word. We’ll be back at it Monday.” Rossi checked his wrist as if looking at a watch. “That’s about three hours from now.”

“I have a few things to get done tomorrow. Sorry. Not many, but I’ll need to take care of them.”

“Aces of Spaces never rests.”

“Some clients email me at midnight expecting an office to go to seven in the morning. Thankfully there’s nothing like that going on tonight.”

“You take care of whatever. I’ll be out on my run.”

The spinach and mushroom quesadilla and pint of a local IPA restored Rossi. There in the Common Ground’s low, dusk-like lighting he began to see how much he’d missed out on over the past year. That his first weekend out of New York with a woman not named Anne had been a move waiting for him to respond to.

Out the window the wind whipped up some dust in the parking lot and blew it around in a funnel. When it died out, Caroline looked at him and said, “So how did that issue at your job work out?”

“It went underground. Or almost. No one’s mentioned it again. Not to me, anyway. But get this, I was taken off the project I was on. They told me to put it on the back burner. It got replaced with another one that’s going to, believe it or not, it’s preposterous really, take me right to Futures. The SEC’s in there wondering why there’s no updated paperwork on their systems? All the stuff is old. They can’t understand it. I get to give it a refresher. That’s what I do. It’s my new title. The Refresher Man.”

“You really think you’re going to run into some big secret you’re not supposed to know about? Would they have an outsider doing that if they thought there was a chance?”

“I got the feeling they don’t know what I already know. I really have no freaking idea. Tom didn’t seem to think anything of it. Rich, the guy who put that report in my face, he wasn’t in the meeting. It all seemed straightforward enough. I go off this to do that. It happens all the time. Something urgent comes up, I get put on the job. I fill up some paper. Send a batch of files over that way. That’s it. I pretend I know nothing else. I go back to my other project. Maybe it’s no big deal. Honestly, I don’t know. This is why I never wanted to work for one of those places. To keep out of shit like this.”

“But there you are, in it.”

“There I am, in it up to my chin.”

Rossi went back to his food. Had he made any sense? Was he boring her up there, in the country, on their mini vacation?

Caroline said, “Do you really want to do it? Do you have to?”

“The new project? Sure I have to. If not, I go find another place to work. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to cut my ties there.”

“I get it. You like the place, but as a mercenary, not an embedded operative.”

“That’s it in a nutshell,” he said. “But let’s do this, how about we put that away. We’re on this time out, right?”

“Except for those few things I have to do.”

“Unlike you I can’t bill up here. I have to be in the office. Those are the hours that count. And only those hours. They keep tabs on everything I do. Every door I use my ID to go in and out of. The number of keystrokes I type. The number of pages and names of the documents I print. The monitoring starts the moment I walk in there. I’ve given up all my rights as an independent human being to become a corporate slave. And when I’m out of there the NSA steps in to track all the rest. In my other role I’m a corporate citizen. In my real life I’m Winston Smith.”

“It’s not that bad.”

“It’s not?”

“Unlike me you’re not on it seven days a week.”

“True.”

“Unlike me you’re making some real money.”

“I’m doing okay. You are too.”

“I’m doing all right. I’m planning to do better.”

“Do me a favor, just let me in on the IPO. That’s all I ask. No matter what happens to us I want to get a thousand shares at the issue price.”

“I’ll have to think about it. If that ever happens I’m going to have a lot of friends.”

“You know that many people?”

“I would if we went public.”

“Who took you to the Breakfast at Tiffany’s room? Who did that?”

“You did.”

“And…”

“And I’ll think about it.” Caroline closed off the sentence with a smile.

They walked down the slope, across the field of grass with the beds of flowers in full bloom. To their right the lights of the Sudbury’s office and sitting room cast a dull glow. In one of the windows the back of a man’s head was visible. They came to the stream, its watery song continuing into the night. They stood at the edge, taking in the bubbly flow rolling over the rocks. It had been a while since Rossi had inhaled the calming smells of clean country water and damp earth. He put his arm around Caroline and she moved into him.

“You know,” he said, “we don’t have to live in the city. It’s not mandatory. But we voluntarily shackle ourselves to it. Why do we do that? Why?”

“For whatever reason,” Caroline said. “Maybe we just like it. I do and you do too, I think.”

“Right, we live there to live there. We choose to. When it’s time, we’ll leave.”

“That time might come for you. I don’t see it ever coming for me.”

“A friend of a friend whose wife might be, is I guess, in the CIA, told him to sell his place and get out of New York soon as he could.”

“That soon?”

“Like today.”

“You think she was being serious?”

“Sure I think that. The nuclear option’s always a threat.”

“I suppose they know more than us.”

“The CIA? Do we want to know what they’re up to?”

“I sure don’t.”

“Kansas is safe.”

“Which is why we don’t own property.”

“Better for a quick getaway to Dodge.”

“And an event like that will lower property values.”

“Among lowering other living things.”

“We’d be safer in Brooklyn. And how often do you hear that?”

From that they turned and went back to their room. When Caroline came out of the bathroom Rossi opened his arms and she let him squeeze her. The food and drinks hadn’t inhibited his urge for sex. Nor Caroline’s, he found out in the next moments. It was as if a final glass of amaro and the splitting of a chocolate torte back in Common Ground hadn’t been a closing to the night but a continuation of it. They stood next to the bed clinging to each other until he broke away and fell back on the mattress, settling on it with a single bounce.

Rossi said, “I think Holly Golightly would approve of what’s about to happen. She was definitely a horny chick. No way she’d let a night in a room with a guy go by without a little badda bing.”

“It’s my understanding she only went out with rich men. Or am I making that up?”

“No, I think you have it right. But exceptions can be made. She must have made a few of those in between the guys with the cash. That’s how I read into it.”

Caroline was still standing. “I’m between rich guys.”

“I kind of figured that.”

“Did you really?”

“Since I’m between rich women, of course I thought the same about you.”

(2016)